Sunday, September 29, 2013

Holding fast onto Scripture - Learning from Kierkegaard PART 2/3

[From part 1/3] So for Kierkegaard, the incarnation is the Absolute Paradox where the eternal meets the temporal, the divine meets human. This is indeed a mystery - how can Christ be fully divine yet fully human? Kierkegaard claims that this can only be accepted by faith. And indeed, true faith is a subjective acceptance of this Absolute Paradox. This flies in the face of the foundationalists. This is, Kierkegaard says, the true religion. 

For those of us who were raised in Christian family - who know about the incarnation of Christ as long as we can remember ourselves - we often treat the hypostatic union of Christ for granted. It is as if we had that doctrine in the palm of our hand. It ceases to be mysterious for us. Although there could be many reasons for this, I suspect it is partly due to our upbringing in a post-Enlightenment scientific era which has little tolerance for mystery or paradox. Any uncertainty must be eradicated. While science has brought us far and is indeed a priestly duty for every Christian, we often embrace scientism. And this affects our theology as well. Every tension shall and can be harmonized, and our theology has to "make sense" philosophically. Moreover, systematization is often preferred over a more "nebulous" category like narrative (which is unfortunately the main category in the Bible!!). Why? As someone says, "... because our God is a rational God." While I sympathize with such a sentiment, I find that an extreme adherence to this principle ends up choking the grandeur and beauty of the Bible, and often, irreverently forcing the Bible to answer questions it does not address.     

In this second part, we can see how Kierkegaard's category of the Absolute Paradox can help us cope with many problems we encounter with the Bible. Rather than fitting every "phenomenon of Scripture" (borrowing the term from Warfield) into a rationalistic straightjacket (i.e. every tension can be solved via logical argument), I personally believe that we may learn and be sanctified more if we accept tensions and problems we face in our study of the Bible. This is true as long as we hold fast onto the truthfulness of the Bible since God who utters his words is faithful. But how can Kierkegaard's category help us in fostering faith in the Bible? Here is an inadequate yet sincere reflection of someone who loves the Bible yet admits many apparent problems as he gets deeper and deeper into his study. Is it possible to face those problems as a source of strength rather than an ammunition of unfaith without subscribing to rationalism?        


PART 2/3
Despite Kierkegaard’s extensive use of Scripture in his writings, he did not attempt to establish the authority of Scripture which was threatened by the rise of modern biblical criticism. Lacking such insight from his writings, can we answer the following questions from Kierkegaardian perspective: 1. Does saving faith include personal acceptance of the infallibility (hence authority) of Scripture by faith? 2. What is the relationship between the two categories of faith of a believer?

The first question can be answered simply by appealing to the gospel content. The incarnation of Christ is an historical reality which is witnessed only in the canon of Scripture. Hence, saving faith – characterized in part by a total submission – certainly includes appropriation of and submission to the gospel truth. However, the canon includes not only the basic gospel message of redemption in and through the God-man, but also other doctrines that are important for faith and life. Most believers came to Christ by appropriating the gospel message without presupposing the authority of the entire canon. While some, upon their conversion, may reckon that the Bible is the Word of God, they may not apprehend its sense of authority and infallibility. Therefore, saving faith indeed includes personal acceptance of the authority of the basic message of salvation in the gospel of Christ which permeates throughout Scripture just as salt in the sea water. However, stating that saving faith includes personal acceptance of the authority of Scripture as a whole is unwarranted. Yet the same faith is the “receiving organ” of (possibly) later acceptance of the authority of Scripture. Having said that, we do not intend to argue that appropriation of the authority of Scripture in its totality is a necessary fruit of saving faith. Instead, we argue that such an authority may be appropriated through the same means.

To address the second question, one solution is to employ a presuppositional argument. The authority of the canon must be presupposed as an article of faith. A presupposition demands neither proof nor evidence. It stands as a subjective starting point of a quest for further knowledge of Scripture. While this solution is valid, it fails to address how such article of faith is related to saving faith. Another solution is to apply the so-called “externalist epistemology” which assumes that our perceptions are reliable and defines knowledge as how we are rightly related to the world outside us. Here, knowledge does not imply absolute certainty but resorts to qualitative reliability. From such perspective, one may claim that our appropriation of the authority of Scripture is simply a “reliable belief” based on the facts we know about Scripture through our experience. Such belief gradually evolves, either stronger or weaker, depending on the reliability of Scripture as our senses perceive it. It is comparable to other practical beliefs such as the reliability of our friends and cars. While such solution accounts for the subjectivity of faith and allows us to understand how faith grows, it fails to highlight the presupposed uniqueness of our faith in the authority of Scripture.

Alternatively, we may simply state that accepting the authority of the canon by faith is analogous to saving faith. However, such analogy is not obvious. A strong analogy can be established, however, if there is an analogy between the objects of faith. Therefore, it is sufficient to demonstrate an analogy between the incarnation of Christ and Scripture. Indeed, such analogy has been recognized by several Reformed theologians. Kuyper taught that “there is a necessary, intrinsic parallel between incarnation and inscripturation of the Logos which further necessitates for each the form of a servant”. Other theologians such as Warfield and Bavinck recognized likewise. Just as the Logos who is eternal, divine, and glorious, entered the temporary, contingent, and lowly world, the eternal Word of God entered the world, impinging upon the history of humankind. Just as the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, the Word of God took a form of human language and was given to us. Just as Christ is fully divine and fully human in nature, Scripture is fully divine and fully human in its authorship. Fallible human authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit to put Verbum Dei in an infallible written form. Christ became an obedient servant upon his mission on earth, suffered as a human, and subjected himself to rejection and contempt. Likewise, Scripture, taking a servant form, is subjected to rejection, severely and often unfairly criticized. Christ, being a human, was weak and “without form or comeliness”. Likewise, the canon did not visibly drop from heaven with trumpet sounds yet came in a humble process of inscripturation over two millenia. One may be easily captivated by the majesty of the cosmos –starry skies, the Alps, and the Niagara Fall– regardless of his belief in God. Yet it is much easier for him to ignore or simply not notice a book entitled “Holy Bible”, let alone for him to treat it as divinely inspired, infallible, and authoritative. While well-preserved through duplications and translations, the non-existent autographa has become a subject of criticism and an excuse when one stumbles in faith. Added to such weakness is the uncertainty of canonization as the Church is fallible. However, just as Christ is sinless and perfect, the canon is infallible and perfect in its purposes. Therefore, the absolute paradox that is inherent in the incarnation of Christ is also present and demonstrable in the inscripturation of the Word of God. Note that employing such an analogy does not negate but rather establishes the uniqueness of Christ through appropriating the infallible Christological testimony in Scripture.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Holding Fast Onto Scripture - Learning from Kierkegaard PART 1/3

Those who enjoy learning more and more about our faith will soon encounter difficult issues. If your "thing" is biblical study (like me), you will start noticing the rough terrain of the Bible. Questions such as historical and scientific accuracies, tensions, paradoxes will appear. Is the Bible infallible? Is it inerrant? If yes, in what sense? What about the commonalities between the Bible and the pagan cultures, e.g. in the creation and flood story? What about inconsistencies in historical accounts in the Chronicles, Gospels, and even Acts? Is Christianity simply one of the many Greco-Roman cults that evolved via a Hegelian synthesis?

While one may simply choose to ignore those difficulties and adopt the so-called "theological reading" and at the same time holding onto an abstract notion of inerrancy, I believe that a responsible believer must confront his or her own unbelief. Just as the father of the demon-possessed boy who said to Jesus, "I believe! Help me with my unbelief!" (Mk 9:24), so we shall come to Scripture by presupposing its truthfulness, yet with a prayerful heart that admits the feebleness of our faith. In fact, I'd argue that those who avoid difficulties for the sake of "faith" show their unbelief - that the Word of God cannot vindicate itself.

Although we may learn from many champions of faith, I choose Kierkegaard (with the help of the Old Amsterdam and Princeton theologians) for a reason. First, Kierkegaard is often misrepresented in our conservative circle. He is often blamed for existentialism, blind fideism, and subjectivism. Often times, we conservatives are quick to criticize shortcomings of others and fail to learn from them. Such an attitude must cease lest we be sectarian. Second, many of us are obsessed with objectivity and ignore that Christianity is both personal (hence subjective) and corporate. How easy it is for us to fall on the extremes! Kierkegaard reminds us that subjectivity (to be differentiated from subjectivismper se is not a bad thing.

So how can "S.K." help us here? Is it possible to synthesize his insight with that of Kuyper, Bavinck, and Warfield? Let's find out!

SDG - Eko Ong

PART 1/3
One of the major tenets of the Reformation is Sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture is the only source of authority for faith and life. We trust Scripture as the infallible Word of God. But biblical criticisms gave rise to skepticism toward the infallibility of Scripture as liberal critics declared the Bible to be full of errors. Furthermore, Protestantism holds that infallibility does not extend to the canonization, which is defined as the process in which the Church –a fallible vessel– recognized the 66 books in our Bible as divinely inspired. So the Church might have failed to recognize some divinely inspired books and/or misrecognized some uninspired books as inspired. Although credible historical and theological arguments may be given in defense of canonization, ambiguity remains in various aspects such as the late formation of the Old Testament canon and the late acceptance of certain New Testament books. Then, how should we accept the authority of Scripture? John Calvin, having recognized the limit of reason, taught that while there is ample historical evidence, the authority of the Bible can only be personally accepted by faith through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Yes, indeed we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Saving faith by the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel is sufficient and normatively necessary (e.g. John 6:44, Rm 10:17). Through the testimony of the Spirit, we may call God our Father (Rm 8:15, Gal 4:6) and we hear the voice of our Shepherd (John 10:27). Yet, does saving faith include personal acceptance of the infallibility (hence authority) of Scripture by faith? What is the relationship between the two categories of faith of a believer? To address such questions without ignoring the associated difficulties, let us look at the insight of Søren Kierkegaard, the enigmatic 19th century Danish Protestant philosopher.

Just like us, Kierkegaard lived in a complex era. Cartesian foundationalism was a prevalent epistemology. Here, true knowledge must possess a foundation of truth which must be demonstrated with certainty. To obtain such certainty, one shall become entirely “objective”. At the time, Christianity was a dry state religion. Later, the rise of biblical criticism undermined the epistemic foundation of Christianity. In such era, Kierkegaard attempted to articulate Christianity in a way that is relevant to lives and faithful to Scripture. He first defined that to exist as a human self is to undergo a process of becoming which requires one to be relational, both internally and externally. Such relations with itself and other selves facilitate synthesis as part of the ‘becoming’ process. As a consequence, a self is not autonomous. Our self-existence is ultimately grounded in the autonomous Self who possesses infinite qualitative difference compared to any human self, namely God. To become a true self, one shall attempt to realize the potentially in relation with itself, other selves, and the Self. From there, Kierkegaard identified three spheres of existence: aesthetical, ethical, and religious. The transition from aesthetical to ethical is facilitated by moral consciousness. A self that realizes the futility of pleasure-driven life without any ethical commitment transitions to the ethical sphere. The kernel of Kierkegaard’s works, however, lies within the transition from the ethical to religious sphere. What facilitates and characterizes such transition?

First, Kierkegaard rejected the pursuit of objectivity in foundationalism on the basis of his anthropology. A human self never attains absolute certainty. To have such certainty means to be complete and hence stop ‘becoming’ which contradicts the notion of human existence. Such certainty is only feasible in God. Although epistemic uncertainty is a part of human existence and the limit of reason, we find a way of resolving it in our daily decisions. This demonstrates that subjectivity plays a big role in our actions. That is, our actions are never purely objective. Rather than being defeated by skepticism due to the hopelessness of absolute certainty, Kierkegaard argued that we should embrace such subjectivity. One may argue that rather than pursuing absolute certainty, we simply strive for high degree of certainty in practice. But such degree of certainty itself is a measure which varies from person to person and hence subjective. Here, Kierkegaard defined subjectivity as that which is outside reason and includes emotion and passion. In relation to Christianity, subjectivity is essential in attaining true knowledge for a limited human self.  A purely foundationalistic approach to Christianity will eventually lead to skepticism. In other words, subjectivity allows oneself to “live the truth” without requiring absolute certainty.  

Second, Kierkegaard criticized foundationalism in its usage of historical evidence as the rational basis of faith. While Kierkegaard accepted the historical root of Christianity, he argued that historical evidence is neither sufficient nor necessary to produce faith in an individual. Historical evidence deals with contingent and temporal matters whereas the realm of reason or logic is characterized by necessity and eternity since a logical proposition is a perennial truth. What is contingent and temporal belongs to a different category from the necessary and eternal.

Third, Kierkegaard contrasted two religions. The immanent religion A, manifested within the ethical sphere, is a religion which searches for the truth inside oneself. Sound familiar? Such person strives for the “highest good” according to one’s conscience. While some God-consciousness may be present, religion A emphasizes immanence without relating to God himself. Moreover, the true pursuit of goodness should not be for the sake of reward other than the happiness caused by the goodness itself. If such principle abides, the person will eventually realize that he is “guilty” (recognition of his shortcoming and sinfulness) and the solution exists outside human powers. That is, one can achieve nothing apart from the Self. This facilitates one’s transition to the eminent religion B of Christianity–the true religion. Religion B must be based on a revealed truth from God. Such revealed truth, consistent with the infinite gap between human existence and God, must be paradoxical and hence supra-rational (not irrational). In other words, the revelation is a fresh and new knowledge which consequently creates a tension and results in a paradox. While a paradox can be made up, Kierkegaard maintained the uniqueness of Christianity as the “Absolute Paradox” is embodied in the incarnation of Christ since the eternal and necessary meets with the temporal and contingent within a single being, God who entered the human history and became flesh. Rather than simply a metaphysical paradox, incarnation is an ethical paradox as well. God, the necessary who has no need for us, chose to enter the realm of contingency and demonstrated the ultimate act of “selfless love” which surpasses, yet does not contradict reason. Such absolute paradox can only be appropriated by faith when a “mutual understanding” between reason and the paradox happens, that is, when reason admits its limitation and the paradox gives itself. Such faith originates neither from one’s inner-self nor from other human selves, but is a divine gift upon his encounter with God as he realizes that his reason reaches its limit and his moral quest fails. Kierkegaard characterized this faith as a subjective and qualitative leap, a change of category. It involves emotion, passion, tension between fear and blessedness, and total submission as the absolute paradox challenges the limitation of reason and evidence. Hence, just as evidence is neither sufficient nor necessary for faith, a lack of evidence is not the reason for the absence of faith. The Kierkegaardian notion of faith differs from blind fideism –with which Kierkegaard is often falsely associated– as the faith subjectively embraces a propositional truth and a historical reality of incarnation of Christ. Yet the interpretation of such historical reality must be subjectively appropriated since further evidential or rationalistic attempts on establishing its credibility, while edifying and educational, cannot be the basis of faith. It also differs from Pascal’s fideism where the “wager” appeals to risk and reason. In our view, Pascal’s wager tends to result in one’s ‘hedging his bets’. It is far from the biblical faith of total submission to Christ, which is well articulated by Kierkegaard.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Richard Bauckham, "Jesus and the God of Israel"

Book Review - Richard Bauckham, "Jesus and the God of Israel"
by Eko Ong

In the conclusion of “The Person of Christ”, MacLeod pondered how we may translate homoousios and perichoresis in today’s language. Such desire for fresh perspective –especially in light of the “growing abandonment of the axiom of divine apatheia”– surfaced due to the perceived influence of Greek metaphysics in the Chalcedonian Christology. While Christology in today’s language may prove beneficial, a Christology rooted in the 2nd-temple Jewish monotheism may be more faithful at least to the authorial intent of the New Testament writers in conjunction to the 3rd quest of historical Jewish Jesus. Some perceive the deity of Christ to be a violation of Jewish monotheism. Others, such as Dunn, postulate that the early church worshipped Jesus as an exalted intermediate figure but not God himself. They argue that the incorporation of Jesus into the Godhead was a later development. Unlike those 2 approaches, Bauckham proposes an alternative hypothesis: “early Christians included Jesus, precisely and unambiguously, within the unique identity of the one God of Israel” which includes the totality of Jesus as the pre-existent, incarnate, suffering, crucified, and exalted Son of God [Intro]. Expounding his entire thesis in chapter I while providing additional details in the remaining 7 chapters, Bauckham believes that the category of divine identity (who God is) represents the teaching of Scripture compared to the “inappropriate” ontological and functional categories (what God is, what his attributes are) from the Patristic tradition. He argues that the created intermediary figures are servants and do not share the divine identity. Yet Jesus personifies aspects that share the divine identity such as the Spirit, Wisdom, and Word [I.1.6-I.1.7, VI]. Hence, including –as opposed to adding– Jesus into the divine identity does not violate Jewish monotheism. This is evident, for instance, in the inclusion of Jesus into the Jewish Shema (Deut 6:4) in 1 Cor 8:6, predicating κύριος and ὕψιστος to Jesus (used for YHWH in LXX), and the parallel between Carmen Christi (Phil 2:6-11) and the Servant Song (Isa 40-55) [I.2.3-I.2.8, I.3, VI]. Throughout the NT, the pre-existent Son of God takes the identity of YHWH: the Creator and Sovereign Lord who is the God of Israel, the author of exodus (from Egypt and the one to come), and demands exclusive worship [I.1.3-I.1.5, II-V]. Yet the climax of the revelation of divine identity in Christ occurred in the crucifixion when God in Christ identified himself with God-forsakenness which is, according to Bauckham, the heart of all suffering [I.3.7, VIII].

Overall, such Christology-from-above is unique since it demonstrates not only the deity of Christ but also their consistency with Jewish monotheism. This is done from the standard NT christological passages in relation with the corresponding OT passages. The sharing of divine identity also provides us a category to overcome subordination issues within the Trinitarian formulation. However, as Bauckham focuses on demonstrating the deity of Christ in relation to the OT, he tends to advocate a single reading from passages which carry other christological nuances. For instance, upon comparing Phil 2:9-11 and Isa 45:23, he claimed that the passage “cannot be understood as an expression of an Adam Christology” which entails the restoration of human dominion over the cosmos (contra Dunn and McCartney’s Ecce Homo) [VI.6]. Although we agree with Bauckham’s emphasis on eschatological monotheism in the passages, we do not see the need for excluding other sound christological readings as well.

Fundamental in Bauckham’s thesis is his critique of the Greek’s metaphysics of substance (ontology) and attributes (functional). Within the rubric of the classic Trinitarian, Christ is homoousios with the Father and hence divine (e.g. WCF II.3). He is revealed to us in terms of his personality and works within Scripture. Bauckham argues that Christology of the divine identity is consistent with the Jewishness of our Scripture. Here, Christ is understood in terms of ‘who he is’, not ‘what he is’. While such category may be parsimonious and minimizes the tendency of separating God’s being from God’s attributes, we wonder if such Greek categories are as “improper” as what is claimed. First, although ontological and functional categories are not inherent in Scripture, the same may be said regarding the category of divine identity as Scripture is not given in particular categories. Yet categories are inherent in the finiteness of human communications even in narratives. Second, perichoresis is used to counteract the static description of divine substance. That is, the three persons of the Godhead are homoousios by remaining. Third, Bauckham himself defines the identity of God in terms of his personality and works (Creator, Ruler, the author of exodus who is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness) yet correctly maintains that the two are inseparable. The same can be done with the ontological and functional categories so long as we affirm that God is exhaustively absolute, personal, and revealed to us in Christ. Even Bauckham himself recognizes that the Jewish divine identity coincides with the “Hellenistic God-talk” which allows the author of Hebrews to use Hellenistic philosophical language of divine eternity [VII.1]. This is hardly surprising since LXX was the predominant OT Scripture of the NT writers and the early church. Hence, the same may be said with the Neo-Platonic terms such as σκιά and εἰκών. In addition, when Bauckham describes Christ as fully human and fully divine –in line with the Chalcedonian Christology– [VII] he employs the Greek category of nature. Since “the finite cannot contain the infinite”, we acknowledge that no theological category is perfect. Divine identity is simpler yet the Greek metaphysical categories –if used properly– may shed further light onto what divine identity means. What should be avoided is the improper use of Greek categories rather than abolishing their use altogether along with the associated church creeds throughout the ages.

For Bauckham, ‘God crucified’ is the climactic revelation of God’s identity. In what sense was God crucified? While it is the God-man who died on the cross, may we assign the suffering and death of Christ to his human nature alone? An affirmative answer seems to safeguard the impassability and immutability of God (e.g. WCF II.1) yet is difficult to reconcile with the inseparability of the dual nature of Christ. Alternatively, we may affirm with Bauckham that the God-man died, in what sense is God immutable (which Bauckham also affirms [VII.5, VII.10])? How should we redefine (or abandon) the immutability or impassability of God? Bauckham leaves these issues open-ended and concludes with theological reflections. While we are far from answering these questions, the following may be said. First, so far Reformed theology sees no problem in distinguishing Christ’s human and divine natures thereby attributing the suffering and death of Christ to his human nature alone while still affirming that it is the God-man who was crucified. Second, as God-man was crucified, God the Father was not (contra Patripassianism). While homoousios/perichoresis seems to be limited in this respect, how does the category of divine identity demonstrate the eternal unity between the Son and the Father in the cross? Third, while divine apatheia is a Stoic import and sub-biblical, it should be maintained that, in his pathos, God is not a victim of any external entity. Rather, such pathos is internal to the divine identity and revealed in the cross. Hence, God indeed suffers when the God-man was on the cross. But such suffering does not compromise divine immutability as process theology claims. Fourth, divine identification with suffering should not be the telos as Jürgen Moltmann and liberation theologians tend to portray. Bauckham correctly points out that the heart of suffering is the absence of God. Yet it should be stressed that such dereliction is ultimately the wages of sin whose power is conquered in the cross and resurrection [VIII.2]. Hence, sin is the root issue, not suffering. Fifth, just as the incarnation is a mystery, so is the event of God crucified. How incomprehensible his love and untraceable his ways are! There is no single category that can explain such mystery. Multiple categories may indeed be complementary to one another.

Despite its open-endedness, this book challenges our classical formulation of the hypostatic union of Christ. We hope that Bauckham will write a sequel on the ramifications of ‘God crucified’ to the classical Christology. Such dialogue will prove useful. We recommend this book to students of the Bible with ample knowledge on theology proper and Christology. It affirms the fact that Christology has not yet arrived until we “see him face-to-face”.