“Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies” by James Payton, Jr.

Irenaeus compiled a list of apostolic successi...
Irenaeus compiled a list of apostolic succession, including the immediate successors of Peter and Paul” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Payton’s purpose in writing this book is to make Irenaeus’ Against Heresies more accessible and less cumbersome to engage.  His primary method for achieving this end is shortening Books 1 and 2, which sets out the Gnostic doctrine as it is taught.  Although large sections are removed from these two books, enough is left to provide a brief and succinct overview of the Gnostic thought and Irenaeus’ primary objections to it.  Payton does a good job of maintaining the key ideas in Irenaeus’ assessment of the Gnostics while presenting an abridged version.

Irenaeus is often described as a polemical figure.  Undoubtedly, he tackles the Gnostic problem head on without much reservation.  However, it should be noted, by Irenaeus’ own words, that this is not the primary motivation.  Irenaeus is polemical only in the sense that he is trying to preserve something.  Irenaeus describes the situation with his opponents as such: “This is how the adversaries with whom we have to deal act: like slippery serpents, they try to escape at all points.  Consequently, they need to be opposed at all points, so that possibly, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth” (57).  The preservation and proclamation of the Truth is at the heart of Irenaeus’ purpose in writing.  As such, he hopes that by writing even the Gnostics might come to know Truth that has been handed down from Christ to the apostles for the Church.

After reading the way that Irenaeus re-orients the Old Testament in light of Christ, I find John Lawson’s categories for Irenaeus untenable.  Lawson states that Irenaeus did not know or adequately comprehend the history behind the Old Testament.  However, I believe that Irenaeus has a rich understanding of the Old Testament, which he reads in light of Christ.  He does not read the Old Testament in isolation from its preparation for Christ.  Thus, the importance does not sit upon the historical context but on the way that Christ fulfills and completes that which is in the Old Testament.  For instance, Irenaeus re-functions the Old Testament texts that talk about swords being beaten into plowshares to bring about a fuller comprehension of the cross.  An instrument intended for violence becomes God’s instrument of peace through which the harvest of the eschaton will be gathered.  Irenaeus does not ignore the historical context but says that the purpose is realized in Christ.

This is essential for Irenaeus’ argument against Gnosticism.  After all, Irenaeus wants to maintain the continuity between Jesus and the Creator God of the Old Testament.  What better way to do that than showing how Christ corrects and fulfills the Law and the Prophets.  Irenaeus is not allegorizing every Scripture and twisting it.  Rather, his exegesis is quite stunning in many respects.  For instance, Irenaeus employs the stories of the patriarchs in appropriate ways to the promised hope that is embodied in Jesus.

Recapitulation or ontic participation is scattered all throughout Irenaeus’ writings.  Although they are slightly different, they cannot be separated from one another.  Christ takes on the fullness of humanity so that through Christ humanity might enjoy all of God.  Jesus becomes the second Adam by treading the same ground that Adam tread but was found obedient, even unto death.  And, it is through Christ’s obedience that we see the fullest intentions and purpose of humanity!  We are able, at every stage, to see what it means to be a fully mature human: Christ!  In this way, Christ is the exemplar of what it means to participate in the very life of God.  In fact, Irenaeus states: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (116).

The main purpose for Irenaeus in salvation or recapitulation is that humanity might finally achieve its end: “join[ing] the end to the beginning – that is, humanity to God” (114).  He also views ontic participation as a relational ontology (to use modern vernacular), stating: “Without life it is impossible to live, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God.  But fellowship with God is to know God and to enjoy his goodness” (115).  And, this fellowship of love is demonstrated as obedience.  Which highlights the value of Christ’s recapitulating obedience.

Irenaeus’ concept of the Triune God working simultaneously and spontaneously together is intriguing.  We can learn a lot from him here.  In all ways, the Father, Son, and Spirit are working in unison and cooperation toward a common telos.  There is not a true sense of hierarchy or modalism that pervades the Trinity.  Instead, there is a relational mutuality that is inherent in God.  Now, Irenaeus typically talks about the “Two Hands of God” (Son and Spirit, Word and Wisdom).  However, by separating these out, Irenaeus only moves to put them back together again.  There is a constant tension that shows the continuity of God both in the old covenant and the new covenant.  As opposed to Gnostic thought, Irenaeus maintains that God is both God of Creation and God of salvation.

In fact, it is only through this cooperation that God is fully revealed.  He states, “God the Father was shown forth through all these operations, with the Spirit working and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving – and that salvation for humankind was being achieved” (115).  This is important given the tension between God’s transcendence and immanence.  Gnostics held that God could not truly be known and that the Pleroma were not God.  Irenaeus maintains God’s transcendence but maintains that God can be known because of the Son and the Spirit.  Most specifically, it is the Son’s flesh that reveals the invisible God in visible ways to humanity.  This is a brilliant tactic in dispelling his opponents’ arguments.

I particularly found Irenaeus’ concepts of recapitulation and ontic participation refreshing.  His emphasis that the Incarnation was going to happen even before the Fall, not because of it, was powerful.  The purpose of Creation from the beginning was to enjoy fellowship with God.  This shapes the understanding of the cross in significant ways that push back on the penal substitution so popular in our churches.  It pushes back on the Gnostic idea that Creation is bad and spirit is pure.  And, it challenges our separation of Christ’s work from the purposes of the Creator.  Our end is in our beginning.  Creation is salvation and salvation is creation, because it is God that works both.

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Personal Vision Statement for Ministry

“You will be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).  Delivered from the shackles of slavery, Israel now had a high and holy calling.  Quite simply, God had set Israel apart, not to rule over the other nations, but to serve the other nations as reflections of God’s character and nature.  Even as God had invited the Creation to participate in God’s creative activity in the world, so now God was calling Israel to engage in the mission of God in the world.  Israel was to be a microcosm, a small world within a world, of God’s Kingdom reigning on earth as it is in Heaven.  The Kingdom starts small but is intended to expand to all Creation.

The Church has always understood itself to be an extension of Israel’s calling.  1 Peter reminds us that we are called to be a “royal priesthood and holy nation.”  Just as Israel was called to serve the world, the Church as the Body of Christ is also called to serve our world.  We serve even as Christ models servant-hood for us: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped for his own advantage;rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.   And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8).

We are familiar with the Great Commission: “As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).  The world is rarely transformed through eloquent argument or great displays of power.  Rather, discipleship looks more like Calvary’s Hill than the political games of Capitol Hill.  It resembles a Cross and not crossed swords.  The Kingdom looks more like the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, than it does the American Way.  Following Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples.  Showing the disciples his nail-pierced hands and feet, Jesus told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  The journey of discipleship just might be a painful and deadly one.

But, that is neither cause for despair or fear that leads to self-preservation.  “Those who lose their life will gain it.”  Through Christ Jesus, Death and the Grave no longer hold the victory.  They have been defeated.  Death has been crushed to death.  Our cry, “O, what a wretched person I am.  Who can rescue me from this body of death?” is answered by the definitive proclamation, “Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We have been given this great Light and great Hope.  The darkness does not understand it and will try to snuff it out.  But, even as the darkness could not conquer Christ, the Church will not be the victim of destruction.  We are made to be more than conquerors through Christ Jesus.  Our fight, however, is not with flesh and blood.  It is against the powers and the principalities of this world.  It is against the Pharaohs and Pilates trying to shape us in their image.  Thus, we are called to “normalize the Kingdom” in the midst of a sometimes hostile world.

In doing so, we find ourselves surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on.  We follow the Pioneer of our faith in this race of endurance.  We allow God’s vision for this world to become our vision, proclaiming, “I have a dream” with Martin Luther King, Jr.  We stand up for what is right, stating, “Here I stand!  I can do no other” with Martin Luther.  We see the needs of our world and are burdened for them, recognizing, “The world is my parish” with John Wesley.  We find unity within the Body of Christ, despite differences we may have, acknowledging, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” with Saint Augustine.  And, when we find ourselves persecuted and attacked, we pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” even as Jesus and Stephen, the first martyr, prayed.

Theological Constructs

1) God is Triune: Three-in-One (Although this term isn’t used in Scripture, the basis can be found in Deut. 6; Gen. 1?; John 1, 14, 15; Matt. 28).  God is communal and dialogical, not only within the Godhead but with all of Creation.  God invites and empowers the Creation to participate in the creative activity of God in the world (Gen 1-2).  There is a degree of freedom inherent in the Created order, but it also depicts a relational God that is deeply and intimately involved with the Creation.  As such, God is not unaffected by what happens in the world.  This is most demonstrated in the Cross.  God is so committed to the Creation that God is willing to enter into the Creation and live with it, even at the cost of great suffering.

The language of Body of Christ and “royal priesthood and holy nation” (1 Pe. 2:9, 1 Cor. 15) suggests something that is collaborative and interdependent.  True faith cannot be privatized.  Rather, as Wesley suggests, “There can be no personal holiness without social holiness.”  We are created to be in community as a reflection of the Triune community.  Thus, the missio Dei is intrinsically connected to the Church as a community.  Each part has its role to play that helps the Body of Christ function as it should.  Therefore, communal language is appropriate to communicate this aspect of faith.

2) The Kingdom is an essential concept (Matt. 3-4 and Luke 4).  The Kingdom embodies God’s reign in the world.  It signifies God’s true intentions for the Creation.  God’s call is not about national identity, although it sometimes reduced to that belief.  Rather, the Kingdom transcends nationality and national allegiances.  The Kingdom is the shalom of God bringing about the unity of the Spirit in Creation with the Creator.  Israel and the Church are the microcosm of Christ’s peace being lived out in tangible ways that reflect God’s character and nature back into the world.  In other words, this is a matter of holiness.  We are in the world, but not of the world.  There is a Kingdom ethic that guides our lives and it is modeled in Christ Jesus’ death on a Cross.  The Way of the Kingdom is the way of cruciform, Incarnational living.

Pastors equip the people for “doing every good work” (1 Tim. 4:11-13).  This is not over and above the congregation but alongside the congregation as co-laborers in Christ Jesus.  Leadership is not something to be “lorded over others” but to empower others.  Christ is the Head of the Church, not the pastor (Eph. 4:15).  Rather, the pastor should be the first to pick up the “towel and the basin” and wash feet.  Pastors are servants of servants.

3) God invites response (Gen 1-2, Heb 3-4).  Although I did not get into the specifics of praxis, the theology of a dialogical, relational God shapes our praxis.  Understanding God as reaching out to all of Creation to restore it undermines nationalism, imperialism, militarism, consumerism, to name a few.  As Terrence Fretheim suggests, “God always acts directly, but always through agents.”  God desires to share this Kingdom with all of Creation.  We are all called to be “a royal priesthood and holy nation” (1 Pe 2:9).  Our response is gratefulness for the grace we have received through Christ Jesus.  It is also the call to extend that same invitation to others as God’s ambassadors in the world.

            God’s perfect love invites us to respond in new ways that go beyond fear (1 John 4).  This not only includes the fear of punishment from God, it includes the way that we live in the world.  “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7).  The Church needs to learn charitable discourse, especially among its members.  Jesus warned his disciples that the world will hate them because of him.  But, that does not then permit us to fight the way the world fights.  Rather, a sign of our maturing in Christ is the ability to discuss, even as God is dialogical, without fear of being destroyed.  God’s love brings a peace that passes understanding and allows us to stand firmly while maintaining charity.

Bibliography

Birch, Bruce C. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2007.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

 

Cladis, George. Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

 

Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.

 

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

 

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William Willimon. Lord, Teach Us to Pray: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

 

Outler, Albert C., and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

 

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

 

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

 

After Our Likeness

Miroslav Volf’s book, After Our Likeness, was not a quick read. However, Volf carefully deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology and their logical implications for ecclesiology. Ratzinger (Catholic) and Zizioulas (Orthodox) are the two primary theologians that Volf interacts with in his text. Volf, being from the Reformed Tradition, is quick to point out problems with both Ratzinger’s and Zizioulas’ views on Trinity. However, the author is not overly zealous, which allows him to also affirm where other traditions’ views are true. This book covers a range of issues within ecclesiology, including Protestant predicaments that arise. Overall, this book was philosophically and theologically well constructed. There is a link to a short paper I have written dealing with Trinity and the Church as community. It is hardly comprehensive; however, it does give an indication as to what I believe.

INTRODUCTION

Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early Church began to wrestle with Jesus’ divinity and humanity, as well as, what it meant to live Christ-like lives.  How could Jesus be both fully man and fully God?  Moreover, what was Jesus’ connection with God?  What was God’s essence and what did that mean for the Christian community?  A number of beliefs and viewpoints were proffered trying to explain the substance or essence of God: Gnosticism, Docetism, Modalism, Pelagianism, and Binitarianism, to name a few.  It finally came to a head in the early part of the fourth century.

The word “Trinity” used to describe God is an extra-biblical marker.  The doctrine of the Trinity was not formalized until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. in response to Arianism (Barron 42).  The Nicene Creed helped concretize the doctrine of the Triune God for the early Church.  At that point, it became a formalized, solidified statement of faith for Christians.  Although the recitation of the creedal statement has been uttered by churches for millennia, the implications of various Trinitarian conceptions of God have not always been clearly drawn out.  The creedal statement did not settle the issue.  It merely affirmed God’s Trinitarian nature.

The concept of the Triune God is more than a faith statement made by the Church universal.  As theologians, like Saint Augustine, have understood, this doctrine gives us insight into the nature and character of God.  To understand the Church’s nature and character, we must comprehend God’s character.  In this paper, I hope to make it evident that a proper understanding of the Trinity inescapably shapes the nature of the Church as God’s sacrament to the world.

I will commit to this task in several ways.  First, we will explore the implications of the imago Dei.  This exposition will allow us to glimpse God’s design for true humanity, which is fully embodied in Jesus Christ.  Secondly, we will put forth a working definition of Trinity, as well as, what it means to be human in light of Scripture and our experience.  Next, we will define sin and its effects, which twists God’s initial purpose for humanity.  Finally, we will comment on how the Church should reflect the Trinity in its calling.  This will basically confirm the priesthood of all believers, as well as, the necessity of the Church for our faith.  Let us start at the “Beginning.”

CREATION: IMAGO DEI 

The stories of Genesis 1 and 2 relate the creation accounts.  God brings forth all of creation by simply speaking a word, creating everything, ex nihilo, from nothing (Gen. 1; John 1).  The apex of creation is humanity, both male and female, made in imago Dei, the image of God (Gen. 1:26).  To understand true humanity, we must comprehend the implications of being created in this image.

Dr. Timothy Crutcher has suggested six ways to understand the full implications of the imago Dei.  Essentially, being created in this divine image means that humanity is characterized as: laborers, stewards, composite creatures, moral creatures, communal creatures, and with gender equality (my personal notes).  This was God’s intended design for humanity because it is the very nature and character of God.  In essence, God is the light which we reflect.  As such, when humanity lives out imago Dei, they are fully re-presenting God back to the world.

To help narrow the scope of our discussion, I only want to concentrate on three of these aspects: laborers, communal creatures, stewards, and gender equality (which I employ for equality between all humanity).  Furthermore, I want to discuss these aspects in the context of Love, which I believe is an appropriate term to describe God’s communion within the Trinity and God’s engagement with Creation.

God labors in the Garden of Eden for six days, resting on the seventh, which is the Sabbath (Gen. 1).  God starts creating ex nihilo but then uses the raw material of creation to make the rest of creation.  For instance, he forms man from the dust and woman from the rib of the man (Gen. 2:21).  God labors over creation thus adding further value to what is already there.  However, God does not keep this task to Himself.  Rather, God invites and empowers humanity to labor in the Garden so that it might produce vegetation (Gen. 2:15).  In fact, the passage suggests that plants have not grown because humanity is not around to till the soil.  Although God is the Creator, humanity participates as laborers with Him to add value to creation.

In the first creation narrative, humanity is given the task of governing over creation (Gen. 1:28-30).  Labor was a gift of God to humanity.  Labor pains increased after the introduction of sin to the Garden.  However, that does not imply labor was not difficult before sin.  Despite the difficulty that sin imposed upon our labor, we are still called to be productive, adding value back into God’s world (Gen. 3:16-17).  When we are committed to God’s creation as He is committed, it becomes an intense labor of love, whereby loving God’s world results in loving God too.

That is to say, we are merely stewards, not owners, of God’s gifts (i.e., Creation).  In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber suggests that how we treat someone’s personal belongings reflects our relationship with that person.  In the same way, how we use, or misuse, God’s creation speaks a great deal of our relationship with our Creator.  Let it suffice to say here that improper “governing” of God’s gifts often means that we lose those gifts.  For Adam and Eve, it was the loss of the Garden.  Later in history, Israel loses the gift of land due to disobedience.  God’s gifts must be used on God’s terms.

The second creation drama, however, presents a glitch: man has no suitable helpmate (Gen. 2:20).  It hardly seems appropriate to say that God’s creation is “not good”, as if He poorly constructed creation.  Rather, man is incomplete because there is no suitable helpmate.  Why is this “not good?”  Simply put, humanity without community is contrary to the nature of God, as fully represented in the Trinity.

In light of this fact, Genesis views the relationship between man and woman as one of total equality.  Woman is taken from man’s side, as opposed to his foot or head, which indicates equal status between these two humans.  Man and woman are like one another, albeit not totally the same.  However, it is that very difference that allows a man and a woman to become one flesh, diversity in unity.  This is the very thing we see in God, diversity in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet there is a unity of Love that inextricably binds them.

If it is true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and if God’s character does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; James 1:17), then it can be said that God’s very essence is communal.  After all, love must have an object of affection.  Furthermore, true love (agape) is not a power-structure relationship, but is one of equality.  It is the seeking of good for others first.  This love is a constant interpenetration of the Father, Spirit, and Son; so that when one acts they all act as One.  Love is not a static reality.  It is constantly moving, both toward and from each of the Persons in the Trinity.  To describe God as Love is to place God in relational categories.

God, it seems, has always been concerned about creating a community.  He promised to make Abraham into a great nation (Gen. 12:2).  He called Israel out of Egypt, calling them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).  That same imagery is used in 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 5:10 to describe the Church.  Leviticus 26:12 states, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (NIV).  1 Corinthians 12 uses the image of the body and John 15 the image of the vine to express the dynamic of God’s people being united to the Father through Christ Jesus.

“Just as a person cannot arise, develop, and live apart from her relationships with others, neither can a Christian exist as a Christian before entering into relation with other Christians; she is first constituted as a Christian through these relations” (Volf 178).  We are adopted and infused into the Body of Christ when we receive God’s gift of salvation.  And, as1 Corinthians 12 notes, it would be ridiculous for one part of the Body to say that it does not need the other parts of the Body or that the whole Body does not need it!

Miroslav Volf’s scholarship on the Trinity, After Our Likeness, argues:

(1) that the church is not a single subject, but rather a communion of interdependent subjects, (2) that the mediation of salvation occurs not only through officeholders, but also through all other members of the church, and (3) that the church is constituted by the Holy Spirit not so much by way of the institution of office as through the communal confession in which Christians speak the word of God to one another (224).

The Church as an institution is a necessity, despite its obvious failures at times.  Within our own Protestant circles, some have come to believe that the church as an institution is contradictory to the Spirit of God.  Miroslav Volf asserts, “If this view were correct, then resolute ‘pneumatic anarchy’ would be the only appropriate ‘structure’ for a charismatic church.  This view, however, is prejudiced, and anyone sharing it fails to recognize both the character of ecclesial institutions and the way the Spirit of God acts” (234).  God’s Spirit is not a Spirit of chaos, but one that brings structure and unity, as evidenced by the creation accounts.  To put it another way, God’s Spirit is not divided among believers, but remains One Spirit thereby bringing all people in Himself together as One Body.

In such an individualistic society, such as the United States, the mentality of Christianity has become “it’s just me and Jesus.”  As such, many “Christians” have divorced themselves from the Church failing to recognize the importance or the necessity for Christian community in their daily walk.  As a result, the typical layperson does not take responsibility for their role in the Church.

Much of this problem can be contributed to a consumer mentality: “the Church is here to serve my needs.”  This mindset tends to negate one’s call to serve others as service to God.  Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (NIV).  James berates his audience for similar thinking: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (NIV 2:14).  Our relationship with this Trinitarian God does not allow for us to neglect engaging our world!

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians outlines the purpose of the Church.  In chapter 12, we are told that the multiplicity (parts) is brought into unity (Body) through the Spirit under Christ.  Each body part has a particular function, so that every part is equally important in the ministry to each other and to the world.  In fact, when one part of the Body suffers, the entire Body suffers.  Furthermore, God has created the Church so that “there should be no division in the body” (1 Cor. 12:25).  If God designed the Church to be united, then how do we justify separating ourselves from the assembly of God’s redeemed people?

Typically, the ministerial task has been relegated to a relative minority.  Clergy have not always helped this trend, seeking to maintain power and control over congregations.  There is a tendency for such power to elevate people over and against one another, which is not conducive to community (at least not healthy community).  In addition, laity have often been under the assumption that ministry is a task for clergy, thus perpetuating the problem.

Although power is not a bad thing, we tend to handle it poorly.  This may, in part, be related to a hierarchical viewpoint of God.  For instance, Ratzinger’s concept of Christus totus inevitably leads to a power-structured church.  Even though the laity may be considered important, they are secondary to the role of officeholders (Volf 53-61).  Such a view elevates clergy to a “higher” service than the laity.  From a lay perspective, this sends a clear message that ministry is the clergy’s task.  As a result, laypeople may feel inclined to leave “ministry” in the hands of clergy.

However, the task of the clergy is service to the Body of Christ.  Jesus re-constitutes leadership for his disciples in Matthew 20:25-28: “’You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (NIV).  Leadership within the Church is outward focused, not for personal gain.  Jesus’ view of leadership was servant-hood, not power games.

“Indeed, participation in the Trinitarian life (i.e., to love and to know God – and his creation in him – the way he knows and loves himself, i.e., with a common love, both ‘actively’ and with ‘fruition’) implies a selfless way of acting in and towards the world” (Nieuwenhove 97).  This type of lifestyle is called of every believer, not as an option, as a natural overflow of our relationship with God.  A deeply intimate relationship with God does not allow us to sit idly by, relegating our service to Him in only words or with academic assent.  “But the loving spirit cannot rest in this, for charity and the inward stirring of the grace of God do not lie still” (Nieuwenhove 100).  God’s Spirit of Love moves us toward one another and sends us out into a broken world to re-present that Love.

SIN IS ANTI-RELATION

            Sin may seem like a very irrational category to discuss.  However, sin’s definition can ultimately inform us about God’s, and thus the Church’s, redemptive engagement in the world.  Our primary source for discussion will be Genesis 3, which narrates a creation both before and after sin enters the world.  This passage shows us what we are aiming for and combating against as the Body of Christ.

Walter Brueggemann comments, “In God’s garden, as God wills it, there is mutuality and equity.  In God’s garden now, permeated by distrust, there is control and distortion.  But that distortion is not for one moment accepted as the will of the Gardener” (51).  Prior to the entrance of sin in the garden, Adam, Eve, and the created order are in proper relationship with one another.  In fact, the man calls the woman “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), indicating equality and likeness.

However, sin dramatically altered humanity’s relationship with one another, God, and the created order.  In fact, when confronted with their disobedience, humanity points the finger of blame: (1) at God, (2) at each other, and (3) at the created order (serpent).  In addition, Adam only names Eve, an act of governing over, after sin is introduced into the Garden (Gen. 3:20).  Sin, as evidenced by this narrative, is primarily a relational disruption of community.  Now, humanity is solely concerned about self-preservation rather than promoting the welfare of others, which seems to be utterly contrary to God’s original intention for Creation.

Self-preservation is fear and distrust, not Love.  As 1 John 4:18 states, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (NIV).  According to the same epistle, “God is love.”  If love is not found in an action, God cannot be said to be in that action because “in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).  Thus, sin is anything that disrupts communion with Love.

Sin, in essence, is not a tangible thing.  If it were a tangible thing, it would follow that God created evil, however, Scripture simply does not support this view.  In fact, Augustine believed that “evil exists only in the weak sense that evil is the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light” (Serafini 40).  We might formulate this similarly by saying sin is the absence of Love.  This, I believe, is why Jesus affirms that the central commands are to love God and to love others, “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  God’s concern has always been right-relatedness, which is seen only when true agape is demonstrated in our lives.  It is obedience to God and the desire to promote the welfare of others.

Therefore, we cannot formulate that “to err is human.”  God created humanity without sin and this is the end to which He is now working.  In other words, God is redeeming the broken relationships, establishing righteousness, between God and His creation.  Where sin seeks to tear community asunder, God seeks to bring humanity under one Head, Christ.  To that end, the Church, as a “holy nation and royal priesthood”, is God’s sacrament to the world, a means of grace.  The Church is the eschatological people of God (Volf 128).

THE CHURCH’S SALVIFIC ROLE

Jan Van Ruusbroec writes, “Our created being does not become a creature, for we are created to the Image, that is, created so as to receive the Image of God, and that Image is the uncreated and eternal Son of God” (Nieuwenhove 89-90).  If sin
twists this Image within man, then salvation and sanctification restore and re-create the divine image within us.  Christ lives within us (Gal. 2:20)!  Christ is the fullness of the imago Dei.  He brings the Church into Himself, thereby bringing us into communion with the Trinity (Col. 1:15-23).

We are empowered to live by God’s Spirit in community, where before we could only live in fear and isolation.  The Church is an extension of the fellowship within the Trinity – by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.  1 John 4:13-17 reads:

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him (NIV).

The Church as a reflection of the Trinitarian communion must re-present such Love back into the world.  “Love demands love from Love and from the lover in a constant seesaw between love directed towards the world by God, towards God by the world, in between elements of God/Love, and towards the world by human lovers” (Boon 498).

Love cannot be held, as if we might own it.  Rather, Love is only ours insofar as we allow it to flow through us.  Mark 11:24 reads, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (NIV).  If that is true, then we are called to be conduits of God’s love.  It means that the love of God must always be given away.  To not give Love away is to cut yourself off from receiving Love.  It is the stewardship of God’s gifts.  We can only hold God’s gifts insofar as we live on His terms.  In other words, we do not own God’s grace, we merely become caretakers of that gift.

Furthermore, since we have all been created as equals in the divine Image, the task of participating with God in the world is not relegated to a minority.  Quite contrary to that thought, we must live in Christ as He lives in us.  There is only one Body, one Spirit, and one Lord (Eph. 4:4, Phil. 1:27).  In other words, the Great Commission (Mark 16:15) is given to the entire Body of Christ, of which we are all a part.

As such, we all have equal responsibility to that mission.  Luke 10:2 states, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (NIV).  As an equal community of laborers, we are called to add value back into God’s world by working with Him in re-creation.

CONCLUSION

            As has been noted, humanity has been created in the imago Dei.  This divine image imprinted upon us cannot help but shape what it means to be truly human.  We have been created to add value back into the world as laborers.  Secondly, God created humanity as equal partners, essential parts of the Body of Christ.  As such, the Christian community is equally responsible as God’s royal priesthood to engage in the Great Commission as the Church.  Finally, we have been created as a reflection of the Trinitarian community, from and toward one another.  As a result, the Church is not simply an option for our faith, but is an integral part of the work of God in the world.

As we are brought into the Church through Jesus, we become the very Body of Christ extending God’s love to the world.  We add value into the lives of others.  The Church can only function properly as the whole Body of Christ working together.  The fellowship of believers re-presents God to the world through the relationships we cultivate with one another.  And, we find that in participating with God’s redemptive work in the world, we ourselves are being saved, redeemed, and renewed to the glory of God.

Works Cited

Barron, Robert. 2007. “Augustine’s Questions: Why the Augustinian Theology of God Matters

Today.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 10, no. 4: 35-54. Academic

Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2010).

Boon, Jessica A. 2003. “Trinitarian Love Mysticism: Ruusbroec, Hadewijch, and the Gendered

Experience of the Divine.” Church History 72, no. 3: 484-503. Academic Search

Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2010).

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982.

Buber, Martin . I and Thou. Paperback Edition ed. New York: Scribner’s, 1970.

House, Zondervan Publishing. Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.

Serafini, Anthony. A History of Philosophy. Newton Abbot: International Scholars Publishers, 2001.

Van Nieuwenhove, Rik. 2000. “Ruusbroec: Apophatic Theologian or Phenomenologist of the Mystical Experience?” Journal of Religion 80, no. 1: 83. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2010).

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church As the Image of the Trinity (Sacra Doctrina).

Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

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