Spiritual And/Or Natural Gifts – Maximus the Confessor

Christians need to be careful that they don’t treat the Spiritual gifts as simply a Christianized Myers-Briggs test. The empowering charismata of the Spirit shouldn’t be reduced into a baptized version of a personality analysis. Can our Spiritual gifts line up with and build upon our natural giftings? Sure. But the Spirit empowers believers to act beyond their natural inclinations and capabilities.

Maximus the Confessor says it well:

“The grace of the Most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it; nor does he give the gift of knowledge where there is not a natural rational ability to receive it; nor does he give faith without total certainty of intellect and reason regarding future realities; nor does he give charisms and healings where there is no natural love for our neighbor, note any one of the other charisms where the conditions are not right and there is no matching ability to receive them. In any case, no one will ever come to possess any of the gifts we have mentioned through any natural ability whatever, but only through the divine power that confers them.

[Various Chapters, IV. 13 (PG 90.1308-9)]

My Master’s Degree: An Invitation to Rebel

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Two of my favorite professors – Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett

“As a faithful child of the Enlightenment, I must admit that just the thought of adopting a theological hermeneutic makes me nervous. However, perhaps it is time for me (and ultimately us – the Church) to embrace our rightful identities as children of promise. Children who once again let the word be near us, in our mouths, and in our hearts.”

I wrote these sentences as the conclusion to one of my first graduate school papers – a review of Richard Hays’ The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Little did I know that these words would be a strangely prophetic description of the theological formation that I would receive during my graduate education. I walked with a M.A. in Theological Studies from Houston Baptist University on May 19, 2014 and I could not be more thankful for my time there. I was blessed financially with various grants and with the Sharon E. Saunders Endowed Graduate Scholarship, I was fortunate to study under an amazing group of professors (such as Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett, picture above) that stretched, loved, challenged, and encouraged me, and I now recognize that I am a more faithful Christian thinker because of my studies.

As I reflect on the many ways in which my thinking has been transformed over the past few years, I continually return to the image of “rebellion.” That is to say, my graduate studies taught me to rebel against the Enlightenment and its strangle-hold over much of Christian thinking. The Enlightenment taught me to read Scripture scientifically, skeptically, surgically, and objectively. It also groomed me to reject tradition, look arrogantly at the past, and stand alone as an individual. Now, however, I find myself leaving my graduate studies as a “child of promise” – committed to reading theologically, embracing & exploring the heritage of the church, and living and learning as a distinctively Christian person.

A few of the lessons I learned:

[1] The Importance of the Church: The House that God Built

I once accepted the Enlightenment’s assumption that exegesis and theology could be (and sometimes were best) done outside of the church. I now accept the limitations of the pursuit of pure objectivity and even believe, like the Fathers, that only as a Spirit-filled Christian can I do proper and faithful exegetical and theological work. Before my graduate studies, I hoped to work in the academic world far away from the messiness of the church. Now, I’m enslaved to the conviction that Christian academics must be immersed in and useful to the local church. I entered my graduate studies knowing little about church history and caring even less. Who cared about how Origen translated a certain passage when I’ve got the best Hebrew & Greek tools in history available to me and am free of his cultural limitations? However, I now know how important church history is and indeed have found myself with a deep love for the study of patristics. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 and his use of the Adam-Christ Typology. If you told me that would be my topic as an exegetically-focused undergrad, I would have called you crazy. Now, I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than studying all the depths, contours, and messiness of the Church Fathers’ lives and works.

[2] The Beautiful Necessity of Theology: Working with Spirit-Filled Words

My undergrad major was in Biblical Languages – Hebrew and Greek. This meant that I largely focused on and valued biblical studies. Actually, I often thought theological studies were pointless – why make these big conclusions when there are so many debatable issues surrounding the exegetical decisions on which they rest? I thought that systematic theologies were good for nothing except misinterpreting biblical passages. I was focused on the trees (exegesis), finding so much ambiguity/excitement there that I couldn’t understand the need or ability to debate or expound upon theological ideas (the forest) which were often foreign to the biblical text. Now, I am immersed in theology. I think theologically, I pray theologically, and I even read the Bible theologically. (Go figure!) I think terms like “the hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” are hugely important to grasping the depth of the beauty of God and his work in Christ. Once again, the Spirit-given words of the Church have opened my eyes up to a bigger and better faith, as well as a better means of reading the Scripture.

[3] An Invitation to the Vocation of Scholarship: The Mind As A Means To Worship

My graduate studies continued to instill in me a lesson which began during my undergraduate work: the truth that loving God with all of your mind is an extremely important call to an incredibly difficult task. Too many in the Evangelical church (and even in seminaries) treat the pursuit of academic excellence with shallowness and immaturity. HBU does a fine job of exemplifying a commitment to Christian excellenc (see their 10 Pillars Vision). Not only was I deeply challenged to engage with the best thinkers of history and of our day, I was also encouraged to put my voice alongside them. Thus, through the help of professor Ben Blackwell, I submitted and presented my first paper at an SBL/AAR conference. This, and other opportunities like it, were only possible because of the standard of excellence required and the personal mentorship provided to ensure that I could meet it.

I’ll end this post by saying thanks and offering some encouragement.
First: Thank you, Houston Baptist University. Thank you, as well, Dr. Ben Blackwell, Dr. Randy Hatchett, Dr. David Capes, Dr. Peter Davids, Dr. Joseph Blair, Dr. Felisi Sorgwe, Dr. Jamie Johns, and all of the many others who shared their passion and knowledge of the Scriptures and theology.
Second: No matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how much time you have, & no matter how “smart” you think you are – avail yourself of the many resources all around you so that you might further learn how to think and live faithfully. Who knows, we might run into each other one day on the other side of the Enlightenment. 🙂

Receiving my diploma from HBU's Dr. Robert Sloan
Receiving my diploma from HBU’s Dr. Robert Sloan

The Holy Spirit – Our Mother

Obviously the Holy Spirit is genderless. However, for a variety of reasons it’s not uncommon for scholars to refer to the Holy Spirit with feminine pronouns. That’s why I was fascinated when I came across the following quote which put the concept of the Holy Spirit as feminine together with an interesting take on a classic passage in Romans 8.

“When teaching us to cry ‘Abba,’ the Spirit behaves like a mother teaching her own little baby to say ‘daddy,’ repeating that word along with the baby until it becomes so much the baby’s habit that it calls it’s daddy even in its sleep.” – Diadochus of Fotike, On Spiritual Perfection, 61.

Theosis in the Sermon on the Plain? An Intertextual Exploration

Question:
Is it possible that Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is an “intertextual echo” of Psalm 82:6?*

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Plain, says that those who live cruciform lives will be “sons of the Most High.” The wording recorded by Luke directly parallels the language spoken by God in Psalm 82:6 as He indicts the “gods (elohim), sons of the Most High” for participating in unjust actions. Is the Lukan Jesus alluding to this Psalm, and if so, what sort of reading would this create?

There are a few reasons that might lead one to see an intertextual echo here. First, “Most High” is a relatively rare epitaph for God in the New Testament, found 9 times (7 of which are in Luke-Acts: Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48 and 16:17) and only here on the lips of Jesus. Thus, one might be allowed to wonder whether its usage is intentional and not simply standard language. Second (and here we enter into questions of the historicity of the synoptics and John), John’s gospel presents Jesus as not only familiar with Psalm 82:6, but also as directly quoting it as a key text to defend his identity and ministry (see John 10:34). This could again be seen as evidence that Psalm 82:6 was not only available, but extremely important in the minds of Jesus and the gospel writers.

Ultimately, while Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is fully coherent without the intertextual echo of Psalm 82:6, hearing this allusion adds layers of depth to the text. An imaginative canonical and theological reading would find a richness in “discovering” the presence of Psalm 82:6 in Luke 6:35. This is even more true considering the importance which Psalm 82:6 played in patristic exegesis and theology – primarily in the development of the doctrine of theosis.

The Church Fathers regularly referenced Psalm 82:6 as the crowning verse displaying the hope of theosis, or deification: participation in the divine nature of the Triune God. This classically Eastern view of salvation paints redemption as less of a legal act of forgiveness and more of a relational and transformative union. God’s people are given the gift of sharing in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father through the Spirit and are thus transformed, taking on divine characteristics (such as holiness, incorruptibility, etc).

If we read Luke 6:35 in conversation with Psalm 82:6 and in light of the theology of the Fathers, our reading takes on a new shape. Namely, one can read Jesus’ statement as a revelation of theosis: a transformative experience whereby disciples share in the enemy-loving nature of the Father.  Psalm 86:2 speaks of the moral (injustice) and ontological (enslaved to death, corruptible) deficit which reveals the need for deification. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks of the moral shape which will characterize those who are united with the Father just as the Son is united to Him. Indeed, Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the penultimate “son of the Most High” (Luke 8:28 – from the speech of a demon). In the Sermon on the Plain, the disciples are promised nothing less than the same title which Jesus eternally holds. The axiom of theosis might then be reframed in this way: the Son of the Most High came so that we might become Sons & Daughters of the Most High.

It is worth noting that the moral standard of sacrificial enemy-love is emphasized here as the center of this sharing in the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus, revealing both the nature of the Father and the essence of relating to the father as a Son of the Most High, is the archetypical enemy-lover. His disciples, as they participate in the divine nature and receive their status as children of the Most High, follow Jesus’ path of cruciform love.

What do you think?
Does Luke 6:35 echo Psalm 82:6?
Do you find it edifying to read Luke 6:35 in light of
Psalm 82:6 and the Patristic doctrine of theosis?


* Psalm 82:6 – “I said, “You are like gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”

* Luke 6:35 – “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Theological Interpretation: Cyril of Alexandria on Luke 10:23-24

There are many reasons why Christians should study the church fathers. Among the top of them: the growing popularity of theological interpretation.[1] The more familiar one is with the work of the fathers, the better equipped they will be to appreciate and practice theological interpretation. So what does it look like when a church father interprets scripture “theologically”? Cyril of Alexandria, delivering a homily on Luke 10:23-24, provides a good example.

Luke 10:23-24 reads:
“Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’” [NRSV]

This statement from Jesus comes directly after he has sent out the seventy-two disciples and they have successfully joined him on his Kingdom-mission, casting out demons and healing the sick. Cyril frames his interpretation with this question: what exactly did the disciples see so as to merit being called blessed?

His answer:
“They saw that God the Word, who was in the form of God the Father, had become flesh for our sakes. They saw Him who shares the Father’s throne, dwelling with us, in our form, that by justification and sanctification He might fashion us after His own likeness, imprinting upon us the beauty of His Godhead in an intellectual and spiritual manner. And of this Paul is a witness, who writes: “For as we have bee clothed with the image of the earthly, we shall also be clothed with the image of the heavenly” meaning by the earthly man, Adam, the first created, but by the heavenly, the Word Who is from above, and Who shone forth from the substance of God the Father, but was made, as I said, in our likeness… For through Him and with Him we have received the name of sons, being ennobled, so to speak, by His bounty and grace. He who was rich shared our poverty, that He might rase man’s nature to His riches. He tasted death upon the tree and the cross, that He might take away from the midst the offense incurred by reason of the tree (of knowledge), and abolish the guilt that was thereby, and strip death of his tyranny over us. We have seen Satan fall, that cruel one broken, that haughty one laid low, him who had made the world submit to the yoke of his empire stripped of his dominion over us, him in contempt and scorn, who once was worshipped, him who seemed a god, put under the feet of the saints, him who rebelled against Christ’s glory, trampled upon by those who love Him.
”

Cyril’s interpretation of the passage is informed by placing Jesus’ statement in the theological context of the Incarnation and its salvific effects. He does so by quoting 1 Corinthians 15:29 and invoking the Adam-Christ typology. In this context, the disciples’ victory over the forces of Satan are indications of the redemptive nature of the Incarnation.

Christ, as the Second Adam, is undoing the curse of Genesis 3. The disciples are finding themselves being transferred out of Satan’s domain, in which they were once held captive in Adam, and now being given the ability to overcome the enemy. Thus, when the disciples “see” both Jesus and their Kingdom-work, they are seeing the Incarnation and its salvific effects. Cyril also interprets 1 Corinthians 15:29 as a reference to deification, the belief that salvation consists of humans sharing in the divine life and beauty of the Triune God (the “Godhead”). Thus, the disciples’ victories over Satan are also indicative of the work of deification that results from the Incarnation – the disciples are blessed with the privilege of seeing (and experiencing) the firstfruits of this work.

Cyril’s interpretation is not likely to be arrived at through the classic historical-grammatical hermeneutical model. There is little in the text which would naturally direct a reader to reference 1 Corinthians 15:29 or the Adam-Christ typology (perhaps a canonical interpretation might be led in that direction because of the reference to Satan and his defeat). Yet, it is an explicitly Christian interpretation of the text, both orthodox and edifying. If Christians do believe that Christ is the Second Adam (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 45-49), then surely it is appropriate to understand the disciples’ victory over Satan as an indication of Christ’s successful undoing of Adam’s curse.

What do you think of Cyril’s interpretation of Luke 10:23-24?
What do you think are the benefits, and possible weaknesses, of theological interpretation
?


[1] Defined by Stephen Fowl as “the practice whereby theological concerns and interests inform and are informed by a reading of Scripture.” (The Theological Interpretation of Scripture, xiii)