What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Theology

Troeltsch – “Social Teaching of the Christian Churches” – The Gospel and the Pauline Ethic

The following is a seminar paper reflection on Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, in which I focus on the first part of the first chapter. In this section Troeltsch makes a distinction between the gospel of Jesus and that of Paul that will have lasting influence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

§1. The Gospel

Troeltsch begins his discussion of the Christian gospel with an immediate challenge to Karl Marx: “Christianity was not the product of a class struggle of any kind” (39). According to Troeltsch, while the gospel arose in the context of various social forces, it cannot simply be reduced to a product of its time. Primitive Christianity arose as an “independent phenomenon” (39), with a “purely religious” (39) gospel with “its own inner dialectic and its own power of development” (48). It was concerned with matters such as eternal salvation, proper worship, and ascetical practices of discipline and holiness. The “Kingdom” the early Christians sought was not an upheaval of the social order, but rather an ethical ideal “in which all the values of pure spirituality would be recognized and appreciated at their true worth” (40).

According to Troeltsch, the “fundamental idea” of the gospel of Jesus is the “final Judgment of the coming of the ‘Kingdom of God,’ [when] the true spiritual values, combined with a single-eyed devotion to the Will of God, will shine out in the glory that is their due” (51), and with the community that looks in hope toward this Kingdom. This gospel stresses both the presence of God and the value of the human soul “attained though self-renunciation for the sake of God” (52). Among the ethical ideals that arise from such a gospel message are sincerity, integrity, conscientiousness, humility, and self-denial (53-54).

According to Troeltsch, this gospel ethic leads to the following sociological characteristics: (1) an absolute individualism which values each and every soul in light of her particular relation to God, and sees all distinctions fall away except “those which characterize creative personalities of infinite worth” (55);[1] (2) an absolute universalism as the “fellowship of love among those who are united in God” (56). Individualism and universalism, according to Troeltsch, are mutually interdependent, and both are conditioned by the eschatological expectation of the kingdom of God. All of this arises quite naturally and freely as a result of the Gospel ethic; it is not a result of a sociological or institutional structures. “Jesus did not organize a Church. He simply asked for helpers who would spread the message” (58).

What does the gospel of Jesus have to say about the State, the economic order, and the Family? Of the State Jesus has virtually nothing to say (59). Of the economic order Jesus councils only humble trust that God will provide one’s “daily bread,” and a self-sacrificing love that is apt to share what it has with others (59). Of the family, Jesus endorses whole-heartedly the “ethical conception” of the “monogamous family” (61), even while the message of the coming Kingdom relativized its importance. In no way does the gospel directly challenge any of these orders. “In the teaching of Jesus there is no trace of a struggle against oppression… The message of Jesus is not a programme of social reform. It is rather the summons to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God; this preparation, however, is to take place quietly within the framework of the present world-order, in a purely religious fellowship of love, with an earnest endeavor to conquer self and cultivate the Christian virtues” (60-61). While this ethic resulted, at times, in a “religious Communism of Love,” such a result was purely derivative and accidental; it was not the goal.

§2. Paul

The transition from the gospel ethic to the Pauline ethic is essentially a transition from the fact of the “fundamental happening” of faith in the exalted and risen Lord (69) and the sociological consequences that arose as a result. It is important to remember that Troeltsch is interested in how the gospel takes shape in the life of the church when, as he will say later, “the situation has changed” (81). With the Pauline ethic the situation has changed in two broad ways. First, the Christian message has become more Christocentric. The pure, absolute individualism was lost, and therefore so was the universalism. The individual before God, seeking to follow God’s will, is now a recipient of Pneuma-Christ, who is the mediator of grace. Second, the church, which began as a “loose-knit group” of followers, is becoming a semi-organized “cult.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of this section is Troeltsch’s examination of the sociological consequences of a key ambiguity—inchoate in Judaism and in the gospel but full-blown in Paul’s thought—between equality and inequality. According to Troeltsch this ambiguity is at the core of both (a) debates about theodicy and theological voluntarism and (b) the rise of Christian patriarchalism.

First, voluntarism: Paul speaks about human equality before God in multiple ways. Humans are equally sinful before God’s holiness, a form of “negative equality” (72). Humans are also equally loved by God. These equalities are of a purely religious sort, and manifest themselves in the equality of all members of the congregation in the act of worship (73). A tension arises, however, because not all realize the equality of Grace in the same way; some come to it slowly, and with great difficulty, if at all. Paul attributes the source of this inequality of the realization of grace to the inscrutable will of God, which gives rise to the classical question in metaphysics and theology: “Are holiness and love the norm for God himself? Or do they only have value through his inscrutable Will?”[2] According to Troeltsch, there is an “element of the irrational” in appeals to the “inscrutable Will of God,” that has the following sociological effect: the equality of humans must be affirmed only on the eternal scale; all differences in earthly life “must be left in the Hands of God” (75).

Troeltsch also sees in this ambiguity the seeds for the rise of Christian patriarchalism. Within the context of the “worth of personality and of the unconditional fellowship of love”, “inequalities of human life in ordinary affairs” are taken up and transformed into a “source of peculiar ethical value” (76). This occurs through the metaphor of the body/organism in which the “nobler and baser parts” each have a place in the fellowship of the whole. “As stewards of God the great must care for the small, and as servants of God the little ones must submit to those who bear authority” (78). Over time, this dynamic “assumed the form of a compact social system, with its various grades of authority and subordination” – i.e. a Christian hierarchy.

With regard to what Troeltsch calls “the Social”, the Pauline ethic presents a “curious blend of conservative and revolutionary elements” (87). It generally shows an outward conservatism mixed with an inner detachment that relativizes the social realm. It “can never be a principle of revolution” (85), nor can a “purely and unconditionally conservative doctrine” (86) be produced by it. This dynamic, I am sure, will play itself out throughout the rest of Troeltsch’s massive work.

§3. Two Points for Critique/Discussion

I will conclude this essay with two critiques. The first critique has to do with Troeltsch’s understanding of the class basis of the early church. According to Troeltsch, Jesus’ message was primarily addressed to the poor and oppressed, with whom it met the earliest success. “During the first few centuries the Christians belonged to the lower classes” (41). While immensely influential, Troeltsch’s view here has been challenged by some modern scholars. Rodney Stark, presents a number of arguments countering the theory that Christianity was disproportionately represented by those from the lowest class, as well as a sociological analysis of “new religious movements” that suggests that “cult movements [including early Christianity]… are based on the more, not the less, privileged” within a society.[3] Its difficult to say whether this effect’s Troeltsch’s overall program. On the one hand, it seems to call into question the strength of his claim that the early church could not have been interested in the “Social” because, as disenfranchised commoners, the followers of Jesus had religious concerns of a “primal” and “non-reflective” sort (44). On the other hand, Troeltsch acknowledges “some” upper class members in the early Church (42), and even points to a similar dynamic  [he calls it a “fusion”] between the “cultivated thoughtful circles” and the lower classes that necessarily takes place with the rise of  “new religious movements” (44). It may be the case that the difference between Stark and Troeltsch simply amounts to a difference of exactly when the upper classes began to play a role in the formation of Christianity—a point that may weaken, but does not necessarily discount Troeltsch’s overall narrative.

Second, I question Troeltsch’s assertion that “Paul’s ideas were quite distinct from the ideals of the Gospel” (80). It must first be acknowledged that Troeltsch does not draw an absolute division between Jesus and Paul. Indeed, the “Pauline turn of thought in relation to social matters corresponds to the spirit and meaning of the Gospel” (85, emphasis added). Still, one might ask whether it is fair to locate the “fundamental idea” of the Gospel where Troeltsch does? It seems to make the more Christ-centered aspect of Christianity a Pauline aberration. One might point to the early dates of Paul’s letters, his connection to the church in Jerusalem, and Christ’s teachings about himself in the gospels as evidence against such a distinction. Of course, Troelstch might say, as some scholars have, that what we learn of Jesus through the NT scriptures, especially the Gospels, is shaped and formed by the needs of specific communities, which have already undergone the “transformation” from loose-knit group to semi-organized cult. Such a view, in my opinion, claims too much. While not ignoring the contextual needs that occasioned the writing of NT documents, it seems more plausible that the Christocentrism of the early church was actually present in Christ’s own teaching.

[1] There are echoes here of Kierkegaard: “[Christian love] teaches love of all men, unconditionally all… embracing all, loving everyone in particular but no one in partiality” (Works of Love, 78).

[2] Of course, this problem did not arise only in Pauline Christianity. Plato has Euthyphro ask a similar question in one of his dialogues. It seems to arise in all theistic religions, and continues today in Muslim debates about theological voluntarism and Jewish philosophical debates about legal positivism and natural law in ethics.

[3] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 1997. See especially chapter 2: “The Class Basis of Early Christianity”.


Jesus is the Victor…

“In the resurrection of Jesus Christ the claim is made, according to the New Testament, that God’s victory in man’s favour in the person if his Son has already been won. Easter is indeed the great pledge of our hope, but simultaneously this future is already present in the Easter message. It is the proclamation of a victory already won. The war is at an end–even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in the interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse of death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind–and truly it is burning–but we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear”

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (122-123)

Here we go…

Ready to write some papers. For the next three weeks its gonna be me and Augustine and alot of coffee.

A Sweet (and Stinky) Song…

"Excuse me... Oh my, I am so embarrassed!" - St. Augustine

This week in my Augustine class we are focusing on Augustine’s mature view on the relationship between the human will, human desires, and the body (in particular his views on sex and marriage). In short, Augustine’s account of the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise goes something like this: Adam and Eve were in the garden and they had everything they needed. They were completely obedient to God, and as a result their souls were rightly ordered (loving the most lovable things) and their bodies were rightly ordered (in subjection to their souls). What this presumably means is that they had complete control of their desires, and they also had complete control of their bodies.

Then something bad happened. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple, broke the command of God. Not only did they break the command, but their act “was a despising of the authority of God” [Civ. Dei. XIV, 15]. They wanted independence from God, they wanted to re-order their loves and desires and act accordingly. Therefore, as a punishment, God said, “Go for it! But don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand.”

As a result, humankind “who by keeping the commandments should have been spiritual even in his flesh, became fleshly even in his spirit; and as in his pride he had sought to be his own satisfaction, God in His justice abandoned him to himself, not to live in the absolute independence he affected, but instead of the liberty he desired, to live dissatisfied with himself in a hard and miserable bondage to him to who by sinning he had yielded himself” (i.e. Satan) [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15.]

The result of sin was a disordering and a dis-integraging of the human–or in Augustine’s words “what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself… our flesh, which was subjected to us, now torments us by insubordination” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15].

So what does all this have to do with sex and marriage? Whereas before the fall, according to Augustine, men and women would be moved to marital bliss (if you know what I mean) simply by as an act of the will (similar to moving your hand to turn on a light), now they have lost control of that faculty. “Even those who delight in this pleasure are not moved to it at their own will… but sometimes this lust importunes them in spite of themselves, and sometimes fails them when they desire to feel it, so that though  lust rages in the mind, it stirs not in the body” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 16.] (it happens to the best of ’em). This is the basis for Adam and Eve’s “shame” in Genesis 3. It was not simply nakedness or sexuality that was shameful, those things were created good by God and are to be appreciated. Augustine knew this. Therefore, for him, instead, they were “ashamed of the disobedience of their own flesh, which witnessed to their disobedience while it punished it” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 17.].

As a result of striving for control, we have lost control. The great irony is that in our pursuit of freedom, we have sold ourselves into slavery–we no longer have control of our bodies, our loves, our even our own desires. And yet, Augustine sees an analogy to how things ought to have been in the way…

“…that some men are differently constituted from others, and have some rare and remarkable faculty of doing with their body what other men can by no effort do, and, indeed scarcely believe when they hear of others doing. There are persons who can move their ears, either one at a time, or both together. There are some who, without moving the head, can bring the hair down upon the forehead, and move the whole scalp backwards and forwards at pleasure. Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing…” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 24.].

Apparently, these are the types of things that we can imagine Adam and Eve being able to do in the garden before they lost control of their bodies, and they became dis-ordered beings. So much for Augustine’s mature view on the soul, desires, and body!

Three-Word Gospel…

"Shalom" - Makoto Fujimura

A couple months ago, I saw a good buddy of mine at a wedding, and during the course of events, we got to talking about God. He wanted to know about what I was learning at seminary and how that was influencing my faith life, and so we talked about that for a while. Being the thoughtful guy he is, he challenged me on some of my views on what salvation means and what the Christian life is all about. A few weeks later, I got an email entitled “Can you beat it???” with the following quote in the body:

“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.”

—J.I. Packer, Knowing God (214)

This is indeed a rich and pregnant summary of the gospel. I have been thinking about it alot, on and off, over the last couple months. Adoption through propitiation. There is so much to this definition that must be unpacked. Packer means by “propitiation,” the means by which two things happen: (1) the barrier to a “propitious” (i.e. favorable) relationship with God—our sin—is wiped away/eradicated, and (2) because of this, God’s wrath is turned away. He contrasts this with the alternate translation of hilasterion/hilasmos (i`lasth,rion / i`lasmoj): “expiation,” which indicates only effect (1), not effect (2). There is a debate between the two definitions, but it doesn’t seem to be very important to me, for the simple reason that if effect (1) doesn’t happen, it doesn’t really matter if effect (2) does. Whether God has wrath that need be satisfied or not, our sin must be dealt with or we are hopelessly lost.

For Packer, this propitiation, takes place in Jesus Christ: “by his sacrificial death for our sins Christ pacified the wrath of God” (184, emphasis original). Through this, we (more precisely Christians/the elect) become adopted sons (and daughters) of God. This sonship is not a natural birthright, according to Packer, but is a divine gift, offered freely to those who receive Jesus (cf. John 1:12-13). Not until we properly understand adoption will we understand Christianity (202). To be an adopted child of the Father radically changes our identity: we carry God’s name, we are assured of a place in God’s heavenly household, our Redeemer is also our brother, and the whole Church is our royal family whom we are called to love. As someone who has experienced adoption, I can personally testify to the radical way in which it has shaped my identity. In this way, I can appreciate the depth of meaning of the Biblical language of adoption.

I am pretty sure that I cannot beat J.I. Packer’s three-word gospel (although I am also sure that any three-word summary of the gospel will necessarily be reductionistic and will leave much unsaid, as Packer’s does). That being said, just for fun, I thought I would try out some different options. Here are a few that I came up with… please leave some of your own in the comments section.

God’s Kingdom Come

(Colossians 1:13, Matthew 12:28, Luke 17:21)

Christ Reconciles Everything

(Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:19)

Elected in Jesus

(Ephesians 1:4)

New Heavens [&] Earth

(Revelation 21, Isaiah 65, 2 Peter 3)

Creation (shalom) Regained

(Romans 8:18-23)

God’s Love Revealed

(1 John 4:10)

The Curse Reversed

(Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 55, Revelation 21-22)

Recapitulation in Christ

(Ephesians 1:10, esp. St. Irenaeus)

—or, how about a one-word Gospel?


(The Gospel is a Person, and He has a name)

Its Official…

Joy of joys– I have officially become a real PTS student! Some may say, Travis, I thought you’ve been taking classes at seminary for a year and a half already. This is true, I have been taking classes and getting credit, but to this point I have really only been a psuedo-princetonian. But no more! Yesterday I received my first volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (II/2). I look forward to reading it so that I can keep up with conversations here instead of making it all up as I go.

ps. this blog post is partially* tongue-in-cheek.

Semester in Review…

I went to bed last night at 7:30pm. That was after taking a nap yesterday afternoon from 3:30-4:30 pm. I believe that my body is in Recovery Mode after an intense week of writing final papers (55 pages and a take-home final!). Not only that, I believe my body is in Recovery Mode after what was, perhaps, the hardest semester of my life. Nevertheless, the exhaustion I feel is like the exhaustion at the end of a good work-out or a competitive game of basketball; not like the exhaustion of being tossed overboard and swimming for dear life. There is a sense of accomplishment and growth, and for that I am truly thankful.

Two classes in particular have challenged me this semester, though in different ways.

The first was Ethics and the Problem of Evil. From the beginning, the professor made it clear that it was not going to be a Theodicy class [i.e. how to justify God in light of the existence of evil]. Rather, it was an ethics class, meaning that our main objective would be to think about how we ought to respond to evil in practical ways. That being said, it quickly became apparent that there is a constant tension between practical responses to evil and theoretical concepts about evil. Our view of who God is and what the world in which we live is really like, affects the way we respond to evil and suffering. But! to think and wonder about God and the world in a detached way [i.e. from the relative safety and comfort of a seminary classroom] tends not to lead to a sufficiently deep description of the very real ambiguities that evil and suffering occasion. In the end, every attempt to “answer the problem of evil” with a tidy system did not do justice to reality and left one [me] feeling unsatisfied. And yet, and yet… one cannot simply avoid the problem altogether. The problem of evil, it seems, from an intellectual point of view is un-answerable. From a faith point of view, however, the most satisfying approaches we covered were the ones that were utterly realistic about the existence of evil and suffering, yet somehow found a way to confess the goodness of God in the midst of it [I’m thinking, especially, here of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s short-classic Lament for a Son].

The oddest thing that I found while taking this class, was that everywhere I turned, in all of my other classes, the subject material overlapped considerably. Recently, it dawned on me that there is a very simple reason for this. So much of what is done in theology and philosophy is an extended reflection on the following fact: life is often unimaginably difficult. There is a reason that the Bible calls Satan “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). If we take the time to be honest, and reflect upon the suffering all around us, and within our own lives (not something that I am very good at… optimism is far safer), we will see that something is terribly wrong. Thank God, however, that is not all there is to that verse: “the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (vv 21-22). After a semester of wrestling with the objections to the [all too easy] answers to the [all to often wrong] questions about evil and suffering, I am left with two things: hope and the conviction that hope is more important than answers.

The other class that challenged me was The Theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Before I took the class, all that I knew about him was that Wikipedia said he was the “Father of Modern Protestant Theology” and that Karl Barth tried “to overturn his influence.” Given the way that St. Karl seems to be venerated here at PTS, I was sure that this class would teach me how to dissect Schleiermacher’s harmful theology, showing particularly how far we have come since he messed up Protestantism during the Enlightenment. Much to my surprise (and probably chagrin) the professor (a renowned Barth scholar) taught Schleiermacher with grace and respect, never critiquing him based on criteria that were alien to Schleiermacher’s day, and more often than not, finding some way to affirm and even appropriate Schleiermacher’s intentions and instincts in a generous fashion. While I doubt that Schleiermacher will ever become a central figure or influence in my own theology [although who knows?], what I learned most in this class was not contained in the books we read. All semester I have described the task of reading and understanding Schleiermacher as “wrestling with a big-hairy monster.” Every time you think you have a handle on him, he breaks free and shows you that you do not. He will not be tamed by simple explanations or surface-level reading. But I am only stronger for having tried, and will only be made stronger the more that I do so. I suppose this is the case with any theologian worth his/her salt. They must be taken on their own terms. We must allow them to challenge our own presuppositions. Otherwise the playing field is not even and the game is pointless. The more honestly, vulnerably, and winsomely we play the game, however, the more God may use others to press us farther up and further in.

All in all, this has been the hardest, and best, semester of my life. The hardest part about it was the difficulty of the subject matter and the isolating nature of the work [lots of research in the library, not so much time to hang out with friends and wife]. The best parts, on the other hand, were the lessons learned about honesty and vulnerability, and the great conversations with classmates generated by the challenging material.

At this point I am almost half-way done with my seminary career. And while it has by no means been easy [especially the living in Jersey part], life is a gift, and today it feels that way. The words of Sheldon Vanauken come to mind: “If its half as good as the half we’ve known, heres hail to the rest of the road”

An Evening With NT Wright…

Last night, Sarah and I (and her parents – the Lut’eran Ministers) went to an event at the seminary hosted by the Center for Theological Inquiry. It was an interview session with NT Wright, bishop of Durham, who is here in Princeton working on the next volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Like all of the other theological nerds, I was very excited to see him speak. All semester I have been scanning the study carrels in the library and the crowds of people walking along Nassau Street hoping to see him. My master plan is to *accidentally* spill my coffee on him, apologize profusely, and then offer myself as a study assistant for the remainder of his time here, free of charge. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but at least I have had the chance to hear him speak while he is here.

Because the format was that of an interview, he did not speak on a “topic” per se. Most of the questions focused on how to be an academic in the service of the church–how to hold those two world in tension without using “two bibles: one for personal devotion, and the other for academic study.”

The most profound moment of the night, for me, came when NT Wright answered a question about Modernity and Postmodernity. While acknowledging the great advances of Modernity (he said he didn’t want to have dental work performed by a postmodern dentist–or a premodern dentist for that matter) he went on to explain the freedom that postmodernity brings to the academic and theologian. Modernity, Wright explained, tended to lead to dogmatic statements such as “Now that we no longer believe that sort of thing…” or “Now that we know that all truth is relative...” or “Now that we have taken this or that into our own hands…” that left little to no room for an open, honest conversation about spiritual matters. Postmodernism, on the other hand, called those sorts of statement in question. That, he said, is a good thing. However, he was not idealistic or romantic about postmodernity either, as if postmodernism is the cure for all of the church’s ills. He used the following metaphor. Postmodernism is the equivalent of the Secular Fall Story. Modernism was an age of optimism and progress, in which the church and world were thought to be on an upward trajectory toward achievement of the perfect society – the kingdom of God, if you will. And yet, in reality, the age of “enlightenment” did not make humanity better, more just, or more loving. Instead, it led to two world wars and the horrors of the Nazi death camps – in other words, it led to a humanity that was more efficient at exterminating and destroying each other. The reaction to this effect of the age of modernism has been an extreme reaction against any all encompassing stories of progress or meaning – in the words of Jean-François Lyotard “incredulity toward metanarratives.” This for Wright, signals the “Secular Fall.” Implied in this analysis is the conclusion that postmodernism is not the answer. If anything, it provides the context in which we must try to move forward – looking for ways to participate in God’s work of redemption. How are we going to redeem this world? Part of the answer for Wright lies in culture. We must seek to engage and create culture in ways that help people find their own place in God’s story – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration [my words, not his]. I find this to be a helpful way of thinking about postmodernism – not an answer, rather a reaction resulting from the fall of the secular myth of progress – now, we must begin to look forward constructively and creatively seeking to redeem a world that is all to familiar with its own brokenness.

NT Wright is a good role model for those of us who hope to be intellectually honest, academically precise, and most importantly to encourage people to trust in Christ. In person he is winsome, engaging, and self-deprecating. Last night was a real treat.

Where is God In My Suffering?

A Hopeless Dawn, Frank Bramley 1888

The following sermon was delivered on Sunday, November 29, 2009 at Woodside Presbyterian Church in Yardley, Pennsylvania. It was the third sermon in a series dealing with questions raised in William P. Young’s novel, The Shack.

Good Morning,

As you can see in your bulletin, my name is Travis Pickell and I am one of the seminary interns here at Woodside this year. My wife and I have been delighted to be a part of this community since April of last year. It’s been a pleasure to get to know many of you, and we look forward to meeting those of you whom we have not yet met.

This morning’s topic is one that I approach with fear and trembling. When Doug asked me if I wanted to preach I said “Of course” knowing that I was probably going to have to do it whether I said “Yes” or “No.”  I thought, How bad can it be? Then I found out I was going to have to preach during a series on The Shack. And I began to think The Shack?? I’ve read The Shack – it is full of theological land mines! – maybe this is going to be a little bit harder than I thought. But, I’m new, so I didn’t want to look phased. I calmly collected myself and mustered what composure I could. I thought Maybe Doug will toss me a soft-ball because it’s my first time ever preaching. I was not ready for what came next. “Would you rather preach on ‘The Trinity,’ [pause] ‘Forgiving Your Enemies,’ [pause] or ‘Suffering?’”  At that very moment, I could most identify with “suffering” although “forgiving your enemies” [look at Doug] was a close second, so I chose “suffering.”

In all seriousness, I know that suffering is a sensitive topic. In a group this size there is most certainly a number of people who are experiencing the pain of the loss of a loved one, the anxiety of an uncertain future, the pain of a physical ailment, an estranged relationship, loneliness, or spiritual dryness. In truth, there is not a single person in this room who has not been touched by suffering. Suffering is a part of life. For some, suffering is a larger part of life than for others. For many young people like myself, the harshest and most painful suffering, in all likelihood, lies ahead. For others, life has already shown them difficulties at which the average person could only shudder. I have heard it said that death is the great equalizer, but couldn’t the same thing be said of suffering? Try as we may, there is no escaping it in this broken world. But that is also why we have to talk about it openly. The worst thing in the world is to suffer alone. But in reality, we are not alone in our suffering. It is with this in mind that I want to talk about the difficult topic “Where is God in my suffering?” And I myself have more questions than answers, so consider this the beginning of a conversation more so than I sermon. But before I begin let me pray…

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing to you. Amen

Cinderella suffers at the hands of an evil step-mother and step-sisters who abuse and ridicule her at every opportunity. Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers, want nothing more than to be with each other, yet they are drawn into family conflict and ultimately lose the one they love. It is because every person has felt their own sufferings that we are drawn to certain stories. For the past few weeks we have been talking about The Shack. In this book, the main character—Mack Phillips—has encountered tremendous suffering. While on a camping trip, his youngest daughter was kidnapped and murdered, her body lost, and all that Mack is left with is what he calls “The Great Sadness.” The Great Sadness drapes over everything that Mack does. He is wracked with guilt over his allowing his daughter to be lost and he is consumed with anger and rage. He has lost faith in God—perhaps not in God’s existence but certainly in God’s Goodness. What kind of God would abandon him at the time of his greatest need? What kind of God would abandon his daughter and allow her to suffer so much?

When horrendous evils occur, these are the questions that we ask—and understandably so. The suffering soul cries out for answers. Where is God? Why did God allow this to happen? If God is all-powerful, couldn’t he have kept this from happening? If he is Good, why didn’t he?

In the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel we are given an account of a suffering family. Martha, Mary and Lazarus were siblings who lived in a village called Bethany, basically a suburb of Jerusalem. They were friends of Jesus, and we have other stories in which Jesus visits them. John tells us that Lazarus has fallen ill and that his family has called for Jesus to come.  We will pick up the story at verse 17…

17On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

21“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

28And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why?” Why did this have to happen? Without directly saying it, we can hear the question behind her question. Why did you let this happen? Mary and Martha’s suffering souls cry out in their pain for answers. They know Jesus. They know he is good. They also know that he is powerful. They have seen him perform miracles; they have seen him heal. But they also know that their brother is dead. They cannot reconcile the evil that death is with the goodness of Christ and his absence at the moment of Lazarus’ death. They know that Jesus is God, they confess it, and yet they struggle to understand why they must suffer. How does Jesus respond?

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35Jesus wept.

36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

“Jesus wept.” Perhaps no two words in the Bible are more full of meaning than these. Jesus wept. Jesus, “the Christ, the Son of God” was overcome with sadness and he wept. Jesus, “the Resurrection and the life” came face to face with death, and he wept. Of all the “Why” questions we ask when we suffer, I think none is more important than this one: why did Jesus weep?

Perhaps Jesus wept because he felt guilty for not having saved his friend’s life? When he first gets word that Lazarus is ill, John says that he waited two days before he left. There were Jews in Jerusalem who wanted Jesus dead. The entire area was dangerous and perhaps Jesus hesitated too long. Maybe Martha and Mary’s question haunted him “Lord, if you had been here…” And yet, it was the disciples who were the ones who were afraid of the Jews in Jerusalem, not Jesus. When Jesus tells the disciples that they must go to Bethany because Lazarus has died, Thomas exclaims “Let us go so that we may die with him!” meaning “We might as well be walking to our own death.” Besides, John says that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Presumably, waiting two days would have made no difference. It is hard to imagine Jesus weeping for guilt if there was no way he could have arrived in time anyway.

Perhaps Jesus wept because he was sad that he would never see his friend alive again. When death separates us from the ones we love we grieve the hole that is left in their place.  Especially when one dies tragically young, their absence is terribly conspicuous, always before us, at times almost as tangible as their presence had been. Sometimes it is just too much to bear, maybe even for Jesus. And yet, Jesus has already said, multiple times, that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, which he in fact does. Why would Jesus weep at the loss of his friend, when he knew that minutes later he would be able to embrace him, to speak with him, to laugh about how he looks like a mummy, bound as he was in linen strips.

But Jesus did weep. Jesus wept out of compassion because Jesus felt what we all feel when we encounter the death of a loved one; Jesus suffered. It did not matter that Jesus knew that he was not to blame for the death or that Jesus knew that death would ultimately not be able to hold on to his friend, Lazarus. He wept because even in the knowledge that Goodness defeats Evil, that Life defeats Death, that God will ultimately redeem suffering; evil, death and suffering remain where they shouldn’t. They don’t belong here and we all yearn for the day described in Revelation 21 when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore…”

That day will come, and that is Good News. But the Good News of the Bible is two-fold. Not only will God redeem suffering in the end, God draws close to those who suffer now. God has not allowed us to suffer alone. One day there will be no more “mourning nor crying nor pain,” but while there is “mourning, crying and pain” in the world, God is not content to allow us to experience it alone. Jesus wept. And Jesus continues to weep when we suffer. The great myth of classical theology is that God cannot suffer. But, we must remember that when we see Jesus we see God. And Jesus’ compassion brought him to the suffering of his passion. The cross is the ultimate reminder that we will never suffer alone. God is with us and God will never leave or forsake us.

This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. Advent is a time in the Church year when we begin to prepare our hearts for Christmas. During Advent we focus on the darkness of the world that awaits the day when Christ, the Light of the World, will come. More than any other season, Advent is a time of honest reflection upon the brokenness of the world in which we live. We pause. We listen. We look. We lean into our own suffering and brokenness, and in doing so we acknowledge our need for Jesus. Advent, however, is no time of pessimism or morose sadness. Advent is a joyous and hopeful season. As Christians, we confess the hurt and sadness that is present in the world, but we also confess a God who entered into it and who suffers with us. That is what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? God-with-us. Immanuel. God in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Because God has entered into the hurt of the world, we know that we do not face our hurt alone. Because God entered into the brokenness of the world, we know that God will one day make everything whole again. Not only that, because God is in control of history, we know that God is working to redeem suffering even now.

We cannot answer every “Why” question. There are some things that are simply un-explainable. To explain them would be to cheapen them. In the midst of suffering, sometimes the best that we can do is to profess. To profess that God is good. To profess that God is with us, even if God feels far away. To profess that God understands what we are going through because God suffers with us. Finally, to profess our hope that God will redeem it all. In the words of Revelation:

“ And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

And they are, they are trustworthy and true, because God is trustworthy and true.


Time, Cross and Glory: The Christian Movement as Missio Dei

OZ Cross5

This week I attended the Princeton Theological Seminary Student’s Lecture  on Mission. The presenter was Dr. Scott Sundquist, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his lectures, “Time, Cross, and Glory: the Christian movement as Missio Dei,” Professor Sundquist described the task of helping Communist Chinese Economists learn how to study Christianity. They were interested, he said, in Christianity’s ability to reform the culture and morals of a society. And yet, they did not even understand the meaning behind the most basic Christian symbol: the cross. “Can one study Christianity from a materialist-communist perspective, without distorting it with one’s own worldview? Can Christians study their own history in a postmodern environment that has a disdain for the historical? What is the interpretive key that can unlock the meaning of Christian history?” These are the central questions that Dr. Sundquist sought to answer in his lectures. In this post I’ll briefly explain his interpretive “keys:” time, cross, and glory—drawing implications for the formation of a missional theology for the Church today.

Slightly altering the order of presentation, let us first consider the central Christian symbol—the cross. Why is it that among the world’s religions, Christianity is the only one whose symbol is one of suffering? Not only the cross, but also the Eucharist (“My body broken…my blood shed…”) and Baptism (a symbol of the death of the old self). According to Dr. Sundquist, “Suffering is the key to understanding who God is for us.” At the center of the Christian religion is a suffering savior, who identifies with the poor and oppressed and is willing to suffer on their behalf. In order to understand salvation from a Christian perspective you must understand both “missional incarnation” (God-with-us) and “redemptive suffering” (God-for-us).

This, of course, has implications for Christian ethics and ecclesiology. If God chooses to reveal God’s self in this two-pronged way, then Christians who are being faithful to God will follow suit. The combination of “missional incarnation” and “redemptive suffering” in the ethical sphere, Dr. Sundquist calls “cruciform apostolicity.”  Those who follow Christ will bear the risk of suffering, as demonstrated in every major revival in Christian history, according to Sundquist. Suffering, then—while not to be sought, in and of itself—is to be expected in the pursuit of faithful witness to the suffering God.

And yet, suffering is not exactly what the Christian faith is about. As Protestants, we use a cross and not a crucifix. The cross is empty, as is the tomb; the emphasis is on the victory over suffering that Christ has secured through resurrection. Similarly, in the Eucharist the risen, alive Christ is with us and in us. As for Baptism, the Church would not grow at a very fast rate if we left people underwater! Those who die to the old self are then raised to new life. The good news of the Christian faith is that suffering, while certainly a reality, does not have the last word. The paradox of the Gospel is that it is precisely in suffering that Christian glory is revealed. The Scriptures, according to Dr. Sundquist, present suffering that leads to glory is a normative experience for the Church (e.g. 1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Peter 4:12, Ephesians 3:8-13, Romans 8:15-19).  Once again, the implications are apparent. If suffering leads to glory, then suffering is not pointless. We can endure suffering because we know that God is with us in it, and that God has a plan beyond it. Presupposed in this view of suffering and glory is the third aspect of Dr. Sundquist’s lectures—a certain view of time—to which we turn presently.

Christianity is a radically historical religion. In Jesus Christ, we have a God who entered history, acts in history, and has a purpose for all of history. His-story is going somewhere, so to speak. Of course, this is also a very Jewish way of understanding history. The Hebrew Scriptures emphasize the importance of God’s creating activity (Genesis 1-2), God’s acts within history (e.g. the exodus), and God’s future fulfillment of history, described as new creation (Isaiah 65-66).  This view of history as a linear metanarrative challenged Platonic Greek thought which the early church encountered, and continues to challenge both Eastern views of history (as cyclical), and postmodern views of history (as irrelevant).

The Church must properly understand and emphasize God’s role in the creation of history in order to properly understand God’s redemptive acts in history, and God’s redemptive purpose for history. Only a God who is sovereign over history is one who can redeem through suffering—and redeem suffering itself. Otherwise, the suffering that we encounter is more often viewed as a result of a created order that we need to escape (ironically a pitfall of both Buddhism and fundamentalist Christianity!). Or, conversely, when the Church loses sight of God’s sovereignty in history, Christians seek to enact redemption on the horizontal plane, by their own power. This was the false optimism that seems so naïve to children of the postmodern generation when they look back at Christians like James Dennis and the Student Volunteer Movement (“…to evangelize the world in this generation”). The reality, however, is that redemption is always an act of God, and any hope that Christians may rightly hold must be grounded in the future consummation of history that will be a result of God’s initiative, and not our own (although God certainly works through human agency—thus the tension!). When we understand God’s sovereignty over creation and history we are guarded against the opposing threats of hopelessness and triumphalism, and thus freed to practice “cruciform apostolicity” in the sure hope of ultimate redemption and glory.


Scott W. Sunquist is the W. Don McClure Associate Professor of World Mission and Evangelism at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary