God is emotionless, and that is Good News for humans: Thoughts about God, humanity, and salvation

I am in a pretty busy time of ministry right now, and I have not had a lot of time to do any real serious writing. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, hoping to get more coherence in my thoughts. I’m posting this now with the hopes that these thoughts will continue to percolate into something helpful. 

The desire for God to have emotions is grounded in a misunderstanding of God’s eternal and self-existent life, the purpose of emotions in human life, and of God’s work of salvation.

In the 1st of the 39 Articles a general statement about the Christian God is made:

THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Here we see God considered in himself in both aspects of who he is: the Unity of the essence and the distinction of persons. In the first half of the statement, several aspects of God’s infinite being and life is established, all of which safeguard against two things: 1) imagining that we can comprehend God, 2) that God is the greatest being in a chain of being. God is not like humans or the created world. He is totally other; not distant, but definitely not a being among other beings. This is how John Webster puts it: “In his inner works, as Father, Son and Spirit, God is plentitude of life and incomparable excellence… in the perfection of his immanent triune life God ‘only’ is God, and God is ‘alone.'” (God without Measure, I.119-120).

Further, Webster argues that God in his plentitude of life and his triunity is Simple. “God has no career, no process of coming-to-be” (Webster, God without Measure, 1.120). Finally, following Aquinas, we say that all creatures are contained within a genus; God is outside and before all genera (ST. 1a.4.3.ad 2).

All this means that God is not like humans, who are created, while God is the fullness of life. Emotions, as they are experienced in human life, are related to the contingency and progression of life, something which is simply not a reality in God. God is the fullness and plentitude of life; he is perfection in all its beauty and light and beyond all measure: as Paul confesses: “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:15-16; see also James 1:17). 

This has been the standard Christian confession for much of history, however, in modern theology, and often times in pastoral care, the question arises whether God should, can or must relate to human experience and emotion. Most understandably, this question arose among theologians after the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.  If we say that God is without passion does this not mean that he is distant and uncaring?

To the contrary, It is my thesis that it is good news that God is passionless, i.e., doesn’t have emotions, especially for the doctrine of human nature and salvation. To prove this thesis, we need to consider the problem from three angles: from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of human nature, and the doctrine of salvation.

God’s infinite, eternal life: 

Building off of what we said above: God’s is infinite life, actuality, and plentitude. To say that God is passionless is to say that he is full of life and being – it is the opposite of aloof. In his infinite life, he is changeless, neither needing anything or advancing towards some goal. God is the creator who does not change; this changelessness is not a defect, but a fact of his being infinite life and goodness. Out of God’s infinite goodness, he creates and sustains the world. Because God is totally complete and full in himself is he able to creates and sustain the created world out of his plentitude and generosity not out of a need for us. If God were not complete in himself and created the world, the world and God’s being would be co-terminus. God would have made the world for his sake, not our own (See Webster, God without Measure, I.126).

God is One, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One could imagine that in the intra-trinitarian relations there is emotion. However, this would be to project some kind of temporal or metaphysical movement in the Trinity. As if God the Father at some time choose to love the Son and the Spirit and thus generate and process them respectively. This would introduce change and progress in the divine life and would collapse the Trinity into created being. Contrary to this, God is eternally the Father generating the SOn and the Father and Son spirating the Holy Spirit, in an eternal, changeless, and infinitely simple way. God’s being is the fullness of life and action; he is the Living God who chooses to create beings who are different than God.

Creatures are from God and are created out of nothing. They are completely dependent on God for their existence and sustenance; everything from God for Creatures is a gift. Further, human creatures are created for fellowship with God. God freely creates creatures and gives them being, “making them for their own sake, not for his” (Webster, God without Measure, I.126). Human existence comes from and returns to God, but God does not depend on creatures. Humans were made for communion with God; this is our end, our telos and a part of that being made by God and toward God is our emotional life.

To be human is to have emotions:

Emotions are a feature of created human nature and correlate to our teleological end – we have emotions because we were created for an end purpose, i.e., life with God in the beatific vision (Ia-IIae Q 1-5). Emotions are an aspect of being contingent creatures on the way to this end.  Emotions are not bad, they are an integral part of human nature that reflect the fact that we were to desire God and love him forever.  Aquinas divides human emotions in terms of longing (concupiscence)  and resistance (Irascible). “For the concupiscible regards as proper to it the notion of the good, as something pleasant to the senses and suitable to nature: whereas the irascible regard the notion of good as something that wards off and repels what is hurtful.”(Ia Q 82.a5). Emotions, properly ordered, draw us towards the good and repel us from what is evil. Emotions are an aspect of humanity’s journey towards God, they are innate to what it means to be human creatures.

One may object at this point and say if we are created in the image of God, doesn’t that mean that emotions are a part of God’s character? Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that everything we have is identical to God or visa-versa. Obviously, we are not infinite, self-sufficient and eternal. Neither is God changeable, becoming or created. Whatever being made in the image of God means, it does not mean being identical with God or God with us. Because emotions are connected to our mutability, our changing nature that longs for the good, it is not an aspect of being created in the image of God. Rather, emotions draw us toward God who is our good (see Summa Ia-IIae q 22. a 1; q23  a1, a4).

Further, emotions are firmly established on the creature side of the creator-creature divide. the Human desire for God to experience emotions as we do is rooted in our idolatrous desire to see God in our image. If God had emotions as we did, he would not be mighty to save, he would be like us, and we would be lost.

In Scripture, emotional language is used to describe God in the Old and New Testament. I need to think more about the Old Testament language, though traditionally, it has been understood in terms of metaphor and analogy.

But, to properly speak of God having emotions we can only look to the person of Jesus Christ who has a fully human nature in the incarnation.

Pastorally, this is the location we talk about Jesus Christ feeling for us and with us. Further, we have to realize that Christ’s incarnation was not to identify with humanity but to save humanity from death, sin and the devil. The second person of the Trinity experienced human emotion as a correlate of his work of salvation, but it was not the primary purpose. Yet, because The Son of God incarnate has experienced human emotions, he empathizes with our struggle and gives us the Holy Spirit to properly train our emotions. So that we learn to hate evil and love God, with our whole being including our emotions.  (See Hebrews 2; John 11).

 

 

Quote from The Fathers and Mothers of the Church: Aquinas on The love of God and friendship with God

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God’s love and Human love

God loves all existing things. For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good, since the existence of a thing is itself a good; And likewise, whatever perfection it possesses. Now it has been shown above (Q. 19, A. 4) that God’s will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists. Yet, not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by its object, our love, whereby we will good to anything, is not the cause of its goodness; but conversely its goodness whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love, by which we will that it should preserve the good it has, and receive besides the good it has not, and to this end, we direct our action: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness (ST. Ia Q 20.A2

A few things worth noting:

  1. Existence is good, which is caused by God.
  2. God’s perfect and good will is the cause of all things. His will, however, cannot be disconnected from his goodness. The doctrine of divine simplicity preserves this reality; God’s will is identical with his goodness. Thus, God’s willing of creatures is not arbitrary, but benevolent and purposeful in accordance with God’s character.
  3. Aquinas defines love as willing the good of something. God wills everything into existence, and thus everything that exists is good and is from God.
  4. Humans see the created good in something, that is from God and loves the thing because of the good that is from God. Aquinas notes that this good could be real or imaginary because the good that a human loves can actually be a perversion of the good, i.e., an evil, that they perceive as a good. Thus, a lustful person sees their lust as a good; but it is actually a perversion of love.
  5. Aquinas’s brief anthropology points us to the reality that humans desire the good and are moved by it in others and this is love in humans. God’s love causes existence and moves humans to their end goal; love in humans is supposed to draw us towards our end goal: God. Because of sin, we need our loves and desire for the good re-wired; we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us (Romans 5:5).

Charity is Friendship with God 

Charity signifies not only the love of God but also a certain friendship with him; which implies besides love, a certain mutual return of love, together with mutual communion… That this belongs to charity is evident from 1 John 4:16: He that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him, and from 1 Cor 1:9, where it is written: God is faithful, by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son. Now this fellowship of man with God, which consists in a certain familiar colloquy with him, is begun here, by grace, but will be perfected in the future life, by glory each of which things we hold by faith and hope. Wherefore, just as friendship with a person would be impossible, in one disbelieved in or despaired of, the possibility of their fellowship or familiar colloquy; so too, friendship with God which is charity, is impossible without faith, so as to believe in this fellowship and colloquy with God and to hope to attain to this fellowship. Therefore charity is quite impossible without faith and hope. (1a.2ae. 65.a2).

A few things to think about:

  1. Aquinas’s understanding of friendship with God should remind us of John Owen and Richard Hooker in this blog post.  Communion with God is a mutual communion between the triune God and the Christian, which is established by God in his love for us through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
  2. To call charity a mutual return of love signifies a relationship that is established in the Holy Spirit when he is poured into our hearts by Christ. When we speak of the love of God, for Aquinas, we speak of this communion and relationship, first in the Trinity, and then between The triune God and redeemed humanity.
  3. Fellowship or friendship with God begins now and is brought to completion in the beatific vision.
  4. Because this friendship is not one of sight, we hold it by faith and with hope. So friendship with God is Charity, and it is believed by faith and longed for in its fullness by hope. There is an already not/yet dimension to friendship with God in Love.

Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 1:5-11

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Introduction: In my first post, I introduced the book of Habakkuk, and meditated on the first four verses.

The Lord’s Answer

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

Observations: In these verses, YHWH responds to Habakkuk’s complaint about Israel’s abnegation of justice and persecution of the righteous with a surprising solution: use a pagan, idolatrous evil nation to judge the righteousness of Judah. YHWH says it himself that this is an extraordinary work, one that is unbelievable. He goes on to describe the kind of nation the Chaldeans are: In summary: hasty, evil, ravenous, violent, and idolatrous. They are a vice-filled nation yet, God raises them up for his purpose of bringing justice on the unjust in Judah.

Theological Comments:

The first thing we must note about this passage is that God is revealing what he is going to do to Judah in response to Habakkuk’s plea for justice. Habakkuk is given a peek into the hidden providence and orchestration of God’s will. God uses nations to bring judgment on other nations. For Israel, this was not for the destruction, but for their discipline. In God’s covenant with Israel, he gave clear direction on what would happen if Israel broke covenant with him (see Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). To modern eyes, the judgment and the instrument of his judgment may seem harsh, but we must not forget that basically from Israel’s creation out of Egypt they had been in constant rebellion. God graciously forgave them, gave them instructions on how to live with a Holy God and how to live holy with the holy God (the law). Even still, they rebelled and sinned against God. In his response, God shows that he is not looking idly on the sin of Judah, but preparing their judgment.

A question arises in this passage: should we seek to interpret the movement of nations and wars as God’s judgment? I would suggest that the context of this passage leads us to a negative answer. First, we must remember that Habakkuk is a prophet. He has a particular vocation to speak the Word of God to Israel for a specific purpose. Second, God gives Habakkuk insight into his otherwise hidden providential ordering of the world for a specific purpose: to show that God will bring judgment on Israel’s sins. This is a specific revelation of God’s work in the world. In other words, That God uses other nations to judge the sin can be deduced from this passage, how and why and who must be left to God and is not open to human knowledge.

More significant and central to this passage we see that God uses evil and wicked people to bring about his end goal. We can trust God, in the midst of the chaos of the world, that he will bring about his good purposes, and that his purpose is good because he is good. This is not something that is always easy to swallow. As we will see in the rest of the book, the righteous must wait and live by faith.

And yet, there is something deeper revealed here, in light of the whole story of scripture. God uses an unbelievable and indescribable evil to bring about the judgment of evil and the vindication of the righteous, and this signifies the incredible work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God used the epitome and sign of death, torture, and evil: the cross, to accomplish his judgment of sin and the salvation of all those who believe in the one who died.

Yet, unlike the Chaldeans, Jesus is the loving and patient savior, who came to earth in humility and weakness, taking no place for his home. He was mocked and despised and looked to his Father for justice and vindication. He walked in humility, he was slow to anger, and continually had his face turned to his Father. In his death gathered the captives of sin and freed them for true life in the new creation. As the true king of the world, he reigns in justice and humility, with no need to prove himself he does not scoff at rulers but judges in true justice and save. He conquers the fortress of the Evil one not with might or pride but through humility and death. He is the innocent one who dies for the guilty. He is the God-Man who, after his glorious resurrection we call “my Lord and God” (John 20:28). Jesus in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension brings God’s judgment and healing mercy to the world. Jesus comes most surprisingly and reveals the judgment and mercy of God on the most unlikely of Thrones: the Cross.

Jesus is both the righteous one who is surrounded by the wicked (1:4) and God’s judgment on the wicked and the vindication of the righteous (5-11). Unlike the Chaldeans, he brings justice perfectly and mercy more abundantly for all who put their faith in him.

From this passage, we can see that God really cares about bringing justice to the oppressed and judging evil and sin. We also see that he uses surprising means to bring that judgment about: The most surprising way is Jesus Christ.

Questions from the Parish: Who Created God?

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Last night I was asked this question: “who created God?” Here are my thoughts towards an answer to this question.

If we assume that there is some higher power in the universe, then we have to think through what that means.

We have two options: either this higher power has always existed alongside, in or as the created universe, or the higher power existed before or outside the universe. If we grant the first one, then this higher power is in some way related to or identical with the universe, and we are merely in an eternal existence of matter, and this is ‘God.’ If we grant the second then this higher power exists outside the universe.

Following the second route, we are confronted with a choice: either this higher power is itself created, and there is a being behind this creating being that created it to create the world; or this higher power is the Creator and first cause of all existence and therefore uncreated, eternal, infinite, etc.

If we follow the first path, then we fall into a kind of infinite regress; always looking for the next higher being who created the previous being. If we follow the second path, we are confronted with the possibility of a being who is the first cause of all other beings, and thus unlike anything we know or can imagine. Why? Because there is nothing in our experience of a being that is entirely self-sustaining and the source of all life and being. (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1-2).

At this point, if you accept that there must be a first cause, you are left with a few options. Either believe that this God exists as the primary cause and mover of the universe and you leave it at that, or you seek to discern if this first cause has revealed itself as something more than simply a first cause. For Christians, we believe that this first Cause is the Triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture as the infinite-personal Creator God.

Christians believe based on divine revelation and faith that this creator is The Triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture as the creator and sustainer of the world. In Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 the Scriptures say that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the whole universe out of nothing. In the rest of Genesis 1-2, the author shows that God is the creator of all things by demonstrating that he created everything that people in the Ancient Near East worshipped as gods. Further, the Bible holds that the end goal of creation is life with God in a renewed heavens and earth (Revelations 21-22).

I don’t expect this line of thought to convince someone that God exists and that if God exists this God is the God of Scripture, I find it helpful to see that if we grant the first cause outside of creation, it is possible to  be lead to the God who reveals himself as the creator of the world: The Triune God of Scripture.

 

Nature, Grace, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

 

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In a previous post, I argued that if we want to see the renewal of the church, it must be a renewal that takes the triune nature of God seriously. I quote at length Gordon Fee to that end. Fee argued that the Charismatic gifts are for the building up fo the church, and should not take pride of place or seen as the absolute end of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit makes us into the image of Jesus Christ to the Glory of the Father (as I said in this post).

One concern about the Spiritual gifts that I continually struggle with is the relation of humanity’s natural capacities, our ability to think, feel, reason, etc. and the gifts of the Spirit, especially the gifts of tounges and words of knowledge. When I’ve heard the gifts of prophecy taught, it is said that we need to discern the difference between our thoughts, the devil’s intrusions, and God’s words. The thing that bothers me about this is that it can end up neglecting or denigrating the goodness of human nature; as if the Holy Spirit fills us not to make us human, but to transcend our humanity.

To approach this question properly, we need to ask what humanity is, what we were created for and how we attain that end? In short, humanity is created by God out of his goodness as the image of God composed of both soul and body, we were created for life with God, and we attain that end through God’s grace and the economy of salvation (see Aquinas, Summa, 1.93, 103).

Two things are important to note here: 1) God’s goodness is the grounds of his grace; to say that God creates out of his goodness is to say that he creates freely and graciously (see Aquinas, Summa, 1.6). Therefore, 2) from the beginning, human nature is created by the free grace and goodness of God. This means that we are both natural creatures with specific aptitudes etc. and beings created for God. We were created with the need for God; a necessary openness to God’s work of creating and sustaining us towards being made into fullness of the image of God (Sin complicates things, because both the capacity for God and the natural gifts of human nature are both marred, but they are redeemed and renewed in Jesus Christ). Thus, while Aquinas affirms that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it (Summa, 1.1.a8), this perfecting of nature is established in the reality that creation is already God’s goodness poured out as grace.  God created humanity for himself, which means we need him to achieve our end goal – life with God. The path to that end goal is Christ, and according to Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit and his manifold gifts that build us up to that end goal (see. 1 Cor. 12, Eph 4). To sum up, Humanity is created as a creature made for the creator and on their way to the creator (see Summa, 1.93; 1e11ae.1-5; and this post).

If this is true, then charismatic gifts could fall within the realm of grace perfecting nature. But what of our original concern: the overriding of natural capacities? While grace does not destroy nature, nature being what it is, a graced contingent reality opened to God, is dependent on the creator. Could it be that the gifts of tounges and prophecy are not a negation of nature, but God using our nature and infusing it with his grace to build the body of Christ up out of God’s goodness, and freedom? Is it possible that our minds and language are sanctified for use beyond our understanding or capacity, to God’s glory and praise? I propose that we can answer both of these questions on the affirmative.

If these thoughts are tenable for the Christian life, there is room for God to both use one’s ‘natural’ talents in a ‘supernatural’ way and to infuse us with his grace in a way that is beyond our apprehension. For example, God could direct one’s reason, submitted to God to draw a conclusion about another person’s life that is, in fact, a word of knowledge; or God could simply infuse into one’s mind a thought or word that is  ‘from the outside.’ Both of these are acts of God sanctifying human nature, the first within our capacity for a particular end and the other beyond our capacity and understanding.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit, come from the outside and can seem to overwhelm our human nature; but the truth of the matter is that they are simply making us capable of what we were created for: communion with God. The gift of tounges draws our mouths, hearts, and mind into a space where we trust that God is at work in a way that we cannot understand (by the way, it is still your lips and mouth and tongue that move!). In the gift of prophesy we are encouraging and building the body of Christ up towards our mutual end goal: Life in God. Both of these gifts, along with the rest of them orient us towards becoming the unified body of Christ,  as we journey towards our end goal: fellowship and friendship with the triune God in Glory.

 

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.

Holy Scripture: What is it and what is it for?

 

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Introduction:

In the life of a Christian, there is an expectation that one read, study, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. This is integral to the Christian life, as we can see in the collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When we read Scripture, a question arises, that is not so easily answered: what is Holy Scripture?

A few quick answers come to mind:

  1. 2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. This verse names what Scripture is, “God-breathed” and communicates the purpose of Scripture, i.e., to complete and form the Christian into the likeness of Jesus. 
  2. Hebrews 4:12-13  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. This verse is complex and significant because it seems to correlate the written word of God with Jesus Christ himself. It, like 2 Timothy 3 directs our attention to the formative and active nature of God’s Word. 
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. Here Paul notes that he received what was delivered; that Christ died and rose again which was in accordance with Scripture, i.e., the Old Testament. Here we see Christ and his work as the content and goal of the Scripture (see my blog entry on the Gospel). 

From these verses, many of the shorthand answers of what Scripture are presented: it is God-breathed, it the Word of God written. And while these answers are well and good, more needs to be said. Why? Because these answers seem to separate what Scripture holds together: what Scripture is and what it is for. Any doctrine of Scripture must hold together these two questions, and the answer for the second must be derivative from the first. Further, these answers often seem to side-step critical scholarship and function in a rhetorical posture of defensiveness.

The answer to critical scholarship cannot be a blind turn to non-rational belief – “The Bible says it, I believe it.” At the same time, I do not think we need to concede grounds to scholars who read Holy Scripture like another book. Thus, we need a way to articulate what Scripture is and what it is for, in the context of faith seeking understanding.

What we are dealing with when we try to understand the nature of Scripture is how a human text can communicate who God is and what God does. Often, people fall on one of two sides: either emphasizing its supernatural revelation and downplaying the creaturely aspects of it, or emphasizing the creaturely elements of it and ignoring the possibility of divine revelation.

Many analogies are used for the relationship between the human and divine aspects of Holy Scripture, the Incarnation of Jesus is perhaps the most popular one these days. Jesus is fully God and fully human, but one person; similarly, Scripture is fully divine and fully human. The problem with this analogy is that it abstracts the utterly unique work of God in the incarnation into a principle. Further, the analogy falls apart because the two natures of Jesus are held together in the One person of the Son, there is no correlate point of union for the Scriptures. Where do we go for a better understanding of what Holy Scripture is and what it is for?

Let’s begin by considering Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion:

HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Here we see the content and purpose of Scripture defined. the material is the Old and New Testament; the purpose is “Salvation.” Further, the article describes the Holy Scripture as authoritative for salvation. That said, the article leaves off specifying the way that Scripture is capable of containing all things necessary for salvation. In other words, how human written words are considered Holy. How can human words communicate all that is necessary for salvation? To answer this question, we need to consider how Scripture is situated in God’s work of salvation for humanity and the world, what is often called the economy of salvation.

In considering What Scripture is, I will turn to John Webster, who has written profoundly and extensively on the nature of Scripture. His reflection on the doctrine of Scripture began in earnest in 2003 when he published Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. While I have not studied his writing in depth, there seems to have been some development and refinement between then and more recent essays. Thus, I am drawing on a later essay where he articulates the ontology of Scripture as a part of the economy of God’s outer works.

The Triune God’s Divine Economy

To articulate a theology of Scripture, we must start with the triune God, and see how Scripture relates to God. In Theology, we distinguish between God in himself (Theology proper), and the divine economy, God’s work in the world (from creation to consummation).  Webster distinguishes between these two aspects of theology in the following.

Systematic Theology has a single but not simple object: God and all things relative to God…The one complex matter may therefore be divided into (1) God absolutely considered, that is, considered in himself in his inner life as Father, Son, and Spirit (theology), and (2) God relatively considered, that is, considered in his outer works and in relation to his creatures (economy) (God without Measure, I.45-46).

Webster describes in more detail what the divine economy is in four points: 1) The divine economy is grounded in the immanent perfection of the Holy Trinity. 2) The divine economy unfolds as the history of fellowship in which creatures are summoned to know and love God.  3) The divine economy includes the history of redemption. 4) In all this, the divine economy is revelatory (The Dominion of the Word, 117-118). This final point grounds Webster’s next move: The divine economy, the mission of the Son and Spirit reveal God, and this revelation is mediated in a particular form:

The work of Word and Spirit, through which God gives creatures a share in his knowledge of himself, is mediated through creaturely auxiliaries. of these, Holy Scripture is the chief; through its ministry of the divine Word in the Spirit’s power, God makes himself known and loved (ibid., 120).

Webster started with God’s infinite being, which is the source and end of the God’s outer works of creation and redemption, which reveal who God is. This economic work is the mission of the Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit make God known through the creaturely auxiliaries of the Scriptures. What is the nature of these Scriptures?

Scripture

Webster describes Scripture “as prophetic and apostolic testimony” (ibid., 120). It functions as “a unified set of creaturely communicative acts having their origin in God’s calling and authorizing certain persons in the communion of the saints” (ibid., 120). In other words, God calls, forms and sends  prophets and apostles (the Old and New Testament writers) as special ambassadors of God’s own Word. So we have specific people who God chooses as creaturely instruments to communicate God’s self-revelation. How do these writing become Holy Scripture?

“Holy Scripture is the textual settlement of this embassy. In it, prophetic and apostolic speech is extended to into the church’s present… Scripture is a creaturely reality ordered to divine communication” (ibid., 120).  So God providentially commisions, forms, and orders the life and writings of the prophets and apostles to communicate who God is and what God is doing. Thus the Scriptures are a human text, but human texts ordered by God with the distinct purpose of communicating and revealing God.

In his book, Holy Scripture,  Webster describes this reality in terms of the creaturely text being ‘sanctified’ by which he means: “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence” (21).

To expand on this notion of creaturely realities being used by God to communicate himself, Webster offers the Lord’s Supper as a parallel example:

Bread and wine are signs in the economy of salvation; by them, the ascended Christ distributes the benefits of his saving achievement, comforting, and nourishing his people by his presence. These functions do not detract from the created materiality of the elements, but indicate, rather, that such created realities are taken up into the divine service. So also Holy Scripture: prophetic and apostolic words are no less creaturely for being servants of the divine Word; indeed, their creaturely nature is therein fulfilled. (The Dominion of the Word, 121).

This analogy is stronger than the Analogy of the incarnation because it simultaneously holds the creaturely reality of the writings of the Old and New Testament, while confessing that through God’s providential and sanctifying work, i.e., the mission of the Son and Spirit these words are ordered and used to communicate divine revelation.

How, precisely, do these prophetic and apostolic words in the Scripture exist as creaturely servants to the divine Word? Webster responds: “Scripture is ‘inspired’ in the sense that its entire course (from pretextual tradition to canonization, including supremely the work of textual production) is superintended by the Spirit” (Ibid., 121).

This is profoundly significant for dismantling the dualism we talked about earlier: either fully divine texts (humans merely writing what they hear from God verbally) or fully human texts. The Holy Scriptures are human texts written by divinely commission Prophets and Apostles, which communicate the Divine Revelation of the Triune God while remaining creaturely in nature. The whole process of the writing of these texts is understood to be inspired by the Holy Spirit who is the proper author of the texts; though he never supersedes or overrides the creature in the inspiring process. The Holy Spirit’s work of superintending the creation and writing of Scripture is what it means for Scripture to be inspired.

Conclusion

Scripture is God-breathed, it is the Word of God written, but it is this by means of God’s providentially ordering, sanctifying and inspiring commissioned prophets and apostles by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Word of God through in and with the words of Scripture.

When we see how Scripture fits into the greater economy of God’s work, the purpose of Scripture is made more explicit by its nature. God uses human creaturely realities to bring about his purpose and will; just as the Lord’s Supper communicate grace and life to Christians, so the Holy Scriptures communicate to believers the truth of who God is, who we are and what God has done and is doing to save us.

Theological Thoughts on Ecclesiastes 5:2: Let your Words be Few

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Ecclesiastes 5:2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.

Talk about God is so blithely thrown around in church and the broader culture, that this verse and its warning seems almost impossible to abide. In the wider culture, the forces of secularity have reduced talk about God to a sarcastic joke, meme, or worse. In the church, we suffer from speaking too much, or too poorly about God, much like our culture we’ve lost our ability to speak of God without catchphrases or cliches.

In this verse, the preacher of Ecclesiastes warns his readers of two things, gives them two reasons for this warning, and concludes with the result of listening to this warning. He urges his readers to not be rash or hasty in uttering a word, either externally (mouth), or internally (internally) about God. Why? 1) because all our words are ‘before God’and 2) ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth.’ For these reasons, our words should be few.

This verse reorients humanity’s pride and arrogance (rash and hasty) to a proper understanding of who we are in light of God’s infinite majesty and creative saving power. What do the two statements about tell us about God?

God is present everywhere and knows everything. God’s omnipresence and omniscience remind us of the utter difference between God and humanity. God is the creator, and we are creatures. The triune God is the creating and sustaining God. To say anything before God, externally or internally, is to stand before the one who made you out of nothing, and who continues to sustain your existence.

In Christian theology, the creation and providential sustaining is the undivided work of the Trinity, but it is often described as the work of each Person, for example, the Father creates, the Son sustains. We see this reality testified to by Paul: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Col 1:16). The Word of God, the Son of God, incarnate in the Virgin Mary, and maintaining the world in all its contingent reality, is the one in whom and through whom our existence is preserved and brought to its proper end: the vision of God. 

The difference between God and his creation is reinforced by the next clause: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” Heaven is the location of God’s reign, rule, and authority. Despite human sin and rebellion, we do not thwart God’s authority, power, and rule by our ineffective and destructive loquaciousness. God’s Word does not return void in the battle for his creation.

Our foolish speech is silenced, redeemed and reordered by the one who is from heaven and has come to earth: the Eternal Word of God who became incarnate. Our prideful ramblings are made quiet in the face of the one who in himself is the eternally Spoken Word, reveals in humility, both in the cry of a baby and the cry of a dying man.

In Christ, knowledge of who God is, who we are, and how we are to speak of God rightly, is revealed, as Paul said, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).  In the mission of the Son, the eternal Word of God silences our pride and hasty words and orders them towards God. How? By revealing himself in the flesh, taking our pride and arrogance to judgment and death, rising victorious and true, and sending his Spirit to teach us to think and speak rightly of God. The Holy Spirit takes Christ’s humility (Romans 12:1-2; Phil 2:5-11) and gives it to those who trust in Jesus, confess him as Lord and are baptized into his death.

It is because of Jesus that our words are “few” and not silenced entirely. For the immensity of God, both as he is in himself and God against sin leads us to baffled silence. We observe this in Job’s confession at the end of God’s speech in Job 42:2-6

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

But, when God unites us to himself in Christ his immensity, infinity, and plentitude, leads to the fear and knowledge of God which begins to order our minds and hearts rightly. In light of the mission of the Son and Spirit for our salvation, we slowly become wise as we confess that all things are from God and ordered towards him.

In comparison to the infinite Word of God, redeemed and sanctified talk of God, submitted to the continued mortification and vivification of the Spirit, is minuscule in proportion, and yet it is still invited and encouraged. “Let your words be few.” We were created and redeemed to know God and his Son through the power of the Holy Spirit: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The church is called to witness to the God who is in heaven, who is in control and who in his infinite love sent the Son and Word of God to save the world. To do this in step with the Spirit, our minds – our intellect, emotions, and wills – must be aligned to Jesus Christ. We must allow the Holy Spirit to order our thoughts, our desires, our wills toward God. We must desire what is truly good and keep our minds on what is truly beautiful and long for what is truly true: we must desire the Triune God of Grace. “Delight yourself in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we delight ourselves in the Lord, we discover that he is the deepest desires of our hearts. 

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.

Aquinas on The Beginning, Ordering, and End of Theological Contemplation

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Mark 12:30-31 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

In a previous blog post, I quoted J.I. Packer who says that the Christian life is at its fullest when we are worshiping God with our heads, hearts, and hands – our minds, wills, and actions (note that emotion is not identified with the heart). Additionally, I’ve talked about John Webster’s understanding of the Pastor as Apostolic Contemplative Theologian. A part of the church’s service to God is thinking about him well, conforming our minds to the mind of Christ (Romans 12:1-2). Jonathan Edwards said it well: “The basic goal of any intellect is to work toward ‘the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.’”

When it comes to studying God, it is wise to ask, how can or should we conform our thoughts with who God is? In Christian theology, there are two primary ways to go about this: the order of knowing and the order of being. The order of knowing is roughly based on the Christian’s experience of encountering the Triune God: so we may start with Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit, and then God the Father. In recent years, many theologians have attempted to think about theology with the order of knowing as the primary ordering of theological inquiry. It also makes personal sense to many in the church because it relates to their personal experience. For an engaging and sensitive articulation of the order of knowing, while acknowledging the difficulties with this view, read Fred Sander’s The Triune God.

But, while this ordering makes personal sense, we must consider, who is the subject of theology? The answer is the Triune God. If that is so, shouldn’t the subject of theology, order our study of God even if the way we know the subject is tied to historical revelation? It is a question like this one that has pushed some theologians to order their theological reflection on the revelation of Scripture not in terms of our experience of God, but in terms of who God is and what God does. However, in having our minds conformed to the knowledge and love of God in Christ we must allow the ordering of our understanding of God to be dictated by who God is, not our experience of God. Theological contemplation is grounded in our experience and knowledge of God as he is revealed in Scripture, but it is properly ordered by the subject matter of theology: God and his works.

Let’s turn to a few quotes from Thomas Aquinas to see how he orders his contemplation to God and the works of God, while, founding the knowledge of this ordering on the Revelation of Scripture.

Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is a masterful example of rigorous theological reflection in this mode of theology. While Aquinas organizes his theology in terms of God and all that relates to God, he offers two other supplementary organizing principles that help make sense of the primary ordering. In the first article in the first question on The Nature Sacred Doctrine, Aquinas ponders whether revelation is necessary, or whether humanity can know what is needed for life via philosophical reflection. Aquinas posits:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical knowledge built upon human reason. First, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, o God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee (Isa. 66:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation…Where as man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of the truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. (1.1.1a)

Aquinas distinguishes between philosophical science and divine revelation and argues that knowledge of God must come from divine revelation because humanity was created by God, is directed to Him as our end, and God is the one who saves humanity. In other words, all of the Christian faith is grounded in the divine revelation of Holy Scripture. Tn this Aquinas begins his theological argumentation and contemplation assuming divine revelation for the salvation of humanity as the grounds for contemplation.

Further, he also holds that all of creation finds its beginning and end in God, and thus all creaturely reality is reflected on theologically in relation to God:

“Sacred doctrine does not treat God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning and end.” (1.1.3. reply 1).

Therefore, the material of revelation is Sacred Scripture, and the subject of theology is God and his creatures in so far as they are related to God. This thought brings us to our final quote:

But in sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end. (1.1.7a).

In theology then, according to Aquinas, God is the primary subject and ordering principle. Everything – Anthropology, Christology, Ecclesiology etc. – must be considered in light of God Himself, and God as the beginning and end of all creatures. Thus, for Aquinas, the order of knowledge, which includes being incorporated into Christ through the Holy Spirit, is assumed for proper theological contemplation.

Aquinas ends up ordering his whole theological account in the Summa along these lines: he begins with God, then all that comes from God. Within this account, he orders the economy of salvation around the reality that all creatures come from God and end in God. Thus, he considers creation, fall, Grace, and finally Christ as the means and end of humanity’s return back to God. In general terms, Aquinas’s ordering of theological inquiry is simply the order of God’s own revelation: “In the beginning, God” and “God created the heavens and the earth.”

How does this ordering help the church in its worship and mission?

First, it puts God at the center of theological endeavors, not humanity’s experience of God. When someone becomes a Christian, they encounter Christ, are filled with the Spirit and brought into the Body of Christ. This conversion reorients them to God as the beginning and end, and thus it is appropriate, if not vital, to begin learning the Christian faith, and the Christian experience in terms of God and then us. In doing so, our minds are sanctified and brought into alignment with the virtue of humility. We need only look at the Apostles and Nicene Creeds to see that this ordering of our knowledge of God and salvation along the lines of God’s Triune being (and only then divine missions) is the proper way to learn the Christian faith.

Second, Theology cannot be separated from the life of the Church or the spiritual life of the individual Theologian. To worship God with our whole minds requires that we are already in the realm of God’s kingdom. Theology done rightly is not rigorously guided by Scriptures and continually submitting to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of our minds. It is grounded in the worship of the Church and the frequent reception of the means of grace: the Word and Sacraments.

Third, there is no necessary opposition between the order of knowing and the order of being, but the order of being should take precedence in contemplating God because he is the subject of the divine revelation; the one Christians come to know by means of the free divine initiative to reveal God to us. We saw that divine revelation, specifically Scripture, is the grounds for our ability to contemplate God. Scripture is taken as the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the words of the prophets and apostles to reveal who God is and what God does. God reveals himself to humanity as the God who is both infinitely beyond human knowledge and who condescends to share with humanity true knowledge of himself.

Much of what I’ve attempted to say is summarized by Theologian and Thomist Giles Emery in the following quote:

The elaboration of a theology works in three stages, which one can formulate as follows. The first comes from the acknowledgment of the revelation of the Trinity through its action in the world, listening to and following the witness of Scripture. The economic and soteriological current runs through the heart of this unfolding of the Trinitarian mystery… The reading of Scripture and Christian experience is its main resource… In the second stage, beginning from their economic revelation, this theologian puts forward a speculative [read rigorously contemplative] reflection on the persons, in their distinction and their unity. This is the doctrine of the immanent Trinity or in Thomas’ own language, the doctrine of the Trinity ‘in itself.’ A third and final phase uses the two initial moments as a guide into a speculative reflection on the actions of the persons within this world. This is where a genuine doctrine of the ‘economic Trinity, the Trinity as ‘principle and end of creatures,’ is conveyed. (Giles, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, 415-416).

What we see in our quotes from Thomas is an assumption of the first stage as the content of divine revelation, which then grounds his theological investigation of God in himself and God at work in creation as the beginning an end of all created reality. This leads to the third stage, as one can see in many of his articles in Questions 27-44. Some theologians may prefer to focus on the first stage, but for Thomas, the subject matter of his investigation leads him to order his theology beginning with God and then everything else.

Many questions remain for me in my exploration of Aquinas, such as, how does the Gospel relate to the ordering of theological contemplation? How does God’s knowledge of himself relate to our knowledge of Him? How do we guard against overestimating and underestimating humanity’s apprehension of the Triune God’s divine life? Thus, while I am genuinely taken by Aquinas’s mode of theological contemplation, I have a lot more to consider and learn.