Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Wrinkle in Time

The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with his creation. And like most great stories there is a wrinkle in it that no one saw coming. Something unprecedented, indeed unthinkable happened. And once it happened the story itself changed forever. Well, that is not exactly true, because the story itself did not change—we did. And in particular our understanding of what the story is about, of who God is, of why God made the world and history suddenly found themselves confronted with God’s wrinkle. Catching the entire world by surprise, God came in person to be with us. As John said, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Why? The most obvious—but almost unbelievable—answer is that God wanted to be with us and wanted us to be with him. From the beginning of Genesis all the way through the story of the Jews it is clear that the Lord wants relationship with his creation. But relationship of what kind? Early on we have God giving commandments to Adam and Eve, and then later the law was given through Moses to the people of Israel. So it would not be unreasonable to think that the relationship God wants with us is more or less legal. The older Calvinists structured their entire theology around the idea that God relates to us on the basis of law. But the shocking fact at the heart of Christianity is that God—without ceasing to be God—became human. We either think that such an event was in order to fulfill the law or we see it is a revelation of the kind of relationship the Lord wants to have with us—personal, so personal that everything even hinted at in the law is not only fulfilled but taken into new worlds of intimacy.

Paul, in Ephesians, says that God “chose us in Him to be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons” (1:4-5). At first glance, such language sounds awfully distant and legal, given that most of us innately hear ‘holy’ and ‘blameless’ and ‘adoption’ as legal words within a deistic worldview. But consider the other phrase in sentence, ‘before Him.’ The NIV translates ‘before Him’ as ‘in His sight,’ giving the impression that what Paul has in mind is that we are to be objects in God’s sight, as my computer or a candle are objects in my sight. But I think this is far too non-relational and pale and insipid for what Paul has in mind. Note Markus Barth’s comments on the meaning of ‘before Him.’

‘BEFORE HIM’ denotes the immediate presence of God to man and the closest proximity of man to God. The image suggests the position and relationship enjoyed by the cream of society at a royal court, by children to their father, by a bride to a bridegroom…” (Ephesians: The Anchor Bible, p.80).

Here we have a staggering statement. Barth sees Paul as suggesting that what the Lord is after in creation is relationship, real relationship with us, relationship of the most personal and profound and intimate and hospitable order. Not legal standing, but fellowship, communion, indeed union with us and we with God—shared life.

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, we have a rather stunning vision of God coming to be with us in person and to share nothing less than His own life with us in the closest, most beautiful way. On the other, we have an implicit question. Is this sharing of life a mere happy coincidence? Are we simply lucky that Adam fell? Whereas he got the law, we get God himself? Is God’s personal coming an afterthought, plan ‘B,’ some kind of divine half-time adjustment, as it were, consequent upon Adam’s disobedience? Or is God’s personal coming plan ‘A,’ the one and only eternal and original plan of God before the ages? Was adoption the eternal point? While these are simple and straightforward questions, their implications are monumental. How we answer them determines the way we read the book. Does Jesus fit into Adam’s world, or does Adam fit into Jesus’ world?

For my money, the incarnation is in no way an afterthought The incarnation—and the shared life that comes to us in the incarnate Son—is the original plan before the first particle of creation was called into being. Paul reread the story I the light of God’s wrinkle, and so should we. The law, the covenant, the whole history of the Jews, and indeed, creation itself serves the larger purpose of the incarnation and the sharing of the trinitarian life with us. To borrow from T. F. Torrance, what we have in creation and in Israel’s history is the preparation of ‘the womb of the incarnation.’ Creation is thus the first step in an inconceivable divine dream in which the human race will move from non-being to dirt to the right hand of God the Father. Adam, Abraham, Israel are created and called by the Lord to be the divine-human relationship in and through which the Father’s Son himself will cross all worlds and become human, uniting in himself the human race and the very trinitarian life of God.

This gives us a three-part vision of human history. First, there is the preparation for the coming of the Father’s Son, the creation of the womb of the incarnation. Second, there is his coming and the fulfillment of his Father’s dreams for us in his own life, death, resurrection and ascension. Third, there is the coming of the God the Holy Spirit in and through Jesus. As Irenaeus said, in Jesus the Holy Spirit himself has accustomed himself to dwell with the human race and accustomed the human race do dwell in him. So we have the time of preparation, the time of fulfillment, and the time of the Spirit. Implicit throughout these times is the profound blindness of the human race. So one aspect of the time of the Holy Spirit is our education, which includes accepting and relating to us in our terrible darkness and gently giving us eyes to see God’s wrinkle in time, so that we can live in the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Today I am most grateful that the Holy Spirit is passionate about our coming to know the truth, for it seems we are passionate about avoiding it. But blessedly, the Holy Spirit will not go away.

For more on this vision see my paper “On the Road to Becoming Flesh: Israel as the Womb of the Incarnation in the Theology of T. F. Torrance.” This essay is available on our web site as a free download.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Baxter!

Thank you for this most informative blog. And I have noticed that we humans are strongly inclined to think of God and our relationship with Him in terms of the law. To me, this thinking is not helpful. However, it stikes me that God is coming at us through a different apart from law way. As Paul says:

Rom 3:19-22--Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe....(NIV)

What an amazing God we have! Maybe we humans should give His way a try.

The best to you always!

J. Richard Parker