Sunday, October 28, 2007

Friends and Lovers: Sacraments of Divine Love

In my last post, I introduced Edith Humphrey’s 2006 book Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit.

Edith builds her notions of spirituality on a biblical framework (see Article Five of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future). But she focuses primarily on two biblical doctrines: the Trinity and the Incarnation. These two doctrines are keys for understanding what we are called to be.

As we are called to live into what it means to be made in the image of God, the life of the Trinity models many things for us. That leads us to think about family life, because the persons of the Trinity have eternally been in relationship, involving mutuality, cooperation, submission, and sacrifice. The mission of God is at every point the mission of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of them, all the time, not just one or another.

The Incarnation helps us understand that embodiment is not optional for us. It is not something to be regretted (as in some ascetic spiritualities). For Christ to be for us the icon of God (see Colossians 1:15; cf. Hebrews 1:3), he had to take on human flesh. And God did not make us in his image apart from making us embodied creatures. When he made us his icons, he made us flesh. Spiritualities that try to deny the importance of our bodily existence to our spiritual calling miss something foundational.

Early in her chapter “Icons of Love,” Edith inserts an old photo of her daughter Alexandra that illustrates the title of her book: ecstasy and intimacy. The snapshot shows her young daughter playing her violin in a jaunty pose and with a magnificent smile on her face. Ecstasy. Little Alexandra is clad only in her underpants and socks, and her posture and facial expression demonstrate a total transparency to the parent behind the camera. She is holding nothing back. Intimacy.

Refracting the divine nature

Edith spends the rest of the chapter exploring how our human relationships—being friends, siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives—refract something of the divine nature. She says, for example, that the things we experience as friends—“mutuality, equality, exclusivity, inclusivity and absorption in something shared”—help “to enlighten our understanding of God” and are “capable of mediating God’s love and light to us.” This is also true of the particular things we experience in our other human relationships.

Here are a few key ideas from her reflections on marriage:

While the Old Testament uses marriage as “a simple pictorial reminder of God’s desired intimacy with his people,” in the New Testament “it takes on a ‘sacramental’ or iconic significance.”

The Incarnation, the coming of God himself as one of us into our world, has made what was only metaphor a living reality. Similarly, the relationship between believing husband and wife tangibly indicates the life of Christ with his beloved Church; indeed, each marriage relationship that is in Christ itself partakes of this divine mystery.


[B]elievers commend marriage as a special state that is conducive to repentance, healing, growth, and glorification for the couple involved. Precisely here, we say, one can see a refracted picture of the wholeness, the holiness, the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity.


The married couple will be surprised to find how it is that their growing intimacy, yieldedness, and vulnerability to each other indeed transfers to their relationship with God, the lover of all. ... There is, therefore, a crossover between our embodied condition and our spiritual life that we might never have expected.

Our choice-crazy culture

One further thought. In commenting on both the parent-child and the husband-wife relationship, Edith looks at how these contrast with our culture of choice.

In the case of marriage, contemporary society is historically out of step because we have the privilege of choosing our own spouses. The upside of that is that spousal friendship and romance are far more likely to occur here than in societies where other people make that choice for the couple. But the culture of choice also undermines commitment. Because our society tells us sixteen times every day that we should be exercising choice—and sometimes it communicates that our choices make us who we are—we need reminding that marriage is not a lifestyle choice. It is a window into the divine love and a school for growing more like God.

In the case of parents and children, the “givenness” of the relationship reminds us that, despite “the choice-crazy climate of our day,” some things are for keeps. That “choice-crazy climate” may magnify the difficulties parents and children encounter. The lasting nature of the parent-child relationship (though it grows and changes) reminds us that our culture of choice is not normal.

In her reflections on human relationships, Edith does not ignore the pain and hurt we experience. Because these relationships, as icons of love, reflect the ultimate, they also are the contexts in which we can be most deeply damaged. Families and marriages are dangerous things. And for that very reason, they need to be nurtured and tended with the care due to the icons of ultimate love.

* * *

Edith Humphrey will be speaking at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference, November 30 through December 1. Click here for details and registration information.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Sexualizing the Image of God

I’ve been reading Edith Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy the past few days—a masterful work on grounding Christian spirituality in the biblical story, particularly in the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation.

Edith will be speaking at the AEF Conference at the end of November. But I first heard of Edith Humphrey many years ago when J. I. Packer pointed me to some excellent position papers on human sexuality that she had helped write for the embattled Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Canada.

Thus, I couldn’t help skipping over some chapters to get directly to “the good stuff,” namely her chapter on human relationships as “Icons of Love.” I was particularly interested in her reflections on marriage and on the use of feminine language for God in worship.

Here’s some of what she has to say about the effects of calling God “Mother.” (Warning: R-rated stuff ahead.)

It is not that God is not motherly, but turning “Mother” into a proper name for God “tends to foster an unchristian kind of ... view that God is in everything ... because in using womb language, we are apt to confuse Creator with creature.”

She cites a prayer that “throws caution to the wind” and “sexualiz[es] the image of God in a bizarre manner.”

Elder woman, from the wine of your womb-love, You create the universe and bring healing.... Pour out upon us the elixir of your divine mercy: that, touched in the innermost parts of ourselves, we are restored as your beloved.... One whose splendour gave birth to the angels, Eye of wisdom, Holy Sophia, Goddess Three in One. Amen.

Humphrey’s astute observation? “What worshiping body would accept a parallel prayer that used masculine terminology (e.g., “the seed of your penis-strength”) as blatant as the feminine imagery used here?”

When you put it that way, you don’t need to add an argument, but (of course) she does. Humphrey reminds us that we are Trinitarian Christians and that (as Pannenberg observed) on the lips of Jesus, “Father” becomes a proper name for God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Father is one name among many. But with Jesus, it becomes the name by which we know Him—Abba, Father.

Her comments on marriage and sex? Well, I’m given to writing longish blog posts, so I’ll cut this one short and postpone sampling those other comments to another post and another day.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

What's the Fuss About Recapitulation Theology?

Recapitulation. Last week Northern Seminary’s Phil Kenyon and I worked over the brochure copy for the upcoming AEF Conference (info here). I noticed that the brochure kept using the word recapitulation—about half a dozen times.

Earlier, Regent College theologian Hans Boersma had noticed that the theme of recapitulation had emerged in our conference plans. He was excited. Here’s part of what he wrote to us:

Already in the second century, St. Irenaeus, ... opposing the narrow-minded Gnostics, ... insisted that the incarnate Word had taken into himself all of humanity—recapitulation. There's nothing quite like an evangelical conference that deliberately wants to assume the same astounding truth for its starting-point.

Enough already, I can hear you saying. What’s this recapitulation stuff all about?

If you’re a little hazy on the concept, don’t be embarrassed. We haven’t talked about it much in our theology books. And we’re only now seeing a renewal of a very old concept.

I looked in quite a few evangelical theology books I have on my shelves, and in the vast majority of them I couldn’t find any reference to the early church’s theology of recapitulation. Some exceptions? Well, the Moody Handbook of Theology briefly mentions it as an example of a false theory of the atonement. But then the book seems to misunderstand the concept.

Stan Grenz was more positive in his 1994 Theology for the Community of God. Stan devoted five or six paragraphs to Irenaeus and the atonement. At the end of the section, he wrote that Irenaeus “never intended that his theory be viewed as a description of a transaction in the history of creation. It was merely a picture of the meaning of the victory of Christ.”

If Stan is correct, then we do well to listen to Irenaeus, but not to press his account of the Atonement into bearing the full weight of the meaning of Jesus’ work. If we do that, we can make it into “a false theory.” But used rightly, it can help us speak of Jesus to ourselves and to our age.

The first theologian I found on my bookshelf who actually devoted an entire chapter to the topic was (drum roll, please) Robert E. Webber. No surprise there for those who knew Bob. And a new book on Atonement theology, Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement, also gives it a full treatment.

What Is Recapitulation?

So what is this “recapitulation”? It simply means “summing up,” and if you were reading Ephesians 1:10 in the Greek New Testament, you would find the word anakephalaiosasthai there. “Ana” is the equivalent of the Latin prefix “re” (again), and “kephale” is the equivalent of the Latin “caput” (or head). If your lawyer has made a case, and then she sums up her argument for the jury by going over her key points (the argument’s main headings), we call that “recapitulation.”

So Paul says that in Christ, God’s plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head” (Eph. 1:10, NIV). Other translations use “sum up” instead of “bring together.” (Amazingly, the “literal” New American Standard Bible and Eugene Peterson’s “dynamic” The Message agree at this point!)

One way that Jesus sums things up is by getting right what Adam got wrong. Adam was supposed to be the head of the human race, but he bungled it and sent the race off course. And so we need a new humanity headed by a new Adam. (Think of Paul’s comparison and contrast of Adam and Christ in his resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. And remember also how in his discussion of grace in Romans 5 Paul calls Adam “the figure of him that was to come.”)

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:

So the Lord now manifestly came to his own, and born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree. ... Indeed, the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.

Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit; and placing the Spirit in man, he himself is made the head of the Spirit and gives the Spirit to be the head of man, ...

He therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam, tramping on his head ...

Cyril Richardson, who translated the Library of Christian Classics version of Irenaeus, chose to use the word “renew” (or “renew and reverse”) to convey the idea of recapitulation.

This wonderfully positive word hides some word play. Notice the number of times “head” appears in the brief excerpt above. Christ is the head of the Spirit. He gives the Spirit to be the head of man. Christ tramps on the head of the serpent. And the etymological root for “head” is buried in the original each time Richardson translates “renew/reverse” for “recapitulate.” Christ by obedience re-heads what was done by disobedience. He re-heads all these things in himself by tramping on the head of the serpent.

What I Like About Recapitulation Theology

This importance of this idea of “head” brings me to the first reason I like this theology of recapitulation.

1. Recapitulation theology recaptures our corporate identity. We are important to God as individuals, but we are also important to God as a human race. In our Enlightenment-influenced culture, we almost entirely come down on the individualist side of the scales. The novel, for example, emerged in our culture as a way to portray the struggle of the individual self against oppressive and conformist society. And our evangelism and church life has been shaped by the same influences.

Recapitulation theology reminds us that we are not merely saved as individuals, but we are part of God’s project to create a new human race in Christ, just as he originally created the human race in Adam. God did not make Adam as an individual, but immediately gave him a partner and commanded them to multiply and fill the earth. Just so Christ’s triumph is for the purpose of filling his kingdom with a new humanity.

You can immediately see the importance of church, then, as a corporate expression and countercultural context for living out this new reality.

2. Recapitulation theology affirms creation. The second reason I like recapitulation theology is that it affirms the goodness of the created order. Irenaeus wrote at a time when some Christian teachers were denying the Incarnation of the Christ. “Vain are those who say that his appearance on earth was a mere fiction,” wrote Irenaeus; if Jesus was to recapitulate (revisit, renew, and reverse) Adam’s failures, he too had to be fully human.

Other Christians were teaching that Jesus did not come to his own creation but to the creation of some inferior God who messed things up by the very act of creating a material order. “Vain indeed,” wrote Irenaeus, “are they who say that God the Son came to things not his own ... in order to hand over the man who was made by another to the God who neither made nor created him.” Why is it vain? Once again, in Christ God is revisiting, renewing, and reversing. It had to be his own creation.

Still others were teaching that flesh and blood can’t be redeemed. God only redeems our spirits, they taught. But Irenaeus wrote, “Vain above all are they who despise the whole dispensation of God, and deny the salvation of the flesh and reject its rebirth, saying that it is not capable of incorruption.” But then what are we doing in the Eucharist, Irenaeus asked. That wouldn’t make sense unless God redeems us as flesh and blood. “For if this mortal flesh is not saved, then neither did the Lord redeem us by his blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of his blood, and the bread which we break the communion of his body.”

It is a commonplace that Christian theology has often been too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, too focused on the spirit and too flesh-denying to experience and preserve the goodness that God has created for us. Recapitulation theology places our Christian lives squarely back in God’s good created order. And it reminds us that Christ redeems not only people but an entire cosmos.

3. Recapitulation theology has a symmetry that keeps us focused on the big idea. The Adam-Christ way of thinking helps to close the circle that was opened when our first ancestors rebelled. It puts back into order that which was disordered. The biblical story is a lot like one of Garrison Keillor’s typical Lake Wobegon monologues. At the beginning of one story, Keillor drops a brief reference to a group of folk going off to Minot for the funeral of an old Lake Wobegon High School English teacher. And then he meanders through a dozen other topics, from an old guy who hunts ducks from his upstairs bedroom window to the arcane rituals of the Sons of Knute Lodge. But in the end, Keillor brings all the strands together into a meaningful whole laden with profound insight.

When you’re listening to a Keillor monologue, it is easy to lose sight of where it all started. But after all the wanderings, he’ll uncover a big idea for you. Just so with Adam and Christ. It is easy to lose sight of Adam amidst all of Israel’s wanderings, but Paul and Irenaeus bring us back to our focus. We are a human race gone bad, but we have renewal and reversal in Jesus.

When I was growing up in a holiness-influenced denomination, I couldn’t have told you what the faith was all about. I knew we didn’t do certain worldly things. But it wasn’t until much later that I grasped the big idea. Recapitulation keeps us from that old tendency to mistake taboos for the Truth. And it keeps us from mistaking any of the church’s cultural accommodation (say, turning Jesus into your very own therapist) into gospel.

That’s enough for now. I hope to see you at the conference where we can spend more time examining the ways we frame the biblical story and how they help us keep the Big Idea in front of the people to whom we minister.

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