“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 2: Gregory of Nyssa

sample-5I’m a big fan of Gregory of Nyssa, the bishop from Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey, more or less) who lived in the middle fourth century. For my Patristic and Medieval Theology class, I wrote a paper about Gregory’s universalism, which led me to this book, and therefore this series.

Gregory’s universalism was complete and total – when Gregory said that all of God’s creation would eventually be restored to him, he meant it, Satan, demons and all. In my paper, which I’ll post once I get the grade back, I argue Gregory’s expansive view of the goodness of God, which Gregory believed was the overarching divine characteristic against which all of God’s actions must be judged,  required the belief in Satan’s salvation. Without it, either the evil to which Satan had turned was stronger than the inherent goodness Satan carried as part of God’s good creation – and therefore evil was stronger than God – or God’s deceit of Satan in the atonement was simply justice without mercy, and therefore not good. We’ll talk about that more when I post the paper later this summer.

Unfortunately, Steven R. Harmon touches very little on all of that in his chapter of “All Shall Be Well,” titled “The Subjection of All Things in Christ: The Christocentric Universalism of Gregory of Nyssa (331/340–c.395).”

Instead, as the title indicates, Harmon focuses on the role of Jesus in God’s plan to restore all things. He argues that such a role is somewhat hidden because Gregory talks so much about what God does in the reconciliation process.

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Before the First Day of Creation

ImageIn the great debate between creationism and evolution, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the notion that God created the world in seven days with the power of his word, which would preclude a billions-year-long process of evolution.

This notion seems to come from two misunderstandings – 1, how the key text of Genesis 1 actually describes creation, and 2, how creation narratives work in ancient texts like the Old Testament. Clearing up these misunderstandings could help creationists come to grips with evolution – in fact, I would argue the creation texts of the Old Testament fit the world described by science quite well. There is, in fact, much less contradiction between the Bible and science than many assume.

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God to Job: Humans Are So Overrated

9780674025974_p0_v1_s260x420When it comes to humanity’s place in creation, we have our scripture down pat: Genesis 1:27-28.

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”

“Master” the earth, “take charge” of its animals. Or, in the famous words of more traditional translations: We have “dominion” over this world. Throw in Psalm 8 for good measure:

You’ve made [humanity] only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.

Cut and dried, right?

Not so fast.

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Why Your Great-Grandchildren Are (Probably) Safe from God’s Wrath

“The Lord! The Lord!   a God who is compassionate and merciful,
very patient,
full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
punishing for their parents’ sins
their children and their grandchildren,
as well as the third and the fourth generation.

— Exodus 34:6-7

golden_calf

Walter Brueggemann contends this is an ancient credo, the earliest formulation of a particular attempt by Israel to outline the properties of Yahweh. It occurs within a perilous context, right after the story of the golden calf, when Moses argues with Yahweh, trying to convince him not to destroy Israel for its idolatry at the base of Mount Sinai. This passage in particular comes during the sequence in which Moses asks Yahweh to reveal himself to him, and Moses must hide in a rock while Yahweh passes by and shows him his back.

There’s an uncomfortable tension in this passage, isn’t there? On the one hand, Yahweh is “slow to anger” – Brueggemann says this phrase literally is entertainingly translated “has long nostrils” that apparently allow plenty of time for the anger to subside before it comes snorting out – and full of forgiveness. On the other, he is somewhat vengeful, “visiting the iniquity of the parents” on as many as four generations of innocent children.

We had some lengthy conversations about this in class yesterday, and it’s striking how much we westerners want to reconcile this apparent contradiction. My classmates wanted to water down the meaning of “vengeance” or argue that what appear to be contradictions are actually the result of changing contexts or argue that love requires, not precludes, discipline. Certainly these last two points are true; I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise. But I don’t see them as applicable here. The context is the same, as these are two halves of the same credo, and lovingly disciplining a person for an offense is different than disciplining his great-grandchildren for it.

Now these two halves are not placed in equal balance against each other. Yahweh’s love endures 1,000 generations, his vengeance only four. That’s important to understand. Even so, it’s difficult if not impossible to reconcile “merciful and gracious” with “visiting the iniquity upon the children.”

I’d argue Israel recognized this, too. Which is why the second half of this phrase is almost immediately jettisoned from the rest of the nation’s testimony about Yahweh as presented in the Old Testament.

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Summit, Day 1: Death and Resurrection

Every September, my alma mater gets together biblical scholars, preachers and the like to talk about pretty much any topic you can think of. It once was called Lectureship; now it’s called Summit. I wrote about Summit last year, and I’d like to do the same thing this year, highlighting what stood out from each day of classes and/or sermons.

The day started with Glenn Pemberton, an Old Testament scholar who suffers from chronic foot pain that leaves him in a wheelchair most days. I’ve mentioned him before, as he wrote and delivered perhaps the most poignant, honest prayer I’ve ever heard.

Glenn discussed Psalm 38, one of the bleakest of lament psalms, and gave six clues for why he believed the author of the psalm was familiar with deep, chronic pain – most convincing are his points regarding its structural discontinuity and abrupt swings of emotion. He closed with this question: “How do these psalms help the reader with whom they resonate?”

His response: Psalm 38, like other lament psalms, “restores our ability to speak. It gives us the language to restore and maintain contact with God. These words are forceful and audacious, equal to the writer’s situation. Most of all, they’re honest.”

As I’ve discussed, there’s a place for brutal honesty with God – who either causes or allows the suffering and is seen as either a tyrant for punishing beyond what is merited or neglectful for forsaking his “covenant partner.” On the former, Glenn described it this way:

God has had a few too many drinks of anger. The poet asks God to sober up first, or find a designated rebuker until he’s not so inebriated with wrath.

But the psalm also “models a tenacious grip to God – even when we believe God has caused our suffering. God may be the problem, but this writer knows no other source of help or hope than this same God.”

When Glenn talks about God being “inebriated with wrath,” certainly no passage fits the description better than Hosea 2.

Famed scholar Walter Brueggemann provided something of a live exegesis of the chapter, which opens with God’s stinging condemnation of faithless Israel and concludes with his pledge to win her back. It is, Brueggemann argued, “the most perfect poem in the Old Testament that articulates the sum of all biblical faith.”

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Looking for Summer through the Snow

A book that is now on my ever-expanding “to-read” list is Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting with God. I’ve mentioned Glenn on this blog before; he wrote the incredible psalm of lament for Liam’s memorial service, as well as a moving translation of Psalm 51 for the modern-day psalter Timeless. 

Part of the reason I want to read this book is because I deeply identify with Mike Cope’s autobiographical description of a “winter Christian.”

During my years as a minister, I constantly felt the disappointment of some who wanted more confidence. They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery. They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it. They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus). They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith. They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.

There are plenty of summer Christians on my Facebook feed. Nearly every morning, someone is ringing in the day with some sort of celebratory psalm or phrase of thanksgiving to God for another terrific new day. And on one level, I agree. I am grateful and privileged to be alive this morning; but for many, many others in this world, it’s another day to survive, another day of hunger, thirst, illness, rape, slavery, abuse – another day in which the mercy of death does not come.

Yet many of the same people who endure so much more than I ever have are also followers of Jesus. Their faith remains unshaken by the horrible circumstances of their own lives, even as simply hearing about them makes my own faith quiver to the core.

So, like any good academician, my thought is: If I read books by people of faith who have suffered or are suffering, perhaps I can get a better handle on how I can marry my own faith to the harsh realities of this world. Because, to be honest, most days I find it much easier to be an atheist than to be a Christian.

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