Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Substitutionary Atonement, the Two Natures of Christ, and the Trinity

I saw someone the other day take a swipe against substitutionary atonement by saying that the cross is not about God pouring out his wrath on an innocent human being. "Cosmic child abuse" someone also has called this theory of atonement. Those who think substitutionary atonement is the best or even the only way to speak about the reconciliation of humanity to God and God to humanity through the cross of Christ have also spoken about the alienation between Jesus and the One who is his Father in such stark terms as to imply if not outright break the union of the Holy Trinity. There is some way in which these thoughts are related, whether they be of a powerless human being who serves as a ransom for humanity before a wrathful God or of an abusive Father who takes out his frustrations against others on his Son, coming from those who find substitutionary atonement disturbing or distasteful, or, from those on the pro-side of substitutionary atonement, thoughts of rage against sin and alienation that divide the Trinity. In some way, they all come from a failure to grasp in fullest terms the unity of essence and intention in the Triune God, and, relatedly, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ.

Let us take this notion of the utter powerlessness of the innocent human being in light of the cross. Humility, being found in the form of a servant, being silent as a lamb before its shearers pictures the weakness in which God is slain of sinful man, but this is a powerful weakness, the weakness of God. No one takes the life of the Son from him. He lays it down of himself and takes it up again. The creature here is one person, the Son, of the very essence of God, the Trinity. This is not a man forced to carry a burden he does not freely choose to carry. He submits in love to the will of the Father to be slain by those he has come to save in propitiating the wrath of the self-same God. God and man are one in this as they are one in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, let us remember that the division of the persons arises out of the One, undivided, and indivisible essence of the Godhead. The Father who wounds is God; the Son who is wounded is God; the Spirit who announces God's revelation that "one hung from a tree is cursed" and then vindicates him before the Father in the resurrection is God.

Thirdly, let us remember that this abandonment of God by God into the hands of sinners for the salvation of humanity is the plan forged before the worlds in the inner council chamber of the Blessed Trinity. In the actual accomplishment of this plan, the Trinity, as God's One indivisible essence, experience as One what it is to be forsaken of God and shatter this horror to pieces. Each person of the Holy Trinity also experiences this tragedy individually. That Jesus is perfectly in submission to the will of his Father and that the Spirit is leading him and vindicates him in the end shows that the transaction of wrath between Father and Son is carried out in perfect concord and peace. In their alienation is perfect unity.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

From Geneva to Wittenberg: Christology 1

I am as much an accidental Lutheran as I was an accidental Reformed Christian. When I realized my convictions were no longer Baptist and that I would find myself sooner or later in a liturgical and sacramental church, I did not at all expect I would start that life in a Presbyterian church. This was due to some uncomplimentary and false preconceived notions I had about Calvinism, but I gradually and blessedly overcame those objections by listening to what the tradition actually had to say about them. While it was not due initially to any major change in conviction about Christian faith and practice that led me to consider exploring Lutheranism as had been the case when I stumbled into Presbyterianism, I did have the similar experience of having to reevaluate false preconceived notions about what a group of Christians actually believed and practiced. My understanding of the Lutheran take on Christology and their related teaching on the Lord's Supper required just such a treatment.

My story with Lutheranism began when I returned to my hometown from college and began considering from within which church community I should live out the sacramental and liturgical convictions I had arrived at during college and had begun nourishing there at a confessional Presbyterian church. I did not consider one of the local Lutheran churches for, among other reasons, their teaching of the "ubiquity," or omnipresence, of Christ's body after his ascension into heaven. Well, a few years later and with a trying experience in my hometown Presbyterian congregation behind me, I gave the Lutherans the look they deserved right from the start and discovered very quickly I did not have the whole picture on their Christological teaching. I'll sketch a broader picture of the Lutheran Christological concerns in a minute, but first a word on the "so what?"

Wherever the truth may happen to be on the particulars of this question, is an issue as seemingly speculative and tangential to the Gospel as the properties of Christ's body ascended to the right-hand of the Father important enough for it to be a deciding factor in whether or not to join, much less investigate, a church community or tradition? It would seem in today's context that this would be an example of the worst kind of divisive, doctrinal nitpicking, but there is actually something quite central to the Christian faith at stake here. We are dealing with Our Lord Jesus Christ and his divine and human natures united in his one person–the Incarnation by which God the Son assumed our flesh, suffered, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, reigns at the right hand of the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. On the basis of the witness of the Holy Scriptures, the Church throughout history has understood that the work of freeing us from the bonds of sin, death, and Hell required that the Savior be at once both fully and truly God and fully and truly man; therefore, our thinking or speaking about the person of Christ must fall within the boundaries set forth in the Chalcedonian formulation of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in one person, neither mixing, confusing, nor separating his two natures, if we are to present him as God-in-the-flesh who by his Incarnation, death, and resurrection is our Savior.

Furthermore, the Church has understood that the work of salvation Christ accomplished for us on the cross and in the resurrection is communicated and guaranteed to us in and through the flesh He shares with us to eternity. The salvation Christ provides, of which the Incarnation is both the necessary means and the very reality itself, is not the kind of thing that once he has died as the ransom for our sins and risen again for our justification, he would then relinquish his flesh and consider his work on our behalf over and done with. No, in addition to offering himself as a sacrificial victim for us, Christ continues the work of redemption in his body by the high priestly ministry he carries out on our behalf in the heavenly tabernacle. Our salvation is guaranteed by this work and by the fact that Christ wears our flesh eternally and has seated it forever in heaven.

The issue of the properties of Christ's body now that he has ascended into the glory of his Father relates to these concerns in that it has broader implications for understanding the Incarnation. From passages such as Colossians 2:9, "in Christ all the fullness of deity dwells bodily," the Lutherans understand that the union between Christ's divine nature and human nature is most intimate and exhaustive. As Christ is one person, the natures work inseparably, the divine nature giving itself fully to the human nature, andthe human nature being filled with the divine nature. If this is so, as Scripture indicates it is, then Christ wills to, can, and does utilize all of the properties of his deity in, with, and through his humanity in communicating his salvation to us, especially now that he has been exalted to God's right hand and rules on high. From the Lutheran perspective, however, to deny this consequence of the union of the two natures in one person, is to implicitly separate the natures and thus have a God who has not become fully incarnate in Jesus Christ. If Christ's assumed humanity is not united to the fullness of his deity in his one person, then we have no guarantee that we are in union with the Holy Trinity through his flesh.

For the Reformed, on the other hand, they reason that if in the Incarnation the two natures of Christ retain their natural properties, it is improper to speak of the divine nature communicating properties to the human nature that are beyond or even contrary to its natural properties, for to do so would be to mix the natures and have a God who has not assumed a human nature like ours and who thus has not redeemed us. Calvin, for instance, reasoned that if Christ's body was now omnipresent, it implied a body of infinite substance and thus no body at all. The result of such a teaching would be that Christians would lose the confidence of salvation that comes from having Christ in a body like ours seated at the right hand of the Father, performing his ongoing work of intercession for us and serving as a guarantee that we are at peace with God and will one day be in heaven with him. The Reformed, therefore, take the position that Christ's body, because of the natural limits of his humanity, is unable to be everywhere present and so is physically present only in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

This in short is why Lutherans have accused Calvinists of Nestorianism (i.e., separating the two natures) and Calvinists have accused Lutherans of Monophysitism (i.e., mixing the two natures). As I have indicated, these are serious charges, and, admittedly, one can easily see how each tradition would level the charge at the other. That being said, the charges are most likely due to clumsiness in expressing the actual teachings of each tradition by both its proponents and opponents than it is to true Christological heresy. One also can see the reasonableness of the arguments of either tradition in regard to the question and how they are each concerned to safeguard essential matters of life and salvation by their teachings and to defend these core concerns in relation to the teachings of the other tradition.

So how do we sort this out? Are the Lutherans really flirting with or outright adopting Monophysitism in understanding the person of Christ? I once thought so, but I now see very clearly that the answer is no. How did I change my mind? One of my first discoveries when I turned to the Book of Concord, was that, contrary to what has been understood by the Reformed and other Christians, the Lutherans do not teach that Christ's body is now omnipresent in the sense that it possesses an infinite substance. The Lutherans maintain a distinction between the two natures in the abstract, and the two natures as they are joined together concretely in the hypostatic union as one person. Calvin's characterization of the Jesus of Lutheran Christology as a phantasmal Christ thus has more rhetorical force than it does basis in reality. Lutheran Christologians are far too careful, orthodox, and familiar with the conciliar formulations of the ancient Church to posit a communication of properties by a mixing of the substances. In keeping with the Chalcedonian formula they have always taught that each nature maintains its essential properties.

If Christ's human nature retains its essential properties of being circumscribed in time and space, then how can he present his body everywhere, if not by mixing it with his infinite divine nature? We must look to the kind of union that Christ's two natures have with one another and to the teaching of the communication of properties. Zwingli conceived of biblical statements that attributed human properties to God, such as dying and shedding his blood, to be merely a figure of speech, a verbal alloiosis, because the divine essence cannot by nature die. As a result, he attributed Christ's death only to the human nature. Of course, Zwingli was correct that the divine nature, being impassable, could not suffer death, but his position that the communication of properties was merely verbal implied that the divine nature simply sat idly by while the human nature alone participated in death—something that comes very close to the two boards glued together, human person united to a divine person Christology of the Nestorians. A more orthodox understanding, however, is that the divine person of the Son of God died in his assumed human nature, the divine nature communicating the power of life to death and overcoming sin, death, hell, the devil, and damnation through it.

While the subsequent Reformed tradition has associated the two natures far more closely, for instance, the Westminster Confession attributing death to the divine person, Zwingli's clumsy early formulation perhaps still casts its shadow on Reformed Christology in the tradition’s rejection of the third genus of the ancient Church's teaching on the communication of properties. In the Book of Concord, Luther is quoted as saying that when the distinctions within the communication of properties are neglected and that it is reckoned as being of only one kind, "the doctrine becomes confused and the simple reader is easily led astray" (Solid Declaration VIII.35). The history of the understanding of this doctrine in parts of the Church where the third genus is less well known bears this out.

The first genus of the communication of properties pertains to the predication of the properties of each nature to Christ's one person. This is not merely a verbal predication but expresses a real communion between the natures, the Greek Fathers speaking of it in terms of perichoresis, or interpenetration. This is intended to communicate the idea that the two natures are united as one person and thus that the properties of each nature are predicated of the whole person and thus of each other. The Church has utilized a member of analogies to show how this communication occurs without the mixing or confusion of the natures, including the union of body and soul and the glowing and burning of iron placed in fire with the light and heat of fire. The soul, for instance, communicates its powers of life and activity to the body without the soul becoming the body and the body becoming the soul. In like manner, iron submerged and heated in fire glows with its light and burns with its heat without substantially becoming fire or losing its essential iron-ness.

Building on the first genus, the second genus pertains to the predication of a single work or property to both natures, for instance Christ's offices of Mediator and Redeemer or his work as High Priest, these works being proper to both natures. The third genus, as mentioned above, enters into more controversial waters for the Reformed. It expresses the communication of properties above and beyond the ordinary properties, dimensions, and limits of human nature to Christ's assumed humanity. The Reformed do teach a communication of miraculous finite, created gifts given to Christ according to his humanity, but the Lutherans, following Cyril of Alexandria and the Greek Fathers, go further, predicating the highest prerogatives of deity to the human nature, including omnipotence and omnipresence.

Dealing with the erroneous idea that the Lutherans teach an infinite substance for the ascended body of Christ is the most important place to start for Reformed seeking to understand Lutheran Christology. The ancient teaching of the communication of properties also shows that the omnipresent humanity of Jesus is not an innovation of the 16th century. It is not the idiosyncratic doctrine of dubious orthodoxy and dangerous tendency I had thought it was but it faithfully buttresses the Incarnation. As one divine person, Christ exercises in perfect unity the prerogatives of immeasurable divinity and the tangible humility of human flesh, without either mixing or confusing the two natures. I've sought to clear up misunderstandings about Lutheran ubiquity in this first post, to express the importance of the issue for understanding the person and work of Jesus, to make a rudimentary comparison between Calvinist and Lutheran Christological discussions, and to establish the building blocks for a fuller explication of the doctrine. I will dive deeper into the doctrine and deal with further Reformed critiques in my next post.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

From Geneva to Wittenberg: Introduction and Overview

In my spiritual journey to date, I have lived, believed, and worshiped within three major traditions of the Christian faith. I was reared and formed initially as a Christian in the Baptist tradition, but, as I read, studied, and lived more in the faith I had been given, I came to conclusions about the sacraments and Church history that brought my viewpoint in line with the right wing of the Protestant Reformation, that which in its reform of medieval Roman Catholicism sought to maintain the greatest continuity in doctrine and worship with the Church as it had existed prior to the Reformation. This right wing of the Reformation in history has been represented principally by the Reformed churches and system of doctrine and the Lutheran churches and system of doctrine. By a blessed accident (what we would theologically call a Providence), I lived into the conservative Reformation first in the Reformed churches, and now, by a similar but also blessed accident, God has placed me in Christ's body as it finds its expression within the Lutheran churches. Though I am now living, worshiping, and believing as a Lutheran Christian, the blessings of my Reformed heritage (and also of my Baptist heritage prior to that) continue to live with me.

With that in mind, I will take opportunity briefly to sing the praises of what I view to be the chief blessings of the Reformed churches to global Christianity before moving on to the main project I have in view here of comparing the two traditions’ views on controverted matters between themselves and explaining my insights from navigating these issues and embracing the Lutheran take as the one more faithful and true to the Scriptures. I alluded to the word Providence above, and it is in the Calvinist emphasis on God's exhaustively sovereign and providential reign over his entire creation that I find the greatest comfort and benefit of this tradition. God is in control, and he is in control for us, lovingly governing his world and embracing it in the redemption he has accomplished for it through Jesus Christ. I believe this understanding helps us to better praise God and see his glory in all things. Where things are marred due to sin and death in this world, we can see in this understanding of Providence, that our fulfillment and hope in life and death, in good and bad, is the transcendent God who humbled himself, took on our flesh, suffered for us, died for us, rose for us, sits at the right hand of God as Lord of heaven and earth and Redeemer for us, and will come again for us to abolish sin and death from the good creation he loves and is so exhaustively engaged with. The Reformed teach this and find life in it better than most, and we can learn from them here.

I must also praise the way in light of the above, the Reformed tradition has historically preached the whole Scriptures and especially the Old Testament. I would not now trade the blessings of the sermons on a cyclical lectionary of Scripture passages in the Lutheran Divine Service, because these passages center us on Christ, who is taught all throughout Scripture as its central message, and they do this particularly well. It is not for nothing that these texts have been preached more extensively and exhaustively throughout the history of the church than any other passages in the Bible! Nevertheless, redemptive-historical preaching consecutively through whole books of the Bible and through the Old Testament helps to flesh the centrality of Christ out even in those passages that have not been preached as frequently in church history. I would heed the Lutheran caution of not conflating Law and Gospel or flattening the differences between the Testaments, but would that we all preached the whole Scriptures with the rigor and exhaustiveness the Reformed so often have!

I will conclude this brief litany of praises by connecting the exhaustive Providence of Calvinism with the exhaustive focus on Christ throughout all of Scripture that we see in Calvinism by praising the tradition for its commitment to seeing the Lordship of Christ exalted in every area of life. Lutherans, what with Luther's robust teaching on Creation, our Two Kingdoms theology of Christ's Lordship over heaven and earth, and our teaching on vocation as divine calling, do not have cause to hang our heads on these matters quite as much as is popularly thought, but I must give Calvinism props for showing me the way the Christian hope affects all of life and transforms people and societies for the glory of Christ.

Having now praised the aspects of my Reformed heritage that have most blessed me and that I believe to be genuine blessings to the entire Church catholic, I will now put forward some very general comparisons and contrasts and to state in as factual manner I can the controverted issues between the Lutheran and Reformed churches and confessions.

The branch of the Reformation later designated by the term Reformed or Calvinist began under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. It began independently from the Reformation in Germany under Luther, but it held several things in common with it. Just as was the case with the Reformation in Germany, its principle for reforming the Roman Catholic Church in doctrine and worship was Scripture alone as the final authority in the Church. Similarly, just as was the case with the Reformation in Germany under Luther, the theological principle for reforming doctrine which Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation took from the Scriptures was justification by grace alone through faith alone. When it came to worship, however, the Reformation movements followed different principles. The Reformed followed what is termed the regulative principle, which states that only those practices explicitly commanded or prescribed in Scripture were to be permitted in the worship of God, while the Lutherans followed what can be called the normative principle, which states that the Church in its worship is forbidden from only those practices that are forbidden in or contrary to Scripture. As a result, the Reformed followed a more rigorous and radical plan for reforming worship, which included exclusive psalmody, the exclusion of musical instruments from worship, the removal of images and crucifixes from the churches, and a more simplified liturgy, while the Lutherans retained practices and traditions from the Church as it had existed prior to the Reformation, such as the singing of hymns, instrumental music, and much of the liturgical form and content of the medieval Mass. Some of the austerity of Reformed worship lessened under the leadership of John Calvin, but vast differences continued in the liturgical principles of the traditions, including down to the present.

The differences in approach to worship express some of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in doctrinal and theological emphases of the two traditions. The heartbeat and very center of the Lutheran Reformation has always been justification by grace alone through faith alone. For Lutherans this doctrine has always been the rock on which the Church stands or falls, while in Calvinism the concern for the Gospel has often been expressed more in terms of God's immutable predestination than in terms of justification by faith, and obedience to the Law in Christian worship and liturgy have often been placed on equal footing with the preaching of the Gospel as the essence of the Church.

Their differing emphases in preaching the Gospel, the relative weight each puts on the doctrine of justification in their overall system, and their juncture with the differing emphases and principles of worship each tradition follows point us to the first issue between the Reformed churches and Lutheranism that truly is and has been church-dividing from the time of the Reformation. This is the issue of the sacraments in general, and of the Lord's Supper in particular. The Lutherans teach a straightforward doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the sacramental union of Jesus Christ's body and blood with the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper, while the Reformed have a more indirect understanding of the way in which the sacraments work for our salvation. This more indirect view of the sacraments stems from the greater emphasis the Reformed place on God's transcendence and secret predestination in our salvation. The sacraments testify indirectly to election and are means of salvation only to those who will ultimately persevere to the end and be finally saved. For the Lutherans, however, the Word of God, and its objective promises delivered to sinners directly in the sacraments are sure testimonies of God's saving intent. They tangibly present the realities they signify to all those who receive them. The Lord's Supper saves because it is Jesus Christ, his body and blood being immediately present in, with, and under the bread and wine. The Reformed, due to the normative status in their system of doctrine of Calvin's marked improvement over Zwingli on the sacraments, affirm a feeding on the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper indirectly through faith and the Holy Spirit, but for the Lutherans, it is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, through whom we receive the Holy Spirit, that guarantees our salvation and strengthens our faith. We know we are Christians because we have received these gifts to eat and drink to everlasting life.

This, of course, explains the juncture between worship and justification I obliquely mentioned above and failed to describe until now. The primary purpose of worship in the Lutheran view is to receive the forgiveness of sins. For the Reformed, the note of forgiveness in the worship service is still certainly there but the primary emphasis is on the duty to obey God and render him service. This is not to say, conversely, that Lutherans do not understand the Divine Service as moving us to gratefully serve God and our neighbor in response to his glorious gifts, but the primary form of worship God receives from us when we go to church is "the divine service of the Gospel" where "we receive from him gifts" (Defense of the Augsburg Confession, IV II.189).

As the controversy on the Lord's Supper indicates, the issues of grace and election are also controverted and church-dividing between the Lutherans and Reformed. Differences on predestination, the extent of the atonement, the question of the resistibility of grace, and perseverance in grace are the most salient points in the disagreement.

Finally, while both Lutherans and Reformed fall safely within the bounds of Christological orthodoxy established in the Nicene Creed and the Formula of Chalcedon, each has steadily leveled at the other the charge of transgressing those boundaries. The Christological issue that has been in debate, i.e., the degree to which Christ's divine nature communicates its properties to the human nature, is significant for our understanding of the Incarnation itself. Of course, the occasion for the eruption of the controversy was differing teachings on the presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord's Supper and the implications of Christ's Ascension to the right-hand of the Father to this question. The Christological issues, thus, are significant for their role in the sacramental teachings of each tradition.

I want to examine these controverted issues each a little more closely in their turn. I will start with the Christological controversy, advance to the Lord's Supper, and conclude my study with grace and election.