theological instincts


I’ve been thinking a bit about our instincts — and what place (if any) they have in Christian living and thinking.

How are our theological instincts formed (and re-formed)?

I guess that almost by definition instincts are hard to bring into the cold, rational light of conscious thought.

This isn’t necessarily a drawback. I’m post-modern enough to be suspicious of pretty much every aspect of cold, rational conscious thought.

But it is something to factor in when it comes to trying to get a grip on our theological instincts — and potentially work at developing and honing them.

Something I find helpful is picturing instincts as more like muscle groups that you isolate, exercise and work on than like ideas you research (read: ‘Google’), weigh up the arguments for and against, then assimilate more or less directly.

That said, I think I have begun to become aware of some of my own theological instincts.

To begin with, I have long noticed how I start to squirm internally when some other Christian I’m listening to starts talking about how they’d answer a question about their faith — perhaps cataloging the evidence for Intelligent Design but not once mentioning or even getting close to talking about Jesus.

In contrast, I instinctively find myself wanting to start with and talk a lot about Jesus.

It just feels more ‘natural’ for me to adopt an approach that says, ‘Hey – I know this whole Christianity thing seems foreign and strange. But most worthwhile things take time understanding and becoming familiar with. Why not come in, take a look around, try out the furniture in here? You know, give Jesus a chance…’

Likewise, I’ve recently been struck by the way my theological instincts were on display in this article I wrote about guidance for the Bible Society.

The article began life as a pretty raw blog post, where I tried to put something I’d noticed about my own prayer life into words.

But when I was invited to expand it, I realised I needed to say more about the vision of Christian ‘adulthood’ I was fumbling towards — inexpertly in my original post, and (hopefully) slightly less inexpertly in my article.

And this is where my theological instincts kicked in. Because almost before I knew it, I’d reached for Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4.

The first is a passage about the work of the Spirit in creating Christian character. And the second is a passage about the work of the risen Christ (by his Spirit) in creating Christian community.

Pneumatology and ecclesiology. The Spirit and the Church. These weren’t so much carefully considered topics — calculated for maximum punch and polemical usefulness — as they were just the things I instinctively reached for when asked to flesh out my vision of Christian growth and maturity.

So I’ve isolated Jesus (and the Trinity and union with Christ), the Spirit and the Church as a few of things I instinctively turn to when I’m asked to approach something as a Christian.

The challenge is now to figure out how to exercise and work on them. (Or maybe to compensate for any lop-sidedness by working on some other theological ‘muscle groups’.)

enjoyment is only the tip of the iceberg

I think I was dimly aware that an entire theology of creation (and a theological anthropology as part of that) was lurking beneath the surface of my previous post.

But — a bit like rubbing detergent or saliva on the inside of your snorkelling mask — it took this dazzling gem from the Church Dogmatics III/4 to bring things into sharp focus for me:

[God] takes man so seriously in his vocation to be in covenant with Him that He calls him to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others. He calls him to find himself by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other. (Section 54.1, pages 116-117)

I find this so helpful. For one thing, it traces the same arc I’ve launched myself upon in beginning to flesh out a properly biblical notion of enjoyment (e.g., wrapping it up with other-regarding behaviour like giving and sharing — or, as Barth specifies it here, with affirming, honouring, and comforting).

But it’s the location of this claim within the sweep of the Church Dogmatics that really excites me.

You see, in Sections 52-56 Barth is busy drawing out the ethical implications of the theology of creation he has developed in Book III — which might be better labelled a Christology of creation.

This is exciting because it doesn’t only confirm my hunch that enjoyment is the tip of a much larger iceberg. It also suggests the kind of shape that this submerged theology needs to have in order to yield a distinctively Christian alternative to the reigning ‘ethics of otherness’.

In the ethics of otherness trailblazed by the likes of Immanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, difference is absolute. All we can (ethically) do is tremble before the claim of the other as other — in a kind of mirror image reversal of the revulsion supposedly characterising the sort of ethics Levinas et al rail against. The tyranny of the self — and people like me — is replaced by the tyranny of the other.

What Barth invites us to imagine by contrast is a way of placing the other beside the self.

It is only in doing so that we will find the conceptual freedom to forge well-differentiated connections between ourselves and others. Perhaps even allowing for the full range of ethically justifiable responses to otherness — between the extremes of knee-jerk exclusion and indiscriminate embrace…

doubting Jesus?

Was Jesus ever troubled by doubts

This is the question that’s been nagging at me for a little while now.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’ve been gripped by it.

It’s more of an on and off thing. You know, just when my mind wanders around the possibility of marrying two of my passions: (i) helping Christians be honest about doubt (so they can deal well with it), and (ii) thinking everything through with Jesus as my starting point — particularly, the concrete stories about him from the Gospels.

But it’s not exactly a straightforward question. And I’d be keen to hear if you have ideas about where to turn in the New Testament.

Because, on the one hand, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are (only without tripping up into sin). And we see this explicitly in Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness.

So it seems fair to imagine that Jesus did wrestle with doubt — at least occasionally.

And yet, on the other hand, the whole question of Jesus’ self-consciousness — and therefore of what it is that he could have had doubts about — is notoriously controversial.

For example, some scholars have pointed out that many of the categories we would usually use to frame our understanding of Jesus’ person and work weren’t available to him (or in all likelihood to his first followers). Or at least they weren’t available in the — usually creedal — form that came fully equipped with the sort of metaphysical baggage that often invites doubt for modern minds.

What I mean is, if Jesus didn’t — and possibly even couldn’t — think of himself as ‘fully God’, ‘possessing a divine nature’, or whatever, then how could he doubt that about himself?

But even though those kind of doubts (on par with some of the doubts we may harbour) weren’t really available to Jesus, perhaps others were.

In particular, I wonder what kind of thoroughly human path his developing sense of mission and vocation (and thus of identity) took throughout his life? What questions did Jesus have to wrestle with as he studied and reflected on the Scriptures, as he met with opposition and misunderstanding, even as he laboured in Joseph’s family business (as he no doubt did) while being nurtured on his mother’s stories about his supernatural origin?

If we do decide to walk down this path, then I wonder what light it might shed on moments like the temptation in the wilderness. Or Gethsemane.

On the face of it, Gethsemane isn’t easy to view in terms of doubt.

Hesitation? Definitely.

Fear? Almost certainly?

Desperation? Highly likely.

But doubt? I don’t know… Maybe?

And yet — here’s an extremely half-baked thought — as Jesus pleads with his Father, giving us a glimpse of the enormous cost of willingly walking the path of obedient sonship, maybe we’re in the presence of deep doubt. Something more existential than intellectual.

This is doubt, moreover, being confronted with honesty. Agonised and agonising honesty.

And ultimately it’s faith. For here, as often, doubt is not so much faith’s enemy as the very thing that stirs it up. As it stirred up the Lord to struggle in prayer — surrendering to his Father’s good, pleasing and perfect will and entrusting himself to him who judges justly…

And another even less well-baked thought follows hot on the heels of this one:

Could Jesus even at that moment have been wrestling titanically with the nameless doubts that also assail us? Being overwhelmed and dislocated — physically and spiritually — by them? So as to secure a blessing for us?

beyond Pentecostal Christology (ii)

I want to comment on one other aspect of Edward Irving’s Christology before I turn to examine his contention that regeneration and baptism in the Spirit are two separate experiences. In particular, I want to ask:

What are we to make of Irving’s focus on the mighty works of Jesus as evidence of his Spirit-empowerment?

Take this typical example (from his article ‘Facts Connected with Recent Manifestations Of Spiritual Gifts’ in Frasers Magazine, 1832, where Irving is summarising the content of what he had already been preaching for the previous six or seven years):

[A]ll the works of Christ were done by the man anointed with the Holy Ghost, and not by God mixing himself up with the man. The person is the Son of God; the bounds which he has consented to speak and act in are the bounds of mortal manhood; the power by which, when within these narrow bounds, he does such mighty things, against and above the course of nature, death, and hell, is the power of the Holy Ghost; and the end of the whole mystery of his incarnation is to show unto mortal men what every one of them, through faith in his name, shall be able to perform; as it is written in the first of these chapters, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works which I shall do he do also, and greater works than these shall he do, because I go unto my Father.” (John 14:12)

Of course, I wouldn’t want to deny that Jesus did do his mighty works by the power of the Spirit. And, as I’ve already mentioned, there is lots to commend this brand of ‘Spirit Christology’.

However, I do wonder why Irving focuses so narrowly on the spectacular mighty works in this connection — even while maintaining that it’s all the works of Christ that Jesus does in the Spirit’s power. And this presumably should include the climactic achievement of Jesus’ atoning suffering and death.

Some of the summaries in Acts could be swung in this direction (e.g., Acts 10.38 — although the context widens the scope significantly). But a close reading of the narrative of Luke-Acts calls for something broader — as emphasised by David Hohne’s important work on the Spirit’s role in locating Jesus as the Messiah, enabling him to fulfil his vocation, opening up the possibility that we might share in Christ’s sonship through faith, and ‘activating’ that possibility as the ascended Jesus pours out the Spirit on all flesh.

I wouldn’t want to repeat in Christological terms the old — and thoroughly gridlocked — attempt to play off gifts of the Spirit against the fruit of the Spirit. But, as with that debate, what we need is a way of integrating the two strands of New Testament evidence.

We need, in other words, to think together the (messianic) mighty works of Jesus with his work on the cross. And the way to do that, I’d suggest is by paying closer attention to Christ’s Sonship — something, once again, that trinitarian theology would tie very closely to his sharing in the Spirit…

beyond Pentecostal Christology (i)

When I outlined the Christological basis for Edward Irving’s move into what today we would call Pentecostalism, I promised that alongside my appreciation of its merits (which are considerable) I would also share a couple of reservations. Although, maybe ‘reservations’ puts things around the wrong way.

Rather than a dead end that we should notice but not walk down (a sort of theological cautionary tale), I believe Irving’s Christology is an incredibly fruitful and necessary step along the way to recovering a richer understanding of Jesus — and, consequently, of the shape and dynamism of the Christian life.

Let me explain how I see this working.

As far as our understanding of Christology, Irving has highlighted the significant role of the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and ministry — raising questions about his humanity and to what extent he might be a role-model for us and not simply God stepping in and doing what we can’t. Instead of backing away from this, I think we should embrace it.

What embracing this means, on the one hand, is that we must affirm the trinitarian backdrop that makes sense of classical formulations of the full divinity of Jesus.

That is to say, what it means for Jesus to be fully God (as well as fully human) is that he shares in the unique divine identity with Israel’s God — co-eternal, co-equal, and united with the Father in essence and will. And Irving’s close work in the biblical text helps us see that Jesus does this by the powerful agency of the Spirit.

On the other hand, embracing the role of the Spirit in enabling Jesus to walk the path he does in his ‘incarnate career’ helps us see his representative humanity as a full and genuine humanity. So we can admit that in his life — and supremely and climactically in his death and resurrection — Jesus does do what we cannot do. And yet he does it as one of us.

This means his work for us isn’t detached from us — something God goes over our heads to do, merely wielding Jesus’ humanity like some fleshly instrument. Rather, it’s carried it out in deepest connection with us and our being.

As a real human being, Jesus is able to deal with our plight from within — getting to its heart by the power of the Spirit, and becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Likewise, as a real human being, he now lives and stands before God for us — sharing his risen life with us by the power of the very Spirit he graciously pours out.

I’ll try to tease out how I see this shaping and energising Christian living in the next post.

the roots of Pentecostal Christology?

Returning to my series on the fascinating theology of Edward Irving, I suggested in my introductory post that one of the things that propelled him out of the Church of Scotland and into his role as founder of a new Pentecostal denomination was his distinctive take on the Spirit’s role in the ‘incarnate career’ of Jesus.

That is to say, for Irving it all started with Christology — and with a desire to stick closely to the text of Scripture. So it’s worth asking what we can appreciate before I register a couple of my reservations.

(In case you think what follows is an automatic recommendation of Irving, let me remind you that Arius also began with issues of Christology — specifically a desire to secure a genuinely suffering Saviour — and a biblicist sensibility — “More Bible, less philosophy” seemed to be his mantra. And Arius ended up denying the Trinity.)

To begin with, Irving picked up on the significant — and often-overlooked — role the Spirit is given in all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, especially.

And if you think about it the Holy Spirit really does get big billing at pretty much all the decisive moments in Jesus’ life: in his incarnation and virginal conception, in his baptism, in his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, in public discussion of the significance of his mighty works, in his resurrection, and — tracking through into Acts — in the vindication of his ascended lordship as he pours out the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Irving concluded from this that Jesus was enabled to do his mighty works not so much by virtue of his divinity as by his Spirit-powered (or Spirit-perfected) humanity. Hence, Irving began to wonder whether this power might be available not just for the unique God-man but for all upon whom the Spirit was poured out.

And it’s at least worth considering this prospect, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t Jesus say that his disciples would do ‘greater works’ than him once he’d gone to the Father and left them his Spirit (John 14.12)?

a presbyterian and a pentecostal walk into a bar…

I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke (and given the possible scruples of our heroes maybe a bar isn’t exactly appropriate — a church hall perhaps, or if they’re the missional church planting variety of presbyterians and pentecostals then maybe a boutique microbrewery would be more suitable). But it’s the way I often feel in my work at La Trobe University.

Presbyterians and Pentecostals are by far the dominant two church backgrounds of members of our Christians Union group. We do have members from a smattering of other denominations, of course — including a steadily-widening stream of Australian Born Chinese from independent evangelical churches enriching the soil.

That’s why it’s particularly apt that my big task in preparing for our mid-year conference on the Holy Spirit is to get on top of the work of Edward Irving.

Irving was a nineteenth century minister in the Church of Scotland (the forerunner of today’s Presbyterians) who ended up establishing his own Pentecostal denomination — the Catholic Apostolic Church.

From what I’ve read so far, two broad factors seem to have laid the groundwork for this move:

  1. His intuition that the significant role of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation, teaching and healing ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus suggests that He did these things as a spirit-powered human being (and thus as a prototype for his people, now He’s poured the Spirit out).
  2. His dissatisfaction with the way regeneration had come to be understood as a matter almost entirely of individual inward renewal. This led Irving to distinguish regeneration from baptism in the Spirit, yielding what has came to be the traditional Pentecostal emphasis on speaking in tongues as the normal initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit (subsequent to conversion/regeneration).

I’ll try to let Irving speak in his own words as I explore these things in subsequent posts.

the cross-shadowed kingdom

One of the things Christians sometimes argue about is whether the gospel is more about the kingdom or more about the cross.

Kingdom-emphasising folk perhaps want to focus more on the joy and power that flow from God having broken in to human history in Christ. Whereas, cross-emphasising people want to talk about being counter-cultural and other-regarding and stuff like that.

But I’ve been gripped by the way the cross casts its shadow over Jesus’ kingdom-preaching and kingdom-demonstration in the early chapters of Mark as I’ve prepared Bible study material on it over the last few weeks.

In Mark 1.40-45, for instance, Jesus demonstrates the power of the kingdom in reaching out and healing a leper, wiping away the leper’s uncleanness and his status as a social outcast with a single gesture. And yet in doing so Jesus swaps places with the leper — he’s no longer able to come openly into towns and populated places. The cross casts its shadow here.

Something similar happens if you put together the next two incidents that Mark relates: Mark 2.1-12 — the famous story of the paralysed man who is lowered through he roof by his friends only to have Jesus (almost) overlook his obvious physical need in order to declare his sins forgiven — and Mark 2.13-17 — where we first see Jesus beginning to associate himself with sinners, risking his good reputation in order to fulfil his mission.

Since God is the only one qualified to forgive sins, Jesus’ friendship with sinners takes us into he very heart of God. And, on the flip-side, in order to offer forgiveness God himself pay the price of being numbered with the transgressors. Again the cross casts its shadow over the kingdom.

What this means for whether we consider ourselves kingdom-people or cross-people is hard to calculate.

At the very least, it should mean those who want to emphasise the kingdom have to reckon with the same sort of shame and humiliation that Jesus faced as his launched the kingdom. Likewise, it presumably also means that those who want to emphasise the path of the cross need to acknowledge the glory of this path in God’s apparently strange and foolish economy…

maybe we’re not meant to adopt Jesus’ priorities

One of the ‘thematic goals’ I’ve set for myself this year is to talk about the Incarnation of Jesus more than I talk about being incarnational (in imitation of him, etc).

Helpfully, this is what the New Testament seems to do — especially in the Gospels.

Take Mark’s account of the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Chapter 1.14-45, for example. There, we see that because everyone wants a piece of Jesus he must strive to maintain the following priorities arising from his sense of prophetic vocation:

  1. Focusing on people as he looks not simply to gather a crowd but to make disciples (verses 16-20)
  2. Carving out time to get away by himself to pray (verse 35)
  3. Taking steps to ensure that he isn’t so swamped by people’s felt needs that he can no longer fulfil his raison d’etre — namely, proclaiming the kingdom (verse 38)

It would be all too easy to pick up these priorities and say, “This is what we should be doing too”. (I heard two different sermons along these just this week — on the same day!) And, no doubt, prioritising people, prayer, and proclamation would be a good thing.

But there are a few irksome little details in the text that I feel should make us pause before going here. Details that suggest Jesus is on about something much bigger than simply modeling kingdom priorities.

For one thing, Jesus seems to want to maintain these priorities because he sees himself as something of a prophet. A herald. Announcing the kingdom and its ‘at hand’-ness.

But circumstances conspire to demand more of him. This happens in verses 40-45, for instance, where Jesus displays the power of the kingdom by healing a leper and ends up swapping places with him in the process — as he’s forced out into more remote places.

And for another thing, Jesus keeps telling people (and unclean spirits) not to talk about him, advertising who he is and what he’s doing.

My hunch is that this is bound up with the fact that Jesus’ contemporaries were bound to misunderstand it if he went around announcing that he was he Messiah. He needed to keep his Messianic identity secret so he could carry out his mission as the Suffering Servant.

But as far as I can tell this Messianic secrecy is unique to that moment of salvation history, not something we’re called to copy. Rather, we’re to take the news to the ends of the earth.

So maybe we’re not meant to adopt Jesus’ priorities…

the true God is humble (unlike the idols)

This week I’ve had the pleasure of re-reading one of my favourite bits of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics — Section 59.1 in IV/1: ‘The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country’.

Barth’s at his best here as he thinks Christmas and Easter — incarnation and atonement — into each other, teasing out the implications for how we view God. It’s dense, demanding, invigorating, and uplifting … often all at once!

Take this, for example, where Barth pivots to the question of how you distinguish the true God from the idols we manufacture mirroring our pride (pages 158-159):

In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, God acknowledges man; He accepts responsibility for his being and nature. He remains Himself. He does not cease to be God. But he does not hold aloof. In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God. He does not shrink from him. He does not pass him by as did the priest and Levite the man who had fallen among thieves. He does not leave him to his own devices. He makes his situation His own. He does not forfeit anything by doing this. In being neighbour to man, in order to deal with him and act towards him as such, He does not need to fear for His Godhead. On the contrary … God shows Himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself.