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Self-Giving & Self-Binding: The Cruciform God

It is common for us to think of God as self-giving, and rightly so. The infinite kenosis of the Triune God who pours himself prodigally into the world out of unquenchable love for his lowly creatures lies at the heart of the gospel about Jesus. God is and eternally has been self-giving, self-expending love. The life of the Triune God is a fire of infinite love, of passionate ardor and mutual rapture that transcends and outstrips our common conceptions of agape and eros.

However, our God is not merely a God who gives himself, even giving himself away, he is also a God who binds himself. How often do we reflect on the self-binding nature of God? When God creates the world he binds himself to it, committed to seeking its good and forming a people for himself in the world. God binds himself to a people – Israel & the Church – and an unfaithful people at that! When Jesus comes he binds himself to a rag-tag band of twelve mostly uneducated followers. The Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost binds himself to the broken earthly community of the disciples, forming it into the body of Christ.

God is God who binds himself in to those we would not expect. He becomes the God of a nation of slaves and wanderers. The head of a body of no-account fanatics from every tribe, tongue, and nation. He cares for the poor, the widow, and the alien as their God. God binds himself to a specific people for the sake of his magnificent dream which is pictured for us in the Marriage Super of the Lamb. The God who pours himself out in his infinite kenosis is not a philanthropist or a charitable donor. He does not give from on high. He gives of himself by descending into the depths of humanity and binding himself us to recreate us in Christ as his new humanity, his covenant partner, and beloved bride.

God calls us to correspond to his self-giving and self-binding through the power of the Spirit he has given to us. We are called to give of ourselves and to bind ourselves to one another in the power of the Spirit of Cruciformity. Often enough we like the idea of being self-giving, of being Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” or participating charities, social action, and other missional activities. And none of these are wrong in and of themselves. But they fall short of what God calls us to. God does not merely call us to be compassionate givers, committed social activists or charitable donors. That is far to easy and indeed far to self-centered. Everyone wants to be known for their good works and upstanding character.

No. God calls us to bind ourselves as he has done. We live lives of transience and ultimate autonomy. We determine where and how to give ourselves if we so choose. We may give money to the poor, but we do not sit with them. We are great at being compassionate from a distance. We are even better at being compassionate and committed to important causes of justice…So long as those are causes that we care about, that we choose for ourselves and that we are free to extricate ourselves from whenever we choose. Rarely do we bind ourselves to the other that God calls us to love and share life with.

God binds himself to us, makes us his people and indwells us through his Spirit, sharing his very life with us. And yet we so often indwell only the pleasures and values that we choose into. Our philanthropy and compassion is just another cloak for our autonomy and self-consumption. How many of are willing to follow the pattern of God’s self binding? How many of us dare? Will we bind ourselves to God’s people when that might mean spending 23 years pastoring a church in east Texas when your abilities and passions seem far more ambitious? Kyle Childress, friend of ours through the Ekklesia Project can teach us all a little about that. Do we dare to bind ourselves as God has done? When it might mean that we have to turn down a promising career because a Sunday School class needs you to continue to be its teacher? Do we dare to bind ourselves to one another, to truly be the church? Do we dare to really view the unsexy, the old, the awkward and the broken among us in our churches as people that we need and cannot live without because Christ has made us one?

I hope and pray that we can and will dare to bind ourselves. And that in binding ourselves to one anther we will discover the freedom and joy of the liberty that comes through self-limitation. This is the glory of Christ that he bestows on those who follow him. Through grace we need not live to ourselves. We are given something better. The glorious freedom of the children of God a freedom of being bound together in a communion of love and grace. But to experience it we must relinquish that which we so often hold so passionately to: our self-proclaimed autonomy.

If Christianity is true then we must believe this. We must believe that life is outside ourselves and that the outcome of our desires and perceived passions is the death that comes from self-love and self-consumption. The fire of God’s infinite love must become our passion, poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and indeed often by means of the weird person beside us at worship who God calls us to bind ourselves to in love that together we might become the people of God. May the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the cruciform, self-binding God enliven and draw us into the ardor of his life that we may participate in his self-binding and come to see and to live as people who do not view each other expendable and provisional.

12 Comments

  1. Matt wrote:

    Great, thought-provoking stuff here. The specter of individualism keeps rearing its ugly head no matter where I look, and I want to cut its head right off.

    Thursday, November 9, 2006 at 2:35 am | Permalink
  2. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    This is very good post, Halden. I’ll be honest and admit that it is convicting. My flesh wants the high-powered academic chair with good pay, great students, and tenure. But where is God’s call on my life? Where am I bound and to whom? These are major issues for me. Thanks for the post.

    Thursday, November 9, 2006 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    I don’t understand how you can write such border-blurring, distinctive-destroying words and then post what you did about God-Man being the American, Evangelical, Dispensationalistic, Calvinistic God. Take heed of the words of Paul: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” The mockery you make of the American Church proves that your words of unity and self-binding servitude are empty and deserving of the wrath of God.

    Let no one reading this fall for the call to join the We’re-All-On-The-Same-Side side. I deal with this every day at my workplace. “Diversity! Community!” they boast. But the only “diversity” they want is anyone in conformity to their basic presuppositions.

    This is not to say that I agree with your “self-binding” theology. I vehemently do not! But I will not argue that now. What I am saying is that it is clear that you have chosen people to bind into and people to reject. We all do, but by denying this fact, it is clear that your, “
    philanthropy and compassion is just another cloak for [y]our autonomy and self-consumption.”

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Jeff, frankly I’m really confused by what you’re saying. You seem to be accusing me of a number of things here, not least of which is deserving the wrath of God.

    If you really want to talk about the substance of what I’m saying in this post, please actually address where you think what I’m saying here is wrong and I’d be glad to have discussion about it with you.

    If you have a problem with what I said in the God-Man post, please feel free to comment on it as well. To be clear, I think a lot of Calvinists are awesome theologians and people of faith. But in popular Christianity many Calvinists believe in a God whose power looks a lot like the powers of the god in the cartoon I posted. If that is mocking or in bad taste, or in some way offends you, I am sorry, I meant it in a lighthearted way.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 7:53 am | Permalink
  5. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    Your line of reasoning in this article goes like this:

    1. God is self-giving. (Your general audience hook)
    2. God is also self-binding. (Your major premise)
    3. We are supposed to imitate God. (Your somewhat implied minor premise)
    4. Therefore, we should likewise be self-binding.
    (Your conclusion)

    When you speak of God’s self-binding, you tell us that he binds himself to the “unfaithful,” “rag-tag,” “uneducated,” “broken,” and “those we would not expect.” Then you apply this to humanity, saying, “God calls us to bind ourselves as he has done.”

    For greater effect, you contrast God’s benevolent self-binding with our natural inclination toward prejudiced self-binding. You say, “We are great at being compassionate from a distance. We are even better at being compassionate and committed to important causes of justice…So long as those are causes that we care about, that we choose for ourselves and that we are free to extricate ourselves from whenever we choose. Rarely do we bind ourselves to the other that God calls us to love and share life with.”

    Who else, Halden, but the American, Evangelical Calvinists that you mock is God calling you to, “love and share life with”? If you say that you actually are compassionate on those that you mock, then you have already condemned yourself as one who is “compassionate from a distance.”

    My point in all that I have said above is to expose hypocritical language by using it against itself. Had you posted this article without the following God-Man link, my response would have been much different and aimed instead at the disagreement I have with your theological premises here. Personally, I actually see much freedom in Christ to mock false teachers.

    My theological disagreements with you here are many, but most poignantly, I will say that it seems like you are saying that God’s self-binding is in the sense of self-limitation, that is to say that God might actually act like God-Man, intervening like a superhero, except that he has limited himself to the ways and influences within the world he created. Instead of expecting supernatural salvation, then, we would need to campaign for humanitarian change in order to save Mary May from the villain’s vat of acid. To any degree that it is argued that God limits himself in dealings with humanity specifically or creation in general, I will argue with sure Scriptural foundation that God’s purpose in creation is indeed self-maximization and thereby self-glorification.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Jeff, I think you misunderstand me on some key points, but I don’t know how beneficial it will be to try to argue all that out in this format.

    For what it’s worth I don’t at all think that God is merely active in the natural processes of the world or through humanitarian causes, indeed what I was trying to say is that we often fall short of what God calls us to by simply taking up such causes rather than being truly sacrificial and following the example of self-denial and self-renunciation that we see in Christ.

    My whole post was intended to include myself under that umbrella, namely of those who fall short of what God calls us to and needs to learn to be compassionate and truly learn to imitate God as revealed in the cross of Christ. I fall short constantly and can only pray that God will empower and shape me into a person who follows after him more faithfully.

    My intention was to mock no one, but to examine the nature of God we see in Christ (who I believe to be the fullest and most profound revelation of the nature of God).

    Am I called to love and share life with those who you say I am mocking in the post on God-Man? Absolutley. My intention was not to mock any specific people or teachers, but theological systems (isms) which I believe are false teachings. If that was taken by you as an attack on those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, I can only hope for forgiveness, understanding and patience in me weaknessess, for they are many.

    I fail at living into the way of Christ often and that is why I wrote this. To recall and remind us all, expecially myself of what God calls us to. I hope to learn to be humble and compassionate as God has revealed himself to be in Christ. I’m not there. I fall short, but God is faithful and that is hope indeed.

    My hope is only in the fact that God himself acts on my behalf in Christ’s cross and resurrection. This is the “supernatural salvation” without which I am lost and helpless in sin and self-consumption. I never want to limit God and how he can act among us, but I will always hold that how God acts is shown in Christ and his humility and service (Phil. 2).

    And even though we clearly have theological differences and interpret the Scriptures differently, I unhesitatingly affirm that the purpose of creation is that God will be all in all. Soli deo gloria! I’m sure we can agree on that.

    :)

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  7. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Jeff,

    Do you disagree with a God who is self-giving and self-binding? If so, why? More importantly, do you think that a God who is self-binding is somehow opposed to a God who is self-glorifying?

    Or could it not be that God glorifies Godself in giving and binding and limiting Godself in relation to humanity? Couldn’t Barth be entirely correct to see the exaltation of God precisely in God’s humiliation in the incarnation? Is not God’s freedom precisely a freedom-for self-limitation and not at all a freedom-from limitation? Is not God’s freedom a freedom-for the world rather than a freedom-from the world?

    I think your theological disagreements are based upon very faulty and poorly reasoned concepts which have no basis in the being of God we see revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. But I will reserve full judgment until you articulate yourself further.

    Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  8. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    Halden,

    Absolutely we can agree on Soli Deo Gloria!

    Congdon,

    Just to make clear regarding my previous posts, I was writing to express a conflict between this article by Halden and his following God-Man satire. I didn’t speak of my own theology until briefly at the end of my last post. I actually support the use of satire (or mockery if you want to use that term) more than I think Halden would. Those comics were quite funny, though not at all accurate regarding reformed theology, to which I most closely adhere.

    Regarding your key question: Does God’s self-binding/self-limitation conflict with his self-glorification?

    First, I take it that you see the two attributes as complimentary rather than in conflict, and the first hint into your theology that you offer is that it is most fully derived from the, “God we see revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.” I completely agree that this is the God from which all true theological knowledge comes. However, I sense that following this statement is a narrow definition of the person of Jesus Christ, namely his humanity as seen in the Gospels. I understand the entire Bible to be monothematically about Jesus without any exception. The Gospels do give us incredibly precious views at the person of Jesus, but look also to the book of Revelation, which as it states in the opening is, “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” I understand the prophet Hosea to also reveal the person of Jesus Christ in a beautiful way. Every other book likewise contributes in its own, essential way to telling us about Jesus. I’ll let you explain more fully whether this is your understanding as well or what exactly you have in mind.

    Second, to an answer to the question myself: I understand God’s mode of self-glorification as nullifying the possibility of self-limitation. At the risk of oversimplifying and slipping into heresy, I’ll say this as well: God is totally perfect and always does what is most perfect according to himself and therefore can only ever do one thing. This is a hard concept for me to express without feeling like I am doing it an injustice. Consider it Godhead-sized parallel to the concept that Jesus could have sinned and given in to Satan’s tempting, but actually he couldn’t have or that would have proven him to not be God. God never looks out on the future of possibilities and chooses one among many that would have been just as perfect. God is the source of all options that he could take anyway, so he does what is most perfect. There is no deliberation in the process of God’s activity.

    With that concept underfoot, we can look at a two primary instances where some might say that God practices self-limitation: The first and less important regards humans who do not obey God’s laws of nature and conscience. He appears to limit himself by not judging immediately. Secondly and of infinite importance, Jesus could be said to have limited himself by taking on the form of a servant when he is the King. Both of these I would say have come about because God has from before the foundation of the world been acting to maximize the radiance of his own glory, and these means are the maximum way for him to do that, not the limited way.

    Thanks for the discussion!
    Jeff Barrett
    http://www.didacticworship.com

    Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 5:57 am | Permalink
  9. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Jeff,

    The problems with your theology are too manifold to count, but I will do my best to tackle them as I see them.

    (1) You operate with virtually the same biblical hermeneutic operative in the work of John Calvin. You might take that as a compliment, but it’s not. I deeply respect Calvin’s theology (I, too, am basically Reformed), but to stand firmly by a hermeneutic which no intelligent Christian thinker today would accept is not courageous but stupid. It’s a mark of utter foolishness. I can hold to a high doctrine of Scripture, but you only do violence (serious violence) to the OT when you read them as texts about Jesus. You have committed one of the gravest idolatries: turning the dynamic and complex witness to God into a monolithic box with one message which you can control and manipulate at will. In this you are far worse than Calvin, who respected the text by applying the most recent knowledge of textual criticism that he had available to Scripture. By denying the validity of all modern criticism you violate the text rather than honor it. I say to you: Your hermeneutic be damned!

    (2) Second, you simply have a theologically weak understanding of revelation. The Bible is not revelation full stop. The Bible is the authoritative witness to God’s revelation in history. God’s revelation came to the patriarchs and to the prophets, and it came to the world most fully and decisively in the person of Jesus Christ. Scripture, however, is the inspired human witness to this divine event of self-revelation. So the Gospels are not revelation, nor is the Apocalypse of John. They are both witnesses, testimonies to the truth (and I do fully accept your interest in understanding Jesus from other NT texts besides the Gospels). Revelation, however, is not a text but a person: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. So, yes, of course this is a narrow definition; that’s because God came in a narrow and particular form to reveal who God is and who we are meant to be. Jesus is the “way, the truth, and the life.”

    (3) However you seem to imply that allowing John’s Apocalypse to provide knowledge of Christ is somehow germane to our discussion. I do not see that it is. My only guess is that you think the glorification of Christ in the visions of John somehow undercut my and Halden’s emphasis on God’s self-limitation. But that would be a foolish mistake, since you just read my claim that the two are not antitheses. So let’s progress to the substance of your claim: that self-glorification rules out self-limitation.

    (4) Let me submit my thesis: Not only have you crafted a Bible in your own image, but much more importantly, you have crafted God in your own image. This should be readily apparent to all. Think, for a moment, about the nature of language about God. If I say that God is just, do I mean that God is just like a human judge is just? If so, that would mean God could only be merciful in suspending judgment, because a human judge enacts mercy by refusing to carry out the otherwise deserved judgment. But clearly this is not the case, since God is merciful in carrying out judgment and God is just in carrying out mercy. We know this because God judged us on the cross of Christ, in which God was both full of wrath against our sin and full of mercy toward us as sinners by dying in our place.

    We might say the same about God’s love and righteousness, or about more abstract attributes, such as God’s omnipotence and omniscience. In all of these cases, the temptation throughout Christian theology has been to engage in metaphysics, as an attempt to understand God either as the antithesis of humanity (via negativa), as the infinite projection of humanity (via eminentiae), or as the cause of humanity/world (via causalitatis). In each case, knowledge of God works from below to above, from what we see around us to some abstract Being above us.

    The problem is that this means of knowledge is no guarantee of its truthfulness. We can only know God when God reveals Godself to us, and we encounter this divine self-revelation in Scripture as the witness to God’s revelation. And what we see in Scripture is something radically different from what we find by means of metaphysical reason — which you are guilty of, probably without realizing it.

    Let me take the most simple and straightforward example: the Gospel of John. John is unique in his singular insight that the suffering and death of Jesus is precisely where God is most glorified. Biblical commentators view the last half of the book (ch. 12ff) as “The Book of Glory.” We see the pivotal transition in John 12:23-28:

    23Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27″Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name!”

    The passion of Christ is the glorification of God. This is the pivotal thesis of John’s gospel, and the ramifications of his insight are still mostly unmined. The theological truth to be gained is that God is glorified in the limitation of suffering and death. God’s glory does not oppose but includes divine self-limitation.

    This is why we cannot about God in any way than the way given to us in Scripture. There we see a God who is not merciful sometimes and just in others, but who is simultaneously merciful and just, because both mercy and justice are rooted in divine love: “God is love.” Similarly, we do not see a God who is either self-glorifying or self-limiting, but a God who glorifies Godself in limiting Godself! The fundamental truth of the incarnation is that God is never more divine than in taking on human form. God is most omnipotent in limiting divine power for the sake of taking on humanity. God is most glorified in being born in a stable, tortured by the Romans, and killed with a criminal’s death.

    (5) Now perhaps you agree with this, but instead you deny that the incarnation, suffering, and death of Jesus was a self-limitation at all, that it was purely self-glorification. If so, you are still caught in the same false dichotomy (false only for God!) between limitation and glorification. Moreover, such an idea would fail to take into account such central portions of the NT as the Christ hymn of Phil. 2. You would be in danger of so elevating the “glory” passages that you entirely eclipse the “limitation” passages.

    I also think you fail to understand the nature of God’s glory, particularly as we see it in John’s Revelation. You cannot forget that the Lord on the throne is the Lamb who was slain. Here again we see beautifully the way God unites in Godself what are antitheses for us. God is a being-in-paradox who shatters our concepts of divinity through the radical incarnation of the Son of God, in which polar opposites are brought together, in which God limits and binds Godself for the purpose glorifying Godself and rescuing fallen humanity.

    Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    Wow. I think I hit a nerve. Here are my quick responses.

    1. Regarding the Bible’s being entirely about Jesus: You say that I am stupid, “to stand firmly by a hermeneutic which no intelligent Christian thinker today would accept.” I will concede the point that no current thinker holds to this position (even though that is entirely untrue) because I would hold to this hermeneutic regardless. I am not participating in a popularity contest. There is only one thinker who I care about, Jesus. And this is what he thought:

    You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

    The big E on the eyechart here is that the people Jesus was talking to only had the Old Testament scriptures. Jesus here tells them and me that the old testament is about him.

    2. Regarding the definition of God’s Revelation: I am actually shocked, though maybe I shouldn’t have been seeing that you are a Princeton Student, that you first tell me that I am the one manipulating scripture when it is you who undermine the authority of scripture and submit instead to a figment of your imagination, which is your half-baked concept of the Person of Jesus Christ being the true Revelation and Scripture being only a witness of that revelation. You made no more worthless point in your entire response, and I hate wasting time to even address it. Nevertheless, my answer is this: Of course the Scriptures are not Jesus Himself. Jesus was not replicated on a printing press and now sitting on my bookshelf as well as millions of others. Neither was he digitized and made searchable on zhubert.com. Jesus says this plainly in the passage I quoted above. There exist two substances: Jesus and the Scriptures. You have merely played with words by calling God the Revelation of God and the Revelation of God rather the Witness to Revelation.

    Does this mean that I believe that Jesus revealed nothing about God? Of course not.

    Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.

    If you want to change terms for no reason, then go ahead. You’ll just confuse readers. I think I have shown that the change is worthless and only, if anything, cracks the door open to undermining the value of Scripture.

    3. Yes, I understand that the book of revelation will undercut your concept of God’s self-limitation. I already did my best to describe God’s activity as perfect and therefore free of any deliberation. It is in this sense that the humiliation of Christ was his maximum glorification, and the book of Revelation bears witness to the truth of this claim. He is the Lamb who was slain. The slaying only further maximized his glory.

    4. In your fourth point, you abolished any plateau upon which we could profitably exchange scripture-based reasonings. You accuse me of gaining my theological knowledge as “from below to above.” Would you tell me otherwise of your own opinions? Perhaps Jesus himself lectures at your school, or you have some divine quality that renders you capably of descending into human language from heavenly understanding rather than struggling with the rest of us in our imperfect process of ascending from our dim eyesight into full understanding. You are attempting to hold a position tennable only by God.

    As if your derrision of me wasn’t enough, you even continue in this point of yours to puff yourself above all the great Biblicists who have come before you by boasting that you have seen the true end of John’s gospel, which is as of yet, “mostly unmined.” Humorously, you claim to have mined this truth yourself in the very next sentence. I await to see your name endure centuries hereafter as the one who unlocked the true thesis of John.

    You sound as if you are instructing me when you say, “we cannot [think] about God is any way than the way given us in Scripture.” I couldn’t agree more with these words, and I find your way of thinking to be unbelievably non-scriptural. I do not see in scripture a God who is always simultaneously just and merciful in every case study. He has mercy on whomever he has mercy. On some, he does not have mercy. But perhaps I am in error on this point as well since I ascended imperfect to it rather than stooped from Princeton clarity into the fog of humanity as you did.

    5. In your final point, you have done nothing more than practice what you already condemned previously: via negativa. You assume that I am incorrect based on the fact that it seems humanly illogical for God to be both self-limiting and self-glorifying. Here is your antithesis to humanity. I find no conflict in Philippians 2′s descripture of Christ’s humbling with what I said before regarding his perfect course of self-maximization.

    Jeff Barrett
    http://www.didacticworship.com

    Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  11. Anonymous wrote:

    Halden, I was blessed by your post. I very much agree with what you share about God being “self-binding”…it is very consistent with the character of God revealed in all the Bible. The theological objections expressed in the comments are very confusing and disturbing, not so much in content but in tone (angry, adversarial, prideful, self-righteous, condemning). The scripture that comes to mind is 1 John 4:7,8: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the encouraging comment, Anon. :)

    Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

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