Thursday, March 1, 2018

Academy of Bible and Theology


Dear Readers,

Recently, I launched a new project called the Academy of Bible and Theology (click here), sponsored by AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc. This program is designed to provide FREE educational courses in the basic doctrines of Christianity for pastors and church leaders in the Global South who have little or no formal biblical-theological training (there are many!). Our theological position is the incarnational-Trinitarian theology of T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth and others.

Our first two courses are already available. They are “The Christian Doctrine of God” and “The Doctrine of Jesus Christ.” These courses are written in simple, basic English for readers whose first language is not English. Both courses draw heavily on the work of Torrance and Barth. I am now working on a third course to be called, “The Christian Life: Living in Relationship with God and Neighbour.” I am inviting you to contribute material for this course.

We have more than 300 students from Africa and Asia with more enrolling daily. If you would like to participate in this project, contact me at office@AsiAfricaMinistries.org.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Annunciation and the Way of Grace

The Annunciation

In the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38), we read the story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the peasant girl Mary that she has been chosen to be the virgin-mother of Jesus Christ. The “Annunciation” is the staggering news that an unmarried Galilean teenager from a backwater village in an inconsequential corner of the Roman Empire will be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and will conceive in her womb the Son of God.

The Priority of Grace

The choice of a simple peasant girl to be the “God-bearer,” that is, the virgin-mother of the incarnate Son of God, is a paradigmatic example of the gracious nature of God’s relationship with humanity—a relationship unilaterally determined by the love and goodness of God that in no way depends upon reciprocal human “worthiness.” The choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus did not depend on any salutary characteristics she possessed that would “qualify” her for the unique role she would play in God’s redemptive plan. There was nothing remarkable to commend the young peasant girl for the awesome responsibility she was to assume. She brought no resources to the God-human encounter. She had no wealth or social standing; she held no important position in society, even in her small village. In terms of worldly power, possessions and prestige, she was of no consequence. Despite her lack of worldly status, however, the angel Gabriel hailed Mary as the “highly favoured one,” who is “blessed among women” because of the unique role she plays in salvation history as the human mother of the fully divine Son of God (Luke 1:28 NKJV).

Notwithstanding her unique, awe-inspiring status as the virgin-mother of Jesus, however, Mary was an ordinary human being—an “earthen vessel” (2Cor 4:7) made of the dust of the ground, an ordinary “sinner” who had fallen short of the glory of God (see Rom 3:23). To be sure, there was nothing extraordinary about Mary to make her “worthy” of her “highly favoured” position.  
Even Mary’s willing consent to God’s plan for her life was not a precondition for God’s goodness towards her. The choice of the young peasant girl to bear the Son of God was not determined by any prior “decision” on her part. To be sure, Mary could not “decide” of her own accord to become the virgin “mother of God.” To the contrary, as the angelic messenger announced, the divine decision to choose Mary had already been made for her. She could only acknowledge the divine decision made on her behalf and allow the word of God to happen to her (1).
Mary freely received the divine favour that God had sovereignly and graciously chosen to bestow upon her by consenting to the extraordinary plan God had prepared for her life, trusting that with God “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). With simple trust and humility, she replied to the angel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

“Conditional” Grace (?)

Mary, the virgin-mother of Jesus, is an outstanding example of an ordinary human being whose life is transformed by grace. Unilaterally and unconditionally, God graciously bestowed his favour upon the young peasant girl, apart from any prior attempt on Mary’s part to earn divine favour. With trusting consent to the divine plan for her life, Mary simply received God goodness towards her.
Evangelicals often describe “grace” as “unmerited pardon” or “favour.” Often g-r-a-c-e is defined as “God's riches at Christ’s expense.” Evangelicals rightly assert that we cannot “earn” God’s grace. Despite a proper emphasis on the unmerited nature of grace, however, there are—perhaps unintentionally—implicit yet contradictory “conditions” in much evangelical preaching. In this kind of preaching, the gospel is presented in terms of a “contract”: that is, if the sinner fulfils certain conditions, then God will be gracious. Evangelical preachers may claim that God’s goodness and mercy are available only to those who have made a “decision for Christ,” or who have recited “the sinner’s prayer” and “accepted” Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Preachers with a more legalistic bent may attach other conditions to divine grace, asserting that only those who believe specific doctrines or adhere to certain standards of behaviour deserve God’s favour.

According to much contemporary evangelicalism, human salvation is not complete in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Contrary to the words of Jesus when he hung on the cross, it is not “finished”; rather, some task remains undone, to be completed by the repentant sinner; some doctrine must be fervently believed if the fires of “hell” are to be avoided. For many evangelicals, salvation is a mere “potential,” waiting to be “actualized,” or brought to fruition, by some action on the part of the penitent. Only when the sinner has played his or her part in the drama of salvation is he or she “saved.”

The gospel, however, is the good news that our standing before God does not depend upon any decision, belief or action on our part. We do not have to “earn” God’s favour. The gospel proclaims that God’s goodness is freely bestowed upon all in Jesus Christ. Contrary to evangelicalism, grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and presented as a contract whose conditions must be fulfilled if the sinner is to be “saved.” Contrary to Roman Catholicism, grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and constituted the sole property of the church, so that it may be doled out to sinners via the sacraments, penance or confession.

In contrast to the “contractual” view of grace prominent in evangelicalism, or the “sacerdotal” view of Roman Catholicism, wherein priests are regarded as mediators between God and humanity,  grace is God’s self-giving for all humanity in Jesus Christ (see John 3:16). Hence, grace is personal, for grace is identical with Jesus Christ, in whom the “gift” and the “Giver” are one and the same.

A Sinner Encounters Grace

An outstanding portrayal of a sinner’s encounter with grace as a personal Reality is the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus (Luke 19:1ff). As a “chief tax collector,” a servant of the oppressive, pagan government of occupying Rome, Zacchaeus was regarded as a “sinner”—a social-religious outcast shunned by the respectable members of first-century Jewish society, who doubtless resented the wealth he accumulated by “skimming” money from the taxes he collected from his neighbours.

Upon hearing that Jesus was passing nearby on his way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed a sycamore tree, so that he might get a better look at Jesus. When he saw Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus shunned contemporary social convention by inviting himself to the tax collector’s home. Jesus’ gracious intention to “stay at the house” of the chief tax collector triggered the complaints of the local villagers, who disapproved of the Lord’s willingness to lodge in the home of a “sinner.” As a result of his surprising encounter with grace, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to return fourfold to any he may have cheated. Upon hearing this, Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9, 10).

It is vital to note that, like the Virgin Mary, Zacchaeus had done absolutely nothing to “deserve” what was nothing less than a divine visitation. Zacchaeus merely climbed a tree to get a better look as Jesus passed. Yet, despite the local villagers’ contempt for the tax collector, Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, engaging him in the midst of his sinfulness and greed. Apart from any attempt to make himself worthy—indeed, with no opportunity to make himself worthy!—Zacchaeus freely “received” (Luke 19:6) Jesus into his home. Through his personal encounter with grace, even the sinner Zacchaeus, like the Virgin Mary, was highly favoured by God!

Here again we see the priority of grace. Note that Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to “accept” him before expressing his wish to stay in the tax collector’s home. To the contrary: Zacchaeus did not “accept” Jesus; Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, who had done nothing more than climb a tree. The sinful tax collector could only receive the favour that Jesus had already decided to freely bestow upon him, for, as Jesus proclaimed, “The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

The Transforming Power of Grace

As the direct result of his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was radically transformed, so that he freely and willingly reached out to his neighbours in repentance and restitution. The transforming power of the divine favour Jesus unconditionally bestowed upon Zacchaeus reveals the abject failure of religion to change the human heart. Religion attempts to control “external” behaviour by its emphasis on law rather than grace, expressed in stern-jawed demands for unquestioning submission to human rules and expectations. Yet human sinfulness is an “internal” problem, originating in the “heart” (Matt 15:19), and even the most stringent outward adherence to the demands of religion cannot transform the human heart or constitute even the most zealous “worthy” of the grace of God.

The proclamation of the gospel heralds the end of religion, where “religion” is understood as any attempt to please or appease God through human effort. Grace cannot be “earned” through the onerous demands of religion; grace can only be received by the empty hand that reaches out in trust to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment (see Matt 9:19-21). Zacchaeus is not transformed by the rituals, rules and regulations of the cumbersome religion of his day; rather, he is condemned by his neighbours and scorned as a “sinner” for his failure to live according to its burdensome demands. Rather, Zacchaeus is transformed by God’s love as revealed in the incarnate Son, as Jesus graciously engages him in intimate fellowship.

Jesus’ loving, gracious engagement with the “sinner” Zacchaeus unveils the eternal heart of God. Because Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the “express image” of God (Heb 1:3), the one in whom the “fullness of the Godhead” dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9), and the eternal Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14), his loving act toward Zacchaeus is an expression of the eternal heart of the Triune God, whom scripture describes as “love” (1John 4:8, 16). Jesus shows how God is toward sinners: God engages us, even in our sinfulness, and pours himself out in self-emptying love for us (see Phil 2:5-11)!

The Way of Grace
Returning to the much-loved story of Gabriel’s appearance to the virgin Mary¸ the “Annunciation” appears at the beginning of the life and mission of Jesus Christ as a sign of the way God’s love has taken, not only for Mary, but for each of us (2). We too are the recipients of God’s goodness, and our standing with our heavenly Father does not depend upon our “worthiness” to receive divine favour. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In Jesus Christ, the world is fully reconciled to the Father (2Cor 5:19; Col 1:20), who has “lavished” his love upon us and claimed us as his children (1John 3:1 NIV). Like Mary and Zacchaeus, ours is simply to receive by faith the grace of God that is already given us in Jesus Christ.
In the old Latin translation of the New Testament, Gabriel greets the young virgin with words made famous in Schubert’s beloved song, “Ave, Maria!” That is “Hail, Mary!” Because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, this holy day season the angelic hosts joyfully proclaim: “Hail Mary!” “Hail John!” “Hail Susan!” And “hail to you” dear reader, for the good news of the Advent-Christmas season is that, like Mary, we are all highly favoured by God! (3) Amen.

References

1.      Torrance, T.F. 1957. “When Christ Comes to the Individual.” In When Christ Comes and Comes Again. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, pp. 31-38.

2.      Ibid.

3.      Ibid.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A.S. Radcliff: The Claim of Humanity in Christ (in the Torrance tradition), Post 20

Reference
Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp
The “outworking” of sanctification is more than a noetic (“intellectual”) process, wherein we become aware of who we are in Jesus. We are reconciled not only to look toward Jesus as our example, but also to participate in his relationship with the Father in the Spirit. For Torrance, atonement is not the goal of the incarnation; rather, the telos (goal, end) of Christ’s atoning work is communion. As J.B. Torrance asserts, “In love God created us for ‘sonship,’ to find our true being-in-communion, and in Jesus Christ gives us that gift of communion through the Spirit, of being daughters and sons of the Father.”
Comment: When Torrance says that the goal of the incarnation is not atonement, he means "atonement" in the sense of an external transaction (satisfaction, penal substitution, example). In this case, he is not referring to atonement as "at-one-ment."
Comment: In regard to the reason Jesus came, we rightly assert that Jesus came into the world to save sinners ((Mark 10:45). We must not stop there, however.  According to Jesus, eternal life is knowing the Father and the one whom he sent (John 17:3). Therefore, the over-arching reason that Jesus came was to bring us home to the Father. In other words, as Torrance insists, the goal of the incarnation is not atonement (in an external sense) but communion in the Father-Son relationship through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Radcliff draws on JB Torrance to describe three theological models that differentially relate to the outworking of sanctification. First, the Harnack model represents liberal theology, wherein Jesus is seen as a moral teacher that we are too imitate. Second, the existential model, represented by evangelicalism and Protestantism, recognizes the God-humanward movement in Christ’s atoning death on the cross, yet, because it has no concept of the human-Godward movement of the vicarious humanity of Jesus, our response is burdensome, for it is detached from participation in Christ. Third, the incarnational-Trinitarian model of the Torrance tradition appreciates both the God-humanward movement and the human-Godward movement, wherein the Christian life is viewed as “the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father” (JBT).
Radcliff cites T.A. Noble’s book on the Trinity to assert that if we are to take Jesus as an example, we do better to imitate his relationship with the Father in which we share by the Spirit. As we share in that relationship, the outworking of our sanctification follows. Noble offers an interesting analogy of a man falling in love with a woman to illustrate how the desire for communion may express itself in transformed life. The man finds that his relation with the woman turns him out of himself, as she brings out the best in him. The man does not actively seek this change for the better; he seeks the woman! His transformation is the by-product of the relationship. For Noble, it is “objective experience of the real and living God” that results in the subjective transformation we call sanctification.
     Comment: Noble’s analogy of lovers transformed in relationship is noteworthy.
Sanctification conceived in terms of a participatory relationship challenges the external, legal view of sanctification found in Puritanism, whether old or new. As JB Torrance lamented, Puritan preachers sought to instill obedience in their congregations through law and the fear of consequences of disobedience, thereby subordinating God’s filial (relational) purposes to an over-arching legal framework. As Radcliff notes, the Puritans preached law first in order to instill fear, then offered the Gospel as “solace” to those who chose to embrace Christ.
Comment: The Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards is said to have instilled such terror in his hearers that the congregants literally howled and wailed in fear of hell and damnation. This kind of preaching, which is still with us today, presents the Gospel as a threat, rather than as “good news.” As my partners in Africa tell me, this is common fare in their countries, where the Father is portrayed as the “punishing God.” Of course, they learned this kind of preaching from white evangelical-Protestant missionaries. (For this reason, I am committed to bringing incarnational-Trinitarian theology to east Africa and south Asia.)
The Puritans, both old and new, prioritize law over relationship. For the stern-jawed Puritan, it is law rather than grace that leads to repentance. According to J.I. Packer, for example, “Holiness sets its sights on absolute moral standards and unchanging moral ideals, established by God himself.” In regard to “law-breakers,” notes Packer, God can do nothing other than visit them in “displays of retributive judgment, so that all … may see the glory of his moral inflexibility.” Compare that to Radcliff’s inspiring assertion that repentance involves fixing our eyes on Jesus. Wow! What a difference!
Packer rightly asserts that God is not “morally indifferent,” and we should not act toward him as if he were. However, Packer also asserts that we must seek to please God “by consecrated zeal in keeping his law,” accompanied by regular self-examination to identify our shortcomings. In contrast, Radcliff rightly argues that we are not forgiven so that we may have a second chance at keeping the law. She draws on TF Torrance to assert that the Church is not a group of individuals who follow common moral principles; the Church is a community-of-persons ontologically transformed in Christ, who share by the Spirit in his relationship with the Father. Here again, we see the Torrances assertion that our standing vis-à-vis God is relational, not legal. In the “identity-forming” ministry of the Spirit, notes Julie Canlis, we discover that we are sons and daughters of our Father. The Spirit directs us out of ourselves and away from our own attempts at perfect performance toward our relationship with the Father in Jesus. As Canlis writes, “The Holy Spirit ushers us into adoption, not workaholism; the Spirit tells us not so much what to do, but who we are.” Well said! For TF Torrance, an external conception of holy living by adhering to laws is excluded by Paul’s language of the Church as the “body of Christ.” The church “inheres” in Jesus; it does not follow abstract rules. Again we see the assertion that our standing with our Father is relational, not legal.
Comment: The images in the New Testament that describe the Church are organic, not abstract and legal. We are “the body of Christ.” We are the branches who are nourished by the Vine. We are stones built up into a holy Temple, etc.
Following Torrance and Hauerwas, Radcliff argues that law can become a substitute for relationship. Law becomes an end in itself, a program to be achieved rather than a life to be lived in relationship to the Triune God. Because of the capacity of the human heart for deception, notes T.F. Torrance, we may seek to justify ourselves before God and neighbor by a formal, impersonal fulfillment of law in which we remain internally untouched and uncommitted. For Torrance, this de-humanizing endeavor leads to insincerity and hypocrisy.
Comment: Law keeping can easily degenerate into “form” without “substance.” Tragically, law keeping may allow us to turn a blind eye to the joys and perils of a relationship with the Living God. To encounter the Living God in relationship is to be changed, and change can often be painful! (“What the caterpillar calls the ‘end of the world,’ God calls a butterfly.”)
For JB Torrance, we fulfill the law not through adhering to static rules, “but dynamically through the presence of the Spirit in us and our participation in Christ.” Likewise, notes Radcliff, Barth believes that ethical behavior is a matter of following God’s will by the Spirit through participating in Christ. Similarly, Bonhoeffer asserts that the Christian life comes not from being turned inward upon ourselves but rather being turned out of ourselves in relationship with God. [Contrast this with the neo-Puritan insistence upon the inward term of introspection and self-examination.] I think we can briefly summarize all this by saying that godly living is not the consequence of law keeping, but the fruit of relationship. The outworking of sanctification comes not from knowledge of good and evil (i.e., “ethics”) but from our union with God through Jesus in the Spirit.
Radcliff cites David Torrance, who laments that probably ninety per cent of the sermons preached today emphasize cumbersome exhortations to do what is “right,” so that congregants get tired, weary and frustrated—and  ultimately slip away. Radcliff sees this tendency in a new book by the arch-Calvinist, John Piper, who provides a formula for “fighting” against sin, one that consists primarily of exhortations that rely on willpower and struggle. As Radcliff argues, this obscures Christ as the ground of our sanctification in whose intimate communion with the Father we participate by the Spirit.
In contrast to Piper, David Torrance calls for preaching that is centered on Jesus, so that we might come into relationship with the Father. JB Torrance argues that the preacher’s task is not to throw people back upon themselves (as in Piper’s exhortations to willpower and struggle), but to turn people out of themselves toward Christ, so that we might share by the Spirit in his relationship with the Father. As JB Torrance argues, “God’s primary purpose for humans is ‘filial,’ not ‘judicial,’ [i.e., ‘relational’, not ‘legal’] where we have been created in the image of God to find our true being-in-communion, in ‘sonship,’ in the mutual personal relations of love.” As Radcliff notes, “In the outworking of sanctification, God’s primary purpose for humanity is not to adhere to external rules and regulations (judicial) but to participate by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father (filial)” (p. 186).
Key points:
  • ·       The goal of the incarnation is not atonement [in an external sense], but communion with the Triune God of grace.
  • ·       The outworking of sanctification is not a matter of law keeping but of participation in the Son’s relationship with the Father by the Spirit.
  • ·       Neo-Puritanism prioritizes law over grace and reduces sanctification to a wearing struggle.
  •      Law keeping without relationship is form without substance, leading to insincerity and hypocrisy.
  • ·       Christian living arises as we turn away from ourselves to Jesus and the truth of our identity in him, so that we may share in his relationship with the Father by the  Spirit and grow into who we are “in him” (Radcliff).

Let me conclude with a great quote from the 19th C. South African pastor Andrew Murray. It is an excellent antidote to the inward turn of the neo-Puritanism of Packer, Piper and others. I read it this morning in his devotional book, Humility:
     "Being occupied with self, even amid the deepest self-abhorrence, can never free us from self. … Not to be occupied with your sin, but to be occupied with God, brings deliverance from self."

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A.S. Radcliff: The Claim of Humanity in Christ (in the Torrance tradition), Post 19

Reference
Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp
Per Radcliff, there is an eschatological reserve (“time lag”) between the ascension and the parousia in which sin is an ongoing reality, both in the world and in the Church. At the same time, we are given a new “eschatological orientation” in the risen humanity of Jesus, so that, in the here and now, we are privileged to share by the Spirit in Christ’s communion with the Father. This means that a “holy life” does not stem from introspective self-examination or muscular moral effort; a holy life stems from our free and liberating participation by the Spirit in the Father- Son relationship.
Man Turned in Upon Himself
For the Torrances, sin is “man turned in upon himself” (homo incurvatus in se). Sin is the rejection of God in favor of personal autonomy. (In the words of C.S. Lewis, sin is man’s desire “to set up shop on his own.”) Robert Jensen suggests that pride, sloth and falsehood fall under the conceptual umbrella of homo incurvatus in se. As Radcliff argues,
Essentially, sin is homo incurvatus in se (man turned in upon himself). Although we have been reconciled for relationship, to share by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, there is an irrational mystery that people choose to make themselves their own center.
For Barth, sin is driven by two errors: a misunderstanding of God as a despot and a misunderstanding of humanity as self-determining. Paraphrasing Torrance, since we are created to find our “center” in relationship with God, sin violates our center, so that we become “ec-centric” (“off-center”). Barth describes this as “man rotating about himself.” As Radcliff argues, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to turn us out of ourselves (homo excurvatus ex se), so that we are re-oriented (by the Spirit) to find our lives in Jesus, and in his relationship with the Father. Our “re-orientation” by the Spirit, in which we are turned out of ourselves toward Jesus (homo excurvatus ex se), is the foundation of a holy life. Radcliff’s assertion is in marked contrast to the neo-Puritan insistence on an introspective turn inward to look for vestiges of sin.
Comment: In many self-help programs based on the Twelve Steps, there is a strong emphasis on a “moral inventory” that requires a significant amount of introspection and self-examination. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a therapist, I led a weekend workshop where the participants spent the weekend in introspection and self-examination, writing their findings down, so that they could lay it all at the foot of the cross at the end of the workshop. I was amazed at the level of fear expressed by the participants. The notion that they were supposed to look inside in order to “inventory” all their character defects, shortcomings and sins was absolutely terrifying for almost everyone. In view of Radcliff’s argument for a turn away from ourselves toward Jesus, I am wondering about the therapeutic efficacy of the “moral inventory” of Twelve Step programs. Given that many (most?) people in these programs are burdened with low self-esteem, would it not be better to ask them to turn away from themselves in order to see who they are in Jesus. I don’t know. Just thinkin’.
Back to Radcliff. For the Torrances, God’s purpose for humanity is filial (having to do with sonship, or relationship), not legal. We are reconciled for relationship, not for a second chance to keep the law. As we participate by the Spirit in the “right-ness” of the Father-Son relationship, we are enabled (by the Spirit) to reflect the reality of who we are in Jesus. In short, our humanity is not determined by Adam (despite the Calvinists’ insistence on “total depravity”); rather, our humanity is determined by the risen Jesus, as we participate by the Spirit in his sanctified humanity. Although we live in the “eschatological reserve,” with the ongoing presence of sin, we also live in the power of Pentecost, notes Radcliff (p. 171). At Pentecost, argues TF Torrance, Jesus shared the Holy Spirit with humanity, so that humanity might share by the Holy Spirit in Christ.
Comment: For me, here is the advantage of viewing justification and sanctification as objectively realized for everyone in the vicarious humanity of Jesus assumed in the incarnation. Because we are justified-sanctified “in him,” we can regard holy living as the consequence of participation, rather than the result of puritanical effort. If I am understanding this correctly, and I think I am, this is extremely liberating. It allows me to lay down the heavy yoke of moral effort (which I’m no good at anyway!) and take on Jesus’ light yoke instead. It will be interesting to see how this actually “lives out” for me.
To continue: Radcliff asserts that “sin is driven by not knowing what has been objectively achieved for us in Christ.” (That’s a nice assertion but sin can also be driven by “wine, women and song,” or so they tell me!) In a sermon, Torrance preached that we behave as though we are not dead to sin because we do not believe we are dead to sin. Radcliff cites 2 Peter 1:9, where those who do not practice godliness have forgotten that they have been cleansed by sin. As a former therapist, I would argue that sin involves more than a lack of knowledge of our ontological reality in Jesus (as important as that is). Behavior, good or bad, is driven by a multitude of psychological, emotional and behavioral factors.
Metanoia
According to Radcliff, the scriptural admonition to “fix our eyes on Jesus” is the essence of repentance (“a change of mind”). It is a turning outward, away from ourselves (homo excurvatus ex se), toward Jesus. As I like to say it, this turn toward Jesus is “moving from self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness.” It is finding our center in Jesus, not in self. As Radcliff argues, “This challenges an introspective, anthropocentric notion of repentance whereby we are turned in on ourselves to examine our sinfulness and endeavor to offer satisfactory grief” (p. 173). She contrasts this outward turn toward Jesus with the neo-Puritanism of J.I. Packer, who describes repentance in terms of confessing and forsaking sins, altering thoughts, habits and attitudes and “binding one’s conscience to God’s moral law” (and more!). In the Torrance tradition, by contrast, we need not rely on the adequacy of our own moral effort because our repentance is a sharing in Jesus’ perfect vicarious repentance on our behalf. Where Packer describes repentance in terms of displeasure and life-long pain, JB Torrance describes it as a “joyful” activity. This is because, as Radcliff notes, JB conceives of repentance as turning away from ourselves to Christ, in whose intimate communion with the Father we are free to participate.
Comment: Following Radcliff, if sin involves an inward turn toward self, one could argue that that the Puritan insistence on introspection and self-examination may actually make matters worse!
As we live in the “eschatological reserve,” the Church is directed away from itself toward those things which are above, so that we may hold on to what is true of us in Jesus, for our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:1-3). Not only are we directed to Christ, we are directed to share in Christ, and in his mind and truth (1 Cor 2:16: “We have the mind of Christ.”). As Radcliff notes:
This means that our beliefs should be shaped by the truth of God rather than our own human experience. In the context of sanctification, this means that what we believe should be informed by the truth of our identity as saints in Christ, as opposed to our earthly experiences of sinfulness (p. 174). Write it down folks. That’ll preach!
Comment: Radcliff’s assertion finds support in cognitive therapy, where changing our beliefs about ourselves is an important part of the therapeutic process.
Radcliff concludes this section by examining the “pattern” of the apostle Paul’s letters. Since sin is driven by a misunderstanding of God and humanity (per Radcliff), it is necessary to have correct knowledge in order to live holy lives. Paul reminds his readers of “who they are” in Christ, then exhorts them to live accordingly. Richard Hayes (like Barth) argues that Paul exhorts his readers to view their “obligations and actions in the cosmic contest of what God has done in Christ.” This, of course, accords well with JB Torrance’s well-known assertion that the “indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of law.” Finally, Andrew Murray asserts that “[t]he whole Christian life depends on the clear consciousness of our position in Christ.” In an extensive quote, Murray exhorts us to “get hold of” the reality of our union with Christ, for “man’s acts are always in accordance with his idea of his state.” For Murray, a man who knows he is a king will act like a king.
Comment: Andrew Murray (South African pastor) was roughly contemporary with George MacDonald. Murray’s devotional writings are well-worth a look.
As Radcliff rightly notes, knowing “who we are” in Jesus does not necessarily mean we will always live holy lives. However, the idea that our perceived identity is significant for how we act finds support in Paul’s frequent affirmations of our identity in Christ. Per Radcliff, “Scriptural exhortations to godly behavior are often preceded by directing the early Christians to the truth of their identity in Christ.” She cites a sermon by TF Torrance, who argued that our new life in the vicarious humanity of Christ leads to a change in moral behavior. Torrance preached that our identity as saints is the basis for a holy life. It is the glorious paradox of the Gospel that, while, to all outward appearances we remain sinners, we are, in fact, new creations in Christ. When we are turned out of ourselves by the Spirit (homo excurvatus ex se), we find our identities in the vicarious humanity of Jesus, where our primary ontological reality is “saint.”
Comment: I continue to see many implications for pastoral counselling in Radcliff’s excellent work.
Key points
·       Holy living stems from our participation by the Spirit in the Father-Son relationship.
·       Holy living arises are we are turned out of ourselves by the Spirit to fix our eyes on Jesus.
·       Sin is “ec-centric.” It seeks to find its center in self, not in God.
·       Repentance is a change of mind, as we turn away from ourselves to fix our eyes on Jesus.
·       Self-perception influences behavior. We must see ourselves as “saints” in order to live holy lives.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A.S. Radcliff: The Claim of Humanity in Christ (in the Torrance tradition), Post 18

Reference
Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp.
In Jesus, notes Radcliff, humanity has a new “eschatological orientation.” This phrase seems to mean that our transformed humanity, via the incarnation, is objective and real here and now, but it will not be fully revealed until the eschaton (there and then; the last day). Thus, there is an “eschatological reserve,” or “time lag,” between our present objective reality as new creations in Christ and its full unveiling at the parousia.
Nevertheless, although we live in the “”eschatological reserve” (“time lag”) in a world of continuing sin and evil, “we are neither defined nor ruled by it; we are determined by the risen humanity of Christ” (p. 158). For the Torrances, rather than focus on the obvious reality of our ongoing sinfulness, we should have confidence in the ontological reality of our new humanity in Jesus. According to T.F. “[I]t is the present reality of the new creation in Christ that should consume us.”
In view of the traditional three “offices” of Christ (prophet, priest, king), the Torrances emphasize the priestly office. Christ’s priestly office focuses on Jesus’ vicarious humanity, wherein, as our High Priest, Jesus offers the perfect response of faith and obedience in place of, and on behalf of, all. A focus on Christ’s priestly office frees us from the burden of trying to attain sanctification ourselves, so that we are liberated to participate by the Spirit in Jesus’ self-offering to the Father. For this reason, notes Radcliff, “The Torrances sought to emphasize Christ’s priestly office in order to counteract attitudes that bypassed his vicarious and mediatorial role and therefore threw people back upon themselves” (p. 160).
In addition to Christ’s priestly office, Radcliff argues for a greater appreciation in the Torrance tradition of Christ’s “kingly office.” Jesus’ “kingly office” expresses his victory over sin, death and the devil, as well as the death of old Adamic humanity. Thus, Christ’s kingly office must not be overlooked in the outworking of our sanctification, for we share in his victory by the Spirit. As Radcliff argues, the death of our sinful, Adamic humanity and Christ’s victory over evil offers us confidence in the nature of our new humanity and the outworking of our salvation. She cites Paul at length, who declares that our inclusion in Christ’s death and resurrection has set us free from sin (Rom 6:2-14). Against a view of sanctification as a life-long struggle, an emphasis on the victory that is ours in King Jesus allows us to participate in our sanctification from a place of rest and assurance, rather than from the strain of puritanical effort.
In regard to the ascension of Jesus, Radcliff notes that a focus on the absence of Jesus throws us back upon ourselves to achieve sanctification. (I’m not certain but we may see this in “dispensationalism,” where we are said to be living in the “age of the Spirit.”) On the other hand, if we focus on the reality that humanity is seated in heavenly places via the ascension of Jesus, we have confidence in the objective reality of our new humanity. While we continue to live in a sinful and evil world, we are neither defined nor ruled by it; we are determined by the vicarious humanity of the ascended Jesus.
In regard to sanctification, Radcliff rightly notes that the “fruit of the Spirit” is produced in us by the Spirit, not by our own muscular moral effort. If we take seriously Jesus’ analogy of the vine and the branches, then we must assert that we bear fruit because we are in the Vine. Paraphrasing TFT, instead of living a life of incessant struggle against an external law, we should rely on the indwelling of Jesus himself, living in us by the Spirit, as the source of our strength, empowering us to live out the reality of our new humanity in him. In short, the vine does the work; the branches enjoy the fruit.
Again and again, we see in the Torrance tradition the assertion that we must fall back upon Jesus, not upon ourselves. In this regard, let’s quote Radcliff:
When sanctification is conceived in external, logico-causal categories* of endeavoring to follow Jesus’s example, it becomes a life-long struggle to battle with the sinful nature. This is an impossible task and the very reason for Christ’s vicariously taking sin upon himself in order to destroy it. Such a perspective detracts from what has been accomplished for us in the vicarious humanity of Christ (p. 163).
*Radcliff seems to be referring to “external” theories of the atonement. In this case, she is referring to the “moral example” theory, where Jesus sets us an example to follow but does not ontologically transform our humanity
Finally, according to Radcliff, “It is confidence in God’s victory rather than claiming powerlessness that surely most glorifies God ... Christ’s resurrection power is greater than the sin that held sway over our old human nature.” That is powerful stuff! Against those preachers who think they must brow-beat their congregations into something resembling what they regard as the Christian lifestyle, how much better would it be to proclaim the positive message of who we already are in Jesus and invite our hearers to live out of that reality? Just thinkin’.
Let’s conclude this chapter with another good quote from Radcliff:
The Torrance’s scheme of salvation corrects a poor perspective on humanity and of sanctification as life-long struggle. Our new eschatological orientation in Christ gives us confidence in the nature of our humanity and the outworking of our sanctification. Although there is an eschatological reserve and our holiness will not be fully manifest until the Parousia, we can take pleasure in the process of becoming who we are (p. 164).
Let’s sum up of the salient points in this important chapter:
·       Our humanity has been made definitively holy in Jesus, but this truth remains hidden until the parousia.
·   Sanctification is not an external process of becoming more holy; the outworking of sanctification is the progressive revelation of the holiness that is already fully ours in Jesus. We cannot make ourselves “more holy.”
·       While the believer is simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”), our primary ontological reality is justus, not peccator. Our primary ontological orientation is “saint,” not “sinner.”
·       Humanity is ontologically transformed through the vicarious humanity of Jesus; therefore, humanity is holy, and we are liberated to grow into this reality by the power of the Spirit.
·       Our ontological reality in Jesus challenges negative views of humans as miserable sinners and the correlative view that sanctification is a life-long struggle.
·       Because of the ascension of our humanity into heaven in the Risen Jesus, we are seated in heavenly places. Though we continue to live in an evil and sinful world, we are neither defined nor ruled by it; we are determined by the vicarious humanity of Jesus.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A.S. Radcliff: The Claim of Humanity in Christ (in the Torrance tradition), Post 17

Reference
Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp.
(This is one of my favorite posts on this book. Hope you enjoy it.)
For TF Torrance, our salvation is definitive. It is an objective reality. Nothing remains to be done. (“It is finished.”). What the future awaits is the full manifestation of that reality. While the word “apocalypse” has a negative connotation today, notes Radcliff, for Torrance, it is positive, for it is associated with the final “unveiling” of God’s redemptive purpose. According to Torrance:
Apocalypse is the unveiling to faith of the new creation as yet hidden from our eyes behind the ugly shapes of sinful history, but a new creation already consummated and waiting for eschatological unfolding or fulfillment in the advent presence of Christ.
Thus, notes Radcliff, TF is less concerned with “last things” than the significance of the resurrection for the present.
For Torrance, the Church is the “new humanity within the world, the provisional manifestation of the new creation within the old.” In the Church, we get glimpses of the glory of the new creation (even if the glimpses are often dim). Thus, we need a greater appreciation of the significance of the resurrection for the present. For example, the Reformers said that the believer is “at the same time both righteous and a sinner” (Latin: simul justus et peccator). For Torrance, justus is our primary reality, for we are “made right” in the incarnation of Jesus. If we focus on peccator (sinner), as seems to be the case in much preaching, then we are in danger of undermining the transformative power of the resurrection here and now. Until the parousia, we remain peccator (sinner), but that is a secondary reality; it is not an ontological reality. Our ontological reality is primary; we are justus; we are “made right” in Jesus here and now, although our “right-ness” is largely hidden until the parousia. To assert “sinfulness” as our primary reality is to discount the ontological healing accomplished for all humanity in the incarnation. In short, to know who we are, we should not look at Adam; we should look at Jesus. (So say I. I think Radcliff would agree.)
OK. Now get this from Radcliff: “The significance of Christ’s resurrected humanity is also maligned when Paul’s description of struggling with sin in Romans 7:14-25 is interpreted as normative Christian experience,” for it does not adequately reflect Christ’s transformative power. Wow! I need to chew on that for a while! Many view this passage as Paul articulating his present experience as a Christian. However, this interpretation is disputed by those who think Paul is either talking about his pre-Christian experience or life under the law (I think NT Wright fits with the latter. In fact, Wright thinks that Paul is actually talking about Israel’s experience under the Law).
So, the question is whether Paul is describing normative Christian experience. If so, he is in league with the Puritans, who describe the sanctified life as a hard-fought war or bruising experience (bring out the hair shirts and whips!). Radcliff argues that Paul’s description is not the normative Christian experience, for this is not how believers are intended to live. Romans 7 should be contrasted with Romans 8, which shows that the alternative to life under the law (Rom 7) is life in the Spirit (Rom 8). For Barth, the heart of Paul’s argument is that we have been liberated from sin. The struggle of Romans 7 is a description of our past situation, not our present reality in Jesus. As Radcliff astutely notes, the focus on the struggle of Romans 7 as normative may arise from external views of the atonement that fail to account for humanity’s transformation in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. In external views of the atonement, we are merely “declared” to be in the right, as the righteousness of Jesus is “imputed” to us. Our ontological reality remains that of sinner, so that we must strive for holiness. In the Torrances’ ontological view of atonement, however, we are in reality made right in Jesus. Rather than striving for holiness, we are liberated to participate by the Spirit in the holiness and right-ness of Jesus.
NOTE: Radcliff offers much more exegesis than I am allowing here. I am simply providing a summary of her comments on Romans 7.
Jesus’ death on the cross marks the death of sinful Adamic humanity. Adam died on the cross with Jesus. We are no longer “under Adam”; we (everyone!) is “in Jesus.” If we fail to recognize this, we are thrown back upon ourselves to struggle with sin. In regard to believers, to think of the Church as a company of justified “sinners” is to discount the ontological reality of our transformation in Jesus and to make sanctification a remote possibility that we must strive to achieve. “According to the Torrances understanding of salvation,” notes Radcliff, “humanity is ontologically transformed through the vicarious humanity of Christ. Christ became incarnate to be an example of us, not just for us. [Great line!] This means that humanity is truly holy and we are liberated to grow into that reality as we participate in Christ by the Spirit.” Thus, it is better to describe the believer as a “saint who sins” than a “sinner who is forgiven,” for our primary ontological reality (though hidden until the parousia) is “saint,” not “sinner.” In a sermon, T.F. Torrance affirmed the congregation’s identity in Jesus:
Don’t you see, in God’s sight, you are already secluded in the heart of Jesus Christ, you are already a new creature though to all outward appearances you may be far from it, you are already a saint though you know yourself to be a sinner. That is the glorious paradox of the Gospel.
Again, from Karl Barth:
We who were once children of wrath … are saints. We are holy … This is no time for false modesty … Hold your head high! You have dignity. You have worth … you have been redeemed in the blood of His Son and sanctified by the power of His Spirit through Word and Sacrament.
Even Luther says that each of us is just as much a saint as St. Peter himself and “accursed” be the one who does not call himself a saint and glory in it! To fail to do so is to slander Christ and baptism. Both Barth and Luther assert that there is no arrogance in such claims, for our boast is not in ourselves but in Jesus. As Radcliff assets, “It is a false humility to make sinfulness our primary identity because it is a rejection of what God has done for us in Christ.” To be sure, our holiness is not of our own achievement but, rather, is a participation in the holiness of Jesus.
Comment: Again, we find implications for pastoral counseling, since many Christians have been taught to view themselves as “miserable sinners,” who must approach the throne of grace hat-in-hand. For those whose self-worth is already in the gutter, the news that our primary reality is that of saint might just bring some much-needed relief. So saith Saint Martin!
Radcliff concludes the section with a comparison of the uplifting view of humanity in the Torrance tradition with that of neo-Puritanism. J.I. Packer, for example, calls for “a progress into personal smallness that allows the greatness of Christ’s grace to appear.” As I see it, Packer is playing a zero-sum game. The smaller we get, the bigger Christ becomes. As Radcliff notes, believers are often unaware of our identity because of the misunderstanding that we must abase ourselves to glorify God. She argues that Packer has no concept of humility and dependence upon God’s grace that does not involve shame and debasement. (She is really onto something here!) In contrast, the Torrances affirm both the reality of our ontological identity in Jesus and our dependence upon grace.
Comment: One more comment on pastoral counseling. People who are hurting because they are ridden with shame, guilt and self-contempt do not need to be told to make themselves small. The world has already helped them do that. They need to hear that they are new creations in Christ, that they are saints, that they are the beloved children of the Father, that they no longer stand as sinners in the Father’s eyes …. That comes from someone who worked as a therapist in a megachurch for ten years: me!
Till next time, amigos!
***
For more on the ontological transformation of our humanity in Jesus, go here .

Academy of Bible and Theology

Dear Readers, Recently, I launched a new project called the Academy of Bible and Theology (click  here ), sponsored by AsiAfrica Mini...