Monthly Archives: August 2016

Good for the Soul

Selfie - Eye PatchThe last week has been somewhat different for me: I have been home on sick-leave.

Last Monday I had surgery to remove a small skin cancer on my left lower eyelid. The surgery itself, although occurring under the hand of two different surgeons in two different locations, was relatively simple and surprisingly pain free. For that I am grateful. The worst I have experienced is an itchiness under the dressings: an annoyance, but nothing substantial.

I have had skin cancers removed on previous occasions, and usually, it is not a big deal. The difference this time was its location: being on the eyelid made its removal somewhat tricky. Not the removal exactly: that was quite straight-forward, although, in accordance with the particular procedure I was having it involved two excisions and two periods of waiting for pathology results. But because the extent of the growth was unknown prior to its excision, I did not know how much repair or reconstruction of my eyelid would be required. Worst case scenarios involved skin grafts from another part of my body, as well as cutting a “flap” from my upper eyelid and folding it down and stitching it onto the remains of my lower eyelid, thus effectively stitching my left eye shut for a month or so.

I am quite fussy about my eyes, and quite protective of them. I do not use contact lenses because I am queasy with the thought of poking around in my eyes. I am very careful these days if I am using a drill or an angle-grinder or something similar. You might say I am a bit of a wuss. So the thought of the surgeon dicing and slicing, pricking and prodding all around my eyes—I would be awake and fully conscious for the entirety of the excisions—was quite anxiety-inducing. Not serious, debilitating anxiety, but a back-of-the-mind nervousness and apprehension.

Fortunately it all went smoothly. I ended up with a quite minor repair to the eyelid apparently; I will see for myself when the dressings come off in another two days. Yes there will be bruising and scarring, but all in all, I am very fortunate. The options, you see, were not at all good. Even though the kind of skin cancer I had (a basal cell carcinoma) is the kind to have if you must have one, they still grow.

How long would it have been until I had an unsightly lump on my face causing my eyelid to droop, and the function of my eye to be impaired? Might the cancer had spread its roots into the eye itself? These possibilities would have caused me serious, debilitating kinds of anxiety, I think.

But I live in Australia, and I have health insurance. These two facts give me timely access to some of the best medical practitioners, treatment and care in the world.

The whole experience has been good not just for my body, but for my soul. I am blessed, and now also more aware of this blessedness in contrast to many others around the world who may have the same condition but without the same access to treatment and care. And along with the sense of blessing is an increased awareness of the responsibility which is also mine, to share this blessedness with others in practical ways.

I have renewed appreciation for the gifts, skill and dedication of so many others who have made this treatment possible: from the surgeons and other medical professionals, to the tax-payers and governments who plan and fund hospitals, to the architects and builders, and so on. God has given such a vast array of gifts and many have used them for the common good. I have been the recipient of this grace through the involvement of others.

And my week at home has been good for the soul. I haven’t been very prayerful, I must confess. But I have been mindful of God’s goodness and presence. I have had the use of only one eye and so am reminded of the blessing of two. The remaining eye did not function very well for the first few days after the surgery, and it is difficult to focus with my glasses perched on the tip of my nose! I am self-conscious about my appearance with a large dressing covering half my face. But I have also realised that it is not that big a deal.

I have slept more, rested more, browsed the newspaper, watched some TV, gone on long walks; it has almost been a holiday. And that too, has been good for the soul, and a timely reminder not to lose my life to my work no matter how much I enjoy my work. The enforced rest has been good for me body and soul. I must do it more often, and voluntarily.

The Blood of His Cross (4) – Douglas Moo

agnusdeiRomans 3:25
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed (NRSV).

In his discussion of Romans 3:25 Douglas Moo, like C.E.B. Cranfield, also supports a traditional understanding of the text, including the idea of propitiation as a decisive turning aside of divine wrath. In fact, Moo argues that, “the conclusion that hilastērion includes reference to the turning away of God’s wrath is inescapable” (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans NICNT, 235).

Moo bases this conclusion on two primary arguments. First, the linguistic evidence is clear that the word group in common Greek usage undoubtedly meant the “means of propitiation,” referring, of course, to pagan practices which sought to appease otherwise hostile gods. Of course Moo rejects the idea that propitiation in Paul’s thought was in any way the same as that practised in the pagan contexts: God’s wrath is neither vindictive nor capricious but just, and further, it is God who is the subject of this propitiation, not sinful humans seeking to assuage the wrath of an offended deity (235-236).  Moo contends that it was precisely this common meaning, however, that the editors of the Septuagint had in mind when they appropriated the term in their translation of the Hebrew Scriptures:

Dodd is almost certainly wrong on this point. The OT frequently connects the ‘covering,’ or forgiving, of sins with the removal of God’s wrath. It is precisely the basic connotation of ‘propitiate’ that led the translators of the LXX to use the hilask– words for the Hebrew words denoting the covering of sins. This is not, however, to deny the connotation ‘expiation’; the OT cult serves to ‘wipe away’ the guilt of sin at the same time as—and indeed, because—the wrath of God is being stayed (235).

Second, Moo appeals to the context of Romans, especially chapters 1-3 where the wrath of God is an overarching theme. Together, these strands of evidence support the idea that propitiation is as least part of what Paul intended when he used the term hilastērion.

It is also apparent that Moo is not arguing that this is the sole connotation of Paul’s use of the term. Moo acknowledges that the translation of hilastērion as ‘mercy-seat,’ and so as the place where atonement is effected,

Has an ancient and respectable heritage [and] has been gaining strength in recent years. It is attractive because it gives to hilastērion a meaning that is derived from its ‘customary’ biblical usage, and creates an analogy between a central OT ritual and Christ’s death that is both theologically sound and hermeneutically striking (233).

Moo is satisfied to accept this translation so long as the term ‘mercy-seat’ is understood in a semi-technical way as referring to the atonement as a whole. Allowing this perspective meets Cranfield’s objection that the mercy-seat could be analogous only to the cross rather than to Jesus himself.

Turning his attention to the phrase “in his blood” (en tō autou haimati), Moo notes that the blood of Jesus is the means by which God’s wrath is propitiated, though the term itself is expressive of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. Here, again, we are confronted with the question as to whether God required a payment, a blood-price, the sacrifice of an innocent victim, before he could or would extend forgiveness. Like Cranfield, Moo turns in a trinitarian direction to address this objection to his interpretation of this key text:

While the persons of God the Father and God the Son must be kept distinct as we consider the process of redemption, it is a serious error to sever the two with respect to the will for redemption, as if the loving Christ had to take the initiative in placating the angry Father. God’s love and wrath meet in the atonement, and neither can be denied or compromised if the full meaning of that event is to be properly appreciated. ‘Our own justification before God rests on the solid reality that the fulfilling of God’s justice in Christ was at the same time the fulfilling of this love for us’ (230-231; Moo cites Philip E. Hughes, The True Image, 360).

Reading Karl Barth: On 19th-Century Theology

Karl Barth had photos of nineteenth century theologians on the wall as he climbed the steps to his study.
Karl Barth had photos of nineteenth century theologians on the wall as he climbed the steps to his study.

Barth’s lecture “Evangelical Theology in the 19th-Century” was given in Hannover to the Goethe Society, January 8, 1957, when Barth was seventy years old. The lecture contains three major sections plus a brief introduction and conclusion appropriate for a non-theological audience. After the introduction which defines the key terms of the title, Barth provides a summary or overview of the beginnings, course and eclipse of nineteenth-century Liberal theology (Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Humanity of God, 12-17). Barth’s overall assessment of Liberal theology is that “Theology turned into philosophy of the history of religion in general, and of the Christian religion in particular” (13). In an important biographical aside Barth recalls his utter despair and horror at the actions of his venerated theological mentors and realised that for him, “19th-century theology no longer held any future” (14). Yet Barth refuses to consign this theology to obscurity. Despite this ultimate failure of Liberal theology, Karl Barth affirms the liberals for their spiritual steadfastness and courage in the face of the onslaught of modernism, for their highly cultivated character, piety and openness to the world, as well as their focus on the historical nature of Christianity (16-18, 28).

The second section—and heart—of the lecture comprises Karl Barth’s assessment of the two key problems of Liberal theology (18-28). The first is the Liberals’ fundamental conviction that theology arises from the confrontation of the church and faith with the world. Thus, 19th-century theology was primarily concerned with the world, in order to demonstrate the rationality and relevance of faith. As a result the thought-forms of the world became normative for theology, thus rationalising and truncating theology (19). The second great problem was the Liberals’ search for universal grounds for faith, grounded in an innate capacity for religion, and demonstrated in the history of religion (21, 28-29). For Barth, not only was this apologetic strategy fruitless, but it also resulted in an eviscerated theology (22). The ethical result of this faulty theological method was an ‘uncritical and irresponsible subservience to the patterns, forces and movements of human history and civilisation’ (27). That is, the church lost its distinct identity and task, becoming instead a servant to the culture, and a chaplain to the warring state.

In his final section Barth pinpoints the ultimate cause of this theological failure: the theologians of the nineteenth-century operated within the worldview presuppositions of the Enlightenment which inevitably resulted in historicism, psychologism, and demythologisation: in short, the rationalising and curtailing of Christian theology (15, 19, and 21). Thus Barth asks his programmatic question:

What if by talking about Christianity as a religion these theologians had already ceased to speak of Christianity and hence were unable to communicate the faith with authority to those on the outside? What if the only relevant way of speaking of Christianity was from within? (30-31).        

Archibald 2016

2016 Winner Louise Hearman with her portrait of Barry Humphries
2016 Winner Louise Hearman with her portrait of Barry Humphries

I was in Sydney recently and had a couple of hours late one afternoon—just enough time to visit the 2016 Archibald exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It is the second opportunity I have had to visit the Archibald, and again I was moved, amazed and amused by the variety of the portraits on display. The most unusual painting was a self-portrait by Tasmanian Michael McWilliams called ‘The Usurpers.’ The style looks like something from the Renaissance, the theme, those introduced species which have caused most environmental damage in Australia, though innocent themselves and unaware of the damage caused.

Deng, by Nick Stathopoulos

For me, the most arresting portrait was of Deng Adut by Nick Stathopoulos. Deng was a Sudanese refugee who put himself through law school and has become a prominent refugee advocate and community leader. Described as ‘hyper-realist,’ Stathopoulos has captured every line, tattoo, wrinkle and blood vessel; the result is stunning. Also powerful was the portrait by Abdul Abdullah, and interesting, that by Tsering Hannaford.

The winner of the prize was Louise Hearman for her portrait of Barry Humphries. It is not the winner I would have chosen, but what do I know? I have simply proven once more that I don’t know what to look for in great art; I do, however, know what I like! Nevertheless, even I can see that Hearman’s portrait is remarkable, especially, for me, the way she captures the light in its different effects on Humphries’ hair, skin, jacket and eyes.

Archibald_McWilliams_The Usurpers
Michael McWilliams, “The Usurpers”

Also on exhibition were the winners of the Wynne and Suliman prizes. The subject matter for these exhibitions is far more diverse, but there were nonetheless some remarkable pieces. Two paintings really took my interest. The first was “Blonde Block,” a large painting that I first saw from an adjacent room and thought, “Yuck! What a boring picture of a block of flats!” Later when I made it to that painting I astounded to see that the artist, Peter O’Doherty, had painted so that standing directly in front of it, it was blurred. How that was done I have no idea, but the effect was intriguing. The Wynne prize winner was “Seven Sisters” by the Ken Family Collaborative. The small picture here online simply does not do justice to the vibrancy, movement, colour and texture of the painting. If you can get to Sydney, it is well worth a visit.

A Prayer on Sunday

Girl at Prayer William Henry Hunt from
Girl at Prayer William Henry Hunt from

O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

Barth’s Romans Commentary

roemerbrief2-787x1024In his widely-acclaimed commentary on Romans, C. E. B. Cranfield says of Barth’s commentary,

Of its importance as a turning-point in the history of theology there can be no doubt, and Barrett was certainly right to say that ‘to read it must be reckoned an essential part of a theological education’; but, while it rendered the Church, and can still render it, a much-needed service, it has very serious deficiencies as an exposition of Romans, and to take it for one’s main aid in studying the epistle would be to demonstrate one’s failure to learn from Barth’s maturer thinking and one’s lack of an essential element in theological seriousness, a sense of humour (Cranfield, Romans, 1:41-42).

Cranfield does not suggest that Barth was less than serious when he wrote his commentary, but he does seem to suggest that Barth was doing something less or at least, something other, than writing an exposition of Romans. It is true that later in his career Barth did pull back from the one-sidedness of his commentary, especially the second edition. But it is also the case that he did not repudiate his commentary, although he was happy for the first edition to “disappear from the scene” (Barth, The Epistle to the Romans tr. E. Hoskyns, 2).

Reception to Barth’s commentary was from the beginning subject to such criticism. In 1920 Adolf Jülicher gave a polite but damning review of the first edition, accusing Barth of being a ‘pneumatic,’ somewhat like Marcion in his exegesis of Paul. Karl Ludwig Schmidt echoed this judgement, as did Adolf Harnack who likened Barth to Thomas Müntzer—not quite Marcion, but unfavourable still. The young Bultmann dismissed Barth’s interpretation as ‘enthusiastic revivalism.’ (For references and broader discussion of these and other early reviews, see my Church as Moral Community, 184-190).

Nevertheless, we do well to recall John Webster’s suggestion that

Romans is not primarily a hermeneutical manifesto, or a piece of irregular dogmatics (that is, a set of theological reflections only loosely attached to the Pauline text); still less is it an encoded set of socio-political experiences or directives. It is a commentary, intended by Barth as such; and whatever abiding interest and worth it may have stands or falls by its success in fulfilling that intention. Barth meant what he said in his preface to Hoskyn’s idiosyncratic translation of the second edition: “My sole aim was to interpret Scripture” (Webster, in Greenman & Larson (eds), Reading Romans Through the Centuries, 205-206; note Barth’s citation is on page ix of the English edition, rather than page 11 as Webster reports).

I must say, however, that I applaud Barrett’s contention  that ‘to read it must be reckoned an essential part of a theological education’!

Crucible Journal

CrucibleThe new issue of Crucible Journal is now available. This Australian online theological journal is freely available, in its seventh year, and includes three sections: peer-reviewed articles, ministry resources for practitioners in Christian ministry, and book reviews. The editorial in the current issue gives its purpose:

Crucible’s aim is to enhance creative thinking about the relationship of biblical and theological principles to the life, ministry and mission of the church. It is a forum for scholars and practitioners to publish material, interact and resource the Christian community.

If you would like to subscribe to the free journal, you may do so on the home page. The Journal is now receiving papers for its November issue.

The Blood of His Cross (3) – C.E.B. Cranfield

agnusdeiRomans 3:25
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed (NRSV).

Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (NASB).

In his widely-acclaimed commentary on Romans, C. E. B. Cranfield supports the traditional interpretation of this verse which understands Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in terms of a propitiation that averts the divine wrath which would otherwise have been directed against humanity on account of their sin.

Cranfield begins his exposition of this verse by arguing against the interpretation of the opening phrase of the verse in the two translations cited above. The key phrase is ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεός (hov proetheto ho theos, “Whom God displayed publicly”). Cranfield argues that the verb προέθετο (proetheto) as used in the New Testament can mean either (a) propose to oneself and so to purpose, or (b) to set forth publicly or display. It is clear that the two translations opt for the second of these options whereas Cranfield argues, “There is, in our view, little doubt that ‘purposed’ should be preferred to ‘set forth publicly’” (Cranfield, Romans Vol. 1, I-VIII, International Critical Commentary, 209). It makes better theological sense, suggests Cranfield, to understand Paul’s concern in terms of God’s eternal purpose than as a reference to the Cross as something accomplished in the sight of humanity.

Paul means to emphasize that it is God who is the origin of the redemption which was accomplished in Christ Jesus and also that this redemption has its origin not in some sudden new idea or impulse on God’s part but in His eternal purpose of grace (210).

The second important term in this verse is the word ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), translated in the NRSV as “sacrifice of atonement” (in a footnote a further option is given: “place of atonement”), and in the NASB as “propitiation.” In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament), this word refers twenty-one times to the mercy-seat, that is, the place where the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the day of atonement (see Leviticus 16). As such, it is quite possible that Paul is referring to Jesus Christ here, as the place where God effected his saving work. Cranfield, however, demurs. Following Leon Morris, he notes that in the Septuagint references, the noun in all but one case appears with the article when referring to the mercy-seat, whereas in this text it is anarthrous. Further, given Paul’s understanding of the intensely personal and costly nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, Cranfield considers it unlikely that Paul would liken Jesus to a piece of furniture in the temple. Rather, the mercy-seat would more appropriately be a type of the Cross itself, than of Jesus Christ (215). Cranfield, therefore, opts for the term ‘propitiation,’ or more precisely, “a propitiatory sacrifice” (216-217).

Many theologians find this interpretation of hilastērion deeply unsatisfying since it appears to portray God as full of wrath toward humanity, and requiring the blood sacrifice of an innocent victim before he will consider forgiving humanity. The idea that God must be appeased—and that by blood—before he will forgive seems contrary to the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless Cranfield insists that this is the correct interpretation of this term:

Indeed, the evidence suggests that the idea of the averting of wrath is basic to this word-group in the OT no less than in extra-biblical Greek, the distinctiveness of the OT usage being its recognition that God’s wrath, unlike all human wrath, is perfectly righteous, and therefore free from every trace of irrationality, caprice and vindictiveness, and secondly that in the process of averting this righteous wrath from man it is God Himself who takes the initiative (216).

Further, the decisive factor for Cranfield is that this hilastērion occurs “in his blood” (en tō autou haimati), which indicates that a propitiatory sacrifice is intended.

The purpose of Christ’s being ἱλαστήριον was to achieve a divine forgiveness, which is worthy of God, consonant with his righteousness, in that it does not insult God’s creature man by any suggestion that that is after all of small consequence, which he himself at his most human knows full well (witness, for example, the Greek tragedians) is desperately serious, but, so far from condoning man’s evil, is, since it involves nothing less than God’s bearing the intolerable burden of that evil Himself in the person of His own dear Son, the disclosure of the fullness of God’s hatred of man’s evil at the same time as it is its real and complete forgiveness (214).

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved (217).

In his treatment of this text Cranfield hits exactly the right notes. He acknowledges the reality of divine wrath as the overarching backdrop against which the saving work of Christ occurs. He insists that God’s wrath is righteous, and as such is entirely different to human wrath. That this wrath is occasioned by human wickedness indicates the seriousness with which God views this wickedness, displays the righteousness of God’s character in his response to sin, and affirms the genuine significance of human value, decision and act. Most importantly, he shows that God’s eternal purpose toward humanity was and is mercy, not wrath, and that God has determined to direct against himself—in the person of his Son—the wrath occasioned by human sin, in order to be merciful toward humanity and righteous in his mercy. This opens up a crucial window of understanding with respect to this verse and the atonement in general: it must be understood in trinitarian terms.

Finally, and with an eye on the topic I am exploring in this short series of posts, Cranfield is correct to insist that this hilastērion is “in his blood.” “It was by means of the shedding of His blood that, according to the divine purpose, Christ was to be ἱλαστήριον. … A sacrificial significance attaches to the use of the word αἷμα [‘blood’]. … There is little doubt that this is so in the verse under consideration” (210-211). The “blood of his cross” was the sacrificial means by which God has shown mercy to us while maintaining his unimpeachable righteousness.

Some More Books

BooksThe last few weeks have been very full, with the result that my blogging has fallen in a hole. I hope to get back on the job in the coming days! In the meanwhile, here is a picture of some new books received in the last month or so… I think I have done a year’s worth of purchasing since June…

Like the collection I picked up at the Conferences I attended, this is a somewhat eclectic collection, with a focus on Barth and books related to my work. I am particularly glad to get Being Shaped by Freedom: I was privileged to be a final year co-supervisor for Brett Muhlhan as he finished his work on Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian. This is an excellent study on Luther’s tractate and deservedly published. Renowned Luther scholar Robert Kolb commends the work:

With clarity, precision, and insightful sensitivity, Muhlhan . . . examines how Luther’s understanding of justification and freedom produces the faithful life of the believer. This refreshing analysis contributes significantly to our understanding of the holistic view of Christian righteousness fashioned by Luther’s distinctions of law and gospel and of two kinds of human righteousness. This book shows how Luther’s insights actually functioned in his proclamation aimed at shaping Christian consciousness and performance of God’s will.