Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Taking on some mythicists and an update on how my "sting" evolved.

MY APOLOGETICS ALERT meter is going beep - beep...

Here's why.

Have you ever heard of mythicists? Maybe not. Their basic view is that Jesus never existed, and the legend that developed around "Jesus Christ" borrowed from a number of pagan and middle eastern sources, not least of which being Zoroastrianism. Their views do not represent a mainstream historical perspective, regardless of religious commitment.

Since I am currently privileged enough to have the time and the resources of Hurtado's most significant contributions (Lord Jesus Christ and One God & One Lord), I realised I may be in a position to politely engage and defend the historical grounding of Jesus. If you'd like to see how I am getting along and watch the mythicist video I disagree with, you may do so here. Strangely, I seem to have been granted the last word!

I have also been fortunate to interact with Evan Powell, who is the author the website, which I can really recommend - although it is also where I got a faith "sting", mentioned in my previous post. I'm pleased to say that I have recovered from it, but with a fresh realisation of how some of the resurrection evidence fits together. The reason why I got stung by Evan's research and analysis, is that while he brought extra clarity and weight to my conviction that Matthew not only was later than Luke and Acts (which is important to note when researching the factors surrounding the emergence of a proto-trinitarianism in the first century), he also reports that Matthew's treatment of the burial story in Mark and Luke shows the story's weakness.

I think the reason why his views particularly affected me was because of how deeply I shared his other convictions about Matthew - and that should be a lesson to anyone. You probably agree with everyone about something, and you should probably check that you disagree with everyone about something. That's part of what makes you, you and me, me. And it certainly is true for theology.

Fortunately, I revisited his page about the burial and pushed him on it. We have had a very friendly and respectful exchange since then, and I have come to a conclusion I will probably now carry with me to my grave - and I am better for it. The point is this - it doesn't matter what you do with the existing evidence. You can realign it, reconstruct it. But if the basic building blocks are the same, you will *always* run into the following problem if you want to explain what happened to Jesus' body: at the time, the evidence pointed in favour of believing that Jesus had been raised by God back to life by his followers. Now, I'm a big sceptic when it comes to apologetics - the number of times I have dabbled in it positively on this blog could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

I'm not going to say to people, the evidence means the only possible explanation is that Jesus was raised. In my exchange with Evan, I came up with a scenario according to what I understood his interpretation of the facts required. But it was incomplete and created fresh problems that are hard to explain.

In his reply, Evan told me that I was creating an unnecessarily complex situation - all it would have taken was for Joseph of Arimathea to move the body at the end of Saturday. My complex situation had included that Joseph was ignorant of someone having removed Jesus' body, that someone perhaps being the indignant family tomb owner. Evan's brushing aside of the need for Joseph's ignorance shouldn't satisfy. How could this designated member of social and religious standing be recalled so positively by all four gospel writers as a positive witness to the events that unfolded during the first Easter if he had, in fact, moved the body to another location? Would he not have clarified the situation? Apologists are correct (I admit) that the recipe is something like this:


The simple fact that brilliant minds and millions of people believe that this miracle could indeed have taken place should give us all pause for thought. Something strange happened to Jesus' body. If there *were* a simple explanation, then Christianity simply wouldn't have taken off. We wouldn't even be having this conversation. However, to my Christian friends who want to go take this and slam dunk their atheist friends, we must remember that strange things do happen (see an in-depth analysis of this natural and unpredictable phenomenon in The Black Swan). We must remember that we have sound reasons for believing what we believe, that we don't have all the answers. We also live in a surprising and unpredictable world in which we have to bind our beliefs to time-tested and storm-blasted foundations. Abandon them at your peril.

In my next post, I will feed back on my exchange with Professor Larry Hurtado! Yes, my theological hero responded to my post on his disagreement with James Dunn. We are also not done yet on a late Matthew. Back soon.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Block, technical issues, faith kick

Hi. Apologies for the slow-down on the journey into Hurtado first century Christian binitarian worship territory. I felt like I was on a real charge doing a post every day or every other day, then a few things happened.

Like anyone, I sometimes experience "block": just that inability to engage my mind with the same clarity I enjoy at other times. I am also going through a period in my life when my mind actually totally saturates as well, which increases this effect when it occurs. This effect was either caused or worsened by learning that although SPCK found my book proposal interesting (it definitely sounded from their personalised response that it had been discussed between several members of their editorial staff), they weren't going to be able to pursue it further. So that was a downer.

Then, I had this really weird technical issue with Kindle notes. I don't know if you have tried it, but kindle notes and highlights are a great way of interacting with a book. Kindle have recently decided to revamp their online interface and call this new area simply "notebook", with a nice thumbnail of the cover of each book to hit to see your highlights and notes. For some devilish reason, all my Hurtado notes and highlights on which I was relying for this first century blog cruise we're on are present on their old system and totally absent on the new one. With my wife we probably have a couple of hundred of books on Kindle, and Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ is the only book that this glitch is affecting. And to make matters worse, the old site where all the content is intact will die on July 3rd. Oh, and I'm getting nowhere with Amazon.

Urggh. This all leads to feeling a bit down about it to be honest, and in a world and market which frankly is just not as interested in trinitarian theology as I have been, I'm beginning to wonder if it's worth carrying on.

Sorry for such a depressing post - I'll also share one more thing about faith. From time to time I read or hear something that makes me really question my faith. I'm delighted about that because it means I am engaging with the criticisms out there and have usually bounced back. My research into first century expressions of proto-trinitarianism led me at various points to the Gospel according to Matthew, which time and again seemed late to me, by which I mean late first century. This actually is another small series of blog posts I need to write, and very important with respect to Matthew's relationship to baptism and John the Baptist in particular. Suffice it to say that there are others that share this view, and that Matthew had access to Luke (it's sometimes called the Matthean posteriority hypothesis, MPH) - one of these proponents made some analyses on this basis about the synoptic burial narratives that stung me. So that hasn't helped either.

Looking forward to a more upbeat post soon, and especially a solution to resume the Hurtado cruise.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado, Part 6: mid-first century and late-first century Christian worship perspectives

MONOTHEISM IS NOT a dry, crusty constraint, some sort of doctrinal binding placed on a particular religious group. Of course, nothing prevents it from becoming that in a spiritually dead context, but the point for first century Judaism in the Roman period is that Jewish faith and practice were holistically fused into not just a cerebral understanding of Israel's God being the One True God, but that he was the one to whom worship was due, and to him alone. It is what Torah requires. Torah - roughly the first five books of the Old Testament - is so clear about this point, especially in Deuteronomy: stay true.

That is a key point for Hurtado as he now develops what he means by monotheism, because although he has answered some critics of his position on Jewish monotheism (see previous post), he also senses the need to redefine what monotheism means for those who have seen it is a pure constraint for second temple Jews. Either monotheism is "in force" or it is "broken"; cultic practice is not sufficiently taken into account. The three scholars Hurtado particular wants to refute here are Harvey, Casey and Dunn, but it is Hurtado's interaction with Dunn that I particularly want to focus on today.

James Dunn argues for a later Christological development than Hurtado, and particularly distinguishes Pauline church faith and practice from Johannine church faith and practice:

It seems very important to Dunn to attribute a mental monotheistic “reserve” to Paul that was “soon lost to sight” in Johannine Christianity. (KL 860), and: Dunn has not sufficiently appreciated the import of the devotional pattern that is already attested in Paul’s writings. (KL 863)

Here I would like to add a point that Hurtado does not make, which is not surprising since it appeals to a philosophical framework that is insufficiently utilised by this kind of historical-biblical inquiry. So while Hurtado may be correct that Dunn has not looked enough at the "binitarian" devotional pattern in Pauline Christianity, neither Dunn nor Hurtado seem able to recognise how Johannine material might be interpreting the Pauline corpus (along with other first century beliefs, practices and texts no longer extant) or earlier Christianity more generally. The hermeneutical question asks: what must we do in today's context in order to preserve what was taught before? That question will become critical in exploring why God became Triune, and it will become important at seeing why baptism became trinitarian toward the close of the first century. It is what Paul Ricoeur means when he says: Interpretation, let us say, is the work of our thought that consists in decoding the hidden meaning within the apparent meaning, and lay out the various layers of meaning implicated within the literal meaning (my translation, from Le Conflit des Interprétations: Essais d'herméneutique, Ed. du Seuil, 2013, p. 35: l'interprétation, dirons-nous, est le travail de pensée qui consiste à déchiffrer le sens caché dans le sens apparent, à déployer les niveaux de signification implliquées dans la signification littérale).

In Hurtado's case, although he issues in a good number of statements that he wants to avoid linear developments and simplistic analysis, he nonetheless would advocate a binitarian worship pattern that is consistent across the New Testament. In Dunn's case, he would see Jesus worship kicking Christianity out of Judaism when it later came to threaten Jewish monotheism in John's writing era (end first century), something which was not the case in Paul's era.

Biblical interpretation is often seen as a preservation of the initial model meaningfully into a new context, but it has not yet been (as far as I can tell) sufficiently within the canon itself. In a bid to make uniform the fundamental first century worship dynamic, as I fear Hurtado may be doing here, is to risk ignoring the interpretive work of the Johannine communities as our models par excellence on how to do hermeneutics. To overly separate the Pauline from the Johannine, as I fear Dunn does, is to fail to see the early emergence of an all-new worship practice in even pre-Pauline Christianity.

Let's lay out simplistically, then, how the two first century perspectives may, in fact, have differed and attempt to define quite what "binitarian" might mean between the two.

These two structures are indeed different. However, they do satisfy Hurtado's framework in that Johannine devotion remains "binitarian", if we are to define binitarianism loosely as two recipients of a single worship practice. I actually think that this might be what Hurtado has in mind, although he does use the term "alongside" without necessarily connecting his referred instance to one configuration or the other since, since he may view them as fundamentally *the same*. I say that because for me, when Hurtado talks of Christ receiving religious devotion alongside God, that language speaks more of this Johannine model. If I were the sort of interlocutor that Hurtado would answer, then he might reply to assert that Christ being seated (or stood) at the right hand of God goes back a lot earlier in the first century than the Johannine window in question. To that, I would wholeheartedly concur, pointing out that this is precisely why the worship practice might have evolved away from the nuanced earlier practice in (1) above, exemplified famously in Philippians 2, if indeed it did. In this very early text cited in Philippians 2, Jesus receives divine worship, but it is to the glory of God the Father, i.e. not ultimately for his own glorification. That is perhaps why humility is such an important factor of Jesus' character for the early church, in order that such a religious intensity of worship would not "go to his head", so to speak. To receive that quantity and intensity of worship would surely need an equivalent depth of humility to pass it all on to his God and Father.

The break-through nuance of (1) is that whereas second temple Judaism knew some striking examples of divine agents, acting in the Name of Yahweh (or Name of LORD), this is the first time that an agent can mediate a hitherto divinely reserved right back to God. That, combined with exclusion from the Jewish synagogues and Jewish communities, and the image of Christ reigning and God's right hand, may have led later Christian communities to interpret the earlier nuance in a new, more "alongside" fashion, while carefully (at that time) ensuring that God still remain the greater of the two (which I failed to encapsulate in the diagramme). Ensuring ultimacy to the Father was by no means a "given" in the context of the new emergent worship practice.

That, I think, is more than enough for today. Suffice it to say I think this disagreement between Hurtado and Dunn provides a perfect illustration of how Ricoeur's Conflit des Interprétations can provide fresh insights for our historical analysis.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado, Part 5: Forces and Factors: "the decisive criterion"

"THE REAL CHALLENGE in historical understanding is to figure out not only what happened, but also how it happened and why." (p. 27)

If you were only to read one chapter of this book (comprising in all ten chapters), this would be the one to read. It's not that the book is anticlimatic or anything, it's simply that the subsequent chapters will be trauling through carefully demarked parcels of historical data to validate the hypothesis laid out here in chapter one. What a fantastic quest: it's not trying merely to say whether or not Jesus-worship took place in Jewish circles, it is, as Hurtado points out in the epigraph to today's post, to see how and why Christ devotion developed so early, so powerfully and in such a monotheistic context.

Before I outline the key parts of this chapter, I realised I have forgotten to mention up until now that in terms of chapter summaries, Hurtado himself usefully provides these at the close of each chapter. Because I am not on a general fact-finding mission but rather zeroing in on data useful to my own research project on first century trinitarianism including (thanks perhaps in part to Hurtado's own goals) the how and why of such an early Father-Son-Spirit emergence, I may not need to read the whole text. (By the way, I have, I think, stumbled over some exciting new ideas about this! I can't wait to share them on the blog, but am allowing some mulling and critical analysis time before airing them.)

Chapter "Forces and Factors" outline

  1. Jewish Monotheism
  2. Jesus
  3. Religious Experience
  4. The Religious Environment
  5. Summary

1. Jewish Monotheism

Look at the context in which Christianity arose, says Hurtado: Roman-period post-exilic Judaism. In refererence to pp. 17-39 of One God, One Lord, he advocates again as he did thirty years previously that this period of Judaism represented a "defiantly monotheistic stance" - surprisingly, this is not a unanimous scholarly position. Some, like Heiser (mentioned before on this blog), Fossum (to whose work Hurtado responds in One God, One Lord), Peter Hayman, Margaret Barker and several more (whom Hurtado will tackle in the current chapter) maintain that some aspects of Jewish religious perspective on divine agency anticipated binitarian faith, via the Angel of the LORD or the hypostasized Name (of Yahweh). Hurtado doesn't buy into it ("I am not persuaded that a postexilic Jewish binitarianism has been demonstrated", One God, One Lord, p. 39). 

But weren't Jews spread out across the Roman world? Wasn't pagan Roman culture infused with worship to scores of deities? Surely Jewish belief in the pagan world must have been affected, right? Wrong - that is not where the evidence points. Hurtado, citing Lester Grabbe, "Language, dress, dining practices, intellectual categories and themes, sports, and many other things were widely adopted, but there could be no negotiating away the monotheistic posture of Jewish religion. As Lester Grabbe put it, “For the vast majority, this was the final barrier that could not be crossed; we know from antiquity of only a handful of examples of Jews who abandoned their Judaism", p. 30 (my emphasis). So, precisely where the roman world did not make firm distinctions between their culture and religion, hellenized Jews did, as inheritors of a tradition of the "jealous God" who covets the exclusive worship of his people.

So how on earth does Christ fit into this picture? There is no precedent. As Hurtado puts it: "In short, the incorporation of Christ into the devotional pattern of early Christian groups has no real analogy in the Jewish tradition of the period." p. 31.

Here ensues Hurtado's maintained position of defiant Jewish monotheism in the Roman period against Hayan and Barker. Against Barker, Hurtado points to a failed recognition on her part that something genuinely new emerged in Christian devotion to Jesus, stating at Kindle Location (KL) 666: "[significant and creative development of reconfigurations or variant forms of the religious tradition] is what I argue happened in the emergence and development of Christ-devotion in early Christianity: the reconfiguring of Jewish monotheistic practice and thought to accommodate Jesus with God as rightful recipient of worship under the impact of a set of factors". I note here that all this "reconfiguration" and "variant" talk here is directly equivalent to "mutation" language, as Hurtado himself concedes (refer back here; by the way, in One God, One Lord, Hurtado feels considerably freer with the use of the term prior to its criticisms, using it up to 62 times and often without the quotes). Here Hurtado is setting out why this is such a startling mutation in light of the strict monotheism he reports from the Roman Jewish worldview. In fact, it's a double Jewish refusal, since it not only refuses incorporation of outside deities from the pagan world into the Jewish matrix, but it also shuts shop to internal Jewish figures that rose greatly in prominence during the post-exilic period (Enoch, Moses, Yahoel, etc.), which is where Hayman had wanted to argue from. In neither case can there be found suitable recipients of cultic reverence. In Hurtado's most recent book Destroyer of the gods (2016), I believe he attempts to explain why the Jews were not subjecto the same pressures as the early Christians with regards to their refusal to comply with pagan worship rites.

A good final quote, actually, I think it's great, comes from KL 723: The evidence . . . shows that it is in fact in the area of worship that we find “the decisive criterion” by which Jews maintained the uniqueness of God over against both idols and God’s own deputies. . . even to the point of martyrdom, seems to me to reflect a fairly “strict monotheism” (my emphasis). Don't you just love Hurtado's understated style?!

In the next post we will finish off Hurtado's assessment and defense of Jewish and Christian monotheism while introducing a couple of criticisms of my own. I also need to find a simple way to insert some simple diagrammes... Back soon!

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Important Trinity article: Women theologians and Jenson's primary vs secondary distinction

Let me please interrupt my series on Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ book to share what for me was an important article recently written for Christianity Today by Fred Sanders: you can read it here. Entitled, We Actually Don’t Need a Trinitarian Revival, it drew my attention to two important points. Firstly, that there have been important contributions made to Trinitarian theology by female theologians of whom I confess to total ignorance; indeed I lament their absence in my manuscript of Mutated Faith & the Triune Hub.

Secondly, Sanders emphasises that there are indeed two distinct stages of trinitarianism, and even refers to Robert Jenson as the possible inaugurator of "primary trinitarianism" vs "secondary trinitarianism" distinctions. Robert Jenson has been described by Dr Stephen Holmes as (my rough paraphrase according to memory) the greatest living theologian. Clearly I have some reading to do - I promise to update the blog in the future about the female contributions (Catherine Mowry LaCugna and Cynthia Bourgeault, maybe others) and precisely how Jenson stakes out this distinction, and (critically) if he attempts to show how primary led to secondary.

Back soon...

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado - Part 4: No to history-of-religions explanations; No to naive christian apologetics explanations.

IT IS POSSIBLE to resume the remainder of Hurtado's introduction fairly succinctly - I will try to hold back on Triune Hub compatibility comments unless there are key links to be stressed.

Hurtado does not hold back on his thesis - I think that's excellent to get it out there so quickly. I have felt tempted in my own manuscript to allow the journey slowly unfold for the reader in a fashion similar to my own experience, but that does not necessarily constitute good writing. So his thesis in three points about Jesus worship is that
1. religious devotion to Jesus took place phenomenally early, waaay before Paul,
2. expands on point 1 to say that it was very intense and diverse (not entirely sure if the diversity is illustrated quite as well by Hurtado as the intensity, but let's put that question on hold for now)
3. expands on points 1 and 2 to underscore that all this was going on within the Jewish "matrix" of monotheistic religious thought and practice. This is Hurtado's groundbreaking argument really, which is aptly summarised at Kindle location 200 (sorry no page number available): Jesus functions as divine in the religious life of Christian groups of the first two centuries. If we link that to his opening sentence's usage of the word "centre", upon which we reflected here, then I feel confident that Hurtado could agree that "divinity" in the context of monotheistic "function", is fairly equivocal with his own usage of (quasi-spatial) religious centrality. However - Hurtado is not presuming to mean here in his Introduction anything akin to what Dunn labels "Jesus-olatry", making an idol of Jesus. Hurtado in this book will refer to Dunn at various junctures (as anyone writing in this field would have to; likewise for Hurtado), but is in agreement on that this binitarian devotion is only possible as through (extraordinary) appointment by God himself. One of my critiques of Hurtado will nonetheless be an insufficiently vigorous analysis of the distinctions between through and alongside with respect to Jesus' reception of worship, and where the respective emphases might lie between Pauline and Johannine churches.

Remember what I said yesterday: being religious, as Hurtado will point out in outstanding clarity, is not just about what you believe; it is also about what your beliefs bring you to do, which is why the study of worship patterns are so important in mapping out the evolution of Christian belief from within Judaism.

Hurtado is going to take on a major project here mapping out Jesus devotion in the first two centuries, but he senses, correctly in my view, that he does this in opposition to two critical pressure points, themselves opposed to one another. One of these is a liberal historical-critical method inspired by 20th century and earlier German theologians, which assumes that it can reconstruct the emergence of Jesus as a divine figure through normal historical (by which he might mean "merely human") process of inquiry that involved the syncretism of various worldviews. I think Hurtado also means by this that it does not require religious experience to account for Jesus' meteoric rise.

The second pressure point is from Christian apologetics, who would want to assume that no such historical inquiry is of any use since the New Testament - divinely inspired - has it all neatly laid out already, then any further work is probably a waste of time.

Hurtado will convincingly show both positions to be false: both the naive view and the familiar history-of-religions view are wrong in portraying early devotion to Jesus as basically simple, unremarkable, and not difficult to understand. (Kindle location 243). It was not simple inserting Jesus into a monotheistic framework and to find the suitable language (and reshape the framework without compromising it critically) - so the naive view is wrong. And its religious intensity is argued cogently in this book to be too early for the history-of-religions methodology, which downplays the necessity of religious experience. This earliness is underlined by an assumption (which I believe is justified, but that is another big body of research - feel free to click on "lord" as keyword on this blog to see some references and work into the LXX translation of Yahweh) that the earliest Christian Jews would have been familiar with "Lord" language and its associations for their fellow Greek-speaking Jewish converts. That said, from the chapters I have read so far, particularly chapter 1 that develops the thesis, that assumption and its limitations are not developed sufficiently in my view (e.g. widespread usage of Kyrios in ways that do not imitate LXX usage, c.f. even the flawed efforts to present 1 Cor 8:6 as "splitting of Shema", see 1 Cor 9, which immediately applies Kyrios to Christ in a non-LXX/Yahweh compatible fashion. Sorry. Pet topic.

That's the end of the introduction. In the next two posts I will summarise the first chapter of the book as it sets out the explanations for how and why Jesus worship arose in Christian circles. I hope you are excited - it really is a brilliant chapter.

Part 5 coming next...

Friday, 2 June 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado - Part 3: Opening words of "Centrality" hit the nail on the head

THE OPENING WORDS of Hurtado's magnum opus were instant confirmation to me that I was holding the perfect book for my area of interest. Page 1, line 1, reads:

The indisputable centrality of the figure of Jesus in early Christian devotion is the premise for this book.

My emphasis. Being the theological nut that I am, I had to share this line with a friend instantly. I knew there was going to be overlap between my thesis and Hurtado's, but the opening line?! What am I so excited about here exactly? Everyone knows that Christians worship Jesus, he's the big deal Christians are so excited about, right? The point is, as will become apparent, is that the first Christians weren't just random folk who wanted their sins forgiven. They were Jewish. It has taken me a fair while to move from "ok, sure, so they were Jews" to really allowing this thought to take root and truly marvel at the ramifications. The first followers of Jesus understood their master to be a Jew and themselves to be Jews, and saw no reason for them to quit their heritage and ethnic identity. The first Christians did not convert to Christianity from Judaism. They remained Jews and continued to attend synagogue meetings where possible.

The reason why word three of this 650 page (100 pages of references as well) epic is so meaningful to me is that "centrality" is what a hub is all about. There is an as-yet underdeveloped semantic tool that will be able to help us better understand what is going on when religious people apply words like "divinity", and it is to do with religious centricity. The religious hub is the dynamic centre around which all else turns, yes, like a wheel. Being religious, as Hurtado will point out in outstanding clarity, is not just about what you believe; it is also about what your beliefs bring you to do. What Hurtado calls "devotion" is a catch-all phrase that he will later go on to define with a number of other technical terms, like "giving obeisance", reverence, prostration, song... it's dynamic action. But for a monotheistic faith like Judaism, there is only one who occupies that central dynamic core with which the people interact in such a way. Until now. Now those Christian "converts" who remained Jewish had integrated Another into the key interaction point of the very core of their belief system: worship. So I like "centre"; I like "centricity"; I like "core"; I like "heart". The reason why my absolute favourite is "hub" finally as the most suited term for the incredible Jewish revolution that is going on through Christ, is that a hub is both perfectly central and moving.

Sorry for that excursion - I just wanted to make it clear why I place so much value on the general emphasis of the book. Let's get back to Hurtado's own introduction and stated aims, my emphases again:

"I have proposed that in this development we have what amounts to a new and distinctive “mutation” or variant form of the monotheistic practice that is otherwise characteristic of the Jewish religious matrix out of which the Christian movement sprang. In this book my aim is to offer a full-scale analysis of the origin, development, and diversification of devotion to Christ in the crucial first two centuries of the Christian movement (ca. 30-170 C.E.)." [p. 2]

Not much comment required here really, as it simply confirms my earlier comments. Regarding the extended analysis into the second century, this is an interesting inclusion which follows Bousset's own presentation, which Hurtado explicitly affirms as his useful trailblazer. For me, the latter sections of this analysis will also be useful given my conviction that the philosophical work done around the hermeneutical circle are correct in their methodology. Therefore, if we are to understand texts that seem to us of deep importance written 1950 years ago, a great way to fill out the understanding is to see how the first interpreters emphasised and prevented from "misconstrual". By decompressing the New Testament canon as Hurtado does very successfully in my view, we can see evidence of the hermeneutical circle already at work. Hurtado's "mutation" is put in quotes simply because he does not want to put off the readership by a term that has been viewed by some as pejorative (see p. 50). However, it prepares the reader well for the dramatical inclusion of God's divine "vehicle" (yes, he quite likes that term in this book) in the sacred centre reserved for the one true God of Israel.

Part 4 coming soon.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado - Part 2: Introduction

I am now going to more systematically post on the book Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. 

Why Part 2? This is not actually the first response - I posted an insight inspired from my initial "unwrapping" of this wonderful gift a few posts back, where I had hit on an absolute nugget, around the idea of unsuccessful mutations. Please check that out - it is going to be key for what I end up proposing as a theory for the development of the late fourth-century doctrine of the Triune God, and I will certainly be referring back to that idea sparked by Hurtado.

That's a great queue for what I would like to say for the book as a whole: it's sparky. As I read through it with my usual critical approach I am finding whole new areas relevant to the development of the church and its theological, christological and pneumatological categories rise up and take up three-dimensional space in my mind. Read with a mind already initiated to some historical factors behind the rise of Christianity, and you cannot help but find yourself interacting with Hurtado's perspectives - probably endorsing many, questioning some others and perhaps disagreeing with a few too. Before I read it (and I'm not done yet), I didn't really have much of a view about "the Son of Man", or the "Q Source" (theoretical document used to explain the material common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark), or Jesus-worship in Pauline churches and Jesus-worship in Johannine churches, or the Greco-Roman bios writing genre adopted and adapted by the canonical gospel writers, or how radical it would have been for monotheistic Jews to give cultic devotion to Jesus alongside God and what could have enabled that, and on and on. But that's the point of thinking. Once you do think about something, you are changed by that thought (this could even be true of the thorny issue of slavery in the Bible - once the church did think about slavery, it was forced to have an opinion about it)

So this really is such a great book in the way it draws you in, but on so many other levels as well; overall, I think it's the combination here that I feel I so particularly stimulating: the way in which the ideas and first century data draws you into having your own critical viewpoint, the careful review of the scholarly work already done in the field Hurtado is covering, non-simplistic (interactive) coverage of the time periods examined and smooth integration of the ancient and modern sources. It's academic in style, but not at all inaccessible to lay readers like me (and maybe readers of this blog) and very clear. In fact, it is this clarity of presentation, I think, that also fuels the analyses and ideas being sparked off in the reader's mind. In reading it, you should still find some extra mental resources available for questioning, comparing, developing etc., instead of scratching your head and searching in vain for a sentence from where you think you can jump back on the train of thought. It's never like that.

Before I go, a couple of words of reminder about why I am covering this book and how I will cover this book. I initially wanted to hold off until I had read the whole thing - but it is Hurtado's life work, weighing in at over 700 pages. Despite its extremely accessible style and structure, the sheer size of the "package" got to a critical mass when I reached chapter 4, at which point I realised I was going to have to do some critical summaries to consolidate my learning as I went along. Now, this book is fascinating enough in its own right. But I'm not just reading it because I am so interested in first century Christianity, or even first-to-fourth century Christian developments, but because I am researching for the second part of my book/manuscript, the working title of which is Mutated Faith & the Triune Hub. That gives me a purpose as I read, I am zooming in on this critical read on any material that helps account for Trinity development really. Since this book is so committed to "binitarian" (two) worship practice, I am predisposed to require Hurtado to more fully account for the Holy Spirit in his model. Sometimes the Spirit seems accounted for, sometimes less so. You can look out also for a request by me to more carefully distinguish the Pauline from the Johannine worship practices, in which Hurtado certainly makes an impressive start and even provides most of the material needed without fuelling stating the conclusions I would see them serving.

All in all, the thesis of this book is a huge asset to the idea of a refashioned, reshaped, mutated Jewish-Christian hub. I had initially hoped to compress my findings into a single chapter, but from what I'm seeing so far that is going to be a hard ask! Anyway, these posts shall hopefully provide the groundwork for that/those chapter(s).

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Son of Man: a fresh call for new categories

One of Jesus' most preferred titles according to the four canonical Christian gospels is "Son of Man". Correction: "THE Son of Man". It is important to savour the definite article, and digest slowly. While scholars have shown no consensus over the centuries of this conundrum, one thing is clear. There are no other pre-Christian usages of the definite article like this. Either Jesus himself or his immediate followers ascribed to Jesus the *title* of: the Son of Man.

Obviously if no-one had managed to solve the puzzle definitively, we're unlikely to make much headway here. However, there might be some important clues here to stock up my ammo on promoting the Triune Hub model. Jesus' exaltation is described by some as "super-exaltation", that is to say that by the time of the writing of Revelation, the Johannine letters and the gospel of John, cultic (religiousu) worship, obeissance, honour and glory were ascribed to Christ along with God. God had given **all** authority to Christ, his Son. Until quite recently, I had put to one side the "the Son of Man" evidence. Dr Hurtado does not want to read too much into it: "son of Man" can simply be a Jewish way of saying "a man". But what about one appearing like a man to whom divine worship and authority is given? How might you want to refer to **that** son of man? Let's read from Daniel 7:13-14:

 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Dr. Michael Heiser describes this passage in his insightful The Unseen Realm (which I really recommend) as a "second Yahweh figure". Along with a minority of scholars, he believes that the ancient Israelite worldview was of a binitarian Yahweh. In the relevant chapter of Unseen Realm, he develops how Baal and other national deities of ancient middle east nations would be described as "riding on the waves", especially noting the more extensive evidence we have available on the Ugarit practices and beliefs. For someone other than Yahweh to be doing the cloud-riding for Heiser is impossible. It has to be the God of the people the prophet is describing in his vision. Where this view breaks down is the same issue that we find throughout the New Testament, which is totally in line with this striking Old Testament precedent: given authority.

Given authority is no less than inate authority. I was born with British nationality, but I have been given French nationality. So I now have dual citizenship. But the fact that their means of obtention is different has no bearing whatsoever on my power to vote in each of those countries. My British vote is just as important as before, and my French vote has no greater or lesser bearing than that of someone who was born French.

The point for the Triune Hub is that the combination of Daniel 7 and Jesus' designation (probably self-designation) as the Son of Man, seem to suggest that Christ's superexaltation *did* exist as a messianic conceptual category. Glorious visions of the risen Christ would - I think we can reasonably speculate - have joined dots in the Jewish eschatological mind, whereby stories would circulate in which just like that Son of Man, that Son of Man of Daniel 7, Jesus also was given divine authority and glory.

Once again we witness how the biblical texts simply will not play ball with the theological categories so often imposed upon them. With that burden in mind I believe we should feel pressed to finding newer (or older) theological categories that fit the biblical picture more accurately.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Hillsongs Creed song - subtle difference between English and French accidentally reflecting an ancient move

It's been a while since I posted about a worship song - but as a former worship leader and a thinker on the prominent role that worship has on shaping our theology, it is still very dear to my heart.

This morning at church I was introduced to a powerful 2014 Hillsongs song of "Oui je crois (le Crédo)", which quite powerfully resonated for me as someone passionate about the Trinity. Here is the official French video of that song along with the French words. In a minute we will, of course, have a look at the original version in English and reflect again how the Triune Hub model can marshal reconciliation with older Christianity.

Notre Père Éternel, 
Toi qui a tout créé, 
Dieu Tout-Puissant. 
C'est par ton Saint-Esprit, 
Que Jésus fut conçu, 
Christ Notre Sauveur.

Oui je crois en Dieu notre Père,
Oui je crois en Christ son Fils,
Oui je crois en ton Saint-Esprit,
O Trinité divine.
Oui je crois à la résurrection,
Que nous vivrons à jamais, 
Car oui je crois,dans le Nom de Jésus.

Notre Juge et Défenseur,
Tu souffris à la croix,
Le pardon est en Toi.
Descendu jusqu'aux ténèbres,
Tu es ressuscité, 
A jamais élevé.

Oui je crois en Lui 
Oui je crois qu'il est Vivant
Oui je crois, que Jésus est Seigneur.(x2)

Oui je crois à la vie éternelle,
Je crois que d'une vierge il est né,
Je crois à la communion des saints,
Et en ta sainte Eglise. 
Oui je crois à la résurrection,
Quand Jésus reviendra,
Car oui je crois dans le Nom de Jésus.

A quick word about the visuals first. I really like the French video - I like its urban setting, which speaks of relevance to a 21st-century audience. That is important. By attempting a song of ancient Christian truth it is necessary to bind it through to the present, and the visuals play an important role in assisting this.

The French is led by a male singer without choral backing - I'm not so fussed about this point. Part of me likes the impacting clarity of a single voice, while another part appreciates the classic Hillsongs sound which includes the choral backing, even if it gets a bit "samy" to my ears.

Here now then is the English video and lyrics:

Our Father everlasting
The all creating One
God Almighty

Through Your Holy Spirit
Conceiving Christ the Son
Jesus our Savior

I believe in God our Father
I believe in Christ the Son
I believe in the Holy Spirit
Our God is three in one
I believe in the resurrection
That we will rise again
For I believe in the Name of Jesus

Our Judge and our Defender
Suffered and crucified
Forgiveness is in You

Descended into darkness
You rose in glorious life
Forever seated high

I believe in You
I believe You rose again
I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord

I believe in life eternal
I believe in the virgin birth
I believe in the saints' communion
And in Your holy Church
I believe in the resurrection
When Jesus comes again
For I believe in the Name of Jesus

Whereas before I felt quite critical of any song that for me "missed the mark" with respect to the Trinity - especially if I felt the song encouraged Father-Son blurring - I feel more these days a sense that this is a tough challenge to take on as a songwriter. I think one of my main issues is that songs that people label as "Trinitarian" aren't really trinitarian. What people mean by this most-holy of labels is that there is a line in the song that speaks some form of Trinitarian truth that sounds deep and historical to them, often without any deeper trinitarian structure to the song. My feeling is that this song is a bit like this. It's a lot better than Chris Tomlin's song I looked at in November 2015 here, but it too runs the risk of associating the Trinity with Christ, although more through its general direction than the blatant wording of Tomlin. To the song's defense, the song itself does not claim to be a song about the Trinity - it's aim is to reflect ancient (probably a mixture of second to fourth century) creeds in a contemporary style. A creed, of course, attempts the impossible, by summarising the entirety of the faith in a few short phrases, and it is true that the creeds focussed a lot on Christ, and at some points had very little to say about the Holy Spirit (see the Council of Nicaea in 325, for instance).

OK time to point out an important difference introduced by the French translator, whom I am certain had no intention of introducing the nuance I am going to bring out here. In English, we have a direct affirmation of the Triune God: Our God is three in one. No attempt is made to clarify here of course - as I said these are short, ultradense statements that were carefully defined and rigourously debated for centuries. The way it was worked out was to build an understanding of God around the stuff he was made (although he was never made, of course). Once God had stuff, and the first introducer of the Latin word trinitas, Tertullian, was most clear on that point, it became easier to have three in one. The stuff was called "godhead" and was shared between the Father, Son and Spirit in perfectly equal measure and then at some point - probably in the early 400s, I'm still trying to find out quite when - it lost the necessity of "head", thus returning the stuff to the one called "God".

Unfortunately, although this reflects a very old form of Christianity dating back 1600 years - it does not reflect how the earliest Christians understood their Trinity. Thus it is most interesting (to me at least, as a franco-English worshipper!) to see that the French translators have unwittingly bridged that historical evolution (or "mutation") undergone by the early church. The French version states:
Oui je crois en Dieu notre Père,
Oui je crois en Christ son Fils,
Oui je crois en ton Saint-Esprit,
O Trinité divine.

Note only the Father is called God (Dieu), although all three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit receive perfectly equal prominence. Finally, note also that these three are not called "Our God three in one", but simply "O Trinité divine" (Oh divine Trinity!)

This subtle difference is a perfect example to my mind of how we can see the hermeneutical circle functioning in the earliest centuries of the church. Every generation of the Christian faith has to establish what the texts mean to their day and age through the lenses provided them by their forefathers. The task comprises meaningful application but also meaningful safeguarding.

What we are trying to put out there on this blog via the Triune Hub model is that the Triune God, although absent strictly speaking from Christian Scripture is an interpretative move that was both meaningful and necessary according to the Greek philosophical frameworks undergirding the Hellenised church's thought process. This church knew that there had already been very early distillation of the Christian faith around a radically-reshaped core, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see Didache, Matthew 28, 2 Corinthians 13, etc.). Prior to that radical reshaping, the strictly monotheistic Jews reserved this core for only One: Yahweh. Yahweh alone. The parts of Isaiah that are generally agreed to have been written from a context of Babylonian exile are if anything more monotheistic than previous Israelite writings, and Hurtado claims that this tendency to monotheism just got stricter and stricter as Judaism progressed through to the Roman era in which Christianity was born out of its Jewish beginnings. To cut a long story short, this "successful" mutation of the core of Jewish faith won out over other early forms of Christianity (deemed heretical) and required naming. However, in the image of the New Testament writers, "God", that is the "ho theos" of the New Testament and the Greek Septuagint, was one of the three, synonymous with "the Father" (or even "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ", e.g. Romans 15:6). But centrality is accorded to all three, and it is in interaction with Father, Son and Spirit that the church's faith, vocation and hope crystallised and was put into practice. In the fourth century, perhaps with a few exceptions, the battleground had moved away from those early threats which blatantly denied such threefold centricity (e.g. gnosticism, docetism, ...) to a more subtle threat: creating a hierarchy between the blessed Three.

And that is what some Christian history books downplay. Written from a perspective of victorious orthodox belief it can be considered that the fourth-century threat that wanted to keep Jesus' statement of the Father is greater than I a literal one, was totally committed to upholding and preserving the Trinity! The problem with that interpretation of a hierarchy meant by implication (this is the premise of the Triune Hub model) that One member, namely the Father, would be more central thus upsetting the careful balance maintained since the beginning. That couldn't and wouldn't do.

So, back to the Hillsongs song (can anyone else out there be making these kind of connections?!), I believe we have encapsulated here as we move (back) from French to English a nice summary of how the church worked out and safeguarded its understanding of its all-new threefold core, a.k.a. "The Trinity".

Friday, 19 May 2017

The "being" of divine space and the challenge of Indifference

I have to confess to feeling a low ebb of motivation right now theologically. Over the past three years that has been rarely the case, but receiving the rejection from Wipf & Stock, a fresh ankle sprain, internet woes and very little take up on my insights into the Trinity development have left me wondering what to do. My last post about unsuccessful mutations, which seemed like one of my most insightful posts to date, received a measely 10 hits. In the blogosphere that's like saying "don't bother".

However, that very fact alone is theologically interesting. That is to say, why should a theologian theologise? If no-one is interested in your questions, are you still willing to pursue them regardless of the public interest that might generate? How will you cope with indifference? Perhaps this is another place where the dividing line of faith becomes relevant to theological work. If you believe that God really is there, listening, encouraging, pleased with your heart: then that might be enough. That should be enough. God is not indifferent - not the God of the Bible.

So, with some difficulty, let me try to suggest something about the Trinity and the "being" of God. Some of the better theologians around today recognise that our words are not really very adequate when it comes to speaking about God. N. T. Wright mentioned this again recently at the 2017 BioLogos conference (or it might have been his panel session around his book launch of The Day the Revolution Began), and therefore the need to speak wisely and humbly. This is especially important to note with divine beings, because there is at least one being, according to Trinitarian orthodoxy, who comprises/comprise three persons. See - we are already in a difficulty with verb conjugations. If the issue hits our grammar, then something might not be right about our approach to the subject matter.

The supreme Christian divine being, God, is not just the Father, but the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, a.k.a. the Blessed Trinity. There is no other being like him/them. But which is it? "Him"? Or "them"? Let's switch to human beings for a moment, which should make it immediately apparent why the language is not working well for Triune-God advocates. Can there be any difference between a human person and a human being? No, there is none. A human person is identical to a human being. If I point to my Mum and say here is a human person (although that would be a strange thing to say!) then it is the same thing as saying she is a human being. A being just is a person in every other case, billions of times over. Even in the realm of mythological antiquity, the gods were personal and single personal entities. They were "he" and "she". In English, we apply grammatical rules, like in Greek, that are by definition governed by the number of persons involved. So a third-person singular conjugation is about a single (third) person. If you wanted to refer to more than one person, you would need to use a third-person plural form. Some languages like classical Arabic have a special third-person plural for precisely two persons and a separate form for three or more. Regardless, the number of persons is crucial to knowing what grammatical form to use.

What about the God of the Bible? Does "he" ever receive a multi-person verb form? No, he doesn't. With the God revealed by the Bible and through Jesus Christ, you do not need to use quotes around the "he". He is not revealed as a "they". Later, however, by the fifth century, the plurality of persons comprising the "godhead" would be worked out, even if sentences were usually formed that avoided the difficulty of personal pronouns. But is that not ducking the issue? If God is the only divine being to not be identical to the divine persons "within" "him", then what do we do? Good question. What do we do? Fortunately, the Bible still influences our way of thinking deeply as Christians and we continue with the third person singular and do not encourage confusion. God is thus maintained as a simple personal being and trinitarian issues are bracketed.

My recent posts and work on the Triune Hub have encouraged a new stance. I have been encouraging a new way through for trinitarianism which revolves around quasi-physical space. It should be readily granted that the first century provided fertile soil for new emergence of theological perspective. Christianity emerged from **within** Judaism for instance, radically redefining various aspects of Jewish belief, not least of which was permitting that a human figure be worshipped alongside God. The point is that prior to that time, the person of God and the being of God were viewed (I would claim) in a way similar to human persons and human beings - that is to say: identically. God was a Divine person. God was a divine being. Another way to put this in quasi-spatial terms from the perspective of a second temple Jew would be that his person filled the central divine space. The middle, the centre, the core, the heart, the hub of the Jewish faith was God himself.

Before the close of the first century A.D. that central space had been radically redefined to now include the Messiah and the Spirit. That is a monumental shift. But you can see how this divine hub that used to be just God, but is now revealed to be occupied by Father, Son and Spirit, could indeed be later understood - with the best words available of the time - as the being of God, and not his person, which Scripture bolts firmly to the Father. What is really fascinating to ask is why? Thus far, I haven't seen any other hypothesis that matches the explanatory power of the Triune Hub model. But I'm open! Theories can usually be improved, and my own work has seen a lot of fine-tuning over the last six months.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Unsuccessful Mutations

"Unwrapping" my digital birthday gift of Larry Hurtado's most substantial work on early Christian devotion to Christ, I searched for his use of "mutation" as a way to understand how Christianity grew in the first century from within Judaism. Of course, I know what his thesis is in general terms, but it is important to understand in more detail the evidence arising out of first-century sources for how Jesus was reverenced religiously and from the offset.

A couple of initial surprises. One of the practices in modern evangelical church of confusing Jesus and the Father was apparently a first-century struggle as well in some areas. I've yet to cover Hurtado's development there.

Secondly, very intriguingly, Hurtado also uses mutation language to describe unsuccessful early forms of Christian thought and practice. In responding to (and grilling) scholar Burton Mack, Hurtado points out that Mack's Jesus had to be a Jesus closely associated with a Sayings Jesus, such as the one found in the Gospel of Thomas. And that brand of Christianity didn't make it.

A question instantly popped into my mind: why? What can we identify about Christianity streams that were successful? As usual, I referred back to my Triune Hub model, which builds on three major developments within successful Judeo-Christianity that mainstream scholars have described as mutations (the combination of these three (along with other data) points to the mutation of faith itself into a trinitarian shape). Let's state them again:

1. The future hope of restoration of judgement and salvation has tangibly begun in the resurrection of the Messiah - nobody saw that coming.

2. Jesus is worshipped alongside God (Hurtado - although I might suggest that Jesus mediates worship back to the Father) - nobody saw the ascension of the Messiah coming.

3. The collaborative/participative kingdom mutation - nobody expected God's people to be directly involved and empowered to achieve God's Divine Cleanup of the world.

Not only do these three central mutations seem to require some kind of trinitarian articulation to faith (in place of "unitarian"), but they might provide the response to unsuccessful mutations. The Sayings Jesus seems to fail on 2 or 3 of these counts, the docetic Jesus on at least the resurrection count I would think, the Marcian Jesus rejects the notion of mutation entirely (i.e. rejects Judaism). The later Arian and subordinationist Jesuses were also unsuccessful but were seated on a couple of centuries of successful mutations. This probably indicates why they may not have denied any of the above.

But this is where it gets really interesting. Unlike some Christian apologetics that may try to squash these three centuries of debates into a small and even contemporary timeframe, we need to see the subordinationist movement as very close indeed to orthodoxy. All the really whacky stuff had already been done away with. In the fourth century we are not asking "was Jesus a man" or "did the resurrection matter". Successful Christianity acknowledged the mutations and had, by and large, left Judaism by now with its trinitarian shape. The question was now to decide how Christ and the Holy Spirit the hub of Christian religious thought and activity. The question is ontological. But my recent discovery via Paul Ricoeur is that the question may not be ultimately ontological (I have yet to decide), but is certainly not uniquely ontological. What I am proposing is that because the church zoomed in further on their trinitarian faith, because there was a strong sense of loyalty to the biblical texts (the canonisation of which was in some interaction with the doctrine), which assert that "the Father is greater than I", a paradox ensued. Was the Father really greater than the Son? By bringing in Platonic thought, metaphysics and ontology into the discussion, a metaphysical answer to this question was necessary that would not upset the balanced trinitarian faith inherited from the earliest mutations described above, yet would still satisfy the faithfulness issue.

An Arian or subordinationist view, despite the negative characterisations we receive from successful Christian historians, could still have rejoiced in the resurrection of the Christ as an anticipation of their own future bodily resurrection, could still have worshipped Jesus religiously and still be acting to lovingly advance God and Christ's Kingdom. But by asserting, for the first time perhaps from within the successful adaptation framework, that one aspect may be lesser or greater than another, may have just been too upsetting to the foundational Triune Hub mutation.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Jewish roots of the Trinity

As readers of my blog may have noticed, I am difficult to pin down on my views on the Trinity. That isn't because I enjoy that status - the reason is that my view simply doesn't fit any of the categories that I am currently aware of, and I continue to tweak it.

It has two distinct components or phases: a first century Judeo-Christian "mutation" and a late fourth-century Hellenistic preservation of the first-century mutation. Both are hermeneutic effects, but work differently.

In the New Testament, Father, Son and Spirit dominate. Never before in Jewish thought had focussed religious reflection ever been expressed in such a way, but that is the plain and evidential reality that we find in these first Christian texts (including early non-canonical texts, like the Didache).

The title of this post now needs some word of explanation. What I am about to grossly over-simplify is a Jewish threefold centre of their religious worldview and discourse. It is not a Hellenistic product (even if Tuggy is correct to assert an influence of divine triads over the development of Christian Trinitarianism, I would argue that this influence would be underscoring a pattern that we see already evidenced in the texts that we both agree are authoritative). However, it is also false to affirm that the second Hellenistic phase has also occurred, namely that God is triune. First, the faith mutates into having a trinitarian structure. Secondly, the God concept mutates into having a trinitarian internal structure. 

What is going on in the first phase? The religious space typically accorded by the Jews to Yahweh alone, that hub, centre, core or whatever other synonyms you might prefer, had come to be shared with those other Two (my favoured term is "hub" because, in addition to centricity, it also carries the idea of movement of dependent elements around that hub). 

The first-century mutation, the Triune Hub, is making sense of:

  • the unforeseeable early occurrence of an eschatological resurrection event, the resurrection of God's Messiah and Son.
  • the absence of the raised Messiah can only mean that he is exalted, reigning at God's right hand - cosmic rule.
  • the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit empowering God's people to advance the inevitable victorious kingdom foreshadowed by Christ's victory over death and evil during the Easter-Passover weekend.

Between the two trinitarian mutations, there was a lot of heated debate within the church, particularly over Christ's exalted status as the movement rapidly outgrows its Jewish roots and moves wholesale into the Roman empire. This too is unwittingly hermeneutical, because while debating subordinationism, for example, and trying to understand quite what Christ meant when he said "the Father is greater than I", another threat was lurking in the shadows. By asserting an unnuanced interpretation of that statement, the Jewish root idea of tri-centric religious discourse was under threat, along with the movement hosting the discussion. If the church were to admit that one really was greater than another, then that lesser one would also begin a potentially slippery slide further and further from the divine centre space. This would throw the whole delicately balanced mutation out of whack. At some point, the words trias and later trinitas were introduced to help establish the hub with a referring term, even though God himself remained graciously one of those three.

When eventually events required some sort of resolution to this fourth-century crisis, it is the response to the subordinationists that wins the day. Orthodoxy - if we may personify it - subconsciously realised the inherent paradox of the Sirmium Council, which both affirmed the central task of forever preserving the Trinity and that one of those three really was lesser. Those two views are not compatible. Since it was indeed essential that the Trinity be forever preserved (or perhaps practiced would have been more faithful still to the New Testament texts), it could not be that one Trinity member was greater than another, where "greatness" carried symbolism of not just greatness or glory per se, but centricity.

So it is an over-simplification from the Unitarian minority report to insist that God is one, God is one, God is one, until suddenly a great theological switch is thrown to now insist that God is three in the late 300s. It's an impossible picture. No, you have to start earlier than the New Testament and affirm that God was identical to the space he occupied at the hub of the Jewish faith. Secondly, the faith unpredictably evolves to feature three somethings at the hub of the faith - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thirdly, the space is again reconciled with the being of God, comprising now three hypostases. So while the Unitarian will seek to show the drastic error of saying God was simply one and became three much later on, that person misses the organic nature of the development I am arguing for and the threefold centre of the faith they cherish. The number "three" can be seen as a threat to Unitarians, so they do not tend to focus on the possibility of such an early threefold hub. Perhaps they too, like Trinitarians, confuse trinitarian faith with trinitarian God. What both camps thus ignore is that the first and fourth-century churches share a triune hub. 

The fourth and fifth-century creeds, as ontological in focus as they might appear, should be seen to carry purpose, and that purpose is to guard - fiercely - the triune Hub rooted in the Jewish first-century church, by means of the philosophical tools available at the time. Those tools happen to be metaphysical and appear to be straight up fact claims, but they are loaded with the deeper purpose given at Sirmium.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Absence of Christ

As Christians, we are sometimes unaware of certain paradoxes that are interwoven within our faith. Some appear insurmountable, such as the discovery that our planet is much, much, much older than the interpretations offered by our illumined and "modern" predecessors could afford, and then that the Genesis text was neither written nor given in any spirit of police report. That's a whole chapter of its own, but one which illustrates well that the path of interpretation of our texts is dynamic, especially when we give ourselves the time and apply ourselves to being humble enough to look for the meaning that necessarily carried the texts over the centuries to us. If I am speaking in such terms, it is in no small part thanks to the influence of my friend, Barney Asprey, who has set me the challenge of taking with greater seriousness the precautions given us by Paul Ricoeur (among others) to not go too quickly in hammering out afresh a "scientific" faith. Fortunately, our biblical texts are loaded with diverse genres, especially that of story, within which there is the obvious purpose of retelling. Once separated from its source - the spirit, the hand and the revisions of the author - the text is unleashed. It lives. In the case of a canonised religious text, it literally becomes Eternal Word of God.

I apologise for this parenthesis, which might have distracted us from the direction I wanted (this is a translation from my original post in French last night) to take, which is the ascension of Christ. Having already published a short reflection on the meaning of the resurrection of Christ here, I now want to move at this appropriate time to his exaltation. However, not just to his exaltation, which represents a subsequent step loaded with meaning, but to the absence of Christ. Warning! I am not saying that Christ is absolutely absent, not at all, since we read clearly in the gospel according to Matthew "I am with you always, until the end of the age". Note, however, that Jesus is saying this in his departure phase (even if, unlike Luke, the author does not include the physical ascension itself). In other words: I am going and I am staying. This seems paradoxical, and before offering "a solution", I need to pay attention that I don't take the "voie courte" of simple comprehension. Interpretation offered by the church is transmitted from the very early years of childhood. The first lessons of Sunday School are not just that "God loves you", but that "Jesus lives in your heart" (of course, God is Jesus and Jesus is God at that point). Jesus is in your heart. This is not a childish reduction - it's a profound, dynamic reality experienced by millions of Christians of all ages. A while later, our children learn that God is also Spirit and Father, comprising further realities that attach onto our experience as we grow as Christians.

So we learn that Jesus and the Father are in us through the agency of the Spirit of God. Are you ready for another paradox? For God, his indirect action is as direct as his direct action, which is why the little Greek word "dia" is of such inestimable value. So, when Jesus physically leaves this planet in his human flesh, transformed according to the purposes of God for all the creation in submission to decay, he remains spiritually among God's people, there where "two or three are gathered" in his name. What can we notice? This departure prepares the way for an extraordinary deluge from the very heart and being of God, his Spirit, sent by the Son, which presences both Father and Son... and Christian, who suddenly exists as she or he has never been able to exist before! Jesus is thus made present despite his absence.

But why speak at all of his absence? Should it not suffice to speak of and rejoice in his presence?

I would say no. It is very important to understand, or perhaps stand under, the humanity of Christ, not just in the ontological sense, but to grasp where the New Testament is coming from. Of course, this latter testament followers the former and, with the Marcion interpretation so utterly and fatally crushed, continued to carry the meaning of a good God proud to ransom his good creation. Indeed, even beyond the scope of the New Testament, these centuries of gnostic and platonic prominence failed to lure the faithful in embracing philosophy of escaping from and denigration of the natural order. Instead, second temple Jewish expectation and conviction continued to be grounded in a God who would soon resolve the problems here.

Do you see the connection? It is for these reasons that the "picture" of Christ sat on the throne at the right hand of God is more than a picture. Yes, friends, it is yet another paradox. It has to be a paradox. The resurrected Christ did not vaporise his bones. Even the molecules, if we follow a certain modern logic yet ground it on the ancient transversal belief among nearly all Jews (except the Sadducees), even those atoms were transformed in a new physicality entirely driven by Spirit, which can only know life. I am starting to tire of all these paradoxes now, the new star being a body driven by spirit. All complaints to be sent to St. Paul...

Many may not realise that orthodox interpretation says that once the Christ incarnated flesh, being born of Mary, his incarnation is eternal. According to this tradition, which for me is deeply meaningful, Jesus bears his scars forever. Visibly. Physically. Let us return now then to the main paradox that prompted me to put pen to paper yesterday evening. This physical Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He need only turn his head to the left and he can gaze directly into his Father's eyes and reciprocate the gaze that transformed the history of the world.

Let us not forget, and we so need to insist on this point, perhaps with reference to the solid of reference of N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, that the first generations of Christians - who were also Jews - understood this resurrection with the same language they reserved exclusively for the great Spring Clean - the apocalypse of God. Except that the resurrection scheduled for that end time had already taken place at Easter. "The resurrection" had been decisively split into two; first for Christ, and later for his people (leaving aside a complex passage at the end of Revelation). This great cleanup (I really like John Dominic Crossan's language here), by definition, cannot be just symbolic. But if the resurrection is understood as above all a miracle, it would be surprising for some to realise how slippery the slope is back to the lure of escaping the physical prison. That for which our souls thirst is doubtless something akin to escape, but escaping the natural order entirely is a severe and even fatal corruption of the earliest interpretations. The supernatural transformed the natural. That is where my question came from last night (there are so many things to say on this topic but it was late and I didn't want to have this paradox still hanging over me today - even if I am sure that I will never have a satisfactory answer): how can Jesus be understood as being located to the right of the incorporeal father, and the father to the left of the corporal son?

The absence of Christ's body in the tomb visited by the women on the Sunday morning should still speak to us today. An absent Christ can doubtless be in our hearts, along with the Father, but an absent Christ enables him to be "located" in the supreme authority position, present next to his father, our father. Let us remember that a resurrected Christ reigning from Earth would have had significant limits. How hard would it be to believe in his resurrection (a never-aging man, king of Israel...): it would seem that our God appreciates steps of faith, which various apologists sense a need to remove for the Christians they "serve". However, if we look at the ontological interpretation options, that is to say the interpretation of the satisfaction of messianic promises in a resurrected, non-ascended Messiah, would no doubt still include being "a son of God", even in a more absolute sense than David, but still much less than approximating an equal to God himself.

Christ's absence, therefore, would seem as important as his presence. According to me, Barney ;)

Friday, 28 April 2017

Absence de Christ

En tant que chrétiens, nous sommes des fois inconscients de certains paradoxes qui s'entremelent de notre foi. Certains paraissent surmontables, comme la découverte que non seulement notre planète est beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup plus ancienne que l'interprétation offerte de nos prédécesseurs "illuminés" et "modernes", mais aussi que les textes de la génèse n'ont été ni posés ni composés d'un esprit de rapport policier. Cela est toute une histoire qui illustre simplement que le chemin de l'interprétation de nos textes évolue, surtout lorsqu'on se donne le temps et se permet l'humilité de chercher le(s) sens que les textes ont forcément portés avec eux au fil du temps. Si je parle de cette manière, c'est bien grâce à l'influence de mon ami, Barney Asprey, qui me pose le défie de prendre plus au sérieux les précautions dévelopés par Paul Ricoeur, parmi d'autres, à ne pas aller trop vite dans une science de la foi. Heureusement, nos textes bibliques sont très chargés de genres divers, notamment celui du recit, qui porte un objectif ne serait-ce que dans l'objectif de la retransmission. Une fois détaché de sa source - l'esprit, la main et les révisions de l'auteur - le texte se déchaîne. Il vit. Dans le cadre d'un texte religeux, canonisé, il devient litéralement une parole éternelle, forcément parole donc de Dieu.

Je m'excuse pour cette parenthèse, parce que la vraie direction que je voudrais prendre ce soir est l'ascension de Christ. Ayant déjà publié une courte réflexion sur le sens de la résurrection de Christ ici (en anglais), je souhaite passer, à ce moment opportun donc, à son exaltation. Cependant, pas uniquement à son exaltation, qui représente un pas supplémentaire chargé de sens, mais à l'absence de Christ. Attention, je ne dis pas que Christ est absent absolument, pas du tout, puisque nous lisons très clairement déjà dans l'évangile selon Matthieu que "Je suis avec vous tous les jours, jusqu'à la fin du monde". Notez, cependant, que Jésus dit cela toute à fait dans sa phase de départ (même si l'auteur n'inclut pas l'ascension elle-même comme fait Luc). C'est à dire, je pars et je reste. Ceci parait paradoxal, et avant de proposer "une solution", je dois faire attention à ne pas prendre "la voie courte" de la simple compréhension. L'interprétation proposée par l'église se transmet dès la petite enfance. La première des premières leçons de l'école de dimanche est bien non seulement que Dieu t'aime, mais que "Jésus est dans ton coeur" (bien évidement, Dieu est Jésus et Jésus est Dieu à ce moment-là). Jésus est dans ton coeur. Ce n'est pas une banalité infantile; il s'agit d'une profonde réalité dynamique dans la vie de millions de Chrétiens de tout âge. Un peu plus tard, nos enfants apprennent que Dieu est aussi Esprit et Père, ce sont autres réalités qui s'attachent aux cheminement et vécu du chrétien.

En effet, nous apprenons que Jésus et le Père sont en nous par le biais de l'Esprit de Dieu. Etes-vous prêts pour un paradoxe de plus? Pour Dieu, son action indirect est aussi direct que son action direct, d'où l'inestimable importance du petit mot "dia" en grec. Donc, lorsque Jésus part physiquement de cette planète dans sa chair humaine, transformée selon le dessein de Dieu pour toute la création en état actuelle de soumission à la pourriture, il reste spirituellement parmi le peuple de Dieu, là où "deux ou trois sont rassemblés" en son nom. Qu'est-ce qu'on constate? Un départ qui prépare un déluge extraordinaire depuis le coeur, l'être même de Dieu de son Esprit envoyé par le Fils, qui rend présents père et fils... et chrétien, qui existe du coup comme jamais il n'a pu existé auparavant ! Jésus est donc rendu présent malgré son absence.

Mais pourquoi parler d'absence ? Ne suffirait-il pas de parler et se réjouir de présence?

Je dirais que non. Il est d'une grande importance de comprendre l'humanité de Christ, non seulement dans le sens ontologique, mais pour saisir d'où vient le nouveau testament. Bien évidemment, ce dernier suit "l'ancien" testament et, l'interprétation marcionne étant rejetée d'une force fatale, a continué à être porteur d'un sens profond d'un bon Dieu fier de racheter sa bonne création. En effet, même au delà du nouveau testament, les siècles de prominence gnostique et platonique, n'ont pas réussi à tenter "les fidèles"  à l'échappement de la prison corporelle, mais plus tôt à affirmer les convictions juives de l'ère du deuxième temple, que Dieu allait bientôt régler les problèmes ici.

Voyez-vous le lien? C'est bien pour ces raisons-là que "l'image" du Christ assis sur le thrône à la main droite de Dieu est plus qu'une image. En effet, c'est encore un paradoxe mes amis. Il faut qu'il en soit un. Le Christ réscucité n'a pas zappé ses os. Les molécules mêmes, si on suit une certaine logique moderne fondée sur la perspective juive transversale de l'époque (parmi les Juifs, en tout cas représentatif d'une démographie juive bien plus transversale que l'exception des Saducéens), seraient transformés dans une nouvelle physicalité entièrement animée par l'Esprit qui ne peut qu'émaner de la vie. Je commence à m'épuiser à compter les paradoxes maintenant, le nouveau star étant ce corps animé par l'esprit. Pour toute réclamation, on  peut s'adresser à St Paul...

L'interprétation orthodoxe, beaucoup ne le savent pas peut-être, dis qu'une fois que le Christ a incarné la chair, en naissant par Marie, que son incarnation est à perpétuité. Selon cette tradition, qui pour moi est riche de sens, Jésus portera éternellement ses cicatrises. Visiblement. Physiquement. Revenons-nous au paradoxe principal qui m'a poussé à mettre de l'encre sur ma plume ce soir. Ce Jésus physique et visible est à la droite du Père. Il n'a qu'à tourner sa tête à gauche et il pourra regarder son Père directement dans ses yeux et échanger le regard qui a transformé l'histoire du monde.

N'oublions pas, et il faut tellement insister dessus, peut-être sur un appui solide telle que la référence The Resurrection of the Son of God, par N. T. Wright, que les premières générations de chrétiens - également juives - ont compris cette résurrection avec un langage qu'elles réservaient pour le gros ménage du Printemps de Dieu, son apocalypse. Sauf que la résurrection qui était prévue pour cette époque  a déjà eu lieu à Pacques. "La résurrection" a été décisivement scindée en deux; d'abord pour Christ, et puis ce sera pour son peuple (mettant de côté un passage complexe à la fin de l'apocalypse de St Jean). Ce gros ménage divin (j'aime bien l'appelation de John Dominic Crossan du great divine clean-up), par définition, ne peut pas être que symbolique. Si la résurrection est comprise comme surtout un miracle, il serait étonnant pour certains de réaliser la vitesse à laquelle on peut vouloir, de nouveau, s'échapper de cette prison corporelle/naturelle. Ce à quoi nous aspirons est un peu comme un échappement sans doute, mais ceci est un détournement profond et fatal des interprétations précoces. Le surnaturel a transformé le naturel. D'où ma question ce soir (il y a tellement de choses à dire à ce sujet mais il est tard et je ne veux plus avoir ce paradoxe à résoudre demain - je suis assez sûr de ne jamais trouver une réponse suffisante), comment peut Jésus être compris comme à la droite du père incorporel, et le père à gauche de son fils corporel ?

L'absence du corps de Christ dans le tombeau où sont allées les femmes le dimanche matin devrait nous parler encore aujourd'hui. Un Christ absent pourrait être présent avec son Père dans nos coeurs, sans doute, mais un Christ absent est paradoxalement en position d'autorité suprême, "présent" avec son père, notre père. Rappelons-nous aussi qu'un Christ rescucité en situation de règne terrestre aurait eu des limites fortes: grande difficulté pour les femmes et les hommes à ne pas croire dans sa résurrection (homme qui ne vieillit jamais, roi d'Israël, ...). Il paraît que notre Dieu apprécie le pas de foi que de nombreux apologètes chrétiens se sentent missionnés d'enlever des chrétiens qu'ils "servent". Un Christ ici présent, du point de vu interprétation ontologique, aurait satisfait les promesses messianiques différemment, même suite à l'acte décisif divin de sa résurrection. Sans partir pour régner sur le cosmos entier à la droite de Dieu, il serait sans doute "un fils de Dieu" dans un sens plus poussé que David, mais toujours bien moins qu'un égal à Dieu lui-même.

L'absence de Christ serait donc aussi important que sa présence. En tout cas, selon moi, Barney ;)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Crucified God

On the Trinities podcast, we have been looking at various efforts to explain how one who is "fully God" could die, if God is immortal.

It's a bit of a head-scratcher, but I had a go at playing "devil's advocate" and wrote to both the show host and the PhD student advocating a new form of social Trinitarianism to try and assess the strengths of this approach.

Here then I posit the following impossible triad (all cannot be true) and how I think a Trinitarian should answer. These alternatives are inspired by Jurgen Moltmann's distinction that it is not as accurate to say death of God as death in God (The Crucified God) and McIntosh's intrinsic/group persons. If I were a fourth century or later trinitarian, I would also want to distinguish between person and being, or intrinsic and group persons. I would say that the Triune God is a being (or group person) and that Jesus Christ is not a being (or a group person); Jesus Christ is an intrinsic person.

God = one (group) being; God = three fully divine intrinsic persons, F S & HS
Immortal = "never dying"

1) God is essentially immortal
2) No fully divine person has ever died
2) Jesus is fully divine

As I mentioned in my comment, I think the way forward for a capital T Trinitarian might first be to deny the wording as accurate because Jesus Christ is an intrinsic person, not a being (i.e. human-divine person, not a human being), to substitute the word person for being, then deny 2. Now they can take refuge in the person/being distinction and propulse a possible further distinction that might follow from Moltmann's thought, that God experienced death within him.

Alternatively, if we took a McIntosh Group Person social Trinity, this scenario could invite the comparison with a closely knit family losing a treasured member. The functional group person experiences the death of an intrinsic person. Here, it is the group person who is essentially immortal, and the intrinsic person Logos incarnandus (Barth) who is not.