Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem

Your sweetest notes employ
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.

How Judah’s Lion burst his chains,
And crushed the serpent’s head;
And brought with him, from death’s domains,
The long-imprisoned dead.

From hell’s devouring jaws the prey
Alone our Leader bore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where he hath gone before.

Triumphant in his glory now
His sceptre ruleth all,
Earth, heaven, and hell before him bow,
And at his footstool fall.

While joyful thus his praise we sing,
His mercy we implore,
Into his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen.

-N. T. Wright

A Meditation for Holy Saturday

Here’s the opening chorus from N.T. Wright’s Easter Oratorio, a meditation of hope for this Holy Saturday.

On the seventh day God rested
in the darkness of the tomb;
Having finished on the sixth day
all his work of joy and doom.
Now the word had fallen silent,
and the water had run dry,
The bread had all been scattered,
and the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd,
and the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king,
and nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary,
O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave-clothes and the spices
cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus,
Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
In the brooding of the Spirit,
in the darkness of the spring.

Athanasius on the "Conquest of the Cross"

Easter is around the corner. So, I thought I’d share this gem from St. Athansius’ On the Incarnation

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die, they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection…So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample as they pass and as witness to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?”

We often focus on the importance of Christ’s work on the cross in purchasing our forgiveness for sin. It is that, and we must not ignore that. However, Athanasius would have us see the implications of the cross more  broadly. Christ’s death and resurrection is nothing less than the defeat of death, and followers of Christ now deride it as no terrible thing, for it is utterly defeated. Gospel indeed!

360-Degree Holiness: @calvintsamuel Lectures @WesleyBiblical (#andcanitbe)

I finally got around to downloading and listening to the Chamberlain Holiness Lectures delivered last fall by Rev. Dr. Calvin T. Samuel at Wesley Biblical Seminary. I’ll say first that I wish had not waited so long. Anyone interested in what the Bible has to say about holiness needs to listen to these talks – multiple times. Samuel is Director of the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, England, and his work in these lectures is winsome, wise, relevant, and scholarly. These talks have challenged and illumined my thinking on biblical holiness in a variety of ways. Here’s a quick overview and a couple of points that I found particularly important.
The first lecture takes up a variety of introductory issues related to the importance of holiness, what holiness looks like, and how it is attained. If you only listen to one of the talks, be sure it is this one. It will give you a good introduction to the significance of holiness not only in our readings of scripture but in all of life. The second lecture provide a rich picture of holiness by tracing the motif in the Old Testament through the priestly, prophetic, and wisdom traditions. The third looks at holiness in Paul, and the fourth takes up the relationship between holiness and purity in the ministry of Jesus. All in all, Samuel demonstrates an impressive knowledge of holiness in both testaments and in the secondary literature that will push us to think more carefully about the way scripture deals with the topic. 
Missional Holiness
I greatly appreciated what Samuel calls “360-Degree Holiness”, which is also the name of the lectures. By this, Samuel means that God’s sharing of his own holy character with us should transform us in such a way that we engage the world in mission to further spread God’s holiness. One of the ways Samuel fleshes this out is by contrasting holiness as a defensive posture with holiness as an offensive posture. A defensive attitude toward holiness seeks to protect holiness from the things that defile it. In contrast, an offensive attitude toward holiness sees holiness itself as an agent that transforms the unclean into that which is pure. This offensive posture, Samuel argues, characterizes the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus touched a dead body, he wasn’t worried about becoming ceremonially unclean. Rather, the dead body was transformed into a living body. That which once defiled has become pure by means of his touch. This raises questions with regard to our own posture toward holiness. Do we see holiness as something that needs to be protected? Or do we see it as a powerful agent that transforms the world?
The Eschatological Nuance
One particularly important topic that Samuel takes up is what he calls the eschatological nuance. This is a way of getting at the tension in scripture (and particularly in Paul) that we live in a time of tension in which the reign of Christ and the kingdom of God have been inaugurated even though sin and death have not been finally exiled from God’s good creation. Samuel emphasizes that holiness belongs to the age to come and is experienced presently only in anticipation of the consummation of the kingdom.
This is something Wesleyans need badly to wrestle with. We tend to refer to entire sanctification as full salvation. However, all holiness is an anticipation of the ultimate (and full) salvation that will be ours when Christ comes and raises our bodies from the dead. The perfection of our holiness in the present serves to point forward to the magnificence of God’s transforming power that will be fully manifest when he transforms our bodies from humility to glory and from death to life. The present transformation of our character points forward to the final transformation of our whole self, including our bodies. As far as I can tell, and I’ve looked into it a bit, this is not something that Wesleyans have generally taken on board in the way we talk about holiness. It is, nevertheless, the way the Bible talks about holiness. In this way, Samuel’s work in these lectures challenges Wesleyans to constantly ground our vision of holiness in biblical revelation. 
These are just a couple of ways these lectures have impacted my thinking with regard to holiness. They can be downloaded from the WBS podcast page. Scroll down until you see the four entries titled “Chamberlain Lectureship Series.” Or, if you prefer, the transcripts can be downloaded from the main event page; the transcripts include footnotes which will aid you in tracking down the sources with which Samuel interacts. If you are at all interested in holiness – and you very well should be! – attend to these talks with care. 

Review: The Quest for the Trinity (@ivpacademic) by Stephen R. Holmes

We continue in the midst of what has often been called a “Trinitarian revival,” but with The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes argues that the revival would be more properly termed a revision. He writes:

I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable (xv).

Having spent the last several years dipping into the literature on the doctrine of God, both ancient and modern, I was, to say the least, somewhat jarred by this claim. The so-called revival has been received with enthusiasm by many in all the major Christian traditions, and welcomed as a promising foundation for ecumenical dialog. After all, if there is one thing Christians can agree on, it is the Trinity. That Holmes would challenge the consensus by arguing that the contemporary debates are in fact a departure from the historic formulations of the doctrine of God points to the value of this book. Whether or not one agrees with Holmes, anyone interested in the doctrine of God and the way it has been handled by modern theologians will have to engage the argument of this book.
That argument begins with a survey of 20th century treatments of the Trinity including the particularly noteworthy contributions of Barth, Rahner, and Zizioulous (chapter 1). Among the contemporary writers Holmes finds a common interest in locating the doctrine of God in the gospel narratives, a focus on the personal nature of God, the entanglement of the life of God with world history, and the univocal use of language with regard to God and the created order. Chapter 2 takes up the biblical material and provides a critical analysis of the way the relevant texts have often been read. The rest of the book (chapters 3-9) traces the way the doctrine of the Trinity has been handled from the Patristic period to the present.
Holmes finds general consensus with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity up through the time of the Reformation. He even casts doubt on the oft repeated idea that the doctrine of the Trinity was lost prior to the present revival of interest. Even during the anti-Trinitarianism of the Enlightenment, there were numerous theologians arguing for the historic doctrine. From the ancient church through to the Reformation, Holmes identifies a common interest in using all of scripture (not just the gospels) as a basis for Trinitarian thinking, an insistence on the ineffable and simple unity of the divine nature, and the recognition that language about God could be adequate, though always inexact. When compared with the many and various approaches to the Trinity in the modern period, Holmes finds these concepts generally absent and sometimes even rejected. As a result, he sees the extensive interest in and writing on the Trinity as a departure from the historic doctrine. Holmes certainly recognizes what is at stake if he is right about the irreconcilable differences between the ancients and the moderns. If the more recent formulations are right, then “we need to conclude that the majority of the Christian tradition has been wrong in what it has claimed about the eternal life of God” (2). 
In my judgment, Holmes is correct that many modern theologians depart in substantial ways from the historic formulations of the Trinity, though I am hesitant to issue a blanket statement that all recent writers commit such a departure. I think we must recognize that the task of modern Trinitarian theology is not quite the same as that of the ancients. The ancients had the great responsibility of forging language that accurately reflected the truth about God in scripture and the worship of God in the church. Theirs was a foundational task, and we do not have to repeat the work that they have already done so well. The task of Trinitarian theology in the present is to explore the implications of the historic doctrine. It sometimes sounds as if Holmes is suggesting that anything other than a repetition of the ancient formulations is a departure from them; but is it not the case that we can stand on their work to consider further and unforeseen implications?  Holmes is certainly right that some modern writers completely revise the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the charge is less clearly substantiated against others. Each new contribution must be weighed on its own merits and evaluated with regard to the degree that it faithfully builds on those who have gone before.
The Quest for the Trinity has much to commend it. Holmes’ detailed account of the doctrine of God from the early church up to the present will greatly benefit anyone interested in understanding the historical development of Trinitarianism and will make it a valuable text in courses on the doctrine of God and historical theology. The summaries of the historic formulations give us a criteria to help us judge the degree to which new contributions stand in continuity with or break from the central components of the doctrine. All in all, this is a very valuable book that will help us approach the doctrine of God with heightened care and increased critical awareness. 
*Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for a complimentary review copy of The Quest for the Trinity.

Practicing Freedom: A Lenten Reflection

My homily from Ash Wednesday has been published at Seedbed and can be found here. This reflection was born out of reading Douglass Campbell’s work on Romans 6. Here’s the key quote: 

Freedom is not a matter of sheer choice…but of an incremental creation of new possibilities for bodily action that must be learned and internalized…Freedom is therefore complex, communally mediated, and embodied. Above all, it is learned and hence taught, much as someone is only free to play a violin beautifully after years of practice and instruction (Four Views on the Apostle Paul, 132).

What a remarkable thing to say. Campbell’s description of freedom cuts against the grain of the way we usually think about freedom as the ability to choose one option or the other. It’s not clear to me that such an approach deals adequately with the biblical insistence that we come into the world as slaves to sin and that we are only freed through the gracious act of God in Christ and on the condition of faith in him. Neither does the typical understanding of freedom deal adequately with activities that require the cultivation of a particular skill through extended training and discipline. I am free to play the guitar, but I am not free to play it as well as those who have instructed me over the years. A student who has just learned to form the C chord is not free to play like Robert Johnson. I wonder if this is not one reason that the Christian life and discipline is so difficult for so many of us. Do we recognize that a relationship with the God who formed us in his image cannot be reduced to single moment of choice? Is not our walk with Christ and the freedom that is found in him something that must be practiced? Something in which we must have ongoing training? 
I’m interested to hear from you. Does the Campbell quote challenge the way you think about freedom?

James Dunn on Biblical Holiness (#AndCanItBe)

I was struck by this quote from James D.G. Dunn on holiness in the Bible:

I still want to maintain that wherever the concept of ‘holiness’ appears in the biblical material, underlying it is the sense of the mysterious otherness and aweful power of the divine, of God, and that the holiness of people, places and things is essentially derivative from that primary source of holiness, ‘holy’ as related to the divine, to God (169).

This is from Dunn’s chapter entitled “Jesus and Holiness: The Challenge of Purity” in Holiness: Past and Present (ed. Stephen Barton; T&T Clark, 2003). A couple of reflections:

  • Holiness is essentially mysterious in the sense that, apart from divine revelation, it would remain hidden from us. It is other than us and alien to us. Thus, any holiness that is manifest in the life of a human being is derived; it is not absolute. God alone is perfectly holy. God alone is the origin of holiness, the “primary source.” We can only be holy if God shares his essential holiness with us.
  • This means that the character of true holiness is not up for debate or negotiation. God is who he is, and God’s holiness is what it is. If we want a part in the holiness of God, we must accept it as God gives it. We do not have the authority to define holiness as we like, and any attempt to do so is a departure from true holiness.
  • That holiness necessarily comes from God highlights the reality that the holy life is a work of grace. We can actually be holy because it is something God does in us. “Now may the God of peace sanctify you completely…He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thes 5:23-24).
  • Taken this way, holiness must also be understood in relational terms. If God alone is holy, and if holiness in us comes only from God, then we must be properly related to God in order to receive his holiness. The people who are in covenantal relationship with God are holy and are to be holy.