Irenaeus on the Divine Christ

Here is a final installment of my reflections on Irenaeus’ Against Heresies book 3. Post one was praising Irenaeus to no end for taking up the question, Who is God? and answering that question by appeal to the biblical narrative to which God has chosen to bind himself. Post two was a celebration of Irenaeus’ insistence that Jesus be truly human in order for that narrative to which God has bound himself to come to its rightful conclusion. Mmm… Adam Christology and recapitulation…

Today we come to the place where I wasn’t so happy: Irenaeus’ exegetical comments on the necessity of Jesus being divine. And here we’re on tricky ground.

This gets us into questions that continue to plague Christian interpretations of the Bible, particularly since the advent of historical criticism. Let’s see where this comes up in Irenaeus.

First, there is the question of what sort of “God” language clearly indicates some sort of divinity? Here, Irenaeus has one line of reading that clearly indicates “son of God” and even “gods” can mean humans adopted into God’s family. However, he does not pause to consider that in some contexts this might be what’s going on as the NT writers speak of Jesus as well.

Speaking on the birth of Jesus to a virgin in Matthew 7, Irenaeus highlights that the text tells us Christ was born of a virgin. What this means is that the human born was the Christ, and he is called Emmanuel so that the Christ should not be considered “a mere man…” The human plus divine nature of Jesus Christ is seen in this passage (Against Heresies, 3.16.2).

Of course, what Irenaeus says is theologically true. But is it, perhaps, over-reading the significance of “Emmanuel”? The context for the “Emmanuel” verse in the OT is that the child’s birth signifies the saving action of God, not that the child is himself God incarnate. Might the same thing be going on in Matthew? Maybe Matthew means more, but maybe not.

Throughout, there is an assumption, perhaps cemented due to the terms of the debate with the Gnostics, that both “Christ” and “son of God” refer to something like “divinity.” Because that was a shared assumption, the arguments worked well in their context, but I find them less persuasive for ours.

In the next section after the one in which he cites the virgin birth narrative, Irenaeus cites Romans 1:3-4: Jesus was born of David’s seed according to the flesh, and was appointed son of God by the resurrection according to the Spirit. He ties this Son of God language into Mark 1, which declares the story to be one about “the Son of God.”

Again, insofar as Ireneaus is arguing against people who wanted to separate Jesus the human from Christ the divine spirit, the line of argumentation is great. It underscores that the Christ is none other than the Jesus about whom the passages speak. But perhaps both could have done well to weigh the “son of God” and “anointed” language from the OT as those phrases spoke of Israel’s human kings. This would, I think, have helped Irenaeus’ case against the Gnostics. Jesus can be son of God only because he is a man from the line of David.

Related to this is Irenaeus’ argument that the Septuagint of Isaiah 7, “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son…” really means “virgin,” not “young girl,” and that this virgin birth is a proof of God’s being incarnate in Jesus.

He argues that its translation from Hebrew into Greek well before the birth of Christ is proof positive that the point of the verse is that a woman who has known no man will bear a baby who is the incarnation of God (3.21).

But the larger problem seems to be not what the word may or may not have meant. Rather, it’s what Isaiah 7 means! The point of Isaiah 7 is that God is going to save the people of Israel within 12-15 years. In the context of Isaiah “virgin” means “young girl,” and “Emmanuel” means that God is with the people, has not abandoned them, and will in fact deliver them from the Syrio-Ephraimite coalition.

The other day I had a post in defense of low Christology (that is: in defense of recognizing it as one of the theological voices in the New Testament). The point of that post and this is basically the same: we sometimes see divinity where the text doesn’t require it because that is the theology we bring with us to the text.

There is a complicated relationship between “virgin birth” in Isaiah, in Matthew, and in the Christian tradition. There is a complicated relationship between “son of God” in the OT, Synoptics, John, Pauline letters, and the Christian tradition. There is a complicated relation between “Christ” in the OT, NT, and Christian tradition.

And that’s why I didn’t find these “Jesus is God” lines of arguments as compelling as the rest. There is an assumption about the significance of words and ideas such as “son of God” and “messiah” that cannot always be sustained in the texts invoked.

McGrath on Biblical Knowledge

Over at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath had this to say:

And so I’m guilty as charged – I absolutely, unequivocally and unapologetically prefer knowledge over ignorance, in particular knowledge of what the Bible says, how it came to be in the form in which we now have it, and other such knowledge. I view this as preferable to the ignorance that once allowed me to make sweeping – and inaccurate – assertions about the Bible. Of course, with such knowledge comes a potentially unsettling uncertainty. But I presume that the appropriate response is to learn to live with uncertainty, rather than pretend that God gave us a Bible different than the one we actually have, so as to provide us with a certainty that perhaps we aren’t meant to have.


Irenaeus and the God Man

Yesterday I got rolling with some reflections on Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, drawing attention to how much I appreciated his approach to God. Because of his situation, he had to argue for who the God of our salvation is. It is none other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the creator and sustainer of the world; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus.

Irenaeus’ efforts to establish the necessity of Jesus’ humanity are also marvelous, especially inasmuch as they direct us to the importance of Adam theology for making sense of Jesus. For the biblically attentive theologians of the early church, Adam Christology was a key to making sense of Jesus’ humanness–and we have a lot to learn from Irenaeus on this score. Too often in our contemporary context, the importance of Jesus’ humanity is merely that he needed to be able to die. That’s crucial, but it’s not everything.

Here are a few outtakes of Irenaeus on the necessity of Jesus’ humanness–places where I think he hits the nail on the head:

For all things entered upon a new phase, the Word arranging after a new manner the advent in the flesh, that He might win back to God that human nature (hominem) which had departed from God; and therefore men were taught to worship God afer a new fashion, but not another God, because in truth there is but “one God, who justifieth the circumcision by faith and the uncircumcision through faith” (Against Heresies III.10.2)

… when He became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in himself the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam–namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God–that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Against Heresies III.18.1)

For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. (Against Heresies III.18.7) [BTW: I think he got that from me.]

But if [the first Adam] was taken from the dust, and God was his Maker, it was incumbent that the latter also, making a recapitulation in Himself, should be formed as man by God, to have an analogy with the former as respects His origin. Why, then, did not God again take dust, but wrought so that the formation should be made of Mary? It was that there might not be another formation called into being, nor any other which should require to be saved, but that the very same formation should be summed up [in Christ as had existed in Adam] (Against Heresies III.21.10)

One thing I find fascinating in all this is how extensively we start to see the need for not only Adam but also new creation as a category for making sense of who Jesus is and why salvation had to be wrought by a human.

Here’s a favorite of mine. One of the most important reasons that we develop a robust place for “new creation” in our theology is that this level of continuity is required if evil is not to have the last word, being victorious over the creation of God.

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly abandoned to death, God would have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. (Against Heresies III.23.1)

Because God created this world, and because God created humanity to occupy a special place upon it, the only way for the story to be rightly resolved is for a human to be the agent of the resolution. If creation is abandoned, if humanity is abandoned, and, I would add what Irenaeus does not say, if human rule, as kings over the earth, is abandoned as the means to bring the restoration about, then God’s story is undone. Then evil wins.

Irenaeus’ doctrine of “recapitulation,” drawing on the New Testament’s Adam Christology, is a fantastic corrective to the under-humanized theologies of Jesus that too many of us work with.

But what about Irenaeus’ arguments about Jesus’ own divinity? I found those a bit less persuasive. More on this tomorrow.

Irenaeus and the God of Abraham

Since I’ve been getting all happy about the importance of Jesus’ humanness, folks have been telling me that when I speak Irenaeus echoes in their ears.

I’m glad to hear it, really. For all of my posturing to the contrary, every now and then I like to know that what I’m doing is within the stream of the church’s tradition. I mean, I figure it is since I’m talking about the Bible, but, well, you know, the theologians aren’t always impressed with that.

To have a friend among the theological giants of the early church makes me happy. So I’ve started reading through books 3-5 of Against Heresies.

One reason that I find myself resonating so deeply with Irenaeus is that the particular historical moment within which he found himself forced him to answer the question, “Who is God?” whereas the tendency shortly after seems to have been to take “who” for granted and ask, instead, “What is God?”

Irenaeus was doing theological battle with gnostics. And so the answer to the question “Who is God?” had to be tied to both creation itself and the Old Testament narrative more generally. He had to fight for a unity between the Old and the New where his theological opponents were trying to pit these against each other as representative of two separate gods.

Today I want to focus on one thing I appreciated in this reading. It is important not to lose sight (and I have been guilty of giving too little weight to it on this blog) of the importance of saying in the Creed, “I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” That statement is the church’s declaration that the God whom we know from the OT to be the maker of all things, the God of Israel, is the same God who was at work in Jesus.

Here is what Irenaeus says one can learn from Clement about God. God is…

… the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets… He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches (Against Heresies III.3.iii)

And then there is this prayer:

I call upon you, the LORD God of Abraham, and God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob and Israel, who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who through the abundance of your mercy have had a favor towards us…

We will never know who God is until we learn the importance of confessing God not only as the Father, and not only as creator, but also as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought the people up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

This is the story to which the Christian God is bound, and within which all makes sense — or falls apart.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect a bit on the necessity of Jesus’ humanity, given his mission to draw to its climax the story of this particular God.

Christologies High and Low

I confess: I am a theological reader of the Bible. I know, you already knew this, but in Biblical studies I have just cut myself off from a huge portion of the guild. So be kind.

But I am not a systematic theologian. I prefer to see myself as a biblical theologian or, better, a narrative theologian.

I know, you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, and probably don’t care. But wait, this actually explains something.

A couple of weeks ago I expressed (again!) my exasperation at the suggestion that “Jesus is God” is the most natural thing to get from the Bible, as though it’s the point of the whole New Testament. I keep suggesting, instead, that “Jesus is Lord” is the main thing, or perhaps “Jesus is The Man.”

And a couple of you grumped at me. Don’t I think that Jesus really is God? Don’t I care? Doing my best to show myself a good, Orthodox, Nicene Chalcedonian Constantinopalitan Christian, I posted a couple of thoughts (one based on John, one on Colossians) tied to Jesus’ preexistence.

So what am I doing here and why am I doing it? If I believe Jesus is preexistent son of God, why do I give folks so much crap for reading the Bible as though it teaches that Jesus is the preexistent, divine Son? Let’s start with a couple of definitions:

(1) “Low Christology.” When I use this phrase what I mean is that the person or text in question sees Jesus as Messiah, as Christ, as specially empowered by God to act in God’s name, as specially anointed by the Spirit to work deeds of power over the entire created order–and that the document or person does not simultaneously depict Jesus as preeexistent or otherwise divine. That is to say, its understanding of Jesus is a unique human.

(2) “High Christology.” High Christology takes all of low Christology, including its robust affirmation of Jesus’ humanity, in addition to affirming all that great stuff Jesus does, but also adds the piece that Jesus is preexistent son of God in some sense.

(3) “Gnostic Christology.” This is like high Christology without the humanity. The Jesus of what I’ll talk about as “Gnostic Christology” is a human who is not the Christ; the Christ comes upon the man Jesus at baptism, and leaves him at his death. The Christ is not human, but only spirit.

So, now that we have some terms on the table, why do I agitate so much against “high Christology”?

First, because high Christology is the assumption of modern readers. For many of us, this boarders on gnostic Christology, such that our default mode is to say that Jesus can do what he does because he is God–whereas even the high Christology of the church should impel readers to say, “He can do it because he is the man, and he can do it because he is God incarnate.”

Thus, one reason I harp on the humanity is because the pop-Christian version consistently falls off the horse on what it takes to be the “divinity”/high Christology side.

But the other reason is because as a biblical rather than systematic theologian, I think that the first thing we should say about the text is not what the church says as the conclusion to its theological assimilation of various texts, but what the text itself says that we are reading.

And, much if not most of the New Testament, develops its theology of Jesus within a framework of low Christology. Low versus high Christology is one of the points of genuine theological diversity in the New Testament, with the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling stories of Jesus as a specially empowered man whom they do not simultaneously depict as God incarnate.

By the way, in denying that these Gospels have high Christology, I just alienated myself from all the rest of the New Testament scholarly guild who still liked me after I said I was a theological reader of the NT.

As a narrative/biblical theologian, reading the text according to some sort of historically-rooted attempt at understanding what an ideal author wanted an ideal reader to hear is the first goal I want us to strive for. In the case of much of the NT, including most of the Gospels, what this means is being willing to be surprised about what Jesus can do because he is a specially endowed man.

The very push-back I get when I highlight this point at the expense of the divinity is clear indication to me that we do not give sufficient weight to the humanness of Jesus in our readings of the Gospels. People see the wonders and they attribute them to Jesus’ divinity.

But Peter at Pentecost has a different interpretation: Jesus was a man, testified to by God by signs and wonders.

But at the same time, none of this means that I don’t affirm Jesus’ divinity. It simply means that not every text in the New Testament that tells us about Jesus views him as divine/preexistent. That is the claim advanced in John, and in Colossians 1 (I think…) and a few other places. And it is a legitimate and important theological position to hold.

But, it’s not the unanimous position from which the NT was written. And, thus, it is not the most basic thing there is to say about Jesus. Without downplaying the importance of continuing to affirm high Christology at our point in the story, I think that the extensive evidence for low Christology should challenge us to rethink what it is that we have to say about Jesus that makes his the saving story to which we are committed.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect on some of what I see along these lines in Irenaeus, who both does what I love and does what drive me nuts.

The Reality of Adam and the Story of Christ

On Friday of last week, David Opderbeck asked a challenging question. I had posted on “Anthroposis,” the idea that what we really need is to become more truly human than we already are. Or, in the biblical narrative, to return to the humanity from which we have fallen. David asked,

Here’s a question: anthroposis Biblically is a recapitulation of the first man before sin. But, scientifically, there was no “first man”. How do we hold this missional narrative together if human evolution is true?

I have been wrestling with this question quite a bit lately. I just finished a book on narrative theology, and found that I couldn’t tell the story of Jesus without constantly conversing with Genesis 1-3. The Adam theology of the NT, the Jesus theology of the NT, is written in innumerable ways as an echo of the creation narratives of the first few chapters of Genesis. What, then, if these aren’t literal accounts of what happened? Where does that leave the story?

This is a difficult question, and I want to try to hold onto two things at the same time.

First, to say that they are not literal or historical accounts of how things came to be as they are now is not to say that these stories are not true. They are true narratives about the world. But how are they true and what truth do they teach is a more complex question.

Second, one of the ways that these stories work is that they tell the story of the past in such a way that it becomes clear that the people telling the stories are God’s present means for bringing the world/humanity to a destiny something like what the stories depict.

Genesis 1 uses sonship language to describe humanity as kings, ruling the world on God’s behalf. And what do you know? The Davidic kings are envisioned as God’s specially chosen agents who are enthroned to be God’s sons, ruling the nations for God.

Genesis 1 borrows the imagery of the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths that would place humanity in perpetual servitude, enslavement to the gods, and Marduk in particular. And what do you know? In this retelling of the story not only is Israel’s God shown to be the real creator, and one much more powerful than the other gods who have to fight their way to victory, but humanity is the pinnacle and glory of creation, not ever-oppressed slaves. When God’s purposes for humanity are realized, Israel will not be enslaved to Marduk in Babylon, but participating in the reign of its king, the reign of humanity over the earth.

The point is that stories of beginnings are written to plot a trajectory for the story that follows. Genesis 2 is a bit more on the descriptive side, indicating why the world is the way it is. But even there, I think there are indications of this story of origins setting a trajectory for a world that Israel is at the middle of.

For me, once we realize that these stories were not made to give a disinterested account of some hoary past but rather to speak to God’s plans for a particular people to bring the world from a certain kind of disorder into a certain kind of (what we now see as) restored and glorious future, the historicity question takes a back seat.

The story is still true, and we still plot the story of Jesus within that story, recognizing now that he is the surprising answer to the unrealized destiny of Adam. If we can recognize those pictures as idealized projections into the past of what God intends for the future given his present commitments, then I think we can keep moving forward with them firmly kicking off our story.

I think that some such process is tied up with God’s binding himself to this particular story of Israel.

What do you think? Can something like that work, based not on “we have to trash these stories because of evolution,” even, but “we have to rethink these stories based on what we know about their place in the history of Israel and their ancient environment?

Pride & Perfection

I don’t think it takes much time watching and taking notes before you realize that pride and insecurity tend to be two sides of the same coin. The same people who come across as most proud are often, at the same time and for the same reasons (thank you, Barth), the most insecure.

Lately I’ve been pondering a corollary, tied to perfectionism.

I think this can play out in two seemingly opposite ways. On the one hand, someone who is a perfectionist can be so tied to an ideal that nothing s/he produces is ever good enough, and therefore s/he ends up hating it, smashing it, burning it, etc. (This would be the “insecurity” side of perfectionism.)

But someone who is a perfectionist can also be so tied in and of himself to the things he creates, that he assumes they are all perfect as they go forth, and can never bear to part with a one of them. (This would be the pride side of perfectionism.) Such a person could never bear the thought of something going unused, a picture going unseen, a song going unheard, a thought going untrumpeted. Because not only is the world in need of perfection–here it is, incarnate!

I’m sure there’s a moral here if we dig for it. Maybe something along the lines of, “People wanting perfection may as readily take the guise of unwillingness to pursue it as a meticulous, single-minded devotion to doing something well.”

My Evangelicalism: God is Out There, Too

Way back in the day, like a million years ago in internet years, by which I mean three weeks ago, I posted an outline of the kind of evangelical I want to be (My “Evangelical Manifesto“). Here is another point I’ve been thinking about, and it’s probably connected to yesterday’s post on social justice.

6. Evangelicals Can Celebrate the God Who Is At Work “Out There”. Too often evangelicalism slips into fundamentalism by imagining that the mission of God is about bringing everyone out there into the safe walls of our communities, because the church is the place where the reign of God is being made manifest.

In my ideal world, this is correct, or at least mostly true.

The church is the bride of Christ. It consists of the prophets and teachers who have been entrusted to make the word of the gospel known to the nations. It is the place on which the Spirit has been poured so that the presence of God and the reality of life in the resurrected Christ might come to all.

But on the other hand, the church is not the kingdom of God. One of the surprises of the New Testament is that the reign of God is too capacious to be contained within any one people, even a people so diversely defined as the church.

One of the most important stories for our understanding of the mission and dominion of God is the Good Samaritan. That story is so powerful because it undermines even our own expectations about how the reign of God works, though we’ve been so dulled to the story through repetition and exposure that we too often miss it.

Jesus is talking to a scribe about what must be done to inherit eternal life. How do I live the life that will confirm me, for all eternity, as an insider, one of the people of God? Love God and love neighbor.

Ok, but who, then, is my neighbor?

Jesus tells a story in which a priest keeps Torah–by avoiding an unknown dead man on a heavily trafficked road. It is a story in which a Levite preserves his cleanliness so that he can continue loving God by serving the temple and loving neighbor by keeping up the worship of God.

And it is a story in which the outsider, the Samaritan, not only shows mercy, but thereby shows himself to be the loving neighbor. The thing that must be done for eternal life bursts beyond the bounds of the people of God. The person not defined by Torah, the person who will not be restrained in his love–even by the word of God–is shown to be doing the thing needful for inheriting eternal life. The outsider is the insider. The story is turned on its head.

In evangelical Christian circles we continually face the temptation to demarcate the people of God by means of the truth we hold dear. We are tempted to say that, because we are the insiders, ours is the community to which you must look to know how God is at work in the world.

But the story of the Good Samaritan (as part of a larger biblical narrative) tells me differently. It indicates to me that we are always going to be faced with the possibility that God is at work beyond our walls. We are always going to confront the reality that someone who does not profess that Christ is Lord is going to be a more faithful-looking embodiment of the coming kingdom that we are. We might have to have our eyes opened to the needs of the world around us and what it looks like to love, by our non-Christian neighbors.

And in such cases, the evangelicalism I want to be a part of will not pretend that we do what we do and say what we say simply because we got it from the Bible. My evangelicalism will say that I watched my neighbor and was humbled then to learn what it is to love.

Telling the story of the story-bound God