Archive for the ‘Incarnation’ Category

No Time for Birth: Incarnation and the Messy Subject of Abortion

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Christians are not talking much about abortion lately, or doing much about it either. As some of you know, I have written two books on the topic, though it is not something anyone enjoys writing or talking about.

However, as we are in the season of Advent and Incarnation, a poem by Madeleine L’Engle recently came to mind as I was asked in an email, by a young public-school student (I’m guessing middle school) writing a report, what Christians think about abortion. (My response to him is printed below.)

The Irrational Season
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

Dear ________,

Thank you for your message and your interest in this important topic.

The answers to your questions are very complicated, because different kinds of Christians have various approaches to abortion. I will try to give you an overview of the subject.

The basic Christian view of the world is that God is the creator of all life.That gives, or should give, Christians a strong presumption against destroying any kind of life. Christians also believe that humans are made in the image of God and are special forms of creation, so that destroying human life is especially serious. Furthermore, Christians believe that God became human in and through a young woman’s womb (uterus), so that should give Christians great pause when they think about destroying human life in the uterus–abortion. Abortion, then, it would seem, is prohibited by the commandment against taking human life/murder, and is a serious form of failing to love one’s neighbor.

The earliest Christians who wrote about abortion did so less than 100 years after the time of Jesus, and they began a tradition of Christian opposition to abortion for the reasons stated above. Of course, even then, some Christian women procured abortions, but it was still seen as a grave sin. Christian women who contemplated abortion were encouraged to find other solutions, with the help of their Christian family. The same has been true for almost 2,000 years and is still true for many Christians today.

However, in the last 50 years, a growing number of Christians have gone along with the cultural attitude that because sexual activity is a right and is not necessarily connected to having children, continuing a pregnancy is a matter of choice. Many Christians just take this secular attitude for granted, while others have thought about it carefully. Today, there are basically four Christian views of abortion:

1. Abortion is never permitted.

2. Abortion is permitted only in rare circumstances (it threatens the life of mother or baby; the child will likely be seriously deformed; the pregnancy is due to rape).

3. Abortion is permitted as a last resort, for good reasons (broader and more vague reasons than those in #2), if all other options (adoption or keeping the baby) seem unworkable.

4. Abortion is permitted for any reason; it is a woman’s free choice, though the decision should be taken seriously.

The majority of practicing Christians in the world who have thought seriously about abortion probably hold to #1 or #2. Those who advocate #1 or #2 (most Catholics, evangelicals, and Eastern Orthodox, as well as many others) often try to help women in problem pregnancies by providing clothing, medical care, and/or adoption services. There is also a growing emphasis on the responsibility of Christian individuals and churches to care for such women. Pregnancy is not something to go through by oneself.

Position #3 is the basic position of many so-called “mainline” denominations, the Protestant churches that have been losing members for the last few decades Position #4 is held by a few Christian individuals and by one religious organization. Although it is not the official position of many churches, some people think it is the normal Christian position.

Much more could be said (I have written two books on the subject), but I hope this is helpful.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)

Monday, April 19th, 2010

As I continue my reflections on this historic conference, I want to state at the outset of this post that all of the participants are my professional colleagues, people with whom I have worked and/or interacted, and many of them are my friends, including Bishop Tom. So any criticisms I offer are those of a friendly critic.

I do not intend to give full summaries of the various papers. But Marcus Maher, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School student who was at the conference, has done a look of summarizing over at his blog, Seeking the truth…

Day one of the conference, Friday, was dedicated to the Bishop’s treatment of Jesus and its theological implications, especially in his justly famous 1996 book Jesus and the Victory of God. The morning session was as follows:

“Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth,” by Richard Hays (Duke)

“The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God,” by Marianne Meye Thompson (Fuller)

Richard Hays is probably the most respected American New Testament scholar and a long-time friend of Tom Wright. As always, Richard’s paper was incredibly well done, and one of the two or three from the conference that everyone interested in NTW or NT Theology needs to view, hear, or read. It was both a summary and a critique of Tom’s methodology in the study of Jesus and a public rejoinder to Tom’s devastating SBL review of the book Seeking the Identity of Jesus, edited by Richard and Princeton’s Beverly Gaventa. At that session, I remember Richard’s initial reaction to Tom’s review: “It makes me wonder if you read the book.” The tension over that book and the issues it raises have no doubt strained their friendship, and this paper and its hoped-for but unfortunately postponed dialogue (since Richard had to leave) can be seen in part as an attempt to heal the rift.

So what is the issue between Wright and Hays? It is the age-old tension between the so-called Jesus of history and the so-called Christ of faith, which has to get worked out in each new generation of theologians and scholars. More specifically, it is the relationship between, and the significance assigned to, the first-century Jew known through historical reconstruction and the no-less-Jewish but living Jesus whose identity is revealed in the canonical gospels and in the Christian tradition. In my view, Tom and Richard are actually closer together than they can sometimes appear to be, and their differences may be largely a matter of emphasis—though I’m not 100% sure either of them would agree with me on this.

After reviewing seven dimensions of NTW’s distinctive methodology for studying the historical Jesus and pointing out its principal strengths, especially vis-à-vis certain other approaches, Hays raised some concerns and questions, and then asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Among the most important points in Hays’s paper (meaning the ones I agree with most strongly):

• The story of Israel and Jesus that NTW posits as the biblical meta-narrative is never actually told anywhere in the NT; it is not the story proclaimed by any of the evangelists, nor is it the story of Jesus found in later Christian confession. I would say that this does not necessarily make it wrong, but it does make it suspect—or at least in need of nuancing. Hays rightly contends that sometimes the historical evidence or the exegesis gets overly systematized and forced into his (NTW’s) narrative construct.

• The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron (melding of the four stories into one, as Tatian did with the four gospels; that phrase is my own, not Richard’s).

• The absence of the Gospel of John from NTW’s historical reconstruction is hermeneutically significant. Tom later replied that he did not include John for apologetic reasons—he would not have been taken seriously as a scholar of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, in light of recent scholarly developments, that situation is quite different now, and John’s gospel is receiving renewed attention for its possible contributions to understanding the historical Jesus. Maybe NTW would consider John if he were writing Jesus and the Victory of God today.

• The starting point for, and the basic fact of, a Christian statement about the identity of Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus. It is the key to any ultimately truthful and meaningful historical account of him. How would NTW as the author of The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) reconceive the project taken on in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996)?

• There is no need to bracket out the Christian tradition in our quest to understand and identify Jesus. Richard implied what another panelist, Edith Humphrey, said the next day: that the effects of Jesus tell us something important about him as an historical figure.

Marianne’s paper developed a point made by Richard—the problem of the neglect of John in Jesus and the Victory of God. She made two especially important observations:

• The destruction of the Temple, which occurs early in John, would likely signal, not the end of exile, but a new exile, or at least divine judgment. What does one (especially NTW) do with that?

• Ironically, the Jesus of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God (taking on the role of YHWH, etc.) might look a lot more like the Jesus of John than of the synoptics. Actually, I think the work of Kavin Rowe on Luke and the forthcoming work of Richard Hays on the use of Scripture in the gospels indicate that all the evangelists saw Jesus as identified in a significant way with YHWH. But the standard critical interpretation of the differentiation between the synoptics and John on this matter makes Marianne’s point at least interesting and probably valid.

Clearly these two papers gave and give both Bishop Tom and the rest of us much to consider.

Three thoughts on all of this:

1. Later on in the panel (I think), Bishop Tom noted that one of his concerns about reading Jesus through the creeds and tradition is that they have tended to engage in the “de-Israelitization” (his neologism on the spot) of Jesus, God, and the gospel. I have heard him register this complaint before, and I share his concern to a point, as I share his similar concern that the creeds skip from Jesus’ birth to his passion.

One way to deal with this is to realize that the creeds and the Christian tradition more generally do not override or replace the gospels—or at least they shouldn’t. They provide a hermeneutical lens, not a straight-jacket. That is, when we read the gospel narratives of Jesus the Jew, the creeds tell us, we are not reading the story of merely a Jewish teacher, healer, etc. He is, of course, that first-century Jew, but he is that first-century Jew simultaneously, and inseparably, as the once-incarnate and now crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming Son of God.

2. Someone on the panel spoke about a two-dimensional (purely historical) versus a three-dimensional (historical plus theological/canonical/creedal) interpretation of Jesus. I have to think more about this image, but if it is valuable, it reinforces my previous point. As Christians, we cannot think only two-dimensionally, historically (Jesus the first-century Jew), but neither can we skip the two dimensions, however flat they may be, and pretend that Jesus can be known only in the third dimension of canon/creed/theology. Or, better put—if the two-dimensional (historical) Jesus is inseparably part of the three-dimensional Jesus, then it is better to say that understanding Jesus historically, at least in regard to some basic aspects, is not merely an historical task but an essential part of the theological task, of understanding Jesus theologically. This is because, at the very least, (1) incarnation and resurrection and parousia all have something to do with history, and (2) failing to identify Jesus as a Jew, and a particular kind of Jew (the One who brought salvation to and through Israel), is a fundamental theological error in all sorts of ways.

3. It may be that Bishop Tom’s reading of Jesus, even in Jesus and the Victory of God, is more theological than he might want to admit. That’s OK. He’s a Christian! But that does not make his reading any less historical, or any less valid, in my view, because his implicit theological vision is fundamentally both historically and theologically true.

To summarize briefly: it’s a both-and, not an either-or; historical and theological readings of Jesus need to go hand in hand.

At almost 1,500 words, I will stop here and say something briefly about the Friday afternoon session in the next post.

Reflections on InterVaristy’s “Urbana”

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

There is a fine post by Nick Liao over at Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership blog on InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s triennial conference on Christian mission that just ended. “Urbana,” as it is called (named for its location at the University of Illinois until it moved, this year, to St. Louis), has had a profound effect on many young Christian leaders, including some of my friends as well as my own children and their friends and spouses.

Nick works for IVPress, but I think his piece is a fair and helpful analysis of what IVCF is up to these days—all very positive in my view.

Happy Epiphany, from Isaiah via Jürgen Moltmann

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

A reading for Epiphany:

Isaiah 9:2-6

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Commenting on Isaiah 9:2-6, Jürgen Moltmann says,

Emperors have always liked to be called emperors of peace, from Augustus to the present day. Their opponents and the heroes of the people have always liked to be called liberators…. They have come and gone. Neither their rule nor their liberation endured. God was not with them. Their zeal was not the zeal of the Lord. They did not disarm this divided world. They could not forgive the guilt, because they themselves were not innocent. Their hope did not bring new life. So let them go their way. Let us deny them our complete obedience. “To us this child is born.” The divine liberty lies upon his shoulders….

When God is God in the world, then no one will want to be anyone else’s Lord and God anymore….

But is this really possible here and now, or is it just a dream?….

The New Testament proclaims to us the person [the divine child in Isaiah 9] himself. He is Jesus Christ, the child in the manger, the preacher on the mount, the tormented man on the cross, the risen liberator.

So according to the New Testament the dream of a liberator, and the dream of peace, is not merely a dream. The liberator is already present and his power is already among us. We can follow him, even today making visible something of the peace, liberty and righteousness of the kingdom that he will complete. It is no longer impossible. It has become possible for us in fellowship with him. Let us share in his new creation of the world and—born again to a living hope—live as new men and women.

The zeal of the Lord be with us all.

— Jürgen Moltmann, “The Disarming Child,” from The Power of the Powerless (ca. 1974)

Intersection: Christmas and the New Year in Divine Perspective

Monday, December 28th, 2009

These words from my friend Margo, an Orthodox Christian, are worth bearing in mind at this time of year:

Ah, the intersection we celebrate today—the intersection of Divine Glory with humankind for all time and all peoples. Imagine—that once upon a time, the God of the universe looked out on all the celestial galaxies he had created and chose, of them all, one of the smallest planets, and one of the smallest nations, one of the smallest towns, one of the smallest inn-side stables—there to be born as a tiny, helpless babe. Is it any wonder the whole earth sings today? And so may we, and may you too, join in this universal song: “Joy, joy, joy!”

We wish you a blessed intersection this year—a transforming moment in time, when God and you intersect again, anew, for a truly blessed new year.

Christmas vs. Civil Religion

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Over at Restoring Shalom, Brian Gorman (no relation :-) ; just kidding) has a post on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with excellent insights about Christmas and civil religion. (True confessions: he wanted us to watch the movie before church on Christmas Eve; I said I did not think it was much of a Christmas-Eve film, but he [again] proved me wrong.)

Also, in contrast to that kind of civil religion, here is a favorite poem of mine, which I read at Christmas dinner:

The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And, by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

—Madeleine L’Engle

A Blessing for Christmas Eve and Day

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, grant you the fullness of inward peace and goodwill, and make you partakers of the divine nature; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always.

—Concluding blessing from the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Kings College, Cambridge

Joyous Christmas to All!

(Faithful readers: note the theme of theosis!)

The Virginal Conception of Jesus

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Jason Goroncy offers some helpful words about this subject, which puzzles many:

The miracle of the virgin conception is a judgement against the possibility of the creature producing its own word of revelation and reconciliation. It is a judgement against us thinking that we can know God apart from God’s initiative, and that we might save ourselves apart from God’s bloody intrusion into our situation. It is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to be God for us, to unveil for us, to reconcile us. And it is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to save us, and that by becoming personally involved – literally enfleshed – in the deepest depths of creaturely experience. This is why it is Good News. In PT Forsyth’s words, ‘The Virgin birth is not a necessity created by the integrity and infallibility of the Bible; it is a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the Gospel, and by the requirements of grace’. (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 14).

As others have pointed out, both Forsyth (pre-Barth) and Goroncy (post-Barth) sound a lot like Karl Barth himself on this subject.

Paul and the Incarnation

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

We students of Paul tend to be rather myopic about the role of the cross in his theology and spirituality. Some of us have begun to broaden a bit to grant the resurrection a more significant role. But few of us have sufficiently listened to Paul on the subject of incarnation.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me, at least, that for Paul incarnation is as inseparable from the cross as is resurrection. A few texts to keep in mind:

Phil 2:5-8

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Note here that there are no fewer than four phrases that express incarnation—(1) emptied himself, (2) taking the form of a slave, (3) being born in human likeness, (4) being found in human form—to anticipate and complement the subsequent stress on the cross. To have the mind of Christ is to be incarnational as well as cruciform, and the two realities, both Christologically and practically, are mutually interpreting.

2 Corinthians 8:9

9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Here Paul grounds his plea for generosity on the part of the Corinthians in the incarnation. This is one of Paul’s “interchange” texts that connects his Christology to his soteriology: Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is, as the early Fathers put it. But also, as in Philippians 2, this text is not only about Christology and incarnation, but also about the mind of Christ and ethics.

Romans 8:3-4

3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

This is another kind of “interchange” text, with the emphasis on God’s initiative (rather than Christ’s), but again with a combination of soteriology and ethics. There is also a very evident Trinitarian theology here. (2 Corinthians 9:15 is also more theocentric, balancing 2 Corinthians 8:9: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 2 Corinthians 5:21 is similar in structure to Romans 8:3-4, but its emphasis is on the cross.)

Galatians 4:4-6

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

This is perhaps the first text people think of when they say “incarnation” and “Paul” in the same breath. Like Romans 8:3-4, here there is a Trinitarian theology expressed in the parallelism between God’s sending of the Son and God’s sending of the Spirit. The soteriology is expressed as redemption and adoption (see also Romans 3:21-26, with emphasis on the cross, and Romans 8:1-17, with similar emphasis on the experience of adoption and knowing God as Father).

With these texts in mind, we can draw five very significant conclusions:

1. Incarnation and cross are inseparable.
2. Both incarnation and cross are necessary for our salvation.
3. Both incarnation and cross express the self-giving love of God in Christ.
4. Both incarnation and cross should narratively shape the Christian believer and community into the image of Christ, decisively affecting Christian praxis in multiple ways and in all areas of life.
5. A Pauline theology/spirituality of theosis (becoming like God, in Christ, by the Spirit) is able to hold incarnation and cross together. And with that link, incarnation, cross, and resurrection/exaltation are all tied together in Paul.

(In addition, at least implicitly, the parousia may be parallel to the incarnation. But that’s for another day. Now we only need to discern how aspects of the “life of Christ”—or at least his teachings—fit into Paul’s narrative theology from incarnation to exaltation. Not enough work has been done here, either.)


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