Archives For Theology

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The Canvas Conference, a joint effort between Humble Beast and Western Seminary, took place August 12-13, 2016, in Portland, Oregon, and was hosted by Imago Dei Community. This event, which sought to address the intersection of Christianity and creativity through a robust gospel-oriented and gospel-driven lens, included talks given by a number of Western Seminary faculty members. This was my talk. 


When you think of the Christian life what do you think of? What practices come to your mind? What is the essence of Christianity? I would guess that the popular view of Christianity concerns the internal, the spiritual, the disembodied. We think of Christianity as something in our heads, something in our hearts. We grow by reading our Bible, by praying, by meditating on our own, by learning more information about the Bible.

And these are actually good things. But I would suggest that we need to return to the Scriptures and recover the main images of Christian practice and see what they teach us about redemption. And I think we need to return to these central images because there is this tension, a dualism, a separation between the material and spiritual, between the earthly and the heavenly that has seeped into our culture.

I myself felt that tension when I was growing up. I felt that I occupied two worlds. In one world I was with my friends going to concerts, jumping on the trampoline, going to the lake, playing sports, building things with my friends, or trying to push my brother down the stairs.

However, there was another world that I occupied. I was urged to read the Scriptures, to pray, to go to church. For the most part, I thought of this second world as the world in my head for I could not see God, I could not touch him, I had to live by faith. Faith was acknowledging something immaterial, something beyond me and my physicalness. The world of the physical and the world of the spiritual were locked in their respective rooms never to come out and play.

And maybe this is why the church in the modern period has had a complicated relationship with artists and creatives. I am afraid that we have relegated Christianity to something in our mind and lost the sense of how holistic redemption is, how God communicates what Christianity is through the images that he has given to his church. There is a felt flatness to some versions of Christianity, not an embodied invitation to a historic sacramental Christianity. The historic images that God has given to his church are not the practices that usually come to our mind when we think of what it means to be a Christian.

The practices, the images that Christ gave to his people most explicitly are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we need to ask ourselves why did Christ give these? He could have given us anything? Why not something else? And what do these specific images teach us about us, about God, about how he communicates, with us, and about what God is doing in this world? We could say many things, but I have identified at least four things that these images teach us both about redemption and the nature of art.


It was C.S. Lewis who said that the devil always brings errors in pairs – pairs of opposites. He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the other. It is popular to pit the communal and personal against one another, but in the sacraments they come together. These practices are individual in one sense, but in the very same respect they communal. These practices by definition are to be done with other people.

Baptism is to be witnessed by a congregation as an initiation rite into the church. The Lord’s Supper is a meal we partake of with others who are also submitted to the king of this banquet. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper teach us that Christianity is personal, but it is more than personal, it is also a body ethic. These images teach us that there is no such thing as communityless Christianity, no such thing as churchless Christianity, no such thing as loving the bridegroom but shunning the bride.

The form of these main Christian practices informs us that the best art is both personal and communal. God has woven in our being the fact that we are both individuals and that we exist in community; not either-or, but both-and. The best art brings people together, gives them something to talk about, something to think about, something to wonder at.


Have you ever thought about what we are actually doing in these acts? They are actions that include the body, the mind, and the senses. The water rushes over our head, through our hair, and into our ears in Baptism. We place the bread and wine on our lips and in our mouths and chew and swallow in the Lord’s Supper. As James K. A. Smith notes, one of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is: “To engage in worship requires a body – with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell and. tongues to taste.”

The main images that Christ bestowed upon his church scream to us that Christianity is a religion for the whole person. Art, in a similar way, is meant to impact a person at different levels. Some art is for the eye, some for the ear, some for the heart, and some for the mind. But the best art brings coherency to these and recognizes that we are not beings to be cut up into pieces, but that our whole being in involved in every act. Art teaches us that God has made us whole.


In Baptism we go under the water to declare that the chaotic world has come over us in death. In the Lord’s Supper we eat of Jesus’ body and drink of his blood. When you think about it, in one sense the two sacraments that Christ gave us are gory and off-putting. And we need to ask ourselves what this means for art? Maybe it is not only the beautiful, but the painful, the distasteful, the gory, and the macabre that actually more plainly disclose the healing power of God (see Eph. 2). We not only need a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross for the arts. Maybe that is why the apocalyptic and dark shows are such a hit right now.

This is huge, because Christian artists in the past have been prone to present this pretty picture of life that whitewashes the pain, the suffering, the hardships of life. The fact is, we have a bloody, side-pierced savior at the center of our faith. We need to carve out spaces for art that makes us turn away in disgust, we need a theology of ugliness. But in case we forget, this dying, this suffering, in the sacraments always end with life, with oceans of hope. We are brought OUT of the water. We eat of Jesus to live! Life by death, and death by living. We need art that showcases the horrors of death and the beauty of life.


They point to Jesus’s life here on the earth in the flesh and his death and resurrection. But they also point to heaven where he is exalted now and sitting at the right hand of the Father. In Baptism we look forward to the final resurrection and in the Lord’s Supper we look forward to the messianic banquet. So Baptism and the Lord’s Supper declare that there are not two worlds but one. Heaven and earth are united in these images. In these rituals the people of earth enact a heavenly order.

Art in the same way is to showcase that the sky is not a closed dome of brass but there is movement between heaven and earth. The heavens are open. We live in an enchanted world, a world of spiritual forces, of devils and demons, of angels and archangels. Art needs to point to this earth, but also to heaven and show how these realms are united.


So what are the implications of these images, these practices for Christianity? These images teach us that Christianity cannot be relegated to merely a personal, internal, or disembodied thing. And we need more and more people who are interested in showing us the far reaches of Christianity:

Ÿ We need more artists who display the glory of God in the visual.

Ÿ We need more movie directors who tell stories that touch the recesses of the human heart.

Ÿ We need more composers who make music like Howard Shore.

Ÿ We need more singers, woodworkers, architects, interior designers, advertisers, project managers, and marketing experts because each of these things touches us in unique ways.

ŸWe need them to show us again how Christianity is a religion for the whole person, because in the images of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper God has already shown this to be true.

As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Some people come to the church saying, “I want to be more spiritual.” The church responds, “Have some bread; take some wine.” This is the response one might expect from a faith that sees the Holy Spirit as resting on the body.” The images, the practices of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper teach us that Christianity is a complete worldview. They declare we don’t occupy two worlds, but that God is making them one.


51cBGPNUqFL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Jamie Smith’s most recent book You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a more popular version of his books Desiring the Kingdom (here were my initial thoughts on the book) and Imagining the Kingdom. It removes some of the more academic conversations and distills his thesis into a two introductory chapters. But the book is not just a redo, there are new metaphors, new illustrations and he applies his thesis to the spheres of Christian worship, the home, youth ministry, and work.

On a personal note, I find Smith’s work very stimulating and always discover my mind firing in all sorts of direction. So although I might have some minor misgivings, I consider myself a supporter and recommender of his work.

If you follow Descartes, I follow Augustine (and Smith).

We Are Lovers

His argument is the title of the book. We are more fundamentally lovers than we are thinkers. We love in order to know, not know in order to love. These desires, these loves are manifested in daily life and habits. The way to train our desires is through ritual, through habit.

If you have followed the conversations of Smith’s books then you are aware that Smith is probably tired of responding to the same stale criticisms, or from people who don’t read him very carefully. One of the critiques that seems to come up a lot is that he proposes false distinctions.

But from a more positive vantage point, he is arguing that there is a priority or an order that we actually have backwards. It is not that we are not thinkers, but that we are first lovers. It is not that worship is not bottom-up, but it is first top-down. Earlier works provide more nuance in the footnotes.

I still personally wonder if the picture he paints is actually too neat. Maybe the process of theological anthropology is too complex to break down into humans primarily being this or that. Because isn’t the intellect a part of the body’s and heart’s process of desiring?

On Worship

I really enjoyed the chapter on worship/liturgy. His paradigm of God meeting us in worship and forming us coheres with a certain sacramental bent I have been on recently. Still two apprehensions came up when I read it. First, although there may have been more effort on the forming role of the Word it still seemed assumed. An Augustinian resourcement of the explicit centrality of the Word is needed.

Second, while it is true that God meets us in worship the emphasis in the NT seems to equally focus on the “bottom up” and “horizontal” dimension of worship. In Ephesians 5:19 it explicitly speaks of two objects in worship: one another and the Lord. I don’t think Smith is wrong here, but it is interesting what Eph 5:19 explicitly says.

The final thing that is worth bringing up is that when I think about applying some of his theories my mind fills up with awkward rituals that I have seen in churches or other institutions. This could be because we have lost the sense of how to perform rituals, but one wonders about certain institutions doing ritualistic acts and performing them so poorly that the effect is actually opposite of what Smith desires. It is not the strangeness or otherworldly nature of it that I am opposed to, but poor or less than thoughtful enactment of it. This does not take away from his thesis, for abuse does not cancel out use, but it is something to take into consideration.

I personally appreciated his reflection the home and youth ministry. Smith’s writing is always engaging and thoughtful. Although some of this is repackaged material, it is a helpful summary and has some new applications in different spheres.

This may turn out to be the best introduction to Smith’s work.



Below are some videos of Smith explaining his book.


Ephesians 4:9 speaks of Jesus’ descent into the lower regions of the earth.

“In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?”

Interpreters over the centuries have argued about what this is in reference to. The Apostle’s Creed speaks of Jesus “descending into hell.” It says, “Jesus Christ…who …was crucified, died, and buried; he descended into hell.”

Protestants are sometimes uncomfortable with this phrase of “descending into hell” because it does not seem to be a doctrine taught in the Scriptures. Therefore, some have responded with a view that looks at the descent in Ephesians 4:9 as the incarnation of Jesus. Another option, through Calvin’s influence accounts for the so-called ‘figurative’ view, which understands Christ’s descent as the torments he suffered on the cross in his substitutionary death.

While both of these are valid options, after studying the passage I am becoming more and more convinced that Jesus’ descent in Ephesians 4:9 is referencing Jesus’ descent to the dead in his burial. Four arguments point me in this direction

The Historical Argument

The Apostles’ Creed was not written or approved by a single church council at one specific time. It gradually took shape from about A.D. 200 to 750. The phrase, “He descended into hell,” was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase was originally “descended to the dead” in Latin (descendit ad inferos) but was later changed to “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna). Eric Hutchinson notes.

In a pronouncement of an Arian council held at Sirmium in 359, there is no statement about Christ’s “burial”; in its place, there is only the statement of His “descent”: “And He went down to the subterranean regions, and ordered the things there–upon seeing whom the gates of Hades shuddered” (presumably referring to Matt. 16:18). This suggestive substitution of “descended” for “buried…descended” is found again in the Creed of Venantius Fortunatus in sixth-century Gaul (he in fact proceeds directly from “crucified” to “descended”). In most versions, however, both clauses were included in subsequent centuries.

In any case, what is clear from these and other early uses, by the Arians as well as by the orthodox, is that “hell” as they were using it referred to the “abode of the dead,” represented in the Old Testament by “Sheol,” rather than the “abode of the damned, which is to say, “Gehenna.”

Moreover, Rufinus, the only person who includes the phrase before A.D. 650, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell. He understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ “descended into the grave,” ie. was buried. Later this phrase was incorporated into versions of the Creed that already had the phrase “and buried,” so some other explanation had to be given.

The Canonical Argument

Both the Old and the New Testament have texts which speak of the the theme of descending to the dead. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus compares his burial to Jonah in the belly of the whale (in Jonah 2 it is also a reference to the abyss, the place of the dead). Jonah itself is filled with this imagery and Jesus picks up on this theme and relates it to his life. In Acts 2:24-28, Peter speaks of Christ in the grave and God’s power and victory over death. In Ephesians 4:9-10 and Romans 10:7, Paul makes theological use of Christ’s descent to the place of dead.

Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that speak of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures it seems that Jesus’ descending to death as part of his work on the earth. He defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; Col. 2:15).

The Grammatical Argument

The debated phrase in Ephesians 4:9 is “τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς” which can be translated “the lower regions of the earth.” τὰ κατώτερα μέρη are in the accusative case while τῆς γῆς is in the genitive case. There are multiple ways one could take the genitive here.

Genitive of Comparison: parts lower than the earth or under the earth = Christ’s descent into Hades

Epexegetical Genitive/Appositional Genitive: lower parts, namely the earth = Christ’s incarnation

Partitive Genitive/Possessive Genitive: the earth’s lower parts = the grave

While all of these are grammatically possible I think the grammar points away from it being the incarnation because of the extra phrase joining “the earth.” If the incarnation was only meant then why describe it as “the lower parts?” It could be in contrast to ascending, but the earth by itself could communicate that. Choice implies meaning, and the author of Ephesians chose to be more specific than simply the earth.

_1000x1000The Contextual Argument

That Christ is descending to the dead makes good sense of the cosmic scope of the letter to the Ephesians. God the Father has not only blessed us in times past, but also in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:3). The plan was to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). The triumph of Christ over the evil powers demonstrates that he has authority over all space, and his body is going to fill all spaces (Ephesians 1:23).

Christ is the key to the universe according to Ephesians; his body is going to fill all things, it will complete all things, and it will explain all things. Christ fills, completes, controls, rules, and determines the filling of heaven and earth.

In the image to the right it makes sense that for Christ to fill all things he must descend to “the lower parts” to conquer.


While many Protestant’s argue “descend into Hell” should be removed from the Apostle’s Creed or understood as Jesus experiencing Hell on the cross (in line with Calvin) I think it is best to follow the earliest version of the Creed that speaks of Jesus descending to the dead.

1 Corinthians 15 describes the Gospel as, (1) Christ died, (2), he was buried, and (3) he was raised. Many times our Gospel presentations lacks the substance of his burial, but one of the earliest Creeds understood the consequence of his burial. It is through his burial that Christ triumphs over all the heavens and the earth. He conquered the earth, Sheol, and he now is seated in the heavens. His burial is an important part of Ephesians 4:9, the theme has echoes in the Old Testament, and its significance is confirmed in the Creeds.


Also see Matt Emerson’s excellent articles on this subject.

Here is a chart of options for how to take Jesus’ descent (you could also take descended into the dead as a reference to Sheol/Hell).

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Ephesians is about the triumph of Christ over supernatural forces and how he is bringing unity to all things. One of the key passages for understanding this is Ephesians 4. Ephesians 4:1-6 bases an encouragement to unity on a Trinitarian reflection (One Spirit, One Lord, One God and Father). Then verses 7-16 shift the focus to diversity within unity.

It is in this second half that Paul gives one of the more detailed portraits of how Christ’s triumph and unity relate. He portrays Christ as a divine warrior using Psalm 68 who both ascends with captives (to fill all things) and also descends. Related to this spatial movement of ascension is his giving of gifts for the sake of unity. He gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

So Paul connects Christ’s divine conquering to the gift of unity.

But Paul’s use of the Old Testament has troubled modern interpreters. A few have called this use of the OT as “very odd” while Fitzmyer even says that Paul completely disregards the original context of the Psalm.

In Ephesians 4:8 Paul quotes from Psalm 68:18, but he changes a crucial word. In the LXX it says that God “received” gifts from men. Paul instead quotes it saying that Christ “gave” gifts to men. Here is a chart showing that difference and the other changes Paul makes in comparison with the LXX. (I have taken this chart from Richard Lucas’ dissertation.)

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So what are we to do with this change? In my study of the passage I have identified five main views which I put into a chart (the linked chart is in a PDF so it is easier to read). This chart is not exhaustive, but it does represent the major views that I have encountered. I hope this can serve interpreters so that they can more quickly get into the process of judging the benefits of each view instead of searching for the different views out there.

This is a difficult issue, but I think the first option is the most likely. Paul was reading the Psalm in light of the movement of the entire Psalm. He is not simply quoting one verse in abstraction from the rest of the Psalm but appropriating the narrative movement of the Psalm. This could be labeled creative interpretation, but it is also faithful interpretation. He looks back on Yahweh as the Divine Conqueror and sees the Psalm fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Christ is the victorious Divine Warrior who has the right to give gifts to his people because of his triumph.

For one of the better articles on this issue see Gombis’ article “Cosmic Lordship and Divine Gift-Giving: Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8.”


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Time, Space, and Jokes

February 21, 2016 — 1 Comment


I have an article that Desiring God published on Paul’s “philosophy” in Ephesians. The article started with the realization that Paul argues that Jesus sums up the twin towers of basic ontology (time and space). Then it occurred to me that the imperatives in the second half must be linked to what came before.

Here is a sample.

On a casual reading of Paul’s letters, some might assume that Paul ignores philosophical questions. Yet Paul did not shy away from the deepest, most complicated questions at all. In fact, he tackled them with the strength and confidence of a bull in a rodeo. But unlike many philosophers, Paul’s philosophy was wrapped in pastoral garments. He thought that our understanding of time and space should determine the types of jokes we tell and what sort of husbands and wives we should be.

Philosophers for centuries have debated the twin towers of time and space. What is their nature? How do we describe them? What is their relationship to God? Augustine in his Confessions says, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”

In Paul’s least occasional letter, Ephesians, he writes to Christians about God’s cosmic plan, summed up in the body of Jesus Christ.


Turris_Babel_by_Athanasius_KircherTodd Wilson has an excellent review of Scot McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy (which I also reviewed). He brought up two questions towards the end which were thoughtful responses.


First, he asserts the people of the kingdom are not to be equated with the kingdom although they are inseparable from it. People may be a concomitant of the kingdom without constituting the essence of the kingdom.

While I follow the distinction, I am not sure it works. A thought experiment clarifies this. Wilson is essentially arguing that the essence of the kingdom is the dynamic sense, following Ladd. But couldn’t we also say that power should not be equated with the kingdom but is inseparable from it? This then seems to be a distinction without a difference because it is hard to find that which is equated with the kingdom which is not also inseparable from it.

So proposing this distinction actually undercuts the dynamic sense as well as the people sense of the kingdom.

A little look at the history of the definition reveals that the dynamic sense has been the leading view since Gustaf Dalman’s study Die Worte Jesu in 1898. George Eldon Ladd popularized this view in his numerous works on the kingdom arguing that the abstract idea is the primary meaning. Even the dictionaries have followed suit. However, Ladd’s conception of the kingdom must be understood in its historical and geographical context. For Ladd was, at least in part, reacting to dispensationalism with its focus on land, and therefore was prone to downplay other features.

Second, there seems to be some confusion on whether Jesus himself is the embodiment of the kingdom, or if he is the proxy or agent of God’s kingly rule.

The presence of the king is the presence of the kingdom. Certainly not in full, because we are waiting for it to be consummated, but Jesus is embodying the kingdom in his ministry thereby being the proxy agent of God’s kingly rule. I don’t think we can or should separate the two.

Luke 17:20-21 in particular has a reference to this concept. The Pharisees ask when the kingdom of God will come (temporal question), and Jesus replies by telling them they do not understand the nature of the kingdom for the kingdom of God is coming in ways that cannot be observed. Jesus then says “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν). Although there is much debate whether this should be translated “within you” or in the “midst of you,” he seems to be correcting their view of the kingdom as not external, but localized.

So why can’t they observe it? Because they are blind. It is standing right there in front of them.

Interestingly, The Gospel of Thomas 113 has a parallel passage: Jesus’ disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ Jesus said, ‘It will not come by expectation. It will not be a matter of saying “here it is” or “there it is.” Rather the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it. The parallel ties the concepts of “spread out upon the earth” with it being ἐντὸς ὑμῶν. Could Jesus be saying the kingdom is spatial now in bodily form?

Both the Gospel of Thomas and Tertullian (Marc. 4.35) associate the saying in Luke 17:20-21 with Deut 30:11-14 (LXX), where the commandment is said to be not far away, or in heaven, or beyond the sea, but very near, in one’s heart, and in one’s hands. Deuteronomy casts the commandment in spatial terms, not far away, or in heaven, but near. If both Tertullian and The Gospel of Thomas tie this passage to the nearness language of Deuteronomy, then it would be fitting to tie such to the spatiality of Jesus’ body. The kingdom is in the midst of them in the person of Jesus. Thus, it seems from the surrounding literature that Luke is not giving a spiritualization or interiorization of the kingdom in the usual sense.

At some point we need to ask what embodiment actually means, but for most I think they are asserting that Jesus is picturing both what kingdom life is and what it will be like.

I could go on and speak much more about this. If interested see my forthcoming book for a whole argument concerning this issue from Matthew, but I will leave it here.

Overall I am thankful for Wilson’s response and maybe he has further thoughts that will help clarify my thinking on these issues.