Nathanael Szobody

Toward a Hebrew Reading of the Psalms

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How do you read the Psalms? I think a lot of people find them hard to connect with. They are the hymnal of God’s people for millennia, but today we often don’t know what to do with them other than taking the occasional isolated phrase as inspiration for a new praise song.
I think that in regards to the Psalms, there may be real benefit in examining how Hebrew poetry works. There’s a learning curve to reading any sort of poetry; it’s language at its best, so it takes some attention.

The Psalms take you on an emotion journey. Each one starts at one point and takes you to another. The trick is following. Hebrew poetry is suggestive, preferring brevity and ambiguity, whereas our language is propositional, preferring thoroughness of description and precision. That’s why a Psalm can sometimes seem disconnected. Let’s use Psalm 142 to explain:

Psalm 142:1-2 introduce the poet’s emotion:

With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
With my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.

I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.

As you can see, each line is meant to be brief. And our English translation has made it longer than in Hebrew. There actually is no “with” at the beginning of the first two lines. The poem literally begins with
My voice, to the Lord I cry;
My voice, to the Lord I plead.
The force of the emotion is precisely in not describing it thoroughly. It’s the minimal expression of a burdened soul.

Psalm 142:3-4 describes the poet’s situation that has given rise to his complaint:

When my spirit faints within me,
You know my way.
In the path I where I walk
They have hidden a trap for me.

Look to the right and see:
There is none who takes notice of me;
No refuge remains to me;
No one cares for my soul.

While verse three begins with a statement of confidence in God, the main force of these two verses is loneliness, and almost despair.

Psalm 142:5 is a transition; it brings the poem back to the very first statement of the poem: his cry to God—and it gives us the content of this cry:

I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my refuge,
My portion in the land of the living.”

That’s it! That’s his entire cry. Of course, he goes on to pour out his troubles in the next verse, but in verse 5 he is essentially stating his right to do so: God is his refuge! God is his inheritance, so he’s going to make good use of him.

Psalm 142:6-7a are a succession of three pleas, each one followed by the reason for his plea:

Attend to my cry, (1)
For I am brought very low! (reason)
Deliver me from my persecutors, (2)
For they are too strong for me! (reason)
Bring me out of prison (3)
That I may give thanks to your name! (purpose)

This last plea is clearly more hopeful than the previous as it gives the poet’s very purpose for living, for surviving his current circumstances. “That I may give thanks to your name” causes the poet to look beyond his current circumstances and see the purpose for his entire life—and also to hold God to this purpose, calling on him to enable its fulfillment.

Psalm 142:7b is finally a full-blown statement of hope written in the same format at the previous three pleas:

The righteous will surround me, (hope)
For you will deal bountifully with me. (reason)

So the poet has brought the reader from his initial emotion of despair, through current hopeless situation, through his pleas to God, to the final statement of hope, founded on a confidence in God’s purpose for his life.

If I were to rewrite this poem with all the conjunctions and precision that we expect in English it would go something like this:

My voice cries out to the Lord,
My voice pleads to him for mercy
As I pour out my complaint before him
And tell him all about my troubles.

Even though I know that when my spirit faints within me
You are there with me,
Right now all I see is the path I’m on,
Mined with traps all over.
As far as I can see I have no refuge;
No one gives a hoot for my soul!

But yet I still cry to you, O Lord;
And here is my cry: “You are my refuge
My portion in the land of the living.”

Since you are my portion, listen to me!
Because right now I couldn’t be at a greater loss.
Come on and save me if you’re my refuge
Because they are way stronger than me!
Bring me out of prison
So I can have a reason to praise you as I was meant to!
Then the righteous will surround me,
For you will have dealt bountifully with me.

But I’m sure you will agree that this version leaves nothing to the imagination. Indeed, in my attempt to be precise and propositional, I have fundamentally altered the poem’s character. The poem no longer evokes, it explains. It is a closed poem. It is operating more on reason, and less on emotion. Whereas the original stimulates the imagination to enter into the poet’s world by its short and ambiguous but suggestive lines. It makes the reader work a little bit to do so, but also gives the emotional incentive to do so through its minimalist and accessible introduction of gut-level cries. It hooks, and then reals you in to experience its life.

Open your own Bible and give this Psalm another ride. Don’t think too much. Read very slowly, one phrase at a time, and let each phrase sink in. See what cord it strikes in you before moving on to the next. You will likely begin to have some small experience of Hebrew poetry. The more you practice it the better it will get, and you will probably find that the Psalms’ simple genius will begin to shape your own heart’s cry to God.

Peter and Theology

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By Paul Szobody

Keeping in mind that the author is a rather uneducated Galilean fisherman, the doctrinal density and biblical breadth of Peter’s epistolary expression is nothing less than stunning. Even granting that Peter probably had a good Jewish boy’s Torah education, his remarkable post-Pentecostal literary inspiration and theological methodology deserves to be reckoned with by theological science.

Take 1 Peter 1:1-9 for example. Peter profoundly employs both Torah terms and soteriological concepts from the redemptive history of Israel in order to speak to Christians of their own spiritual experience in current history. He begins with God’s election by foreknowledge of his Diaspora people, now the Christians living among the pagans, and then moves on to speak of election’s purpose in terms taken from Levitical blood-sprinkling and covenantal obedience, both in reference to the Davidic Messiah. The final outcome will be the eschatological possession of a promised inheritance. Meanwhile though, the sanctified make a pilgrimage through this world as strangers whose faith is put to the test as they sojourn toward the inheritance of the eternal, the salvation of their souls. It is in the context of this pilgrim’s “meanwhile” – between an Exodus of new birth (now associated with Christ’s resurrection) and the final inheritance (personal salvation in terms of an incorruptible, heavenly lot) – that Peter develops in just a few phrases an extraordinary theology of Christian life, in faith, hope, love and joy.

Peter’s exposition is obviously a figural construal of the historical memory of Israel’s experience of redemption from Egypt and resulting sojourn in the desert and/or later Diaspora exile. Evidently, and without any doubt, Peter took (like Paul) the Christian people to be the Israel of God in the end of time. Remarkably, within nine verses, Peter has painted a biblical theology of the whole panorama of salvation history, from eternity past to eternity future! It’s nothing less than breathtaking: perhaps every major soteriological theme is touched upon. And, of course, he will continue to develop and add to this canvas, in a similar fashion, in the rest of his letter; his mentality is impregnated with the spiritual sense and accomplishment in Christ of the historical-redemptive storied events.

Now, this raises a question today as to Peter and theology. Could it be that under the power, sheer quantity and historical influence of the Pauline corpus and language, that Peter – his method and motifs – has been short-changed? Has Petrine language and methodology been sufficiently taken into account in the church’s theological enterprise? This is an important question in light of recent trends and methodological issues in theology. Peter’s style and approach appears to conform to the interests of certain recent proposals.

First, Peter’s method here is narrative in nature and rooted in a figural reading of salvation history. Both “story” as a structural theological approach and historical figural hermeneutics have highly interested theologians in fairly recent years. This should prod them to take another look at Peter, at his language, his conceptual expression and his methodology. Needless to say, for a modern exegesis that may tend to either atomize biblical narrative or to rationalize away the figural hermeneutics of the apostles and patristic exegesis (the so-called ‘spiritual sense’ of Scripture), Peter remains an inspired hermeneutical challenge.

Second, certain exegetes have proposed that there is sufficient internal evidence to suggest that Peter’s first letter is mystagogical in nature; that is, it is essentially catechesis related to Christian baptism. Though this theory is far from universally accepted, it does indicate the strong critical evidence of the baptismal motif in the epistle. As a consequence, the argument may be made for liturgical moorings to Peter’s thought. If so, its mode of doing theology is in harmony both with that of the cradle of Christian theology as well as with certain other modern theological tendencies. Christian theology – in its post-apostolic confessional form – was birthed in the midst of the early church’s liturgy. That is, while praying to the Father, in the name of the Son and by the Spirit, she expounded and developed her understanding of her experienced and confessed faith in the resurrected One: she formulated her Trinitarian and Christological theology (I owe this insight to Robert Jenson). Likewise today, there is renewed interest in liturgical theology and in doing theology from within liturgical history and experience (Geoffrey Wainwright, for one, has especially developed this approach). In this mode, theology is the reflection on salvation history (as witnessed in Holy Scripture and imaged in the church’s liturgy from Scripture) through the existential lens of its figural realization in the christocentric life and liturgical experience of the church.

In reconsidering and resourcing theological methods as well as hermeneutical approaches and doctrinal formulations, perhaps Peter’s epistolary expression might once again prove to be a rock to which the church might theologically build upon.

Definition Please, Evangelicals

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Here we are again to talk about the sacraments. Usually when I write on this topic my purpose is to define, redefine, and defend a traditional Lutheran understanding of the sacraments. However, this time I’m going to take the offensive. If I can prod my fellow Christians to think about their own practice in relation to God’s Word than I will have accomplished my goal.

Dear Evangelical Brothers and Sisters,

I have been privileged to worship in many of your churches this year. In fact, I am now attending an Evangelical church in France. I have observed one very positive trend, namely, that the practice of Communion is becoming more frequent in your assemblies. It is now not uncommon for Evangelical churches to have communion every week! My hope is that you will be an inspiration to many Lutheran congregations.

Having said this, the manner in which you go about Communion, or “The Lord’s Supper” gives me less to be enthusiastic about. To better explain what I mean, let us begin with the portion of scripture concerning the Last Supper.

Matthew 26:26-29

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I will drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Given the way I have observed communion being done in many Evangelical churches, one would think the passage went something like this:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat [bread] this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, [Then he said]”Drink of it [wine], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I will drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

To be thorough, we’ll add this phrase which exists only in Luke: “Do this in remembrance of me”. And while Evangelical do a good job of keeping the remembrance of Jesus’ death alive, they forget what “this” is when Jesus says “do this”. I have put the verbs in bold: Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.

My point is this: when Jesus says “do this”, these are the verbs we are to do, these are the words we are to say. But in the Evangelical churches I have attended, none of this has been done. I have observed that a pastor or elder stands up and says something to the effect of “We will now have Communion”, and he may give an exhortation to participate in memory of Christ’s death. At this point lay officiants may or may not pray over the “elements” before distributing them. The bread is not taken up by the officiant, it is not blessed, the word’s and promise of Christ concerning the bread and cup are not spoken. The officiant does not even give the bread and cup. Either the congregants come up and serve themselves, or lay persons distribute it.

So here is my question: If you are not doing and saying what Jesus said to do, on what grounds do you presume that you are even having the Lord’s Supper? What are your criteria that make up the Lord’s supper if it is not his own words and actions? I will give you this: in the congregations I have observed, the whole thing is done in great reverence and earnestness. But reverence does not the Lord’s Supper make.

Presence, Providence, and God’s People. A Brief Remark on the Complementary Theological Visions of Robert Jenson and Ephraim Radner.

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Contributed by Paul Szobody

When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion
. (Ps 114:1-2, TNIV)

This text gives quite a striking assertion. This assertion is profoundly wrapped up in, and prefigures, the full revelation of God’s presence incarnate in his people as his missiological end. It does not merely affirm that God set up his sanctuary in the midst of Judah, nor does it state that his dominion or kingdom is over Israel, but that Judah is his sanctuary (physical tabernacle) and Israel his dominion (or kingdom). That is, the citizenship of the covenanted commonwealth, together, is collectively and corporately his dwelling and the place of his emanating, reigning, blessing (life-giving) presence. This is integrally related to the unfolding biblical theme of the divine “illusive presence” (to use Samuel Terrien’s expression) within humanity that culminates in John the revelator’s eschatological tabernacle composed of living stones of redeemed human beings from every people, tribe and tongue. Furthermore, it also ties together two important insights of two contemporary theologians who have signaled Israel’s history as God’s actual historical life and auto-revelation.

First, Robert Jenson has maintained at the core of his systematic theology that Israel’s narrative is God’s own self-identification in narrative form. That is, God reveals his own self to humanity with and by this particular story of a chosen people: its historical ebb and flow, prophetic events and words and witnesses – this story is God’s Spirit’s own script of what can be known of God. Jenson quotes Melanchthon as a starting point: God is known by his works. Of course this history of God’s works culminates in the evangelical narrative of the Son, the Gospel, as a recapitulation of Israel’s story. Christ is the full and final Word and Work of God, and, in the end, he is the only true Israel who keeps covenant and reveals in the fullest sense the identity of God in fleshed-out human history. In a lapidary echo of Jenson: the true God is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt and who raised his Son Jesus from the dead. Outside of this identification of the triune God, in terms of this historical bi-polar metanarrative, one knows not and has not the true God. For the living God and this story are inseparable.

Now, Ephraim Radner, using 17th and 18th century Jansenist understandings of providence, grace and figurism, takes a strikingly similar line of thought to an insightful, intensely interesting and fruitful development. Israel – her story, institutions, etc. – are by the shaping of providence the very figures of the life of God in Christ. To use Pauline language from Colossians, Israel’s collective life constitutes the shadow whose body is Christ. Howbeit, the church is his body. Profoundly then, Israel’s own historical life is shaped in proleptic reference to the church’s own historical experience. If we want to understand the church’s experience in time, we are to look for it – figured – in Israel’s own experience.

Let’s look at Radner’s thought in more detail. In this hermeneutical matrix, grace is understood, in its broader sense, as an historical force by which God shapes this human story with a teleological intention: he shapes it in intimate relation to himself, into the story that is Christ. The historical dispensation of grace works in human life by the Spirit in a specific form – cruciform. Thus pro-vidence sees ahead and provides the shaping force necessary so that all that constitutes Israel’s story figures the life of God that is Christ in time. Actual Gospel history, the life of Christ, is thus in the middle as a sort of mirror: it absorbs and fills the christic shapes of Israel’s history and then reflects its silhouette into the future of Christ’s body. In linear temporal fashion, the shadowed experience becomes the body’s life. The church “fills up the sufferings of Christ” as she sensibly experiences in the Spirit the shapes and sentiments of Christ’s own life in time. Radner reconstructs this historical vision on a reading both of Jansenius’s view of grace and the practical role of the various “states” of Christ’s earthly sojourn in human sanctification, as expounded by Pierre de Bérulle, founder of the Oratory and the so-called French School of spirituality.

Radner’s theological vision breathtakingly unites Old Testament theology, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Church History: the Spirit of grace works within the human nature of the historical church to form the corporate, sensual life that she is, that is, Christ in time. Through the historical center of the cross and by the means of the Spirit the church ful-fills the outlines of the story pre-figured in Israel’s corporate life, the life that is the physical existence of God in his people. In the specific Jansenist case, for example, Radner interprets the experience of convulsions (in so-called 18th century ‘second Jansenism’) as the Spirit expressing in the members of Christ Christ’s own sentiments in respect to error in his church, abuse of his members, political and theological corruption and profound division. God’s own self-expression is inextricably integrated into the life of his members: they are a living figure shaped by the historical figuration of Israel in Christ. That is, in his sanctuary and domain – where his glory emanates – is made to be spiritually, sensibly experienced the cruciform of Christ’s own life, a shape that appears foolish to the world. To go beyond Radner’s analysis, and to add a Pascalian nuance, the God of Israel hides himself among, and reveals himself by, the places and manners least suspected, if not distasteful, to haughty human pretension. So, as it was in the ebb and flow of Israel’s contorted history in an obscure corner of several world empires, so it is in the church’s own humbling experience in time.

In reference to both Robert Jenson’s as well as Ephraim Radner’s theological work, I find striking complementary methods and visions. Both are doing theology as it should be done: wrought to serve the church and her mission.

“Faith Alone” and infant baptism

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A friend recently sent me the following question: “Help me understand the relationship between infant baptism and faith alone. Does the pronouncement happen by proxy-by the believing parents?”

I have two answers. But first I would make an preliminary observation concerning sola fide. The term is intended to exclude the addition of any meritorious work in the scheme of salvation; it is “faith to the exclusion of everything else”. Strictly speaking, sola fide does not intend to exclude the possibilty that one might be saved who has neither works nor faith due to a limited cognitive ability (i.e., infancy or mental illness). “sola” implies a maximum requirement, not a minimum. Since New Testament Pauline theology is written to cognitive adults seeking to understand their new-found faith in regards to the jewish law, we need not take the statements in it concerning the necessity of faith to imply any exclusion of infants from salvation. Having said that, I will present the two answers that seem most immediately helpful.

First, the question reveals a certain assumption. It implies that the definition of faith relies on a cognitive motor. Hebrews 11:1 certainly establishes some fundamental aspects of faith, but I would not for a minute entertain it as an exhaustive definition (and it doesn’t seem to be intended as such). But even if the characteristics of “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” are necessary constitutive elements of faith, I still don’t see a problem. “Assurance” and “conviction” are difficult things to come by for adults. To really have them, it takes a rather child-like characteristic: trust. For this reason Jesus himself tells us we must be as a child to inherit the kingdom of heaven (and in saying so he was not distinguishing a cognitive child from and infant; the point is, you must be un-adult). You have to trust either evidence, a testimony, or a relationship in order to have assurance or conviction. As you likely can guess, I’m going to emphasize the third, without excluding the former two–especially testimony (for, among other reasons “how will they believe if they have not heard?”). While an infant arguably cannot understand, and therefore trust, a testimony or evidence, she certainly can trust a relationship, as is abundantly evident to parents.

Faith takes initiation on God’s part.The Holy Spirit must quicken for one to even believe. As Luther’s Small Catechism states concerning the third article of the Creed:

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the
forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in
Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel,
enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

The Spirit must “enlighten with his gifts”. His gifts are the various forms of his saving Word, communicated in scripture and the sacraments. In baptism, the gospel is “preached”, or rather “applied” in the name of the Trinity. As God’s testimony is more sure than the most beautiful of adult “testimonies” of faith, we believe that when he puts his name on that infant–his Name, in all in the largest sense of the gospel that it communicates–therein is the initiation of a relationship with that child. If indeed that is the case, the child is trusting, as it is in an infant’s nature to do, in God who has claimed her and placed his name upon her. No cognition is necessary for this most primordial form of trust; an infant trusts whomever is holding her. While we wouldn’t necessarily call this “faith” in its fullest sense, certainly it is faith in its most fundamental element: the trusting response to a relationship. We generally refer to it as the “seed of faith”. It is a relationship initiated.

We conceive of faith very organically. The seed of faith is not faith fully formed, it is not yet what it is called to be, just as an infant is not yet (nor will be before eternity) the person she is called to be. The seed of faith, which is the gospel Word administered in baptism, must be watered, nurtured, and eventually pruned, fertilized and supported. A seed of faith that remains a seed as a person grows to adulthood, cannot properly be called faith (the agricultural analogy works quite well on this point). In other words, infant baptism is no incantation. Negligence of its gift is a loss of its benefits. The planting and watering of the seed is indeed the responsibility of the parents.

This brings us to my second answer. No, I do not believe that infants have faith by the proxy of their parents. The idea that one person can have faith on behalf of another is foreign to scripture. What we believe is that the principle of the transmission of faith from parent to child is a constant between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. The Apostle paul goes to great lengths in Romans and Galatians to demonstrate that our faith is Abraham’s faith. The economy of salvation is not fundamentally different between the two covenants (we will leave the Mosaic Covenant aside at this point).

At this point we cannot avoid discussing circumcision. But first we must make a few distinctions. Baptism is not equivalent to circumcision, and yet they are closely related by the following articulation: circumcision is the type of which baptism is the reality. This principle is established with remarkable clarity in Colossians 2:11-12. Baptism is a “circumcision without human hands, the circumcision of Christ” i.e. a burial into his death in order to receive his life. In other words, where humans circumcised the flesh, God circumcises the heart in baptism. The picture is in circumcision; the reality is in baptism. We must keep in mind both the similarity in image, but the distinction of substance between these two rites. One is a sign of the promise, the other is the promised gift.

With this in mind, we observe that the sign of circumcision, anticipating baptism, was given to infant males. The sign indicates the will of God: he claims the children of his people, and transfers to them on the eighth day the promise he made to Abraham. The promise is not faith itself; it is the object of faith. As the child grows (male or female) he believes the promise signified in circumcision. The promise always was “spoken” to him in circumcision, but his faith applies his intellect in recognizing it as a promise for him. When the reality comes with Christ, delivered in his gift of baptism, how much more should that reality also be extended to the children, that, as they grow, their faith should recognize with thankfulness the gift of God?

This might offend our evangelical sensitivities insofar as we see faith as a condition for baptism, as the question intimates. The idea that faith is a prerequisite for baptism and must precede it sequentially is born of a certain repetition in Acts of the command “believe and be baptized” or “repent and be baptized”. The first occurrence of the latter formulation appears in Acts 2:38 as Peter tells the crowd “Repent and be baptized, very one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, anyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” This statement is masterfully crafted for a first-century jewish audience. First there’s baptism for repentance that John had taught (as well, presumably, as other ascetic groups like the Essenes), but Peter adds a salvific import to this baptism: “for the forgiveness of your sins”. However any good Jew is concerned not only for himself, but also that the promise of Abraham be applied to his descendants, beginning with his eight-day-old child. So Peter reassures them, showing that Christ is indeed the fulfillment of the Abrahamic hope: “The promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off…” (reminiscent of “a blessing for all nations”). In this statement alone is confirmed the fact that the transmission of faith from parent to child continues in the New Covenant as it did in the Abrahamic. The difference is that the promise which was signified in the sign of circumcision, is fulfilled with the gift of God’s very Name (= His presence, communion–the very Gospel hope) in baptism. The human response to this gift is faith–a faith whose seed is planted by God’s Word in baptism and nourished by the continual feeding of his Word as that child grows in her cognitive ability to respond.

Islam: A Failure of Christian Unity

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How is it that 6th century Arabia, flanked by a christian Ethiopia to the west, a christian Palestine to the north and even a few Christian tribes in its own interior resisted Christianity until Mohammed filled the void finally with a more radical monotheism than either Christianity or Judaism? Mohammed himself gives us a clue in the Qur’an.

In the Sura “Miriam” (Mary), the Qur’an tells the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s quite a different version of the Christmas story than the ones we have in Matthew and
Luke. It includes Mary giving birth under a palm tree in the desert, the palm tree miraculously producing fruit, a stream springing up at Mary’s feet to refresh her, and not least of all Jesus speaking as soon as he was born to reassure a distraught Mary. Mary then returns to her family with Jesus in her arms. When her family sees her child and figures out that she had become pregnant out of wedlock, they begin to interrogate her and ask her how she could have shamed herself so. The infant Jesus again speaks to defend his mother and declare his identity: ” I am the servant of God. He gave me the book and made me a prophet…” What is particularly interesting to me is the postscript to this story. The author writes “This is Jesus, the voice of truth that they are still disputing”. The “they” of this statement can only refer to the Christians of his day.

Indeed, the Christians of Europe, Palestine, and northern Egypt were gripped in a centuries-long conflict on the nature of Christ. Was he really God? Was he really human? If he was really both human and divine did both of those natures take part in his suffering? In his glorification? These questions and others were the object of the early Christian councils. At the time of Mohammed the council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) was the most debated. At this council the Church gathered to denounce Monophysitism, the teaching that Jesus’ human nature was completely absorbed in the divine nature so that he had only one, divine nature. The fallout of this council was that the churches of Egypt and Syria separated themselves from the central church of Constantinople in order to remain Monophysite. There were several Monophysite groups that settled in northern Arabia also.

If the religious portrait isn’t already complex enough add this to the equation: Constantinople was at war with the persians, and between Constantinople and Persia were several Arab tribes who would often accept or reject Chalcedon based on political alliances with or against Constantinople.

Dizzy yet? Mohammed seems to have been as well. In addition to Orthodox and Monophysite Christians, Palestine and northern Arabia were also home to Jacobites (a rather Jewish strain of Christianity), Nestorians ( Christians who emphasized a division in the natures of Christ) and a plethora of hermits who held to varying degrees of any of the above positions– not to mention the several Jewish tribes well established on the peninsula since the first century A.D.

Given the degree of confusion and division concerning the nature of Christ it is not surprising to find the designation of Jesus in the Qur’an as the one “who they are still disputing”. Is this part of the reason that central Arabia remained largely pagan at the end of the 6th century? It is likely. Each group of Christians had its own missionary efforts into the Arabian peninsula, but there could obviously have been no coordinated effort. Indeed christians were literally warring and killing each other over the nature of Christ. Orthodoxy was imperial Byzantine policy, to go against it carried political ramifications. To a Mohammed witnessing the situation from the somewhat removed but mot at all uninformed Mecca in central Arabia, the solution was simple: Jesus is not divine at all because there is only one God; he is only a prophet. Mohammed filled the void left by Jewish and Christian conflict as Arabs rallied to his radically simplified monotheism: “There is no other god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet.”

If Christians entertain any evangelistic hopes for the Muslim world, can they afford to do so as a divided church?

Source for historical information:

CHARLES, Henri, Le Christianisme des arabes nomades sur le Limes et dans le désert syro-mésopotamien aux alentours de l’hégire, Paris, Leroux, 1936.

Submission in the “Theology of the Body”

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The following is an excerpt from a summary Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” found in pdf form here:

“[Eph 5:22-24] is often viewed with suspicion by
women since it tells wives to be submissive to their
husbands. But the first line of the passage, which tells both
spouses to “be subject to one another out of reverence for
Christ” is often overlooked. The following lines are
devoted to explaining how that mutual submission is lived
in marriage. John Paul II makes it very clear that the wife’s
“being subject” to the husband does not mean that she is
dominated by him. It might even be argued that the
husband’s task is harder. He is the one who is commanded
to die for his wife as Christ died for the Church.
“The mutual relations of husband and wife should flow
from their common relationship with Christ.” (TOB Aug. 11,
1982) p. 309
“Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife
might become a servant or a slave of the husband, an object
of unilateral domination. Love makes the husband
simultaneously subject to the wife, thereby subject to the
Lord himself, just as the wife to the husband… It is certain
that when the husband and wife are subject to one another
‘out of re v e rence for Christ’, a just balance will be
established, such as to correspond to their Christian
vocation in the mystery of Christ.” (TOB August 11, 1982) p. 310
“Christ manifests the love with which he has loved her [the
Church] by giving himself for her. That love is an image
and above all a model of the love which the husband
should show to his wife in marriage, when the two are
subject to each other ‘out of reverence for Christ.’” (TOB Aug.
25, 1982) p. 316
“The husband is above all, he who loves and the wife, on the
other hand is she who is loved. One could even hazard the
idea that the wife’s submission to her husband, understood
in the context of the entire passage of Ephesians, signifies
above all the “experiencing of love.” This is all the more so
since this submission is related to the image of the
submission of the Church to Christ, which certainly consists
in experiencing his love.” ( TOB Sept. 1, 1982) p. 320”

Introductory thoughts on Pneumatology

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

It’s a fancy word and it means the study of the spirit, that is, the Spirit of God. The following thoughts are a synthesis from three sources: Ephraim Radner’s book “The End of the Church”, Jürgen Moltmann’s book “A Theology of Hope” and a course on pneumatology by André Birmelé at the University of Strasbourg.

I love my wife. There’s me, there’s her, and then there’s this thing called our relationship. It’s really more than just me plus her; it is life itself. In fact, you could define life as the total of our relationships. Who am I? As soon as I state my name I am referring to the parents I come from, if mention that I am a father, husband, brother, worker, friend, or any other descriptor, I am referring to relationships. At its most basic, you can’t be in existence without an organic relationship to atleast two people. You are your relationships.

So let’s skip all the history of theological debates about the Trinity and go with this analogy: God exists, he speaks, and he has a relationship with his Word. This is the Trinity: the Father, his Word that is spoken into human existence, and the love between them, their relationship, which is the Holy Spirit. What moves God, what qualifies him, the love that is him, that is the Holy Spirit. As the care, the provision, and the intimacy that I show my wife is the action of our relationship, so the love of God and his works of love toward himself and us in his Son is the work of the Spirit.

We will look at the Holy Spirit from two perspectives: 1, what he does throughout history, and 2, what he does individually. We can sum up both with the following statement: The Holy Spirit moves Christ and his people through time by God’s promises and his acts of loving faithfulness.

It would be difficult to speak of the Holy Spirit without speaking of Old Testament prophecy. It’s curious, actually, that when Israel settled down from nomadic life into the sedentary, temple-centric life of Palestine, they didn’t adopt the sedentary Gods of their neighbors (well, ok, I guess a large number of them did). A nomad god is very different from a sedentary god in ancient Near Eastern religion. The nomad god is a warrior, himself on the move. A sedentary god is generally “epiphanic”, that is, he “appears” at certain times and certain places, giving meaning to geographic worship places, and marking the rhythm of agricultural seasons. Whereas Israel’s God never really settled down. He did sort of; they built him a temple anyway, but he wasn’t stuck there. As Solomon prayed in the dedication of the temple: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). He goes on in his prayer to show that the temple was not for God’s benefit, but for the people’s, so that they could have a place to come and be forgiven of their sins. God himself was always moving forward, forward through time. He did this through his prophetic promises.

The classic way to introduce a prophet’s message in the Old Testament is to say that the Spirit of God came upon him. Prophecy is indisputable the work of the Holy Spirit. But let’s get it out of our heads that prophecy is somehow future-telling. That’s magic, and that is not what prophecy is. Prophecy declares God’s promise, and interprets the times in function of God’s promises. It is by the promise and fulfillment of promise that the Spirit of God moved his people through time, took them from being physical nomads, and turned them into spiritual ones. But they weren’t wandering; they were walking straight toward a sure promise. They did this by obeying the law, a law summed up by the command “You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is where the macro work of the Spirit is one and the same as the micro work of the Spirit: God’s Hesed, or his covenant, loving faithfulness. The job of prophecy was to connect the two, thus moving God’s people forward in love for him and for one another.

The interesting thing about God’s promises is that they developed. To Abraham, God would multiply him and make him a “blessing to all nations”. To Israel (the “multiplied Abraham”) he would deliver them and give them a promised land. Once in that land he would give them a king. When Israel got her king God promised to make his throne last forever in righteousness. When the descendents of David failed, the prophets played a pivotal role in developing “messianism”, or the understanding that the Davidic promise was to be taken up by a future “anointed one”, possibly even two of them (one high priest and one king). With the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the promise of God is to be with his people in the present and also to create a kingdom of righteousness and peace forever in a new creation for the future. God’s Spirit interprets himself as his new promises interpret the previous ones and reshape them and enlarge them for the future, always along the lines of God’s loving, covenant faithfulness to his people. So God’s people live his past promises in the present because they are their hope for the future (this is why pneumatology is inseparable from eschatology.) And that hope is always being expanded: both more real for the present and greater for the future. Because this was the work of prophecy/revelation, it is the work of the Spirit.

The revelation of God’s Word incarnate, Jesus the Messiah, continues this process of fulfillment/repromising, but also radically reoriented the promises of God towards eternal life, the kingdom of God being not a physical one, but one that dwells in the hearts of his people. He is Immanuel, God-With-Us. He physically and personally fulfilled God’s promises to Israel, but he did it in such a way that he formulated a greater promise: that God’s Spirit should be in the hearts of his people and keep them until the new creation. The Holy Spirit is God’s life, and the gift of life to his people. As Paul states to the Galatians: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). He thus ties both the historical salvation of God’s people and the life of love to which the people are call to the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.

This may seem problematic for students of church history who know that the life of God’s people has been marked by anything but the observable fruit of that same Spirit. When we come up against this and similar quandries in Christian theology it is always instructive to look to the life of Him after whom the theology is named. It was by the Spirit that Jesus accomplished his ministry (Matthew 12:28). It was by that same Spirit that he was brought to give his life on the cross and certainly by that Spirit that he was raised (Romans 1:4). As Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this too was the work of the Holy Spirit. So this is the grace of God: that even our failures to act as the body of Christ, in love for one another, are taken, by the Spirit, and nailed to the cross with all of our other sins. In other words, the division of the God’s people in history are also part of the sufferings of Jesus on the cross—a work of the Spirit for our salvation. It is not insignificant that Jesus said “this is my body” over bread that was broken so that his people, who take that bread and become his body, are not condemned therein for their brokenness. While the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of unity (Ephesians 4:3), neither is its antithesis outside the bounds of his work. For in Christ’s work on the cross the Spirit showed that even brokenness—division—is providentially directed for a “cruciform” work in the church. It is a breaking, yes, because of sin, but providentially, also for life.

The implications for this are far too broad for the present essay. I would only point in a few directions. As Christ was “deadened” to the sense of his father’s presence, so too the church in her divisions, whether in gifts of prophecy, repentance, tongues, miracles, love, hospitality, anointed preaching, or any other demonstration of the Spirit; the senses have been deadened in the church’s divisions. But let us remember, this is not outside of Christ’s very experience. Nor is it, then, without redemptive purpose. As the Spirit spoke through isolated prophets when Israel was torn in two, scattered and deported, enslaved and oppressed, so he speaks and makes himself evident as he wills. God’s people are called to be faithful and wait, for we know that his promises are fulfilled. For his Spirit does not abandon his work, drawing his people ever onward toward the new creation.

Nor does the church’s experience of “deadening” of its senses to the work of the Spirit hinder the Spirit from working as he always does on the individual level, both for quickening and for deadening. For the Spirit makes every person alive when they are united to Christ through faith (Romans 8:9). As Israel lived the future promises in the present through obedience to the law, Christians also live God’s promises in the present, but not through the law. Because what we are promised is Christ, and the life of his Spirit, so we are given Christ for the present. Thus baptism into Christ is baptism into his Spirit (Mark 1:8). Jesus gives us himself because his Spirit is life. While scripture (and particularly the book of Acts) speaks of baptism of the Holy Spirit, often accompanied with tongues, it would be misinformed to separate this from Jesus’ baptism that he instituted. For Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 links the two: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We receive God’s Spirit through baptism into Christ because it is the Spirit who keeps God’s people until they shall be with Christ forever, as Jesus said in his “high priestly prayer”: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13). The Spirit brings the goods (truth, eternal life, the fruit of the Spirit, a relationship with God) that are ours in Christ, goods which sharpen our desire to live in the hope of the life to come.

Thus the Spirit draws the individual into the cosmic plan of God’s promise and fulfillment by giving Jesus to that individual, the very promised plan himself. Therefore that person joins a communion that is primarily the love that God shares in himself, and secondarily, the love that he creates for his people to share. This doesn’t make life a cake-walk; the love of God, while present, is still something promised and looked forward to. In the apparent contradiction between the love of God that is given to us and the non-love that is experienced in the world, we come back to the point made when dealing with division in the church: the cross of Jesus assumes in itself the contradiction, thus making us and our sin even the tools of the Holy Spirit for the experience of that cross and the means of redemption and life through repentance. Indeed, his is the Spirit who “groans” (Romans 8:26). In this way each of us is carried ever onward by that Comforter who tirelessly extends to us his sure promise of life.

I conclude with the articles on the Holy Spirit from the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicea-Constantinople Creed, with punctuation added to clarify the relationship between the Holy Spirit and his work:

Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe in the Holy Spirit:
the holy Christian church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

And from the Nicean Creed:
“And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost:
the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke by the prophets.

How to Speak

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

“Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.
It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender. We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is little, or belittle that which is great. It is not enough that a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject, and there must be in it nothing of excess or defect.”

— Pascal Pensées

Wisdom from “The Little Prince”

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“Good morning,” said the little prince.

“Good morning,” said the merchant.

This was a merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.

“Why are you selling those?” asked the little prince.

“Because they save a tremendous amount of time,” said the merchant. “Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week.”

“And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?”

“Anything you like…”

“As for me,” said the little prince to himself, “if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

-Saint Exupery, “The Little Prince”, Chapter 23