‘A, a, a, Domine Deus’

David Jones, The Albatross, 1928. Copper engraving, 17.5 x 13.5 cm. Private collection.

I said, Ah! what shall I write?

I enquired up and down.

       (He’s tricked me before with his manifold lurking-places.)

I looked for His symbol at the door. 

I have looked for a long while

           at the textures and contours.

I have run a hand over the trivial intersections. 

I have journeyed among the dead forms 

causation projects from pillar to pylon.

I have tired the eyes of the mind

           regarding the colours and lights. 

I have felt for His Wounds

           in nozzles and containers.

I have wondered for the automatic devices. 

I have tested the inane patterns

             without prejudice. 

I have been on my guard

             not to condemn the unfamiliar 

For it is easy to miss Him

              at the turn of a civilization.

I have watched the wheels go round in case I might see the living creatures like the appearance of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected from the Machine. I have said to the perfected steel, be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt some beginnings of His creature, but A, a, a, Domine Deus, my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste … Eia, Domine Deus

– David Jones, ‘A, a, a, Domine Deus’, in The Sleeping Lord, and Other Fragments (London: Faber & Faber, 1974), 9.

‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’


Queenie McKenzie, People talking to Jesus in the Bough Shed, 1995.png

Queenie McKenzie, People talking to Jesus in the Bough Shed, 1995. Christof Collection of the Diocese of Broome. This painting was the theme image for Catholic celebrations of NAIDOC Week 2019.

HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:

‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTMLEPUB | PDF)


From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.

The article can be accessed here.

‘Memo to J.C.’

BBQ, Australia Jesus by Reg Mombassa

When you were down here JC and walked this earth,
You were a pretty decent sort of bloke,
Although you never owned nothing, but the clothes on your back,
And you were always walking round, broke.
But you could talk to people, and you didn’t have to judge,
You didn’t mind helping the down and out
But these fellows preaching now in your Holy name,
Just what are they on about?
Didn’t you tell these fellows to do other things,
Besides all that preaching and praying?
Well, listen, JC, there’s things ought to be said,
And I might as well get on with the saying.
Didn’t you tell them ‘don’t judge your fellow man’
And ‘love ye one another’
And ‘not put your faith in worldly goods’.
Well, you should see the goods that they got, brother!
They got great big buildings and works of art,
And millions of dollars in real estate,
They got no time to care about human beings,
They forgot what you told ‘em, mate;
Things like, ‘Whatever ye do to the least of my brothers,
This ye do also unto me’.
Yeah, well these people who are using your good name,
They’re abusing it, JC,
But there’s people still living the way you lived,
And still copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate,
Getting crucified by the fat cats, too,
But they don’t call us religious, mate.
Tho’ we got the same basic values that you lived by,
Sharin’ and carin’ about each other,
And the bread and the wine that you passed around,
Well, we’re still doing that, brother.
Yeah, we share our food and drink and shelter,
Our grief, our happiness, our hopes and plans,
But they don’t call us ‘Followers of Jesus’,
They call us black fellas, man.
But if you’re still offering your hand in forgiveness
To the one who’s done wrong, and is sorry,
I reckon we’ll meet up later on,
And I got no cause to worry.
Just don’t seem right somehow that all the good you did,
That people preach, not practise, what you said,
I wonder, if it all died with you, that day on the cross,
And if it just never got raised from the dead.

– Maureen Watson, ‘Memo to J.C.’, in The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse, ed. Kevin Hart (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), 223–23.

[Image: Reg Mombassa, ‘BBQ’, from the Australian Jesus series]

Who is Jesus?

This coming semester at Whitley College, I’ll be teaching a unit called Who is Jesus?

Here’s a little about it:

I’m really looking forward to teaching this unit – alongside one on my other favourite JC, Johnny Calvin – and to the insights that emerge as my students and I engage with the following texts, among others:


  • Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Reconstructing and Deconstructing the Quest for the Historical Jesus’, Scottish Journal of Theology 42 (1989), 319–33.
  • Thomas P. Rausch, Who is Jesus?: An Introduction to Christology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), Chapters 1 and 2.


  • Douglas A. Campbell, ‘Christ and the Church in Paul: A “Post-New Perspective” Account’, in Four Views on the Apostle Paul, ed. Michael F. Bird (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 113–43.
  • Louis Martyn, ‘The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians’. Interpretation 54, no. 3 (July 2000), 246–66. 


  • Gerald O’Collins, ‘The Jewish Matrix’, in Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 21–43.
  • Francis Watson, ‘The Quest for the Real Jesus’, in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 156–69.


  • Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘To Cledonius the Priest against Apollinarius (Ep. CI)’, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. Volume 7: S. Cyril of Jerusaelm, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids, MI: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 439–43.
  • Irenæus, ‘Against Heresies’, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers – Justin Martyr – Irenæus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids, MI: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), III.16­–22 (pp. 440–55).
  • Tertullian, ‘Against Praxeas; in which he defends, in all essential points, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids, MI: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), Chapters 27–30 (pp. 623–27).


  • Athanasius, Athanasius on the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans. The Religious of C. S. M. V., 2nd ed. (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1953), 25–64.


  • The film Ordet, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
  • Robert Barron, ‘Christ in Cinema: The Evangelical Power of the Beautiful’, in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 475–87.


  • Anselm, ‘Why God Became Man’, in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), I.xi–xxi, II.iv–xx (pp. 282–307, 317–54).
  • John D. Zizioulas, ‘Biblical Aspects of the Eucharist’, in The Eucharistic Communion and the World, ed. Luke B. Tallon (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 1–38. 


  • Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), 343–68.
  • Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. John Newton Thomas and Thomas Wieser (London: Collins, 1961), 37–65. 


  • Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology, Expanded and updated ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 140–50.
  • Jürgen Moltmann, ‘The Resurrection of Christ: Hope for the World’, in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), 73–86.
  • Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 2nd ed. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002), 68–90.


  • Jeremy Begbie, ‘Christ and the Cultures: Christianity and the Arts’, in The Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 101–18.
  • Robin M. Jensen, ‘Jesus Up Close’, Christian Century 120, no. 19 (2003), 26–30.
  • Lawrence S. Cunningham, ‘Christ in Art from the Baroque to the Present’, in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 506–16.


  • Benjamin Myers, ‘“In his own strange way”: Indigenous Australians and the Church’s Confession’, Uniting Church Studies 16, no. 1 (2010), 39–48.
  • Stuart Piggin, ‘Jesus in Australian History and Culture’, in Mapping the Landscape: Essays in Australian and New Zealand Christianity: Festschrift in Honour of Professor Ian Breward, ed. Susan Emilsen and William W. Emilsen, American University Studies (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2000), 150–67.
  • The Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology: Toward an Australian Aboriginal Theology, 2nd ed. (Hindmarsh: ATF Press, 2012), 55–74.
  • Stanley Jedidiah Samartha, ‘Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ’, Missiology 10, no. 3 (1982), 301–17.


  • Gavin D’Costa, ‘Christ, the Trinity and Religious Plurality’, in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: Myth of Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. Gavin D’Costa, Faith Meets Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 16–29.
  • John Hick, ‘Christology in an Age of Religious Pluralism’, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 35 (1981), 4–9.

If you’re keen to know more, it’s not too late to enrol ;-) The unit can be taken at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, as well as online (at UG or PG level) from anywhere the World Wide Web has reached.

Rowan Williams’s lectures on ‘Christ and the Logic of Creation’

Hulsean LecturesRowan Williams has begun delivering his series of public lectures on the subject of ‘Christ and the Logic of Creation’. This series of Hulsean Lectures traverses the following ground:

12 January 2016: A Mediaeval Excursion: Aquinas’s Christology and its aftermath.

19 January 2016: Defining the Problem: from Paul to Augustine.

26 January 2016: Logos and logoi: A Byzantine breakthrough.

2 February 2016: The Last of the Greek Fathers? An unfamiliar Calvin.

9 February 2016: Centres and Margins: Bonhoeffer’s Christ.

16 February 2016: ‘In Whom all Things Cohere’: Christ and the logic of finite being.

And while my attention is turned towards Cambridge, I will also mention Ian McFarland‘s recent Inaugural Lecture. The subject: The Crucial Difference: For a Chalcedonianism without Reserve.

Jesus and film

OffretI’m trying to settle on a film – just one – to include in my upcoming christology unit. (I often include at least one film per unit.) So far, I’ve shortlisted the following:

  • Au Hasard Balthasar (Bresson)
  • Calvary (McDonagh)
  • The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese)
  • Magnolia (Anderson)
  • Son of Man (Dornford-May)
  • Offret (Tarkovsky)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman)
  • Romero (Duigan)
  • Waiting for Godot (Beckett)

(That’s right, neither The Life of Brian, nor Miss Congeniality, nor Jesus of Montreal, nor The Karate Kid, nor Red Sonja, nor The Gospel According to St. Matthew, nor Taxi Driver quite made this year’s shortlist.)

At the moment, the frontrunners for me are Beckett’s Godot and Tarkovsky’s Offret, but I’m keen to crowdsource any other suggestions.

A wee footnote to Herbert Read’s ‘Bombing Casualties: Spain’

Doll’s faces are rosier but these were children
their eyes not glass but gleaming gristle
dark lenses in whose quicksilvery glances
the sunlight quivered. These blanched lips
were warm once and bright with blood
but blood
held in a moist blob of flesh
not split and spatter’d in tousled hair.

In these shadowy tresses
red petals did not always
thus clot and blacken to a scar.

These are dead faces:
wasps’ nests are not more wanly waxen
wood embers not so greyly ashen.

They are laid out in ranks
like paper lanterns that have fallen
after a night of riot
extinct in the dry morning air.

– Herbert Read, ‘Bombing Casualties: Spain’, in Poems of Protest Old and New: A Selection of Poetry, ed. Arnold Kenseth (London: The Macmillan Company, 1968), 64.

Herbert ReadThese words were written in the 1930s, in response to a photograph accompanying a newspaper article on the Spanish Civil War. Like much of Read’s writing, they could have been written this week or, indeed, in any week since the third century BCE, when the first paper lanterns were created. This is part of their enduring power. But what most strikes me about Read’s poem is the contrast between the violence and loss described in the first three stanzas and the order and reclamation – the being ‘laid out in ranks’ – spoken of in the final one: the mocking plastering-over of violence blasphemously championed under the pretext of bringing order to chaos.

Such efforts to bring about order like this are not necessarily wasted or misguided; indeed, they are a requisite part of the responsibility laid upon us as creatures made in the image of one who is himself set against those parasites in the cosmos which threaten life. However, and to state the obvious, not all that promotes itself as doing that work is, in fact, doing that work. And so the hard and patient and ceaseless work of discernment, the drawing of a line (one not necessarily straight or entirely clear) which steers us away from those Forsyth calls ‘the facile hierophant and the sweet exalté’ and towards a world made new, transformed not by the invasion of a foreign power or by the ascension of a paladin self-made but from within the very bastille of the human condition, charged with Spirit.

A wee note on Christology and the Constantinian arrangement

In Hoc Signo Vinces

Perhaps no dominical injunction has been rendered by christological elaboration more difficult in Christian practice, personal and corporate, than Jesus’ supposedly simple distinction between the proper claims of Caesar and God. (G. H. Williams)

Amid pressure from Nazi defenders for a ‘positive Christianity’, Erik Peterson, in his essay ‘Kaiser Augustus im Urteil des antiken Christentums’ (1933), argues that despite the persecutions in the early centuries of the Christian community, there was – from Luke through Quadratus, Melito of Sardis, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Orosius – a somewhat positive evaluation of the Empire. And in his book Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie im Imperium Romanum (1935), Peterson further develops the claim that there existed something of a convergence of interests between pagan and Christian monotheism, a convergence which illustrates how positive evaluations of the Empire in terms of the Logos, and related notions in the Ante-Nicene period, ill-prepared the Christian bishops for handling the vastly enlarged risks and opportunities that lay before them. As G. H. Williams (who was, of all the odd creatures to be, a Unitarian) has noted in a fine article on ‘Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century’, this meeting of interests at first betrayed the bishops into championing ‘an uncritical acceptance of political support, until at length a fully understood Trinitarianism proved itself capable of resisting the exploitation of Christian monotheism as a means of sanctioning political unity and securing social cohesion’.

John Heartfield - O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Bent are Thy Branches, 1934

At the centre of this discussion lies the question of christology; more particularly, an ancient debate, as Williams has shown, between first ‘the Catholic insistence upon the consubstantiality of the Son and the championship of the independence of the Church of which he is the Head’, and second, ‘between the Arian preference for Christological subordination and the Arian disposition to subordinate the Church to the State’, correlations much obscured by the fact that Christological orthodoxy was at first defined under the presidency of a sole emperor and following a half century of controversy manufactured by another. Yet, as Williams proceeds to note, ‘all who have worked through the fourth century have sensed some affinity between Arianism and Caesaropapism on the one hand and on the other between Nicene orthodoxy and the recovery of a measure of ecclesiastical independence’. He continues:

In insisting that the God of Creation, of Redemption, and the Final Assize is essentially one God, the Catholics were contending that the Lord of Calvary is also the Lord of the Capitol. But for this very reason the typical Nicenes were unwilling to accommodate revelation to reason purely in the interest of enhancing the cohesive value of Christianity for the Empire. In contrast, the Arians, having a comparatively low Christology were pleased to find in their emperor a divine epiphany or instrument or indeed a demigod like Christ himself. Thus the Arians were more disposed than the Nicenes to accept the will of an emperor as a canon and to defer to him as bishops, because the canons, tradition, and scriptural law centering in the historical Christ could not possibly in their eyes take precedence over the living law (nomos empsuchos) of the emperor ordained by the eternal Logos.

The Los Angeles Theology Conference

Zondervan Academic – which is part of the Murdoch empire – are partnering with Biola University and Fuller Theological Seminary to launch the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference. The inaugural gathering will take place January 17–18, 2013 on the Biola University campus, and will explore the dangerous and disruptive theme – Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Theology.

The impressive band of speakers includes Oliver Crisp, George Hunsinger, Peter Leithart, Katherine Sonderegger and Alan Torrance.

More information about paper proposals and registration is available here.

Christ and Controversy

The good folk over at Wipf and Stock have informed me that they have just released Alan Sell’s fascinating book Christ and Controversy: The Person of Christ in Nonconformist Thought and Ecclesial Experience, 1600–2000. Professor Sell’s name is no stranger here at PCaL. I was invited to pen a wee endorsement for the back cover (it’s SO much less work to get your name on the back cover of a book than it is to have is appear on the front). Here’s what I wrote:

This encyclopedic but accessible survey stands as witness to the church’s ongoing wrestle with an ancient question—’Who do you say that I am?’ It demonstrates Professor Sell’s acumen as a meticulous researcher, his contagious devotion to the nonconformist tradition, and his aptitude for bringing the dead back to life. With wit and sober-headedness, this bold and theologically-informed study records many christological enthusiasms and ecclesiological consequences that this perduring question has birthed—its invitation lingers still.

And the book’s description reads:

What may happen when Christians take doctrine seriously? One possible answer is that the shape of churchly life “on the ground” can be significantly altered. This pioneering study is both an account of the doctrine of the person of Christ as it has been expounded by the theologians of historic English and Welsh Nonconformity, and an attempt to show that while many Nonconformists held classical orthodox views of the doctrine between 1600 and 2000, others advocated alternative understandings of Christ’s person; hence the evolution of the ecclesial landscape as we have come to know it. The traditions here under review are those of Old Dissent: the Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians and their Unitarian heirs; and the Calvinistic and Arminian Methodist bodies that owe their origin to the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XI

I made the claim earlier that the crisis in ministerial and churchly identity is a crisis that finds it genesis in a defunct christology. This ought to be no surprise, for the Church is the body of Christ. And I drew attention to T.F. Torrance’s claim that everything for the Church depends on Christ’s humanity and substitutionary work. I have spoken a little of the implications of Christ’s humanity. Now let me press a little more on the church’s dependence upon Christ’s substitutionary work, and that by way of offering an essential clarification.

History leaves us with little question about the fact that when the substitutionary elements in Christ’s work are emphasised at the expense of the participatory elements – when, for example, salvation is reduced to an application of Christ’s merits as some sort of external transaction and the grace of union with Christ (of which Calvin was so fond) all but abandoned – then this inevitably sponsors the notion of the Church as a mere institution. [For an antidote, see Mike Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, and Todd Billings’ Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, and Braaten’s & Jenson’s Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther]. It is this element of participation that I have been trying to emphasise here precisely because the implications of such a doctrine for pastoral practice and identity are so radically fruitful and liberating.

But lest we distort or impose limits upon the richness of Christ’s person and undermine his call to discipleship, we might also highlight the sense in which service is also a response to the love of God in Christ. But here again, the reality and form of this service is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see T.F. Torrance’s article on ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ published in Theological Foundations for Ministry). In other words, the response of the creature is constituted in and made possible by participation with Christ. To confess that service is the response to the love of God, therefore, is to confess that service is determined by the relationship established with and maintained by God, and not by any outcomes. Put differently, Christian service is, from first to last, about grace. Service, therefore, cannot stand on its own outside of the God-human relation (which itself in constituted in the hypostatic union). Little wonder then that service for service’s sake finally results in boredom and despair, and that preachers that seek to ‘whip-up’ the faithful by throwing them back upon their own resources participate in murder rather than resurrection. This reminds us too that service is not about servitude, but about freedom and the movement of love. It also recalls God’s provision of powers for service, and that Christ’s servants ought not assume authority for the service they undertake nor are they responsible for any results that arise. They must look for no reward beyond the joy of the relation itself.

This is only possible because in the incarnation of the Word God has undertaken to wear our humanity, to heal our brokenness and to put to death the idolatry that reigns from within the depths of human existence. Only in the humanity of God, therefore, lies the creative ground and source of true diakonia. And it is at this point that we finally come to where we might have begun: with baptism, and to the stunning truth that baptism is ordination to ministry. Indeed, baptism reminds us – among other things – of the fact that ministry is what the whole people of God is called to. The ‘Book of Order’ of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand puts it thus: ‘Baptism invites us to share in God’s mission through our own vocation and commitment to God’s new and coming world. This vocation and commitment take shape in a range of occupations and activities in society’

Eugene Peterson once wrote:

‘The biblical fact is there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades’. – Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 2.

So the need to keep recalling the truth proclaimed in baptism, including the truth that the tools for Christian ministry are to be found underwater. Learning to breathe underwater, then, is the challenge of being Church.


Other posts in this series:

[Image: Time]

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VIII

If there is a crisis in ministerial and churchly identity, it is, I propose, a crisis that finds it genesis in a defunct christology. One of the critical questions for every Christian – pastors too! – concerns the confidence we have in the gospel itself, which is really confidence in God and his Christ and should not in any way be confused with self-confidence. Much of the ‘leadership’ literature that lands on a pastor’s desk or in a pastor’s inbox – and which finds its voice in sermons and pastoral counsel – constitutes a wave of temptation to employ the powers of this present age for ministry. Much of this is hard to resist. With the enormous stress birthed by dwindling congregations, the temptation to turn inward and/or to ‘manage the institution’ rather than ‘serve the gospel’ is potent. And with the command to stones to become loaves of bread comes a loss of the memory that the Church is a creature of the Word (creatura verbum Dei), is an entity formed by the gospel alone, and for the gospel alone. This means that its capacity for being a community in the world lies wholly in the gracious God, whose work creates a radical dependence on the gospel which itself is the act and Word of God judging our false allegiance to idols, defeating evil powers and calling us to know and witness to God. In every sense, therefore, the Church is the Church insofar as it glories in the weakness and foolishness of the cross and repents of its theologies of glory.

So there exists a radical connection between the doctrine of justification and pastoral ministry. Put differently, we might say that everything for the Church depends on Christ’s humanity and substitutionary work. If this is not clear, the Church will become dependent on the pastor’s humanity, on her or his personality and action, and/or on its own programmatic existence which is destined for death. All around us is what TF Torrance describes as the Protestant psychological Sacerdotalism which displaces the humanity of Christ as leader of the community and sole substitute for our life, and leaves the Church with mere human alternatives to the one saving work of God secured in Christ’s humanity. So often in ministry we seek justification in terms of what is seen. We seek an outcome in order to justify our ministry. (This helps to keep the ecclesiastical sociologists in business, and those who draft endless ‘reviews’). But all ministry is God’s ministry. And we are called to participate in that ministry. When we fail to realise or fulfill our calling, it is often because we have neglected or abandoned or rejected the actuality that our calling is a participation, and not a proprietorship. Put otherwise, there is no such thing in and of itself as ‘the Church’ or as ‘ministry’. There is only God, and a people created and called out by God to witness to God and to God’s creation of God’s marvellous grace by which reality is (re-)constituted and by which all things live and breathe and worship and die and live again.

Some years ago, Ray Anderson penned a wonderful paper on ‘A Theology of Ministry’ (published in Theological Foundations for Ministry) in which he argued that ‘ministry precedes and produces theology’. By ‘ministry’, he meant that which ‘is determined and set forth by God’s own ministry of revelation and reconciliation in the world’. The task of the Church is to reflect on, to bear witness to, and to participate in, this ministry as set forth by God. Neither the Church nor her doctors and pastors and sessions stand on their own and determine the shape and content and ground of ministry. And so Anderson continues, ‘To say that all ministry is God’s ministry is to suggest that ministry precedes and determines the Church’. Clearly what Anderson was contending for was that the way we see ministry is essential to how we understand the Church. So when we call the pastor ‘the minister’ we are confessing that her ministry expresses something about the way the Church understands its own existence. The nature of ministry is the nature of the Church, and the minister par excellence, the leitourgos, is Jesus Christ himself (Heb 8.1).

In that same collection, James Torrance shows us how Jesus Christ is the minister in the true sanctuary that the Lord has set up. Jesus ministers to the Father on our behalf. All ministry is, first and foremost, the ministry of the Father who demonstrates his love to us in sending the Son (who himself does not act on his own accord, but carries out the will of the Father) that we might have life in him (John 5.17, 19, 30; 6.38; 1 John 4.9). The Son’s ministry is about, among other things, revelation (John 1.18) and reconciliation (2 Cor 5.17–19) in response to the will of the Father. And the Spirit, as the other paraclete, continues the ministry of the Son of bearing witness to the Father’s holy love (John 14.26; 15.26; 16.7, 13–15; Rom 8.9–15). To think about Christian ministry, and to engage in such, therefore, is to take up an invitation to participate in the very life of God – Father, Son and Spirit in their mutual witness to each other, and to the world. It is also, to borrow language from the Book of Hebrews, to ‘enter God’s rest’ (4.10), on which I will say more in the next post in this series.

Anderson also argued that ‘Christ’s primary ministry is to the Father for the sake of the world, not to the world for the sake of the Father’. This means that it is the purpose and joy of the Father, and not human needs, which determines the prime nature of Christ’s ministry (John 6.38). And in the Holy Spirit the Church is given to participate in Christ’s ministry to the Father for the sake of the world. Again, only in the context of this vision of the ministry of the Triune God does it make any sense to talk about the Church – the called-out people of God, the ekklesia – and its ministry. Ecclesiology, as Colin Gunton noted in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community, is controlled by the tri-personed community of God. This means that the Church – if it truly is to be the Church – has no business in running its own agenda – indeed, it has no agenda! To press on as if it did, or to be concerned with one’s own preservation, is to uproot oneself from the very soil of what constitutes it. That is, it is to be ‘made a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns’ (Isa 5.6).


Other posts in this series:

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VI

In a previous post in this series, I drew attention to a study leave project undertaken by Diane Gilliam-Weeks. I suspect that Diane is right (especially so long as the practices she is encouraging are built in to the formation process rather than treated as an isolated subject), but the issue painted thus threatens to individualise both problem and solution. For the high rate of clergy burnout reflects not only sick persons but also sick institutions; churches, as PT Forsyth put it,

‘that seem to live in an atmosphere of affable bustle, where all is heart and nothing is soul, where men decay and worship dies. There is an activity which is an index of more vigour than faith, more haste than speed, more work than power. It is sometimes more inspired by the business passion of efficiency than the Christian passion of fidelity or adoration. Its aim is to make the concern go rather than to compass the Righteousness of God. We want to advance faster than faith can, faster than is compatible with the moral genius of the Cross, and the law of its permanent progress. We occupy more than we can hold. If we take in new ground we have to resort to such devices to accomplish it that the tone of religion suffers and the love or care for Christian truth. And the preacher, as he is often the chief of sinners in this respect, is also the chief of sufferers. And so we may lose more in spiritual quality than we gain in Church extension. In God’s name we may thwart God’s will. Faith, ceasing to be communion, becomes mere occupation, and the Church a scene of beneficent bustle, from which the Spirit flees. Religious progress outruns moral, and thus it ceases to be spiritual in the Christian sense, in any but a vague pious sense’. – The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, 119.

Rick Floyd, too, has recently reminded us, rightly in my view, that ‘much [though certainly not all: beware the scapegoat!] of what passes for burnout is merely the symptoms of an untenable arrangement’. He continues: ‘Clergy have both sold and been sold a bill of goods that they can neither deliver to the church nor receive delivery from the church. And since the mainline churches (at least in America) are an institution experiencing a half-century of precipitous institutional decline the opportunities for failure and disappointment are almost limitless. The measures of success the world values will most likely elude the minister. Indeed, a “successful minister” is an anomaly in a faith with a cross at its center. It takes a hearty sense of Christian vocation to handle this. For many the very nature of the task will get you quickly to burnout. And, as the models for ministry has become increasingly professionalized, more and more ministers will find themselves wondering what they have got themselves into. The prescriptions for burnout typically ignore this fundamental disconnect between Christian vocation and cultural expectation. They only address the symptoms … So clergy burnout seems to me to be largely about the identity crisis of the mainline church, and the vocational crisis of its ministers. And a realistic assessment of the situation from a worldly point of view offers little to be hopeful about’.

There are, of course, other things that might be profitably explored in a series of posts like this, such as how a theology of creation, of vocation (as Rick highlights), and of Sabbath might inform the habits and identity of ministers of Word and Sacrament and of the communities of the baptised they serve with. But I want to suggest a different tact here, and it’s one motivated by what I observe as a distinct lack of christology (and its anthropological and ecclesiological implications) in the conversations that typically take place whenever discussions on clergy welfare arise. I am here guided by those insightful words from Karl Barth: ‘An abstract doctrine of the work of Christ will always tend secretly in a direction where some kind of Arianism or Pelagianism lies in wait’ (CD IV/1, 128).

We must not attempt to veil or bury the issues and pains that attend pastoral ministry by hiding behind theological jargon. Rather, we must, in fact, to do the opposite – to expose these issues and pains. And the Christian theologian will want to undertake such exposure in light of the ministry of God in Jesus Christ, and that in order to, among other things, see if there are what Lorine Niedecker calls ‘atmosnoric pressure[s]’ at work. My conviction is that there is much to be gained in thinking more deeply through some of the implications of what it means when the Church claims that to follow Jesus’ cruciform example by suffering with those who suffer, and working to relieve and eliminate suffering, carries one into the place of God’s own suffering in the world. While I am passionate about the urgency of promoting and practicing better clergy ‘wellness’, anyone who has drunk from 2 Corinthians (and other places) will know that there remains something inherently fundamental in the very nature of Christian ministry itself that will not and cannot and must not seek insulation from the cruciform suffering that attends our witness to the God of the cross and which constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and in the Christian tradition. [I have touched on this elsewhere]. The living Christ remains the crucified one, and cruciformity means Spirit-enabled conformity to, and participation in, the life of the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, and so life-giving, love of God that was manifest in the action of the cross. Although cruciformity often (and perhaps always) includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity is about faithfulness and love. Cruciformity, moreover, is concerned with what a friend of mine calls ‘kenotic, and not self-abnegating love’, a love for God, for others, and for oneself as a child of God and member of God’s community whether proleptically or ‘already’. What I mean is that while there is a suffering which comes from sin, hardness of heart, selfishness, hatred and greed, etc. – i.e., from a refusal to live in the reality of our forgiveness and to embrace the means of grace given us – there is also a suffering which comes in the cause of the Gospel itself (2 Cor 4.7–15; 6.4–10; Isa 50.4–11). This includes, but is not limited to, the suffering that arises in seeing people’s hearts harden to the Gospel. Such is the privilege of service: ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13.7). And at the same time faith actually grows under the pressures (Acts 5.41; Jn 15.18–27). Barth may have been thinking along these lines when he penned these words:

‘For when man stands in the service of God, he must be able sometimes, and perhaps for long periods, to be still, to wait, to keep silence, to suffer and therefore to be without the other kind of capacity … The power which comes from Him is the capacity to be high or low, rich or poor, wise or foolish. It is the capacity for success or failure, for moving with the current or against it, for standing in the ranks or for solitariness. For some it will be almost always be only the one, for others only the other, but usually it will be both for all of us in rapid alternation … Either way, it is grace, being for each of us exactly that which God causes to be allotted to us’. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3/4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 396, 397)

Uncle Karl also knew that the ministry of the gospel is also a cause of constant joy, not because suffering in and of itself is enjoyable but because it involves at its heart a participation in the life of the God of joy. So, he wrote: ‘The real test of our joy of life as a commanded and therefore a true and good joy is that we do not evade the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ and are not unwilling to be genuinely joyful even as we bear the sorrows laid upon us’. (Barth, CD 3/4, 396, 397).


Other posts in this series:

Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology: A Review

Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology, by Edwin Christian van Driel. Pp. xii + 194. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 536916 8. £45.

It was the brilliant John Duns Scotus who recalled that ‘God is not in a genus’ (Deus non est in aliquo genere), reminding us that our knowledge of God is impossible in any general sense. Indeed, Christian theology is premised on belief in divine self-disclosure and, moreover, that such disclosure is an act of grace. Duns Scotus also supposed that creation’s purpose and destiny concerns ‘co-lovers’ participating in the Triune life. It was for such that the Word of God became flesh, unveiling for us the causa finalis of our humanity. That this is God’s way for us – even if sin had not come into the human scene – bespeaks the inner meaning of the grace which precedes sin and testifies to the gospel logic of the incarnation.

Supralapsarianism, the subject of Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway (a reworked version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Yale University), is a doctrine whose beginnings reach back at least as far as the twelfth century, even if van Driel’s treatment is concerned with its less hypothetically-speculative nineteenth- and early twentieth-century articulations. The first part of his essay (pp. 9–124) attempts to chart and examine the ways in which supralapsarian christology has been articulated. It does so via a consideration of three forms that the doctrine assumed in its nineteenth-century revival, namely in Friedrich Schleiermacher (‘the first major supralapsarian theologian since the Middle Ages’ (p. 9)), in Isaak August Dorner and in Karl Barth (on whom the most ink is spilt), attempting in each case to attend to the three ways in which God is thought to relate to God’s other – in redemption (Schleiermacher), in creation (Dorner), and in eschatological consummation (Barth). While there are occasions when readers may feel that van Driel constrains his subjects’ thought with a rigid logic foreign to their projects, in each case he attempts to expose the inner logic, coherence and strength of each articulation while not neglecting to draw attention to any weaknesses.

Van Driel argues that the conceptual structures of Schleiermacher’s supralapsarianism is determined both negatively and positively by the notion of absolute dependence and the inferred forms of divine omnipotence. He notes that, for Schleiermacher, sin is not excluded from the scope of divine causality – that God is the author of sin calls for a different locus for sin in the divine decree. God ordains sin in order to make humanity receptive to redemption. This move means that human sin acquires determining and logical priority over the incarnation. Indeed, van Driel outlines how in Schleiermacher’s schema, ‘sin and redemption are essential parts of our relationship to Christ. We need Christ because of our sin, and only because of our sin. If there were another reason why we relate to Christ, God would not have to introduce sin in the divine decree. We are connected to Christ only through his redemptive activity. There is no space for a meaningful relationship with Christ that is not marked by this’ (p. 25). And again: for Schleiermacher, ‘human beings will not be receptive to the divine gifts in Christ unless these gifts address an evil in their lives’ (p. 126). Under van Driel’s examination, the identified ‘fault lines’ in Schleiermacher’s ordo salutis (especially his sympathy with a felix culpa account) widen as the essay proceeds.

For Dorner, the incarnation is the necessary fruit of the divine decision to create ethical persons and of the divine determination that such become ‘full personalities’, a reality only possible in ‘interpersonal interaction with the ethical’ (p. 49). Dorner premises his arguments on the notion that God is a lover of love – the amor amoris – whose passion is to aggrandize the life of love in his other. This twofold surrender (of God to human beings, and of humans to God) is embodied in religion, the divine contribution to which is revelation, the consummation of which is the incarnation. For Dorner, the incarnation is a basic implication of God’s decision to create: ‘Decisive for whether one takes the incarnation to be means or end is what one takes to be the divine motivation behind it. For Dorner, the motivation for incarnation is embedded in the motivation for creation’ (pp. 59–60). This move, van Driel suggests, sponsors an unsatisfactory stepping stone in Dorner’s doctrine of creation and highlights what van Driel considers to be the most troubling and deep-lying ambiguity in Dorner’s supralapsarian christology. He continues:

In [Dorner’s] proposal, it is the necessity of God’s creative act that sets everything else in motion. God’s ethical necessity is expressed in the act of creation; given the nature of the ethical necessity, creation will be brought to consummation; given the same ethical necessity, this will be done by way of incarnation. None of this follows, though, when the act of creation is a contingent act. Of course, it could still be argued that God leads creation to consummation, and that the incarnation is central to consummation. In such a scenario, the governing divine act would not be given with God’s nature, but would be the result of a free act of God’s will. And if creation were embedded in God’s will rather than God’s nature, it would be better to start one’s theological account thereof not at the beginning but at the end of God’s work: What goal had God in mind when God freely called creation into being? What motivated God to create? Systematically this means that the argument for supralapsarian incarnation should not be embedded in the doctrine of creation but in eschatology. (p. 62)

With that note, van Driel turns to Barth’s ‘argument from consummation’, that requisite feature of Barth’s doctrine of election upon which van Driel will construct his own proposals. Van Driel observes how Barth’s supralapsarian christology takes its shape in his actualism. God’s election of Jesus Christ is primal in order, self-giving in nature, gracious in its motivation, creative in its effect, all-inclusive in its scope and supralapsarian in character, and the latter in a twofold sense – in terms of both predestination and christology: ‘Divine predestination is not a first step in a divine response to sin and neither is the incarnation … God’s election of Christ’s human nature is thus the first action in the divine relating to what is not God’ (pp. 67, 68). Again: ‘At the heart of Barth’s supralapsarianism lies … his reading of the biblical narrative as a narrative of election. Election is an eschatological category; and the eschaton is the first in order of the divine decrees. Object and subject of these decrees is Jesus Christ – not the Son as λóγος ασαρκος the preincarnate Word, but the Son as Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The incarnation stands thus at the very beginning of God’s relating to what is not God’ (p. 81). From here, van Driel turns to the question of the relationship between epistemology and sin: ‘That God unveils Godself by way of veiling is partly due to our sinfulness, but not wholly. The ontological and epistemic principles that govern divine revelation are not a result of sin, but given with the nature of Creator and creation. Incarnation, as the necessary means of divine self-disclosure, is therefore a supralapsarian event’ (p. 77).

Certainly Barth’s supralapsarian narrative recalls that creation forms the stage for covenant’s story – a story authored in the loving event called triune being, and whose meaning requires both soteriological and eschatological achievement – and that the creation which makes covenant possible does not exist for itself but for the gracious God upon whose will its future and being is contingent. However, according to his evaluation of Barth, van Driel identifies some adverse consequences of Barth’s account. He reserves most ink to attend to a concern regarding creational entropy, that ‘creation, in and by itself, will necessarily lapse into evil’ (p. 85) by ontological necessity. This elicits a helpful discussion by van Driel on time, eternity and history (pp. 111–17), and on the relationship between supralapsarianism and das Nichtige (pp. 118–24).

Building on Barth’s work (which van Driel finds to be the most satisfying of the three accents), van Driel turns in the second part (pp. 125–70) to expand on the notion of eschatological consummation, arguing that the logic of the incarnation is not contingent upon sin in any way (no felix culpa) but points to a divine will for (i) eschatological superabundance, (ii) the beatific vision, and (iii) divine friendship. The first of these attempts at a constructive argument is premised on the relation between the eschaton and the proton of creation, contending that the eschaton births an abundance and richness in intimacy with God and in human transformation which the proton did not know: ‘In Christ we gain more than we lost in Adam’ (p. 151). And because the notion of felix culpa makes such promise contingent upon sin (which by its very nature only alienates us from God), eschatological fulness (the embodiment of which happens in Christ) can only be understood in supralapsarian terms. Van Driel’s second supralapsarian argument directs us to the visio Dei. Here he extends his first argument and defends supralapsarianism on the basis that full enjoyment of the beatific vision for bodily beings requires sensory contact such as we are given sui generis in the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of the human God. Finally, van Driel arrives at the destination to which his entire essay seems directed, namely the notion of friendship with God and that of such a deep kind that the divine availability attested to in the logic of supralapsarian christology is the most compelling. Such friendship, van Driel avers, is not dependent finally on God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity but rather in the very opposite truth: God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity finds its origin in the divine will for friendship. The fullest expression of this will is undressed in the incarnation and best attested to in supralapsarian logic. Throughout, van Driel resists concerning himself with the hypothetical situation voiced by the medievals of whether the incarnation would have taken place had humanity not sinned, and concerns himself with ‘Christ as we have him’ (p. 164). He also exploits the tendency (as he sees it) in infralapsarianism to minimize the eschatological dimensions of creation and those inclinations to reduce creation to that which exists, falls and is then redeemed, in favour of an account which witnesses to the divine determination to bring creation to its goal in Jesus Christ apart from any dependency upon a creation-fall-redemption schema.

Against those who would defend some version of felix culpa (and here van Driel names Schleiermacher, Gregory, Milton and Barth), Incarnation Anyway challenges Supralapsarians to ‘explore the meaning of the incarnation, the presence of God among us, as an excellent good in and of itself, and not take refuge in a doctrine of sin to beef up incarnation’s meaning. We do not need the bad to enjoy Christ’ (p. 131). Again: ‘we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners’ (p. 166).

A final section (pp. 171–5) offers a very brief, but helpful, genealogy of supralapsarianism. Some readers may benefit by reading this section first.

Incarnation Anyway could have been a much better book than it is. Unfortunately, too frequently it reads somewhat like a collation of separate and uneven pieces, not a few of which seem largely unrelated to his subject. It is unclear, also, why van Driel reserves disproportionate space (pp. 90–101) in this forum to continuing his debate with Bruce McCormack. Or why he includes a discussion on ‘more-dimensional reality’ (pp. 167–69). As interesting as both conversations are, as they stand they contribute little to his overall thesis. More substantially, I remain incredulous of van Driel’s articulation of the distinction between incarnation as gift to human nature and that as gift to human persons. He suggests that for those who contend that the Word’s assumption of fallen flesh changes the ontological status of humanity from the inside out then the ‘logic of assumption’ does all the work, and Christ’s over-againstness of our human natures is undermined. While the distinction van Driel identifies remains valid, the inclination to separate them is unfortunate, the description and analysis offered for each is unclear, and the available resources for holding both together in the tradition (not least the Reformed tradition out of which the author speaks) is ignored, even if here the critique of Dorner and Barth finds some traction. Finally, this study most properly belongs to a larger project, as the Bibliographical Appendix indicates, and would have been strengthened significantly had its author attended more fully to the genesis and developments in supralapsarian thought in Rupert of Deutz, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great and, perhaps especially, in John Duns Scotus and his theology of election. That said, van Driel’s essay remains a welcome and too-lonely contribution to a topic of great import, and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating more from his pen on this topic, especially in those areas where he offers his own constructive proposals.

Rethinking Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’

Andreas Serrano - Piss Christ [1987]ABC’s Encounter Program recently re-ran a  conversation with David Freedman (Rabbi, Sydney), Robin Jensen (Professor of the History of Christian Worship and Art, Vanderbilt University, Nashville), Rod Pattenden (Director, Blake Prize for Religious Art), Steven Liew (Plastic surgeon, Sydney), Maureen O’Sullivan (Plastic surgery patient), and Christine Piff (Founder and CEO, Let’s Face It) on the topic of the human face. The conversations reflected on artistic representations of God, and modern cosmetic surgery and its relationship with experiences of facial disfigurement. It was a fascinating program (and it can be downloaded here). One the reflections that struck me was that of Rod Pattenden on Andreas Serrano’s much-debated photograph ‘Piss Christ’. I appreciated being invited (even compelled) to revisit this piece, and, in so doing, rethink and revisit some earlier reflections, questions and conclusions I drew from it both as a piece of art and as a christological statement. Here’s what Pattenden had to say:

This image is an image of a familiar crucifixion. Jesus is spread out upon a cross, probably it’s a little hard to see because we’re seeing it through an orange or red glowing light, with what appears to be bubbles. It looks like the crucifixion has been immersed in this kind of gaseous, underwater, soft orange light. So at first instance, it looks like a very pious image, something very familiar to us, but in a place which seems unfamiliar.

It’s only when we are told that the title is Piss Christ, that we immediately recoil, and as we understand the artist has made a photograph of a traditional plastic crucifix which he’s purchased in a gift store, and placed it in a large – presumably glass – container and filled it with urine, and photographed it. And so you have what seems like a moment of blasphemy, of an offence, of an artist transgressing what is familiar and pious and precious to a believing person, into a situation that seems horrendously offensive.

One of the issues we face as contemporary human beings, is that we live in the age of AIDS, and other diseases which are passed on by human body fluids, and so here is a crucifix placed in body fluids. So the artist – who describes himself as a faithful Catholic, and grew up in a family that was very pious – is actually making a theological connection in this work, about the very humanity of Jesus, and blood, and death, and what it is to suffer.

And what I like about it is that it reminds me that as a religious person I become very familiar with my symbols; I anaesthetise them, I dust them, I make them into gold and precious ornaments, and they become something safe on my shelf. And he reminds me that Jesus actually died and bled and suffered, and that this is offensive and grotesque and difficult. And that that’s a part of what it is to be human. So in the very offence that arises for particularly people of faith, in Serano’s images I think, is an opportunity to revisit the fundamental shock of the crucifixion, and the meaning of Jesus’ death and life.

Andrew Hudgins, in his (pungent and overstated) poem, Andres Serrano, 1987, echoes Pattenden’s claim that it’s in the naming of this photograph that we ‘recoil’, but that it’s not only in the naming:

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

Barth on visual representations of Jesus

Rembrandt - Portrait of Christ's Head (1650)

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 'Portrait of Christ's Head', c.1650. State Museum, Berlin-Dahlem.

In preparing some lectures on theology and the arts recently, I’ve been struck yet again how that for all his radical revision of some central aspects of Calvin’s thought, Barth remains remarkably close to Calvin at so many key junctures, and consistently so (it would seem) on issues related to the visual arts. Here’s just one example:

This decisive task of preaching in divine service seems to suggest that the presence of artistic representations of Jesus Christ is not desirable in the places of assembly. For it is almost inevitable that such static works should constantly attract the eye and therefore the conscious or unconscious attention of the listening community, fixing them upon the particular conception of Jesus Christ entertained in all good faith no doubt by the artist. This is suspect for two reasons. The community should not be bound to a particular conception, as inevitably happens where there is an artistic representation, but should be led by the ongoing proclamation of His history as His history with us, so that it moves from one provisional Amen to another, in the wake of His living self-attestation pressing on from insight to insight. Supremely, however, even the most excellent of plastic arts does not have the means to display Jesus Christ in His truth, i.e., in His unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted. If we certainly cannot prevent art or artists from attempting this exciting and challenging theme, it should at least be made clear both to them and to the community that it is better not to allow works of this kind to compete with the ministry of preaching. (Barth, CD, IV.3.2, 867)

To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV/2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship:

As God cannot be considered without His humanity, His humanity cannot be considered or known or magnified or worshipped without God. Any attempt to treat it in abstracto, in a vacuum, is from the very first a perverted and impossible undertaking. As Son of Man, and therefore in human form. Jesus Christ does not exist at all except in the act of God, as He is first the Son of God. Where He is not known as the latter, He cannot really be known in His humanity as abstracted from the divine Son as its Subject.

This was the difficulty which beset all the modern attempts – now, of course, more rare – to sketch a biography of Jesus, a picture of His life and character. It is no accident that the New Testament material for this purpose is so sparse and unsatisfactory. The scholars and men of letters who attempted it in their different ways were necessarily betrayed from one difficulty into another. A predicate cannot be properly seen and understood and portrayed without its subject. But in itself and as such the humanity of Jesus Christ is a predicate without a subject. And although the attempt was made – and very seriously sometimes – it was absolutely impossible to try to ascribe a religious significance, or to enter into a religious relationship, with this predicate suspended in empty space. It is only rhetorically that the empty predicate of His humanity could and can be counted as a subject which summons us in this way.

Even greater is the difficulty of representing Jesus Christ in the plastic arts. It is even greater because here there emerges unavoidably, and indeed purposively and exclusively, the particular and delicate question of the corporeality of Jesus. The prior demand of a picture of Christ is that its subject should be seen. And He must be seen as the artist thinks he sees Him according to the dictates of his own religious or irreligious, profound or superficial imagination, and as he then causes others to see Him (and sometimes in such a way that they cannot possibly fail to do so). As against this, the biographer of Jesus only speaks, or writes, on the basis of texts by which he can in some degree be checked by his readers or hearers, and in books which can be left unread or forgotten. The claim of the biographer is an impossible one. But that of the artist who portrays Christ is so pressing as to be quite intolerable. It must also be added that every picture in pencil, paint or stone is an attempt to catch the reality portrayed, which is as such in movement, at a definite moment in that movement, to fix it, to arrest or “freeze” its movement, to take it out of its movement. The biographer has at least the relative advantage over the artist that whether he does it well or badly he has to tell a story and therefore to see and understand and portray what he takes to be the life of Jesus on a horizontal plane, in a time-sequence, in movement. In addition to everything else, the picture of Christ is far too static as a supposed portrayal of the corporeality of Jesus Christ in a given moment. But what will always escape both the biographer and the artist, what their work will always lack, is the decisive thing – the vertical movement in which Jesus Christ is actual, the history in which the Son of God becomes the Son of Man and takes human essence and is man in this act. In this movement from above to below He presents Himself as the work and revelation of God by the Holy Spirit, as the Jesus Christ who is alive in the relationship of His divinity to His humanity. But He obviously cannot be represented in this movement, which is decisive for His being and knowledge, either in the form of narrative or (especially) in drawing, painting or sculpture. The attempt to represent Him can be undertaken and executed only in abstraction from this peculiarity of His being, and at bottom the result, either in literary or pictorial art, can only be a catastrophe. We say this with all due respect for the abilities of the great artists, and the good intentions of the not so great, who in all ages (incited rather than discouraged by the Church) have attempted this subject. But this cannot prevent us from saying that the history of the plastic representation of Christ is that of an attempt on the most intractable subject imaginable. We shall have to remember this when in the doctrine of the Church we come to the question of instruction by means of plastic art. It is already clear that from the point of view of Christology there can be no question of using the picture of Christ as a means of instruction’. (Barth, CD IV.2, 102–3)

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (Barth, CD III/2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

Only with Mozart the musician, it would seem, are we in safer hands!

Forsyth: ‘Christ – King or Genius?’

forsyth-5Just been reading Forsyth’s essay, ‘Christ – King or Genius?’ published in the July 1916 edition of Methodist Review (pp. 433-47). It’s classic Forsyth-style, and picks up a great many of the themes that dominate his christology: Jesus’ self-identify, his difference from us, the soteriological priority given to his obedience, Christ as other than the apotheosis of Nature and the hierophant of humanity, his redeeming achievement as God’s Missionary, etc. Here’s a few Forsyth gems:

‘Hero worship is a precious protest against naturalism and for man; but it ends in Nietzsche and the superman unless it be itself superseded by the Godman’. (p. 438)

‘… the worship of God in Christ does not rest on a scorn of the gifted, but on a leveling grace which uplifts all. Truly it knows how mean man can be amid his very wisdom and greatness, how dark God may remain to us in the midst of culture’s kindliest light, and how weak he may be as a control amidst the men of genius, might, and liberty. But from such a brilliant and ignoble race Christ does not retire to the heights; he goes down to its depths – meaning not that he marches into its slums, but that he contracts himself into his impotence. He does not simply frequent man’s company; he is united with his soul and self-withdrawn into his sickness’. (p. 441)

Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

I read a delightful essay today by Jürgen Moltmann entitled ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000): 592-603]. In this essay, Moltmann recalls that Jesus was ‘not merely a “gentle friend of children,” as the sentimental nineteenth century liked to picture him’ but a revolutionary contrast to the Roman world of antiquity wherein children were undervalued and where their legal status (alongside that of women and slaves) was very low; indicative of the fact that as the property of the paterfamilias, they could be sold or abandoned, and often were, particularly girls. Moltmann then offers some helpful commentary on key NT verses concerning children:

(1) “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10: 14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:19). The disciples view children as unworthy and therefore try to keep them from their master. After all, they are not children anymore. Jesus reprimands the disciples; embracing and blessing the children, he proclaims what he embodies, that the kingdom of God is already theirs. According to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God already belongs to the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying,” In the same way, it also now belongs to children, children are made partners in the covenant with God. Why? Did they deserve it? No. it is exactly because they do not deserve it and are unable to effect it, but in fact receive it like their own birth.

On the other hand, the kingdom “where peace and justice kiss” (as the psalm says) does not appear at the heights of human progress, among the clever and just, rich and beautiful of this world. Rather, it appears among the oppressed, the powerless, the poor, and the children, turning the status quo of human value systems upside down. If the kingdom comes into the world “down below,” those “up there” have been deprived of any religious legitimacy supporting their presumption to dominion. Just as the blessing of the poor was complemented by the lamentations over the rich, the benediction of children belongs with the curse pronounced over the violators of children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). If God’s kingdom comes into this world by way of the poor and the children, so does the judgment of God.

(2) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes rne, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). And the one who sent Jesus, as we know, is the Father. By way of these identifications, Jesus declares children his representatives in society: Just as the God of his messianic mission is in him, so Christ is present in every child. Thus, whoever takes in a child, takes in Christ. This is exactly how Matthew describes the great judgment day: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:40, 35-36). The one who will judge the world identifies with the lowly. He is hidden and present in them already now and will eventually judge how the just and the unjust treated the least among humans. Children and the lowly are not, unlike the apostles, agents sent by God. Rather, in them, the poor, powerless, and imprisoned Christ is waiting for his followers to act. Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is also the spontaneous impression the image of the child in the manger awakens in us.

(3) “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:3, 1) By saying this, Jesus underscores the point that whoever wants to be the greatest of all will have to be everybody else’s servant, “deny themselves,” and become “like a child” (18:4). He asks the disciples to accept themselves not in their power, but in their weakness, not in their wealth, but in their poverty: not as grown-up children, but as the children of their adulthood. He asks the disciples to reclaim the facets of their own being, which had been repressed by development and education. We can only come into the kingdom of God if we receive it like a child with empty hands. That does not mean one has to go back to being a child (which would be childish) but become upon analogy “like a child.” We don’t have to imitate children to become part of God’s future, rather we must be in solidarity with them, respecting their intimate proximity to God’s future. The point is not that children are closer to the kingdom of God because of especially childlike properties (like innocence or naivete that adults have lost), but rather that the kingdom of God is closer to them because they are loved, embraced, and blessed by God. We could also say: Whoever experiences God’s closeness in the community of Christ — as humans experienced it in the proximity of Jesus – will become like a child. Another, later way to phrase this is: Gotteskindschaft – “the community of God’s children.”

This stirred a number of questions in me that I’ll go to bed tonight thinking about:

  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s identification of children with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) regarding the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying”?
  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s claim that just as the God of Jesus’ messianic mission is in him, so too ‘Christ is present in every child’, so that ‘whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God’?
  • What might it mean for us to ‘reclaim the facets of [our] own being, which [have] been repressed by development and education’? Are there implications here for pastoral leadership?

Later on, Moltmann unsurprisingly draws on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope:

“Jesus is himself present among the helpless, as an element of this humbleness, standing in the dark, not in brightness … This is why the child in the manger becomes so important, along with the humbleness of all the circumstances in the out-of-the-way, cramped stable. The unexpectedness of finding the redeemer as a helpless child.” Christian love therefore “regards the helpless as important, that which is discarded by the world as called” and “gathers up its own in their out-of-the-wayness, their incognito to the world, their discordance with the world: into the kingdom where they do accord.”

sinead-1I was reminded of another essay that I recently read by Tony Kelly where the author suggests that in a world of violent competition and the exponential growth of problems and responsibilities, the child calls for the rebirth of wonder, trust and playful contentment within the great womb of life and time. Where the harried adult might see only problems, and become weary in mind and heart, children live otherwise. ‘They breathe another air, content to play within the inexhaustible mystery of what has been so uncannily given. Every child is a call to return to the gift that was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’.

So too does this same refrain echo through Moltmann, who concludes his essay with three reasons for why children remain metaphors of hope:

(1) With every child, a new life begins, original, unique, incomparable. And while it seems that we always ask, who this or that child looks like (apparently because we seem to think we can only understand the new in the comparison with what is already known or similar), we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future.

(2) With every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance. It is important to see children in their own transcendent perspective and so to resist forming them according to the images of our world. Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

(3) The last reason to see “a new beginning” or a “beginning of the New” in the beginning of a child’s life is the fact that, for me, children are not only metaphors of our hopes, of that which we want, wish for and expect, but also are metaphors of God’s hope for us: God wants us, expects us, and welcomes us. Humanity is God’s great love, God’s dream for God’s earthly world, God’s image for God’s beloved earth. God is “waiting” for the “human person” in every child, is “waiting” for God’s echo, resonance, and rainbow. Maybe that is the reason God is so patient with us, hearing the ruins of human history, inviting one human generation after the other into existence. God is not silent, God is not “dead” – God is waiting for the menschlichen Menschen the “truly humane human.” “In all of the prophets, I have waited for you,” Martin Buber has the Eternal One speak to the Messiah, “and now you have come.”

Rembrandt on the humanity of Christ

I’d like some help with something. I’ve spent a good bit of time today reflecting on these two paintings by Rembrandt. Specifically, I’ve addressed a certain question to them: Which one depicts a more human-looking Jesus? I’m not even certain yet why I’m asking the question. All the same, I’d value the thoughts of others.

 Christ (c. 1657–61; The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York)

 The Resurrected Christ (1661; Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, AltePinakothek, Munich)


[For what it’s worth, my first thought was that the resurrected Jesus had a greater earthiness about him]

On fearlessly entering the borders of hell

‘When Hell and death and their wicked ministers saw that, they were stricken with fear, they and their cruel officers, at the sight of the brightness of so great light in their own realm, seeing Christ of a sudden in their abode, and they cried out, saying: We are overcome by thee. Who art thou that art sent by the Lord for our confusion? Who art thou that without all damage of corruption, and with the signs of thy majesty unblemished, dost in wrath condemn our power? Who art thou that art so great and so small, both humble and exalted, both soldier and commander, a marvelous warrior in the shape of a bondsman, and a King of glory dead and living, whom the cross bare slain upon it? Thou that didst lie dead in the sepulchre hast come down unto us living and at thy death all creation quaked and all the stars were shaken and thou hast become free among the dead and dost rout our legions. Who art thou that settest free the prisoners that are held bound by original sin and restorest them into their former liberty? Who art thou that sheddest thy divine and bright light upon them that were blinded with the darkness of their sins? After the same manner all the legions of devils were stricken with like fear and cried out all together in the terror of their confusion, saying: Whence art thou, Jesus, a man so mighty and bright in majesty, so excellent without spot and clean from sin? For that world of earth which hath been always subject unto us until now, and did pay tribute to our profit, hath never sent unto us a dead man like thee, nor ever dispatched such a gift unto Hell. Who then art thou that so fearlessly enterest our borders, and not only fearest not our torments, but besides essayest to bear away all men out of our bonds? Peradventure thou art that Jesus, of whom Satan our prince said that by thy death of the cross thou shouldest receive the dominion of the whole world’. – ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate’, in The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 20:1.