Category Archives: bible

the psalm 8 balance

One of my favourite Psalms is the eighth. I’m using it – very briefly – for a baptism sermon this Sunday, which will have absolutely no room to even begin to extol the kind of technical beauties this gem has.

First of all, there’s the structure.  Check this out:

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth,

B who has set your splendor above the heavens;

C from mouths of babes you ordained strength, to stop the foe & avenger.

D When I consider the works of your hands the stars you’ve ordained,

E what is man that you think of him, or a son of man that you visit him?

E You made him a little lower than angels & crowned him w/ glory & honour

D gave him dominion over the works of your hands & put all under his feet

C all sheep and oxen, yes the beasts of field

B birds of the heavens, fish of sea, all that swim in paths of sea

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!

That’s a bit of chiastic beauty right there.  The widest frame of God’s glory, and within that the contrasts of the heavenly and the earthly ‘works of your hands'; all leading up to and from the middle, the intersection of heaven and earth: humans. Someone once said that, when it comes to what we have capacity to measure, from the estimated ‘size’ of the known universe, to the ‘planck length’, humans are in the direct middle.  True or not, that’s a cool thought.

Like the two triangles in the star of David, this Psalm is about the profound tension of being human.  Long before any old or new atheist ever protested the idea of humans being the centre of the world, we have ‘the baffled king’ David, who is flabbergasted at the thought of God thinking about humans.  And yet.  How inspiring is the irony that humans alone (so far as we know!) have the combination of sapience and science to grasp and be grasped by their small size in relation to ‘the rest’?  Psalm 104, by the way, speaks of purpose in creation beyond the comfort of humans.  Rock badgers, the land, the trees, the sun and moon and others all benefit.  Had David known about bosons, black holes, quarks and dark energy, he’d have found a way to speak of their delight in the provision of the Creator.

Which leads to what I like to call the ‘Psalm 8 balance’.  If to be human is to be “under the creator, and over creation” (as I recall hearing N.T. Wright say), then (as  humans primarily sin when they either fail to live up to their calling of being ‘over’ the works of God’s hands, or when they fail to submit to being ‘a little lower than God. (My understanding is that ‘elohim’ here should, as elsewhere, be translated ‘God’, not ‘angels’)  As Mark Biddle writes in Missing the Mark (p. 75),

“Authentic human existence involves living in and for the image of God while fully aware that one comes from the dust.  When this polarity becomes imbalanced in either direction, one falls into sin.”

Or Bruggemann, on this Psalm, writes,

Human power is always bounded and surrounded by divine praise.  Doxology and dominion its context and legitimacy.

Apathy is the enemy of the wonder that simultaneously makes worship godly and makes our ‘dominion’ humane.  And that is tension indeed.

And finally, there’s the way this Psalm just patient sits and quietly asks to be picked up and used to speak about Christ. The one in whom heaven and earth met.  The ‘man from heaven’ Paul would say.  The one who dared utter the words ‘before Abraham was, I AM’.  The incomparable God-Man.  The Only Begotten son, called both the son of God and son of Man, who didn’t leave his glory ‘set’ above the heavens, or just to the Father and himself ‘before the world began’ (as in John’s gospel), but who took flesh and let that glory be seen.

mary – channel of salvation?

My recent time at Kopua Monastery and my reading this morning of ‘The Church of Mercy‘ (a lovely collection of addresses and ecclesiastical excerpts from Pope Francis) have me pondering the role and place of Mary in Christian faith.  Given that modern protestants say more about the role Mary does not have, than the role she does have, the question arises: What is the most largest role a Protestant could attribute to Mary?

Theologically, there is a bewildering and striking contrast concerning the role of Mary and God the Father in the Incarnation of God the Son.  It goes like this.  In that the Christ the Son was eternally begotten of the Father, he is fully divine; and in that Jesus of Nazareth was temporally begotten of Mary, he is fully human.  What a contrast this is!  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is one person with two natures, fundamentally depends on both the willful fathering of his divine Father, and the willful mothering of his human mother.  Here we see up close and in focus the gentle omnipotence of God, who would not force Mary to comply; instead she cooperated with the announcement, saying “Let it be unto me according to Your word.”

So we have Mary’s human willingness as a necessary condition for the Incarnation.  That gives her a historical, past-tense, role in the faith.  Way back when, she was willing.  And so, indeed, she said, “Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.”  But what of an ongoing role in the faith?  And not just in the sense of ongoing acknowledgement of her “blessed” state (though could that acknowledgement be more – pardon the pun – pregnant than we Protestants have admitted?), but is there more to Mary?

Two Johannine scenes from Scripture, one from John’s gospel and the other from John’s apocalypse (or the ‘Revelation’), rise to the fore.  John’s gospel (19:26-27) has Jesus declaring a new state of relationship between his mother and the disciple he loved.  The disciple is the ‘son’ of Mary, and Mary is the ‘mother’ of the disciple.  There is an either-or concerning the interpretation of this declaration.  One sees this new state of relationship as restricted to these two humans; Jesus wants them to have support after he departs.  The other extends this to all disciples being ‘son’ (and daughters) of Mary, and Mary being the ‘mother’ of all disciples.  John’s apocalypse (12:17) speaks of her according to the latter interpretation, identifying “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony of Jesus” as “the rest of her offspring”.  Are we therefore intended, biblically, from the lips of Jesus, to view Mary, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Revelation 12:1), as our mother?

Consideration of Mary’s role as “co-redeemer”, “mediator” or “advocate” will have to wait, and I admit here my skeptical outlook to those considerations.  But for now, it seems, tentatively, that Protestants, theologically and biblically, can see Mary as not only the God-bearer (Theotokos), but also as ‘our mother’.  Thoughts from other Protestants (or Catholics/Orthodox)?

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

jesus within the good samaritan parable?

I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts.  Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.

But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth.  Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).

Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:

On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”

It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off.  Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away?  I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper.  The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned.  Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?

The finality of death and Christian faith Quite interesting.

an epistemic prolegomenon for theology

Even given the doctrine of God’s self-disclosure or revelation, and given the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience)… You will never, in your lifetime, know everything about God.

Or… see the doctrine of ineffability.

Explicating Omnipresence

kenotic God

A true swordsman is recognised not simply by ability to swing the largest of swords with great speed and strength, but by the skill and agility to wield any sword in the best way.  Likewise, the vision of God in Christian Scripture (not only in the NT – explicitly in passages like Philippians 2:5-11 – but in the OT) is of a God who does not mindlessly brandish the sword of omnipotence around like a brute or side-show stuntman, but rather wisely wields it in ways that are not about mere strength but intent, skill and purpose.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that basically no Christian doctrine about God makes any sense at all if God’s omnipotence is not seen in this particular way.  Just as a skilled swordsman most probably indeed could swing a sword quite fast and powerfully, but would only do so at rare occasions or perhaps only once, so also there are many things that an omnipotent God is able to do, but not willing.

The kenotic, or ‘self-emptying’, God is not shackled to ‘logical’ expectations for what omnipotence would do.  God both a) refrains from doing things he has capacity to do, as well as b) does things he does not need to do.  God could have not created.  It’s not as though there could be any force or person or will ‘above’ God that caused God to create.  But create he did – and does.  To venture into the conversation of sovereignty and process theology and ‘free will’, etc., God could have chosen to have a very deterministic and micro-managerial rule over the world.  It’s not as though that would be un-fitting or impossible for omnipotence.  But his sovereign rule is far more respecting of freedom, and what we have is a mixture of inability to do many things (i.e. breathe in space, fly, etc.), and ability to direct our own courses of action.  We are dependent enough upon the world and each other such that the degree of indifference we can fall to has limits, yet we are also independent enough from it and others such that an annoyingly persistent responsibility for our actions is perpetually ensured.