Archives For Trinity

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes. First, though, a few vocab words are in order to orient you to DBH’s argument:

Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.

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Here are the $ quotes:

“The contents of the creed do not constitute simply some system of metaphysical affirmations, but first and foremost a kind of ‘phenomenology of salvation'; the experience of redemption- of being joined by the Spirit to the Son and through the Son to the Father- was the ground from which the church’s doctrinal grammar arose.”

 

“The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting and joy.”

 

“Liberal theology’s dogmatic wasting disease- of which no symptom could be more acute than the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge- was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian proclamation.”

 

“If the identity of the immanent Trinity (who God is in himself) with the economic Trinity (who God is as revealed by his works) is taken to mean history is the theater within which God- as absolute mind, process or divine event- finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God); so that, God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he is forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing.

God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his personality as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large…

God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity and freedom; which is to say that God is possessed of that loveliest ‘attribute:’ apatheia.”

 

“God does not even need us to be ‘our‘ God.

All we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness and virtue of the Logos, where it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not.”

 

“Immutability, impassibility, timelessness- surely, many argue, these relics of an obsolete metaphysics lingered on in Christian theology just as false believe and sinful inclinations linger on in a soul after baptism; and surely they always were fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a God of election and love, who proves himself through fidelity to his own promises against the horizon of history, who became flesh for us (was this not a change in God, after all?) and endured the passion of the cross out of pity for us. Have we not seen the wounded heart of God, wounded by our sin in his eternal life?

This is why so much modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but in his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the living God of scripture, not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.

At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a sort of self-indulgence..a sense that, before God, though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot rather than simply judge us; he must be absolved of his transcendence, so to speak, before we can consent to his verdict.”

 

“The Christian doctrine of divine apatheia, in its developed patristic and medieval form, never concerned an abstract deity incapable of loving us…the juxtaposition of the language of apatheia with the story of crucified love is precisely what makes the entire narrative of salvation in Christ intelligible. It is an almost agonizing irony that, in our attempt to revise trinitarian doctrine in the ‘light’ of Auschwitz, invariably we end up describing a God- who it turns out- is actually simply the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz.”

For being conditioned by history such a god is ultimately culpable for that history.

rainbow-cross_aprilAnd it may not be one that you want to hear.

This weekend we conclude our September sermon series on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Comforter’ in John’s Gospel, but what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit in Mark’s Gospel is anything but comforting.

Mark 3.20 – 4.1 contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Needless to say, though, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well even with me.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

I recall an adult Sunday School I taught in which we methodically made our way through Mark, and, asking them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ I found little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told their responses didn’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, who defines the blasphemy thusly:

‘The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

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What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do- what we almost always fail to do when thinking about the unforgivable sin- is read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not in order to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but to keep his wonder-working on the down low because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

[First!] Jesus touches him.

And then, only after touching him, does Jesus cleanse him.

In both instances Jesus explicitly violates the law.

The first renders Jesus ritually impure once again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and boozing with the oclos, the unclean masses. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side.

So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s:

If I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Implication:

Those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, in the Hebrew scripture, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.

Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

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This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

10 Tips on the Holy Spirit 

Jason Micheli —  September 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgWe continue our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this weekend. The Holy Spirit is easily the most confused person of the Trinity.

Thus:

1. The Fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience etc.) are not ideal personality attributes that are inherent to all people or achievable apart from discipleship.

The fruit of the Spirit describe the character and ministry of Jesus and are thus sown in us by the Spirit only as we follow after the Son.

 

2. Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is about mutual understanding amidst the differences of language and culture not ecstatic speech to exacerbate difference.

If your ‘gift’ of ecstatic speech does not lead to another’s understanding where before there was only misunderstanding- and thereby heal the fractures within creation- it’s not a gift from the Holy Spirit.

 

It’s about God undoing Babel. Just as Pentecost originally celebrated God’s revealing himself and creating the distinct People of Abraham in the world, the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost to begin making good on the promise to Abraham: that through his family all the peoples of the world would be blessed. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

3. The Holy Spirit is Not IN You

The Holy Spirit is God; therefore, the Holy Spirit is not a necessary, constitutive part of you. Otherwise you would be God.

But because the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit is closer to you than you are to yourself.

The Holy Spirit is not the same thing as your conscience or your soul. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the imago dei, the part of you that is created in God’s image. The Holy Spirit is not the little voice in your head or your own private feelings of subjectivity.

 

The Holy Spirit is God and, as such, only comes to us from beyond us as sheer gift.

 

4. You Don’t HAVE the Holy Spirit

No person (or church!) has the Holy Spirit as though the Spirit were a possession or even a reliable guest. The Spirit’s presence cannot be predicted and, accordingly, the Spirit cannot be manipulated into appearing through prayer or liturgy.

 

The Spirit can only be invited to rest upon us.

 

Again, the Spirit is God. The Spirit blows where it wills, and often the Spirit blows in places and among people against our will, working outside the community of believers and beyond its comfort zone. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

5. The ‘Comforter’ is Seldom Comforting

Though called the ‘Comforter’ (paraclete) the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son, and, like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is seldom comforting.

The Spirit  works grace in us and grace- growing into ever greater Christlikeness, which we call ‘true humanity’- is always disruptive and even painful, for ours is world that responds to love with crosses. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

6. The Real Gift of the Spirit

The primary gift of the Spirit from which all over gifts properly flow is the gift of God’s own self. The Spirit gives us the same delight that God is God which God has for God. The Spirit catches us up into the never-ending mutual and reciprocal love shared between Father and Son.

 

7. The Spirit Does What the Son Cannot Do

Again, the primary gift of the Spirit is to raise us up into the love shared between the Father and the Son. The Spirit has a gift to give that the Son cannot offer. The Spirit gives us a share in God’s own life, the Son’s eternal friendship with the Father.

 

8. The Spirit is Not Found

The Holy Spirit reveals the Son. Any inclination or desire we have towards Christ, any hunger or curiosity we feel for God, any half-mumbled prayer or half-hearted stab at faithfulness is the Spirit’s work not our own. (See: Acts, Book of)

As such the Spirit reminds us that ours is a revealed, mediated faith. The only way to get to God is not through our own initiative, spiritual introspection or self-discovery but through God.

 

9. The Spirit is holy

The Spirit is holy, meaning, literally, ‘different.’ The Spirit is not a spirit, of which there are many. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the human spirit, team spirit or patriotic spirit. (See: Acts, Book of)

Our interior feelings are not fruit of the Spirit nor should the Spirit be confused with our own subjectivity.

This means, of course, that how one form of worship or music makes you feel has nothing to do with the Spirit.

 

 10. The Spirit is More than What the Spirit Does

The Spirit is the love expressed in and by the community we call Trinity. The Spirit is the dynamic movement, exchange of love between the Father and Son. The Spirit cannot be reduced then to a role, mode or function like ‘Sustainer.’ And because the Spirit cannot be reduced to a mode, what you can properly say about the Father or the Son you can likewise rightly say about the Spirit. Thus: the Spirit creates or the Spirit redeems.

 

The_Holy_TrinityNext Sunday we kick-off our September sermon series which will be devoted exclusively to God, the Holy Spirit.

Even if you sleep through most of my sermons, pay no attention to anything I say and glaze over these blog posts, you’ve probably noticed an apparent absence of the Holy Spirit in my work and speech. Or, if not absence then, like my heroes Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas, I tend to be so Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) that I leave little room for the role of God the Spirit.

Some of that’s intentional while some of it no doubt says more about me and my prejudices than I realize.

I hardly alone though.

Non-charismatics; that is, Catholics and mainline Protestants, often have no idea how to speak or think of the Holy Spirit and do not understand what others mean when they talk about ‘experiencing’ the Spirit.

So I thought it would be best to begin a month-long sermon series on the Holy Spirit by finding out what questions you or your friends have about the Holy Spirit.

This is how it’ll go:

- Leave a question here below or email (jamicheli@mac.com)

– Submit ANY question about the Holy Spirit (who the Spirit is, what the Spirit does, how we can experience the Spirit etc). Doubt and skepticism welcome.

– I will tackle them at random, in the moment, during the sermon time on Sunday, 9/7 and post the audio here.

– The person who submits the most ‘challenging’ question will receive a free copy of Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book, ‘The Kingdom Conspiracy.’

Props to Andrew DiAntonio for the art.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, is Trinity Sunday:

holy-spirit-the_tThis Sunday is Pentecost, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ remaining post-Cross disciples. As it’s the Spirit that prays through us whenever we pray- as opposed to being our own action- it seems timely to reflect on prayer.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the Church in the west has capitulated to Enlightenment-bound rationalism and its consequent skepticism is our reluctance to pray. Our neglect of prayer as a central and life-giving discipline reveals the extent to which many self-professed Christians are actually functional atheists. I realize that sounds harsh, but, at the very least, our reticence to pray reveals just how badly the Church has equipped contemporary disciples to practice the one and only thing the first disciples ever asked Jesus how to do.

I think prayer is the most difficult thing we do as Christians, especially given the secular, post-Christian culture in which we live.

Because to the naked eye, prayer is when Christians converse with someone who appears not to be there.

To the skeptic, to the unbeliever, prayer isn’t any different than the crazy guy at Starbucks who talks to himself over a cup of coffee (actually he’s sitting next to me at the bar right now). More so than anything else we do as Christians, prayer- every time we do it- is a blatant, uncompromising test of our faith. Are we willing to appear crazy for this God? Are we willing to be mocked? Are we willing to be written off as quaint or self-deluded?

Prayer challenges us to ante up when it comes to what we say we believe. Do we sufficiently believe in what we cannot see that we’re willing to speak, whisper and plead to what others will only say is not there.

After all, to most people- believers and non- prayer is a waste of time.

They’re right.

It is a waste of time.

Thank God.

Were it not a waste of time, there’d be little reason for us to pray for the god to whom we prayed would not be God, would not be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Diito from Herbert McCabe:

“…For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 percent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry.

It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead.

God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is in the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange.

God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly.

It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it…”

This weekend we’re concluding our recent sermon series, Revolution of the Heart, with Luke’s second story of resurrection: the encounter on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24).

looking_01As I do, I’ve been spending several hours a day studying the text as well as what other saints and sinners have had to say about it.

I still haven’t discovered the sermon for Sunday, but, as I do, I’ve come across several exegetical nuggets that, while they probably won’t find their way into the sermon, shed more light on the text.

For instance:

Luke 24 parallels Luke 2.

Whereas Mark’s frenetic pace, apocalyptic tone and disarming hero reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, with his carefully arranged plot and neatly calibrated scenes, Luke is the New Testament’s Charles Dickens.

In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are leaving Jerusalem after the Passover. They discover their little boy is not with them. They run back to Jerusalem frantic and fearful. Only on the third day do they find them where the precocious little twerp has the stones to reply: ‘It was necessary to be in my Father’s house.’

In Luke 24, another couple are leaving Jerusalem after yet another Passover pilgrimage. A man named Cleopas and a companion not named- most likely his wife. They’re despondent that Jesus is no longer with them. They meet a stranger who check mates their sorrow by showing how “it was necessary” that the Messiah should die and be raised.” It’s the third day. They recognize in the breaking of bread that this stranger is the Jesus who’d been lost.

Another nugget:

Luke 24 is where Jesus becomes the ‘Lord’ (again).

There are things you notice more easily if you read the Gospel straight through like you would a novel or short story.

From beginning to nearly the end, Luke constantly refers to Jesus as the Lord.

Pre-magnificat, Elizabeth welcomes Mary “the mother of my Lord.”

The many sick who ask Jesus for a little miracle working make their request by calling him ‘Lord.’

When the disciples go out in pairs Luke says it’s the ‘Lord’ who sends them.

Peter doesn’t simply deny Jesus, according to Luke he denies the ‘Lord.’

But in Luke when Christ’s Passion begins, his of the ‘Lordship’ ends.

Before Pilate, on trial for claiming to be King of the Jews, Luke makes no mention of him also being the ‘Lord.’

Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus is just ‘Jesus.’ So too when he’s before Herod. Before the crowd, it’s even worse. ‘Jesus’ is now just ‘this man’ while the other prisoner’s name, ‘Barabbas,’ means ‘son of the Father.’

On the way to the Cross, Luke calls him Jesus. He’s jeered and mocked and spit upon for feigning to be the Christ, the Messiah. No one calls him Lord, not even Luke.

Through the taunting of the one bandit and the petition of remembrance from the other, he is derided as “the Christ” or simply called Jesus.

It’s ‘Jesus’ who’s taunted by the thief on the cross. It’s ‘Jesus’ who gives up his spirit to breath his last. It’s ‘Jesus’ whom Mary and the Beloved watch die. It’s ‘Jesus’ whose body is taken down and buried.

rembrandt_emmaus-maaltijd_grtBut then the 3rd day later, the 8th day of the week, which is the first day, when the women come to anoint his body and discover it gone, they’re not scared that Jesus’ body is missing. They’re upset the Lord’s body is missing.

Having been killed and raised, Jesus is Lord again.

And when run back from Emmaus, they’re not screaming excitedly about ‘Jesus.’ They announce ‘The Lord has risen indeed.’

Luke does in chapter 24 what he has Peter do in his first sermon in Acts: You crucified ‘Jesus’ but God through his resurrection God has made him ‘Lord.’

This little nugget probably makes for a better Easter sermon:

Resurrection = God’s enthroning Jesus as King and Lord of the Nations.

However, that Luke has the ‘Lord’ go dark during the Passion story begs the question:

Who it is that dies on the Cross?

God (in the flesh)?

Or Jesus (just the flesh)?

So much of our theology eludes the depiction of God making someone else suffer and die on the Cross by arguing that it’s God’s own self who dies on the Cross (thank you Trinitarian theology).

Luke though seems to suggest otherwise.

It’s Jesus who dies on the Cross.

It’s God who vindicates him.

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-e1382974207582We just kicked off a new sermon series ‘Revolution of the Heart’ wherein we’ll unpack the story behind our funny church name ‘Aldersgate’ as well as to explore what Jesus means when he invites us to ‘repent.’

The word repent in Greek, metanoia, literally means ‘turn around.’

A revolution.

Jesus’ Kingdom is about a revolution of the heart.

Here’s an old sermon on how what we mean by Trinity and Incarnation has very practical, every day consequences for how we’re called to live. You can also listen to on the side widget, on the mobile app or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

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Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #5: Patripassianism

What Is It?

Patripasiwhat?

I’ve given it the hump #5 position on this list, but Patripassianism definitely should be ranked #1 on the Silly Assonance Heresies list.

Here’s your clue.

Patripassianism:

from the Latin = patri- “Father” and passio “suffering”

Any guesses now as to it’s meaning?

That’s right, Patripassianism is a 3rd century heresy which asserts that the divine nature (either in the First Person of the Trinity or in the divine nature of the Second Person) can suffer.

Patripassianism = God Suffers(ed)

Patripassianism = If God Suffers(ed), then God Changes(ed)

I suspect the heretical nature of that claim is far from self-evident for some of you so perhaps an additional, foundational definition is in order.

Impassibility: from Latin

in = “not”

passibilis= “able to suffer, experience emotion”

Impassibility = God is eternally perfect and complete in God’s essence

Impassibility = God is transcendent

Impassibility = God is independent of all things unto God’s self and is not causally dependent on any other being and therefore cannot be affected (caused to have an emotion) by another being.

Impassibility = a first order, ground-level, Reading Rainbow, phonics-like theological maxim of the Church (and the philosophers before them).

Patripassianism, however, was perhaps the logical, if erroneous, fruit of the Church simultaneously contending with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. After all, if Jesus is the eternal God incarnate and Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, then does the statement ‘God suffers’ become a theological possibility?

Do the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation render it feasible to claim that on Golgotha God suffers?

Indeed can we now say, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts it in a creative, poetic flourish that remains nonetheless stale, slipshod heresy that from Good Friday Eve to the dark night of Holy Saturday God is dead?

Or to give it a postmodern spin (that for its use of ‘I’ as a starting point remains hopelessly ‘modern’ and Enlightenment-bound) can we claim that on Christ’s Cross we see God suffering in solidarity with us?

Who Screwed Up First?

While the lineup of heretics is long in this instance, credit goes to Sabellius, a priest who insisted that the Trinity was ‘economic’ alone; that is, rather than the Trinity being comprised of 3 distinct ‘persons,’ the Trinity named 1 God who acted in time in 3 distinct ways (as Father, Son and Spirit).

Sabellius’ (mis)understanding of the Trinity is a heresy for a different day, but suffice it to show how Trinitarian doctrine is often the keystone for every other Christian belief.

Get the Trinity wrong and it’s easy to wind up with a Son who can’t save you and an angry Father from whom you’d rather be saved.

Because Sabellius misconstrued the Trinity, he was victim to further misconstruing the divine nature, seeing in the Cross the suffering of God.

Following Sabellius, well-intentioned 5th century doofs like Peter the Fuller and John Maxentius held that in the Passion both Christ’s human and divine natures suffered.

Into the late 19th and early 20th century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the father of ‘Process Theology,’ postulated that God- likes his creatures (if you’re not an assbackwards creationist)- evolves over time as God interacts and relates to his creatures. God changes- ancient heresy wrapped in flattering ‘modern’ garb.

Another Patripassian is Jurgen Moltmann, a post WWII German theologian. In the wake of the holocaust, Moltmann felt convicted that the only plausible Christian confession was that on the Cross we see the eternal God shedding himself of eternity to suffer in solidarity with his oppressed creatures.

An understandable, humane, empathetic but ultimately ill-conceived conjecture about the Cross.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you read the Bible’s descriptions of God’s anger, wrath and changing dispositions towards his People as literal rather than as part of Israel’s and the Church’s testimony to their relationship with and experience of God and thus figurative descriptions, then you’re a Patripassian in the hands of an Angry God.

If you think of the Trinity in terms of Nouns and Attributes (Father who is Sovereign, Son who Redeems, Spirit who Anoints) and you do not think of the Trinity in terms of Verbs (God who is eternally ‘fathering’ the Son in the friendship of the Spirit) and thus you forget that there was NEVER a time when God was NOT like God-in-Christ, then you’re a Patripassian who needs to memorize the Nicene Creed.

If you assume that for God to be ‘loving’ God cannot be ‘unchanging,’ then you’re either a Patripassian or poor philosophy student who’s confused dispassion (as in transcendence of) with unpassion (as in lack of).

The former is the only news good enough to pin our hopes, the latter is nothing. Literally nothing.

What’s more, if you assume a loving God must change then you’ve not taken the next logical step to realize that God must also then be affected by sin, suffering and evil, which opens another morally revolting can of worms (more below).

If you, like Calvin before you, posit that God planned the ‘Fall’ in order to reveal God’s glory, then you’ve introduced deficiency or ‘need’ in to God’s essential nature and you’re a Patripassian who needs to reread Colossians 1.

Likewise, if you think, like the other JC before you (Jean Calvin) that God requires suffering and death in order to manifest certain of his attributes then you’re a heretic who has forgotten the most basic of Trinitarian beliefs: that God is eternally, perfect and complete unto himself and doesn’t ‘need’ to do anything to reveal anything ‘more’ about himself. He is now, forever will be and always has been already ‘more.’

If you believe that God changes as a result of his everyday interactions with us, then you’re not far from asserting that God is the direct, efficient cause of every moment and event in time- that ‘everything happens for a reason.’

While this might seem romantic on the set of Lost, it can develop a nasty aftertaste when you realize you’re on the same logical ground as Pat Robertson holding forth in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Like Pat,  you’re suggesting that every innocent’s suffering, every misery, every cruelty in our world in some way furthers God’s good, redemptive ends in history, which may give you a morally intelligible universe but it comes at the expense of a morally loathsome God.

You apparently believe in a God whose nature is established not eternally but in time through commerce with evil, and that doesn’t sound like Jesus.

Better just to admit you’re a heretic and repent.

If you need an anthropomorphized God rendered on your own terms and insist that, like any good boyfriend or girlfriend, any God worth loving would change as a result of his relationship with you, then you’re a heretic who would make God more determined by possibility than by actuality.

That is, you’ve not quite comprehended 1 John 4’s proclamation that just IS LOVE.

Fully, completely, essentially, perfectly.

God doesn’t change because, unlike your boyfriend or girlfriend, God doesn’t need to change. Doesn’t need to become more perfect or more loving.

If you think that Jesus had to die in order for God’s wrath towards sinners to be ‘satisfied’ then you’re really suggesting that Jesus’ death on the Cross effects a change in disposition in God towards humanity.

You’re suggesting that the Cross changes, the otherwise eternal, God’s feelings.

God’s affected by something we do, kill Jesus.

So even though you’d likely think yourself more orthodox and definitely more biblical than the lot of us you are nevertheless a heretic, tripping over the most elementary of ancient principles: God’s apatheia.

Impassibility.

For, as David Bentley Hart likes to argue and the entire Orthodox tradition with him:

A God who suffers or otherwise changes can never be a God who is love, even if at the end of the day, God proves to be love.

Only One who is already eternally and fully within himself ‘love’s pure light, who is in and with all things but remains above and free from all things, only that One can be considered a God of Love.

With a capital, uneraseable L.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Emergent Christians

Tony Jones

Process Christians

Mainline Pastors Preaching Funerals

Liberal Christians

John Piper

Mark Driscoll

Neo-Calvnists

Everyone After Any Death, Accident or Tragedy

Joel Osteen

Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters

Remedies

Memorize the Nicene Creed, especially the ‘true light from light’ part.

Look at a picture of Jesus and say out loud: ‘God has always been like Jesus.’

Vow. Promise never to say again:

“God did this…”

“This happened….”

“___________ died, got cancer….”

“….For a reason.”

Instead remember: God would never do that because God has always been Love.

 

 

 

Unknown-1Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #9: Arianism

What Is It

The belief that the God the Son is subordinate to God the Father, effectively dismantling any coherent doctrine of the Trinity.

Arianism was the provocation for and is the context behind all that ‘begotten not made…one being with the Father’ jargon in the otherwise beautiful Nicene Creed.

Arianism was also the provocation for the real St Nick to pimp-slap another delegate at the Council of Nicea.

Who Screwed Up First

Attributed to Arius, a Christian leader from Alexander, Egypt (250-360). Arius taught that the Son of God was neither pre-existent nor eternal despite what John 1 and Colossians 1 testify.

Rather, Arius held, the Son was created by the Father for God’s redemptive purposes; therefore, the God Christians worship is not an eternal community of coequal persons exchanging self-emptying love, otherwise known as the Trinity. The God Christians worship is just God.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you woodenly think ‘the Trinity is not in the Bible’ and instead insist, conspiratorially, that it’s a doctrine invented by ancient Church bureaucrats then you’re most definitely an Arian.

If you believe Jesus was a good teacher of God’s love and compassion but balk at the notion that Jesus always was, is and forever will be God (Col 1) then instead of leaving milk and cookies this Christmas just leave an apology note because Santa just might kick your #%@.

If you (mis)understand the atonement in such a way that you treat Jesus as someone who protects us from God the Father; that is, the Son and the Father’s wills are not one and the same, then even though you probably consider yourself a bible-believing Christian you’re actually a heretic.

If, rather than submitting yourself to a community of fellow sinners and ancient texts, you insist that you ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then you may not be that theologically deft but you’re still an Arian. You’d never discover something like the Trinity in nature nor a God as counter-intuitive as Jesus.

If you dismiss Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (love thy enemy, turn the other cheek) as naive or hopeless ideals rather than to-do’s straight from the lips of the eternal God, then the Nicene Creed was written just for you.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in God after all’ you’re the spawn of Arianism.

If you think Christmas, when we celebrate the infinite becoming finite and taking flesh in Mary’s womb, is for children…heretic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Readers of Dan Brown

Mark Driscoll and John Piper

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Evangelicals who exclusively pray ‘Father God’ prayers

Liberal Democrats

Tea Party Republicans

Unitarians

Mormons

The unimaginative

Remedies

Read Colossians 1 and marvel at the mystery

Memorize the Nicene Creed (this will prove hard for Protestants)

Burn any and all Dan Brown books on your grill

Read the Sermon on the Mount the Gospels and say to yourself: ‘God said this.’

Use ‘Jesus’ in any sentence where ‘God’ would do

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English§1.8.3, §1.9.1-2

Okay, for all you Barth-haters out there I’ve got to admit that this section Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the Triunity of God, is- ahem- boring.

Head-scratchingly impenetrable you could say.

But what’s interesting to me is why Barth gets so unclear precisely as he attempts to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity. I think the confusion is the result of Barth’s very Western attempt to stress how the Three (Father, Son and Spirit) are of one being, substance.

Scripture clearly gives us the grounds to speak of God as Trinity.

Paul speaks of “God and his son Jesus.”

Matthew, Mark and Luke affirm that as the Son was baptized by John, God the Father spoke and the Spirit descended upon the Son.

Christians were baptizing in the name of the Trinity long before the New Testament was formed or before the doctrine of the Trinity was fleshed out formally.

Trinity, as I’ve posted before, is the Church’s way of holding the revelation of the Old and New Testaments together as one continuous witness.

It’s the Church’s grammar, securing the most fundamental of Christian convictions: God is at least as nice as Jesus.

The trouble comes when the Church attempts to go beyond the mystery of the biblical revelation and explain how the Father, Son and Spirit are one. karl-barth-with-iPod

In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Church historically has been more comfortable speaking of the Three not so much in their (singular) unity but in their diversity or, better put, as community. In the West, where Christianity so often manifests itself as individual, private piety, I’ve always found the Eastern perspective on the Trinity a helpful corrective.

After all, if God is fundamentally a community of 3 persons and we’re made in this God’s image, then we’re most fully alive, most fully human, most who God intended us to be when we are in community with others.

karl-barth-with-iPodThe question is not ‘is there a God?’ but ‘who is God?’

So says Karl Barth in 1.1 §8.1-8.2 of the CD.

I’ve been negligent in my posting of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Life got in the way, but the great thing about Barth is that he’s always there.

Having begun laying out his understanding of revelation, Barth tackles the doctrine of the Trinity.

Favorite line in this section:

Any child knows that [the church’s doctrine of the Trinity] uses some of the philosophoumena of declining pagan antiquity.

I asked my boys, 7 and 10, and they report that in fact they do not know that much about declining pagan antiquity.

Apparently Barth’s children were a bit more advanced than my own.

Maybe this sentence is a bit more subtle in German. Actually the whole chapter here is about as dense and elusive as that line about philosophoumena. Perhaps there’s no other way around it because Barth’s attempting to do away with abstract categories of God’s identity and philosophical speculations about the necessity of God’s existence.

You can reason your way to God a la Anselm or Spinoza, Barth is saying, but the God at the end of that chain of reasoning will not be the God revealed to us in scripture.

The philosophers’ unmoved mover is not the One who set his people free from slavery in Egypt. As with his opening chapters on revelation, Barth insists that everything we say about God’s identity must begin in the particular story of the Bible.

It’s this insistence on particularity that leads to Barth’s rejection of liberalism’s reduction of Christianity to universal truths about general human experience.

Where I can see readers rightly pushing back on Barth is on his claim that the Trinity is central any understanding of God’s identity.

While Barth wants to make sure that the “who God is of whom we speak” is “the God who has revealed God’s self in this particular story,” the move away from the scripture narrative itself to the later reflection on it by the church undermines Barth’s point I think.

You don’t need to be preacher very long to know that A) the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t self-evident in the pages of scripture and B) it’s surely not self-evident to most lay people.

Barth cites scripture of the Trinity revealed in scripture (Peter’s confession, the baptismal formula in Matthew 28) but none of them are offered by the texts as what we’d recognize as the Trinity. The greatest difficulty is that Barth is in danger of imposing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity upon the Hebrew Bible.

Barth seems to forget that the Trinity isn’t a self-evident concept of God rather Trinity is the only way to speak of the God revealed to us in scripture for scripture speaks of Father, Son and Spirit.

Trinity then was the Church’s way of remembering that the revelation given to us in the New Testament was consistent with the revelation given to us in the Old. Trinity is less about philosophy and more a stopgap against Marcionism, the heresy which found the God of the OT to be different from the  God of the New.

I left this chapter feeling as though Barth fell into the very trap his liberal opponents get ensnared. Just as liberals freight their preconceptions into the scripture text, making it say things other than what it intended to speak, Barth’s affinity for the particularity of the Triune God leads him to run roughshod over the scripture text.

jam-circleI think we all know where I stand when it comes to bluegrass. The rest of you can have your Chris Tomlin pablum or your oppressive baroque toccatas or all that (completely) unironic tedium from the 19th century which fills the bulk of the United Methodist Hymnal.*

As far as I’m concerned, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and Jesus Christ would be a fair second place substitute for the Holy Trinity and one that would make me reconsider my denominational affiliation.

I’m well aware its considered trendy now. If so, then consider me a round peg in the circular bliss that is the banjo. My church’s Bluegrass Easter Sunrise is the largest attended service of the year. As I often tell folks why bluegrass makes for good worship music:

‘It’s as soulful as white people can get without being cringeworthy.’ 

Paula Spurr at Geez Magazine (great publication by the way…it’s like a leftist, Canadian version of First Things, which I also love) has a great piece ‘In Praise of the Banjo.’

“Stand and sing with me, number 422 in your hymnal. Ladies on verse two; men on verse three; all together on verses one and four.”

This was how I experienced worship growing up. A man stood at the front and led us like a choir. We had no say in anything.
As the years went by, worship morphed from the choir experience to some sort of karaoke rock concert, the band leading you through its set list, the words projected on the wall. You could stand or sit as you wished, but it was still a very directed experience. As a member of the audience (I just can’t call it a congregation), I had very little responsibility for the worship experience and none at all for the music, which was so loud that I could sing off-key and it wouldn’t matter.

I don’t attend church anymore, and the main way I experience music now is in the bluegrass genre . . . banjos and doghouse bass, mandolins and fiddles.

I wish music in church was a lot more like bluegrass.

In the jam circle, everyone participates.

There’s no leader. Everyone gets a chance to pick a song, everybody plays and everybody takes a solo break. If you don’t want to, you can pass and nobody minds. Those who can’t play an instrument are encouraged to sing or clap along. Sure, there are the hot players who form bands and put on concerts, and we’ll go watch and sing along, but mostly we just gather every week and jam.

Wouldn’t church be crazy if it were like that? Each member sharing in the responsibility of the music, helping other members enter in?

But churches are too big. You don’t get to know the person beside you. You just sit and enjoy the show. It’s one of the many reasons I quit going. If you need me, I’ll be on the front porch pickin’.

Click here to see the full piece.

* for those of you whose feelings are hurt, this is what writers call ‘hyperbole.’ 

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me#2: What God Didn’t Give Adam

If you scratch at the surface of the doctrine of the Trinity what you learn underneath is that God didn’t create humankind because needed to create. Our existence doesn’t owe to some poverty, absence or need in God.

God wasn’t lonely.

As Father, Son and Holy Spirit God already is- and has been eternally so- a community of perfect love and friendship. The Trinity is, as the theologians say, a perpetual exchange of gift and grace.

So God didn’t create us because God needed someone to love.

And God didn’t need to be loved.

Rather God creates to express and share the love God already enjoys as Father, Son and Spirit.

As I illustrate for confirmands, God’s love within the Trinity is like a fountain of water that is so full it overflows and spills out all over the place. Creation, you and me and everyone else is like the water that spills out from God.

Now: if we’re made in the image of this God then it follows that we’re to love and (pro)create as this God does. We have children not because we need someone to love and not because we need someone to love us. We have children to express a love we already enjoy and share. With our spouse.

The love of our spouse is primary and foundational. 

The love of our spouse comes first. 

And it should always come first. Even when others come into our lives later on. 

This is a lesson I’ve learned by watching couples learn it the hard way. Too many husbands and wives, because their love for each is far from overflowing, turn to their children to give and receive the love they’re not giving to or receiving from their spouse. At best that’s unhealthy and at worst its idolatrous. And that’s not hyperbole. I see too many turn their children into idols because of a lack in their marriage. No different than the golden calf, we project onto our children a need they can’t possibly fill.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday: no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life.  And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations. Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect. And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. 

When my wife and I began the adoption process for Gabriel, our son, we had to answer a battery of questions and go through several interviews assessing the health of our relationship, the depth of our faith and the strength of our self-image. Why?

To make sure we weren’t adopting a child because we needed to have a child to make us happy. I wish biological parents had to go through the same process.

Heard the wrong way this can sound harsh but its true: your primary commitment is to your spouse ‘til death do you part.

When God lamented Adam’s loneliness in the Garden, God didn’t give Adam a child.

God gave Adam a spouse.

The person to whom you’ve sworn vows is your spouse not your kids. If you’re a Christian, the only vows you make to your kids is at their baptism when you promise to raise them in such a way that they’ll share in the suffering, self-giving life of Christ.

You can’t cultivate a marriage, or even survive one, by loving your kids. However, you can raise loved, loving children by making a loving marriage your priority.

So that’s the #2 thing I’ve learned.

Marriage is about the person you’re married to. 

It’s got to be. 

If nothing else, do it for the kids. 

 

Disclaimer: If your name is Juanita and you’re presently in charge of my church’s Alternative Giving Program, you can dismiss this as ‘speculative theology.’

Yesterday I made an off-hand observation that in hindsight I think has some theological legs.

Namely, I argued that since Trinity is its own ‘economy’ (economy is a Greek NT term for ‘community’ or ‘household’) of constant gift and exchange, then perhaps the best way for believers in the Trinity to celebrate Christmas is the old fashioned materialist route of giving actual things to those we love. 

With a day’s remove, I find myself resonating more with this point.

Which is to say, I’ve grown weary of the Christmas ‘tradition’ of bemoaning the commercialization of the season and criticizing others (usually referring to non-Christians) for being so materialistic about Christmas. I mean, I’ve got my own gripes with Black Friday and Xmas music in late September but is there anything more cliche than complaining about Black Friday and Xmas music in late September?

Specifically, what I think is problematic about decrying the materialism of Xmas is that it implies there’s a deeper ‘spiritual’ truth to Christmas that we’re missing.

But Christians don’t believe in abstract spiritual truths. We believe in Jesus. 

And here’s the thing: the Incarnation- what we celebrate at Christmas- is the most materialistic thing of all. 

Christmas is when Christians celebrate that God took human (material) flesh and lived a life just like ours amid all the material stuff of everyday life. He made things (carpenter) and presumably gave some of those things to people. He drank wine, ate bread and fish, and partied with sinners.  To say nothing of the magi who brought the baby Jesus their resolutions to lead lives of justice and compassion…sike….they brought him stuff. Expensive stuff too.

The incarnation shows us that God is the most materialistic One of all of us because it’s by incarnation that God takes the material stuff of life to get up close and uncomfortably personal to all of us.

Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas so what’s wrong with us passing Christmas the very same way? 

Sure enough, at this point, many of the unimaginative and painfully literal among you will point out the gross overabundance with which many of us mark the season and how little that has to do with a Savior born into poverty. 

I don’t argue with that. I’m only suggesting that the Heifer Project (gifts you’ll never see given for people you’ll never know) isn’t necessarily the only or even the best way to celebrate the incarnation.

If Jesus is Emmanuel- God with us- then giving sincere material gifts of love and friendship that highlight or accentuate our withness our connection to someone else just might be the most theologically cogent way of marking his birth. 

In other words, instead of cows and chickens maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas is to give your wife those earrings you know she’s wanted for a long, long time but hasn’t bought herself.

Maybe materialism is exactly what we need to ‘reclaim’ about our understanding of Christmas.