Systematic Surrender

John Webster on Barth in “From the Substance to the Word:”

[R]evelation is no more and no less than the life of God himself turned to us, the Word of God coming to us by the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ.’  Such a divine approach cannot be formalised into a set of axioms, and to attempt to do so (by, for example, developing a systematic biblical theology) is to take up a false stance to divine revelation, treating it as ‘a presupposition [Voraussetzung] which we can control.’  Properly undertaken, biblical theology effects no such settlement; it is simply ‘a series of attempted approximations, a collection of individual exegeses’.  What is required of the exegete is not systematic ambition but ‘surrender’.

Lord of the Word

I found this paragraph to be strikingly beautiful in John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Current Issues in Theology):

Second, as God’s free self-presentation, revelation is a free work of sovereign mercy. God’s revelation is God’s spiritual presence: God is the personal subject of the act of revelation, and therefore revelation can in no way be commodified. God is – as Gèrard Siegwalt puts it – revelation’s ‘uncontainable content’. As spiritual presence, the presence of God is free: it is not called forth by any reality other than itself; it is majestically spontaneous and uncaused. Its origin, actualisation and accomplishment require nothing beyond God. Like the entire history of the divine mercy of which it is a part, revelation is unexpected, undeserved, possible only as and because God is, and present after the manner of God. In Barth’s curious phrase, ‘God is the Lord in the wording of his Word.’

Scripture is where we meet God in all the freedom of his self-revealing Lordship.

Into the Cloud

There’s an interesting parallel between Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai in Exodus 24 and the description of the tabernacle/temple in later Old Testament accounts. In Exodus 24, God instructs Moses to bring the elders of Israel with him up on the mountain of Sinai to worship “from afar.” The people were not allowed to come to the mountain or even touch it, but the Moses and the elders were invited up. From there, Moses alone was invited up into the heart of the glory of God which covered the mountain, and there he was for forty days.

After the tabernacle was completed, the common Israelite worshiper could come through the outer wall into the courtyard, but could not approach the Tent of Meeting itself (Numbers 18:21-22). The Levites ministered in the outer court and in the Holy Place, inside the Tent of Meeting, but could go no further. Into the Holy of Holies, where God’s glory rested, only the High Priest was allowed, and even he only once a year (Leviticus 16, Hebrews 9:6-7).

There are probably many reasons why this was so at Sinai and in the tabernacle. One thing it certainly serves to show is that God’s glory was hidden at the same time that it was on display. The glory-cloud would have been unmistakeable; the tabernacle and temple drew every eye. But God’s secret heart, his covenantal presence, was only revealed to Moses and the High Priest.

Enter the New Testament.

When Jesus was lifted up to public view on Golgotha, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. No separations, no distinctions- God’s glory in Christ was on display for all the world to see. In the Old Covenant, if God and man came too close to each other man would die. In the New Covenant the God-Man died to bring man into the heart of his glory.

Athanasian Dance

Good morning!

I just finished Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man, and I highly recommend it. It’s like reading a good coffee stout.

In one of his final chapters, Chesterton comments on how strange, how contra mundum Christianity is. He notes that if there is one thing the enlightened and liberals of every age have pointed to as exemplary of the endless argument and disagreement that is Christian theology, it is “this Athanasian question of the Co-Eternity of the Divine Son;” and that if there is one thing that these same enlightened and liberal offer as simple, pure and unspoiled Christian thought, “it is the single sentence, ‘God is Love.'” He then says this:

Yet the two statements are nearly identical; at least one is very nearly nonsense without the other. The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love. If the moderns really want a simple religion of love, they must look for it in the Athanasian Creed.

Thanks for that, GK. Eschewing a logical Christianity for a colorful one leaves us not with a colorful Christianity at all, just the hopeful and ultimately substance-less idea of color. A God who is able to love, yet not eternally, is more Athenian than Athanasian.


Bigger Than Infinite

I’m no doubt stealing from somewhere in what comes next, but I can’t think of the original source for anything. My apologies to you, unknown author(s).

Before Kepler et al came along and told everyone how big the universe was, they all thought it was pretty big. A massive cosmos in nine spheres, each filled with light and populated by angels of every rank and beatific creatures and sights of indescribable wonder. Earth, dark little realm that it was, must have felt more like the bottom than the center. But now we know that the universe, far from being the realm of endless day, is infinite and (mostly) empty and black.

I’m not saying the old guys were right about the cosmos, just because their vision was a little more lively. My point has nothing to do with the universe at all. It is rather that we (people) have the sort of minds which take in the Very Large a lot better than the Infinite. A long way seems a lot further than never-ending, or at least the imagination can go further with the former. I don’t know about you, but my brain fizzes out when it’s faced with infinitude (This, coincidentally, is why no one understands the national debt).

Why does Jesus tell parables? Why does he talk about the kingdom of heaven as a big tree? Why does he compare it’s matchless worth to that of a pearl? Why compare his Father to a manager, salvation to the finding of a coin, hell to a dung-pit? Because we wouldn’t understand him otherwise? Because we have no concept of the true nature of things? Yes and yes, and I would propose a third reason: Because being outside the party in the dark sounds/seems/feels worse than the worst, most unending and unremitting torment imaginable. Because finding a valuable coin you lost and have been desperately searching for brings home the taste of joy more than the idea that the infinite impassible God rejoices before the angels in heaven over the salvation of one sinner. Because we’ve all had exacting managers, but nobody who reads the words of Scripture has had to stand before God- yet.

We are creatures of earth, and God knows our language. Someday we’ll be able to see further than we can presently conceive, and in the meantime big is bigger than infinite.


I Swear I’m Not a Posty

Truly. I’m not post-millenial. Maybe I should be. But regardless of the theology of the thing, I think they have a healthy attitude when it comes to thinking about the future, particularly in thinking about sowing and reaping.

I know some post-millenials who would disagree with me, but I’m not sure it matters what a person’s eschatology is when it comes to thinking about sowing for the future. We know that the Lord is coming back soon, and so there ought to be a sense of urgency to our actions, but we also know that with him a day is as a thousand years, so there ought to be some thought given to what we’re going to do with a thousand more years, if it should be given to us.

We’re constantly reaping the fruit of seeds sown by generations before us. Believers one hundred years ago worked in faith, and many never saw the reward for their labor, I’m sure. We’re like the disciples, reaping where we did not sow (John 4:36-38). Somebody put an iron into the fire earlier, and now it’s hot enough to use.

But this comes with a responsibility. We’ve been given much, and so much is required. We ought to be mindful of the future, putting irons into the fire, sowing where we have no reasonable expectation of living to see the fruit. We ought not just have one-year, five-year, ten-year plans, but dreams and aspirations which stretch for centuries, insofar as we can.

Christ may return for his own tomorrow. He may tarry for a thousand more years. That’s his business, not ours. Ours is to be the church as faithfully as we can be- and that means not just collecting on previous efforts, but seeing to it that our descendants can do the same.



I wish Webster’s was open-source, like Wikipedia. I make up words left and right.

Athanasius believed that typology was inherently hortatory. This was because Christian typology is somewhat hourglass-shaped. Old Testament figures and types get narrower and narrower in scope until they get to Christ, their fulfillment;  after that the same images rebound to the church in Christ. I’ve written on this before. Typology is story; if you know your place in the story, you know how to act. And What Would Jesus Do? is only useful if run through the filter of redemptive history, because oftentimes when that question is asked the answer should be “die for the life of the world,” and that isn’t any help to us at all.

For an example, let’s pick… Exodus 17. A few days ago I tried to suggest that Paul wasn’t the first one to think Yahweh was the rock that was split, and yesterday I tried to draw out some implications of that. But is there a command contained within this extended metaphor? I think there is.

Christ is the stricken rock, and from the rent in his side flowed water and blood– life for the world. This confession is the rock upon which the church is built. But Jesus isn’t the only living Stone here; we also, like living stones, are being built into a temple for the Lord. So, like our Foundation, we are split; and though our cleaving isn’t salvific I think Tertullian had it right when he said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.

A comfort in pain, a directive in uncertainty, and an explanation in difficulty.