Having just come off a week of treading the immeasurably deep waters concerning the impassibility of God, we’ve traded in questions about the nature of our God for questions about the relationship within our God. The water has not gotten any more shallow, and as I read the material this week, I found myself encountering the same sort of human struggle to understand what is simply not human. We are yet again resigned to speak about God in analogy, as we always will be until Christ’s return.

The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was a crucial development for the Christianity we know today. It’s possible to surmise that, had the victors of the Arian Controversy been reversed, the path we have taken to arrive at the doctrine as we know it would have been far longer. Though the doctrinal victory came through political means, I do not think that any theology wherein Christ Jesus is less than God or the Holy Spirit suffers the same fate could withstand true biblical scrutiny.

That all being said, I do think that we can empathize with Arian’s position, because we are just as human as he was. A God who begets another would seem to naturally have dominion over it, or be of a higher substance, to use the terminology of antiquity. After all, our experience in this world tells us that our creations do not rise to be equal to us. The humanity and suffering of Christ were (and obviously still is) a problem, as the sovereignty of God is assailed by a simplistic interpretation of Christ on the cross. Lastly, we can imagine Arian’s fear that Christianity will fall into polytheism by declaring Christ as of the same substance of God as the rumblings of Trinitarian doctrine begin to circulate.

The Arian point of view, in my estimation, ultimately suffered from a need to define God by human terms. Primarily Arian seems to have thrust upon God humanity’s constraints of time and creation. Arian suggests that there existed a time before Christ existed, but this cannot be merely assumed without thrusting the constraints of time upon God. We struggle to conceive of God’s unbegotten nature, being left to merely repeat the fact as God has revealed it to us. We also cannot assume that God’s action of creation functions within the constraints of human creation, including the language of the “begotten Son.”

We are constrained by analogy at every turn with God because we simply cannot describe what we can’t understand. God is also self-constrained to analogy if He chooses for our nature to remain unchanged. This is the failings of human language, which we saw in much the same way last week with the subject of impassibility. God’s chosen means of revelation gives us what we need to have faith, which requires Him (again, if we are to remain constrained by these human bonds of reason) to leave some things visible through the mirror, dimly. (1 Cor 13:12)

The damage to Christianity caused by a Christ who is not God would be irreparable. Christ’s being God fully completes His work on the cross, as there can be no greater sacrifice given in our place. How can Christ the man be of high enough value that He can rectify the chasm between God and humanity created by our sin? There is only one who is righteous enough to bear that burden, and it Christ fully God.

As man pursues the ordering of the world and his very nature, there is a natural limit to what he can discover about his origins. Beyond him is his creator supreme, who has supplied to him vitality, intellect and ability, and the world in which he exists. But man is not capable of discovering or understanding the creator’s great mysteries alone, and so the Creator God saw it that it was good to reveal to man some of God’s nature through His inspired Word. We, therefore, undertake the task of discovering the divine nature by studying the Word that was revealed to us, and by the faculty of our reason and intellect, so that we may draw closer to Him.

In Jeremiah 32:17, the writer states that God has “made the heavens and the earth by[His] great power and by[His] outstretched arm!” The breadth and depth of the power of God are so far beyond our comprehension that the mere thought of His nature and being overwhelms our intellect. When we speak of God, then, we must speak about His nature and attributes using analogies, which are the same way in which he reveals Himself to us. He is called our “shield” (Ps 28:7) and our “rock” (Deut 32:4). Of course, he is not literally these things, but they are meant to evoke a sense of who He is. Similarly, we often speak about God with the language that we would describe humans. He is not human though, and so to speak of Him this way is to communicate about aspects of his nature or his attributes in such a way that we can gain some sense of his “person”, a term derived from the Latin persona, which has the sense of a “mask”1.

The Creator God identifies Himself in Scripture to Abram as “God Almighty.” (Gen 17:1) This declaration of omnipotence is essential to understanding and establishing His ability to complete the scope of work we attribute to God, but it must further be defined to escape the contradictions and errors man has tried to ascribe to it. Often these errors take the form of a logical contradiction, such as “Can God make a rock that he cannot pick up?” Thus, the concept of divine omnipotence requires further clarification to be useful. To this end, William Ockham describes the omnipotence of God using the framework of His two powers; The ordained power of God and the absolute power of God. God possesses an absolute power which gives Him the ability to do all things, yet as He makes choices, He becomes self-limited by them. Having made the heavens and the earth, He cannot then choose not to make them. Thus, God operates by His ordained power, which prevents Him from some things while His absolute power remains established.

If God is almighty and the sole author of all of creation, how can we explain the presence of sin in the world? If God created all things, do we count among his creations the very nature of evil? By bestowing free will upon man, God left to man the ability to decide his own path. While man might have a multitude of options at every turn in his life, the decision is ultimately between the choice of God or self. Sin is the result of man’s choice to turn away from God. So then if choosing sin is the opposite of choosing God, sin and the evil that it brings into the world are not of God, but of man’s choice. Augustine of Hippo characterizes sin as a defective choice or action, which comes from nothing, and so is certainly not a product of God2.

If we can ascribe omnipotence and goodness to God as evidenced in His Word, and further order them via the reason of man, how can we know that these attributes have not changed, nor change in the future? How do we know of God’s steadfastness? The inspired words written by the prophet Malachi, found in Malachi 3:6 state “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” By His own word, God proclaims Himself to be unchanging. Moreover, He declares his name to Moses as “I AM,” not as a riddle, but as a declaration of his steadfast and unchanging nature. Thus, God himself, through His Word, assures us of His immutable and impassible nature.

The implications of this attribute for humanity, especially in the contemporary context of a century of world wars and prolific human suffering, are incredibly relevant. If God is incapable of change, what does that imply about His ability to suffer along with or because of man? It holds to reason that a God who is almighty and steadfast cannot be susceptible to pain or suffering as we understand it. If God were vulnerable to the concept of suffering, then God could not be considered as immutable, as this vulnerability would suggest that he could become more perfect or less perfect3.

Theologians have wrestled with understanding how God can be love and yet not partake in the suffering of those he loves. It is a core misunderstanding of God’s love that is the culprit, which is born of a human sense of love being projected onto wholly-other God. God’s love instead manifests itself not as an emotion, but as life, being, and truth4 and is the force which “fill[s] all creatures, according to their capacities, with his bountiful superabundance and excessiveness” 5. Our imperfection denies us the complete understanding of God’s love and its intersection with his unmoving nature, yet He has seen to reveal to us in Scripture that these seemingly contradicting attributes are both parts of his nature.

It is not too much to say that the beliefs of Christianity rest on the truth of these attributes. If God is not all powerful, then we must question His ability to enact His promises to man. If God is not all good, then we must question His self-representation as such in and thus the validity of Scripture. If God is not steadfast and unchanging, and furthermore affected by suffering because or with us, we must question His motives for creation and redemption. Ultimately these attributes of God define the basis of Christian understanding, and while many have challenged, and continue to challenge, the exactitude of these attributes, they have ultimately stood the tests of time and rationality.

  1. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 178.
  2. Augustine of Hippo, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Augustine of Hippo on the Relationship Between God and Evil,” in The Christian Theology Reader, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 172.
  3. Spinoza, Benedict, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Benedict Spinoza on the Impassibility of God,” in The Christian Theology Reader, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 160.
  4. Hart, David Bentley. “NO SHADOW OF TURNING: On Divine Impassibility.” PRO ECCLESIA, n.d.: 195.
  5. Augustine, De Trinitate VI.x 11, CCL 50: 241-42.

The cultural norms in the Greco-Roman world in regards to letter writing may not seem like an exciting topic to some, but its value is undeniable in reconstructing the messages found in the NT. I, for one, have enjoyed learning more about it and what it brings to the conversation.

As someone who grew up reading the NT letters, I certainly felt like I was learning the formal language for a pattern that I had already come to recognize. Of course, Western letter writing has, in a sense, most of the same elements, so NT epistles aren’t entirely foreign. Understanding the cultural influences that are present in the letters, however, increase our recognition of the context and aid in interpretation.

Specifically standing out this week was a point in the lecture concerning the letter to the Galatians. The lack of a proem was a great example of how understanding the historical norms of letter writing tells us more than we could immediately interpret in the text. Not only does this fact of this omission have value, but it also gives us an incredible insight into how the church at Galatia would have received Paul’s words.

Hartman’s “On Reading Others’ Letters” was a great read as well, especially concerning his conclusions on Paul’s letter writing. As we approach the Word in our young Christian walk, we Westerners see through Western eyes, and so we envision a solo Paul penning yet another letter to another of his children churches. More study results in ideas about how letters were copied and distributed, and uncertain authorship and inspiration. Hartman, for me then, provides a new suggestion in that Paul understood his writings were useful to a much wider audience that his primary recipient, and so purposefully wrote them to accommodate such a fact. That the Holy Spirit provided inspirational guidance to that effect had certainly crossed my mind, but not that Paul himself would have considered it.

Furthermore, the idea that Paul kept copies of his letters in a local collection is striking enough to cause us to relook at his work under such a suggestion. “Paul writing to the Galatians” and “Paul writing to the wide Christian world by means of the Galatians” would be similar volumes, but the amplitude and specificity of ideas and suggestions would likely be noticeably different.

Finally, Hartman makes a comparison that I found compelling and will undoubtedly find a way to use in the future. Hartman references reading Scripture through a contemporary lens while disregarding the original intended meaning, using as an example a Lutheran reading of Paul that equates the Law with God’s will. (Hartman, 143). He then likens this to how Christian interpretations of the Tanakh must appear to the Jew. This is an excellent reminder that the Hebrew Bible has both always pointed to Jesus and simultaneously had a primary meaning separate from Jesus.

For centuries those who are critical of the existence of God has heralded that science can stand on its own to describe and order the natural world that we live in. Theology, in contrast, must rely on the mystery of God to explain the processes of the world, which is seen by unbelievers as an abandonment of reason. In two very different ways, Thomas Aquinas and Pascal refute the skeptic’s stance but in a sort of harmony of head and heart.

Aquinas, in his Five Proofs, provides five “demonstrations” based on the nature of the known world that argues for the consistent proof of God’s existence. Aquinas seeks to use the rational methods and means science against those who cannot find proof for or commit to the idea of, the existence of God. The five ways are simple and easily digestible and provide a base layer that makes it possible to erect a structure of belief from them. The points, however, do not go so far as to prove the existence of the Christian God or even a monotheist perspective. This mostly does not seem to be the aim, other than ending each of the points with a final “This we call God.” Aquinas then is appealing to those who wield reason and rationality as weapons against the existence of God, by putting on display the right use of rational inquiry to prove God.

Pascal on his face could be seen as attacking a rational approach, but I see it as the cooperative argument to Aquinas. Aquinas succeeds in showing the ways reason supports God. Pascal picks up by stating that reason’s deficiency in constructing an entire worldview for or against the existence of God should humble it. He continues his perspective by stating that reason, which by he means intellectually honest reason, takes its last step when it concedes that there are “an infinite number of things which are beyond it” (Reader, 30). And, as Pascal finishes the thought, he pointedly asserts that if reason can’t get to the end of natural things, then how much less does it know about supernatural ones?

I resonated highly with the second Pascal excerpt on the hiddenness of God. This stance that God chose to be hidden influences my understanding of how God has acted and continues to operate. Pascal surmises that it not only right that God be partly concealed and partly revealed; it is also useful…” (Reader, 31). Our God, mysterious His ways, put the Law of Moses into effect so that by it men might know their sin. (Rom 6:7). The sacrificial blood of the covenant, to Israel, “righted” their relationship to Him. God, though, had hidden to them the typology they were taking part in, such that He knew He would save the world through a sacrifice of blood once and for all. This perspective should give us a lens to look through at the mysteries of the revelation, and consider that the mystery is purposeful, and for our benefit. God’s chosen revelation is equally as useful, not just in the primary sense of useful, but valuable in its form: It is everything we need to believe that He exists.

Man is often his own stumbling block as we interpret God’s Word, and one of the primary problems we face when interpreting Scripture is leaving our bias at the door. For the last two centuries, slavery has been a hotbed of conversation, and its social costs are still being paid today. However, in the course of utilizing Philemon in this conversation, I think we must consider how the institution of slavery and Christians’ perceptions of it gave Philemon a task it could not complete.

My reading of Philemon leaves me with the impression that Onesimus is in a very real fashion indebted to Philemon, but not specifically in the manner of slavery. I take the use of the word “slave” to be figurative in the context of the epistle and to confer a discrepancy of status or balance between the two men. So then I am subscribed to a real familial relationship between these two men.

The familial relationship takes it a foothold in verse 16, where Paul encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus as a “beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Two men cannot become brothers in the flesh if they did not originally possess that relationship, so, therefore, the brotherhood he wishes to Philemon to re-accept is likely one that has a familial aspect to it, as well as kinship in the Lord.

The interpretation that considers Onesimus a slave via the literal interpretation of verse 16 is often accompanied by the idea that he has run away from his slavery. I find verse 18 to be problematic in that interpretation, since Paul seems to be unsure if Philemon considers Onesimus to have wronged or owe anything to him. Had Onesimus run away, he would undoubtedly know so and Paul should therefore be aware that he indeed does owe Philemon something. I do not think Paul is being coy with his words, but is honest in his inquiry and willingness to have Onesimus’ debt on his account.

In this epistle, as well as with all others attributed to him, Paul is writing both to the named recipient(s) and a wider audience. While the recipient and his admonitions are set in the historical context of the letter, the wider audience is not necessarily privy to this context. Paul seems to be aware of this as he writes his epistles, and Philemon should be no exception, given its Pauline character. In the case of taking the text of Philemon and making what would have amounted to a counterculture argument about slavery, Paul seems to have failed if that were his specific goal.

We can take Paul’s words, however, and use them for what they are: an admonition to treat our fellow heirs with love and refresh each other’s hearts in Christ.

The existence of the extra-canonical books is probably the first fact we learn when we begin to consider question on the canon. I know this was how it was for me, and like many my first step was learning of the existence of the Apocrypha. Of course, once you know of the existence of these mysterious books that the faith leaders around you never mentioned, you have two choices: ignore the elephant in the room or dive down the well that is what theologians know and suppose about the formation of the canon.

It’s potentially faith shaking for everyday Christians to learn about canon formation, but this is all the more reason to talk and reason about it in our churches. The internet has been the undoing of many obscure knowledge, and the church, facing the dilemma of shrinking numbers and crisis of belief in the inspiration and infallibility of the Word, should consider how to appropriately educate the membership. It’s increasingly evident that we can either choose to address these topics, or choose to let someone else educate our membership while giving up our influence on how facts are presented.

We know that the victors get to write the history, but a particularly interesting and/or frightening idea I came across in my reading was a position taken by the scholar Robert Wilken, in his book The Myth of Christian beginnings. Wilken supposed that the idea of the apostolic age was a creation of the “great church”, or orthodoxy. According to Aichele, there is extant manuscript evidence that the first century church was far more diverse than church history indicates. A fundamental tenant of the faith, and especially that of the Churches of Christ, is that first century Christianity was simple, relatively uniform due to apostolic influence and temporal proximity to Christ, unified against and because of oppression and persecution, and the foundations are laid out in the Bible itself.

A revelation to the tune of Wilken’s position would be far more faith shaking than simply learning about the human influence on the canon. However, I imagine that a theory such as Wilken’s would need a large amount of data and proof to overthrow the more mainstream teachings on the apostolic age. Then again, maybe I haven’t reached that depth of scholarship yet and the conversation is already well underway.

I feel that coming into this class I was confident that I was heavily interested in textual criticism, and seeing the text for what it is. Questioning the text’s authenticity or authority was not something I would have thought would be on the agenda, but I find myself intrigued, and if honest, a little worried. Ultimately though, I have to trust that God has entrusted me with the tools to receive his Word and effect change in my own life and sphere of influence.

Much of the contemporary Christian community knows little about the formation of the New Testament Canon and perhaps has little incentive to discover more about it. There is much more security in the idea that God has ensured His Word rests between the cover of the “good book” than in the history that suggests that the work of man was involved in its creation. The canon was heavily influenced by the early adoption of the codex as a literary technology and a way of using this technology to speak to the value of its contents.

Technologically, the invention of the codex was of great importance in the historical creation of the NT canon. While codices were used outside of Christian literary culture, the extant codices dated to the first four centuries are comprised of 70% Christian writings. (Hurtado, 56) The use of the codex by Christianity was not accidental; it served the purpose of binding together the multiple books it contained, physically and theologically. As these bound volumes were circulated, they inherently lent credit to each other, and by extension, discredited other writings of the same category. In the case of the Gospel accounts, the non-canonical Gospels of Peter or Thomas were never bound together with the canonical four. (Elliot, 107)

Writings that were left out of these collections suffered blows to their reputation and relative status, despite the fact that they were still read aloud and reference by patristic authors. It is notable that extant versions of these non-canonical writings appear more often in book roll form by percentage than their canonical siblings. It seems that early Christians had a preference to use the book roll for these types of texts. (Hurtado, 56)

Written texts hand copied and distributed afar bring their own dangers, and so a canon became necessary to legitimize a singular understanding of the faith. The canon’s creation also served to facilitate the transmission of what had largely been an oral tradition by providing an intertextual explanation to the reader. (Aichele, 51) As canon has the innate effect of legitimizing some views while delegitimizing others, it is no coincidence that the creation of the canon happened alongside the establishment of Christianity as the religion of Rome. As the formerly persecuted became powerful through Constantine, they found themselves capable of eliminating heterodox beliefs and structuring a foundation on which Christianity could stand. (Aichele, 56)

By the 4th century, the New Testament canon had been principally established, but the choices made before this time were unquestionably influential on the final product. The attributed author and the acceptance and proliferation within the broad Christian community are perceived to have been some of the most critical factors, but the use of the codex and the decisions concerning inclusions and exclusions of texts in these codices had pre-shaped that conversation.

To me, the most persuasive approach in regards to faith and reason begins with the fact that ancient humanity could perceive God through the created order (Rom 1:20). There is a natural reason, which Vatican 1 refers to, which comes to man through the ordinary aspects of life. This natural reason manifests itself as a cumulative collection of experiences and observations, as Newman observes. Without direct communication from God that his covenant people benefited from, God was perceived to these ancient peoples by his eternal power and divine nature in the creation around them. This method of discovery still exists today and is the most basic, foundational way in which we can begin to reason about God: the creation that surrounds us is evidence of his existence.

It’s no surprise to me that in all of our pursuit of the rational ordering of the world and the entire creation, and with our ever-increasing understanding of it, humans still cannot reasonably comprehend, explain, or order how the world came into being, much less even that it did so without a creator. If the pursuit of truth, as Polkinghorne says, seeks to attain the best explanation of complex phenomena to afford the basis for a rational commitment, there seems to be an undeserved amount of animus for the Christian explanation of the world.

Polkinghorne notes the apparent lack of consideration in the world that has been given to Christian belief as potentially reasonable, which he says is derived from the simple “knowing” that there can be no truth in faith since it defies everyday secular expectation. Pope Francis also references a more contemporary example of a similar observation in the modern obsession with technological truth. One of the costs of our tremendous progress in science and technology is the expectation that truth takes the form of knowable certainty, and is evidenced by the collective agreement on said truth. This ultimately puts theology at odds with culture, since theology studies and seeks a universal truth that comes from beyond man.

However, if we can naturally recognize our world as the work of a creator God from the natural evidence around us and lack of more reasonable explanation, we can reasonably know that He is more powerful than his creation and is the author of all things. Having created all things including humanity and its faculties, including reason and logic, it follows that faith cannot be in opposition to reason as both are from God.

In the course of rectifying this natural reason with the rational evidence we can find in the world around us, we do encounter tension where these two forces seem to be opposed. Humanity has proven itself quite susceptible to misunderstandings, both in issues of faith and reason. Vatican 1’s opinion is that perceived tensions between faith and reason are the result of these misunderstandings of human nature, whether the error is in the interpretation of the church’s dogma or man’s discovered truths.

By structuring the interaction when faith and reason find tension as a place where both can be examined, we give theologians proper latitude in navigating the mysteries we seek to understand but cannot prove, and can ultimately help to clarify church teaching or correct bad rationality. To that end, we should welcome reasonable inquiry and exploration of faith while still recognizing the limits that prevent faith from being probed and tested in the same ways as empirically driven subjects.

If theologians are to treat biblical text as faithful, we work from the knowledge that man was intentionally made, considered to be very good, and so we can deduce that his ability to reason is from God. The natural order of creation is our first and most primitive evidence of the reasonableness of faith. Pursuing faith through rational inquiry stands to benefit the faithful and also those who are seeking a deeper understanding worth a rational commitment.

At some point during the mid-20th century, the Churches of Christ were incredibly busy packing every piece of the doctrine into a package labeled “Things Required for Salvation.” I am unsure about the cultural forces that drove a segment of the Restoration Movement in this direction, but the concept has not aged very well into the 21st century. It has left, in my opinion, the Churches of Christ in a position that is increasingly hard to stomach for the Christians who are now ascending to leadership roles.

Growing up as a Church of Christ kid in the 1990s, I was peppered continuously by the questions from other kids that rooted from these decisions made decades ago. “Do you think that you’re the only ones going to heaven?” was by far the most prevalent, but I still fielded many others on the use of a piano, why we had no fellowship hall or gym, etc.

Some of these positions are sound in theology but get entirely crossways in the messaging we use to defend them. This confusion most often appears when we speak about the theological position from the point of what not to do. Many of these positions are much easier to illustrate when we use language and descriptors for how we arrive at what we can do.

A great example of this would be the common points made about musical instrumentation during church worship. The de facto standard is to fall back to Ephesians 5:19 as evidence of the absence of instruments, and thus continue the train of thought that suggests that we then rightly deduce that they cannot be used.

Whether it is theologically sound or not to use instruments in worship, there is undoubtedly no arguments being made in modern day Christianity that the lack of instruments is displeasing to God. Reframing our objections to a particular principal into affirmative statements as to our own choices keeps us from putting into the salvation box things that ought not to be there.

For this example, we can better communicate our theological position by merely stating that the elders of our autonomous congregation have decided to sing a cappella. There is no ground to stand on to refute this position, and we can start to focus on essentials instead of necessarily defending our view because of our messaging.

Even worse in my eyes are the divisions between our brothers and sisters within the Restoration Movement. The division over supporting para-church organizations like colleges and orphanages could have only come to be by requiring the decisions of every autonomous congregation to be forced in the “Things Required for Salvation” box.

For a movement that began with a call for unity in essentials and liberty elsewhere, it is quite a fall to divide over things we should be embracing freedom concerning. After all, the eldership at every autonomous congregation will have to answer for the decisions that they made for their flock, whether good or bad. If you are not of that flock, or even more specifically of that eldership, you have little to be concerned about for yourself.

Support of para-church organizations is again an example of a problem that is able to be reframed by changing our messaging. We don’t even have to change our principles or convictions on either side of the theological discussion.

By merely stating that the autonomy of congregations allows the freedom to separately choose whether we will support para-church organizations, instead of convicting each other over the legality of such, we can move past yet another instance where liberty should reign and move back to agree on essentials.

The continued need to stand and divide on these less defensible positions leaves our church in a less capable place to fulfill the mission that is given to us by Christ. If we instead want to focus more on work that produces results, we should file these disagreements under the column of liberty in non-essentials and collectively unite to reach out to the many lost souls around us every day.