Saturday, February 11, 2012

Blogging Is Easy When You Cut And Paste!

One of my favorite places to go is Ben Myers' Faith & Theology. Not only does he offer witty, insightful, provocative, challenging posts. He has a marvelous side bar filled with the best of the best from theology blogging. I've added from that list to my own roll, and will probably add more over time.

Rather than comment on what some other folks are saying, I thought I'd offer folks what people far more intelligent, insightful, learned, and literate are saying. While certainly a way to exploit my own basic laziness, I'm doing this to guide anyone interested to some really good reads.

Resident Theology is the blog of a Yale Divinity School doctoral candidate. His latest post is a quote from Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, Vol. 2: The Works of God. The paragraph in question can be found on p. 311:
"It is the fact of God's Trinity which requires that his concluding gift to us, should he make one, must be inclusion in his own life, the gift not of something other than God but of 'all he is' [Luther]. The triune God does not and indeed cannot beneficently affect us causally; for him, causal action, with its intrinsic distancing, would mean exclusion from himself and so cursing rather than blessing. The goal of all the biblical God's ways is the glory of God. Were an otherwise biblical God -- contrary of course to possibility -- monadic, his intention of his own glory would be a sort of omnipotent egocentricity, and the reality of God would be a universal moral disaster. But God's glorification of himself is instead supreme blessing because the triune God can and does include creatures in that glory."

The Blogging Parson is from an Australian professor of theology, Michael Jensen. Today we are offered the third in a series on Martin Luther and the Devil. While certainly a topic examined in depth by Heiko Oberman (and an insightful book at that; opens up sorts of things about Luther's thought that are otherwise muddled and confused), the clarity of exposition Jensen brings to this topic, as well as the links between Luther's theology and the underlying psychological dynamics played out is really worth taking the time to read carefully, bearing much fruit in the process:
This is Martin Luther’s great difficulty, then: where can I find a gracious God? It seemed to him that the Devil and God were in cahoots. They were allies against him in his destruction. The Devil took the holiness and righteousness of God and used it to prove to Luther his due to his woeful performance as a human being, he had no hope of right-standing with God. Even as a monk, Luther could not but perennially doubt how it could be that the face of God was set firmly against him. The way he had been taught about the Christian life was that if human beings were to do whatever it was in them to do, then God would supply the remainder necessary to ensure salvation. And yet it was precisely the precondition of ‘doing what was in him’ that the meticulous Luther did not think he could meet.

What then?

Luther had impossible difficulties with the concept of iustitia Dei, the ‘righteousness of God’. As he understood it initially, it was a divine attribute – God’s impartial judgement of individuals on the basis of their merit. This was very much the Roman lawyer Cicero’s definition of righteousness as ‘rendering to each person his due’. God in his righteousness gives each individual exactly what they deserve….

…which is fine if you think human beings are capable of meriting justification. But Luther thought this was simply na├»ve. He understood human beings as incapable of meeting the preconditions of salvation. They are shot through with sin, bound only for death. They couldn’t even get to the start line. And so – how could ‘the righteousness of God’ be anything but bad news for the sinner? God stood frowning and tut-tutting at the end of every corridor.

Was this then the Devil’s victory? Was there no other side to the God that Luther pleaded with in the darkness and loneliness of his room?

We can chart Luther’s transformation through the written evidence of his meditations on the Bible. His lecture notes from the period stretching from 1513-1519 are available for our perusal. Whether this happened at one sudden, dramatic moment – on the toilet perhaps, who cares? – or over period of some years is debated by scholars, but it scarcely matters. What Luther came to understand was that the ‘righteousness of God’ included the mercy of God that he shows to sinners despite their sin. And where can this mercy be found? It had been under Luther’s nose all along. It in the cross of Jesus Christ. And that is the heart of the concept of ‘justification’. The individual finds himself under the judgement of God, with nowhere to turn, exposed terribly to his wrath. The only place to flee for safety from God’s wrath – is to God! And there he finds the great mercy that lies hidden under the terrible wrath. Christ the crucified one, who suffered on our behalf, became sin for us in order that his righteousness might become our righteousness. The cross symbolises (though it is also in actuality) God’s vehement hostility towards sin. If the death of the Son of God shows the extent of the wrath of God against sin, then it comes as a great surprise to realise that it also shows the extent of God’s mercy – since it is the Son of God himself who is crucified in such a way.

This insight takes faith to see it for what it is. Or, rather, to hear it for what it is. Luther wrote once, ‘the ears are the organ of the Christian’. What he meant was this: faith is simply hearing and believing the message that not only that God is good, but that God is good to me. God is good, yes; but that goodness does not spell my destruction but rather my preservation. The Devil’s testimony against us is true at a surface level, as the Devil’s words often are; but it turns out to have the reality of a lie, since it tempts us to doubt the goodness of God for us, and so despair.

The whispered lies of the Devil do not cease once one has begun to have faith. As Luther sees it, the Christian life is lived in the middle of a tension between faith and experience. Our experience very often serves to contradict our faith. Feelings of guilt, for example, do not leave us automatically, however much we might believe in our own forgiveness. This tension between faith and experience was something Luther expounded somewhat later in his career when he thought that he might be martyred by the authorities who were chasing him down. Where was God in this? Has God abandoned me? Luther used the word Anfechtung – ‘temptation’, or ‘assault’ – to describe this experience. The Devil, the world and death are allied in a war against human beings. But surprisingly, this agonising assault is a work of God too, to reduce the individual to utter reliance on him and him alone. The Devil it turns out, does God’s work without meaning to, because he increases the utter dependence and humility of the believer in the work of God. The absurd, even blasphemous idea, that human beings might help God along a bit is completely thwarted.

Connexions is, as it says right up top, the blog of Richard Hall, a Methodist minister in Wales. On Thursday, he offered a small bit from a book by Peter Ochs, entitled Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews. Found on pages 254 through 255, Ochs says so beautifully and clearly what I have, on far too many occasions, said far too clumsily and with little clarity: The Authority of the Biblical Word on our lives in no way privileges that Authority precisely because it is an authority that reaches us in our creaturliness, our temporality. It is, for this very reason, a contingent authority even though it finds its roots in the transcendence of the Triune God. Ochs pulls no punches. He calls this tendency to make the mistake of imposing our temporal, finite, limited hearing and understanding of the Divine command upon all others a "sinful urge."
… I understand sacred Scripture as God’s speech to us. I understand the plain sense of Scripture to be inalterable but without clear meaning or force by itself. I understand such clarity to come to us only within our various communities of belief and practice and specific to the questions we ask of God in the context and space-time of our asking. This is the relativity of our knowledge of God’s word and will: he offers these to us with respect to his relation to us in our space-time. What we hear in response has binding authority for us, then and there: even in its own temporality, what we hear belongs to the Absolute, not merely to us. But we are not instruments for transporting what belongs to the Absolute beyond the contexts of our hearing. We may declare: We have heard directly from the One whose Word is true universally. Yes indeed. But we are not the ones to articulate the universality of this Word. Our responsibility is only to act then and there as prompted. But the next moment we turn to ask again — to ask what we have just done, or what we should do next, or what we shall say to others in other contexts — in that moment we can only ask again. Can we therefore not speak? Of course we can speak, but as human creatures, with experiences and histories and theories, even wonderful and profound and wise theories, but all of them creaturely. The urge to speak as if we spoke God’s Word — and thus spoke universally — is a sinful urge.
Obviously, I invite you to read more on these sites.

Virtual Tin Cup

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