“God takes time in his time for us” – A Theology of Time

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Russian Orthodox Icon, “Creation of the World”

I’ve owned Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theologies for quite some time now, and have just gotten into them! I am currently reading his second volume, which is a fascinating survey of God’s works. Volume 1 is about God in himself, volume 2 is God as he relates and works outside of himself.

In his third section, Jenson considers God’s relationship to space and time. For Jenson, God’s triune nature, time and space, and creation are not competitive concepts. God, in Jenson’s mind, is not to be considered separate from creation and vice versa. Instead, creation is something included in God’s being. God makes “room” in himself for creation to live.

However, much of Western theology considers creation as necessarily separated from God. There is God in his eternity, and then there is creation in its time and space. They are related of course, but nevertheless separate. Jenson takes issue with just this construal. He traces this concept of God and time back to Augustine:

For Augustine, Jenson says, God’s eternity is conceived as his bare presence. To be present is to be eternally there. Thus Augustine conceived of God as an ever-present being, ontologically unchanging and completely realized.

But what is time then, if eternity is presence? For Augustine, time is the passing of presence to non-presence. “Past or future things, according to Augustine, have no being as they are past or future, but only insofar as they are somehow present.” (kindle loc 393). What this means for Augustine is that time is less of a thing, and more of an absence. If eternity is presence, time-past or future is non-presence. “Thus throughout his discussion Augustine is pressed to the verge of answering ‘What is time?’ with a flatly Neoplatonic ‘Nothingness'”. (loc 405) Of course there is a past, and there is a future. But how can we conceive of it? Augustine answers with the concept of memory. Past and future are present in terms of our presence stretching back or forward. Thus, eternity is presence, and time is the passing of presence.

For Jenson, however, this is problematic not simply because it verges on making nothingness out of history, but because of what it does to God’s being. God, in Augustine’s mind, is sheer ontological presence. He is considered in Augustine’s mind as one infinite Being. Humanity, on the other hand, is the passing of being into non-being. Thus the world and God are at odds.

Jenson proceeds by first saying, “God is not sheer presence” (loc 459). For Jenson, it is a category error to consider God ontologically. God is not the eternity of presence. Rather, God must always be considered within his trinitarian relations. God is a “life among persons” (ibid). God is a life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And therefore, say Jenson, “creation’s temporality is not awkwardly related to God’s eternity, and its sequentiality imposes no strain on its participation in being” (ibid). The world’s being temporal and God’s being eternal are not at odds if God is understood in terms of relationship.

But how so?

Jenson gives a long but helpful answer:

The life of God is constituted in a structure of relations whose referents are narrative. This narrative structure is enabled by a difference between whence and whither, which on cannot finally refrain from calling past and future, and which is identical with the distinction between the Father and the Spirit. This difference is not measurable; nothing is God recedes into the past or approaches from the future. But the difference is also absolute: there are whence and whither in God that are not like right and left or up and down, that do not reverse with the point of view. Since now we find that which we know as time is located within and enabled by this structure, the last inhibition is surely removed. It indeed better suits the gospel’s God to speak of “God’s time” and “created time”, taking “time” as an analogous concept, than to think of God as not having time and then resort to such circumlocutions as Barth’s “sheer duration”.

God takes time in his time for us. That is his act of creation. (loc 464)

This is a fascinating passage. God is a narrative event of Father, Son and Spirit. Yet this is certainly not measurable within our conceptions of time. There is not past in God or future. And yet, there is a narrative of relations. There is the Father and Son and Spirit who relate as a family of love. Thus, it would be better in Jenson’s mind to understand creation as an event in which God includes us within these “eternal” relations. In his act of creation, God makes space for his creatures.

To take another metaphor, God is a great exchange or conversation. Creation is thus the expansion of this triune conversation to include things that are not God. Jenson says this in his A Large Catechism:

The [God] creates something new, means that he expands the field of his conversation: he refers, e.g., to an earth, and how could God lie? Indeed, God as the triune God is in himself a great Conversation. That he creates, means that the Father, Son an Spirit among themselves mention others than themselves: they speak together of, e.g., the great sea beasts, and so there are the great sea beasts, god converses the world into being (loc 394)

This is a conception of time and space as participatory. We participate in God’s very life through his expansion of his triune relations. This is of course not to say that we become “part of God”. And yet, we subsist in him. We find our very existence within him.

This, I think, is a better construal of time and history.

 

 

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The Christian Life is Nothing More than a Daily Baptism

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The Baptism of Jesus Christ (source)

One of my favorite remarks from esteemed Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson comes from his Christian Dogmatics Volume II, in the abstract of chapter 4 on baptism. He says:

We are canonically commanded to initiate into the church those whom the mission proclamation brings to penitence, by washing them in the triune name. To those who have been initiated, baptism promises the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. (p 315)

This is obvious enough. But then he adds at the end of this abstract this interesting statement:

The task of the church at the present moment is to recover the integrity of baptism. The task of believers is always to use their baptism“. (p 315)

This is curious statement: quite obviously the church is to administer baptism, but what does it mean for the Christian to use their baptism? 

Jenson, as one might expect of a good confessional Lutheran, is borrowing from Luther’s ethic of the daily use of baptism, or, put another way, the daily return to baptism. This is most prominently outlined in Luther’s Large Catechism.

In the section on baptism, Luther first defines what it is: baptism is no normal water. Rather, it is water sanctified by God’s word and made thereby holy. He says it thus:

What is baptism?…It is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them. It is nothing else than God’s water, not that the water itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it…

[And again,] Baptism is a very different thing from all other water, not by virtue of the natural substance but because here something nobler is added, for God himself stakes his honor, his power, and his might on it. Therefore it is not simply a natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water… (LC, 4.14,17)

Notice that for Luther, a sacrament is something taken up into God’s Word and made holy thereby. So before the sacramental word is spoken, it is natural water; but after the Word is spoken over the elements, it is sanctified.

Next Luther asks: what does baptism give? Luther says simply: “This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves” (LC 4.23). Wow! How can baptism do such a thing? For Luther, the water, when it is gathered up into the Word of God, is made holy, made to participate in and bestow God’s life. Thus, when baptism is applied, it gives what the Word names: the life of Father, Son and Spirit.

OK then, but still, how do we use this holy baptism? He answers this by asking in the third part of this section: what does baptism signify and why did God ordain it?

This act or ceremony consists of being dipped into the water, which covers us completely, and being drawn out again. These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life (LC, 4.65)

This imagery is incredibly important to Luther. Baptism signifies and works the slaying of the old man and raising up of the new. And this work of slaying and resurrection, as Luther says, must continue “our whole life”.

Here we come to the use of baptism. Thus, says Luther,

a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth (ibid)

For Luther, the Christian life is not a metaphysical improvement from being less to more holy. Rather, sanctification is living within the gift bestowed in baptism, never moving from the reality of dying and rising. Every day is a living out of the reality of baptism. There is no ascending to heaven. There is only death and resurrection.

Finally, Luther mentions the sacrament of penance, which for the medieval church was “another chance” at grace, as it were. If, after baptism, you sinned “mortally”, you could always go to the confessional and make penance. But for Luther, penance and baptism are not two different realities.

Rather,

Penance…is really nothing else than baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. (LC 4.75)

Now we may come to what Jenson meant by “using” baptism. He meant: do not progress past it. Always live in it. For in baptism is the very life of God given; the life of Father, Son and Spirit; living out the reality of baptism. And thus, the Christian life, as Luther says, “is nothing else than a return to baptism” (LC 4.77).

Jenson I think gets to the heart of what Luther means with this daily use of baptism in his little treasure of a book, A Large Catechism. He says this:

“Sanctification,” “Christian life” after baptism, is often misunderstood as a progress, kicked off, as it were, by baptism. This has obviously to be false. Baptism initiates into the life which God’s three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, live among themselves; what would we progress to from that? Rather, sanctification is the continual return to baptism, from the errors and forgettings and perhaps plain unbelief or crime into which life after baptism will lead us. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past; I can always, as Luther said, “creep” back to it and begin anew. (p 50)

Jenson continues:

If I do become more sanctified as time goes on, if my life does less fight against communion with Christ in the church, this will be because such fresh starts come closer together and are each time more drastic. (ibid, 51)

This is at the heart of Luther’s “daily use” of baptism. What a treasure!

Justified by Faith: What Does it Mean?

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Robert W. Jenson, in the third chapter of his small booklet Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, talks about the misconception and confusion brought about by the slogan “faith alone”. Just how are we saved by faith alone? Or to put another way, what is it about faith that is so effective in saving man?

Jenson explains that faith, according to the classical Protestant accounts, justifies “because God credits the fruits of Jesus’ atoning work to those in whom he finds faith. Despite what God sees when he looks at us sinners, he for Christ’s sake judicially declares us righteous” (p 17). At the end of his chapter, Jenson ultimately finds this conception of justification lacking. In fact he calls it an “arbitrary” decree (p 21)!

In any case, he expounds on Luther’s own understanding of just how faith saves from his classic work The Freedom of the Christian. Jenson expounds two ways in which Luther understood that faith makes the sinner just, righteous, “saved”:

The first. Luther observes that believing in someone is the highest honor we can bring him. Therefore believing in God just is fulfillment of the first table of the commandments. And as ecumenical theology has always supposed, obeying the second table is the natural result of obeying the first, however slowly or with however many setbacks this may take place. If we trust God, we will seek to fulfill his stated will (p 18)

As Luther says in his Small Catechism, fulfilling the first commandment is very simply “trusting…God above all other things”. That, according to Luther, is the essence of faith: trusting God, placing your security in him, finding your ultimate source in him. In this way, to have faith in Christ is itself a righteous act, presumably brought about by the Spirit. And thus we are righteous by faith.

Second, Luther expounds upon an Aristotelian principle: “for Aristotle, seeing was the chief channel of openness to reality; therefore, so far as my subjectivity is concerned, I become what I see” (p 19). Luther took this concept, but applied it to the hearing of the gospel. Jenson explains:

[Luther] regarded hearing rather than seeing as the dominating way by which in this life we are opened to an other. According to Luther… I become what is addressed to me, what I must hearken to.

Therefore, if what we attend to is the word of God, we are merely thereby shaped by the Word’s content. Hearkening to the Word, we are constituted as persons by the good things the Word communicates, peace and love and righteousness and so on…[Thus], when Jones is grasped by the gospel, “Jones is righteous” is straightforwardly true… (p 19)

The adage “you become what you eat” might well be termed “you become what you hear” in Luther’s understanding. If we hear the word of the gospel, that gospel makes its way into us and thereby transforms us. Jenson takes one last step however. Because, according to John and other biblical writers, the ultimate word of God is the Word of God. Put another way, the fullest form of the gospel is the person of Christ himself. To grasp the gospel is to grasp Christ himself. Therefore, hearing and being grasped by the gospel is, for Luther, to be grasped by Christ himself, to be in vital union with his person. “Thus Luther made it a principle of his theology: ‘In such faith Christ is present’. Faith makes us personally and actually righteous because faith is a transforming and ruling presence in us of the righteous one himself” (p 20).

Just as an aside, this is why Luther was quite emphatic about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacrament of the Supper is nothing else than a verbal word of promise, and where the promise of the gospel is, there also, is Christ. Thus, he is right there on every altar wherever the Eucharist is practiced; and he’s there whether we realize it or not.

In any case, Luther understood that by grasping the promise of the gospel in faith, one was grasping none other than Christ, and this personal union of Christ and the believer was thus real and transformative: it made the believer really and truly righteous.

Jenson closes this chapter, as I have already noted, by stating that justification by faith as a bare declaration is simply not enough to get to the heart of this doctrine:

The alternative theory of justification, as sheer decree by the divine Judge “in the forum of heaven”, for all the genius that has been devoted to its plausible defense, cannot finally be rescued from making God’s justifying seem arbitrary” (p 21)

While I’m not sure I would go that far, I do agree with him that Luther’s own understanding of faith as involving a transformative union with the person of Christ is central to his teaching. We are justified not simply by divine decree, but by grasping Christ himself. We find our righteousness in none other than the righteousness of Christ himself!

The Reformation Insight

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I find myself reading once again Robert W. Jenson’s and Eric W. Gritsch’s excellent book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. The book is written from both a theological and an historical perspective. The third chapter, however, strikes so very well at the heart of the insight of the Reformation.

Jenson, who writes this chapter, begins by explaining “the single great dogma of the Reformation was ‘justification by faith alone, without works of the law'” (p 36). He laments, however, that this singular doctrine, “one fears, [is] not so well-known” any longer. In fact,

most of Protestantism worries about [justification] not at all, having long since returned to various — bowdlerized — versions of medieval religion, supposing these to be the latest thing… [When Protestants do worry about justification], a usual concept is that the church has a list of discrete opinion-items to be accepted, that ‘justification by faith’ is one such item, and that Protestantism has for some reason decreed it the most important…

When ‘justification by faith’ is this taken for one item on an ideological list, the doctrine itself is interpreted correspondingly. The idea is that there is a list of things which God really wishes we would do — be kind to animals, be generous to the poor, be against way and injustice, that on this list is  “believe in God”; and that, as a favor to Jesus, God has decided to let us off the rest of the list if we will do just this one (p 36)

And thus, “believe” or “have faith” is on this general list of things God wishes we would do.

But this is completely wrong, says Jenson: it is “the precise opposite of what the Reformation said. For the ‘believing’ that can be one of a list of desirable deeds or characteristics is just what the Reformers called a ‘work'” (p 36). And thus, the doctrine of justification by faith is turned into a work! “If you only believe”; “if you just raise your hand”; “if you just commit your life to God”. Jenson explains that this is the exact opposite of what justification by faith alone is meant to communicate. In fact, saying “‘God will be gracious…if only you believe’… proclaims a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of grace” (37).

OK then: what is this Reformation doctrine of justification by faith all about? Jenson aptly explains: “‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (37). The Reformers, in other words, understood justification by faith to mean: God has said “yes” to you in Christ. And this “yes” is given freely apart from any work you need to perform. “The Reformation insight and discovery [is that] the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of human fulfillment…made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (42).

Jenson proposes that justification by faith, rather than being one important thing among other things, be a “meta-linguistic” communication; an “identifying characteristic of the [church’s] language-activity” (pp 42-43). He explains:

[Justification by faith] says: Whatever you talk about, do so in such a way that the justification your words open to your hearers is the justification that faith apprehends rather than the justification that works apprehend. Unpacking the words “justification” and “faith”, the proposed dogma says: Make the subject of your discourse those points in your and your hearers’ life where its value is challenged, and interpret the challenge by the story of Christ, remembering that when this is rightly done your words will be an unconditional promise of value (p 43)

Interpret all of your challenges by the narrative of Christ, Jenson says. To put it another way: justification by faith means that our lives are unconditionally “yes” in Christ. Every bit of our struggles are redeemed in Christ. We are unconditionally received in Christ, unconditionally made new in Christ, gifted with all of God’s life through this single narrative of Christ.

Jenson goes on to contextualize the doctrine of justification by faith by paying special attention to the situation of the medieval church:

The gospel in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. Whenever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?

It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world…However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace”, and our “natural” religious and ethical energies. (p 39)

Put simply, Christ merited our salvation in principle “back there” in the past, but the fulfillment of that salvation depended on our fulfilling certain conditions of cooperation with the graces of the church now. The problem is that no matter the wording, “all practical difference [is] made by our present cooperating or not; and God [is] left without a role in actual life” (39).

Jenson explains that the medieval church saw all of this “cooperating” as electing grace:

Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid [these problems] by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace… [The] qualification [was], “of course, all this is by grace” (39)

But of course this “anti-Pelagian codicil” made no difference on the lay-level. It makes no difference if it’s all by grace; it is still a condition that I must meet. And thus, my justification is tantamount to my works. The result is, as Jenson says, that God himself becomes a threat; a fearful imposing Being who weighs my life. Will I cooperate with grace in the end? Will I justify my existence?

The Reformation insight is that any language about works, condition, cooperation, must be overthrown: we are unconditionally affirmed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this affirmation is not simply something that occurred in the past. As Jenson says: “if the gospel is allowed in the present tense, if it is allowed to invade the previous reserve of “coorperation”, it says: ‘The Crucified one lives for you'” (41). We are affirmed unconditionally right now, received unconditionally right now. And all our growth or goodness comes from Christ’s living for and in me right now. It is all promise, not law.

Luther himself made a distinction between law and gospel. This distinction, for him, was what made a theologian essentially Christian. Jenson explains this distinction:

Law communication imposes an “if… then…” structure on life… [It] is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally

[Whereas] a promise grants the pattern “because… therefore…”. “Because I love you”, I say to my daughter, “I will further your ambitions”. (44)

Because Christ has died and risen, you are freed from sin, Satan, and death. Because Christ has risen, we no longer are enslaved to the powers of the age. Because Christ became sin, I am no longer condemned. Because Christ is raised, I will therefore be raised. This is the promise of the gospel. It is the Reformational insight.

The Trinity in the Old Testament

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In the fourth chapter in Can These Bones Live?, Robert W Jenson has an excellent biblical theological overview of the Trinity.

Jenson begins by tracing the historic development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was solidified through the Nicene Creed; it was further grounded by the Cappadocian fathers. Jenson summarizes the historical articulation of the Trinity by explaining the difference between being and person or hypostases: “There is in God… just one being, which is why there is just one God. The is-ness of God is single, but there are three hypostases [or persons]” (p 48). So then, Christians worship one God who eternally exists in three persons. Jenson concludes that this is “the most biblical view” (p 48).

But of course, in order for it to be the most biblical view, it must be found in the Bible. The question then becomes, can the Trinity be found in the Bible? Or is the Trinity a novel doctrine created by the early Christians? Jenson explains:

It is often supposed that Christian trinitarianism is a total break from Judaism’s understanding of God. The Jews are said to have the doctrine that there is only one God and the Christians are said to have introduced a modification. This is historically false, and two of the most profound contemporary Jewish theologians, Michael Wyschogrod and Peter Ochs, both recognize that. Neither Judaism nor Christianity is an abstract monotheist religion. Neither insists that there is just one God and that this is all that can be said about him. Both are rather instances of what I would like to call “dramatic monotheism.” For both Judaism and Christianity, the oneness of God is the oneness of the story that he lives with his people. (p 48-49)

Jenson then goes on to explain that the OT presents a dramatic God who not only exists outside of history as “its author, who in some sense stands outside of the play or drama as the author of the drama” (p 49), but also…

as a figure in the drama, a figure in the history of Israel. Consider, for example, “the angel of the Lord.” Throughout the Pentateuch when something really decisive happens, the “malach yhwh”— that is, the angel or messenger of the Lord— appears to speak on the Lord’s behalf. As the tale goes on, however, this angel or messenger of the Lord speaks as God in the first person. It turns out that he is the Lord. So the malach of the Lord is simultaneously a messenger for the Lord or of the Lord but also the Lord himself. (p 49)

Jenson also points out the glory cloud of the Lord that is understood to be the presence of the Lord himself:

In the temple of Jerusalem we find simultaneously a manifestation of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a sort of shining of the Lord which just is the Lord…

The old rabbis of somewhere between 150 bc to ad 300 regarded such phenomena as different forms of the same thing which they called the “shekinah,” which means “the settlement one” or “the resident one.” The shekinah of God, then, is God as resident within the life of Israel as distinguished from God as author and transcendent to the life of Israel. (p 49-50)

Jenson notices “there are three” persons who are generally equated as YHWH in the OT, each in some way participating within the drama of Israel. This leads to the conclusion that the YHWH of Israel is more dynamic than simply one God as one person.

When this drama turns to the NT, Jenson observes that for the writers of the NT letters, the resurrection of Christ came to mean that the Shekinah glory of the temple had come to illumine and dwell within one man, a single Israelite (p 50). No longer was the glory outside of the people, but it had come to make its home within mankind. Even more then that, it is said in the NT that it was the Father who raised Jesus by the power of the Shekinah. Thus, the NT continues the threeness of the OT: the Son was raised by the Father in the power of the Spirit.