Archive for month: October, 2011

Halloween… and the Cosmic Violence of the Gospel

31 Oct Andy
October 31, 2011

This is the day that Evil gets festive press.  Halloween caricatures Evil, dressing it up rather innocuously in ghostly face paint, plastic masks, fake fangs.  This is the day when it is okay to play-act as the terrifying mythical entities that, as we rationally explain to our kids, do not actually haunt the closet space.  This is the day when the numinous darkness takes a celebrated position on the pop-cultural stage.

I am not a Christian crusader against Halloween.  I do not endorse judgment houses as an alternative way to spend the evening.  I take my kids trick-or-treating and I have a blast doing it.  But my Halloween began with a distraught 6-year coming into my bedroom at 3:50 am—”Daddy, I had a bad dream.” I can comfort him with this: “The Gospel is violent.”

The Gospel is violent.

The Gospel is about salvation… but it is also about destruction.  It is the royal pronouncement in the dank, seething dark of a totalitarian state that an unexpected King from distant shores has just appeared in full force at the city gates.  Ring the bells, bang the drums, blast the trumpets: a new Lord has arrived on the scene of supernatural tyranny.  The Gospel is the siren-blaring, bell-clanging announcement that Jesus is here to shake his fist in the face of draconian forces feasting on the living corpses of humanity.  With his divine arrival comes not only saving but also destroying, for although “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19.10), he also came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

The Gospel’s etymology derives from military imagery.  Two armies are waging fierce battle over the hillside while the citizens wring their hands and pray for deliverance from the invading force.  And then, there on the horizon, someone makes out a moving shape, the shape of a man running from the scene of war.  This is the runner, the one come to announce the awaiting fate of those who have sent their husbands, fathers and sons bearing swords and clubs in service of their embattled king.  “Gospel” is the news through heaving breaths and trembling lips that their king has triumphed and that the enemies have been defeated.

The Gospel of Jesus is not about physical violence.  Gospel-violence is directed toward cosmic forces of Evil.  As we find in Ephesians 6:12, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  So wrestle not with other humans, but we do wrestle… and we do so violently.

The Gospel announces God’s gracious reign.  But this Kingdom is not coming into a vacuum.  The Gospel is violent because the reign of God is an assault on other reigns, the reigns of Disease, Death, Darkness and the Death.  When Jesus cries out at his death in a loud voice in Mark’s Gospel, readers will recall some sense of familiarity with other scenes earlier in the narrative.  This raucous death-howl was the pattern by which the demons fled.  Like Jesus, their departure was with the crying out of a loud voice.  Something terrible and mysterious—something cosmic and violent—is at work when Jesus dies on the cross beneath swirling darkness.

But whatever is going on behind the celestial curtain at the cross, we know that a closed up hole in the ground was burst open on the third day.  This is from my book Faith Without Illusions on the (violent!) Resurrection of Jesus—

When the Messiah vacates his tomb, something is stirring.  Something new and wild.  Something against the establishment.  Death‘s establishment.  At the voice of the resurrected Lord, the cosmic superstructure of evil detects a virus in the system.  A wrench has been tossed into sin’s machinery.  The foundations start to pop with fissures.  It’s time to plug up the leak, to contain the fire, to reseal any open tombs.  Time for chaos to panic.  Time for Satan to go beserk.  Resurrection is God shaking his clenched fist in death’s face. Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death’s ears.

The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched.  The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave.  He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free—and returning at dawn.  [1]

Halloween can serve as a reminder to my 6-year old that the images of Evil and death that he sees in storefronts or on other kids’ face—however plastic and silly and caricatured—are the images of a fading empire.  Jesus has come to de-fang the secretive, beastly dragon whose breath stinks with human carnage.  And one day, from the seat of a Throne, he will oversee that monster’s binding and eternal imprisonment as the everlasting King.

[1] Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 210-22.


CD VI.1 57-59

30 Oct Andy
October 30, 2011

I have just finished reading 350 pages of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  That would feel like an accomplishment were it not for the fact that the entire work weighs out at 9000 pages.  So after the past week or so of slugging through Volume VI, Part 1, Sections 57 through 59, I have read less than %4 of Dogmatics

It was like wading in a thick, dense, soupy mass of the Gospel.  Really, that is the image that comes to mind.  The prose is tough to follow.  The logic sprawls and spirals all over the place.  But everything is seeped and soaked in the wonder, shock, and glory of the Gospel.  Christ’s undoing of sin’s undoing of humanity, the great Yes of God to our desperate plight, the aching dark of the cross and the awkward surprise at the empty tomb… these realities of our confession are explored in strange heights and depths.  Though reading Barth has been hard intellectual work, I found myself at certain moments reading with the alertness of a hungry soul in need of a divine word to strengthen and challenge.  I was not disappointed.

My evangelical intellectual upbringing has instilled within me a sense of dread and suspicion when it comes to 20th century German theologians.  Some of this is well-founded, of course.  But even though Barth is controversial in some aspects, I have to say that reading “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country,” “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” and “The Verdict of the Father” was like reading sophisticated—yet heartfelt—doxology rather than dry, theological palaver.  It is the reading of a preeminent pastor-theologian whose vocational disposition was that of a wide-eyed child spelunking and hiking in theological chasms and peaks that most of us are content to simply know are out there somewhere should an overly-interested explorer want to take up the trailhead.

I will keep following Barth along those high and deep paths, as I have maturity in mind and heart to do so.  I hope to expand the measly %4….

Any other Barth-readers out there?  What makes him controversial?  What about his work and life has challenged or helped you?  Curious….

The Church

27 Oct Andy
October 27, 2011

I just received in the post a review copy of The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed by Matt Jensen and David Wilhite.  David and I attended seminary together at Beeson Divinity School—I trust him as a brother as well as a scholar, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to give the book a careful read.

The book’s topic brings up a conversation.  “Church” is surely one of the most evocative and provocative words out there.

“Church.”  Go ahead, say it aloud as you read.  What taste is left in your mouth?  Is “church” a term referring to “those people” in your own personal vocabulary?  Is it a word haunting you from your past?  Is it a word that haunts your future, as in, “Yeah, I should be going to church… I will one day.”

Maybe it is a word haunting you in the present.

“Church” brings up for some a lofty, abstract concept, that universal collection of believers who are sharing all over the world in the life of God.  But the theological concept of the global community of the redeemed is often an easier definition to deal with than the sociological reality of the local community of the allegedly redeemed.  It is nice to think about all the saints of God across field and forest, vale and mountain.  But “church” is a much more difficult conversation topic when you are dealing with the local manifestation of that glorious company… like the folks down the road with whom you rub elbows in the pews on Sunday mornings.

“Church.”  Yes, many of us are perplexed.  I will be reporting on David and Matt’s treatment of this messy and glorious topic as I work through it.

(I am grateful to T & T Clark / Continuum for the book.  The Guide for the Perplexed Series is really helpful if any of you want to check it out on the publisher’s website).

All of Christ for All of Us

25 Oct Joel Busby
October 25, 2011

Andy is across the pond, reading Calvin, drinking coffee and writing about it. I’ve enjoyed his posts immensely because I really like hearing Calvin from Calvin (which is often different than a macho, hearsay kind of Calvinism that floats around American evangelicalism, by the way…).

I remember being told that Calvin’s Institutes can be some of the richest devotional reading available. That might be hard to believe until you come across a paragraph like what follows. I came across it in another book and was glad that I did (and I was drinking coffee too!).

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.” If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.” II.16.19  [1]

I grew up in a Christian tradition that almost solely emphasized Christ’s death for me. I never would want to minimize anything about the cross of Christ. However, I’ve only recently come to understand the significance of all of Christ’s person and work for all of our need. Not just his cross, but his life, his humanity, his obedience, etc. is salvific for us. Our union with all of him is salvation for all of us.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 527.

Christian Leadership

24 Oct Joel Busby
October 24, 2011

Busby here. A quick post to stir your thinking.

I’ve finally picked up Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. I know I’m probably late to the party but I really appreciate this book already. It’s so countercultural to the Christian Leadership culture.

Without giving too much away (you need to read this!), Nouwen claims that the Christian leader must resist the temptation to be 1) Relevant, 2) Spectacular, and 3) Powerful.

I’m tempted by these 3 things in my ministry post all the time. I also live and minister within an evangelical subculture that tries to train you to be these three things.

I struggle. Any thoughts on this?

Barth: The Shock of the Cosmos at the Cross of Jesus

22 Oct Andy
October 22, 2011

Karl Barth on the “reversing of roles” between us and Jesus on the cross that was such an unimaginable, inconceivable feat.  Read this slowly… soberly… yet also joyfully…

“…we may think of the darkness which we are told later came down at the hour of Jesus’ death (Mk 15.33), the rending of the veil of the temple (Mk 15.37), the earthquake which shook the rocks and opened the graves (Mt 27.51), as though—in anticipation of its own end—the cosmos had to register the strangeness of this event: the transformation of the accuser into the accused and the judge into the judged, the naming and handling of the Holy God  as one who is godless.” [1]

[1]  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics; ed. G.W. Bromiley, T.F. Torrance (vol IV.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation; tr. George W. Bromiley; London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 238-39.

Calvin & Coffee: Word — Spirit

21 Oct Andy
October 21, 2011

[This is part of an ongoing series of posts I am calling "Calvin & Coffee"]


I just finished ch. IX in Book I of Calvin’s Institutes.  Here we see the insistence that Word and Spirit are conjoined in “an inviolable bond” [1].  Calvin has in his sights what we might would call “charismania,” an excessive emphasis on the Holy Spirit and supernatural phenomena to the neglect of orderliness, sound doctrine, and the honoring of Scripture (trends apparently associated with the Libertines in Calvin’s day):

For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter [2].

I have written about this sort of excessive emphases in Faith Without Illusions—the chapter on Experientialism required the greatest degree of sensitivity and precision in writing—spiritual gifts and the more mystical elements of Christian faith are such controversial topics.  I have friends who lean in opposite directions when it comes to experiential manifestations and emotional sensations in the life of the church… and Scripture itself demands a meticulous degree of balance.  Calvin’s own sensitivity and balance on the issue is impressive (and so also one of his successors in the reformed tradition, Jonathan Edwards).  His objective is not to demonize supernatural manifestations per se, but to address the alarming dissociation between the Word of God and the Spirit of God:

God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display , intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it.  Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word [3].

It is strange that Word and Spirit so often tend to become a dichotomy rather than a complementary and inseparable pair in the life and history of the church.

Here is a case in point.  A young pastor approaches the pulpit and then announces, “I was going to come with a detailed manuscript for this morning, but I think I just need to tear up my notes and go with the Spirit.”

Now, I acknowledge that sometimes God may indeed lead us modify our homiletical agenda in the moment of preaching.  But so often, so-called reliance on the Spirit can be justified to forgo the hard, meticulous work of exegesis, theological interpretation, and then the careful organization of the material and its crafting into a coherent message.  But when someone announces that they are scratching their notes or manuscript, it serves as an alert of sorts that now, now that the encumbrance of prepared material is out of the way, now the Holy Spirit is really about to speak.

But where was the Spirit in the preacher’s preparations?  Was He not guiding and stirring in those unseen hours, late and early?

Again, sometimes notes do need to be torn up.  Sometimes the manuscript is to be left in the pew.  But for the most part, this “inviolable bond” between Word and Spirit has to do, for the preacher, with hard, prayerful, cognitive labor; and it has to do, for the congregation, with the hard, challenging task of diligent listening.  Sometimes the most impressive feat accomplished by the Spirit in our midst may be the enabling of minds, hearts and ears to stay attentive to the presentation of the Word.  And every preacher surely knows the desperate need for the Spirit’s help while pouring over the Word in anticipation of Sunday.

So, Word — Spirit… any thoughts from you readers?  How do you see the union of the two in life and ministry?  What disciplines or practices might we employ in the cause of keeping them together?


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960),93.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid., 95.

Karl Barth and ‘Hopeful Realism’

18 Oct Andy
October 18, 2011

I am reading Church Dogmatics VI.1, sections 57-59, and I just had a moment.  Okay, I have all sorts of great moments in reading Barth so far, but something that stood out this morning is the comment below.  The reason it struck me is because the hopeful orientation of the Christian to the incoming (and currently in-breaking) power of the new age of salvation is unstoppable, providing for us the disposition of hopeful realism rather than idealism (an illusory denial of the death and injustice of our ex-Eden world) or cynicism (the embittered embrace of current reality without hope in a future reality).  This re-ordering of our disposition is the premise and challenge of my work in  Faith Without Illusions.  Here is Barth saying something that sounds very similar (and with greater clout!)….

“…perhaps [the Christian] is most clearly distinguished from the non-Christian by the fact that, directed to the great hope, and without any illusions, he does not fail and is never weary to live daily in these little hopes.  But this necessarily means that he is daily willing and ready for the small and provisional and imperfect service of God which the immediate future will demand of him because a great and final and perfect being in the service of God is the future of the world and all men, and therefore his future also.”  [1]

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics; ed. G.W. Bromiley, T.F. Torrance (vol IV.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation; tr. George W. Bromiley; London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 121-22.

On Being a Dad… and a Theology Student

13 Oct Andy
October 13, 2011

There are people out there with more than four kids.  I just think I should point that out.  It might be crazy to have lots of kids.  But I have less than some folks, ok?

Four.  That’s 80 finger- and toenails to clip.  That’s so much macaroni and cheese to cook.  That’s a billion Legos to pick up off the floor every night.  Yeah, sure, we should make the kids clean those up.  Often we do.  But when it is 8:15 and you have to have a break, picking up a billion Legos sometimes feels more manageable that breaking up one more fight or risking that someone will eat another treat after the teeth have been brushed.

I don’t know what is harder: being a father of four, or being one of those kids who has to be fathered by a father of four.  Nowhere is my weakness, impatience, and downright sinfulness more exposed than in my fatherhood.  The worst moments are when I yell at everyone to be quiet at bedtime so I can read them a Bible story about Jesus who kindly welcomed little children.

It is also possible that at times, fatherhood is when I am at my best.  Maybe.

Not this past Monday.

My wife has been working to help pay for the massive expenses of my theological studies here in England.  Monday is her office day, so instead of the enormous amount of reading I have to begin in Barth’s Dogmatics, my task is to make the school run.  Like my grandparents in bygone days of lore, kids walk to school in England (well, for the most part).

We are late when we leave.  (We are always late).  The two “little kids” are loaded into the double stroller.  “Big kids, let’s go… c’mon, we’re late!”

“But I wanted to ride my scooter today!”  This is from the 6-yr old.  A boy.  A boy who longs for the speed and thrill of wheeled transport, for the rush of wind in his red hair.

“I know buddy, but we can’t take the scooter because I will have to carry it the whole way to the preschool and back after I drop you off.  I just can’t do it with this stroller.  C’mon, hurry!”

The baby is in the front of the stroller.  She is always in the lead position of our pack because I am her propulsion, and I always go faster than the kids, my longer legs loping in strides twice that of the oldest one.  Like a helpless thing strapped to the front of a raging locomotive, this baby fords every path.  She doesn’t seem to mind.  On the left is a busy highway.  Cars, vans and lorries are whipping past.  On the right are homes and a rolling countryside of iridescent green.

The 3-yr old sits in the stroller behind his baby sister.  He is trying to tell me something as we steam onward.  “What, sweetheart?”  I try to lean toward him.  “What?”  Finally, having no idea what he is saying, I just offer, “Oh, that’s nice.  Yeah, I see.”  Empty, insincere words parents give their kids when they are distracted.  But it is nicer than ignoring the little guy entirely and I can’t take the time to stop and get the audible replay.

“Hey, you have to catch up!”  The 6-yr old is lagging behind.  He is mad about the scooter.  Vehicles whiz past, just 6 feet away from him.  I want him close so I can keep him alive.  He wants to be distant so he can convey his anger about the scooter.  Two emotions tear at him: the desire to please his dad, and the desire to punish his dad.

The 9-yr old loves it that she is not in trouble and that her brother now is.  She curiously gets sweeter and nicer in these moments, dramatizing the contrast between herself and her sibling.

“Son, you have to catch up.  No more of this attitude or I’ll not let you ride the scooter anymore this week.  NOW!”  There are sheep out in the green fields and the blustery wind is tossing his sunset-red hair.  In spite of his pouting lips and downward-tipped head, he is a thing of beauty out here.

The 3-yr old is saying something again.  “Oh, okay, fella.”  The baby is still charging onward, no concern at all for what force propels her, steers her, brakes her.  No worries about the racing flood of incoming traffic into which she does not go because of my invisible (to her) hands on the shaft of that stroller.

The wind is exhilarating.  Lord, You are so beautiful.  But I hate being late.  Lord, I’m sorry, please forgive me (and is my hairline receding?  There was a lot of forehead this morning in the mirror…).

“Dad, look!”

We had bolted past something gross on the pavement.  The oldest sees it.  But I am not looking.  I know that a lady is about to walk into an courtyard full of kids and ring a bell indicating the start of the school day.  I’ve got a bell to beat.

“Seriously, Dad, you gotta see this!”  Something about a slug and glowing green guts.  I don’t stop.

The oldest boy is still upset.  We’ve gone about a mile.  A scooter-less mile.  I still have four more to go with this stroller after that bell rings and all my older kids can think about are exploded slugs and the dismal absence of a scooter. The baby is sucking her thumb and watching the wide world unfold beneath the spinning spokes of a costly stroller.

Maneuvering it is so hard over the humps and bumps, around the other school kids (some on scooters) and through the crosswalks.  But we make it just in time.  The lady is ringing that bell and my kids line up.  I hope the 6-yr old is not so devastated over the scooter that he can’t enjoy his day.  Gosh, I have so much Barth to read.

But now there are four more miles.  The 3-yr old’s preschool begins in 5 minutes and it is 1.6 miles away (well, 1.5 with the shortcut my wife told me about).

The shortcut is a steep path cut through a wooded area.  It is slick and dangerous.  I make sure the strap we have rigged to the stroller’s handlebars is wound about my wrist.  The little boy disembarks so I have less weight to hold back from slippage down the hill.  Here we go.  I am holding his hand and also the stroller.  He slips and falls.  We regain balance.  Then he stops.

“Dad!  Look at that beautiful feather!”

Seriously, what about my hairline?  I am way too stressed.  “Yeah, that’s lovely, son.  But let’s not pick it up, ok?”  I hate being late.

We make it back to the road, which weaves us alongside a wall of old stones that have been sucking in the moist British air for eons.  At one point I have to launch the stroller off the sidewalk into the road to pass someone.  I am not sure if the preschool has a bell to ring, but I know I am late.

We drop him off.  He scuttles into this sweet, dreamlike little school wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack.  Then its just me and the baby.  I have to pick up a fax at the Theology Department.  The crossbridge over the river is under repair, so the journey is lengthened.  If she falls asleep in the stroller then she may not take the nap I need her to take when we get home so I can read out of Karl Barth.

We arrive at the base of a colossal cathedral.  It’s been here for ten centuries.  I let the baby out so we can go through the wide green door of the Theology Department next to the cathedral.

The fax has not arrived.

We leave, and, disappointed about the fax, I let the baby lead the way for a bit.  She can walk (but she’s still my baby, you hear?).  And when she walks, she picks a trajectory without any discernible rhyme or reason and just bolts.  In spite of her brisk steps, though, my slow strides are faster.  So I am forced to slow down for a bit.  The cathedral is behind me.  2-1/2 miles away is a red-haired boy who has now forgotten about his scooter and a 9-yr old who may well be the most beautiful creature on the planet.  A small potty-training 3-yr old is not too far from us, squeezing his way through toddlers to get to the preschool’s toy kitchen (his favorite).  And my baby girl is taking my hand.  It is her turn to steer, brake, propel.

And a little child shall lead them.

Theology demands such full attention, but the old libraries and the hefty books are not the only places and sources for learning about God… the God who made that beautiful feather on the steep path.  The God who fashions sunset-red hair, who knows every hair that falls from my head (even if I am just vainly neurotic and imaging the receding hairline).  The God who propels, steers and brakes my own journey with invisible hands.  The God who appoints a little child to lead me.

I have another mile to go.  But for the moment, I follow the child….

Durham New Testament Seminar—Michaelmas, 2011

08 Oct Andy
October 8, 2011

Below is the schedule for the weekly New Testament seminar at Durham University.  Note that there are discussions previewing two books that will likely become major works in their respective fields.  John Barclay will be presenting on Paul and Gift, and my supervisor, Francis Watson, will be presenting on Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective.  Many good Monday afternoons await!

10 October
Lionel Windsor, “Paul’s Redefinition of Jewish Identity (Romans 2:17-29)”

Wesley Hill, “Romans 4 and the Relational Divine Identity”

17 October 
Dr Benjamin Schliesser (University of Zurich), “The Dialectics of Faith and Doubt in Paul and James”

24 October 
Prof René Bloch (University of Bern), “Who was Philo of Alexandria? Tracing autobiographic passages in Philo” [n.b. 3.30-5.45]

31 October
Dr Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge), “The Religious Outlook of the Gospel of Thomas

7 November 
Prof John Barclay, Paul and the Gift  (book preview)

14 November
Dorothee Bertschmann, “The Good, the Bad, and the State: What is the meaning of to agathon in Romans 13.1-7?”

Leonard Wee: “Features in Paul’s Summaries of OT Historical Narratives”

21 November              NO SEMINAR

28 November
Prof Lewis Ayres, “Grammar, Polemic and the Development of Patristic Exegesis 150-250” [paper to be distributed in advance]

5 December 
Dr Eddie Adams (King’s College London), “Were the Pauline Churches House Churches?”

12 December  
Prof Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (book preview)


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