Motions of the Demon

Ever since I accidentally discovered it, I’ve been a bit fascinated by the way the Greek terms for “feeling compassion” and “possessed by a demon” in the New Testament are structurally analogous. The word splagkhnidzomai roughly translates as “motions of the spleen” (or innards); it’s a visceral euphemism for being moved with compassion. The word daimonidzomai roughly translates as “motions of the demon” and refers to being under the influence of a demon. But I digress . . . a bit.

Carl Jung once said (something like), “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.” And he’s absolutely right about that! We’re all under the sway of thought structures that are greater than the self-deluded autonomy we think our minds possess.

Liturgical theologians have observed for quite a while that humans aren’t Homo sapiens (man of wisdom) nearly so much as we’re Homo adorens (man of worship). And cultural anthropology tends to concur. Humans are inescapably religious creatures. We’re built with a mental structure for worship and religious processing of transcendent meaning.

And even if we (think we can) blow out or otherwise drop the metaphysical structures and theology that undergird our mental functioning so that we can have a framework of freestanding morality and meaning, we deceive ourselves. Humans aren’t built that way. Wipe out a time-tested fully functioning religion from the mind of a man, and a new ideology will rise and take its place. People don’t have ideas; ideas have people. If we functionally destroy the old God, we’ll construct a new and untested god to take his place. Ideologies have been described as the crippled parasites of religion. And I think that’s exactly right.

So, phenomenologically speaking, what does demonic possession look like? Well, one of its forms is that of a person who’s enslaved to a parasitic ideology. Think of any and every extremist radical you’ve ever seen. You’re looking at someone who’s functionally demonically possessed/oppressed. You’re witnessing the motions of the demon.

It’s no accident that the biblical concept of spiritual warfare is at the crossroads of our worship, our conduct in life, and our manner of thinking:

Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.

2 Corinthians 10:3-6

Thanks to Peter Leithart and Jordan Peterson for their contributions to the formation of my thinking about these things.

Orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism

This is a revised and expanded composite of the three-part series on classical orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism that I wrote in the summer of 2016. I did my writing in the wake of the great Calvinist brouhaha about the “eternal functional subordination” of the Son and other related teachings involving authority and submission as distinguishing personal qualities between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. In the course of watching and reading the blogosphere battle over this subject, I learned some new things and refined my understanding of classical Trinitarian theology. This essay is the articulated fruit of my alleged enlightenment and refinement. I can only hope it’s of some benefit to you and that it gives glory to the Blessed Trinity.

Introduction

The ancient doxology of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the glorious perfection of all perfections who is the one true and living God, there is unity and diversity. God is One, and God is Three. But one what? And three what? And what is the relationship between the One and the Three? These are the questions at the root of what it means for God to be the Holy Trinity.

Here, I will attempt to answer these questions. I have no expectation that what I have to say will be easily or clearly understood. My only expectation is that you’ll see how wondrously and mysteriously elusive God is to our understanding of his Trinitarian Nature. I also hope that I’ve been precise and rigorous in my attempts to explain this great mystery of the Faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Revelation through Incarnation and Redemption

In orthodox Trinitarian thinking since the time of the early Church Fathers, there has been a distinction between the Holy Trinity as God has revealed himself to us and the Holy Trinity as God knows himself to be. The Triune God has revealed himself to his creation in his works through the history of creation and especially in the outworking of redemption for his people and in his people. These are called his ad extra works or operations. The Triune God as he is in himself and knows himself to be (i.e. the Three Persons in direct relation to one another) is something qualitatively different than and yet analogous to what God has revealed to us. These relations between the Persons in God are his ad intra works or operations. It should come as no great surprise to us that such a distinction exists due to God’s benevolent accommodation to our limitations as his creatures. The Holy Trinity as seen and understood in the economy of redemption (i.e. salvation accomplished for us and applied to us) is called, naturally, the Economic Trinity. And the Holy Trinity as the one true God is in himself, as he knows himself to be in the relations of the Three Persons directly toward each other, is referred to as the Immanent Trinity or Ontological Trinity.

It was in the incarnation of God the Son and his subsequent life and work as true man where the Three Persons become clearly distinguished. And it is the incarnation of the Son which makes every foray into the Immanent Trinity doubly complicated. This is because the Trinitarian nature of God and the union of the two natures of Christ are interdependent and mutually revealing realities in God’s working out salvation in the context of the incarnation of the Son. In becoming man, God the Son took on human qualities and acted in human ways that made it evident he is distinct from the Father who sent him and from the Holy Spirit who he received from the Father and who he poured out upon the saints in union with him. Yet in becoming man, the Son took on qualities and acted in ways that showed he was and is both truly God and truly man. Therefore, the work of understanding the distinction and the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in God is a parallel pursuit alongside the work of understanding the distinction and the unity of the nature of God and the nature of man in the incarnate Son. Things proper to the Son as man are not to be imported into the inner life of the Triune God, and much error has come about by doing so.

We can only speak as best we can of the Immanent Trinity through the revelation of the Economic Trinity while recognizing the distinction. But we need not fret or fear that the ‘real’ Trinity is a shadowy, mysterious, and utterly unknowably different God lurking behind the deceptive veneer of a ‘fake’ Trinity experienced by our creaturely senses. We must take comfort in remembering that the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (who we experience through the work of salvation won for us and given to us) truly and intentionally reveals the Persons of the Immanent Trinity to us. This is a revelation, not an obscuration, even if it’s ultimately incomprehensible.

The Failure of Attempts at Trinitarian Analogies

Perhaps it’s worth noting at the outset that it’s far easier to misunderstand and wrongly explain the Trinity than it is to understand and rightly explain the Trinity. Trinitarian heresies come easily to us, and they do so usually by our attempts to impose analogies from creation upon the Trinitarian nature of God. They also come about by our desire for God to be less mysteriously other and more relatable to ourselves. A typical error is to read creaturely patterns directly onto the Trinitarian nature of God as if any pattern was put there by God to reveal his Trinitarian nature.

There are simply no appropriate or good analogies for the Trinitarian nature of God, because Trinitarian essence is a uniquely divine quality. It has no true analogue in the creation. It’s actually useful to show what God’s Trinitarian nature is not through the aid of analogies from creation, e.g. it’s not like the three phases of water, it’s not like the three tenses of time, it’s not like three different toppings on vanilla ice cream, it’s not like three slices of a caramel pecan pie, it’s not like three members of a family or a committee, and it’s not like three social different roles a man occupies in his respective relations to multiple fellow men. The Trinity may have some connection to those final two examples, but they are still misleading analogies for how the Three are the One. I personally advocate avoiding all attempts at making analogies and just call the Trinity a divine mystery held by faith in what God had revealed about himself.

God revealed himself as the Trinity in history through action; the first believers who followed Christ and received the Spirit were experiential Trinitarians. Their doctrine was captured in the form of narratives and the doxologies in the Scriptures. And Holy Scripture itself doesn’t explicitly provide any descriptive and differentiating words or a confessional formula for the nature of the One and the Three. The Church Fathers had to develop and define the extrabiblical language necessary to express the doctrine just as they had to develop and define the succinct term ‘Trinity’ (from the Latin word trinitas meaning ‘threefold’) itself.

Developing the Technical Theological Language

The typical English phrase for orthodox Trinitarianism is that God is one Substance (or Being) in three Persons. This expression comes from Latin words used in ancient Western Christian theology, i.e. Substantum and Persona. The equivalent Greek word used in ancient Eastern Christian theology were Ousia and Hypostasis respectively. But, in their ordinary use, these respective Latin and Greek words are not equivalent. And, in fact, it was a rather annoying complication that the terms Substantum and Hypostasis were exact translational equivalents in their ordinary usage, while the words Ousia and Hypostasis were synonyms in their ordinary Greek usage.

The ancient theologians of the fourth century, using Greek in the East and Latin in the West, struggled through the language barriers to develop and harmonize the technical meanings of the Greek and Latin terminology while contending against Arianism and other heresies. Their work lasted from the time of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to the time of the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. What emerged was a mature and standardized formulation and meaning for orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism, which the one holy catholic and apostolic Church has inherited and by which she is guarded.

The Greek and Latin language challenges are also reflected in the older English ways of confessing the Trinity. We confess that God is one Substance in three Persons, or that God is one Substance in three Subsistences, or that God is one Essence, or is one Nature, or is one Being, etc.

Misconstruing the Language about Persons

So what is a divine Hypostasis or Subsistence? Is it a Person? Well, yes and no.

The modern connotation of the word ‘person’ is loaded with baggage which makes its application to the Trinity a dangerous undertaking. Various statements could be made that are equally true and equally misleading. The typical English rendering of God as one Substance in three Persons can be helpfully corrected by saying God is one Person in three Self-Relations. In both cases, these words have stipulated technical meanings when describing God that are not identical to creaturely uses of the same words.

The modern connotation of a person is a being who is conscious of himself in relation to others, who engages in communication, and who individually possesses knowledge, volition, and emotion as a self-contained entity. Furthermore, a ‘person’ experiences changes in his knowledge, volition, and emotion through interaction with others. The problem in applying ‘person’ to God is that some of the modern creaturely properties apply with respect to the one Substance or Nature of God, other properties apply with respect to each Hypostasis or Subsistence in God, and still others don’t properly apply to God at all. Divine simplicity reminds us that knowledge, volition, and emotion are all attributes of the one Substance whereas self-consciousness in relation to others and communion between self and others are characteristics of the three Subsistences. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit commune with one another eternally, and they do so with one mind, one will, and one affection in an unchangingly simple Essence.

Differentiation of each Self and each Other

The differentiation that exists in the one God is a threefold sense of self and otherness that we see expressed in the speaking and acting of one toward the others. Each divine Subsistence distinguishes between himself and his two fellow Subsistences in word and deed, and we follow suit in our worship and doctrine.

In the Old Testament, we can see glimpses of multiple otherness in the one God. For instance, Yahweh who is on earth inspecting Sodom rains down fire from Yahweh who is in heaven (Genesis 19:24), and Yahweh calls Israel to draw near to him by saying that Yahweh has sent him as well as his Spirit (Isaiah 48:16). Both the Angel of Yahweh and the Word of Yahweh are sent out from Yahweh, and they speak and act in the Name of Yahweh or on behalf of Yahweh and yet do so as if they themselves are Yahweh.

The Economic Trinity draws its name from the fact that it is most clearly expressed in the economy of redemption which ultimately unfolds in the New Testament. With the incarnation of the Word of God as the Messiah, a stark distinction is seen between the Father and the Son. John’s Gospel is perhaps the most overt source. In the beginning, the Word is, at the same time, “toward the God” and yet is God. He is the “unique God” who reveals (i.e. exegetes) God the Father. Christ spoke in ways that distinguished him from the Father, i.e. “The Father and I, we are one.” And Jesus spoke in ways that also distinguished both him and the Spirit from one another and the Father, i.e. “But when the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

The Apostles were experiential Trinitarians as they witnessed the Trinity revealed in word and deed. At the baptism of Christ, the Father publicly professed his pleasure in his Son, and the Father sent down the Spirit who alighted upon the Son as the Father’s Seal upon the Son. Prior to his ascension, the Lord instructed his Apostles to mark new disciples by baptism according to a Trinitarian confession in the one Name possessed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The three Subsistences are ‘agents’ of communication, each one toward the others, and each knows himself as self in relation to the others. Each Subsistence ‘instantiates’ the knowledge, volition, and emotion of the one Substance according to his Hypostatic or ‘Personal’ properties and his relations to the other Hypostases. (And yet again, agency, instantiation, and personality here are not exactly the same for God as they are for his creatures. The language grasps desperately to explain.)

Now, a temptation in speaking this way is to view the divine Essence as an impersonal pool of attributes that these three added Somethings called divine Persons appropriate and utilize. But this is wrong. The Persons do not consist in three extra Somethings on top of the impersonal generic God-Substance.

Another temptation in speaking this way is to view the divine Persons as portions of the one God or as “centers of consciousness” in God, figuratively located in different ‘places’ from one another in God. But this too is wrong. Each Hypostasis is fully the one divine Substance. The three Hypostases are not each one third of the one divine Substance. The three Hypostases are not ‘localized’ or ‘centered’ differently anywhere in the one divine Substance. Subsisting in three Self-Relations is itself an attribute of the fullness of the one divine Substance. The one Substance of God is thoroughly Tri-Personally Self-Relational in all its attributes.

God’s glory is Trinitarian glory. God’s holiness is Trinitarian holiness. God’s wisdom is Trinitarian wisdom. God’s lovingkindness is Trinitarian lovingkindness. And so on and so one. O how wondrous and beautiful is the blessed and eternal Trinity!

Persons and the Error of Social Trinitarianism

As was discussed regarding the differentiation of Subsistences in the divine Substance, the modern sense of ‘person’ is a self-conscious being who engages in communication and possesses a self-contained mind, will, and emotions. In light of the ordinary usage, the usual expression of God being one Substance in three Persons (where “Substance” and “Persons” have technical meanings which go unstated continually) can insidiously drift toward thinking of the three Persons or Subsistences as being full ‘persons’ as we think of persons. In other words, we can mistakenly think of the three divine Persons as each independently possessing a mind, a will, and emotions.

Misconstruing the use of the word ‘person’ can lead to thinking the unity of the three divine Persons is the result of some harmonization of their individual volitions. This is the error of social Trinitarianism. It’s a flirtation with tritheism, as if the three Persons are individual species that belong to the genus of God. The error consists of asserting that the nature of the unity of the three Persons is a social arrangement, whether it’s an act of their unified wills for a common purpose, or an enduring love for one another, or simply mutual enthusiasm for racquetball — anything that is sociological harmony rather than substantial unity is not classical Trinitarianism.

The ‘unity’ of the will of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit is not the result of the harmonizing of three separate divine wills as though each divine Person has his own individual will. God has one will, the will is an attribute of the Substance of God, and that one will is expressed Tri-Personally in the three Self-Relations who are the one God. The same is true for the mind of God and the affections of God.

Substantial Union through Interpenetration

So how are the three divine Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit united as the one divine Substance? Well, again, it’s simply an essential or substantial unity.

The traditional orthodox description of the unity of the Persons is perichoresis in Greek meaning ‘rotation’ or circumincessio in Latin meaning ‘encircled throughout’. The word perichoresis actually has two specialized classical uses. One (i.e. perichoresis of natures) is used to describe the union of the two natures (i.e. divine and human) in the one Person and Subsistence of the incarnate Christ. The other (i.e. perichoresis of persons) is used to describe the union of the three Subsistences in the one Substance of God. Here we will focus on the latter usage.

The language of perichoresis has become popularly misconstrued or distorted by social Trinitarian meanings and metaphors in recent centuries, e.g. descriptions of the three Persons as being in something like a dance with one another. Such imagery may have its right uses, but subverting and replacing substantial unity is not one of them.

The three divine Persons are the one divine Substance by their mutual indwelling of one another. This can be described as co-inherence or mutual interpenetration. The three Persons mutually inhabit one another in Substance. Note carefully. The Persons mutually indwell one another; they do not mutually indwell the one divine Essence as through the Essence was Something ‘larger’ or other than the three Persons. The three Persons living in mutual interpenetration of one another is itself the one Substance of God. Conversely, the one Essence is Tri-Personally Self-Relational.

Once again, the important description is that the union is substantial or essential. Note carefully. This is not the merging, mixing, blending, or hybridizing of three substances into a “supersubstance” to make the one divine Essence of God. The one single simple Essence of God is characteristically Tri-Personally Self-Relational.

This is simply another way of stating what the classical formulation has always stated. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Spirit is fully God. The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit. The Son is neither the Spirit nor the Father. The Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Yet there is only one God.

And yet, if we were to stop with that relatively modern classical formulation without saying how the three Persons are what they are in relation to each other, we would be in the same position that ultimately gave rise to modern breakdowns and substitutions for properly classical Nicene Trinitarianism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western theologians dropped Hypostatic or Personal properties from their minimal popular formulation of the Trinity and unwittingly lost a key element of the ancient church doctrine.

Personal Properties: Analogical Origination

In the divine Substance of the one God, differentiation exists so that the three Persons (i.e. Hypostases, Subsistences, or Self-Relations) live in mutual interpenetration of one another. Each Person knows himself in distinction from his two fellow Persons. Each Person is fully God and possesses all of the divine attributes that are the one single and simple divine Essence of God.

But if each divine Person is fully God with all of the attributes of God, how does each Person differ from the other two Persons? Moreover, how does each Person know the difference between his two fellow Persons? Are the three Persons interchangeable with one another? What is the nature of the differentiation of the three Subsistences in the Substance of the one true and living God?

There are individual Hypostatic or Personal properties that differ between the three Self-Relations and distinguish the Persons from one another. These properties are an irreversible taxis (ordering) so that the three divine Persons are not interchangeable with each other. Indeed, if the Persons were interchangeable or entirely identical with one another, one must wonder how they could possibly be distinguishable from each other. And if indistinguishable, how there could even be three of them at all?

One again, the Personal properties are not three extra Somethings added on top of the impersonal divine Substance to produce three Persons. The Personal properties are an attribute of the divine Essence. Every attribute of God is thoroughly Tri-Personal.

This Hypostatic order of the three divine Persons or Self-Relations as they commune ‘inwardly’ toward one another (i.e. God’s ad intra relations as the Ontological Trinity) is revealed through the titles and activities that the three divine Persons assume as they relates ‘outwardly’ toward their creation (i.e. God’s ad extra relations as the Economic Trinity). It is ‘fitting’ that each Person does what he does.

Here, it would also be fitting to anticipate a temptation and thwart it. This irreversible Hypostatic ordering is not an authority structure. Given what has already been stated about the one essential will of God according to divine simplicity which is expressed in Tri-Personal form, the notion of authority and submission of multiple wills is a return to the profane error of social Trinitarianism in our humanization of God.

Analogically speaking according to the Economic Trinity, the properties distinguishing the Persons are those of origination and/or procession. The Father is unbegotten. The Son is begotten of the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Again, we must stress: this is God’s analogical revelation of himself to us. The Father’s eternal ‘unbegottenness’ or paternity, the Son’s eternal generation or filiation by the Father, and the Spirit’s eternal procession or spiration from the Father and the Son does not mean that the Son received his existence from the Father or that the Spirit received his existence from the Father and the Son. The Person of God the Father is the analogical source of the differentiation (or enumeration), not the substantial source of the divine Substance’s impartation to God the Son and God the Spirit. Each Person stands as fully God in and of himself.

Enumeration as an Alternative Ordering

Attempting to speak with greater modesty and caution, one could say that the order of the Persons is an unassuming enumeration so that there is merely a “First” Person, a “Second” Person, and a “Third” Person. And indeed, it’s accepted standard theological shorthand to do so.

In attempting to speak unassumingly and numerically about the Economic Trinity, the irreversible or sequential taxis begins its Personal enumeration with the eternal Father as the First Person. The enumeration proceeds to the eternal Son as the Second Person in relation to the First Person. And the enumeration concludes with the eternal Spirit as the Third Person in relation to the First Person and the Second Person. The Father as the First Person and ‘point of reference’ in the Trinity is not arbitrary; it is ‘fitting’ (whatever ‘fitting’ mean in the great mystery of the Hypostatic ordering). Importantly, this is an enumeration, not a sub-numeration. This is an ordination (as in sequentially before and after among equals), not a subordination (as in putting beneath as inferiors to superiors). First is simply where the counting begins. Second is what it is because it comes after First. Third is what it is because it comes after First and Second.

As unassumingly numerical as this way of speaking about the Trinity is, we should not think we’ve come any closer to univocally describing the Immanent Trinity, because it is and always will be impossible for us to know God as he knows himself. To speak of the First Person, the Second Person, and the Third Person of the Trinity as Hypostatic designations is every bit as analogical to creaturely existence as the titles of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are, because human counting schemes are the creatures of God just as much as human being are the creatures of God.

Truthfully, enumeration is merely another way of confessing that we believe there’s an ordering to the Persons which makes it ‘fitting’ that the First Person is the Father, that the Second Person is the Son, and that the Third Person is the Spirit (whatever ‘fitting’ means with respect to the Ontological Trinity revealed through the Economic Trinity). This Enumerated Trinity is just a theologically auxiliary Economic Trinity that doesn’t even express the economical character in the Trinity’s work of redemption. And if this were used in place of the Hypostatic properties of the eternal generation or filiation of the Son and the eternal procession or spiration of the Spirit (rather than being used in addition to those properties), a key element of orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism would be lost and would open a door of omission for heterodox alternatives to enter.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a matter of divine incomprehensibility and divine accommodation to our finitude. Who God is in himself is the Immanent Trinity, and we have had the Immanent Trinity truly though analogically revealed to us in the Economic Trinity. Our challenge is to avoid thinking univocally about the Personal properties of eternal paternity, eternal generation or filiation, and eternal procession or spiration. And our challenge is to avoid reformulating the Self-Relations of the Holy Trinity according to relational patterns in the creation which God himself has not revealed to us.

As for my own thoughts concerning the “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) of the Son, the “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS), or the “eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS) between the Father and the Son as modern proponents have formulated and presented them, I would say the following. I’m not convinced that the proponents of EFS, ESS, and ERAS actually understand classical Nicene Trinitarianism and certain other key elements of classical Christian theism (such as divine simplicity). I don’t believe that a distinction between function and ontology within the very being of God is a valid distinction. Therefore, I believe EFS, ESS, and ERAS are incoherent theological positions. And because I seek to believe in the genuineness of the professions of Christian faith and the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of proponents of EFS, ESS, and ERAS, I’m deeply thankful for the various blessed inconsistencies that the Triune God allows us to hold while he preserves his elect through every trial in faith and life. I believe that a consistent version of EFS et al. could only be a deeper and subtler version of Arianism. So, I hope these modern theological aberrations will pass away in due time in the kindness of God. I’m also deeply suspicious that EFS et al. are the product of much tireless and well-meant effort to oppose third-wave feminism in the church and the culture but are a particular formulation of marriage and gender roles according to a particular construction of authority and submission which have been illegitimately read backward into the ontological essence of the Triune God as a polemical apologetic device. I hope everyone will search and see if these things are so.

Divine Simplicity

When we affirm God is simple, the immediate objection that comes to mind is “God’s not simple! He’s extremely complicated!” And that’s very true. But that’s not the sense or concept of simplicity we mean to express. Simplicity is the confession that God has no parts; he lacks any sort of composition of divisible attributes.

Everything we have encountered in our lives is a composite being — everything from sand to stars, from plants to animals, from fire to our fellow humans. Water, sunshine, feelings, and mathematics — all of these things have some sort of minimal composite existence: forms with particulars, multiple contingent and necessary attributes, even at a minimum the coming together of existence and essence. Every created thing which we’ve seen, touched, or heard about has parts. But not God.

The one true and living God is a single simple Substance or Essence.

Understanding divine simplicity is the point at which everything else we learn about the one true God suddenly makes perfect sense. And yet we suddenly realize how far more wondrously strange the being of the eternal and absolute God is than we’d ever thought or considered previously.

Here is divine simplicity in a nutshell: There is nothing that is not God which makes God to be God. Everything else is just the outworking of that thesis. To put it another way, all of God is all of God.

Simplicity is a double denial of sorts. God is not composed of parts that are each less than God which sum up to God. And God does not depend on something other than himself to unify those parts. God is his own sufficient explanation. Everything about him is ‘everywhere’ present in him. And everything about him ‘contains’ everything about him. Once again, all of God is all of God.

Simplicity also means God doesn’t have attributes the way we normally think about a thing having attributes. And this is the absence of attributes in a double sense.

Firstly, God doesn’t have or possess attributes. God isn’t a minimal essential core being with additional incidental qualities or properties added to him or modifying him. God is his attributes. God’s whole being is identical and coterminous with his various traits. In other words, it doesn’t mean the same thing to say that “God is righteous” as it does when we say that “Dave is righteous”. In this example, Dave has or possesses the attribute of righteousness while God is the attribute of righteousness. And in instances where we would ordinary describe God as “having” a specific part as we’d know and experience it (e.g. “God has a mind, a will, and emotions like we do.”), in truth God is identical with that part we’ve named and attributed to him (e.g. unlike us, God is his mind, and is his will, and is his emotions).

Secondly, God’s attributes are not actually separable from each other in the way which we usually talk about them. As God is identical with his attributes, so also his attributes are identical with one another. His glory is his righteousness is his love is his wisdom is his holiness is his goodness is his beauty is his truthfulness is his strength, ad infinitum. And it’s as if all of God’s attributes are qualities of all of his other attributes. God’s will is glorious, and his glory is willful. His righteousness is true, and his truth is righteous. His holiness is loving, and his love is holy. Still once more, all of God is all of God.

To attempt a limited illustration, our very existence as finite and composite creatures is like a prism to white light. When God interacts with us, our way of existing refracts his simplicity, and he appears to us as a multicolored spectrum of attributes. This is an example of what appears to be the case to us; it’s not to say that God’s Essence is truly like white light, which is all of the colors blended together, because God’s qualities are not blended or merged. Ultimately, as always, divine simplicity is incomprehensible.

There is no particular passage in the Holy Scriptures that emphatically communicates divine simplicity. Nonetheless, theologians have sensed it lurking immediately behind or within such instances as God’s declaration to Moses: “I am who I am.”

There are detractors who would claim that divine simplicity is a needless doctrine and purely philosophical speculation. Yet divine simplicity seems so cleanly and intuitively necessary to all that we affirm about God. It succinctly explains God’s absoluteness, his eternality, his immutability, his self-sufficiency, and more. Affirming the simplicity of God is truly a matter of the good and necessary consequence of confessing everything else we affirm about the one true and living God.

All of God is all of God. God is God indeed. Amen.

Additional Resources:

For further insight into divine simplicity, read God Without Parts by James Dolezal or watch this five-part lecture series by Dr. Dolezal which he delivered to the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastor’s Conference in 2015:

The Threefold Christ

Messiah (Hebrew: meshiyakh) or Christ (Greek: christos) means the Anointed One. It’s a reference to an ancient initiation rite of pouring oil (along with the authoritative words of institution) which formally appoints a man to an office. In the Old Testament, there are three offices into which chosen persons are anointed by God to serve his people in his name, i.e. the prophet, the priest, and the king.

In the New Testament, we see God the Son in the form of a human servant presented as God the Father’s ultimate and consummate prophet, priest, and king all in one. He serves his people in all three capacities. Christ declares the counsel of God as prophet, intercedes in the presence of God as priest, and rules in righteousness before the face of God as king. Jesus the Son of God is the Threefold Christ.

Contemporary Evangelicalism typical speaks of the work of Christ in the categories of Lord and Savior. These dual roles certainly have their place in Scripture, especially as pairs in the Apostle Peter’s second epistle. But the Reformed tradition (drawing on the ancient church’s thinking) has found more utility in understanding the Son of God as the Messiah according to his threefold function (Latin: munus triplex).

From the Westminster Larger Catechism (contemporized by me):

Q. 42. Why was our Mediator called Christ?

A. Our Mediator was called Christ, because he was anointed with the Holy Spirit above measure, and thus he was set apart and fully equipped with all authority and ability to execute the offices of prophet, priest, and king of his church in the conditions both of his humiliation and exaltation.

Q. 43. How does Christ execute the office of a prophet?

A. Christ executes the office of a prophet in his revealing the whole will of God in all things concerning the church’s edification and salvation. He does so to the church in all ages by his Spirit and Word in diverse manners of administration.

Q. 44. How does Christ execute the office of a priest?

A. Christ executes the office of a priest in his offering up of himself once as a sacrifice without blemish to God to be reconciliation for the sins of his people. And he does so in continually making intercession for them.

Q. 45. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?

A. Christ executes the office of a king in calling a people to himself out of the world and giving them officers, laws, and censures by which he visibly governs them. He does so in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins. He also does so in preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory and their good. And he also does so in taking vengeance on the rest who do not know God and do not obey the gospel.

Or take it from Smalltown Poets back in 1997. :-p

If I indeed am misperceived by some heads of state
Hey, that’s great.
‘Cause I talk to a prophet who tells me the truth.
And I dine with a king at my home in Duluth.
Better yet, I’m in touch with a much needed friend
Who hears my confessions and pardons my sin.

But my closet’s a shrine to an old friend of mine.
Here, I talk all the time with a prophet, priest . . .
I pull out boxes and brooms; I gush like a groom.
For it’s here I commune with a prophet, priest, and king.

Surrogate Brotherhood

Friendship in the Life of Solomon

The common Hebrew word for a friend (rea) has shades of meaning which range from the fair-weathered to the fiercely faithful much like the English equivalent does. It can be synonymous with a neighbor or acquaintance. It can also indicate a close companion.

Another Hebrew word that overlaps with the idea of a friend is ‘lover’ or ‘beloved one’ (ahav) from the Hebrew verb that indicates affectionate love. This is parallel to the word group in the Greek of the New Testament, i.e. phileo (to love), philos (friend), and philia (friendship). Contemporary English doesn’t effectively allow for a translation of noun and verb forms from Hebrew and Greek into equivalents that appear related.

Wise King Solomon expressed his understanding of two basic sorts of friendship using the words rea and ahav in several parallelisms in the Book of Proverbs. He taught about ‘friendliness’ like that of a casual neighbor and like that of a surrogate brother.

The proverbs about fair-weather friendship seem to relate to passing affections based on access to a rich man’s wealth. This sort of neighborliness is rooted in getting rather than giving, and it cares little about gracious and loving reciprocation.

For instance . . .

The one who is destitute is hated by acquaintances [rea],
But the one who is wealthy has many adoring ones [ahav].

Proverbs 14:20

A poor man’s neighbors have no interest in the man nor patience for the man. In fact, they find a poor man to be loathsome and undesirable. But the man with great wealth has plenty of adoring sycophants and pretenders who feign affection and hang around him looking for freebies.

And again . . .

Substance brings an increase of many acquaintances [rea],
But scarcity causes a separation from acquaintances [rea].

Proverbs 19:4

Again, ‘friends’ seem to multiply around a man who has a lot of stuff, which everyone wants. But a man in great lack can’t find ‘friends’ anywhere in sight; they’ve distanced themselves from the one in need, because their desire is to take rather than to give.

Here’s one more that’s tricky due to the idiom in the first clause.

Many are languishing in the face of the generous man,
And everyone is the friend [rea] to the man of offerings.

Proverbs 19:6

The Hebrew word for face indicates the presence or countenance of someone. Thus, in the ‘presence’ of a generous man, many people act as though they are languishing and in need of a handout. And everyone is chummy with the guy who has a reputation for being a man who gives gifts.

The proverbs about fiercely faithful friendship seem to show their distinction in the perseverance of a true friend’s presence when times are tough and troublesome.

Consider . . .

A friend [rea] loves [ahav] at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.

Proverbs 17:17

A real friend maintains his affection for a man under all life circumstances. He doesn’t become disgusted (cf. Prov. 14:20) or distant (cf. Prov. 19:4) with the man he loves when his friend falls on hard times and requires personal resources for care and comfort. He also doesn’t turn from love to hate when he and his friend butt heads.

Solomon speaks in parallel about a time of adversity. A brother is born for the purpose of being available and helpful to a man when he is experiencing hardship. The Hebrew word for brother (akh) can range from immediate siblings to blood-kindred in general, i.e. the members of one’s tribe or clan. This is said in the context of the ancient world where the common social expectation was one in which blood-kinship was the ground of obligation for political allegiance and economic support. We’re told that the faithful friend behaves like he’s blood-kindred to the one he loves. This sort of deep friendship responds with allegiance and support where it is needed.

Also, consider Prof. Kevin Bauder’s anecdote and discussion about this proverb.

Continuing with the motif of surrogate brotherhood . . .

A man with too many acquaintances [rea] is broken in pieces,
But there is a beloved [ahav] who sticks closer than a brother.

Proverbs 18:24

There are some manuscript complications surrounding the predicate of the first clause in this proverb, but the intended contrast is still preserved. A man who spreads himself too thinly among many acquaintances ends up shattering into fragments. He becomes insubstantially present with everyone. Instead, there’s a man who is more substantially lovingly invested who maintains a presence closer than that of a brother.

Intriguingly, the Hebrew word for the beloved friend who “sticks closer” (dabaq) than a brother is the same verb for the ‘cleaving’ of a husband and his wife (Gen. 2:24). This is a common verb indicating someone is “clinging to” someone else with varying degrees of intensity, persistence, and permanence.

Proverbs 27 contains several statements about good relationships (vss. 5-10) compared to bad relationships (vss. 11-17). Friendship is addressed in both sections. Here are a few selected proverbs from both categories.

First, a good relationship with a friend . . .

Naked rebuke is better than concealed love [ahavah].
Faithful are the wounds of an affectionate one [ahav],
But the kisses of a hateful one are abundant.

Proverbs 27:5-6

The first line isn’t so much a comment about the virtues of correcting a friend as it is a comment about the disservice and cruelty of withholding our expression of love from a friend. Delivering a biting public reprimand is less harmful to a friend than behaving in an apathetic manner is toward a friend. It’s not to say that “tough love” is enough to demonstrate a friend cares. This is saying moments of “tough love” work, because the enduring love of a friend is an established reality. Knowing the love of a friend is real and present is the precondition for believing and receiving hard and painful words of wisdom from a friend. A context of affection precedes and proves the faithfulness of a friend’s sharp criticisms. This is the way of a surrogate brother born for adversity.

And another healthy example . . .

Oil and incense gladden the heart;
So the soul’s counsel is sweetness to a friend [rea].

Proverbs 27:9

The soul of someone’s “soul mate” is like the person’s own soul. We’ve previously seen that expressed repeatedly about David and Jonathan. Such thick familiarity makes the counsel of our friend’s soul delightful, appealing, and instinctually palatable. It uplifts our heart to share in fellowship with our close friends.

But here’s an expression of an unhelpful friendship that many don’t recognize:

As iron on iron, so a man sharpens the face of his neighbor [rea].

Proverbs 27:17

Let me clear right up front. This is not a good thing to do to your friend, but modern western Christians misunderstand this proverb and think it’s a good thing — that it’s a case of “tough love” for a man’s encouragement. Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition summarized the research done by Ron Giese in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Giese shows that ‘sharpening’ applied to the face (or countenance), the eyes, the tongue, and so forth has a connotation of making them ready like swords and arrows to strike back in violence. The image seems to be that of verbally pounding like a hammer on a man long enough to provoke his anger. It’s a parallel to berating from a contentious woman seen elsewhere in Proverbs 21:9; 21:19; 25:24; and 27:15. It shouldn’t be understood as a parallel to the faithful wounds of Proverbs 27:6 but more as the dark side of a man not knowing when, how, or who to wound faithfully. It’s “tough love” without the love and without understanding and discernment. At worst, it’s obnoxious nagging.

King Solomon, who was an extraordinarily wealthy ruler as well as a teacher blessed by Yahweh with exceptional discernment, observed and understood the sharp distinction between the anemia of fair-weather friendships and the robustness of fiercely faithful friendships. Let’s learn from his insights and practice a lifestyle of love as friends who stick closer than blood-kindred.

The Good Firmament

The creation account in Genesis 1 follows a basic pattern for each of the six days. God speaks, and his Word goes forth creating what was spoken. God observes what he has spoken into being and passes judgment on it, i.e. “God saw that it was good.” And then the passing of a day is summarized by saying: “And there was evening, and there was morning” (showing that days in the “old creation” begin at sundown).

But one of the six days falls short of this pattern. On one of the six days, God does not look and judge what he has spoken into being. On the second day, God commands an expanse or firmament (Heb. raqiya`) to come into being and separate the waters below from the waters above. As we read further, we see that the waters below were gathered together into oceans, and the dry land appeared. The flying creatures do their flying in the face (surface) of the firmament of the heavens, and all the stars in the sky are in the firmament. This firmament is separating heaven and the waters above from earth and the waters below. And God does not pronounce it to be good. This is an indication that this creation structure was not intended to be a permanent arrangement; God’s silence hints to the future reality that this expanse separating heaven and earth will be bridged to bring heaven and earth together somehow.

The Scriptures speak of a variety of symbols pointing to structures that bridge heaven and earth. These culminate in the true fulfillment uniting heaven and earth in Christ.

From the creation, trees take on a few typological functions, one of which is a symbol for ascending into the firmament. They’re pillars reaching into the sky with their tops disappearing into a ‘cloud’ of leaves. Abraham built altars near groves in the Promised Land (Genesis 12:6-7; 13:18). These were miniature gardens imitating Eden. Even God’s garden in Eden is noted for its gigantic trees (Ezekiel 31). These are sites at which burnt offerings (literally, ascension offerings) are made. The worshiper ascends his sacrifice up to God in the presence of these leafy structures that also signify rising into heaven.

King Nebuchadnezzar was given a dream from God to warn him about his impending humiliation for his pride. He tells the Prophet Daniel about the dream:

The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.

Daniel 4:10-12

Nebuchadnezzar has this dream and seeks the interpretation. Daniel tells the king this tree represents the king. Daniel previously described Nebuchadnezzar this way:

You, O king, are king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory.

Daniel 2:37

A very Christ-like thing to say indeed. And here we have this king of kings compared to a tree of cosmic scale in which all living things find shelter and nourishment. This takes us one step closer to linking Christ with a structure that spans the firmament.

When Jacob was fleeing his brother Esau, he slept one night with a stone for a pillow. During that night, he had a dream from God:

And [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, Yahweh stood above it and said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.

Genesis 28:12-13

God promises the blessing of the Offspring and the Land to Jacob just as he promised to Abraham and Isaac before him. But what is this structure, this ladder (or staircase), that Jacob sees spanning heaven and earth with God standing at its top and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it? Christ himself tells his disciple Nathanael:

And [Jesus] said to [Nathanael], “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

John 1:51

Aha! There we have it: Christ himself, the Son of Man, is the ladder in Jacob’s dream.

Mountains are also seen as natural ramps or towers of the creation. God meets Moses and then all Israel on a mountain top. Eden was said to have a holy mountain of God in it (Ezekiel 28:14), and the temple of God in Jerusalem was built on a mountain.

Towers in the ancient world were often symbolic mountains. Think of the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. They’re stepped and sloped structures going up to heaven. Now, consider the Tower of Babel.

The people of the Land of Shinar were building the tower to ascend into heaven and to make a great name for themselves (Genesis 11:4). God comes down and puts an end to their haughty endeavor. And he confuses their languages and religious confessions.

It’s no accident that Babel is in the immediate background of God’s call to Abram:

Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3

Yahweh promises to do for Abraham exactly what the people of Shinar sought to do for themselves—to make a great name and a great nation. The unfolding of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham across Scripture is the “Anti-Babel” that God is doing. This is the Gospel in Jesus Christ. The Son of God is set up as this Tower which is a “Gate of God” (Heb. babel, which is a pun, because babel was ‘confused’ as a literary device with balal, meaning ‘confusion’).

Christ is the Tower to heaven ascending through the firmament. He’s the Offspring of Abraham who has received the promises to Abraham. He has been given a great name (the “name about all names”). He has been enthroned as King of Kings over the whole world and is the Great Tree in which all living things find shelter and nourishment.

And because Christ and his Gospel are the Anti-Babel, the confusion and division of the religious confessions of the nations at Babel are reversed in him. When he poured out the Spirit of Promise on his people at the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, they began to all speak the same one message in all the languages of the nations. They all spoke the message of the wonderful things that God has done in Christ. And so we still do in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ throughout all the nations of the world.

To invoke a blessed judgment now that the firmament is spanned and made good and the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ:

And God saw all that he had made in Christ, and behold, it was very good. And there is now no longer neither evening nor morning, because the Day of the Lord has come.

Indestructible Life

Behold the empty tomb where Christ was laid.

He is risen!
He is risen indeed!
He is risen from the dead, and he is Lord!

It’s not enough that Jesus died for our sins. The Apostle Paul says that he was delivered up unto death for our trespasses and raised from death for our justification (Rom. 4:25). He is declared to the world to be the Son of God by his resurrection (Rom. 1:4). The reality of Christ’s resurrection is the assurance of glorified life from the dead to all who are in him (1 Cor. 15:17). This is why the night’s sorrow on Good Friday must pass away to see the renewed joy of the Lord on Easter Morning.

“For those who are in Christ, after death always comes resurrection.”

That’s the refrain that my Extraordinary Pastor kept habituating us to say to ourselves, to carve it into our souls and believe it, especially when death is what God’s providence has in store for us on any given day. Life, especially the Christian life, is marked by an ongoing series of deaths and resurrections. In God’s mysterious economy, death brings forth greater life. And God makes us beneficiaries in Christ’s death and resurrection so he can also make us participants in death and resurrection for ourselves and others.

The resurrection of the Son of God from the dead is what makes all other resurrection possible, because Christ is the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18) and the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-23). Whereas the Old Covenant was a ministry of death and condemnation, Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant in his blood—one that is a ministry life, righteousness, and glory in the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:4-18).

It was not possible for death to hold the Son of God (Acts 2:24-32). He has been raised up in the power of an indestructible life, and by this, God the Father has qualified the Son to serve as high priest forever according to a priestly order defined by perpetuity and perfection (Heb. 7:15-17). By the Son’s once-for-all sacrifice, he has power to save to the uttermost all who draw near to God through him (Heb. 7:25) and to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14).

The Son of God as high priest lives forever to minister life continually. He always lives to make intercession for his people (Heb. 7:25). The Holy One of God who was put to a cursed death upon the tree of death in his obedience to God has also been raised from the dead with an indestructible life and made the blessed tree of life for his people.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

(Psalm 118:22-24)

Thanks be to God.
Amen and amen.

Serpent Uplifted, Serpent Crushed

What a strange, silly, or sickening occasion Good Friday must seem in the sight of the sons of this age—millions upon millions of people in sundry times and diverse places all finding comfort—and more so salvation—in the brutal murder of an innocent man. I count myself among them and sing of Christ’s “Passion” along with Kutless:

Within my mind’s eye
Flickering from the past
Come images that terrify and calm
A paradox in me

Nail-pierced hands, they run with blood
A splitting brow forced by the thorns
His face is writhing with the pain
Yet it’s comforting to me

He chose to give it all
Jesus endured the pain
Paying a debt I owed and creating
A paradox in me

Nail-pierced hands, they run with blood
A splitting brow forced by the thorns
His face is writhing with the pain,
Yet it’s comforting to me

But the foolishness or offensiveness of this is exactly the point of God bringing about the salvation of his people in this way. It’s foolishness according to the wisdom of this world. Yet this foolishness from God is wiser than the wisdom of this world, and in its own wisdom, the world does not know the God who is pleased to save those who are lowly in various ways through foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18-31). And thinking of the precise event we remember today, we do have a different manner of wisdom from God:

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

(1 Corinthians 2:6-8)

There are two wisdoms to consider—two wisdoms signified by two serpents. One of them is uplifted, and the other is crushed in the event remembered on Good Friday.

We see the serpent marked by wisdom in the creation account where he is introduced as being wiser than any beast of the field that the Lord God had made (Gen. 3:1). Like so many lesser creatures in the Old Testament, the serpent is a pedagogical animal. He’s meant to instruct man about something that God wishes to teach. Even Christ taught us how serpents continue to be symbols of wisdom, cunning, and shrewdness whose example we are to emulate (Matt. 10:16).

Man failed to take dominion over the wise serpent in the garden as God commanded him to do. Instead, Adam and Eve submitted themselves to the twisted counsel of the serpent. They all sinned against God’s word, and they were all judged by God.

Concerning the serpent:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

(Genesis 3:14-15)

That cursed serpent who slithers on his belly and eats the dust out of which man is made and to which he returns grew with time into Satan as we know. He is the great red dragon who “is that ancient serpent called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). He was a murderer and a liar from the beginning, and his children do likewise (1 John 3:12 cf. John 8:44). This cunningly deceitful serpent whose wisdom informs the wisdom of this age and this world was promised by God that his head would be crushed by one whom the serpent would strike in the heel.

This promise of God in Genesis 3:15 is called the Protoevangelium meaning the first proclamation of the Gospel. As soon as sin was in the world, the most merciful God was promising us that he would save us from our sins.

Serpent in the Wilderness

On several occasions, the stiff-necked Israelites who were dwelling in the wilderness grumbled and rebelled again the Lord and his servant Moses, and the Lord chastised them to humble them and bring them to repentance. In one instance after Aaron the High Priest had died, the chastisement came through poisonous serpents:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

(Numbers 21:4-9)

When explaining the mystery and the miracle of the new birth by the Spirit and the way into the kingdom of God, the Lord Jesus pointed Nicodemus to this incident in Israel’s wilderness wanderings as the crescendo of his teaching:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all of the ones believing in him would have eternal life.”

(John 3:15)

If the analogy seems murky, the Apostle John offers a parenthetical explanation for our Lord’s statement about being lifted up in the famous words that follow next:

For in this way God loved the world: he gave his unique Son so that all of the believing ones would not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world would be saved through him. The one believing in him is not condemned, but the one not believing is condemned already, since he has not believed in name of the Son of God. And this is the condemnation: the Light has come into the world, yet men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. For the one who practices wickedness hates the Light and does not come to the Light, lest his deeds would be exposed. But the one who practices truth comes to the Light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

(John 3:16-21)

For Israel in the wilderness, those who had the poison of venomous serpents coursing through their veins needed only to look in faith to the sign of the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole in order to be healed—to receive life from God. For the world composed of Israel and the nations, those who have the poison of sin coursing through their souls need only look in faith to the Son of Man lifted up on a cross to be healed—to receive eternal life from God. All of the believing ones who look to the Son of God show that the Spirit of God has wrought this within them—that they have been born of God.

The serpent lifted up in the wilderness signifies the Son of Man crucified for our sins who has become the power of God and the wisdom of God for salvation (1 Cor. 1:24). And the serpent whose head was crushed by the Son of Man upon the cross at the site called Golgotha (meaning the skull) is the wisdom of this present world that has been exposed as foolishness by God. The one serpent of wisdom from God is lifted up, and the other serpent of wisdom of this world is crushed under the heel of the Son of Man all in one event on Good Friday.

The unique Son of God endured this malediction for his people upon the tree:

May the Lord curse you and forsake you.
May the Lord turn his face from you and heap affliction upon you.
May the Lord look upon you in wrath and strike you with torment.

Now, the children of God enjoy this benediction in the Son given by the Father:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Shedding Bloody Tears

A beautiful adaptation of Simon Belmont’s theme from the Castlevania mythos.


I have become the ridicule of all my people—
Their taunting song all the day.

He has filled me with bitterness,
He has made me drink wormwood.

He has also broken my teeth with gravel,
And covered me with ashes.

You have moved my soul far from peace;
I have forgotten prosperity.

And I said, “My strength and my hope
Have perished from the LORD.”

Remember my affliction and roaming,
The wormwood and the gall.

My soul still remembers
And sinks within me.

This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.

Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.

They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I hope in Him!”

The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.

It is good that one should hope and wait quietly
For the salvation of the LORD.

It is good for a man to bear
The yoke in his youth.

Let him sit alone and keep silent,
Because God has laid it on him;

Let him put his mouth in the dust—
There may yet be hope.

Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him,
And be full of reproach.

For the Lord will not cast off forever.

Though He causes grief,
Yet He will show compassion
According to the multitude of His mercies.

Lamentations 3:14-32 (NKJV)

Lenten Thrift Shop

I’ve had conflicted thoughts about Lenten practices and other aspects of the medieval liturgical calendar for years. But I’m pretty sure my reasons are significantly different from those of contemporary evangelicals. My concern is a matter of the effectiveness (or counter-productivity) of communal formative habits and modest implementation of a regulative principle of worship in church life.

I’m especially fascinated and flabbergasted by the burgeoning numbers of evangelical individuals and churches who observe the Lenten Season in some capacity, even if it’s merely an Ash Wednesday evening service with that little sooty cross on the forehead.

I’d bet real money those evangelical ashes didn’t come from burning last year’s palm branches waved by the faithful in worship to signify the Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem or even from the Palm Sunday children’s pageant. Primping up the pulpit and the pastor with some purple paraments would be a pleasant picture to my pupils at least. However, that’s usually more regal ambiance than evangelicals can stomach. It’s “too Catholic” to not be “dead religion” or something. But I digress.

Even if the time of year and typical abstentions aren’t observed, evangelicals just can’t seem to get Lent out of their souls. Have you noticed how many 40-day programs and book studies for greater spiritual discipline there are?

But here’s the rub: if an evangelical individual or church wrenches a practice out of its context and appropriates it by reconfiguring it to function in a foreign framework, is it really the same thing anymore? And if the individual gets to decide what he fasts from and otherwise makes his own rules for the practice, then is it really the same thing as a communal tradition imposing inconveniences, obligations, and calls to common loves that actually rehabituate a man to a pattern of life greater than his own self-curation?

While reading an exchange between Jake Meador and Alastair Roberts posted as “Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety” at Mere Orthodoxy, I took note of these intriguing comments from Mr. Roberts:

As I have noted in the past, for many evangelicals the tradition can function in a similar way as the thrift store functions for the stereotypical hipster—as a source for an affected ‘vintage’ identity, rather than as a living set of practices to whose moulding power we submit. We don’t want to be subject to the tradition and its formation, but want to cannibalize it for our own formation . . .

[Quote from Jamie Smith]: “The cultural rituals of individualism have transformed even the communal rituals of the church, making it difficult to observe Lent today. As a result, we’ve effectively industrialized Lent and, ironically, turned it into a kind of Pelagian exercise in will-power. The point of Lent isn’t to prove I can deny myself; the point is to feel the hunger of longing. We’ve lost the ethos that makes this possible. Lenten practices are lost the moment I choose “what to give up.” I need the cafeteria to stop serving meat instead.”

[Jamie] Smith’s remarks about the issue of ‘choice’ are important, not least because I think that they highlight why Lent in particular is so widely observed. Within the popular Christian consciousness, Lent can function as a sort of authorization from the tradition for our acts of self-formation and religious expressionism . . .

For this new contemporary religious subject, the practice of ‘Lent’ may be part of a bricolage of self-formation. We scavenge in the ruins of the old institutions and ‘narratives’ that formerly conferred our identities upon us—such as the Church—for parts with which we will form ourselves, trying various things on for size until we find something that feels right. Rather than giving us our identities, society now serves to facilitate, validate, and function as the stage for our own identity formation . . .

For many evangelicals, I fear that cherry-picked Lenten practices are little more than an antiquing fetish for developing a personal brand, which will probably be exhibited on social media. In other words, dabbling in Lent is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for evangelicals pursuing a bit of personalized expressionistic authenticity. But, hey, it’s a catchy song. Gonna pop some spiritual tags.

And it’s even worse for emergent types, if they still exist. I’m pretty confident all those votive candles and icons of saints have far less to do with communing in the traditions of the one true and ancient Faith than postmodern Christian hipsters imagine they do.

P.S. A little shout out to my friend Valiant Pantherhawk: Thanks for making the mental Macklemore connection for me after I mentioned the evangelical thrift store parallel. I enjoyed listening to it once again in honor of Evangelical Lent today. :-p