To begin, I want to say that in many ways, this blog is a continuation of my thoughts from my blog “Cosmic Sky Dad“. I’m nearing the end of Father John Behr’s (Dean of St. Vlad’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” (A great review here), and I have gained drastic insights into systematic theology from this book. It has been highly informative and formative in my thinking and theology in just the couple of weeks I’ve been reading it. I want to summarize in my own words what the book deals with. This is not a thorough treatment at all for the subject matter, so I highly recommend one pick up their own copy!
In the preface, Father John writes that he is presenting a “Christian theology that is systematic yet remains true to the way in which theology was first learned” (page 15). He begins to critique modern theology by saying that it seeks to be a model based entirely on the historical events or “what really happened”. He accuses modern theology and scholarship of starting with the theological debates found early in Christian history, but “separate these theological formulas form the way in which they were in fact learned and from the exegetical practice, the manner of using scripture, in and through which they were articulated” (page 15). Father makes a point that if we read define theological formulas detached from the original way they were learned we’re in danger of reading Scripture in a vastly modern way.
The notion of the Trinity is read as a history of the interaction between man and God and culminates in God being incarnate in order to bring about redemption. He says that this
approach to theology has become, in modern times, all but ubiquitous. But the fact that we only understand retrospectively should caution us to consider more carefully how such theological statements are made and what kind of assertions they are. For example…the term ‘incarnation’ [read in such a manner described above] is used to refer to the becoming human of the second person of the Trinity by being born from the Virgin Mary. But it is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion, and resurrection…Thus, to speak of the ‘Incarnation,’ to say that the one born of the Virgin is the Son of God, is an interpretation made only in the light of the Passion. It is a confession about the crucified and exalted Lord, whose birth is then described in terms drawn from the account of his death…; it is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as a part of an objective history, an account of things ‘as they really happened,’ in the manner of nineteenth-century historiography” (page 16).
It is here that the heart of the book is presented. The point Father John is beginning to make is that the historical method of reading Scripture like this, on its on, places Jesus strictly in the past. Who He was, what He did, and what He said are all matters of history, but for the early Christians the crucified Lord was eternal and ever present, the One of whom the Scriptures speak. And it is precisely here that the book’s foundation is built. Father John states that the Apostles knew Christ in light of His passion, death, and resurrection. They turned to Scriptures, as directed by Christ, to see that it is He of whom they speak. Even in I Cor. 15:3-5, the Apostle Paul states that “Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures”, which he means the Old Testament.
Father John writes
Despite having been with Christ for a number of years, having heard his words and seen his marvelous actions, the disciples did not yet really understand him. Only after his Passion, his crucifixion, and resurrection, do they begin to understand who Christ is and what he has done, and they did this by turning back to scriptures” (page 22).
He goes on to say on page 25, “…Scriptures, the Old Testament, provided the means by which the disciples began to understand how God was at work in the Passion of Christ (for the early church the Passion includes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection and were celebrated as one event). It is in the Passion of Christ, that hermeneutics and theology must begin. I like to think of this as cruciform hermeneutics because it is in the Passion that theology begins. It is in Christ giving himself up for the life of the world that theology proper begins (page 31). This is where God is revealed to us and this is where our theology must begin. Father John makes a great point that the first principle of hermeneutics is Christ Himself! The Cross is where we start!
The Cruciform God of the Cross
I recently finished Michael Gorman’s “Inhabiting the Cruciform God” and also highly recommend it as well! However, I have noticed a lot of meshing between these two books I’m reading. Gorman proposes that the following verses from Phil. 2:6-11 (translated in his own words) is the Master Story of St. Paul and the beginning of theology proper, with which I’m inclined to agree, but also I’ll venture to say that Father John would too:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Dr. Gorman makes a point that these verses paint the accurate, wholesome view of theology proper, of divine power. It reveals to us how foolish we think of divinity. For humanity, divinity does not empty itself, but demonstrates itself over us through power. However, the saints, Father John, and Dr. Gorman make a point that the cruciform God is revealed through strength in weakness. Thus St. Paul’s master story turns theology proper upside down, or perhaps, right side up. It is here that we can begin to understand God and who He is and what He has done. Father John says that “the centrality of the Passion of Christ [is] the locus of the revelation of the transformative power of God…” (page 33). God is revealed in the voluntary death of Christ on the Cross; this is the scriptural reflection of the Apostles and has been the theological vision of many theologians. It should be ours as well.
Father John writes in regards to Phil. 2:6-11,
Christ’s taking upon himself the role of a servant, voluntarily going to the Passion, does not diminish our perception of what we might otherwise have considered his divinity, but actually manifests his true divinity. The transcendent power of God is manifest in this world in flesh, in darkness and in death, as a servant. But this manifestation of divine power, in weakness, is simultaneously a transformation: Christ, in the form of a servant, shows us the image of God; darkness and death become light and life; and the flesh assumed by the Word, becomes flesh of the Word–and becomes Word…The Passion remains as the locus for contemplating the transforming power of God, the ‘God revealed through the Cross'” (page 35).
Father John closes the first chapter by stating that, again, “in the night in which he was given up” to “in the night in which he gave himself up” is the beginners point for theology. It is
a theology which does not simply speak about God in the abstract, nor satisfy itself with a historical report about events in the past, but which contemplates the transforming power of God revealed through the Cross, the eternal, timeless power that upholds all things, inviting and challenging us also to become transformed in its Word, putting on the identity of Christ” (page 43).
Theology is Confessional
What does this all mean for us? It means that we possess a confessional theology, which we witness to through the transforming power of God manifest in Christ on the Cross: “Light in darkness, Life in death, Word in flesh” (page 141). An historical reading or recording of these events don’t do them the justice they deserve. That is why I’ve come to believe a cruciform hermeneutic, a reading of Scriptures in light of the Passion (crucifixion, death, and resurrection) are needed to develop proper theology and theological formulas. We must search the Scriptures in light of Christ and go from there, from the Cross. Father John writes,
What history would record as Jesus being put to death, theology confesses to be the very victory over death by one who gave himself up for the life of the world. The basis for this confession is not a claim to ‘historical evidence’ provided by the empty tomb or resurrectional appearances: the empty tomb needs to be interpreted…Theology begin, rather, with the opening of the scriptures by the risen Lord, so that his disciples see how they all speak of him and the necessity of his Passion, and so be prepared to share in the meal to which he invites them, when he is recognized and disappear from sight, creating in them a desire for the Coming One. It is based on Peter’s acknowledgement that he had betrayed Christ, that he was complicit in his death, but is nevertheless, and as a forgiven sinner, called to be an apostle, proclaiming the forgiveness of Christ, his mercy, and his love–a new creation.
Such theology is a confession, acknowledging the work of God in Christ. But it is only possible if it is accompanied by a confession about oneself. As with the denier Peter, the persecutor Paul, and the Prophet Isaiah before them, the reaction to the encounter with the Lord is the confession of one’s own sinfulness–that we are, each, complicit in the death of Christ and his persecution and that he is our victim in each of our acts of violence and victimization. As we look to the Scriptures, with the crucified and exalted Christ as our starting point, we can, only now, recognize that the world has lain in sin and death from the beginning, waiting to be saved and brought to true life by Christ. The truth of God revealed in Christ brings with it the revelation of the truth about human beings, both what they are called to be and that they have fallen from this high calling. The aim of theology always remains ‘the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of the human being'” (page 142).
This means for us that not only do we have a confessional theology found to begin in cruciform hermeneutics, but that we have a confessional theology that leads to a confessional theology, meaning we must see the depths of our own depravity as revealed in our theological confessions and formulas, which, again, begin with Christ. It means we find our stories within the story of Christ and his faithfulness to God. Father John states that an encounter with the Christ proclaimed “in accordance with the Scriptures” leads to a transformation of our lives. For me this means a cruciform theosis, direction union and participation in Christ and His faithfulness through co-crucifixion. It is the beginning of our past lining up with salvation history. Father John writes,
If, as is sometimes said, the ‘self’ of each person is their own past told form the perspective of the present, and that past acting in the present, then the encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to narrate one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as our own ‘salvation history'”(page 143).
For me, this highlights even more what I have spoken of in regards to what the Gospel is, which is the faithfulness of Christ to God. Our past is united to Christ and told from the vantage point of the Cross. Christ is the Faithful Israelite who fulfilled the demands of the law vertically and horizontally. By co-crucifixion with Christ, we share in His sufferings, but also in His faithfulness. It is by this co-crucifixion that we become deified and theosis is worked in us. It is here that such proper theology found in cruciform hermeneutics leads us: nailed on the Cross with Christ sharing in His faithfulness and sufferings. His story becomes our story, one of faithfulness, love, forgiveness of our sins, and mercy. We are to share this story and pour out such joy it has to the world by proclaiming the God revealed on the Cross.
Our stories lived up prior to the encounter of Christ were meant to prepare us for encountering the crucified and exalted Lord. Father John writes, with which I close,
Everything is compressed within his economy: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we still walk by faith, not by sight. But it is a faith that all things are in the hand of Christ, and that ‘in everything God works for good with those who love him'” (page 143).
Our theology must begin with the Cross, with Christ. It is here that true theology begins by opening up the Scriptures who testify to Him. It is here that we experience God, the God of power in weakness. Thus it is in our weakness that God is revealed to us and saves us. Our theology must start with the Cross so that it can lead us to the Cross ourselves, so that through our weakness the transformational, holy, reverent, love of Christ is displayed by uniting us with Him in His sufferings and faithfulness bringing us to union with Christ through cruciform theosis, which brings us to peace with God who is a good God and loves mankind.