Welcome to the Gospel Reverb podcast. Gospel Reverb is an audio gathering for preachers, teachers, and Bible thrill seekers. Each month, our host, Anthony Mullins, will interview a new guest to gain insights and preaching nuggets mined from select passages of scripture, and that month’s Revised Common Lectionary.
The podcast’s passion is to proclaim and boast in Jesus Christ, the one who reveals the heart of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now onto the episode.
Anthony: Hello, friends and welcome to the latest episode of Gospel Reverb. Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view.
I am your host Anthony Mullins and I’m excited to welcome this month’s guest, Jenny Richards. Jenny is a Lecturer in Law at the College of Business Government and Law at Flinders University in South Australia, and Senior Associate (Barrister and Solicitor) at Old Port Chambers, Port Adelaide. She is co-author of Integrating Human Service Law, Ethics and Practice, (an Australian textbook on holistic practice in social work law), and a past member of the Management Committee of the Centre for Crime Policy and Research at Flinders University. Jenny’s recent work includes a research project on collaborative responses between law and religious leaders to address domestic violence against Muslim women. She is in her final year of a PhD dissertation on holistic criminal justice responses to violence against Christian women using the theology of TF Torrance and JB Torrance. She is also a member of the TF Torrance Theological Fellowship.
I got to know Jenny through one of my favorite theologians and authors, Julie Canlis. Julie told me you’ve got to interview Jenny because her understanding and articulation of the theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance, especially as it relates to discussions about contract and covenant. Jenny and I had a chance to properly meet over a Zoom discussion and I think you’re really going to enjoy her commentary.
Jenny, thank you for joining us today and welcome to the podcast. And for those that are in our listening audience, who may not be familiar with you and your work, why don’t you take a moment and tell us about.
Jenny: Thanks, Anthony, for your welcome and for the invitation.
And I’ll say first up, I too am a great admirer of Julie and of her work. I’ve been a Christian my whole life pretty much, and I’ve always had a passion and interest in justice. And that’s a key reason why I got into law. I did a lot of work in youth and young adults ministry when I was younger and that fueled it too, I think.
I’m a career academic, really. And that suits me well because I’m a total nerd, but also have a couple of disabilities. So, sitting around and thinking about things is actually a lifestyle that suits me really well. And being a nerd, I’ll study anything I can get my hands on. Except for maths. We need to be clear about that!
Anthony: You and me both!
Jenny: For that reason, I’ve always been really interested in theology and learning what I can that way. I was introduced to the work of the Torrance’s back, probably in the early 2000s through Baxter Kruger, who was doing some conferences out here. And you’ll hear a lot of his phrases throughout this conversation, I’m sure.
He and a few others asked me for some thoughts on JB Torrance’s work on covenant and contract. I think they figured I might be able to shed some light on the contract side of things because of my law background. As you’ve said, I also work one day a week as a criminal lawyer in practice with one of my brothers.
And both of those jobs are part-time because I’m chipping away at this PhD that brings together those interests in law and theology, considering ways in which we can improve the engagement of Christian women who’ve experienced family violence with the criminal justice system. And I’m using the work of TF and JB Torrance together to undergird that.
Covenant’s really relevant to it and so is theological method. And so, the work of both Torrance brothers speaks really directly to it, particularly in terms of understandings of things like justice, restoration, personhood, covenant, and needless to say how we can address the damaging theological beliefs that can get in the way of people’s help-seeking.
I’m absolutely loving working on my thesis because I’m a nerd. As much as I can anyway, I’ve got about a year to go. So, I mostly spend my time in my home office in the Adelaide Hills. I have the gum trees. I have the koalas and then my cats diligently sleep—well, no, they supervise, of course in the corner. But I get to spend my time thinking about how personhood, justice, dignity, freedom, and restoration can be more fully realized for Christian women and men for that matter, who faced this situation and feel outside of the reach of the criminal justice system.
It’s an opportunity that I’m really grateful for.
Anthony: Outstanding. And you’re our favorite nerd on this podcast, just so you know. And of course, when I thought about your vocation as an attorney, I’m thinking, how does this work being a Torrance scholar as well, do these things go together? But they do!
And of course, the Torrances often spoken, wrote about the harmful effects of confusing the God of covenant love revealed in Jesus with the God of contract that we make up in our own fallen experience. So, help us understand the ramifications of this confusion and how it brings conflict to our Christian journey.
Jenny: I’ve become really passionate about understanding the Torrances’ work on covenant and contract—in case you can’t tell already. And the reason for this is the difference that it makes for us when we understand the ramifications of what it means that God is a covenant God and not a contract God. It was a pivotal insight for me into what it means that God is Trinity.
Because that’s the first difference between a covenant God and a contract God. The contract God is not the Trinity at all. A contractual God cannot be the triune God of grace who made himself known in the incarnation of Jesus. And this is precisely why JB Torrance cautioned against it so strongly in almost all of his work.
It is impossible for the Trinity to relate out of a contract, either within the Godhead or with humanity. So, in the same way, TF Torrance also emphasize the meaning and depth and outworking of Jesus as the Mediator of the New Covenant. And the other thing that TF brings really strongly to the table for us is his theological method and his understanding of the way in which the relations that we find within the Trinity speak to what human existence is actually about.
So, there’s something going on in how God the Trinity relates to humanity in covenant that is unprecedented in our human experience. So, if we mix up covenant and contract, the confusion and conflict that it brings to the Christian walk is essentially that it derails the gospel and throws us back on ourselves and gives us a completely foreign and incorrect concept of God the Father, Son, and Spirit.
The New Covenant forged in Jesus is a relationship of unconditional love. And its motive is familial, right? God establishes himself as our Father and humanity as his children. Whereas a contractual model is based in law. And so, it centers God’s legalistic holiness as the most important thing. Its motive is to deal with sin and clean us up. And sure, God loves us after that because of Jesus. But the law bit comes first. That’s a contractual model in a nutshell.
So, if we heed the warning about keeping a covenantal mindset, it’s really easy to think, okay, covenant means we focus on unconditional love, not legalism. And that’s true, but it’s easy for us to take away just a caution to not try and earn God’s love through our discipleship. And that is part of what JB was emphasizing, but that’s not all.
There’s a whole lot to covenant. And some of that is illuminated by contrasting it with contract. JB didn’t do that to a large extent, because he was quite clear about not knowing very much about contract law. So, the meanings of covenant and their contrasting with contract are rich and beautiful and freeing and glorious, because they show us not only the heart of the Father, Son, and Spirit and the depths of the grace and love and joy that we’re created for and included in, but they also help us guard against being oriented towards religious performance or thrown back on ourselves for our identity as children of God.
And that’s why JB referred to the secret of God being covenantal rather than contractual, as ‘the secret to peace and joy in believing’. So, the point of connection between their work that I’ve gotten really excited about is a less explored aspect of contracts: contracts are dualist.
They don’t just inhabit a legal framework; they operate out of a dualistic framework. And TF Torrance’s theological method involves not just a complete rejection of dualism and dualistic thinking, but stark warnings against it. In The Mediation of Christ, he goes so far as to say that if we apply what amounts to a dualistic framework to Jesus as the Mediator of the New Covenant, the whole gospel collapses.
So, we’ve got JB Torrance on one hand, effectively telling us that if we’re believing in the triune God of grace, the God of the Bible, we have to keep at the forefront that he’s a covenant God, not a contract God. And we’ve got TF Torrance on the other hand, warning us that if we try to interpret what Jesus has done out of a dualistic model, the entire gospel collapses.
And given that contracts are dualist, there are significant insights here on two levels. First, in terms of what covenant and a non-dualistic theological method show us about who this Trinity is, of what that means for us. And second, in what that means for how we live and what the Christian life looks like. So, this definitely needs unpacking.
So, for me, there’s really three things involved in breaking all of it down. One is looking at dualism and looking at theological method. The second is looking more closely at contracts. And the third, of course, is looking at theological covenant. So perhaps if we start with dualism if that would be useful. It’s got a variety of meanings, and the 2020 Oxford English dictionary—bringing out my inner nerd—defines it as a theory or system of thought that recognizes two independent principles.
So, with dualism, you’ve got several elements. One of them is very much an individual or independent existence and a capacity for separation and being removed from everything else. That’s what’s meant by that independence. And common examples of splitting things into categories that’s what’s sort of implied in dualism, are things like the mind and body Cartesian dualism, Plato’s dualism of the realm of physical matter versus the realm of the spirit or intellect.
TF Torrance uses a generalized concept of dualism, and it’s something like, the “division of reality into two incompatible or independent domains.” And that definition is taken from Elmer M. Colyer’s fantastic book (get it if you don’t have it), How to Read TF Torrance, page 58. So, the division of reality into two incompatible or independent domains.
So, TF sees dualisms as inherent to contemporary Western thought. It’s literally the structure and the framework that we’re accustomed to thinking in. We don’t think holistically; we don’t see connection and inter-relationality. We see separation and things existing distinct from each other, not just distinct, but separated from each other.
And it comes through modernity from philosophers like Kant and Descartes, but before them Greek philosophy. So, dualism as a general term for Torrance refers to this characterizing belief around the structure of Western society and fundamental to post enlightenment Western thought. And it compartmentalizes existence and experience rather than regarding them as an integrated whole.
Now TF did a lot of work on science, and dualism is particularly evident in the Newtonian tendency towards having mechanistic understandings of reality, and externally created relationships between things rather than inherent connection and inter-relationship. And this is a key problem of dualist frameworks, which is particularly relevant to the difference between covenant and contract. And in Western societies, we are so accustomed to thinking in dualist ways, we hardly even notice it.
Cartesian dualism, Kantian dualism there’s almost a concept of personhood we’ve got and of being that we’ve got that emphasizes individualistic, rational existences as the primary thing about human beings and the way in which the world is organized. And JB emphasizes these things too, although he didn’t label them as being about dualism.
But JB always insisted that the primary thing about human beings is not that we’re independent and rational intellectual creatures. We are made in community for community and particularly communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit. “We’re persons in communion,” that’s his classic phrase, that’s our identity. And those are internally forged connections that are inherent in our being; they’re not externally created.
Whereas contracts involve two people that are disconnected coming together and having an externally created legal relationship that is all about the particular thing they need, or the aim that they have. And Western concepts of community and society are likewise about externally created relationships. They’re based on the social contract. We’re naturally disconnected and individual, but we forged some connections amongst ourselves and organize ourselves based on utility. We’ve got the need for protection, so we form a little society and a few other bits and pieces, but primarily we keep to ourselves and most of our lives are not the business of anybody else. They’re not the business of the government or the law. There’s all of these distinctions between the public and the private that come out of that.
And we see all kinds of things as separate and not interrelated, unless we deliberately connect them—so sacred and secular, mind and body, like I said before, public / private. All of these are really common dualistic frameworks.
And there are two reasons that I believe we really default to thinking contractually about God. One is that like JB Torrance, we all know a little bit about contracts, but the other is that because our Western culture is absolutely steeped in dualism. We are primed to bring that mindset and those preconceived ideas to the gospel. And one other thing I think that we bring to the gospel out of this, is that dualism sees God as detached and outside of creation.
And I don’t know about you, Anthony, but I can think of a number of ways that this influences us. We see God as living in heaven, which is geographically “up there” somewhere and certainly separate from earth. (Hello Plato.) We see ourselves as not being at all connected to God unless we become a Christian.
We say things like, make Jesus the Lord of your life, or invite him into your heart. Now, while conversion is obviously important, belief is important, and 100% things do change when someone becomes a Christian, they change from our perspective, not God’s! Jesus’ work on the Cross was finished and accomplished for all of humanity throughout history, 2000 odd years ago. He’s already Lord, he’s already Savior. Our prayer doesn’t change who Jesus is. It doesn’t make him Lord.
Now on one level, of course we know that, and yet we still use this kind of language. We fall into that. And I think the reason why our language so often makes it seem as though it’s our prayer that effects that change is because of dualism and the impact of contractual understandings in how we get our heads around the Christian message.
Anthony: Jenny, one of the things you mentioned, and I think this is really important when you were talking about JB, is how we are persons in community for community. And we think through the lens of individualism which is an “ism.” It’s problematic. And often what we think is, it’s just me and the Lord, right? It’s just me and God and my Bible, and I’m good to go.
But as you said, it’s primarily in communion with the triune God, but also with one another, as we exist, move, have our being in him. Don’t you think?
Jenny: Absolutely. And I think one of the things that is really powerful in a lot of the work that’s being done in this space is looking at what does this mean for the church and the role of the church within the wider world and all of those things.
And TF was very strong on that. Kate Tyler has written a fantastic book in relation to that. Julie Canlis looks at a lot of that. A lot of people are starting to look at that at the moment for precisely that reason. There’s nothing at all that is individual in relation to a covenantal God and in relation to the gospel and living in the Father, Son, and Spirit.
And I think part of the reason that we default to an individualistic picture of Christianity—even though we are naming the Trinity—is because of those contractual understandings. And TF, in relation to what he says about dualism and the need to be holistic, is really clear that our entire theological method has to be holistic rather than dualistic.
And he didn’t start out with that; he didn’t start by rejecting dualism. He wasn’t presupposing it. He rejects dualism because his theological method is centered around what we know through God’s self-revelation in Jesus. He holds to a realist epistemology, which is thoroughly Christological and Trinitarian, right?
We don’t get to decide who God is. In fact, we can’t. Our minds would default to whatever picture of God best served our own purposes. But the Christian message is that God has made himself known to us through the incarnation. And the God who reveals himself in Jesus is entirely holistic in how he is in himself, within the Godhead, and as well as who he is and how he is to humanity. That’s the central theme of Karl Barth. That’s the central theme of TF Torrance. Baxter emphasizes that as well: whenever we’re speaking of Jesus or seeing Jesus, we’re never actually just seeing him or speaking of him, we are seeing Jesus, the incarnate beloved Son of the Father who has joined himself to humanity in the Spirit.
And I think in contract, we wind up with a little individualistic Jesus carved off from the Father as well, again because of dualism. But every act of God is a Trinitarian act. And every thought of God is a Trinitarian thought.
So, there’s no dualism here between the spiritual realm where God is and the earthly realm where creation is. There’s no—that doesn’t actually exist. There’s no detachment or bridge that needs to be crossed because humanity—and indeed all of creation—is bound up in union with the Father and Son, through the person and work of Christ.
Anthony: Yeah, I appreciated what you said about, we cannot create God; we cannot fathom what he is from our own fallen experience. He has to reveal himself in himself, in the person of Jesus.
And it reminded me of this movie we have here in the States. It’s (I’m aging myself a bit, but) it’s called Talladega Nights. And there’s this famous scene where the family’s around the table. And they’re about to say grace, in quotations, say a prayer before the meal.
And everybody’s trying to decide what type of Jesus they want to pray to. “I like baby Jesus. So that’s who I’m going to pray to.” And another one says, “I want Jesus in a tuxedo shirt because it says, he’s a partying Jesus.” And it just went on and on. It was comical, but it was sad commentary too, because it does reveal ultimately the way that we think. We are trying to create God in our image, instead of the way that it actually is. That only God can reveal God’s self and he’s done so thankfully! We can see him in Jesus.
Jenny: Absolutely. And I think understanding that TF didn’t start by rejecting dualism but starts because of the way that we need to know God. And it comes out of our theological method and comes out of his epistemology in that respect.
And Colyer is great on that too. But this holism that TF is committed to, it leads him to hold to this profound integration of ontology and epistemology. And that’s where he gets his concept of onto-relations from because it demonstrates a sense of this holism. Because knowledge of a person—for TF, knowledge of a person is constitutive of their personhood and is thus necessarily holistic and relational.
And Colyer—I love Colyer. Can you tell? Colyer’s definition of onto-relations is really helpful. He describes it as one in which “the relations between persons are deeply formative of the persons in those relations.” (That’s on page 55.) And this is an emphasis of Karl Barth’s too. Karl Barth would always say, God is who he is in his loving actions towards us.
So, we don’t separate out who Jesus is from what Jesus does. And of course, in dualism and in contract, those separations are inherent in the nature of the relationship. So, we would get a disconnection of Jesus from the rest of the Trinity. Jesus would be off doing something separate, and we would see an individualistic picture of who Jesus is rather than seeing him in relation to those relationships that are within the Trinity.
So, if that’s our framework, if we’re going to be holistic and if we’re going to hold to an integration of ontology and epistemology and keep all of those things together and intensely personal and relational, I just want to unpack some of the key differences between covenant and contract and their ramifications. And these are present on a few levels: the motivation, the parties, the place of Jesus and God, the Father, and also where we fit in it.
All of those elements are affected and are completely different between a covenant and a contract. So, think of a basic contract. I need a car. So, I’m going to buy it from you. I don’t know how we’ll pull that off because you’re in the USA, and I’m in Australia, but we’ll work it out. So: we have a contract.
The motivational basis, of course, is law. And this contract is not about either you or I; we’re the parties, sure. But the contract is about something completely separate from us. It’s about the car. I’m obliged to pay you. And you’re obliged to give me a car in a particular condition; and all of that, those obligations, create the relationship.
And once I bought the car from you, that’s it. I don’t then show up and demand to be invited to Christmas dinner or anything. I’m not your new bestie. It would be weird. But we’re done. We got what we needed from each other. We go our separate ways, and there’s nothing wrong with that, for a legal contract. They’re meant to work that way. That is not a problem for a legal contract, but it’s incredibly problematic for the gospel. As I said before, because contracts are dualist, we’ve got independence, separation, and equality of the parties at the heart of contracts.
There’re some exceptions to this, but contracts involve two parties who are equal in power and agency, previously unconnected and independent from each other. And they come together to create a legal relationship, which is delineated entirely by the terms of the contract and only lasts for as long as those terms do. Now, hopefully you’re already getting a sense of how problematic that would be if we put that onto a kind of contract between humanity and God. It would have disastrous effects.
To start with, it would elevate humanity and diminish Christ, in terms of our relevant positions. The two parties would be God – presumably God the Father, if we’re trying to work with a theological contract – the two parties would be God and humanity. Jesus would be relegated to being the one who does the work to drag God to the negotiating table.
On this model, he’s just the agent of salvation, right? He sorts out the thing that was getting in the way, and now we can have a relationship with God. Because that’s the other problem with a contract: its motivation is law. So, the problem of sin and the need for forgiveness takes center stage, and the aspect of God that is most prominent is his legalistic moral holiness, rather than his holiness that reflects his uniqueness.
But because of his holiness, this “contract” God can’t bear sin and can’t stand humanity unless sin is dealt with, so in comes Jesus to sort that out. And then after that, God loves us or something. It’s all a bit unclear or at least inconsistent. So now we’ve got really important differences in the motivation, the parties, and the respective places of God the Father, and Jesus.
We get elevated. We’ve got an existence apart from God, and we’ve got the option of choosing to have God in our lives or not. And Jesus is really just the agent of salvation who paves the way and makes the introductions. The ramifications of these differences are staggering. Especially if we see how thoroughly dualist, they are.
If our role in the relationship is bigger than that of Jesus, and we get to choose in and choose out, and we’ve got this existence that’s independent of God, then the other thing that happens—and hear me out on this—is we lose the Incarnation. We lose the Trinity. We still have a Jesus who becomes human, but the profundity of that, the meaning of that, is lost entirely. Jesus is no longer the one who unites humanity to the Trinity as the beloved Son of the Father, who reveals the truth of God to us. He’s not the one in whom the whole world exists, in whom we live and move and have our being. He’s not the Alpha and Omega because on a contractual individualistic model, we’ve got our own separate existence from God and we’re making a choice to enter into something. Maybe. And it’s all about the law, and it’s all external.
So, under the contract, the roles change. Jesus becomes the one who brings God to the table, but the players in the contractual model are God and us, and those are equal roles. Our say, our agency, our decisions are staples of this relationship. So, our decision for God, on a contractual model, becomes just as powerful as his heart towards us. Can you see the dualism in that?
We’re independent from God unless we need him, and then we asked him to do something for us. And Jesus is the agent of salvation and the contract with God—and this is where mechanistic, external relations is important—the contract with God becomes about obtaining forgiveness as a disconnected thing that we need from God, rather than forging an eternal relationship of love and being about sharing in that life of love. It becomes about creating an external connection rather than an onto-relational one that grounds our very existence as human beings. It is a stunning difference, especially because a “contract” God really only loves us because Jesus talks him into it.
And these are things that are partly lost because of that next aspect of a contract model. The obligations are different. A contractual model involves a continual focus on what we have to do and how we have to live once we convert, because it’s all about the law, right? Jesus forgives me because of Jesus and agrees—sorry, God forgives me because of Jesus and agrees to love me now and let me into heaven. That’s God’s side of the contract, and my bit is repenting and living as a Christian.
So that means under a contractual model, religious performance becomes the emphasis for Christian discipleship rather than living life in the Spirit, experiencing the love and freedom of Jesus, and knowing him more and engaging in his heart for the world as we share in his relationship with the Father. On a contractual model, Jesus got me saved, but now I become preoccupied with whether or not I’m doing the right thing, even though I know that it’s all because of grace, because forgiveness is a gift and Jesus did it all. Except it’s not quite clear how Jesus did it all.
And this is important too. It’s not exactly clear why the Father loves me or how much, because the “contract” God loves me only if he doesn’t look at me but looks through me and to Jesus or something. I know Jesus loves me because he went out and died for me before I even knew him. But on a contractual model, God the Father doesn’t love us in his own right.
Or at the most, God kind of loves us because he has to, because he’s God and that’s his job. And it’s only because Jesus has sorted out the sin problem that he can properly accept us and fully, really love us. So, the depth and richness of the heart and passion of the Father, Son, and Spirit for humanity right through eternity are just lost, on a contractual model.
TF Torrance told a story once about a soldier on the battlefield who was dying. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of this story, but when he was working as a chaplain, a dying soldier asked him, “Padre, is God really like Jesus?” And this right here -for me anyway – the contract issue is why there is that kind of confusion.
And I find myself wondering how on earth did we the Christian Church, with the Trinity as the fundamental statement of faith, ever get to a place where anyone could be wondering whether God is like Jesus? And TF unpacks all of that through his theological method and his onto-relational epistemology.
Again and again, he and various others, will insist—and this is TF’s great phrase—’there is no other God behind the back of Jesus Christ’. Jesus himself insisted, if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The other thing TF would often say, God is not one thing towards us in Jesus and another thing in himself. We can’t separate who Jesus is from what he does. That’s dualism.
And we cannot accept a concept of God that is other than who God has revealed himself to be. And God reveals himself in Jesus as Father, Son, and Spirit, who has joined himself to humanity in the Incarnation and shares the Trinitarian life of God with us. And that Trinitarian life is a covenantal relationship of unconditional love.
So, to put it not only bluntly, if I may, but also mildly—but it’s blunt—the contractual model of God is a heresy. No such God exists. If I can take here a couple of minutes to contrast this a little more with some of covenant, (now some of it we’ve covered already) but there are a couple of really significant differences here.
Anthony: Let’s hear it.
Jenny: Great. Thank you. Theological covenant is a relationship of unconditional love where the motive is to create a family and not to forensically deal with sin in a way that is detached from anything else. Law does not feature in the motivation or the content of the covenant. JB is very clear on that.
The second aspect of covenant, (if we get back to those differences before, in terms of the motivation, the parties, the basis, our role, and the role of God and Jesus) – in a covenant, God the Father has the same heart towards us as Jesus, right? The act of God in covenant is a Trinitarian act.
God the Father sent the Son. He is bringing us home through the Spirit. We see the homoousion from the Nicene Creed; the Father and Son are of the same substance and being. They are one in the Spirit. So, we don’t fracture the Trinity in a covenant. We don’t have Jesus individualistic, off doing something distinct from the heart of the Father.
And the last couple points about covenant indicate that other element that I highlighted earlier, what does it mean for humanity that God is covenantal and Trinitarian? Because there’s a key difference here in terms of covenant. And this has picked up in particular through TF. God is on both sides of the table in this relationship. It’s a one-sided covenant; (that’s JB’s explanation) it is a one-sided covenant. God creates and sustains it.
We are not a party at all. This is a huge difference with contract. We’re not a party to this covenant. God is on both sides because this covenant is created and sustained in Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus is himself referred to as the New Covenant. Through his incarnation, Jesus is the Mediator of this covenant, including us in his relationship with the Father; we share his Sonship.
We don’t forge our own relationship with God based on the strength of the sinner’s prayer. Jesus does it through the Incarnation. This is where TF’s work in The Mediation of Christ, and what that means for us in practice, is so critical.
So, it’s the vicarious humanity of Christ that is shared in this covenant. Jesus is the faithful covenant partner, not us. We have his righteousness, not our own. And wow, does our pride hate that! Contract centers us in our relationship with God, and it appeals to our pride. There is a draw in that. But in reality, our security, our place, our assuredness in this relationship comes from the certainty that it doesn’t depend on us to create or maintain the covenant.
We are freed to respond, but it doesn’t depend on us for its existence. A contract is a legal piece of paper, but covenant is not even a theological piece of paper. Can you see that? We can’t separate out who Jesus is and what he does, and this covenant is created and sustained in his very person.
It is onto-relational. That’s why it’s irrevocable and why it’s intensely relational. So, the other thing that comes out of that – because this is created and sustained in Jesus – is that we are not equal and independent beings who were separated from God and who exist in our own self-sustaining way with an option to have God in our life or not. In a covenant, in a covenantal understanding, we see the reality that the world is held together in Christ.
In him, we live and move and have our being. We don’t have life outside of Christ. It’s an impossibility. We’re not gods. We don’t sustain our own existence. Now, we can choose not to believe that, and we can choose not to see that. And all of those things are still possible within it, but we are not actually sitting outside and excluded from the love and beauty and glory of the life that exists within the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Everything that we have in our relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit involves the outworking in our own life of what has been brought to us and shared with us in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Mediator. He shares his relationship with the Father with us, and we participate in all of this by the Spirit, and that is sanctification. That is the obligations of covenant. That’s where they fit. That’s the bit that we do. We participate and we live that out through the Spirit.
And on that issue, let me add Alexandra Radcliff’s work expanding sanctification and participation in a Trinitarian, covenantal way rather than a contractual performative way, is just brilliant. Get ahold of her book too. She’s got a whole chapter on covenant and contract, and then she looks at how that’s outworked in relation to sanctification and discipleship later. Julie Canlis’ work, A Theology of the Ordinary, is brilliant here too. Geordie Ziegler’s work on participation and grace are unpacking how all those things work out for us.
Our role is not as a party. But neither are we puppets. We get to quite literally wake up to the truth of who Jesus has made us to be, and to live in the freedom of this. That’s our role. We’re obliged, absolutely, but not performatively in order to earn our place, but relationally because of the truth and dignity of who we are in Jesus. This is why JB refers to the obligations of grace rather than the obligations of law.
So, what we do is profoundly important because we’re living as befits the beloved children of God, but it doesn’t create our security. And it certainly doesn’t create the relationship. Karl Barth always said, “We may, therefore we must.” This is where we’re thrown back on that glorious truth that Jesus is in himself humanity’s response to God. He loves the Father faithfully and properly. He’s the true covenant.
Anthony: Jenny, it strikes me that if you ever got passionate about this stuff, you’d do fine. It just exudes from you.
And it’s so vitally important because we do demand our own agency, right? In subtle ways and in big ways, we think contractually because we always start with ourselves in the center and our own experience, as opposed to starting with where reality truly exists. And that’s in the person of Jesus Christ who reveals the love of the Father—that we can truly wake up and smell the grace and walk assuredly in it.
It is such a beautiful thing and a beautiful picture that you’ve painted for us. Thank you.
Jenny: Wake up and smell the grace, I think that’s so true. And even understanding that waking up and smelling the grace, is repentance in so many ways. You might remember when you and I were chatting earlier, I talked about one of my favorite passages in The Mediation of Christ. Page 94 where TF answers a question about, look, if Jesus did everything and if everything is wrapped up in him, how do we preach the gospel in a truly evangelical way? And he answers that question. (I’m not going to quote it; it’s too long.)
But he answers that question by saying something like, ‘God loved you so utterly and completely that he pledged his very being as God for you (which is the onto-relational bit). He has bound himself to you in such a once-and-forever way that he cannot go back on that without undoing the Incarnation. And even if you reject that (cause some people do), even if you reject that and damn yourself, his love for you will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe’.
It’s our minds that need changing not the reality of what’s been accomplished. This is Calvin’s concept of evangelical repentance rather than legal. Grace comes before law. And both the Torrances emphasized that. It’s because of the profundity of God’s love that we can trust and believe.
Anthony: Jenny, I think I’d like to have you come back if you’re willing at some point, because it’s not only this ongoing discussion, but I’m just fascinated about your research projects—the collaborative efforts between law and religious leaders on domestic violence. These are issues that sometimes in the church, we don’t discuss. And I think it’s a powerful discussion to have. So again, thank you for such a beautiful description of the contrast between covenant and contract.
Jenny: You’re welcome, Anthony. And I’d be really keen to unpack all of that and come back and chat with you some more because a covenantal understanding affects all aspects of the gospel and particularly justice and how we relate to each other and treat each other. So that would be a really excellent opportunity if I may be so bold as to come back and chat again.
Anthony: Let’s do it. Well, it’s time. We’re going to look at the four passages that we’re going to unpack together.
The first one is John 14:8- 17, which is “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” (That’s a wink to the 90s music people that love their 90s music. I can hear my head right now.) That’s for Pentecost, June the fifth.
Then we moved to John 16:12-15, “The Spirit of Truth,” on Trinity Sunday, June the 12th. Then Luke 8:26-39, “Hog Wild,” on Proper 7, June 19th. And then finally, Luke 9:51-62, “Moving On,” Proper 8 on June 26.
And I’m moving on to our first pericope, which is John 14:8-17. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Pentecost on June the fifth. And it reads,
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
Verse 11, Jenny, I’m in the Father and the Father is in me.
I know this is a set up question, but what are the implications of this Father-Son relationship?
Jenny: I think set up question is putting it quite mildly and gently because we could spend the whole podcast on it, and in a lot of ways, I think we are spending a whole podcast on it. To me, the Father-Son relationship is the substance of the gospel, especially when we see that this relationship exists in the Spirit and has been extended to us.
So, this is a Trinitarian statement. And it also emphasizes that the Father’s not different from the Son. Distinct? Yes, of course, but not different. They’re one; there’s no separation here. There’s no dualism, if you like; there is union. And so, it’s another indication that if we want to carve off Jesus from the Father in how we conceptualize the gospel, it just won’t work.
It is very much an indication that you cannot view Jesus as the Lone Ranger. (That may well have been a phrase of Baxter’s [Kruger] somewhere too. Someone has said it, I know, not me.) But Jesus is not a sole agent, that he and the Father are together in that respect. But my instant thought really when you first flagged that question with me is not surprisingly of Professor JB Torrance, who would always say to his students, “The heart of the New Testament is the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.”
And it went alongside his exhortation towards covenantal orientations in our beliefs about the Trinity. And I wonder whether the fact of the Father-Son relationship is likewise, the secret of peace and joy in believing, especially when we realize who Jesus actually is, who Jesus is and what he does and what he’s made of humanity in the Incarnation and his atonement.
And the fact that the name of Jesus is such a loaded statement in that sense because Jesus is sharing his sonship with us and mediates his relationship with the Father to us and responds to the Father as a faithful human Son. So, there’s a massive amount in relation to the implications of the Father-Son relationship, because it’s not just the Father-Son relationship.
It’s the Father-Son relationship being lived out in the Spirit and being extended to humanity through the Spirit, who was poured out upon Jesus. And through the Spirit, Jesus lived out his sonship has the true human being, the new Adam.
And even in the later part of that passage in verse 17, where Jesus says he’ll send the Spirit as the Advocate, he also notes that his disciples already know the Spirit because he already lives with them. And later he will also be in them. And so, the Father-Son relationship—from my point of view anyway—the Father Son relationship speaks more to me about who I am than any contract I could try to set up with Jesus does.
And it speaks more to who I am than any spiritual brownie points I could run around trying to earn just like the older brother did in the parable of the prodigal Son. Look how that worked out for him. How we live as Christians, our discipleship is important. Sure. But it’s because of what that means for our wellbeing.
Ken Blue once said (I think it was Ken Blue), “sin makes about as much sense as putting your lips in a blender”. (I love that.)
Anthony: That makes no sense.
Jenny: But this relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit is the death knell of religiosity, of religious performance as the site of acceptability or worth or identity with God. It means that God is far bigger and more loving and more gracious and more accepting of me than I might previously have imagined and particularly much more loving and gracious and accepting of me and far more intensely relational and personal and glorious than my pride will be able to get its head around.
Because I would like to be [bigger], in my own pride. (We were talking about this before.) I would like to be a bigger player in the relationship, thanks very much! What about me and all these wonderful things that I do for God? But the other impact about this for me—which is the flip side of that—is that our brokenness is nowhere near as impactful as we might’ve thought, because I’m in the Father-Son relationship by the Spirit.
And because all of that is a gift of grace, because the message of the New Testament is one of that Father-Son relationship being extended to humanity, that changes everything about how I view God, view myself, view my life, view all aspects of my day to day living and view other people.
I’m freed to live out of that truth. God is a human being now. God is one of us. Jesus is still a human being. God is one of us. And so, what does that relationship imply? Everything!
I don’t know whether you have this in the U.S. or wherever else our listeners are. In Australia, at least, in the Sunday school, the running joke is that the answer to every question that the Sunday school teacher poses is meant to be, “Jesus!” No matter what. We’ve got one [joke] where they’re describing a koala. It’s gray, it’s fluffy, it’s got a white tail. And everyone’s sitting there not putting their hand up. And then eventually, one little kid puts their hand up and says, ‘I know the answers meant to be Jesus, but it sounds like a koala’. In Sunday school, the answer’s meant to be Jesus. Excellent, I know he is. But by implication, what we mean when we say “Jesus” is to see him in the fullness of who he is, especially in the tradition of the early church that the Torrances were drawing from.
So, we don’t just mean “Jesus, the individual over here who is gracious enough to love us while we’re still sinners.” We mean, “Jesus, the incarnate, beloved Son of the Father who has included us within that relationship through the Incarnation and his life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension.”
The gospel isn’t about me. That’s what the Father, Son and Spirit relationship means. The gospel is not about me and what Jesus has done for me. It’s about Jesus and his Father. And what the Father and Son by the Spirit have done with and for and in the whole human race to bring that relationship of love to humanity, and to give us our own place in that, by sharing in Jesus’ Sonship. It’s incredible, really, and it’s unbelievably good news.
And the Spirit enables us; enables us to believe in the love that God has for us, enables us to trust, and enables the obedience of faith. (Saint Paul said that; I can’t remember where. Sorry. This is where the fact that I’m not a formally trained theologian has its advantages. I don’t have to memorize all of this!)
But this is why faith itself is a gift of the Spirit. My sin and my brokenness, they’re there and they’re dealt with, but that’s done in the context of restoring me to my full humanity so that I am able to live in the love and freedom that’s been brought to me, rather than my biggest problem being that I’m sinful and God doesn’t love me yet.
The Father Son relationship is the most beautiful truth in the universe.
Anthony: And that oneness, communion of Father and Son gets revealed once again, in Jesus saying that he doesn’t speak out of his own accord, but according to the abiding Father. Why is this an important statement? And what, if anything, can Christ followers learn about their own speech from this?
Jenny: Firstly, so many things. And being an academic, I’d just say “ibid,” right? Refer back to everything we’ve previously said, because as you said, it is yet again a Trinitarian statement and a statement about oneness and the implications of that.
In terms of what we can learn about our own speech, it actually speaks to us a bit about our own place, what it means to live as Christians, what it means to participate. Kevin Navarro has written a beautiful book looking at TF and JB’s theology. It’s called Trinitarian Doxology. And it looks at unpacking what it means that worship is part of our participation in the life of Father, Son, and Spirit.
And there’s a lot in our own speech and our own approach and our own engaging with others, (which of course is what we do in relation to our own speech) that needs to be impacted by our living out in this life of the Spirit. And it affects our worship. It affects how we deal with each other. It affects how we treat each other.
But importantly, because Jesus is not speaking of his own accord, but according to the Father, but he still himself in that relationship. So, it doesn’t mean that we stop being ourselves, and we just start running around trying to mimic Jesus. Jesus was participating with and living out of his relationship with his Father, and we are to do that as well. We don’t lose ourselves in this. We find ourselves in this.
But there’s no call—and this is an issue that I’m really hot on because there is an overlap here with my other work—there is no call for hatred of one another, or for undignifying speech and attitudes towards one another because the first thing we know about anyone is who they are to Jesus Christ. And of course, because of the Trinity and the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit, that is also who they are to the Father. It is not just Jesus who loves people: it is Father, Son, and Spirit. So, the first thing we know about anyone is who they are to Jesus Christ. They are someone for whom he died and with whom he has shared his relationship with the Father.
Now, some people believe that; some people don’t, but that is the only difference. The difference, if you will, is on our side of the table, not God’s side. God does not love non-Christians less than me. He is no less their Father. They just don’t know who he is yet. But that doesn’t stop him being who he is, because this is covenantal, right? Not contractual, we’re not dualistic. And it doesn’t stop him loving.
So, our speech, our actions, and our attitudes to God (which is where worship as participation comes in), but also our attitudes to ourselves and to other people and the way in which our speech, our self-talk, and our communication with other people are affected—all of those things need to be oriented around our identity and participation in Jesus’ relationship with the Father. That’s what we’re living in and living out of and speaking out of as well.
One of the things that I’ve found myself writing—I’m going to digress a bit into my thesis. One of the things I found myself writing in relation to family violence and how we approach what a covenantal understanding of marriage would mean in relation to what a marriage relationship should look like and the profound absence of anything that remotely looks like violence that covenant implies, there’s no space for it. I found myself writing that a Christian man’s wife should be the last person that he thinks of treating badly because it is a relationship of unconditional love.
And in the same way, Christians should be the last people to treat anyone poorly or speak of anyone poorly because every single person we encounter is as loved by Jesus as we are. Later in John, Jesus talks about the Father loving us with the same love that he has loved the Son. And we gloss over that. We miss it so much, but there’s something that is profound in relation to this and our speech. And the way we treat ourselves, and the way we treat others has to reflect that.
There’s this Christian ethics wrapped up in this, living life in accordance with the gospel. If we are Christians, we are lovers of people. I’m auditing a Christian Spirituality course at a Bible college here at the moment. And our lecturer, David McGregor, had said literally two days ago, ‘if we’re Christians, we are lovers of people because God loves them’.
We recognize no one from a worldly point of view, but we see them, and we see everything, through Christ now. And I think one profoundly important aspect of how we are to speak, then, not only involves how we speak about others and how we speak to them, but also how we speak about ourselves and how we treat ourselves.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s so powerful what you just said on two fronts: the way that we relate with others, but also the way that we relate with ourselves, the self-talk. Very insightful. Thank you.
Jenny: But I suppose the only thing I would add to that is that a contractual model of the gospel encourages us to focus on our brokenness and our sin and how unacceptable we are and thank God for Jesus that Jesus has made us acceptable now. And while dealing with sin is of course profoundly important in the gospel, this emphasis and this overemphasis on how horrible we are, rather than our core identity being as loved children—which is why God doesn’t want to leave us in our brokenness—is a really important point.
We find it really hard to believe in how much we’re actually loved by Father, Son, and Spirit so often. And we treat ourselves so badly because we start from a place of, ‘I’m a dreadful sinner’—rather than the primary thing about me is ‘I’m a loved child of God and God will deal with all of the brokenness and mess that stops me from living in his love and seeing him for who he is and will make me, what I need to be’. And those things are sorted out along the way, rather than being the primary thing that we need to focus on.
Anthony: We talk to ourselves contractually and we think of others that way. As we’re recording this, we have Russia invading the Ukraine. I noticed on social media, there was a lot of posts about Ukraine and what they provide to the world, their natural resources, yada, yada, yada.
And I couldn’t help but think, no, they’re people. Yes, there are things that they provide, but it’s a way of thinking of things contractually, as opposed to those are beloved children. They are loved by the Son and the Father in the Spirit. Let’s stop thinking contractually about what they can provide the world and just recognize these beautiful image-bearers of the living God.
Jenny: It’s the social contract. (I might’ve seen the same post. I’m not sure.) But it’s ‘why is this important?’ And then it lists off all these ways in which we understand Ukraine’s position in the wider world and the various things that they export and whatever else. And that is the social contract right there.
What is our utility? Why are we gathering ourselves together? How are we going to fit into this great piece of the puzzle? On one level, I don’t care about any [of that]: that’s not why this war is so appalling. It’s appalling because everyone involved in it is profoundly loved by Jesus. And the preservation of life and the dignity of human beings is far more fundamental than what we can do for each other or what we bring to the table. It’s a completely different way of looking at humanity.
Anthony: Yeah. And what we often forget is that war does harm on both sides to victim and victimizer because of whose image we’re made into. Absolutely.
Well, Pentecost will be celebrated this Sunday and many sermons will focus, Jenny, on the promise and deliverance of the holy Spirit. What does this passage indicate about who the Spirit is and what God, the Spirit, is doing?
Jenny: In a move that will surprise no one, I’m going to start by saying that this is a Trinitarian statement, which pretty much all of these passages are. I think I’ve started all of my answers that way. But there are particular things that are highlighted in this quite beautifully.
Firstly, the Spirit in this passage is given to us by the Father. Secondly, the Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and also, we know the Spirit due to the fact that we have the Spirit in us.
So, this is deeply relational and deeply Trinitarian. And the connection here is between our need for truth and the advocacy of the Spirit who is with us forever, which makes me think to myself, okay what is the Spirit advocating and what is this truth? And to me the Spirit shares the Father-Son relationship with us, we’ve talked about that.
And it gets back to the point that Jesus makes at the start of the passage—he’s in the Father and the Father’s in him—and he finishes that later in this address to his disciples, I am in my Father and you in me and I in you. And all of that of course occurs in the Spirit.
What we see here is a forever relationship—I love how it says, ‘and he’ll be with you forever’. It’s a forever relationship, which is brought to us in the Spirit and we’re to live in and out of that truth, right throughout our lives. The world can’t see this truth yet, but it’s true, nonetheless. And we’re bound up irrevocably in it because of the Spirit.
So, we can’t actually lose the love of God, because of the Spirit. And the Spirit will keep bringing that home to us and calling us back to that truth, when we struggle to see it in the midst of our own brokenness and trauma and everything else that makes it hard for us to believe.
Because we have the mind of Christ, we have his righteousness, and he’s brought us into that life and love of God that exists between the persons of the Trinity. And it’s by the Spirit that we see that; by the Spirit, we cry ‘Abba Father’. So, when we know who God is, we know who we are, and it’s through the Spirit that we’re enabled to receive and see and participate in what God’s doing.
As I said earlier, my Bible college professor, David McGregor, was saying this the other day in class: ‘Christian Spirituality is not about our journey of discovery’. If it’s Christian Spirituality, it’s about the Spirit because our response to God is enabled by the Spirit. So, through the Spirit we participate in sharing all that Jesus is and has.
So, the Spirit is critical. And in terms of, ‘is the Spirit doing anything today?’ The Spirit is doing everything today because this is an ongoing forever relationship, and out of that, we participate in our church communities, in our work, in our families, in whatever shape life takes for us.
A text in the topic that I’m doing is Marjorie Thompson’s book, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. And she says on page 14, ‘the spiritual life is not one slice of existence, but leaven for the whole loaf’. The Spirit is continually active in the world today. That’s what I see coming through really clearly in this passage.
Anthony: Yes, Jenny.
Our next passage is John 16:12-15. It’s the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Trinity Sunday on June the 12th.
Would you be willing to read that for us please?
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Anthony: Amen. Trinity Sunday is approaching this weekend. How do you see Trinitarian relational dynamics (here we go again) at work in this passage, and what are the implications?
Jenny: Oh goodness “Ibid!” To me, it highlights the way in which we dare not lose the Trinity in how we understand God. And particularly in terms of how we live out our faith and how we live as Christians within our church community, and also within our wider community, because we don’t want to separate the sacred and the secular, we don’t want to be dualist. So, we dare not lose the Trinity in how we understand God. We can’t be—you can tell me if I’ve got the word wrong—we can’t be christomonous (I think that’s the right word), reducing our understanding of God to be just about Christ or just about Christology. [Christomonism only accepts one divine person, Jesus Christ, rather than the Trinity.]
This is because our Christology is itself a thoroughly Trinitarian Christology. Jesus made himself known as the Son of the Father in the Spirit. Those things happen and are revealed to us and are lived out for us in the Spirit. And this is why in this passage, I think, the Spirit doesn’t speak alone. And everything that the Spirit receives for us and makes known to us comes from Jesus and from the Father, because everything that belongs to the Father is Jesus’, and the Spirit shares that with us.
So, there’s no hierarchy here. And the Spirit makes everything known to us. It is astonishing that we can know God. We can’t know God in ourselves, but God reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. And it’s through the Spirit that we are transformed, and our broken humanity is restored to be ever more truly human, ever more like the one true human being, Jesus Christ.
Anthony: Often the world, Jenny, embraces the Spirit of untruth. And if I’m going to make it personal, there are times I do. Lord, help me with my unbelief. How does this contrast with the Spirit of truth highlighted in the passage?
Jenny: I think that we can all make that personal, to be honest, I think all of us believe and yet need help with our unbelief.
The cry of Thomas is the cry of humanity because it is our minds that need to be renewed and woken up to the glory of the truth of who we are in Jesus. And I think that’s why the Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of truth. And I think too, that’s why the Spirit is also the advocate to wrestle with that in us and to continue to reveal those things to us, gently and beautifully and powerfully.
TF Torrance had a phrase (I don’t know where it came from), but he used it sometimes when he talked about theological method and our need to be careful and realist, particularly in relation to how we know God and what we know about God. We can’t begin with our own ideas or our own concepts of what we subjectively experienced as the basis for knowledge.
He didn’t discount those things, but they’re not our starting point. We know God because he’s made himself known. So, truth has revealed itself to us, so to speak, in the person of Jesus Christ. And that is by the Spirit. TF cautioned that if we wind up trying to work God out, or work reality out with reference to ourselves or allowing ourselves to be limited by what our minds can understand and influenced by our brokenness and all of those things, we eventually wind up in what he refers to as “self-referential incoherence.”
And the first sentence of his volume edited by Robert Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, is: ‘Our task in Christology is to yield the obedience of our mind to what is given; that is, God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ’.
And that sounds like it’s just Christology, right? But who is Jesus Christ? Jesus is the eternal word of the Father, incarnate by the Spirit who has joined himself forever to us in the Spirit. And this truth has broken into everything we thought we knew about ourselves, our worth, our experiences, our destinies, and especially our humanity.
So, Jesus reveals himself in the Spirit to be the Son of the Father, rather than being an individual. And that’s really difficult for us in the West, maybe because of dualism, but also because we emphasize rationality and individuality and autonomy so much. So, we see truth as an abstract thing that can be grasped.
And so of course, many would say objective truth doesn’t exist because everyone’s got their own perspective and experience of it, and so much is subjective. And I understand where that’s heading up to a point. Jesus can be Lord as much as he wants, but if I refuse to believe that I am who he says I am, I’m going to have very little peace and joy in believing. So, the flip side of having truth as a thing that can be grasped and understood with our minds, is that it gets very complicated, and relationship and personhood once again, get disconnected from it.
But from a Trinitarian perspective and onto-relational understanding, truth is not abstract and disconnected, and a thing. Truth is, first and foremost, a person—Jesus. And as such, truth can not only be understood, but can be experienced. And more to the point, it can only be experienced and understood relationally. This is where the Spirit comes to the fore in us, because it is the Spirit who reveals those things to us and shares those things with us.
Anthony: Hallelujah. Praise God. Amen.
Let’s move on to our next passage, which is Luke 8:26-39. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 7 in Ordinary Time, which is June the 19th.
And the passage reads:
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Jenny, there are faith traditions which emphasize the activity of evil spirits, demons, and a Christian’s ability to cast out those spirits. Help us to understand a way of thinking about demons from a Christ-centered perspective.
Jenny: I feel like in answering this question, I’m going to sound like a little bit of a broken record. But I’ll probably just start by saying that there is a lot that I don’t understand about these kinds of ministries.
But what I do know in relation to trying to bring a Christ-centered perspective to those, and being faithful to that kind of perspective, ss that we need to not be dualist in how we view the activity of evil spirits and demons, and what’s going on in relation to those issues. And we need to not disconnect who Jesus is from what he does, in approaching it.
So, that is seen in this passage for me quite powerfully. Jesus didn’t have some special power to zap demons. It’s just that the demons can’t stand in the presence of Jesus. The thing that struck me in this passage is that it’s all about who Jesus is. Not some abstracted power that Christians are supposed to wield as a form of spiritual discipline.
As I said, I don’t pretend to know much about these kinds of ministries, but they can’t be approached from a dualistic mindset that treats Satan or demonic power as the equal opposite of Jesus. And in the same way, the name of Jesus is not a weapon that we wield that is disconnected from who Jesus is as the Son of the Father. We’re not about seeking after spiritual power as an end in its own right or as a sign of some kind of spiritual hierarchy among Christians.
The other huge thing for me in this passage is that as much as these kinds of issues are often framed with language of warfare or battles, I don’t see a fight here. The demons knew who Jesus was and they knew that the whole thing was over. They started in verse 31, I think it was, from the point of begging him not to cast them out. There was no fight. It was just, “okay, Jesus, what’s going to happen next?” because it was quite clear that Jesus, because of who he was, would be the one who determined what happened to them.
Anthony: That’s good. I liked the way you framed it. It’s not a battle. It’s clear who the victor is.
Jenny: It’s really not. And what we do is in Jesus’ name. Absolutely. But we don’t use his name as the kind of weapon that’s thrown out there. That would be to disconnect his name from who he is. The reason that his name is so significant is because of who he is. We can’t separate those things.
Anthony: Because of the mysteriousness of the unclean spirits in this story, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that Jesus healed a man who had been possessed and deeply burdened by those Spirits. What does this tell us about the God revealed in Jesus?
Jenny: I think for me, this shows the tender heart of the Father that’s full of compassion for us. And he cares far more about us than about our theology, because this man didn’t have his theology right! He couldn’t recognize – even recognize – Jesus. He didn’t ask Jesus for help. They certainly couldn’t show that he had enough faith to deserve healing. All of that kind of thinking smacks of contract, doesn’t it?
Especially when we remember that faith itself is a gift of the Spirit and not something that we muster up in ourselves disconnected from the work of the Spirit in our hearts. So here we see that just in the fact of this healing, we see that God cares deeply about our brokenness and doesn’t shy away from trauma.
Healing is a thing, and it’s deeply important to Jesus. This man was dressed, and he was in his right mind. In going through the passage, those were the two things that really stood out to me. So, being dressed and in his right mind, his dignity was restored. Also, he wasn’t chained or under guard anymore. So, his freedom was restored.
We so often forget that Jesus didn’t come for those who don’t need a doctor, even though he says that I’ve come for those who were sick. And it also tells us in this passage, this kind of deliverance is a Trinitarian act because at the end, Jesus says, ‘go and tell what God has done’. Not ‘go and tell what I have done’.
Anthony: I can’t help but think how beautiful is it that we have the ongoing Incarnation of Jesus. We might look at this passage and go, wow, I want Jesus to understand my situation just like he did this man’s situation. But we have a high priest who understands, who didn’t unzip himself, take off his skin suit, but remains in it.
It’s not like it was some sort of wet clothing that he couldn’t wait to remove from who he is, but he’s maintained it as the true man who is for us!
Jenny: I agree. And I think there’s something so profound about (and this is a whole conversation), but what I will say is there is something that is so profound about what we can understand about our suffering and our trauma and the brokenness that we experience as human beings, for whatever reason, and the tenderness that Jesus deals with us in those things is because when we take the Incarnation seriously, we understand that Jesus is in us through the Spirit. He is in us. And if we are understanding ‘being’ not just in that dualistic way, but in an onto-relational way, then Jesus is experiencing my life with me.
So, everything that happens to me is also happening to Jesus. And pastorally—and this harks back to so much of my thesis, so I won’t get started on it now—but pastorally, the difference when we meet people in our brokenness and we say ‘he can empathize with us in our weakness, he understands our full humanity, and because he is now with you and in you, he is experiencing that with you when you are not alone in it, and he understands completely what’s going on for you—more so than you do yourself”. Pastorally, there is something beautiful in that reality.
Anthony: Let’s move on to our final passage of the month.
It’s in Luke 9:51-62. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 8 in Ordinary Time, which is June 26th.
Jenny, do the honors please.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Anthony: The Sons of thunder, James and John, wanted to unleash some thunder, didn’t they? A fiery death on the Samaritan villagers because they didn’t receive Jesus. So ‘let them burn, Jesus’. It’s unfortunately a common refrain in some Christian circles. So, it might surprise some that Jesus rebuked James and John, instead of the Samaritans. What does this teach us about the triune God?
Jenny: It’s… it hearkens back a little bit, doesn’t it, to what we were saying before about our speech? What we see really clearly here is that Jesus doesn’t have time for our petty rivalries when it comes to whom he loves. These people that James and John were so furious with for the insult that they offered to Jesus—and it was an insult—they weren’t even Christians, they were Samaritans, right? And yet Jesus wouldn’t allow those people to be mocked or punished for not being believers.
And as you say, that is a common refrain in some Christian circles. And it’s profoundly unchristian. Jesus did not only refuse to be harsh towards non-Christian who didn’t want to hear him, he respected their wishes, stopped everyone else from having a go at them, and moved on to a different village. He refused to let his followers give those non-Christians a hard time for their beliefs and their rejection of him.
He wouldn’t allow them to be mocked or attacked. So how dare we, who claim his name, do anything less? How dare we?
When we consider that all of humanity is profoundly loved and included by the triune God, and if we are to love them covenantally, then we need to take that approach as well.
Anthony: Jesus said, let the dead bury their own dead. Jenny, on the surface, the statement from our Lord can appear to lack some compassion. What’s going on here? Help us understand.
Jenny: Oh, I agree that on the surface seems to. But again, if we never separate who Jesus is from what he does, anytime there’s a passage—this is what I do—anytime there’s a passage that seems a little odd, I go back to who I know Jesus to be. And given who I know Jesus to be, he can’t have actually been saying things that lack compassion towards them, even if they are hard words for them to hear.
So, I’ve always taken this as, in many ways, a call to prioritize our time, especially in the context of Jesus needing to finish his earthly ministry and not be slowed down in his trek back to Jerusalem.
And it also seems to me to be doubling as a warning about this discipleship scene—this call to follow Jesus is not some glamorous picnic where you get to do cool spiritual tricks, like casting out demons and raising the dead and being popular at Christian parties, right? That whole section is headed, “The Cost of Following Jesus.”
If we’re really going to follow him, there is significant cost. Our priorities change, our earthly comforts change. We become focused on the kingdom and those things take priority over everything. We can’t be slowed down by other things. I think this is the heart of the point Jesus is making: we shouldn’t use other things to procrastinate what we know we’re called to do.
And it’s hard to follow Jesus, especially considering that exhortation of the Torrances to yield the obedience of our mind to what’s given, rather than inventing the gospel, re-inventing the gospel into something we might be more comfortable with, or that gives us a bigger part in the picture. JB Torrance always talked about the obligations of grace. The obligations in covenant are unconditional obligations. It is hard to love someone to the extent that God does, that is harder than a contract. It’s more beautiful and freeing and rich, but it’s harder.
I wonder whether sometimes, the things that hold us back and have us distracted and looking towards other things include past concepts of ourselves, and other things that are going on in our lives that we still cling to. ‘Oh, I can’t serve God yet because I need to sort out this other issue’ or whatever. Those things can be hard to let go of. And so, we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds about a whole lot of things, not just our concept of God, and none of that is easy. But it’s beautiful and it’s life-giving, and it is worth regarding all of those other things that we do in life as barely worth a glance by comparison.
And of course, as we follow Christ and we live in the kingdom of God, those other things find their proper place in any case. The dead will still be buried, and we will still be able to care for our family and all of that. But to me, this passage really emphasizes keeping first things first and letting God be the one who tells us which those things are.
Anthony: Amen and amen. Jenny, it has been an absolute delight to have you on the podcast. You are a beloved child of God and your words have been very instructive. Thank you for being with us.
Jenny: I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to join with you, Anthony. And I’m really thrilled to just be able to spend time thinking about and rehearsing and going over the beauty and the depth of the love of God. It’s morning here for me. What better way to start the day? To be able to share in that is part of what makes being part of the community of God, and what makes church and the family of God such a rich and important community to be a part of.
Anthony: Plus, you’re easy to listen to. We like Aussie accents around here. So, take that Aussie accent, and if you would, say a word of prayer over our listening audience. I know they’d greatly appreciate it.
Jenny: I would love to!
Father, we thank you for the enormity of your unconditional covenantal love for us and for the beauty and the glory that is so evident in who you are towards us in Jesus. Especially as we head into Trinity Sunday, we ask that by your Spirit, you continue to reveal to us more and more this love, that surpasses knowledge, the love you have for us, and the love that you have for all people.
In so doing, we pray that you will work in us in all of the areas that we find it so hard to believe and see you for who you are. And the ways that we find it so hard to see ourselves the way that you do, just meet us in those Jesus by your Spirit. Help us to know this truth and to be freed, to live out of this truth, out of this grace, and out of this love. May that transform everything about the way in which we see others and transform the way in which we live out these lives that you’ve given us day by day in our families, in our work, and in our ministries.
In your name, we pray. Amen.
Thank you for being a guest of Gospel Reverb. If you like what you heard, give us a high rating and review us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast content. Share this episode with a friend. It really does help us get the word out as we are just getting started. Join us next month for a new show and insights from the RCL. Until then, peace be with you!