If theology were done my way…

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March 20, 2019

As an aspiring Biblical scholar who a) dabbles in theology and philosophy and b) considers the confessional and pedagogical importance of norming our theology to the Scriptural witness, I am often left frustrated with performing the task of theology. This is not the usual banter and and riposte, if not sometimes hostility, expressed between Biblical scholars and theologians. I love theologians (and Christian philosophers!) and their ways of reflecting on matters of Christian faith and I think they are integral to performing the intellectual tasks of the Christian Church. Nor am I implying that Christian theologians don’t consider Scripture normative; many, though not all, do. Rather, the critique stems from how I from my angle would prefer the field of theology to be categorically structured and taught.

If you were to open up a systematic theology, you would find it structured by thematic topics the nature of God, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. In this way of dividing up the theological task, one construes theology being divided up into specific content determined by a singular theme. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, it allows for clarity in one’s theological reflection to know you are talking about a specific topic and to focus one’s cognitive powers towards that singular theme. Just like specialization pays off dividends in economics, it is also useful in the task of thinking. Secondly, when it comes to matters of protecting orthodox Christian faith, it is very useful when dealing with heretical or heterodox doctrines as it allows identification of specific problems in teachings; you can identify the specific topic they have deviated from with relative ease. Thirdly, from a more pastoral angle, if a parishoner were to ask a pastor a question about a specific topic that the pastor did not know, it is easy for the pastor to do a search on the specific topic. So, I recognize the many benefits that the current way the theological task can be arranged provides.

However, for these benefits, there are also costs. For one, I think it is lead to the idea that theology is normatively about ideas centered around singular themes in content. For instance, when we try to understand and develop a comprehension of Christology, we don’t necessarily think Christology also implies Pneumatology. Some theological thinkers recognize that Christology and Pneumatology go together, but I am not aware of recognizing the way we categorize theology is a contributor to this (some may have observed this; as I am not an expert in theology, I can not testify to the lack of awareness on this point but only my lack of familiarity on this point).

Secondly, by organizing theology around a single theme, we engage more so in what Jerome Bruner refers to as paradigmatic thinking, at the neglect of narratival thinking. To take the Christology and Pneumatology example, we might be inclined to understand the resurrection of Jesus as first telling us something about Jesus, that He was vindicated, that He is Lord, etc. However, if you pay close attention to Paul’s arguments in Romans, resurrection in Romans 1.4 and Romans 8.9-11, he does not understand the resurrection in isolation from the Spirit of God. Even when Paul does talk about the resurrection apart from the Spirit in Romans as in Romans 4.25 and Romans 10.9-13, he then talks about it in references to believers. The resurrection is not construed as an event that simply says something about Jesus, but it says something about Jesus in relation to the Spirit and to believers. Paul’s discourse about Jesus does not emerge from an isolated event understood paradigmatically on its own, but it is construed narratively and relationally.

Thirdly, separating theology into a singular theme leads to what I refer to as the balkanization of theological reasoning within the life of the Church. If we are wanting to propose a way forward on a specific topic, we are inclined to justify our view by the virtues of an argument we draw from theology from a specific domain. For instance, in my United Methodist denomination, we were considering a shift to an ecclesiology that would shape our denomination by convictions on matters of marriage and ordination to the local and annual conference levels.1 Arguments made in favor of such an ecclesiology commonly appealed to a notion of what you might refer to as a “Wesleyan tolerance.” Wesley’s theological views were reduced down to a singular idea on a specific topic, forcefully appropriated from the context it ignored, to be offered in favor on the view. Or, arguments in favor of change views on marriage commonly stem from appeals to a singular theme as a hermeneutical theological level by making observations of how the Bible has been used to justify oppression in the past. The logic here was could be in some ways be boiled down to this: If you can find an argument from one domain of theology, one had justified reasons for one’s own stance that others should change their views on (And not merely a warrant that was still highly defeasible). Rather than considering a change in denominational structure based upon a more comprehensive theological analysis, arguments in favor were reduced to a singular theme. Meanwhile, traditionalists had a relatively well developed theological meaning system, which while not expressed in every instance, generally has a comprehensive structure to it. The point I am drawing here is that while the division of theology into separate categories is useful for protecting theological integrity, it is also useful for tearing down the whole; in other words, what protects theological integrity also threatens it.

Which leads me to a hypothesis for another reason why theology is structured as it is: it has been formed based upon the theological conflicts of the past based upon specific topoi. This very way of structuring theology has conflict and contention at the center of it; it subtly reinforces an antagonistic dialectic where people focus on the specific questions and topics in direct contention. Decisions between conflict ideas are hard to settle between various, complex systems of thinking; we thus pragmatically reduce conflicting proposals down to its most salient and significant themes, setting the way future theological disagreements will come down. For instance, the emergence of Christology has an independent category of intellectual, theological analysis emerges after Nicea, witnessed by the later Nestorian controversy then digging even further into the topic of Christology. Or consider how Arminian theology emerges from contention along the specific topic of predestination from the Belgic Confession and Heidelburg Catechism, both of which was arranging on a similar, thematic division on the content of the topics the addressed.

Allow me to clarify my thoughts on this matter, however: the problem as I see it isn’t that such divisions into separate categories as is commonly done. Rather, it is how the defining understanding of Christian faith is construed through such a division. When such a manner of dividing theological topics permeates down to the confessional level as it did in the Belgic and Heidelburg Catechism, treating theology as the exposition and answers to specific themes and ideas, we have encoded into Christian theology into a convention that was inculcated by theological division as it also reinforces it.

There is a certainly a place for theology divided by topic outlines, but the earliest authoritative confession we have in the global Church, the Apostles Creed, is structured more so in a narratival fashion: beginning with God as creator, moving into a sequentially order accounting of Jesus’ birth and ultimate ascension, finally moving into soteriological and eschatological dimensions of the work of the Spirit. While yes, Father, Son, and Spirit are mentioned in their different subsections, the Apostle’s Creed is more so a narrative confession than it is a paradigmatic one. But we see in the Nicene Creed a move more towards focusing on the individual parts of the confession rather than how the confession as a whole holds together in a narrative fashion. For this reason, I am a bigger fan of the Apostles Creed for worship settings, even as I embrace the Nicene Creed as a doctrinal standard.

So what would I propose instead the whole of theology submitted to the ideas of this aspiring Biblical scholar? It wouldn’t entail the rejection of the division of theology according to thematic content, but it would more consciously place it at a later part of theology. Rather, my ideas stem more so from how I believe Paul understood the faith, spiritual, ethical, and intellectual development of Christians as represented in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4, where there are three broad phases of development: matters of faith, matters of ethics, then matters of (intellectual) wisdom.

At the core for Paul was the most fundamental confession of the early teacings of the apostles about 1) what happened to Jesus in the cross and resurrection, 2) the significance of this event for people drawn from the OT Scriptures, and 3) the testimonies to Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15.1-12). This list is not intended to be reductive of the limitations of the kerygma, as my sentiments believe the Holy Spirit was part of the early preaching based upon 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 and then 1 Corinthians 15.15 in comparison to Romans 1.4 and 8.11, but merely representative. The kerygma is thus principally concerned about what we would likely refer to today as evangelism in addressing what about the Gospel is preaching and how it is preached. A kerygmatic theology would be focused on understanding what exactly the content of this kerygma is. For instance, is it essentially existential, apocalyptic, cosmic, or a blending of these dimensions?2 Thus, kerygmatic theology is principally a historical, reconstructive task that lays the foundations for what follows, although there is certainly some room for consideration of how different contexts could shift the manner of proclamation. In addition, a kerygmatic theology considers why type of beliefs necessarily emerge from or are dissonant with the kerygma; it is here where we begin to get into dogmatic questions such as the Christological questions of Nicea and Chalcedon. But this branch of kerygmatic theology is not determining what the fundamental proclamation is, but rather why type of beliefs would either violate or work against the kerygma.

Then, after that, there is the task of Biblical theology, but of a specific sort. Rather than a stereotypical Biblical theology sorted by specific topics that one mines the various texts and collates together to give specific views on specific topics, it is a Biblical theology that explores the various themes that branch off from the fundamental kerygma. What is the significance of Jesus becoming Lord? How does one understand the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead in relationship to the theme of New Creation? This form of Biblical theology is essentially tasked with trying to “contextualize” the kerygma with the larger Biblical narratives. Other considerations would also be considered relevant, such as matters of theological interpretation of Scripture in light of critical questions such as the Trinitarian relations (which becomes more particularly prominent at a later phase). However, what is principally at stake here is situated the kerygma within a larger theological structure that can be used to generate further reflection and insights down the line.

One key point that this Biblical theology would point towards then is the branch of Christian ethics. However, my understanding of Christian ethics would not simply be reflective but also pedagogical. Not only does it address the question “how is it we should live in light of the redemption in Christ?” but also the questions of “how it is that God accomplishes this redemption?” and “how it is that we learn and live out this redemption?” However, at this point, the ethical frameworks used for analysis should be considered consistent with the fundamental understanding and significance of the Gospel of Jesus as contained in the kerygma.

Then, emerging from that would be questions about theological epistemology in the more formal reflections on how is it that we come to know about God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit? From the start, this question is situated within the kerygma and why and how it is that Christians comes to know God through that proclamation, but it also serves as a foundation for addressing the epistemic base of all knowledge about God and not just the kerygma. This is placed here, rather than earlier, due to the fundamental conviction that we learn through doing before we learn through thinking, and so a more formal reflection of epistemic matters should follow, and not precede, ethical reflection and praxis.

Finally, we get into the branch of thematic theology, which addresses the various points of contention that emerge throughout history on different matters. It is here where we get into metaphysics, ontological, and more in-depth eschatological considerations, etc., etc. In other words, this is where much of the tasks done in more academic theology operate and function.

Two things to note about this schematization of theology. Firstly, is recognizes the two-way relationships between the various parts of theology, but it recognizes that it is ultimately and fundamentally grounded on the kerygma. All other matters that are deeply inconsistent with the kerygma are considered problematic, rather than trying to understand the kerygma in light of later theological reflections. Thus, while this way of doing theology makes room for the intellectual virtues, it also presents a hedge against over-intellectualization by grounding theology to the specific form and content of the kerygma.

Secondly, in this form theology takes on greater concerns for coherence in theology. The one real “foundational” element is the kerygma and the OT Scriptures that provide the significance to the kerygma, but this element cannot be readily broken into analyzable cognitive “parts” which serve as foundations for theological inferences; rather inferences emerge more creatively from apprehension of the whole of the kerygma and then tested against the kerygma. Thus, a greater role for creativity is had in theology, but a creativity that is disciplined by the need for coherence; consequently it looks closer to a scientific form of hypothesis and testing (but without a collection of measurable data) than it does deductive rationalism. Consequently, the greater concern is how the various ideas fit together. The primary concern then is with how our reflections about theology fit together as a whole with the epistemic foundations of God’s own disclosure to us, rather than simply drawing theological inferences without consideration for how those inferences impact the whole. This conviction rests of the idea that even human thinking is part of God’s forming us into the Temple of the Holy Spirit through the bringing together of understanding through various, Spirit-led teachers and thinkers. Prioritization of coherence rather than the implicit often epistemic foundationalism that has commonly been employed.

To be clear, this is only a sketch on a relatively inchoate idea. However, it is a different way of doing theology, which if done, could make the various parts of the theological task more focused and possibly even less susceptible to protracted conflicts. In addition, it provides a place for theology frameworks that don’t have the systematic approach of thematic theology, such as Wesleyan theology, which operates in my mind somewhere between ethical and epistemic concerns (but definitely shading more towards ethics).

Origin of metaphysics and Temple

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March 19, 2019

One of the most pressing philosophical questions I have been working through in the back of my head is the origin of metaphysics. The curse or blessing (depending on how you look at it) of being a person who likes to put mental puzzles together while also being intentionally interdisciplinarian in one’s approach is that my mind is swirling around with sometimes upwards of 10 different ideas from different interconnection domains of thinking that is going on in the back of my head. Yet each of these different ideas are connected to a specific task I have before me, although the connections may not always been immediately apparent on the surface. Metaphysics is one of those problems. It’s immediate application is to thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity and the emergence of the Nicene doctrine.

However, I am left with one difficult point that a theological thinker like Barth had to struggle with. The degree to which metaphysics is used in Christian theology there is a corresponding risk of replacing God’s revelation with an abstracted metaphysical scheme. However, it certainly seems like metaphysics is somehow necessary to some degree to make sense of the theology of Christian faith. However,  I don’t think a clear understanding of metaphysics is contained within the beginnings of faith; there may be some shadowy notions such as God, oneness, etc., but these rudimentary metaphysics are not conceptual systems with a clear, fixed sense of meaning, but rather are primarily referential. Since Christian faith is a matter of who we trust is doing what for whom rather than what to believe, this means any sense of normative metaphysics for Christian theology needs to emerge after faith. But if faith in God through Jesus and the Spirit is the essential, unchanging foundation, then any defined sense of metaphysics that goes beyond mere referentiality needs to be conditioned to the grounds of faith and not treated as axiomatic itself.

Consequently, to provide a metaphysics for Christian faith entails a notion of emergence, where some novel concept or premise emerges from what is already there. In other words, the domain of metaphysics is a domain of creative expression. Granted, it is not a form of creativity we would typically think of as creative, as we associate creativity with things such as art, technological innovation, or maybe even in some academic fields like Biblical Studies, theology, and some fields of philosophy like ethics. But metaphysics creative? For the vast majority of people, it would seem like a dull, lifeless field.

But sitting in on lectures from Peter van Inwagen at the Logos Institute last year taught me something. Firstly, I am a neophyte of neophytes when it comes to the philosophical field of metaphysics. However, as I am not a neophyte when it comes to language and thinking, I saw something else: it is a domain of thinking that requires intense focus and clarity on a special domain of concepts. This matches the phenomenon of “flow” talked about by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I will never try to type that name again: he will henceforth be known as MC, but without a hammer.) To do metaphysics well entails being able to have a clear vision of a specific set of concepts that we can not directly refer to anything within our word (like event, time, process, causation, etc.) and to elaborate on those concepts based upon how they are used to draw novel understandings about those concepts.1 This entails a type of creative focus, but of a very special sort.

When we direct our creative attention towards something like a video game (think Minecraft) or a piece of art, our attention is directed towards something that we perceive that we attached meaning to. We are thinking about an activity. Or, if we were to direct our creative attention to science, we would have some object to test or some data to see patterns in; we would be thinking about an object or information. But when one engages in philosophy, the focus is on thinking; one thinks about thinking. This is known as meta-cognition. In a sense, we might say much of philosophy is simply the outworkings of human meta-cognition to a more heightened scale that most people engage in.

Now, if I am doing the philosophy about ethics, I will think about my ethical reasoning. But at the end of the day, I have something to compare my thinking to, whether it be the Bible, my relationships, the news, etc., etc. If I am thinking about the philosophy of science, I have the field of science to compare it to. If I am thinking about the philosophy of language, I have the usage of language to compare my thinking about it to. In the end, the metacognition of these fields is then paired with more ‘normal’ cognition.

But there are a couple domains of philosophy that are further removed from another domain to compare itself to. Logic and metaphysics. In the philosophy of logic, one reasons about reasoning. The only thing else I can compare my reasoning to is more reasoning. However, even then, at the end of the day, somewhere along the lines, I can perhaps compare my metacognition on reasoning to how my reasoning has functioned in the past. I can compare the products of metacognitive activity about reason with the products of reason itself.

But in metaphysics, this is not the case. Because metaphysics focuses on concepts that we can not place anywhere within our domain of existence, we can never directly compare the products of metacognitive activity about metaphysics with the products of metaphysics itself, as there is nothing within our experience that we can actually point our metaphysical concepts to except when we use the concepts. But it is different from metacognition about reason because in metacognition about reasoning, I am comparing it with something accessible: myself. But in metacognition about metaphysics, I can not directly compare my thoughts about metaphysics to any actual instance of something metaphysical; I can only associate my thinking about metaphysics with how I use metaphysical concepts. There is no separate, independent source of metaphysics that I can directly compare my thinking on metaphysics with. Metaphysics is the result of metacognition focusing purely on non-sensory, non-cognitive2 concepts as concepts. There is nothing called an event or time to causation that I can point to and say “study that” either out in the world or within myself.

However, that there is nothing I can directly compare my metacogniton about metaphysics to doesn’t mean that metacognition doesn’t emerge from sensory experience and thinking. In fact, perception and thinking is what leads to the emergence of the concepts that we then consider as metaphysical concepts. It is for this reason that I reject the existence of Kant’s synthetic a priorii, in a qualified sense. I do accept the analysis of such concepts may not occur empirically in the sense of an orderly examination of experience. However, I would say the metaphysical concepts do emerge as a result of experience but that we are not necessarily aware of the connection between past experience and the concepts we designate as metaphysical.

However, at this point, I have to accept the judgment on Kant on one thing. I am not an empiricist in that I think all knowledge emerges solely from the seedbed experience. Rather, as I ascribe to the idea of embodiment cognition by authors written about by scholars such as Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff, I think our biology structures our cognition. Consequently, there are certain cognitive structures/concepts that emerge not from sensory inputs, but from the way our biology structures our thinking, including even our neurobiology. The consequence is that our biology repeatedly structures our perception and thinking over time; there is an emergence of cognitive concepts that come from how we function in our various experience, but is not definable to any experience within the domain of our conscious attention. Put differently, there are certain set of concepts that are basic, primitives of human speech and thinking (See Anna Wierzbicka’s Semantics: Primes and Universals for more information about semantic primes) that we only know of because of the effects they have upon our thinking but not direct perception of what causes these cognitive effects. Whereas I can build a link between my concept of an apple and a direct perception of an apple or my concept of my emotion of anger and the direct perception of my own physiological state, certain cognitive concepts can only be known by the effects and not observation of their causes (unless the cause is thinking about the concept). At best, the cause of these cognitive conceptions are left to be inferred.

What this means is that there are certain concepts that emerge from our experience of the world. I would contend that through repeated activation of these concepts over the course of time, then they begin to become cognitively entrenched and becomes an automatic part of our thinking. Ronald Langacker describes the process as follows:

Automatization is the process observed in learning to tie a shoe or recite the alphabet: through repetition or rehearsal, a complex structure is thoroughly mastered, to the point that using it is virtually automatic and requires little conscious monitoring. In CG parlance, a structure undergoes progressive entrenchment and eventually becomes established as a unit.3

In other words, when a concept becomes automatized and entrenched, it becomes a default way we think about something. For instance, we by default make a connection between two events that we automatically think of a relationship between them as causal.4 We don’t reflect on two events and think “we need the concept of causation.” We just employ the concept of causation automatically. And we readily employ this same concept again and again in a variety of different domains (such as physical causation of a pool ball hitting another pool ball and social causation in one person’s speech motivating another person to act) meaning it operates as a unit.

What is especially significant about this definition is that entrenchment occurs however now just in unconscious thinking, but can also emerge from more conscious thinking of more complex structures and processes. In other words, the very act of metacognitive reflection on metaphysical concepts itself serves to reinforce the automatization and entrenchment of the cognitive schema within the thinker. Entrenchment is not just a low-level process of perception and construal of the world, but it also operates at higher-level processes of critical thinking, interpretation, and reflection. In fact, I would hypothesize that all concepts of higher ordered thinking go through entrenchment at two levels: the unconscious implicit level and then once it becomes solidified there, it can become entrenched at the conscious, explicit level of thinking also.

Hence, where the conscious focus of cognitive flow comes into this. By thinkers engaging in a flow-like state about metaphysical concepts that entails repetitive thinking about such concepts, their thoughts about the concept becomes entrenched such that they become automated patterns of thinking. Now here is where the real trick comes in. Because it becomes more automated, it means that the metaphysical concept becomes more apparent and intuitive to them without any real need to verify its existence. This sense of intuition cannot be readily connected to any specific thing in their experience, so it appears more and more to not be empirical but just a given about the world. But this is an illusion generated from the combination of biological structuring of human thought and the cognitive processes of entrenchment, neither of which we directly perceive but can only infer.

However, because such thinking is a form of creativity, the thinker about metaphysics will bring their own idiosyncratic views to the metaphysical concepts they think about. The end result is that for ever N metaphysics, there are N+1 metaphysical systems out there. Metaphysics as a heightened focused sense of creativity that does not emerge from shared experience, but only from the creative analysis of a metaphysical concept means that there is little common ground between the concepts of metaphysicians except the biological structures that are common to all of them.

However, these biological structures are expressed in and mediated through the usage of language. I am not a Chomskian who believes that language is a special module that is separate from other forms of human cognition. In line with my subscription to the field of cognitive linguistics, I think the processes of language are generated from the processes of human thinking. What happens is that in language some of the biological structuring of human thought become grammaticalized, such as the way that verbs emerge from the way our neurobiology makes sense of change in our environment.5 When this occurs, these concepts become more entrenched through repeated usage again and again within the wider, language proficient populace.6 This form of entrenchment, however, occurs as the more implicit, lower level of cognition.

However, once that language begins to become an object of study and thinking itself, then we proceed to move toward the possibility of these concepts becoming entrenched at a higher level. This is William Charlton’s thesis in Metaphysics and Grammar. Charlton proposes that Western metaphysics emerges in connection with the emphasis upon thinking about the grammar of the Greek language as exemplified in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. By consciously conceptualizing the grammatical structure of Greek, the possibility of Western metaphysics began.

The implication of this is that metaphysics emerges from the repetition of certain cognitive concepts that we can not clearly point to anywhere within our fields of experience, including through the usage of language.

However, if my hypothesis about the origin of metaphysics is right up to this point, this means that while entrenchment of higher cognitive processes through the conscious deliberation of language is a sufficient condition for the emergence of metaphysics, it is not a necessary condition for such. Any repetition of any form of complex, higher level cognitive process can lead to the emerge of metaphysical concepts, although without language the existence of such metaphysical concepts may not be as clear as it is with language. Metaphysics can also emerge from complex behaviors, such as complex thinking about behaviors, such as rituals7 and ethical deliberations.

Which FINALLY leads me to my hypothesis about the New Testament. N.T. provocatively proposes the idea that writer of the Gospel of John was writing a theology of Temple.8 However, the notion of Temple is more widespread than simply in John. Paul uses it to describe the reality of believers as a result of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 4.16 and 6.19; also Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 13.12 and 2 Corinthians 3.17-4.6 resembles the temple language that Seneca attaches to Pythagoras in Epistles 94.42.9 Hebrews describe a heavenly temple that the earthly Jewish temple resembled but was not exactly equivalent to, reminiscent of a (middle) Platonic metaphysical thinking about forms. Temple seems to be a pervasive phenomenon in the New Testament in such a way that we might think that Temple operates as a metaphysical category.

If this is indeed the case, where would it emerge? More broadly, it could emerge by a combination of the reading of the OT Scriptures that make repeated references to the tabernacle and temple and engage in careful, deliberate reasoning about how things are to be there. Secondly, the ritualistic praxis of worship of God at the Temple would certainly bestow a sense of gravity to the Temple. And since the concept of there being one God entails the metaphysical concept of divinity (however that is construed by Israel), the Temple by association with God would take on a metaphysical significance. Thus, through the repetition of Temple in the Scriptures and in praxis, the concept of Temple could become deeply entrenched into the Jewish religious consciousness.

However, there is a third possible source here for the NT usage of Temple in a seemingly metaphysical way. Jesus’ own discourse. In John 2.19-22, Jesus says a sign of his authority to act as he does in the Temple at Jerusalem is that he will “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Here, Jesus uses the Temple not to refer to the physical Temple as others thought, but his own body.10 At this point, Jesus is referring to his own sense of identity as he is as a person. If metaphysical categories can emerge as a result of creative, focused thinking on a certain concept (and Jesus justification for acting in purifying the Temple certainly do suggest Jesus had thought about Temple), then we who believe that Jesus is the Logos from God could suggest that Jesus’ own metaphysical characterization of his body as a Temple comes from his own idiosyncratic thinking as the Logos, the unique Son of God. Thus, the metaphysics of Temple in connection to the body for Jesus could be said to emerge from His own being as lived out.

Consequently, the significance that the Temple had in John, in Paul’s epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation could be explained as coming from Jesus own’ statements (hence, John includes it in his Gospel). If the function of Temple in the NT emerges from Jesus,11 then it can explain why these three sources which employ the idea of Temple in their discourses are also the most explicit parts in the NT about the exalted (and I would say divine) role that they assign to Jesus (as the presence of God as represented by Temple language).

In short, if my hypothesis and ruminations about the emergence of metaphysical concepts is true, then I would contend the metaphysical role of Temple is the most feasible and parsimonious explanation of Christology in the New Testament and is the conceptual seedbed that other concepts, such as the equality of Jesus with God, Jesus as Logos/Wisdom, etc. emerge from.

Gnosticism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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March 18, 2019

“Gnosticism” is term in the Christian theological lexicon that often is used as a heretical boogeyman. There are historical roots of this, as the heresiology of the early Church fathers lead to the formulation of a category of “gnostics” to refer to a collection of false teachers that they broadly defined by a supposed emphasis on the importance of ‘knowledge’ that ended up contradicting the core teaching of the early Church. However, today, the term is most commonly used to refer to the denial of the goodness of creation and the devaluation of the body.

Unfortunately, as Michael Allen Williams has recognized in Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category, the “gnosticism” is a rather poor, misleading term that has lead to caricatures and anachronism of what “gnostics” taught. While some persons in these movements self-identified as gnostics, this was not in reference to a specific system of belief or sect, but rather a quality of the person. As a consequence of the misleading usage that “Gnosticism” can convey, Williams advocates for “biblical demiurgical traditions” that refer to the specific class of beliefs about the creation of the universe by a demiurge that mediates between God and the world.

However, we are stuck with the term “gnosticism” in the Christian tradition because of our heritage, even as historical and social analysis manages to free itself from the term. Consequently, it is perhaps better to clarify two different patterns within “gnosticism,” the ideological and social pattern.

The ideological pattern is what William’s new category refers to: the system of beliefs about the creation of the world through a Demiurge. Frequently associated with this belief was the belief in the inferiority or badness of the material world, rooting all the way back to Plato’s exaltation of the world of the Forms over the concrete world one observes and experiences. Middle Platonism took this distinction between the two “worlds,” associating the world of Forms with divinity and necessitated a mediator to go between the two. 

This belief seems to naturally blend together with the Jewish and early Christian distinction of a transcendent God who was distinct from His Creation. However, whereas the transcendence of God was used to maintain God’s distinctiveness/holiness from the Creation in Jewish and Christian theism that ruled out the practice of idolatry, Middle Platonism was in part an explanation of the evil nature of the world. In other words, while Jewish vs. Platonic transcendence looks similar on the surface, they served different ideological purposes; for the former transcendence was a doctrine pertaining to the appropriate nature of worship, whereas in the latter it was a distinctly ethical doctrine.

While certainly, the appropriate worship of God for the faith of Israel would blur into social relationships, the holiness of God was not distinctively employed for ethical considerations until the New Testament, when the holy God had made Himself known in Jesus. Even here, the idea of holiness and transcendence was rooted in worship and reverence. God is the source of all that is good that can not be possessed or encapsulate in any part of the creation.

However, within Middle Platonism, transcendence allow a dualistic separation of the spheres of the divine and material realms into good and bad, respectively. Consequently, there would be different Aeons, of which Jesus could be considered, that would mediate between God and the material world, often redeeming the people from the evil demiurge who was responsible for the evil of material existence.

My point here isn’t to draw a perfectly reliable picture of what all or even most gnostics believed, however. The diversity is something that eludes overarching description, even if I were an expert on the material. Rather, the point is to draw a connection between the ideological patterns and the distinctive social pattern: “gnosticism” employed many of the intellectual resources of its Greco-Roman milieu to explain its view of God, cosmology, redemption, etc. to rationalize its ethical and moral view of life. Gnosticism was associated with a form of intellectual elitist thinking.

As Williams observed, “gnostic” was in the heretical literature was a self-designation of some religious individuals of the type of person they were, not their religious identity. While their influenced waned during the 2nd century, the Roman Stoics were largely responsible for inculcating the image of a sage who possessed a type of knowledge that far exceeding anything the common person could possess. To have knowledge in this Stoic sense was to have an overarching, systematic knowledge about how everything works, both in human affairs but also in the affairs of the gods. As such, to claim to possess “gnosis” would be a claim to an elite form of knowledge and understanding that allowed one to interpret the whole of all that exists in reference to the knowledge one possesses.

At the social level then, “gnosticism” would seem to be the heresy of the (aspiring) intellectual elite. This may be reflected in 1 Corinthians. It has been used to try to explain the Corinthian wisdom that Paul opposes in 1 Corinthians, although this is historically dubious as an origin of the content of their wisdom; it was most likely a conglomeration of Stoic philosophy, Greco-Roman rhetoric, and the Jewish sapiential traditions. However, as Gerd Theissen has noted, “analogies between Corinthian gnosis and later Gnosticism could be found that in both instances a typical recasting of Christian faith is evident with its rise into the higher classes.”1 I would suggest the analogy is that in Corinth, due to their aspirations for ‘gnosis’/knowledge, they too draw on the influential intellectual resources of their age to try to explain the Christian faith and tried to under the roles of Paul, Apollos, etc. as presenting wisdom in the patterns they were familiar with. Even though the proclamation of the cross of Christ and the power of the Spirit had demonstrated that the wisdom of the educated, elite experts of their day was actually foolishness, the Corinthians insisted on thinking the wisdom of the world had value for understanding the things of God.

In other words, the social pattern of “Gnosticism” is contained in the following: 1) the aspiration towards knowledge of an elite status that 2) draws from the intellectual heritage of the surrounding society that is then 3) used to interpret and make sense of the significance of the Gospel. Consequently, this social pattern is more generalizable from one period to the next, even as the intellectual and ideological understandings shift from one period to the next. But allow me to be clear, the problem is not an education, even of an elite level, lest I become a hypocrite in my own studies.2, Rather, it is how those who deem themselves to possess a knowledge that puts in a superior position such that they can evaluate the foundations of the Christian faith in a way that the people without such ‘knowledge’ cannot possess.

However, for Paul, it is the person of Christ who suffered the cross and was raised from the dead that serves as a fundamental understanding of the Christian faith. Yes, Jesus ethical teachings do matter, but for Paul one started from faith and then moved to what we might call ethical formation and instruction. Yes, Jesus more intellectual teachings in the parables and proverbial sayings do matter, but one must become a spiritually mature person through the way one lived before the deeper, spiritual utterances and mysteries would be understandable from the leading of the Spirit. All ethics and wisdom were ultimately understood in reference to and in virtue of the cross of Christ and the soteriological significance of this event for how God is at worked in His people.

But in an intellectual “gnosticism,” there is a tendency to try to fit the cross of Christ into some other ideological pattern. For instance, among some circles, it can be popular to understand the significance of the cross by reference to some ethical ideas about pacifism, being a moral exemplar, resisting unjust powers, etc. etc. While such ideas may be true of Jesus’ crucifixion, this was not the significance attached to the cross of Christ. The cross was not an ethical demonstration before it was a demonstration of the shape and pattern of God’s love. I present this as only one example that can occur.

What stands at the core of ‘gnosticism’ then is the belief that one can obtain some vantage point to make sense of the cross of Jesus Christ apart from the OT Scriptures that testify to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To interpret the meaning and significance of God’s Word by reference to any form of knowledge that isn’t from God Himself amounts to the impulse of gnostic heresy.

However, I want to distinguish this from the manner in which one comes to faith. In coming to faith, we may have ideas and beliefs about God that are not perfectly reliable. God may decide to accommodate to our ill-conceived understanding to make Himself known to us, but it is in such a way that once perceived, changes the criteria we used to perceive and understand God. God’s disclosure can come in the midst of human ignorance about God and then through that change the criteria we use to understand God. My target of “gnosticism” is more a criticism of the processes of reflective reasoning about God rather than a doctrine on when, where, and how God discloses Himself. To that end, I distinguish myself from the Barthian stream of the topic of revelation as I accept its critique as it pertains to the intellectual reasoning about the Christian faith, but allow God’s freedom to make Himself known when, where, and how He wishes. In the case of the former, there is a crystalized, stable knowledge that is used to reason and reflect about God that persists over the course of the time, whereas in the latter case, God can simultaneously disclose Himself to the hardened as they are hardened while also breaking their hardness.

This crystalization of knowledge that is used to analyze and reflect upon the significance of the Christian faith in parts emerges as part of the process of cognitive entrenchment, where the act of intellectual study requires intense dedicated focus to specific ideas again and again. As these cognitive ideas and concepts become activated again and again in our neural structure, they became more habituated as part of thinking and eventually become taken for granted in construal and interpretation. This is good in many ways as this is part of the process of developing a cognitive mastery in a specified field that allows one to become an expert: the ideas of the field become entrenched in one’s thinking, allowing efficient dedicated of cognitive resources to more complicated and difficult questions.

While this is of great benefit in dealing with perilously difficult and abstruse questions about incredibly complicated and complex material, it is a problem when it comes to the theological understanding of God. God is not ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ in the same way that studying the history of theology is complex. While understanding God may defy easy comprehension, it is for different reasons. The plethora of materials in Christian theology creates such a complexity, whereas the “complexity” that comes in understanding God is rooted in his own distinctive holiness and transcendence that means we can not be readily understood by the patterns we observe in the world around us. Whereas the complexity of theology emerges from the source material, and thus the cognitive processes of entrenchment can serve as a benefit to more efficiently understanding the material, God is complex is virtue of natural human ignorance.

However, this difference and distinction in the reasons for such complexity and difficulty in comprehension is rarely, if ever, noted. Consequently, when developing an entrenched set of understandings that come from intellectual mastery and expertise, it is easy and tempting to transfer this mastery to knowledge about the person of God; this is especially the case if one’s mastery is something like Biblical or theological studies because both the Bible and theology take God as the primary object of understanding. However, Biblical Studies is about mastery of specific texts, that is the SCriptures, other historically relevant materials, and the secondary sources that discuss them. Theological studies is about mastery of the various theological thinkers of the past and their understandings of God. They are not about God per se.

The blurring of our mastery from one domain that leads us to believe have an understanding of God and His purposes in virtue of that entrenched, and often unconsciously so, knowledge is where we begin to move towards the social pattern of “Gnosticism” which I refer to as the gnostic impulse. It is here where we use the intellectual resources of our era to then gain a vantage point to comprehend the significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, whenever we see an over-intellectualization of foundations of Christian faith, we are witnessing a movement that was consistent with the social pattern of gnosticism, even if it diverges in the ideological pattern of historical gnosticism.

The presence of education is not, however, a sign of the gnostic impulse. For instance, in the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, there are many professors and students here who are well-trained and educated that are sympathetic to the limits of human education and expertise to understand God. Rather, gnostic impulse is evident in at least two different patterns:

1) The first pattern developmental impulse that suggests Christian faith is invalid if it does not evolve with the times. To be clear, here, I am not criticizing the idea of development within Christian theology. Sometimes there are things Christians and our specifical theological traditions have gotten wrong. However, when development towards some ethical and intellectual idea that resides in the surrounding culture is treated as a necessary criterion to be authentically faithful and Christian, you are likely dealing with a gnostic impulse that is taken some cherish intellectual idea from the society that they seek to intellectual establish within the Church. It is the cross-shaped redemption of humanity through Jesus Christ that defines the Church and presents the conditions for human faithfulness through the Holy Spirit; Christian praxis and non-kerygmatic theology emerges from that, but is never the condition of it. Any movement that treats some ethical or intellectual idea as the necessary condition for being faithful is at risk of flirting with a gnostic impulse.3

2) A division of the people based upon adherence to certain intellectual ideas that one uses to determine the superiority of one’s Christian’s status. Division within the early Church was a part of the church; some people were known to be more spiritually mature than others, as the very way the New Testament employs the metaphor of maturity and the stages of life suggest. There was no idealized vision of pure equality in the early Church. Rather, the criteria for the stages of spiritual maturity seem to be the ability to discern between good and evil. But this needs careful qualification: growth in terms of good and evil emerged through putting into practice instruction and learning from that, most notably God’s instruction. Discernment emerged from more tacit forms of learning, rather than abstract, reflective schemes. However, when the spiritual maturity of Christians is thought to be determined by their adherence to specific intellectual frameworks, at this point we are dealing with the social gnostic impulse of elitism masquerading as spirituality. The Corinthians probably evaluated maturity based upon the intellectual foundations they had, whereas Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16 leads them to believe they are among the mature who he teaches wisdom to, only to switch the tables and say “you are but children because of what you do” in 3.1-4. When the acquisition of specific intellectual foundations is considered normative for determining maturity within the Church, including those intellectual foundations used to determine in a top-down what is good and evil, one is witnessing the gnostic impulse.

To be clear, these two patterns are the fruits of the gnostic impulse, not the seeds of them. Thus, this is not intended to say “If you aren’t doing either of those two things, you are not guilty of a gnostic impulse.” It is rather to identify when the gnostic impulse has permeated our Christian contexts as a social movement.

However, the gnostic impulse begins to emerge whenever we submit the significance of the cross-shaped foundations of Christian faith to the shape of various intellectual frameworks. It is the occupational hazard of Christians who seek and possess education, particularly of a level of education that allows one’s thinking to be largely uncontested and thus allow one’s thinking to crystallize and entrench itself. This particularly emerges when the education one possesses is seen as having a level above the diverse and widely distributed spiritual gifts of the Spirit that build and edify believers; when the educated defines themselves above such a work of the Spirit, it becomes easy to get entrenched. To that end, the “safest” place for a Christian intellectual to avoid the gnostic impulse is in a Christian community that takes seriously the gifts of the Spirit, whether it is formally “Charismatic” or not, where they receive and are accountable to the work of the Spirit in others that can “un-entrenched” their entrenched intellectualism.

In other words, the most powerful hedge against the ‘gnostic’ re-appropriation of the cross of Christ for other ends is the Spirit who forms the Church in conformity to the power of God demonstrated in Jesus’ cross.

Why I am not a univeralist

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March 13, 2019

Christianity Today has put up article from an interview with Michael McClymond on the topic of Christian Universalism (CU) and his book The Devil’s Redemption. It is interesting reading and has put the book on my to-read list for the day that I am no longer researching for my dissertation. But amidst the theological conversation, it has provoked a simple question within me: what is it that as an aspiring Biblical am I not a universalist? In asking this question, I am not excluding theological considerations from the horizons because a person of faith can never truly separate professed theology from Scripture, as much as they might try and appear to do so on the surface.

The question is pertinent because I myself have fully transitioned away from the exclusivist view of salvation that came from my Southern Baptist, evangelical background that said that only people who had a belief in Jesus would have eternal life.1 I was motivated out of a deep sense of pain that this view had placed upon people to consider if exclusivism, or at least the branch of exclusivism that had been taught, was wrong. With this motivation in tow, I did find Scriptural reasons to consider more than the set of all believers will stand at God’s judgment. Why then, with this motivation, did I never move to universalism, but rather find universalism to contain a deep theological error and actually a form of injustice?

Now, on the surface, the answer might seem stunningly simple: because of the passages about judgment. For instance, Matthew 25.31-46, John 5.25-28, and Romans 2.6-11 point to a judgment at the arrival of the final eschaton that divide the lines between humans as those who sought what was good and those who sought what was evil. We have no Biblical mention of a further judgment that comes after that judgment. However, this answer is rooted in matters of epistemology and truth value as it relates to the theology authority of Scripture. My own rejection of universalism runs deeper than that.

So why is it that I think universalism is a problem of a deep error? For a long time, I could never express this beyond the type of answer I gave above. But it is recently that I came up with the reason. If universalism is true, then suffering for the sake of the Gospel becomes a deeper matter of injustice to those who suffer for its sake. Allow me to explain.

The idea of perseverance, endurance, and faithfulness under conditions of suffering and persecution is a prevailing theme throughout the Scriptures. It occurs in some places in the Old Testament, but it becomes a prominent them in the New Testament. According to Martin Hengel in On the Atonement, there is a sense of people who suffering and are harmed on behalf of other people in the Greco-Roman world that diffuses into Judaism such as in the Maccabean martyrology. This sense of suffering was connected to the well-being of the nation of Israel. Jesus then takes this sense of martyrdom and radically redefines it around the idea of servanthood in his own faithfulness to death. Similarly, in the Beatitudes, Jesus describes what is probably a framework for spiritual formation that climaxes with a person being a peacemaker and then suffering for righteousness sake. Thus, this form of suffering was purposive suffering on behalf of others for their benefit. This called to a purposive, self-sacrifice on behalf of others in the Gospel finds itself throughout the New Testament epistles.2

So, here is the premise: if God can and will redeem all people and if God’s people are called to suffer for the sake of the Gospel for the benefits of others, then God is asking others to take on a great pain and harm that will be otherwise accomplished without that suffering.

Imagine a boss telling his employees that they must spend the next six weeks working perilously hard in overtime, minimizing breaks, all for the sake of the companies future through a tough time they need to survive through. Then, when the deadline approaches, the boss simply presses a button on a computer that all their problems. The boss asked for people to make extreme sacrifices that could have been simply solved by pressing a button. Do you think this would be right? This scenario is much like the scenario that CU portrays: the call to suffer on behalf of the Gospel for the love of and service to others is not only unnecessary; it is deeply unfair to those who suffer.

This is not to mention that such a vision recapitulates the persistent nature of injustice in human societies: the suffering of some while those who do not suffer reap the benefits. The image of CU is actually more akin to the deep sense of injustice about Western liberalism: we will all be treated “equally” while there is the privileged class and the suffering class. But “equality” is not what Jesus preached, but rather a status reversal, where the first are last and the last are first.

On top of it, it trivializes the role of human sacrificial love. To suggest that God does what we can not is certainly an important part of orthodox Christian faith. But to suggest that what we do doesn’t REALLY matter for the sake of others is trivialization. One might be tempted to rationalize this to say “But the suffering was still good for your own soul.” But I find this to be the antithesis of Christian love, as it makes my suffering about my own formation, status, and achievement, rather than another’s well-being.

In summary, it seems to be CU recapitulates the very problems of injustice that the world already faces. It is not a solution to the problems of human injustice, but perpetuates it. The problem isn’t that God saves everyone, but how God places burdens upon people to suffer that then have no real significance for others as it would happen one way or another. A just CU would not ask people to suffer for something that will happen even if they don’t suffer. But such as a “just CU” begins to look further and further away from the Scriptural foundations as they address matters of God’s judgment, love, and justice. Thus, as an aspiring Biblical Scholar who takes Scripture seriously for my faith, CU has many deep epistemic and moral problems associated with it.

Furthermore, there are the possibilities that the modern motivations behind CU are more antagonistic in its origins. It is one way that some people express not simply their love for all people, but their antagonism towards the ideas of conservative, evangelical theology. It is a way of escaping, if not even getting a social upper-hand upon, “evangelicals.” It is common that when our intellectual efforts engaged in for what ultimately amounts to antagonistic purposes that we begin to engage in cognitive polarization and dualism, where one seeks to look as unlike one’s opponent as one can. So, CU can be embraced because it looks so different from exclusivist portrayal in conservative evangelicalism. Thus, it is certainly useful for matters of social influence, status, and persuasion, but not so much for questions of truth, justice, and love.

However, I think it is important to clarify that I don’t deem CU as heresy. I have a very narrow definition of heresy as pertains to beliefs which, if accepted, are diametrically opposed to the foundations of saving faith.3 Consequently, CU does not amount to my view of heresy. But, like the history of the Church, it operates more in the domain of heterodox belief.

The problem with modern evangelism

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March 13, 2019

Houston, we have a problem! I am becoming more and more convinced that prevailing cause of the division we have in the United Methodist Church stems from how people were taught in matters of faith. There is no real unified way in which people were witnessed to that brought about a response of faith. The consequence is that people come to have a set of beliefs that are in similar in terms of language (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, etc.) and using similar sources for our faith (such as Scripture), but are otherwise very discontinuous and different from one another. One person believe that God is going to send people to eternal judgment for their sins unless they believe in Jesus, another person believes God will bring redeem everyone into heaven. On person believes that faith is about a doctrinal system, whereas another person believes faith is an emotional experience in relation to God.

Now, the problem I am critiquing isn’t the existence of doctrinal and religious differences. There will always be differences, some differences being good, some being tolerable, some being unmanageable, but differences to me is not the issue. Rather, it is the way in which we are entrenched within our differences such that our faith rarely undergoes real substantive change. When everyone is of a different mind and have reasons for their confidence, then people will not move towards one mind on matters. Under this condition of entrenched differences, the more people try to make people of one mind on matters will actually backfire and make become more resistant to one other.

Allow me to suggest that the root of the problem of this entrenched difference stems from our manner of evangelism. When Paul talked about his style of evangelism about Jesus Christ, he referred to as a foundation in 1 Corinthians 3.10. You might find this language to be familiar if you are familiar with epistemic, as the idea of epistemic foundationalism uses a similar metaphor draw from buildings. There is a bit of a difference between epistemic foundationalism and evangelistic foundationalism. In epistemic foundationalism, beliefs are justified by other, more basic beliefs.

While this is not inconsistent with Paul’s vision of evangelism and discipleship, Paul’s point about the foundational metaphor is not about what justifies beliefs, but what forms beliefs. Paul sees believers as being built into a Temple of God by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 4.16; cf. 1 Cor. 6.19). Other teachers can build upon this foundation, which is an act of erecting a temple in the hearts of the people, but the implicit idea under the metaphor is that the foundation determines the structure of what all is built. So, teaching after evangelism can be construed as building upon this evangelistic foundation. However, Paul doesn’t tell other people to try to assess the value of what Apollos taught in relation to the foundations, as would be consistent with epistemic foundationalism. There is no instruction here to justify further teaching in virtue of the foundational faith. This is not to suggest all teachers are equivalent, as Paul’s metaphor about the building materials and burning suggest not all teachers are considered having equivalent value. But what it does suggest is that the relationship between the foundations and furthers beliefs is not the connection assumed in epistemic foundationalism.

What then is the connection? The foundation is not about what one believes, but WHO one believes. Read 1 Corinthians 2.1-5:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come according to an authority from speech or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony about God. For I did not choose to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and himself crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasiveness of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on wisdom from persons but on God’s power. (NRSV except for personal translation in italics)

The ultimate goal Paul expresses is that the Corinthians place their faith in God through what they come to know through what happened to Jesus and what the Spirit had done in their midst. If the Corinthians place their trust in a human person, such as Paul, then there is a problem. Thus, I would suggest the foundation of Jesus Christ is how God is known and trusted through the person of Jesus, not the ideas we have about Jesus. In that case, the foundation that Paul establishes is not what one believes, but who one believes.

In such a case, when one trusts another person as having truth you do not possess, then one develops a sense of submission to that person as it pertains to matters of the truth that you believe they possess. One relates in an attitude of humility. This attitude of humility doesn’t wipe away all one thinks and feels as if one should think everyone has and believes is bad, wrong, or evil. Rather, this attitude of humility allows for the one you trust in to correct you when you demonstrate an error in thinking or behaving. This humility isn’t from the humiliation of ourselves as people, but rather an exaltation of the one we learn from.

In other words, the foundation that Paul lays down is a foundation for the Corinthians to learn more in the future. Having come to faith, they will need to learn how to live together as Christ loves them and then they can learn the “more advanced/mature” cognitive ideas about God’s wisdom. The ethical and intellectual formation, in other words, is grounded upon the relational foundation with God that Paul’s evangelism encourages.

I will summarize Paul’s strategy briefly expressed in 1 Cor. 2.1-5 and later amplified in 1 Corinthians 15.1-19 as this: the resurrection of the crucified Christ is a sign of God’s power on behalf of people and it is through the work of the Spirit that this event can be shown to not be simply a one-shot event with no significance to anyone aside from Jesus. In the power of God amidst the weakness of Jesus’ crucifixion and in the Spirit working in the weak Paul, it is realized that God’s power is at work for human well-being. Consequently, other teachers who have constructed and taught wisdom about God in a different manner from what God has demonstratively done are shown to be weak and foolish in comparison to God.

But I want to emphasize once again: what is critical for Paul here is WHO one is listening and paying attention to. It is not a matter of getting the right beliefs so that you can then proceed to learn more. It is a matter of getting into the right relationship from the one who has the truth.

The one place where Paul distinguishes his own teaching from other teachings about God is exhibited in the difference between persuasion and demonstration in 1 Cor. 2.4. To be clear there, Paul is not saying “I did not seek to persuade.” Rather, he was stating his rejection of the methods of persuasion found in wisdom, such as that of Greco-Roman philosophy, Jewish scribal wisdom, or the orators of the politically effective rhetoricians (See 1 Cor. 1.20) and ground his persuasion of the Corinthians in a specific manner: the power of the Spirit.

This is where I think modern evangelism has created a problem and laid a foundation that has made many denominations resting of faulty foundations. 1 The most difficult gap we have in evangelism I would suggest isn’t getting people to believe that God loves someone or that Jesus was raised from the dead; rather the problem operates at the level of applying these ideas to the person’s own life. The difficulty is getting people to recognize that what happened in Jesus is what God is doing in and through His people.

The way evangelism applies the story of Jesus to the believer is demonstrable different. There are at least three identifiable evangelism patterns that I can think of in American evangelism:

  1. Evangelism through awareness of sin, guilt, and punishment – This style focuses on making people aware of how they have sinned and how they deserve punishment. In this case, the application of Jesus’ cross and resurrection is through escaping the punishment.
  2. Evangelism through compensation – This style focuses on reaching some feel need and loss in people, whether it be material, social, relational, etc. Jesus here is seen as the one who provides what one lacks.
  3. Evangelism through moral exemplification – This style focuses on the exceptional manner in which people act in terms of kindness, justice, etc. Jesus here is seen as the example we should all follow and if we follow it, people will come.

Now, the seduction of each of these manners of evangelism is that they each can find some justification within the Scriptures for their style. Sin is a problem. God is faithful to His people. Jesus is a moral exemplar. But each of these ideas are only a part of the story, and none of them take center place in the story the apostles told. The story they told is centered upon something more very specific: God is redeeming us as His people through the way He loved His Son. (Although, to be clear, the words here I use are not as important as that which I am pointing towards). There is more to this story, yes; there is more to add in the details, but this idea points us towards the right center, I believe. The details, nuances, etc. is what emerges from discipleship and learning, but it never replaces the evangelistic foundations because the evangelistic foundations is about WHO is doing WHAT for WHOM.

The problem with the other evangelistic styles is this, I believe: they are wrongly-centered ideas, each relying upon a manner of human persuasion to get people to believe, whether it be a persuasion through fear, gratitude, or awe. Consequently, God is framed from the combination of images we have of human punishers, human helpers, and human heroes that we then take as necessarily true. In effect, we place our trust in human persons, perhaps in a very abstracted sense, that then determines the way we perceive God to be in a way we consider necessary and essential.

From this basic foundation, we then build other beliefs based upon this basic foundation. As a consequence, we grow more and more confident in the fundamental ideas contained in the foundation as we “learn” more from it. But this really amounts to creative application of the foundational ideas, without care to consider if they are actually legitimate, helpful, or true otherwise; this “learning” becomes more about the benefits the applications of the foundational beliefs offer to ourselves in coping, in social status, in emotional experiences, etc.

As a consequence of this, the very intellectual foundations of our faith become very easily threatened by contrasting theological claims. To hear something that diverges from the foundations we have grown confident in is to challenge the very ideas and images we have grown so deeply attached to for personal reasons. So, we become inclined seek to find ways to justify our perspective and delegitimate the other perspective through finding teachers who we can find to back up our side, intellectual rationalization, acquiring social influence and control that gives us a victory that tells us we are right, etc., etc.

Why? Because our faith is being built upon increasing certainty, built upon acquiring a system of sure knowledge, all in the name of reinforcing our own sense of status and identity. In other words, the very problem that the Corinthian church is having that Paul points out, all because our evangelistic foundations were placed upon the wisdom and styles of persuasion that came from people.

But, if your foundation starts from the basic starting point of “God knows and I don’t,” and if discipleship is a journey of learning what we did not know rather than trying to confirm what we already believed for our own reason, then  the theological and ethical differences can be addressed and remedied over the course of time through learning (assuming it is God who is teaching us, ultimately, through other people). So, the question is this: in our evangelism, who is it that we are getting people to trust in? In God through Jesus and the Spirit? In ourselves as teachers? In some idealized image of human persons?

The value of exegesis

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March 12, 2019

Tucked away in a little passage in the pastorals, Titus 1.15 is a statement that has big time significance packed in just a few words (11 on the Greek, to be exact). They read:

To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. (NRSV)

To provide commentary on the meaning of this phrase from Paul (or ‘Paul’ if you are skeptical of the authenticity of the Pastorals), I cite Hans-George Gadamar:

Similarly, a person who “understands” a text (or even a law) has not only projected himself understandingly toward a meaning—in the effort of understanding—but the accomplished understanding constitutes a state of new intellectual freedom. It implies the general possibility of interpreting, of seeing connections, of drawing conclusions, which constitutes being well versed in textual interpretation. Someone who knows his way around a machine, who understands how to use it, or who knows a trade—granted that there are different norms for purpose-oriented rationality and for understanding the expressions of life or of texts—it still remains true that all such understanding is ultimately self-understanding (Sichverstehen: knowing one’s way around). Even understanding an expression means, ultimately, not only immediately grasping what lies in the expression, but disclosing what is enclosed in it, so that one now knows this hidden part also. But this means that one knows one’s way around in it (sich auskennt). Thus it is true in every case that a person who understands, understands himself (sich versteht), projecting himself upon his possibilities.1

In brief, the act of interpretation of a text, or I would say almost anything in the world, starts from and begins in a projecting of the self onto the interpretans (the thing being interpreted) to arrive at an interpretation. However, it needs to be clear here that the language of project is not necessarily used in the strict, psychoanalytic/Freudian sense where what one interprets in something is is really what one feels or wants. While often true, even in the act of textual interpretation, that is a too narrow understanding of projection when it comes to hermeneutics. Allow me to explain.

When I hear or read a word like “dog,” many things happen in my mind. First, one might say I come up with some mental representation of a dog, such as my pet Sheltie Scotia when I was in high school and college. But whatever that representation is, something else occurs: my own viseceral and emotional responses to that dog become activated, even if in just a muted sense. The result is that I am not just thinking about a “dog” in the abstract sense or even “Scotia” in a concrete representation, but I think of “Scotia” in relation to me. I imagine myself petting Scotia, watching her run around, etc. etc. I essentially simulate what a dog is, which pulls from my own affect-laden experiences with a dog.

But for a little more of a twist, here is another example. Imagine you are hungry, and I mention the word “steak” to you. Assuming you are not a vegetarian or vegan, you will not just imagine some generic slab of cow meat, but you might imagine a steak you want to consume, like a juicy, tender filet mignon. You imagine not just what something is and how it has been significant to you in the past, but also how it might fit within present physiological, biology, emotional, and spiritual needs.

If you think about this, it makes sense. Due to our embodied nature, all human thinking is ultimatly derived by the sense of seeking. Perhaps the connection isn’t immediately apparent, such as the person who wants to become a physician may not immediately thinking about this desire as they study biochemistry. But the drive is impacted how they think, impacted how much they pay attention to the material, and how they interpret it.

In projecting ourselves onto a text, then, we are bringing a whole self of ours in act of interpretation. We are not merely representing the words we read in some “objective” manner, but we bring our past experiences of the concepts the words point to and our future seekings to the act of reading. Reading engages us in an entire manner, not simply a piece-meal way. Even the lack of an emotional response is itself engaging us in a whole way, as the lack of affect is a biological reality and not just a cognitive process.

To be sure, when reading this may not always happen in an intensive way that we are conscious of. It mostly happens largely outside of our awareness, only bubbling up what is most relevant for the specific act of reading. But whether we are conscious of it or not, reading engages us as a whole person.

However, while we bring ourselves to the text, our readings are never reduced to simply our person. The very act of reading brings in thoughts that I would not otherwise have. If I read about Einstein’s theory of relativity in an advanced manner, I am taking in information that I am not familiar with at all. I have to bring in concepts and ideas that I do have a personal familiarity with and through the combination of those concepts as directed by the reading, a novel idea or thought may emerge that I had never considered. Then, as a consequence, that idea becomes encoded into my memory (whether very weakly and likely to be forgotten or strongly and to be accessed again in the future).

The point is that interpretation is simultaneously an act of projection and an event of emerging novelty. But, here is the thing: the novelty that emerges in our minds emerges from who we are as people. If we are reading a text, there is no immediately clear reference of what it is referring to that we can look at. The raw materials of interpretation emerge from ourselves, not anything or anywhere else.

Consequently, if we are bringing a whole self to our interpretation, and not just a partial self, then the novel idea that emerges from us will cohere with the emotional and desirious self we bring to it. The way we interpret will be determined by what it is we are looking for.

However, this is not necessarily a fatalistic, we are just driven by our desires, type of thinking. We as people are capable of recognizing what we want and what something we see or heart is not the same. We do it all the time. When driving down the road looking for a restaurant to eat, I am able to recognize that the hotel is not a restaurant. I am able to recognize that not everything I see will fit what it is I desire.

Now, imagine as I am driving down the road looking for something to eat and I get a phone call from a colleague who has some questions they need to ask me. I am perfectly capable of switching my attention away from trying to find a restaurant (as I hopefully pull over!) and redirect my attention to what my colleague is asking me. I am able to shift perspective and what I am seeking to do.

Likewise, with reading. I can read something that as I read it, I realize there is something off about my interpretation. Maybe I missed an important word that renders my first interpretation problematic. Or, maybe I realize that I am very prone to read myself into the text and take a step back to see if I should look at it from another perspective. I am not fatalistically restraining to interpreting from one specific self, but I can switch the significance I attach to my reading and the way I frame it.

So, to summarize: we bring ourselves to the text, which can lead to the emergence of new meanings we were previously unfamiliar with that are influenced by our own affective being, but our reading is not fatalistically determined by any specific desire and goal we have.

The brings me to the value and importance of exegesis in the act of interpreting, particularly Biblical texts. It is often imagined that exegesis allows us to get to the actual meaning of the text. While I certainly embrace that pursuit, I think this is an overly narrow view of what exegesis does. Exegesis is the act of bringing our bests selves to the reading of the text so that we can move towards the best readings of the text. There is a sense of normativity built into this as if there are certain interpretations that are better than others. What those norms and values are that determine interpretations can vary from one person, culture, and tradition to the next, but exegesis functions to form the reader in accordance to those norms and values. Exegesis is as much an act of formation as it is truth-seeking (or whatever other values to attach to exegesis).

To bring this to bear on Paul’s statement in Titus 1.15, he is addressing a circumstance where there a litany of people who are causing great conflict within the community, including specific Jewish persons who are presenting certain “myth” and commandments that they use to teach others. This does not appear to be simply a matter of people simply bringing forth teaching, but employing the resource of Jewish traditions and canon, particularly the Torah, to bring to bear on their teaching. Thus, they appear to be interpreting these traditions and the canon in line with the type of person they are. The problem is that they reject the truth, thereby impacting the way they read and interpret. While we can’t be sure exactly what is happening, if 1 Timothy 4.1-5 brings any insight, they may be restricting so many things that they consider bad and evil. Thus, they reflect the problem with their own heart as being one who is constantly tempted, constantly struggling with things themselves. They project their own problems, in this sense closer to a Freudian sense, onto the text that they read.

In this type of context, then, exegesis is a way of bringing forth our better selves in the act of reading. It is a way of pushing back against the worst part of ourselves, the part of ourselves that can impact what we interpret, and bring forth a better self. However, this means something: there has to be better self that exists in the first place.

This sense may be conveyed by Paul in Titus 2.1: “Now you should speak what is fitting of healthy doctrine.”2 Here, Paul contrasts the “unhealthy” style of interpretation, which perhaps sees everything as bad or dangerous, with the healthy form of instruction that Titus should provide. In order to contend with the bad forms of teaching from the impure, Titus is charged with teaching people what is healthy. Why?

Perhaps the answer is conveyed in Titus 2.11-13. There seems to be a three-stage movement in the lives of people that resembles what I have found in 1 Corinthians. Firstly, there is the stage of faith and salvation, as in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 where one come to a recognition of the power of God for our behalf through Jesus and the Spirit. The second stage however isn’t to gain knowledge and understanding at that point though. 1 Corinthians 3.1-4 suggests there is a stage between faith and knowledge/wisdom that relates to behaviors and actions. The types of things one does impacts what you can or can not understand. Then, in the third stage, there is a sense of understanding of the eschatological glory of the resurrected Jesus which one comprehends in this life through the wisdom that comes from the Spirit as in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16. In other words, the journey from faith to understanding works its way through behavior.

Consequently, exegesis alone will not bring out the best self that does not exist, but it must exist in us through 1) an encounter with the living God that brings forth faith within us and 2) a life lived in accordance to the type of attitudes and behaviors that the Scriptures themselves speak about. From the memory of our past actions can emerge the raw materials for understanding passages well. For instance, if you have never really loved sacrificially then it would be hard to understand the gravity of Jesus’ words: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15.13; NRSV) To be clear, we don’t have to have actually died to truly comprehend these words, but the memory of the experience of sacrificial giving can give us the raw materials to imagine what it is Jesus is really referring to in love. As a consequence, when we as good exegetes read Jesus’ discourse about love in context of this passage, we ourselves have a sense of understanding of what emerges, because it is something we ourselves have a degree of familiarity with. The weight of sacrificial love will find itself not just in the brief imagination about Jesus’ words in John 15.13, but the very act of interpreting those words will have a gravity of how you read the rest of the words of discourse because you understand and feel yourself what it means.

My point is this: exegesis brings forth our best selves to the interpretation of the text, but it can only bring what comes with us in the act of interpreting. It’s value in bringing forth our best selves so that we can move towards the best interpretation emerges from the type of lived experience of attitudes and behaviors that allow us to comprehend it. This is not to mention the role that God’s own making Himself known to us has in how we interpret.

What does it mean to be mature?

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March 12, 2019

When we were kids, we couldn’t wait to grow up so we can do what we want to do. We were told no by our parents and we longed for the day that didn’t happen. But then, we became adults and we discovered that we didn’t get to do what we want. We got to make more decisions for ourselves as adults,  Aside from maybe a brief stint in college if you decided to do whatever you wanted, we found ourselves surrounded in more rules than we did as kids as more responsibility is laid upon us. As children, we were excused for our ignorance and we weren’t expected to be skilled; as adults, one is expected to know and be able. AS children, being overwhelmed by emotions was understandable, even as we were taught to be big boys or girls, whereas the expression of emotions is consider narrowly restricted to specific zone of personal connection and intimacy.

Now, in this above paragraph, I have described many different images of what we expect adults to be like, that is to be mature. To be an adult means 1) having freedom, 2) having power, 3) bearing responsibility, 4) having knowledge, 5) having skills you need in life, and 6) being emotionally regulated. In short, if we combine these different images of being an adult, it would convey an image of a person who is free to use their power, knowledge, and skills to take care of the responsibilities they have without becoming emotionally flustered. Does that sounds like a good idea of what it means to be mature?

If you answered yes, then let me ask you a question: are things liking being honest and fair a part of adulthood? Does being adult mean having a sense of justice and integrity to your life? Is there a moral component to being mature? Does being mature entail a consistency between what you say and what you do?

Allow me to suggest: many of our images about what it means to be mature lack this moral component to them. The closest thing we get to morality is the idea of responsibility and being emotionally regulated. But this really doesn’t tell what type of person we are to be with others. So, lets construct a different image of what it means to be mature.

Being mature is to have the emotional control to be willing to honest with others even as it may have consequences, to not place unfair burdens upon them because you don’t like what is happening, to seek the benefits of others rather than yourself. A mature person expresses themselves so that people can know what to expect, and when they fail to fulfill their end, they acknowledge and accept it.

This image is different from the first image of maturity I constructed. While there are many differences you could point out between the two portrayals, what is the one most significant difference between the two? In the first image, adulthood is portrayed with reference to oneself: to what they can do, to what they are capable of, to how they handle themselves. In the second portrayal, maturity is about how one relates to others. The difference is whether one sees adulthood in an individualistic or relational manner.

These two different images have very different implications. The first portrayal of maturity has little to do with being capable, but excludes matters that pertain to trustworthiness, reliability, and dependability. The second portrayal does not exclude matters of power, knowledge, etc., but they are implied and subservient to relational goals.

The Apostle Paul address this problem within his first letter to the Corinthians. Writing to a congregation that had made it a habit to compare the superiority of various teachers in comparison to each other, such as himself, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, and even Jesus, Paul is motivated to address the attitudes that undergird this divisive behavior. The Corinthians are styling their teachers as if they were to be considered comparable to any other philosopher, Jewish scribe, or political orator (for a modern day comparison, consider the status we offer to people with PhD degrees, those who are highly accomplished religious teachers, and popular politicians). An undergirding implication of this is that many of the Corinthians would have styled themselves as mature people who were capable of understanding and learning from such vaunted teachers and to be capable to make differentiations between them. Consequently, not only were differentiations made about the teachers, but divisions would have been made between the people as to who was better. (1 Corinthians 4.6-7)

While Paul doesn’t directly express it, many of the Corinthians might have styled themselves as being “mature.” So, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2.6 “we speak wisdom among the mature,” many of them would have perhaps styled themselves as wise. Then, Paul begins to go into a foray into the nature of this wisdom as being a mystery, promises of a great, glorious future through Jesus, talking about revelation from the Spirit, and even talking about the selective nature of how only some people can receive these spiritual teachings because they have to be spiritual themselves to receive it. Paul then goes on to suggest it is incredibly rare by his quotation from Scripture, suggesting no one has it, except those who have the mind of Christ. It certainly sounds like Paul is beginning to let the Corinthians into a special secret about wisdom that they are more uniquely ready for because they are mature than others. Imagine for a moment that many of these Corinthians might have felt at this point. They might be thinking “Alright! Finally! Paul is giving us the wisdom we so crave and want. We get to be part of a special, inner circle!”

Then Paul says this:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? (1 Corinthians 3.14; NRSV)

Paul sets up the Corinthians expectations in their pride, only to turn it around on them. He does this also in Romans 1.18-2.29; he evokes their sense of self-righteousness and pride in his audience by giving a rhetorical lambast of those unrighteous Gentiles, only to turn the tables and point that same attitude towards those who were self-assured. Paul does the same to the Corinthians, who were self-assured in their maturity, only to be told “you are but children.”

Multiple commentators have expressed concern with the idea that Paul was establishing a special class of Christians apart from others in 1 Cor. 2.6-16. So, there has been an impulse to interpret 2.6-16 as something that really isn’t different from Paul’s proclamation about Jesus and His crucifixion as mentioned in 2.1-5, except a different perspective. But that will not do here, because Paul’s task is to turn the tables on the Corinthians. They had forgotten that their trust in God when Paul originally preached to them and they heard God’s call and instead begun to place too much credibility in the vaunted figures of wisdom in the Greco-Roman world. God had chosen what was weak and foolish to disgrace those figures of strength and wisdom in the eyes of the Corinthians, but they were turning back to the temptation to see the world and people through the lens of what is considered strong and wise in the Greco-Roman world. Their sense of advancement, their sense of maturity, was being tarnished by and formed in accordance to the old images of Roman superiority of power and Greek individualistic bombast of skill. The problem isn’t the idea that there are some Christians who are more developed and mature in their spiritual journey; the problem is that they had let the society’s definition of advancement and maturity to define their own.

This contrast between two different images of advancement become expressed in 1 Corinthians 8.1-3:

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. (NRSV)

In the Corinthian motto, they define their religious community according to the idea of knowledge. As possessing knowledge defines the community, people would be differentiated on the basis of how much knowledge they do or do not possess. The more mature are the more knowledgeable. This is only heightened by the way their definition knowledge was influenced by the Stoic definition of knowledge, which extended beyond a true and reasonable belief, but some sort of knowledge that is best analogous to our modern day science, where they possess some theoretical knowledge about the ultimate nature and fabric of life.

But, Paul flips it to say this: If you think you have some broad reaching theory that explains everything, then you are actually ignorant. Why? Because the Christian community was formed around God, who can work in ways that subvert the expectations of the most knowledgable of persons. In the end, it isn’t about what you know or who you know that knows, but who you love. So, later Paul goes into the ever popular chapter 13, commonly used for weddings, about love, saying:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (NRSV)

Here Paul further redefines the definition of advancement and maturity in the body of Christ in terms of love. Everything else becomes secondary, everything becomes superfluous, everything becomes even useless in the absence of love.

But, this isn’t some nice sound praise of an emotional feeling that the modern day religious ecstatic praise as their god. This is not a love of possession, a love of sexual ecstasy, a love of being affirmed. It is not a love one receives and feels, but rather the love one gives:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7, NRSV)

But what we miss about this language is that Paul is essentially portraying advancement in terms of love rather than wisdom. Paul is not giving a law about “love” that can then be used to guilt and control people for failing to reach such a height; not only is that not how Paul uses it, but the person mature in love would not act in such a way. Rather, the mature person advanced in their faith is one who loves others with patience, through the frustrations, through the wrongs without rejoicing in them, but is eager to give credit to people when they discover what is good.

This is reflected in Paul’s attitude, which, far from shaming the Corinthians for not being loving, explains his discourse in 1 Corinthians 1-4 was not intended to shame the Corinthians as being terrible, horrible people for their lack of love for each other, but to guide them as part of his spiritual family (1 Corinthians 4.14). Instead, Paul sets himself as an example for the Corinthians to follow so that they can learn. (1 Corinthians 4.16).

The cult of love is unable to understand this. For them, love is about one’s obligations from another. What the cult of love has done is appropriate the praise and honor given to people who are mature according to the vision of personal power and capacity and then obligated it for other people. While rightly see the fault in what amount to the prevailing image of maturity, they didn’t propound an alternative vision like Paul did, but sought to tear down what they didn’t like. They have not transitioned to a different vision of maturity of relational maturity as defined by love, but rather an obliteration of maturity altogether.

But for Paul, the advancement and maturity of the Body of Christ is defined different from the Greco-Roman society but is not a license to lawlessness but rather calls for a higher degree of responsibility of people for one another. Paul doesn’t forbid the role of other forms of advancement and knowledge as the cult of love is fond of saying “it is about love, not doctrine.” Rather, in 1 Corinthians 12.31, Paul encourages the Corinthians to pursue the other gifts, which would includes things like wisdom and knowledge, but that these things are not to be the highest thing to be valued for the higher way of love that Paul then goes into. For Paul, knowledge, wisdom, and other giftedness and skills were in to be used in the service of loving people. The mature person hones their capacities and skills for what builds people up (1 Corinthians 14.12).

But again, a definition must be offered over and against the cult of love. Love is not an idea. Love is not an emotional experience. Love is not a way of giving people social status. Rather, love is a way of living with people with their faults and their strength, for the purpose of their well-being as they themselves become concerned about other people’s well-being. Paul’s love is about effectiveness in how one treats others for their own growth and advancement, whereas the cult of love views love as about bestowing of status.

So why this seeming digression into the cult of love into a post about maturity? Because, as I alluded to, the cult of love has resisted an image of maturity that has been baked into Western culture. And the Church in the West, far from resisting this image and setting up a counter-culture that views maturity and advancement along different lines, instead has reinforced this image time and again. It is an image of maturity that is unconcerned about the way one actually relates to another, but rather being the type of person who conveys a certain image and has the power to gets things done. The cult of love has rightly rejected such an image, but they have not learned a healthy alternative because the Church has not taught an alternative way of maturity and advancement in faith. We have long operated with the wrong definition of maturity in parts of the Church, and it has given birth to many consequences including the hypocrisy that the cult of love rightly points out. The “mature” have failed the “immature” members of the cult of love because many of the “mature” were never mature as Paul envisioned it.

I imagine if Paul were with us today, he would look at the theological and ethical conflicts we have and not play the role of the “moderate” trying to bridge gaps, but directly say to us “you are actually children, and it is reflected in so much of what you do.”

Co-explanation before relations in the NT Christology

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March 11, 2019

In my previous post looking at Wesley Hill’s introduction to Paul and the Trinity, I made an argument that there are two types of explanations that are occurring between God and Jesus in the NT, including Paul. There is the ‘metaphysical’ explanation of God about Jesus, then there is the ‘epistemic’ explanation of Jesus about God. One can refer to this as a form of bi-directionality. Hill originally argues for bi-directionality. However, for Hill, the central concern is about “identity” and “relations” rather than “explanations.” Hill writes:

These divine actions are inscribed, so to speak, into the identity of Jesus. The actions of God denoted by the verbs of sending, giving up, raising, and exalting Jesus indicate that the identity of Jesus is to be understood as inseparable from the purpose and action of God in and through him.1

In chapter 2, Hill look at Romans 4.24, Romans 8.11, and Galatians 1.1 to connect God’s identity as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. What Hill seems to suggest is that Jesus is identified with God in virtue of God acting in Jesus.

While I am sympathetic with Hill’s argument, I will suggest there is a problem. I don’t think Paul’s statement about God’s acts are intended to indicate the shared identity of God and Jesus, as much as they are to indicate something else: the mutual cooperation of redemption that God and Jesus on behalf of God’s People. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 15.12-19:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God,because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (NRSV)

There seems to be a chiasmus to this passage, where the first frames refer to the belief that some Corinthians had (v. 12 and v. 19). Then, vs. 13-14 and 16-18 express the inherent link between Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection. Then, at the center is Paul’s statement about the testimonies mentioned in 15.3-8: that God raised Christ. At stake here is not that Paul has spoken falsely about Christ. Rather, it is what Paul has said about God that is at stake: Paul’s speech about God is to be construed as misleading if the denial of the general resurrection is true.

The implicit assumption of Paul is this: what happens in Christ is not understood as a statement about Christ’s relation to God, but rather that what happens in Christ explains God’s action on behalf of His People. What happens in Jesus is a message about God’s faithfulness as God will do for people as He did for Jesus. This explains the identification of God as the one who raised Jesus Romans 4.24, where Jesus is the new model of God’s faithfulness and redemption for His people, which is prefigured by God’s relation to Abraham. Similarly, in Romans 8.11, the focus is not on God’s relation to Jesus but rather that the way Jesus’ resurrection is schematic for God’s faithfulness to give life to those in whom the Spirit resides.

I would suggest that at the center of the resurrection event is a bidirectional explanation: God as the explanation of Jesus’s resurrection then provides a epistemic explanation of God’s purposes for humanity. What is highlighted here is not Jesus identity with God, but rather Jesus’ identification with humanity, particularly those in whom the Spirit of God resides.

Now, certainly Jesus’ resurrection is also connected to His status as Lord as in Romans 1.4, Romans 10.9 and Philippians 2.6-11. However, the language of Lordship ultimately pertains to Jesus’ relationship to people. Romans 10.9 is an expression of salvation of the people though calling out to Jesus as Lord. Philippians 2.6-11 similarly speaks of the nations confessing Jesus as Lord. I would say this is also implied in Romans 1.4 as Paul then express from this that he has an apostleship to bring Gentiles into obedience through faith. To be called κύριος, just as God was referred to as κύριος as a the Septuagint translation of Tetragrammaton, was to state that Jesus relationship with the people is like that of God’s with Israel.2

However, while this might imply some sense of the relation between God and Jesus, this is not in view and one could come up with multiple explanations for how Jesus takes on God’s authority: Arianism can even explain that. Rather, it is that Jesus takes on the role of the Savior that God had in Israel’s story. I take faithfulness to God’s People to be at the center of Jesus being called Lord; he who is faithful to God is now the one to be faithful to God’s People.3 In virtue of his faithfulness that leads to His resurrection, Jesus has been granted the authority to act with God’s authority and purpose towards the world.4

However, this can be sufficiently explained by various forms of Christology that would deny Jesus’ divinity, such as Arianism? What is the basis for Jesus and God being identifiable with each other in such a way that excludes these other forms of Christology? In short, the way they NT explains the bidirectional explanations between God and Jesus: for the person of Jesus to function as He does to provide wide-spread knowledge of God to the People, He must Himself bear some unique relation to God such that He is identifiable with God.

In 1 Corinthians 1.30, Jesus is referred to as God’s Wisdom, which likely echoes Proverbs 8.22-36 and from which almost any Gentile or heavily Hellenized Jew would hear echoes of the philosophical Logos that structures the world. Then, Paul states the basis for Apollo, himself, and others to teach God’s Wisdom is that they themselves have the mind of Christ in 1 Corinthians 2.16. But, this role is not accomplished by the mere imitation of Christ, although Paul refers to that in 1 Corinthians 11.1. Rather, they must be also taught discourses by the Spirit, who makes revelation to them (1 Corinthians 2.10-13). However, if it is the Spirit who makes God’s thoughts known and it is through the Spirit that Paul can have the mind of Christ, then we can safely conclude that Paul thought the thoughts of Christ to be the thoughts of God. The explanation for this is that Christ IS the Wisdom of God.

That Jesus equality with God is connected with this epistemic function is reflected in Paul’s usage of the hymn in Philippians 2.6-11 in the context of calling the Philippians to “have the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ.” (2.5) His equality with God is the presupposition that explains his humble human status that directs the Philippians in their own relations to each other that he defines as “in Christ” and “of Spirit.” (2.1) However, what might get overlooked is that 2.1-5 is an inference (οὖν; 2.1) drawn from the Philippian’s status as being “one mind for the faith of the Gospel” (1.27) as being the result of God’s action that allows them to believe in Jesus amidst the struggles they are experienced (1.28-30). Thus, the Philippian community taking shape as a community defined by being in Christ and of Spirit in their own struggles is to be epistemically understood by the mindset that Christ Himself had in His obedience to the point of death. In other words, the action that God has taken to form the Philippian community is to be understood to take on the shape that Christ Himself had in His relationship to God: while the people are equals in their struggle (συναθλέω: 1.27), they should seek each other’s benefit over their own.

In other words, a bi-directional relationship and shared identity between God and Christ is the explanation for Christ a) being the one who explains God and b) forms the community of God’s People. However, it is Jesus’ epistemic function to explain God and His authority to lead and direct God’s people that takes primacy in the NT. Statements about Jesus’ equality with God are implied and expressed in a few places in Paul (as previously discussed) and the NT (most notably John 1.1-18 and 20.28), but this emerges from an understanding of Jesus’s roles as God’s Wisdom and as Lord rather than being expressed in them.

While Arianism could theoretically explain many of these matters, there is defeater that makes the Arian explanation implausible for the NT discourses: if Jesus equality with God is an explanation for these two roles, why then did the NT’s explanation not establish that Jesus in his pre-existent form was specially created for this role to maintain the distinction through appeals to Middle Platonism, which envisioned a distinctive separation between God and world that necessitate intermediaries? If the equality of Jesus with God emerges as an explanation for who Jesus is and what He does, then the NT writers would not have selected the language of wisdom and Logos, which bears echoes of Stoic theology/cosmology where there is no distinction between God and Logos. It seems certainly odd that the NT writers would have selected language Stoic terms and conventions, even as they refashioned them, if there was a radical discontinuity between God and Jesus that Arianism teaches. In other words, the way NT appropriates Stoic terminology more appropriately fits Jesus as Wisdom/Logos as being identifiable with God, while the NT writer refashions the Stoic concepts to maintain a transcendent discontinuity with the world. In other words, I would hypothesize that our Trinitarian doctrine of the Homoousion ultimately derives from the specific way the early Christians used Stoic concepts to establish a continuity between God and Jesus.

The cross and the limits of historical investigation

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March 9, 2019

One of the discussions we engaged in the Logos Institute during my first year pertained the relationship of history to faith. To what degree can we rely upon historical investigation, and even natural theology, to tell us something about God? Let’s consider, for instance, we developed a perfectly reliable way of investigating history that we knew never gave us wrong conclusions and we verified that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ did happen? Have we then given provided grounds for Christian faith?

In the course of my research on Paul’s Trinitarian epistemology in 1 Corinthians, I have come to the conclusion: no. This starts from 1 Corinthians 15.12-19:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (NRSV)

If we think through Paul’s argument here, he is saying that there a necessary entailment from Christ’s resurrection to the general resurrection of humanity. What happens to Christ happens to humanity, so if one were to deny the general resurrection, one must deny Christ’s resurrection. However, it bears clarifying that Paul’s argument at the beginning is in the form of a enthymeme, a form of logical argument that leaves one of the premises unstated. Put in logical form:

A1 – Jesus was raised from the dead
A2 – [Unstated Premise]
C1 – Therefore, all people will be raised from the dead.

I would contend that the unstated premise is Paul’s understanding of people being incorporated into Christ, which he commonly refers to as being “in Christ” and other similar designations. We see this expression arise in the phrase “died in Christ” and “hoped in Christ,” which does not seem to designate a cognitive state (as in “a person’s hope was focused on Christ”) but rather a reality in which believers have been brought into (“while in the state of being in Christ, people died and hoped.) In 1 Co. 6.14-15, the connection between Christ’s resurrection and believers’s resurrection (v. 14) transitions into a question of the believer participation as a member of Christ (v. 15). Incorporation in Christ the basis upon which Jesus’ resurrection entails believer’s resurrection. Paul expands upon this notion more extensively in Romans 6.1-11.

In this case, we can state that the unstated premise of A2 in actually two propositions:

A2a – Some people are incorporated into Christ
A2b – Significant events in Jesus life will also occur for people who are incorporated into Christ.

These two propositions together can be said to close the gap between A1 and C1. It doesn’t get us the entire way there as there is not propositional statement among A1, A2a, and A2b that predicates anything about all people; A2a only address the status of believers. Perhaps, however, one can bridge the argument fully by suggesting that people in virtue of being humanity are to some degree incorporated into Christ, although to a different degree than believers. Such language may pose an exegetical problem to which I am not committed, but my purposes here only need to show how the gap between A1 and C1 is filled to some degree.

At stake for Paul’s assumed logical about believers is that what happens on the cross is pertinent to them as people. It is the message of salvation. The idea that the cross is God’s salvation doesn’t arise out of a vacuum as if the disciple saw a resurrected Jesus and said: “AHA! God is saving humanity!” Rather, they saw it as part of the story of Scripture, as Paul expresses 1 Corinthians 15.3-4:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, (NRSV)

Both Jesus’ death and resurrection are a part of Israel’s story as made known in the OT Scriptures. While there is no consensus on what specific Scriptures Paul is referring to (although Isaiah 53, Ezekiel 37.1-14, and Daniel 12.1-2 are good candidates), what can be stated that is the Scriptures were never understood to simply tell Israel about individual people in chronicling God’s relationships to various Israelites, the nation of Israel, and some non-Israelites. Rather, they were considered to have been written for the people’s behalf. In other words, the Scriptures were intended not simply as a historical account. See Romans 4.23-25:

Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (NRSV)

At the end of Paul’s discussion about Abraham’s righteousness before God by faith in Genesis 15.6, Paul concludes by saying that it was written with the hearer’s in mind. It wasn’t simply to praise the character of Abraham so that his name would have honor to later generations; the Scriptures were a word-act with the intention of serving as an effectual benefit to others.1 Rather than the story of Abraham’s justification in virtue of his relationship to God in faith being an event that is peculiar to him alone, but that everyone else who follows is simply called to imitate Abraham’s obedience to God, Paul considers the reckoning of Abraham’s righteousness as bearing significance for other people.

This righteousness reckoning is then connected to Jesus’ dead and resurrection; when the type of faith Abraham had in God is had by those who believer in God as the one who raises Jesus, there is a similar justification of such a believer. But it is important to probe this analogy between Abraham and believers in the resurrection a bit further.

Abraham’s faith was had in the midst of difficulty. He was childless and he and Sarah were in an advanced age long past the stage of fertility. The present state of affairs for Abraham was one where it might be considered epistemically irrational to consider he would ever have progeny of his own. Nevertheless, because of a promise God had spoken to Him, Abraham believed despite what otherwise might appear to be an epistemic irrationality because he trusted in God’s promise over the appearance present circumstances. Abraham’s life was directed by what God spoke, not simply what appeared to be the case. Here we might see echoes of Paul’s, “we live by faith and not by sight” in 2 Corinthians 5.7.

I would contend this is the analogy Paul is drawing between Abraham and believers in the resurrection. God has made something known about God’s intentions for them, and the people trust what God has made known even though the circumstances might deem it epistemically irrational. How is this the case? Because what happens in Jesus is what God does for the people in raising the dead, such that their faith can allow them to face difficult tribulations (Romans 5.1-5) because what God did in Jesus He also does for those incorporated into Christ (Romans 6.1-11). The cross of Christ is the word of God’s righteousness to the people, just as the Scripture that is written is for the people.

Here is the point: in the New Testament, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not merely considered an event in history. It is that. But belief in the event of history is not itself a sufficient condition of faith, albeit it is a necessary condition. It is the belief that what happens in Christ is God’s Word to the people. It isn’t some one-shot event that makes Jesus an interesting and praiseworthy character but otherwise says little to our own condition of life; nor is it simply some event that establishes Jesus as possessing some authority within the world. Yes, Jesus is Lord, but the cross doesn’t proclaim that without also saying “How is it that Jesus is Lord?” The cross is a Word of God to the people. This relational act of God to people is central to Paul’s understanding of justification in Galatians 2.15-21:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through Jesus Christ’s faith. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the Son of God’s faith, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (NRSV with some personal translaton changes in italics)

Paul expresses the motivation of Jesus in his own faith leading Him to the cross was understood not about Jesus acting on his own behalf, but that it was an intention of Jesus on Paul’s behalf.2 Jesus’ own action was an act with the intention of others in mind; Christ’s actions and passions addresses other people to adopt the same type of faith. Hence, this beneficent intention is restated as “the grace of God.”

Because the cross is seen as a relational act, faith can only emerge from seeing it as the relational action of God that it is. As a historical event, it would a momentous occasion. But only by being seen as God’s Word to humanity rather than simply a word about Jesus is it efficacious.

I would contend then that it is this that is rejected by the Jew and the Gentiles in 1 Corinthians 1.22-24. The Jew considers Paul’s word of the cross as addressing humanity as a stumbling block because they do not see the signs of God’s resurrection happening around them: the Roman rulers are still in power, whereas the account of the resurrection in Daniel 12.1-2 would suggest such rulers should be put to shame. As a result, in their minds, Jesus cannot possibly be a sign of the resurrection for others. Meanwhile, the Gentiles influenced heavily by Roman Stoicism would have a hard time drawing a universal inference about the nature of the world (a universal resurrection) from a singular event in the resurrection. One would have to have a more universal and widespread observation of the entire cosmos to draw such a conclusion. Thus, as the Stoics considered all propositions that did not reach this high bar of knowledge as foolishness, Paul’s preaching would be considered foolish.

Paul doesn’t contend that these people reject that Jesus’ was raised from the dead; rather, he states they found problems in Paul’s own proclamation. The point being is that there are many ideological and logical frameworks we have that can render a belief in the resurrection of Jesus as falling short of Paul’s understanding of faith. Some of the working ideological assumptions in historiography can do this. One type of assumption is that while specific type of events may repeat themselves, it is assumed that this repetition occurs through processes that are “immanent” with history. Therefore, if we had all the data available about all the moments of history in question, a repetition could be accounted for; it is merely our gap in the records of human and natural life that limit such explanations from being potentially offered.3

If historians working with this ideology could verify that Jesus was raised from the dead, it wouldn’t lead them to believe that Jesus’ resurrection says anything about a future resurrection as part of God’s intentions. They could account for it within the specific moment and point in time, but it would be a historical account about Jesus and what happened to him, not about God’s intentions for people. They could try to think of God as ‘immanentized’ within history and thus His actions as the objects of systematic scrutiny and study, but this would presume an essentially Stoic-like epistemology in which God is reliably knowable through the systematic observation of the cosmos; but we are left at the same point: the resurrection of Christ is a unique event from which to draw an inference for a universal resurrection would be unwarranted by the lack of observations. For the historian to make the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the general resurrection, they still must see the cross of Christ as a word to humanity from God. They must perceive God’s beneficent intentions, not simply verify God’s action, expressed in the cross of Jesus.

So, to boil it all down to something very basic, history cannot lead to Christian faith because historiography is unable to study God’s intentions or to study God’s capacity, even if it can verify God’s actions. Meanwhile, trust is grounded upon the conjunction of a) beneficient intentions with b) the capacity of fulfilling those intentions. As such, history cannot deliver faith.

The Divinity of Jesus and the right question

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March 7, 2019

In his first chapter in Paul and the Trinity, Wesley Hill reviews the literature of scholars like Dunn, McGrath, Hurtado, and Bauckham and how their attempt to address the question of Paul’s Christology: what relationship did Jesus have with God? For Dunn and McGrath, they regard Paul’s faith as axiomatically grounded in Jewish monotheism that necessitates a low Chrsitology, whereas by contrast that Hurtado and Bauckham allow that monotheism is redefined to include an incorporation into Christ in an high Chrstology. However, Hill wants to shift the conversation from a Christological question these scholars are addressed to a Trinitarian question that scholarship has shied away from. As a consequence of this scholastic distance, the focus was placed on Christology. 

While I am sympathetic with Hill’s task to connect the New Testament with the Trinity by analyzing the relations between the three persons, I would suggest another move to be made: flipping the Christological question on it’s head.

The Christological question is asked with the presumption “What relationship does Jesus have to God?” When we ask this type of question, we engage in a certain type of conceptual relationship between “Jesus” and “God” known as the figure-ground alignment.

In the figure-ground relationship, our perception of the figure is changing whereas as the ground is perceived in static terms.1 For instance, if I say “The book is on the table” our cognitive schema about the book is modified by the relationship we perceive of it to the table. We don’t think “The table is under the book,” even though we might recognize these two sentences as having equivalent truth values. Such a sentence seems might quite odd to us even if it is comprehensible because we become accustomed to consider the relationships between different objects as having a fixed figure-ground relationship.

A similar figure-ground relationship has occurred in New Testament studies, exhibited in the work of Dunn and others. By taking Jewish monotheism as axiomatic, it treats the beliefs about “God” as possessing some fixed stated by which other references are to be understood as the figure. This is not an accident, but it is a pattern that is common with power relations: we are predisposed to consider the thoughts, interests, and values of those in power as having a fixed status by which everyone else must be understood. For instance, whites who study theology do not typically refer to their professed theology as “white theology,” but they refer to other theologies by how they differ from their own such as “black theology” or “liberation theology.” The interest and values of those in power obtain a certain normative status that makes them be treated with a fixed status by which everything is evaluated in terms of. Likewise, monotheism has customarily assigns to God, construed as the all-powerful redeemer of Israel that has no equal,  the ground to the relationship to anyone or anything else, including Jesus.

But, what if what happened in Jesus created a disequilibrium in this figure-ground relationship? Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, demonstrated a great power and authority, which eventually became vindicated by God raising Him from the dead. What has happened is that Jesus has become an authority figure to the disciples but of quite a dramatic fashion. Whereas the talk about God’s authority could seem quite abstract, Jesus’ authority was very real and in their face. What if through this, the question the disciples asked differed. Rather than asking “What is the relationship of Jesus to God?” what if they instead asked “What is the relationship of God to this Jesus we know?”

In this case, God is the figure to the ground of Jesus. Instead of learning about Jesus by comparing Him to God, they learned about God by comparing Him to Jesus. Instead of asking questions about a high or low Christology, they would be asking questions instead about a high or low theology. A high theology renders the relationship of God to Jesus as one of distance, that God is still transcendentally far from the person Jesus. This is the move of Arianism. By contrast, a low theology renders the relationship of God to Jesus as one where God is on the same level as the person of Jesus.

Put differently, in this type of question, God in the explanans and Jesus is an the explanandum. Jesus is the explanation for God, rather than God the explanation for Jesus. However, it is important to clarify why type of explanation is offered. Jesus is not a metaphysical or causal explanation for God. Rather, Jesus is the explanation for God’s character/nature.

Nevertheless, God is still also understood as a metaphysical explanation for Jesus. John 1.1-18 is framed by both the bi-directional explanations: God is the metaphysical explanation of the Logos (v. 1) and the Son provides the epistemic explanation of God (v. 18).

This allows me to make my suggestion about a problem within New Testament scholarship. By treated Jewish faith as axiomatic for understanding Jesus, they have privileged metaphysical explanations over epistemic explanations. Then in so doing, they tried to answer a question about who Jesus is; the epistemic question becomes subjected to the metaphysical question.

For a brief demonstration, notice that in Phil. 2.9-11, the “direction” of the text moves from Jesus to God. There are two moves that occur here. Ther eis the metaphysical explanation of the events of Jesus’ life being God’s exaltation of Him. But then, the recognition of the Lordship leads to what is mentioned in the prepositional phrase: εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός. Good sense of εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός is made if one suggests the relationship is essentially an epistemic one: by recognizing Jesus as Lord, God receives glory because in God is identified in Jesus. There is in Phil. 2.9-11, as in John 1.1-18, a latent bi-directional explanatory relationship between God and Jesus that starts with the metaphysical and concludes with the epistemic.

But if the epistemic question is given priority, something else happens: it provides the place for the Holy Spirit in the discussion about God. The Spirit is a recurrent actor in the Gospels and is repeatedly mentioned alongside Jesus in discussions of human salvation and redemption. Jesus and the Spirit are co-actors in the historical narratives. Consequently, the question of “What is God’s relationship to Jesus?” would also bring up the question “What is God’s relationship to the Spirit?”

In other words, by providing priority to the epistemic question of the NT that identifies God through Jesus, one also easily accommodates the Spirit to the possibility of an early form of Trinitarianism. Since Jesus and the Spirit are co-operative in the Gospel narrative traditions, then to ask how God is related to Jesus is to also ask God’s relationship to the Spirit. In other words, the Trinitarian question that Hill explores through discussion of relations in the NT would emerge from this question of the early Church: What is God’s relationship to Jesus?