Construing theology as confessional theology in the context of the church, Jones understands the church as that liberative and redemptive community called into being by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to witness in word and deed the triune God for the benefit of the world. The full range of doctrinal themes that are deemed essential to the witness of the church are explored, including clear explanations of why they are essential and how they are to be understood. In pursuit of a truthful and beneficial witness of the church, the work centers on a trinitarian understanding of God, in which God freely and lovingly interacts with the world as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer. The work throughout affirms the belief that the gracious triune God is the Ultimate Companion who will redeem all creation.
by Stanley Hauerwas
Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School of Duke University
I believe that A Grammar of Christian Faith is destined, along with the work of Jenson and McClendon, to be the book that signals the recovery of the Christian voice in modernity. Deeply schooled in Wittegenstein, the Church Fathers, Barth, and Yoder, Jones’ presentation of Christian convictions is as elegant as it is profound. Anyone committed to serious theological reflection must read this book.
by Samuel Wells
Reading a heavy two-volume systematic theology is like watching a downhill skier. You know the enterprise is full of dangers, and not really a spectator sport. You look for signs of nerves, and half close your eyes at the sharp corners. But if, as in this case, the skier shows good technique, your confidence gradually grows and you relax, and by the end it becomes an exhilarating experience. This project is a remarkable achievement. It is comprehensive, earthed, mature and nuanced. It never misses a trick. It will be my first point of recourse on many issues for a long time to come.
The most satisfying part of the work comes when Jones, having secured a plausible doctrine of the Trinity, through discarding the negative attributes (immutability, etc.), turns his attention to human nature. He presents humanity as creaturely, personal, and spiritual—in other words, a mirror of the Trinity of Creator, Son, and Spirit. This is beautifully done, and shows that a Barthian approach can define humanity in ways that a more humanist model never could. Likewise the Barthian approach brings refreshing logic to the ‘grammar of sin’: ‘All humans are loved and forgiven in Jesus Christ. Therefore, all humans are in need of God’s love and forgiveness. Therefore, all humans are sinners'(p. 349). No labored ‘fear of finitude’ there. The approach works less well however in the chapter on the Christian life, where ‘agapic love’ becomes a basket containing rather too much freight.
This is theology that is, to use Jones’ own words, ‘clear, supple, discriminate, and pertinent'(p.343). It is rigorously systematic, in its coverage of doctrines, and in its method of precise definitions and carefully expounding them. It is thoroughly theological in its commitment to revelation and its uncompromising (but thoughtful) Christocentricism. It warms the heart.
by Stephen H. Webb
Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College
The following review appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 9/5 (2002): 514-515.
“We seem to be at the end of a period that has witnessed the revival of systematic theology. When theology lost confidence in the sixties and seventies, it became increasingly topical and sociological, intervening into practical issues as an aid to other, more serious academic disciplines. The revival of systematic theology was fueled, in part, by the approaching retirement of a whole generation of theologians who entered the academy during its expansionistic years of the post World War Two baby boom. Many of these works attempted to give one last stand to politicized agendas by wrapping them in systematic garb. Few of them seemed to have emerged primarily from the classroom, where, after all, the best professors spend the least amount of time. Few of them, too, tried to be in continuity with systematic theologians of the past. Instead, they were eager to break new ground for radical revisions of Christianity for the future.
Given that context, the two volumes of Joe R. Jones’ systematic theology constitute a remarkable achievement. This is a work written for the church and destined for the seminary classroom. It is as useful as it is comprehensive, a rare feat these days. Indeed, it could have been written only as the culmination of a career spent practicing the passion for God in the classroom. It reads like a teaching manual, but it is more creative than most theologies that strain after contemporary relevance. This two-volume set could just well be the first systematic theology of the postmodern period to be true to the actual practice of teaching theology. It demonstrates how a life devoted to teaching can lead not only to the most fruitful thinking but also to a thinking that reaches students where they are and moves them to places they never dreamed were possible.
What is most remarkable is that Jones spent seventeen years in university and seminary administration before returning to teaching at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in 1990. This book grew out of lecture outline notes that he made available for students in the CTS bookstore, but this book outgrew the genre of lecture notes. It really looks back to the days of the Medieval Schoolmen, whose lecture notes display a seriousness of purpose and depth of learning that are rarely attempted in the classroom today. By pushing himself to be the best teacher that he could be for his dozens of students, Jones has delivered a surprisingly creative and faithful gift to theologians everywhere.
The methodological underpinning of his work is the concept of “grammar,” but Jones brings a lot of clarification to this overworked term, and he does not overwork it himself. Theology is at once the conceptual analysis of Christian speech and the training in how to use that speech. It is as if one cannot learn to speak like a Christian without being pulled into the various debates that comprise Christian dogma. Jones does theology close to ground, so to speak, without letting his theory take over and take him away from his subject matter. He acknowledges that any grammatical analysis of religious language will be both normative and descriptive, because theology is a servant to the church, not its master. Theology is thus one part of the church’s witness to the glory of God, enacting the very thing upon which it reflects.
Jones sets out to cover the basic doctrines of the church, but in doing so, he meets the challenges of the secular world as well. This is a book that will teach not only beginning students in theology but also the teachers who use it. I predict it will have a long life in the classroom, precisely because it deals with nearly all of the fundamental questions of Christianity in such a way as to show that Christian life today is still a matter of understanding the Christian dogma that has guided the church from its very beginning.”
Stephen H. Webb
by William Barr
Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College
Edited from his review of Grammar in Theology, a British journal.
The following review by William R. Barr, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, appeared in Encounter, vol. 64, no. 1 (2003), pp. 655-74. Response by Jones is posted at the end of the review below. Posted 10/2/03.
Karl Barth once remarked that theological discourse must be declarative and bold, because it is based not in human speculation but in the revelation of God. Forthright and bold statements clearly characterize this major theological work by Joe Jones, the summation of a lifetime of study, reflection, and teaching. The author, now professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Christian Theological Seminary, taught theology for many years at CTS, and prior to that at Perkins School of Theology and then at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University, where he also served as dean and later as president.
In this systematic statement, the author’s aim is to analyze and clarify the language, and thus also the thought, of the church in its exposition of the gospel. In so doing, he wants to help remedy what seems to him significant areas of “disarray” in the speech and life of the church; in particular, that such speech is often merely empty talk without relevance to life-shaping and redemptive practices. Jones refers to the speech of the church in word and deed as the “grammar” of Christian faith, and he concentrates attention on the way this grammar works: in terms of its syntax (meaningful connection of words), semantics (reference to an object or subject matter), and “pragmatics” (what actions the speech aims for and helps accomplish). He wants to show that Christian speech is not just the expression of the individual’s feeling or experience, nor of the church’s cultural context—although these are inevitably reflected in Christian discourse—but that the church has a primary responsibility to articulate clearly in the present situation those defining practices that constitute the Christian community as church.
The first part of the work addresses the task, sources, and norms of systematic theology. Jones insists that the basis of Christian theology is God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ as the God of Israel and creator and redeemer of the world. On the basis of such texts as Psalms 19 and Rom 1:18-21, as well as the restlessness of the human spirit seeking God, Jones acknowledges a general revelation of God through creation, but he contends that our knowledge of this revelation is generally clouded and rendered ineffective by the spiritual blindness that results from human sin. It is clarified only by God’s special revelation in the salvation history of Israel, in Jesus Christ, and in the church guided by the Holy Spirit. In this history, God’s self-revelation is always an event, an event that evokes and includes a personal affirmative response in and by those who receive it in faith. This, says Jones, involves the response of the whole person: mind, as well as heart and life. He contends that this also includes the response of a community of faith that witnesses to and communicates the gospel of God’s revelation. In carrying out this witness, the church undertakes theology to test and clarify its explication of the gospel in and in relation to the contemporary situation. Thus, Jones argues, Christian theology must be confessional church theology, a theology that presupposes and serves the church.
Jones specifies the following as the basic sources of Christian theology: scripture, church traditions, contemporary learning, and past and present human cultures. Scripture and those church traditions that rightly interpret scripture are said to be “deputized signs” that witness to and communicate God’s truth, but are not to be taken as an inerrant deposit of doctrine, since in them God works through historically-conditioned and fallible human witnesses. Jones says the church that listens to hear the gospel through these witnesses is both freed and bound by them: freed, because the gospel of God’s free grace is always living and energizing, never merely a dead letter; and bound because this witness is the indispensable means through which the gospel is transmitted to later generations.
However, the author takes issue with George Lindbeck’s view (in The Nature of Doctrine) that theology should only be descriptive of the rules governing the church’s discourse. He contends that such a view elides recognition of the essential truth-claims inherent in the church’s witness and overlooks that theology is itself part of this witness.
The second section of the work has to do with the nature and activity of the God revealed focally in Christ. The author argues strenuously and incisively that God is revealed here not as a metaphysical substance nor as a metaphysical process bound by necessity to the world but rather as a personal, living subject, in triune interaction and participation both with the world and in God’s own being; a God whose life is lived in an interactive communion of love; and who freely and graciously is self-giving to and for the salvation of the world. Drawing on Barth’s and Rahner’s notions of modes of being, Jones conceives God as one person-subject, self-differentiated in three distinctive modes of being-in-act. He rejects the Eastern and more recent social trinitarianism, which conceive God as a society or community of persons, believing that this implies tritheism, the notion of three gods, and makes impossible the affirmation of God as one subject. Jones accepts the traditional trinitarian terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but seeks to be responsive to feminist criticism by arguing that these terms do not divinize the male, nor sanction male dominance, but rather designate an order and intimacy of relationships within the divine life and in the relation of God to the world. He suggests that an appropriate formulation would be: “We believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mother of us all.”
With Barth, Jones’s basic definition of God is “the Triune One Who Loves in Freedom.” This becomes the criterion for understanding the divine attributes, and leads the author to reject classical notions of divine immutability and impassibility, since a God who passionately loves the world is surely affected by what happens in it and by the response of (in any case) the human creature.
From this follows a discussion of God as Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler (Providence), and in connection with this, the problem of evil. Rejecting both creationism and a naturalistic view of evolution, Jones argues for a view of God as gracious Companion who interacts with and works within the world to achieve God’s purpose for the flourishing of life. Evil is both personal sin (turning away from God) and the multiple consequences that follow from this, including the formation of what the author calls “force fields of evil”: systemic and entrenched cultural attitudes and social arrangements that demean and destroy human life and damage creation.
Countering what he sees as tendencies in some sectors of recent theology to blend or posit a metaphysical continuity of God and the world, Jones insists that the “otherness” of God and the creature is the condition for God’s having free and gracious relationships with creatures and with the creation as a whole. Yet Jones also wants to avoid a deistic separation of deity and the creation. He argues that the creature has “an appropriate creaturely independence of God,” is respected and valued by God, and has the freedom to respond to God’s revelation. Yet, while Jones rejects any notion of creaturely autonomy over against or apart from God, he seems to make a limited space for a “relative independence of the creature” in relation to God, although it is not clear how this fits into his discussion of the Holy Spirit as God’s empowering presence within the life of the creature that grants true freedom and faithful response.
In connection with the doctrine of creation, the author engages in a wide-ranging and discerning exploration of the human being as created embodied spirit. Acknowledging that the question of the nature of human being in its totality and depths is as elusive and finally incomprehensible as the mystery of God’s love for and commitment to the human creature, Jones adopts Calvin’s rule that true knowledge of the human being cannot be separated from the true knowledge of God. He adopts Barth’s view that humanity can only be understood rightly in the light of Christ; that is to say, in terms of God’s revelation of human being as well as divine being in him. It is thus Jesus’ humanity that provides the norm for understanding our own. This leads, in Jones’s view, to an understanding of the human being as created being, as sinful, as reconciled in Christ, and as redeemed, or being redeemed, in the Holy Spirit.
The author’s discussion of the human as embodied spirit in these respects is especially rich. Jones points out the interdependence of human beings with the rest of creation, the distinction between sexual differentiation and gender roles, the dynamics of personal being and interaction. His discussion of personal being as emotive, as well as rational and agential, leads into a perceptive probing of the power of passion, desire, and erosic attraction in human life.
Jones contends that it is at once a qualitatively new act, but also in basic continuity with God’s relationship with the world and calling of Israel to be God’s witness among the peoples, that in Jesus Christ God comes in person as this particular person to take up and reconcile sinful and lost humanity. Jones interprets the “self-emptying” of the Son in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:6-11) as signifying that in Jesus God humbly condescended to become one of us, without thereby abandoning or limiting or concealing God’s essential attributes (contrary to many kenoticist views). For it is in this event that the divine attributes are most clearly revealed.
Because the person and work of Christ are intertwined, Jones argues, neither can be adequately understood apart from the other. Following and at the same time modifying Reformed/Calvinist tradition, Jones explicates Christ’s work in terms of the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and Resurrected Victor. Jones’s discussion of these offices is insightful and provocative.
For, example, Christ’s priestly office is interpreted not as an appeasement of God or as an unjust imposition of human sin and punishment on Jesus (the charge of “cosmic child abuse” completely misses the point), but as God’s own voluntary assumption of the consequences of human sin and defeat of them as the ultimate determiners of human life. Here Jones attempts to walk a fine line between affirming God’s presence in Christ (in trinitarian terms: the perichoresis of the Father in the Son and in the Spirit) and the apparent distance or even absence of God epitomized in Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. Attempting to hold both of these together, while grappling with Moltmann’s view (particularly in his work The Crucified God), Jones contends that God the Father “is present as absence but present as will.” However, both the meaning of this statement as well as its implied separation of the divine will and personal presence in Christ’s final suffering and death seems to this reader highly problematic. Furthermore, it seems to undercut the crucial affirmation Jones goes on to assert, that the Father suffers directly, not merely at a distance, as an empathetic onlooker, in the suffering of the Son.
By substituting the terminology of Jesus Christ as risen victor for the older designation of the royal office as Christ’s kingly work, Jones not only avoids anachronism in speaking of this aspect of Christ’s work, but he also wants to emphasize the importance of the resurrection and the decisive yet also ongoing work of Christ in confronting the powers of evil. Jesus’ resurrection signifies that the chief of these powers, death, a power that manifests itself in all the others, is itself rendered powerless by its incapacity to hold Christ victim. This is not only a conviction of his followers who believed him to be risen; their joyful declaration is based on something they witnessed and that happened to them, the risen and life-giving presence among them of the one they followed.
Jones insists that because Jesus was raised “in a bodily form,” (although one that has unusual characteristics and properties, a new body yet at the same time recognizable in disclosure situations), the eternal life the risen Christ communicates to others through faith is also a transformed life in body and spirit. Clearly, though, there remain unresolved issues here, even on the christological basis on which Jones addresses these matters.
In sum, the soteriological doctrine culminates in a view of Christ’s saving work as the merciful enactment of God’s forgiveness and renewal of human life “ordered to the flourishing of humanity.” The author points out that this has cosmic significance as well since it requires an environment in which such flourishing is both possible and actual.
Yet God is not only Creator and Reconciler, but also Redeemer, through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Jones reviews biblical and traditional theological views of the Spirit, and in response to more recent discussions of the Spirit by Moltmann, Welker, and Elizabeth Johnson, and others, works out his own view of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit as God’s free presence within the creature, implementing the reconciliation wrought in Christ and empowering renewal, liberation, and redemption.
The Spirit also generates, sustains, nourishes, guides, and leads to completion the Christian life. The gift of faith is its primary element, not simply as belief but as a total response to encounter with the gospel of Christ, and thus as a “way of being-in-the-world.” Jones distinguishes between the many routes of faith (the various ways in which people live out faith) and the essential structure of faith as grateful acknowledgement, believing, trust in God and knowledge of oneself, intentional action and an orientation of the heart to God. Further, in Jones’s exposition the Christian life also includes freedom in Christ, sanctification, discipleship, and works and passions of agapic love. Jones’s discussion of these topics is penetrating. In this exposition, he develops a notion of what he calls “erosic love,” in which within agapic love for others there often is attraction toward the other, not necessarily sexually but in the desires that pull people forward toward common goals and energize their decisions and actions.
While the author at various points draws out ethical implications of theological doctrines, it is in here in his discussion of the Christian life that he gives his most concentrated and sustained attention to ethical issues. Drawing on the work of John Howard Yoder (especially his volume on The Politics of Jesus), Anders Nygren, Paul Ramsey, Gene Outka, and others, Jones works out an ethics of Christian discipleship. Grounded in Christ, and reflecting the triune life of God, the Christian and the community of faith are called to a life of mutual love, of mutual self-giving and receiving. All decisions and actions are to manifest such love. However, there are many situations in contemporary life where it is not clear how such love is best expressed: whether to save a fetus or to abort it, whether to continue life-support systems or to disconnect them, whether to employ or abolish the death penalty, etc.
The church is the context and nurturer of the Christian life. Jones proposes a conception of the church as a liberative and redemptive community of persons in Christ and in the Spirit called “to witness in word and deed to the living triune God for the benefit of the world to the glory of God.” This means that the whole of the church’s life is to be a profession of the gospel—in its worship, education, communal care, evangelism, and social outreach.
Seeking to show that theology is concerned with the practices of the church, as well as its essential nature, the author gives specific attention to the proclamatory, nurturing, outreach, and administrative practices of the church. He discusses at length the meaning and practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Reflecting his own Free Church tradition, he urges practice of believer’s baptism, contending that the recipient does not realize the full meaning of this without personal reception and appropriation. Indeed, Jones goes so far as to allow that if one’s “first baptism” did not involve the recipient’s personal commitment in faith, then it was not an “authentic” baptism and “one could be baptized again for the first time” (author’s italics). Jones argues this point, even though he counsels that the church and its leaders should not ask those who have been baptized at early ages to wonder anxiously whether they had been sufficiently intention in the act. There is obviously some tension here between the author’s concern to maintain the priority of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ which is the foundation of Christian baptism and which must find expression in it, and the believing appropriation of this grace and its becoming effectual in the life of those who are baptized.
Jones’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the celebration of the freely enacted encounter with Christ in and through the elements of bread and wine, but he emphasizes also the work of the Holy Spirit in gathering the community and creating communion with Christ and among the participants. Because the Lord whose table this is reached out to and welcomed sinners, Jones recommends that “all who ‘desire’ to participate” be welcomed to share in this act. He believes that the discourses at the table are sufficient to clarify what participation in this event means and requires, although he acknowledges that this involves growing understanding and deepening of faith over time.
Included in this section is a brief but important discussion of the meaning and practice of prayer. Because God is affected by as well as active toward the world, prayer is heard and taken seriously by God, although God’s will and work may not include granting all of the wishes of the one who prays. Prayer also helps align those who pray with the will of God and allows God to work more effectively in and through them. Thus the practice of prayer, in Jones’s view, indicates that the relationship of God and the believer (and the community of faith) is not coercive but voluntary, a relationship of receiving God’s guidance and responding with gratitude, petition, intercession for others, and silent listening and openness—also at times with groans and tears.
However, essential to the life of faith is hope. In the concluding section, Jones turns to an examination of the hope that animates and guides Christian life. He begins with a description of hope as a general human phenomenon and states that the “Christian life is a special style, type, and content of human hoping” (author’s italics). But he immediately goes on to say that the “linchpin” of Christian hope is specifically the risen Christ as victor who reigns over creation time and historical becoming. This, he states, is true both “vertically,” as Christ’s present radical reshaping of life, and “horizontally,” as the goal toward which our lives and creation are moved in the power of the Spirit. Here Jones boldly asserts a christologically-based universalism. He states, “Christians look to an absolute future in which God will bring all sinful humans and the whole creation to eternal fulfillment in God’s own eternal life.” But surely this is more a matter of hope and trust in God’s unforeseeable free grace which encompasses and empowers the free response of the creature than it is logical conclusion drawn from christological (and theological) premises.
In conclusion, it must be said that this is a work rich in summary of biblical and historical background of the doctrines of Christian faith and incisive in its interpretation of them in the contemporary life of the church. Though for the most part Jones follows closely the lead of Barth’s theological interpretations, at some points he does not hesitate to depart from his mentor and go his own way. He does so, for instance, in his notion of a relative independence of the human creature in relationship to God; in his restoration and revision of the older Reformed doctrine of the three-fold office of the work of Christ; and in his confident assertion of a final universalism of salvation. The author’s assertive, stipulative style may cause some readers to wonder how he arrives at the positions he takes, but the ensuing discussion often clarifies and shows the basis of earlier assertions. To be sure, this is a work that will prove helpful to all concerned for a clearer and deeper understanding of the meaning of Christian language in our time.
Copyright©Encounter. Used by permission.
Response by Jones:
I am deeply grateful to Professor Barr for the extensive and generous exposition of my systematic theology. The care with which he exposits and interprets my work is admirable and discerning. It is especially gratifying that Professor Barr is a retired professor of theology from a seminary, Lexington Theological Seminary, in my own denominational tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He not only knows his way around in our shared tradition, but in the larger theological traditions of the church as well.
There are, however, a few points in Barr’s review with which I want to wrestle further. First, with regard to my interpretation of Jesus’ cry of dereliction [pp. 449-51], Barr writes:
“Jones contends that God the Father “is present as absence but present as will.” However, both the meaning of this statement as well as its implied separation of the divine will and personal presence in Christ’s final suffering and death seems to this reader highly problematic. Furthermore, it seems to undercut the crucial affirmation Jones goes on to assert, that the Father suffers directly, nor merely at a distance, as an empathetic onlooker, in the suffering of the Son.”
Let us grant that Jesus’ cry of dereliction seems to suggest Jesus’ sense of being abandoned by the Father. In the history of the church this cry has been largely ignored because it implies some sense of disjointedness or separation between the Father and the Son. How are we to interpret this? If we are firmly trinitarian in our interpretation, then we will not suppose there is, as Barr says, an “implied separation of the divine will and personal presence in Christ’s final suffering and death…” Why not? Because the divinity of the Son is already granted and is not dependent on the Father’s “presence” in order to be divine. Yet the Son is doing the will of the Father in accepting the cross, and therewith the Father is present to the Son as will. But the Father does not himself go to the cross, is not crucified; it is the Son who is crucified. It is in this sense that the Father is ‘absent’, and I do not think that undermines the perichoretic presence the Father has in suffering with the Son’s suffering, even though the Father does not suffer and die on the cross as the Son does.
Our language here is difficult and lacks a certain precision. Perhaps my language and grammar can be improved in clarity, faithfulness, and truth. But in ways the traditions of the church could not say, with their adamant insistence that God is immutable and impassible and therefore cannot suffer, I am simply trying to follow what I take to be the ‘incarnational narrative’ of the NT with its undeniable description of the Son not only dying on a cross and suffering its brutality but experiencing the absence of the Father. We can only unfold these matters theologically if we have an understanding of God in which God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in both unity and diversity and of a Son who can become incarnate in a human being who suffers and dies at the hands of the principalities and powers of evil. So, there might be some tension between Father and Son in the cross, but that is the unfathomable tension of the triune God taking the sins of the world into the divine Life for the sake of the redemption of the world.
Second, with regard to my grammar of baptism, Barr thinks there is some tension in my account between my emphasis on the priority of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and my emphasis on the importance of the baptizee being an active and intentional participant in the event. I am arguing both with those traditions that so emphasize the priority of God’s grace that the action of the one being baptized is insignificant to the performance of the event of baptism and with those traditions that so emphasize the believer’s action that it looks like an action of works righteousness that earns the grace. O, how confusing the church can get!
I am concerned that the ecclesial practice and performance of baptism can be so characterized that the one being baptized is no more than a passive recipient of something: grace? It is only because this description of baptism is accepted that the baptism of infants could even be entertained. But there is really no biblical sense to so emphasizing baptism that it is a practice done to the baptizee and never a practice performed by the baptizee. While it is surely important that the church does the baptizing, we cannot so describe the whole event of being-baptized without describing the public yes-saying and promise-making of the baptizee. Without the baptizee’s active consent we could never say that baptism is the beginning of the Christian life and membership in the church.
Consider the analogy to the performance of a marriage ceremony. Surely the officiating minister is a sine qua non of the event of marrying, but so too is the consent of the two being married. We could not say that the ecclesial intent of the practice of marrying is only a performance of the church and not in any sense a performance of the persons being married. There is no event of marrying without the consent of the persons in their making vows and affirmations.
The startling point is that the ecumenical traditions of the church can talk as though there is one baptism when the theologies of the practice are so starkly at odds. So with regard to Barr’s comment that there is some “tension” in my view of baptism, I must say that there is absolutely no tension whatsoever. I am perfectly clear that baptism is both an action of the church and an action of the person being baptized, and this has not even the faint odor of works righteousness. In the same way that a person cannot perform a baptism on herself, so too the church does not successfully perform a baptism without the consent and yes-saying of the person being baptized.
Third, Barr is concerned with my argument for universal redemption, contending that I am relying too much on a “logical conclusion drawn from christological (and theological) premises” and thereby ignoring the personal hope and trust in God. This comment is puzzling, as I would have thought drawing eschatological and soteriological conclusions from christological and theological premises is just what is to be desired. Apparently Barr thinks I am tying God’s hands by arguing that beliefs about an ultimate dual destiny leave matters utterly murky as to how anyone is ultimately saved. However, even if we say we leave ultimate salvation up to the judgment of God, who is this god in whom we say we are trusting our ultimate hope? Are there no theological beliefs here?
But apparently Barr also thinks I am diminishing the existential hope that a person might have by my proposing there are good reasons for the hope Christians and the church have. Well, I do think there are good reasons, given other beliefs Christians have about God and human life, for believing and thereby trusting that all persons will ultimately encounter the sheer grace and beauty of God in a way that is irresistible.
I am writing this response in gratitude for Barr’s review as he exemplifies that the church and the Christian are always in a quest for understanding and that such understanding cannot live without active conversation and questioning, even if there are no absolute arguments that meet everyone’s objection. It remains true that Christian discourse is ad hominem: directed to the individual person and requiring decisions about how he is to live and construe God and the world. Yet the ad hominem address does not occur except through the truth-claiming character of the discourses of the church.
Further Exchange between Professor Barr and Jones
Barr: October 6
Many thanks for your thoughtful and probing response to my review of your excellent systematics. Because I too, with you, am in a continuing quest of better understanding of the gospel, I want to offer some thoughts after reading your response.
You are certainly right that trying to understand Jesus’ cry to God from the cross is very difficult and that our language about this “lacks a certain precision.” Nonetheless, we have to keep trying and hopefully, with God’s guidance, try to understand more deeply. Clearly what happens here is significant for understanding the trinitarian relations within God’s own being and in God’s relation to Jesus and to the world. A “presence in absence“–does that mean only the distinction between the Father and the Son, and thus ruling out patripassianism, such that it is the Son, not the Father, who is crucified (even though the Father suffers the Son on the cross)? Or does it mean something stronger–that the Father, though not on the cross, nevertheless shares the suffering of the Son. Some faint analogy to this might be the way very close friends share the suffering of each other, or this between spouses who deeply love each other. But, of course, the relation of the Father and the Son is even closer than this. But is this rightly described as a “presence in absence”? That seems to suggest a not being there. But that doesn’t seem to be what you mean. From your response I gather that what you mean is something like: the Father is not simply identical with the Son but is another, distinct (not distant–even if it seems that way to the dying Jesus, for the Father has promised and manifested in Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration that the relation between them is immediate). It seems to me the word “absence” does not convey clearly what you seem to mean here, nor what should be said about this puzzling cry.
I want to address your point about baptism. But to do so, I feel the need to back up a bit and probe into your view of the relation of divine and human action more broadly. Christologically understood, as I see it, God’s grace includes, evokes, empowers, and guides human life and activity–as the presence of God in Christ includes, evokes, sustains, and guides Jesus’ humanity. Certainly there is what the ancients called a hypostatic union of these in him, which is not true of us, except as (by God’s grace) we are embraced by him and made one with him. Still, God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit is not only an action upon us, an exterior gift given to us (although it is also that), but it is also God’s action with us opening us to receive God’s gift and enabling us to live in its power. Now, this brings us to a consideration of baptism. I agree that the “public yes-saying and promise-making of the baptizee” is necessary. But it also needs to be made clear that this is not just a self-initiated and executed action on the part of the baptizee to God’s gift in Christ extra nos; but rather an act of confession and commitment of the baptizee in and by the power of God’s grace. I think part of difficulty of articulating this clearly is that we seem unable to let go of a notion of grace and human freedom as competitive rather than seeing the latter as embraced by and empowered by the former (and prior).
That is why in my review I raised some question about your suggestion of “relative independence” of the human will in relation to the grace and action of God. It seems to me this suggests the idea of a competitive relation. When it is actually the “breath,” power, grace of God that gives us life, sustains our lives, seeks to guide our lives, and that empowers our response of faith and commitment to Christ concretely received and made in baptism.
Finally, (no pun intended) some thoughts on your response to Christian hope. Your confident assertion of God’s final salvation of all does have good theological and christological grounds, and you rightly point those out. But I think we should not lose sight of that this is and remains God’s promise, the goal toward which God leads us and toward which we press on in faith. As you yourself say, the God Christian faith proclaims is the living God, whose relation to us is always one of free grace. That does not make God’s promise nor our hope uncertain, problematic, a dark mystery; nor, on the other hand, does it put into our hands an insurance policy that we can put in our files. With Luther we cling to this hope in faith–in faith in God’s faithfulness and completely trustworthy love. But this love is trustworthy. And it seems to me only in continuing trust and hope do we hold firm to the promise God has given us in the resurrection of Christ.
Well, enough for now. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Barr: October 7
You are going to get tired of me cluttering your e-mail box with messages. But in the light of a new day, some of the things I said in my response to you seem to me way off base. For instance, my reference to the hypostatic union has to do, of course, with the relation of divine and human natures in Christ, not with the relation of the Father and the Son. My mind must have slipped a cog or two there! Anyway, the point I wanted to make (and didn’t make well) was the deep intimacy and sharing of suffering of the Father with (and perichoretically in) the Son on the cross and in the cry. Maybe the closest human analogy here is David’s grief over the death of Absalom (II Samuel 18:33). The Father does not him/herself hang on the cross (otherwise Altizer would be right: God died–the whole of God–on the cross), but God the Father is so intimately united with the Son that the Father is deeply affected (maybe the older evangelical way of putting this is even closer the mark: the Father’s heart is torn in the death of the Son). And if Paul is right about the Spirit interceding in prayer, then we cannot avoid saying that God the Holy Spirit is also involved in this cry and suffering, even though not explicitly mentioned in the biblical text.
Well, enough for now. All the best.
Joe: October 8
Thanks for the probing critique.
First, I detected in your review a tendency to be concerned that if the Father is not “present” in Jesus on the cross, then Jesus’ divinity is called into question, as though the presence of the Father is the source of Jesus’ divinity. I know the traditions sometimes talked this way, but once a full-orbed trinitarianism is launched then we can talk differently about incarnation and the divinity of Jesus. So, when I talk about the cross and the Father’s peculiar absence, I am saying that in the confidence that Jesus is the divine Son going to the cross and human death. I do not need the Father ‘there’ in order to have divinity there. But I am indeed a patripassianist insofar as the Father suffers with the Son, though not as the Son, and even suffers the depths of brutality that are afflicting the Son. But I can only say these things after getting the church’s theology free of the immutability and the impassibility of God.
Second, as for human freedom and divine action, I have tracked this all over the text. Look again at pp. 227-228 on divine presence, the long and difficult, and maybe the most obscure of my discussions in the text, on God’s action in the world at pp. 265-290, the various discussions of the grammar of human freedom at pp. 315-317, 320-321, 328, 528-536. I labor so hard, perhaps unsuccessfully, to deny precisely your charge that I construe the divine and human action as a zero sum situation. Read me again.
Third, my concern about baptism is not how God’s action and human action are joined. It is simply the issue of how the church describes for itself what the practice of baptism is theologically. My contention is that the practice’s grammar varies widely as to whether or not the practice necessarily involves the action of the baptizee. So, have we said all that needs to be said if we simply describe baptism as an ‘action of the church’ in which the grace of God is declared, to which the action of the person being baptized is theologically irrelevant? The act of baptizing is, according to that view, complete in itself without any reference to the consent or action of the one being baptized. From which it seems to follow that if it is irrelevant whether the baptizee consents or confesses in the event of baptism, then let us go out and symbolically baptize all of New York, or any other geographic group of folk: they need to have the grace of God declared to them.
Thanks for your searching remarks.
Bill: October 21
Many thanks for your continuing theological conversation via e-mail of some of the issues dealt with in your systematics. I have re-read the passages to which you referred me and think (hope) I have a better grasp of your argument (aided by your comments in your last e-mail to me).
First, let me say a few things concerning the relation of the Father and the Son in Jesus’ suffering and death (climactically, but not only on the cross). Certainly, the Father does not have to be there in order for divinity to be present in Jesus’ suffering (the Son is homoousios with the Father and therefore fully divine). And I too am a patripassianist in holding that the Father shares the suffering of the Son. But I would go further than that “the Father suffers with the Son,” as you wrote; I would want to say that while it is the Son, and not the Father, who is incarnate and suffering, the Father not only is an empathetic on-looker, as it were, but also suffers in the Son’s suffering (by virtue of the perichoretic interweaving, mutual involvement/ participation of the persons in the divine life/subject). Or, to put this in less technical terms, that the Father is so closely/ deeply involved in the life of the Son (though not identical, as the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and elsewhere shows) that the Father immediately “knows” (in the biblical sense) the suffering of the Son, and knows this in the Spirit. But there is still much here I’m not able to comprehend, and so I keep pressing and praying for understanding.
Let me turn now to the issue of divine action and human freedom. You have indeed obviously wrestled long and hard with this matter, and much you say concerning it sounds right and good to me. But I still detect what seems to me an inconsistency in the sections you asked me to re-read. First of all, though, I have to say that your discussion of this matter strikes me as more of a philosophical meditation than as christological analysis, although you make the claim that “Jesus Christ is the definitive self-revelation of God and that we are to think from this revelation. (p.269).” You make the point well that God (not only as Creator and Sustainer, but also as Redeemer and Perfecter) acts not only on the world, but also with and within it. Christologically, this has to be ‘read off’ or seen from the perspective of God’s action in Christ and presence in the world in the Spirit. All of this you discuss (philosophically) on pp. 265-69 and elsewhere. But then, at the bottom of p. 269 you assert that “the creature’s relative independence of God … is a precondition of the creature being one who might respond to God in fellowship.” What is this “relative independence”? Is it some nook or cranny in which the creature stands or her/his own two feet, “independently” of God, acts in the creature’s own power, according to the creature’s own aims? How does that fit with a God whose presence and action in the world is the sole source, power, and purpose of life/creation? More specifically how does it fit with the revelation of God in Christ, whose entire life from conception, birth, to death and resurrection ad infinitum is dedicated to, lived in the power of, and guided by God’s love and grace? Jesus certainly (in his humanity) relates voluntarily to God, prays to God, pleads with God–but is that a ‘relative independence’ of/from God? I hardly think so. Jesus’ freedom as ours should be is “obedience to”, I would rather say, faithfulness to God whose love is manifested to, in, and through him (in his ministry as well as in his death and resurrection).
Well, finally, a few thoughts on baptism. I am with you in maintaining that the personal confession, commitment, and struggle for faithfulness is essential to baptism. But I also think that all too often believer’s baptists position has been presented as though the free response of the recipient was additional or consequential to the grace of God given us in baptism, rather than this response being seen and presented as part of the gift of God in baptism. Because we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his humanity as well as into the divine presence and promise. Thus, the response of faith is a living participation in, witness to what God has done to us and in us in Christ. This seems to me to call for a revision in both pedobaptist’s and believer’s baptist’s positions and a reconstruction of the meaning and purpose of baptism.
Enough for now. Look forward to your response and probing further on these and other issues.
Joe: October 23
Your remarks really baffle me. It strikes me that you are picking around trying to find something to object you without acknowledging what I have written. But you are provocative in your remarks, for which I am grateful.
First, the locution “empathetic onlooker” is your language, not mine. I have nowhere characterized the Father’s relation to the Christ on the cross in those terms. Further, I have affirmed throughout the systematic that there is a perichoretic interaction among the persons of the Trinity, and this applies to the cross and Christ’s suffering. When I say the Father is ‘absent’ from the cross, I do not mean that he is ‘unrelated’ to the suffering of the cross, and I do say he is present as “will”: the Son is doing the will of the Father in going to the cross. Yes, the Father does suffer in the Son’s suffering and so does the Spirit. I really do not see why you think I cannot say what you say about the Father suffering in the Son’s suffering.
Second, I am curious about your characterizing what I say about the action of God in the world as Creator and Providential Governor as “philosophical” as distinct from “christological.” As for the “relative independence” of the creature, I say clearly what I mean on pages 269-70. I refuse to say the creature is ‘absolutely dependent’ on God because that typically means that the creature is causally determined in every respect by the causal power of God. The concept of the creature’s relative independence is essential to my critique of classical theism which interprets the relation between God and the world in such a causally determined fashion When I say God self-determines Godself to be limited by the world God creates and to be affected by the world, I am simply saying that God does grant the creature power to act and even to reject God. See my discussion of the permitting will of God in that same section. But note, I do not say that the creature is in some “nook or cranny” self-creating. How to say this is why I undertake the laborious reconstruction of the concept of the will of God. And I will grant that pages 264-76 are the most difficult part of my systematic discussions, and I too am worried that I might have said things more clearly. But that is my best shot at this point in time.
Third, with regard to Jesus’ own life, I believe my account of the God/world relationship is made intelligible by his life and makes his life intelligible. See further my account of Jesus as the True Human Being on pages 336-43.
Fourth, I find your remarks about baptism curious in the extreme. I have been exceptionally careful to lay out a full-orbed position and have decisively avoided characterizing ‘believer’s baptism’ in the terms you suggest. I need you to be more precise in critiquing what I actually say about baptism.
Thanks for taking the time to raise these interesting questions.
Bill: October 24
I can’t figure out whether we are saying the same thing (or pretty much the same thing) in different words/ways, or whether there is a basic issue of difference/disagreement between us. Let me say it straight out, the notion of a “relative independence” of (at least) the human creature in relation to God (as revealed definitively in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit) seems to me a pernicious and unneeded idea. I’m with you in rejecting a divine determinism (even Calvin was concerned to distinguish clearly his doctrine of predestination from determinism) and agreeing that the response of faith (or, incredibly, rejection of God) is voluntary. But, looking at the revelation of the human as well as the divine in Christ, I do not see how this allows for a “relative independence” of the human. The power of God, as the power of God’s love and grace (and also grace-filled judgment), is certainly not a power of domination and coercion (as in all types of determinism and some notions of God’s omnipotence and omni-causality), but is rather the power demonstrated in God’s care for and action toward and in the world in Christ. To highlight this is what seems to me needed to break us free from the causal determinism of “classical theism.” But to emphasize and interpret God’s power as manifested in Christ is also to say that this includes and empowers human being. This is human freedom, and it is this, as I see it, that gives the human being/person “the creaturely power to act and (hard as it is to comprehend) even to reject God.” But this human freedom and ability is in no wise independent of God, but is itself created, sustained, redeemed, and perfected) by God (in Christ, and through the Spirit, in us). It is in Christ (and thus in the grace and power of God) that we live and are free—not somehow over against or independent of God.
Surely, Joe, this is not a matter of “picking around trying to fine something to object to,” but a serious theological issue. That is why I tried to press you on how you understand “relative” and “independence”–whether this means simply voluntary, or a standing apart from and over against God.
I’m sorry that my remarks re: baptism seemed “curious in the extreme.” Really, I was just trying to indicate the consequences that seem to me to flow from the issue of divine power and human freedom I discuss above.
Concerning the perichoretic interaction (and interparticipation) of the members of the Trinity, particularly in Jesus’ suffering and death, I don’t think I grasp clearly your distinction between “present as will,” but absent as person. Can a person and that person’s will be separated, such that one could be present while the other is absent? And, more particularly, can Jesus’ doing the will of God, more precisely the will of the Father, be separated from the presence (perichoretically) of the Father? Not according to the Gospel of John; and is a separation of person and will of the Father really possible even in the synoptics? Certainly, Jesus prays to God (the Father), but he prays in the fullness of his being, as one filled with the divine spirit and power, healing and forgiving, creative and re-creative of life. I just do not see how the power and person of the Father are absent here as Jesus’ “food and drink” is the doing of the Father’s will.
Well, enough for now.
Joe: October 27
A final try at clarity and communication in appreciation of your splendid review and your obvious willingness to engage some of my theological reflections. However, I do think you have attached meanings to my words that are not to be found in what I have actually written. You may not like the terms I use, but you must not simply import to them meanings I have not given them. I do, however, need to be reminded when my use and explanation of terms is either unclear or unhelpful.
First, take the locution “relative independence” pertaining to the creature. I first introduce this concept on pp. 253-54 and say explicitly what I mean by it. It is clear that I deny that it means any of the meanings you have imputed to it. Look again: I affirm that it does not mean that the creature is not “unconditionally dependent” on God for its utter actuality. The relative independence bears on the theological fact that the creature is ‘other’ than God and has been given by God powers of actions. God creates the creature and endows the creature with powers of action, including the power to rebel against God. I do not know how I could say these things more clearly. So do not impute to my concept meanings I have explicitly denied. You may find that I am inconsistent even on my own terms, and if you can find that, I will surely listen and try to respond.
Second, without denying any of the perichoretic interactions between Father and Son, I have used the word “absent” to highlight two points: 1) the experience of Jesus of being forsaken by the Father on the cross; and 2) the Father was not the one being crucified. Nevertheless, Jesus is doing the will of the Father in not fleeing the cross. The Father was present as will, in a way similar to my carrying out a directive from my father even though my father is not physically present in my obedient actions. The Son feels the absence of the Father even as he does the Father’s will. Doesn’t this sense resonate with our experiences of absence and presence and doing the will of another? I am trying to lay my language on that sense of the Son that the Father is present as the One who is absent and yet as also as the One who sends the Son the cross. Don’t you know powerful others in your life who are present to you even in their absence and present as will for you and how you live? I have a host of saints who still haunt my life even in their absence.
I also think you have a tendency to let the perichoresis of the modes of God’s life overwhelm the distinctiveness of the modes. So, we have to talk with care about how the various modes of God’s Life are present and not present in the terrifying crucifixion of Jesus. I worry that you interpret my use of “absent” here as though the Father is aloof and unconcerned about the Son’s brutal death.
Third, I am surprised at our apparent murkiness about baptism. I do not think there is a clearer statement of the issues, as I see them, to be found anywhere else. I will just have to let it stand as is. But I am puzzled when you think I have neglected God’s action in the event itself. As for human freedom and divine action, I would ask you to look again at my account of the grammar of freedom on pp. 528-36. I simply do not see where my account of baptism is inadequate to the grace and power of God and the intentional yes-saying of the baptizee to that grace and power.
It has been stimulating for me to confront your questions and criticisms. Perhaps I could have been clearer in my writings. I have aimed in the book at being at least understandable to persons who nevertheless substantively disagree with me. So, in the end, I am not sure just where you and I have any substantively disagreements. Thanks.
Barr: October 29
In light of your most recent response, and after reading once again your discussion of Christian freedom (and, in the light of the revelation of the nature of God’s power and our lives in response to God in Jesus Christ generally), it seems to me now that we are largely in agreement, and that the differences I have been wrestling with are for the most part different preferences of ways of stating the matter. You are exactly right when you say (on p. 533) that the decision for God and neighbor in Christ is “most truly her/our decision, but her/our decision empowered in and by the Spirit–not by some freewheeling autonomous self.” I still think the term “relative independence” is a misleading way of making this point; but certainly your discussion does seek to clarify and delimit what you mean by this. It seems to me, though, it easily conjures just the notion of an autonomous self that you rule out in the quote above. But, be that as it may.
Thanks, Joe, for taking time and thought for this extended conversation on some of the points in your fine work. Let’s do keep in touch and ruminate further on these and other theological matters as the Spirit moves us.