January 11, 2017

Barth's Theology of Relations, part 1

This post begins a series looking at Gary Deddo's two-volume book, Karl Barth's Theology of Relations (Trinitarian, Christological, and Human: Towards an Ethic of the Family)

[Revised 1/13/17]

Dr. Deddo's book offers a detailed analysis of what Karl Barth (in his massive work, Church Dogmatics) says concerning the intrinsic relationality of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Trinitarian theology), God's relationship to us in and through Christ (Christology), and how God's triune relationality is shared by humanity (Trinitarian, Christ-centered anthropology). Gary then shows how Barth applies these theological truths in the arena of ethics (particularly in the context of family). In this way, Gary defines and explores Barth's Trinitarian, Christological and anthropological perspective on human ethics.

To me, having this theologically-grounded, holistic understanding of ethics is critical in our post-modern era when so many ethical questions are being asked, and orthodox theology increasingly is being dismissed as irrelevant or even contrary to a post-modern perspective on ethics. It seems we live in a time like that described in the book of Judges when, "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25 ESV)---an ethos that has been re-stated in post-modern terms in Nike's iconic trademark:

public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To understand Gary's goal and approach in writing, it's helpful to read his thesis statement:
First we hold that the comprehension of Barth's special ethic of the parent-child relationship requires its interpretation in terms of his grounding it in his christological and so trinitarian anthropology. Second, we hold that the key, for Barth, to the interconnection between theology and ethics lies in comprehending the character of the relations in his doctrine of the analogia relationis [analogy of relation]. Third, we intend to show and make explicit the nature, or better the "grammar" of his theology of relations, which arises in his Christology, is central to his special ethics.... Fourth, we contend that, in light of the grammar of personal relations, Barth's special ethic of parents and children, while not beyond criticism, is both relevant and fruitful for the Church's addressing many of the issues facing the contemporary American family. (p. xx)
Some (many?) of Barth's detractors accuse him of being "so heavenly minded that he is of no earthly good." They see his theology as so lofty and dense that it's irrelevant to "practical" matters like ethics. Though I admit Barth is difficult to read, I view it as ironic that people see his theology as having no relevance to ethics. Indeed, it was his pastoral-ethical concerns that were the crucible within which his theology (which is a theology of relations) was forged. His ethical concerns, of course, came to a head during the rise and rule of the Nazi regime in Germany leading up to and including World War II. Barth saw the liberal theology of his day (particularly its form within German Lutheranism) as ethically impotent---of "no earthly good."

Barth's response was not to develop an ethically-directed theology, but to go back to the Source of ethics---the triune God himself, and there answer the question, "Who is God." That question then leads to another: "Who is Christ," and still another: "Who are we, and how then should we live?" To grasp Barth's thought in these areas, requires, as Gary notes, "a synthetic approach" to reading Barth. Those who read him often err by considering sections of Barth's massive Church Dogmatics (abbrevidated hereafter as CD) in isolation from the others. Gary has done us a great favor of looking at the full picture in CD and then synthesizing Barth's essential thought on these key issues.

As noted above, key to Barth's thought throughout CD is the concept of analogia relationis. As Gary notes, "[Barth's] understanding of relations qualifies his entire theology, and so, in turn, his ontology, anthropology and ethics" (p. 4). That being so, Gary exhaustively mines CD in demonstrating how Barth construes those relations. Barth begins by establishing the relationality of God himself---both in his triune being and act, seeing the two as inseparably intertwined. Gary comments:
For Barth, relationality is not an abstract attribute of God's being, Rather, relationality involves being and act, form and content, living and doing. The trinitarian, Christological and human relations require a grasp of the shape of the relations as well as the interactions within the relations. Each qualifies the other. It is on the basis of this large and comprehensive theological understanding that Barth develops his view of the relational nature to humanity in being (ontology) and act (ethics).... [Barth's] ethical treatments always fall within the context of a theological grasp of the act and being of humanity which is placed in the more comprehensive context of the act and being of God in Jesus Christ, which is finally located within the most comprehensive context of the act and being of the Triune God. (p. 4)
Though there is much to explore in unpacking this interconnected chain of thought, we'll end here for now, digging in further as the series continues. But before I close, let me share a relevant summary statement from Gary concerning Barth's view of Christology and our true humanity:
Jesus Christ not only reveals us to God, but humanity as well. Not humanity apart from God, for there is no such thing, but humanity in right relation to God. So at the heart of [Barth's] anthropology is Christology, properly distinguished and related to it. The Christological relation sheds light and gives life to humanity in its relationships, first with God and then with others. Humanity is given its existence in being and act by God through Jesus Christ. In freedom we live out our lives in being and act in correspondence to the essential relations in which we live and move and have our being. (p. 5)
Stay tuned for more next time.

December 30, 2016

Stay focused on Jesus

The post below is adapted from an article by Joseph Tkach. It provides food for thought as we enter the season of Epiphany, which celebrates the revealing of Jesus Christ to the world.

[Revised 1/9/17]

Given that he is the final and ultimate revelation of who God is (Hebrews 1:3), Jesus must remain our focus throughout the year. Knowing who Jesus is and what he has done for us helps us grow in understanding the reconciliation we have with God and each other. In Christ, through the Holy Spirit, we are set free to love. Let's look at some related concepts.

Come Follow Me
by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with artist's permission)

Jesus' two natures and his vicarious humanity

Jesus is both divine and human---two natures united permanently in one person, through what theologians refer to as the hypostatic uniona term utilized in the early church to apprehend the truth revealed in Scripture that Jesus is the complete, personal sharing of God in humanity's life and humanity in God's life. This fundamental and profound truth is addressed in the book A Passion for Christ, the Vision that Ignites Ministry, where brothers Thomas, James and David Torrance emphasize what theologians call the vicarious humanity of Jesus. The word "vicarious" means “speaking and acting in place of another, on that other’s behalf.” Jesus, in and through his humanity, by his life, death, resurrection and ascension, acted on our behalf (as our representative) in our place (as our substitute). As James Torrance was fond of saying, Jesus is "the one and the many" (our representative) and also "the one for the many" (our substitute).

His mission

This understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus enables us to understand that the atonement was accomplished not merely by Jesus, but in, with and through him. This means that Jesus was baptized for us, as one of us. It means that he went through the wilderness and was tempted for us, he died and entered into darkness for us, and he rose from death into life in order to take us with him in his ascension to our Father. In all this vicarious work for our salvation, Jesus did not play a merely instrumental role (like a tool being used to build something). Rather, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit planned together for Jesus to fulfill in his own Person and work the pivotal role in our salvation. The atonement, in its entirety, is accomplished in, with and through Jesus: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This is the truth that sets us free!

Adoration of the Magi by Burne-Jones (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

His objectification

In Christ, God objectified himself without becoming impersonal. When the Son of God became human, he became an object we can see and touch and worship. He was God to man. And when Jesus assumed our humanity, he also became the appropriate response from man to God as led by the Holy Spirit. Note T. F. Torrance’s comment in his book, God and Rationality:
[Jesus Christ] is in Himself not only God objectifying Himself for man but man adapted and conformed to that objectification, not only the complete revelation of God to man but the appropriate correspondence on the part of man to that revelation, not only the Word of God to man but man obediently hearing and answering that Word. In short, Jesus Christ is Himself both the Word of God as spoken by God to man and that same Word as heard and received by man, Himself both the Truth of God given to man and that very Truth understood and actualized in man. He is that divine and human Truth in His one Person. In his incarnate constitution as God and man joined in reconciling union, Jesus Christ is both the objective revelation of God and the appropriate response and conformation of man to divine revelation. He is not only the Truth (John 14:6) spoken from the highest, he is also the perfect response to that Truth, heard and actualized from within the ontological depths of the fallen humanity he assumed in the incarnation.

Our mediator

As both man (human) and God (divine), Jesus is uniquely the one mediator between humanity and God (1 Timothy 2:5 KJV). In the Incarnation of the Son of God in the human person of Jesus, we have “double fact”---what some call "the twofold, inseparable movement of mediation.” The first fact, as Tom Torrance liked to put it, is that “Jesus is God’s language to humanity.” The second fact is that Jesus is humanity’s true and faithful response to God---he is our true word and gives true speech for us (humanity) to God. In other words, Jesus Christ mediates the things of God to humanity and simultaneously mediates the things of humanity to God.

This mediation is illustrated in the way the Son of God (the pre-incarnate Christ), lovingly and patiently worked in covenant relationship with his people Israel. That story begins with God providing Abraham a sacrifice in place of Isaac, Abraham's beloved son. This event not only gave instruction against child sacrifice, it is prototypical of what the Son of God would do for all humanity following the Incarnation. Because God knew Israel would not (indeed could not) fulfill their side of the covenant to live as holy, obedient people, God gave them under the old covenant a liturgy different than that of the pagans. While Israel and the pagans all celebrated spring and fall harvest festivals, Israel was given divinely prescribed patterns for worship that signified the fact that only God can forgive sin, remove guilt and reconcile people to himself. All of Israel’s sacrifices and ordinances, as well as the priesthood itself, were vicarious ways of covenant response to God. Because of God’s faithfulness and love for Israel, he gave them an experiential way to worship. However, as the Old Testament tells us, Israel repeatedly abandoned worship as given to them by God. In doing so, they failed the mediating priestly mission that they had been given on behalf of all nations. In contrast, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, was the perfect, unfailing response to God that Israel was unable to provide.

Jesus not only took on Israel’s affliction of failure, he assumed all of humanity’s brokenness and made it his own in order to heal it. In this we see Jesus’ twofold ministry, the “double fact” I mentioned above. Jesus mediates and intercedes from God to humanity and from humanity back to God. The old covenant highlights this truth in a number of ways: “I shall be your God and you shall be my people,” “I am holy, be you holy,” and “I will be your Father and you will be my son.” These declarations concerning Israel are fulfilled perfectly in Jesus who is both the covenant-making God and the true, singular, faithful Israel. Note this related comment from T.F. Torrance in one of his papers:
It is the whole incarnate life of Christ vicariously and triumphantly lived out from his birth to his crucifixion and resurrection in perfect obedience to the Father within the ontological depths of his oneness with us in our actual fallen existence, that redeems and saves us and converts our disobedient alienated sonship back to filial union with the Father. That is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. (“The Atonement, The Singularity of Christ and the Finality of the Cross: The Atonement and the Moral Order,” 1993)

May he always be our focus

Jesus is fully God and fully human—God with us and God for us. He is the Word spoken to humanity and the Word heard and received by humanity. He is God’s relationship to us—through him we are in relationship with God. He is the God others could see and hear and worship and he is our worshipful response to God. Jesus is our atonement. He is our mediator. He is our focus—it is in Jesus that we live and move and have our being.

And now a prayer for Epiphany from The Book of Common Prayer that is used by various churches to guide their worship of our triune God:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and all the world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

December 24, 2016

Theology matters (the Nicene faith)

This post concludes a seven-part review of James B. (JB) Torrance's book, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. For the other posts in the series, click a number: 12345, 6.

[Updated 12/28/2016]

JB (pictured at right) sums up his purposes for writing with this important statement:
I have been concerned to stress the need to recover the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity in the life of our churches today for a number of reasons---for a better doctrine of God as a covenant God, not a contract-God; for a more biblical understanding of worship; and for a less individualist anthropology---an understanding of our humanity and our destiny in the purposes of the God of grace, to be a community of persons enjoying communion with God and with one another. (p. 95)
In his final chapter, which I'll touch on only briefly here, JB confronts objections to his incarnational, Trinitarian vision. I've personally encountered some of these, including this: "What's the big deal? Don't all Christians accept the doctrine of the Trinity?" As JB notes, some (many?) Christians, view the Trinity as merely one among many doctrines; and the related teaching that God is triune as merely one among several of the attributes of God. However, the historic, orthodox "rule of faith" of the church proclaims the doctrine of the Trinity (along with the companion doctrine of the Incarnation) to be the very foundation and framework of every point of doctrine and practice. As JB notes, the Trinity is "the grammar of the church's faith and worship" (and JB's brother, Thomas F. Torrance, calls it the ground and grammar). JB offers several examples of how Trinitarian theology shapes our understanding of doctrine and practice in the church. I'll mention two here. First JB addresses the topic of the naming of the first person of the Godhead as Father:
So often, tragically, the only dad some children know is an alcoholic or one who has abused his wife and family. This makes it all the more important that we allow Jesus Christ to interpret true fatherhood for us, both human and devine. We think of the Pauline injunction: "With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves toward the goal of true maturity" (Romans 12:1-2, J.B. Phillips). We need to let God remold our concepts of Father and Son as we contemplate the mystery of the Father-Son relationship given to us in Jesus Christ in the New Testament witness.
As we reflect on the history of Christian thought, we can see that the word "Father" has been wedded often to wrong concepts of God as the unmoved mover, the impassible God, a static substance with impersonal attributes, or as the lawgiver understood in terms of the concept of lex, the law of contract, or Western jurisprudence and politics, with its roots in Stoicism---the contract-God who will only be gracious if there is human merit. No wonder highly unsatisfactory images of God as Father can arise! What is so often wrong is not the word "Father" but the baggage that can be put into it. (p. 103)
JB then gives another illustrattion of the importance and efficacy of Trinitarian theology by addressing the topic of gender identity. I won't take time to summarize all his points, but here is one of particular note:
We are meant to interpret our humanity, our male-female relations, in the light of the Trinity. God is love. Love always implies communion between persons, and that is what we see supremely in God. The Father loves the Son in the communion of the Spirit. The Son loves the Father in the communion of the Spirit in their continuing mutual "indwelling" (perichoresis was the Greek word used by the fathers of the church). The Spirit is the bond of communion between the Fatehr and the Son and between God and ourselves. The Spirit is God giving God's self in love. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are equally God... But there is differentiation within God---personal distinctions in the Godhead. There is unity, diversity and perfect harmony. It is this triune God who has being-in-community, in love, who has created us as male and female in that image to be "co-lovers"..., to share in the triune love and to love one another in perichoretic unity. (pp. 104-105)
By God's design, rather than being uni-sex, humans are gendered---male and famale. Contrary to some opinions, the gospel does not eliminate these gender identities, though as men and women in mutual communion with Christ, there is no superiority or priority of one gender over another. As Paul states, in Christ there is "neither male or female" (Galatians 3:28). JB comments:
As we look together as men and women to Jesus Christ, the one by whom and for whom we were all created, we know we are one in him, subject to one another in him, and are equal in him. This is particularly important in any discussion of the ministry of women in the church. Our starting point should be the sole priesthood of Jesus Christ. There is only one true priest in the church, in the one body. In Christ there is neither male nor female. Christ calls men and women into his royal priesthood, the church, to participate by the Spirit in his ministry---the one prophet, priest and king---and gives spiritual gifts to every member of his body, to women as well as men, for edifying the body. The church derives her structure from Christ, not from isolated texts of Holy Scripture taken out of context, nor from a male-dominated hierarchical tradition. As I see it, a proper doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, the sole priesthood of Christ, our understanding of the new creation in Christ, commits us to radical feminism, carefully defined. (pp. 105-106)
Whether thinking about the nature of God or of humanity, theology matters---and the church ignores or marginalizes it to its peril. Those of us with a history in the Worldwide Church of God and its predecessor organizations (under Herbert Armstrong's leadership), know all too well the dangers of bad theology.

JB concludes his book with an impassioned plea for the church to preserve the Trinitarian faith as it is set forth in the historic Nicene Creed. As we adhere to the Creed, we avoid the various non-orthodox views that are seen in the contemporary church: legalistic, "contract-God" fundamentalism on the right; feel-good neo-gnosticism ("all is God"; "God is all"; "Love is all you need") on the left; and various non-orthodox viewpoints in between.

By adhering to the core tenets of the Nicene Creed, we are brought back to the apostolic "rule of faith," understood in the light of the essential doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Creed leads us to begin where good theology always begins---the Who question: "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?"

Icon of Nicaea (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus an incarnational, Trinitarian theology leads us to look all other matters/questions through the lens of the person (being) and work (act) of Jesus. As JB emphasizes, we must "interpret the Bible christologically.... [reminding] ourselves constantly that the center of the church in not ourselves, but Jesus Christ, our living Lord" (pp. 116, 117). He notes further that if we fail to do so, we "fall back on ourselves with a false self-confidence in the flesh" (p. 119).

With this admonition in mind, we end this series reviewing JB's book with the ancient Trinitarian doxology (hymm of praise) known as the Gloria Patri:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Here (from Jason Garoncy's blog) are podcasts of lectures given by JB, covering much of the same material as the book we've been reviewing:

1. https://cruciality.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/prayer-and-the-triune-god-of-grace-part-1.mp3

2. https://cruciality.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/prayer-and-the-triune-god-of-grace-part-2.mp3

3. https://cruciality.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/prayer-and-the-triune-god-of-grace-part-3.mp3

4. https://cruciality.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/prayer-and-the-triune-god-of-grace-part-4.mp3

5. https://cruciality.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/prayer-and-the-triune-god-of-grace-part-5.mp3

6. https://cruciality.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/prayer-and-the-triune-god-of-grace-part-6.mp3

December 17, 2016

Christ and the wonderful exchange

This post continues a review of James B. (JB) Torrance's book, "Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace." For additional posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7.

[Updated 12/19/2016]

As noted in our last post, JB is adamant in his assertion that in approaching worship (and all aspects of theology), before we ask any how or why questions, we must first ask the essential Who question: "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?" JB illustrates this principle by discussing the two sacraments of the church. Last time we noted what he says about baptism; now we'll look at his comments about the Lord's Supper.

At the Lord's Table we encounter Jesus Christ, who through his life of communion with the Father, in the Spirit, gives himself to the Father on behalf of all people in all times (Hebrews 10:4). This self-giving, which culminated at the Cross, continues with Jesus' ministry as High Priest (Hebrews 4:14), making continual intercession for us (Romans 8:34) as one of us (Jesus remains both fully God and fully human---now a glorified man; see 1Timothy 2:5). As High Priest, Jesus performs his mediatorial work in order that we, his beloved sisters and brothers, might be accepted by our Father as daughters and sons with all the blessings that status confers upon us (Ephesians 2:13ff; 1Timothy 2:1-6; Hebrews 4:14, 7:25, 9:24).

Jesus Goes Up on a Mountain to Pray
by Tissot (public domain)

As our High Priest, Jesus is continuously drawing us "into his life of communion with the Father by the Spirit, putting his prayer 'Father' on our lips, sharing his Sonship with us." In this way, we are "graciously given the gift of worshiping the Father, in and through the Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit" (p. 83). Rather than being something we do on our own, our worship is participation, by the Spirit, in the ongoing worship of Jesus. That participation is for us an act of memory---a memorializing of what Jesus did in the past for us, as one of us. But this memorial is not just about looking back at what Jesus did, it also points forward to our future, to our destiny as children of God.

Therefore, in celebrating the Lord's Supper, we both remember Jesus' passion and look forward to what he will yet do as "our ever-living and ever-present Lord, who, in his own person, is our memorial in the presence of the Father" (p. 86). At the Table, we thus encounter not an "absent Christ" but the living Lord who "is present in the power of the Spirit to bring the things we celebrate to our remembrance in an act of communion," which "lifts up our hearts and minds" into the Lord's own "communion with the Father" (p. 87). Who do we encounter at the Lord's Table? JB comments:
[We enounter] the whole Christ, the God-man, in whom and through whom God and humanity are reconciled. God and humanity are one in him, [he is] our mediator, who summons us to be reconciled to one another and who sends us out in mission to be ambassadors of the gospel of reconciliation to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age. (pp. 87-88)
As JB notes, at the Table, the Holy Spirit is also actively present and involved in our worship, leading us to "participate in the person and ministry of Christ" who in his ascended humanity is our God-given response of worship to the Father. This point is vital to keep in mind, lest we "obscure or forget the God-given response made for us by Jesus Christ" (p. 89). JB elaborates:
It is possible for us to obtrude [impose] our own offering of praise [in such a way] that we lose sight of the one true offering of praise made for us (Hebrews 2:12).... God does not throw us back upon ourselves to make our response to the Word in our own strength. But graciously he helps our infirmities by giving us Jesus Christ and the  Holy Spirt to make the appropriate response for us and in us. Can we not adapt Galatians 2:20 (KJV) and say, "We pray, and yet it is not we who pray, but Christ who prays for us and in us; and the prayers which we now offer in the flesh, we offer by the faithfuleness of the one who loves us and offered himself for us"? (p. 89, emphasis added)
Through what the early church fathers called the wonderful exchange, Christ's worship of the Father becomes our worship as he, through the Spirit, lifts us up to God into a life of "wonderful communion" (p. 89). This wonderful exchange is the heart of the Lord's Supper (as well as baptism), in that it celebrates and recapitulates what Jesus has done in taking what was ours, and, in exchange, giving us what is his. Referencing the writings of Calvin on this point, JB makes this comment:
[Jesus] takes our broken sinful humanity and cleanses it by his self-sanctifying life of communion with the Father, his obedience, death and resurrection. And now he comes back to us in the power of the Spirit to give himself to us in an act where he gives us back our humanity, now renewed in him, saying: "Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you." Our reception of Christ is our grateful acknowledgement of this wonderful exchange. The body on which we feed is the body which he assumed for our sakes, that in our worship we might be sanctified by the once and for all self-offering of Christ. In the communion of the Spirit, in virtue of this exchange, we know that his humanity is our humanity, so graciously assumed, his death our death which we show forth, his life our life till he comes, his self-offering our offering, his communion with the Father our commmunion into which he lifts us up by his Spirit. The Lord's Super, as an evangelical ordinance, enshrines very vividly the inner meaning of the gospel. (pp. 89-90)

In the classic order of Christian worship, the Word (via the sermon) is proclaimed, then comes a consecration of the elements and of ourselves to God followed by the Lord's Supper. Concerning the consecration, JB suggests another paraphrase of Galatians 2:20 (KJV):
We offer ourselves to the Lord, and yet it is not we who offer, but Christ who has offered himself for us and who is our offering, and the offering which we now make in the flesh we make by the faithfulness of him who loved us and gave himself for us. (p. 91)
It is our offering, yet not ours, but Christ's. This gospel forumlation is beautifully summarized in Paul's basic gospel-logic of "I, yet not I, but Christ," which speaks to the wonderful exchange that we celebrate at the Table where we encounter not an "absent Christ," but Christ's "real presence." AS JB notes, the focus of the Lord's Supper is not "a mere memorial of the death of Christ, as a past event." Instead, at the Table we commune with "the whole Christ... not with a naked Christ...[or with] a divine Christ shorn of his humanity." No, we commune with the living incarnate Lord---the Son of God who remains forever, son of man, our High Priest. As the "one true worshiper," Jesus "is truly present [at the Table] in the power of the Spirit to feed us and unite us with himself in his communion with the Father in his heavenly intercessions" (pp. 92, 93).

And so we are reminded of the vital principle, that in theology (including our understanding of worship) we must always begin our with the Who question ("Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?") before addressing any of the how questions.

Lord, help us to do so at all times. In your name. Amen.

Gen 1.1; Gen. 1:1 (NASB); Gen 1:1 (MSG)

December 10, 2016

The key question: Who is Jesus?

This post continues a review of James B. (JB) Torrance's book, "Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace." For additional posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 46, 7.

[Updated 12/11/2016]

Last time we looked at the wonder of God's grace seen in the dual mediatorial role of Jesus. JB continues this discussion in chapter three with the vital observation that in theology, our "dogmatic starting point" must be the question, "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?" Unfortunately, that often is not where we begin, focusing instead on the "utilitarian questions of 'how.'" JB elaborates:
In our pragmatic Western society in this technological age, our starting point so often is the problems of the world, of church and society---problems of race, the inner city, unemployment, poverty, violence, injustice. These are issues of such urgent importance that we give primacy to the question of how to solve them. We can too readily assume that Christianity is meaningful, useful, relevant, even true, only if it is seen to offer solutions to practical problems. We can too readily subsume theology... under the category of means and ends. (pp. 69-70)
This problem, according to JB, "is widespread in our churches today," He continues:
[As churches, we] can be so preoccupied with the problems of humanity, of society, of individual need or problems of the self, that we see the gospel exclusively in terms of these issues. We adopt an anthropological starting point, and then seek to justify religion in terms of its pragmatic value or relevance for our contemporary self-understanding---offering programs, structures, organizations, machinery to deal with these problems and the countless calls for action. It is as though by doing something, becoming more efficient, we will be successful and find solutions. (p. 70, emphasis added) 
Despite the pressures of these pragmatic concerns, JB pleads with churches not to give primacy to the "how" questions in formulating their theology and the practice that flows from it. Instead he pleads with them to emphasize first the "who" question. In this plea, JB is emphasizing a truth that was taught by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (to whom JB often refers):
Throughout the Bible, the indicatives of grace always precede the imperatives of law and obligation. It is only as we know who God is and what he has done and is doing that we can find appropriate answers to the question of how, and then see the incredible relevance of the gospel in every area of life. (pp. 70-71)
This truth has great significance for our understanding of worship. Worship of God (involving such things as church attendance) is not about what it does for us. As JB notes, "We worship God for God's sake" not our own. "We come to Christ for Christ's sake, motivated by love." And that encounter with God, transforms us as we are drawn into the love and life of the triune God. JB elaborates:
An awareness of God's holy love for us, revealed in Jesus Christ, awakens in us a longing for intimate communion---to know the love of the Father and to participate in the life and ministry of Christ. Worship in the Bible is always presented to us as flowing from an awareness or who God is and what he has done... (p. 71)
The point is that we don't worship and otherwise obey God in order to get (earn) something or to otherwise get God to do something; we worship God in order to share in God's living and loving. In the gospel, the imperatives (do this, don't do that) always preceed the indicatives (who we are, because of who God is and what he, in Christ, has done for us before we even thought of responding). JB comments:
Worship in the Bible is an ordinance of grace, a covenantal form of response to the God of grace, prescribed by God himself. This is supremely true of the New Testament understanding of worship, as the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father and his mission from the Father to the world, in a life of wonderful communion. (p. 71) 

Answering first the question, "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?" is thus of supreme importance. Why? Because our doctrine of God (the who) determines our understanding of our response (as in worship---the what and how). If we see God as somehow aloof and apart from us, our worship becomes individualistic and typically moralistic (it's all about me---what I must do and how I must do it to get God to bless me). But if God is seen for who he truly is---a tri-personal communion of holy love, incarnate for us and with us in the Person of Jesus, and by the Spirt ---then our worship (response to God and his grace) will be one of love, one of participating in the triune communion of God into which we are drawn by grace. JB comments:
It is in this trinitarian way we have to see worship as the fulfillment of God's purposes in creation and redemption, to bring us into a life of communion with himself and one another. The triune God is in the business of creating community, in such a way that we are never more truly human, never more truly persons, that when we find our true being-in-communion. (p. 73)
This relational, trinitarian understanding of worship helps us see and appreciate the primary and essential role that the God-man Jesus, our Mediator, plays in worship as our High Priest. As JB notes, in worship we are participating in our Lord's own worship on our behalf (through his vicarious humanity). JB gives the example of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, noting how they are principal ways we participate in what Christ has done, once and for all, and in what he continues to do. JB elaborates:
Baptism of Jesus by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Christ baptizes us by the Spirit that we might participate in his cleansing of our humanity and enter into his body, the communion of saints. At the Lord's Supper, he brings his passion to remembrance and draws us into wonderful communion---holy communion---with the Father, with himself and with one another [anticipating] our life in the kingdom of God, nourishing our faith "till he come." (p. 74)
Baptism and the Lord's Supper are not first about what we do, but about what God, in Christ, has done already and continues to do on our behalf. Thus we see baptism, for example, not as something that makes us a child of God, but what God in Christ has done to unite us to God as his children. Baptism affirms this truth, which is true in what JB calls "three moments":
  1. In the heart of the Father, we all have been children of God from eternity.
  2. We all became children of God when Christ the Son lived, died and rose again for all humanity long ago.
  3. As individuals, we become children of God when the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of adoption) "seals in our faith and experience what had been planned from all eternity in the heart of the Father and what was completed once and for all [2,000 years ago] in Jesus Christ" (p. 76).
The sacraments celebrate these three moments of the one act of salvation. In the gospel, it is the second moment that is the decisive one and baptism (along wit the Lord's Supper) is a sign of this one act of the triune God on our behalf---giving us ways to participate in, to experience, and thus be refreshed and renewed by the reality of God's work on our behalf. JB comments:
God forgives, God cleanses, God regenerates, God adopts, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts whereby we cry: "Abba, Father."  Our response to him is to say amen in faith---our passive recipient response. There is nothing more passive than dying, being buried, being baptized. (pp. 76-77)
In both baptism and the Lord's Supper, we celebrate God's covenant of grace---a covenant that is unilateral, not bilateral. That covenant is not an agreement we make with God as though God's grace is contingent on our faith; our decisions. We are not, for example, baptized in order to cause God to act, but because God has acted already, in Christ, on our behalf. JB comments:
The good news is that God has made a covenant for us in Christ and sealed it with his blood, nineteen hundred years ago [now 2,000]. It is a unilateral covenant of grace... but we are summoned through the Spirit to say amen to it in faith and to participate in "Christ and his benefits." (p. 77)
When we are baptized, we are saying "amen" to the one baptism of Christ (Ephesians 4:5), performed 2,000 years ago on behalf of all humanity. When we are personally baptized, we are incorporated into the one body of Christ, "that we might participate in all that [Christ] has done and is doing for us, that we might receive him with all his blessings." By the Spirit, Christ baptizes us "into a life of sonship, of service, of dying and rising with him in newness of life (Romans 6)" (p. 79). In these ways we understand baptism as a participatory seal, one that "marks out the individual personally as one who belongs to Christ, to make a visible difference between the church and the world" (p. 80).

Next time we'll look more at what JB has to say about our participation with Christ in and through the Lord's Supper. In the meantime, may we be reminded that the essential question in all of this is "Who is Christ," for that question leads us to the truth of all truths, about God, and about ourselves as children of God. May you rest in that truth today and every day!