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Imitators of God?

There is an undeniable stream of thought in the New Testament epistles that call believers in Christ to imitate God. The most clear of all these is Eph 5:1: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children . . .” (cf. 1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6; 3 John 11). This stream of thought is vital, both to the Christian doctrine of God and the practice of Christian ethics and mission. Certainly our imitation of God is grounded into our incorporation into Christ by the Spirit. That is clear throughout the New Testament. The call to imitate God is not moralistic in any sense, let alone some sort of call to supererrogation. Rather it is a call to be conformed, in reliance on the Spirit of Christ, to the image of God revealed in Christ. The remainder of the passage in Ephesians bears this out explicitly: “. . . and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). To imitate God is to live, to abide in the mode of Christ’s own agape which was revealed in his cross and resurrection.

The point of all this is to say that when the New Testament calls us to imitate God, it is clearly calling us to take on the agapeic qualities of Christ. For the New Testament authors, this is what God is like. To be like God is to live in and practice the radical agape of Christ through the Spirit of Christ whom God has sent to us.

As such, any image of God which seeks to curtail, modify, or circumscribe this vision of God-as-agape is to be rejected. Any portrait of God’s moral character that seeks to “balance” the love of God as revealed in Christ with God’s “other attributes” is to be rejected out of hand. The litmus test for this lies in the call to be imitators of God. Would anyone be pastorally comfortable calling people to imitate God’s supposed overflowing wrath against sinners? Of course not. The claim is then made that we are not to imitate “those” aspects of God—those are God’s prerogative, not ours, it is claimed. However, the New Testament does not make any such distinction between God’s supposed attributes. The New Testament simply calls us, as those led by the Spirit, to be conformed to God’s own moral character, which is the character of Christ. We are not called to imitate God’s “nice side” and leave God’s “dark side” alone. We are called instead simply to imitate God. And for the New Testament this means manifesting the radical agape of Christ. This is what God is like and anything that seeks to balance or mitigate this is foreign to the New Testament and the nature of Christianity itself.

In short, if your theological image of God is one that you’re not willing to call people to imitate, you probably have some false ideas about God. Any God that cannot be imitated in a way that is moral, righteous, and worthy of praise by human beings is not the God that the writers of the New Testament knew.


  1. james wrote:

    I’m not sure that agapeic qualities completely sum up the qualities of the God of NT writers. The writers instruct their readers not to judge others, but still reference some future judgment that God will perform (AKA judgment seat of Christ.) This is obviously not a reference to the cross, but I’m certain you will rope all references to “judgment” into one. Nevertheless it is something reserved to God specifically, not to be imitated, so it is obviously not all about “love” or we would be called to imitate it.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Whatever that judgment is—and it can’t be separable from the cross, Revelation makes clear that its the slaughterd Lamb who is judging—it cannot be something that Christians do not participate in. The NT makes that supremely clear (1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 20:4). All the references to “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” are clearly referring to refraining from unjust judgment, of judging people by standards that you do not hold yourself to (cf. Rom 2:1-3).

    In short, your point doesn’t really have any basis in the NT at all, at least not to a reasonable reading.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  3. Dave wrote:

    I think it would be over-hasty to read the Pauline statements about judging in light of Revelation’s idea of violent overthrow. But for Paul the very real divine wrath is an incentive for Christian’s not to take wrath themselves: Rom 12:19. This is clearly a place where, just like the Qumran covenanters (CD 9.1-8), Paul makes a clear distinction between God’s actions and those prescribed for humans. Besides, might we not end up with a basically modalistic view of God if we collapse all divine actions into those which are imitable as Christ’s?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    I’m not sure I’m completely with you no this, Halden, and I’d also be careful of dismissing what James said as simply an “unreasonable reading” lacking “any basis in the NT at all.” I think that’s a bit unfair.

    I distinguish between God’s character and God’s capacity (sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). These are not separable as God manifests them, but we are called to imitate the former and not the latter (which would be blasphemy, and is at the root of Constantinianism and other such problems). It’s difficult for me to see how we are to aspire to Christ’s lordship as portrayed in Matt 28:18, Colossians 1, etc. It is precisely because we are subject to such that we are to imitate his character and refrain from idolatry/blasphemy.

    I think that was James’s point, and he was using judgment simply as an example. I certainly agree with your understanding of this as a call to be conformed and to avoid the fallacy of “balancing” certain of God’s character traits against others. Am I misunderstanding you?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  5. Brad A. wrote:

    Looks like I was writing as Dave posted. He states my concerns, too.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  6. james wrote:

    Well I would agree with you if you were correct.

    I would think you would say “whatever that judgment is” regarding that strange judgment in which saints participate. The more clear references state that we will all stand before God and “give an account of our lives whether good or bad” and all secrets will be revealed. I wouldn’t think references would be necessary with such a standard expectation (of Jewish religion as well). 1 Cor 4, Romans 14 come to mind. This stuff is not referring in some clever way to the cross, but to the possibility of failing the judgment.

    God is revealed in the cross, but also the resurrection, the judgement, all of his actions. On the other hand, all of God’s actions are NOT simply the cross. We are called to imitate the condescension of the Son, but explicitly told to leave the judgment (in this present life at least) to God.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I’ll grant you that that’s one way to read Rom 12:19. But, in light of the very strong identification in the NT of God’s judgment with the cross (e.g. John 12:31; 47-50; 16:11), I think we need to interpret God’s final “vengeance” very carefully. God’s judgment is the Word of God revealed, which judges humanity in that it speaks the truth about us. That is what we see in Jesus, and see consummated in the vision of the White Rider (Rev 19:11-16; the sword is the Word, and note that he is drenched in blood before the battle).

    And what is the result of God’s final vengeance?

    The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Rev 21:24-26)

    There are certainly different takes on what the final judgment means, but I think the best course is to take our cues from the very clear material in John about the cross as judgment, and in seeing how that is correlated to the final vision of the city of God, we see that God’s “vengeance” is the making new of all things, the purging away of sin and the establishment of what Jonathan Edwards called “a world full of love.” In short, God’s judgment and God’s love cannot be separated. God judges in love and loves in judgment.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Sorry, its you who are utterly incorrect here:

    Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:31-33)

    I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge (John 12:46-47)

    The judgment of the world is explicitly identified with the cross and resurrection. The final judgment is merely the consummation of the judgment that has already been passed.

    This is fairly simple stuff. It seems to me that generally those who want to grab some other sort of judgment and sneak it in behind the back of the Crucified and Risen Christ do so, not on the basis of any real exegesis of the NT, but out of some desire for a different God with a different kind of power than has been revealed in Christ.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    See above for my response to Dave, Brad. Also, God’s lordship is that of the the Servant King, which we are explicitly called to imitate (John 13:13-14).

    I don’t think I can go with that stuff about “capacity.” Could God be other than God is in Christ? Could God deal with sin by annihilating creation and starting over if that were God’s desire? These kind of questions are not admissible for me. We only know God on the basis of God’s revelation in Christ. I don’t think we can go behind God’s back to discover some “capacities” that are not reflected in God’s action. We only know God’s being through his act.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  10. Brad A. wrote:

    …although I didn’t catch the “violent overthrow” comment. Not so sure I’m comfortable with that.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:44 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    To clarify a key point, I’m not saying that there’s no difference between God and us. Clearly that is absurd. Nor am I saying that because God receives worship we should try to get some ourselves as well. That also is absurd.

    What I’m saying is that God’s moral character is held up for us, not as an exception, but as something to be imitated. Receiving worship is not something that determines God’s moral character. God would be God with or without our worship. Indeed, in worship we imitate God precisely in that we love God in the same way that the Son loves the Father. The reason we ought not to seek our own worship or worship anything other than God is precisely because that would be to fail to imitate and abide in God’s love.

    I just want to be clear about that. Distinction between the Creator and creation is absolutely vital in theology. That is not the issue here. The issue is what God’s character is truly like, as revealed in Christ and whether or not we are to imitate that. My position on that question should be clear at this point so I won’t belabor that any further.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  12. Brad A. wrote:

    I understand that, Halden, because that is how Jesus practices his lordship, prior to his exaltation. Yes, that is what we’re called to emulate. But his exaltation matters for this discussion. Are you really claiming that we can, like Jesus, claim that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me”? Isn’t that precisely what leads to a Constantinian church?

    The character/capacity thing is not a hill I’m planting my flag on. It’s merely a way that helps me think through things (and allows me to deal with a number of Reformed assertions, incidentally). Nobody’s going “behind God’s back” – we’re just trying to have faithful understandings. I agree that we know God only through his act, but the kenosis of Incarnation and Christ’s earthly life are not the only acts of God, nor are they definitive apart from his exaltation.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  13. Brad A. wrote:

    Again, I missed this while I was writing. Fair enough, and I can’t imagine disagreeing with your point here. I am wary, however, of collapsing the sovereign identity of God into Christ’s earthly life, which is not the whole picture of God or Christ, though it is definitively exemplary for us.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    See, I don’t think that Christ’s exaltation can be separated in character from his condescension. Both are simply the movement of God’s love. That’s why John’s gospel doesn’t talk so much about “death and resurrection” but continually stresses one ongoing movement of Christ being “lifted up.” It includes the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and Christ’s ongoing Lordship.

    In short, I do not believe that Jesus now practices his Lordship differently after the resurrection and exaltation. The exaltation is a vindication to be sure, but it is not a change in Christ’s mode of Lordship. Indeed, if Christ were to change his mode of Lordship the resurrection/exaltation would not be a vindication at all.

    What leads to a Constantinian church is failing to see this exact point. If we say that Jesus practices his Lordship differently now that he is exalted, we are well on the road to making a space for that kind of domination to define our own way of dealing with power.

    And I’m not saying that we “possess” Christ’s authority or something like that. But that’s precisely because Christ’s own authority is the refusal of possession itself. Rather Christ, precisely in his Lordship is “with us to the end of the age” empowering us, through the Spirit to continue to manifest his Lordship in the world precisely through being caught up into his agape.

    Thanks for the continued comments on this. This is actually really helping me to articulate this better as I explore it more.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Well, again its not as though we’re saying that Christ’s 32-year life is all there is to God, only to say that nothing about God can be inconsistent with this life. Jesus is definitive for our knowledge of God, I won’t budge on that. This does not mean that there is not “more” to God, only that this “more” is always and in every way “more of the same.”

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  16. james wrote:

    It’s clear you read John’s theology (or your theologians’ take of it) and Revelation as trumping all other views expressed in the NT for what is theologically normative. And apparently you are uncomfortable admitting Paul, Jesus, the OT have different views from John and each other. The general shape of religious thought of early Judaism and early christianity in regard to a final judgment that is not a Barthian cross is fairly straightforward, Halden. Your “fairly simple stuff” hides a lot of theological interpretive smoothing you are doing.

    Also, you speak of those who dissent as some strange group of idiots or sadists as though you are unaware that perhaps, I’m being generous, .2% of Christendom agrees with your position. This doesn’t affect the merits of your case but might temper your confident rhetoric that seems to assume those who disagree haven’t read the Scriptures.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  17. Dave wrote:

    Enjoying the discussion. One other question to flag up: we need some complexity to keep this from slipping into Marcionism. The God revealed in Jesus cannot be other than the God of Israel, and so some account of the moral actions of that God and their imitability as testified to in the Hebrew Bible must be rendered. This is, I suppose, another way of paraphrasing from a different angle Brad’s point about collapsing the sovereign identity of God into Christ’s earthly life. Right?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Agreed about Marcionism, Dave. A good resource on this point is Terrance Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. It helpfully shows that Christ’s revelation of God is not at variance with, but rather a hyperextension of Israel’s experience of God. Another helpful treatment of this is John Howard Yoder’s chapter, “If Abraham is Our Father” in The Original Revolution.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  19. Brad A. wrote:

    I really am with you on most of this, Halden, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the overall trajectory. But there are things that continue to bother me.

    My point all along has been not a change in practice of lordship, but a change in the nature of that lordship (and I’m just thinking through this as I write, so forgive any inadvertent heresy on my part). What change does his exaltation make such that he claims only after it that all authority has been given to him? Why doesn’t he make this claim earlier?

    I’m not convinced that Christ’s exalted authority is the refusal of possession. Obviously, that occurs at the Incarnation, since he didn’t think equality with the Father was something to hold onto (forgive the preposition, but I’m not at Harvard). But then how do we make sense of something like Yahweh’s claim in Exod 19 that “the whole earth is mine”? This is the context for the calling in 19:5-6, reiterated in 1 Peter 2 for the church.

    I’m also bothered by the Constantinian point. One could just as easily conclude that it is because of Jesus’ singular lordship that we are precluded from making such claims for ourselves. Our usurpation does not necessarily follow; in fact, it logically cannot.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Actually, if you’d read the initial post, you’d see that my fundamental point is quite Pauline. For more on this very point you’d probably benefit from reading Michael Gorman’s work on Paul, particularly his most recent Inhabiting the Cruciform God.

    Some of your sentences don’t make sense, so I’m not sure how to respond to them. Suffice it to say that seeing the cross as definitive of God’s judgment with the eschatological outworking of that being a vindication of the judgment of the cross is not a Barthian point. It goes back at least to Augustine. Your gross and silly hyperbole about “.2%” doesn’t really incline me to take your assertions more seriously.

    And at least I’ve actually interacted with Scripture in this discussion.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  21. Brad A. wrote:

    I don’t think we disagree at all on this. I think we’re differing on how to understand different dimensions of Jesus, and we might not even disagree on that question all that much.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    I think a change in the nature of Christ’s lordship is just as bad or worse, to be honest. If the nature of Christ’s lordship changes with the exaltation then the resurrection is not a vindication but a contradiction of Christ’s life and kenosis. Indeed Christ’s lordship cannot change in nature if we hold the incarnation to be revelatory in any way. Arguing that the nature of Christ’s lordship changes is fraught with many, many theological problems that I don’t think can be solved.

    I think Christ’s claim about authority has to do with how, in the cross and resurrection he has triumphed over all powers and authorities (Col 2:15). The point is that there is no earthly power that Christ has not defeated in the cross and resurrection. In a very real sense we participate in this “authority” in that what it establishes is freedom from the powers. That is the basis of Christ’s assurance in the Matthew passage. All hostile powers have been defeated by Christ so we are freed to live together with him, participating in the life and mission of God freely. The reason Christ doesn’t make this claim earlier is because the resurrection had not happened yet. But note all the other attributions of authority to Jesus in the gospels, They all concern his ability to free people from the powers of death.

    That’s what I mean about Jesus’s authority as being the refusal of possession. Possession, domination, and violence is the way of the powers—Christ’s authority is exercised as a mode of liberating, life-giving love that overturns this very order. The passages from the Old Testament you mention do not mean possession in this sense. Rather they refer to the intimacy between God and God’s people and God’s position as the Creator of the world. That’s precisely the opposite of the sort of possession that the powers exercise in their attempt, as creatures to grasp and seize and control. That is precisely the opposite of who God is revealed to be in Christ.

    The Constantinian point is not utterly crucial to figuring out this question. All I can say is that a theology which admits that God uses domination and violence as a mode of Lordship is more likely to lead to Constantinianism than one that argues that such qualities do not in any way characterize God’s Lordship. The usurpation may not necessarily or even logically follow, but it seems to me that it practically always does, when this is not the case for the alternative view which roots all of our understanding of God’s lordship in Christ.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  23. Hill wrote:

    I think the issue here is that we don’t know God because we know agape and see it in Him. We know agape because we know God and he is (and is determinative of), in a sense ultimately beyond evaluation, agape. So evaluating a particular “concept of God” according to the degree to which it measures up to our sense of agape seems problematic at best. To use a familiar trope: there is no “agape” behind God. I think we have to take “God is [agape]” in the reflexive sense, at least as a starting point, and dwell within the difficulties of what has been revealed to us about Him. I don’t mean to say that we can’t ultimately declare agape good, but it is good not in the sense of an ethical calculation, but in the sense of a longing beyond ethics. It is good in the sense of being beautiful or inherently appealing because it is that which has made us.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Been reading some Desomond? I’ve finally picked up his books.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  25. Theophilus wrote:

    How then do you read Jesus’ references to “outer darkness” and being consumed by fire (especially prominent in Matthew, which is my favourite gospel for no particular reason) in reference to those who reject his teachings? The only way I’ve managed to conceive of squaring this language of exclusion with the command to imitate Jesus is through the practice of excommunication, in a classically Anabaptist sense of maintaining the “purity of the Church”. Naturally this carries with it a whole lot of other baggage, power tripping, the potential for church splits, etc., but I don’t see any other way the NT witness applies this concept. In particular, I’m struck by 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 in this regard. I also wonder if this conception of God’s wrath as exclusion from God’s saved community might provide a different reading than the racist understanding of Jesus’ statement that he came only for the lost sheep of Israel, but that’s speculation on my part; I haven’t taken the time to explore that possibility in any real depth.

    I also like Hill’s comment about God being prior to agape, and the necessity of letting God define agape rather than vice versa. So I suppose I’m saying that agape must therefore include some degree of exclusion, because God in Christ has made it clear that rejecting God results in expulsion from the saved community.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    To add to this just a bit on the Constantinian point. If Christ’s lordship is now exercised through the kind of domination he rejected in the incarnation, it isn’t enough to say that we can’t do that because only he can. Even if we try to get out of that implication by making God the exception, we still end up valorizing domination itself. From some more info on this line of thought see this post (not to say that I agree with all of it, but it makes some helpful points).

    Moreover, God will inevitably be our paradigm. That is just inevitable. One’s image of God is always determinative of how we believe we must live. Thus, if we believe that God’s lordship is expressed through domination that is going to influence us as, ultimately we do always seek to imitate who we worship. Greg Beale’s book on idolatry We Become What We Worship is a very helpful and exhaustive biblical study on exactly this point.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    This question is too big to answer here, but I’ll just say that yes, I agree that agape must have some sort of exclusiveness to it, at least under the conditions of sin, and I think that excommunication is part of that dynamic. It is one form of our practice of Christ’s agape.

    However, obviously the reason excommunication is loving is because it is ultimately restorative in nature and intention. I believe that this is also true for God’s own acts of exclusion that are literarily portrayed in the New Testament accounts of things like “outer darkness.” I realize I’m showing my leanings on hell here. I’ll just leave it at that.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  28. Hill wrote:

    To be honest… no. However! It has been sitting right next to my head as I sleep for at least six months. It’s quite possible some sort of paranormal learning process has taken place. I almost picked it up last night and started reading. One of my very best friends and a trusted source tells me that it is indispensable.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  29. Halden wrote:

    I’ve been looking at it. Man, it looks like its own genre.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  30. Brad A. wrote:

    I understand the potential dangers involved, and I, too, wish to avoid them. However, I’m not yet convinced that a change in lordship equals resurrection-as-contradiction. Of course, change in the nature of lordship may not be the best way to put it; I’m having some trouble expressing myself properly. Frankly, I’d like to understand better how kenosis and exaltation function for you.

    I really have no disagreement with your second paragraph, though the narrow definition of authority as power over death is not definitive if the nature of his lordship changes somewhat in the exaltation. But that’s a minor point.

    Your third paragraph does not convince me, however. For one thing, I’m not sure we’re talking about possession or rulership in the same way. But even if we are, what I read in Scripture is not God’s refusal of possession and dominion, but his exclusive claims to them (and, by corollary, that they are rightly practiced only by God). The powers err primarily in usurping what does not belong to them, and for the sake of absolutizing themselves. In so doing, they can never practice them rightly.

    Morevoer, the passages in the OT do indeed mean possession in the sense I use, and that by virtue of God’s position as Creator. I’ve been in Exodus today doing some class prep, and I’m reading instance after instance of Yahweh promising, and then carrying out, acts of judgment – and even violence – against Pharaoh’s idolatrous system of empire. For example, Exod 9:13-16: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. For this time I will send all my plagues upon you youself, and upon your officials, and upon your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your peoeple with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to may my name resound through all the earth.”‘” Yahweh doesn’t say, “I could have done this but it isn’t my way”; he says that it’s fully within his authority and ability, but that he had other purposes in mind. I probably don’t need to recite the other, similar elements within this narrative.

    I’m much more with Cavanaugh, where he states regarding the commandment “You shall not kill” (in the context of orthodoxy vs. empire): “The key to the commandment is in the subject, not the verb. ‘[i]You[/i] shall not kill, because [i]I[/i] amd the Lord your God.’ Killing belongs to God, not to us. The fifth commandment, just like the first, establishes an absolute divide between God and humans. You shall not kill for the very same reason that you shall not worship other gods: because there is only one God who is sovereign over life and death. The prohibition against idols reaffirms the absolute divide between Creator and created.” (“Empire of the Empty Shrine,” Cultural Encounters 2 no. 2 (Summer 2006): 16.)

    In short, in Jesus Christ, Yahweh reclaims his proper rulership. He does not reject possession per se; rather he claims it as his own exclusive prerogative (I’m being redundant for emphasis). The powers, which can never practice possession rightly as God does, commit idolatry/blasphemy in claiming it and similar practices as their own.

    As to your final paragraph, forgive me, but it sounds a bit Niebuhrian. I’m not persuaded by that logic.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  31. Brad A. wrote:

    The key here is the first clause in the second sentence. At no point do I argue his lordship is exercised in a way he rejects in the incarnation.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  32. james wrote:

    I think it is generally accepted that John’s future eschatology if he has any at all is quite thin, so of course the cross and resurrection carries a lot of weight there. You are projecting that same view on Paul who I believe has a much more standard eschatology which includes appearing before the judgment seat of God. This is a judgment which remains up in the air. I believe this is the gospel’s theology as well as Jesus’ insofar as we can know it independently (not to mention the theology of Judaism and the early church). I would dispute your take on John as well but I certainly object to using John 12 as a sledgehammer on an otherwise easy to discern tradition. I didn’t feel the need to “reinvent the wheel” of substantiating from Scripture what you could say has been held at all times in all places (excepting the OVERestimation of .2%).

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  33. Geoff wrote:

    “the reason excommunication is loving is because it is ultimately restorative in nature and intention.”

    If only the church actually took this notion seriously, rather than a reason to write off the ex… I have become more and more convinced that this is what “grace increasing all the more” actually looks like — Christians must never write off anyone, no matter what. If that is going to happen, it’s God’s prerogative, not ours.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  34. Hill wrote:

    I did try to read it last year… it’s definitely its own thing. It seemed promising, though.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  35. Halden wrote:

    Well, thanks for asserting your beliefs. A pity you don’t deign to make any actual arguments.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  36. Halden wrote:

    What else could a change in the “nature” of Christ’s lordship mean? A change in nature is something fundamental, is it not?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  37. Halden wrote:

    No, I don’t think you’re quite getting what I’m saying. The problem with the powers isn’t simply that they try to take over and do the things that God is supposed to be doing, its that they do things that God is utterly opposed to and that are opposed to God’s rule. What the powers do in dominating and possessing is nothing like what God does. If we draw an equation between the domination of the powers and the rule of God we are valorizing things that Christ explicitly rejected in the cross and resurrection. I can’t go down that road.

    Maybe it is a question of hermeneutical priority here, but I firmly believe that we need to interpret Scripture in light of Jesus, not try to fit Jesus into some other system of thought. I take that to be axiomatic.

    I don’t see anything remotely Niebuhrian in anything I said. You’ll have to do better than that. The fact of the matter is that, no matter what God will be our model (again, see Beale’s book). That is unavoidable, hence attributing violence and domination to God tends toward Constantinianism, even if we attempt to forestall that conclusion by claiming that only God can do it.

    Also, in regard to the issues of judgment in the OT, it must be kept in mind that in no sense can God “kill” anyone in the way that you or I could kill anyone. God is the creator and sustainer of all things. All of our life is contingent on God’s constant sustaining us in being. The only way for God to take life is simply to withdraw his constant act of sustenance from us. That’s entirely different than the “taking” of life that we perpetrate on each other. Arthur McGill’s book, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method is very helpful on this point.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  38. Halden wrote:

    Also as for kenosis and exaltation, as I said before these “movements” in Christ’s mission are nothing other than the outworking of the Trinitarian love. The love that defines God’s very life is what Christ brings into the world in the incarnation and that love is victorious over death and all powers. That is what God’s lordship is: the victory of the divine love.

    In short, kenosis isn’t the veiling or hiding of God’s power and nature, but its very expression. What God does in Christ is all definitive of God’s being, which is revealed to be radical love all the way down. God is love and life which cannot be forestalled by the ultimate terminus of death. God’s missional extension of this love to the created world in Christ and the Spirit simply is God’s lordship.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  39. d. stephen long wrote:

    I think this is important. We have to avoid two things. First so dividing the economic and immanent Trinity that we underwrite nominalism or even Luther’s deus absconditus. Then we get the ‘god’ behind God — the God of the absolute decrees who directly wills Pharaoh’s intransigence and Judas’s betrayal. They become the true heroes of the story. One way to avoid this is to emphasize that the economic is the immanent and vice versa (Rahner’s axiom.) But then we must be careful not to equate them. Then we will get Hegel. God gets ‘emptied out’ (and not via the kenosis of Phil 2) into an immanence. That way lies atheism. It may be a profound atheism like Zizek’s and not Ditchkens. But it inevitably underwrites atheism.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  40. kim fabricius wrote:

    A few comments …

    The Bible says that God is agape (I John 4:8), not that agape is God (Hill’s point). The nature of agape is disclosed in the act of God sending Jesus to the world to be its saviour, not its judge (John 3:16), that we might have life (I John 4:9), and that our sins might be forgiven (I John 4:10). The Bible does not say that God is orge. It does, of course, speak of the orge of God, but, again, we must let God himself define the nature of his wrath. According to Romans 1:18ff., God’s wrath is manifest in his “handing us over” to the devices and desires of our hearts here and now. Judgement? It too takes place in the here and now of our encounter with Christ (John’s gospel): “I’ll let you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day” (Camus, The Fall). And on the Day of the Lord itself? Hell? Matthew 25:31ff., the conclusion of the teaching ministry of Jesus in the first gospel (pace Theophilus!), is pivotal; and note well: “It is basic to Matthew’s idea of judgement that the community [i.e. the church] is apparently not given precedence a priori on Judgement Day…. Before the Judge, all lances are of equal length” (Ulrich Luz). On the other hand, I myself pray and hope (with Barth and von Balthazar, inter alia) that hell will be an empty set; if anyone is there, I trust that it will be Jesus himself, on the door to make sure that no one else gets in (even as, in the joke, he is at the back wall of heaven helping people to get over it).

    Finally, in support of Halden’s main point, yes, God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikness at all. And Marcionism? Bugger Marcionism! I have too often seen it used as a scare-word to deter would be Christian pacifists to be discomfited by the warning. I’m more worried about not taking with ultimate seriousness the dominical “But I say unto you!” of Matthew’s antitheses (Matthew 5:21ff.)

    Any help?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  41. Halden wrote:

    I think Balthasar is a helpful guide in these waters, though there remain some Hegalian problems with his approach as well, I fear. And of course there’s Barth. . .

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  42. Halden wrote:

    Exactly, Kim. Thank you.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  43. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I do get what you’re saying, and I’m disagreeing with part of it. The powers do indeed usurp what God does – that’s commonly held from Yoder to Hauerwas to Cavanaugh, etc., etc. And I’m not valorizing those things that Christ rejected, if, as I said, they are inherently disordered as practiced by creatures. I think that’s an important distinction.

    Heremeneutical priority may be part of the issue. I think Steve Long brought this up with you previously: how exactly do we interpret in light of Jesus, given that we know Jesus through Scripture and the Church. Is it really linear like this? Is there some sort of pure knowledge of Jesus we can have to evaluate Scripture with? Certainly, the OT has to be read in light of the NT, but the reverse holds as well. We cannot understand what Yahweh was doing in Jesus without the OT, even if Jesus redefines things in the process.

    Don’t get too ruffled by my Niebuhrian comment. I was only referring to your final paragraph above where you seem to evaluate a theological position based on its potential effects. It was partly in jest, but partly to say I’m not convinced by arguments that one should reject a position based on its potential for abuse. I really can’t imagine anything that doesn’t fall into that category in one way or another.

    As to your final paragraph here, fine and well. No problem with that. But that really speaks to my first point here regarding God’s prerogatives.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  44. Brad A. wrote:

    I have no problem understanding this as the outworking of Trinitarian love. Yet, you’ve not really told me what kenosis is. Of what is the second person emptying himself in the Incarnation? (Sorry about the gendered language for God here.)

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  45. Halden wrote:

    But that’s just the thing. Us killing isn’t taking “God’s prerogatives.” We’re doing something entirely different in taking life than God would be doing in ceasing to sustain someone in being. They’re just completely different acts altogether.

    As for the stuff about Jesus, I presuppose that Jesus is not simply an object for our objectification that we could somehow “get right” and use as a method. This is in regard to your question about “pure knowledge.” We don’t have that and we don’t need it because Christ is not our object, but a living agent who confronts us again and anew through Scripture, tradition, the ongoing work of the Spirit, the life of the church, etc. I think something central to the gospel is involved in this. A lot of the nervousness I sense from those who shy away from appeals to Jesus over against anything else is this sense that Jesus is a historical object of our reconstruction, not a living persons who actually does things in the here and now, continuing to exert his presence and reality.

    But the ultimate point, on the more basic hermeneutical level is as you say “Jesus redefines things.” I think we need to operate on that basis when considering things like God’s judgment as portrayed in the OT, that’s all.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  46. Halden wrote:

    Kenosis is Christ’s self-giving for us unto the point of death, even death on a cross.

    The idea that Christ emptying himself of some particular thing is a incorrect, and from my perspective relies on a poor translation of Phil 2. Christ isn’t subtracting something from himself, rather he is giving of himself in humility, totally pouring out his life for the world.

    That life of self-outpouring belongs to and defines the eternal Trinitarian life of God.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  47. Halden wrote:

    And its fine if we disagree, as long as there’s clarity about what’s being said. I think that is the case, so, well done to both of us!

    And you really should read McGill if you want to wrestle more with what we’ve been talking about here. They are the least known and some of the most awesome books on the issue of God’s power.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  48. Gordon Brown wrote:


    While I agree generally with what you are saying, is there anyone you know – can’t be a professional theologian just writing about it – who actually expresses this in the way you imagine it should be lived out, since we are still living in this time between times? Someone whose practices and behaviour exude these kind of qualities.

    Warm regards,

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  49. Halden wrote:

    Absolutely, Gordon. I think they’re everywhere. Every time someone rejects power as control and possession in favor of openness, hospitality, and generosity, you find people living into God’s agape. To be sure none of us do it perfectly, but I think we’ve all seen these qualities get lived out in various situations in various contexts. I did not by any means intend to infer that we perfectly embody the agape of God, rather we are in the ongoing process of being conformed to it by the Spirit (e.g. Rom 12).

    For one good example of how I’ve recently seen these kind of qualities manifested, see the recent reflections here.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  50. Brad A. wrote:

    I’ll have to respond here since I’ve already talked too much and exhausted the thread levels…

    Just because the usurpation can never be successful does not mean it isn’t usurpation. Perhaps this is sort of the reverse of the intention vs. action thread a while back. It is indeed the intent and the attempt of the powers to place themselves in the role of God from which these distorted things stem. In the end, we may just be disagreeing on semantics, though.

    And I’m certainly with you on Jesus activity here and now. No qualms there whatsoever. I do think Jesus redefines things, but I’m uncomfortable when that means either that we have a distorted picture of Yahweh in the OT or that in some new age God is now acting differently.

    In any event, thanks for a good discussion, and for creating a space in which to have it safely.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  51. d. stephen long wrote:

    I concur as well. I remember coming home with my daughter from our local high school performance of Godspell where primarily Jewish kids played the roles and much of it said and sung Hebrew. My teenage daughter was moved by the performance, but visibly troubled. She finally asked me if we Christians believed all Jews had to go to hell. I asked her if she wanted all Jews to go to hell. She said, “of course not.” Then I said, “Don’t you think the Triune God of the universe is at least as compassionate as you?” I didn’t often give my kids sage counsel, but I’d stick by this one. It doesn’t mean, of course, that there is no judgment. But it does mean that, as the creed puts it, the one who endured the cross is the one who will judge the quick and the dead.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  52. Brad A. wrote:

    Btw, how are you doing the italics, etc. here? Obviously, what I tried above didn’t work.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  53. james wrote:

    Kim, like Halden, you’re over-egging the argument with John. The eschatology of the prophets, Paul, and the synoptics is being harmonized with an eschatology from John that would/did freak them out. Why are we pretending this is what they had in mind as well? I understand choices must be made, but wouldn’t it be easier to corral John’s more unwieldy views (as nearly everyone always has)? John’s community clearly was domesticated somewhat or lost when it’s gospel slowly was adopted alongside the rest of the canon. The process here seems reversed.

    “Letting God be the one who defines his judgment (or wrath or love)” appears to mean just becoming an advocate for Johannine theology against an otherwise standard eschatology. Instead of “God, not man decides”, we get “(Non-standard reading of ) John not Paul decides”.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  54. Gordon Brown wrote:

    As a father who has gone through a similar situation, I appreciate how such events in life lead to a degree of enlightenment about what this difficult life is all about, and what foci are significant. And I agree with your list that it is never lived out perfectly. But even a quick glance at the NT – and early Fathers – suggests that this agape we are asked to ‘inhabit’ through the Spirit produced individuals of such an overwhelmingly powerful character that I don’t actually know anyone who is in the same league. My mind especially goes to Cyprian of Carthage. But while I know of some who now suffer persecution in other lands whose stories I see as powerful images of imitatio Christi, in my little bleak Northern Ireland that has quickly moved from violence to intense consumerism there seems little power of the Spirit to endure.

    Perhaps I’m just mixing with the wrong crowd! But I yearn for mentors of such spirit-driven character.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  55. Halden wrote:

    I hear you on that. I guess I would say that many of the giants we idealize were greatly flawed as well. This should not discourage us, but hopefully spur us on to live ever further and deeper into the agape that sent Christ to the cross for us and for our salvation.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  56. Halden wrote:

    Use <> instead of brackets and you’ll be golden.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  57. Brad A. wrote:


    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  58. Jeremy G wrote:

    Kim, not having heard the joke, I’m curious…is Jesus helping ‘them’ over to get in, or to get out? One answer is much funnier than the other, I suspect, but I fear my disturbed sense of humor has it wrong.
    Jeremy G

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  59. kim fabricius wrote:

    My old teacher at Oxford Geoge Caird insisted that the eschatology not only of John but also of Paul – and indeed the entire NT – is essentially, if not exclusively, realised. The uniqueness of John is simply that “the End is so totally identified with Christ that eschatology is transposed into Christology” (New Testament Theology, p. 263). But even for writers like the author of Hebrews – indeed even the author of Revelation – who speak of the imminence of salvation/judgement, their sense of “urgency derives not from any belief in the nearness of the Parousia; it comes from the finality of the word which God has spoken in Christ” (p. 264). The life, and of course especially the death and resurrection of Jesus – these are the fundamental apocalypic events. For sure there will be surprises at the Last Judgement – Matthew 25:31ff.! – but they won’t have to do with nature and character of the God disclosed in Jesus. What we’ve seen is what we’ll get.

    @ Jeremy,
    In the joke, Peter is at the pearly gates giving a hard time to those waiting to get in, when he hears of a big commotion at the far-end of heaven; then a messenger arrives with the explanation that “It’s Jesus again, Pete, giving a hand to those climbing the wall to get in.”

    But helping them to get out is an interesting take, along the lines of Mark Twain’s “heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  60. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Who is this? William Desmond?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  61. Hill wrote:

    That’s the Desmond I’m talking about.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  62. roger flyer wrote:

    I love your passion in this post. This is something you can really get your teeth into!
    and very important stuff…

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  63. roger flyer wrote:

    For sure there will be surprises at the Last Judgement – Matthew 25:31ff.! – but they won’t have to do with nature and character of the God disclosed in Jesus. What we’ve seen is what we’ll get.


    At the far end of heaven, there. Is that the Irish scaling the wall?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  64. Halden wrote:

    Wait, I thought we were talking about the guy from Lost. . .

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  65. bruce hamill wrote:

    Beautiful as ever, Kim, particularly the Marcionism comment, for all its danger

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 3:09 am | Permalink

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