Election and the God-Man

Blogsphere confessional: I’m over the predestination debate.

Been there. Done that. Committed myself. Realized that the debates makes people jerks/reveals that we are jerks. Pulled out. Don’t care anymore.

In particular, I find discussions of predestination to be theologically thin because they spend so much time in the ether that the story as it actually unfolds fades from view.

Barth, though, invites a reconsideration of predestination with a relentless focus on Jesus Christ, focusing on Jesus Christ himself as the object of God’s election (Dogmatics §33.1) daring me to give it one more try.

The section begins with what appears to be an intentional echo of Ephesians 1, as Barth begins sentence after sentence with “In Him…” Ephesians 1 was Calvin’s go-to text for discussing predestination.

Barth is acutely aware of the charge of those who, like Roger Olson, assert that the Calvinist’s God is a moral monster. Barth is not only aware of this, he agrees with the critique. To him, the absolute decree of God is the demon produced in predestinarian thought that must be exorcised.

Thus, instead of some “absolute decree,” we are to focus on the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, the one whom God has ordained to bear God’s name. This, says Barth, is the essence of election: in the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word became flesh.

Election, in short, is God’s determination “that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He wold be gracious towards man, united Himself with him” (101).

Barth divides his subsequent discussion in two: as God, Jesus Christ elects; as human, Jesus Christ is elected.

This gets to be a mess.

But before we get to the mess, here’s where it’s helpful: it takes the focus of election off of ourselves as responders, and onto Jesus as the Elect One who also faithfully followed God throughout his life.

Now to the mess: Barth has an insufficiently developed understanding of the significance of being human, especially within the story of Israel, and thus ends up placing too much of Jesus’ function as representative and Lord on his divinity.

Here’s a summation of Barth’s concern:

For where can Jesus Christ derive the authority and power to be Lord and Head of all others and how can these others be elected “in Him,” and how can they see their election in Him the first of the elect, and how can they find in His election the assurance of their own, if He is only the object of election and not Himself its Subject, if He is only an elect creature and not primarily and supremely the electing Creator. Obviously in a strict and serious sense we can never say of any creature that other creatures are elect “in it,” that it is their Lord and Head, and that in its election they can and should have assurance of their own.

How can Jesus Christ derive authority and power to be Lord? By being the obedient Davidic and Adamic son whom God appointed to rule over all things–the one who, because he was obedient, was given a name that was not his before!

How can his election be the assurance of our own? Only if his is truly the election of a human being such that other human beings might know that God can choose even those in the likeness of sinful flesh!

In what sense could we be elect in another? Only in the sense that this other is like unto us such that we might bear his image as the renewal of our own!

Even Barth’s desire to ground the story of election more in the story of the God who truly is remains too far removed from the biblical story.

This is so because in turning to election, Barth jumps immediately to the Trinity outside of time rather than the revelation of Jesus as one whose humanity speaks to us about the word of God in time. And this means, not primarily as witness to the God who is beyond time, but showing us in the here and now how God works within a particular earthly story.

Barth is pointing us in the right direction by demanding we focus on Christ, but I’m not sure he’s walked far enough down the road toward he gestures.

On Salutary Rebellions and Neglected Trampolines

Joan Chittister inspired Stanford’s class of 2012 with words such as these:

“If you want to save the age, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly writes, ‘Betray it. Expose its conceits, its foibles and its phony moral certitudes.’ Remember that there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true, because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, that lie can go on forever.”

“If you want to be a leader, you must refuse to tell the old lies.”

“rebel against the forces of death that are obstructing us from being fully human together.”

“To be a real leader, by all means make a difference. Rebel, rebel, rebel – for all our sakes, rebel. For if the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow.”

I confess to finding her words moving. I find myself living in a strange space between loving the old Story and seeing repeatedly that the story must be retold in ways that challenge the old tellings–and old livings.

At one point, Chittister calls the people to allow nothing, not even the rituals of the religion in whose ways we walk, to get in the way of our mission to those whom we serve.

She might have said, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.”

I see this impulse playing out in Rob Bell’s work as well.

In Velvet Elvis (a chapter of which I read in the free Rob Bell Reader), Bell uses a trampoline analogy to talk about Christian faith as having a purpose, a purpose to enable us to soar, dangerously. What we believe are springs that enable us to engage, to take flight.

In contrast, we too often use our beliefs to create walls which are stationary and built to inhibit movement. We use them to judge and demarcate. And those inside aren’t jumping very high.

I found a great deal of affinity in his call to “judge,” if we must, not by the question “Who’s right?” but instead by “Who’s living rightly?”

Maybe this is where “Rebel, rebel, for all our sakes, rebel” comes in.

I’ve heard it said that each generation (of Christians, specifically) needs to write its own books. Fair enough.

But perhaps this generation is also finding itself needing to ask whether writing books and believing what they say are all they’re cracked up to be when it comes to faithful following of Jesus.

Perhaps it’s time to point to various ways of construing faithful Christianity and say, just loud enough for the folks around us to hear, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

If we’re building the walls rather than walking in the way, we might discover, to our deep surprise, that we’re shamefully naked.

Love, Hell, and Trampolines: In Conversation with Rob Bell

A couple weeks ago, I was alerted to the fact that the Rob Bell Reader for Kindle was selling for just the right price on Amazon. Which is to say, of course, that it was free (as it still is today, as it is also at Barnes and Ignoble for Nook and in the iTunes store for whatever people read on when they buy at the iTunes store).

Having never read anything Bell has written prior to this, I figured this was as good an excuse as any to see what he’s up to.

The book is forthrightly offered as a teaser for the books Bell has published with HarperOne and Zondervan (both part of the same parent company). Each of the five chapters is a selection from one of Bell’s earlier books: Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Drops Like Stars.

Here’s my bottom line: Bell offers a compelling overarching theological vision, peppered with various detailed exegetical and/or theological claims that make me wince.

The book’s selection from Love Wins is Bell’s exposition of the Prodigal Son parable. It contains some vivid, beautiful insights about our lives as they stand in relation to God:

Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.

We all have our version of events. Who we are, who we aren’t what we’ve done, what that means for our future. Our worth, value, significance. The things we believe about ourselves that we cling to despite the pain and agony they’re causing us.

This description of the brothers, each needing the father to retell their stories as stories of beloved sons, each refusing in their own way to believe it at different points in the story, is packed with insight.

The brothers both have skewed visions. And the father offers them each a new story of acceptance and love.

But one wonders whether this metaphorical description of “hell” is really to the point when reading an author who is claiming to make a point about “hell” as a potential destiny for human beings who reject the work of God on their behalf.

We believe all sorts of things about ourselves.

What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.

Yes. That.

Toward the end, Bell comes around to a stronger argument about Hell. If this God we serve is the one who is constantly rewriting our stories of guilt and shame with his story of peace and grace and forgiveness and love, then how can this same God turn on a dime and cast into Hell those who refuse? What sort of grace and forgiveness and love are those? What kind of God is that?

This is an important question for us to wrestle with.

How one understands the gospel they claim, and the God who offers it, will inevitably impact how a person lives. Bell joins the ranks of those who call us away from a gospel that’s too small: a focus on “getting in” that does not entail a whole new life, is a truncated gospel at best.

We’re invited to trust the retelling now, so that we’re already taking part in the kind of love that can overtake the whole world.

Bell presents a captivating vision, and it is not without its challenge to us to examine our shortcomings. This is not just about “inclusion,” but calling us to repentance as well. He writes these challenging words:

The second truth, one that is much more subtle and much more toxic as well, is that the older brother is separated from his father as well, even though he’s stayed home.

His problem is his “goodness.”
His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father.

The parable is, in fact, told in Luke 15 to a bunch of older brother types who are grumpy about the folks Jesus is celebrating. Bell does a great job of bringing this back around to us, the presumed insiders, to challenge how we posture ourselves toward the rest.

Ok, so that was just one chapter of the reader. But perhaps its illustrative: Bell has a penetrating theological vision that is worth learning from, even when we find ourselves disagreeing along the way.

Independence Day

Farewell, old masters–it’s Independence Day!

Or fare poorly for that matter. Your reign has come to an end. And we are free.

Of course, this freedom is not cheaply gained. Such victories never are. The victory over our cruel overlords was won through blood and death. But more than that, it was cemented by resurrection.

As long as Jesus is raised from the dead, it is Independence Day.

I know, I know. If feels like the deep roots of sin and death are unshakable. I know, death still looms large on the horizon.

But our Master is Lord over even these masters that have had their chance to enslave us all. “Death no longer is master over him.”

“Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

New life, the life of freedom, comes as the Spirit of the Resurrected One sets us free. We are children, as Christ is the Resurrected Son–and therefore no longer slaves.

All authority has been given to him, and therefore those over whom he reigns are free from all enslaving lords and masters.

Because we are free, we have a particular responsibility. Yes, we must live as free people. We must not give ourselves over to new “slaveries.”

But more than this, we must be the freedom people–those who not only have it, but who love the world enough to see freedom extended to all.

Yes, this means painting beautiful pictures of the reign of the resurrected Christ to those around us, so that they might see and say, “Jesus is Lord.”

And, it means acting to see that, because Christ is Lord, there are none who are slaves of people.

As long as Jesus is raised from the dead, it is a day of our freedom, our independence.

And, as long as we confess this resurrected Lord, we are called to see that such freedom is made known far as the curse is found–be that the depths of our own hearts, or the depths of the slaveries of the world.

It’s Still Easter–So the Church Might Yet Live

The most difficult thing for us as Christians to receive, believe, and embody is that we serve the God who gives life to the dead.

I experience this dearth in myself.

I go into churches that were once vibrant, bustling, packed. And I experience hopelessness at the sight of classrooms become storage closets. I feel the emptiness, so much emptiness, in the spaces on the pews.

Can this death be undone? Can this people find new life? Can these bones live?

But this lack of hope—or is it faith?—reaches in from the dying gathering to the hearts of us who are called, ourselves, to die.

Such a place of apparent death holds up a mirror to us and asks, Have I been clinging to my own life, to the death of this place? Is the niche of power I carved out by finding my way to the vestry or diaconate, enabling me to maintain things here just as they were when they were so full of life—refusing to realize that clinging to the life of old is, itself, the source of the present death?

We create programs. We build a building. We find a place of influence. We offer an idea that sticks. We’ve birthed it. It is ours. It is us. It is me. So I will not give it up. I will not change.

I do not believe that God gives life to the dead.

I do not believe that those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and the gospel, will save it.

If only life were so simply defined as “bodily life,” what an easy call that would be to follow. If only the life that I claim for myself weren’t in every word, or idea, or relationship, or place of influence.

But it is all these. And all of these must go with the body along the way of the cross.

Which is why the church must remember that it is still Easter. Our only hope, for thriving life as a people and as persons, is in the God who gives life to the dead and calls the things that are not into being.

If God Is Love

God loves. And God loves freely. When God chooses to set his affection on creation, on people, on you, on me, God does this because God chooses, freely, to bestow God’s love upon his creatures.

This is the summary of Barth’s doctrine of God.

And this is why Barth presses the point that the doctrine of election lies at the heart of the doctrine of God.

When we say “God loves freely,” we make a claim about God, not only in Himself, but as one who is postured toward the world. If God is, in fact, the one who loves in freedom, then God must from all eternity be postured toward the creature in free love.

To be postured toward us in love from all eternity is to be not only the one who loves eternally, but the one who elects eternally. Election, for Barth, homes in on God’s free choice to love people.

God loves in freedom, as God is from all eternity. This is not merely a function of the earthly event of Jesus’ appearance to bring salvation. The act in history depends upon, and indicates, a prior eternal election.

I confess to having a few caution flags go up in Barth’s discussion of the place of election in dogmatics (§32.3). Mostly, they sprung from this: I worry that Barth wants to put so much in eternity that the reality of God responding to the world in its brokenness, sinfulness, and enslavement is minimized.

When we put so much of God’s activity in eternity, I worry that the reality, as it’s depicted throughout scripture, that God truly responds to the world and to the cries of God’s people, and to the promises and agreements made is rendered illusory.

When Barth shuns the notion that God is rescuing us from what might be a rival god, is he so focusing on the ideal reign of God that the reality of a conflicting dominion that must be displaced is, in essence, denied (p. 90)?

Coming up next: Barth will develop his doctrine of election on the election, first, of Jesus Christ. This, no doubt, gave rise to the thought among many that simply saying, “in Christ,” seals the deal in favor of a corporate, rather than particular and individual election. The subsequent section discusses the election of the community, and finally the individual is dealt with.

I’m curious: what do you do with election? Does a traditional Reformed outlook work for you? If not, how do you interpret the passages that speak about predestination and election without simply writing them off?

Children of the Father: Cruciform Love

There are lots of options available to us when we start to ask the question, “What does it look like to faithfully live a life of following Jesus?”

I keep coming back to the cross.

Love is a huge category, and a good claim can be made for “love” as the defining marker of the Christian person or community.

But love is also a category amenable to all sorts of content. And in the Christian story, love is made known when the Father does not spare his own son but delivers him up for us all.

And, love is made known when the son so loves the world that he gives himself to the humbling of incarnation and the ultimate humiliation of death–so that we might live.

In biblical parlance, to be a son of someone is to be like that person. The son of righteousness is a righteous person. The son of man is a human being.

What does it mean to be a child of God? It is to live a life of sacrificial love that is most concretely displayed on the cross:

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. (Ephesians 5:1, CEB)

Imitation of God entails imitation of the Christ who, in love, gave himself so that we might live.

I see an overtone of this even in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. What does it look like to love as God loves? It’s to love even in the face of persecution–to love the enemy and pray for him or her:

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:44-48)

The love of God is shown in an indiscriminate showering of blessing. But, importantly, that means as well that the love of God overcomes resistance and persecution.

It is a love that turns the other cheek–exposing us to more shame.

It is a love that goes two miles rather than one–giving ourselves over to the enemy who would impress us for his own good.

This is the way of the cross. This is cruciform love.

Binding, Plundering, and Redistributing

In Mark 3, Jesus is confronted by the Jewish leaders.

They see the works Jesus is doing and they ascribe these to the Great Evil One:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. (Mar 3:22-27 NRS)

Yes, there is a world of spiritual realities making itself known in Jesus’ exorcisms. But his is not the presence of the Evil One. Jesus’ mighty acts are a show of power that is binding Beelzebul.

The kingdom of Satan is being plundered. The rule over the earth is passing from the Satan to the Christ.

In Matthew and Luke, this passage is introduced by a healing. The “demon possession” is indicated by a person’s being blind and mute:

Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” (Matt 12:22-23)

The binding of the Strong Man is not only about “spiritual possession,” but about an enslaving power that manifests in sickness and other physical ailments and “abnormalities.”

The people are more precocious than their leaders: they wonder aright if the great spiritual power at work in Jesus indicates that great king David’s greater son is, at last, on the scene.

But a fourth layer is added, however subtly, in Luke’s Gospel.

No only is Jesus exercising power over the demons through exorcism (Mark). And not only is Jesus exercising power over the demons through healing of various physical ailments (Matthew and Luke). And, not only is this seen as binding of Satan so as to take what belongs to the Great Strong Man (all three Gospels).

In Luke, the plundering of what belongs to the strong man is for the purpose of redistribution. Poverty, it seems, is one facet of the Strong Man’s rule, and the plundering of his house is finds its goal in the redistribution of his wealth to the poor.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder.” (Luke 11:21-22)

The stronger one has come! The house is plundered! And now, it’s time for the redistribution to begin!

Or, if you prefer Mary’s Song:

He has filled up the poor with good things,
but the rich he has sent away empty.

Robin Hood, anyone?

Performing the Truth

“Martyrdom is communicative action.” This is a claim that Kevin Vanhoozer expounds, following the writings of Kierkegaard (First Theology, p. 364).

This claim was brought to the table this morning as we were talking cross, kingdom, and gospel. What kind of reign is this reign of God of which we speak? What kind of power is it that exercises authority to both speak and to exorcise?

I worry about power. I worry about coercion. I worry about what sort of emissaries we are. I worry about what kind of king we think we represent.

Not all power is bad. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” claims the resurrected Jesus. That’s power.

But it’s power that comes, while on earth, in the Spirit who empowers Jesus at baptism–itself a symbol of the coming cross.

It’s an authority that is finally granted when Jesus eschews all worldly means for overthrowing his enemies, going to the cross in order to wage his “war,” receiving from God the enthronement at God’s right hand in return.

Kevin Vanhoozer riffs off of Kierkegaard, who, in turn, is riffing off of Jesus and Paul, underscoring the necessity of an act of suffering to make good on our message of a suffering messiah:

Christian witnesses are not only speakers but sufferers too… Neither orthodoxy nor “Christendom” is enough; Christian truth demands passion or inwardness. Yet subjectivity is not the whole story for Kierkegaard either… Being a Christian is recognizable “by the opposition one suffered.” (First Theology, 364)

There’s a practice that demarcates the faithful Christian, practice that is not merely doing the right things generally, but a receiving of the opposition that will inevitably come against the truth.

Placing suffering so close to the heart of the Christian identity (we are the Cross People) undermines other ways of conceiving of faithful Christian practice:

Both the form and the content of the evangelical truth claim work against the notion of “Christendom” and its imperialistic overtones of imposing truth on others. Those who stake theological truth claims, then, should expect not to oppress but rather to suffer oppression. To associate the theological truth claims with expressions of the will to power is effectively to contradict the Christian witness. The power associated with the Christian truth has little to do with force (except the force of testimony and perhaps the force of the better argument) and nothing to do with violence. The power of the cross is the weakness and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-25). From the perspective of an epistemology of the cross, truth–even rationality–is vulnerable.

(NB: For those of you scoring at home, Kevin Vanhoozer is a Reformed Theologian, not an Anabaptist. I think that makes what he says just a little more interesting.)

“An epistemology of the cross”: we know truly when we know what is true as that which is formed by and participates in the cross of Christ.

Telling the story of the story-bound God