Dividing the Trinity? A Response to Marva Dawn

I gathered with many of my fellow clergy for last week to hear Marva Dawn speak on the topic of Sabbath. Her presentation was well-done overall, and I found helpful much of what she said regarding the Sabbath. However, at one point she made a stunning and, in my view, problematic remark regarding Jesus’ cry to his Father from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). She suggested that at the moment of Jesus’ cry, the Father and the Son were split; separated; held together only by the Holy Spirit. I made note of this peculiar statement, but didn’t think on it much more until I learned that she said something similar today while giving the Theta Phi lectures at Asbury Theological Seminary. After further reflection on what I heard at the clergy gathering, I thought I’d offer a brief response in two points. I will focus on what I heard at the clergy gathering; Regarding what was said at Asbury Seminary,Isaac Hopper offers a theological response and Jeffrey Rudy a historical one with quotes from the patristics. 
First, the historic doctrine of the Trinity states that all three persons of the Trinity share one, single, divine essence. To say that the Father and the Son are split or divided is at best unhelpful in its vague ambiguity and at worst a wrecking ball to the central way the Church has spoken about God through history. A theologian is certainly welcome to argue as they desire, even when doing so in wrecking ball fashion; however, when a major doctrine like the Trinity is the issue, we should actually get an argument.
Second, there is nothing in the text of Mark 15:34 (and parallels) that comes close to suggesting that the ontological unity is in question in this text. Indeed, there is weighty evidence to the contrary. Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22, the first two verses of which read thus:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
The Psalmist here finds himself in a state of agony and suffering. His cry to God is for help in that moment of suffering. He pleads with God wondering why he is not delivered. In the context of Psalm 22:1-2, the notion of being forsaken by God is a way of expressing the pain in not being delivered by God from the pain of persecution.
Jesus’ use of this Psalm should be taken in just this way. He is not lamenting a splitting-up of the essential unity that is eternally the heart of his relationship with the God he knows as Father. Rather, he is lamenting that God has forsaken him to the suffering of the cross. The text does not indicate that this forsaking should be taken in any absolute sense. Instead, we are guided by the quote from the Psalms; when Jesus cries out questioning why he has been forsaken, he means “Why have you forsaken me to the pain of this persecution?
I propose that this interpretation makes better sense of the text than does the suggestion that the Father and the Son are here essentially divided. It seems much more likely the case that Mark has in mind the fact that Jesus has been handed over to the suffering of the cross rather than the essential relationship between the Father and the Son. 
How do you take this passage? Do you think Psalm 22 should guide our interpretation of Jesus’ cry from the cross? Are there other elements in the text that suggest other interpretive options? How should we go about deriving theological conclusions from historical and narratival texts?

Through Faith & to Faith: Pistis Christou & Redundancy in Romans 3:22?

Readers familiar with the field of Pauline studies will know that the Greek phrase pistis Christou has been hotly contested. Throughout church history the phrase has primarily been translated as “faith in Christ”, though with the publication of Richard Hays’ monograph, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, the alternative translation of “faith (or faithfulness) of Jesus Christ” has gained a very significant scholarly following. The difficulty comes in the fact that both translations are grammatically possible. As a result, arguing for either translation is a matter of making the exegetical case from the contexts of the texts in which the phrase appears. 
One of those texts is Romans 3:21-22, which reads:
But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God (dikaiosunē theou) has been revealed, being attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in/of Jesus Christ (pisteōs Iēsou Christou) to all who have faith.
The debate is over whether Paul is saying that the righteousness of God (itself a contested phrase) is revealed through human faith in Christ or through Christ’s own faithfulness in his life and obedient death.
One argument to which regular appeal is made claims that to take the phrase as “faith in Christ” would mean that Paul has come quite close to redundancy: faith in Christ for those who have faith. Would Paul make such an unnecessary and superfluous syntactical move here in one of the most dense and important arguments in the whole letter? N.T. Wright argues just this way in his Romans commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible:
A further reason why pistis Iēsou Christou here is likely to refer to Jesus’ own faithfulness is that, if taken instead to refer to the faith Christians have “in” Jesus, the next phrase (“for all who believe”) becomes almost entirely redundant, adding only the (admittedly important) “all” (470).
But is this appeal to redundancy really a fair reading of Paul’s Greek? There was a time when I would have said yes, but now I would suggest that it is not. The reason is that I have become persuaded that the two prepositional phrases in v. 22 are functioning in two different ways.
The first phrase reads “through (dia) faith in Jesus Christ.” And the preposition dia (through) suggests that faith is the instrument by which God’s righteousness is revealed. That is to say God’s righteousness is perceived or apprehended through the process of coming to faith in Christ. The second prepositional phrase reads “to (eis) all who have faith.” The different preposition eis suggests that Paul is now making a different point which concerns the objects of the revelation of God’s righteousness, namely all who have faith. This distinct point, that God’s righteousness is revealed to all who have faith, is clarified and substantiated by the following statement “For (gar) there is no distinction” (3:22). No distinction between who? The answer is  no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. All people, both Jews and non-Jews, are objects of the righteousness of God. This is the concern of the second prepositional phrase, a concern substantiated in the following sentence, a concern quite distinct from that of the first prepositional phrase which speaks not to the object of the revelation but to the instrument of it. Paul is making the point that people do not qualify to apprehend God’s righteousness because of their ethnic identity but because of faith, which is a related but different point from that made in the first prepositional phrase regarding the instrument by which God’s righteousness is revealed.
So, to sum up, if Paul is purposefully making two distinct points with his two distinct prepositional phrases, then the redundancy argument falls. Paul’s argument is not redundant; it is nuanced. And this is just what you might expect in Paul’s Greek. He is piling up the prepositional phrases (as he is wont to do) to make multiple points. The compact and dense nature of this passage only supports this argument. Paul is packing a very full and nuanced argument into a very compact space. Thus, I no longer find the redundancy argument persuasive. I’m sure others have made the argument this way before, but its been a while since I looked at much of the secondary literature on this one. Personally, I find the argument for nuance to be good support for taking pistis Iēsou Christou in Romans 3:22 to refer to human faith in Jesus Christ.

Let me hear from you! Do you prefer the translation “faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ”? What is the best argument for each rendering? Do you think Paul is writing with nuance or redundancy? Might he be using repetition to emphasize the point?

Resurrection and the Reading of Old Books

I can’t tell you how many so-called Christian funerals I’ve attended in which the distinctly Christian hope of bodily resurrection has not been preached.  This always saddens me, and I seldom now expect to find a funeral sermon which looks expectantly for the resurrection.  The message is usually one extolling the wonder of how the deceased has “gone home” to a place “beyond the veil.”  The emphasis is usually on departure from the body rather than bodily resurrection.  Let me say that I absolutely affirm that when a Christian brother or sister dies, he or she is presently with the Lord, which, as Paul says, is far better (Phil 1:23; cf. 2 Cor 5:8).  But the biblical writers never propose this disembodied and post-mortem state as the ultimate Christian hope.  Rather, the post-mortem state with Christ is a temporary holding place where the believer awaits the post-post-mortem state of resurrection with Christ.  The one who is in union with the resurrected Christ ought always look forward to the ultimate realization of that union, namely sharing the bodily resurrection.  The all-important emphasis on resurrection seems to be finding its way back into much of American Evangelicalism, but the fact that resurrection has not yet become pervasive in our corporate thinking is lamentable.
In light of the current state of things, old books that strongly emphasize important (and presently neglected)doctrines can become quite refreshing.  One such book is Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, which I recently reread for the first time in several years.  As I read, I was overcome by the pervasiveness of resurrection in Athanasius’ thought on the incarnation of God in Christ.  The doctrine shows up on nearly every page.  To show that I’m not overstating the importance Athanasius attributes to the doctrine, he says, “The supreme object of His (Christ’s) coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body” (22, italics mine).  For Athanasius, the resurrection of Christ and of his people is the great goal of the work of the Son of God. 
The importance of resurrection for the fourth century Alexandrian bishop makes sense if one understands the supreme human problem as Athanasius did.  He articulates the human problem as corruption leading to death, “Instead of remaining in the state in which God created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion” (4).  The curse is epitomized in God’s declaration to Adam that should he eat of the forbidden tree, “[He] shall surely die” (Gen 2:16).  For Athanasius, this is an ongoing state of corruption and death.  So because it is “monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption,” the only solution is resurrection (6).
The work of Christ can only be understood in light of the human problem.  Christ offered himself on the cross in place of sinful humanity to rescue them from corruption.  He was raised bodily from the dead to defeat death, overturn the original curse, and extend the everlasting life of resurrection to all who have been joined to him through faith.  The cross is the means to the end of resurrection.  Thus, Athanasius can say, “The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body.”
Modern Christians (and preachers in particular) would do well to read through some ancient texts like On the Incarnation.  This will help us to avoid the narrow-mindedness which is inevitable if we only read modern books.  As C. S. Lewis says in his introduction to On the Incarnation, “The only palliative (to such modern narrowness) is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can only be done by reading old books” (5).  Athanasius’ old book provides a refreshing reminder that the ultimate Christian hope is to share in Christ’s bodily resurrection.  If we are to be Christian, this axiom must shape our preaching. 

The Reformers on Abortion

Here are a couple more quotes on abortion from Di Mauro’s A Love for Life.  These are from some well-known church reformers.

From his commentary on Genesis 25, this is Luther:

“He [God] is not hostile to children, as we are.  But God emphsizes his word to such an extent that He sometimes gives offspring even to those who do not desire it, yes even hate it…How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is!  How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God” (italics Di Mauro’s, 25).

And Calvin, from his Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses:

[T]he foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being (homo), and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.  If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light…” (quoted in Di Mauro, 26).

The Church Fathers on Abortion

I’m presently reading Dennis Di Mauro’s A Love for Life: Christianity’s Consistent Protection of the Unborn (Wipf and Stock, 2008), in which he argues that historic Christianity has always opposed abortion, and that pro-choice Christians have departed from the biblical and historic teaching of the church.  In chapter 3, he makes the case from the early church fathers.  Following are a few noteworthy quotes.

This is Clement, from The Tutor:

“Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings” (quoted in Di Mauro, 11-12).

Here is Tertullian, from his Apology:

“But for us [Christians], to whom homicide has been once for all fobidden, it is not permitted to break up even what has been conceived in the womb, while the blood is still being drwan from the mother’s body to make a new creature.  Prevention of birth is premature murder; and it makes no difference whether it is a life already born that one snatches away or a life that is coming to birth that one destroys.  The future man is a man already: the whole fruit is present in the seed” (quoted in Di Mauro, 13).

And Chrysostom, from his Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans:

“Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makes her a murderess also.  You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder.  For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born.  Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?” (quoted in Di Mauro, 16).

What Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?

When I first encountered the term “theological interpretation,” I was a bit confused about its meaning. As far as I could tell, all the interpretation of scripture to which I had been exposed had been theological. So, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. It should, of course, be understood that this thing called theological interpretation is quite a big deal. It has become a major movement in the world of academic biblical studies as indicated by a very significant amount of literature recently and currently being published. So, what is it? I’ve done a little reading in the area lately and, as best as I can discern, theological interpretation is the practice or discipline of reading and interpreting the Bible as holy scripture with something to say for the life and practice of the Church. “What?” you say. “What is so novel about that? Have we not been reading the Bible as holy scripture with something to say for the life and practice of the church for millennia?” This was my initial reaction to the matter as well. As a pastor, I do theological interpretation of scripture on a daily and weekly basis. I read scripture for the Church as part of my vocation. So, why all the fuss?

The reason this is a big deal is because it is catching on as a valid discipline in academic circles. A bit of history is always helpful. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, what has become known as higher critical scholarship was on the rise in the academic field of biblical studies. This movement dismissed the notion of a transcendent God who had made himself known through special revelation. These scholars did not read the Bible as scripture with something to say to the Church; they read the Bible purely as critics of history. These men were highly influenced by the German philosophers of the period and discounted all biblical accounts of supernatural activity like miracles and divine revelation. The Bible was read as a purely human book. Scholars sought to understand the historically authentic world that was allegedly behind the religiously embellished text. Thus, a massive wedge was driven between the Bible of history and the scriptures of faith. The Bible was seen as telling us about the beliefs of the early Christ-followers; it was seen as telling us nothing from God.

This historical context should shed some light on the importance of the current rise of theological readings of scripture in academia. Theological interpretation should be seen as a response to those who would strip the Bible from the devotional life of the Church. It is an attempt to recover the scriptures as the word of God for his people and the larger world. The movement is still young and a great deal of energy is being spent on issues of method and how exactly this practice should be done. The thing for which we can be thankful is that theological reading of the Bible is coming to be seen as a very exciting, valid, and scholarly approach to the scriptures.