Archive for February, 2012

How Jesus became sin – 2 Corinthians 5

Posted: February 14, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him!’

These are the words in question. Our Shy Commenter is wondering about justification (see previous two posts). SC asks, doesn’t Paul here picture us sharing in Christ’s righteousness? Which is what I had been denying we share, in justification.

On the face of it, Paul doesn’t say here that we share Christ’s righteousness. He says that we share in God’s righteousness. ‘God’, when opposed to Christ, means God the Father. But the ‘place’ where we share in God’s righteousness is in Christ. As we belong to Christ we share in God’s righteousness.

I don’t think we can really read this as referring to a righteousness Jesus’ achieved in his perfect life of obedience, which is now imputed to us. It’s God the Father’s righteousness, and he didn’t obey anyone!

So it’s not a text I would use to build a case for the doctrine that we share Christ’s righteousness (a doctrine I opposed in my earlier posts).

What is Paul on about here, then?

First, some context. Paul is talking death and resurrection here: the apostles’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that of all mankind. The apostles are able to keep going in intolerable conditions because of their confidence that Jesus’ resurrection is their resurrection. And also because of their confidence that there has been a fundamental change in mankind’s future. Even though the world is hostile to the apostles, they see people not as they are, but as they could be in Christ. I.e. they see new creation. For the way is now open for reconciliation with God.

The key thing to get here is the structure of Paul’s thought. He is not opposing this world with the spirit-realm of ‘heaven’, as two spheres for possible existence. The duality here is between two ages: present and future, the age of ‘flesh’ and the age of resurrection. Paul is looking forward to the time when his slowly-dissolving flesh will be transformed and raised into resurrection life.

This dual structure dominates the whole passage. When Paul describes the apostles’ ministry, he talks in the same way. They persuade people, confident that God’s work of new creation is going on, people are being transformed. Reconciliation with God is not only possible – it is happening, because instead of counting people’s sins against them (old era) now God has graciously made for us a way back to him (new era): Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s worth noting that reconciliation with God, here, is very close to new creation. The two ideas go hand in hand. It seems Paul views this reconciliation as part of the change of ages, a sort of foretaste of the full resurrection life that is ahead.

And the way God is effecting this reconciliation is through the apostles. As they announce the end of the old age in Jesus’ death, and the arrival of the new age in his resurrection, God uses that announcement to advance the new era (his kingdom). (Quite appropriate then, I think Paul is implying, that the apostles themselves are caught up in Jesus’ story of death and resurrection. At the moment they’re outwardly in the ‘dying’ bit of the story!)

So the apostles plead with people, on the basis of what happened with Jesus, to take part in the new age. V.20-21 function in the passage as Paul’s summary of that apostolic message.

Now for that verse:

“We are Christ’s ambassadors, and God appeals to mankind through us in this way: ‘Be reconciled to God…'”

The rest of the appeal summary (v.21) gives the content of what God has done to bring about that reconciliation. It’s the story the apostles tell everywhere they go, the gospel story. Here Paul tells the story using the language of sin and righteousness – judicial language. To interpret v.21, we need to keep in mind the themes, and especially the dual structure of the whole passage, which this verse is summarising. If we do that, we can say that:

– it’s actually a story of death and resurrection. So this legal language of sin and righteousness colours our view of what’s happening at the Cross.

– the duality sin and righteousness is part of the wider dual structure of Paul’s thought here: sin corresponds to the old age, and righteousness to the new.

So then,

Jesus ‘became sin’ for us – that refers to his death on our behalf, because of mankind’s sin. Human sin was judged and put to death in him. This is the death that put an end to the reign or era of ‘the flesh’. As Paul puts it elsewhere, ‘Jesus came as representative of sinful flesh to put sin to death in his own body’ (Romans 8:3). As a result, we all also died.

As a result of his sharing our death,

we can ‘become the righteousness of God in him’. 

– Firstly Jesus, having become sin, now becomes ‘the righteousness of God.’ This refers to his vindication in resurrection. God the judge awards him the status of ‘righteous’ by raising him from his state of condemnation (death). But he is not raised once again as ‘flesh’. Rather, Jesus’ new body is raised as righteous, he inaugurates the reign or era of the new humanity, here described as ‘righteousness’, as opposed to the old one of the ‘flesh’.

And secondly, we are involved in the story, as we were in his death. Just as it was our (old) humanity was judged and brought to an end in Jesus’ death on the Cross, so the new humanity is ours also. Ours in the sense that we can share in it. We also can be vindicated by God, reconciled and even raised bodily into the new era.  Through union with Christ. We can share in God’s ‘Yes’ to Jesus. We can ‘become the righteousness of God in him.’ (To verb that noun, Shy Commenter, and talk about ‘justification’: we can share in Jesus’ justification).


Taking the verse as a whole, Paul says that Jesus took our humanity down through death and raised it into new life, cleansed of its mortal illness, sin. As Paul puts it, “What is mortal has been swallowed up by life.” (v.4). Or to summarise,

He shared in our death so that we could share in his resurrection. 

In so doing Jesus opened up a future for our enslaved race.

And so the apostles call us into that future. The second half of the verse is in the subjunctive: ‘that we might become the righteousness…’ It is not an indicative, not a sealed deal. It is a possibility, an offer even. Participation in this new humanity is not automatic: it’s ‘opt in’. That is an important difference from the first half, ‘he became sin for us’. That’s an indicative. It happened. Everyone is caught up in that death, like it or not. The human race stands condemned.

But now God sends this call, this appeal, pleading with us: be reconciled to God. Take part in this future. How can we? How could unclean flesh like mine be reconciled to God? How can he speak his ‘Yes’ to a sinner like me?

In this way:

God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him!’

2 Corinthians 5 – What St Paul really said!

Posted: February 13, 2012 by J in Bible

This is the first of two posts trying to interpret that extraordinary passage, 2 Corinthians 5, and in particular 2 Cor. 5:21 – God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him!

Here we’ll give a reading of the whole passage. The trick in this passage is cluing into what Paul is actually talking about. I’ve paraphrased everything except the verse we want to discuss, 5:21. Didn’t want to pre-empt the discussion. Here’s how I see the argument’s flow:


What kept the apostles going? They’re such a miserable lot, always in scrapes. Paul describes what stops them losing heart, in 2 Cor 4-6:

Though our outward body is wasting away, our inner man is being renewed, as we look forward to the glorious future that is ours in Christ. Even if our body is destroyed, we won’t be left disgraced. It’s like a tent covering us, but we’re waiting for the building. This building is the future life, the resurrection body that God has promised us in Christ. He has given us the Spirit as a guarantee of the new body that is coming.

So when we feel demoralised, we don’t lose heart, in fact we know that as long as we’re in this home – our corrupt ‘fleshly’ body – we are away from our new home with Christ, who has gone ahead. We would rather be at home in our new bodies, face to face with the Lord, and away from this corrupt ‘flesh’ home.

But whether we feel ourselves to be at home or away from home, we have it as our aim to please Christ. For we apostles are directly answerable to him: we will be rewarded according to how we carried out our commission in this fleshly existence.

Since we will have to face Christ in this way, we are motivated to carry out our job as ambassadors faithfully, persuading people about Jesus. But we don’t need to commend ourselves to people – God knows what we are. No, rather we are wanting to give you ammunition to use when someone criticises us in front of you. We want you to be proud of us.

But our motive is not for ourselves, it’s for our role as ambassadors. Ultimately, it’s because of the love Jesus has shown at the cross that we push on with this persuading, even when it’s difficult and the personal cost is high.

For we are convinced that Jesus’ death changed everything. Mankind as we know it came to an end, put to death in Jesus our representative, at the cross. We see our race as effectively dead now. But the death was not the goal, not the whole story. Rather, the death-for-all led to resurrection for all, so that now humans might have life, not in themselves but in the one raised for them – in Christ who loved us so much.

This is such a fundamental change for humanity, that now we see everyone in a different light. We no longer relate to people as though corrupt flesh is all there is to them. Though we once related to even Christ that way, since his resurrection all that has changed. And not just for Christ: in fact anyone united to him is also new creation. The old has been replaced by new things – and all from God, who has reconciled us apostles to himself through Christ and by his Spirit has given us this ministry of reconciliation. We announce what God is doing in Christ: reconciling the world to himself. He isn’t holding people’s sins against them, but has actually brought (through us) this word of reconciliation.

On behalf of Christ, then, we serve as ambassadors, God appealing to the world through us. On Christ’s behalf we plead in this way: ‘Be reconciled to God! God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him!’

And as co-workers with Christ, we also appeal to you: don’t receive God’s grace in vain! Those troublemakers who slander us – don’t link yourselves to them. Open your hearts to us instead…

– and so on.

I’ve been asked a couple of times lately at The Grit about 2 Corinthians 5. It came up when we discussed the cross as the condemning of the world. More recently a shy commenter emailed me about some posts on justification from last year. She wrote:

Do you really stand by your statement: “The apostles do not teach that we share hisrighteousness: they teach that we share his justification?” I realise that in Greek “justification” and “righteousness” are a verb and noun of the same root word. However, 2 Cor 5:21 sounds to me like us sharing in Jesus’ righteousness! Not being a Greek geek, I may not be on the right track with this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I do stand by my statement, and I promised shy commenter that I’d post something on this remarkable chapter (surely one of the glories of the NT, and indeed of ancient literature anywhere). It’s a chapter I’m very happy to spend a lot of time in, it’s so rich and inspiring.

I think I’ll do two posts, the first one giving a paraphrase of the chapter, the second discussing that verse, once we’ve got some clear context.

I might just mention that I think the translations do a worse than usual job of grasping Paul’s line of thinking, in this chapter. They add in some quite unhelpful stuff. I’m proposing to take it back out!


Asher (5 yrs): Dad, you know Brachiosaurus, are they gentiles?

Me: No, my boy, Brachiosaurus – I’m pretty sure they’re Jewish.

Sister (7 yrs): No, Dad, he means reptiles.

The disintegration of the person

Posted: February 10, 2012 by J in Bible, Discipleship, Theology

Having been in pastoral ministry now for the impressive total of 1 year, I’m struck by how very prevalent what we call ‘mental trouble’ is. Things that are normally identified as mental illness (I’ll get back to the name thing later) are just everywhere. Depression, of course, is massive, and anxiety; but also obsessive/compulsive disorders, addictions, bi-polar, passive-aggressive issues, aspergers (our boy has been diagnosed with that), phobias like shut-in sydrome, attention deficit, and just a general inability to connect with everyday reality – not sure what you call that! And to this I want to add, a crushing, destructive sense of aloneness that isn’t easily cured by human contact.

Most of the people in our church either have currently or have had struggles with one or more of these things. Most of us! And the people we meet in Canterbury, it’s not long before we hear about serious ‘mental’ disturbances in the immediate family. Again and again. If it’s not the parents, it’s their kids. Often it’s both. As I took Asher to school today, we passed a family where the little girl, maybe 5 years old, was clearly in distress, wailing loudly, pulling backwards. ‘It’s a mess, it’s a mess’, she kept screaming. Over and over. This is not just, I don’t want to go to school, there’s something worse going on for that child.

I want to do some thinking about what we normally call mental illness or disorder. Disorder is a better name I think, for what’s happening – which is that the normal, ordered, balanced functioning of the mind and body, the whole person, is coming undone. The normal, healthy structures of the personality – of the person – dissolve, and the forces of chaos gain control.  Reason gives way to confusion. Personhood (and indeed all of creation) involves order. By ‘person’ we mean a free agent, able to respond freely to others within the relational structures of the real world in which we live. But in the grip of disorders, this free agent recedes, replaced by a slave, trapped in some chaotic inner world, driven by internal forces and uncontrollable thoughts, unable to connect with the created order around us. And that is something less than true personhood.

Scripture is very attuned to these issues. It confronts us with the problem of this confusion that afflicts us, of these dark powers that enslave: that’s what the whole salvation-history story is about, really. The story of mankind is one of struggle to maintain true personhood in the face of this constant attack – the struggle to not be overpowered. A struggle we see mankind lose again and again, as it leaves the path of wisdom and descends into folly and madness. Persons become the entry points into the world for the forces of destruction. That’s ultimately the story of Israel, isn’t it: the victory of de-humanising powers.

Scripture gets to the heart of the matter by giving us a theological description of these forces. It portrays them as powers of uncreation.  Mankind, and then the very creation itself, having been loving knitted together by God, is unknitted. We gradually return towards the chaotic impersonal mass from which we came. Male/female unity is dissolved early on (think Genesis 3). Society (represented by the family) comes unstuck as murder, isolation, and infinite revenge take charge (the story of Cain and sons). And it is a ‘taking charge’, there is a dark force at work here: “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is to master you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain’s crime is the expression and occasion of the loss of his own freedom. And with that loss, human society is also unravelled: it is not good for man to be alone, but the first family dissolves into hatred and violence, and Cain is exiled (Genesis 4). The life-potential built into creation (Genesis 1) is reversed as death takes hold (Genesis 5). Ultimately the uncreation goes so far, the very ground sinks back under the waters, and time itself stops moving (the flood narrative).

This theological diagnosis is of great help in understanding what is at stake, what is the meaning of this constant attack on mankind and our personhood in particular. It is not a natural part of the experience of createdness, but rather the expression of an anti-God power attempting to reverse and destroy his good work of creation and all his purposes for the world.

In Jesus’ day, this becomes especially clear: disorder manifests itself dramatically in the overt possession of the person by unclean spirits. These demons drive people to madness and self-harm. Israel has by then fallen deeply under the power of the forces of chaos and death. In Luke’s Gospel, the nation is symbolised by a demoniac, so powerfully possessed that he is driven completely out of his mind (Luke 8).

And the focus of these attacks is the mind. As the apostle Paul puts it, ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe’ (2 Corinthians 4:4), who suffer under ‘powerful delusion’ (2 Thessalonians 2:11), walking ‘in the futility of their minds’ (Ephesians 4:17). It is at this point – the human mind – that the forces of disorder especially aim their attacks.

But the person is more than mind. Disorders radiate out from the mind, through the body and into the relationships that are so basic to our personhood. And that means that they come in the other direction also, from others to us. Although disorder isolates, its causes are not all to be found in the person bearing the symptoms. Rather personhood itself is subject to attack, in all its combinations – marriage, family, community, society.

We are ready to say, then, that the bigger picture, the context in which to understand what is normally called mental illness, is the disintegration of the person. This is the threat which confronts us when we are taken captive by dark and chaotic thoughts.

This is what we’ve seen so much of this past year in Canterbury. People struggling to grasp or maintain normal personhood, normal free agency. People longing for the good, yet finding themselves diverted to choose the evil and the destructive time and time again. People seeing the good, but seemingly unable to reach for it. And an accompanying sense of powerlessness.

One way in which this view of things is helpful is that it avoids the perception of an isolated problem which the term ‘mental illness’ can convey. Rather ‘personal disintegration’ immediately suggests involvement from and a follow-on threat to family etc. If the persons come unravelled, family and community cannot escape damage.

This is often the form in which we encounter the problem here in Canterbury: hurting families, struggling to cling on to some fragment of normal family life, facing sometimes overwhelming disintegrative forces. A disordered, fragmented community. Lonely, isolated people losing their sense of personhood and humanity.

I think there is probably more of this around now than there has been in other times and places. My hunch is that our society has become a less healthy place for persons to thrive and be human. Living here and now predisposes us to becoming disordered, we become easy pickings, vulnerable to destructive powers. And isolation traps us in our internal worlds, intensifying the problem. In short, we seem to be sitting ducks. And so we have what appears to be an epidemic. An epidemic of disintegrating persons. I’m sure they have one in Sudan and elsewhere also, but it’s Sydney that I see being overwhelmed.

This wider perspective given by Scripture – that ‘mental trouble’ means personal disintegration – also suggests that this affliction is not to be accepted as inevitable. It is not the right state of affairs, but the undoing of a right state. Many people live under the terrible burden of ‘mental illness’ (and associated family and community-illness) for years, without help or hope. Understanding that this is not living but rather a kind of uncreation, a death-in-life, challenges us to take action. Facing the reality that anti-God powers are at work to dissolve our personhood, in particular prompts us to cry out for deliverance.

Where will we turn for help?

I never thought I’d be recommending psych help as often as I am. Psychs seem to me to be in the front line of dealing with this disordering, this dissolution of the person. They don’t have all the answers, but they do seem to have some. Their weakness is that they so often seem to deal with the symptom-bearer in isolation from the family-network in which the disorder has arisen.

I never thought I’d be suggesting the possibility of medication as often as I am. But when people are so far down the pit, anything to give them a boost, break the destructive circuit, is a Godsend.

I myself am just at the tail end of over two years of antidepressant medication, which was of great help. I’ve tapered it off to almost nothing now: don’t seem to need it the way I did, thank God. If I need it again, I won’t hesitate to take it.

But the main things we’re doing are:

  • trying to get close to Jesus, who maintained and established free personhood against the onslaught of the dehumanising powers. Jesus was not taken captive. Rather he took death itself captive and broke its power. Here is all our hope. So we are –
  • seeking to share in his renewed humanity, and be ourselves re-humanised by faith in him.  And that means also –
  • trying to build a gospel community which stands in the grace of God by the power of his re-creative Spirit. In which we can draw others to find healing in Jesus also.

Gradually our Father is knitting us back together.

Why Fred Nile needs ethics classes

Posted: February 8, 2012 by J in General


Christian Democrat MP the Rev Fred Nile has told the Premier that he will not support their public service wages bill unless the government repeals the legislation entitling children to attend ethics classes.

Carol Duncan, ABC Sydney, August 1 last year.

THE battle over ethics classes in NSW schools has been reignited by a threat from the Reverend Fred Nile to ”torpedo” the O’Farrell government’s… public sector wages policy unless it considers removing them [the classes].

”I think the Minister for Education [Mr Piccoli] has forgotten that big trigger is still there” said Nile.

SMH report, July 19 last year.

As an elected public representative, Fred Nile carries a heavy burden of responsibility. As an overtly Christian member of parliament, he carries a double load – he is seen to stand in some sense for Christ and his church, and to represent the Christian interest.

Fred does some good stuff and stands for some good things. His desire to protect Scripture teaching in schools is commendable. But believing in good causes is not enough to discharge his responsibilities. Fred needs to act wisely and ethically in the way he conducts himself, and in the way he pursues his good goals. This is where the problems lie.

If Fred did ethics classes at school (many of us did) he might have learnt this principle:

The end does not justify the means.

That means that it’s not enough to have good intentions. Those intentions do not ‘lend’ their goodness back down the chain of all the actions done to achieve them. If you commit a burglary to pay for your mum’s eye operation, your good cause doesn’t make that crime ok.

That principle says that it’s not ok for Fred to do just anything in pursuing his aims to strengthen SRE. Each of his actions must be good in its own right.

BUT Fred finds himself in a position where he faces peculiar temptations. He, along with some others, effectively hold the balance of power in the NSW Parliament.  That means he has leverage. He can hold the government to ransom. He can not support their bread and butter legislation unless they support his special interest bills. I suppose he could potentially shut down the state’s revenue flow, until he gets what he wants.

I call this a temptation, because that sort of behaviour is unethical. It is not what elected representatives are there for. They are not supposed to conduct blackmail. They are supposed to govern wisely and with integrity. That means supporting bills on their merits. We expect our leaders to support legislation because they believe it will be good for the state, and to oppose it if they think not.

Any other motive they might have for supporting/opposing legislation creates a temptation, which they ought to resist. To pass or reject bills for other reasons than the state’s wellbeing, is unworthy behaviour for any parliamentarian. From a Christian politician it represents a failure of their witness.

Surely that is half of the point of having Christians in parliament: not just to promote right causes, but to establish an alternative way of doing politics. An alternative, that is, to the wheeling and dealing and cutting deals and power plays and bullying that makes modern politics the uninspiring business it is.

Don’t we expect Christian politicians, and especially those from an overtly Christian Party, to do better than this?

Fred’s responsibility, when faced with the government’s public sector wages bill, is not to think ‘how can I use this to further my aims?’. His duty is clearly to judge the bill on its merits, and support or reject it accordingly.

But Fred has made it pretty clear this is not his approach. He has introduced an SRE bill. Fair enough, he believes it is in the state’s interests. Ok. But he has attached to this the threat that he will turn feral in parliament unless the government supports his SRE bill.

And that’s left him open to this sort of critique from secular commentators with a concern for ethical behaviour:

I suppose that it is one of the new realities of balance-of-power politics that those with a vote to trade will seek maximum advantage whenever the opportunity arises.

Simon Longstaff, ABC commentator.

That’s not a good look, Fred. Votes are not there as a commodity to trade. You are responsible to behave properly regardless of what the government does, regardless of the temptations.

The image Fred paints of himself with his finger on the ‘big trigger’ (see quote above), ready to shoot down other legislation unless he gets his way – that’s about as far from ethical conduct in parliament as you could go. Fred seems to be positioning himself as a kind of parliamentary terrorist, the sword raised for the beheading unless his demands are met.

This is very damaging for the Christian cause, as it gives Christ a bad name. It gives you and me a bad name, too, in our communities, since Fred pretty much talks as if he represents the Christian church at large. It makes us look like a bunch of grasping,  unscrupulous bullies. It makes Jesus seem like someone who is happy with that sort of follower. Maybe even someone who inspires that sort of behaviour.

[We would love to hear about Christian pollies who enjoy the respect of their peers and the wider community because of their godly and responsible conduct. The media doesn’t tell us about them. Any suggestions?]

We will all pay a heavy price for Fred’s unethical conduct. It will be paid over the next generation or so, in terms of a wider divide between Sydney society and the churches. We’ve already got some serious public image problems, we don’t need this right now.

There’s a very big brush that anti-Christian lobbyists are happily painting us all with at the moment, and Fred – he’s providing the tar.

Fred’s SRE bill may be the best piece of legislation ever (we can have that discussion another time) – but it doesn’t justify the means he uses to give it legs. We are not questioning the cause, but the serious lack of wisdom and Christian maturity with which he is pursuing this one. The man badly needs an injection of ethics into his parliamentary conduct.

And of course there’s one more (obvious?) thing to say here. And that is that, while the goodness of Fred’s bill cannot sanctify his behaviour in promoting it, the reverse does function. The irresponsible way this bill has been presented, tends to discredit the whole thing. It lends an air of dodginess to the bill, people are put offside from the start, and view it with suspicion. Own goal, Fred.

We have been trying to teach our little girl that sometimes when you play with other kids you don’t get your own way, and when that happens you need to try to accept it and keep playing. You don’t try to sabotage the game. You don’t go off and sulk in a corner.

Fred, we’d like it if you could be a role model for our child. We want you to be someone she can be proud of. As a Christian politician, we expect more from you than you’re giving us.

The solution?

Did someone say Ethics classes?

Do not be afraid

Posted: February 7, 2012 by J in General

Strange thing: we’re averaging about 50 hits/day at The Grit lately – that’s a lot of people each week, and a big increase in readership compared to last November/December. But almost no new subscribers.

That suggests that perhaps readers are reluctant to subscribe for some reason.

It could be just because it’s such an irritating blog. But perhaps for some it’s the fear of being known to frequent a place as disreputable as The Grit. 

If so, can I reassure yall that subscribers’ identities are kept private, you can sign up and no one will ever know!

Except us. And we’re not telling. 🙂

If you’d like email notification when we post something at The Grit, you can subscribe in the box in the top left corner of this page.

Sometimes people write to me with comments they’re too shy to post on the blog. Here’s two good examples from this week.

After reading your “singing in church” post I caved and subscribed to “The Grit.” I found your posts on justification a really helpful distillation. I struggled quite a lot with the same questions late last year when my church was doing a sermon series on Romans 1-8 and I was trying to lead bible studies on it. I really felt the “two gospels” tension you were talking about! …In my experience, your comment that “In our abstracted approach, his death brings justification, and his resurrection brings nothing very clear” has been a pretty accurate diagnosis. In wondering about all this myself over the last few years, I’ve definitely been pushed to think more about what “union with Christ” really means. Anyway, all that to say, I really “get” where you’re coming from and, if I understand you correctly, agree with what you’re saying.

Nice to be appreciated! Thanks for the kind words, friend!

But then the same day this:

…your blogs drive me up the wall because so many of them start by expressing criticisms of “Evangelicalism”, and proceed as though you are the only one that has ever thought some of these things or the only one who has “seen the light.” I would be the last person to go to the stake to defend “Evangelicalism” and I have nothing against expressing valid criticisms …But I wonder if you could do a better job at saying them with a bit less hyperbole (I know – hyperbole is fun), a bit more humility and in a way that esteems God’s church…

Ouch! Ah well, not surprising that people feel that way. If we didn’t cause some irritation, we wouldn’t be  The Grit in the Oyster.  No doubt comment 2 has more than a grain of truth in it…

Now here’s the really interesting thing:

Both comments were written by the same person! 🙂

I like that.

That letter of Augustine’s which Robert Doyle was quoting from – it’s about why all the persons of the Trinity were not incarnated along with the Son. A strange question, you might think. Not one you’ve ever found yourself asking? Me neither.

But for Augustine it’s a biggy:

a very great question, so difficult, and on a subject so vast, that it is impossible either to give a sufficiently clear statement, or to support it by satisfactory proofs.

Really? Why so, St A?

For the union of Persons in the Trinity is …so inseparable, that whatever is done by the Trinity must be regarded as being done by the Father, and by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit together; and that nothing is done by the Father which is, not also done by the Son and by the Holy Spirit and nothing done by the Holy Spirit which is not also done by the Father and by the Son; and nothing done by the Son which is not also done by the Father and by the Holy Spirit. From which it seems to follow as a consequence, that the whole Trinity assumed human nature.

Wow. That’s pretty inseparable. We’re not just talking here about a Trinity that works together, so that each member is involved in every action. Rather, they are ‘so inseparable’, that every action must be seen as done by Father Son and Spirit in the same way. I.e., they have the same involvement in every action. That’s why this problem with the incarnation, you see. You might think it’s enough that the Father and Spirit were involved in the incarnation, working in different ways with a common purpose. But no: this inseparability in action means that when the Son was incarnated, the Father and the Spirit should strictly speaking have done exactly the same.

That’s why this is such a biggy for Augustine: here’s something that clearly the Son did (assume humanity) which the Father and Spirit didn’t do. The incarnation seems to threaten Augustine’s whole concept of the unity of the persons in the Trinity.

You might think he’s in a pretty big pickle, if he has a Trinity doctrine that clashes with the gospel story. And you’d be right. 

It gets worse.

His solution is worse than his problem.

It seems to go something like this:

STEP 1: The mode of existence which is properly ascribed to the Son, has to do with training, and with a certain art…and with the exercise of intellect, by which the mind itself is moulded in its thoughts upon things. By that assumption of human nature the work accomplished was the effective presentation to us of a certain training in the right way of living…

The human existence of Jesus has to do with training of the intellect, through presenting us with a certain way of living, so that ‘a certain rule and pattern of training be plainly exhibited’ to our minds. That’s what the incarnation was for! Ok?

STEP 2: So then, this presentation to our intellect ‘was done by the divinely appointed method of the Incarnation’. Why?

in order that from it should follow, first, our knowledge, through the Son, of the Father Himself, i.e. of the one first principle whence all things have their being,

What kind of principle is this that we’re getting to know? Not sure. But Augy is talking intellectual patterns, remember. There’s nothing much personal here. Indeed the 3 ‘persons’ here are described in largely non-personal ways. I’ve got a bad feeling this ‘principle’ is a logical principle. That’s what is good about knowing the Father: you get to know the original pattern.

But wait there’s more: there’s the second reason for the Son’s incarnation:

in order that from it should follow, second, a certain inward and ineffable charm and sweetness of remaining in that knowledge, and of despising all mortal things—a gift and work which is properly ascribed to the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit helps us delight in the pattern which exercises our intellect, and to despise all mortal things. And he does this through – incarnation!!

It gets worse still. Take a deep breath.

Therefore, although in all things the Divine Persons act fully in common and inseparable, nevertheless it is right that their operations be presented as distinct, on account of the feebleness which is in us, who have fallen from unity into diversity. For no one ever succeeds in raising another to the height on which he himself stands, unless he stoop somewhat towards the level which that other occupies.

Aw blimey. That’s seriously bad. That’s bad in so many ways, where do we start?

First a paraphrase: The persons act totally in the same way, no true distinction or difference exists. But it is good that a distinction be presented to us, because of our feeble intellectual condition, addicted as we are to that degraded condition diversity. For unless God gives a little, comes a little way down toward us, how can he raise us up out of that fallen state (diversity)?

The unity based on inseparability of divine operations, which for Robert Doyle was Augustine’s way of building personhood into God’s unity (see previous posts) – that unity turns out to be the real problem. For this inseparability is so total that it is really uniformity: any distinction in actions is only a presentation, a communicative concession to our degraded state. Behind that presentation, the reality is, the persons’ acts cannot ultimately be distinguished in any way.

But this empties the concept of ‘distinct persons’ of any real meaning. We can no longer give any account of any real difference between the Son, Father and Spirit in their actions.

And this is necessarily so, because God’s condition is one of unity only, whereas diversity is the thing we humans have fallen into. I.e. The one is good, the many are not. So God’s unity is the ultimate reality, his diversity must be a representation, needed because ‘no one ever succeeds in raising another to the height on which he himself stands, unless he stoop somewhat towards the level which that other occupies.’

God stoops to the appearance of diversity: that’s Augustine’s gospel!

And what of Jesus’ humanity then? The only way Augustine can get out of his dilemma is to see the incarnation as a ‘presentation’. The diversity implied by the Son taking on humanity, but not the Father or Spirit, is an appearance only. It’s only one tiny step from there (and St A doesn’t take this step here) to saying that Jesus’ humanity is a presentation only, and not ontologically true of the Son. In saving us, God need only ‘stoop somewhat’ – he doesn’t have to come all the way down. Docetism is at the door, the door is wiiiiide open…

Now remember I didn’t pick out this letter because it shows Augustine at his worst. Robert Doyle picked it out for us, as showing St A at his best. This was the letter where his Trinitarian thinking was clear!

Here, friends, is the Father of the Western Church: your father and mine, doing his Trinitarian thinking – our Trinitarian thinking. Behold, and wonder!

Principal Rosner

Posted: February 2, 2012 by J in General

This was in the media yesterday:

The Board of Ridley Melbourne has announced the appointment of New Testament scholar and author, Dr Brian Rosner to the position of Principal. Dr Rosner will take up the role at the beginning of second semester, July 2012.

Dr Rosner is currently Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Ethics and Faculty Research Coordinator at Moore Theological College.

Brian Rosner is one of the good guys. His gear at college was always quality. He pushed us to think in different ways, and especially to read the Scriptures in different ways. He is a champion of reading the NT in the light of the OT – a sadly rare practice. His 1 Corinthians commentary is the best exegetical one on the market, imho.

He’s strong in the vital but neglected area of theological ethics, too.

Rosner is easily gifted enough in broad enough areas to do a good job as a College principal. I only hope it doesn’t take him away from teaching, too much. Teaching is where he ought to be!

He is also funny and can hold an audience. A nice guy too.

A sad loss for Moore. A big gain for Ridley.

The Grit tips its (rather muddied) hat to Dr Rosner. We wish him well.