‘My mother’s God’, by Geoff Page

Blake - God Judging Adam (c. 1795).jpg

My mother’s God
has written the best
of the protestant proverbs:

you make the bed
you lie in it;
God helps him

who helps himself.
He tends to shy away from churches,
is more to be found in

phone calls to daughters
or rain clouds over rusty grass.
The Catholics

have got him wrong entirely:
too much waving the arms about,
the incense and caftan, that rainbow light.

He’s leaner than that,
lean as a pair of
grocer’s scales,

hard as a hammer at cattle sales
the third and final
time of asking.

His face is most clear
in a scrubbed wooden table
or deep in the shine of a

laminex bench.
He’s also observed at weddings and funerals
by strict invitation, not knowing quite

which side to sit on.
His second book, my mother says,
is often now too well received;

the first is where the centre is,
tooth for claw and eye for tooth
whoever tried the other cheek?

Well, Christ maybe,
but that’s another story.
God, like her, by dint of coursework

has a further degree in predestination.
Immortal, omniscient, no doubt of that,
he nevertheless keeps regular hours

and wipes his feet clean on the mat,
is not to be seen at three in the morning.
His portrait done in a vigorous charcoal

is fixed on the inner
curve of her forehead.
Omnipotent there

in broad black strokes
he does not move.
It is not easy, she’d confess,

to be my mother’s God.

– Geoff Page


Image: William Blake, ‘God Judging Adam’ (c. 1795)

Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need


I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

Tasting Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation – Part 2: “Reimagining Holiness as the Possibility of Oneness”

Sanctifying Interpretation

As promised, here’s the second of three excerpts from Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture (pp. 71–73):

Christian theologians commonly use ‘holiness’ to name whatever it is that makes God different from all that is not-God. Jean-Luc Marion, for example, says that ‘God is distinguished from the world and from other gods insofar as he is “majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds” (Exod. 15:11)’. God reveals himself to creation in such a way that no one can enter ‘the vicinity of his holiness, which separates him from any other [tout autre] as the Wholly Other [Tout Autre]’.[1] Dumitru Staniloae offers a similarly typical account:

Holiness can be said to reveal to us all the divine qualities in a concentrated way. It is the luminous and active mystery of the divine presence. In it there is concentrated all that distinguishes God from the world.[2]

Such descriptions, true so far as they go, are finally insufficient. John Webster is right: ‘God is what God does’; therefore, ‘God’s holiness is to be defined out of God’s works’.[3] Given that Jesus is the full embodiment of all God’s works, we have to look to Jesus and his storied witness of God if we want to know what holiness means.[4] Jesus just is, in himself, ‘the event of the coming of that holiness which crosses the great divide …’[5] ‘What he does and what is done to him—his whole life history—is … the manifestation of holiness.’[6]

What do we find when we look to Jesus to see God’s holiness? Again, I agree with Webster: we find that holiness is ‘a mode of relation’.[7] It is, in fact, the mode of relation God enjoys as Father, Son, and Spirit—the very mode of relation God opens to us as creatures.[8] God’s holiness is the freedom made possible because Father, Son, and Spirit exist for, in, and with each other. Or, to put it the other way around, because God is holy and in goodness shares that holiness with all things, God is the God God is, and we are the creatures we are, in our life together with God and before God in the world.

All that to say, God is holy in that God relates (both immanently and economically) in ways that are simultaneously free and freeing, lively and life-giving, just and justifying. Because God is holy, we can experience goodness, truth, and beauty in relationship with God in ways that make us good and true and beautiful. To narrow it to a single statement: God’s holiness is the way God has of relating to us so that we can not only know God, but in knowing, become like God. Because God is holy, God can be with us, the ‘holy one in our midst’, not unmaking our humanness but perfecting it, drawing us into humanizing deification.[9] As Keen says, ‘God’s holiness is a freedom for what is far gone from holiness’.[10]

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, ‘The Invisibility of the Saint’, Critical Inquiry 35.3 (Spring 2009), pp. 703–10 (708).

[2] Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God Vol. 1: Revelation and Knowledge of the Triune God (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), pp. 222–23.

[3] John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM Press, 2003), p. 39.

[4] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), p. 113.

[5] Craig Keen, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), p. 94.

[6] Keen, After Crucifixion, p. 94.

[7] Webster, Holiness, p. 5.

[8] It is opened to us through the ‘communication of attributes’ in Christ. That is to say, the divine holiness, brought to bear by the Holy Spirit, holds the divine and human natures together in Christ without confusion, division, change, or mixture so that the human is healed, perfected, and transfigured by the divine. Holiness not only preserves the integrity of the two natures but also effects the deification of human nature through its ‘contact’ with the divine in Christ through the Spirit. As Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, expounding on theology of Gregory Palamas, explains in his One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Unitas, 2004), p. 28, ‘When the Logos of God took on human nature, he bestowed on it the fullness of his grace and delivered it from the bonds of corruption and death. They consequence of this hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ was the deification of the human nature’. Similarly, Douglas Harink (1 & 2 Peter [BTC; Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009], p. 144) says that ‘our human nature is purified and taken up, through our participation in Christ’s humanity (made possible by his participation in ours), into the divine life and fulfilled in its humanity, through that participation’.

[9] See Webster, Holiness, pp. 5, 9, 43, 45.

[10] Craig Keen, ‘A Quick “Definition” of Holiness’ in Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen (eds.), The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 238.

Marilynne Robinson on providence, joy, and sorrow

Lila“‘Then the reasons that things happen are still hidden, but they are hidden in the mystery of God.’ I can’t read my own writing. No matter. ‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its “parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ Because I don’t mean to suggest that experience is random or accidental, you see. ‘When I say that much the greater part of our existence is unknowable by us because it rests with God, who is unknowable, I acknowledge His grace in allowing us to feel that we know any slightest part of it. Therefore we have no way to reconcile its elements, because they are what we are given out of no necessity at all except God’s grace in sustaining us as creatures we can recognize as ourselves.’ That’s always seemed remarkable to me, that we can do that. That we can’t help but do it. ‘So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.’” – Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 223–24.

‘Here It Is’, by Rachel McAlpine

woman at prayerWell to get to the nitty-gritty,
here it is:
I was suddenly sick of praying
to men, for men.
That was the beginning,
the middle and the end.

Ritual: remind myself I am guilty,
wrong, and light in the head.

Orthodox theology and common sense:
yes our Father is sexless,
God is being, God is love,
yes the Holy Spirit is spirit
and Jesus being a Jew
simply had to be male
and he was kind to girls.
Yes I could alter pronouns privately,
yes I am married to God
and have no right to divorce.
Yes Man is metaphor for Woman,
yes I could work within,
yes I could wait a century,
yes it is just as silly
to think of God as Woman –

yet things are right for me
when flesh and spirit agree:
I do not feel included.

One truth is that God the Father
calls mostly to men except
when he wants a cup of tea.

– Rachel McAlpine, ‘Here It Is’, in Selected Poems (Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1988), 14.

mission: a statement

Pablo Picasso, 'The dove and its little ones' (Lithograph, 1947)

Pablo Picasso, ‘The dove and its little ones’ (Lithograph, 1947)

As a people claimed by the Spirit of the gospel, we believe that God desires to gather all creation under the reign of Jesus Christ, to bring all creation into unbridled communion with and in God, and with itself. To this end, God – the very One who, in the movement of missionary love, continually broods over creation and initiates a friendship with Abraham pregnant with promise – elects a people called Israel, makes them into a priestly nation to offer worship on behalf of all the world’s nations and peoples with a view to their reconciliation to God; and, in the fulness of time, God, in Jesus of Nazareth, moves anew into the world in order to reconcile all things to God; and God also calls forth a new community who, with Israel and with Jesus, participates in and bears witness (martyria) to God’s own loving and reconciling activities in the world. Born of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this new community is called ‘the Christian community’ (or ‘the church’).

We believe that the Christian community, a creation of God’s Word in election, is a people called by God to participate and share in God’s mission in this world – to be a humble, prophetic and celebratory sign, embodiment and hope-filled foretaste of life in the coming reign of God. It is a people sent by God in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to, and to represent, the liberating, empowering, healing, and reconciling love of God wherever such is identified. It is a people empowered by God to embody in its own life the mystery of salvation and the transfiguration of creation.

Mission, therefore, is not an ‘optional extra’ for the Christian community but is of its essence, finding both its genesis and its telos in the trinitarian relations and in God’s own movement into the world, the object of God’s love. The Christian community cannot be true to itself apart from this action of bearing servant witness (martyria) (i) to God’s will for the salvation and transformation of the world; (ii) to God’s command to maturing discipleship; (iii) to God’s compassion, mercy and advocacy for the poor, the needy and the marginalised; (iv) to God’s vision for the flourishing of societies that reflect the justice of love and seek the end to unjust structures; and (v) to God’s desire for the integrity of a creation liberated from abusive, irresponsible and destructive actions.

Paul Fiddes on why we speak of God as ‘Trinity’

‘We only speak of God as Trinity, as a complex of relationships, because we find God revealed in the cross which involves a set of relationships. When we ask, “Who is God?” we are confronted by an event which we can only describe in relational terms: we speak of a son relating to a Father in suffering and love. There is a son crying out to a Father whom he has lost (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and so there is implied a Father who suffers the loss of a son, with a Spirit of abandonment between them. At the same time as they are most separated they are most one, for they are united in loving purpose: in love the Father gives up the Son and in love the Son gives up himself for us, and the Spirit of love is between them. In these relationships the world and human beings are necessarily included, and any other Trinity is a spinning out of hypotheses. It is for us that the Father gives up the Son to death, and so the “for us” is included in whatever is meant by the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father. There can be no self-sufficient, self-contained society of the Trinity, for God has not chosen to be in that way’. – Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 123.

Looking for God – a short reflection

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

– Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 31.

A few Wednesdays ago, I was exploring the vibrant and crowded city of Mumbai. With a population of over 20 million, Mumbai is India’s most populous city, and the fourth most populous in the world. It’s a city of colour, of noise, and of enormous energy.

There were many memorable experiences: simply navigating my way across the road, for example, or holding my breath while praying for life at the rear of a speeding and bald-tyred rickshaw while the driver checked messages on his cell phone, or fighting to get my graceful frame on and then off a moving second-class train carriage – moving, because that’s the only way you have anything of a skerrick of a chance of getting on or off the train in the first place. I’ve never seen so many people pressed into one space. Also crowded though, and more violently etched on my memory, is the kilometres and kilometres of Mumbai slums. As with some of the places I visited and stayed in Burma, it is impossible to put this image into words. Of course, one of the ever-present dangers in theology attends our perpetual and inescapably-inadequate attempts to find words for everything, especially for God, as if by writing or speaking about things, or about God, we can somehow harbour control over, or a sense of distance from, them. But I digress.

That Wednesday was also the first time in my life when I encountered someone who seriously tried to sell me some children. In fact, I was offered 3 children for 900 rupees, which is 200 rupees more than I had just paid for a scarf for my partner. These small children – they can’t have been older than 5 or 6 – were standing around barefoot on what was literally a small sea of broken glass, mostly light bulbs it seems, where they were attempting to retrieve small pieces of metal and other parts that could then be sold. A kid’s gotta live.

I uttered an ancient prayer – ‘Where is God?’

And I found myself hearing again Rowan Williams’ words, that God ‘will come, will come/will come like crying in the night/like blood, like breaking/as the earth writhes to toss him free/He will come like child‘.

It was only a few days later when, in Mangalore, some 900 kilometres away, I had the privilege to share a meal with Rev Dr Manohar Chandra Prasad who serves as president of the Dalit Christian Federation in Karnataka, and as bishop of the Church of South India. Not only did he generously give me a short but utterly-fascinating course in Dalit politics, hierarchy, hermeneutics, and history, but he also spoke to me of God’s plan for the liberation of all oppressed people’s via God’s action of becoming incarnate, not as a one-off act but rather as a continual act of God’s becoming among us. He also spoke of God identifying himself with the ‘least of us’, taking up the exploitation and oppression into his own body, and becoming the first among the oppressed and the marginalised.

In The Pseudonyms of God, a book penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Robert McAfee Brown invites us to imagine finding ourselves in a place where we are waiting for some tremendous manifestation of God’s activity. He invites us to imagine a situation where we have heard – or thought we had heard – a promise that God would intervene in our situation, and that it was now clear that the time was at hand. Where would we look for God?

Brown suggests that we might most likely be found looking ‘in one of the great nations, where as many people as possible would be exposed to this important fact; surely in a well-established family with much influence; surely in such a way that all the resources of public opinion and mass media could be used to acquaint people with what had happened; surely it would be the most public and open and widely accessible event possible’ (pp. 84–85). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of God’s disclosure now known to us:

A child would be born into a backward South African tribe, the child of poor parents with almost no education. He would grow up under a government that would not acknowledge his right to citizenship. During his entire lifetime he would travel no more than about fifty miles from the village of his birth, and would spend most of that lifetime simply following his father’s trade – a hunter, perhaps, or a primitive farmer. Toward the end he would begin to gather a few followers together, talking about things that sounded so dangerous to the authorities that the police would finally move in and arrest him, at which point his following would collapse and his friends would fade back into their former jobs and situations. After a short time in prison and a rigged trial he would be shot by the prison guards as an enemy of the state. (p. 85)

Those who have heard the message of Jesus ought not to be surprised to hear that the only God there is is the outcasted God, and to find the outcasted God among the outcast. Is this not the message of Matthew 25?:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (vv. 31–40)

We must look for signs of the Servant-God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among the world’s neglected and forgotten castes, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image on the left recalls that since 800 million of the planet’s people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, we might well expect that God’s availability is made tangible in loaves and fishes, rice and safe drinking water. Since God’s identification with the world involves God’s becoming creaturely, perhaps we ought look for God not (only?) in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but also in the very common and ordinary things of life, in the well-over 500 million people living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’. Are these not those gathered up in the one great movement of divine emptying and filling? ‘We will not be surprised to discover’, Brown writes, ‘that [God] suffered also, nor will we flinch when Bonhoeffer pronounces the initially disturbing words, “Only the suffering God can help,” even though it is probably the ultimate in the pseudonymous activity of God that he could be acquainted with grief’ (p. 86).

The words ‘only the suffering God can help’ come from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. And it’s worth hearing the context – both literary and historical/political – from which these words come:

The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!). The same God who makes us to live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions. Human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help. (pp. 478–79)

Bonhoeffer reminds us that in the economy of grace, Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme occurrence of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation. And so if we miss God’s presence in the world, it will not be because God is absent. It will be because we have been looking in the wrong places.

As with so many of the great saints, such looking drove the imprisoned Bonhoeffer, again and again, to prayer – to prayer for his fellow prisoners, to prayer for those charged with performing the ‘difficult duty’ of guarding them, to prayer for himself:

God, I call to you early in the morning,
help me pray and collect my thoughts,
I cannot do so alone.
In me it is dark, but with you there is light.
I am lonely, but do not abandon me.
I am faint-hearted, but from you comes my help.
I am restless, but with you is peace.
In me is bitterness, but with you is patience.
I do not understand your ways, but you know [the] right way for me.
Father in heaven,
Praise and thanks be to you for the quiet of the night.
Praise and thanks be to you for the new day.
Praise and thanks be to you for all your goodness and faithfulness in my life thus far.
You have granted me much good,
now let me also accept hardship from your hand.
You will not lay on me more than I can
You make all things serve your children for the best.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.
You know all human need,
you remain with me when no human being stands by me,
you do not forget me and you seek me,
you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow.
Help me!
Holy Spirit,
Grant me the faith
that saves me from despair and vice.
Grant me the love for God and others
that purges all hate and bitterness,
grant me the hope
that frees me from fear and despondency.
Teach me to discern Jesus Christ and to do his will.
Triune God,
my Creator and my Savior,
this day belongs to you. My time is in your hands.
Holy, merciful God,
my Creator and my Savior
my Judge and my Redeemer,
you know me and all my ways and actions.
You hate and punish evil in this and every world
without regard for person,
you forgive sins
for anyone who asks you sincerely,
and you love the good and reward it
on this earth with a clear conscience
and in the world to come with the crown of righteousness.
Before you I remember all those I love,
my fellow prisoners, and all
who in this house perform their difficult duty.
Lord, have mercy.
Grant me freedom again
and in the meantime let me live in such a way
that I can give account before [you] and others.
Lord, whatever this day may bring – your name be praised.

– Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 94–96.

I do not, of course, want to foster the impression that the looking (or groping; see Acts 17.27) for God is solely, or even primarily, a human activity. Even in prayer, the prime mover is always God. As I have written elsewhere, it is principally God and not us who is on the prowl, awaiting God’s own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us. To be found by God is to be made love’s victim.

‘Prayer’, by Francisco X. Alarcón

I want a god
as my accomplice
who spends nights
in houses
of ill repute
and gets up late
on Saturdays

a god
who whistles
through the streets
and trembles
before the lips
of his lover

a god
who waits in line
at the entrance
of movie houses
and likes to drink
café au lait

a god
who spits
blood from
tuberculosis and
doesn’t even have
enough for bus fare

a god
by the billy club
of a policeman
at a demonstration

a god
who pisses
out of fear
before the flaring
of torture

a god
who hurts
to the last
bone and
bites the air
in pain

a jobless god
a striking god
a hungry god
a fugitive god
an exiled god
an enraged god

a god
who longs
from jail
for a change
in the order
of things

I want a
more godlike

– Francisco X. Alarcó, ‘Prayer’ in Body in Flames/Cuerpo En Llamas (trans. Francisco Aragón; San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1990), 96–99.

[HT: Rose Marie Berger]

God and Papatūānuku: a conversation with a 4-year old

'Rangi (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother)', by Wilhelm Dittmer (1907).

One of my greatest joys is talking theology with my four-year-old daughter (who is nearly five). Here’s an excerpt from a conversation that we had last week:

‘There’s lots of Gods; well there’s two Gods – there’s the God who is everywhere, and then there’s Papatūānuku. God looks after everything, but Papatūānuku looks after the garden, and even the basil in the glasshouse’.

‘Do god and Papatūānuku talk to each other?’

‘Yeah, of course. They are best friends. They listen to each other, and care about each other. They tell each other stuff, everything there is to tell, and then they all go to bed in the same room, like me and Samuel do’.

‘So how can God be everywhere?’

‘God’s got lots of legs – 166,000 legs. God’s got legs everywhere. But only two hands – the Holy Spirit and Jesus are like God’s hands. God doesn’t need any more hands. Two is enough. But God needs lots of legs. Otherwise God couldn’t go to Australia’.

‘And do God’s legs look like our legs, or are they different’.

‘Don’t be silly daddy. God’s legs are square, and they are all different colours too’.

‘And does Papatūānuku have legs too?’

‘Yes. They are round. And they are colourful too. And Papatūānuku has hair, even when she’s in the sea, and in the garden, and in the glasshouse’.

God’s Holiness

I was glad to be up on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) last week to speak to a group of mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings at an event called Going Further. My brief: talk about (i) God’s goodness and trustworthiness, and (ii) God’s holiness. A number of people have asked me for a copy of the talks. They were not recorded, and, as per my usual practice, I departed often and widely from my notes. But for those who may be interested in the thrust of what I said, I thought it worth posting my notes here. The talk on God’s goodness and trustworthiness is available here, and below are my notes on the second talk, on God’s holiness.

God’s Holiness

I want to begin tonight by re-reading the passage that I shared the other night from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where the Beaver’s are telling the Pevensie kids about Aslan:

‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion’. ‘Ooh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake’, said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[1]

And later on in the series, in the book The Last Battle, Lewis writes of Aslan: ‘“Do you think I keep him in my wallet, fools?” … “Who am I that I could make Aslan appear at my bidding? He’s not a tame lion”’.[2]

These words go a long way in saying something important about what we mean by God’s holiness: that holiness is, in a sense, foreign to us. That holiness is, in a sense, other than us. That holiness is, in a sense, all about the fact that we can’t pin God down or control God or use God to serve our own ends. The language of holiness reminds us that God is God and that creatures are creatures, and that we ought not too hastily confuse the two.

We live in an age in which much has become trivialised and demeaned. And one place that that’s manifested is in our attitude toward the sacred, toward creation, toward life itself. And if we go to many churches, we are probably more likely to gain an impression that Jesus is a kind of celestial boyfriend who never embarrasses us than we are to learn of the great otherness of God and of the sacred mystery which is life. And in the circus that so often characterises the Church’s worship, and in our efforts to exalt human nature, God has been stripped of majesty, and awe-fulness, and transcendence. Of course, transcendence is something that used to be reinforced in the church’s architecture and in the community’s worship space. When we enter a cathedral and we look up at the majestically-high ceiling, we are reminded that God is big, that God is far away, and that we are small. But in our modern multi-purpose entertainment centres, the ceiling feels almost within reach, and God is not so big, and we are not so small. This reflects a change in theology – both in our thinking about God and about ourselves. God used to be bigger and we used to smaller. But now God is not so big, and we are not so small! Or so modernity’s narrative goes.

And in the flattening out of our worldview and of history (what we call secularisation), the holy God has been sanitised. And this has some profound implications, as one commentator noted:

The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy … is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. What depth or meaning … can these terms have except in relation to the holiness of God? Divorced from the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern technique by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God, our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Divorced from the holiness of God, our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the Cross is the outworking and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.[3]

When I hear of God being addressed as ‘my mate’ and as ‘cool’ (as I did at a church service just last Sunday), and even word ‘Lord’ used with seemingly little thought of the implications of naming God as such, I think of the God that confronts Ezekiel and Isaiah and Adam and Mary, and I wonder what Bible people are reading! It’s certainly not the book in which the word ‘holy’ appears 779 times.[4] (For the record the word ‘love’ appears 586 times, ‘justice’ 165 times, ‘good’ 827 times.)

The theme of holiness is, of course, first introduced in the creation narrative in reference to the Sabbath – the day that God ‘sanctified’. But the first time that the actual word ‘holy’ is used in the Bible is in Exodus 3 which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  5 Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” 6 God said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exod 3.1–6)

Here is God’s chosen servant being told ‘Come no closer’. This passage reminds me of one of the most famous and influential books ever written on the subject of holiness.[5] It’s called The Idea of Holy (first published in 1917) and it was written by a German theologian named Rudolf Otto.

Otto studied how people from different cultures and different religions ‘behave’ and ‘feel’ when they encounter something they regard as ‘holy’. And the first thing that he discovered was that people have a difficult time describing exactly what ‘the holy’ is. No matter what their description of the experience was, there was always an element that defied explanation. It wasn’t that this element was irrational. Rather, it was kind of ‘super-rational’; it was beyond words. And what Otto discovered was that when it comes to holiness, human language actually reaches its limit.

And I think that Otto is right here. And that’s why the grammar of God’s holiness is most clearly preserved in the church’s liturgy and in prayer and in song – in those arenas of human activity where God is spoken to rather than spoken about, where God is realised and praised rather than analysed and appraised, and where the burden of feeling like we need to nail down a tight definition and explanation is not only less pressing, but if pressed is likely to lead to distortion.

Otto believed that every religion deals with this sense of mystery, what he called ‘feelings of the non-rational and numinous’ or the ‘sheer absolute wondrousness that transcends thought’. And the universal human response to this overpowering experience, Otto said, was both dread (‘mysterium tremendum’) and fascination (‘mysterium fascinans’). He described it like this:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.[6]

If you’re a horror movie buff like me, you’ll know something of that feeling of both dread and fascination that Otto is talking about. I know that I’ll be frightened if I watch, but I can’t turn away either.

Remember Mrs. Beaver: ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[7] And it goes on: Peter replies, ‘I’m longing to see him … even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point’.[8]

And what strikes me about the Exodus 3 passage that we read earlier is that it tells me that holiness is both terror-inducing and intimate. The same Moses who hides his face because he is ‘afraid to look at God’ (v. 6) is the same Moses who hears God’s gracious promise to personally intervene in the liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt and makes a promise to Moses, ‘I will be with you’ (v. 12). So holiness is not just about separation from those things which are ordinary or profane, but it’s also about belonging and liberation and identity and vocation in God. No wonder that after they were delivered from the Egypt, the Israelites broke out in song:

‘Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?’ (Exod 15.11)

So what’s a good definition of God’s holiness? Here’s one that I like:

‘God’s holiness is the majestic incomparability, difference and purity which he is in himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which is manifest and operative in the economy of his works in love with which he elects, reconciles and perfects human partners for fellowship with himself’. (John Webster)[9]

In other words, God’s holiness refers to the fact that God cannot be compared to anything created. God is not only beyond created realities, but God is also other than creation. And God is majestically pure, not as a lonely monad but as a community of other-person-centred life. And we see God’s holiness in the way that God elects humanity to be his covenant partner, in the way that God reconciles humanity to himself in Christ, and in the way that God patiently goes on to bring humanity to full maturity in the perfection of the Spirit.

And the Bible talks not only about God as holy but also about other things and places and people that God sets apart or marks off or withdraws or consecrates for some special purpose.[10] Things we might call tapu. So the Bible talks about holy ground, the holy Sabbath, a holy nation, a holy place, holy linen, holy coat, a holy house, a holy tithe, holy censers, holy oil, holy bread, holy seed, a holy covenant, the holy of holies, a holy field, a holy jubilee, holy water, teh holy ark, the holy word, the holy city, holy ones (saints), etc.

Now none of these things is holy in itself. Only God is that. But these things have what we might call a borrowed holiness.

And what a list like this tells us is that holiness is not just concerned with itself but that God desires to see holiness – i.e., to see himself – reflected in creation. God desires to look at creation as if it is a mirror.

And so from within a creation existing under the bondage of its own decay, God chooses an unholy people – Israel – and sets them apart – sanctifies them, makes them a holy nation – in order that they might be – in their life together – a mirror and a copy of Yahweh’s holy love in the world. And in this act of election the people of God actually come to share in God’s holiness. And God speaks to them a command which is in a very real sense a command spoken over all creation and which gives us a clue into why creation exists in the first place: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev 11.45).[11]

In other words, not only is God holy, but we who are God’s image bearers are called to reflect, to be a mirror, of God’s holiness in the world. And the OT prophets, again and again, are trying to outline for us what this ‘You shall be holy’ actually looks like on the ground, as it were. And they identify Israel’s holiness with the care for the most vulnerable in their midst (for refugees, orphans, widows and the poor), with just practices in the courts, and with other activities like the denunciation of idolatry. There is no pietism here!

And as we were so beautifully reminded of this morning from Isaiah 6,[12] creaturely holiness cannot be reached apart from judgement. And we experience this judgement not only internally in the human conscience but also in being gathered up in the judgements that come upon creation itself – in famine and flood and earthquake – judgements which are experienced now in the devastation and rape and groaning of life itself.

And so to speak of God’s holiness is to recall that aspect of God’s love which is not satisfied with creation just existing on its own terms. The Creator is not prepared to let creation go its own way or to leave it to its own devices.[13] So there is (as we saw this morning in the Isaiah passage) what we might call the annihilating or ‘cauterising’[14] power of holiness which purifies all things. In other words, it’s the holiness which confronts us and which overcomes us in our sin. For, you see, creation’s holiness is not reached apart from judgement. In fact, God’s judgement is our great hope because judgement is the form that love takes, the action that love takes, in the face of evil. We are not saved by escaping God’s judgement. We are saved by going through the judgement in Christ. And what I trust that we will see tonight is that the final judgement is not something that is coming in the future but that the final judgement has already taken place in the Son of God’s love who is, as one writer put it, ‘God’s holiness in human form’.[15]

And Jesus unveils God’s holiness to us as the Son for whom nothing was dearer than his Holy Father and for whom nothing was more paramount than hallowing his Father’s name. In fact, I believe that the whole of history is an outworking and fulfilling of the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.’ That’s what Jesus is doing all throughout his ministry – he’s answering that prayer, he’s hallowing the Father’s name. And that’s what the Spirit is calling the people of God to participate in – in Jesus’ work of hallowing the Father’s name.

So what does holiness look like when it comes among us, when it gets into our face? In order to answer that question, I want us to look together at a story recorded in chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel:

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.  25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.  27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,  28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”  31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”  32 He looked all around to see who had done it.  33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5.21–34)

This woman dashes onto the stage for 10 verses. She’s got no name. She’s got no idea of who Jesus really is. He represents for her the last straw in a long line of doctors and miracle workers that she has spent all of her money on and over a decade seeing. And because of her medical condition, she has been treated like a leper in her community for 12 years. For 12 years, she has been tormented by guilt and anxiety. For 12 years, she has been untouched … and untouchable. She has been unable to hug her kids. She has been unable to make a cup of tea for a friend or to eat at the same table as her family. And for 12 years, no one has invited her to their home. Now she doesn’t want to know Jesus. She’s not seeking a relationship with him, but she wants to be healed. She wants to be restored to her community. She wants to be able to go to her kids’ birthday party and make love with her husband. She wants to be able to prepare a meal for her family and enjoy a day out with her friends. And she hears reports of this guy in town who heals people and so, at the end of her tether, she goes along to check it out, and she moves in on Jesus from behind … anonymously in a crowd.

This is the man who deliberately touched unclean lepers and corpses. This is the man who made a point of eating with prostitutes and calling ‘sinners’ his friends. This is the man who deliberately went out of his way to do almost everything that the OT prohibits us, and especially priests – who are meant to be the model of what it means to be ‘holy’ – from doing. But would he allow this woman to touch him, to pollute him, to make him ceremonially unclean? Would he allow this woman to place him under the wrath and judgement of God? Because that’s what she does when she touches him.

You see, God does not heal us by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then leaving us to get better by obeying his instructions – like an ordinary doctor might. No, God becomes the patient! God assumes the very humanity which is in need of healing, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of being completely given over to hallowing the Father’s name, our humanity is healed in him.[16]

C.S. Lewis once said, ‘Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger’.[17] What Lewis is saying is that if you can look at your life and see yourself as someone who is not only bleeding like this woman in Mark 5 but also dead, then you are going to find it very hard to know that God has touched you and healed you and made you alive in Christ. One of my favourite theologians, a guy by the name of Helmut Thielicke, once said, ‘There is no wilderness so desolate in our life that Jesus Christ will not and cannot encounter us there … There is no depth in which this Saviour will not become our brother … He comes for us wherever we are … For that is his majesty’.[18]

So do you know that he has come for you? Do you know that he has pursued you as a lover chasing his beloved? And do you know that he has caught up to you and made you holy by the only way you can be? Isaiah said ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like menstrual cloths’ (Isa 64.6). Do you know that you have absolutely no righteousness, no holiness, of your own? But that the Lord in Zechariah 3 says to you tonight, ‘Take off (your) filthy clothes … See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.’ Do you know that he bore all your sins, all your uncleanness, and all of love’s wrath in his own body on the tree? Do you believe that? Do you believe that from the moment you’re born right up until the moment of your death, that on that cross he entered into your history, into your mind, into your conscience, into your memory, into your acts, and he took into himself all the judgement, the pain, the shame, the loneliness, the burden, the confusion, the guilt, the fear, the darkness, the hypocrisy, the terror? Do you know that on that cross he actually experienced your life, and that he left nothing undealt with? And that as God’s High Priest he sanctifies (makes holy) everything that he touches … and that he has touched you? Do you know that? Do you know that if you are in Christ then you will never be more holy than you are today? And that as far as the east is from the west he has removed our sins from us, and he will remember them no more because there is nothing for him to remember? Paul said,

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? … But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6.9–11)

What relief! What joy! What grace!

Friends, in the history of Israel – which is a history which culminates in Jesus Christ – God has undertaken the responsibility to bring creation to its glorious goal in the kingdom of God. And we might say that God’s ability to complete this project[19] in the face of that sin which mocks his holiness is the ultimate question in life, because it’s a question that goes to the heart not only of why creation is here but also of where creation is going, why creation is moving in a particular direction, and who is taking it there. So the biggest questions of life – of why, and where and who – are all wrapped up with this matter of holiness, and with the bringing to fulfillment those ancient words that echo out across all history – ‘You shall be holy, as I am holy’.

Holiness is the key to knowing why life exists, and how life will end. And so the joyful word of hope that comes to us in the gospel is that, in the end, hell will be empty. In the end, every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow to Christ, and all creation joyfully reflect and participate in the holiness for which God created it, and redeemed it in his Son (Phil 2.10–11). In the end, all the kingdoms of this world will ‘become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever’ (Rev 11.15), and ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab 2.14).

It is not enough that sin be quarantined in hell. Whatever sin is – and it is a mystery – it is unjustifiable, unredeemable and unconvertible. Strictly speaking, sin is unforgivable. It is extinguished in Christ. God never forgives sin. God only ever forgives sinners. Sin is what God leaves behind on the path to the sanctification of all things. And if God in his love is to be all in all (as St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 and Colossians 1), then there can be no place left for hell in the end. There can be no back room in the coming kingdom of God which will mar the glory and the joy of the new creation in all its purity, no dark cellar with locked door and inescapable passage, no black line across a world that God has made clean.

If God’s goal for creation is to see himself echoed, mirrored, reflected – to see the whole of creation as the theatre of his glorious holiness – then all that stands in the way must be overcome. And it is precisely this overcoming that is being enacted in the death and resurrection and ascension of the second person of the Trinity who takes into himself our broken and recalcitrant humanity and in his own humanity and in the Spirit cries out to the Father, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5.21). Here is God going out into the limbo of our lostness, and he says, ‘I thirst’, as though it has expended every resource he has, and then he cries out, ‘It is finished’. As the writer of Hebrews said, ‘He tasted death for every one’ (Heb 2.9). He took all of the hellishness of the world – its white, hypocritical, religious wisdom – and he crucified it on the Cross. The Apostles’ Creed describes it like this: ‘He descended into hell’.

And so friends, in Christ, nothing is lost, every last soul from every last tribe, people and tongue is sought out, and gathered up into the life of one who makes space in his own life for us. This is the Son’s gift to the Father.[20]

Hell now belongs to Christ, and so the message about hell – which is a message that the Church must keep proclaiming – is that hell has become part of the good news.[21] Death has been swallowed up in the victory of the Second Adam. No wonder the Apostle Paul could break out in confession and say ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal 6.14).

A final thought: So how do we live?

I hope that it is clear by now that to be holy is to be found in the neighbourhood of God’s cross. And that means that holiness takes us where Jesus goes; holiness takes us to those for whom Jesus died; it takes us into the neighbourhood of those who are forgotten, who have no voice, and who need healing and forgiveness. It takes us into very strange places. And the holy person is that person who will very often be found in very odd company. The holy person is to be found not among the righteous but among sinners, not among the healthy but among the sick. And a holy church is one that goes, with its proclamation and integrity and fidelity, among those who need healing, among those whose physical lives are wrecked by pain and disease and disaster. A holy church is one that stands alongside those who live with the scourge of HIV aids; a holy church is a church that labours alongside those who have been made homeless or bereaved by natural disaster. A holy church is a church which is completely uninterested in maintaining its own programs and status but which will go into the heart of the city and sit with addicts and the destitute and the shamed – with those who have no hope. A holy church, in other words, is a people who live under the cross, who give thanks for the cross, whose hope is in the cross, and who live in the crucified Christ and seek the crucified Christ where he is in the world – among his suffering people and a world waiting in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.[22]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Fontana Lions, 1980), 75.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (London: Lions, 1980), 72.

[3] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 300; cf. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 1; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 279 : ‘A true love to God must begin with a delight in his holiness, and not with a delight in any other attribute; for no other attribute is truly lovely without this’.

[4] Holiness is a really central theme in the Bible. In many ways, it is actually the theme of the Bible. And so it’s somewhat surprising that Christian theologians have made so little of the idea in their thinking about God. While there’s heaps written about God’s righteousness and faithfulness and love, there’s comparatively little material outside of the Bible on God’s holiness. To be sure, there’s heaps of stuff written on the topic of holiness, but it’s mainly about human holiness rather than God’s. And even where we do find some stuff written about God’s holiness, we find that time and time again there’s very little thought and discussion about the place that Jesus holds in forming our understanding. In fact, this is true for many (perhaps most) discussions about God, which tend to be either highly abstract or anthropocentric. Here I am reminded here again of something that C.S. Lewis once said: ‘What makes some theological works like sawdust to me is the way the authors can go on discussing how far certain positions are adjustable to contemporary thought, or beneficial in relation to social problems, or “have a future” before them, but never squarely ask what grounds we have for supposing them to be true accounts of any objective reality. As if we were trying to make rather than to learn. Have we no Other to reckon with?’

[5] C.S. Lewis listed it as one of the ten most important books in his life.

[6] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (trans. J.W. Harvey; London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 12–3. One is here reminded of Paul Tillich who describes holiness as ‘the quality of that which concerns man ultimately’, and as ‘the unapproachable character of God, or the impossibility of having a relation with him in the proper sense of the word, is expressed in the word “holiness”‘. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (vol. 1; London: Nisbet & Co., 1955), 239, 271. Also of Jacques Derrida’s definition of holiness as the ‘unscathed which is safe and sound’. Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’ in Religion (ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo; Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), 36.

[7] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 75.

[8] Ibid. 75.

[9] John Webster, ‘The Holiness and Love of God’, Scottish Journal of Theology 57 (2004), 256. See also John A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1993), 76–7: ‘Holiness is God’s hidden glory; glory is God’s all-present holiness’. Also Colin E. Gunton, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 49: ‘Holiness is ‘sheer difference from everything else’.

[10] Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. J. Baker; vol. 1; London: SCM, 1961), 270: Holiness is ‘that which is marked off, withdrawn from ordinary use’.

[11] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2 (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 500–1.

[12] In many way the crux of Isaiah’s vision here is the hymn in v. 3: ‘And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”‘. We must not here miss the significance of the Seraphs song, and particularly the repetition of the word holy. The repetition, which is called the trishagion (i.e., three-times holy), represents a peculiar literary device that is found especially in Hebrew poetry. The repetition functions as a form of emphasis. When we want to emphasise the importance of something in English we underline the important words or print them in italics or bold. We might use an exclamation mark or quotation marks. But for the OT Jew, one device that they used was repetition. So we hear Jesus saying ‘Truly, truly, I say unto you …’. And by doing this, he is alerting his hearers to the fact that what he is about to say is of particular importance and that they need to sit up and listen. But only once in the Bible is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. But it does say – in at least two places – that God is holy, holy, holy. And here in Isaiah it draws attention to God’s transcendence.

[13] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. J.W. Edwards, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 95.

[14] John Arthur Thomas Robinson, In the End, God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things (London: James Clarke & Co., 1950), 104.

[15] P.T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 347.

[16] James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996), 42–3. There are implications here for our sexuality, which is something that the Christian community seems to tie itself up in knots over. So William Stringfellow, ‘The Humanity of Sex’ in The William Stringfellow Archives (vol. Box 8 of Ithaca: Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 1965), 8–9: ‘Can a Homosexual be a Christian. One might as well ask, can an insurance man be a Christian? Can a lawyer be a Christian? Can an ecclesiastical bureaucrat be a Christian? Can a rich man be a Christian? Can an infant be a Christian? Or one who is sick, or insane, or indolent or one possessed of power or status or respectability? Can anybody be a Christian? Can a human being be a Christian? All such questions are theologically absurd. To be a Christian does not have anything essentially to do with conduct or station or repute. To be a Christian does not have anything to do with the common pietisms of ritual, dogma or morals in and of themselves. To be a Christian has, rather, to do with that peculiar state of being bestowed upon men by God … Can a homosexual be a Christian? Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol’.

[17] Cited in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 152.

[18] Helmut Thielicke, How To Believe Again (trans. H.G. Anderson; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 60, 63.

[19] See C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 205–6.

[20] 1 Cor 15.24.

[21] Stringfellow offers us a wonderful definition of hell: ‘Hell is when and where the power of death is complete, unconditional, maximum, undisguised, most awesome and awful, unbridled, most terrible, perfected. That Jesus Christ descends into Hell means that as we die (in any sense of the term die) our expectation in death is encounter with the Word of God, which is, so to speak, already there in the midst of death’. William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 110.

[22] Here I draw upon Rowan Williams, ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ (Conference paper presented at The 3rd Global South to South Encounter, Ain al Sukhna, Egypt, 28 October 2005, 2005).

Powerpoint slides here.

God’s Goodness & Trustworthiness

I was glad to be up on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) this week to speak to a group of mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings at an event called Going Further. My brief: talk about (i) God’s goodness and trustworthiness, and (ii) God’s holiness. A number of people have asked me for a copy of the talks. They were not recorded (except by the seraphim), and, as per my usual practice, I departed often and widely from my notes. But for those who may be interested in the thrust of what I said, I thought it worth posting my notes here. I will post those on God’s holiness later.

God’s Goodness & Trustworthiness

There’s a classic passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in which Mr. & Mrs. Beaver are telling the Pevensie children about Aslan, whom they are about to meet. They become quite nervous when they learn that Aslan is a lion:

‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion’. ‘Ooh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake’, said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[1]

I plan to return to this passage when we consider God’s holiness, but tonight is about an invitation to think together about Mr Beaver’s words – ‘But he’s good’.

Life is like an omelette, and jazz

A mature life – which is the life that the Spirit calls us into and gathers us up into in Jesus Christ – is a life that requires a lot of broken eggs. As you already know, life is messy.

I’m suspicious of people who have life sorted out all too neatly. And I’m suspicious of theology that’s too tidy. Theology that speaks to the deep realities of life is more like an omelette than it is like a neat hard-boiled egg. Theology that speaks to the deepest realities of life will have a certain messiness and unpredictability about it – because life is more like a Jackson Pollock painting than it is like a Rubik’s cube. And even the life of faith is more like jazz than it is like techno.

I’m reminded of the book All Creatures Great and Small, where James Herriot tells of how he stripped to the waist one night in a cold barn in the middle of a North Yorkshire winter and laid on his back in cow dung and mud, straining to pull a new calf from its mother. And the whole time he was struggling in the muck and the mud he was cursing under his breath the lovely picture of birth he had been shown in textbooks back at the veterinary college in Glasgow. The photos in the textbooks were of vets dressed in white lab coats, standing in a clean concrete holding stall, delivering a calf without a drop of blood or muck around.

That’s not a picture of reality. Most questions that we wrestle with in life arise when we’re waist deep in muck and mud, when we’re drowning in more questions than we have answers and when we’ve got cold and sharp wind, mud and muck to contend with. And so if we spend our life trying to avoid the muck then we are in danger of living an unexamined life, a life in which there are no longer any satisfying answers at all because we are just too afraid to ask any decent questions. And the mature life is more about questions than it is about answers. And it’s about learning to really define and give voice to the right kinds of questions. And that takes time … and patience … and community … and humility … and a certain resolve.

And it’s the same with our life with God. We don’t start out by thinking about God in sterile settings. We start out by living. And living as we do, we have a bundle of beliefs, mostly passed on to us by others.

And so when it comes to the question of God’s goodness, or of God’s love, or of God’s steadfastness, or of God’s whatever, where do we start? And upon what basis or for what reason do we believe that God is like this and not like something else? And in regards to tonight’s topic, upon what basis might we believe that God is good and trustworthy?

And it gets even more interesting because if we believe that truth is not a set of propositions but that truth is a person (as in John 14.6: ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life), then what we are trying to understand isn’t a something but a someone, and that gets messier and a lot more interesting and a lot more open-ended because to engage with a someone – as opposed to a something – is to engage with a living dynamic who is on the move and who refuses to be contained by us and by our categories of thought.

So what is it about the story that the community of Jesus lives by which makes it believe that God is altogether good, merciful, just and unconditionally loving, rather than unreliable or wicked?

Defining God’s goodness & trustworthiness

For the sake of time, I simply want to say that Christian theology has a very specific logic at work, and that that logic determines what we can and what we cannot say about God. And that logic has a name. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, and Christian theology, at its best, is wrapped up in him and in his own witness to God. Christian theology, at its best, never seeks to say anything new or novel, but only to point, and to keep pointing, like John the Baptist, to the revelation of God in Jesus.

That said, we also need to say that any knowledge that we now have of God is as St Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13.12: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. In other words, our knowledge of God is knowledge that reaches across what theologians call an eschatological boundary. In other words, it’s a knowledge that reaches across the discontinuity created by our own death. And what this means is that for now we know God as and only as we are carried into the death of another, and there we share the knowledge that is part of the life of the Kingdom. This is the Church’s story. And in order to breathe in the air of this story and to know the Author of this story we need to be a part of a community where the story is constantly being lived and recited and lived and recited. And the way that the community of Jesus tells this story is through bread and wine and water and words.

Let’s move on.

So why should we think or assume that God is good? More specifically, why should we assume that God is all-good, or even that God is what medieval philosophers called ‘the highest good’? And why should we assume that God’s intentions for us are good?

Let me take a stab at it. I want to suggest that we know that God is good and God is trustworthy because God takes responsibility for all that God makes.

I want to say that ‘goodness’ and ‘trustworthiness’ are not things that can be described in the abstract, i.e., as some sort of independent and pure idea which is then transported onto God. Rather, I want to say that goodness and trustworthiness is defined and made evident in what God does. It’s not that God’s actions make God good so much as it is that God’s actions are the expression or overflow of who God is as the fountainhead of all goodness. If we could somehow get inside of God we would discover a community of persons who know one another fully, who love one another completely, and whose enjoyment for one other another is contagious. And in the Incarnation – i.e., in the act of God, as it were, becoming one of us and sharing our broken humanity – God opens himself up to us so that we can see and so that we can participate in the knowledge and the love and the enjoyment that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have with one another.

So in Christ, and by the sheer gift of the Spirit, we get to listen into and to participate in (which is what prayer is) the eternal conversation that is going on 24/7 between the Spirit and the Son and the Father. And the more we listen, the more we get to see that their conversation does not consist of random updates (like with Twitter or Facebook) but that it’s purposeful. In fact, the reason that we get to listen in is purposeful too. It’s because God doesn’t want to be God without us, and so God lives with us and brings us into his own communion so that we may have no other God before him, so that we may learn that the only way to be fully alive is to be fully alive in community, and so that we may learn to serve life rather than death.

And for those three things – (i) that we may have no other God before him, (ii) that we may learn that the only way to be fully alive is to be fully alive in community, and (iii) that we may learn to serve life rather than death – God speaks torah to us. He gives us his law, his teaching, his instruction. In fact, one of the great blessings that God gives us is his gift of the commandments.

So we have Moses’ great speech in Deuteronomy 4:

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live … You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (vv. 1–8)

Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy not because they sat around and philosophised about God’s goodness and trustworthiness, nor because they went away to some beautiful island and heard a talk about it. Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy because they had experienced in their own story the saving action of One who had heard their cry and liberated them from Egypt. And Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy because the God who had heard their cry and gave himself to journey with them gave them torah, words by which they might live and order their life, words that would bring life and not death.

You see, the Lord’s commands are not arbitrary. Rather, they are, as the book of Deuteronomy puts it, for our ‘well-being’ (4.40), ‘for our lasting good … to keep us alive’ (6.24); indeed they are our ‘very life’ (32.47). This is because they are that which enables human life in the first place: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ (8.3).[2]

In fact, the Bible also tells us that it’s not just the law that reveals that God is good but also that God ‘has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy’ (Acts 14.17). Here is God blessing creation so that creation can be the theatre of his glory and the stage upon which his covenant promises might be acted out. This is echoed again in James 1.17: ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.[3]

Here James tells us is that God does not change, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy, that the God who confronts us when we are 10 and chucking a wobbly is the same God who confronts us when we are 38 and chucking a wobbly. And you see, if you’re like me and you’ve committed the same sin for the 700th time, and then you ask God for forgiveness, you begin to have a fear in your mind that this time God might say, ‘No! I’ve had enough! That’s it! You’ve blown it!’ We begin to fear that we might wear out God’s patience, God’s will to forgive, God’s friendly welcome of us, God’s joy in our repentance, God’s joy in our presence. But James says, ‘No. God does not change’. God is not erratic or unreliable. God is not soft one day and hard the next. God isn’t like your father or your mother or your boss or anyone else. God is consistent. The God we pray to on Monday is the same God we pray to on Thursday. God is constant in his compassion. He is constant in his love. He is constant in his patience. He is constant in his perseverance. He is constant in his forgiveness. He is constant in his goodness. And he is constant in his determination to know you and for you to know him. Here is a God who is trustworthy.[4]

Certainly the Bible is univocal in the claim that God is good and trustworthy:

  • ‘Good and upright is the LORD’. (Ps 25.8)
  • ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. (Ps 34.8)
  • ‘For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations’. (Ps 100.5)
  • ‘Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good’. (Ps 135.3)
  • ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made’. (Ps 145.9)
  • ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ (Jer 33.11)
  • ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy’. (Ps 111.7)

And then, of course, there are Jesus’ own words as recorded in Mark 10 and Luke 18: ‘No one is good but God alone’.[5]

So what’s at stake in even thinking about God’s goodness and trustworthiness?

And what is the greatest challenge to God’s goodness and trustworthiness?[6]

For everything that I spoken of so far is way too easy, and way too unsatisfactory, to leave the question of God’s goodness and trustworthiness here.

Suffering – the challenge to God’s goodness & trustworthiness

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.[7]

So penned Elie Wiesel in his moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside of the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, or homosexuals – meant the death of faith and of God.

As Wiesel wrote in another place:

In truth, Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find Meaning – with a capital M – in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God’s name. At Auschwitz the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad.[8]

The fact is that ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God’,[9] and especially for the person or community who want to claim that God is good. For, you see, suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’,[10] demonstrates the logical incoherence of Christianity. So does the fact that among the six million who died in Auschwitz there were some who sang and shared their soup and sacrificed themselves for others. [Thanks for this point Kim]

But ‘it is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’.[11]

The problem was famously articulated some 300 years before Christ by Epicures (341–270 BCE) who argued that once we recognise the reality and evil of suffering we are forced to choose one of four options if we believe in a good God:

1. God wills to remove evil but can’t.
2. God can and won’t.
3. God can’t and won’t.
4. God wants to remove evil and can.

Indeed, C.S. Lewis once rejected the existence of God on the basis of the existence of evil: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust’.[12] He reasoned that

(a) there is evil in the world + (b) evil is incompatible with God = (c) therefore God does not exist.

Or as the great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, put it:

How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? … Can one still hear His word [i.e., his Torah]? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?[13]

To be sure, it seems that people of faith, and people of no faith, have always sought to articulate answers to these most challenging of questions.

Here are some inadequate (though not necessarily entirely wrong) responses to the problem of suffering:

1.       Suffering is an illusion.

2.       Suffering is a product of dualism. Suffering is the inescapable reality of things in a universe where the forces of Sauron and the forces of the Ilúvatar (the All-Father of Middle-Earth and of all other earths) battle it out.

3.       Suffering represents the unalterable will of God.

4.       Suffering is a punishment for sin.

5.       Suffering happens because God is finite or limited.

6.       Suffering serves some greater good.

7.       Suffering is inevitable.

8.       Most suffering – not all – happens because love requires the free to do good or evil.

9.       Pain is ‘good’ when it alerts us to problems that require attention. But pain is ‘evil’ when it makes no sense, when it seems to produce harm not good.

10.  The religion of the Bible puts human suffering into a cosmic context: the battle of good and evil, God and Satan.

11.  God both allows and sends suffering.

12.  It’s not our suffering that matters most but our response to it.

13.  Suffering can deepen our relationship with God and with one another.

14.  Suffering forms us for service.

In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Smith writes:

Terrible things happen to wonderful people. Wonderful things happen to awful people. We cannot look around the world we live in and build a case that sinners are punished and righteous people are blessed. Reality simply does not bear this out.[14]

And then Smith goes on to quote from the theological giant of the fourth century, St Augustine:

We do not know why God’s judgment makes a good [person] poor, and a wicked [person] rich … Nor why the wicked [person] enjoys the best of health, whilst the [person] of religion wastes away in illness … Even then it is not consistent … Good [people] also have good fortune and evil [people] find evil fortunes.[15]

Smith and Augustine are both right. But I would want to go even further and say:

We can’t know that God is good by looking at history. John Howard Yoder is right here: ‘we can no longer so simply identify the course of history with Providence. We have learned that history reveals as much of Antichrist as of Christ’.[16]

And we can’t know that God is good by looking at creation. [e.g., The same beautiful bird that God used to speak to Howard was then attacked by his cute friends. And the same beautiful and calm water across which you might come to a peaceful and beautiful island, is the same water that would swallow you up were you to fall in and loose the strength to swim]. So we can’t know that God is good by looking at creation – whether we are talking about a sunset, or about our relationships, or about the fact that something that we have been praying about for 15 years has finally been answered as we had hoped.]

So where can we look?

Jesus – the revelation of God’s goodness & trustworthiness

Consider this poem by Vinicio Aguilar which arises out of the struggle for human dignity in Central America:

Where was god, daddy; where, where, where,
when the commissioners
broke the fence,
burnt the farm,
destroyed the harvest,
killed the pigs,
raped Imelda,
drank our rum?


Where was god, daddy; where, where, where,
when because we complained
the state judge came and fined us
the bailiff came to arrest us
and even the priest came to insult us?


Well then daddy; we must now tell him plainly
that he must come down sometimes
to be with us.
You can see how we are, daddy,
with no fields sown, no farm, no pigs, nothing, and he
as if nothing had happened. It isn’t right, you know, daddy.
If he’s really up there
let him come down.
Let him come down to taste this cruel hunger with us
let him come down and sweat
in the maize-fields, come down to be imprisoned,
let him come down and spew on the rich man
who throws the stone and hides his hand,
on the venal judge,
on the unworthy priest,
and on the bailiffs and commissioners
who rob and kill
the peasants;
because I certainly don’t want to tell my son when he asks
me one day:

HE WAS UP THERE, boy.[17]

The good news is gathered up in the words of one who said about himself, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14.9).[18]

Friends, there is no God behind Jesus Christ. But in Jesus we are given to see God in his fullness. As the Fourth Gospel puts it, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.14, 18).

Reflect with me for a moment on this ‘Sketch of the Trinity’ by William Blake. And ask yourself, Where am I in this picture? Whether you know it or not, whether this is already or not yet your story, you are in Christ. And where is Christ? Christ is in the bosom of the Father. How? By the gift of the Spirit. Here in the Father’s embrace of the Son by the Spirit is the revelation of God’s goodness and trustworthiness. Here alone, in Christ, can we know that God is good, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy.

And it is specifically in the wounded Christ that we really see the goodness and trustworthiness of God. In fact, we do more than see God’s goodness and trustworthiness in the wounded Christ – we participate in it. His life becomes ours. His wounds become ours and our wounds are healed in his.

And in that participation – which is the life that the Bible calls faith – we come to see that in the face of unspeakable suffering and tragedy the questions of God’s goodness and of God’s trustworthiness are not ‘problems’ to be ‘worked out’ but realities in which to live, and that that life is opened up to us in the wounded heart of God.[19] There is no ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering!

There’s a very well-known Christian philosopher named Nick Wolterstorff who, some years ago, ‘lost’ his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain-climbing accident. And I can tell you that there are few things more painful than to bury your own child. Nick decided to pen a memoir of his journey of grief in what was later published as Lament for a Son. And as we draw to a close, I would like to read you some sections of that book:

The world looks different now. The pinks have become purple, the yellows brown. Mountains now wear crosses on their slopes. Hymns and psalms have reordered themselves so that lines I scarcely noticed now leap out: “He will not suffer thy foot to stumble.” Photographs that once evoked the laughter of delighted reminiscence now cause only pain. Why are the photographs of him as a little boy so incredibly hard for me to look at? This one here, holding a fish longer than he is tall, six years old? Why is it easier to look at him as a grownup? The pleasure of seeing former students is colored by the realization that they were his friends and that while they thrive he rots.

Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done. My life is divided into before and after. A friend of ours whose husband died young said it meant for her that her youth was over. My youth was already over. But I know what she meant. Something is over.

Especially in places where he and I were together this sense of something being over washes over me. It happens not so much at home, but other places. A moment in our lives together of special warmth and intimacy and vividness, a moment when I specially prized him, a moment of hope and expectancy and openness to the future: I remember the moment. But instead of lines of memory leading up to his life in the present, they all enter a place of cold inky blackness and never come out. The book slams shut. The story stops, it doesn’t finish. The future closes, the hopes get crushed. And now instead of those shiny moments being things we can share together in delighted memory, I, the survivor, have to bear them alone.

So it is with all memories of him. They all lead into that blackness. It’s all over, over, over. All I can do is remember him. I can’t experience him. The person to whom these memories are attached is no longer here with me, standing up. He’s only in my memory now, not in my life. Nothing new can happen between us. Everything is sealed tight, shut in the past. I’m still here. I have to go on. I have to start over. But this new start is so different from the first. Then I wasn’t carrying this load, this thing that’s over.

Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea …

I remember delighting in them – trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I’m still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float. The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming, is gone. I don’t suppose anyone on the outside notices. I go through my paces. What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for.

I’ve become an alien in the world, shyly touching it as if it’s not mine. I don’t belong any more. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.[20]

Here Nick describes the suffering which is the valley of the shadow of death. And we must not make light of that shadow for the valley is, in every sense, dark. Death is never OK, and the valley of its shadow is never a location to which we ought to be resolved. But – and it’s a huge BUT – this is precisely the valley in which God too hangs out. As Nick puts it:

For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God. I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before.

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.

It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.

And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world’s wounds.

What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I’m only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth’s closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him.[21]

Friends, we know that God is good, and that God is trustworthy, because – and only because – Jesus, who is God’s Word made flesh, has revealed God’s goodness and God’s trustworthiness to us, and that supremely in his own experience of god-abandonment. And the cross is the word of God’s promise, it is the action of the promise-keeping God. And, of course, there is a sense in which his promises are all we have. God is only as good as his word. So, for example, how do you know that God loves you? Forgives you? Journeys with you? You don’t always feel loved. You don’t always feel forgiven. You don’t always feel accompanied. At the end of the day we only know that we are loved and forgiven and accompanied because of the promises of the promise-keeping God. We literally live by the promises of God. And the promises of God are literally the word of the cross. So think for a moment: when has God ever failed to be for you all that he promised to be in his cross? God is trustworthy! God is good! And we know this only because Jesus, who is God’s promise to us, has proclaimed to us in his own broken body what God’s goodness and God’s trustworthiness look like.

A final thought:

Thinking and talking about God’s goodness and trustworthiness demands an eschatology

That is, it demands a sense of time which has already begun to open up in the resurrection of Jesus but which is yet to reach its fulness. It demands a future, or what theologians call ‘eschatology’. And it is eschatology which makes life so unlike a soap opera, and reminds us that no matter how many glimpses of God’s goodness and trustworthiness we experience now, and no matter how much richer these experiences make life for us, their full satisfaction awaits us, and God.

And so we live now in faith, love and hope. And hope sees in the resurrection of Jesus not the eternity of heaven but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands and which his cross secures.

And so we live now in this tension, in this time between the times, in this linear space between what has passed and all that is coming. This is called living in hope. And hope means that we are unable to reconcile ourselves with the laws and constraints of this earth, neither with the inevitability of death nor with the evil that constantly threatens the end that God is moving all of creation towards.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Fontana Lions, 1980), 75.

[2] It’s interesting that the first thing that is named as being ‘good’ in the Bible is not God but ‘light’ (Gen 1.4) – light, to be sure, which appears at God’s bidding; light which is literally spoken into being. In fact, the word ‘good’ appears 12 times in Genesis 1–2 alone, suggesting that if creation is good, it must say something about the Creator and about the way that the Creator who alone is good in himself does not keep that goodness to himself, but longs to share it, longs that creation may mirror it and participate in it. So there is a sense in which creaturely goodness is always borrowed goodness. But what we are given to see in Jesus Christ is that God is in himself perfectly good and that God delights to share that goodness: He is the God who gives of himself so unbegrudgingly and without keeping any records.

[3] And if we read Psalms like Psalm 89, we see that God’s faithfulness to creation is undergirded by his covenant with creation. And we are reminded that creation is good because it is the theatre, the stage, the location upon which and in which the story of God’s covenant can be played out. So what creation is good for is being a object of God’s blessing. What creation is good for is creatures. What creation is good for is the resurrection of Jesus. God’s goodness has to do with God’s ‘beauty’ and God’s ‘excellence’. The Hebrew word for ‘good’ is tob and means ‘pleasant’ or ‘joyful’ or ‘agreeable’. And we see this sense in the Genesis account of creation itself, that when God creates, what God creates is good, even very good, i.e. ‘wholly functional and proper’. It’s not a statement about the moral worth or otherwise of creation. It’s a confession that creation is working, is fruitful and is beautiful. It’s a confession that creation reflects God’s creative goodness, reflects the fact that God is for creation, that God has planned nothing evil, reflects the fact that the pain and brokenness which set the scene from Genesis 3 onwards are at odds with God’s good intention for creation. Thinking more theologically, creation is good because it sets the stage upon which God’s action of creating sons and daughters in Christ might be carried out.

[4] As an aside, it might be worth noting that the Bible rarely describes God as ‘trustworthy’. The word ‘trustworthy’ is used to describe the posture of the person of faith, i.e., those who trust in God and in the promises of God, those who look to God and to God’s righteousness. What the Bible does bear witness to, however, is One who is in every sense worthy of our trust, and it points out why we have every reason to trust in God, and why only the fool would not trust in God, even when the circumstances call God and God’s trustworthiness into question.

[5] One way that the Bible bears witness to this is in recalling the way that God goes into battle against his enemies: ‘The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness’ (Nahum 1.7–8). Also noteworthy is that sometimes our experience of God’s goodness appears to be qualified. E.g., Lam 3.25; Ps 73.1. Of course, this begs the question of how Israel and then the Church came to believe that God is good. For it is not self-evident that this is indeed the case. So we read in Psalm 4.6, ‘There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!”’. To see God as good, therefore, seems to be something that does not come ‘naturally’ to us but requires the eyes of faith.

[6] Few have put the problem more succinctly than the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (perhaps the most famous atheist of the 20th century) who argued that if God does not exist, it is meaningless to speak of ‘good’. He wrote: ‘The existentialist … finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only [people]. Dostoievsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’, and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist …’. Stephen Priest, ed., Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings (London/New York: Routledge, 2001), 32.

[7] Elie Wiesel, Night (trans. Stella Rodway; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1960), 45.

[8] Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 183.

[9] John W. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective (London: Collins, 1987), 102.

[10] Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross (Grand Rapids/Geneva: Wm. B. Eerdmans/World Council of Churches, 1979), 28.

[11] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 47, 49.

[12] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 41. The famous Scottish philosopher David Hume put it thus: ‘Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?’ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Stilwell: Digireads.com Publishing, 2006), 63.

[13] Martin Buber, On Judaism (New York: Shocken Books, 1967), 224.

[14] James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 45.

[15] Cited in Ibid. 45–6.

[16] John Howard Yoder, A Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 55.

[17] Cited in Julia Esquivel Velasquez, ‘A Letter from Central America’, International Review of Missions 66 (1977), 249–50. Also in Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995), 261–2.

[18] This means that in order to come to a place where we know that God is trustworthy and that God is good takes a miracle. It is not self-evident. It takes revelation. And it takes faith. And both revelation and faith are gifts. More specifically, it takes being taken down into death – being put to death in the death of Christ, being taken into his personhood, and into his sufferings.

[19] So Donald M. MacKinnon, ‘Atonement and Tragedy’ in Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays (ed. George W. Roberts and Donovan E. Smucker; Philadelphia/New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1968), 104: ‘It is a lesson to be learnt from tragedy that there is no solution of the problem of evil; it is a lesson which Christian faith abundantly confirms, even while it transforms the teaching by the indication of its central mystery. In the Cross the conflicting claims of truth and mercy are reconciled by deed and not by word. The manner of their reconciliation is something which lies beyond the frontier of our comprehension; we can only describe and re-describe’.

[20] Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 46–7, 51.

[21] Ibid. 81–2.

Powerpoint slides here.


On confession

One of the things that the so-called ‘Parable of the Two Sons’ teaches us is that as far as God is concerned, repentance is not principally about the admission of guilt or the acknowledgement of fault but rather is first and foremost about the confession of death. Another thing that the parable announces is that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is subsequent to forgiveness. Confession is not a transaction. Confession is not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Confession is, as Robert Farrar Capon avers in The Parables of Grace, ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have … The sheer brilliance of the retention of infant baptism by a large portion of the church catholic is manifest most of all in the fact that babies can do absolutely nothing to earn, accept, or believe in forgiveness; the church, in baptizing them, simply declares that they have it … And our one baptism for the forgiveness of sins remains the lifelong sacrament, the premier sign of that fact. No subsequent forgiveness – no eucharist, no confession – is ever anything more than an additional sign of what baptism sacramentalizes … We may be unable, as the prodigal was, to believe it until we finally see it; but the God who does it, like the father who forgave the prodigal, never once had anything else in mind’ (pp. 140–1).

Advent IX: Somebody’s out to get me

Few books have left their mark on me as deeply as Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai. One of the oft-recounted ‘episodes’ in the book concerns Donovan’s ‘conversion’ by a Masai elder who unmasked Donovan’s very Western (enlightenment) notion of faith as predominantly intellectual assent, ‘to agree to’. ‘“To believe” like that’, the elder said, ‘was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word’. He continued: ‘for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to itself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is’.

Donovan’s response? Silence, and amazement: ‘Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being’. But the Masai elder had not finished speaking to Donovan:

‘We did not search you out, Padri … We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God’. (p. 51)

Does this not go to the heart – and challenge some of our misconceptions – of Advent wherein we celebrate the coming of God, the lion – or, if you prefer Francis Thompson’s image, ‘the hound’ – of heaven among us? For all the time that we are focussed on our waiting, the lion is on the prowl, awaiting his own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us, love’s victim. Clearly, Advent is his waiting too.

It was this lion, of course – this lion from whose generous bounty we live, gift after gift after gift; this lion who is the glory of the Father – who pounced on Mary, pulled her to himself, and made her part of himself. And it is Mary, perhaps more than any other biblical figure, who gifts us with how one lives under and inside a lion; i.e., who gifts us with how one lives the other side of our death. So her Magnificat, as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer:

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Time to reflect: Here’s the ‘Magnificat’ by Arvo Pärt, set to Cal Jones’ (Director and Producer) and Ralph Lopatin’s (Cinematographer) ‘Miracle on the Delaware’:

[Image: Gary Cutri]


Barth on the being and knowledge of God

Who was it that said recently that a day without reading something from Uncle Karl is a day wasted, or something to that effect? Well today, a friend of mine reminded me of this interesting passage (not least in light of the fruitful discussion that arose from my post on Ten (Draft) Propositions on the Missionary Nature of the Church) from Uncle Karl (CD §28), who, at least on my reading, properly refuses to collapse epistemology and ontology:

‘When we ask questions about God’s being, we cannot in fact leave the sphere of His action and working as it is revealed to us in His Word. God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. Yet in Himself He is not another than He is in His works. In the light of what He is in His works it is no longer an open question what He is in Himself. In Himself He cannot, perhaps, be someone or something quite other, or perhaps nothing at all. But in His works He is Himself revealed as the One He is. It is, therefore, right that in the development and explanation of the statement that God is we have always to keep exclusively to His works (as they come to pass, or become visible as such in the act of revelation)—not only because we cannot elsewhere understand God and who God is, but also because, even if we could understand Him elsewhere, we should understand Him only as the One He is in His works, because He is this One and no other. We can and must ask about the being of God because as the Subject of His works God is so decisively characteristic for their nature and understanding that without this Subject they would be something quite different from what they are in accordance with God’s Word, and on the basis of the Word of God we can necessarily recognise and understand them only together with this their Subject.

At the same time we must be quite clear on the other side, that our subject is God and not being, or being only as the being of God. In connexion with the being of God that is here in question, we are not concerned with a concept of being that is common, neutral and free to choose, but with one which is from the first filled out in a quite definite way. And this concretion cannot take place arbitrarily, but only from the Word of God, as it has already occurred and has been given to us in the Word of God. This means that we cannot discern the being of God in any other way than by looking where God Himself gives us Himself to see, and therefore by looking at His works, at this relation and attitude—in the confidence that in these His works we do not have to do with any others, but with His works and therefore with God Himself, with His being as God.

What does it mean to say that “God is”? What or who “is” God? If we want to answer this question legitimately and thoughtfully, we cannot for a moment turn our thoughts anywhere else than to God’s act in His revelation. We cannot for a moment start from anywhere else than from there.

What God is as God, the divine individuality and characteristics, the essentia or “essence” of God, is something which we shall encounter either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Saviour, or not at all. The act of revelation as such carries with it the fact that God has not withheld Himself from men as true being, but that He has given no less than Himself to men as the overcoming of their need, and light in their darkness—Himself as the Father in His own Son by the Holy Spirit. The act of God’s revelation also carries with it the fact that man, as a sinner who of himself can only take wrong roads, is called back from all his own attempts to answer the question of true being, and is bound to the answer to the question given by God Himself. And finally the act of God’s revelation carries with it the fact that by the Word of God in the Holy Spirit, with no other confidence but this unconquerable confidence, man allows being to the One in whom true being itself seeks and finds, and who meets him here as the source of his life, as comfort and command, as the power over him and over all things.

If we follow the path indicated, our first declaration must be the affirmation that in God’s revelation, which is the content of His Word, we have in fact to do with His act. And first, this means generally—with an event, with a happening. But as such this is an event which is in no sense to be transcended. It is not, therefore, an event which has merely happened and is now a past fact of history. God’s revelation is, of course, this as well. But it is also an event happening in the present, here and now. Again, it is not this in such a way that it exhausts itself in the momentary movement from the past to the present, that is, in our to-day. But it is also an event that took place once for all, and an accomplished fact. And it is also future—the event which lies completely and wholly in front of us, which has not yet happened, but which simply comes upon us. Again, this happens without detriment to its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity. On the contrary, it is in its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity that it is truly future. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). This is something which cannot be transcended or surpassed or dispensed with. What is concerned is always the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, always His justification of faith, always His lordship in the Church, always His coming again, and therefore Himself as our hope. We can only abandon revelation, and with it God’s Word, if we are to dispense with it. With it we stand, no, we move necessarily in the circle of its event or, in biblical terms, in the circle of the life of the people of Israel. And in this very event God is who He is. God is He who in this event is subject, predicate and object; the revealer, the act of revelation, the revealed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Lord active in this event. We say “active” in this event, and therefore for our salvation and for His glory, but in any case active. Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. This is not only because we ourselves cannot, but because there is no surpassing or bypassing at all of the divine action, because a transcendence of His action is nonsense. We are dealing with the being of God: but with regard to the being of God, the word “event” or “act” is final, and cannot be surpassed or compromised. To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event—not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation.

The definition that we must use as a starting-point is that God’s being is life. Only the Living is God. Only the voice of the Living is God’s voice. Only the work of the Living is God’s work; only the worship and fellowship of the Living is God’s worship and fellowship. So, too, only the knowledge of the Living is knowledge of God’.

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 260–3.

So if you’ve read this far you can now sleep tonight in the full knowledge that your day wasn’t a complete waste of time. Certainy mine wasn’t: I drank gallons of Milo, finished marking a ute-load of assignments, and read some Barth. Oh, and we also decided on a school for our daughter, or at least I think we did!

The judgements of mercy

Kim Fabricius has posted a thought-provoking reflection (does Kim ever post any other kind?) on why the Iceland volcano is God’s judgement! It reminded me of this wonderful hymn penned by Geoffrey Bingham:

1. We have not been knowing the voice of the Father,
We have not been hearing the voice of His pain,
We have not been knowing the heart of His loving;
Our own have been sinning—yes—time and again.

2. Long have we persisted in ways of rebellion;
Unnaturally pressed in the ways of our loves:
The love of our idols and love of our pleasures,
Ignoring the grace that flows full from above.

3. The work of the Cross is as nought in our thinking,
The plan to redeem but a trifling thing,
’Tis worship we worship, but not in the Spirit,
’Tis love that we love, but not Him who is King.

4. Our hearts are so barren though we have such riches;
Our riches are rags—not the raiment we claim;
Our spirits are naked, yet flaunt we our hardness;
Our wounds are so deep, but we say there’s no pain.

5. His judgements that come are the judgements of mercy—
The droughts and the famines the gifts of our God;
The pain that we feel is to heal us from evil;
The scourge in our spirits the blessing of God.

6. The judgements of God now release us from judgements,
The death of our dying to bring us to life;
The pain of our idols will drive us to Jesus,
To cry in the days and to weep in the nights.

7. There’s balm in the fountain of Calvary’s Gilead,
There’s healing from pain in the Cross of His love,
There’s pardon that heals us, and purifies wholly;
There’s peace for the conscience which comes from above.

8. The Father has healed from the wounds of our sinning,
Has clothed us with beauty—all brought by the Dove;
The judgements are finished, ’tis joy until glory,
’Tis grace upon grace, and is love upon love.

— Geoffrey C. Bingham, 1991

For those who would like a copy of the music to this hymn, here it is. By the way, this hymn, along with hundreds of others, is available freely from New Creation Teaching Ministry whose hymn books are, to my mind, among the richest collections of songs for congregational worship around. They are available in C, Bb and Eb music, and as overheads. Some of the songs are also available for purchase on CD.

A love which overflows from fullness

The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins) is a fascinating collection of essays from a theologically and ecumenically diverse group of scholars, including  NT Wright, Gordon Fee, Jean-Noël Aletti, Sarah Coakley, Stephen T. Davis, David Brown, and others. It also includes a piece by C. Stephen Evans in which he defends a brand of kenoticism, convinced (rightly in my view) that some form of kenotic christology does most justice to the NT’s accounts of Jesus and that it is possible to provide an account of kenoticism that does not in any way abrogate the claims of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. This is precisely what Evans sets out to do in this essay.

In conversation with Stephen Davis, Ronald Feenstra and Richard Swinburne (why does he go there?), Evans proposes that God’s gracious decision to enflesh – because it is a decision fully laden with soteriological intent – is necessarily best understood as a decision to assume certain limitations. This is the shape of love. Along the way, Evans cites this beautiful passage from W.H. Vanstone, among whose many further contributions, as Jim Gordon reminded us some years back, was to ‘sell the vicarage furniture to pay for the repair of the church roof!’ (Paul Fromont also posted some good stuff from Vanstone some time back). Anyway, enough waffle, here’s the quote:

‘Trinitarian theology asserts that God’s love for his creation is not the love that is born of ‘emptiness’ … It is the love which overflows from fullness. Its analogue is the love of a family who, united in mutual love, take an orphan into the home. They do so not out of need but in the pure spontaneity of their own triumphant love. Nevertheless, in the weeks that follow, the family, once complete in itself, comes to need the newcomer. Without him the circle is now incomplete; his absence now causes anxiety: his waywardness brings concern; his goodness and happiness are necessary to those who have come to love him; upon his response depends the triumph or the tragedy of the family’s love … Love has surrendered its triumphant self-sufficiency and created its own need. This is the supreme illustration of love’s self-giving or self-emptying – that it should surrender its fullness and create in itself the emptiness of need. Of such a nature is the Kenosis of God – the self-emptying of Him Who is already in every way fulfilled’. – William Hubert Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1977), 69.