Tag Archives | reconciliation

Exclusion and Embrace | Miroslav Volf

The cover of Volf's Exclusion and EmbraceThen Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:34 NRSV)

We all know that we should forgive each other. We even know how often—seventy times seven (i.e. unending forgiveness). The problem comes not with the knowing, but with the doing.

Miroslav Volf hit this crisis between knowing and doing after at the end of a lecture when Jürgen Moltmann stood and asked, “But can you embrace a cětnik” (9)? These Serbian fighters had been terrorizing and destroying Croatia, Volf’s country. He was torn between “the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty” (9). This question drove him to research and write Exclusion and Embrace.

Exclusion and Embrace is the best book on forgiveness that exists. Period. Volf used the image of the crucified God, arms outstretched with side pierced, to show how those who are offended can make space within themselves to embrace the other. This does not mean that the embraced are exonerated—they can be embraced “even when they are perceived as wrongdoers” (85). This, of course, is precisely how Jesus receives us.

Although written in 1996, this book feels tailored for today. In our culture of “truthiness,” Volf writes of “Deception and Truth.” As geopolitical tensions flair, Volf writes of “Oppression and Justice,” “Violence and Peace.” Even gender identity receives a chapter. It is stunning to see just how broad the theme of forgiveness reaches.

Every paragraph of Exclusion and Embrace is rich. Volf’s writing is a dense and insightful mixture of philosophical acuity, psychological wisdom, and theological insight. Our world needs this book more now than ever.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Torrance’s Incarnation 6.2: The Hypostatic Union in Revelation and Reconciliation

The cover of Torrance's IncarnationThe hypostatic union—the indivisible unity of the divine and human nature in Christ—is a more intimate union than the one flesh union of marriage. This union happens within one person. In this union, these two natures cannot be separated or confused. “God remains God and man remains man, and yet in Christ, God who remains God is for ever joined to man, becomes man and remains man” (191).

We need to consider how this hypostatic union relates to revelation and reconciliation.

a) The hypostatic union of God and man in one person is the heart of revelation and its full substance

Because the Word became flesh, God has revealed himself to us in a way that we can understand—from within our humanity. In taking on our humanity, he has also taken on our language, so that his language about God is genuine revelation.

We can only know God by analogy. However, in Jesus Christ, we have a filled analogy. We understand God in terms of human images precisely because in Jesus Christ, God and man are united.

b) The hypostatic union of God and man in one person is the heart of reconciliation and its full substance

If God were to reveal himself to us in majesty we would die. In the incarnation, God veiled his majesty in flesh, humiliation, and death, so that he might draw close to save us. By veiling himself he “sinlessly assumed our flesh” (195) into himself and saved us. Jesus did this from the side of God and from the side of man.

It’s important here to remember that Jesus’ united nature is indivisible. If we could divide the two, then his human acts wouldn’t be divine, and his divine acts wouldn’t be human. If we could divide the two, then our nature would be unassumed and unreconciled.

c) Outline of the main stages in the development of the doctrine of Christ and of the hypostatic union

There are seven major stages in the church’s understanding of the nature of Christ:

  1. The Council of Nicaea (AD 325): Jesus is truly God.
  2. The Council of Constantinople (AD 381): Jesus is perfectly man.
  3. The Council of Ephesus (AD 431): Jesus is one person.
  4. The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451): Jesus has two distinct natures.
  5. The Council of Constantinople (AD 680): Jesus possessed both a human and divine will.
  6. The Reformation: The doctrine of Christ was stated more in terms of Christ’s saving and reconciling mission.
  7. Early Scottish Theology and Barthian Theology: Anhypostasia and enhypostasia are brought together to stress that the Jesus of history is the Son of God.

Some Reflections

All other analogies are empty, and contain nothing of God, but Jesus Christ is filled analogy, analogy where the content and substance lie in the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ. (193)

Any thoughtful person quickly realizes that we cannot understand God except by analogy. God’s arm is strong to save, but we don’t assume he has a physical arm. That is, until we meet Jesus. In Jesus, the analogies through which we understand God are “filled.” We actually encounter the analogies we use.

The very humanity of Christ is the veiling of God; the flesh of sin, the humiliation and the form of a servant, the death of Christ all veil god – and so God draws near to us under that veil in order to reveal himself, and save us. (194)

When God revealed himself to Elijah, he tucked him into a crevasse in the rock and allowed him to see his backside as he passed by. It was understood that to see God meant death—his glory is simply too overwhelming. When Ezekiel saw a vision of God, he collapsed and could only stand when the Spirit lifted him to his feet again.

In Jesus, we can look on the face of God and live. This veiling of God reminds me of Jesus’ parable about “the least of these.” We look back in time and question why people couldn’t see Jesus for who he really was—God incarnate, God veiled in flesh. I wonder if we are able to recognize him veiled in the faces of those who need our help today?

← 6.1: The Humanity and the Deity of Christ
6.3: The Patristic Doctrine of Christ →

Torrance’s Incarnation 2.2: The incarnation and the new Israel

The cover of Torrance's Incarnation

In the New Testament we see God’s covenant in its perfect form. God provided from within Israel and within humanity the fulfillment of his covenant. In Jesus, God comes as the Son (reconciliation) and the Word (revelation)—one “mighty act of the incarnation” (57).

The Word made flesh

In Jesus, the Word became flesh. We need to consider these three important words.

“Word” in the Old Testament is dabar which carries two meanings. It refers to the back or hinterground of something as well as a thing or event itself. When John said that the Word became flesh, he has the tabernacle in mind. It had an outer and inner (hinterground) court. Within the innermost inner court was the ark which housed God’s dabar—the 10 Commandments or debarim (words, history). It’s not surprising to see, in John, Jesus refer to himself twice as the temple.

For the Word to become “flesh” means that “the Word fully participates in human nature and existence” (61). The flesh he became was the flesh of humanity, which he sanctified as he assumed it. “While he, the holy Son of God, because what we are, he became what we are in a different way from us” (63) because he was without sin.

The process by which the word “became” flesh is an utterly unique and “ultimately unfathomable” event whereby the Creator creates creatures out of nothing then chooses to become one of the creatures he made (talk about paradox)! You can look at this event from two perspectives. As the Word condescended to take on our flesh, our flesh was thereby exalted. Reconciliation didn’t begin at the cross—it was rooted in the incarnation. The word “became” refers to a completed event, but this “historical happening remains eternally real and alive” (67, emphasis in the original).

The Son become servant

“Word become flesh” isn’t sufficient enough to fully convey what Jesus did, so we have the additional metaphor of Son become servant. Three Old Testament motifs explain this.

The first motif is servant-son. Jesus refers to this by the title, Son of Man. Drawing from the servant songs of Isaiah along with other passages, we see Jesus (like Israel) as the beloved son and servant of God.

The second motif is ben-bayith or “the son of the house”. This Old Testament expression is used in two senses. It can refer to the son/heir of a household or to the servant of the house who is in charge of the affairs of the household. Joseph in Egypt was referred to in this second sense. Moses was also referred to as ben-bayith in this second sense in the house of God. Jesus is a ben-bayith like Moses, although he transcended the category of servant and was also the son/heir.

The third motif was Adam as son of God. Jesus, like Adam, is God’s son but Jesus did the exact opposite of Adam. Adam took purity and sinned. Jesus took “Adam’s rebellious existence” (73) and condemned sin in the flesh. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated what a true man was.

The classic passage on “Son become servant” is Philippians 2. Although it’s popular to read ekenōsen as “emptying”—that Jesus somehow emptied himself of the independent use of his divine prerogatives, the text doesn’t go that far. It either means “made himself of no reputation” (KJV) or that he emptied himself out of his heavenly form into his earthly form. The humbling of Jesus is the point here. Although there are many texts which tell us about the incarnation, we are never hold how God did it. “that is the miracle of the Holy Spirit” (76, emphasis in the original).

The Descent and ascent of the Son

The liturgical language of descent and ascent the Old Testament is used in the New Testament to speak of baptism. The descent and ascent of Christ, however, is the turning point of this language. He descended to our level in revelation and reconciliation, then ascended “wearing our redeemed humanity and presented it in himself before the face of the Father” (77).

Jesus’ descent was a movement of revelation where the Word of God became a beggar to convince other beggars that God sought to forgive him. More than this, Jesus offered this “actual pardon and reconciliation” (77).

Jesus’ descent was also a movement of reconciliation where the Son of God entered the sin and guilt in humanity’s heart and defeated it.This movement of reconciliation requires that we respond in humiliation and confession.

It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t accomplish all this by his death alone. Reformers spoke of Jesus’ active and passive obedience to stress that his life, as well as his death, mattered. Jesus actively obeyed his Father in perfect obedience. He passively obeyed by choosing to bear death on our behalf. This is important for us in that both his active and passive obedience was vicarious. “Justification means not simply the non-imputation of our sins through the pardon of Christ, but the positive sharing in his human righteousness” (81). Viewed this way, redemption is far more than a mere forensic category.

Some Reflections

That atoning exchange (where Jesus was made, by way of substitution, sin) begins right away with the incarnation, with its assumption of our flesh of sin, its condemnation of sin in the flesh, its sanctification of our humanity through the gift of divine righteousness and sanctification of man in Christ. (63)

We are saved therefore not only by the death of Christ which he suffered for our sakes but by his vicarious life which he lived for our sakes. (81)

This is a new thought for me. My theological furniture was neatly organized into separate rooms—incarnation then atonement. Torrance teases out the implications of incarnation here and recognizes that Jesus’ very assumption of our sinful flesh is the start of the reconciliation of humanity to God which is completed on the cross.

I suppose this would also give new energy to a salvific understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry also. Unlike the creeds, I don’t think it’s enough to state, “he lived, he died, he rose” without taking his teaching seriously.

True man does not sin. True man is man answering in truth the word of God addressed to mankind. Men and women who commit sin, who disobey the word of God, have fallen from their humanity into inhumanity. (73)

This idea has always fascinated me—that sin is dehumanizing. I can’t remember if it was C. S. Lewis or N. T. Wright where I first heard it, but it has stuck with me. If sin is a result of the fall which takes us away from the source of life itself, then sin makes us somehow less than human.

← 2.1: The incarnation and the old Israel
2.2b: Outline of the doctrine of the person of Christ →

A Prayer for Unity

Despite the fact that we are all made in your image, God, we can see ourselves as brothers and sisters only by the light of your redeeming grace. Give us eyes to see that we are made from the same dirt, and help us work to reconcile ourselves to one another and to the ground beneath us. Amen.

—Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for ordinary radicals, 149.

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