The Ascension: God’s Sovereignty Over All

The exalted Jesus participates in God’s unique sovereignty over all things.

At a very early stage, which is presupposed and reflected in all the New Testament writings, early Christians understood Jesus to have been exalted after his death to the throne of God in the highest heaven. There, seated with God on God’s throne, Jesus exercises or participates in God’s unique sovereignty over the whole cosmos. This decisive step of understanding a human being to be participating now in the unique divine sovereignty over the cosmos was unprecedented. The principal angels and exalted patriarchs of Second Temple.

Jewish literature provide no precedent. It is this radical novelty which leads to all the other exalted christological claims of the New Testament texts. But, although a novelty, its meaning depends upon the Jewish monotheistic conceptual context in which the early Christians believed it. Because the unique sovereignty of God over all things was precisely one of the two major features which characterized the unique identity of God in distinction from all other reality, this confession of Jesus reigning on the divine throne was precisely a recognition of his inclusion in the unique divine identity, himself decisively distinguished, as God himself is, from any exalted heavenly servant of God.

(Richard J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Kindle Location 302-309)

Constantine Comes to Power

This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   This blog series is ruminating on Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

In this blog just a couple of comments about Constantine’s faith and theology.  While the Roman empire was largely polytheistic, some of the emperor’s leading up to Constantine as well as Constantine himself paid homage to one god as superior above the other gods.  This belief is defined by Stephenson and Leithart as follows:

“…henotheism, the belief in a greatest god, who surpassed in power all other deities.”   (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 30)

“…henotheistic (believing in a chief, though not exclusive , high God).”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 40). 

There was a growing trend in the paganism of the empire towards henotheism.  Some see this as a step toward monotheism.  It enabled military leaders to call their troops to rally around one god – the god who was giving them victories.

“As the empire’s crisis deepened in the middle years of the third century, Roman emperors resorted more fully to rhetoric, becoming unconquerable generals whose actions in war demonstrated the support and manifested the will of a single greatest god (summus deus).”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  75)

Constantine at one point honored the Unconquerable Sun as leading him to victory, but eventually transferred his allegiance to the God of the Christians whom he credited with his military success.

 “Constantine exploited the traditional interaction between faith and military power, the imperial theology of victory, to construct for himself the image of ‘unconquered emperor’; he took as his patron the ‘greatest god’, whose identity was revealed to him in a vision; and later, having established his hold on power, he transformed himself from ‘unconquered emperor’, a style enjoyed by so many of his predecessors, to Christian Victor, a title unique to Constantine.”   (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 87)

Constantine’s soldiers followed the henotheism of their leader.

“Troops were ordered to pray to the greatest god who favoured their commander but did so in neutral terms.  This is clear from the words of a prayer preserved by Eusebius …:

You alone we know as god,

You are the king we acknowledge,

You are the help we summon.

By you we have won victories,

Through you we have overcome our enemies.

To you we render thanks for good things past,

You also we hope for as giver of those to come.

To you we all come to supplicate for our emperor

Constantine and his god-beloved sons:

That he may be kept safe and victorious for us in long, long life, we plead.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 228-229)

While the praise and prayer of the troops loyal to Constantine can be read as fairly generic rather than as particularly Christian, one would expect as much.  If the history showed a sudden, total and completely inexplicable embrace of Christianity, one would suspect that the Christian writers of history had in fact rewritten the story to fit their own mythology.  As it is, the history as recorded in the hymn above shows a more expected and gradual move of the people surrounding Constantine from polytheism to henotheism to the Monotheism of Christianity.  As Constantine demonstrated his ability to be successful, the troops had ever more reason to trust him and to embrace the God to whom Constantine attributed his success.

Next:  Did Constantine become Christian?

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (b)

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood;  …  26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

This section of Genesis brings us to the birth of Abram, whom many consider to be the father of the great monotheistic religions:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam.   Genesis offers that overarching metanarrative which ties all of humanity together.  It is a story that helps define our common human nature.  We are all part of God’s great unfolding narrative, and it is His story which gives our lives and our individual stories meaning.  Many think that at the beginning of the 21st Century, the philosophical outlook which shapes our current understanding of the world is “postmodernism.”  While the ideas of postmodernism are complex, as a philosophy it seems to accept the notion that there is no real way to “measure” the truth or validity of any story, since each person’s life experience is true to them and can’t be measured against any standard or canon as any one story is as true and valid as any other from the point of view of each person.   Postmodernism would say everyone’s story is true and right from some perspective and it would deny there is a shared human nature or shared human story to tie us all together.   This philosophy is a theory of intellectual and moral relativity.  As in the theory of relativity in physics, “truth” is limited to the vantage point of the observer – time and space are all relative to the position, speed and direction of the observer.  “Perception” of an event is completely shaped by one’s position relative to the event.  Any one perception can be true for that observer but others seeing the same event from other positions relative to the event will see the event differently and yet their perception will be true for them.  

In postmodernism we may all share the same planet, but our lives relative to one another are not all that connected.  There is no one perspective that is the correct perspective and so truth, right, wrong, good and evil vary from person to person.  A movie which captures this quite well is the 2005 movie, CRASH.  In that movie all of the characters live in the same city and their lives are tied together by a series of otherwise random events.  However, despite being tied together by these events, none of  the characters are aware of their connection to the others – only the viewer of the movie has the perspective of how they are all tied together.  But for the characters, their lives are a series of accidental “crashes” into one another.  The movie suggests that individuals longing for feeling some connection to others – longing to be sprung from the isolation and alienation of extreme individualism  – “crash” into each other, sometimes intentionally just to feel alive or to get some sense that they belong to something greater than themselves.  

In certain ways this postmodern thinking is an intellectual Darwinism where all events that happen are ultimately random not giving direction to life, not serving any purpose, but definitely shaping present experience and the future of humanity.  Like Darwinism, postmodernism, denies teleology (the idea that life purposefully moves toward some conclusion or end).  The Bible certainly accepts teleology – there is a purposeful beginning to humankind and there is a God who is guiding the world and this God has a plan for the world which includes an ending toward which God is guiding things.  The Bible offers the beginnings of the story, shapes the direction we are headed in, and offers some specific thoughts about how it all will end.  In postmodern terms, the Bible offers a meta-narrative, a story that ties together all peoples, all lives, and all human stories.  It is not one person’s story, it is rather the story of everybody,  a story that shows our common humanity and which ties together all the individual stories of humans.  It is a story with a purpose, in which it is possible to discern right and wrong, good and evil, beginning and end.  

Each life is important, not random, and not meaningless.  Even the use of typology or a prototype within the biblical narrative (that one story can somehow foreshadow a later story and help us recognize and understand later stories) argues against pure postmodernism.  Figurative thinking and symbolic thinking help us recognize patterns in life – they help us make sense of past historical events, they help us to recognize the significance of current events.  They help us realize each life is not totally unrelated to all other lives. Each life contributes to the bigger picture, the tapestry or mosaic or narrative.  No one life is self contained, no one life can measure the worth of all other things, because every life is part of a bigger whole, which is purposeful.  Each life and each person’s story will get measured and evaluated in terms of this bigger narrative, and it is this bigger picture which offers meaning to each life, no matter how great, how long, how short. 

The important insight of monotheism is that there is a meta-narrative; there is a way to understand all the individual stories, even if we can’t fully grasp that meta-story yet – even if there is mystery, even if there are unresolved contradictions in the Scriptures which contain the revelation of this one God.  The Bible contains in a written form the known elements of this revelation, and it gives us perspective on life, gives direction to life, gives meaning to life.  The Bible also tells us that the world is confusing, and at times every bit as uncertain as postmodernism would affirm.  The Bible does show us that events do occur which from our limited human perspective do appear to be random, unfair, inexplicable, and ambiguous.  

The Bible does take perspective – it traces history and humanity through particular peoples’ lives, and does not pretend to be neutral or objective, but rather is either biased or ambivalent or both.   Perhaps the most postmodern event in the Bible is when God creates light in Genesis 1:3.   There was light – it had no source, no direction, it simply was.  There existed no perspective in that verse, it is all about simply being.  And since nothing else existed it had no direction, no goal, no purpose, and no movement.  Even Einstein’s relativity didn’t exist in that event for light was all.  

Adam & Eve

The Bible however doesn’t end with this directionless and perspectiveless light.  That light serves to connect and illumine all else that exists.   The Bible says this is the truth of humanity as well – we each are not merely individuals, but we are communal beings.   We are created to be in communion with God and with each other.  We are by nature beings of love (meaning we are by nature oriented toward others).  Genesis tells us in narrative form the story of each of us and any of us and all of us.  It reveals to us our humanness and thus our interdependency on all else that exists.  It helps us realize there is a way, a direction, and it tells us we have lost that way, but it is still available for us to find.  Genesis helps put us on that right path.   Even the ambiguities in the story and the contradictions tell us we need to find a better perspective to understand what is.  That gives us purpose, motivation, and direction – we need to move to that new perspective.  And the Scriptures will help us find that way.

Next: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 10:1-14 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:1-14 (a)

Genesis 10:1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3 The sons of Gomer: Ash’kenaz, Riphath, and Togar’mah. 4 The sons of Javan: Eli’shah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Do’danim. 5 From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations. 6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Hav’ilah, Sabtah, Ra’amah, and Sab’teca. The sons of Ra’amah: Sheba and Dedan. 8 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Ba’bel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nin’eveh, Reho’both-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nin’eveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt became the father of Ludim, An’amim, Leha’bim, Naph-tu’him, 14 Pathru’sim, Caslu’him (whence came the Philistines), and Caph’torim.

Genealogies are often skimmed through by modern readers of the Bible because they are somewhat boring and not particularly pertinent to life.  St. Jerome (d. 420AD) saw the writers of Scripture as “the inspired vehicles of the divine mysteries” and so felt it important for us to pay attention to all of the historical details and peculiarities of their written words as they offer us insight into the person who is God’s chosen vessel for the sacred mysteries.   It is an interesting concept for it emphasizes that the authors of Scripture are more the vehicle of the divine mysteries (as they are the ones inspired by God) than are the written words themselves.  Their written words are almost a feeble attempt to record the inspiration which is really contained in humans not mostly in a book.  The written words thus in their details offer us insight into the inspired saint who wrote the text (besides, saints, not scriptures are made in the image and likeness of God).   This is a common idea found in the Christians of the early centuries: the Scriptures are mere signs which point to the spiritual reality, the real substance, God’s revelation.  Thus they don’t equate God’s revelation to the words themselves but to the reality to which the words direct our attention.  This very subtle and nuanced approach to the Bible helps prevent them from reading the text in a wooden or overly literal way.   It is not the words which are so important – they point to the truth which we are seeking.   In a certain sense it prevents what happens sometimes to modern fundamentalist and biblical literalists – Bibliolatry.   The text contains the revelation but is not to be equated with it, for the revelation is always beyond the limits of the written word.   As Jesus told the Jews:  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

Forefathers of Christ

Genealogies help establish an orderly succession of fathers to son in civil society, and become the basis for tradition – that common knowledge and wisdom which humans pass down from generation to generation.   But in early Christianity they also were the source of controversy and argument.   In Titus 3:9, we are warned, “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.”   A very similar warning is found in 1 Timothy 1:3-4: “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith.”   Genealogies which for the modern reader often appear boring and uninteresting were obviously at one time the seedbed for speculation which led to quarrels and dissension in the Church.  Interests in  and emphases on different passages of Scripture do change over time and in different cultures.  This does give witness for the importance of understanding how Christians in previous times read and used the Bible – it helps us avoid being limited by or trapped in our contemporary culture and thinking.   Aspects of the Scripture which were important, even critically, in ancient times are often glossed over by our modern sensibilities and lack of historical depth. 

No matter how diverse the people are in terms of nations, geography, languages, what is stunning in the genealogies and the first 11 chapters of Genesis is the absolute monotheism of this ancient text.  There is only one God.  Satan is not mentioned, neither are demons.  The gods of the nations are not mentioned.  Angels are not mentioned.  Idols are not mentioned.  There is no other spiritual being but the Lord God.  There is no celestial hierarchy in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.  The text establishes absolute monotheism – there are no other beings even close to God and not cosmic battle between God and evil.  Chaos exists which God is able to shape, contain and control for His own purposes.  Chaos is impersonal, not an evil one.  The only indication in these early chapters of Genesis of something other than the One God is  found in Genesis 1:26 and 11:7 in which God speaks in the plural, “let us…”  Christians have understood this to be a clear reference to the Trinitarian nature of God within the Jewish scriptures.  All the peoples of the world no matter how diverse have only one God.  This is another way in which the genealogies tie all of humanity together.   Our oneness with Adam is not so much a genetic thing; it is an issue that we all were created by the one God who is Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.   There are no other gods or spiritual beings.  There is none of the heavenly mythologies that are so common in virtually every other ancient religion.  There is no mention of astrology or any form of the worship of the heavenly bodies.   The entire opening chapters of Genesis are focused on this one God and His particular interest in and relationship with a very select group of people – a lineage that is completely tied in with the God of the universe.

Genealogies especially confront one of the most tenaciously held entitlements of modern capitalistic man:  self interest.  Adam Smith felt the very thing that will drive capitalism for the benefit of each person is self interest.  And we now assume our personal self interest to be a main reason why we would participate in anything.  The self is both king and god with each person living in an egocentric universe.  The genealogies tell us God has chosen certain individuals other than ourselves to be His chosen people and to serve the unique requirements of the Kingdom.  We read the genealogies to realize how many people God has chosen and worked with, and that not everything is governed by self interest.  Even Christ told us the two main laws were to love God and to love neighbor.  It is not always about me. Salvation is learning about something greater than my self and my self interests.  It is learning that my story is but a sentence is a bigger chapter in a much larger book whose author is God.   Scriptural genealogies offer to all humans the meta-narrative which ties every single human together in one grand story with God being the narrator.  Postmodernism denies the existence of one meta-narrative, but the Bible – and the science of DNA and genetics supports the Bible on this issue – offers that there is in fact a narrative which unites all of humanity and human nature itself.  For the believer the Bible is the meta-narrative in which our own story is unfolding while in science it is DNA which provides the thread connecting all humans and all living things.

Next:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:15-32 (a)