Friday, May 22, 2015

Hunsinger on Barth's Pneumatology, pt. 2

This post is the second in a two-part series on Barth’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit as articulated by George Hunsinger.

REFERENCE: G. Hunsinger, “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth,” ed. John Webster, (Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 177-194).

Communal in Content

Karl Barth
For Barth, the work of the Spirit is “communal” in content. Communion takes three specific forms: 1) with Christ, 2) with the Holy Trinity and 3) among believers (“with one another”). As Hunsinger notes,” “‘Communion’ means love in knowledge, and knowledge in love, thus fellowship and mutual self-giving. It means sharing and participating in the being of one another, without the loss of identity by either partner; for in true fellowship the identity of each is not effaced but enhanced; indeed, the identity of each is constituted not in isolation but only in encounter with one another.” Communion is an “I-Thou” encounter of “ineffable spiritual intimacy” (koinonia), depicted in the New Testament as “mutual indwelling.” The Spirit “is at once the mediator of this indwelling and yet also the indwelling itself, the mediator, the mediation, and the very essence of what is mediated. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of koinonia.”

For Barth, the Spirit effects communion between disparate elements. Like the “strong force” which holds together the disparate elements of the atom, “the work of the Spirit is to bring and hold together that which is different” (CD IV/3, p. 761). For example, the Spirit is the “unifying ground” of the divine and human natures in the incarnate Jesus, holding together the otherwise disparate elements of deity and humanity. Likewise, the Spirit unites the seemingly necessarily and inexorably disparate elements in the relationship of Jesus Christ and his Church. As in the incarnation, there is a linking of the divine and human. By mediating Christ to the community and the community to Christ, the Spirit establishes the unity of Christ “in the heights and in the depths,” that is, in both his transcendence and immanence, as “heavenly head” of the “earthly body,” his Church. As Barth argues, the Spirit “brings and holds together Christ and his community, not to identify, intermingle or confound them, not to change the one into another, or to merge the one into the other, but to coordinate them, to make them parallel, to bring them into harmony and therefore to bind them into a true unity” (CD IV/3, p. 761).

Communion with Christ in the Spirit involves participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. As Hunsinger notes, “Those joined to Christ by faith are granted a share through him in that communion where God is eternally God: the primordial communion of love and knowledge between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” To be sure, God seeks and creates fellowship with us solely for this “end” or goal: that we may participate in the eternal love and knowledge shared among the Father, Son and Spirit. For Barth, loves means “not to wish any longer to be and have oneself without the beloved” (CD II/I, p. 33 rev.). God seeks communion so that he may be ours and we may be his. “He does not will to be without us, and he does not will that we should be without him” (CD II/1, p. 274). This is the God of love who, through his Son in the Spirit, takes us into communion with himself. In bringing us to participate in the eternal, mutual love between the Father and Son, God makes our action “a reflection of his eternal love,” making us “into those who may and will love in return” (CD IV/2, p. 779).

Our participation in the Holy Trinity is grounded solely in divine freedom. Notwithstanding the ontological divide, the Creator is free to be present with the creature. [This is, of course, radically contrary to the purported divine-material divide (“dualism”) of Greek philosophy.] Divine freedom for fellowship (koinonia) with the other is what Barth means by “the absoluteness of God.” This phrase means that God is free to be present with that which is not God, to communicate and unite himself with that which is other than himself (CD II/1, p. 313). As Hunsinger notes, “Divine freedom for koinonia is another name for the Holy Spirit, who unites us with Christ, and through him with the eternal Trinity, in unsurpassable communion.”

Our participation in the eternal love of the Holy Trinity is effected by “revelation.” Thus, participation necessarily entails the truth of God’s self-knowledge. No knowledge of God [revelation] occurs apart from fellowship with God (CD II/1, p. 182), so that “knowing and loving God are inseparable” (CD II/1, pp. 32ff). No dualistic wedge may be driven between revelation and communion in Barth’s theology. For Barth, knowledge of God is a form of koinonia, where “participation” is integral. At the same time, as Hunsinger notes, our participation in God’s self-knowledge, while true and real, is “indirect.” It is indirect because it is mediated in and through Jesus Christ. “Through the true humanity of Jesus (with whom we are united in koinonia by faith) we come to share, indirectly, in God’s own trinitarian self-knowledge.” In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God has lowered himself to us in order to raise us up to him” (CD II/1, p. 55). As God’s “one true covenant partner,” Jesus is the “first and proper (human) subject of the knowledge of God.” Through our union with Christ, as effected by the Spirit, we are given a share in Jesus’ knowing of the Father. Everything depends on Jesus’ knowledge of the Father, for, as the eternal Son who is both human and divine, he is “the appointed vehicle of mediation through which we come to take part in the truth of God’s self-knowledge” (CD II/1, p. 252). As we are taken into fellowship with Jesus by the Spirit, we are given “fellowship in the knowledge of God” (CD II/1, p. 252).

As the Spirit incorporates us into Christ, and thereby into the Holy Trinity, we also become “members one of another.” As Hunsinger notes, ‘Between the first and second coming of Christ, the principal work of the Spirit is to form the community of Christ” [emphasis added]. The Spirit gathers the community in “faith,” builds it up in “love” and sends it out into the world in “hope.” Thus, for Barth, the Holy Spirit is no “private” spirit. “In Christ, the individual presupposes the community, even as the community comes to fruition in each member.” There cannot be one without the other. For Barth, however, community is no “abstract collective,” wherein the individual is not needed. For Barth, there can be no individualism at the expense of community and no collectivism at the expense of the individual. The community is a “union in freedom,” in which the individual does not cease to be him/herself in all his/her particularity (CD IV/2, p. 635).

Nevertheless, the Spirit works first in the community and only then in the individual Christian (CD IV/1, p. 54). Scripture ascribes salvation to the individual only within the existence of the community, while salvation is appropriated by the community only in the existence of the individuals who compose it. Thus, without minimizing the importance of the individual, we must not fail to see that “the being of the Christian . . . is a being in relation” (CD IV/1, p. 153). It is primarily in the fellowship (koinonia) of the community, not in the isolated individual, that the work of the Spirit is fulfilled (CD IV/1, pp. 150ff).

What makes the Christian community distinctive is that its members uphold one another rather than causing one another to fall (CD IV/2, pp. 816ff). The community lives by the forgiveness of sins, where one sinner may love another, because the sin of all has been taken away in Jesus. It is a community where its members bear faithful, joyous witness to Christ for the sake of one another and for the world. By the Holy Spirit, the members of the community of faith are set free for relationships, wherein they are loved and may love in return. At the same time, the fellowship established by the Spirit “equips the community in freedom for solidarity (though not conformity) with the world” (CD IV/3, pp. 762-95).

In conclusion, Hunsinger writes: “The saving activity of the Holy Spirit, as understood by Barth, is therefore communal in content. The Spirit is the presence and power of koinonia joining believers to Christ and through him to God and one another.” In the Holy Spirit, we know ourselves to be in union with Christ and also with one another in the fellowship of faith, love and hope. “Koinonia with Christ in the Spirit means koinonia with the Trinity and with one another, including solidarity with the world.”

Rev. Dr. Martin M. Davis (Ph.D.)

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hunsinger on Barth's Pneumatology, pt. 1

G. Hunsinger, “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth,” ed. John Webster, (Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 177-194).

Karl Barth
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the “orphan doctrine” (Harnack) of Christian theology. Unlike the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Jesus Christ―and notwithstanding a few sentences in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (4th C.)―no formal doctrine of the Holy Spirit has been stabilized by a conciliar decision of the Church. Many issues have been left unaddressed and remain divisive in the Church even today. As Hunsinger notes, perhaps the overarching issue that remains divisive regards “the unity and distinction between the saving work of the Spirit and the saving work of Christ.” In other words, how is what happened “there and then” related to what continues to take place “here and now?” According to Hunsinger, this is the decisive issue in Barth’s pneumatology.

For Barth, revelation, reconciliation and redemption stand in subtle, complex relation to one another. Reconciliation is the “abiding ground and content” of redemption; redemption is the “dynamic consequence and goal” of reconciliation. Redemption is Barth’s category for the saving work of the Spirit. Redemption is the “future” of reconciliation. As the Spirit’s work, redemption includes the consummation of all things (including the resurrection of dead). Redemption includes the “absolute future which would at once reveal and impart Jesus Christ in his inexhaustible significance for the whole creation.” Whereas Jesus takes centre stage in revelation and reconciliation, the Spirit takes central place in redemption. From the standpoint of reconciliation, the work of the Spirit serves the work of Christ. From the standpoint of redemption, the work of Christ serves the work of the Spirit.

For Barth, the Spirit is the “mediator of communion.” The “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2Cor 13:14), in which believers are made “individually members of one another” (Rom 12:5) is established as the Spirit unites believers to Christ by faith. Through union and communion with Christ, as mediated by the Spirit, believers are given an “indirect share” in the eternal communion between the Father and Son.

Because the Spirit is the eternal “bond of love” between the Father and Son, the Spirit can serve as mediator of communion in other ways: 1) The Spirit plays a role in “originating and maintaining the incarnation.” That is, the Spirit mediates the union of divine and human natures in Jesus. 2) The Spirit sustains “through time the primordial communion between the incarnate Son and his heavenly Father.” 3) The bond between Christ and believers, by which they are incorporated into him as the body of which he is the head, is mediated by the Spirit. Thus, there is a two-way movement of mediation by the Spirit: 1) from the Father through the Son to humanity and 2) from humanity through the Son to the Father.

Trinitarian in Ground

Barth’s pneumatology is thoroughly Trinitarian. Similar to Augustine, Barth views the Spirit as the “eternal act of love, of communion, and of peace” between the Father and Son. Taking both “agential” and “non-agential” roles, the Spirit as “mediator” is “agent” of communion between the Father and Son. In addition, the Spirit “mediates” communion between Father and Son. Finally the Spirit is himself the “mediation” between the Father and Son. Barth can even say that the Spirit “is” the communion between Father and Son. In short, the Spirit is “mediator,” the Spirit “mediates” and the Spirit is “mediation” of the eternal communion between Father and Son. As Hunsinger notes, “The Spirit is the koinonia between the Father and the Son, being at once both its mediator (agential) and yet also its mediation (non-agential), but in any case a primordial, concrete form or hypostasis of the one being or ousia of God.” [In other words, the Spirit is fully and equally God with the Father and Son.]

Christocentric in Focus

Barth’s pneumatology is Christocentric in focus. As Hunsinger notes, “[I]t is the saving significance of the Holy Spirit to impart and bear witness to Jesus Christ.” The Holy Spirit brings no “second” or “special” revelation, “no ‘independent content’ of his own, but instead a content which is determined ‘wholly and entirely’ by Jesus Christ” (CD I/1, pp. 452, 475). The significance of the Spirit is not found directly or independently in the Spirit himself. Against “Spirit-oriented Christologies, the Spirit does not signify that salvation consists in effecting something “in us” (pro nobis), for example religious experience or piety. To the contrary, “the presence and power of the Spirit are understood to attest what the incarnate Word of God has done for our salvation apart from us (extra nos) and to mediate our participation in it by faith.” [Said another way, the Spirit makes real “in us,” subjectively and individually, the objective salvation that is already complete for all in Jesus Christ.] “The Spirit who enabled Christ alone to accomplish our salvation as a finished work there and then is the very Spirit who enables us to participate in it and attest to it here and now.” Because Jesus embodied and enacted our salvation, Jesus remains the focus of the Spirit’s work.

The operation of the Spirit and the presence of Christ coincide. The Holy Spirit “is no other than the presence and action of Jesus Christ himself.” By the power of the Spirit, Jesus enables people to see, hear and accept him for who he is―“the Son of Man who in obedience to God went to death for the reconciliation of the world and was exalted in his humiliation as the Son of God” (CD IV/2, p. 323). The Holy Spirit does not become present to us “for himself”; rather, the Spirit makes Christ present. Following Calvin, we can speak of the presence of the Spirit in relation to Christ in a twofold way: “the Spirit makes Christ and the salvation he effected present, or that Christ makes himself and the salvation he effected present through the Spirit” (see n. 5 p. 192). The Spirit is the “power” whereby the crucified and risen Jesus imparts and attests himself to us. “Thus the only content of the Holy Spirit is Jesus; his only work is provisional revelation; his only effect the human knowledge which has [Jesus] as its object” (CD IV/2, p. 654).

The knowledge of Jesus as imparted by the Spirit, however, is not merely cognitive. Rather, “it claims those who are addressed by the gospel as whole persons.” Through the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Spirit, Jesus is present to believers and believers are present to Jesus. This “mutual self-presence” becomes the basis for “mutual self-impartation.” That is, Jesus imparts himself to the believer, while the believer is enabled to “belong” to Jesus by the Spirit. As Hunsinger argues, “Just as Jesus gives himself by the Spirit to those who receive him, so also are those who receive him enabled to belong to him by the Spirit in return. The Spirit mediates the self-impartation of Jesus himself, through which believers are drawn into union with him in order to receive and return his love.” Thus, for Barth, the Spirit’s saving activity is Christ-centred in focus. Against any notion of a “supplemental” saving work of the Spirit (as in Robert Jenson; see n. 6, 193), the Spirit’s activity is never focused on itself; rather, “in the one economy of salvation the Spirit serves the reconciliation accomplished by Christ from beginning to end.”

Miraculous in Operation

For Barth, the work of the Spirit is miraculous in operation. The Spirit is the “sole effective agent” by whom communion with God is humanly possible. Fallen human beings have no resources of their own that would allow them to enter (or recover) communion with God. The miracle of communion with God is the work of the Holy Spirit, both in initiating communion between God and man, as well as continually sustaining that communion. Faith, hope and love arise from the continuing operation of the Spirit. These qualities have no independent basis in man. Those who are “awakened” to lifelong conversion by the Spirit never cease to be sinners in themselves; yet the miracle of grace “never ceases in their hearts.”

Against deterministic understandings of divine agency, Barth insists that human beings are not merely “passive” channels through which the work of the Spirit flows. “It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to take from us our own proper capacity as human beings, or to make our capacity simply a function of his own overpowering control. Where the Spirit is present, there is no servitude but freedom” (CD IV/2, p. 785). As Hunsinger notes, “no view of Christian love would be acceptable to Barth which did not allow for genuine human agency and freedom.”

Against synergism, (the belief that human agency “cooperates” with divine grace to effect salvation), Barth rejects any “synthesis” or “systematic coordination” between nature and grace (as in Augustine or Aquinas). The Holy Spirit needs no human “point of contact” to facilitate his miraculous work in the human mind and heart. Rather, the relationship between nature and grace is entirely miraculous and solely the work of the Spirit. For Barth, notes Hunsinger, “Grace is rather that miracle by which human reason in its radical fallenness is so contradicted, disrupted, and liberated that it provisionally grasps revelation. At the same time, human volition in its radical fallenness is likewise so contradicted, disrupted, and liberated that it provisionally fulfils the divine will” (from Barth’s famous “No!” to Brunner). Only in retrospect can we reflect on the way the Spirit makes “contact” with man. The Spirit’s work, notes Hunsinger, is something “unheard of, something that is not organic but disruptive, not gradual or cumulative but instantaneous and continual, not something partial but total.” Thus, there are no suitable analogies to describe the work of the Spirit in the human mind, heart and will. Our awakening by the Spirit may be likened only to the resurrection from the dead.

Barth does not deny, however, that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace; rather, he denies that human freedom plays any part in effecting salvation. Barth posits a strong asymmetry between divine and human agency. To be sure, the human mind “cooperates” with the divine work (against determinism), even to the extent of enacting it, but never as a synergistic, comparable “second cause.” Any awakening to conversion is solely the work of God. The fallen mind has no capacity for grace. Therefore, as Hunsinger notes, “grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation.” “There can be no question of cooperation between two comparable elements,” Barth argues, “but only of the absolute primacy of the divine over the creaturely” (CD IV/2, p. 557). Nevertheless, human freedom is not coerced, nor does it operate by its own strength. Rather, human freedom is “actuated” by grace. As a gift imparted to faith, grace makes human freedom possible. Thus, human freedom and cooperation is the consequence of salvation, never its cause. Through the ongoing miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit, the blind are enabled to see, the lame to walk, and the dead are raised to new life.

Rev. Dr. Martin M. Davis (Ph.D.)

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Grace and Response: First Things First

Hello everyone,

Please read my latest published article, entitled "Grace and response: First things First," available at:

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What Does It Mean to Say, "God is Love?"

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor 13:4-7).
In some of the most beloved words ever written, the apostle Paul describes love (agape) in terms of relationship. For Paul, love is patient and kind; it is not self-seeking. The kind of love that Paul describes is clearly not self-centred; it is other-centred. It is not turned inward on self; rather, its orientation is outward, toward the other.
Love is Interpersonal     
For Paul, “love” is interpersonal in nature. That is, “love” requires one to give it and another to receive it. Paul’s inspired portrayal of spiritual love (agape) bears directly on the Christian doctrine of God. According to the New Testament, “God is love” (1John 4:8, 16). Since love requires another, clearly the “being” or “nature” of the God who is love is interpersonal. In other words, “God” is more than one person. This reasoning, of course, is in complete harmony with the New Testament teaching that “God” is “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit”―three divine persons, who eternally exist in the unity of love (e.g., Matthew 28:19; 2Cor 13:14).[i]
Against the Greek philosophical tradition that has distorted the western Christian doctrine of God for centuries, the biblical witness attests that God does not exist in simple, undifferentiated “one-ness.” Rather God is “being-in-relationship.” God is a fellowship of divine persons inseparably and indivisibly united in a communion of love. Since God is “being-in-relationship,” we cannot reduce the “being” of God to a simple mathematical unity. When we speak of the “unity” or “one-ness” of God’s “being,” we have no right to impose a mathematical framework  that leaves us scratching our heads as to how “three” can be “one,” or “one” can be “three.” The New Testament witness precludes the application of mathematical nonsense to the being of God, for its writers reveal that “this God,” the one who has revealed himself in space-time history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is “one” only in the sense that the three persons of the Godhead joyfully give to and receive from one another all that they are.[ii] All that the Father has belongs to the Son; all that the Son has belongs to the Father; all that the Father and Son have belong to the Spirit; all that the Spirit has belongs to the Father and Son. We cannot conjecture a “being” of God other than, or greater than, the being of God that is entirely constituted by the Father, Son and Spirit. As theologian Colin Gunton often stated, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in their relationships among themselves, constitute the “being” of God “without remainder.” [iii]
As Colin Gunton notes, to say that “God is love,” means that the “being” of God is describable as “love” of a particular kind. The being of God is an interpersonal “structure” of mutual giving and receiving. According to Gunton, “God is a fellowship of persons whose orientation is entirely to the other.” Of course, the notion of “person” can be problematic. In modern western thought, “person” connotes stark “individuality,” where the “individual” is set over and against the other.[iv] To guard against the erroneous teaching that the Holy Trinity is composed of three separate, “individual” persons, each with his own plans and agenda, the Church Fathers of the Fourth Century coined the term perichoresis to characterize the nature of God as “being-in-relationship.” [v] According to Basil of Caesarea, God is a “sort of continuous and undifferentiated community.” [vi]  While the three persons of the Holy Trinity are distinct, they do not exist in isolated individuality in competition with one another but, rather, are “entirely for and from one another.” That is, there is “an orientation to the other within the eternal structure of God’s being.”[vii] To say that God is love, therefore, means that God is three persons, whose being is so closely bound up with one another that they are said to “indwell” one another in mutual giving and receiving. In their perichoretic interrelations of mutual giving and receiving, the three persons of the Trinity together constitute “one God.”
Creation: an Act of Grace
Because God eternally exists in a communion or “fellowship” of love, God is not “lonely.” To the contrary, God is not “alone,” for God eternally exists in a relationship of three divine persons, whose unifying, overarching characteristic is “love.”[viii] Because the orientation of love is outward and other-centred, God sovereignly determines that there be a reality other than himself, with whom he may share his life and love (Barth). God’s love, rather than being eternally turned “inward” upon itself, flows “outward” to create others whom he may bring into relationship with himself.
Because God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three divine persons eternally co-existing in the unity of love, it is not necessary for God to create the world. To be sure, God does not “need” human beings to keep him company. In contrast to a weak and puny God who depends upon his creation, God is utterly self-sufficient. Thus, God did not create the world out of need; God created the world out of love―a love that eternally flows outward to another.[ix] In short, we are not here because God needs us; we are here because God wants us![x] To say that “God is love” means that we are created to share in the joyous life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hence, creation itself―including our own lives within it―is an act of sheer grace.
Divine Attributes: A Trinitarian Framework
To say that God is “love” requires a complete re-thinking of many traditional ideas about the “nature” or “being” of God. Theological textbooks typically introduce the “doctrine of God” with a laundry list of classic “attributes,” wherein God is described as “infinite,” “immutable,” “impassible,” “omnipotent,” “omnipresent,” et. al. The “classic” attributes that are said to describe the nature of God actually arise from observation of the creation. The “imperfections” of nature are merely negated and then applied to the “perfect” God, where God is said to be “not this.” For example, since nature is finite, we say that God is infinite (“not finite”). Since nature is “mutable” or “changeable,” we say that God is “immutable” (not “mutable” or “changeable”). Or we may simply extend human limitations to an infinite degree and declare that God is “omnipotent” (“all-powerful”), “omniscient” (“all-knowing”), and “omnipresent” (“all-present”). Either way, rational descriptions of God are nothing more than attempts to develop knowledge of the Creator from the creation.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, on the other hand, is derived from God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel, the giving of the Son and the sending of the Spirit. While “natural theology” has its place as a support to faith, it cannot be allowed to supplant God’s self-revelation as Father, Son and Spirit. A trinitarian approach to the doctrine of God, where God is understood not philosophically but personally, demands a thorough re-formulation of the classic “attributes” of God. As we have seen, the “being” or “nature” of God is constituted “without remainder” by a tri-personal fellowship of “love.” Thus, the traditional attributes of God must be recast in personal terms, where God’s historical revelation in space-time history as Father, Son and Spirit takes precedence over traditional “philosophical” constructs.
In a trinitarian framework, the personal attributes of God come to the forefront. When God is understood personally rather than philosophically, personal qualities such as “love” and “mercy” take precedence over abstract concepts such as immutability and its logical corollary “impassibility” (“not able to suffer”). As Colin Gunton notes, “mercy is not an occasional but an intrinsic quality [of God], because it is the outworking of the way in which God is eternally love.” In other words, “mercy” is the expression in space-time history of God’s eternal nature as “love.”[xi] To be sure, many of the “classic” attributes of God, as traditionally conceived, simply do not fit with the biblical description of God. For example, in the classic attributes, divine “omnipotence” (“all-power”) is typically construed in terms of strength, force and the ability to coerce in order to achieve a particular goal. A trinitarian framework, built on God’s self-revelation in Jesus and the Spirit, however, reveals that God does not accomplish his saving purpose for creation through the use of “power,” as traditionally conceived. From the beginning of his ministry, when he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the Son of God refused to fulfil his mission through the use of worldly power. Jesus admonished his disciples against the worldly use of power (Matt 20:25, 26). The power of the God who fulfils his plan of redemption through the meekness of a manger and the humility of a cross cannot be captured by merely extending human concepts of power to an infinite degree. At the same time, however, as Gunton notes, “One who can direct history through an incarnation leading to a cross is one to whose power no limits can be set.” The incarnation and the cross reveal “omnipotence” not as abstractly and philosophically conceived but “personal and ordered to the needs of its object.”[xii]
As noted above, to say that God is “love,” as revealed in the giving of the Son (John 3:16) and the sending of the Spirit (John 14:16, 17; 15:6), demands that the classical attributes of God be reformulated in personal rather than philosophical terms. For example, divine “immutability” must no longer be conceived in philosophical (i.e., Platonic) notions of “un-change-able-ness,” according to which God may not even respond to prayer![xiii] Rather, the classic attribute of divine immutability must be reformulated in the personal terms of God’s unswerving faithfulness and commitment to his good plan for creation and his steadfast determination to bring it to fruition. Similarly, the philosophical construct of divine “impassibility” (not able to suffer) must be recast in view of Bethlehem and Calvary, for the entire life of the Son of God was a bearing of the cross on behalf of all humanity. Finally, even the troublesome and oft-abused construct of divine “wrath” must be reformulated, not in terms of penalty and punishment, but in terms of God’s determined purpose to resist anything that stands in the way of his loving purpose for all creation.
To say that “God is love” means that God is not a simple, undifferentiated “one-person” monad existing in eternal isolation. Rather, God is three divine persons, who eternally exist in a relationship of mutual self-giving and receiving. To say that “God is love” means that God’s basic orientation is outward, “toward” and “for” the other. To say that “God is love” means that God has sovereignly determined that “he will not be God without us” (Barth). Creation is an act of grace, wherein God has determined to bring us into the circle of his divine life and love. To say that “God is love” is to subvert all man-made (i.e., “philosophical”) constructs in favour of the self-emptying, suffering God revealed in the manger and the cross. Finally, to say that “God is love” means that all God’s way toward us are ways of love, for God can do no other than be true to his nature as our loving Father, as revealed in Jesus and the Spirit.
Rev. Dr. Martin M. Davis, (Ph.D)

[i] As the great Church Father Gregory Nazianzus said, “When I say ‘God’, I mean the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
[ii] Gunton, C.E. 2002. The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p. 186.
[iii] ibid., p. 188. I have long appreciated Gunton’s assertion that the three persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the being of God “without remainder.” As Gunton has argued, this means there is no “fourth-something” hidden behind the Father, Son and Spirit, whose purpose for us is unknown. To be sure, there is no other God than the loving, self-giving God revealed in the history of Israel and in the giving of the Son and the sending of the Spirit.
On another note, the biblical teaching that God is a communion of persons, who eternally exist in a nexus, or “network,” of relationships, is reflected at the most fundamental level of nature. Modern science has discovered that the basic “building blocks” of nature are not “atomistic”; that is, they do not exist as disconnected “particles” in isolation or separation from one another. Rather, they exist in networks of relationships, where the “building blocks” and the relationships between them constitute their reality. Hence, at the subatomic level, nature has its “being-in-relationship.” As T.F. Torrance noted, when the discoveries of modern science support the biblical revelation of God as tri-personal “being-in-relationship,” we do well to pay attention.
[iv] To be sure, there is a measure of “individuality” in the Christian doctrine of God, for each divine person―Father, Son and Holy Spirit―is unique and irreplaceable: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Yet, all three divine persons are essential to God’s being “as God.”
[v] The Cappadocian Fathers―Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory Nyssa―were a trio of great trinitarian theologians from the province of Cappadocia, now in modern-day Turkey. Their doctrine of perichoresis, with its emphasis on the mutual “indwelling” of the three persons of the Trinity, guards against the erroneous teaching of “tri-theism.”
[vi] Gunton, p. 186. The classical doctrine of the Trinity states that the “one God” of the Christian faith eternally exists as three co-equal divine persons―Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
[vii] Gunton, pp. 186-7.
[viii] “Father” and “Son” indicate “persons” in relationship with one another.
[ix] God did not create human beings because he needs us; he created us because he wants us. God is a “Father,” who reveals his love for us through his Son and Spirit. As a loving Father, God wants his children with him.
[x] As Karl Barth insisted, God will not be God without us!
[xi] Gunton, 188.
[xii] ibid., 189.
[xiii] According to the classic idea of divine “immutability,” God cannot respond to prayer, for to do so would introduce “change” into the Deity (!). Misdirected by his inherited philosophical tradition, Calvin argued that those passages of scripture that “”seem” to indicate God’s answering prayer were merely “baby talk” to strengthen the weak in faith. Scripture, however, portrays a God who interacts with his people in a mutual “give-and-take.” Had Calvin not been bound by the neo-Platonic philosophical tradition that entered the church through Augustine, he would have been free to embrace the scriptural portrait of the loving Father who stoops to interact with his children and is moved by their prayers!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

He Walked in Our Shoes

Just in time for the Advent-Christmas season!

For many Christians, the Easter celebration overshadows Christmas in regard to the importance of the atonement. Jesus' atoning sacrifice did not begin at Calvary, however; it began at Bethlehem, where God became one of us in order to walk in our shoes.

Please read my new article, "He Walked in Our Shoes," available at This is a "popular" explication of the important doctrine of the "vicarious humanity" of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

God: A Father Eternally Loving his Son in the Spirit

This post offers an easy way to approach the doctrine of the Trinity without ever talking about the doctrine of the Trinity! You will note that the word "Trinity" does not appear in the main body of this post! Enjoy!

During a recent mission trip to Zambia, I visited mighty Victoria Falls, a thundering, mile-wide torrent of water falling hundreds of feet into the lower Zambesi River. Later that evening, gazing in awe at the countless stars in the night sky above a remote area of Zambia, I saw the “Southern Cross,” a constellation visible only from the southern hemisphere. In awe of the sights and sounds of the day, I praised God for the majesty of creation.
Thundering waterfalls, countless stars in the night sky, majestic mountains rising above the clouds, vast oceans with their unexplored depths―these marvels of nature create in us a sense of awe and mystery. Most rational people believe that “something” or “Someone” brought the universe into existence. The beauty and design of the world around us, including the regular, lawful movement of the heavenly bodies, attest the existence of “God”―an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator, Designer and Lawgiver, who brought all things into existence and governs them with infinite power and wisdom.
In the western-Latin theological tradition, “natural” theology―that is, rational reflection on nature (i.e., “creation”)―has been the starting point for speculation about God. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed his famous “five ways” of knowing God, each based on the principle that a “cause” can be known by its “effects.” Following the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Aquinas argued that creation (i.e., “effects”) demands a “Creator” (i.e., “First Cause”), while the design inherent in the universe attests a “Designer.” Just as we can draw inferences about an artist by studying his or her paintings, for Aquinas, we can draw conclusions about the nature of God by studying his “handiwork” (i.e., “nature”).[i] Following Aquinas, theology textbooks continue to describe God primarily in the abstract language of “natural” theology, where God is conceived primarily in negative terms, such as “infinite,” (not finite), “immutable” (not changeable) and “impassible” (not able to suffer). 
The abstract, impersonal Deity of natural theology underlies American civil religion, wherein the “God” in whom “we trust” is conceived primarily as “Maker,” “Designer” and “Lawgiver.” In our multicultural, politically-correct society, this generic view of God is easily fitted to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so that the pastor, rabbi and imam can ceremoniously unite in joint (albeit generally vague) prayers to the “Creator.” The “all-purpose” Deity of American civil society is the God of religion, the impersonal “Judge” who presides over a vast meritocracy, watching us from a distance with his “”all-seeing eye,”[ii] rewarding those who do “good” and reserving stiff penalties for those who do “evil.”
While the moon and stars, the high mountains and the deep oceans attest with one voice the existence of an “all-powerful,” “all-knowing” Maker-Designer-Lawgiver, who created the universe and governs it with a steady hand, many vitally-important questions remain unanswered in regard to the generic deity of natural theology and civil religion. For example, why did God create the universe? What is the purpose of our lives? Are we safe in the hands of an “all powerful” God? Can an “all-knowing” God be trusted? What does an “all-powerful,” “all-knowing” God require of human beings?
The Son Reveals the Father
While natural theology cannot address these vital questions, God has graciously provided answers to humanity’s deepest existential concerns. Unlike Aquinas, who developed his primary doctrine of God from rational inquiry into “nature,” the great Athanasius (c. 296-373) insisted that it is better to start with the “Son” and to know God as “Father” than to start with creation and to know God only as “Unoriginate” (i.e. “Maker” or “First Cause”).[iii] As Athanasius rightly understood, knowledge of God must begin with Jesus! 
While Christians rightly believe that Jesus came to save us from our sins (1 Tim 1:15) and to reconcile us to God (2 Cor 5:19), many fail to realize that Jesus also came to reveal the Father. When Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, he taught them to say, “Our Father in heaven” (Luke 11:1; emphasis added). For Jesus, God is not an impersonal Creator-Designer-Lawgiver that can be described in negative abstractions as “infinite” and “impassible.” Rather, Jesus reveals that God is first and foremost Father!” (see John 1:18). 
Only Jesus can reveal the true nature and character of God, for he is the eternal “Word,” who was “with God” in the beginning, who “became flesh” and dwelled among us (John 1:1-3, 14). Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” the one in whom “the fullness of God dwells in bodily form” (Col 1:15; 2:9). Jesus is uniquely able to answer our questions about God for only he knows the Father (Matt 11:27; John 10:15; 17:25). No one has seen the Father but Jesus (John 6:46). Jesus knows the Father because he comes from the Father (John 7:29). The eternal Son of God left the hallowed halls of heaven (Phil 2:5-8) in order to take ordinary human flesh from the Virgin Mary, so that―from “inside our skin,” using human words, images and thought forms―he could forever render redundant all rational speculation about the nature of God by revealing to a confused world that God is “Father.” 
In complete harmony with the Father’s will, Jesus revealed who God is by doing only those things he saw the Father doing (John 5:19, 20; 6:38). In his out-stretched hand of mercy to the leper and the demon-possessed; in his healing touch upon the sick, the blind and the lame; in his compassion for the poor, the orphan and the widow; in his fellowship with sinners and outcasts, Jesus revealed the Father’s love for all (see John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 3:1). In his beloved “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (see Luke 15), Jesus revealed the Father’s heart, teaching that God loves us despite our utter selfishness and ingratitude. In his cry of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus revealed the infinite extent of the Father’s mercy, even in the face of our heinous evil (Luke 23:34).
The Father’s Love for the Son
While creation proclaims that God is Maker, Designer, Lawgiver, and Ruler, Jesus reveals that God is first and foremost “Father.” To be sure, God has not always been “Creator.” Rather, God became Creator when he made the universe; he became Lawgiver and Ruler when he imbued his creation with order and design and began to uphold it by his awesome power. But while God has not always been Creator, Lawgiver and Ruler, God has always been “Father.” In Jesus, we learn that God is eternally a Father loving his Son, for the Father loved his Son before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). 
God is not merely the cold, abstract “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” “omnipresent” Deity of dusty theological textbooks. Rather God is “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), because God is eternally a Father loving his Son! For this reason, Athanasius and other theologians of the early Church took great care to insist that Jesus is not a “created” being (e.g., an “archangel”) but is the eternal Son of God.[iv] Just as a glowing lamp is never without its light, they argued, the Father is never without his Son, who is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:1-3). If ever there was a time when the Son did not exist, argued Athanasius, then there was a time when God was not “Father,” and if God is not eternally “Father” by nature, then God is not eternally “love.” In that case, the frightening reality for humanity is that God may cease to love! To be sure, the implications of a doctrine of God who is “all-powerful” and “all-knowing” but not “all-loving” are terrifying.
The Son’s Love for the Father
Not only is God the Father who eternally loves his Son, however; God is also the Son who eternally loves his Father. From before the beginning of time, the Son eternally exists with the Father in a relationship of supreme intimacy (see John 1:1-3, 14; Col 1:17; Heb 1:2), so that Jesus dares to call the Father “Abba,” a term of endearment used by little children (Mark 14:36). Jesus, the Son of God, so closely identifies with his Father that he says to Thomas, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” and to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9). The relationship between the Father and the Son is one of mutual self-giving and reciprocal delight, wherein they “indwell” one another in a communion of love, as Jesus attested when he claimed, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10, 11). 
Moreover, there is an unparalleled harmony of will, purpose and intent between the Father and the Son. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him [i.e., the Father] who sent me” (John 6:38). Jesus even claims that he “can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (John 5:19, 20a; emphasis added). The good news for humanity is that there is no abstract, impersonal “God” hidden behind Jesus, whose purpose for us is uncertain, but only the loving “Father” that the Son of God came to reveal! 
Shared Love for the Spirit
In the Middle Ages, as he reflected upon the nature of God, Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) rightly insisted that love requires another. That is, love requires both one to give it and another to receive it. Since God is “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), argued Richard, God must eternally exist in more than one person. Richard went further, however, to argue that God must eternally exist in three persons. According to Richard, if God is only two persons (Father and Son), the mutual love between them could conceivably be exclusive in nature, like that of enraptured lovers so absorbed in their mutual adoration that they disdain all others. Richard argued, however, that the Father and Son so delight in their love for one another that they rejoice in sharing it. As the mutual love between a husband and wife blossoms into a shared love for their child, the mutual love between the Father and Son overflows in an inclusive, shared love for the Holy Spirit.[v] Richard of St. Victor provides a theological rationale for the New Testament assertion that “God” is three divine persons―Father, Son and Holy Spirit―eternally united in a fellowship of “love.” From all eternity, the Father and Son have delighted to share their mutual love with and through the Holy Spirit in such an undivided communion of intimacy and inseparable closeness that we rightly refer to Father, Son and Spirit as “one God.”
A Blueprint for Creation
In the overflowing love shared by the Father, Son and Spirit, we find the key to unlock the mystery of our lives. As noted above, the Father eternally pours out his life and love to the Son. Unlike a miser with his money, the Father does not hoard his love but delights to give it to his Son. Because the Father delights to share his life and love, his superabundant love overflows into creation, so that Jesus may be the first-born among many sons and daughters (see Eph 1:3-5; Col 1:15). 
It is the Father’s nature to give life (see John 5:21). Because God is eternally a sharing God, God wills to create humanity in order to include us in the divine fellowship of reciprocal love, joy and delight shared by the Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Our creation, then, has a “correspondence” (Karl Barth) in the Father’s love for the Son. In perfect freedom, the Father chooses to share his love for the Son with humanity. The Father’s love for the Son is the “blueprint” for creation, so that creation is the extension in space-time of the Father’s eternal love for the Son.
At the same time, the Son’s love for the Father is the “blueprint” for human response to God. According to Jesus, the Sons wills only to do the Father’s will (John 6:38); the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19, 20). Jesus’ life of perfect faith and obedience in space-time history “images” (Col 1:15) and reflects (see Heb 1:3) the Son’s eternal love for the Father in the Spirit. Jesus desires that “. . . the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me (John 14:31), for Jesus’ love for the Father is the model for our relationship with God.[vi]
Children of God
When we begin our thinking about God with the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, we see that God is first and foremost our loving “Father.” Jesus reveals that creation is an expression of the Father’s heart, for the Father so delights in his love for the Son that he wishes to include us in it. Because Jesus reveals that God is eternally “Father” by nature, we are assured that we are not merely vassals or subjects under the thumb of an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator-Lawgiver-Judge. Because Jesus reveals the Father, we see that our standing with God is not merely a “legal” relationship, wherein we are liable for substantial penalties in case of breach of contract. In revealing that God is “Father,” Jesus frees us from the bondage of religion and frees us for relationship with God. Because Jesus reveals that God is “Father,” we may enjoy a familial relationship of love―the love of a Father for his children, as attested throughout the New Testament (e.g. John 3:16, Rom 5:8, 1 John 3:1; 4:9, 10). Because God is “Father,” we are “co-heirs” with Christ (Rom 8:17), so that all that belongs to him is also lavishly given us.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1)
© 2014 Martin M. Davis, Ph.D.

[i] Christian apologetics draws upon Aquinas’ method to assert “proofs” that God exists.
[ii] The “all-seeing eye” of God can be seen on the back of a one-dollar bill.
[iii] Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1:34.
[iv] Arius, a deacon in the church at Alexandria, wrongly claimed that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God but, rather, was a created being, like an archangel. Arius’ heretical teachings are mirrored today in the false doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[v] Great care is needed when making comparisons between human experience and the inner, divine relations of the Godhead. We must not think that the Father and Son “birth” the Holy Spirit, in the same way a husband and wife join together to “birth” a child. Rather, it is theologically proper to say that the Son is eternally “begotten” of the Father, while the Spirit eternally “proceeds” from the Father through the Son. In asserting that the Son is “begotten,” while the Sprit “proceeds,” theologians of the early Church guarded against the erroneous teaching that God has “two sons.”
[vi] For the excellent insights in this section, I am indebted to Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to Christian Faith, Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), pp. 41-4. This is one of best (and easiest!) books I have read on the doctrine of the Trinity.