God-Talk and the Incarnation

matthew-writingBack in March of this semester, I had a fascinating conversation with a lady on my plane. As a theology student from a Southern Baptist seminary, as well as a traveler on a return trip back from Israel, I was equipped with subject matter that made conversation about Jesus easy, and the lady I sat next to had tons of questions. After some time I began to focus more on evangelism, and I asked her about her thoughts regarding God. Her response was so very typical of what I have come to learn to be a Post-Modern rejection of “God talk.” In Post-modernity, God-talk, or theology, is impossible, due to the inability of language to express the infinite. Language is finite, and as such cannot express what is by nature beyond the categories of thought and language. The lady I was talking to had drank deeply from the wells of Post-Modern philosophers, and expressed skepticism toward my own God-talk. She simply could not believe that anyone could talk of God because God was simply much too far above the limits of language.

I’m going to say something that may shock a few Christians. After my own studies in Post-Modernism, I have come to agree with the Post-Modernists: language is incapable of expressing God. I think the lady next to me was taken aback when I began to agree with her own position. God transcends human language, and language alone is incapable of signifying something that is beyond the reach of the human sign-system.

But then I began to explain to her why I believe Jesus is God: What human language cannot do, God did in the incarnation. You see, when Jesus assumed flesh, he took upon Touchhimself much more than our skin–he put himself within our own sign-system. Human language was assumed in the incarnation, enabling our signs to express what was beyond language’s reach, making it possible for us to express God truly (though not exhaustively). This truth is captured beautifully by the Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

“Since God has in himself the eternal Word that expresses him eternally, he is most certainly expressible; and since this very Word has taken human form and expresses in human acts and words what it is in God, it is capable of being understood by men. . . The identity of Christ’s person in his two natures as God and man is guarantee of the possibility and rightness of the reproduction of heavenly truth in earthly form, and of its accuracy in Christ.

. . .The exact correspondence between the divine content and the human expression is inseparable from the person of the incarnate Word of God, being itself the effect of the incarnation. In other words the relation between the human and the divine in scripture finds its measure and norm in the relation between the divine and human natures in Christ. And just as the whole of Christ’s humanity is a means of expressing his divine Person, and this in turn being the expression of the Father, so each word in Scripture is a purely human word, but yet, as such, wholly the expression of divine content.”

If the incarnation did not happen, then no one can speak of God. God-talk is made possible by the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. I did not convince the lady next to me on the plane, but I gave her something to think about. In the Incarnation, God expressed himself in a form that we could understand, and by doing so, demonstrated his love for us and thereby making it possible for us to love him back.

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Aesthetics and Christian Worship

A paper written in my worship perspectives class.

Aesthetics and Christian Worship

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Sex and Gender Issues

A paper written for my introduction to Ethics class.


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Top 5 books of 2014

The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, Daniel Treier Roger Lundin, Mark Husbands, Ed.

This was my top favorite book of the year! The Beauty of God is a collection of articles that discuss the interplay between theology and the arts. Covering music, painting, film, and literature, tthe beauty of Godhe contributors discuss various subjects including the role of theology in the music of J. S. Bach, how the resurrection establishes a new redemptive aesthetic in the arts, how Jazz music reflects something of the nature of beauty, as well as how God can speak to us through film. My favorite article in this book was written by Jeremy Begbie, who wrote a wonderful introduction into the nature of beauty. What is beauty, and does beauty tell us something about God? According to Begbie, a theological account of beauty can be developed based upon the Christian understanding of the Trinity. Fascinating read, and by far the best book I have read all year.

Art and Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

This was a great book, and I enjoyed reading Wolterstorff’s unique perspective on how mankind acts artistically. Wolterstorff maintains that the definition of art can be found by considering the varied activities undertaken by mankind.  This book is a very dense read Art in actionbecause Wolterstorff, being the philosopher that he is, demonstrates how art is a type of communication, and how aesthetic standards are found in “fittingness.” Artists are workers in fittingness, who take consideration of their tools (paint, musical instruments, words), and how their tools best fit the intent of their message. The best part of this book is Wolterstorff’s exploration of Christian aesthetic standards, and how the Christian should be aesthetically responsible. Humans are made in the image of a creative God and are therefore cast in his likeness, and Wolterstorff explains how the Christian artist can find his role in the cultural mandate of Genesis 2:15.

Being and Some Philosophers, by Etienne Gilson

One of the best books on Philosophy I’ve read. Strictly a work on metaphysics, Gilson traces the historical development of the concept of “being” from the Eleatic philosophers up to the modern era. Starting with the Greek Philosopher Parmenides, Gilson brilliantly explains the parmenidean dilemma, and how the problem of change and permanence was addressed by Plato, Aristotle, and the Scholastics. I enjoyed this book immensely, especially because it placed philosophers within their cultural context, which helped me to understand why philosophers like Plato came up with the ideas that they did. The contextualization helped me to have a better vantage point on the overall history of philosophy, and I’ve not read a book that has done a better job at that than Gilson’s book.

Faith and Beauty, by Edward Farley

During the spring semester I wrote a paper on art in Christian worship, during the course of which I ended up writing about beauty. As I wrote, I began to realize that I couldn’t write about something I knew nothing about. What is beauty exactly? What makes something beautiful, and is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? Or is beauty, like truth, something that has objective standards? As a Christian, is God beautiful, and what would it mean to say that God (being immaterial) is beautiful? This book was one of the best books I read that addressed these questions. Farley does a great job at surveying the history of discourse surrounding beauty, and enlightens the reader as to how Christianity added to the Platonic and Aristotelian discussion of beauty. Jonathan Edwards gets notable mention, and Edward’s perspective gives a uniquely reformed look on the nature of beauty. I loved this book!

Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art, and Rhetoric, by Richard Viladesau

For someone who has no background in the arts, this book was an easy and rewarding read. The premise of this book could be stated like this: That God reveals himself through art, antheology and the artsd that art reveals how humans see God. How so? The Bible tell us that God has revealed himself through his handiwork, and this is generally understood among Christians to mean that God reveals something of himself in the stars of the heavens. But is the sky the only place that one can look? Since humans are also the product of God’s handiwork, can something of God be revealed through the human imagination? Since humans are made in the image of God, Viladesau follows what he feels to be the implications of this truth. God speaks through the human imagination, and even through human depravity, glimmers of God’s truth shine forth. Art bears the indelible marks of God’s imprint because the humans that produce art are bearers of that same image. Viladesau explores the history of art with this premise, showing not only how God speaks through the human imagination, but also how the human imagination has changed in how it understands God.

Obviously, I read a lot about art and beauty. It became an obsession of mine over the summer, and I have since become very passionate about the role that theology plays in the arts. I plan on doing further studies in this area. If you enjoy these subjects as much as I do, then these are great books to start with.
I also wrote a blog that incorporated what I learned about beauty during the summer. If you’re interested, please check it out here!

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Communion: a Sign of the Gift

Tonight I went to my church’s candle light service, which is a service that is very meaningful to me. It has now been close to ten years since I remember leaving a candle light service in tears because I was so disenchanted with everything I had grown up believing. How could one man who lived 2,000 years ago be a light to the world? Did that even make sense, and did it really matter? From what I observed (and I admit, I was blinded by immature cynicism), it didn’t seem like it mattered to a host of people sitting next to me in the pews. On this night we light our candles to represent not only the light of the Christ child, but also of the light that he has put into our hearts, and it is on this night that so many Christians leave that service with only a charred candle wick to show for it.

After a nearly making a shipwreck of my faith, Christ had grace on me, and has shown me a thing or two about how his life really is light, and why the radiance of his countenance makes a difference in our lives, and how we are all growing in glory as we partake of the splendor of his image. Ten Candlesyears later, I stand amongst a crowd of people, amidst rows of burning candles, enchanted by the beauty of God’s grace.

How appropriate it is then, that the practice of First Baptist Niceville is to have communion before they begin the candle light service. Just as we share in the light of Christ, we share in the meal that is a symbol of our fellowship with him. If we do not share in this meal, we cannot partake of his light, and as John teaches in his epistle, we do not have fellowship with each other. Table fellowship with our Lord and with each other is the prerequisite for sharing in this glorious light that is symbolized by our candles. Those candles represent the integrity of that fellowship.

Now on to the point that I want to make. It is about communion, and the way we speak about it in Baptist circles. This word “symbol” is a funny word, and I often hear the word “mere” attached to it. No doubt, this attachment is added to stress Communionthat nothing happens to the bread and win. . . er, I mean grape juice. No substances are being transformed here. It is just bread, and it is just grape juice. The mere ingesting of these elements do not confer to the one who eats some special status before God. However, in the act of taking communion there is a transformation that takes place (albeit, it is not a necessary transformation, nor does this transformation take place in the vicinity of the altar). When we take take communion, we remind ourselves of the status that has already been conferred to us, and also remind ourselves of the glory that will be ours when our Lord returns. Communion is a reminder, and it is therefore a means of grace.

Now, if you are a Baptist reader you may feel like I have lured you into something that smells suspiciously sacramental. I must admit, it is sacramental, and I’m not going to hide the fact that I feel strangely sacramental when I take the Lord’s supper. I have no problems calling the communion a means of grace. What I do have a problem with is calling the Lord’s supper a “mere symbol.”

I have thought this term over for some time now and it remains to me to be the most opaque of terms. For I know what a “symbol” is, but I lose its sense of meaning the moment I attach the word “mere” to it. It has to do with my understanding of a symbol. Right now at this very moment, right before your eyes, you are presented with thousands of symbols, and everyone of them represent a reality that is very real. If I type the word “horse,” I type a symbol that represents a very real substance that exist outside my mind and my computer. If you tell someone, “I love you,” then this statement is a symbol, and I feel like it would be very insulting to the person you said it to by saying that that statement was a “mere” symbol.

Is it really? Is the way in which you express love to someone a “mere” symbol? What does that even mean?

Symbols are not mere anythings. They are signs that signify a reality about which we speak of. If I kiss a woman, this is no mere lip service. If it were, then I would have been disingenuous. A kiss may be on one level the brushing of two lips together, maybe the exchange of saliva, but on another level there is a reality to it that makes my stomach flip, my heart beat wildly, and a feeling of joy that overwhelms the senses- a feeling that very few things can surpass. A kiss is the sign of my love- yea, not love itself, but what it represents is very real, and the reality of that love is as much a gift to me as it is to the one I give it to. And this is what grace is: a gift. Grace is a gift that cannot be reduced to a mere symbol. Symbols convey grace, and it is through symbols that we encounter reality. It is through symbols that we are reminded of a reality that reaches out to us- a reality that is itself a gift from God.

Bread and grape juice are gifts. This is why we thank God for them. But what makes the Eucharist so special is that it is a gift stacked upon a gift. It is a gift that represents the most valuable gift of all.

“This is my body, this is my blood.”
This is a gift, and it is through this gift that the crucified_christ_detailgift of bread and juice, through the eyes of faith, are seen to be a reminder of Christ’s life being given to us. In the communion, the elements are a physical means through which we are reacquainted with grace, and when we respond in worship, this grace (not the bread and juice) transforms us.

Communion is a symbol, but there is nothing “mere” about it. It represents something very real, and when the elements are presented to me, I choose to recommit my life to the very foundation that makes that bread and juice meaningful. Through the Communion, I am presented with grace upon grace, and it is a grace that reconnects me to Christ and his Church, as well as a grace that causes me to be a light to a world that Christ came to redeem.

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Divine Impassibility

Here’s my paper that I wrote for Senior Seminar.

Click here to read

A word about theological minutiae:
It has come to my attention that my views stated in this paper boarder on Nestorianism, and I would like to clarify my position. If I had stated that Christ suffered in his human nature, but not his divine nature, this would have been Nestorian, and this is not what I advocate. I state what Cyril of Alexandria said of the Hypostatic Union- that the very Son of God, the Logos incarnate, suffered and died, and that he suffered and died as a man. This means that God’s act of “becoming” flesh was a personal/existential becoming, so that God the Son’s mode of existing was as man, and it was as a man that he suffered and died. Jesus, the Son of God, had two natures, one divine and one human, and that these two natures are united in the person who is Jesus Christ. It is the person, the Logos, the Son of God, truly God, existing truly as a man, that suffered and died for us.

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How Beauty Changed the Beast

One of my favorite movies of all time is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Aside from the fact that it has an incredible musical score and stunning animation, it is one of my favorite stories due to the fact that it captures a very deep and profound truth about reality: It takes beauty to change that which is beastly.

If you recall, the Beast was not always outwardly grotesque. He had been a handsome
prince. However, as the narrator at the beginning of the movie tells us, he was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. One night a haggard and disfigured old woman came to the Prince’s castle in hopes that she could find shelter from the bitter cold. But the Prince was disgusted by the woman’s appearance, and turned her away. The woman then told the Prince not to be deceived by appearances, “for beauty”, the disfigured woman says, “is found within.” After the prince cruelly dismisses her to the cold night, the old woman changed form and appeared as a beautiful enchantress, who transforms the prince into a hideous beast, and places the castle and all who dwell there under a spell.

EnchantressAnd most of us know the rest of the story. A woman named Belle (which in French means “beauty”), wins the affections of the Beast over, they fall in love, and the Beast is transformed. But his outward form is not the only thing that has changed. He’s not merely what he used to be in appearance. No, he is more than what he used to be: his outside appearance is finally proportionate to his inside appearance, and we all know that if it were not for Beauty, he would have never changed.

This post is about beauty, and its captivating, alluring, and (if we let it) transformative power. But, you may ask, how does beauty transform? And further, what is beauty? As much as I would love to explore the great theory of beauty in detail here, I will look at only one facet of the theory in this post, and this facet is called proportion, or harmony.

Reality consists in proportionate relations. Certain colors harmonize with some colors better than others. Certain musical notes sound more harmonious with some than others. Painters oftentimes try to balance the tight rope between unity and diversity. Make a painting too unified and it can be bland; paint a picture with little to no unity and it becomes too busy. Mathematical formulas are harmonious in that they consists in true relations with the way the world is, and therefore are called “elegant.” A story that harmonizes what we know of reality with a metaphor “rings true” and captivates our imagination, filling our senses with awe, and sometimes causing us to say “that is beautiful!”

But there is another type of harmonious relation that I want to focus on in this post, and it is the relations of persons- relationships.

The Enchantress in Beauty and the Beast is right- Beauty is more than appearances. How many times have we met someone who was beautiful in appearance, and yet their immaturity, selfishness, and cruelty, among other vices, repulsed us? Sometimes a person’s physical appearance can be diminished due to their lack of virtue. And this is a truth learned from Beauty and the Beast. Because of the prince’s cruelty, he was already a beast. Or to put it more technically, the prince was not in proper relation to his fellow human beings. the Enchantress made his outward form match his inward nature.

And this is where Beauty steps in.
Beauty graces the halls of the enchanted castle, loving its residents, and its prince, and despite his disfigurement and beast-like cruelty, love wins him over, and his affections are oriented toward Beauty, falling in love with her, and finally being transformed (or should I say “transfigured”) from more than he once was, to what he was meant to be. As Mrs. Pots said “there’s something there that wasn’t there before.”

Beauty transforms the beastly. If beauty consists in harmony, as the great theory proposes (and I believe it is partly correct), then beauty is to be found in harmonious humanBeautybeast2 relationships, and they are only harmonious when they match the way things ought to be.
When people are properly related to others, then beauty results, and it does so because it is truth.

And this why Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful story. It’s beautiful because it tells us something true. It tells us something true about relationships and the way that reality is designed. No, men don’t get turned into beasts, candle stands, and clocks by enchantresses. There is no such a thing as a magical flower. However, G. K Chesterton once wrote “My first and last philosophy, that which I believed in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery… The things I believed most then-the things I believe most now-are the things called fairy tales.” Why did he say this? Because he was not concerned with such contingencies as enchantments. He was concerned with the spirit of fairy land’s law. In fairy land you can magically change a man into a beast, but you cannot magically change cruelty into good, or good into cruelty, for you cannot change truth. “Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne, and we in fairy land submit.”

Beauty is intrinsically tied to truth. In fact, they’re really two sides of the same coin.

And that is why Jesus, on the Christian worldview, is beautiful. When we are not in proper relationship with God, the very author of our being, then we are not properly related to the God who is there- the God who is true and beautiful. Because of sin we are not in a proper relationship with God, and our life is not in harmony- not in proportion to reality. This means that who we are does not match who he is, and this is the epitome of ugly. We have become the beasts.

And this is where Beauty steps in.
Jesus graces our depraved existence, and loves us to the very depths of where depravity leads. He who was beauty itself took on the ugliness of our sin on the cross, and allowed that which would destroy us to bury him in the grave. And it was there in the ugliness of death that he made all things beautiful. It wasn’t that he made the ugly beautiful. No, what beauty did was to reach out in order to redeem that which is ugly, and to transfigure it. Beauty destroyed death. The penalty of sin was death, and through death, beauty conquered sin.

“Crown him the Lord of Life, behold his hands anthe-resurrection-of-christ-1612 (1)d side!
His wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified!”

Our Savior is good, and he is truth. Therefore, he is beautiful. Truth, goodness, and beauty are inseparable because truth, goodness, and beauty find their source in the matter-of-fact existence of a God who is there, and who has acted beautifully in time and space through his Son, Jesus Christ.

His beauty is what transforms us, because it is his beauty that changes our affections toward him in order to change our beastliness into something glorious. Through Jesus, we become properly related to the God of the universe, and thus exemplify a true and harmonious relationship that is beautiful. That is why the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar can say that beauty is “a divine summons to change one’s life.” Beauty transforms us because beauty puts us back into harmony with the God of this universe.

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