Without Prayer there is No Salvation

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Icon of the Ascension

Sergius Bowyer, in his delightful little book Acquiring the Mind of Christ, says that “without prayer…, there is no salvation” (p 12). I read that line months ago, and it has never left me: without prayer there is no salvation. It is, as should be obvious, an overstatement. From Protestant ears, it’s even a damnable overstatement!

But we must couch this statement within the context of Bowyer’s definition of prayer. At the beginning of this short, lovely chapter, Bowyer quotes St. John Climacus who defines prayer very simply as “union with God”. He goes on to say that “our task in this short earthly life is to resume a dialogue that was lost with God in paradise” (p 11). Prayer, for Bowyer, and following the early fathers of the church, is not simply saying stuff to God. Prayer is entering into a divine dialogue of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Prayer is, put simply: the final realization of mankind’s salvation in Christ.

But what does that mean?

The early fathers of the church expressed man’s final end in terms of union and communion. God in himself is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And out of love, he created mankind not so that we might live independent parallel lives with God, but rather that we might be included in that divine community.

Andrew Louth, in his introduction to Christianity, explains that the Trinity must be explained in terms of relationship, prayer, and coinherence. He introduces John of Damascene’s doctrine of perichoresis to explain:

[John of Damascene] introduces a concept that had not hitherto been used with much confidence in relation to the Holy Trinity: the idea of perichoresis, interpenetration or coinherence. The persons of the Trinity are not separate from each other, as human persons are, rather they interpenetrate one another, without losing their distinctiveness as persons, their reality coincides or coinheres…

It seems to me that the doctrine of perichoresis, coinherence, that John introduces in the Christian theology, expresses well the realization that within the Trinity there is relationship, a relationship expressed in prayer. There is, as it were, a kind of mutual yielding within the Trinity: the Father makes space for the Son and the Spirit…and Son and the Spirit yield to the Father as they turn to him in prayer. (Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Introduction, p 31)

Human beings were created to enter into that relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And, the original sin is principally a refusal to be included into that relationship of reciprocity and incoherence. Adam (and all men after) wanted his “independence” from this community. He wanted to be his own man. And for that he fell away from communion into sin and death.

With this context, we look at salvation. Put within this frame of reference, salvation is nothing more than God’s own loving extension into space and time to gather all of creation back into this relationship of Triune communion. Indeed, in the incarnation the Son became one of us in order to give us what is his: Sonship. Robert W. Jenson, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, explains this principle very well:

We dare speak to God at all— however others may dare it— only because our Lord permits us to join his prayer, only because he has said, “Trade on my unique filial relation to God, that I may call him ‘Father;’ begin with me, ‘Father . . . ,’ and make it ‘Our Father . . . ,’ not just ‘His Father . . . .’” Thus we pray with this Son, to his Father. Just so, we enter into the living community between them, that is, into their communal “Spirit:” we pray to the Father with the Son, in the Spirit. Indeed, the doctrine of Trinity can be derived by simply adding that only so, only as we occupy the space defined, as it were, by these coordinates—“ to,” “with,” “in”— is it the God of the gospel with whom we have to do. (A Large Catechism, p 14-15)

This paragraph is magnificent, by far my favorite from Jenson. However we speak of the atonement, the goal of God the Son’s incarnation among us and of his being gathered up in his resurrection and ascension, is to exchange his filial relationship with the Father for our sinful reality. The Father’s and the reformers spoke in terms of a great exchange happening through the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension. This is no bare legal exchange. It is a real transformation: God became man (incarnation) that man might become God (salvation) as St. Athanasius said.

Salvation is thus being gathered in the Spirit through the Son to face the Father in communal prayer. 

In this way, we simply must speak of prayer as a condition of salvation! Not because prayer is a work that makes us somehow acceptable to God: no, prayer is salvation. When we pray, we enter a new space: the space of Father Son and Spirit. We enter that space by the Spirit through the mediation of the Son, to the Father.

As St. Paul says: God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6-7). As Scott Hahn says about this passage: “This is not poetic speak, this is metaphysical reality!” Through salvation, we come to be in that space between the Father and the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the final realization of that mystery. 

Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 4: The Virgin Birth

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 first.

The Virgin Birth

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is integral to note Matthew’s telling of the virgin birth. Toward the end of the genealogy, Matthew ends with his listing in verse sixteen with Joseph and Mary: “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ” (Mt 1:16, ESV). This is curious ending for one very striking reason: Matthew does not list Jesus’ father. Throughout the passage, Matthew begins each generation with the father; however, in this verse, Matthew does not do that. Benedict explains the anomaly:

Mary, who truly marks a new beginning and relativizes the entire genealogy. Throughout the generations, we find the formula: “Abraham was the father of Isaac …” But at the end, there is something quite different. In Jesus’ case there is no reference to fatherhood, instead we read: “Jacob [was] the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1: 16)… So the final sentence turns the whole genealogy around.[1]

This is a curious change; and there are several theories as to why Matthew leaves out Jesus’ father. For instance, France proposes that “by introducing [Joseph] here as the ‘husband of Mary’ rather than the father of Jesus Matthew prepares for the explanation of Jesus’ actual parentage”.[2] This is of course doctrinally true. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, as the Nicene Creed says. And yet, as Bruner challenges, God could have incarnated his Son with or without a human father.[3] All things are possible with God, including a non-virginal birth of the eternal Son of God. Thus, the creedal import of divine Fatherhood can and probably should be connected the virgin birth, but not necessarily so. This is, of course, not to say that the virgin birth is not important, but simply to say that the importance of it might be located elsewhere. The question is then of what importance the virginal birth has. After wrestling with the many liberal arguments against the historicity of the virgin birth, Bruner lands on its historicity and importance, deriving an argument from Karl Barth. Bruner says this about the virgin birth:

The permanent value of the creedal doctrine of the Spirit’s conception of Jesus in Mary is this; it is the Holy Spirit and not human initiative that brings Jesus into personal life (then Mary’s, now ours). When Jesus comes to anyone in history, even in his Advent coming to Mary, it is always the work of the Spirit, not of human preparation or enterprise.[4]

Bruner explains that the virgin birth is a “pictorial” version of salvation by grace and not by works. God comes not by the work of man, but by the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit. Benedict agrees with Bruner, saying,

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above.[5]

Benedict’s explanation is particularly helpful for the thesis of this paper. He pictures human history as barren, not having produced the fruit of obedience. Thus, God must do something apart from man’s work through the virginal conception. Benedict makes a further insight in another work, saying, “Mary is a new beginning. Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived through the Holy Spirit”.[6] Jesus Christ is properly a totally new ordering of things, not according to Israel’s works, but according to a new creation.

If this is indeed what Matthew means to communicate through his record of the virginal birth, the implications are manifold: the long history of Israel has been fruitless, and she has not upheld her end of the covenant. Yet God through his faithfulness to the promises, is upholding the covenant by another way: through the work of his Son. Thus the virgin birth is the last way Matthew means to display God’s covenant faithfulness.

            [1] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 7

            [2] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 39

            [3] Frederick Dale Bruner. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 39

            [4] Ibid, 24

            [5] Benedict XVI. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004, 278

            [6] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 7

Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 3: The Four Women

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2

The Four women

Thirdly, Matthew communicates God’s covenant fidelity through his mention of four women within his genealogy. In verses two through six of the genealogy, Matthew mentions Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and (indirectly) Bathsheba. It may seem strange to surmise that Matthew might mean anything at all by including these women. Women, after all, are necessarily included in genealogies! However, as Bruner rightly puts it, “the simple fact that women are mentioned at all is noteworthy”.[1] Men were usually included in Jewish genealogies, and their presence sufficed for the entire household. For this reason alone, Matthew’s inclusion of these women calls for attention.

However, there is even more room for pause, considering the character and background of the women. First of all, it must be noted that all four women are non-Jewish. “Tamar was a Canaanite, Rahab a Jerichoite, and Bathsheba, through marriage, a Hittite”.[2] What is worse, the women’s

stories do not fit comfortably into traditional patterns of sexual morality. Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law, Rahab’s prostitution, and Bathsheba’s adultery are all explicitly in the OT, and while Ruth 3-4 records without moral censure how her marriage to was arranged, the euphemistic language recounting the events at the threshing floor leaves many modern interpreters uneasy.[3]

Matthew therefore places four women in the genealogy that, for all intents and purposes, would make his Jewish readers uncomfortable. One wonders why Matthew would have done this. While there are several layered reasons Matthew could have done this,[4] it is striking that these four women are immoral and Gentile.

The church has historically used this detail of the genealogy to emphasize God’s embrace of outcasts. Bruner cites Luther, who in his commentary on Matthew, says that “Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree!”[5] This is indeed true. Yet there is a certain weakness in this position principally because the perpetrators in at least half of these women’s “sins” were the men! David was the perpetrator of Bathsheba’s adultery, and Judah was the one to purchase Tamar’s services.[6] For that reason, it is best to focus on these women as Gentiles who are included within God’s plan of redemption. In conjunction with Matthew’s constant focus on Israel’s mission to the Gentiles, it seems most easy to place this inclusion of the women under the Abrahamic promise: that through his promised seed, God will embrace the entire world. France explains,

Appropriate to Matthew’s own context is the view that the four foreign women prepare the reader for the coming of non-Israelites to follow Israel’s Messiah which will be foreshadowed in the homage of the magi in 2:1-12 and will be a recurrent and increasing theme throughout the gospel until it reaches its climax in the mission to the nations in 28:19.[7]

What’s more, what is established through this genealogy is the fact that God has already embraced Gentiles into the lineage of his promised seed. Not only is God moving outward to the world, but he has already done so through these women! This is of course exemplified all throughout the Old Testament, yet it is put explicit through Matthew’s genealogy.

With this in mind, it is most probable that Matthew means to call to mind God’s promise to Abraham, that one day his people would bless the nations; even more, that Abraham’s seed would include the nations. Thus, Matthew is proclaiming via these four women that God has and is fulfilling his promise to bless the nations through his Seed Jesus Christ. Thus, with the inclusion of the four women, Matthew tells his readers that God is fulfilling his promises to their father Abraham. He is being faithful to the covenant he made with him, to embrace the entire world in the family of God.

            [1] Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12. Dallas: Word Pub,1987, 9

            [2] Ibid, 9

            [3] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 37

            [4] See for instance, Blomberg 55-56. He suggests, along with others, that Matthew means to combat allegations against Mary’s infidelity to Joseph

            [5] Frederick Dale Bruner. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 11

            [6] Ibid, 10

            [7] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 37

Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 2: Babylon is Over

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1

Babylon is Over

Second, Matthew communicates God’s covenant faithfulness by including in his genealogy the details of the Babylonian exile. He not only includes the Babylonian exile, but as Hays makes clear, Matthew makes it part of Israel’s narrative. Hays says that Matthew “periodizes the story of Israel [within the genealogy] into three great chapters leading up to the birth of Jesus… from Abraham to David…, from David to exile…, from exile to the Messiah”.[1] This means that Matthew is making the Babylonian exile part of Israel’s identity: Israel is a nation exiled from their land and their God. This is curious, because Israel during the time of the birth of Christ was principally not exiled; they were back in the land, freed from the Babylonian captivity. If Israel were not in exile, Matthew should have included another period in her history: from exile to the land. Yet Matthew includes it into Israel’s narratival identity. NT Wright explains the strange emphasis on Babylon:

To get to the point, we have to understand one thing in particular. To put it simply, most Jews of Jesus’ day did not believe that the exile was really, properly over. Yes, they’d come back from Babylon… Yes, they’d built the Temple in Jerusalem. But the pagan foreigners were still ruling over them. They were still slaves even in their own land… The great promises of Isaiah and Ezekiel hadn’t yet come true.[2]

Indeed, Israel was out of exile, free in the normal sense of the word. But they were not truly out of exile. They were still under Roman rule. YHWH’s temple had been rebuilt, and yet Herod was the temple-keeper. Certainly this was not the freedom Israel had expected. For that reason, the Jews expected a greater exodus; a greater freedom. They still lived as those in exile: in the land and yet not of the land.

This is put in even more explicit terms when one considers the numeric order of Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew ends his genealogy with a strange outlining of numbers. “All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to…Babylon were fourteen generations, and from…Babylon to Christ were fourteen generation” (Mt 1:17). Matthew lists a three-fold list of fourteen generations. This is, as is hopefully obvious, a literary and numerical device. The question is why Matthew uses this device. NT Wright explains that Matthew is most likely referring to a passage in Daniel 9 in which God promises that after seventy sevens, God will liberate his people from Babylon.[3] This prophecy also harkens to mind the pattern God had put into the liturgical year of Israel: every seven days was a Sabbath; even seven years was a Sabbath year; every seven-times-seven years was a Jubilee year of liberation and freedom. To put it more simply, God promised to the prophet Daniel that after a period of seven times seventy would be a “Jubilee of Jubilees”.[4] What Matthew calls to mind here is this pattern sevens, and thus the promise of liberation and Jubilee. But, as Wright says, “instead of years, [Matthew] does it with generations, the generations of Israel’s entire history from Abraham to the present. All the generations to that point were fourteen times three, that is, six sevens—with Jesus we get the seventh seven”.[5] What Matthew means to explicate here is that Jesus brings liberation from bondage and exile. Israel was in fact still in exile even while out of Babylon. And Jesus is the great liberator who brings an everlasting Jubilee and Sabbath for exiled Israel.

Matthew clearly intends to place Israel within the context of exile, awaiting the great liberation brought by Messiah. Even though Israel is technically free from Babylon, she awaits God’s redeeming action through a new exodus, with a new Jubilee, and a new Sabbath. As Robert W. Jenson aptly explains, Israel as placed in the context of exile is really Israel in the context of promise. Or put another way: Israel cannot save herself. She stands in need once again for liberation and exodus and freedom. Israel is thus repositioned into the situation

 …described for the patriarchs; [instead of Israel’s] ancestors, now the actual historical people, with all its fears and responsibilities, was called to live by hope rather than possessions, by what was promised rather than what already was, by hearing rather than by sight. Indeed, the screw was tightened far beyond what had been imagined for the patriarchs. For Israel was called to hope for what would be, in spite of what already was…[6]

As Abraham depended on the faithfulness of God in his wanderings, so now Israel, exiled from her reward, wandered even in their own land, hoping for the promised possession. In this way, Matthew once more makes the point that Israel depends on God’s covenant promises. She stands in need of a further and deeper liberation. And thus, she stands in need of God’s grace.

            [1] Richard B. Hays. “The Gospel of Matthew: Reconfigured Torah.”, 6

            [2] N. T. Wright. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, 69

            [3] Ibid, 70

            [4] Ibid, 70

            [5] Ibid, 71

            [6] Jenson, Robert W. Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel About             Jesus. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishing, 2014, 25