A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

NT Wright on Biblical and Contemporary language

I read this from For All God’s Worth just after I had made my previous post on language, so I think it is fitting to post.

We have to learn how to translate Jesus’ message to his contemporaries so that it becomes our message to our contemporaries. The Sermon [on the Mount] isn’t just Jesus’ challenge to the church. It ought to be the church’s challenge to the world. But our world is not expecting covenant renewal, with a list of blessings, an intensification of the Jewish law, a newly depeened piety. Our world is not wanting to rebuild a temple, a house on the rock. We cannot simply throw at our contemporaries the same language and imagery that Jesus used in his day and hope it will somehow stick. We have to take the difficult, but exhilarating step of working out where our contemporaries are and translating the message into their langauge and setting.   (p. 132)


October 2, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

The language of the Church

In my recent post on Trinitarian language, irishanglican and I got into the question of whether abandoning the language (not the content) of traditional Trinitarian language was an abandonment of tradition or not. At the root of this is how much does tradition affect our communication as the Church. But the issue is not as simple as simply addressing tradition. We have three sources for our language, and we must determine how to appropriate each in our communication of our faith.

The first is the Biblical language. In this, there are multiple ways of communicating the same messages, so there is not just one unified Biblical method of communicating certain truths. And this is of great value for understanding, because it allows to see different shades of meaning and try to find the point of intersection between similar words to obtain a more definite meaning. Furthermore, the Bible contains the revelation of God, so naturally its value is high. However, the language can also be very distant from our contemporary culture. But seeing as the Bible is our primary source of theology, if one entirely abandons Biblical language though, one leaves the congregation rather unable to adequately engage the Biblical texts themselves.

The second is Christian tradition. Tradition is essentially the democracy of people in the past up to the present. Tradition represents the struggle with certain issues and the search for adequate language and concepts to engage the questions of the day. Tradition then is a source of previous critical reflection. However, it is also based upon the questions of the day and the language of the time, perhaps even more so since it doesn’t make the claim of coming from the revelation of the time transcending God. It can not escape its cultural, sociological, and intellectual context, which may be divergent from the current time. As a result, it may lose its meaning when spoken to a different culture. But yet tradition plays an important role in theological reflection (I hesitate to actually speak of its as a source in and of itself for theology), so totally abandoning traditional language can make it inaccessible to the average person. But tradition is less essential compared to Scripture, so there is more leeway here in refraining from using traditional language.

The third is contemporary culture. It is the culture we live in, and it is our job as the Church to communicate to this culture. Anything that can not adequately and easily communicate to them creates a larger gap between those in the Church and taught the traditional and Biblical langauge from those on the outside who may not have been. So we adopt modern language to communicate it effectively. However, caution must be practiced because the usage of contemporary language to convey what may be a more ancient concept may result in confusion itself, and lead to teachings and understandings that are not in themselves Biblical and may fly totally in the face of tradition. So if we feel the need to abandon or lessen the usage of Biblical or traditional langauge in one instance, we must take special care in how we rephrase the understanding of our faith.

Now, in categorizing these three things, it does not mean that there is nothing in common between the three groups. Biblical, traditional, and contemporary language may share a lot in common. For instance, the usage of the word “sin,” which maybe slightly different from Biblical to traditional to modern language, by and large conveys the same basic meaning. However, there is also the potential for there to be divergence, such as the lack of traditional Trinitarian langauge in the Bible and in contemporary society outside of the Church.

The key, in the end, is not necessarily to place one above the other, but to keep the three in tension. But it requires a conscioustiousness on the part of theologians and ministers to maintain the proper balance or tension. We can not go the extreme of more conservative and uber-orthodox churches of retaining only the Biblical and maybe traditional language, nor should we got the way of more contemporary theological movements that attempt to make everything subject to the modern language.

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Why I dislike Trinitarian language

The title makes me sound blasphemous, but do not get me wrong, I maintain the basic meaning of the Trinity. I will even use the Trinitarian language at times because it can at times be used in a good sense. But I think today, Trinitarian language does more harm than good in the end. In the modern understanding of it, it portrays the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as being same exact type of being/person. And the word God in the New Testament is essentially a reference to the Trinity. In the end, it now leads to a skewed concept of the portrayal of the three persons in the Bible.

Only once anywhere in the New Testament is Jesus referred to explicitly as God, John 1:1 (I’ll leave the discussion of the supposed references in the Pauline pastorals for another day). And in that instance, it is not ho theos (the Greek article and the Greek word for God) that was the frequent pattern used throughout the New Testament to refer to the God of Israel, but simply as theos. This isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness argument saying that it should be understood as “a god.” Rather, it is saying that Jesus wasn’t being identified as some person of a trinity, but rather that he is the God in essence, or in nature. A better way of putting it is that he proceeded from God, hence the usage of logos which had philosophic undertones along with a reference to the words attributed to God in Genesis 1 (see 1:3).

The importance of this for New Testament theology isn’t so much in Jesus ontological position, but rather what Jesus reveals. In 1:5 the word is spoken of as light. In Hebrews 1:3 it says the Son is the exact representation of God’s nature. Romans speaks of Jesus as the revelation of God’s righteous nature and the mercy seat (the place of atonement where also the cloud of God’s presence existed). And then, as NT Wright argues in Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus takes upon the roles that were attributed to YHWH throughout the Old Testament. My point is, with the exception of the last point, that Trinitarian language does a rather poor job of communicating that point, the point that is emphasized throughout the New Testament. To speak like this implies a sense of subordination, that Jesus is not revealing himself so much as the God YHWH. Such notions are not readily included in Trinitarian language, nor Trinitarian logic that necessities that Jesus is equal in all ways to the Father.

In addition, Trinitarian language also tends towards docetism. If Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and is one with the Father, he must take upon all the characteristics of the Father. So we tend to see the exclusion of his humanity. Trouble is attributed to sayings like that not even the Son of Man himself doesn’t know when he will come. And if we take away Jesus’ humanity, we get some “revelation” that is of little value for us people. He doesn’t really reveal to us God’s righteous nature that we are ourselves to emulate, because he is an unachievable ideal. He is God, we are merely human. We can not be anything like him.

It also struggles to make sense of some of the Gospel narrative, for instance when Jesus says “Why do you say I am good? None is good by God.” If we make the automatic equation of Jesus with God at the cost of his humanity, instead of a human that also happens to be the divine Word, we struggle to let Jesus himself be struggling for his own vocation. So questions like that either are interpreted awkwardly or are taken as express denials as Jesus’ own divinity. We can not see it as Jesus not sure of his exact nature of the time.

References to the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity have similar problems, but my main issue is how it portrays Jesus in this modern culture.

At one time Trinitarian langauge had value, in a struggle to maintain that Jesus as the fitting object of worship. It has value as a logical paradigm that allows us to maintain Jesus’ divinity in the face of Jewish monotheism. But when it is made as the source of Christian theology, instead of a logical conclusion to make it justified, it leads to problems with the Biblical claims of Jesus. And while one might argue that properly understood, the Trinity doesn’t lead to these problems, we have to ask is it really worth it to try to resurrect proper Trinitarian understanding? Would we claim the langauge itself is holy, or rather that the object(s) of the langauge?

(Later edit: You have to forgive me as I sometimes can be an idiot at times. John 20:28 is also another place where Jesus is explicitly referred to as God, and actually as ho theos, which serves as the final concluding proof for the statement in John 1:1.)

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 23 Comments