Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Family Discipleship

In our consumerist individualized culture, everything is cared for by specialists. We are habituated into thinking that we need specialists to fix what ails us, from fitness to food, to finances. I was listening to the radio a few days ago and heard a talk about dealing with the emotions of receiving an inheritance. They interviewed one expert that was a financial therapist who specializes in helping people deal with those emotions. Talk about specialization.

Specialization is the water we live in, and it is the air we breathe. So we shouldn’t give ourselves too hard of a time for thinking that my kids will magically have the Christian faith if I take them to Church on Sunday, youth group on Wednesday, and VBS during the summer. In light of how we live the rest of our lives, this, one could surmise, should work. 

But it doesn’t. It seems that these activities instill in our kids, not the historic Christian faith, but an insipid moralism. A view of God as either a boyfriend or emotional crutch, while also being an inexplicably distant Father figure. 

Why is this happening? Because faith isn’t supposed to be learned as a supplement to the rest of life. We are supposed to learn our faith in the context of a family who worships, learns, and prays together. 

There is an almost palpable fear about the possible demise of faith in Christian youth and children. While some of these fears might be exaggerated, it is an understandable felt fear, in light of the continued steady exit of youth from the Church. I believe that there is a counter-cultural antidote – not a silver bullet. A holistic way of approaching family and faith that can help pass on the faith to our children in meaningful and fruitful ways: Family discipleship. 

Anglican Pastor and teacher Winfield Bevins defines Family Discipleship: “Family discipleship is when parents help their children become disciples of Jesus in the home through reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, an doing mission together” (Growing at Home, xvi). Family discipleship is not a new idea. It is grounded in the Scripture and traditions of the Church. In Scripture, we can turn to the paradigm of Deuteronomy 6:4-9: 

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 

Verses four and five function as the Creed of the Old Testament, summarizing right belief, right practice, and worship. God commands Israel to have the laws on their hearts – at the core of their being and existence. Where does this occur? In the family, and how? By teaching, them, living them, and having habits of life, mind, and heart that continually directs one’s family to the truth of God and his way of life.

 According to Scripture, we should intentionally orient our family to who God is and what God has done for us. For Israel, this was lived out in light of the Exodus and the promise of the promised land. For Christians, it is lived out in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the promise of the New Heavens and Earth. 

I firmly believe that family discipleship is key to the Church thriving in the next generation. But, the theological location of family discipleship is critical: we must understand it within Christ and under his gracious reign over the world and in the Church. This location simultaneously critiques false views of families and establishes the proper path for living our faith out as little churches in the body of Christ.  

Family is an aspect of God’s created order for the good of human flourishing. However, the Fall marred and damaged familial relationships. After the Fall, we can trace out not the goodness of family, but it’s very inverse, the fallenness of family and God’s ‘no’ to sin’s infection and rule in families. Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit paints with precise brush strokes the detailed contours of the utter brokenness of family. So if we are to practice family discipleship, we must first begin by admitting that family is not sacred in and of itself. It is only sacred in so far as it is being redeemed and restored in Christ in the Church. 

Under this claim lays a robust doctrine of Union with Christ and the Church. A full expression of both of these doctrines is beyond my purposes here. For now, I want to highlight that 1) Union with Christ is the anchor and engine of family discipleship. And that 2) the Church is the boat in which family discipleship occurs. 

The heart of family discipleship is each person’s union with Christ in the context of the Church. When someone puts their faith in Christ by his grace and is baptized into Christ, they die and are raised with him. Their life is now hidden with Christ in God (Galatians 2:20-21; Romans 6:4-6; Col 3:1-4). Their identity and purpose are now rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ’s eternal relationship with the Heavenly Father. We have the law written on our hearts, and we have new hearts. Because of our union with Christ, the vision of Deuteronomy 6 is now possible. We are saved by grace through faith for good works prepared for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-10), which includes family discipleship. 

Baptism unites us to Christ, and it joins us to the body of Christ the Church. The Church becomes our family. The place where we are cleansed and made holy is the Church of Christ. As we nurture and grow our nuclear family, we do so as a part of the family of the Chuch in Christ. The Church, not the family, is the primary social unit of Christians. And this is good news. Because the sin and brokenness of family are brought under the kingdom and reign of Christ for forgiveness and healing. By its participation in the Church, the family can be redeemed.  

Family is not an institution separate from the Church. Just like we cannot do our faith on our own, we cannot do marriage on our own. It exists as a graced space for Christ to work out his redemption and reconciliation of his body. Neither is it the ultimate goal of human existence. Our union with Christ and the glory that is promised in eternal communion with God is the proper end goal. 

All that said, God, in his providence created families and commanded humanity to raise children and serve God in the faith of Christ in the Church. Family discipleship is an intentional way for parents in Church to lead their family in the rhythms of redemption and union with Christ as they learn together how to love, repent, have faith and grow in Christ. 

Practically speaking, what does this all look like? 

Let me offer an analogy. How does one become a life long and an avid fan of a sports team? Usually, it is passed down through desire, ritual, and priority in the context of a family. If we can disciple our kids into the fandom of a particular team, how much more should we disciple them into Christ? 

First parents must desire it. If we do not desire to love Christ and grow in him, our kids will pick up on it and see that our loyalties are mixed. Of course, we are not perfect. So the first habit we must begin to practice in front of our children is humility and repentance. We practice this through visible prayer and confession. 

Second, we need ritual. Many people have the ritual of watching sport on the weekend. We need a daily ritual of prayer, Scripture reading, learning, Church participation, service, spiritual conversation, and practical service. I use the word ritual not to evoke an empty or rote practice, but to say that it must become a part of the warp and woof of our days. 

Third, it must become a priority. These desires and rituals must become engrained in our lives. They are what we do, and we must be willing to sacrifice other things for them. What is more important, our children’s success in a sport or their eternal and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ? Here the Gospel of Christ confronts us and our idols. Here we must again, repent and believe. 

For more practical ideas for Family discipleship, let me recommend three resources: 

Growing at Home by Winfield Bevins

This book offers a practical vision for how to raise and disciple children in the faith. It looks at everything from reading Scripture to doing service projects together as a family. Parents are the primary people who will disciple their children. This book casts a vision and gives the tools for this work.

Parenting Towards the Kingdom by Philip Mamalakis

I ‘haven’t found a better book on parenting. The main of the book is that Christian parents are called to raise their kids to be citizens of the kingdom with the virtues of Jesus Christ and everything we do in parenting should be oriented towards this goal. This book shows us practically how to raise our kids, deal with conflict, set boundaries, and help our children learn and grow through struggle. I cannot recommend this book enough.

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

As our kids get older, we will need to make wise decisions about the place of technology in our home. Andy Crouch is a knowledgeable and helpful guide to these decisions. He ‘doesn’t say get rid of technology, but put technology in its proper place.

Resurrection life: Mortification and Vivification

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I wrote this for the blog of the AMiA. https://theamia.org/ 

When I think of resurrection life, my impulse is to emphasize the joy, peace and abundance of Christ’s resurrection and forget the cruciform life of discipleship. The tension arises in Christian circles quite frequently: Are we cross people or resurrection people? Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between these two. Instead, I suggest that in Christ’s resurrection life we are cross and resurrection people.

Consider what Gregory of Nazianzus preached in an Easter sermon on the matter: “Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him; yesterday I died with him, today I am made alive with him; yesterday I was buried with him, today I rise with him. … Let us become like Christ since Christ also became like us.” (Oration 1.4-5).

St. Augustine notes the difficulty of this daily process of dying and rising, and uses the metaphor of healing to describe it: “This is agony, Lord, have pity on me! It is agony! See, I do not hide my wounds, you are the physician and I am sick; you are merciful, I in need of mercy.” (Confessions, X.28.39).

In these two quotes, Gregory and Augustine follow the contours of Paul’s description of discipleship: It is a life of dying and rising in Christ with the express purpose of becoming holy (Ephesians 4:23-24). Consider how Anglican Theologian John Webster describes this aspect of resurrection life: “This active life of holiness is at every moment characterized by mortification and vivification. As mortification, holiness is the laying aside of that which has been put to death at the cross of the Son of God; as vivification, holiness is the living out of that which has been made alive in the Son’s resurrection.” (Webster, Holiness, 88)

Webster, Gregory and Augustine all testify to this biblical truth: The resurrection life is dying and rising day by day, moment by moment in Jesus Christ.

What does it mean that mortification and vivification are “in Christ”? We must begin by saying Christ’s death and resurrection is the cause of our mortification and vivification (Philippians 2:1-11, Ephesians 4:20-24). When we are baptized into Christ we are brought into union with his death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20-21, Romans 6). In union with Christ, he reckons us righteous and then makes us so; this is the double gift of union with Christ: justification and sanctification. And it is in this context that mortification and vivification occur. Christ’s humiliation and exaltation become the means and ends of Christian existence (Philippians 2:1-11). In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God puts to death our flesh and raises us up to new life.

How then do we live the resurrection life today? Trust, surrender and discipline. We must trust in God’s loving providence as he works in our daily life circumstances to mortify the habits of the flesh and vivify us to new life (Galatians 5:16-25). As we learn to trust, we surrender daily to Christ’s revealed will moment by moment. We keep our minds on the things above, putting off what is earthly and putting on what is heavenly (Colossians 3:1-17). Finally, we discipline our minds, hearts and hands, in virtue-forming habits, as Christ, our physician, slowly purges our festering wounds and heals us with his infinite life.

Christianity isn’t a choice between the cross or resurrection; it is both in Jesus Christ. Mortification and vivification is our resurrection life until all death is killed and eternal life is ours in the light of the Resurrected One.

Lenten Reading: Augustine on the Mercy of God and almsgiving

What did you give up for Lent? There is a temptation to treat Lent and lenten fasts as nothing more than a renewal of our new years resolutions. Maybe Lent, in the secret places of our hearts, is just a way to prepare for summer – lose some weight while looking righteous. According to Augustine, Lent is not so much about adding Spiritual disciplines, the traditional three being almsgiving, fasting and prayer, but intensifying these three in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. This means that almsgiving, fasting, and prayer are suppose to be a normal part of the Christian life.

Why do we discipline our minds and bodies as Christians? To overcome sin and temptation, and to put on the character of Christ. This, however is not something we do in our own strength, but through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Sermon 207 Augustine grounds the disciplines of Lent in the person and work of Jesus Christ: “Our Lord, the only begotten Son of God showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us” (89). He goes on to show how our acts of mercy, fasting and prayer are all done in and through Jesus Christ. In his section on Almsgiving he offers a classic example of how Augustine thinks about Christ’s person and work for us:

Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He our Strength might be weakened; that He our Health, might be injured; that He our Life might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be Sold the Exalted be humbled, and the Reviver be Killed? In regards to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to he hungry, but he first have himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry.

Augustine, Sermon 207, 89-90

Augustine grounds almsgiving in Jesus’s own infinite and humble gift of his life. Jesus took on the Form of a Servant to serve and die for us and to give us his life. In grounding the Christian discipline of almsgiving in Christ Jesus’s infinite gift of his life for us, and his continual sustaining of us through the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments, Augustine is grounding our good works in our union with Christ. We give because we’ve received and we are united to Christ who gives us more than we can ask or imagine.

Fasting and prayer are grounded in Christ’s own fasting and prayer. As he humbled himself to death on the cross, so we walk in the way of the cross and put to death the deeds of the flesh (90). Almsgiving and fasting prepares us, according to Augustine to pray to God especially for our enemies (91). In all of this, the mercy of God expressed in the magnificent humble beauty of Christ’s is the means and end of our discipline.

Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the good and necessary reasons for the Incarnation

If God is who as he is revealed in Scripture, was it really necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate to save humanity? This question is an honest one, seeing that Christians confess that God is all powerful and perfect, he could, conceivably, have restored human nature without becoming incarnate. However, Aquinas argues that according to Scripture, the mystery of the Incarnation was necessary to save humanity. To defend this Aquinas first qualifies what is meant by necessary, and then shows the benefits of Christ’s Incarnation for humanity in terms of how it helps those who believe in Christ grow in the good and withdraw from evil.

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of necessity: essential necessity and convenient necessity. The first, he argues is like the necessity of food for life. The second, is like the necessity of a horse for a long trip. “When the end is attained better and more conveniently” (III.Q1.A2). He argues that the incarnation was necessary in the second way, and not the first, because God who is all powerful could have done it differently. Yet, in light of humanity’s plight and God’s goodness, Aquinas, pointing to Augustine who says, “There was not a more fitting way of healing our misery” (III.Q1.A2).

To explain how the incarnation of the word is the most fitting way he divides his topic into two sections: How the incarnate Word draws us to the good and withdraws us from evil. Under the first section he shows how the Incarnate Word is the cause of Faith, Hope, Charity, good works and glory in the Christian. It is appropriate that Aquinas frames his understanding of Christ’s person and work in these terms, because he has just covered this path of life in Christ in the previous volume in terms of faith, hope, love, virtue, all of which leads to the end goal of “Full participation of the Divinity.” In presenting these five steps, he quotes Augustine. Let’s consider them one by one.

Christ’s incarnation furthers faith because Christ is the Truth revealed in human flesh. As Augustine says it: “In order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded the faith.” Faith is established in the Truth by means of the Truth himself becoming human and revealing himself in the humility of human life. Hope is encouraged and strengthened by the revelation of God’s love for us which is most beautifully expressed in the Son of God becoming human. This same infinite divine love enkindles charity in us, according to Aquinas and Augustine, because what presents God’s love for us more than him becoming one of us and dying for us?

Having grounded Faith, Hope, and Love in the person and work of Christ, Aquinas focuses in on how Christ is our example for the perfect human life. Again, turning to Augustine, he argues that Christ makes visible the invisible God so that man could follow God’s will. For Aquinas, this is not mere imitation, but a life infused with Grace, through the Holy Spirit’s presence. (see further 1-2.Q109-114).

Faith, hope and love grounded in Christ, infused with the good works of Christ given through the Holy Spirit is the life of the Christian which leads the Christian on to end goal for which they were created: “Full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and the end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: God was made man, that man might be made God.” In Christ is the whole means and ends of true human life given to all those who believe in him as John 3:16 says. It is worth nothing that Aquinas he uses the same framework of Faith, Hope and Love when he presents the reasons for Christ’s resurrection and ascension (III.Q53.a1, Q57.a2.ad3).

But the human condition is not one of neutrality, it is one of enslavement to evil. This Christ also had to free humanity form the enslavement and destitution of their fallen selves. Aquinas, explains this withdrawal from evil in five moves.

The first two moves relates to how humanity understand itself. First Christ incarnation shows us to not prefer evil and the devil over humanity itself. In other words, if God became human, then there is a certain goodness to humanity over and against the powers of evil. This is amplified by the his second point: “we are thereby taught how great is man’s dignity…” (III.Q1.A2). This has two effects in one’s Christian life, it reminds us of our God-given worth, and it exhorts us to pursue holiness.

In these first two the dignity of humanity is established, despite sin. In the third and four, Humanity is shown in Christ’s incarnation that they could not save themselves from the pride and presumption of sin. Here we see a kind of pendulum swing from one extreme to another: we either think of humanity as nothing, or as everything. Christ in his glorious humility both raises humanity up to its proper dignity, and gives humanity its properly creaturely humility. As Augustine says, quoted by Aquinas: “Because man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility…” (III.Q1.A2).

The establishing of humanity’s proper dignity and relation to God occurs in Christ’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension, when he frees humanity from the “thraldom of sin.” Jesus, as God and man made satisfaction for humanity’s sin and death in his death and resurrection. Aquinas establishes this point by quoting Pope Leo at length:

“Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other – for this was our fitting remedy. Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy; and unless he was man, he would not have set an example.” (III.Q1.A2).

Aquinas, ends his answer by pointing his readers back to the fact that the Incarnation and ensuing saving work of the Trinity is beyond our apprehension, by positing that there are many more advantages of the incarnation given to humanity which are beyond our understanding. This is an essential reminder for Christians and Theologians, we may apprehend much about Christ and his gospel, but we will always be standing in the face of the infinite personal mystery of the Triune God and his infinite holy love.

This summary of Aquinas’s understanding of the good and necessary fittingness of the Incarnation is just a tiny taste of the deep theological and exegetical reasoning Aquinas offers in his Doctrine of Christ. I just finished reading through the 59 questions on Christ and cannot recommend them enough.

The Refreshing Sight of Christ: A Quote from John Owen

In Michael Reeve’s wonderful book, Rejoicing in Christ, he quotes Theologian John Owen, who speaks of the way Christians should be refreshed in their faith:

Do any of us find decays in grace prevailing in us; – deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us?… Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea, no other way but this alone, – namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory, putting forth its transforming power unto the revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.

Quoted in Rejoicing in Christ, by Michael Reeves, 103-104.

I found this quote encouraging in several ways:

  • He acknowledges that faith involves struggle. We all have times of complacency, deadness, spiritual senselessness. But this is not the way it has to be.
  • The way out of Spiritual deadness is looking to Christ. We do this through the various means of grace that God gives us through the economy of his grace: worship, the read Word, the preached Word, the sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading, and study. In all of these means, we are seeking a fresh vision of Christ and his glory.
  • Christ’s glory, while sounding high and mighty, is his work of salvation for us. Christ was glorified both in his incarnation, his death, and his resurrection, which were all things done for the saving benefit of humanity. Catching a glimpse of the beauty and glory of Christ enlivens our hearts to his love, his generosity, his compassion, and his continual call to life in him.
  • The language of vision and contemplation are significant. There is a kind of blending of the senses in seeking after Christ. We seek to see him, a visual metaphor, we contemplate him, both a visual and intellectual action. Psalm 34:8 exhorts us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” All this together points us to an all-encompassing pursuit of Christ, with our hearts, minds, bodies, imaginations. As we are consumed by the vision, taste, thought of Christ we are revived and renewed in him.
  • Finally, the language of vision points us to our final end. The vision of God in Christ in the new creation. By God’s grace, i.e., through the work of the Holy Spirit, we begin to enjoy this vision of Christ by faith now. The enjoyment of this vision involves both consolation and purification: as the Holy Spirit communicates the vision of Christ he makes us more like him by sanctifying us. Thus, the vision of Christ by faith enlivens us to his glory and purifies us to further reflect and enjoy him.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Augustine of Hippo

“But wait,” says the Lord, “do not jump to conclusions. I have given human beings the power to behave well, but they do so by my enabling, not from any goodness of their own. Of themselves, they are bad. When they act wrongly they are children of men; when well, they are my children.” This is what God brings about. He transforms children of men into the children of God because he made the Son of God become the Son of Man. Look what our participation in him means: we have been promised a share in his divinity, but he would be deceiving us if he had not first become a sharer in our mortality. The Son of God was made a sharer in our mortal nature so that mortals might become sharers in his godhead. Having promised to communicate his goodness to you he first communicated with you in your badness, he who promised you divinity first showed you charity.” Exposition of Psalm 52.6 (V3.36-37).

In this homiletically stirring passage, Augustine speaks to one of his favorite themes: the wonderous exchange; that God the Son became human so that we could become children of God.

A few observations: 

  1. Augustine grounds his understanding of virtuous human action in the person and work of Christ. Because the Son of God has become the Son of man, sharing our nature so that we could share in his Godhead, those who are Children of God grow in charity through and in Jesus Christ. 
  2. The motif of Children of men and Children of God seems to have Augustine’s two City idea in the background. When we become participators in Christ, being transferred to the City of God, we learn through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to live and behave well. We first see Christ’s Charity in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, and then receive the love of God in the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), and in this humans are made Children of God and are brought into the school of Christ. 
  3. Several Scripture verses are in the background of this passage. Here are the ones I picked up on: 
    • John 1:12-13: 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
    • John 1:14 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
    • 2 Peter 1:3-4 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
  4. Augustine does not clarify what it means to ‘participate’ or ‘share in his godhead,’ but it seems that it is not some kind of absorption into the divine. Rather, he seems to mean that the power and love of God are communicated in Christ (and implicitly in through the Holy Spirit) so that the Children of God can be just that, Children of God. To be a child is to be other than the parent. Christian life and thus Christian behavior and belief are grounded in Christ, and united to Christ, but not absorbed into Christ We are children of God united to Jesus Christ as his body. To use one of Augustine’s favorite themes: Totus Christus (the Whole Christ). I will conclude with an example of this from the Exposition of the Psalms: 

“Christ is both head and body, we must not think ourselves alien to Christ since we are his members. Nor must we think of ourselves separate from him, because they will be two in one flesh. This is a great mystery, says the apostle, but I am referring to Christ and the church (Ephesians. 5:31-32). Since then, the whole Christ Consists of head and body we must understand that we too are included in David… Christ’s members must have this understanding, and Christ must understand in the persons of his members, and the members of Christ must understand in Christ, because the head and members form one Christ. The head was in heaven when he insistently asked, Why are you persecuting me (Acts 9:4). Through Hope, we are with him in heaven, and through Charity, he is with us on earth.” (3.54).

Running Theological Thoughts on Scripture: Habakkuk Chapter 1:1-4

 

Prophet_Habakkuk_001a

Introduction:

Good Christian theology is based on excellent and faithful exegesis. As a pastor-theologian my vocation is deeply bound up with the exegeting, interpreting and applying of Holy Scripture. My own inclination in thinking, writing, etc., is to look at the big picture of Scripture and think about how it all relates to God and his works. However, the source of theology is the divine revelation of Scripture, so to do theology well I must be a good exegete.

Being a good exegete requires that I am sensitive to two realities: the literal meaning of the text, what we will call the horizontal meaning. And what the text communicates about who God is, what he is like, and what he calls humans to do, what I will call the vertical meaning of the text (for more on this consider reading Participatory Exegesis by Matthew Levering). In this series, I will offer some theological readings of specific books of Scripture in a running commentary with an eye on the axis of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of good exegesis. To begin this series I turn to a minor prophet, Habakkuk, to discover what the book is about and how it speaks about God, Christ, and humanity.

Instead of offering a detailed introduction to the book of Habakkuk, I suggest you watch this video, made by the brilliant people over at The Bible Project.

It is important to note the time of the prophecies of Habakkuk: Around 626-586 B.C. Israel was divided into two Kingdoms, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In 722 BC the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria. Between 626 and 586 BC The southern Kingdom was slowly conquered and brought into exile. The final destruction of Judah and the Temple came in 586 B.C.

The structure of the book, as we saw in the video, is made up of three basic sections: section 1: A dialogue between Habakkuk and YHWH (1:1-2:1); section 2: YHWH’s 2nd response and judgment on the Chaldeans (2:2-22); and section 3: A Psalm of God’s deliverance (3:1-19).

In this first post, I discuss Habakkuk’s first complaint.

Habakkuk 1:1-4: Habakkuk’s first complaint:

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Verse 1:

Observations:

We know nothing about the prophet Habakkuk, expect that he is a prophet. One who the Holy Spirit has called, set apart, and ordered to hear and proclaim the Word of God. This is no lite calling, we need only look at other prophetic callings to see that (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2). As a prophet,  not only does Habakkuk speak the Word of God to the people, but he speaks to God for his people; for the righteous (see 1.4;13; 2:4). As a prophet of God, he mediates between God and humanity. As a prophet, he puts to voice the complaint of the righteous and confesses the sins of those who have rebelled against God. As a prophet, he speaks of God’s judgment and deliverance. Habakkuk speaks only what he sees. Everything in the book of Habakkuk is something that the prophet “saw” (v 1). This presents to the reader the fact that Habakkuk did not simply make this stuff up, his complaints, the vision of woes, and the deliverance of God are all things he perceives and proclaims from God.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk’s ministry as a prophet signifies several things about God and the economy of Salvation. First, the Lord God reveals God to humanity. We cannot gain access to who God is and what he does expect through God’s revealing of God.  Second, The office of prophet as one who reveals and mediates points us to Jesus Christ. He is the true prophet who is the very Word of God and the true human who reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God through his infinite life in his death and resurrection. Thirdly, Habakkuk’s receptivity as a prophet, being one who sees, reminds us of the way that Jesus Christ, in the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-9), did only that which he saw the Father was doing (see John 5:18-20). As the Son of God Jesus is equal to the Father, even as he is eternally from the Father, yet, in the form of a servant, he receives and does the will of the Father (which is the will of the triune God). Finally, Habakkuk’s role as a prophet, as one who receives and speaks what he hears, points to the Christian’s vocation as one who witnesses to who God is and what God does.  Christians are called to be witnesses who hear and receive and speak only what they receive and hear from the Triune God.

Verse 2-4:

Observations:

Habakkuk’s complaint opens by calling on YHWH. In using the covenant name of God the whole of who the Lord is and what he has done for Israel is set before the reader. YHWH is the One who rescued Israel from slavery and death, brought them through the Red Sea, made a covenant with Israel. YHWH is the One God who has patiently guided Israel as a rebellious child for hundreds of years.

He is the God who Israel has cried to again and again with the same kind of cry that Habakkuk utters: “how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?” In these verses, Habakkuk asks three questions as the prophet of God about the injustice and evil in the people of Judah (v 2-3). Judah has wrought violence and iniquity, and all God has done, according to Habakkuk is the look on idly. Judah is in a state of chaos; they are in a state of continual abnegation and perversion of justice, disobedience to the law, and the persecution of the righteous (v 4).

When we consider the canon of Scripture we can see that Judah is in a state of chaos and rebellion much like the time of the Judges. Yet, there remains a righteous contingent who are being oppressed by the wicked. It is on behalf of these righteous few that Habakkuk calls out to God. There is such an overwhelming force of evil that prevents the righteous from following the law (it “is paralyzed”) and doing justice (it is perverted and does not go forth). We will have more to say about the righteous in another blog post. We can gather from this verse that the righteous are those who are persecuted and seek God in the midst of abundant evil.

The mention of the righteous in the midst of evil brings to mind people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. People who God had chosen to show forth his goodness and glory in the midst of the chaos and rebellion of the World. These righteous people are made righteous by their faith in God. In submitting to God’s goodness and plan they join in his work of redemption and salvation.

Yet, the life of the righteous is not an easy one, because they seek the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdom of the earth, in the midst of the world of chaos and evil. This chaos is found on two levels: The world and Habakkuk’s own people. Habakkuk’s cries out as one of the righteous men who deeply desires to see God bring his justice, goodness, and holiness to bear upon the evil in the world (see chapter 2). In these verses, Habakkuk also cries out on behalf of the righteous for God to deliver them from the evil surrounding them in Judah.

Theological Comments:

In these first few verses, we can see that God is patient with those who are sinful and unjust. He is not quick in his wrath towards injustice. He is patient and waits to the point where the righteous feel as if the injustice and evil have won and overwhelmed the day. God’s patience is not like our patience which quickly wanes thin; he knows his purposes and the end for which he intends his plans to go, the ultimate end and purpose being communion with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

These verses reveal that in this world the righteous suffer as they wait for God. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the City of Man and the City of God. Those who are of the City of God are on a long pilgrimage to the heavenly city where justice will reign, and the righteous will shine like the noon-day Sun. On this pilgrimage, the City of God and Man are mingled, and those in the City of God walk alongside the city of man. They suffer in the world, in the church, and in their own hearts.

God uses these trials, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us like his Son. The eternal Son of God, the truly righteous one, the true prophet and mediator between God and humanity Jesus Christ. In these verses in Habakkuk, we see Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection as the righteous one surrounded by the wicked. But he was not swallowed by it. Though justice was perverted in the death of Christ – he died as a guilty man though he was innocent – and the law used by the evil one to bring forth more injustice (see Rom. 7 and Galatians 3); God in Christ destroyed death, Sin and the Devil and brought true justice in his death and resurrection.

Those who are in Christ, though they are surrounded by the wicked and unjust, pray for God to bring about his justice just as he did in the unexpected and new-creation resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cry out to our Covenant Lord, Yahweh who, though patient, is not idle, and though quiet is always at work in bringing about his plan for the good of his people.

In our next post, we will see how God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint.

 

John Owen and Richard Hooker on Union with Christ and Communion with God

Justification and sanctification are the double grace of union with Christ, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, on John Calvin. One question that arises for me when I think about union with Christ is how we grow in something which is already objectively true. I am united to Christ in his death and Resurrection, so how do I grow more in this union? John Owen suggests that our union with Christ is the objective reality of the whole scope of salvation – justification to glorification, but we can grow in greater, or lesser, communion with each of the persons of the Trinity (he defends this idea via the doctrine of appropriation, see, Communion with God, 95ff).
John Owen says this about Union with Christ:
[Union with Christ] is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ. Hence is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, our fruitfulness, our perseverance, our resurrection, our glory.
Owen makes a distinction between union with Christ and communion with God. He defines communion with God as follows:
Our communion, then, with God consists in his communication of himself unto us, with our return unto him of that which he requires and accepts flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have in him. And it is twofold: (1) perfect and complete, in the full fruition of his glory and total giving up of ourselves to him, resting in him as our utmost end; which we shall enjoy when we see him as he is; and (2) initial and incomplete, in the firstfruits and dawnings of that perfection which we have here in grace (Communion with the Triune God, 94).
Grounded in our Union with Christ, God communicates himself to us, and through the redemption of Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit we delight in God, obey God, and live for God. For Owen, this will be most true when we are with God in Christ in the Eschaton; in the beatific vision, while, in the present, we grow in communion with God through grace.
This idea of being firmly grounded in union with Christ, while at the same time growing in communion with God sounds similar to Richard Hooker’s understanding of participation in Christ and correlates to something I’ve quoted from Richard Hooker in another blog post. 
First, participation in Christ, for Hooker is defined as follows:
Participation is that mutual inward hold which Christ hath of us and we of him, in such sort that each possesseth other by way of special interest, property, and inherent copulation. V.56.1.
Hooker explains that this mutual inward hold is grounded in the life of the Trinity, and the particular reality of the hypostatic union of Christ. Further, Hooker delineates two kinds of participation: the participation of creatures who are sustained by God’s creative work, and the participation of those who are saved by God (see V.56.1). The second kind of participation is defined as follows:
Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are impulsed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. The first thing of his so infused into our hearts in this life is the Spirit of Christ… V.56.11.
For Hooker, we are united to Christ, and imputed his righteousness and given his grace (read justified and sanctified). Yet we can grow or decrease in our participation in and reception of God’s grace. Hooker continues by noting that while all who are partakers of Christ by imputation are equally in Christ, there is variety in those who grow in grace. This helps Hooker recognize the objective reality of those who are in Christ through Baptism, while there is a variety of spiritual growth and vitality amongst individuals. For Hooker, the location of this growth in sanctification is through the means of grace, i.e., the Sacrament of Holy Communion (V.56.11-13), worship, and scripture.
I don’t know enough about either John Owen or Richard Hooker to say if they agree on this idea of union/communion with God. However, I find both of their approaches helpful in articulating objective union with Christ and ongoing growth in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Cyril of Alexandria

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“God in his love for humankind provided for us a way of salvation and of life. For in believing in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and making this confession before many witnesses [at baptism], we wash away all the filth of sin, and are enriched by the communication of the Holy Spirit, and ‘are made partakers of the divine nature’ and gain the grace of adoption. It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father when he humbled himself to emptiness and deigned to assume our likeness, should be for our sake the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows that ‘he who in everything is first’ must in this also set the example.” Cyril of Alexandria (ACD, 2.147).

A few observations:

  1. God not only provides a way of salvation but a way of life as well. Jesus’s life is both an example and the path of the good life. Put another way, Jesus is the Means and the end of true human life. Jesus saved us for eternal life with the Triune God, and this life begins now.
  2.  Cyril narrates the order of salvation in relation to baptism: belief, confess, baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit, “made partakers of the divine nature” and given adoption. This path of salvation is grounded in believing and encountering the Triune God who loves humanity, it is enacted through the sacrament of baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit who testifies to us that we are adopted children of God.
  3. “Partaking of the divine nature” is a quote from 2. Peter 1:4: “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” What it means to partake of the divine nature, without transgressing the creator/creature divide has been greatly debated. From this quote, we can say that it means, at the very least, being filled with the Spirit, united to Christ and given the grace of adoption. In other words, partaking of the divine nature is being brought in to a relationship with the triune God for our salvation, and it is grounded in the triune God’s work of salvation. 
  4. Salvation, life, baptism, adoption, being filled with the Holy Spirit, all happens because the eternal Word of the Father, the equal Son of God, became human for our sake so that we can have life in him. The Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means and path by which we are united to God, receive forgiveness, are justified, sanctified and filled with the Spirit.  Thus, partaking of the divine nature is grounded in and located in Jesus Christ, who is the mediator between God and humanity.

Augustine as Contemplative Apostolic Theologian

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In a previous blog post, I discussed John Webster’s understanding of the Theologian as both contemplative and apostolic. At the end of that post, I referenced St. Augustine of Hippo as an excellent example of this way of being a theologian.  In this post, I’m presenting Augustine’s struggle with the tension between Contemplation and apostolic work, and the way he lived in the tension.

By way of reminder This is how John Webster defines the task of theology as Contemplative and apostolic:

…theology is both contemplative and apostolic. Contemplative first, because whatever it may offer to the church derives from sustained and disciplined and unselfish attention to divine revelation in its limitless depths and scope; everything depends upon contemplative absorption in God and the gospel of peace. Apostolic second and by derivation, because the rule of charity in the church requires that gifts by communicated, not hoarded, such that theology is part of the flow of love…

How does Augustine exemplify this as a pastor-theologian? First, we must acknowledge that Augustine’s Journey into Christianity was one where he sought to be united with God and contemplate him in an intensely intimate and personal way.

In Confessions, Augustine narrates his conversion experience in light of two moments of contemplation. First, when he was a practicing platonist, he attempted to ascend to God by contemplating created reality to gain access to the divine, but God beat him back (Book VII.16). It was not until he took up and read Scripture, giving his life to God in Christ, meeting the mediator between God and man that he was able to contemplate the true God of the universe in Jesus Christ (see Book XI.24-25). This was only the beginning of Augustine’s contemplation of God. Most of his writing is a rigorous and Holy Spirit infused apprehension of the Triune God, as he consistently sought to find rest in God (Book 1.1). Perhaps this famous quote can adequately express God’s deep passion for Augustine that led him to desire to spend all his time with God, contemplating him and his works:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,/late have i loved you!/ Lo, you were within,/but I outside, seeking there for you,/ and upon the shapely things you have made i rushed headlong,/I misshapen./ You were within me, but I was not with you./Tehy held me back far from you,/ those things which would have no being/ were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;/ you flared, blazed banished my blindness;/ you lavished your fragrance, i gasped, and now I pant for you;/ I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;/ you touched me, and I burn for your peace. (Book X.38).

Augustine’s call to serve in the church prevented him from joining a monastic community, which would have allowed him to continue in contemplation and prayer. This call forced him to deal with and harmonize two proper Christian desires; a single-mindedness towards God and love of neighbors (“Contemplation and Action,” Augustine through the Ages, 233).  N. Joseph Torchia, O.P., in his article “Contemplation and Action” notes how apostolic service aids contemplation. Far from viewing contemplation and apostolic action as mutually exclusive:

He stressed their relationship and interaction. In this regard, he considered action the necessary means to contemplation, both now and in the life to come. As he affirms we find Christ on earth in the poor in our midst, and likewise, we secure a place in heaven by performing charitable works on their behalf. Service to those in need, then, is nothing less than a means to the contemplation of the love of God. (“Contemplation and Action,” 233).

Even so, Augustine struggled with the desire to spend time in God’s presence as he ministered to the Church as the bishop pastor, social mediator, theologian, and teacher. In the end, Augustine concluded:

Although contemplation is superior to action, we must accept an apostolate when the church requires our talents; yet even in the midst of active endeavors, we should continue to take delight in contemplation (Contemplation and Action, 233).

This idea that contemplation is superior is grounded in the fact that it is what we were created for, to behold the face of God. However, we must accept the vocations that we are given, for Augustine it was to be a Bishop out of love for others, while simultaneously remaining in a consistent pattern of practicing the presence of God and seeking his face.

For Augustine, the Christian’s model for this way of life, and the source of strength to live as a contemplative in action is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who is the eternal word of God the Father, the exact imprint and likeness of the Father, came from the infinite plentitude of the divine life, to save humanity from sin and death, and reveal  God to them. Because The Son became human and was the mediator between God and man, humanity can now contemplate God because God has saved humanity from sin (see Confessions, Book X.67-68, and The Trinity, Book XIII). Taking up the apostolic task, for Augustine and any theologian, is not a distraction from contemplation, but an imitation and participation in the eternal love of God for the world exemplified in Jesus Christ. As we contemplate God in our studies and work, we are called out to share our labor with the church and the world. This is precisely what Webster was getting at when he said that the Apostolic is derivative of the contemplative and is motivated by charity.

Augustine poured out his life for the church, and this was empowered by first the rigorous contemplation of the Triune God and second by participating in the life of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is the pattern of service in the church, this is the pattern for Pastor-Theologians.

While Augustine’s way of life is a good example for Pastor-Theologians, I want to conclude by saying that this pattern of contemplation-grounding-action is the pattern for all Christians in all vocations. We must wholeheartedly seek the triune God, actively live in his presence and do all that we do out of the love that God has for us and the love that God has for others. We do this because God first sought us in Jesus Christ and has filled every Christian with the Holy Spirit. While not all of us are called to be Theologians for the Church, every Christian is called to contemplate God in Scripture, worship, and prayer, and share the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Spirit in our families, lives, and work.