Two Gospel Witnesses

Two premier English theologians passed away last month — Nicholas Lash and J. I. Packer. Through their writings both men played outsized roles at key stages in my theological education, and I remain grateful for their instruction.

May we long remember them both and the gospel to which their labors witnessed.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There are, in my opinion, few more succinct summaries of the Gospel than this: We have been made capable of friendship. The ‘we’ is unrestricted, it refers to everybody, past and present, near and far and, by analogy, to every feature of that web of life of which we form a part. We ‘have been’ made: the passive voice protects the primacy of grace, the givenness of things. Made ‘capable of’ friendship, rather than ‘made friends,’ for it is as duty that we hear the Word’s announcement of the way all things are made and made to be.

from Theology for Pilgrims (2008), 49.

2. J. I. Packer

“were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.”

from Knowing God (1973), 214.

Joseph Minich on the purposiveness of revelation

Could God be more obvious than He is? Could He erase all atheism? Yes. … But He doesn’t. Why? Because God is only interested in His revelation being clear enough for the purposes He has in revealing Himself. That is to say, God’s revelation is about God’s rather than man’s goals. And it is not man, therefore, who determines how clear He must be. Man’s purposes are often at odds with those of God. As it turns out, God is actually not that interested in people simply believing that He exists. Consider the parallel of Jesus in the Gospels. How often does Christ actually conceal His teaching and His identity precisely because He knows that people will simply abuse His teaching or seek to manipulate His identity for their own ends? Christ is most clear to those who pursue, who hunger, who thirst—and he satisfies them, as in the case of the woman at the well (John 4). This does not mean that His identity was, as such, unclear. It means that He was not interested in maximal clarity. His clarity was fitting to His own purpose in coming and revealing Himself and His Father. … Why would He then ‘fix’ what isn’t, by His standards, broken?

from Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism (2018), 68-69.

Out of Egypt

Hans Boersma on Matthew 2:13-15

“Out of Egypt I called my son.” Why does God tell Joseph to take the child and his mother into Egypt? Why does he tell Joseph to flee from Bethlehem? Why does he tell Joseph to stay in Egypt until Herod’s death? Obviously, you say, to save the child! Sure, but why Egypt? Why not any other place? Isn’t it because you and I so often return to the fleshpots of Egypt? Isn’t it because you and I are just like the Israelites, and our misdirected desires often lead us back to Egypt? There “we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full,” we say to ourselves, while here we are in the wilderness, starving to death (Ex 16:3). The amazing grace of the gospel, the astounding love of God, is this: not only does the eternal Son of God take on human flesh, not only does he go to Bethlehem so that we can have a place alongside him in Bethlehem; no, he goes all the way to where we are. He goes all the way to Egypt. He goes all the way to the very place of slavery and oppression. He goes all the way to our country of exile. He goes all the way to the objects of our misdirected desires. he goes all the way to the center of our darkest labyrinths. “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

from Sacramental Preaching: Sermons on the Hidden Presence of Christ (Baker Academic, 2016), 75-6.

P.S. Martin Copenhaver on “He descended to hell.”

“The Apostle’s Creed contains this affirmation about Jesus:  “Jesus Christ was crucified, dead and buried. He descended to hell.” The last part of that statement always used to trouble me, until one day someone told me that, for her, it is the most treasured part of the creed. When I asked why, she answered, “Because hell is where I spend much of my life.” Hell—a sense of being forsaken, the absence of God, a place of despair. We have been there. And Jesus has been there. And having been there, Jesus transformed it.”

from Jesus Goes to Hell

Miscellaneous Trinitarian Reflections from Nicholas Lash

  • Christianity’s First Doctrine (logically, not historically)

the doctrine of God’s Trinity is not some further teaching, additional to a teaching which would count as a ‘doctrine of God,’ but simply is the Christian doctrine of God, the Christian account of how the word ‘God’ is to be used.

from Easter In Ordinary (1988), 267, n21; cf. “the doctrine of the Trinity simply is the Christian doctrine of God,” from “Considering the Trinity,” Modern Theology 2, no. 3 (1986): 183.

  • Against Misproportioned Deployments of the Creeds’ Articles 

on the basis of experiential differences, now this, now that aspect of the mystery gets presented as the norm or centre of the whole. It is as if the history of Christianity were a struggle for supremacy between the three articles of its Creed; a struggle tempting the participants to polemicise into opposition mutually indispensable distinctions lying at the very heart of Christian (which is to say Trinitarian) apprehension of the mystery of God.

from Theology for Pilgrims (2008), 37.

Comment: I find this a suggestive gloss on the pendulum swings of theological history. I take Lash to be insinuating some of us are so over-determined theologically by apophaticism that our christologies and pneumatologies are underformed and underfunctioning; others of us are so over-determined by Christology that our patrologies and pneumatologies are comparatively anemic; and others of us are so over-determined by pneumatology that our patrologies and christologies are left idling. For a balanced, non-reactionary doctrine of God, theologians will need a sense of proportion so all three loci have room to make their needed contributions. Which is your temptation? Not only will the theologian need to be mindful of their theological scene’s excesses and deficiencies, but, so as not to over-correct, the theologian will also need to be mindful of their personal excesses and deficiencies.

  • where the Trinity went after theologians lost interest

According to Walter Kasper, ‘The history of modern thought’ is, at one level, ‘a history of the many attempts made to reconstruct the doctrine of the Trinity.’ ‘Admittedly,’ he goes on, ‘the credit for having kept alive the idea of the Trinity belongs less to theology than to philosophy.’ Now that is an interesting suggestion. It is, not surprisingly, German philosophy that Kasper has in mind. …

What, then, of the other side of the story? While the philosophers were attempting to revitalize, after their fashion, the elements of a doctrine which the theologians had discarded as a dead letter, what was it to which the theologians, for their part, devoted their attention? The answer, ironically, seems to be that those theologians who discarded the Christian doctrine of God selected for their subject-matter that most unchristian entity that came to be know as ‘the God of the philosophers.’

from “Considering the Trinity,” Modern Theology 2, no. 3 (1986): 184-5.

Andrew Purves on Christ’s vicarious humanity

a failure to give appropriate attention to the vicarious humanity of Jesus means that everything, the whole of the Christian faith, life and ministry are now cast back on us to do. At this last moment, it turns out, we are dependent on our faith, our worship, our obedience and so on, rather than on Jesus’ response for us. While our responses of course have their valid place, they are not the axis on which the gospel turns. Rather, Jesus is the axis on which the gospel turns. The resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that Jesus not only stood in for us while he lived, but that he stands in for us still, today and tommorrow and forever, offering  us—who we are and what we do—in himself to the Father. Our lives, our worship and our ministries, as well as our prayers, are given to the Father “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

from The Resurrection of Ministry (IVP, 2007), 101.