The Existential Crisis

On July 11, 1995, in Juarez, Mexico, Silvia Morales was reported to be missing.  At age sixteen she was a beautiful young woman and a good student.  She had left home the previous day as usual to work her shift at one of the many U.S. factories (maquiladores) recently built in the commercial aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  This time, however, she did not come home.  After months of her mother’s tireless searching and refusal to admit her likely death, local authorities eventually discovered her body.  It was clear from the autopsy that Silvia suffered brutal sexually violation, mutilation and torture before being strangled and left in the desert.  Estimates today suggest that since 1994 thousands of women have been victims of similar crimes in the border state of Chihuahua.  Very few of these cases have been or likely ever will be solved.

1.  Anthropology

It could be said from the perspective of the comfortable and the living that to speculate about the possibility or nature of afterlife is a futile endeavor.  One could posit that fulfillment and meaning in life are best sought by strictly attending to the present, for that is all that can be controlled.  This might be a viable argument if the horror like the one described above in the story about Silvia was fictional (it also might not be a viable argument even then).  Seeing as this is not so, however, one is inclined to suspect otherwise.

The human condition is such that we live with a kind of openness directed toward possibility in the world, always becoming.[i] Unlike animals, human beings have to some degree an undefined nature insofar as we are constantly adapting.  There is present a certain un-development over and against definite instinct.  One might also say, at least culturally speaking, that a process of “creative destruction” takes place, to borrow the term from economics, where old forms are replaced by new ones.

Kathryn Tanner fore example characterizes human nature as such not by sinfulness but as “prewired” for strong participation in the divine life, which renders weak participation doomed for contamination.  Classically speaking, and somewhat in contrast to Tanner, the Augustinian tradition understands humanity to be inherently depraved as a result of “original sin” or self-love.  Other modern theologians have described sin in essence as pride.[ii] David Kelsey defines sin as “distortion of trust in God,” and this is primarily what will be assumed from here onward.[iii] This distortion can result in trusting the identifies given to us by our vocations in the world as opposed to God on the one hand, or “trusting” God to the abandonment of responsibility to a historical situation on the other hand – both are forms of idolatry.  And finally, there is the sin of trusting only oneself.  Though not explicitly naming it sin, this threefold depiction of sin has consensus with Pannenberg who calls trust in finite things a perversion caused by humanity’s desire for control of life.[iv]

Along with this openness or possibility then necessarily follows, in part because of sin, a restlessness, or what different existentialists have termed “angst.”  Pannenberg interprets this to mean that humans are longing for, or even dependent upon something beyond what this world can offer: “What the environment is for animals, God is for humanity.”[v] Such a claim need not be individualistic, however, nor extra-worldly.  In the first place, human beings actually acquire interests and needs from their environment and social setting, and so it would be hasty to submit that one’s configured existence is solely a consequence of preference or choices.  Such is partly the significance of Heidegger’s constitution of Dasein or “being-in-the-world.”  Secondly, Pannenberg argues that “the community that humanity has with God directs humanity back into the world” (italics added).[vi]

Epicurus’ implores us not think about death while living, implying that it would diminish our enjoyment of life.  In a similar vein, Wittgenstein argues that no one experiences death.  Jurgen Moltmann is interested in challenging these claims.  In the first place, and in agreement with Pannenberg, one mustn’t allow thought of life after death to deprive vitality from the present.  Such preoccupation risks “fatalism and apathy,” rendering the here and now empty and merely transitional.[vii] On the other hand, however, Moltmann is confident that “the thought of death and a life after death doesn’t have to deflect us from this life; it can also give this life a new depth.”[viii] Such a depth can enable us to love more fully.  It might be inferred from Moltmann, and Pannenberg as well, that if one is not disturbed by the question of life after death, she is deceived and is rather only suppressing what is a natural yearning.

Furthermore, ignoring every deliberation about death, as Epicurus recommends, is to live under the illusion that life will not end, which is to potentially miss something quite invigorating that comes from the consideration of one’s finitude.  Perhaps no one understood this better than Heidegger:

“What is characteristic about authentic, existentially projected being-toward-death can be summarized as follows: Anticipation reveals to Da-sein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility to be itself, primarily unsupported by concern taking care of things, but to be itself in passionate anxious freedom toward death which is free of the illusions of the they, factical, and certain of itself.”[ix]

At the same time, it seems Moltmann would want to depart from Heidegger’s understanding of the experience of death insofar as Heidegger might be construing death to be one’s “ownmost potentiality-of-being” and “nonrelational” in a hyper-individualized or isolated fashion, though there are those who would criticize this reading of Heidegger.[x]

To some degree it is a modern and perhaps Western phenomenon for individuals to conceive of death in these terms.  Moltmann readily reminds us that Eastern cultures like that of Korea or those of Native Americans for instance are aware of the communal experience that is death and the relationship that one maintains with family, ancestors and tribe even afterwards.  Thus, for Moltmann it is appropriate and even beneficial to contemplate how the possibility or hope for life after death might inform and energize the present.  It is important though in Moltmann’s account of Christian eschatology to be mindful of what one actually longs for with desiring life after death.  Moltmann insightfully notes how the popular and in some sense traditional notion of a bodiless, and therefore mindless soul is in reality something rather inconceivable.[xi]

2. Eschatology

Returning to Silvia’s existential crisis, the question inevitably arises once more:  “Are the murderers to triumph irrevocably over their victims?  Can their death be their end?”[xii] In response, Moltmann citing Max Horhemer answers that theology “is the hope . . . that injustice will not be the last word . . . [it is] the expression of a longing that the murderer may not triumph over the innocent victim.”[xiii] This quite natural hope is what prompts Moltmann to accuse those who would “push away the question about the life of the dead” as being “profoundly inhumane.”[xiv] In this same line of thought, and in order to disavow the cynical offering of previous generations as victims on “the altar of the future,” Walter Kasper concurs: “Consequently, unless we are willing to cut hope in half, as it were, and limit it to a future generation and to those who are in the vanguard of progress, our hope must imply the God of hope who gives life to the dead.”[xv] In other words, sincere eschatological hope maintains that every person in history will have the chance to become who God intended her to be.

This hope today is especially born out of a deep concern for those in the third world for instance who far too often die “unnatural, premature, violent, and by no means affirmed death.”[xvi] It calls to mind and invokes the promise that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too shall be resurrected and “bear the image of the heavenly man” with our spiritual bodies, which are not mindless bodies or separated from the soul (1 Cor 15:49, NIV).  It is exactly this assurance in things hoped for but not seen that permits Paul to learn “the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil 4:12) and to ask, quoting the prophet Hosea, “Where, O grave is your destruction?”

This belief in further compensation in the life hereafter is not only about redemption for Silvia.  There is a twofold function.  During the postexilic period in the Jewish community and to a degree the concurrent Platonism developing in Greek thought about the immortality of the soul, the idea arose for one to also trust that every individual will “receive what is due according to his or her deeds” (2 Cor 5:10).[xvii] Thus, God’s people also hold out for a final judgment, which is not necessarily to speak of an eternal fate.

The profundity of this anticipation is fortified when compared to the liberal tradition of expecting a realized, humanly constructed and worldly utopia.  But at least two obvious objections can be raised precisely at this point: First, in the postmodern era, how is one to envisage any grounds for sensible faith in such a speculative and arguably triumphal narrative?  Furthermore, doesn’t this kind of conjecture lead down the same devastatingly foundational and world-fleeing path that liberals, skeptics and post-structuralists alike are determined to avoid?  A thoroughgoing apology cannot be carried out here, but I will henceforth attempt to very briefly sketch a theological and expositional vision for a plausible Christian framework that both instantiates what has thus far been proposed and seriously considers these two aforementioned difficulties.

The Hebrew Scriptures testify to both the prophetic and the apocalyptic, which respectively reveal meaning and fulfillment.  In Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God, these two culminations (meaning and fulfillment) are historically separated such that one has come (meaning), and the other will come (fulfillment).[xviii] Each end corresponds to two different biblical motifs – meaning with “the suffering servant,” which constitutes the present, and fulfillment with “the Son of man,” which substantiates the future coming.[xix] With this assertion, Reinhold Niebuhr and Moltmann are in agreement that Schweitzer’s conception of Jesus’ ethic being based on the illusion of his proximate return is mistaken. Without the forecast of a new and transformed future, despair is immanent.  Nevertheless, “sin is overcome in principle but not in fact,” so the love of Christ “must continue to be suffering love rather than triumphant love” for now.[xx] We still wait for the day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4).

A complete juxtaposition between “already” and “not yet” however is not appropriate.  There is a sense of a synthesis in which the God’s reigning is dawning.[xxi] But a full realization is not something humanity can bring about politically; rather, it will be a cosmic irruption of God’s initiation.  The injunction to humanity is therefore one for preparedness and a call to decision:[xxii] “The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Hence, there is a unity between the eschatological and ethical in Jesus’ message, and this is the key to renouncing the liberal contention against proclaiming anything final.  We remember that Paul warns abrasively against idleness (2 Thess 3:11).  In this way, one can depart from a full demythologizing and still say with Bultmann himself that, “fulfillment of God’s will is the condition for participation in the salvation of His Reign.”[xxiii] Christians, conscious of their spiritual poverty (Matt 5:3), are to be liberated by grace from the grip of “superficiality and love of self and the world,” or sin, and empowered to embark on the impossible task of living like Christ as “merciful, pure of heart, and peace-making.”[xxiv]

Ultimately, never straying too far from Silvia’s predicament and the guilt of her perpetrators – the charge for sanctification and spiritual rebirth notwithstanding – the belief remains for God’s principle aim to be that of justice: “to put right what has gone awry, finish what was begun, pick up what was neglected, forgive the trespasses, heal the hurts, and be permitted to gather up the moment of happiness and to transform mourning into joy.”[xxv] If Silvia represents “the poor” defined broadly (Matt 5:1), then the pronouncement of the kingdom of God is not opposed merely to “the rich”, but those who make themselves rich at the expense of the poor.  Moltmann uses the phrase “the man of violence.”[xxvi] These oppressors are called to “change and seek liberating community with the poor if they are to be included as citizens of the kingdom.”[xxvii]

This kingdom Jesus brings is already solidified in the future, which means the status of the oppressed changes eschatologically [some text missing here].

Pannenberg on the other hand, while having much in common with Moltmann, lands faintly more on the side of openness to the future kingdom, indicating greater significance in what has not yet been disclosed.[xxxii] The character of God and the legitimacy of the entire Christian faith hang on the coming consummation of an unrealized, ontological priority of the future that must entail a new creation of the entire cosmos, when God will be all in all.[xxxiii] Thus, despite the fully present potential reality of the kingdom of God since Jesus’ ministry, Moltmann and Pannenberg both present what is truly a theology of hope.


The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Colossians 1:15-20

In light of the existential crisis of Silvia and the subsequent eschatological hope, from the Christian perspective one must now introduce a christology and soteriology almost simultaneously that coheres with the heretofore anthropological underpinnings. This is the third and fourth step together in the systematic progression that reaches the peak or center of the theological chiasm before descending back “down” toward the first doctrine.

3. Christology

The three offices of Christ as described by Thomas Torrance make for an excellent place of departure for a rough christological outline.  First, and most fittingly in view of Silvia, Christ assumes the role of prophet.  For Torrance the prophetic offices implies an incarnational assumption that has ontological consequences.  God became human through the hypostatic union, by what Athanasius called homoousion, and “was pleased to have his fullness dwell” in Christ.  Incarnation and atonement are inseparable, as Gregory of Nyssa claimed.  This phenomenon and breaking in or rupturing of God in history creates a new ontological horizon in an eternal present.  This is the logos made flesh as poetically illustrated in John’s prologue.  The divine act of love, humility, and self-emptying, from the hymn in the second chapter of Philippians, provides the initial performative act which establishes that solidarity between God and humanity that Silvia’s situation requires, such that she could reply:

“Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
They will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.” (Psalm 6:8-9).

The second office is that of the priest which “corresponds to the passive obedience of Christ, his submission to the Father’s judgment and his self-offering in sacrifice for our sins.”[xxxiv] The priestly function can be abused and misrepresented when the absorption of God’s wrath by the Son’s propitiation of sin is overemphasized.  This language is not absent from the New Testament, but a careful study of the Jewish sacrificial system can reveal possible alternative interpretations.  The violence against Silvia cannot be redeemed with more violence.  The passive obedience of Christ is a submission and non-violent protest to the violence of the world that would crucify the innocent victim or commit the atrocity against human dignity endured by Silvia.  In the work on the cross, Jesus condemns oppression, hatred, hypocrisy, and all kinds of evil.  In this respect the event is indeed a severe judgment on humanity’s failure to depend on and trust God, which can have terrible repercussions.

Thirdly Christ occupies the throne as king.  In some manner his reign has not yet come to the full fruition that the apocalypse foretells, but he nevertheless actively obeyed God, with subtle distinction from the passive priestly obedience, by conquering death in the resurrection and ascending to “the right hand of God,” which symbolizes the completion of incarnation by the return to glory. One has confidence in this event supplied by the testimony of the disciples and the early church, and most powerfully by the voice of the martyrs.  This third piece of the triplex munus (threefold office of Christ) is what most saves, but not without the other two parts enabling it. [xxxv] Thinking the three together gives a far richer comprehension of the atonement than by merely noting the various theories in themselves: exemplary, satisfaction/ransom, christus victor, penal substitution, and incarnation).[xxxvi] In sum, Christ shares in Silvia’s suffering, he judges her violator, and he raises her to new life.

4. Soteriology: The Climax

The soteriological outcome can be easily and similarly derived from this Christological portrait if thought in terms of three dimensions as well.  Firstly, “By grace through faith” in Christ’s action we are saved (past tense) – “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8). In the second place, the “already accomplished” facilitates a saving or being saved that is worked out presently in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) leaving no room for assurance to produce lethargy.  The first level of theory informs the second level of praxis, but both are reaching together for something more that has not arrived.  Further still one awaits the third level of the ever-elusive parousia, the coming of the basileia that will shatter every horizon, about and by which the children of God can confess “we will be delivered” (Dan 12:1).

I cannot help but suspect, without certainty, however, that the second two depend on the first – not for proof – but for deep coherence.  If Jesus isn’t the resurrected Christ, who in some definite sense overpowered death, then the naysayers might be right.  He would be another prophet, and maybe even the greatest, but not God incarnate.  Hope for Silvia fades in this view.  How could we ever expect our own resurrection?  This does not mean one should attempt to empirically verify the event, but to say that it doesn’t matter or that it’s a distraction, as some have, is devastating to this particular eschatology.

Along with Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Luke Timothy Johnson, and in contrast to Jesus Seminar leaders John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, Terrance Tilley asserts that, “it is unwarranted for historians to separate the historical-Jesus from the movement that remembered and imitated him in its distinctive practices.”[xxxvii] So “whatever one thinks of the historicity of the resurrection, followers of Jesus were convinced that their experiences of seeing him after his death grounded their devotion to him.”[xxxviii]

Another matter remains.  It is not sufficient to merely put forth what, how, and why Christ saves without exploring the “who” question – one that has plagued the Christian community since its inception.  It will be helpful to turn attention once more to Moltmann.  Regarding the notion that individual salvation is determined by every person’s decision in response to an invitation for faith, Moltmann answers:


Is this theologically conceivable?  Can some people damn themselves, and others redeem themselves by accepting Christ?  If this were so, God’s decisions would be dependent on the will of human beings.  God would become the auxiliary who executes the wishes of people who decide their fate for themselves.  If I can damn myself, I am my own God and judge.  Taken to a logical conclusion this is atheistic.[xxxix]


Here in response I wish to express both appreciation and dissatisfaction.  To be sure it might seem asinine at first to postulate that human beings are given so much freedom in their futility to solidify their own fate, which at this time might be best summarily condensed to one of either communion with God or separation from God.  Before expounding on the implications of Moltmann’s statement, a succinct elaboration on the concept of justification will facilitate the discussion.  Karl Barth understood that reconciliation happens first with God’s judgment upon the sinner, achieved by Christ’s death, and is followed by the verdict of this judgment, which is announced in the resurrection – this is the process by which humanity is justified.[xl] N.T. Wright, relying heavily on Alister McGrath, introduces it thusly: “the heart of the Christian faith in found in ‘the saving action of God toward mankind in Jesus Christ.’”[xli] He goes on to argue that there are a number of biblical metaphors to reference how God saves people through Christ, but none should be elevated about the others.  Some might say this was the overreaction of the Reformers.  McGrath himself as a reformed theologian concedes:

The “doctrine of justification” has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins, so that even if it could be shown that it plays a minimal role in Pauline soteriology, or that its origins lie in an anti-Judaism polemic quite inappropriate to the theological circumstances today, its significance would not be diminished as a result.

In an extremely terse treatment of the text, a key to the puzzle, or better said, mystery of salvation is found in a proper exegesis of Galatians where Paul addresses the problems caused by ethnic and cultural discrimination in a church of both Jews and Gentiles.  Works of the law are not what justify – this much is clear.  But what are the works of the law?  Abruptly understood, these works include “living like a Jew” and the separation from “Gentile sinners” in Galatians 2:14-15).[xlii] Reading Paul in this context,

We are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that “to be justified,” here does not mean “to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,” “to come into right relationship with God” or some other near synonym of “to be reckoned ‘in the right’ before God,” but rather, and very specifically, “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.

This statement does not refute nor undermine Ephesians 2:8-9.  What it does do is liberate us from hegemonic hermeneutics, just as with the varying atonement theories or offices held by Christ; and what one does have is a plurality of word pictures and allegorical passages that bear witness to an incomprehensible truth.  Thus I’ve conveyed my appreciation for Moltmann’s suspicion about individual salvation above, but now I aim to articulate what I think is deficient in his remarks.

As long as Scripture in its whole is thoroughly reliable and authoritative – divergent interpretation notwithstanding, and even with other resources for hermeneutics like tradition, reason, and experience – one cannot in good conscience presume universal salvation. Universalism as dogma is reckless.  Rather, like Hans Urns von Balthasar, one can only dare to hope that all humanity be saved.  And just to clarify, “an absolutely firm conviction of the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ need not undermine the truth of other religions.”[xliii] The warnings to evildoers throughout Scripture, however, are too numerous to ignore.  In my view the canonization of universalism, though far from the most threatening of deviations, inescapably disseminates complacency toward the responsibility of sharing the good news of the gospel and inviting others to participate in God’s mission of “reconciling all things” to God’s self.[xliv]

Concerning the human being’s response to God, Kasper says revelation exists in human, historical mediation so that the message is not concerned with theoretical speculation but is a “practical message of judgment because it ultimately says that man has no power over the mystery of God either through knowledge or through action.”[xlv] God confers revelation in order to evoke a decision from people.  Faith, therefore, is not a sheer momentary act of emotion, volition or comprehension, but encompasses all of these powers through an on-going choice and a “comprehensive mode of existing.”[xlvi] As this pertains to individual salvation, there is faint disparity between Kasper and Motlmann.

About the earliest Christians, the post-liberal theologian George Linbeck insightfully notices an “extraordinary combination of relaxation and urgency in their attitude toward those outside the church.”[xlvii] Without yet delving into ecclesiology, the “world mission” of Christians should be likewise.  Again, if one trusts God, both peace and exigency will rule – peace to believe God is just, and exigency to carry out the Great Commission by making disciples “as you go” (Matt 28:19).  The aim of outreach is not conversion but mutual understanding and transformation, but this does not prohibit extending an invitation to others to come, to lay down their lives life, and follow Jesus.  When it comes to interacting with other faith traditions, Moltmann decries any attempt to adhere to general pluralism and is representative of the view that “dialogue with other religions is not helped if Christians relativize that which is distinctively Christian.”[xlviii] Any comprehensively constructed theology today must confront the problem posed by religious pluralism, which is beyond the allotted scope here.  Suffice to say very inconclusively, however, that, as Moltmann insinuates, the God of Jesus Christ is merciful.

The end goal of a christological soteriology then is not the punishment of the man who killed Silvia, however unspeakable his deed.  His act was caught up in a whole web of violence.  No clear lines can be drawn from our perspective, demarcating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from chaff: “Judge not, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1).  In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr about Christ,

“his work is concerned not with the specious, external aspects of human behavior in the first place, but that he tries the hearts and judges the subconscious life; that he deals with what is deepest and most fundamental in man.  He heals the most stubborn and virulent human disease, the phthisis of the spirit, the sickness unto death; he forgives the most hidden and proliferous sin, the distrust, lovelessness, and hopelessness of man in his relation to God.”[xlix]


Once more drawing for the christological praise song in Paul’s letter to Colossians, one sees that “the Son is the eikona of the invisible God,” the image or icon by which we are able to say anything about the nature of the first person of the Trinity.  As Ian McFarland admits, “the iconodule argument that the incarnation creates a situation in which the whole material realm to be pressed into the service of imaging God would appear to suggest that genuine knowledge of God is now a universal human possibility.”[l] For this reason, McFarland advocates an apophatic christocentricism,[li] but this does not get divorced from the original existential crisis.  One knows already what the Pentateuch has professed: “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6).  The Minor Prophets declare: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2); and “The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nah 1:3) as the God who liberates slaves.  Thus again even before the time of Christ the Jewish people acknowledged that Yahweh is faithful to the covenant and will both rescue Silvia and repay her attacker what is due him.

But God had not yet come.  The Spirit of God was there in the beginning (Gen 1:2), but she both came upon and forsook (2 Chron 24:20).  When Moses led the Israelites from Egypt out of bondage, she was powerfully present.  When Joshua commanded his armies to slaughter, she fled.  How can one say this? – Only by the ministry of Jesus which is the complete Revelation of this age, in whom God was pleased to fully dwell – our apophasis.  In this way he fulfilled Torah by surpassing it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43-45).  What is God like?  The answer, in a word, is Christ.  In a brilliant essay responding to Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology, Kathryn Tanner disagrees with Marion’s apophatic depiction of Christ and, depending on a close reading of Cappadocian Fathers like Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, offers an alternative:


In Christ, humanity is exalted to its own full glory-Christ has a glorified humanity-by virtue of the fact that this human being is one with the second person of the Trinity. Finally, according to the account I am offering, the beauty and glory of the human form need not rival God’s, since God is the giver of it. Therefore God’s work is not done in the disfiguring of Christ-his beating, his scourging-that, for Marion, allows Christ’s humanity to become an icon referring attention entirely away from itself and only to the Father.[lii]

Embracing apophatic christocentrism permits a higher view of other religious icons (the Buddha, Mary, Krishna, Muhammad, and so on), but the Christian must concretely know God as the one who unbridles the chains of injustice and heals the broken, which was foretold in Isaiah and manifested in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Thus, Tanner’s critique is duly noted.  Moreover, a devotion to Jesus then doesn’t have to contradict central tenants of Judaism.[liii] The same Spirit present in Jesus was always living and active.  In Christ “the prophet of Sophia [is] recognized as incarnating Wisdom who teaches the members of the movement not what is wise but how to exercise wisdom in practice . . . empower[ing] them to become creative and graceful reconciling agents of the commonweal divine”:[liv]

“For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of [the Lord’s] goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” – Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-28

Without reducing her to Wisdom since this is also the divine Logos residing in Christ, the doctrine of the Triune God emerges with the action of God’s Spirit as the wooing and sanctifying agent of love in the present world.[lv] As Gustaf Aulen tells us through Irenaeus, “it is God Himself who enters into the world of sin and death for man’s deliverance, to take up the conflict with the powers of evil and effect atonement between Himself and the world.”[lvi] Balthsar speaks of God’s impassible suffering, a paradox that both conveys God’s immanence while guarding against anthropomorphic tendencies.  Perhaps it was best captured by Gregory of Nyssa when he spoke of “the lofty stoop[ing] to the lowly without losing its loftiness.”[lvii] Nonetheless, when it comes to God, because Jesus Christ is not exhaustive of God to us, we see now only dimly, returning to apophasis (1 Cor 13:12); but this same passage about love also signifies, as does the Johannine canon, that God is love, analogically.

Love evokes doxology.  It mystifies, and is not grasped or achieved in full.  So it is with God.  The language of praise and prayer and the proliferation of divine names in response to the revealed account of God in the tradition, in the Scriptures, in humanity’s finite reason and the experience of the Christian community through the centuries, becomes worship – worship because, to repeat, Silvia is set free, and what has gone awry will be restored to its original purpose, which is strong participation for the whole cosmos in the Divine life and communion with all of creation in God’s infinite freedom.[lviii]

What this love also does, however – intense as it is – necessitates the introduction of a third constituent of divine triadic unity as alluded to above with reference to Sophia.[lix]

This unicity of essence implies and includes the unicity of one single consciousness and one single freedom, although of course the unicity of one self-presence in consciousness and freedom in the divine Trinity remains determined by that mysterious threeness which we profess about God when we speak haltingly of the Trinity of persons in God.[lx]

An intricate elaboration on the doctrine of the immanent Holy Trinity, or “the inner life of God completely unrelated to us and to our Christian existence,” is unhelpful once the apophatic and mystical nature of God the Father is introduced.[lxi] This is what Karl Rahner calls the absolute holy mystery.  Consequently, one can deduce, as with Rahner and Tanner and in slight disagreement with Kasper, that for all intents and purposes, the economic Trinty is the immanent Trinity: “The psychological theory of the Trinity neglects the experience of the Trinity in the economy of salvation in favor of a seemingly almost gnostic speculation about what goes on in the inner life of God.”[lxii] Tanner too intends her own theology to function starting from what is most visible in Christ as the Word incarnate, which exhibits the general pattern of relationship with the other members of the Trinity.[lxiii]


“God presents himself to us little bit little.  The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.” – Carlo Carretto

Concerning the third agent, Ives Congar explains that “the action of the paraclete consists in urging the world to recognize its fault and to confess its guilt.”[lxiv] Never by encroaching on their freedom, the Holy Spirit guides and directs individuals in a subtle but sovereign fashion toward relationship with God by inviting repentance.[lxv] The Holy Spirit is the “immanent and anonymous presence of God.”[lxvi] God spoke through Ezekiel saying, “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19b).  The path of contrition is maneuvered by “walking according to the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and the Spirit is “the principle of interior personal sanctification.”[lxvii] The fruit in the lives of all people and wherever there is holiness or purity of heart – the Spirit is the source.   The “already” and “not yet” age of the Spirit pulls and propels creation forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God.[lxviii]

Among the many telling biblical examples of this transforming process occurring are those of the Roman centurion Cornelius’ conversion (Acts 10) and Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19).  In the context of the latter narrative, Zacchaeus’ occupation in society was deeply entrenched in an exploitative and massively suppressive system of cruelty.  In the instance when Congar mentions this account, injustice and sin are used interchangeably.  Needless to say, Zacchaeus was a sinner, maybe not unlike the modern-day, corrupt Wall Street banker, dishonest lobbyist, or illegal arms and narcotics cartel leader – all of which are roles played by those complicit with the brutalities like the one that Silvia faced.

Similar to “posture of the heart” evidenced by the second thief on the cross, when Zacchaeus climb the tree to see Jesus, he becomes like “the man who knows how poor he is and who rejects all pride and self-sufficiency, even the pride of rags, the man who stands before God in his nakedness and his need – [and] that man knows the miracles of love and mercy, from the consolation of the heart and the illumination of the spirit to the allaying of hunger and thirst.”[lxix] When we cry out for help, it the Spirit that responds by bearing witness to our spirits that we are the children of God.  Even the sinners and tax collectors received mercy from Jesus.  Indeed, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13), but this is not a formula; nor does it take place in the economy of exchange.  The thief on the cross could not have known that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead.  He had no awareness of the creeds.  What distinguished him from the first man was he “feared God” like Cornelius.  Jesus tells him they will be together in paradise.  Nothing is mentioned about the fate of the first man, however, so the message is not one of exclusion.

The Spirit is “at the deepest level the longing that impels us toward God and causes us to end in him.”[lxx] Moreoever, Gregory of Nazianzus refers to a “gradual progress of the revelation of the mystery of God through the Old Testament to the New and in Christian reflection itself,” which both unifies and diversifies its manifestations.[lxxi] Identification of the Spirit’s work is rendered an ambiguous task in a limited sense.  On this idea, Congar and Kasper agree that one cannot point and say where it is (Luke 17:21).[lxxii] The Holy Spirit as comforter “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13-14).  Paul echoes Jesus by instructing his listeners to be taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-14), which depends and strengthens the faith of disciples.[lxxiii] Sometimes it is a “still, small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12), while in other cases the Spirit intercedes and prays for us in our weakness with groaning (Rom 8:26).[lxxiv]

The Spirit administers gifts to each person in the Church (1 Cor 12, Rom 12, Eph 4, 1 Pet 4), the purpose of which is the edification and building up of its members.  With respect to Church, which will receive more acute treatment below, the Holy Spirit animates the body of Christ, which is the Church. Where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.[lxxv] In this way, the church can be identified, but one should be cautious before delimiting where it is not.[lxxvi] Those in whom Christ dwells by the power of the Holy Spirit can undergo theosis or deification, and the Spirit gathers together everything that is tending toward God.[lxxvii]


In her book, Discipleship of Equals, Schussler Fiorenza draws on J. Paul Sampley’s translation of the word koinonia or communion as “shared partnership and commitment,” and such consensual partnership is operative as long as the partners are of the “same mind” as when it was founded in the first place.  The common purpose and commitment of all Christians is . . .the witness to ‘the mystery of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.’”[lxxviii] This definition corresponds closely with how Roger Haight through Schleiermacher construes the Church: “the institutionalization of the community of people who, animated by the Spirit of God, live in the faith that Jesus is the Christ of God.  The mission of the church is to continue and expand Jesus’ message in history.”[lxxix] In this first respect respect, the church makes proclamation.

Moreover though, the Church is not merely obliged to proclaim. The Church is instilled with the prophetic task of both criticism and construction, internally and externally in the process of change.[lxxx] It must be willing to “shake off the ambiguous protection provided by the beneficiaries of the unjust order.”[lxxxi] Whether in protest by means of a powerful witness to an alternative community (Acts 2) or direct participation in the creation of a more just society – it will depend on the church and its particular circumscription – the church has a duty as the body of Christ to participate in the transformational of both individuals and culture.  In both cases, it is required that the Church maintains solidarity with those who suffer from misery and deprivation,[lxxxii] and this solidarity means that we make ours their problems and their struggles.”[lxxxiii] Roger Haight defends the need for the church’s inculturation for precisely an end such as this; and inculturation for Haight does not connote assimilation, which precludes reducing ecclesiology to the sociopolitical realm.[lxxxiv] The enterprise of inculturation involves and names the church’s second operation as a sacrament, or visible sign of an invisible reality (Augustine).

This call to be poor is extended most expressly to church leaders, which means at times they will be expected to demonstrate the same manner of subversive, peaceful action against systemic violence that Jesus epitomized.  More recently one need only look to compelling martyrdom account of God’s servant Bishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.  Unfair wages and exploitation, for instance, make up a sinful situation that offends God.  If the Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, like the bodies of believers (the Kingdom of God is within you!), the practical significance of clergy lifestyle cannot be emphasized enough.  A proper testimony to the contemporary world demands a restructuring of the financial dependency of clergy on the people they serve. Gustavo Gutierrez advises those who do not wish live on stipends or from teaching religion should be willing to experiment with healthy, secular jobs.[lxxxv] This is just one tangible route by which the Church can fulfill its third assignment, which is to be a medium for transformation.

For this reason, despite its consistency with New Testament apocalyptic literature, an ecclesiology that rests wholly on eschatology with an “ontological priority of the future” is not satisfactory for the third world.[lxxxvi] What this crucial qualifier discloses is that even a very balanced, dialectical theology of both/and or already/not yet tensions is contextual, and insufficient as a universal system.  As Haight affirms, there is no one New Testament model for church polity.[lxxxvii] This is not to say, however, that just any system can stand.  Even Gustavo Gutierrez himself does not reduce eschatology and salvation purely the socio-political sphere; nor does he renounce the necessity of separation between Church and state.  Different faith communities will inevitably and predictably be persuaded at times to stress one of the three roles of Christ (prophet, priest and king) over and against the others depending on context.  As such, a system protecting against the extremes may still be the best system, insofar as systems remain useful.

This is why Haight emphasizes in his ecclesiology the tension between unity and plurality, ideals and actualities; between community and institution, charism and office, progressive and conservative forces, continuity and change, and even history and eschatology as in Moltmann.[lxxxviii] Therefore, an Anabaptist Congregationalist church in North America can sustain partial communion with a socially liberal Catholic church in Argentina.  Different churches can administer the sacraments in different styles and still keep fellowship with one another.  “One baptism” can consist of various forms of Baptism.

However, considering what liberation theology has taught us, hierarchy poses a latent threat and impediment to liberation for Silvia – the importance of ecumenism notwithstanding, it is defensible that grassroots and democratic movements have historically been more effective than top-down, institutionalized enforcement of policy for social change.  Thus it may be that a criterion even for partial communion should be implemented entailing the expectation of more equitable governance in churches than has been traditional typified in many denominations.  Furthermore, such equitable standards today would not only need to transcend clergy and laity lines, but obviously break down divisions between gender, sexual, and racial barriers as well to establish a genuine priesthood of all believers.[lxxxix] Church leaders can have authority without hierarchical power, which parallels the Congar’s account of the Church as “no longer defined in terms of its priesthood, consisting of priests carrying out their task with lay people as their ‘clients’.  Instead it is seen as community that is being built up by the brotherly contributions made by all its members.”[xc]

There is a weakness with this recommendation though, for who would be in charge of enforcing church guidelines beyond local boundaries without some kind of hierarchical structure?  It is true: “the local church is not a freestanding, self-sufficient reality.”[xci] There are no easy solutions here, and like Moltmann’s eschatology, Haight’s approach may be the best that has come forward – the balance between community and institution in particular, and living out of the theological and ecclesiological tensions themselves in general.  In Haight’s ecclesial vision, cooperation replaces competition.  As Schleiermacher insists, diversity does not imply division.[xcii] Further, ecclesial existence for Haight is equated with communitarian existence.  In an important albeit restricted sense, community is the mission.[xciii] There are other foundational elements, or features and practices that comprise ecclesial existence, like gathering for worship and prayer and the hearing of the Word.[xciv] And in order to preserve its holiness, which is another key trait, the Church must constantly be renewed by the Spirit.  This happens through repentance and confession.

Again, a principle charge for today’s church will be that made by Congar: “A sound and critical rejection of any form of ecclesiolatry should find its place within an immense, deep and warm love of the Church, and experience has shown that such a love is very favourable to a life of prayer and praise.”[xcv] In one sense contextual, and in another sense, universal, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of Christ the King, the Church assumes the role as both Silvia’s advocate for healing and justice and the administrator of forgiveness and grace for guilty sinners in the world.

[i] Wolfhart Pannenberg and Duane A. Priebe, What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. (Fortress Press, 1970), 8.

[ii] David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 420.

[iii] Ibid., 422.

[iv] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 36.

[v] Ibid., 13.

[vi] Ibid., 14.

[vii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Fortress Press, 2004), 44.

[viii] Ibid., 45.

[ix] Martin Heidegger and Joan Stambaugh, Sein und Zeit (SUNY Press, 1996), 245.

[x] See Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (University Of Chicago Press, 2008).  Here Carlson defends a reading of Heidegger that is unlike the way other postmodern thinkers have interpreted Dasein, like the French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion who accuses Heidegger of the “highest kind of idolatry” and anthropomorphism with respect to being-in-the-world in the existentialist sense.

[xi] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 51.

[xii] Ibid., 105.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 108.

[xvi] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 108.

[xvii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Human Nature, Election, and History, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 16.

[xviii] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volume II, Human Destiny (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 47.

[xix] Ibid., 48.

[xx] Ibid., 51.

[xxi] Rudolf Karl Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament; (Scribner, 1967), 7.

[xxii] Ibid., 9.

[xxiii] Ibid., 20.

[xxiv] Ibid., 21.

[xxv] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 116.

[xxvi] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 1st ed. (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995), 99.

[xxvii] Timothy Harvie, “Living the future: the kingdom of God in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 152.

[xxviii] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 27.

[xxix] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology in The coming of God.,” in God will be all in all (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 245.

[xxx] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 10.

[xxxi] Bauckham, “Eschatology in The coming of God.,” 157.

[xxxii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Westminster John Knox Pr, 1969), 68.

[xxxiii] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 1st ed. (HarperOne, 1996), 62.  Hays describes Eph 1:22-23 as a mystical meditation on cosmic ecclesiology, which seems consistent with both Pannenberg and Moltmann.

[xxxiv] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (IVP Academic, 2009), 59.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 60.

[xxxvii] Terrence W. Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice (Orbis Books, 2008), 45.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 64.

[xxxix] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 109.

[xl] Hans Kung, Justification (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), 33.

[xli] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009), 79.

[xlii] Ibid., 117.

[xliii] Roger D. Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence (Continuum, 2008), 194.

[xliv] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991).

[xlv] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 130.

[xlvi] Ibid., 120.

[xlvii] Mark S. Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 271.

[xlviii] Jurgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology (Crossroad Pub Co, 1992), xi.

[xlix] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and culture, 1st ed. (Harper, 1951), 191.

[l] Ian A. McFarland, The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God (Fortress Press, 2005), 33.

[li] Ibid., 44.

[lii] Kevin Hart, Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion, 1st ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 225.

[liii] Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus, 59.

[liv] Ibid., 70.

[lv] Yves Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit (Herder & Herder, 1997), 46.

[lvi] Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Amercian Edition. (Macmillan Company, 1956), 42.

[lvii] Ibid., 46.

[lviii] With this comment I mean to create a kind of threefold interweaving of what Kasper, Tanner, and Pannenberg proposed in common as that which the Christian life offers, combining main ideas from their three respective works: The God of Jesus Christ, Christ the Key, and What is Man?

[lix] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 85.

[lx] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 135.

[lxi] Ibid., 135.

[lxii] Ibid., 135.

[lxiii] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Current issues in theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 147.

[lxiv] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 122.

[lxv] Ibid., 33.

[lxvi] Ibid., 220.

[lxvii] Ibid., 46.

[lxviii] Ibid., 107.

[lxix] Ibid., 127.

[lxx] Ibid., 81.

[lxxi] Ibid., 73.

[lxxii] Ibid., 222.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 102.

[lxxiv] Ibid., 114.

[lxxv] Ibid., 209.

[lxxvi] Ibid., 223.

[lxxvii] Ibid., 224.

[lxxviii] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesialogy Of Liberation (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), 272.

[lxxix] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 36.

[lxxx] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 69.

[lxxxi] Ibid., 58.

[lxxxii] Ibid., 61.

[lxxxiii] Ibid., 68.

[lxxxiv] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 237.

[lxxxv] Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 71.

[lxxxvi] See José Miguez Bonino, “Reading Jürgen Moltmann from Latin America.,” Asbury Theological Journal 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 105-114.

[lxxxvii] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 55.

[lxxxviii] Ibid., 47.

[lxxxix] Ibid., 120.

[xc] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 208.

[xci] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 22.

[xcii] Ibid., 6.

[xciii] Ibid., 107.

[xciv] Ibid., 60.

[xcv] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 210.

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