Blog Archives

Spiritual Gifts in the Blogosphere.

Spiritual gifts have been quite the hot topic in the blogosphere lately. If you’re interested, here are a couple of really good resources that you should check out.

Vern Poythress’ essay “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analagous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology” has gotten a few nods lately as being an excellent resource on the topic. But, if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, check out Matt Perman’s excellent summary.

Don’t forget the continued dialog between Michael Patton and Sam Storms on Why I Am/Not Charismatic.

And, the video below is an interview Doug Wilson did with Mark Driscoll on cessationaism, with particular emphasis on revelatory gifts.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/12)

The temperance movement reacted to a real social and medical problem. We should not dismiss it as a product of Victorian prudishness. But then a focus on reducing alcohol abuse morphed into the conviction that it was a sin for any person to take a drink, period. This was a simpler approach, but it is not biblical.

Can a well-placed expletive positively stir the soul? If something is deemed inappropriate for children, should it not be sold through “Christian” distribution channels? Can Christian art impact us positively through things that offend us? Is the act of “offending” a counter-Gospel act?

My basic thesis is this: The assumptions required for such homiletic detours are irresponsible both to yourself and to your audience, and they misunderstand the way in which God works in the life of the church.

  • Robert Miller sparked a lively discussion with his argument that human dignity should not be the ground of Christian ethics (see also here and here). I found the discussion particularly interesting for Miller’s argument that main competing ethical systems (utilitarian, deontological, virtue) are incommensurable and that theologians cannot pick-and-choose aspects of each without lapsing into incoherence.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/19)

Eccentric Existence 13 (social action)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

In the previous post, we discussed the pneumatological framework of Kelsey’s theological anthropology. And, we saw that Kelsey presented the Spirit as both gift and promise. The Spirit is both the gracious presence of God with his creation (humanity’s ultimate context) and the promise that God will continue to lead all of creation (humanity’s proximate context) toward its eschatological telos. This immediately raises the question of human action in the world. Do we have any role to play in the eschatological consummation of God’s promised purposes? If so, what is that role and how should we go about it?

The Meaning of Human Action

According to Kelsey, “Perhaps the most important anthropological question about our proximate social contexts is whether historical change…is meaningful” (478). Is there any for us to look at the messy, complex world that we live in, as well as the sin and brokenness that so often accompanies even our most well-intentioned actions, and still come to the conclusion whether there is any real meaning to the historical changes that we work so hard to achieve.

Do such changes amount to a movement toward any goal of such transcendent value that it redeems the suffering and loss? Or is unrelenting historical change finally sheer ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’? (478)

At this point, Kelsey sounds very much like James Davison Hunter in his recent work To Change the World. Both express significant reservations about whether we can have any real confidence about whether our actions really are leading to meaningful change in the world. Instead of working in accordance with God’s eschatological purposes, even envisioning ourselves as contributing to and ushering in God’s eschatological Kingdom, isn’t it entirely possible that we are instead acting in our own selfish best interests, furthering the sinful world orders that we seek to undermine? Does human action have any real meaning in this broken world? Or, are we hopelessly compromised in our sinfulness and can only wait in anxious anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s eschatological purposes. For Kelsey, it appears to be a little of both. He does want to affirm that human action in the world has meaning, but only in a highly qualified way.

The Ambiguous Nature of Human Action

If you’ve been following this series, this emphasis on the ambiguous nature of  human action should come as no surprise. Kelsey has routinely emphasized that sin, finiteness, and sinfulness all contribute to making it nearly impossible to systematize virtually any aspect of theological anthropology. Instead, at every turn we are confronted and frustrated by ambiguity and complexity. Human action in the world is no different.

First, Kelsey appeals to the Wisdom literature to contend that there is “no overall teleological order” (479). God did not create any single creaturely existence that precisely mirrors “the inexhaustibly rich and complex beauty of God’s glory” (479). So, the ambiguity of human action is integral to being God’s creatures. Rather than trying to find the ideal expression of God’s “will” in every situation, we are instead called to find the best expression of human faithfulness in our particular quotidian. And, it was precisely for this that God created us as creatures who have “their own time and space” (480). By giving us time an space to be ourselves, God creates the opportunity (and responsibility) to use that freedom for his glory. It’s our task to respond to this gracious gift in faithful hope.

Of course, our inherently creaturely complexity is rendered even more ambiguous by the reality of sin. Instead of just being manifold expressions of human faithfulness in our finite quotidian realities, the existence of God’s creatures is “radicalized into a living contradiction when their creatureliness is distorted in sin” (481). Thus, we fall into “inexplicable self-contradictoriness” (481) that renders human action opaque and often absurd.

Given these two kinds of ambiguity – the ambiguity inherent in being diverse creatures living in his manifold creation and related to by God in complex ways, and the ambiguity introduced by sin and its absurd contradiction of all that God intended – there is an inherent “ambiguity in every historical change that is apparently a change for the better” (484).

The Missio Dei

At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that Kelsey was going to introduce a God-of-the-gaps resolution to the problem. Human action is ambiguous because of our finiteness and fallenness, but don’t worry, God’s action in the world will make sense out of everything. For Kelsey, though, the missio Dei actually introduces yet another source of ambiguity.

the missio Dei moves in God’s own very peculiar way sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes obliquely at cross-grain to the various trajectories of change that we can discern in our social and cultural contexts. (487)

Rather than clarifying the situation, we see that God’s action often works against what we might think of as the betterment of the world order and society. Indeed, Kelsey points to apocalyptic language as a great example of how the missio Dei often works against the natural currents of the world.

apocalyptic imagery concerns the structure of the cosmos, not the logic of history….Paul does not use apocalyptic rhetoric for that purpose. He uses it to describe a radical change in the structure of the world, a shift from an old creation to a new creation. (490)

We sometimes think that we can easily identify the ways in which God is at work in the world. But, what we are often doing is identifying God’s action with what we think the world really needs. When we see those things happening, we presume that it is God at work. Kelsey argues, though, that apocalyptic imagery forces us to consider the fact that God’s inauguration of the Kingdom through Jesus’ resurrection means that “all such principles used to constitute a socially constructive lived cosmos” have been radically relativized” (492-493). Instead of operating in accordance with our preconceptions and socially derived views of human flourishing, God breaks into the world and “unilaterally constitutes a new social reality, a new lived world” (496).

God’s work in the world thus constitutes another source of ambiguity in the world. The apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s eschatological reign is so radically other that we often fail to recognize it when we see it.

Grace and Judgment

At this point, one could legitimately begin to wonder if Kelsey’s qualified affirmation of human action in the world is really a resounding “no.” Given all this ambiguity, how could human action have real meaning? For Kelsey, the answer is to recognize both God’s grace and his judgment on all human action. Since all of our actions are inherently ambiguous, we must anticipate God’s judgment on everything that we do.This judgment is not simply the result of ambiguity, since at least some of the ambiguity comes from our the finiteness and diversity of God’s good creation. But, God’s judgment falls on “our idolatrous reliance on culturally relative values to generate such blessing on their own” (499). Thus, we can never afford to fall into a complacent confidence that assumes God’s stamp of approval on our actions. Instead, we should recognize the diversity, messiness, and brokenness of human existence, seeking to be faithful in every situation, but always also anticipating God’s judgment on our every action.

At the same time, though, we anticipate with eschatological hope God’s gracious mercy.  “God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation does entail that, by the creativity of God’s free love, what has been distorted will be transformed, the threat of meaninglessness overcome, and living deaths liberated into true life” (500). Even while anticipating God’s eschatological judgment on our actions in the world, we can still stand firm in our hope that God’s grace is sufficient and that he will accomplish his purposes in the world. Human action is not thereby rendered meaningless, we are still called to live faithfully in our quotidian, but it is seriously qualified in light of the inbreaking of God’ eschatological Kingdom and the sinful ambiguity of our creaturely contexts.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/7)

Eccentric Existence 12 (the Spirit)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

With chapter 12, Kelsey is ready to move on the second part of his 3-part approach to theological anthropology. As we discussed a while back, Kelsey takes an intentionally Trinitarian approach to theological anthropology: “It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures” (122). Having completed his reflections on God relating to create as Father, he is now ready to move into his discussion of God relating to draw his creatures to eschatological consummation as Spirit.

And, since Kelsey sees each of these three perspectives as different narratives with their own narrative logic, each also serves as a legitimate starting point for a theological anthropology. They are all “equi-primordial” (449). In other words, for Kelsey, you basically have to start the anthropological enterprise over again every time you move from one narrative to another. Having recounted the basic shape of a theological anthropology told from the perspective of creation, Kelsey now wants to narrate a theological anthropology from the perspective of eschatology. Thus, “part 2 promotes an analogous set of anthropological proposals that are held accountable to canonical Christian Holy Scripture’s narrative of God relating to all that is not God to draw it to eschatological consummation.” And, for Kelsey, this means that particular attention must be paid to the role of the Holy Spirit in theological anthropology.

Kelsey argues that a primary function of the Spirit in the NT is to draw humans to eschatological consummation and that this “is an aspect of creatures’ most embracing and most necessary context” (443). As part of humanity’s ultimate context, human persons simply cannot be understood adequately apart form an understanding of the Spirit in his relation to human beings and their destiny. This in itself is notable in Kelsey’s theological anthropology.  Many anthropological projects make no effort to reflect on the importance of pneumatology for anthropology. And, Kelsey does more than any other recent theological anthropology that I am aware of to probe what this might actually mean for the shape and content of a truly Christian theological anthropology. Thus, although Kelsey was clear at the very beginning that theological anthropology must be christocentric, it is also quite evident that he thinks this christocentric shape requires a strongly pneumatological emphasis as well. (Indeed, Kelsey’s work serves as a great example of the fact that a truly christocentric theology will always also be both trinitarian and pneumatological. Done well, there is no real tension between these.)

As we’ve noted several times in our discussion of this book, Kelsey is fond of complexity. At least, he’s very comfortable with it, and he feels no need to reduce the complexity by offering systematic ways of organizing complex data. And, this is no exception. So, surveying the NT data, Kelsey concludes that there is no simple way of categorizing the diverse ways in which the Spirit relates to human beings.

New Testament texts, both by the structure of their narratives and by the metaphors they employ, characterize the Spirit’s way of relating to human persons in a wide and not entirely consistent variety of ways. However, a certain bipolar pattern is consistent. The Spirit is regularly characterized both as persons’ environing context always already there and enveloping them, and as intimately interior to them. (444)

This bipolar pattern will guide much of Kesley’s reflections. He reflects on the many ways in which the Spirit serves as one who is always-already shaping our proximate contexts while at the same time shaping us as human persons in the most intimate ways. Thus, unlike other anthropologians who take the time to reflect on the significance of pneumatology for anthropology, Kelsey does not do so by reflecting exclusively on how the Spirit affects the “inner” person. Indeed, Kelsey rejects any such simple dichotomy between inner and outer.

Unsurprisingly, Kelsey argues throughout that this pneumatological approach requires us to see both the “already” and the “not yet” of human being. Although the Spirit is already with us as both proximate and ultimate context, the fact that the Spirit is the one drawing us toward eschatological consummation means that there must always be some element of futurity in the Spirit’s relation to us.

Finally, the fact that the Spirit comes as both gift and promise means that we can rule out any idea that the human person alone has the responsibility to bring about the eschatological consummation through his or her own efforts.

The adventus character of eschatological blessing rules out use of metaphors of human creaturely action to build or co-create the eschatological kingdom of God. It also rules out use of metaphors of a cosmic physical or spiritual evolution into the eschatological kingdom. (453)

We certainly have a role to play in our own development, but the gift-character of the Spirit and the already/not yet nature of eschatological consummation means that we must anticipate the future as gift and promise. Grace is not an addendum to nature, but has been there from the very beginning.

Miroslav Volf on the eschatological significance of human work

I was recently re-reading portions of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and I was struck again with his vision for relating human work in creation with the eschatological new creation. Volf devotes considerable attention to rejecting the idea that there will be an eventual “annihilation” of this world following by an entirely new creation. Instead, he contends that a more faithful interpretation of the biblical narrative would be to affirm that this present creation will be renewed and transformed in the eschaton. Thus, the new creation flows from the current creation, rather than being entirely discontinuous with it.

One of his concerns with the annihilation/new creation framework is that it threatens to rob human work of its intrinsic significance. On that framework, any work that we perform with respect to this creation has only an instrumental value insofar as it improves me as an individual or the believing community as a whole. The effect on creation itself has no lasting significance.

In a renewal/transformation framework, though, he contends that we can understand human work has having eschatological significance in that it participates in the transformatio mundi.

The picture changes radically with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation. Then the results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity….will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. (91)

Thus, human work has eschatological significance even beyond its instrumental effect on the person performing the work. Indeed, Volf argues that this gives us grounds for affirming that even the work of non-believers might transformatively carried over into the new creation. Any “noble result” of human endeavor may be judged by God as having value for new creation.

Volf wants to be careful, though, to make sure that we don’t begin to think that we are actually the ones who bring the new creation into being. For Volf, new creation is clearly a work of God, but in a way that retains the significance of human work.

Through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. These historical anticipations are, however, as far from the consummation of the new creation as earth is from heaven. The consummation is a work of God alone. But since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations…one can say, without being involved in a contradiction, that human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi. (100)

Drawing largely on the resources of eschatology and pneumatology, Volf presents a compelling vision for the significance of human work and how it contributes to the transformatio mundi, while retaining a clear sense of the divine prerogative in new creation.

To that extent, it reminded me of the semi-apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther (at least I can’t find where he said it): “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Given Volf’s framework, this becomes more than rhetorical flourish. Planting an apple tree just might have eschatological significance in its own right. Johnny Appleseed would be so proud.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/11)

  • Matt Flannagan offers some reflections on three atheist billboards in New Zealand.
  • Rod Dreher comments on the University of Illinois professor who was fired for having the audacity to teach (in a class on Catholicism and Catholic morality) that Catholics teach that homosexuality is immoral.
  • C. Michael Patton explains why he decided to baptize two of his children at home in his swimming pool. Even beyond his rather low-church approach to baptism, I found his credobaptist reflections on how to determine when a child is ready for baptism to be particularly interesting.
  • Brian LePort continues his discussion of Jon Levison’s Filled with the Spirit. And James McGrath is still working his way through The Historical Jesus: Five Views with comments on the chapters by Jimmy Dunn and Luke Timothy Johnson.
  • In a shocker, the Church of England’s recent attempt to reach a compromise on the ordination of woman was unsuccessful.
  • And, although I refused to comment on the LeBron James fiasco last week, I would like to point out that almost 10 million people watched it. Apparently they thought they had nothing better to do than invest an hour of their lives on this. Though I’m sure that if any of you watched it, you only did so because you were conducting high-level academic research.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/8)

Flotsam and jetsam (7/3)