Berkouwer-the way of humiliation

I am doing a seasonal reflection on G. C. Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ.  Leading up to Christmas, I am reading the chapters about the Incarnation.

The least important thing about Jesus was his teaching.  That was the position Walter Russell Mead took in his Christmas meditations last year.  Some of the historical Jesus people and the Red Letter Christians on the evangelical left have stressed the teachings of Jesus, especially those that you can interpret as supporting pacifism and socialism.

In the current theological and cultural environment the stress on the teaching runs up against a couple of other realities.  First, the historical Jesus studies tend to say that we cannot really know that Jesus actually taught most of what the gospels report as his teaching.  Second, the gospels do report, for instance, that Jesus warned of an impending Last Judgment and that he forbid divorce and remarriage–two items that go against the popular culture wars use of Jesus.

But Mead’s main point about the teaching being less important goes back behind our current cultural discussion to the Church in the past having held that the teaching of Jesus gets its importance from our theological beliefs about who he is.  In other words, the teaching gets its importance and authority not just from its contents but from the special nature of the one who taught these things.

This is where G. C. Berkouwer’s discussion of the Incarnation meets up with contemporary concerns.  Berkouwer raises the issue of the pre-existent glory, humiliation and exaltation of Jesus.  The one who had been with the Father before the foundation of the world stooped to take on flesh (John 1:1-14, 17:5, 24).  The one who had been rich became poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9).  The one who was in the form of God emptied himself and took on human form and mortality (Philippians 2:5 ff.).

Classic Christian thought has understood this idea to mean that the second person of the Trinity–God the Son–was incarnate in Jesus.  But this has been a hard thing for moderns to believe.  Berkouwer takes the criticism of Friedrich Schleiermacher as a statement of the modern problem

I am familiar with some modern exegetical work that questions whether Philippians 2 is really about the Incarnation.  But Berkouwer says that Schleiermacher’s problem was not exegetical at all.  His problem with the idea of humiliation was that it implied a higher former state.  This, Schleiermacher thought, broke down the unity of the person of Jesus.  It implied that there were really two different persons of Jesus, an exalted divine person and an emptied out shell which could not contain the higher state of Jesus’ former, divine person.

Berkouwer admits that this is a mystery.  But he claims that the testimony of scripture to the idea of humiliation is too strong to be set aside by this objection.

“The progress of Christ’s life through humiliation to exaltation is certainly not to be found only in the well-known pericope of Paul [Philippians 2:5:ff], but in the continuous and ever-returning theme of the entire apostolic message, when this points out and preaches the way through suffering to glory as the way of salvation” (p. 38).

What strikes me about this is that the “entire apostolic witness” includes the gospel reports about the teaching of Jesus.  Much of the teaching of Jesus there does present the “way through suffering to glory”.  Jesus says in several different ways that the first shall be last and the last first.  Think of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, for instance.  Are these the actual transcribed or memorized words of the historical Jesus?  Or are they filtered through the message the apostles preached about humiliation and exaltation?  Does it matter?

The point about Jesus would be not what we have in red letters in certain Bibles, but the reality of one who, both in his condescending to enter this world (Incarnation) and in his way of death and resurrection, opened up a new way for humanity.

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Berkouwer-the motive of the Incarnation

G.C. Berkouwer was a 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian. He wrote a series of Studies in Dogmatics. This is not a full-fledged systematic theology. But it is a pretty comprehensive series of monographs about the main subjects of Christian theology. He wrote a major critique of Karl Barth, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Barth seems to have thought that of all his critics Berkouwer understood him best.

Berkouwer is a little more conservative than I am. But he speaks to me because he uses the Bible like an expert. This is in contrast to many theologians who are not so comfortable with the details of the text. Also, he has a grasp of the history of doctrine from the early church through the Reformation and its aftermath. So he often has a good understanding of how theological doctrines developed historically. Because of this, I find his writing uniquely informative.

So for the lead-in to Christmas this year I have decided to reflect on the first part of one of the Studies in Dogmatics. This one is called The Work of Christ. It is about Christ’s Incarnation, Atoning Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. For Christmas, I’ll reflect on the part about the Incarnation.

The Incarnation, of course, is the doctrine that in Jesus God entered into human existence as a human participant. It’s central text is John 1:14 about how “the Word became flesh.”

Berkouwer started off by talking about the relation between the Person of Christ (the title of one of his other monographs) and the Work of Christ. The question that some have asked is whether the Incarnation would have been necessary without human sin. The Pauline writings in the New Testament say that Christ is related to the creation of the world, not just to its redemption. So some theologians from Duns Scotus in the pre-Reformation times, through liberal Hegelians in the 19th century, to Karl Rahner in the 20th century have implied that even without a Fall, the Incarnation must have been part of the plan all along.

The doctrine of the Work of Christ, though, assumes that Jesus did things historically which benefited sinners and opened up the grace of God. He died for our sins. He was raised to conquer death. What about the Incarnation? Berkouwer is in the tradition that relates the coming of Christ to redemption. He points out that the Christmas stories in the gospels repeatedly refer to Jesus as one who will save from sin.

So what is the motive for the Incarnation? To say that it would have happened anyway is speculative. People do, in fact, sin. To ask about what would have happened if they had not does not seem to Berkouwer to be very productive. So he treats the Incarnation as part of the Work of Christ. It is part of what he does for sinners. We cannot know all the motives of God. But what we do know is that he sent Jesus for our salvation.

The person and work of Jesus cannot be separated. Berkouwer cites John 16:33: “These things have I spoken to you, that in me ye may have peace.” Jesus speaks not of an abstract peace or an idealized peace. It is a specific peace that is in him. So the person of Christ and the work of Christ hold together.

I have been impressed by Karl Rahner’s writing on the other side of this. I think Teilard de Chardin’s theology also would fit with an incarnation that is the fulfillment of creation rather than purely the redemption from sin.

Yet I see what Berkouwer is trying to protect. There is a tendency to take the Incarnation out of history. The Word cannot become flesh if it is already flesh. This is the problem in theologies that adopt the idea that God is in everything (panentheism). The Word is already flesh. The Incarnation only illustrates the unity of God and the universe that already exists. The person of Christ as the creative principal of the world does not need to do anything to overcome a separation of God and humanity. God and humanity are already united in Christ.

But this is not the way the Bible presents it. And this is not the way the churches have usually understood it. The coming of Christ corrected something that was out of whack. It was redemptive. There was room to talk about the acts of God and the work of Christ in history. So I am looking for some middle ground. How can we understand the Incarnation as something that happened in history and changed the moral structure of the universe, while also seeing the Incarnation as a fulfillment of a potential that existed from the beginning?

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C.S. Lewis had “shocking beliefs”

C.S Lewis meant a lot to me.  There was a time in my teens and 20′s when I read pretty much everything he wrote.  I knew from the first that he was not in accord with American evangelicalism.  Campus Crusade and Intervarsity Fellowship tried to claim him. But he was an Anglo-Catholic with very different views from theirs on crucial doctrines.

Also Josh McDowell and other evangelical “apologists” tried to appropriate him.  But Peter Kreeft, the Catholic writer and apologist, probably comes closest to Lewis.  Lewis was not a liberal.  He was into classic, orthodox Christianity.  But he was not the “evangelical icon” of his reputation.

So here is a link to a current article by Frank Viola that enumerates a number of his beliefs that will bring evangelicals up short. Viola calls his article, “Shocking Beliefs of C/S. Lewis”.  For instance, Lewis believed in a version of Purgatory.  He did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.  Something Viola, for some reason, does not mention is that Lewis did not reject the theory of evolution.

From the article:

Unfortunately, many evangelicals are quick to discount — and even damn — their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ over alleged doctrinal trespasses, even if those same brothers and sisters hold to the historical orthodox creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Such discounting and damning can always be avoided and it serves no one on the Kingdom side of the aisle.

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A meandering reflection on why I became a pastor

I have been thinking about my next project.  Because I unexpectedly needed to give myself medical leave for surgery in October, I now find it is late in the year.  A polar vortex has again fallen on the Midwest.  This has me thinking about Florida, where we will go in January.  January is not very far away.

So now I am thinking about a seasonal Advent/Christmas project.  I am going to give myself until next week to decide just what it will be.

In the process of thinking about projects, I considered a book about doctrinal history in the early church.  There is the widespread notion that politics and even violent repression had a lot to do with the development of orthodox doctrine in what I call the classic tradition of Christianity.  Just mention Constantine. This notion is true to some extent.  But it does not tell the whole story.

Maybe I will take that on next year.

In my early training I specialized in church history.  I won an award for my research and some of my professors thought I had a future as an academic church historian.  Instead I became a country preacher.  As a preacher I spent 40 years using the Bible every week. My use of church history was much less.  So now my interests and expertise tip sharply in the direction of biblical studies.

Why did I become a preacher instead of a professor?  A simple social and political explanation would be that affirmative action worked against me as a white male.  I do not even know that it would have been a problem.  What I do know is that when I explored a Ph.D. program, an adviser told me that job prospects for me were bad because most colleges and universities had to hire  x number of minorities and females before they could hire another white male.

One reaction to this would be to get all bitter and whiney about it.  I am not that way because I have on the whole liked the life I have lived.  Yes, I am pretty introverted and had to somewhat fake to make it in the extroverted role of a minister.  But as an academic I might have followed my inclinations an become too socially isolated.  I likely have a better life now and a more diverse set of friends.  I do not want a do-over.

Also, I saw first hand that there was a bias in favor of people like me and against women and minorities in ministry.  So that kind of balanced out any unfairness that went the other way.  For the last 10 years before retirement I was an interim minister.  I worked with churches in the process of calling pastors.  Churches were beginning to shed some of the sexism and consider female candidates.  I also saw a couple of small-town churches in white communities call black pastors.’

Part of the new openness to women was because there were better female candidates.  In the early 80s I went to summer school one year and lived in a dorm a floor below a bunch of Mary Daly-reading, feminist theological students who seemed to all have chips on their shoulders.  I had to unlearn what my mother taught me and stop holding doors open for people.  I can think of reasons other than sexism that churches in county-seat towns in Texas, Oklahoma, or Missouri might not have been eager to call these people.

In this new century there was still some reluctance to consider women .  Older men and women faced an ageism problem as well, though.  Anyway, the advice to check your privilege sometimes hits the mark.

But, just as you can find social and political reasons that church doctrine developed as it did, you can find social and political reasons your life turned out like it did.  But did the will and calling and providence of God have anything to do will it?  People of faith will say that it did.  This world isn’t fair.  Sometimes it is downright mean.  Think of the crucifixion.  Yet, the whole point of faith is to believe God still works through it all.

So I say that I did what I did because God called me.

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The Berlin Wall and the Stassi

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I suggest that a good way to commemorate this would be to watch the 2006 movie The Lives of Others.  It is not directly about the wall, but about life in East Germany under the Stassi, the Communist successors to the Nazi SS.

It is a quiet, yet powerful, film.  The following clip, I think, gives a sense of this.  What is a good man?  Can we choose at least to become better men and women?


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Today I close out my series of posts on Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders.

She talks about the implications of the SBNR (spiritual but not religious) phenomenon for the SBNRs themselves, for society, for religion, and for the church.

For the SBNR post-Christians, she has a challenge to something deeper and less self-focused.  I have already covered some of this.  I agree with her, except that one of her reasons seems to be that a more external focus would help them be better progressives, feminists, environmentalists, and social activists in general.  I am not even close to being a social justice warrior, and I lament the current division of Christians in the political, culture and gender wars.  (As I have said repeatedly, most of the injustice in the world is not social injustice.  It looks more like divine injustice.  Certainly the justice of God is elusive.)  But Mercadante is correct that as much as some talk about a New Age, there is not enough cohesiveness among post-Christian Americans to do much about ringing in such an age.

For society, she thinks that organized religion through its social services has contributed greatly to public welfare.  Some observers are optimistic that eventually the SBNR movement will also make its contribution.  But others are pessimistic.  Mercadante would like to hope, but she heard very little about coming together to benefit society in her interviews.

For religion, there are three directions the SBNR ethos might take American religion.

First, it might create a widespread feeling of “multiple religious participation”.  In some Asian counties there is no sense of sectarianism or exclusivity that keeps you from being both a Buddhist and a Taoist, or Shintoist.  Gurus and meditation teachers often tell their disciples that there is no need to leave their former religion in order to practice their new spirituality.  So perhaps all religions in America will sort of blend into each other.

Second, an entirely new religion may take shape.  Although, the SBNRs say they oppose doctrine, we have seen that they actually have some core doctrines.  Could non-judgmentalism and anti-exclusivism become a core imperative around which people organize? Probably not.  But Mercadante thinks it is worth a mention.

Third, the most probable reality is that we are seeing the result of several streams of religious tradition flowing together in America.  Like streams merging, the Abrahamic religions; the Eastern religions; the unique American perspective; and others flow into each other to form new rapids, islands and splits. Particularly, the HIMM (Hindu inspired meditation movements) are having a profound influence on Americans, even those who claim loyalty to other religions.  So spirituality in America is becoming broadly more experiential, more fluid, and more tolerant.

She finally discusses the implications of this for the church.  Most SBNRs do not find either liberal, mainline Christianity or conservative, evangelical Christianity attractive.  The first are trying too hard to be relevant and the cultural positions of the second are a turn off.  They have even more negative attitudes toward Catholicism.

So what can the churches do to address the SBNR?  Mercadante has argued that most of them are not just butt hurt about something that some church or religious person did to them.  Most of them have genuine theological differences with the church.  Some of them are misinformed or hold stereotypes about the church.  But this is not the main problem. She found them profoundly open and hungry for dialog about faith.  The churches need to do the hard work of thinking theologically so that Christianity becomes an interesting dialog partner for people who seek meaning in our culture.

Mercadante is a very good writer.  Her book was full of anecdotes.  I have skipped over most of them in order to present concepts.  But here is just one that I found interesting. She interviewed a man who was training to be a interfaith minister.  He had what she calls “a non-theistic Buddhist orientation and a Protestant background.”  He was interning as a hospital chaplain.  So Mercadante asked him how he would pray for her, a Christian.

He did not believe in a creator God who hears and answers prayers, so how would he minister to her if she was in his hospital and in spiritual need?  He answered that he would let her talk about her faith and he would listen.  Then he would use her words.  If she spoke of God, he would too.

He thought that would suffice.  So with confidence, he asked, “So, wouldn’t that be helpful?”  She confessed that even though she would appreciate his concern, and even though she knew the existence of God did not hinge on his faith, nevertheless, she would feel it to be “inauthentic” to ask him to pray for her (p. 250).

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Mercadante-religion, implicit and explicit

I have finished Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders.  In the book she listens and responds to an assortment of interviewees who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious (SBNR).

In the end Mercadante draws two main conclusions about people who resonate with the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”

The first is that they are not really irreligious or non-theological.  They have beliefs, practices, rituals, and activities that are, in fact, religious.  Better than saying they are not religious is saying that they have an implicit religion rather than an explicit religion.  They have religious beliefs that they perform and live out.   They are seeking meaning and trying to find ultimate reality..  But their religion is in process rather than settled.   And it is not necessarily communal in any ordered or coordinated way.

The second conclusion is that they have a theological agenda and a theological critique to offer in the contemporary marketplace of ideas.

They start by “detraditioning” or throwing off the Western religious beliefs and values.  In the process they sometimes oversimplify or misunderstand what religions actually believe.  However, we can list the things they find hard to accept.  These include the idea that only one religion can be right, the idea of a God who is personally involved in handing out punishments and rewards, the heaven/hell binary concerning the afterlife, repressive religious authority, community that is disconnected from experience, and the notion of sin.

This “detraditioning” creates something of a vacuum.  But the vacuum gets filled with other things.  A lot of the new beliefs come from psychology, therapy, 12 step programs, and self-help literature.  The focus is on self-actualization for the individual.  On top of this, they borrow some ideas, like monism and reincarnation,from Eastern religions.   They also use some ideas about evolution and quantum physics from pop-science.  But, at bottom, Mercadante sees a uniquely American ethos about personal choice.

Mercadante can sound scathing when she describes the SBNR ethos.  Trusting God, she says, becomes trusting an inner voice.  Prayer becomes “self-generated positive thinking” (p. 232).  I could go on.  But to do so might give a false impression.  Mercadante does not treat the SBNR as apostates or heretics to be rejected utterly.  She warns, I think, about letting their ethos infect Christianity.  In other words for us, God needs to be more than an inner voice and prayer needs to be more than hyping up positive vibes.  She treats the SBNR critique of the church and our theology as something to that calls us to self-reflection.

The pervasive nature of the post-Christian, New Age, SBNR form of implicate religion may cause society to question whether a purely secular stance works for most people.

Indeed, in a short chapter that works like an appendix to the book she reports on a visit to Cuba where she met Rita Rodriguez who kept a little Protestant church in Cuba alive as its only participating member during some bad years for the Cuban churches.  The church today is full and active as are many churches in Cuba.  (I cannot completely suppress my political disagreement with Mercadante, who writes of Cuba’s “experiment with socialism” as though Cuba were Sweden and not a one-party police state.  But that does not really affect her main point.)  Her point is the resiliency of religion.  Even in Cuba secularism did not work for many people.

I think China might be an even better example.  Christianity, in spite of repression, is growing and arguably more vibrant in China than in the West.  This is more true of Christianity than of  the Eastern religions from which the SBNR borrow.  Christianity has a long history in the West, but its appeal can extend to non-Western cultures.

Although the SBNR interviewees saw Christianity as hopelessly caught up in the Western mind-set, Christianity originated in Judea where Asian and European cultures mixed. The Hebrew Bible gives Christianity deep non-Western roots.

Mercadante has much to say about the implications of the SBNR phenomenon.  So I will need one more post to finish up.

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