A Lenten Reflection: Rublev’s icon of the Trinity and the healing of Nicodemus

The well-known 15th-century Russian Orthodox icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev rehearses the story of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly figures at Mamre (so Genesis 18:1 – ‘The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day’). The icon invites us to both consider and to be considered by the very centre of Christian truth. The triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is re-presented from left to right. Ante Jeroncic, Georgij Yu. Somov and others have offered interpretations: the three persons form the circumference of a circle, attesting perhaps to the divine unity; each of the persons embrace a staff in their left hand, a sign of authority; each of the persons is clothed in blue, a symbol of God’s eternity; each of the persons has overlapping wings, a communication of their intimacy. The colour of clothing too is significant: gold recalling the Father’s glory, purple the royalty and suffering of the Son, and green the life-giving mission of the Spirit. And then there’s the table (the location where koinonia takes place), the house (symbolising, perhaps, the created order and/or the church), the tree (shorthand for the cross), and the mountain (a recollection of the theophanies, of the Mount of Transfiguration, and of the location of covenant renewal).

There is little doubt of the icon’s beauty (as Ante recalls in a follow-up post), even while this icon invites us to reconsider what we mean by beauty. And it does this in a very simple yet profound way. It does this via the sets of hands which point towards the chalice in which is what appears to be a roasted lamb. It is in this gesture that we are invited to rethink all that we might mean when we talk about glory, and power, and God. For this gesture recalls that the God with whom we have to do in Jesus Christ is the God who is so fully one with us that his very being is re-constituted in the action of becoming flesh, of taking the form of a slave, and of dying the very death which has become a way of ‘life’ for us. It also recalls that just as it takes the doctrine of the Trinity to make any sense of the cross, it takes the cross to unveil for us the heart of the Triune God.

The gesture of the central figure – the one whom the Church proclaims as ‘very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father and by whom all things were made’ – invites us to reconsider, and, indeed, to put to death, all of our preconceived images of what God may or may not be like, and to allow our image of God to be finally determined in one place and in one place alone – in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Mary and Joseph’s firstborn son who alone is the image of the invisible God, and who constitutes the form that divine beauty takes in the world. To talk about God and to talk about beauty is not, in the first instance, to recall a set of religious doctrines or a philosophy of beauty. Still less is it to impose such upon a being which we then name ‘God’. It is, rather, to atten­d to a movement in history enacted for us, a bloody and deathly movement, namely the story of Jesus of Nazareth the Word of God made flesh for us, living for the Father’s joy in the power of the Spirit and who, from the side of broken and recalcitrant humanity offers God the praise and thanks due to God’s name. In other words, God’s love finds its clearest and most decisive voice in this particular person whom the Father has set his love upon and who is not ashamed to call us his sisters and brothers. What makes this particular act beautiful is the persons who undertake them and their mutual self-surrendering love for one another, and for the healing of the world, which is there revealed to us.

After Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. St John tells us that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. John also tells us that Joseph did not do this alone, but that he was accompanied by someone who had appeared much earlier on in the narrative, namely Nicodemus, the wealthy aristocrat, pharisee and learned rabbi who earlier had visited Jesus at night during an earlier first visit to Jerusalem (John 3). Now here he is again, on Jesus’ last visit to that violent and hard-hearted city. This time, Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds worth. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen (John 19:39–40). In this violated and now lifeless body of a young teacher called Jesus, Nicodemus is given to see the very fullness of beauty – for in Jesus he is confronted by one who loves the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and who loves human beings – even his enemies – even unto death. And in Jesus Nicodemus is confronted with himself and with the world’s operations. Such a vision of divine beauty reconstitutes Nicodemus’ world, a new reality is taking hold of him, a reality which is causing him to question all that he had once held to be good and true and beautiful. Such a vision of divine beauty sees Nicodemus no longer arranging a backroom meeting with Jesus at night, but sitting at this table that Rublev paints, sitting in Christ with the Spirit and with the Father and sharing in a life reconstituted by the chalice-directed hospitality at their centre.

In a wonderful collection of sermons preached at St Andrew’s church in St Andrews in 1996–97, and subsequently published as At the Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There, Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart recall that

for Pilate and the chief priests the cross refutes Jesus’ claim to be king, if refutation were needed. But for Nicodemus it refutes Pilate’s and the chief priest’s respective claims to represent divine rule. In this radical polarizing of the alternatives Nicodemus can no longer have any truck with political compromise. He finally burns his boats. He throws in his lot with Jesus. He publicly honors him as king. He steps completely outside the circle that binds the governor’s residence and the high priest’s council chamber together. He accepts whatever it might mean to find God’s rule exemplified, even implemented in the humiliated and suffering Jesus. He commits himself to whatever that might involve by way of reversal of conventional thinking about power and status, about what really matters and what really gets things done in the real world. He commits himself to whatever it means to think that neither Pilate nor the chief priests in fact have the last word as they think they do, that beyond the petty game they play with each other actually God holds and plays a trump card of which they have no conception. When Nicodemus saw Jesus crucified and when he recognized this crucified Jesus as truly the king who rules for God, then (might we not say?) Nicodemus was truly born from above, born again of the Spirit of God. For “no one,” Jesus had said to him, “can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. (pp. 111–12)

Richard and Trevor then share this prayer with us:

Lord Jesus, with Nicodemus we recognize you
as the ruler of all
not in spite of your cross
but because of it.
We see your power in your weakness,
your glory in your humiliation,
your sovereignty in your self-giving service,
your victory in your death.
Help us not to be taken in by the illusions of evil,
by the apparent dominance of the forces that oppose God in this world
by the apparently overwhelming influence
of forces that corrupt life and destroy creation.
Help us to resist them.
Keep us from the temptations of power and influence,
from using them to serve the idols
of self-advancement or the causes we favor,
from treating other people as means to our ends,
from disregarding others on the way to our ends.
Help us to recognize the power of truth and love,
help us to acknowledge you as the only Lord.
Your kingdom come.

[Having just returned from lunch with the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, this prayer takes on a richer challenge for me.]

Maundy Thursday blessings.

Advent II: On the pseudonymous activity of God

In a fascinating collection of personal papers and essays on public theology penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and titled The Pseudonyms of God, 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 human 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. 84–5). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of divine disclosure now known to us, but is no less in the stream of divine pseudonymity for that:

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)

Contemporaries ought not to be surprised to find the outcast – and the outcasted – God among the outcast. We must look for signs of the Servant God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among an oppressed minority, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image above 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, we ought look for God not only in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but we will look for God also in the very common, ordinary things of life, in the well over 500 million people who are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’, and in all those gathered up in the one great movement of divine kenosis-plerosis. ‘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).

Brown then turns to Kierkegaard, and specifically to the Danes’ parable of the king and the maiden:

The servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest – behold the man! His suffering is not that of his death, but his entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want (pp. 86–7).

Truly, in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise. Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme instance of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation, the point at which we are offered the criterion in terms of which the action of God elsewhere can be measured. 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.

Seeing the world through Christian eyes

denney‘We know the world only as a sinful world, and we know the relation of Christ to it, experimentally, only as that of its Saviour from sin’. We must ‘stick to the actual’ and try to ‘understand and interpret what is, not to wander off into what might have been, as though it might find there truths sublime or more profound. The world we live in is the only world’. – James Denney, The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (London: James Clarke & Co., 1959 [1917]), 181-2.

Rowan Williams on entering the world of revealed religion

rembrant-jacob-wrestling-angelArchbishop Rowan Williams is a brilliant theologian and preacher. Yesterday, Williams was at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, to deliver the Hulsean Sermon. Its title? ‘Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge’. He drew upon work by Barth, Augustine and TF Torrance; and here’s what he had to say about revelation:

Revelation is the discovery that you are already, before you knew it, in relation to a vision that is both utterly compassionate and utterly truthful: to discover this in the face, in the presence of another human being within history, not even in the presence of an archaic statue, starts the long, draining and exhilarating trail of recasting what has been taken for granted about God and the world, the created and the uncreated, and sketches what might have to be said about a God who is free not only to engage with the human world but to do so from within. I am shown to myself as a person already in relation: God is shown to me as the agency that is eternally prepared for relation. And the creeds begin to cast their shadow before them; because of that single human presence about which we can only say, ‘he told me everything I ever did’.

Revealed religion can so easily be presented as the enemy of many things that our culture holds precious: intellectual humility and intellectual adventure; the sense of ultimate otherness or strangeness within our relations with one another; the fascination with our own inner elusiveness, our otherness to ourselves. Yet all these themes seem themselves to arise out of the gradual apprehension of what revelation actually entails. If theology – the theology of revealed religion – has a place in the academy, it is because of the way in which it underscores the strength of the goading to know that drives all serious mental enterprise and at the same time the unfinished character of that enterprise. It does so not by appealing to a vague belief that all verbal forms are provisional or that the spiritual nature of human beings is worth taking seriously, but as a discipline that wrestles with intractable history and particular narrative, with the ways in which human beings think within time and relationship and create language together.

In a cultural context where – so we are repeatedly told – ‘spirituality’ is more popular than ‘religion’, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what the claim to revelation and the focus on historical particulars involves for the life of faith and the exploration of that life in art or theology. Here at least we are in a world in which the characteristic pressure of intellectual activity makes sense – the conviction of an obligation to persistence and novak-jacob-wrestling-the-angelhonesty, the cautions against imagining that issues have been resolved when they have only been named; here the life of the mind and of a properly demanding imagination are recognisably involved. Grace and struggle both belong inseparably in the process of receiving and responding to a revealing God. What the preference for a generic spirituality may lose hold of is just this partnership of the awareness of gift and the pressure to speak as truthfully as can be in the light of the steady weight of that gift as received by generations.

To enter the world of revealed religion, to make one’s own the vocabulary of a free self-disclosure on the part of the transcendent, is not to abandon discovery or darkness: because it is grounded in the simultaneous new awareness of who God is and who I and my neighbour are, it cannot be simply the delivery of the last pieces in a puzzle. To become conscious that you are seen is potentially frightening; to become conscious that you are seen by a presence that has no selfish interest, no advantage to be exploited, no will to manipulate, but one that gratuitously shares the secret of itself, its reality and ‘density’, is perhaps not
less frightening (you hate it because it hurts’) but is also to find yourself just beginning in the way of fearlessness. My story is told to me afresh; and I find that it is embraced, graced, opened. ‘You must change your life’; but in fact my life is changed, not by me, if I can bear the gaze.

The full sermon manuscript is available here.

Advent Reflection 7: Incarnation is Revelation

For the eternal Word’s becoming incarnate must be understood as a divine endorsement of how God intends himself and his purposes to be known. This would suggest, therefore, that when we come to interpret God’s purposes for humanity our thinking should be informed by this Word, not as an afterthought or as icing on a cake that has been prepared in advance but right from the outset. Second, beginning with the person of Christ takes cognizance of the fact that the Incarnation is revelatory as the Self-presentation not merely of God as God but of God as human. In God’s Self-disclosure God presents us with all that it is to be truly human’. – Alan J. Torrance.

Image: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple. c. 1666-69. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Developing a Reading List – 2

Following on from a previous post on developing a reading list in which I listed books on (1) Theological Method and Prolegomena, (2) Systematics/Dogmatics (3) Biblical Theology, and (4) Theology Proper, I continue on with this exercise of developing some sort of a reading list for various areas of systematic and pastoral theology. Remember, the kind of thing I have in mind is a reading list and resource for English-speaking undergraduate theology students. What books have you found helpful, as either a teacher or student, in these areas?

Reading List: 5. Patriology:

Geoffrey Bingham, Father! My Father!

Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father

J. Scott Lidgett, The Fatherhood of God

Peter T. Forsyth, God the Holy Father

Thomas Smail, The Forgotten Father

Reading List: 6. Christology:

C. Norman Kraus, Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective

Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Saviour and Lord

Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean

Isaac A. Dorner, History of the Development of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator

Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth

Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ

Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity

Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ, Liberator

Marcus J. Borg, Christology in the Making

Peter T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ

Peter T. Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ

Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament

Thomas F. Torrance (ed.), The Incarnation: Ecumenical Studies in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed

Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ

Thomas Smail, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross

Trevor A. Hart and Daniel Thimell (eds.), Christ in Our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World: Essays Presented to Professor James Torrance

Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man

Reading List: 7. Pneumatology:

Donald G. Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Work and Gifts

Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence

James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit

John Taylor, The Go-Between God

John Webster, Holiness

Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation

Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit

Thomas Smail, The Giving Gift

Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 1

Reading List: 8. Revelation:

Colin Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation

Donald G. Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation

Emil Brunner & Karl Barth, Natural Theology: Comprising ‘Nature and Grace’ by E. Brunner & the reply ‘No!’ by Karl Barth

Gerrit C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture

John Webster, Holy Scripture

Peter F. Jensen, The Doctrine of Revelation

Next on the list: Creation, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Anthropology.

Names and the Name – 1

For different reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about names and their significance. So over the next few posts I thought I’d share some of my reflections on these things. Specifically, names in Scripture and the significance of God not only ‘having’ a name, but of God ‘giving us’ his name, and to what end.

O be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And for thy name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself. (Juliet, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)

‘What’s in a name?’ A lot it would seem, particularly if you lived in the ANE where names served as distinguishing markers. Their role is neither to define nor describe, but to identify. They work to differentiate, to structure, and to order. So the naming/designation of the animals by Adam in Genesis 2:19 not only ‘represents something wholesome and salutary’ but also ‘opens up specific human dimensions for communication and for fellowship’. Compare this to Babylonian creation epic in which time preceded the naming of creation: ‘When on high the heaven had not been named … when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by name.’

The other use for such a distinguishing mark was linked with hope, namely the endurance of one’s family line, and the related securing of family assets (so Deut 25:7; 2 Sam 14:7; 18:18; Ruth 4:5, 10), or the hope of exploitation and abuse (as in Genesis 11:4): ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ (cf. 2 Sam 8:13. In 2 Sam 7:23 God seeks make a name for himself.)

In the OT world, the name also served as an expression of being itself. ‘The name is the soul’. So Origen noted, ‘A name is a term which summarizes and manifests the personal character of him who is named’.

Whereas in modern practice the meaning of a name functions as little more than ‘mere tags’ which pick out an object that ‘by any other name would smell as sweet’ and is generally unknown and irrelevant to its choice, Hebrew names ‘are readily “readable” by those who hear or see them.’ In so far as it does this, naming ‘assumes, rather than justifies, the existence of an object to be named.’ So, for example, we read of Dan in Genesis 30:6, ‘Then Rachel said, “God has judged (or ‘vindicated’, NIV) me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan’, where Dan sounds like the Hebrew word for ‘judged’. Another example is Nabal (‘foolish’, ‘senseless’) in 1 Sam 25:25 where his character is reflected in his name.

But this is not always the case, even in the Hebrew Bible. So, for example, ‘Absalom (2 Sam. 13) means ‘my father is peace’, when neither he nor David seemed to know much peace, though they offered it to others (1 Sam 25:6, 35; 2 Sam 3:21-23; 15:9, 27; cf. 2 Chron 14:6).

A person’s name not only expresses their identity, but also defies definition by an abstract concept. As Thielicke notes, ‘Any attempt to identify a man with his role or subsume him under a concept leads necessarily to the falsifying of his uniqueness. This uniqueness always contains a transcendent element, a free possibility which cannot be pinned down. The name expresses this transcendent content. It eludes any concept.’

In itself, it seems, one’s name tells us nothing. In itself, it is only an invitation to know more of what might be revealed. The name-bearer is never defined, only introduced, presented. The name can be filled out and interpreted but only by its bearer. But this naming is only ever done with a view to relationship, i.e. for the sake of others; I tell you my name that you and I may enter into discussion. An example of this is when God says to Moses, ‘I know you by name’ (Exod 33:17). As Shults has noted, the point here is ‘not the prepositional content of the divine intellect but the faithful intentionality of the divine promise’. This promise relates to being known by God. In this case, to God’s intention to know Moses. ‘Being known by God’, Shults says, ‘is an experience of the intensive Infinity of divine faithfulness, and the unspeakability of the divine name came to signify this infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature.’

When we come to the NT, there is little unusual about most of the references to a person or place’s name, especially in Luke-Acts. This does not mean that there is not, as Hartman notes, the widely held belief lurking behind the text that ‘the name communicates something essential or characteristic about the bearer of the name’. Particularly significant is the indication in the name itself of some task given by God, as in the names given to Jesus (Matt 1:21, 23, 25; Luke 1:31-33; 2:21), the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 59-63), Peter and Boanerges (Mark 3:16-17), or something essential about their bearer, as for Legion (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30), Elymas (Acts 13:8) and various characters in the Book of the Revelation (6:8; 8:11; 9:11; 13:1, 17; 14:11; 15:2; 17:3, 5; 19:11-13, 16).

Connected to knowing the name of a person is the ability to control them, as in Legion (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30) or those marked with the name of the beast, who are subsequently shaped by its nature (Rev 13:17; 14:11; this becomes particularly significant when we think about God making his own name known). In the case of Jesus giving his followers new names, this amounts to them being given new identities, status and character (Mark 3:16-17; John 10:3; Rev 2:17), identities which are then written in the Lamb’s book of life (Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27).

Also, in the NT, one’s name is also linked to one’s reputation (Mark 6:14; Luke 6:22; 1 Tim 5:14; Titus 2:8). This is true even for God (1 Tim 6:1; Titus 2:5).

A final thought: No one introduces themselves to themselves. Hence God’s giving of his name to humanity is only ever with a view to fellowship with us. Hence God’s hallowing of his name is with a view to securing the same.

Another final thought: Perhaps this is why I feel odd whenever I read a posted comment from ‘Anonymous’. I recognise, of course, that Mrs or Mr Anonymous must be either (i) a very important person or (ii) meant to be doing something else at the time and so wanting to allude detection, or (iii) not a person at all.

Word of God – A Hymn

1. We cannot live without His Word,
We cannot live without His Voice;
We dare not think the thoughts of men,
Or, in the words they give, rejoice.
The primal darkness fled the scene
When God gave utt’rance to the Word:
The Spirit moved across the deep
And all obeyed the Voice it heard.

2. God spoke the Word that made the world,
He spoke the truth and Man was made;
In joy and peace and love they lived,
And walked with Him from day to day.
The serpent brought the word—deceit—
And spoke it to the primal pair.
Another word than God’s had come;
This word was death, and death to prayer.

3. Down through the ages our God speaks—
The primal couple heard the curse—
The prophets never ceased to tell
The Word in image, song and verse.
The might and holiness of God
In love and mercy present are
Where’er the Word is uttered forth
By sun and moon and furthest star.

4. The Word made flesh has come to dwell
And show in human modes our God.
That Word heals Man and makes him pure
By power of His flowing blood.
This Word is life to us who hear.
Our spirits by that life are fed.
We share this life with all mankind;
We offer them the Living Bread.

5. Ah, Word of God we weep with joy
To have Your Voice within our hearts,
To live afresh each time You speak
Your love to us in all our parts.
Ah, Father God—whose Word is power—
Ah, Spirit-Word that flows so free,
Ah, Living Word, ah, Son of God,
We worship—Word-in-Trinity.

This hymn is by Geoffrey Bingham. Music and overheads can be downloaded here.

A Brief Theology of Revelation

Recently, a mate of mine, Reno Lauro, wrote a punchy review of Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation for Religious Studies Review. I thought it well worth repeating here:

Take a moment and consider this particular font; consider the format and layout of the page, or even this very sentence. What these elements all have in common is they mediate meaning. From cover to cover, Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation reevaluates the doctrine of revelation in terms of mediation. Based on a 1993 Warfield lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary, Guntons book offers a surprisingly fresh critique of a neo-orthodox theology of revelation and post-liberal alternatives, which in some ways may seem much more relevant today than it did at the dawn of Clintons America. However, it is not Gunton’s critique that makes this book so important, but it is his systematic advancement of Trinitarian mediation. It is the Trinitarian formulation of a doctrine of creation which allows God to be God, the world to be the world, distinct beings he says, and yet personally related by personal mediation as creator and creation. Gunton’s lecture looks to exploit nuances in the debate previously ignored. Christian revelation is mediated, and at the most basic level all Truth, said Coleridge, is a species of Revelation. All knowledge is mediated, and only when we attend to reality through them does it disclose to us its secrets. A strong Trinitarian doctrine of creation and theology of nature is the answer to Barth’s oversimplified natural theology versus theology of revelation dichotomy. Pneumatology is thus the key to any adequate theology of revelation and of its mediation. I wish T & T Clark would have provided a forward to this new edition perhaps a retrospect of his work and what was lost in his sudden passing but this text should not be passed over lightly.

Like pebbles…

‘There is no belief that does not need to be reminded of revelation, no action that does not need to be recalled to a necessary knowledge, no man who does not need to be recalled to the freedom of God. In so far as this recollection has not yet taken place—and when indeed has it ever ‘already’ taken place?—men are asleep, even the apostle, even the saint, even the lover. Men are sold under time, its property. They lie like pebbles in the’ stream of time’, and backwards and forwards the ripples hurry over them.’ Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (trans. E. C. Hoskyns. London: Oxford University Press, 1977), 499.

Revelation, Old and New – Part 3

Here’s the final part to Forsyth’s essay, Revelation, Old and New. O how we need to regrasp this stuff for today!

If people tell me, as they sometimes do, that all creation and all fife is one vast revelation, one vast miracle, teeming at every particle and pore, that so far from denying revelation they see nothing else, I have a suspicion of the vague, the grandiose, the forced note, those colours that crack in life’s heat, and that run in the swellings of Jordan. Truly revelation is the greatest of miracles. and the spiritual life is one vast miracle of revelation, because of the Holy Ghost. But it is not a miracle diffused over creation. The Omnipresence of God is not yet His nearness. Immanence is not yet communion. To know that God is there is one thing, to know that we are known of God is another. And that is true religion. The historic is not for religion the course of history but its core. Revelation is not something out of the every– where into the here. That ends –nowhere. It is a miracle condensed at a moral centre where life has a fierce crisis, not an outspread calm. There is more than the miracle of creation.

And it is the miracle of the creation within creation, of the new creation, the miracle of the Redemption. In all the cosmic ranges of space, in all the long reaches of crowded history, there is nothing so marvellous, so majestic as God’s mercy in Christ to me a sinner. That is the revelation in all revelation. That is the new moral life, the new Humanity. That is what makes a religion a GREAT thing. If nature and history be so great and mighty as we now know them to be, what are we to say of the greatness of their God ? It is too high, we cannot attain to it. Nature exhausts our imagination; how shall it compass God ? If the mind flags and the heart falls in the effort to conceive the boundless power and tragic glory of creation, what strength have we left to pursue that way till it land us in the God of it all? We have none. And we must take another way. Or rather God takes another way with us. We cannot find Him in His world, and He must find us. But not there. He reveals His heart of grace neither in the cosmic scale of things nor in the demonic force of heroes, supermen, who are more ready perhaps to ravage than to heal, who are not shepherds of the people but wolves. The greatness of power He changes to another order of greatness. The Almighty reveals Himself as the All Holy. A dreadful, crushing revelation, unless the holy God is revealed also as the God of all grace; unless revelation be redemption, unless it be God’s self–justification in ours.

Because He is holy to see, I must not approach Him, but because He is holy to save, He must come to me, that no speck of His world remain which is not covered, claimed, and cured by Him; no soul which is not judged and redeemed into His fellowship. This holy, judging, redeeming, tender love of the awful God is the miracle of the moral world. Nothing is so miraculous in Christ as that union of infinite majesty and intimate mercy.

I began with a text, let me draw to a close with one. Some of the greatest texts of the Bible are not in the Bible but in the Apocrypha. And here is one from Sirach, “As is His majesty, so Is His mercy–“ What a phrase to make music in the night. There is no such majesty conceivable as the holiness of God; and –in Christ’s Cross, its judgment all comes down ‘in mercy. It comes down, down, down to a poor bent rheumatic figure of a woman creeping and shaking along mean streets with a little old bonnet, a little old basket, and a pennyworth of stale bread in it. And one day the crooked shall be made straight, and her rough life plain. And it comes, that mercy comes down, if we could but get it to her, to that still poorer creature, dishevelled and unsexed, shot cursing of a Saturday night from a dram–shop in the Canongate. If such things lie somehow within the majesty of an immanent, patient, silent God, they are not outside His mercy. But it is a light thing that God should have mercy where we have pity. To such ruins our own pity flows promptly, and it is not God’s crowning mercy that He should pity and restore these. Does His majesty go as far as mercy on Mephistopheles? Has He any mercy on those blackmailers and panders who batten on men’s vices like vultures, spend their life jeering at goodness, and drink down souls like wine? Has He any mercy on those who grow rich by hounding on the nations to war ? Any of those who ravage continents in the sheer lust of power? We can have none. Nor should we. If there be any, it is God’s alone. True, the revelation is a world’s redemption; but must these creatures survive to complete the world?

And yet there are times when we who judge thus can and should have no mercy on ourselves. There are dreadful hours, ‘in souls of whom you would never think it, who do not argue “if God be merciful to that poor wreck, He can be merciful to me.” The greatest hour is not reached till we have come to say, with him who called himself the chief of sinners, If God has been merciful to me, there are none to whom He cannot.”

That is the revelation of the Lord which is the beginning of heavenly wisdom. And with it the Church underlies the University and the State.

The Revelation we need most is that which comes to our darkest and most terrible hour, to man’s centre in the conscience, and to the conscience in its impotent despair. It comes to the hour of our guilt. And what makes our guilt? Our guilt is made, and especially our best repentance is made, when we see the holiness of God, and care more that that should be made good than for our own salvation. And nothing else can save or quiet us but more revelation of more holiness, and that is redemption, the last revelation. The coming of perfect holiness is in the cross of Christ, which at once confounds, crowns, and recreates our moral world.

Revelation, Old and New – Part 2

But you misdoubt me, you pursue me, you press me. And you accuse me of theology. Revelation is a great word, you say. It suggests great things and powers–sea, hill, and sky, a world of living passionate men and women. And Redemption suggests old folios, dead and done with. You ask to know if we must confine revelation to Christ and the Cross with their systems and sermons, if it means but redemption, if it come home but by justification. Must we use these dry old schemes and names? Is there no language, no action of a more human and hearty kind for God and His ways, none of a kind more literary, and poetic, and sympathetic? Is revelation not a word too large for these shrunk theological terms? Is not all illumination revelation–the light of nature, of reason, of the heart? Is there no revelation in earth’s daily splendour around us, in heaven’s mighty glory above us, in the heart’s tender or tragic voice within US? The lover, the mother, the child, ‘the poet, the thinker, the hero—is there no revelation there? Oh, surely! It would be heartless and soulless to deny it. It would disqualify any man for discussing die subject. The inhuman heart is no expositor of the love of God. To sear our affections is no way to commend God’s. But after all, these things are but as moonlight unto sunlight.

“The sun at noon
To God is moon.”

They reveal a borrowed fight. The light they have comes from their reflection of the Sun of the soul–the Saviour. For, in the first place, they but suggest God rather than they assure Him to us. And what we want for our faith, to stake our eternal soul on, is absolute certainty. The matter of religion is God Himself in the soul; the result of it is certainty. And again, they suggest Him to individuals rather than make Him sure to a world. They appeal also to the pure ‘in heart rather than to the sinful soul, soiled and dark and outside God. You will come to a pass one day when the glorious world falls from you, the dearest must leave you, your nerve perhaps is broken, you have no witness of a good conscience, and your self–respect no more sustains you. Poetry and happiness, knowledge and sensibility, end perhaps in moral wreck. That is the time for real revelation. Man’s extremity is God’s great opportunity. Then, as never before, you need a light that does not fail. You need the revelation indeed, the one certainty for which you would exchange all the mere impressions you ever felt. And then, as when the first light arose, it rises with a new creation. God made us in order to understand His creative love; and so He must make us over again if we are to understand anything so tremendous, so incredible as His redeeming love, the gift of Himself and His mercy. It is beyond human power to believe in the mercy of a holy God when we need it most. just when you most need it, you cannot rise to it. If you could, you would not need it. It is a miracle. But when you do arrive there, then everything is a revelation. It is a new heaven–and a new earth. You go down to your new house justified.

True enough, we are led on from revelation to revelation as life presses and opens on us. But it is the final revelation that carries the secret and fixes the colours of them all. And is it not your justification?

What is the word to your conscience and its collapse?
What moral reserves are you laying up?

Do we not know the passion of knowledge, its joy, its glow; and the knowledge of passion, its fire and sting? Are the young among you not in the midst of it all? Have we not heard the message of the dim woods? And silent upon a peak have we never felt the appeal of the whole world lying in light at our feet? From a sunset the new Jerusalem has descended on us, adorned with all manner of precious stones. The breath of the breeze and the bloom of the flowers, dews in the valley and mist on the hill, cloud shadows lying lightly on long braes and murmuring stripies hidden among the heather–were such things no revelations to us of a kind in their time? Again, do we not know the joy of new truth, poetic beauty, the spell of grand ideals? Was the world not once crystalline for us in Shelley, opal in Tennyson, ruby in Rossetti? Was life not newly intimate for us in Shakespeare, and greatness majestic in Milton? Are we not touched any more by the divine thing in love’s young dream? Are we ignorant how it transfigures all the world and uplifts all the soul–all the colour of life in the heart of one pearl, all the wonder of it in the heart of one girl? Do we want to forget the wholeheartedness of our young hero– worship, when we found one man who seemed either to eclipse or glorify all the rest of Humanity? Or again, in the clash of living wins, the successful sense of power, the ruling word of conscience, had we no revelation of the crushing sense of loss and failure, does there come no suggestion of the Cross by which that mastery was won for ever? In the long tale of human history–its romance, its tragedy, its achievement, its fascination–is there no light that leaps out on us from there, nothing that makes us other men, nothing that opens up divine reaches of being? Is there no call of fife, clarion and trumpet, that takes us from the sensual world and an age without a name, and makes us thrill to the crowded hours of glorious life?

To come quite near home. How many a youth in the years of romance feeds his imagination in this, the loveliest and most romantic dry in the world? But the romance of Edinburgh is not in its beauty only, it is in its history, and all its history stands for. The glamour and tragedy of our Scottish past is there–a romantic Queen–Mariolatry it be comes to some who do not feel the mystic Mariolatry of the Queen of Rome at all. Such things enlarge and humanize the spell laid on us by the witchery of this city. All Scotland’s past is in it. And chiefly there is in it the Church of our people, which has made Scotland the best that she is, and sent out from Scotland the best she has done. Our sense of Scotland’s beauty rises to the sense of its old romance; and its historic romance passes upwards into its historic faith. The charm of earth turns the power of God. Nature rises to history and history to religion.

That is a parable of the way of the soul and its history– the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thus. We begin with a romantic revelation. We go on to a historic. We end in a moral and spiritual. We begin with a romantic religion. We cherish an idealism for which nothing is too good to be true. All geese are swans, and every maid a queen. Every father must surely be to his children what ours is to us. And above all the Father of all.

We readily see a generous All–fatherhood brooding over the whole world. Nothing we think could be true which gave that the lie. And then. as our mind grows, our range grows. Knowledge comes of a vaster world. Idealism and poetry and all their glamour are enlarged by real contact with history. with life. Our idolatry of one or two people becomes the idealizing of the race. The charm of nature yields to the spell of all Humanity. Some people could take you to the very spot where at a certain hour the love of nature and home became love of humanity. The revelation is no more in the family but in history. And in the heart of history stands Christ, now more than the Jesus of heart and home. We believed in a universal Father; we now believe also in the Son. We believe in the Christ of the race. the Son of Man, the Man Divine. But we do not stop there. He becomes more than historic, he becomes a Son Eternal, the Son of God, a Son who never dies, never leaves us, a Son brought home in a Church. The Lord is the Spirit. The Holy God of Israel becomes the Holy Spirit of Christ, which makes me a sinner. We believe in a Father and Son who come down in the Spirit to our little door, in our Baptism, and home to our very soul by the saving Word. I perceive a message, a power, a salvation for me, individualized to me. We believe in the Holy Ghost. We believe in the will of the Eternal Father, the work of the historic Son, the Word, the Church of the Holy Ghost. The heart is no revelation for itself It is too fickle, treacherous.

“The best of what we are and feel, just God forgive.”

History is no revelation, with its awful anomalies, its cruel passions, its egoisms, its barren conflicts and their uncertain ends. Man realizes God more than Nature does, only to defy Him more.

‘I saw Him in the flowering of the field,
I marked Him in the shining of the stars,
But in his ways with men I found Him not.”

And Newman found history a scroll written over with mourning and lamentation and woe. The Revelation is not history, though it is in history. It is historic in the Son and in the Church, it is near and searching in the Holy Ghost.

We began seeking God, because we felt so able and so, sure to find Him. We end by serving Him, because He has sought and found us, disabled and unsure. We began with a love of justice, we end with a prayer for justification. We begin by willing and knowing, we end by being willed and known. “His will is our peace.”

Revelation, Old and New – Part 1

(delivered under the auspices of the Guilds of St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Edinburgh, 1911)

“But God commendeth His own love to us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. v. 8.)

May I at the outset be a little theological? I must be, to be fair to my text. I promise to be quite religious and quite humane before I am done. But theology is to religion what principle
is to life.

First, I would say, Revelation is really Redemption. The light was the life of men. The new light was the new life.

Second, Redemption is a thing of heart and soul and will and mind. Our thought of it must be humanized to the hungry heart, and it must be moralized to the guilty conscience.

I. First, then, Revelation is really Redemption.
And here note three things.


Two mistakes are made about Revelation. It is treated either as mere display of God or as mere statement of Him. We think of God either as allowing Himself to be seen or as allowing Himself to be explained. We think of Revelation either as a picture of God or as a truth about Him. He is regarded either as an object of contemplation or as an object of discussion, as a beatific vision or a dialectic theme, as the object either of a mysticism or of an orthodoxy. We are agreed that, if there be a revelation, it is God’s gift, but we are not agreed about what He gives; whether it is a theophany of Himself or a declaration about Himself or something else. Some say Christ came to show us the Father, to show us His portrait, or sketch His character; others that He came to tell us of the Father, to give us His truth, His theology. In either case we have but portrayal. And it is hard to say which mistake has done more mischief—the notion that God’s great gift is a picture of Himself to be admired, or the notion that it is a truth about Himself to be credited.

What God gave us was neither His portrait nor His principle; He gave us Himself—His presence, His life, His action. He did more than show us Himself, more than teach us about Himself—He gave us Himself, He sacrificed Himself. It is ourselves He seeks, therefore it was Himself He gave, life for life and soul for soul. He asks us for life–committal, because it was His life He committed to us. He gave us love by giving us Himself to love. He does not make His love and goodness just to pass before us in a panorama; nor does He lay it out parcelled so that we may readily just take it or leave it. Where would then be the urgency of Christ–His final and awful dilemma put to us? God carries His love home to us. He will not let us alone with it. He invades us with it. He “commends” it to us–not in the sense of praising it, but of committing it ‘into our hands. He takes the last pains to get it home to us; nay, He carries it home Himself, does it all Himself. He “commends His own love”. He does not woo us by proxy. Christ was no mere messenger, but present God. The divine Lover is His own apostle. He did not simply send His Son; He came in His Son, and in His Son’s cross. God was in Christ’s reconciling. He did not simply make use of death, of His Son’s death He died. Surely what the Son suffered cost the Father even more. When Paul spoke to the Galatians about his preaching of Christ, he says he “placarded Christ” before them (Gal. iii. I).

I made a great exhibition of Him, writ Him large, made a show of Him, and glorified Him openly. That was an apostle’s work. He depicted Christ, and pointed to Christ, and commended Christ. He said “Hear me,”—not, “Look to me”, but “Look to Christ … Receive Christ.” He preached not himself. No apostle did. They preached Christ, and were Christ’s apostles. But Christ did say “Look to me.” In Christ God was His own apostle. God directed Himself, nay, sped Himself, to the human heart in Christ. He did not employ another. God was not to Christ as Christ was to Paul. Paul was sacramental to us for Christ, but Christ was mediatorial to us for God. Christ is not vicarious for God as He is for us. He was continuous with God as He is not with us. He did not represent God to us on the same principle as He does us to God. Christ dying therefore was God commending His own love to us. The Cross was no mere assurance of God’s love, but its action. Christ was the love of God giving itself to us, the grace of God bestowing, spending, pouring itself out on us, the holiness of God reclaiming us to holiness, not turning us toward it, but replacing us in it. God does not love us by deputy; He does not give us by deputy; He does not save us by deputy. He brings and wings His own love. His holiness takes its own consequences in an evil world. He does His own suffering and saving. He is a Jealous God. None but Himself shall redeem us for Himself. He is a monopolist of sacrifice. He does not part with the agony and glory of the Cross to any creature. None shall outdo Him in sacrifice. No creature has a right to sit with God on the throne of the Cross. It was no created being that died for us. Creatures as we are, it is in no created Spirit that we can live. Our Redemption is too costly for any but our Creator, and a creature must let it alone for ever.

In a word Revelation is Redemption. The new light is new life. God reveals His own self to us sinners in that Christ dies for us. We are not sages, we are sinners. Already by its intelligence the world knew not God. And there is no other way of revealing God to sinners but by redeeming them. We must be redeemed into the power of understanding a holy revelation. Does it not come to that? The Revelation is not a glorification of love as a poet might do it. it is not an illustration of it like a parable. The Son of God was not a mere symbol of God, an illustration. God’s revelation of love is the bestowal of love as a lover does. It is not a show but a sacrament. Nay, it is more. It is not the donation of love as a thing—as something which God could detach, hand over, pour out, and part with. God’s love is God loving. It is the gift of Himself who is love, given in the only way that love could give itself to loveless men, by the way of death. God’s answer to us is the word of reconciliation. And we answer it not by being impressed, and not by being convinced, but by being conciliated, by being reconciled,—by an eternal life of communion. For it was a revelation once for all and for ever. Do I carry you with me?


Revelation to sinners must be redemption, not chiefly because it is love, but because it is holy love. “His own love.” God Himself, I have said, does His own revealing of Himself as Saviour without prophet or deputy. But that word “His own” has another shade of meaning. God’s love in Christ was not only not vicarious: it was His own in another sense. It was unique in kind. There was, there is, nothing like it anywhere. It is holy love, a love peculiar to Him. God so loved–not so intensely but so peculiarly, in such a special way, so holily. He did not come with even the best human love lifted and made infinite. That is sacred but not holy. He came with another kind altogether, of which the love of mortals, however intense and tender, is but a symbol.

Do you ask what love is when it rises as high as God?

Here it is. Herein is love, not that we loved passionately, but that He loved holily. Do you want to know what love really is and does at its height? You must not go to love in sinful men who, being evil, know how to give good gifts to their children, but to love in holy God, who gives His native holiness. You must not go to lovable men and women, nor to those who are the great lovers of each other in fact or ‘in romance, but to the love of the evil world by the holy historic God. You want to know what fatherhood is? You must not magnify and cast upon the heavens the image of the best of mortal fathers. You must not go to a deduced fatherhood–deduced from man and imported into God. You must not –import fatherhood into God, nor goodness, patience, pity, sacrifice. That would be working in quite the wrong way, moving in quite the wrong direction for religion. Religion begins with a revelation that comes clown, not a passion that goes up. We must not reverse the divine current. It would be what is called anthropomorphism. It is imposing man on God instead of revealing God through man. Our love is God’s speech but not His Word.

No. We do not understand God from religion but religion from God. But where is He, you say, if not in my heart? He is in history. We must go to history, to Christ, and find the fontal Father there, the absolute Father, from whom all fatherhood is named in heaven and earth. He is in our experience but not of it. We must go to Christ’s Holy Father. Christianity is not fatherhood but holy fatherhood. We must go to the Father whose love is holiness going out to love men back to itself, and whose grace is holiness going down to love them up to itself His own love means it is holy love.


How is holy love to be revealed to unholy men? How is the outgoing holiness to reach them? How but by death God knew what He had to expect when He committed His holy self among evil men. It was shame and death. There is no way but the Cross of committing a holy love to such a world as this. The gospel of a holy God is not soon popular. The holier your love of men is the more you will suffer and be rejected with it. God Almighty knew, for Himself even, no way but the Cross to the hearts and wills of evil men. Nature is to be sanctified by no genial grace, by no loving charm, but by suffering grace. It only sanctifies because it redeems, it only redeems because it atones, it only atones because it dies in holy obedience, it only dies to rise, and it rises, as it died, by the spirit of holiness (Rom. i. 4). God’s holiness makes in Christ its own atonement, commends its own love as grace, does its own justification, and redeems us into its own communion.