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The American Humanist Association recently held a briefing on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to include non-theistic chaplains into the military Chaplain Corps. Humanism is a liberal philosophy that rejects theism and supernaturalism while affirming the ability and responsibility to lead “ethical lives of personal fulfillment.” Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, remarked (in a rather ignorant fashion), “Humanist chaplains would be expected to have Bibles, to have prayer books, to have the ability to guide others in prayer, according to the beliefs of their tradition. Chaplains are not now expected to guide others in prayer according to the beliefs of their tradition(s). Rather, chaplains may pray for others according to the religious tradition of the respective chaplain. However, Stephen Boyd, a former military chaplain who serves currently in a chaplain support role with the liberal United Church of Christ, stated that the Chaplain Corps, as it operates currently, is insufficient. He stated, “I believe that we have failed to train and to make resources available to the current corps for the ministry to the growing population as well as those who are marking ‘no religious preference.’”
One wonders why atheists believe it is necessary to find representation within the Chaplain Corps, particularly since they reject theistic beliefs. They have no concern regarding matters of worship or freedom of religious expression, and they may receive counseling through mental health professionals. A non-theistic chaplain is oxymoronic at best.
The U.S. Army has officially recognized “Humanism” as a religious preference. Humanism is a secular, non-theistic philosophy that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and claims adherence to rationalism and empiricism in opposition to established religious doctrines. The new “religious” preference was acknowledged after Major Ray Bradley made the request in 2011 to have humanism listed with other faiths and belief systems in the Army’s religious preference code. His case received intervening support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF). MAAF President Jason Torpy expressed optimism that this inclusion will result in a wider recognition of humanists, and provide their inclusion in Chaplain Corps services and various therapy offerings. Noted Torpy, “Being able to identify as who we are in the Army is a great step forward. The real need is not just to have a binary appreciation: ‘Well, you believe in God, then we’ll attend to that, and if you believe in nothing, you can sit in the corner.’ Nontheistic practices have to be included in the discussion because our soldiers have to deal with life and death, and love and loss as well.” Torpy neither explained any further why a secular non-theistic philosophy should be considered a religious preference; nor how members of the Chaplain Corps and Medical Corps (Behavioral Health) already serve military members with matters of life and death, love and loss regardless of faith or non-faith affiliation.
John Newton (1725 – 1807), a sailor and slave trader who was converted by the grace of Jesus Christ and became an Anglican clergyman and prominent abolitionist, is best known for his beloved hymns, “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” Today’s post comes from Newton, not in song, but in exhortation. In an age in which the “prosperity gospel” (i.e., “health and wealth,” “name it and claim it”) is perpetuated through supposedly Christian television networks, radio programs, books, and teaching, it is vital for the Church to grasp the theology of Scripture, namely, the theology of the cross. Newton helps us tremendously with his discussion in “The School of Suffering”:
I suppose you are still in the ‘school of the cross’, learning the happy are of extracting ‘real good’ out of ‘seeming evil’, and to grow tall by stooping. The flesh is a sad untoward dunce in this school; but grace makes the spirit willing to learn by suffering; yes, it cares not what it endures, so that sin may be mortified, and a conformity to the image of Jesus be increased. Surely, when we see the most and the best of the Lord’s children so often in heaviness, and when we consider how much He loves them, and what He has done and prepared for them, we may take it for granted that there is a need-be for their sufferings. For it would be easy to His power, and not a thousandth part of what His love intends to do for them should He make their whole life here, from the hour of their conversion to their death, a continued course of satisfaction and comfort, without anything to distress them from within or without. But were it so, would we not miss many advantages?
In the first place, we would not then be very conformable to Jesus, nor be able to say, “As He was, so are we in this world.” Methinks a believer would be ashamed to be so utterly unlike his Lord. What! The master always a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief, and the servant always happy and full of comfort! Jesus despised, reproached, neglected, opposed, and betrayed; and His people admired and caressed! He living in the poverty, and they filled with abundance; He sweating blood for anguish, and they strangers to distress!
How unsuitable would these things be! How much better to be called to the honor of experiencing a measure of His sufferings! A cup was put into His hand on our account, and His love engaged Him to drink it for us. The wrath which it contained He drank wholly Himself; but He left us a little affliction to taste, that we might remember how He loved us, and how much more He endured for us than He will ever call us to endure for Him.
Again, how could we, without sufferings, manifest the nature and truth of the Christian graces! What place should we then have for patience, submission, meekness, forbearance, and a readiness to forgive, if we had nothing to try us, either from the hand of the Lord, or from the hand of men! A Christian without trials would be like a mill without wind or water; the contrivance and design of the wheel-work within would be unnoticed and unknown, without something to put it in motion from without. Nor would our graces grow, unless they were called out to exercise; the difficulties we meet with not only prove, but strengthen, the graces of the spirit. If a person were always to sit still, without making use of legs or arms, he would probably wholly lose the power of moving his limbs at last. But by walking and working he becomes strong and active. So, in a long course of ease, the powers of the new man would certainly languish; the soul would grow soft, indolent, cowardly, and faint; and therefore the Lord appoints His children such dispensations as make them strive and struggle, and pant; they must press through a crowd, swim against a stream, endure hardships, run, wrestle, and fight; and thus their strength grows in the using.
By these things, likewise, they are made more willing to leave the present world, to which we are prone to cleave too closely in our hearts when our path is very smooth. Had Israel enjoyed their former peace and prosperity in Egypt, when Moses came to invite them to Canaan, I think they would hardly have listened to him. But the Lord allowed them to be brought into great trouble and bondage, and then the news of deliverance was more welcome, yet still they were but half willing, and they carried a love to the flesh-pots of Egypt with them into the wilderness.
We are like them. Though we say this world is vain and sinful, we are too fond of it; and though we hope for true happiness only in Heaven, we are often well content to stay longer here on earth. But the Lord sends afflictions one after another to quicken our desires, and to convince us that this world cannot be our rest. Sometimes if you drive a bird from one branch of a tree he will hop to another a little higher, and from thence to a third; but if you continue to disturb him, he will at last take wing, and fly quite away. Thus we, when forced from one creature-comfort, perch upon another, and so on. But the Lord mercifully follows us with trials, and will not let us rest upon any; by degrees our desires take a nobler flight, and can be satisfied with nothing short of Himself; and we say, “To depart and be with Jesus is best of all!”
I trust you find the name and grace of Jesus more and more precious to you; His promises more sweet, and your hope in them more abiding; your sense of your own weakness and unworthiness daily increasing; your persuasion of his all-sufficiency, to guide, support, and comfort you, more confirmed. You owe your growth in these respects in a great measure to His blessing upon those afflictions which He has prepared for you, and sanctified to you. May you praise Him for all that is past, and trust Him for all that is to come!
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), headed by Mikey Weinstein, was contacted by seven individuals from the U.S. Air Force Academy (four cadets, two faculty members, and one staff member; six of whom Christians) regarding an announcement made in the dining facility that “Ask an Atheist Days” would be held on 19-20 March on the third floor of Fairchild Hall, an academic building. According to a member of the Cadets Freethinkers Club, the days are being held in protest over the Academy’s correct refusal to permit their group to participate in Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE), a long-running program at the Academy in which one night per week is set aside for various religious groups and external para-church organizations hold religious meetings for the cadets. The Cadets Freethinkers Club has been refused recognition as a SPIRE group by the Academy on the grounds that they are not a religious group, and are permitted to operate only as a club. An MRFF client who is a member of the club explained the motivation behind the event, stating the group believes it is within its rights, as a non-religious club, to set up a table and have their event announced on the same basis as other non-religious groups. MRFF believes the group should be able to participate in SPIRE, but disagrees with the manner in which the club has protested the Academy’s refusal to recognize them as a SPIRE group. According to Weinstein, the announcement made to a captive audience of cadets in the dining hall and permitting the club to set up a table in an academic building is similar to allowing an “Ask a Muslim Day” or “Ask an Evangelical Christian Day.” He remarked, “They are proselytizing for atheism.”
It may come as a surprise to some that I disagree wholeheartedly with Weinstein on this point. Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to distinguish between “proselytization” and “evangelism.” On the one hand, military members are prohibited from forcing unwanted and intrusive attempts upon others in order to convert them to a particular religious (or non-religious) view. That is, loosely, how the Department of Defense defines “proselytization.” “Evangelism,” on the other hand, occurs when military members discuss their faith (or non-faith) with others who are willing to discuss such matters. This is completely permissible.
Maj. Lonzo Wallace, Executive Officer to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, informed MRFF that the Academy is allowing the “Ask an Atheist Days” to proceed. Weinstein objects, believing that, “Religious neutrality means religious neutrality. Whether it’s saying that Jesus is your lord and savior or saying that there is no god makes no difference. Neither is a neutral position, and neither can be promoted by the United States Air Force Academy.” Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to grasp the fact that permitting an event is not the same as promoting a particular religious (or non-religious) view. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. Therefore, if the Academy were to prevent the atheists from setting up a table and permitting cadets to ask about their perspective, then the Air Force would be guilty of violating the Bill of Rights.
Todd Starnes, Fox News, “Why does Air Force Academy encourage atheism, prosecute Christianity?” (21 MAR 2014)
Chris Rodda, Huffington Post, “MRFF Complains About Atheists Proselytizing at Air Force Academy? Surely Pigs Are Flying!” (19 MAR 2014)
Bryant Jordan, Military.com News, “Air Force Academy Sanctions ‘Ask an Atheist’ Days” (20 MAR 2014)
Tom Roeder, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “Mikey Weinstein enraged by evangelical atheists” (19 MAR 2014)
St. Jerome (c. 347 –420) was a Christian priest, apologist, historian, and eminent scholar. Best known for his translation of the Holy Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), his list of writings is extensive. His works in the field of dogmatic theology are quite polemical, directed against assailants of orthodoxy. Much of his written work was produced at the request of members within the congregation at Antioch, which was divided deeply by doctrinal disputes. Jerome was recognized not only for his great learning, but also for his personal piety. Still, he aroused a great deal of resentment from many non-Christians whom he condemned in his writings, and by many Christians who were offended by his biting sarcasm. Without any hint of sarcasm, consider these concise and thoughtful statements from St. Jerome regarding death and grief for Christians:
- “We should indeed mourn for the dead, but only for him whom Gehenna receives.”
- “You must regret him not as dead but as absent.”
- “Why do we grieve for the dead? We are not born to live forever.”
An important aspect of the Christian gospel that seeks to proclaim the love, mercy, and compassion of God is the affirmation of God’s identification and solidarity with human suffering. A suffering humanity needs a God who knows what it means to suffer. The church has traditionally met this need by emphasizing the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Especially in the theology of the Reformation, a “theology of the cross” sought to recognize God’s self-revelation hidden in the humility, shame, and suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the theology of the cross, God is known as the God who suffers with and for humanity. Yet, how does God identify with human suffering? Does God suffer in himself, in his own being; or is God immutable (unchanging), and therefore impassible (incapable of suffering), as the church has historically affirmed? Can God’s impassibility be upheld while at the same time affirming his real awareness of, and true identification with, human suffering? Why is it theologically important to maintain the historical witness to God’s impassibility, especially in the face of so much suffering in today’s world?
In this article, I will seek to answer these questions in two ways. Negatively, I will offer a critique of the contemporary theological trend that seeks to attribute suffering to God’s being, or to assert God’s passibility. (1) This trend affirms that God suffers in himself, and that the suffering of Jesus is the actual suffering of his divine nature. A clearly articulated representation of the general trend, and a viewpoint also being voiced in wider evangelicalism, is Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross. The most important discussion of Moltmann’s theology of the cross is found in his book, The Crucified God, where he attempts both to understand God’s being from the suffering and death of Jesus and to apply this understanding to what he calls a “theology after Auschwitz.” (2) A representation of this theological project in contemporary evangelicalism is found in Dennis Ngien’s article, “The God Who Suffers,” which appeared in the February 3, 1997, edition of Christianity Today. (3) Positively, I will seek to answer these questions by reaffirming the Christian historical understanding of the trinitarian conceptual distinction, the incarnation, and Chalcedonian two-nature Christology; and by demonstrating the proper relationship between them as the context for a theology of the cross. In view of these key doctrinal formulations, I will demonstrate how an evangelical theology of the cross can and should affirm both divine impassibility and God’s true identification and solidarity with the suffering of this hurting world.
The Modern Understanding of Love
One of the key motives for affirming a theology of the cross that attributes suffering to the being of God is a modern understanding of love that is founded upon the freedom of God. This understanding of love is held in common by both theologies under consideration here. Drawing insights from modern psychology, this view of the nature of love focuses on the concept of relational reciprocity: an exchange of feelings in the voluntary opening of oneself to vulnerability, or the possibility of being affected by another. (4) This sort of love is seen as the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own being. It necessarily includes the possibility of sharing in suffering and the freedom to suffer, and therefore must be a voluntary act of will. As such, it creates the possibility for an alternate view of suffering that is neither an unwilling suffering that results from some alien cause, nor apatheia or the incapability of suffering. When applied to God, this “suffering of love” has as its very foundation the freedom of God to choose to be affected by human action and suffering in history. Both Moltmann and Ngien move from this notion of love to divine passibility by arguing that God’s suffering love for humanity, working in freedom, must flow out of the fullness of God’s being. Furthermore, to love in the fullness of his being, God must reciprocally take suffering, even death, into his own being. Thus, for these theologies of divine passibility, God may truly and justly be God for humanity through his loving, voluntary openness to our suffering, in which he intrinsically participates.
This understanding of the nature of love is useful when applied to humanity and to the person of Jesus in general. It broadens and enriches the classical theistic view of love as merely an attitude and action of goodwill toward another. However, I contend that to apply this notion of love to the intrinsic being of God is problematic when analyzed in light of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity that draws a conceptual distinction between what is referred to as the immanent (or ontological) Trinity and as the economic Trinity. In recognizing that their relational, reciprocal concept of love must focus on God’s external, or extrinsic, relationship to the creation as it is also applied to God’s own being, both Moltmann and Ngien are forced to resolve the resulting conflict between God’s external works and the triune intrinsic being of God by stressing the conceptual equivalence of the immanent and the economic Trinity. However, when this modern understanding of love is applied to the intrinsic being of God through this elimination of the trinitarian conceptual distinction, it becomes problematic in that it also eliminates the freedom of God it holds as foundational. In order to demonstrate this, I will first briefly explain what is meant by this trinitarian distinction in the historical Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Conceptual Trinitarian Distinction
The conceptual distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity has traditionally been affirmed in obedience to the biblical witness of God’s transcendence from his creation, and his freedom in relationship to it, and God’s immanence in the creation in terms of his external acts. Briefly stated, the immanent Trinity refers to the being of God insofar as he is transcendent from his creation and focuses on God’s internal acts (his acts ad intra). The economic Trinity refers to the God who is immanent in his creation and consists solely of God’s actions outside of himself in relation to his creation (his acts ad extra). The immanent Trinity is the intrinsic Trinity or “God in himself,” while the economic Trinity is extrinsic or “God for us.” In terms of relationship, the concept of the immanent Trinity is primary to that of the economic Trinity and therefore exists necessarily; the latter is dependent and contingent upon the former, and exists only when God acts externally. The priority of the notion of the immanent Trinity is the foundation of the freedom and self-sufficiency of God; God does not need the creation to exist-God exists in himself prior to, and independent from, his act of creation. This makes it possible to affirm that God is free in relation to his creation since he does not have to act ad extra, but can choose to relate to the creation or choose not to. Thus, intrinsically, God is independent and ontologically distinct from his creation even as he freely chooses to exist in relationship to it. It is this point that serves as the basis for the freedom of God. Here, God’s “otherness” is always affirmed in both his transcendence and immanence; and here, God is able to be immutable and impassible and creative and in relationship with creation.
The notion of the economic Trinity also relates to the immanent Trinity as its reiteration; the former corresponding to or revealing the latter. This precise reiteration makes it possible to affirm that God has truly revealed himself in his external works. Thus, the God who reveals himself to be in his acts ad extra truly corresponds to whom God is in his very being ad intra. It should be noted that while God’s acts ad extra constitute a true reiteration or revelation of himself, this revelation is not exhaustive of his intrinsic being. This differentiation serves to confirm the veracity of God’s self-revelation on the one hand, while it maintains God’s otherness, infinitude, and incomprehensibility on the other. One further important point concerning the relationship between the concepts of the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity is referenced theologically by the phrase, “Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa” (the external works of the Trinity are undivided). This affirms that the whole Godhead is present in whatever God does ad extra, or external to himself. It seeks to maintain the unity of the Trinity in the relational actions of God that are often manifested particularly as the operation of one or another of the persons of the Godhead.
As I stated above, theologies such as Moltmann’s and Ngien’s-which seek to attribute an external, relational aspect of God to his intrinsic being,must diminish this traditional distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. Moltmann recognizes this when he follows Karl Rahner in eliminating the distinction altogether and affirming them as one and the same. He argues that this traditional concept of the immanent Trinity as a closed circle of divine being distinct from God’s external acts is inadequate. Stressing the loving “mutual relationship” within God himself, and between himself and the world, Moltmann sees God’s relationship to the world as having a “retroactive” effect on his primary relationship to himself. God affects the world and is affected by his experiences of the world to the point that the economic Trinity can be understood as actually taken up into the immanent Trinity. Thus, he recommends a “Trinitarian concept of the cross,” which focuses on the event of the cross that occurs between the Father and the Son, and as the kyrios (pivotal or dominant event) of the history of the world. (5) Here, Moltmann affirms that, at the cross, not only suffering but all of history is taken into the intrinsic being of God. Thus, with this concept of the Trinity, rather than with that of the traditional trinitarian distinction, the true scope of Moltmann’s theology of the cross and his doctrine of divine passibility are realized.
(to be continued)
1 For a concise account of the modern development of the issue of divine suffering, see Paul S. Fiddes, “Suffering, Divine,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 633-6. For a more detailed account, see Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). For a concise discussion of other theologians representing this trend, see Warren McWilliams, The Passion of God: Divine Suffering in Contemporary Protestant Theology (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985).
3 Dennis Ngien, “The God Who Suffers,” Christianity Today, February 3, 1997, 38-42.
4 Fiddes, 634. Fiddes discusses this modern understanding of love as one of the four primary motivations for affirming divine passibility. The remaining three motivations he cites are Christology, the justice of God, and the mutual relationality between God and creation.
5 Moltmann, The Crucified God, 249.
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St. Patrick (c. AD 373-465) was the most influential Christian missionary to serve Ireland. Patrick came from a Christian family (for two generations at least). His father, Calpurnius, was a deacon and the son of Potitus, a presbyter of Bannaven Taburniae. Patrick was born in what is now known as Scotland. Kidnapped by a band of pirates when he was 16, he was sold to a chieftain in northern Ireland and forced to labor as a shepherd. It was during this time he was himself converted and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He recounted:
Before I was humbled, I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and He that is mighty came and in His mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for His great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.
Following six years of captivity, Patrick escaped and returned to his home in Scotland. After several years he sensed a divine calling to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the land of his former captivity. Though his family urged him to remain with them, he sensed this calling was confirmed by Holy Scripture and set out for Ireland with several associates around AD 405.
The task facing Patrick and his comrades was a difficult one as Druids ruled the religious landscape of Ireland. The inhabitants worshiped “idols and things impure,” and the land was filled with sorcerers and exorcists. The missionary later related that his labors suffered “twelve dangers in which my life was at stake—not to mention numerous plots.” He noted tribal leaders “laid hands on me and my companions and on that day they eagerly wished to kill me; but my time had not yet come. And everything they found with us they took away, and me they put in irons; and on the fourteenth day the Lord delivered me from their power, and our belongings were returned to us because of God.”
Patrick’s time would not come for another six decades. He spent 60 years preaching the gospel throughout Ireland. Thousands were baptized after professing faith in Jesus Christ, including numerous pagan kings and nobles. The missionary ordained approximately 450 elders and established approximately 365 congregations all across the Emerald Isle. He praised God readily for these successs:
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, and the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth. As He once promised through His prophets: To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. And again, I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth. And I wish to wait then for His promise which is never unfulfilled, just as it is promised in the Gospel.
St. Patrick’s Day is observed on 17 March, the date of his death. It is celebrated not only within Ireland, but in many other nations as a religious and cultural holiday.