On the road to Emmaus, two somber disciples were trying to leave behind the atrocious outcome of their short experience following Jesus. They were striving to cope with the brutal images in their memories of the death of whom they believed to be a powerful messenger from God. They followed him because they had hoped that he was the Messiah, the redeemer of Israel. They thought He would rescue their people from their humiliation, poverty, oppression, and pain. Yet, he agonized on a cross, like thousands of other victims, taking with him to the tomb their only hope of liberation (Luke 24:13-16).
Not only these two, but all the disciples were confused, scared, and disillusioned. The mean plans of false religious leaders and the relentless ambition of the Empire were once again overwhelming. The disciples were filled with a sense of powerlessness and total defeat. They had no clue what was really happening on that cross when their beloved teacher died. Three days later, things started to become clear. Fifty days later, it was obvious. The event of the cross was an astonishing miracle.
Two thousand years have passed since these amazing events happened. The story has been told over and over again. Great thinkers have pondered about its significance. But the church today can still miss the power of the cross. We often try to explain what happened on the cross in legal, personal, and individualistic terms. Our story is something like this. In Calvary, Christ suffered the punishment that we deserved. If we believe that and go to church, God will count God's suffering on our behalf. We will not be punished. On the other hand, if we do not do that, we will be tormented in hell forever. However, the story that the first Christians told was somewhat different.
The apostle Paul captured the essence of that faith in Colossians 1:19-20. It reads, ”For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross." These words were not an exercise on rational metaphysics. They were part of a hymn to praise Jesus, a poetic expression of the faith. Bible scholars are not sure whether Paul composed this hymn or if it was already part of the Christian repertoire of praising songs when the letter was written. Most likely, many churches had already been singing it, and the readers of Colossians could express their faith with these lyrics.
On the cross, Jesus was reconciling unto himself all things, "whether on earth or in heaven." The word ἀποκαταλλάσσω often refers to the restoration of interpersonal relationships. It points to the reconciliation of people who had become enemies. Yet, in this hymn, it includes much more than that. It describes the unification of the spiritual and the material cosmos in Christ. The Greek word “strictly [refers to the ] transfer of one state to another quite different state.”(1) In this case, it points to the transition for a state of chaos to a state of harmony. In Ephesians 1:10, the apostle also says that God's ultimate plan is "to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
The word he uses here is ἀνακεφαλαιόω. it means to unify, to bring everything under the control of one person. To sum up everything under the same generating principle.(2) Both words ἀνακεφαλαιόω and ἀποκαταλλάσσω serve as a context to understand “atonement.” Primarily Atonement means unification. But in the light of the cross, it is not merely the personal reunification of a sinner with his or her Creator. It does not only address the forensic liability of a person who has broken the law. It is not restricted to the necessity of punishment to satisfy the sense of legal justice. Atonement is needed in a violently crashed cosmos. It points to the state in which creation can share the infinite peace of its Creator. In the words of the prophet Isiah, it fulfills the hope and the promise that,
"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9, ESV).
What Jesus accomplished on the cross was a miracle of extraordinary proportions. It is parallel to what happened at the beginning of time when God transformed nothing into a life-generating and supporting cosmos. It is not strange that the Colossians' "hymn to Christ has two uneven stanzas, but their themes are consistent. The first relates Jesus to creation; the second, to redemption."(3) Jesus is "the image of the invisible God." He is the Son par excellence in all creation. Every detail in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him, all things hold together."(4)
However, the first creation has not reached the "telos" God intended. There are still chaotic thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities. Consequently, Jesus is now the head of the church. This does not only mean that he is the authority over church matters. Instead, it points out that He is the source of life in the church. He is the beginning (ἀρχή) of the new creation, as he was the initiating source of the first. He is the firstborn of the dead, just like he is the firstborn of the first creation.
The cross was more than an instrument of punishment or satisfaction of divine justice. It was actually the powerful beginning of a new and different cosmos. Through the cross, Jesus came into the center of a chaotic universe to release the forces that can pull it together, in heaven and earth, toward him (εἰς αὐτόν). Mighty forces continuously threaten the peace of creation. There is darkness, death, falsehood, hatred, uncontrollable selfishness, guilt, remorse, intense pain, and incredible violence. Satan has opened deadly wounds all over creation. History is worst than an enraged sea. Anytime, the entire universe can shake fiercely. But in the most astonishing way, Jesus’ cross has the power to restore, transform, and liberate.
Nothing other than the cross could have withstood the violence of the chaotic powers of the universe. Nothing else can be the center of attraction to pull heaven and earth together. Violence does not remedy violence. It can only add force to its deadly cycle. The cross is the generating beginning (ἀρχή) of a peaceful new world. And the resurrection is the source of eternal life. In the cross, the one who enjoyed the "fullness of God" faced death, embraced it, and created again from nothing a new life. No one could have done it, only the Son of God.
Our souls reflect the chaos of the universe, or maybe the universe reflects the chaos in our souls. Maybe we released the chaotic forces of creation with our lies and our selfishness. That seems to be what Genesis tries to tell us. We were the ones who contemplated the idea of creating our own world separate and distinct from God's. Far from getting the power and the wisdom we desired, we brought a horrendous turmoil to our hearts and we damaged what God was doing.
Guilt is a destructive psychological force that can only be appeased by forgiveness. But forgiveness is not enough. In the depth of our heart, we feel that there needs to be restitution. When we hurt someone, we need to make restitution to show our repentance, and the other needs to see our acts of restoration to be at peace. These are not just legal provisions. They are deep dynamic forces that shape our lives. Sincere repentance, sincere forgiveness, and appropriate restitution are essential to experience the possibilities of a new at-one-ment. There can be no new creation without these three elements.
The same can be said about resentment and remorse. On an individual basis, we cannot participate in God's cosmic plan, unless we personally feel that we have been really forgiven and that we have made appropriate restitution. There is no reconciliation without opening our souls to the sacrificial atonement of God's Son, who guarantees our forgiveness. Believing the message of the cross is bringing healing to our wounded hearts and our badly damaged relationships. However, suppose we just want quick selfish relief for our tormented conscience. In that case, we may only find another coping mechanism in the doctrine of the cross, and we will continue living our chaotic lives.
(1) Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, N. F. (2000). Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Vol. 4, p. 67). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
(2) See Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, N. F. (2000). Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Vol. 4, p. 50).
(3) Melick, R. R. (1991). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 32, p. 214). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
(4) Colossians 1:15-16
In the following article, we discuss the significance of the Trinity from the perspective of Romans 8
Writing about the divine nature is a humbling experience. Finite, sinful creatures must be cautious regarding how they reason about the infinite, holy Creator. Maybe the place to start is always a recognition of the great distance that separates us from God. As David Bentley Hart would say, God is on the other side of "the ontological difference."
We know about God primarily by his self-revelation through the Scriptures. As Karl Barth says, God "stands over and against humanity and everything human in an infinite qualitative distinction, and is never ever identical with anything which we name, experience, conceive or worship as God."(1) As one reads the Scriptures, one sees God acting in and through history, and, through his works and his self-revelatory words, one starts forming a mental image of who He is.
Humans know God by discovering Him in his story of redemption. It is a progressive and relational knowledge that involves rational thinking, but it is not limited to it. Often this knowledge comes from contemplation and meditation. Anselm of Canterbury is an example. As McGrath points out, "Anselm clearly wishes to affirm that God knows that humanity suffers and that God has compassion on humanity in its plight. Yer Anselm does not feel he can move on the affirm that God suffers with us, or that God, in some sense, experiences suffering." (2) As we come to know God through scriptures, we try to understand him with our reasoning abilities. However, we always come short.
On the other hand, to know God, one has the get involved in his redemptive plan. The theologian who reflects about God from a detached philosophical position cannot begin to know the real God, who has chosen to get involved in the turmoil of our history. As Schaab points out, the global consciousness, scope, and impact of suffering, pain, and death in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have often driven the debate [about God's relationship with suffering] to an acute pitch."(3) We cannot imagine a God who created the universe and billions of living beings to populate it enthrone, far away in haven looking impassibly as pain and injustice reign in his creation.
As one reads the first page of the Bible, God emerges as an extremely wise and powerful being. We can reason about the creation story and conclude that God must be infinitely powerful and wise since he is beyond everything we can imagine in creation. Yet, one sees everywhere death, suffering, and evil. However, as one continues reading the story, one discovers that God is committed to redeeming his creatures. One comes to know a God who loves with infinite love. As we reflect on his love, one is forced to realize that God's love must be substantially different from our human love. Our love is infected with selfishness. Hart points out that "love is not, in its essence, and emotion, --a pathos-- at all.” (4) However, we cannot understand this assertion in the sense that God is stoically detached from his creation. God's love is not extrinsically provoked or intrinsically selfish.
Maby John of Damascus's differentiation between "energy" and "pathos" can help. (5) Nevertheless, even in its purest imaginable form, love does not need to be separated from long-suffering compassion. In the long history of Biblical events and especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the ancient believers discovered that God's patience (makrothymia) and love and learned to trust in His goodness (Romans 2:4, Psalms 86:15). For this reason, Paul was eager to participate in Christ's suffering and death, knowing that he would also participate in the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).
(1) Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2017, 191
(2) McGrath, 178
(3) Gloria L. Schaab, The Creative Suffering of the Triune God: An Evolutionary Theology, Oxford University Press, 2007, 11
(4) David Bently Hart, No Shadow of Turning: On Devine Impassibility, 195
(5) Hart, 195
Does God Feel?
When the Bible says that God is compassionate, does that mean that He is moved by compassion? If one says that God loves, are there any feelings involved? When the prophets spoke of the wrath of God, did they imply that God can be provoked by anger? Theologians have pondered over these questions for centuries. How can finite human beings imagine an infinite God? What language can they use? Should one try to know God through analogies established from his or her finite experience? Or is it better to attempt to purify one's reflection with finely-elaborated reasoning?
One needs to keep in mind three distinct strings of thought, as one reflects on the questions above. These ideas relate to God's nature, the meaning of God's pathos and love, and the Biblical story that frames what one knows about God. It is theologically and morally dangerous to provide quick canned answers from religious traditions or personal experience. These sorts of questions should stimulate a believer to engage in a continuous discovery of God. Finding answers to these questions has apologetic value, but perhaps, more importantly, it strengthens the faith, and it is necessary to speak of Good News.
As Schaab notes, in contemporary society, one cannot merely repeat a formula articulated in the IV or V century. Times have changed, and more people are aware of all the atrocities that have happened in recent decades. They are sensitive to the pain of millions of people, especially children, the elderly, and the poorest. People are also aware of the dynamics of physical laws embedded in nature that produce brutal catastrophes. New scientific models, like the theory of evolution, have become popular as traditional Christendom has lost much of its appeal. With impunity, cruel regimes continue to hurt millions of men and women. This year the COVID-19 pandemic has indiscriminately killed close to 350,000 people worldwide. In the face of all these realities, How can one speak of Good News from God?
On the other hand, modern theologies that emphasize the immanence of God, and stress his suffering with the universe, run the risk of presenting a suffering deity incapable of dealing with evil in his creation. As David Bently Hart points out "the idea of a God through suffering passions, whose being is determined in a history, according to 'encounters' with other realities, even realities he creates, is simply a metaphysical myth, a mere supreme being, but not the source of all being." (190).
As Hart would say, God has to be on the other side of the “ontological difference.” In other words, one needs to keep in mind that He is the Creator, and everything else is creation. He remains outside his creation, but at the same time, he freely gets involved in redeeming it. The creation is becoming, but God is. He does not become. If one imagines God “on this side of the ontological difference,” God and the creatures are the same, and there is no Good News. Nothing guarantees a final triumphal becoming. God and his creation will be a constant but uncertain flux of becoming historical moments.
One can talk about God's pathos, but one needs to keep in mind that that is the pathos of the infinite Creator. Human pathos is marked by finitude and sinfulness. It tends to be provoked by external factors. It is swayed by circumstances and the limitations of short term, local stories. God's pathos, on the other hand, is not provoked and is not limited. It concerns the whole cosmos, and it transcends it. God's actions are not ignited by uncontrollable pathos, but by the determination of his eternal goodness. The love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not contaminated with selfish passions. It is infinitely oriented to goodness.
When thinking about God's pathos, one needs to maintain the perspective of the history of redemption. Creation is an act of the Triune God, the One lovingly sharing himself with others. The creation of humanity is the act of the Trinity graciously sharing his image and presence through male and female human beings. It was a gift in the form of a noble mission, which they could accept or reject. Likewise, redemption is a reciprocating act of the Trinity to bring others back to himself.
In the interval that goes from human fall to eschatological redemption, God accomplishes his eternal purpose. Ultimate redemption is not the last stage of God's evolution, but the fulfillment of the purpose He had before the creation of the world. Since it is being redeemed, in that interval, the world is continuously developing. However, its development is not marked by fortuitous movements of history or nature. But by God's eternal purpose. The autonomy of humans is a gift from God. It offers people the opportunity to join God in the hope and celebration of goodness. However, it sets them free to go after the satisfaction of their ego, feeling themselves with hatred against their Creator. Nevertheless, God stills gives them the opportunity of redemption and offers them the chance to participate in the redemption of the world. Sallie McFague contents that "God does depend on humanity for the fulfillment of the divine intention for the cosmos" (Schaab, 33). Still, this short essay affirms that although God offers humans the opportunity to participate in his loving, eternal purpose, He does not depend on them massively or individually. He would accomplish his purpose with those who believe him.
David Bently Hart, No Shadow of Turning: On Devine Impassibility.
Gloria L. Schaab, Oxford University Press, The Creative Suffering of the Triune God: An Evolutionary Theology.
The question of God and Evil is a difficult one. It has been a stumbling block in the lengthy efforts to present a convincing theodicy. Ireneus of Lyons in the second century suggested that God “did not create humanity in a state of perfection, but with the capacity to achieve this perfection through a process of growth” (McGrath, Reader, 156). Origen insisted that God did not create evil, but that he can even use evil to produce good (Ibid, 160). In the V century, Augustine of Hippo proposed that evil was the result of “a free turning away from God rather than a positive entity in its own right” (Ibid., 172). Building on Augustine’s thought, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio argues that evil “is to be seen as an absence of goodness,” and not as a positive reality (Ibid., 181). Aquinas tried to explain suffering in terms of secondary natural and historical causes. God can only work with the laws and circumstances available in the present time (Ibid., 218). For David Bentley Hart, suffering and evil reflect the presence of God’s enemy (Ibid.). “Hart’s response mingles a principled refusal to make simplistic judgments about a complex world and a firm conviction of the hope of ultimate transformation” (Ibid., 219).
McGrath, in his Introduction, explains that “The history of dogma” movement declared that Christian thinking had taken a wrong turn in the patristic period” (McGrath, Introduction, 183). The patristic writers were influenced by philosophical ideas about the impassibility of God and elaborated their theologies and their arguments around logical deductions and assumptions based on that basic idea. Karl Barth, in turn, suggested that the Reformed doctrine of omnipotence [also] rested largely upon logical deduction from a set of premises about God’s power and goodness” (Ibid., 204).
In contrast with these logical efforts to reconcile God’s power, impassibility, transcendence, and goodness with the problem of suffering and evil, the biblical texts present a God who is in a relationship with his creatures. He chooses to love them, and he chose to create them the way He wanted. He chose to create the universe the way it is. God decided to give certain autonomy to his creation and to the humans who live in it. God acts in the world within the parameters that He chose. God’s choices potentiate loving responses and relationships, but at the same time, they allow indifference and hatred. There cannot be a loving response, without the freedom not to love. Likewise, there cannot be growth in a relationship that is perfect from the beginning.
When God chose love, he committed to get involved in his creation. He took the risk that his creatures could decide not to love him. He opened the possibility that his creatures could build a world based on selfishness instead of one constructed in love. He also opened the possibility that a world based on selfishness could render a Creation subjected to futility where suffering and evil can also happen.
At the same time, when His creatures opted to invent a world opposed to God's will, He committed to be part of the struggle and suffering needed to restore his creation and to take it to its complete telos. God was willing to set limits to his all-powerful ability. He pursued his purpose through love and not by imposing his power.
McGrath, Christian Theology: Introduction
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