31 July 2006

tom wright and reactions

First, a caveat: I am by no means a New Testament scholar. I'm not up on all the debates of the past century. The amount of Bultmann, Schweitzer, Harnack, and so on, that I've read could be printed in a volume of perhaps a couple hundred pages. My schtick is much more on the systematics, history, and philosophical theology end of the spectrum.

Still, I do try to keep abreast of what's going on in broader spheres of Christian scholarship and I have hardly been able to ignore discussions, in the wake of E.P. Sanders, concerning the nature of Second Temple Judaism and how that might occasion a re-reading or re-contextualization of certain parts of the New Testament. Moreover, given the position of N.T. Wright as one the leading New Testament theologians in the evangelical (and indeed, wider scholarly) world, I've made it a point to read a cross-section of his work.

In light of all that, it's difficult not to form at least a preliminary assessment of those discussions, what's at stake, what kinds of concerns some folks have, and the value of various criticisms.

I was asked recently, by someone who has found what she's read of Tom Wright's work to be helpful and edifying, why his writings have been such a particular focus of criticism among evangelicals. Part of the answer is that Wright probably has a greater degree of direct influence over evangelical thought than many other contemporary mainstream New Testament scholars, thereby coming under closer scrutiny, as well as the fact that we tend to criticize most sharply those with whom we differ who are otherwise the closest to us.

I replied more fully, however, that I think there are a lot of issues that come together in specific critiques of Wright's theology, some more broad and contextual and some more specific and exegetical. None of the following is to say that Wright's theology is above criticism or that he gets everything correct. I certainly have my differences with him. And Wright himself has said he's pretty sure that at least of third of what he had said is likely mistaken - the tricky bit is figuring out which third.

What follows is simply a catalogue of what I see as major reasons that he gets criticized and some gestures towards why some of those criticisms strike me as off the mark. I'll start broad and move towards specific.

[1] Tom Wright is working out of a perspective that emerged from the more liberal end of the theological and scholarly spectrum and thus, in the eyes of some, has the wrong pedigree. Wright himself, of course, is quite orthodox, but he interacts with liberals, understands them sympathetically, gives their arguments a fair chance, and argues with them in their own terms. To some readers, this smells suspicious.

And it also leads to misunderstandings, e.g., assuming that when Wright talks about a "Lutheran" reading of Paul he means confessional Lutheranism rather than, say, Bultmann, who is likely his more direct target, at least in some contexts; or that when Wright sets Paul up as within "Jewish story-theology" rather than "abstract Hellenistic speculation" that Wright is attacking all systematic theology rather than attacking guys like Harnack who saw Paul as more Greek than Jewish. Since many evangelicals don't really know how to speak the language of the mainstream academy, they don't know how to read Wright, especially his more technical work.

[2] Add to this that Wright is working out of an appreciative regard for E.P. Sanders (though also a highly critical regard) and of Sanders's re-reading of 2nd Temple Judaism (i.e., the period from the rebuilding of the Temple after the exile up to AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem - the Jewish context of Jesus and Paul).

While Wright disagrees strenuously with many of the details of Sanders's account of 2nd Temple Judaism, he does agree that the fundamental problem of that sort of Judaism was less a matter of individual works-righteousness in a semi-Pelagian sense (which is what the Protestant Reformers were reacting against at the end of the middle ages) and more a matter of Jewish identity over against the Gentiles, a sense of identity that held to Torah (including circumcision) as a symbol of that identity, as an end in itself, and as a marker of exclusivistic national claims.

[3] This reading of Judaism hardly lets Jesus and Paul's various opponents off the hook because that sort of Judaism still misunderstands grace and the inbreaking of God's kingdom, misconceives God's purposes for Israel in the world, and is still rooted in a kind of legalistic pride. But it has the practical effect of making the Protestant Reformers' reading of particular New Testament texts at a bit more of a remove from the immediate application in the original first century context.

Wright has said he thinks the Reformers were absolutely correct to apply the biblical texts to the problems of their own day in the way they did, but they were mistaken to think that the contours of late medieval Catholicism matched those of 2nd Temple Judaism in quite such a direct, precise way.

[4] Furthermore, Wright has a highly eschatological reading of the New Testament and, in particular, Paul's polemic against the Judaizers. That's to say, Wright reads Paul not so much as saying that the Judaizers had gotten "the way of salvation" wrong per se, conceived as some kind of timeless system of salvation. Rather Wright reads Paul more as saying that the Judaizers failed to understand at least three things: [a] where they were in time, in God's unfolding acts of redemption, [b] Israel's temporary and now completed role in that redemptive plan, and [c] the discontinuity and shift introduced by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

This makes a lot of difference in how one reads a variety of New Testament texts, particularly in Galatians and Romans. So part of the reaction against Wright is that, at a gut level for many evangelical readers, he is "robbing us of our Bibles." Folks mean by this, I think, that Wright is challenging the familiar, comfortable, indeed seemingly "obvious" ways in which particular texts have been read and used since at least the time of the Reformation. That's to say, Wright challenges some of our situated and historically contingent traditions of interpretation of the Bible in favor of retrieving a historically-grounded reading of the text of the Bible itself, a good Protestant impulse I should think.

It is important to note, I think, that Wright's end results still look very much like standard evangelical doctrine even if he arrives at those conclusions by somewhat different, and often times more complex, exegetical routes. But not everyone is comfortable with that.

[5] This gets us to some more specific issues. For instance, as I understand him, Wright doesn't read the Pauline phrase "works of the law" (ergon nomou) so much in terms of legalistic, meritorious works-righteousness by which we try to earn God's favor (though, of course, he would maintain that Paul's polemic would absolutely exclude that as well). Instead, he reads "works of the law" more in terms of how the Torah functioned to mark out Israel as God's elect people and how, for instance, still insisting on circumcision after the coming of the Messiah gets things backwards by making the goal of the Messiah's work the establishment of Israel and her identity, rather than Israel having existed for the sake of preparing the way for the Messiah's work.

Now, for the Judaizers to conceive of Israel in this way is self-righteous, prideful, and legalistic in a national or corporate sense, and so Paul's reaction against it would certainly cut just as much against more individual, semi-Pelagian versions of self-righteousness as well. As Wright himself says, the call of the Gospel
is the offer of forgiveness. It is the summons to receive God's gift of a slate wiped clean, a totally new start...As we saw earlier, just as you can't set up a ladder of human logic and climb up it to get to some kind of "proof" of God, so you can't set up a ladder of human moral or cultural achievement and climb up it to earn God's favor. From time to time some Christians have imagined that they were supposed to do just that, and have made a nonsense of everything. (Simply Christian 178)

[6] Another case: Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" (dikaiosune theou) on several occasions in Romans and elsewhere. In much traditional exegesis this is taken to refer primarily to a righteousness that God has and which he gives over to human beings for their justification (by infusion in the case of Roman Catholic understandings and by imputation in the case of Protestant understandings).

Building upon earlier exegesis (including Reformed figures such as Ridderbos and Cranfield, as well as Lutherans such as Kasemann), Wright suggests that "righteousness of God" needs to be read against the Old Testament use of the phrase and similar phrases (see, for instance, my own reflections on the use of "zdq" in Isaiah). In that context it means something more like "God's righteous character, particularly as manifest in his faithfulness to his covenant promises."

So, the argument in Romans has to do in part with the question of how is it that God can be righteous given that he has promised salvation through Israel, but Israel is an unfit and faithless vessel for this promised salvation? How will God come through on his promises of salvation in the face of human sin and thus be seen as just and righteous, particularly given that divine justice would seem to have to punish sin rather than pardon it?

Paul's answer, as Wright reads him, is that the righteousness of God is manifest in the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah, by which God's promises to Israel for the salvation of humanity are indeed kept, but sin is also dealt with definitively. The difficulty with all of this, however, for traditional readings, is that one of the customary prooftexts for "imputation of God's/Christ's righteousness" is taken away.

[7] This points to another specific problem: the place of "imputation" in Wright's approach. Wright points out that not only does "righteousness of God" fail to refer to an imputed (or, for that matter, infused) righteousness by which we are justified, but also all the passages that actually use the word "impute" (logizomai) don't really talk about an imputed righteousness either, in the sense of some kind of transfer of Christ's righteousness from his account to ours. The word does mean to "account" or "regard" or "reckon," but in context it is, for instance, Abraham's faith that God sees and that faith which he reckons to Abraham as righteousness. If there's an imputation of Christ's righteousness here, it's not directly on the surface of the text.

So part of the difficulty is that the biblical use of "impute" doesn't match up exactly with how "impute" is used in our systematic theology. D.A. Carson agrees, by the way, in a recent essay where he interacts with Wright's view, where Carson sees "imputation" (in the traditional systematic theological sense) as a theological implication of the New Testament text, a way of expressing and filling out the forensic character of justification in dogmatic language, rather than something that is directly taught by Scripture using the term in its lexical meaning.

And Wright doesn't entirely reject the idea of "God's reckoning Christ's righteousness to us" but re-configures it in terms of corporate christology - our being "in Christ" by the Spirit through faith so that everything that Christ is and has is ours. For Wright, Jesus' resurrection was God's declaration of Jesus' own right-standing before the divine court, a verdict legally vindicating Jesus in what he did on our behalf. And when we are united to Christ and incorporated into him, what is true of Christ in his humanity is also true of us so that very same forensic status becomes ours (and since it's a legal status, it makes no sense to speak of it being "infused" as Catholics do).

That's more or less Wright's version of how the traditional Reformed doctrine of imputation functions in Pauline theology in more Pauline language and thought-forms and, as far as I can see, it really isn't so different from the understandings of Calvin, Ridderbos, Gaffin, and others. At the very least, there's nothing about Wright's overall picture of justification, if one were to accept it, that necessarily would force us to exclude more traditional understandings of imputation.

Thus, while there's a sense in which Wright "rejects imputation" (in terms of the meaning of logizomai in the New Testament, a view that many biblical scholars share), there is another sense in which Wright's views are quite open to more imputational understandings, in terms of theological exposition and filling out of the biblical picture.

[8] There's also the question of present justification and future justification. Regarding present justification, Wright suggests that there is an ineliminable "horizontal" aspect to justification.

After all, in the writings of Paul, "justification" comes up first of all in Galatians in the context of table fellowship, in connection with the question "Who can I eat with?" Paul's answer is "justification by faith." So, part of the question of justification for Paul, is the question of group identity, what it is that marks out God's covenant people as his forgiven, declared righteous people. And, according to Wright, Paul's answer is "faith alone."

So, for Wright, faith isn't only the means by which one receives and rests upon Christ as savior, but it is also the marker by which God's justified, new covenant people are set apart from the world and set together into Christ. As such, "justification by faith" means that no other boundary markers should be set up to divide those who believe from one another and that we all belong together at the same table. It has to do with ecclesiology as well as (or as a dimension of) soteriology and, on the occasion of Paul's writing of Galatians, the ecclesiological issue was in the foreground.

So, if we really believe in justification by faith alone, suggests Wright, human traditions and even biblically-inspired customs or non-essential doctrines should not divide Christians whether those boundary markers are drinking and smoking, or race and gender, or subscription to the Westminster Standards, or belief in credobaptism or speaking in tongues or transsubstantiation. One can imagine why this might get Wright in trouble with fundamentalists and certain kinds of sectarian Protestants.

[9] Regarding "future justification," Wright notes that in Scripture "justification" isn't what's supposed to happen here and now (though "in Christ" it does), but rather what's supposed to happen on the last day, when all of humanity appears before the divine court and is judged, either to be declared righteous and vindicated or to be condemned and punished. This, at least, is the picture we are left with on the basis of the Old Testament and how that was understood within Second Temple Judaism.

What happened with Jesus, Wright suggests, is that what Jews and the Old Testament saw as the end of history has already happened in the middle of history in the condemnation and vindication of Jesus, so that all who are "in Christ" by faith already have God's final verdict announced over them. But there's still a final judgment that all people - whether in Christ or not - will someday face and this is a judgment that the New Testament everywhere presents as a "judgment according to works" done in the body.

How do we fit this together with justification only by faith in the present?

Wright's answer to this question is that those who believe in Christ now are already justified in the present and that same verdict will be publicly pronounced over them again in the final judgment. These are not two separate verdicts, but two aspects - present and future - of the very same verdict. But the pathway from our present to God's future is one that involves works.

This doesn't have anything to do with somehow earning or meriting our final justification. Rather, it means that those who are justified by faith in the present are united to Christ having been called into that same faith, who have the Spirit working in their lives to give them that faith, and who in Christ by that same Spirit have God at work in them to bear fruit. Thus, at the last judgment, final justification will be, Wright says, "on the basis of a whole life lived."

But for Wright this isn't "on the basis of" in abstraction from the work of Christ as if our own efforts were, in themselves, intrinsically worthy of final justification. Rather, it is an evidentiary basis, that gives evidence of a life lived in Christ and in the power of his Spirit by faith.

Still, a number of Wright's critics see this as re-introducing works-righteousness in through the back door and, moreover, as making present justification something uncertain since it raises the possibility that it might not pan out in the end if we don't work hard enough. I think that's a very tendentious reading of what Wright's trying to say, but that's the concern they have.

There are a number of other criticisms made of Wright's biblical theology than what I've catalogued here (e.g., regarding Jesus' self-consciousness as Yahweh incarnate), but I think I've covered some of the major points of contention.

So, taking things from the other direction, why are Tom Wright's writings so attractive to many evangelicals? It's difficult to make generalizations of that sort (especially without falling into dodgy sociological assertions), but I think we can make a few valid observations.

[1] Wright is an extraordinarily effective communicator. That doesn't mean everything he says is crystal clear or simple, but he is able to present ideas in a compelling way that draws together diverse data into a whole so as to make a great deal of sense, and to do so with a certain directness of language, illustrated with easily grasped examples or comparisons. One can add to this Wright's ability to shift, with apparent ease, between technical scholarly writing, popular level writing, homiletical material, and devotional literature. Thus, there is something attractive about Wright's work on a purely rhetorical level, which for many serves as a model of how we ought to communicate and embody the attractiveness of the Gospel itself in our speech.

[2] Wright is a "big picture" sort of thinker. While not at all ignoring matters of exegetical and theological detail, he is nonetheless able to avoid losing the forest for the trees, thereby presenting the big narrative of Scripture in a way that captures a broad Christ-centered vision of God's redemptive work in the world. Wright may tend to occasionally overdose on certain themes (e.g., "return from exile") or overemphasize one aspect of a theme (e.g., allowing Israel's exile to sometimes eclipse the original exile from Eden). Still, no theological project can do everything or juggle every biblical motif, but Wright's way of bringing together the biblical story is one that many find exceedingly useful in interpreting and understanding various passages of Scripture.

[3] Wright is a "both/and" kind of theologian. Whereas many biblical scholars get caught up in problematic "either/or" propositions that pit one alternative against another that needn't exclude the first, Wright seems to try to hold things together. For instance, where some would pit Pauline use of Old Testament themes against Paul's use of Hellenistic or Roman terminology and categories, Wright sees no necesssary opposition since he reads Paul as polemically deploying a Jewish worldview against that of the Roman empire with which it already resonates. In this way, many find Wright helpful in cutting through the false dichotomies often offered by both liberal and evangelical scholarship.

[4] Wright is an effective apologist for Christian orthodoxy. While he may not always arrive at orthodox conclusions by following the most familiar and well-worn exegetical paths, Wright nonetheless still arrives at those conclusions in a way that handles Scripture and history responsibly. Moreover, he does so in a manner that takes up the concerns and categories of mainstream scholarship and turns those around in order to articulate a winsome case for orthodox Christian belief as intellectually rigorous and historically defensible. As such, Wright's work has an important role to play for many as part of a contemporary Christian apologetic, especially in the context of the academy, but also more widely.

[5] Wright doesn't shy away from "application." One might not agree with every direction that Wright takes biblical passages and themes in terms of practical application, but at least he is trying and is doing so in ways that move beyond the categories of an individualistic moralism. The message of Scripture and the truth of the Gospel have ecclesiological, communal, missional, and political dimensions and Wright helps readers see ways in which various biblical texts speak to those. In a contemporary context where people are no longer content with "What does this mean for me?" and in which Christians are increasingly suspicious of the values of modernity, Wright is one of many authors who are pointing a way forward.

Again, more could probably be said here, but these few points of attraction will suffice.

Though these comments are brief, perhaps for some they will help defuse the overly simplistic notion that Wright is of a piece with some wider "new perspective" movement. These comments might also help clear up some of the common misunderstandings and misconstruals of his work, in order that genuine disagreements can be pursued without unnecessary distraction from the relevant issues.

30 July 2006

evangelical politics

Greg Boyd, widely published theologian, onetime faculty member at Bethel University, and pastor of the large Woodland Hills Church in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, seems to have lost around 1000 members of his church in recent months, around 20% of the congregation.

The reason? Not because Boyd has continued to disseminate his Open Theist views, which many orthodox Christians would consider to be theologically suspect. Rather, Woodland Hills Church's membership bleed appears to be a result of Boyd's making it clear in a series of sermons that his church will not function as the local chapter of any political party, as a bastion of nationalism, or as an uncritical supporter of US foreign policy.

That seems like an interesting window on the character and priorities of American evangelicalism.

heat wave

I know some other parts of the country have already been experiencing oppressive heat, but the weather is now on its way east, with the next couple of days possibly reaching 100F with a heat index (how things actually feel factoring in the humidity) reaching nearly 110F.

Pray that everyone's AC holds up, that we don't experience brown outs, and that those who don't have air-conditioning can find some way to keep cool. The elderly are always especially vulnerable, so folks around here might want to check in on their neighbors.

And make sure to keep drinking plenty of water.

28 July 2006

the one book

This meme is making it's way around the blogosphere and I've been tagged. So here goes:

1. One book that changed your life:
Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:
Besides the Bible, my one volume collected works of Shakespeare.

4. One book that made you laugh:
David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

5. One book that made you cry:
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

6. One book that you wish had been written:
A comprehensive handbook for using literature, television, and film in teaching philosophy.

7. One book that you wish had never been written:
John Smyth, Churches of the Separation (1608).

8. One book you’re currently reading:
James K.A. Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time.

10. Tag five others:
vox vendsel
foolish sage
per caritatem

27 July 2006

leon morris

As you may be aware, Australian Anglican theologian, churchman, and biblical scholar, Leon Morris passed away this past Monday.

Morris was a leader in evangelical and Reformed Anglicanism and is probably most well known for his published work on John's Gospel.

26 July 2006

pew study on blogging

"The ease and appeal of blogging is inspiring a new group of writers and creators to share their voices with the world." So begins the press release from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which has completed a phone survey of bloggers. Perhaps some of you participated.

The summary continues:
A national phone survey of bloggers finds that most are focused on describing their personal experiences to a relatively small audience of readers and that only a small proportion focus their coverage on politics, media, government, or technology. Blogs, the survey finds, are as individual as the people who keep them. However, most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.
The entire report, "Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet's New Storytellers" (pdf), is available online.

24 July 2006

scripture, authority, and interpretation 2

Earlier I posted excerpts from my side of an exchange with a college friend that I wrote over a decade ago. The previous post touched on topics of God, Christ, creation, and providence as a context for understanding the authority of Scripture. In what follows, I'll post some further excerpts from my side of that exchange as the topic turned to questions of the interpretation of Scripture, the construction of theological viewpoints, and the role of the church and tradition in that process.

Again, this is material I wrote some time ago, when I was much younger than I am now, and I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything I say or state it in precisely the same way today. Nevertheless, it might help to contextualize how my current thinking evolved.

...From what we have said, it is clear that we can never finally say regarding any interpretation of Scripture - let alone any attempt to comprehensively systematize or thematize its teaching - "Ok, now I've got it!" At least we cannot say that if we mean we have all the information in front of us and accounted for, even if everything we have in fact said by way of interpretation and organization is true enough in itself. More can always be said. This is due both to the open-ended nature of the subject matter as well as the fact that interpretation essentially involves approaching the text from the present horizon of interpretation and beginning to find trajectories of application - and new horizons and new situations for application always arise.

Moreover, since human reality is always plural and diverse (as well as unified in relation, analogically reflecting divine life), the Scriptures themselves are diverse materials. Portions of the Scriptures certainly count as "propositional" in character, but there are also commands, questions, poems, images, types, allegories, hortatory subjunctives, visions, and the like. God has given us this scriptural diversity, I think, in order to better capture the diverse nature of human experience so that no aspect of life is left untouched by the biblical story. Additionally, there is a depth and multi-faceted character to the nature of the truth communicated: the truth about God, about Christ, and about us.

Scriptural diversity implies, however, the impossibility of any sort of comprehensive systematization of biblical doctrine. This is not to disparage in the least the usefulness of systematic theology. Indeed, we cannot handle Scripture for very long without beginning to make connections and see patterns. Moreover, in the history of the church, certain errors have arisen and needed correction, drawing upon the breadth of the biblical corpus. We only give up those advances at our own peril (though see below regarding the hierarchy of truths). Still, any theology that tries to organize all scriptural material around a single theme or motif (e.g., the sovereignty of God, the covenant, the sacraments, the Trinity, etc.) will, of necessity, leave out or gloss over other important aspects of biblical revelation (and, indeed, this is true of all the comments I've made so far!)

That does not mean that a theology centered on one theme is necessarily false, but it may be limited and, perhaps, sometimes skewed to the point of falsifying the extensive contents of biblical material (e.g., consider a theology of God's secret electing will that leaves no room for, say, sacramental efficacy and the use of other created means in drawing people savingly to Christ). And so, a richer, deeper theology will have multiple thematic centers and approach the biblical materials from a variety of perspectives and ways of thinking (deduction, narrative, liturgy, eschatology, etc.).

With these points in mind we can begin to examine questions that are more centrally hermeneutical. First, we need to realize that an understanding of the meaning of any text is not neatly separable from that text's application. Texts may have "meaning" in some sense apart from anyone's interpretation of them simply in virtue of the features of the linguistic system in which that text is embedded (though even then, given the rootedness of language in practice, those features of linguistic meaning immediately involve what can properly be done with the text). But the business of interpretation must include understanding the text. A person who claims to understand a text's meaning, however, but is not able to do anything with the text (e.g., determine its truth value, draw implications from it, paraphrase it, see what evidence might count for or against it, etc.) cannot be plausibly said to understand the text. Understanding is incarnate in application.

Second, it follows from the first point that there will always a humanly irreducible plurality of interpretation, even if meaning is ultimately one. Since modes of application, conceptual and institutional contexts of interpretation, and the individual character of interpreters differ, interpretation is multivalent. What a particular text means for an individual, a community, or a culture is shaped by the resources available for interpretation and the ways in which the text can be applied within that context. And that, in turn, depends upon the features of the sitation - what things exist, what concepts are in use, what talents, abilities, and gifts a person possesses, etc....

...One is not required to have the whole meaning (every nuance, connection, and application) of a text in order to have a true understanding of that text. Certain aspects of meaning may only come to light within those concrete situations of interpretation and application that may arise. God alone, who knows all the ways in which a text may present itself and work itself out within his creation, knows the fullest meaning of what he has said...

Third, the multivalent character of interpretation does not imply that there is "no fact of the matter" concerning whether a text is being truly interpreted or not. Nor does it mean that there are no methods for determining whether or not a true interpretation has been given. But more on that later...

...Before moving onto some relevant heremeneutical principles themselves, this is, I guess, the best point to bring in the doctrine of perspicuity, which you had raised earlier. Here's one expression of that doctrine:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
That is how the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7), a mid-17th century document, defines the doctrine.

I'll note that this was written well before the heyday of Common Sense philosophy and that Calvin and even some of the medieval scholastics had expressed similar views. Thus your suggestion of the influence of Common Sense Realism upon the doctrine seems anachronistic, without denying the possibility that it might have had some effect on how an individualistic hermeneutics, untethered from tradition and ecclesial contexts, has come to play itself out in American evangelicalism.

The doctrine of perspicuity is not that an illiterate or an infant can get true teaching from Scripture on their own. Nor is it that every doctrine, let alone comprehensive system of doctrine, is absolutely clear from Scripture. Perspicuity is a matter of degree.

What the doctrine of perspicuity teaches is that those who are reasonably literate can open their Bibles or hear Scripture read and preached and learn that they are sinners in need of a savior and that they need to trust Christ and his work in order to be right with God. That's all. Perspicuity does not say that just anyone can arrive at the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ or even that faith is the sole instrumental cause by which we receive Christ's two-fold righteousness imputed to us for our justification. Those doctrines, however true and however necessary for the church to discern and maintain, are not of the essence of saving faith. Entrusting oneself to the crucified and risen Jesus is. And that is what the Bible clearly teaches.

Does that mean that one can deny the deity of Christ and still be saved if one has faith in him? Well, perhaps we should distinguish between recognizing Jesus Christ as God incarnate and being able to articulate that in a theologically proper way. Moreover, the deity of Christ is reasonably clear from Scripture and has been authoritatively defined by the church and, since that time, has come to be held everywhere by everyone who claims the catholic faith. If one were to reject it explicitly and deliberately after the doctrine has been clearly and lovingly explained from Scripture, in keeping with the church's understanding, then one is certainly taking a grave risk given that saving faith has content and God's authority comes to us, in part, through his church. Moreover, I would think it would be pastorally fitting for the church to see such a person as placing himself outside her gracious bounds, to warn such a person of his peril, and to withhold any assurance of salvation.

Note that such a person is not in the position of being within an aberrant tradition, being misled by false teachers, or being invincibly ignorant. The Scriptures distinguish between those who sin "high-handedly" and those who are misled (see Lev 4:3-5, 13; Num 15:22ff.; cf. WLC 150, 151). Those who are misled by their traditions and teachers and who stray unwittingly into error are not as responsible as those who knowingly and deliberately reject the catholic faith. And such misled persons we must commend to the mercy of our loving God, even as we bear witness to them...

...Now, with regard to there being a "hierarchy of truths," which doctrines are more clear and more central and which one are less so is a difficult matter to determine, even though almost all Christians and the church over the centuries have implicitly held that there is such a hierarchy. In general, it would seem that those doctrines that have been more widely held within the church for a longer period of time are relatively more clear and central.

Thus, the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity must be seen as pretty clear. The relation between the two natures of Christ is relatively clear. In neither case does this mean that there are no unresolved issues or that believers can't unfold these doctrines further in ways that are less clearly correct. But it does mean that a particular level of doctrinal development has been reached with a fairly high degree of certainty, so much so in these instances, that these doctrines represent catholic orthodoxy. It is also abundantly clear, while less explicitly defined (though there is the Council of Orange), that we do not earn our salvation and that we cannot turn to God in faith apart from grace.

Beyond those sorts of doctrines, we have, for instance, the distinctive teachings of the Protestant Reformation (the "solas"). While I hold firmly to these doctrines as biblically true and pastorally important, they were not all matters on which the church had a single mind at the time of the Reformation nor have they subsequently been received by the whole church, despite substantial agreements on some aspects and ongoing efforts at reconciliation and rapprochement. Thus, I think we must hold these distinctives to be somewhat less clear and less certain in general, even if they are clear and certain to us.

Other matters, of course (particularly as we descend to more detailed expositions of biblical teaching), remain even less clear and, in some cases, are probably up for grabs. For instance, in the matter of general eschatology, it seems there is little that is very definite beyond confessing Christ's return to judge the living and dead, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.

In terms of Christian ethics, there is a similar pattern. The church has always held to many central obvious biblical norms (love one another, don't murder, don't steal, don't commit adultery, etc.). The church has also been fairly clear on a number of central and immediate implications of the more basic principles: the impermissibility of things such as abortion, outright idolatry, women priests, homosexual intercourse, etc. It has been clear on these issues even when it was not the accepted view in the surrounding culture as a whole, even when it proved a liability to the church's service and witness to the world, and even through various social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. The church has been less clear over time about, say, what counts as usury, the particulars of economic systems, when divorce is permitted if ever, the application of the death penalty, ordination of women to the diaconate, etc.

It seems to me, then, by way of general principle, that when our interpretation of Scripture brings us into conflict with the undivided voice of Christ's faithful through the centuries, then we have better be really quite certain about our exegesis, that we have not given into contemporary values, the spirit of the age, or our own desires of what we wish were true. Chances are that we are in the wrong and that the consistent witness of God's Spirit through his people is right. Moreover, disagreement ought to be the outcome of a process of exegesis, by a person who is competent and trained in exegesis, in piously deferential consultation with existing patterns and traditions of exegesis. Thus, it alwasy ought to be a matter of what the text of Scripture genuinely teaches and never a matter of questioning the authority or inerrancy of the biblical text itself.

I am, however, a Protestant. I do believe that the church can continue to be reformed even in doctrine and practice, even in those areas where some prior clarity may have been achieved - but only if the church, in response to the witness of the Spirit in Scripture, changes its mind in a "catholic" fashion: across denominations, by a process of discernment and consensus, giving weight to the views of those who hold most faithfully to the most clear and well-established doctrines of our holy faith (the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.). As a Protestant, I don't hold to the absolute infallibility of church councils, but I accept the indefectability or perhaps what we could call the "eschatological infallibilitiy" of the church as she is taught by the Spirit. What I mean here is simply that the collective mind and heart of Christ's faithful will never irredeemably fall into error, but always (albeit by fits and starts) grow up into the truth. Thus it is imperative that we listen to and learn from our brothers and sisters...

...I have not answered your question of how we arrive at less clear doctrines in our interpretation of Scripture so that we can hold to them with any degree of confidence. Is the project of theology even worthwhile if we cannot have confidence in our formulations as they proceed beyond the most central doctrines of the faith? The question here is not only hermeneutical, but also more broadly epistemological. And the most basic answer, it seems to me, is that of Reformed orthodoxy: we interpret Scripture by Scripture. What this means in practice, however, is more complex.

It does not mean that we make no use of any resources outside of Scripture. After all, if interpretation always occurs from within a particular horizion and always involves trajectories of application, then it is necessary to understand the situations to which the Scriptures speak, including its original context and audience, and even if Scripture itself must condition our understaning of those situations and contexts.

Moreover, as Gadamer argues, our own "prejudgments" drawn from our personal historieis, language, and culture, are the necessary preconditions for being able to interpret anything at all. We bring these prejudgments to the text as questions to be asked of the text, frameworks for configuring the data of the text, and the context through which we perceive the text.

Nevertheless, if we are to interpret the text rightly we must be "open to dialogue" with the text. We must allow the text itself to pull us up short, to question our questions, to deny us access to itself unless we begin to compromise ourselves to it. If we are to image God, we must (by his grace) be fully open to his voice, to give our prejudgments over to him in love, to be at the disposal of Scripture, and to allow the text to call into question our ways of thinking at the deepest level. Devotion and exegesis, in this way, are inseparable.

Practically speaking though, how do we enter into this position of radical openness to the text? Several suggestions come to mind, as I reflect upon Christian praxis - what it is that the church in fact has done and continues to do.

The first set of suggestions are in respect to the texts of Scripture themselves: we make the language of Scripture our own language. By this I don't mean learning Hebrew or Greek (though that can be helpful). Rather, we must learn to inhabit the world of the text, to see the world through the eyes of the biblical authors, to name objects and acts they way they do, to share in their values...

Part of inhabiting the world of the text is, secondly, taking on the biblical story as one's own family and cultural history, the story into we ourselves have entered through baptism and which we profess as our own. We all share family and cultural histories through narratives - the story of the first Thanksgiving, of Paul Revere's midnight ride, of great-uncle Zed's trek out west, of that time the car broke down in a snowstorm, and so on. As the church, however, our primary, defining narratives are not those of our natural families or surrounding culture, but those found in Scripture. We read and hear those narratives together as the people of God, rehearsing them through the lectionary and the creeds, living them out in the pattern of the church year, and dramatically re-enacting them in the flow of the liturgy with its sacraments and rites.

Thirdly, the community life of God's people together in fellowship, in confession, in mutual encouragement and counsel and correction, in listening to one another, and yes, also in church discipline, are all means by which we begin to live out the Word. As the Word takes shape in us and among us, that too is a means by which we learn to live in the world of the biblical text. As we live and move in that world, we come to understand and enter more and more into how Scripture interprets and interacts with itself (the prophets' use of the pentateuch, the psalms' theology of the tabernacle, the New Tesatment's use of the Old, etc.).

In that way then the Bible - the voice of Jesus - begins to interpret itself in our own exegetical study and reflection, in our fellowship, in our worship, and in our lives. Our life together will manifest the life-giving Spirit of Christ as we grow up into the mind of Christ. All of this is part of what is meant, I think, by "Scripture interpreting Scripture," when placed in its larger context...

...The story of the Bible must be allowed to challenge, correct, and transform the culture of any interpreter, not in that the interpreter's own context is to be trumped by Scripture. Rather, it is only under the guidance and authority of Scripture through faithful communities of interpreters that their cultural context will be opened to spiritual transformation that brings it to its proper redemptive telos. Our cultures, languages, and histories are both our greatest assets and our greatest liabilities.

In terms of assets, without these contexts we couldn't even begin to interpret Scripture. Scripture itself took shape in a set of particular cultural contexts and within a historical narrative, and God continually changed and redemptively transformed that history and those cultural contexts, bringing them, in and through their historical unfolding, to maturity in Christ. It is only because of this that we can relate to Scripture as a cultural artifact as persons who find ourselves also within culture and history as part of the greater human story. We can see what God had done within the cultural contexts of the Bible and the history of which it is a part and begin to see what implications that might have for us where and when we live.

In terms of liabilities, we live in a world broken and damaged by the power of sin. We do not see as clearly as we ought nor do we always want to. We have blindspots and limitations, in part bequeathed to us by the systemic effects of sin within our culture, language, and histories, and in part due to our own failure to trust and love as we ought.

If cultural and historical embeddedness in themselves, however, cut us off from the world of Scripture, then we would be cut off from Christ in the Scriptures, except perhaps as an abstraction, a moral platitude, or timeless truth for disembodied souls. But then it would be difficult to see how Christ's work could have any redemptive significance for the whole created world and, in particular, the real world of culture and history. If the hermeneutical difficulties posed by sin's effects were utterly insuperable, even by grace, then our faith is in vain...

...How do these points bear upon the issue of arriving at some confidence regarding any particular interpretation? First, it drives us to humility, particularly with regard to those issues on which there never has been any sort of wide agreement among Christ's faithful or where we are following out the less clear implications of more central doctrines. That does not mean we can't adopt a particular interpretation or argue for it passionately. But it does require openness to the possibility of error, to recognize the presence of sin, to allow for additional facets that were missed, to consider other interpretive paradigms and motifs that might better account for some data. Evangelicals often fall short at this point, taking their own situated and contingent interpretations and elevating them to the level of orthodoxy or as simply obvious or as matters over which to divide.

Second, we need to distinguish between the fact of having a correct interpretation (a state of having arrived properly at truth) and being to defend or verify that interpretation (a process of rational support). It's possible, after all, to know what a text means even if you can't perfectly defend that knowledge or be absolutely certain regarding it...

...Third, the previous point is no excuse for laziness in searching the Scriptures and trying to articulate one's own process of interpretation. Neither is it an excuse for arrogance and dismissiveness in respect to other's interpretations. After all, their understanding, if in conflict with my own, may provide reasons for re-consideration or expansion of my own understanding.

Fourth, one should never interpret a text individually and in isolation from the canonical shape of Scripture or the witness of the Spirit in the history of the church's understanding of Scripture. Any interpretation should be checked against other passages, as well as the thinking of Christian teachers and theologians of the past and one's fellow believers today, who also heed the voice of Christ in Scripture and share with you in the Spirit and his gifts. In listening to others one must be open to their perspectives, even if they lead away from where you, as an interpreter may wish to go. Even erroneous interpretations (at least among Christians who trust Christ within the bounds of Nicene orthodoxy) are mostly based upon legitimate concerns, real biblical themes, and genuine theological insights. Without such ongoing listening to others, to the wider witness of the church, and to what the Spirit continues to teach us through the Scriptures, we risk the danger of a sterile parochialism or an idolatrous traditionalism...

...Within catholic orthodoxy, we can consider, for example, the disagreements between Roman Catholics and evangelicals on the nature of baptismal efficacy. Catholics will tend to point to passages in which baptism is seen as a necessary part of entering the kingdom, as the proper response to the Gospel, and as has saving effects attributed to it (new life, being clothed with Christ, forgiveness of sins, etc.). If an evangelical (or even putatively Reformed) view of the sacrament of baptism cannot account for such passages with integrity or cannot comfortably speak the words Scripture speaks, then to that degree such a view is incomplete or requires further exposition.

As Christians speaking the truth in love, we must listen carefully and be open to one another's views, interpreting them charitably, giving them the best possible reading, and striving to incorporate their genuine insights into our own understanding. In this way we can contend together towards the truth and remain, at least to an important and hopefully growing degree, in loving communion with all the church.

Fifth, the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit is ultimately the reason that the church will never fall irredeemably into error. The guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, understanding, and theological construction is not merely an individual matter, for the priesthood of all believers is not merely an individual matter. We are each personally priests because we share together in the one priesthood of Christ by his one Spirit. The guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, therefore, comes through the circulation of Christ's Spirit among his people as they hear his Word preached, share in the sacraments, pray together corporately, enjoy fellowship, give pious deference to the doctors and fathers of the church, and love and enjoy interaction with other Christians. The work of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture is a gift granted to the universal church, both locally and more broadly.

Perhaps even disagreement is part of the Holy Spirit's work in order to move us beyond our present patterns and limited viewpoints in order to think in new ways that better account for the ever fertile richness of God's Word. Such disagreement, however, must always remain within the context of faithfulness to the authority of Scripture, because the Scriptures are Jesus Christ's voice present in our midst and the Spirit always calls us to him, to the fullness of his redeemed humanity in which our own salvation is found...

...I have, in recent years, had a great deal of opportunity to join at various times, formally and informally, together with brothers and sisters in Christ from various traditions: Reformed, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Anglican, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Lutheran. Together we have opened and discussed the holy Scriptures as well as the theological understandings that we build up out of them. While we certainly did not come to agreement on any number of issues, there was always a very basic sense in which we had deep and real agreement in diversity.

This did not come by sweeping differences under the table nor did it come by compromise of our positions. Rather, we shared a common commitment to the Christ of Sripture and the reality that, in Scripture, we find Jesus' speaking presence among us by his Spirit. We also shared a common commitment of faith in that same Christ Jesus as the one in whom God was and is reconciling the world to himself. As ourselves recipients of that reconciliation, we could, in love and humility, begin to be reconciled to one another. Out of those commitments and only out of those commitments, could we listen to each other, begin to understand each other, unmask misunderstandings and miscommunication, and begin to realize the nature of our genuine differences and disagreements. In doing so, rather than being able to dismiss one another, we realized the shortcomings of our own limited perspectives and how we must continue to think and grow in our understanding of the Gospel. "O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!"

As I said before, all of that was written more than a decade ago and, while I would want to revise some of what I've said, it still accurately represents the kinds of concerns and priorities that have shaped and continue to shape me spiritually and theologically.

22 July 2006

christian fiction

I was looking at a Christian fiction catalogue today and it struck me that there is almost no current Christian fiction out there that is set in a contemporary urban context.

The vast majority of it is either historical fiction or set in a rural or small town context. Even more mainstream books such as Jan Karon's Mitford series, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and Leif Enger's Peace Like a River are set against the backdrop of small town, rural America.

Heck, with the exception of a couple of Bret Lott's novels, I can't even think of any books that are set in contemporary suburbia.

Yet most Americans live in large urban centers or their suburban sprawl.

So what's up with that? Among contemporary Christian authors are there notable exceptions to my observations? Any suggestions as to why there is this trend in contemporary Christian literature?

21 July 2006

israel and lebanon

There's an interesting exchange over at Christianity Today regarding the current conflict between Israel, Hezbollah, and the effects on Lebanon. The exchange is between David P. Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University, and Martin Accad, academic dean of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon:
The Middle East's Death Wish—and Ours

Another Point of View: Evangelical Blindness on Lebanon

We Risk Not Just Suffering, But Annihilation
The exchange is instructive on the complexities of these sorts of situations in the world, the real suffering they entail, the situations in which our brothers and sisters in Christ oftimes find themselves in the context of international conflict, and the way in which American policy is widely viewed in eyes of Christians who are not from the US. I only wish that the editorial folks at CT didn't feel they had to distance themselves so firmly from the material they print when their readers might find it difficult to agree with.

Update: CT follows up this earlier exchange with another piece by Martin Accad: 'Who Is My Neighbor' in the Lebanon-Israel Conflict?

scripture, authority, and interpretation

A turn of phrase in recent conversation reminded me of an extended exchange I had with a friend some 11 or 12 years ago.

The friend to whom I was writing was in the midst of questioning his faith, having earlier adopted a peculiar version of an evangelical doctrine of inerrancy, with a presuppositionalist twist, that tended to identify one particular way of construing biblical doctrine (a matter of human interpretation) with the Word of God itself understood as fully perspicuous. Faced with some life circumstances, his sociological studies, his growing sense of historical contingency, his reading of figures such as James Barr, and several personal issues, his once carefully-crafted, though precarious doctrinal certainty came crashing down like a house of cards.

The topic of our exchange, therefore, centered on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, particularly (as I wrote at the time) "how we can do justice to Scripture as both the authoritative Word of God and also as a human product, written, collected, and redacted within time, place, language, and culture." For my friend, the notion of Scripture's authority and inerrancy seemed to imply that Scripture must somehow be above time and history and particularity. These were, at least, the presenting issues in our exchange, though I perceived that they were symptomatic of other matters and motivations that could be less easily handled through a written exchange.

I've been cleaning out some files lately (thus the post below on pastoral counseling), and so today I hunted around for this more than decade-old written correspondence. I found it and realized that it came to some 20 single-spaced pages at my end of the conversation. It's always interesting to encounter a tangible witness to oneself from the past, to whom one was at that time and what one was thinking in years gone by.

I'm certainly not going to reproduce the whole conversation (especially since I don't have it in electronic format). But I thought I might post some excerpts as a little window into my own trajectories of thought over the years. Remember, however, that these are words I wrote over a decade ago, in my mid-20s. Thus they can't be taken to necessarily represent what I believe now. And even where I would still agree with myself, I might word things rather differently today.

I'll post my side of the exchange in two halves. Below is the first half in which I tried to tackle some general issues of God, creation, humanity, and in that context, the authority of Scripture. I'll post the second half, dealing with questions of interpretation and tradition, at some later point.

...Much of the mainstream scholarly work that has been done in relation to Scripture, concerning the historically situated character of knowledge and thought, has been done in a largely critical manner, carried out often enough from a standpoint of unbelief, anti-supernaturalistic assumptions, and Enlightenment rationalism.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have sometimes tended to ignore or downplay the fully human aspect of Scripture, bringing in at times their own unbiblical, rationalistic, and pietistic assumptions (an over literalistic hermeneutics, a radically democratic notion of Scripture's perspecuity, evidentialism and epistemological foundationalism, a disregard for creeds, confessions, and theological traditions, and so forth). For these reasons and others, I too am uncomfortable in seeing myself as an "evangelical" as that is typically understood in our cultural context, though I do very much hold to Scripture's inerrancy and many other standard evangelical distinctives (e.g., the Reformational "solas"). But I prefer to think of myself in terms of confessional Reformed orthodoxy or, if stressing my high regard for the project of the early Reformers (Bucer, Calvin, Vermigli, etc.), as a reformed, protesting catholic.

At this juncture in our contemporary situation, then, I see some of the issues facing us as Christians to center on the nature of truth and revelation, the character of human life in all its concrete conditions, and how we are to articulate the life-giving Gospel of Jesus in such as age as ours. It is of utmost importance to the church's mission, then, to get clear on who God is, the person of Christ, and what they have spoken to us, particularly as that revelation reveals us as human persons to ourselves, both individually and in communities and cultures...

...Far too often western theology has emphasized the unity of God at the expense of the plurality and diversity within the Godhead - Father, Son, and Spirit - and the manifestation of that in the Person and work of Christ by whom God is made known. This neglect of the Trinity has been detrimental to the contours of western thought and has led, in various ways, to the conditions of modernity (see Michael Buckley's At the Origins of Modern Atheism for details)...

...As the relationship between Christ and his Father is expressed in the Johannine literature we find that the Father gives his glory over to the Son and the Son to the Father (e.g., Jn 12:27-33; 13:31-32; 17:1-5; 1Jn 3:16; 4:7-21). While these divine relationships are manifest in human history and salvation history, they are God's revelation of himself in Christ. The church has recognized that what is derivatively true of God as seen in creation and redemption ("economically"), must also be eminently and analogically true of God as he is in himself ("immanently"). Otherwise, it isn't "revelation" and, even if there is always infinitely more that we cannot say about God, we have to maintain the truth of what can be said through God's self-disclosure in the economy of creation and redemption.

Therefore, while I don't really know the best way to put this, I think we have to say that this trinitarian giving over of self, the complete openness to the Other within the Godhead is central to the life of God and is why God is not just characterized by lovingness, but is love. Greek orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes,
Each Person exists not for himself, but he exists offering himself in a community of love with the other Persons. The life of the Persons is a "co-inherence" of life, which means: the life of one becomes the life of the other; their Existence is drawn from the actualization of life as communoon, from life which is identified with self-ofering, love. (Elements of Faith, 36)
In part, this is the implication of the ecumenical creeds: the Father, Son, and Spirit are "homoousion" and yet the "hupostasis" of the Son is eternally begotten and that of the Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father who eternally begets and sends.

Therefore, who each person is, is received from the other and finds its source in the primacy of the Father as the "fount of divinity." And it is to the Father that all returns - the Spirit gives himself over to the Son and together the Spirit and Son give themselves to the Father. Within what Maximos the Confessor calls an "eternal movement love," no one person ever loses his individual character or attributes in giving all to the others. Rather, the distinct nature of each person is constituted by his active relationships to the others. And so unity and diversity in God are co-eternal and both important and, in fact, make God who he is.

This has profound implications for our doctrines of creation, of revelation, of the nature of humanity, and of redemption. It is in God's nature to give himself, to give over his own love, glory, knowledge, and so forth, to another. Since God is a community of love in himself, it was not necessary for him to create anything nor does God gain anything or change by creating. Unlike the eternal relations within the Godhead, God's relation to the creation is not eternal or necessary since creation is distinct from God, brought into being by him in addition to his own existence.

But given the fact of creation and the revelation in Christ of God as Trinity, we can discern part of God's purposes in creation as an overflow of his love. Part of point of creation was God to communicate himself - his own love and glory - to something outside of himself. Such a creation would, of course, bring glory to God (as the Son both is given and gives back the Father's glory), but that self-glorification is not one that circumvents the glorification of creation itself. As friends find their own joy in the joy of their friend, so our already all-glorious God finds glory in transforming the created world from glory to glory.

This also has implications for the integrity of creation as created. Even as the Son receives his personal being from that Father and yet exists in his own unique person, character, and integrity, so also in an analogical way, the creation has real existence, real laws, real powers, real structures, real patterns and processes truly given by God. Nevertheless, even as the Son does not act or will apart from or contrary to the Father, but in and through him, so also in an anaological way, the creation behaves only within and in dependence upon the loving providence of God.

Every event and aspect of creation (including human beings and human language and culture, see below) is both a work and part of the creation itself and also a work of God and part of his providence. Thought it is an inadequate analogy, we can again think of the relationship between two people in which the joy, good, and pleasure of one are the joy, good, and pleasure of the other, so that in giving oneself over to the joy, good, and pleasure of the other, one finds one's own joy, good, and pleasure. While this is reflected in God's relationship with the creation, that relationship must also, of course, be seen in the context of the creation's metaphysical dependence upon God's loving lordship exercised within in the creation's own wholly gifted powers...

...Human beings, individually and corporately, are created in the image of our Triune God where Christ - or rather, the eternal Son, Ikon, and Logos of the Father, within the Spirit - is the archetype of humanity's own imaging of God. In part this means that it is God's desire to transform us by grace into what he is by nature, as attested to by Peter (2Pt 1:3-4) as well as the Pauline theology of adoption. We don't become God, of course, but we become as much like God as is possible for finite creatures in his image. While this is definitively and initially accomplished for us by our union with Christ (as the truly human image of God) in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, it will not become fully ours until the consummation of all things. Even then it will, I think, still be something into which we will continually grow given the infinite difference between ourselves and God...

...So, what's all this have to do with revelation, Scripture, interpretation, culture, and so on? In part, it means that we image God in Christ not only as individuals, but also as communities, cultures, and as a species. The real diversity that exists in human life and being - diversity of individuals, languages, relationships, communities, cultures, and so forth - this is a diversity we would anticipate once we understand God's revelation of himself as Triune.

God, after all, had expected and desired people to "multiply and fill the earth," moving outward, diversifying, developing different cultures and languages. The people at Babel were refusing to take up this human vocation in their hubris to construct a human unity on their own efforts. In this light consider that Pentecost was not really a reversal of Babel, but rather its fulfillment, being freed from the effects of human sinfulness, within the sphere of redemption. Distinct languages and cultures are not obliterated by Christ's work, it seems, but truly opened to one another in a community of love and fellowship around the Apostle's teaching, the holy eucharist, sharing together in the communication of good things, and prayer.

This is all part of what it means to be made in the image of the God revealed in Christ and, in Christ as the true image of God, to be restored. Lesslie Newbigin writes:
God, as he is revealed to us in the gospel, is not a monad. Interpersonal relatedness belongs to the very being of God. Therefore there can be no salvation of human beings except in relatedness. No one can be made whole except by being restored to the wholeness of that being-in-relatedness for which God made us and the world and which is the image of the being-in-relatedness which is the being of God himself. (The Open Secret 70)
And part of that "being-in-relatedness" involves the myriad of relationships and practices that constitute human culture and situatedness. God's salvation must therefore come through others, through our neighbors who have been called by God to bear his blessing to others, and with distinct cultural forms that are themselves the redemption of culture...

...All cultures are affected by sin, but Christ redeems cultures, yet in a way that retains their diverse integrity even within the unity that Christ brings to a broken humanity. This is part of the role of a church composed of every tribe, tongue, and nation - to act as the "cult" at the center of divinely transformed cultures. In the church human cultures are transformed by a new language, a new narrative, and new values (all rooted in the story of Scripture as the truly human story); they adopt new rituals and new ceremonies that mark out a new humanity (baptism, eucharist, unction, the laying on of hands, etc.); and they develop new communal practices and a new discipline (the New Testament "one anothering" passages, mutual confession and encouragement, love, prayer, excommunication, etc.). Moreover, reflecting God's own Triune life, this diversity of culture is united in love because, not only does each member serve the others in the Body, but also each community and cultural expression is to be for the service of others in their growth in Christ, in knowledge and grace, into the fullness of redeemed humanness.

Another perspective upon this, continuing this line of thought, is to consider God as he is revealed by the Son as "Logos." As Logos - the Name and Word - God eternally speaks. This is manifest in God's creation of the universe, as Genesis has it, by speaking it into existence and upholding it by the Word of his power (that is, Christ, in whom and through whom and for whom are all things). Human beings, in God's image, also speak and in doing we, derivatively under God, create "worlds" for ourselves. This isn't to say that the material, concrete world isn't real nor is it to espouse some form of idealism. Rather it implies that our experience in the world is mediated through discourse and always remains historically situated and limited, even perhaps to the extent that at least some objects of discourse are actually partly constituted by discourse itself and the practices it requires (e.g., "feminimity" or "insanity").

This doesn't mean that "anything goes" in the way we talk about and construct our social and cultural worlds or mediations of the world. But truth must be indexed to the way truth-speaking discourse handles reality and the form of life from which it emerges - whether or not that occurs out of Christian love and openness to God, to his good creation, and to each other and whether or not it genuinely and creatively extends the biblical narrative, appropriately improvising the Gospel-story into specific circumstances and cultural contexts. If so, then human speaking is receptively re-creative of God's own purposes.

Evangelicals are, I suspect, sometimes fearful of these sorts of ways of thinking because they worry that it entails some sort of relativism, but that simply is not the case. The variety of ways of acting out of love of God and neighbor isn't a free-for-all, but must remain loyal to the definite boundaries and trajectories of the biblical script. Moreover, we must not over-exaggerate the actual diversity of how human beings interact with the world at the expense of real human unity. As inculturated people ourselves, all sharing in the divine image, we can begin to understand other people, other communities, and other cultures, despite vast differences over time and place.

And though that understanding may often be partial, incomplete truth is still truth. How much more is understanding possible when cultures in their integral diversity, find unity in Christ which is characterized, in its best expressions, by loving openness (I'll touch on the critical, corrective side of this love later). And while unity will find its fullest expression only within the life of God's people, this side of the eschaton even that diversity in unity will fall short - sometimes tragically sort, given human sin and pride leading to blindspots, hyper-critical attitudes, exercises of power, and the like.

What emerges from this discussion is that God always intended from the beginning for there to be diversity and unity in human life, language, community, and culture, with neither unity nor diversity being absolutely ultimate, but rather co-inhering through love. God is infinite and as his image we have the potential, within ourselves and our relationships (personally, communally, and culturally), for near infinite depths and variation as we learn about God and about ourselves in relation to God (two tasks which, as Calvin notes at the beginning of his Institutes, are inseparably entwined).

Human diversity - including its cultural embeddedness and historical contingency and particularity - was intended by God as a contribution (not a barrier or limitation) to our understanding of him and of one another. Each language and culture has a unique perspective upon God and the human condition that it can contribute to our experience and understanding. Thought it is certainly true that, apart from Christ's redemptive work, sin distorts, uproots, and cuts short true understanding, in him, in the reality of Pentecost, a new way is opened up. In eternity, I imagine, entering into the fullness of the beatific vision will involve learning each others' langauges and cultures, and creating ever new modes of being in and understanding the world, in a process of eternal unfolding...

...If God intended, apart from sin, for each individual, community, and culture to manifest him from a particular perspective and in a particular way, then it should be no surprise to us that the Scriptures are a culturally embedded and conditioned document, written by ordinary people using ordinary means (researching, employing sources, consulting records, copying, editing, reworking, using literary artifice and modes of expression, etc.). This is all part of the "scandal of particularity" that is indispensable to a faith that is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of a particular first-century Jewish carpenter...

Scripture itself teaches us about the various modes and means by which God has made himself known, even apart from Scripture itself: the natural world, general history, the act of creation, redemptive events, God's mighty acts, miraculous signs, the divine voice, dreams and visions, the conscience, theophanies, and so on. God's revelation has come at many times and in various ways. While there is a complex relationship between modes of "general revelation" and "special revelation" (a variation on the relationship between nature and grace), in each instance God uses creation itself as the means of his own self-disclosure: events, perceptions, persons, minds, language, and so on...

The Scriptures are not merely a human record of the other kinds of revelation already mentioned (for instance, a record of Israel's experience of Yahweh), even if such a record were somehow written down at a divine prompting and divinely preserved from error. Rather, as traditionally understood, every part of Scripture is a word carried on the Breath of God and thus is "God-breathed." How precisely this is the case in respect to the human authorship of Scripture requires an examination of specific texts, as well as the narrative shape of the canon as a whole, since the Spirit used various methods including research, language, cultural symbols, dreams, and the like.

God always intended for the human, the cultural, the finite, the linguistic, the conditioned, to reveal him and to do so truly. Scripture's being a human product is not a problem or a difficulty to be overcome. Rather, the human problem is sin - a refusal to give oneself over to in love to God and others. Thus, through the Spirit's presence and work of love (opening the human authors to God and his people, consecrating all the very human work of authorship) Scipture is truly human (involving all human beings do as humans in the process of writing) as well as truly divine (fulfilling God's highest intent to reveal himself through human means)...

...God's relationship to the creation is one in which the actions, events, and processes of the created world are both attributable to God and to the creation itself, though not in a kind of 50/50 sum. Rather the creation is receptively creative, God's loving providence manifest in creation's own God-gifted powers so that all that exists and occurs, in its positivity and goodness, is wholly of God and wholly of the creation (though not in precisely the same ways). When God discloses and communicates himself through created media including human creative processes of composition, research, revision, and the like, we can again say that the result is truly human (part of the ordinary processes of creation, even if transformed by grace) as well as truly divine (since the processes of creation are always already the works of God)...

...Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is also the divine Logos who reveals the Father in all of Scripture. The Logos, therefore, is also whom the Scriptures reveal - not as if Scripture were a sign pointing to an absent reality, but in a manner akin to the sacraments, graciously making divine and soteric realities present. The Scriptures, therefore, are a disclosure of Christ himself as divine Logos and for this reason are sometimes ascribed divine attributes: holiness (Dt 31:26; 2Ti 3:15), eternity (Ps 119:89, 160), omnipotence (Ge 18:14; Isa 55:11; Lk 1:37), perfection (Ps 19:7ff.), worthiness as a object of reverence (Ps 34:5; 56:4, 10; 119:48; Isa 66:5). As a manifestation of Christ as Logos, the Scriptures are a primary means of God's saving power, presence, and mission in the world.

Nevertheless, the Logos became flesh and lived among us. Jesus Christ's humanity was not an elaborate pretense of being human, but a true humanity. He was born at a particular place, in a particular age, within a particular culture, was taught a particular language, practiced a particular religious tradition, with a personal appearance (hair, eyes, flesh, hands, carriage, facial expressions), particular ways of speaking (style, vocabulary, timbre, tone, volume). Christ ate and drank, sweated and bled. This concrete Incarnation sits at the heart of the Gospel.

Christ was both wholly God and wholly human, though in differing ways (the Person of divine Logos is eternally and necessarily God and assumed humanity to himself). Nevertheless, in his true humanity - united to the divine Person of the Logos and, in the Spirit, perfectly fulfilling our human vocation in loving openness to God and neighbor - Christ did not sin nor err. As the incarnate Logos, the faith of Christ working itself out in perfect love was the wholly consecrated means of God's own self-disclosure in all that Christ said, taught, believed, and enacted.

This doesn't necessarily mean that in his humanity Christ knew everything (for instance, I imagine he could be startled as anyone by a beetle scampering over his foot), nor that he spoke without complexity and ambiguity, nor that he even understood fully the implications and meaning of everything the knew, believed, and taught. Nevertheless, what Christ said, believed, did, and taught as a human person was precisely the true presence and self-communication of God that God intended, given the culture in which Christ appeared, according to the conventions of the languages that he spoke, and given the contexts in which he spoke and acted and for the purposes that he intended...

...Given all of what I've said, I think we are in a position to sum up what we can say about the nature of Scripture as the authoritative and true word of God. By God's special providence and grace - as creatures moved and shaped by God, as human beings created in the image of God and intended to disclose God, as people lovingly transformed by the Spirit's presence in conformity to the true image of the eternal Logos - the authors of Scripture spoke and wrote what they did in a way that is both ordinary and unique.

Their activity was ordinary in all the respects we have already mentioned. It was unique in that these authors, by the consecrating work of the Spirit, were so preserved from the effects of sin in their authorship of Scripture that they were singularly open to the love and influence of the divine Logos and were oriented to God, their world, and God's people in love. This is not to say that these human authors were, in general, sinless or never made mistakes. Rather it is to say that in the composition of Scripture the effects of sin and error were restrained and overcome by grace. In doing this God was not distorting or overthrowing the finite limitations of human embeddedness in language, community, and culture, but rather he was perfectly directing these realities to their highest intended ends.

In this way, then, God was present and active within the human composition of the Scriptures so that they can be said to be as much breathed out by God as they are truly human. And so, the words of Scripture are the words of Christ, the divine Logos, as the author and content of Scripture, even as human persons are also the authors and contents of Scripture.

"Inerrancy," therefore, need not imply that the Scriptures are "above time and history" as you suggested. This is because time and history (apart from the effects of sin) are not a problem to be overcome or a barrier to God's self-disclosure or the fabric of error. To say otherwise would entail, it seems to me, that Christ himself, in his humanity, as a person in time and history, was an inadequate revelation of God and his redeeming purposes and was an error-laden and misshapen representative of our human vocation. If that is so, then we cannot have fellowship with his righteousness and our faith is in vain.

Moreover, if Scripture is about God's mission to redeem humanity in all of its historical, concrete reality, then the Scriptures must be part of that reality. They cannot simply point elsewhere to some kind of abstract truth or to the human condition in general. If the object of redemption is humanity and, through us, the whole creation, then the biblical story must be one that is historical in character, situated in the messiness of human culture and community, itself one part of the great and infinitely complex human story. "Being human" isn't something that we can talk about in complete abstraction from the history and narrative of actual human lives and peoples. As Newbigin says, "the biblical story is not a separate story," but rather the place in which the meaning and redemption of the whole human story is disclosed.

And this redemption is not yet complete, but takes shape as we read and interpret the biblical story, learning by faith to become actors in that great drama, taking up our divinely-assigned roles in God's redemptive mission through the church, and finding creatively faithful ways of improvising that story, carrying its narrative trajectory into ever new contexts...

I'll leave off there transcribing my side of this exchange since, as you can probably tell, it's about to venture into the question of interpretaion, tradition, the project of the theology and so forth. Unfortunately, at the time I wrote this, I hadn't encountered the work of guys such as Kevin Vanhoozer or John Webster or others who, today, I consider important and influential over my own thinking. Still, I've been intrigued to get a glimpse of a long past version of myself.

In any case, I'll post the rest of the excerpts later.

19 July 2006

peace like a river

peace like a river

Laurel is involved this summer in a women's book group and the upcoming selection is Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. I had the privilege of hearing Enger speak a couple of years ago at a conference at Baylor University. His humorous and engaging talk struck me at the time as almost a strange intersection between Garrison Keillor and David Sedaris and made me want to read his book. But I hadn't taken the time to do so until this past week.

Laurel and I have been reading Peace Like a River aloud and, though we haven't yet finished, I'm enjoying it immensely. It's a quirky story - part road-trip, part coming of age, part Western, part supernatural thriller - and woven together in the voice of a now-grown middle child and interspersed with bits of his little sister's epic western poetry.

If you haven't read it, I'd certainly recommend it. And if you have read it, don't comment too much since we're not finished the book yet!

17 July 2006

pastoral counseling

pastoral counseling

Over five years ago I took a course in "Pastoral Counseling" as part of the Masters degree in theology I was pursuing at the time. Part of the requirements of the course involved writing up a "pastoral counseling philosophy." The professor commented that she thought my paper was a bit overly intellectual and philosophical, though I'm not sure what she expected when she asked a philosopher to write a counseling philosophy.

It was a helpful class in many respects, especially given how often I find a troubled student in my office seeking someone to listen to them and advise them. While I still typically feel out of my depth in those situations and will suggest that the university's own counseling services might be worth looking into, it is also often the case that the student really wants to speak to someone already known, trusted, and perceived as "approachable." The coursework I've done in counseling, though not extensive, has been a great asset in such situations.

In any case, without making any claims whatsoever regarding its insightfulness or practicality (or even its being well written), below you'll find what I penned at the time. I'd probably put some things differently today, but it's an interesting window (at least for me) on what I was thinking half a decade ago:

In developing a pastoral counseling philosophy, it seems to me that there are two primary perspectives that need to be kept in focus, both on the part of the counselor and in the experience of the client: one's theology proper (view of God) and one's theological anthropology (view of humanity in relation to God).

After all, we are not considering human psychology in the abstract or just as the various kinds of psychological theories and therapeutic strategies that have been offered over the past century or so. Rather, we are considering the process of human development, growth, and spiritual formation against the backdrop of a particular faith tradition, as well as the beliefs, stories, and practices shared within that tradition as the proper context for growth - whether a belief in the reality of human sinfulness or various practices of spiritual direction.

In the following pages, then, I will outline some of these primary perspectives from the standpoint of Christian faith and tradition, looking particularly at:

[a] the Trinitarian backdrop of theology,
[b] the human person as a "covenantal" being,
[c] the role of narrative in our individual life-stories and as persons inserted into the Christian narrative, and
[d] some very brief comments on various forms of Christian spiritual praxis including confession, the cultivation of virtue, prayer, and spiritual direction.

None of this is designed to eschew contemporary research and methods or to ignore further aspects that are explained better elsewhere. Rather it is intended to provide a structure in which those tools can be evaluated and used effectively.

Nor is this designed as a philosophy for counseling people from all faith traditions. My focus is upon those who are committed to an orthodox Christian faith. In much of the following I will address the counseling situation speaking of how "we" might approach various issues, recalling thereby that one can come alongside others in their process of restoration and growth only as one who has also been wounded.

The Trinitarian Backdrop

The Christian understanding of God is as a Trinity of Persons, revealed climactically in the person, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his sending of the Spirit. As creator of all things and as the ground of all being, God is the ultimate reality and who God is tells us a lot about who we are and what the world is like. So it will be useful to consider the rudiments of Trinitarian theology.

As the doctrine of the Trinity is exposited in the ecumenical Creeds, each of the Persons of the Trinity is understood to be eternally identical with the one God in essence and yet totally distinct from the other Persons in terms of their own Personhood. It is also the case that each of the Persons of the Trinity is who he is only in the specificity of his free, loving relation, giving over, and commitment to the other Persons. Thus the Personhood of each is received as a gift from the Others. Moreover, by positing difference, diversity, and plurality in the very nature of God in this way, created qualities such as interpersonal relationships, freedom, love, communion, service, grace, and faithfulness are analogically rooted in the very being of God himself as ultimate reality.

The Christian tradition, building on the Jewish tradition before it, understands the human person, individually and in community, in terms of the "image of God." In the context of the Christian faith, however, this takes on a specifically Trinitarian complexion. While various apsects of the human person have been highlighted by different theologians as embodyying the imago Dei, in light of a Christian Trinitarian faith, it seems most natural to explicate that image of God in terms of the human capacity for freedom, relationships, faith, and so on.

What is more, if the divine Persons receive their personal character only in relation to the other Persons, we must also conceive of human personhood and individuality as something received and formed only witin the various relations we have with others, including our relationship with God and the means by which that relationship is constituted and sustained within various human contexts.

Persons in Covenant

One way of thinking about all that has been suggested thus far is in terms of "covenant," a theological concept that has found a place most centrally perhaps within the tradition of Reformed Protestantism.

Given the Trinitarian backdrop, the concept of covenant must be seen first of all in terms of the intra-trinitarian relationships that constitute who God is, which are the analogical ground for God's dealings with humanity. Human beings were created with the intent to be enfolded within the relational life of God as God's children and, as obedient children, to grow and develop therein more and more to image who God is, both individually and together as the people of God. Of course, it is evident that the human condition falls far short of this due to the presence and power of sin and the brokenness and damage that sin produces in our relationships with God, with one another, and within ourselves.

But a covenant is more than just relationship (though it is certainly not less). The concept of a covenant implies an ultimate commitment of trust in the covenant Sovereign, a form of organization, particular practices and activities, the exchange of signs, as well as the promise of blessing and fulfillment. In the biblical tradition, God established covenants with the people of Israel as a sheer act of gracious intention to accept them and bless them as an object of his own free love. In response and as a result of knowing their God, the people were to embody a way of life that reflected who God is. This covenant relationship was further celebrated and cultivated through various signs and practices: sacred feasts, the Temple, a range of rituals, and study of God's word. The covenant defined who Israel was both as nation and as individuals within that nation, in relationship with God and with one another.

All of these things, however, were marred by continued faithlessness, sin, and idolatry. Though we are damaged, the presence and effects of sin do not change the disposition and nature of what it means to be human as covenantal beings. Rather, in turning our backs upon God, humanity characteristically exchanges the gracious and forgiving God of the covenant for idols of our own making or borrowed from surrounding influences. Like the true God, these idols functions convenantally: making demands, promising blessing, and embodying all of this in definite patterns and rituals.

This understanding of the human person as essentially covenantal provides, I think, one useful model for counseling: trying to come to understand the various false images of God and other idols that function in our lives, unmasking their empty promises and unrealistic demands, and unlearning the patterns and rituals by which they have bound us. This must be joined with an attempt to come to understand who God really is, who we are in relationship to him, trusting in his promises, and attempting to form new patterns and rituals that reflect this understanding. This model, however, can be conceived in overly narrow ways.

For instance, someone might interpret this model's opposition between idolatry and true faith merely in terms of relying upon our own performances over against simply trusting in God's forgiveness as that is expressed in adoptive sonship. While such a pattern is an important one and certain one useful and powerful way of seeing various kinds of human dysfunction, it appears rooted in a law-gospel dichotomy that misreads certain biblical themes and posits that the problem of human fallenness is only ever a kind of "works righteousness" that attempts to earn God's favor.

While there is no doubt that such a dynamic is at work in a wide range of situations, it also risks the danger of trivializing personal problems that don't neatly fit into this schema, for instance, the sense of shame that accompanies sexual abuse. While a sense of God's unconditional love and acceptance us as his adopted children is crucial for healing in that context, thematizing the counselee's problem in terms of his or her sinful attempt to earn God's favor strikes me as more likely to compound shame than to overcome it.

The Role of Stories

One difficulty with accounts that want to reduce diverse phenomena along a single interpretative axis (such as performance over against trusting God's promises), is in terms of how they tell the biblical story and what categories they use to do so.

While the categories of guilt, sin, atonement, and so on are certainly fully biblical and indispensable, they do not exhaust the range of biblical language available to tell the Christian story. Narrative, nonetheless, is essential to counseling and part of such story-telling involves getting the vocabulary of the story right, both in terms of one's own personal story, how one hears the stories others tell, and in re-situating the re-telling those stories within the larger narrative of God's gracious covenant plan in history.

As already noted, we are constituted by our covenantal relationships and patterns whether those are faithful to who we are intended to be in relation to God or embody the sin and damage of human fallenness. But these relationships and patterns are to be found embedded within the stories that we tell about ourselves, that we have learned from our families, close companions, and wider culture, and that we speak about God. Just how we recount those stories says a lot about our self-understanding and may reveal ways in which we need to find new ways of speaking. A significant part of narrating our lives as Christians is to come to understand our own personal narrative in the terminology of and as of a piece with the biblical narrative - as well as the continuing narrative of the church - into which we were inserted by baptism.

The grand sweep of the biblical narrative culminates in the story of Jesus Christ, transforming the story of Israel into one of typological anticipation in which God's covenant has been fulfilled in Jesus himself. In doing so, God has fully revealed his divine character as one of love in action, on mission to bring the deliverance and healing to the world, sharing our suffering with us in solidarity, even under the disfiguring power of sin and death, and triumphing over them. In these events God provides a challenge to the many false images that we cling to and makes his loving and forgiving divine presence known, even in the most god-forsaken of moments as even Jesus experienced in the cross. And by our baptism identity the story of this God revealed in Christ becomes our own, to be taken up in faith.

Sometimes this story does very much need to be told in the vocabulary of sin, forgiveness, receiving that forgiveness in faith, and the possibility of overcoming sin in God's own power, by the Spirit. But other times the story needs to be one of God's coming alongside us in our shame and woundedness, sharing fully in it, in the atrocity and humiliation of the cross - a God who fully understands our situation and remains present with us in it to shoulder the burden. Still other times, it is the story of a God who lovingly cares for, attentively sees, and fully appreciates the contributions, how ever small, of the weak, the lonely, the marginalized, and the overlooked. And there are numerous other re-tellings, for a variety of circumstances and contexts.

Christian Praxis

The Christian narrative, however, was never intented to remain at the level of a simple chronicle of what God has done in the past. Rather, it must come to us personally and transform how we live and act - covenant praxis. The assortment of ways in which this can happen is too numerous to try to inventory here, since many of the various stragies suggested by diverse counseling models can be deployed prudentially within the account I am sketching. Nonetheless, I shall highlight several possibilities that I believe to be helpful.


One of the means by which God's covenant love is made known is through rites and sacraments that God has given the church. And though baptism and eucharist are central here, the church has also developed rites of confession, rooted in Jesus' own commission to his apostles and the practice of the earliest church as witnessed to by the New Testament. While many Protestant bodies have abandoned confession in reaction against what were deemed Roman Catholic abuses at the time of the Reformation, the practice of confession is not foreign to either the Lutheran, Anglican, or Reformed traditions, even if largely unused or replaced by more informal interactions.

The formal rite of confession, however, can be an excellent way in which the forgiveness offered in the Christian gospel is applied personally and individually to those baptized persons who are troubled by ongoing pangs of guilt, who stand in need of serious self-examination, or who require some kind of accountability structure for some specific struggle with sin. It should be always made clear to the penitent, however, that the rite of confession is not a means by which we merit God's forgiveness by our contritions, but rather is a personal celebration and reception of God's ever-available forgiveness in Christ, who is held out to us in the word of the gospel, already sealed to us in baptism.

Christian Virtue

Another aspect of personal growth and spiritual formation relevant to counseling, is the cultivation of Christian virtues such as friendship, prudence, peace, hope, courage, patience, and the like. It is not enough simply to leave off destructive and unhealthy ways of thinking and actions, without adopting new patterns of thought and behavior as well. This is simply the Pauline dynamic of "pooting off" the old Adamic humanity and "putting on" the new, as an outworking of our baptismal identity and within the context of the Christian community. I cannot enter into a full discussion of virtue presently, but a few remarks are in order.

Virtue, in most traditional accounts, is the formation of a particular habit of character, involve both a matter of right thinking and right acting in order to accomplish particular ends in relation to oneself and others. As discussed above in connection with narrative, coming to think about things in a new way or in a new context can be crucial in learning to act in new ways, to meet goals, and to break old habits.

But sometimes, consciously and deliberately adopting new patterns of behavior can be just as effective in shaping one's thinking and emotions. For some, it might be waking up in the morning and reminding oneself, infused with Scripture and prayer, tht I am a forgiven and beloved child of God. For others, it might be carefully stepping back from a situation and breathing deeply a few time before re-engaging with the difficulty at hand. In any case, the relationship between thought and practice is reciprocal and which takes relative precedence in a particular situation is a matter of prudence.


Habits of personal, small group, and corporate liturgical prayer are also key factors in emotional and spiritual health and growth. Such practices will naturally vary for person to person depending upon time and temperament, but they cannot be neglected. In the context of counseling this could be expressed in a number of ways: beginning and ending sessions with prayer; using prayer as a means for the client to speak to God about past and present wounds; the use of the laying on of hand with prayers for emotional and mental healing; assigning exercises whether the daily office, lectio divina, or centering meditations; suggesting attendance at a prayer group or weekday liturgy that is know to provide the kind of support and spiritual nurture neeeded; in some traditions, participating in a eucharist offered up in memory of and thanksgiving for a deceased person with whom there remain unresolved issues.

Spiritual Direction

Finally, Christian traditions of spiritual direction offer many insights for counseling even today. For instance, they commend the use of silence in counseling in order to open up a space between the counselor and client into which God may enter and his voice heeded. Likewise, notions of sacred trust and the seal of confession may be used to supplement more contemporary forms of professionalized confidentiality, as well as the wisdom of letting rest any past issues that have already been effectively dealt with and only bringing them up again with great care and discretion. Many other aspects of spiritual direction can be draw upon those these few will suffice here to gesture towards a deeper engagement with those traditions.

In conclusion, then, this bare sketch of a counseling philosophy remains incomplete and schematic, and that is as it should be given that the practice of counseling is itself open-ended and a process of ongoing learning. Still, the broad outlines I have given are, I hope, fairly established and clear enough and developed enought to suggest how further elements might be incorporated.

We also had to prepare an annotated bibliography for the class along with the counseling philosophy, providing further resources as well as support for the paper itself. But I seem to have misplaced it. Ah well.