Two conversations have had me thinking about sin.  Or to be more specific, what happens when we use the word “sin.”  What actually gets communicated?

The first conversation was a wonderfully deep intelligent conversation in which I and my interlocutor were seeking mutual understanding on a whole swathe of issues.  The relevant part involved a hypothetical where I was asked, “How would I speak to someone in situation X?”   My response was, “I suppose I’d probably begin by saying ‘Well, we are all sinners.'”  The response to this was some genuine, well-hearted, dismay… “Oh yes, that’s where you lot start from…”

What I intended in my response to the hypothetical was an attitude that eschewed holier-than-thou-ness or condemnation.  For my part, “We are all sinners” is the great leveller.  It says “I am not better than you” and “I cannot condemn you, for if I did I would also condemn myself.”

It’s not like this was beyond the capacity of my conversationalist to understand.  The conversation delved into areas of a relevant common human experience: how we all wrestle with both the broken parts and healthy parts of our lives; how even the most well-intentioned relationships cannot hold selfishness at bay 100% of the time; how in our finitude (if nothing else) we each end up committing and suffering harm.  This is simple reality that we both recognised.

But somehow the word “sin” or “sinner” didn’t connote any of that…

The second conversation was with someone who has a Christian faith but lives in a non-Christian context.  She shared the evisceral reaction to the word, because that reaction has been part of her world: “‘Sin’ doesn’t work, it get’s turned off and tuned out.”

But, it was noted, there are words that do work.  “Brokenness” is one of them.  Everyone of us can acknowledge that we are broken.  “Darkness” is another, recognising the fact that sometimes we just want what we want, we do what we know is harmful and wrong.  Even the phrase “rebellion against the things of life” gets more traction.

idntimwytimThe conclusion of course, is not a new thought: The word “sin” doesn’t work as a word anymore.  It doesn’t do what words should do – encapsulate and communicate meaning.  It’s Christian jargon.  But it’s worse than that, from this perspective it signifies our self-justifying delusion, “sin” is our construct to justify our own existence and exercise power over others.

This is not hard to understand, but it something we need to emotionally appropriate.  An exercise for (the much  caricatured) Christian conservatives might be something like this:  You know how we feel when we get called bigots and hatemongers?  We not only find it derogatory and disconnected from the reality of who we are, and hypocritically hateful, we also consider it as polemical self-justification: if they can maintain the rage against the bigoted Christians, they can get more votes.  You know how that makes us feel?  On the flip-side, for them, that’s what happens when we use the word “sin.”

So what do we do about it?  Do we stop using the word?  Perhaps.  After all, our job is to communicate, and it’s not like the word is sacrosanct.  Are we not preachers, homileticians?  Our job is to connect the worlds and get the meaning across.  Just as I don’t quickly use jargon words like “eschatology” or “propitiation” (although I do try to communicate the substance of them) perhaps we should also be careful in how we describe our harmatology.

It’s not like there isn’t precedent.  In New Testament Greek “sin” is ἁμαρτία (harmatia) which connotes “missing the mark” or “wandering from the path” of God’s good ways; it speaks to a more fundamental wrongward inclination.  It is also παράπτωμα (paraptoma) which has more of the connotation of “trespass”, “wrongdoing” or “lapse”; it speaks more to specific actions that are wrong or done wrongly.

I think we are being lazy.  Rather than communicating our intent, we use an ineffective jargon word, in which we expect even our interested listeners to do some semantical gymnastics in order to keep up with us.  But even more worryingly, we end up lazy with our own thoughts, using a catch-all word where precision is necessary not only for mutual understanding, but for genuine expression that is also loving and caring.

Therefore, and to conclude, let us take a look at the pallid rainbow of the darkside of human existence.  To be honest, even in my current use I wouldn’t apply the word “sin” in all these instances.  But it seems, that when we use the word it may be taken that way.  It’s worth a consideration; after all, if we use “sin” intending to communicate something akin to “wrongdoing” or “mistake” and it is heard as “evil”, we can do immeasurable harm.

EVIL: “Sin” pertains to those things that are utterly antithetical to the things of life.  “Sin” reigned through the workings of Pol Pot and Hitler.  “Sin” is manifest at it’s highest in serial killers and torturers.  “Sin” is diabolical, demonic, irredeemably hell-bound.

CRUEL INTENTIONS: “Sin” pertains to those who delight in pain.  “Sin” pertains to sadistic abusers who are fully aware of what they are doing.  This “sin” is not so much a desire to win but a desire to defeat others, no matter the cost.  If it is not quite an evil lust for power, it is certainly a lust for control.

DELIBERATE REBELLION/HARD HEARTEDNESS: “Sin” pertains to those who manifest selfishness at its utmost.  “Sin” will cast others aside in order to get what is wanted. This “sin” is machiavellian in the extreme.  Others are means to an end.  Responsibilities cast aside, abandonment, and rejection.  All this is “sin.”

SENSUAL PASSIONS:  “Sin” pertains to the idolatry of human passion.  This is the domain of the “seven deadlies” – from raging anger, to rampant lustfulness, the flesh is king.  Persons are reduced to animals, fresh meat, gold mines, for the satiation of appetite.

BONDAGE: “Sin” pertains to addictive behaviours.  False comforts that are destructive, but provide temporary physical or emotional relief.  Often in response to harms of the past, a destructive cycle becomes our own, and without consideration we ourselves become harmful.

NEGLIGENCE: “Sin” pertains to carelessness and neglect.  Sins of omission which overlook or diminish others.  Sins that refuse to see the image of God in the face of others.  Racism and xenophobia, at the very least, are “sin” at this level.

MISTAKES: We stuff up. We hurt people.  We harm them.  And whether it is intended or not, such mistakes are our responsibility.  We have done the wrong thing, and that is “sin.”

BROKENNESS: We are wounded, we are hurting.  And often this means we believe wrongly about ourselves.  We think we are evil, when evil has been done to us.  We root our very person into shames that have been wrought upon us.  At a very gentle level, this thinking about ourselves is wrong – and like all “sin” we must turn away from it.

As a final thought:  In writing the above, the usefulness of the word “sin” in covering them all is that there is one answer to all these dark things: Jesus.  From the defeat of evil at the top, to the gentle healing of brokenness at the bottom, he is the answer.

TrinityI’m preaching on both Pentecost and Trinity Sundays over the next couple of weeks.  Time for me to brush up on my Trinitarian theology.

It’s something I’ve had to do recently, having interacted with muslims in a multi-linguistic context (try explaining trinitarian thinking when the only mutual language is the waving of hands!)  All analogies are imperfect, but I have found Augustine’s Lover-Beloved-Love dynamic to be a good place to start.

Trinitarian thought is asymptotic of course – you know where it is but you can’t. quite. get. there…   And God is mystery in true sense of the word – not unknowable, but unfathomable, if you know what I mean.

But for mine, a good explanation of the Trinity must be able to explain a few things at both the essential level: Why only three? What makes a three-person Trinity perfect and eternal? …and the economic level: Why was it the Son who became incarnate? Join the dots between the kenosis of the Son, the anointing of Christ’s work by the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection and Ascension, and the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit… and show how such economic observations are necessary outworkings (not mere whims, because “God willed it” etc.) of Almighty God.

And so I’ve often found myself not approaching it from the point of view of the Unity (the essence, immutability etc.) or from the Persons (particularly in functional terms), but from the point of view of the Relationships.  The Relationships clarify the Persons.  And they must be mutual, two-way, distinct and therefore perichoretic.  And some of them we don’t have ready language for, which is probably where angels fear to tread (and/or is scope for more work):

The Father begets The Son and therefore(?) The Spirit processes
is brought forth(?)
The Son exercises(?)
shines with(?)
The Spirit and therefore(?) The Father is reflected(?)
The Spirit expresses(?)
(as in reveals the depths of)
The Father and therefore(?) The Son is energised(?)
is embraced(?)
The Father processes
brings forth(?)
The Spirit and therefore(?) The Son is begotten
The Son reflects(?) The Father and therefore(?) The Spirit shines(?)
is brought to action(?)
The Spirit energises(?)
The Son and therefore(?) The Father is expressed (?)
revealed-in-his-depths (?)

but even more tightly:

In the begetting of the Son by the Father, being the
reflection(?) of the Father by the Son
the Spirit is brought forth(?) and shines/acts(?)
In the procession of the Spirit by the Father, being the
expression/revelation(?) of the Father by the Spirit 
the Son is begotten and embraced(?)/energised(?)
In the exercise(?) of the Spirit by the Son, being the
embrace/energising(?) of the Son by the Spirit
the Father is reflected(?) and expressed/revealed(?)

Any suggestions for better words to describe these relationships?

This relational consideration gives some weight to the Orthodox assertion of the Unity of the Trinity originating in the Father (not some amorphous [and impersonal] divine essence).  The analogy is this: The eternal creative Father, eternally and perfectly pours himself out in perfect and eternal creativity (that is he begets the Son).  In with and through that perfect and eternal act of begetting the Father is perfectly and eternally revealed, expressed, and enacted – and so the Spirit of the Begetting Father proceeds in with and through the Son (who perfectly reflects the Begetting Father).  These two relationships (begetting and proceeding) inform the mutual perichoretic non-arbitrary interplay of relationships that I have (very imperfectly) attempted to render above.

In looking at this today I have been stimulated by this piece by Sorin Şelaru: Eternal Intra-Trinitarian Relations and their Economic Consequences.

He begins here…

The Holy Spirit continuously proceeds from the loving Father towards the beloved Son, and continuously shines forth the response of the Son’s love towards the Father. The Father gives procession to the Holy Spirit in order to love the Son through the Spirit, while the Son turns towards the Father through the Holy Spirit, in order to love the Father through the Spirit.

…which is what I’ve been trying to express.  And he then makes it economic and real…

The teaching on Trinitarian relations provides the basis for the relation between the Holy Trinity and the created world; therefore theological considerations concerning the special relationships between the Son and the Holy Spirit within the Holy Trinity, the Spirit’s shining forth from the Son, resting upon the Son, and accompanying the Son, have several consequences for the economic domain.

Everything Christ works, He does so in the Holy Spirit. And everything the Holy Spirit works, He does so in and through Christ, to perfect the creative, deifying work of the Holy Trinity.

…and, with relevance for Pentecost:

As the Spirit, shining forth from the Son towards the Father brings to the Father the splendor and the joy of the Son, so He makes us shine as sons. He embraces us with the joy and the love for the Father. We all are loved by the Father and we all respond to the Father’s love through the Son and with Son’s love, because the Father’s Spirit, dwelling within the Son, overshadows us all and from us all the Spirit shines forth towards the Father.

Which brings us into the picture: By the Spirit, in the Son, as the Father wills, we are included in the Trinitarian dance. That’s awesomeness, right there.

Which means we also experience the mutual interplay of the Trinitarian relationships, which is the grace of the incarnation if nothing else:

  • The Incarnate Son clearly receives and operates in the power of the Holy Spirit (a (F <-> HS) <-> S dynamic) – and we find God, who is the Son.
  • The Ascended Son, with the Father, reveals and expresses through an economic sending/empowering (a (F <-> S) <-> HS dynamic) – and we find God, who is the Holy Spirit.
  • The Son-in-Session, brings with him all those who are filled with his Spirit, adopted as sons, and sharing in his Sonship (a (HS <-> S) <-> F dynamic) – and we find God, who is the Father.

All of which makes the fact that Jesus is who Jesus is incredibly and stupendously amazing.

Sistine FingersAnonymous asks: Does God need us?

The short answer is, “No.”

The long answer is, “It depends what you mean by ‘need.'”

God does not need us ontologically, that is in order to be himself.  This is actually a key component of how we conceived of God as Trinity.  God, by definition, is perfect.  But it is impossible for a unitarian God to have relationship until that God creates something – the creature can then be seen to add/complete/perfect that God in some way.  But if God is Father who eternally and perfectly pours himself out in perfect love into a perfect and complementary reflection of himself you have the basis of the “God in three persons” which in some sense is to understand “God as relationship.”  A Trinitarian God does not need his creatures in order to perfectly incorporate relationship.  His creation of us is therefore an act of grace, a gift, not an act of necessity or self-exploration on his part.

God does not need us practically, that is in order to do what he wants to do.  This is pretty clear.  God, being God, can do whatever he likes.  He can create the heavens and the earth and doesn’t need our help.  He can reveal himself to patriarchs and prophets, and doesn’t need our help.  He can move mountains and quicken and harden hearts, and doesn’t need our help.  All these actions speak of a God who graciously choose to create, sustain, and even intervene in his creation.  This is a grace, a gift to us, and not an act of obligation on his part.

There’s a pattern here – it’s not about “need”, it’s about grace.

And one of the aspects of that grace is that God chooses to no only relate to us, but to lead us, guide us, and, yes, to work through us.  So much so that he binds himself to us which not only affirms his humility, but also affirms that we are indeed made in the image of God, through whom divine works can occur.  And so God achieves his project through a human.  He even achieves salvation through a human.  That perfect and creative outpouring of God the Father – i.e. God the Son – became, is and will ever more be a human being.  He is a human being through whom God has worked his most magnificent work, and through whom we are called to also be, like Jesus, obedient to God, empowered by his Spirit, and achieving the works of his kingdom.

Are we needed for that task?  In some sense, yes, but not out of necessity, only because God is both gracious and sovereign.

Krister Stendahl

I have embarked on a self-imposed project to explore the links between the New Perspective and a new apologia.

It seemed good to begin with Krister Stendahl’s 1963 classic article, The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.  It’s a short piece that is a good insight into the beginnings of the New Pespectives movement.  It raises the basic questions pertaining to the disparities between the Pauline, Reformation and modern milieux and chases these down some hermeneutical rabbit holes.

Not that Stendahl goes too deep.  It’s a pleasant read which gives the broad brushstrokes and only glimpses of the obvious academic rigour that lies underneath.

It suits my purposes to summarise and condense his argument, codifying and storing away the framework as I continue my wider exploration.

Point #1 – The modern world wrestles with matters of introspection and individual conscience.  This is not what Paul-the-fomer-Pharisee wrestles with.

Stendahl uses the psycho-social term “introspection” and “introspective conscience.”  It is crucial but short-hand language and he never unpacks exactly what he means by it.  Here is a connection point between Pauline hermeneutic and the modern world which is at the heart of my project.  The hermeneutical end of this connection is Stendahl’s phrase “Pauline awareness of sin” for which, Stendahl suggests, we have a primarily Lutheran and Augustinian lens that is not entirely aligned with Paul’s concerns.

Stendahl’s insistence is that Paul has had no real problem with law keeping; after all, the Law includes elements of grace despite the Lutheran law-grace dichotomy.  Paul’s concern is with the Law itself, not with the keeping of it.

It was not to him a restoration of a plagued conscience; when he says that he now forgets what is behind him (Phil 3:13), he does not think about the shortcoming of his obedience to the Law, but about his glorious achievements as a righteous Jew, achievements which he nevertheless has now learned to consider as “refuse” in the light of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. (200-201)

Yes, there is an impossibility about keeping the law.  But the real issue is that even when Paul is righteous ‘according to the Law’ it is nothing to the grace now revealed in Jesus.

The communal & convenantal emphases of the New Perspective is apparent here.  For Stendahl, Paul’s concern is not to assuage individual conscience but to demonstrate that the two communities – those who have lived under the old covenant of Law, and those who have been a Law unto themselves – now must approach God in the same way, through Christ.

Point #2 – Paul-the-Christian’s introspection is not shaped around a personal wrestle with sin.

A comparison is made here between the Pauline world and the world of the Reformation in which Luther stood firmly on the legacy of Augustine, who was the “first modern man” (205) who “may well have been one of the first to express the dilemma of the introspective conscience” (203).

“It is in response to their [the Augustine/Lutheran milieu] question, “How can I find a gracious God?” that Paul’s words about a justification in Christ by faith, and without the works of the Law, appears as the liberating and saving answer… (203)

Augustine and the Church was by and large under the impression that Paul dealt with those issues with which he actually deals: 1) What happens to the Law (the Torah, the actual Law of Moses, not the principle of legalism) when the Messiah has come? – 2) What are the ramifications of the Messiah’s arrival for the relation between Jews and Gentiles? For Paul had not arrived at his view of the Law by testing and pondering its effect upon his conscience; it was his grappling with the question about the place of the Gentiles in the Church and in the plan of God… (204)

Paul’s chief concern was about the inclusion of the Gentiles into Christ-centred grace, not the exclusion of sin-wracked Jews from grace because of their Law.  Paul’s own “conversion” is not so much an individual relief of conscience, but a prophetic (and very Jewish) call to be the Apostle to the Gentiles to gather those who are now included.

To break into commentary for a second – this is a useful consideration.  I recognised many years ago that the great evangelistic sermons of Acts do not accord with the evangelistic shape of the modern age.  Here I see in Stendahl an exploration of why this is so.

Point #3 – The Introspective Conscience framework gives rise to hermeneutical difficulties.

This section is the most valuable part of the article.  Stendahl unpacks some considerable implications.  The launching point is this:

Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament. (206)

Paul’s concern is to demonstrate that

Once the Messiah had come, and once the faith in Him – not “faith” as a general religious attitude – was available as the decisive ground for salvation, the Law had done its duty as a custodian for the Jews. (206)


In the common interpretation of Western Christianity, the matter looks very different.  Once could even say that Paul’s argument has been reversed into saying the opposite to his original intention. (206)

The Law, which was for Paul an obsoleted custodian for the Jews until the coming of Christ (in which Christ himself is prefigured in the gracious aspects of the Law), has become the tool of introspection – a custodian that takes each of us individually to Christ by crushing us with its righteousness.

There is a true disparity here and Stendahl helps us know what is at stake.  It is the shape of the gospel of itself, and certainly the defining points of an effective kerygma.

Paul’s argument that the Gentiles must not, and should not come to Christ via the Law, i.e., via circumcision etc., has turned into a statement according to which all men must come to Christ with consciences properly convicted by the Law and its insatiable requirements for righteousness. (207)

Point #4 – Modern introspective exegesis can be rebutted.

Stendahl finally gets to his positive consideration of the matter and gives a quick rendition of the New Perspective lens (and, yes, he does use the term “new perspective” in passing (214)).  My summation is this:

1) Sin is real. “Rom 1-3 sets out to show that all – both Jews and Gentiles – have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” This is properly conceived as covenantal sin of peoples, not the travailing conscience of individuals. (208)

2) Paul’s personal awareness of sin is not a present wrestle of conscience, but a past fact of his persecuting actions against the people of God.  Paul uses this to speak of the covenantal inclusion of the godless – as a rhetorical device, not a conclusion.  If “Paul’s enmity to Jesus Christ and the church” can be “gloriously and gracefully blotted out”, how much more can God justify the “weak and sinful and rebellious” (209)

3) Paul’s consideration of present troubles is one of “weakness” and attack from the enemy.  When it comes to matters of conscience he more readily speaks of victory in Christ and “his good conscience before men and God.” (210)

4) Romans 7, which is meant to be the epitome of introspection is actually an “acquittal” of the Christ-focussed ego, “not one of utter contrition.”  This is because Romans 7 is an argument in which good (but ineffective and obsoleted) Law can be made distinct from “bad Sin.”

“If I do what I do not want, then it is not I who do it, but the sin which dwells in me.”… This distinction makes it possible for Paul to blame Sin and Flesh, and to rescue the Law as a good gift of God.” (212)

We should not read a trembling and introspective conscience into a text which is so anxious to put the blame on Sin, and that in such a way that not only the Law but the will and mind of man are declared good and are found to be on the side of God. (214)

Stendahl’s considerations are not without difficulty, both exegetically and practically.  I am driven to read Romans in particular and to weigh Stendahl up against Scripture.  I am concerned practically in the downplaying of present sin in terms of weakness and enemy attack; it seems but a variation on “the devil made me do it.”

Nevertheless, this has been an intriguing and enjoyable beginning to my little project.  I will move from here either backwards to Augustine, or forwards to Dunn and Wright and others who have progressed the New Perspective.  I’ll probably do both.

“Evangelical Universalism” – an intriguing theological framework It’s “universalism” because it’s a belief that all will eventually be “saved.”  It’s “evangelical” because unlike other forms of universalism it maintains that Christ is the one and only way to salvation, and does not deny the authority of Scripture.  On the face of it, it seems to be oxymoronic.  But someone who strikes me as thoughtful challenged me to read the book, and so I did.  Some time ago actually, but things have been busy.

MacDonald writes well, with an appropriate studiousness and humility.  My  views are sympathetic with annihilationism and much of his arguments against the “traditional view” presuppose eternal torment and I approached my read with this in mind.

His introduction outlines his personal motivations in studying the topic.  In many ways it is a basic theodical angst:

“The problem was that over a period of months I had become convinced that God could save everyone if he wanted to, and yet I also believed that the Bible taught that he would not.  But, I reasoned, if he loved them, surely he would save them; and thus my doxological crisis grew.  Perhaps the Calvinists were right – God could save everyone if he wanted to, but he does not want to.  He loves the elect with saving love but not so the reprobate… Could I love a God who could rescue everyone but chose not to?… I longer loved God because he seemed diminished.  I cannot express how deeply distressing this was for me…”  (Page 2)

From this point he moves on to some more detailed philosophical considerations and then some exegetical considerations which he hopes will allow “universalist theology… to count as biblical.”

MacDonald exhibits some hermeneutical depth, drawing on Thomas Talbott he is honest about his assumptions:

“Talbott asks us to consider three propositions:

1. It is God’s redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself.

2. It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world.

3. Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence all together.

Now, this set of propositions is inconsistent in that it is impossible to believe all three of them at the same time…

Universalists thus have to reinterpret the hell texts.  But they are in a situation no different from Calvinists or Arminians in this repect. ‘Every reflective Christian who takes a stand with respect to our three propositions must reject a proposition for which there is at least some prima facie biblical support.” (Page 37, 38)

And he brings a decent biblical theology to bear.  Consider the diagram on Page 77 and also 105, which pretty much sums up his third and fourth chapters, that correlates crucifixion->resurrection of Christ to Israel’s exile -> return (via the suffering servant) to the fall -> (universal, in his view) restoration of humanity.   This also gives a decent missiological ecclesiology:

“Thus, the church is seen as an anticipation in the present age of a future salvation for Israel and the nations in the new age.  This, in a nutshell, is the evangelical universalist vision I defend.” (Page 105)

It is clear through all this that his motivations and arguments are, indeed, evangelical, even if we may question his conclusions.

It is somewhat difficult to argue against him as he does a great deal to argue that a number of theological frameworks (Calvinism, Molinism…) are compatible with universalism.  So what framework do I use in any rejoinder?  He could always escape into a different framework.  Nevertheless, my concerns include:

1) A view of hell as mere purgatory.  Apart from anything else, this quantifies grace.  Some receive enough grace to be saved in this life, some need grace extended into the afterlife.  In his appeal to the omnibenevolent God that makes hell redemptive, one could simply ask why the omnibenevolent God invokes hell at all and simply saves everyone forthwith, or, if there must be pain, through trials and revelations of truth in this life.  Some form of hell must be invoked to maintain biblical warrant, but seems superfluous in a universalist framework.

2) Where does the universalism end?  If all humanity is restored, then given his hermeneutical framework, all creation is restored.  Does this mean salvation, say, for the devil and the demonic cohort, who are creatures?  I didn’t see him deal with this but it raises significant questions both exegetically and theologically.

3) What does it do with our kerygma?  While MacDonald usefully ties ecclesiology to soteriology, in application and proclamation he runs into difficulties in his framework.  He says, drawing from Colossians, that “the Church must live by gospel standards and proclaim its gospel message so that the world will come to share in the saving work of Christ” (Page 52).  But by his framework, this mode of proclamation is arbitrary and contingent – it will presumably finish, incomplete, at the day of judgement.  Unless of course the redemption in hell is also done through the proclamation of the church but then we really are stretching into conjecture.

4) There are times when I think he mishandles corporate/individual salvation.  His transition into considering Abrahamic covenant as a transition from nation to individual is too simplistic (Page 55).  His desire to undermine categorical understandings of salvation for “all people” in Romans 5 ignores the context of Jew/Gentile categories (Page 83).  Perhaps he has a need to extract individuals from the judgement on nations (and vice versa), but this again stretches into conjecture.

In the end, however, my problem comes down to “how would I preach this?”  And the answer is, I don’t think I could.  The finality of judgement is what gives us the impetus to cry “Maranatha”, it’s what energises our nurture as we provoke one another “all the more as we see the Day approaching”, it’s what stimulates our mission so that the Son of Man may find active lively faith on earth when he returns.  These are activities, yearnings, longings, directions, purposes that inherently and rightly belong to this Kingdom, this age.  To belay any aspect of these things to another mode of redemption appears antagonistic to the whole gospel imperative.

I agree with his theodical concerns.  His hermeneutical critique has some merit.  But if I must choose which framework to use I would still lean towards annihilationism as that which best encapsulates the biblical revelation.

This is a well written book.  It does not dishonour Scripture.  It is not intended to undermine the Christian gospel.  It is worth engaging with.  But in the end it takes us to places that are unwarranted and unhelpful.

Can there be be such a thing as a novel and new work in the area of theology? I suspect not, but there are places where our current thought, practice and doctrine so intertwine with both modern ecclesiastical intellect and the real world, that the exploration perforce covers old ground in new ways and towards new ends. Scott Harrower’s Trinitarian Self and Salvation is one of these explorations.

This deeply theological book, a published doctoral thesis, is, in Harrower’s own terms, an “Evangelical Engagement with Rahner’s Rule.” This is a theologically technical landscape to journey through and so it bears some explanation. It relates to our understanding of how the immanent Trinity (God as God is for all eternity) and the economic Trinity (God as God is revealed and acting in history) can be understood together. Harrower himself gives excellent background.

This axiom, RR, is defined as follows in Karl Rahner’s classic work The Trinity: “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” (Page 1)

Evangelicals with a high view of Scripture tend to choose either of two approaches to RR… There is firstly the “strict realist reading” (SRR) of RR, secondly, a “loose realist reading” (LRR) of RR. (Page 3)

Quoting Olson, “interpreters of Rahner’s Rule have tended to divide into two camps: those who believe in a strong identity of immanent and economic Trinity and those who would qualify that identity by positing a prior actuality of the immanent Trinity.” (Page 6)

In other words, to borrow from Giles from Harrower’s footnote on page 7, the SRR of RR connotes an identification between the economic and the immanent Trinity, and the LRR of RR connotes simply a correlation between the economic and immanent Trinity.

Harrower’s focus is to assess the strength of the SRR of RR by means of an exegetical study of Luke-Acts. He does not focus on the practical implications of either the SRR or the LRR but they are there in the background.

The inclusion of Giles as a contemporary Evangelical theologian who “employs the LRR” (Page 7) brings to bear the sphere of subordinationism within the Trinity and the correlative theology of subordinationism in terms of gender roles. It may be over-simplifying but we can take the LRR to be a generally egalitarian view of God and the effects of salvation history, and the SRR to be, generally, a complementarian view that reads the subordination of Christ back into the very being of the Godhead and then extends its applicability to many, if not all, areas of life.

Harrower’s method is simple enough. He unpacks the concepts, puts clarifying bounds on his terms, and then gives some detailed background on Rahner himself so that we can be clear about what is at stake. Rahner held to an SRR and it was here in this background information that my own interest began was piqued. I found myself reading of thoughts and phrases that I myself had employed to speak of the Trinity (e.g. “[a theology] which only allows for the Son to become incarnate”, Page 34; “The Christology is thus a descending Christology in which Christ has his identity from God he Father’s expression of himself towards the world in the Logos as his symbol.”, Page 43). Was I SRR or LRR? I had reached the end of my previous thinking and now precision was expected of me!

The conclusion is made clear from the beginning – Harrower’s mission is to demonstrate the flaws of an SRR of RR. Should I be seeking to line up beside him or give a retort to each point made? The best theological journeys are the ones where you are not quite sure where you will end up.

Before his exegetical thrust the background includes some strictly theological reflections on the flaws of the SRR. Harrower has enumerated these from Page 46 under informative headings. I had a number of “I hadn’t thought of that” moments in this section. Consider these gems that struck me in particular:

  • The strong identification of the economic with the immanent implies an essential necessity for God to be incarnate and therefore an essential reliance on creation/redemption in the very being of God. Can God still be God without creating and saving by this view? “…in Rahner’s theology God is dependent on the world for the fruition of his selfhood.” (Page 48)
  • “Rahner’s axiom detracts from the incarnation because it asserts that God the Son’s relations with the other person of the Trinity in history must be exactly as they are for God the Son within God’s immanent self… Thus, the extent of the condescension of God in the incarnation, and salvation history as the context for the incarnation may have a reduced place in Rahner’s theology.” (Page 53). “Thus Rahner does not sufficiently deal with the two “states of Christ”: his humiliation and glorification.” (Page 54)

This last point is key – the emphasis of the SRR elevates the fullness (or at least the precision) of the revelation of God in the incarnation – but this is at the expense of the condescension of God in the incarnation. The tension is clear, in Christ God brought all of himself, and at the same time emptied himself so that he might be, for us, the Son of Man, Messiah and Saviour. The SRR implies a complete (cost-free?) continuation of Trinitarian relationship before and after the incarnation. The LRR affirms that “the incarnation involved a change in the way in which God relates to himself as Trinity ater God the Son took on human flesh.” (Page 59).

Harrower picks up this point a number of times throughout and it enables him to approach his exegesis of Luke-Acts through the Christological lens of the “messianic role” in which in the light of “his anticipated eschatological work and revelation, Jesus’ work in the economy of salvation is an incompete revelation of who he is.” (Page 73). Harrower does not pursue it, but it would be an interesting exercise to thoroughly correlate the RR considerations with the hermeneutical perspective of the likes of N. T. Wright. The starting point might be this:

Jesus relates to the Father and the Spirit in a specific messianic manner which is a newly-structured relationality. To hold the contrary opinion, namely that the trinitarian relations in the economy of salvation are the unrestrained self-expression of God’s immanent taxis, is to lose sight of Jesus’ vocation as Messiah and its significance for Christian theology. (Page 79)

This understanding sets up Harrower’s basic exegetical argument: Take an element of the messianic shape of Christ’s ministry, apply the SRR to apply that shape to the essence of God, demonstrate the absurdity, inconsistency, or undesirability of that shape. The last two chapters exercises this argument by considering both Father-Son and Son-Holy Spirit relationships.

At the end of the journey that is this book I was left with varied thoughts. I was variously impressed, frustrated, intrigued, and challenged along the way. I am aware that because of its interaction with the subordinationism debate this is likely to be a book of some controversy, particularly in the Australian scene. As I was with Giles, I am sympathetic to Harrower’s stance.

What I most desire having read this book is further engagement. I want to read a rebuttal. I will seek to find an opportunity to share a coffee and a discussion with the author. One thing is sure, Harrower’s presence in the Australian and international theological academy is a welcome one and a worthy example of the next generation of Christian thought leaders.

This is one of those “an oldy but a goody” books.  It’s by Michael Green and was first published in 1987.

I had a reason for reading it.  It was one of those awesome moments of messy missiology when gospel realities and ecclesiastical niceties don’t quite line up:  My Bishop was leading a reaffirmation of baptism service for two refugees from a local immigration detention centre.  And I was tasked with considering the liturgy, talking with the two men, unpacking what they meant by the ceremony, what we meant, what was meant to be meant etc. etc.

It reminded me of a number of occasions doing ministry at Somerset where people would join the church.  Some were baptised as infants, some as adults, some as both, some not at all.  How do we bring cohesion and coherency to all this without losing hold on the real meaning of baptism, its significance and value, and ultimately its contribution to the worship of our lives?

This book by Michael Green helps us wade through this sort of quagmire.

While Green clearly holds a paedobaptist (infant baptism) position, the framework of the book interacts with three streams of churchmanship – the Catholic, the Protestant and the Charismatic.

The bulk of the book interacts between the Protestant and Catholic which, if you know the history of the debate, is understandable.  I want recap it here, but the particularly insightful contributions that I came across included the best exposition yet of a correlation between circumcision and baptism as a covenantal sign (p25) and chapters five and six which give an excellent defense and apology for the validity and value of infant baptism.

Green does not ignore the need for constant reform, however.  Errors have been made on every side.  This is where the practical usefulness of the book is apparent.  We are given some key guiding principles (e.g. no liturgy can create reality p95, baptism is a witness to grace, not faith p114).  We are also given some help in applying these principles in the messy world of reality.   The consideration of baptism reaffirmation spoke to my immediate need.

This is a short, sharp book which gives a thorough overview with the occasional gem that explores some depths.  An excellent introduction to the subject and absolute must for those who truly want to genuinely wish to engage and understand his side of this particular debate.

Within the first few weeks of my moving to Hobart I happened to find myself at a book launch that someone had pointed out to me in the local newspaper.  The event involved a local author writing on religious issues, and it also involved wine and a professor of philosophy at the nearby university. It intrigued me enough to go.  The speech by the author, Douglas Lockhart, exhorted the church to redefine itself and its doctrine to be more reasonable, and intrigued me enough to buy the ebook.

There is a companion volume of philosophical theory and The Mar Saba Codex was consequently touted as being fast-paced, suspenseful, with interesting characters in interesting places.  Although I wasn’t expecting anything Dan Brown-esque I was hoping to find something with some grip and engagement.  I was a little disappointed.  The characters are monochrome, the plot somewhat-stagnant, and the eventual suspense anticlimactic.  I realised I was reading what could only be called a “narrative philosophy” – a sequence of dialogues loosely tied together around a mythical motif that attempts to espouse the benefits of a form of humanism that feels it necessary to demand the second mile from the Christian church and the borrowed guise of the Christian cloak.  I feel no need to read the companion volume.

The narrative is wrapped around the finding of a letter written by an early bishop called Theophilus.  The letter affirms an understanding of Jesus that underplays (eliminates?) the divine, eschews trinitarian theology, and embraces a somewhat-non-theistic somewhat-Jewish human messianicism.  As we are introduced to the main characters – in particular Jack Duggan, a former priest-in-training, ongoing ancient-text expert and now disgruntled journalist – this letter is set up as a touchstone against dogmatism, absolutism, and revelatory epistemology – as if the divinity of Christ somehow is the cornerstone for all that is wrong with the Christian religion.

For instance,

“I gave up believing in belief a long time ago.” Duggan was faintly dismissive, “It’s about power and very little else…”

“Choice is by definition heresy,” said Mayle, reminding Duggan of an ancient truth, “You can’t have choice if truth is a fixed entity. You either believe, or you do not believe.”

In Paul’s hands, the term ‘Christos’ has been used to create a God-man, a theologically inflated figure that even in Theodore’s day, had generated bitter conflict for Christians and pagans alike.

In the Nazoraen view, which was the Aposotolic view, Jesus had not been the Second Person in a divine trinity… Only later… has this act of believing in Jesus been transformed by St. Paul into the magical rite of salvation through faith alone.

I did begin to wonder if Lockhart was going to simply use the characters’ voices to tear down.  It is one thing to fight against an edifice – but is it from a substantive philosophy that can build in its place?  There are hints at the beginning that become explicit at the end – a subjective, experiential, humanism is Lockhart’s answer

“Faith is more than knowing doctrine and Church teachign ; it is discovering God in experience and allowing experience to inform conscience.”

“The ‘I Am’ of your being is not in place. ‘Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you.’ That’s a quote from the Gospel of Thomas. The person who wrote those words was wide awake…. It’s the Christianity behind the Christianity.  It’s what’s been lost to doctrinalized Christianity for centuries.”

And all this is well and good, I guess.  Lockhart is a decent writer and a stimulating intellect.  I could enjoy engaging with his ideas in their own right.  But why this task of whiteanting them into Christian spirituality – a spirituality that he doesn’t seem to grasp?  He sees no positive in engaging with the bible as revelation, the sense of dependence on God is assumed to be stultifying and imprisoning, not releasing and freeing as so many have found it to be.

In the midst of all the voices – which I take to be Lockhart’s own because they all sound so similar – the crux of the issue, becomes the point.

“God had never at any time worked miracles to make up for human deficiency.”

Lockhart’s philosophy, then, like all humanism, is a gospel only to the elite, the intellectually rigorous (for some definition of that) – the well able, the unbroken, the self-actualised – the non-deficient.  In reality, the outcome of such a framework is the fruit of selfish selves.  We do have a human deficiency, without God working miracles, there is no answer from humanism in the real world.

Perhaps this is why I found the story ultimately unreal.  From the depiction of an Anglican Archbishop of Sydney – the sort of character I know quite well in my real world – that is simply strange, to a plotline involving an AWOL pope that requires a shark to be jumped.  Maybe it was just because all the typos continously broke down the fourth wall.

But it was a good stimulation.  It caused thoughtfulness on my part.  It  demonstrates an expertise and an academic studiousness that I do not and can not match.  At the book launch Douglas Lockhart offered me a conversation over a glass of wine, or a decent whiskey.  Perhaps I’ll go find him and take up the offer.

Anonymous asks:

G’day Will,

I was raised to believe that hell was a place of eternal torment.

I always had trouble accepting this teaching, as it seemed contrary to God’s character and that it seemed to be playing a role in turning people away from God……. “If God could be so mean and nasty as to painfully torture people in hell for eternity, then I don’t want anything to do with God”….. Perhaps you may have heard someone even speak these very words.
Strangely, I believe the bible does not teach this at all (eternal torment – eternal life in hell)

Eternal life is a gift, by the grace of God, to those whom give their hearts to Jesus. The alternative is to “perish”. The Lord shall “burn them up” to become “ashes”, leaving them “neither root nor branch”.

They “shall go away into everlasting punishment” and this punishment is to be eternally cut off from God, by death.

Jesus makes it ever so clear;
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

Interestingly, it was the devil who was first to suggest that sinners would not die (Genesis 3:4). A hell where sinners never perish would prove the devil right.

Question: Can you please share some of your thoughts about this subject? What is it that you believe?


Hi Anonymous,

I thought I had blogged about this topic before but I can’t seem to find it.  If I do I’ll update this post with the link.

The view you are describing is a form of annihilationism with which I have some sympathy.  In this view the hope of the gospel for salvation is towards eternal life forever in the peace and presence of God.  But the question remains as to what happens to those who do not come to faith but choose to remain in their rebellion.  Some say that all people will eventually come to faith (universalism, something I disagree with), or that those who do not trust in Jesus remain eternally in the power of their sin (the “traditional” eternal damnation viewpoint), or, as you espouse, that those who are not in Christ do no attain to the “eternal” as well as the “life” of “eternal life.”

There are some variations in the position – as to when the “ceasing to be” might happen – depending on the nuances of one’s eschatology – e.g. does it take place at death, before a millennium, after a millennium etc.  My view is that for annihilationism to have any biblical justification it must be taken to be in effect post-judgement.

For me it is not a first order black-and-white issue.  There are complexities around what the Bible means at various places by “death”, “second death”, “perishing”, “punishment” etc.  Sometimes death is clearly relational only, sometimes it may be ontological.  Some stories (such as Lazarus and the Rich Man) presuppose an ongoing existence, but possibly only during an intermediate time before the final judgement.

My response is:

1) To firstly assert the clear positive, the hope of the gospel is eternal life in and with Jesus Christ our Lord in the glory of God our Father.  1 Corinthians 15 makes the immortality of resurrection life very clear.

2) Turning to the back of the book, Revelation 19 and 20 refers to the imagery of a “lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (19:20). This lake of fire is interacted with as follows:

  1. 19:20-21 The beast and the false prophet are “thrown alive” into the lake – yet the rest (kings of the earth) were simply killed.
  2. 20:9-10 The devil is thrown into the lake, but those who are with him (nations gathered for battle) are “consumed” by fire from heaven.
  3. 20:10 The torment of the devil, beast and false prophet is clearly “day and night forever and ever”
  4. 20:14 Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire.
  5. 20:14 The lake of fire is described as “the second death”
  6. 20:15 “Anyone whose name is not written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
The doom for Satan, beast and false prophet is clearly eternal, unceasing torment.  That is undeniable.  However, torment language is not used when we get to Death and Hades and those that are in them (and not in the book of life) – here the fire is described simply as the “second death.”
Matthew 25:41 refers to an “eternal fire” but it is specifically referenced as that which is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (thus matching Revelation).  The question remains open as to whether the judged join the devil and angels eternally or are consumed by the fire that is also used to torment the devil and his angels.
Mark 9:48 picks up on Isaiah 66:24 however, and references “hell” – where “the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” I take this as a reference to the unquenchable nature of the fire and the decay (represented by the worm) – in other words, it represents something that can not be overcome.
Taking all this – if there is any eternal conscious torment, it is restricted to the demonic host.  There is also eternal judgement on all people – no one escapes – but it is quite defendable biblically that this eternal judgement can take the form of annihilation or of being consumed, experiencing a “second death” etc.

Hope this helps,