Pomo/Em Church Jesus: A Reply to Andrew

Andrew, one of the respondents I quoted in my previous post (“Why the Pomo/Emergent Church is Extremely Dangerous”), gave a lengthy reply/defense in the comments to that post. I thought I would engage his comments in a separate post.

Andrew begins:

Clifton, I hope you don’t mind me posting a bit of a defence of the ‘Jesus is God’ discussion on Open Source Theology. I don’t want to address every point you have raised in your lengthy and detailed article, but I do want to make some general comments and respond to your criticism of my own relatively minor contribution to the discussion.

1. The ’emerging church’ tends to regard itself not as a clear fixed position but as a fluid, searching conversation. I realize that can sound slippery and evasive, but I would say that many, if not most, of the people who are engaged in this conversation are driven both by a need to to be honest about their state of belief and by a deep loyalty to the Jesus who is revealed in the scripture. The complexity and messiness of the conversation is explained by that tension. We are simply trying to understand things better. If we are going to confess before the world that Jesus is God, we want to know what we are saying – not as a matter of unthinking parroting of tradition, but in all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession. This is where many believers find themselves in this postmodern, post-Christendom moment, and we have to find some way of moving forward with integrity.

I am sympathetic to your comments here. I do, in fact, know something of what it means to be part of a delimited body of believers (one rather knows, I suspect, whether one’s church is an emergent congregation or not), but which body of believers have very few hard and fast confessional beliefs. My own background is the Restoration Movement churches (specifically, the instrument using “independent” Christian churches), and our identity was largely predicated upon a hermeneutic or an ecclesial method than it was on a confession. It seems to me that the em church believers are strikingly analogous to that.

Furthermore, I readily admit that I have no scientifically reliable data to prove my contention that the views expressed on the Open Source Theology blog are typical of em church believers. At best I can only offer my personal anecdotal evidence that my encounters with the writings, online and in print, of em church believers is wholly consistent with my contention (or vice versa). I would not be surprised if a person found such a contention question begging. In my defense, however, the counter-examples to my contention are much rarer, it seems to me.

In any case, the substance of your first point seems to me to be that em church believers are concerned to have and to do “authentic” theology. With this I have no quarrel, however strange at times the conclusions (even if provisional) of such theological wrestlings may seem to me. What I do strongly object to is the false dichotomy you have presented between either confession as “unthinking parroting of tradition” or “all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.” Surely you can understand why I might object to what appears to me to be an unwarranted prejudicing of the issue in the favor of the em church apologetic.

I rather suppose this is precisely the problem I was trying to elucidate in my criticism: the failure to adequately come to grips with the actual life and thought of the Church through time and space. Or, to say it differently, the “richness, complexity and ambiguity” that you espouse as paradigmatic is not opposed to the simultaneous living of the tradition. To borrow Pelikan’s well-worn axiom: Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; Tradition is the living faith of the dead. I am becoming an Orthodox Christian precisely because the living faith of the Tradition, in all its richness, complexity and ambiguity, is not available to me anywhere else.

If we may take the Chalcedonian definition as a point in particular: What about Chalcedon is the “unthinking parroting of tradition”? By the same token, in what way does Chalcedon fail to manifest all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.” And yet, what em church believer readily and wholeheartedly espouses Chalcedon? I don’t doubt that there are em churchers who do, after much throat clearing and footnotes perhaps. But what about ready and wholehearted affirmation of Chalcedon is in any way an “unthinking parroting of tradition”?

You go on:

2. The very diverse views expressed in the ‘Jesus is God’ post are not necessarily all consistent with any emerging ‘consensus’. It is an open conversation – that is simply the nature of the thing; we do not pretend to be in any sense normative or definitive for emerging theology.

It is this notion of “emergence” that at once prejudices the discussion in favor of the em church apologetic and simultaneously fails to account for any content to the term. What is an “emerging theology”? Whence it’s origins? If it arises from the “ruins” of the critique of modernist Christian theology, how can one know that one has truly sifted truth from error? If it is “emerging” from the surrounding culture, what does this say about em church ecclesiology? And correlatively, how does one know that it is Christian? Does it even matter that it is Christian?

Let’s grant the lack of a consensus. I happen to think this claim to a lack of consensus is a bit disingenuous, for I do happen to think there is broad consensus which privileges a so-called “postmodern” epistemology and anti-metaphysic, with the jargonish discourse to support such concepts, over any substantive truth claims (or metanarratives that purport to be objectively or absolutely true). But let us for now stipulate such an inchoate “theology.”

In what sense, one is pressed to ask, can em church believers speak in any meaningful way of the Gospel? Don’t mistake. I am not in any way opposed to the particularity of the Gospel which distinguishes between communities and (small t) traditions. But I fail to see how, if such a plurality of “gospels” fails to reach any sort of singular consensus St. Paul’s words in Galatians anathematizing those who preach a different gospel retain any meaning any longer. And if the gospel is inescapably plural, then I do not see how it can engender any ecclesial identity beyond the several individuals who happened to meet this past Sunday, which several individuals will differ from those who happen to meet next week, such that not even a local community retains any norming identity, and church just happens to be whatever it is now.

The above criticism notwithstanding, the intention stated in the following point is one I wholly affirm as well.

3. Any particular post should be understood in the context of the whole site (and for that matter of the whole emerging conversation). You could, for example, have a look at ‘The marks of a renewed theology’. I can’t really speak on behalf of the whole ’emerging community’, but for myself at least the intention is to be more, not less, biblical.

I would only press you on what it means for an emerging theology to be biblical. It is a polyvalent term that I’m not sure is adequately grounded in any meaningful or coherent context–for such an intention is predicated upon a particular hermeneutic. And I do not see that the (so-called) “postmodern” hermeneutic is, in any way, ecclesial, and therefore how it can in any meaningful way make an emergent theology biblical.

You next disagree with my contention of semantic or functional equivalence between “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is Lord.”

4. I would still disagree that ‘Jesus is God’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’ are semantically or functionally equivalent, but this requires a more careful response. The objection that Christians were pressured into confessing that ‘Caesar is Lord’ rather than ‘Caesar is God’ seems to me trivial given the pervasiveness of an ideology of imperial divinity. I could be completely wrong in suggesting that the cultic-political context was significant for the development of the slogan ‘Jesus is God’, but it surely makes good historical sense to suppose that something like this was in the background. And please notice that I did not say that it was ‘simply rhetorical context’ – you have added the word ‘simply’. We can recognize the rhetorical context without diminishing the theological significance of the statement.

I did misattribute the term “simply” to your contention, and for that I ask your pardon. It was, ironically, a rhetorical slip on my part.

It seems that my remarks on “Jesus is Lord” were abbreviated enough to fail to adequately convey what I mean. I meant, and mean, that the pneumatic expression “Jesus is Lord” is, in fact, in the biblical context, a real and absolute claim to divinity, even identity with God. This is abundantly clear when one takes into account that the Church’s Old Testament was the Septuagint, and the use of kurios in the ecclesial text and thus its usage in the New Testament.

I don’t deny that the demand to say “Caesar is Lord” was tantamount to a claim to divinity. In fact, that was precisely my point.

What I was objecting to was the notion that somehow “Jesus is God” is not a biblical proposition. In fact, it is.

5. As far as I can tell, you have misunderstood my point about opacity and transparency. I should have taken more trouble to explain. Apologies. At issue here is whether the different discourses we use to speak about Jesus are open to each other – so for example, can we see, beneath or behind the simple summary statements, something of the more complex narratives out of which they emerged and which they encapsulate. Equally, as we work through the difficult narrative or theological arguments, are we able to perceive the simple devotional or evangelistic statements that give practical and pastoral and prophetic force and clarity to our beliefs.

I grant that I very likely misunderstood your argument regarding opacity. But if so, I’m not sure that the above clarification really necessitates an alteration of my comments.

To say it another way, in light of your clarification: what sense does it make to say that a particular discourse or set of discourses is “opaque” to another discourse or set of discourses? Opacity is a metaphor, of course, describing the absence of a capacity for a set of terms in one located discourse to be meaningfully used (or transcribed, translated) into terms of another located discourse. You highlighted in the response I criticized in the previous post such discourses as historical, eschatological-apocalyptic, confessional-doxological, theological, mystical, and evangelistic. It’s not clear to me that it makes any sense to say that the historical discourse about theology or the Gospel is “opaque” to, say, the evangelistic discourse. After all, a discourse is merely a structured vocabularly oriented around formalized concepts. I’m not sure what sense it makes to say that concepts (or words) are opaque to one another, in part because I cannot make sense of what it might mean for a discourse to be hermetically sealed off from another discourse such that there was no possibility of transparency of any meaning between the two. For if such transparancy were, in fact, impossible, I’m not sure I could even conceive that such was impossible. In place of such a conception would be a cipher. Which is to reiterate in different words what I said before: if such things were, in fact, opaque, we could not know it.

Nor even if such claims to discursive opacity did make sense is it obvious that such claims are true. I can see how one might confess that these concepts and jargon speak to different things, but even evangelistic claims (Jesus is God) are grounded in historical discourse (Jesus was a man who lived in this place and time as attested to by these documents and witnesses, which documents and witnesses are variously supported by these archaeological finds).

6. I really don’t understand why critics of the emerging church feel that they have to adopt such a scornful, alarmist and judgmental tone of voice.

I readily grant that the title of my previous post is alarmist, and it does make a judgment (though whether that means it is judgmental might be a matter over which we could quibble). I do not think it or my post is scornful. In any case, I did not intend to scorn.

But that my post and its concomitant title make a judgement is inescapable, nor is it necessarily unChristian. We are called to test the spirits. Since the Holy Spirit is the one who gives it us to say that Jesus is Lord, and given that Jesus is Lord is an equivalent claim to confessing that Jesus is God, then to test the claims that question the meaning of that confession is wholly within my responsibilities as a Christian.

Further, if my judgment is right–and though I think that it is, I also grant it is not an infallible judgment–then any alarmist tone to my post is not only consonant with such judgment, it is necessary.

However, if my words conveyed any scorn, that I deeply regret, and for it I apologize and ask your forebearance.

Pray for me a sinner.

Why the Pomo/Emergent Church Is Extremely Dangerous

If the post here (H/T: Pontifications) and its many responses are typical of emergent “christology” (and I suspect they are), then the so-called “emergent church” is not a work of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit Himself gives it us to say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). (Note: The Holy Spirit also gives it us to say “Abba, Father” [Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6; cf. Mark 14:36], demonstrating that declarations denying the patriarchy of God are utterly void of any claim of Holy Spirit origin and authority.)

Here are the comments of the author of the post:

Some people avidly assert that Jesus is God and tend to be suspicious of anyone who has reservations about that statement. In some circles that phrase is practically a shibboleth.

Note that from the get-go, the author has psychologized the issues. Instead of it being a matter of someone being rationally critical of those who waffle on the truth of the claim “Jesus is God” we have people who are “suspicious.” And of course, this is presented as a problem.

Personally I am not comfortable with that statement because I think it condenses a complex truth so laconically that it leaves itself open to significant misunderstanding. But on the other hand I reject the opposite statement (viz. “Jesus is not God”) because I believe Jesus is uncreated, self-existent, transcendent, worthy of divine honour, etc.

Note this second strategy: the “principled hedge.” I’m not comfortable with it–but won’t go so far as to deny it. Once again, we have a psychological statement, not a truth claim. And notice the locus of the mental discomfort: it purportedly does not preserve the complexity of the issue. There is a subtle psychologism here, as well, for, after all, adults deal with complex realities, children deal with simplistic ones.

And the third strategy: the affirmation of a denial. But, logically speaking, to deny that Jesus is not God does not necessarily entail the affirmation that Jesus is God.

In short, the author has thus far confessed nothing save his own psychological states.

Finally, we do get a confession. But are these confessions really any less “simplistic” than “Jesus is God”? What is the author saying when he claims God is “uncreated”? “Self-existent”? “Transcendent”? “Worthy of divine honour”? Aren’t all these concepts shorthand for utterly complex realities that we cannot fathom? Isn’t the author being just as simplisitc albeit with more words? In what way is the confession that Jesus is “uncreated, self-existent, transcendent, worthy of divine honour, etc.” a truthful improvement on “Jesus is God”?

He goes on:

I am struggling to get a handle on why it is unsatisfactory to say “Jesus is God”, and I would like to be able to explain it more articulately to people who glibly say “Jesus is God” as though it were a simple, self-explanatory definition that needs no circumscribing. Maybe it is contrary to the principles of emergent theology to try to analyse and define things systematically, but I am hoping your responses to this thread may give me some useful new insights for my own spiritual growth and also to help me communicate effectively with others.

It seems to me that the author’s problem is not the simplicity of the claim “Jesus is God,” but precisely its (to borrow a phrase) irreducible complexity.

Now I suppose some plausible claim as to simplistic reduction–which could render the proposition “Jesus is God” as modalistic–might be entertained for a moment. But only for a moment, and in any case, that is not the direction this author is taking the question.

But notice what that author and the first sixteen (of twenty-three as of this post) responses entirely bypass: the “definition” of Chalcedon.

For it [the Christology of the Fathers] opposes those who would rend the mystery of the dispensation into a Duad of Sons; it repels from the sacred assembly those who dare to say that the Godhead of the Only Begotten is capable of suffering; it resists those who imagine a mixture or confusion of the two natures of Christ; it drives away those who fancy his form of a servant is of an heavenly or some substance other than that which was taken of us, and it anathematizes those who foolishly talk of two natures of our Lord before the union, conceiving that after the union there was only one.

Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us. (Definition of Chalcedon)

First of all, let us notice the author’s (and presumably the pomo-oriented emergent folk’s) deep aversion to “circumscribing” God. This is healthy. But notice that the “definition” of Chalcedon does not really “define” God. For to define something is to delimit it, to classify it as a this and not a that, to discuss that which is essential about that thing. Definition then, is utterly and absolutely inapplicable to God. For his essence is not accessible to us, and to delimit or classify him is to presumably have exhaustive knowledge about God such that we can place him in a set of things which have been tested by counter-example.

No, the historic Church has resolutely refused to define God. All she has been able to do is to declare, on the basis of the revelation in Christ, what God is not, and thus, by extension, we can only say what Christ is not. Or, rather, any positive declarations about God or Christ are circumscribed by what we cannot say about God or Christ. Notice the pronouncement from Chalcedon above. All of the positive declarations about who Christ is are bounded by the negative declarations. Christ is one Person, goes the positive affirmation, but we first start with the negative: Christ is not a duad of Sons, and this is reiterated again when it declares Christ the Word to be one Person, not separated or divided into two Persons. Christ is consubstantial with us humans, but he is not sinful. Christ is the union of two natures, but those natures are not confused, mixed, divided or separated. Always and everywhere our positive declarations about God are bounded by those propositions declaring what God is not. If we say God is one divine nature or essence, we must also say that God is not a monad. If we say God is a triad of Persons, we must also say that God is not three Gods.

So the Pomo/Emergent Church fear of circumscribing God is utterly baseless and founded on a quite mistaken notion from postmodernist populist drivel. We can never exhaust the meaning of “Jesus is God” so as to circumscribe him, and as the history of the Church has shown us, the best we can do is to declare that which cannot be said about Jesus.

Notice also how the emergent discussion, especially exemplified in the responses to the post, hinges on a false dichotomy: that between careful declarations and confessions of faith (i.e., “theology”) and real world living. It is the Gnostic mind/spirit-body split all over again. Here’s a taste of some of the responses.

Respondent Vincent-Olivier writes:

My opinion on this is that the “Jesus is God” proposition is innapropriate (or inconfortable [i.e., “uncomfortable”–cdh]) because “is” is used here as an identity and, in the case of “Jesus is God”, two of the properties of identity are violated :

1. “Jesus is God” violates transitivity because if the hypostatic union (“Jesus is God” and “Jesus is man like any man”) is true, then there must be some thruth [sic] in the “God is man” and “Man is God” statements;
2. Identities also imply symmetry, which means that if you accept “Jesus is God, then “God is Jesus” must also be true. And “God is Jesus” definitely sounds awkward in a orthodox point of view.

But, hey, if you accept the outcomes of the two properties over the “Jesus is God” statement, then there is no problem.

Re: “problem” 1. In point of fact, it is precisely the case that since the proposition “Jesus is God” is true, that it is also true, on the basis of the hypostatic union, to say “God is [a] man.” Jesus did not divest himself of his humanity when he ascended into heaven (if he did we are not saved). Similarly, it is also true to say “[A] man is God.” Notice I have introduced the indefinite particle prior to “man” in both statements. This is necessary because the respondent makes a claim regarding the hypostatic union that is predicated upon an equivocation of the term “man.” For man is both a particular noun and a generic one. It stands in quite nicely for “human” (generic) as much as it does for (that) “man” (particular). But to speak more correctly, in God becoming (that) man, Jesus, he did not become all men, he became human; that is to say, he united the divine nature to human nature. But in that God became human, human nature is now deified in Christ. So it is as true to say that in Christ, God became a man and that man is God, AND that God became human and human became god. And we, insofar as we unite our personal hypostases (unique existents of human nature) to Christ, we, too, become gods, as Jesus said in John 10:34 (or “deified,” made partakers of the divine nature [2 Peter 1:3-4]).

Why the respondent has problems with saying “God is Jesus”–unless it be from superficial fears of modalism–I have no idea. But it is, nonetheless true.

But there are more responses like that one. The respondent Andrew notes, incorrectly:

ĎJesus is Godí, in the first place, is not a biblical statement so there is no biblical context within which to interpret it. It arose, presumably, either as a confessional statement or as a summary of a complex theological debate. In either case, in order to understand how it functions rhetorically we would need to bring into focus the rhetorical context in which it was used. For example, as resistance to the Ďconfessioní that ĎCaesar is godí; or as a redefinition of the perceived nature of God; or as a slogan marking the culmination of conciliar debate. In other words, it is a mistake to read it as a purely logical statement of identity. The narrative substructure is not superseded by the more convenient encapsulation but must remain a visible and dynamic part of its meaning.

In point of fact, the biblical narrative or context does indeed provide precisely this formulation: Jesus is Lord. Oh, most assuredly, I understand that “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is God” are two different sentences. But they are not two different meanings. And the claim “Jesus is Lord” is quite precisely, and even more exactly, the same claim as “Jesus is God”–which is made abundantly clear by the biblical context Andrew has seemed to have either forgotten or ignored. In fact, using Andrew’s “rhetorical” contextualizing of the claim, it was not the claim “Caesar is god” that Christians were called to repeat, but “Caesar is Lord.” Nor was it simply rhetorical context. It was wholly existential, and not merely a resistance to a definition of the perceived nature of God.

The respondent Andrew goes on to say:

We are stuck with the fact that we have no simple, single coherent account of who Jesus was in relation to God. We have layered accounts: a historical layer, an eschatological-apocalyptic layer, a confessional-doxological layer, a dense, tangled theological layer, a mystical layer, a practical, reductive evangelistic layer, and so on. I suppose the challenge we face is to allow these layers of discourse about Jesus to be much more transparent to each other. I donít think that in the long run we will be helped by simplistic evangelistic summaries that are opaque to history or narrative or confession or theolog

Ah, yes, the claim “Jesus is God” is forever inaccessible to us. All we have are opaque layers, which we must somehow make more transparent to other layers. But if these “simplistic evangelistic summaries” are inherently opaque, on what grounds is predicated their opacity? Their simplicity? Their historical context? Their theology? Their mysticism? Their confessionalism-doxologicalism? Their practical reductive evangelisticity? (I admit that last is a neologism.) All of these together?

The next question is, how does one render transparent that which is opaque? Either one must knock a whole through it, or must make it so thin that light can get through. Which is to say, one must alter the nature of the thing. But on what basis can we do that? Aren’t our own claims that these things are opaque really just meaningless exhalations? What do we mean when we say something is “opaque”? And if it is opaque to us, how can we know it’s nature is opaque, or even really say anything meaningful–such as “The claim is meaningless or opaque”–about it? Perhaps the opacity lies within us? Perhaps we are the ones who must be made transparent?

No, criticisms such as Andrew’s sound smart and wise, but in reality such claims are nothing more than solipsism.

Note that the following respondent rejects any traditional or (small-o) orthodox understanding of the claim “Jesus is God” and at the same time claims to be part of the church (uses “we”):

In a literal sense I would say “no”. The “fully man, fully God” view is more than I can intellectually accept. But I do equate Jesus with God in the following ways:

1. Jesus was someone in agreement with Godís objectives so when I say I believe Jesus and agree with him I am agreeing with God. So in that way Jesus = God.
2. You could say Jesus and God are one and the same in a similar way that my wife and I are one and the same. I feel we are inseparable and bound through mutual vows for all time.
3. Jesus is the “son of God” meaning he is someone speaking on behalf of God or conducting business as a representative of God or in the authority of God as a son would represent his father in his absence during a business transaction.
4. I see Jesus as a person embodying the nature of Godís character. I donít accept the notion of him being a literally physical offspring of God. A person being a physical offspring of the spiritual force is very “greek/roman god-like” and not really something I could accept.
5. God is love and Jesus was definitely a walking exhibit of love so in that way you could say Jesus is God. I also think that any of us could be said to be “God” in this way. What I mean by that is an extension of how Jesus showed us to love God by serving others. So for us the “others” we serve become like a surrogate for God as we serve them and we become like a surrogate for God to those we serve. In the same way Jesus said, “whatever you do for the least of these you have done for me”. So in this way God is more than a being living “out there in heaven” and Jesus is so much more than the man that lived in the first century because he continues to live and serve through us as we live and serve for him.

I think when we speak of Jesus as the “incarnation” of God or “physical body” of God it is similar to the metaphor of the church being the body of Christ. We are Christís body when we live out his vision and mission just as Jesus was Godís body as he delivered Godís message and Godís love in a physical way.

Whether the respondent consciously grasps this or not, in rejecting as true on its face the claim “Jesus is God,” he has just presented a Jesus none of the early martyrs knew, an Arian Jesus, in some respects, a Gnostic Jesus in others.

Respondent 17, David Richards, finally interjects the Chalcedonian proclamation, with which there are, at present, no real engagements.

It is this largely unreflective adoption of postmodern sensibilities coupled with either an almost wholesale ignorance of the biography of the Church or a conscious rejection of it that makes the Pomo/Emergent Church such a danger to unwitting Christians. P/EC’ers and their disciples reject the historical life of the Church as unsuitable for present day Christian life. When one asks why one gets talk of therapy: Christians have been hurt by the “institutional church” (that ubiquitous bogeyman that never quite gets defined), or non-Christians seekers are looking for a more fulfilling way of engaging spirituality or god (vaguely intuited and thus the lower-case “g”). But P/EC’ers buy into this socially constructed criticism of the Church (notice how I am using one of their weapons against them), and thus are no more authoritative than the “institutional church” they criticize. That is to say, instead of bypassing authority, P/EC’ers simply substitute their own, though that authority is utterly blind.

And being blind, it apparently cannot see its Christological errors, because it will not learn its history. And not seeing its Christological errors, it cannot but also fail to see its ecclesiological ones. Thus it claims to offer the Church, but such offers are empty and void. If P/EC’ers cannot claim without hesitation that “Jesus is Lord,” or “Jesus is God,” then they share no part with those martyrs who died with that confession on their lips or the saints who lived that life for us all.