God Our Father/Mother (?): On the Divine Name in Christian Scripture

On a number of occasions I have engaged in conversations, or heard podcasts (I’m thinking here of the October 17, 2017 of The Liturgists Podcast on “God Our Mother”), or read articles (or quotes like the one pictured here of Julian of Norwich) by those who contend for broader language in regard to what we might properly call our deity within the Church. Some have contended that the NT language of “Father” is more a construct of cultural embeddedness related to a bygone era that needs this metaphor to be expanded to any number of other possibilities, such as “Mother” that would be more appropriately inclusive and thus representative of the non-gendered deity we claim to worship.

This is an abstracted illusion as it fails to appreciate the very context from which we (the Church) have inherited our language of addressing the divine: Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Christopher Seitz has a helpful chapter engaging this very subject in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Baylor University Press, 2004), pp. 251-262. I include his closing paragraph as giving voice to my own reading of this issue (p. 262):

To call God “mother” or “she” would be to call attention to God as truly gendered, simply by the fact that such language means to serve as a replacement for or improvement on the biblically grounded language has the capacity to transcend this framework of discussion, because it emerges as a testimony to God’s own name and initiative in revealing it, rather than because it conforms to metaphors whose fitness is determined by human debate or divine defense. To defend God as “father” by appeal to suitability of metaphor would in fact undo the logic with which the language emerged in the first place, which is riveted to Israel’s particular experience of God’s revelation and, through the work of Christ, its extension at Pentecost to all nations and peoples. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” emerges from a particular story. Our use of this language preserves that particular story and the God who brought it and us into being, making us his people and allowing us to be faithful witnesses who call upon his name, for our own sakes and for the sake of his creation.

We have not constructed our language for the divine, but have received it and do well to faithfully pass this story along in our invocation of the Name. To do otherwise, is to abstract “God” from the story of Israel and God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How we confess God is a matter of faithfulness to that self-revelation and not a matter of cultural speculation and debate. While metaphors for the divine abound in Scripture (including those which are feminine or motherly) we do well to take up the language of God’s self-giving in prayer and praise, and we refuse the very specificity of God’s self-revelation to do otherwise.

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: A Brief Theological Reflection

“…on earth as it is in heaven…” While we might consider this from the trajectory of the revelation of the God to Israel preceding Jesus’ statement (which would be a fitting approach), we might also consider this statement as embodied in the one leading the prayer: Jesus the Christ. Such a reflection (drawing from the New Testament) offers several hearings of this text leading to praying and doing.

We might understand by “heaven” not an ethereal disembodied sphere of existence “out there” or even “above here”, but as wherever the kingdom of God is present. Wherever God reigns is most properly to be regarded as “heaven”. While God’s reign is not fully experienced “on earth” it is coming to bear “on earth” even as it has from the beginning of creation and the planting of the garden.

Considering such a view of “heaven” we might define “on earth” as that sphere of existence wherein God’s reign is less fully yet being realized.

There is a strange movement that occurs here. It is never as if “earth” is not where God reigns, nor is “heaven” to be regarded as itself such bliss that nothing more could be added to it. No. The kingdom of God is yet more realized in both heaven and earth by the two becoming the kingdom of our God and His Christ. This is not to suggest something essential lacking to the reign “in heaven,” but to appeal to the grace of God towards, in, and for us in his self-giving love embodied in Christ Jesus.

Christ Jesus brings heaven to bear on earth. Or more properly first, the Holy Spirit brings heaven to bear on earth in the virgin Mary. This is “God with us”. God being toward us, heaven toward earth (even in the earth).

Christ Jesus bears heaven on earth as the light burdens being given in place of earth’s heavy burdens. He seeks and saves that which is lost as a light blazing in the darkness. Earth cannot be regarded as wholly other to heaven. Unclean spirits are cast out. Disease and even death itself is demonstrably overcome on earth as it is in heaven. And these are all laid to bear on the cross as one raised up from the earth and lifted up into heaven in shamefulness. Yet the Father sees fit to not leave his Son buried in the earth, but raises him up to ascend into heaven to His right hand as King Jesus. And from there the Father pours out Jesus’ Spirit upon all flesh to fill the hearts and mouths of the saints with heaven on earth until the earth should be filled with the fullness of the glory of God.

And heaven shall be opened and the Christ descend bearing heaven to the earth. At last the kingdom shall come in fullness as his reign continues without end. His throne (the throne of God and of the Lamb) established in His city now come down from heaven and established upon the new heavens and the new earth. It is here, in the two joining, that we are praying toward as Jesus taught us to. It is here, in the two joining, that we are working toward as the Spirit compels and empowers us to. It is here that we (and all of creation with us) are moving toward: the day when the Father in heaven’s name is holified, His kingdom come, and His will done “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Pentecostal Oral Liturgy

I’m taking a number of Trinity students to the annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (hosted in Cleveland, TN this year) in a few weeks. Every Thursday for the last several months we’ve met for about a half hour to talk about various aspects of the trip including topics/papers that will be a part of the gathering. One of the papers that I summarized today (and handed out a copy of) was from a dear friend (thanks Monte) who is engaging (in part) ways that the poor find their voice in the Pentecostal oral liturgy, all the while most of life mutes their voices.

Likely you may not think Pentecostals have “liturgy”. However, it is simply those practices which form such a gathering into the image of Christ. I was asking for examples of such and the students helpfully offered such things as praying in tongues, singing, prayers, and preaching. I should mention that each Thursday, just prior to our half hour gathering for particular trips, we are together as a full campus singing to the Lord, offering prayers and testimonies. During our corporate time today our Director of Student Ministries called for us to join in prayer for the mass shooting in a school in Parkland, Florida yesterday. As he mentioned this there were audible groans from several places in the chapel.

I pointed to those groans as a poignant example of Pentecostal oral liturgy. Those groans belong to the Spirit who also groans with creation for redemption. Such groans function to address the deep anguish of heart in the face of such darkness. It longs, it cries, for response. Inexpressible groans that long for the kingdom of our God to become the kingdom of this world. Groans for the King to return and set all things to right.

Moments like this remind me of the value of the integration of scholarship with practice, worship flowing into theological reflection and that theology answering back as further worshipful response to God in the midst of his people in the midst of the world.

Grace Is Life

Today I had a student that I am mentoring who mentioned something I said in one of my classes: “Grace is life”. I had said this as part of my response to a student’s sermon addressing grace, but never defining it in any sort of substantial sense. It seemed taken for granted. I had offered that the preaching student consider “Grace is life”. I only briefly added to this a few comments about that life being the life of God in and for us. Then I moved on with the class. This student in my office, however, wondered just what I meant by it.

Being a dad I’m good at giving far more than someone asks for. 🙂

I opened with clarifying that for me this statement flows from my readings and reflections on the work of Karl Barth. I walked the student through the basic idea of God’s freedom for, to, through, and in (and even against) us. This, for me, is grace. God remains always free in his own self-giving. We find ourselves taken up into this in God’s own self-giving in Jesus the Christ. Here is Man given freely to and for God and to and for creation. Here is God given freely to and for God and to and for creation. And always and forever this freely flowing life of God is given in God’s own love for God and our being taken up into that movement by the Spirit of Jesus.

And then tonight as I sat down to do some evening reading I happened upon this statement by Barth regarding election that seemed related to my discussion with my student:

… in the name and person of Jesus Christ we are called upon to recognize the word of God, the decree of God and the election of God at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of our own being and thinking, at the basis of our faith in the ways and works of God. (CD 2/2 p. 99)

For myself (and I pray for my students as well), I find tremendous help in these ideas for pastoral care and praxis. Grace becomes both the opportunity and possibility of life … and that life is in God’s own life. What do you think?

Enter the Pastor-Theologian

flowers
J. Roswell and Alice Reynolds Flower, ca. 1950

There is no better place for doing theology than in the life of the local church. It is in the local church that the rubber hits the road and one’s attempts at careful theological reflection need to be applied to the life of God’s work in the world. Where there can be no mere hypothesizing, but praxis is called for if one desires to be a faithful minister and disciple.

Andy, over at Hopeful Realism, has just posted a couple of articles on the pastor-theologian in the mega-church and in the small church. His introduction to the topic offers several strengths to each context.

Certainly the complexities of pastoral ministry, whether in a mega-church or small church, can seem enough of a challenge without attempting to be a so-called “pastor-theologian”. However, the responsibilities of caring for Christ’s church should demand that we take up the charge to study to show ourselves approved unto God in every way. This is not a day for leaving the work of careful theological reflection to those who do not serve in the context of the pastorate.

We NEED more pastors committing to applying themselves to intensive study of the Scriptures (original languages, hermeneutics, homiletics, etc.) and theology (historical, contemporary, systematic, biblical, etc). Our churches NEED ministers who will vigorously study and apply what is studied to writing, preaching, counseling, and pastoral care. And will do this all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is a HUGE task, but it is one that is essential to the overall health of the community of believers (locally and globally).  We need more women and men committed to the task. We need more Augustines, Teresas, Calvins, Wesleys, and Alice Reynolds and J. Roswell Flowers. Will you give yourself wholly to the work set before you?

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Originally posted by myself at bluechippastor.org on April 25, 2013.

Misreading Bonhoeffer: A Response

Bonhoeffer

I was recently alerted (via Facebook) to an article by Richard Weikart, “The Troubling Truth about Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” Christian Research Journal 35.6 (2012) which can be read HERE.

It seems Weikart initially felt quite happy with Bonhoeffer while he thought him an “Evangelical,” but quickly dismissed him once he came to see him as “Neo-Orthodox” (pp.1-2). What makes this so troubling is that neither category is fitting for this early twentieth century German Lutheran minister theologian, but seem more concerned with categories of Americans intent on dismissing folks by use of labels. That being said, Weikart expresses numerous points at which he finds trouble with Bonhoeffer.

Under the heading of Scripture, Weikart quotes Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation.” He then proceeds to argue this is not true to Luther (on the “priesthood of all believers) or Lutherans. But this type of belief about the place of the proclaimed word and its potency is precisely Lutheran. Weikart seems to not realize the place of the preached word in Lutheran theology proper or in the theology of Luther. For Luther (and thus Lutherans in his wake), it is the proclaimed word of God where one hears the voice of Christ. Such is the case with Bonhoeffer.

Where Weikart accuses Bonhoeffer of moving from his earlier reading of Scripture with regularity, he seems oblivious to Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the spiritualizations of the pietistic Lutheran practices with which he had at first been fostered into and only later came to see the pietism often did not result in greater faithfulness, but only a higher sense of spiritualized success all the while avoiding taking responsibility in the life of the world (see his many such comments on this in Ethics). There is in fact nothing wrong with not reading Scripture daily. Jesus didn’t. He couldn’t. What is imperative is that we meditate upon Scripture, hear it and obey it. The Scriptures nowhere demand daily Bible reading. That is a matter of pietistic Evangelicalism that has learned to think such a practice is a requirement of genuine spirituality. Bonhoeffer seems to have understood this at deeply sustained levels.

While many (in the U.S.) regard Barth as “neo-orthodox” this is not owing to Barth himself, but to early American interpreters of Barth who either failed to understand him or misrepresented him. It is easier to just lump him in with others who are also rejected without wrestling with what he has actually written.

Under his attack on Bonhoeffer’s (and Barth’s) view of Scripture, Weikart misses that the Scriptures are recorded not as transcripts, but as careful theological reflections of the revelation of God concerning the stories of Israel, Jesus, the Church and the world. The Scriptures are not attempting to document empirically verifiable history, but instead that which must be believed by faith which is offered sufficient witness to believe. Weikart’s view seems to be more intent on historicality (even when the text itself does not warrant it, nor the preservation of the text) rather than the realities to which the text points in the manner in which the writers were inspired to record them.

Further, what Bonhoeffer rejects of the emphasis upon trying to speak of the “historical” with regard to Jesus is that 19th-20th century German obsession with doing just that. This led to a number of notions such as a bifurcation of the Jesus between that of history and that of faith, or worse yet, an eradication of the historical Jesus altogether. Bonhoeffer was responding in just that sort of milieu. And he responded by pointing to faith in the preserved stories of Jesus regardless of the ability to historically verify details beyond the witnesses of the texts themselves.

Weikart’s use of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison shows an utter disregard for the writings of one in a personal letter to another that was NOT intended for public consumption. If any of us had things we said privately preserved by others after our death and disseminated globally we would find ourselves having stated things which we were wrestling with and/or were not offered with the context of explanation (because it is assumed the person spoken to knows this sufficiently to understand). Judgment of all of us would ensue.

Under the title “The Good Book,” Weikart fails to grasp Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Scripture as offering “universal, timeless truths”. Bonhoeffer is convinced that to treat Scripture as offering such, is to pre-determine what God would have us to do in any and every situation. But this (for Bonhoeffer and for myself) ignores the living word of the living God who speaks today through that word to us. It makes a binding law of the word of Jesus. It means one is no longer required to attune their ears to the Spirit, but only to reread words written. It is on this very idea, that I have personally found life and joy in Christ and proclaim that we are not through listening as if we have heard all there is to hear…NO! We must go on listening anew today!

On Weikart’s claim of universalism, he fails to engage the very “this-worldly” notion of redemption at work in Scripture and the theology of Bonhoeffer. Instead, he seems to think more of spiritualized heavenly individualistic salvation. Bonhoeffer, however, was concerned with the redemption of the cosmos that was enacted in Christ Jesus. Bonhoeffer was concerned with “people” and not simply individuals and he was concerned with this precisely because of the election of Jesus wherein all of humanity finds redemption. This is not to say all are saved, but to say that in Christ salvation is sufficient for all and is extended to all and must be declared to all. The pastoral and missiological implications of this are profound.

I for one find little to judge negatively of Bonhoeffer’s reflections stated by Weikart, but maybe, just maybe, I’ve become one of Weikart’s “liberal” “neo-orthodox” folks he seems so adamant are to be despised and rejected. Or maybe Weikart is simply judging Bonhoeffer by means of his own skewed theological and ideological agenda rather than on grounds of truthful discourse that hears Bonhoeffer in Bonhoeffer’s own context. To those who have ears to hear…

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My apologies for not citing Bonhoeffer’s works throughout. This is more of an overall response (without direct access to Bonhoeffer’s works from my home). For those interested in reading Bonhoeffer in context, they can read the pages cited by Weikart as well as reflecting particularly on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics which answers (for myself) the misreading of Bonhoeffer contra much of American Evangelicalism and its inherited pieties.

Readings in Theology

With the proliferation of resources currently available online, there is a growing need to have access to resources which are both credible and actually helpful. Thankfully there are some who work to make such resources available (like Rob Bradshaw…and this is also a passion of mine though I have not done the work of Bradshaw). As part of the open access to resources continues (hopefully in increasing measure and for resources which actually benefit the Church and world), I determined to make proper use of such.

As a part of this open access I am teaching a course this semester as an independent study that I am elated about: Readings in Theology. Here is the course description along with its objectives:

This course is constructed to offer readings in theology in conversation with the instructor while engaging various authors and theological traditions of the Church both historic and contemporary.

Upon successful completion of this course, the student should be able to:

  • Understand and articulate various proposals and trajectories in historic and contemporary theology,
  • Discuss some of the proposals and critiques of various theologies and theologians, and
  • Articulate a theology that is framed in conversation with the wider Church.

I am using solely articles available free online (via the 30,000+ resources at http://theologyontheweb.org.uk/) to facilitate weekly conversations about the given topic and for the student to engage through critical reflection. So I thought I’d share the syllabus for anyone interested in following along. 🙂

The readings are all hyperlinked for ease of access.

Readings in Theology Winter 2016 Syllabus

A Little Reading for 2016

HermeneuticsAs I look to the coming years and what the Lord might allow me to do, I like to plan ahead what I might be able to read. The types of things which give direction to my choice of books are the projects I’m currently working on (or interested in potentially working on) and, now that I’ve been teaching, those subjects which I have and will teach. For whatever it is worth, I always welcome reading recommendations (but know that my Amazon wishlists contain somewhere in the vicinity of 300+ titles already 🙂 ). So here are a few of the volumes I will be reading in 2016 to be “discipled” further in several areas.

Hermeneutics

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Bartholomew, Craig G. Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.

Ricœur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976.

Ricœur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Preaching

Alcántara, Jared E. Crossover Preaching: Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

Witherup, Doug. Interrobang Preaching: A Renewed Homiletic for the Twenty-First-Century Church. NC: Witherup, 2014.

Theology (just for fun)

Diller, Kevin. Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

Isgrigg, Daniel D. Pilgrimage into Pentecost: The Pneumatological Legacy of Howard M. Ervin. Tulsa, OK: Word & Spirit Press, 2008.

Spencer, Archie J. The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

So what books are you scheduling to read in the next year to develop in specific areas of your life and calling?

Random Reflections on Tongues as Gifted Sign

PentecostLet’s be honest (and I’m saying this as a Pentecostal practitioner, minister and professor)…speaking in tongues is weird. I really can not get away from that. It seems illogical. It seems meaningless. It seems crazy. Paul even admitted as much (1 Cor.14.23). Yet, it was endowed by the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and given as a gift to the Church.

As I reflect on this strange practice and its theological significance I am struck by several ideas (which are decidedly influenced by Karl Barth’s dogmatic confessions):

  • Tongues as gifted sign of the Creator
  • Tongues as gifted sign of the Reconciler
  • Tongues as gifted sign of the Redeemer

It is “gift” because it belongs from beginning to end to the Giver (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to bestow. It is always an act of grace. It is persistently an act of grace. It could be no other way (1 Cor.12.3-10).

That tongues are a gifted sign is meant to speak to the gracious testimony they give. They point to their Giver in His own self-giving. They are never a testimony self-reflecting from the human sphere, but only reflecting the act and being of the God who gives.

That tongues are a gifted sign of the Creator is a testimony of the gift of our creatureliness. We are those who are always contingent upon God’s own graciousness toward us. We exist because God has made it so. We exist as we do because we were created by this God to speak and to hear. Our tongues belong to our creatureliness and when we speak in tongues (while we do not speak with our minds) we speak with self-control in an orderly (if seemingly chaotic at times) fashion (1 Cor.14.14, 27). We speak in tongues because “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” and we cannot but testify to this good news.

That tongues are a gifted sign of the Reconciler is a witness to our sinfulness manifest in broken relationship to all and our own reconciliation with all in Christ Jesus as God’s Word to and for us. Tongues are for a sign of judgment (1 Cor.14.21-22), but better…an eschatological sign of the reconciliation of people from every “nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev.7.9) to the One who alone can, and has, and will reconcile this world to Himself.

That tongues are a gifted sign of the Redeemer is a response of prayer and praise by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus crying “Abba, Father” (Rom.8.15; Gal.4.6). It is a word we could never truly speak for ourselves, but always belongs to the very Spirit (the Spirit of the Son) who works our salvation into the age to come. Such tongues can only come from a faith that rests in the will and enablement of the Spirit to make such a prayer that is heard and answered (Rom.8.26-27) because it is the prayer of the Son redeeming the world to the Father.

Counterpoint Series and The Socratic Club

Counterpoints-TwitterSeveral other faculty members of Trinity and I started a “Socratic Club” this last year on campus (on the origins of such a group see this short synopsis). We gather every Thursday night and discuss matters primarily biblical, philosophical, literary, and theological. While our Club is not as targeted as the original one of Oxford we still operate along the same principles of an open forum where anyone can share.

It has included presentations by individuals on topics ranging from such topics as the nature of Christian preaching, what is the gospel and how are people saved, and engaging “spirit/s” in Greek literature. We’ve also had group counter-point discussions. Thus, this post.

This week only Zondervan is offering each of their Counterpoint series for only $4.99 (a steal of a deal). These have made our Club able of tackling all sorts of issues that we don’t have to be concerned with intense research or the stress of what to say. We simply provide a copy via our library, ask individuals in the Club to read a particular view/chapter and highlight the key points of the argument being presented. We’ve covered such topics as genocide in the OT and women in ministry, with plans to continue using this series. It also allows the rest of us the opportunity to hear a number of perspectives from within the broader scope of Evangelicalism on a topic.

If anyone is interested in starting such a group on their campus this is a great way to supplement discussions that is low cost and low stress.