Cherith Fee Nordling earned her PhD from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She has written Knowing and Naming the Triune God: Elizabeth Johnson and Karl Barth in Conversation and she is one of the authors of Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. She is now Associate Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary. For all four interviews in one PDF file, click here.
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Small group discussion guide
Discussion groups might wish to prepare their own topics, request topics from the group, use the following suggested topics, or mix and match all three.
1. Why is it important to view the more obscure biblical passages in light of the clear ones?
2. How does reading the Bible in context help us prevent our own “privatized Christianity”?
3. Jesus’ parables express God’s unconditional love. Why are they often interpreted negatively?
4. Why is it important to know what the biblical writers were saying to their original audiences?
5. Why are literary forms and figures of speech vital considerations for biblical interpretation?
6. How does Trinitarian theology help us appreciate the Bible’s unfolding story of redemption?
7. Dr. Nordling said, “Every time God says ‘no’ it’s so that his ‘yes’ can be what it is.” Your thoughts?
8. Why is grasping the whole story of redemption better than asking, “But what about that?”
A few guidelines for leading a discussion: 1) Encourage open discussion. 2) Ask questions relevant to the topic. 3) Listen attentively. 4) Encourage divergent views. 5) Encourage everyone to participate. 6) Summarize and paraphrase. 7) Minimize teaching and preaching.
JMF: One objection we often hear about Trinitarian theology, and the idea that God loves everyone, goes along this line: If God hates one person, then he doesn’t love everyone, and Scripture specifically says that God hated Esau. He loved Jacob and he hated Esau. How do we respond to that?
CFN: The first thing we do is to take the words of Jesus seriously, instead of going to a place where we can’t figure out what the Hebrew idiom might mean. If Jesus says that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, then we trust him that that is the overriding narrative. When we watch the entire biblical narrative with its moments of tremendous suffering, pain, injustice and often horror, it’s to trust that overarching reality — that God so loves this world despite the broken image-bearers’ attempt to take it down by not knowing how to do anything else, and in our brokenness he will not let us be left to our devices. He loves us too much to let the story turn out the way that it would turn out on our own.
If that is the way that the whole overarching narrative is held, by the way that God is God, and not by the way that we are in response to God or to one another or to anything else, then it’s to look at the way that the biblical narrative is structured and given, and what these incredibly important terms and echoes are that come through the Old Testament. So when Jesus starts saying these things and attributing them to God, attributing all the back story of humanity in relation to God in his own human life and where human life for everybody is going, then it’s to make sure that we’re clear about what those identity markers are. So we can hear a text like “and God hated Esau” and ask what in the world is going on there? It’s probably one of so many moments where an idiom is used to speak an idea that is not to be taken literally, and not to throw everything else out that doesn’t agree with that one term.
How do we recognize it? As English-speakers, part of what we suffer from is that we are getting a translation of something that is an ancient language – a multi-layered and a beautiful language – so that when a pronouncement like that is made, there is deep meaning to that, that is not just the opposite of love and hate. We want to go to that deeper meaning, to look at those original echoes, and then to see what then does Jesus’ incarnate life mean for us, pulling us into the life of the Trinity. We can’t but not go there.
It’s worth a little rabbit trail for a minute to look at how the New Testament, which…at the time that it is becoming what it is…at the time that these Gospels are being proclaimed, these letters are being written and read aloud to communities (so that nobody’s picking up the letter to the Ephesians and reading it privately and ever hearing the word “you” and thinking that means me and my privatized Christianity and I need to behave these ways) —these letters were taken and read to everybody in the entire community sitting there next to each other squirming about the reality that they’re being called to, because the only way to live this out is corporately, that each one individually matters.
Jesus gives those kinds of parables — that the Father seeks every one of us and adores every one of us and will pursue us until he pulls us into that fellowship. To go after the lamb or to go after the lost coin or to be the son that is longed for…in every one of those parables, they’re brought home, they’re brought back to something that is bigger than them. The son comes home, the coin is joined, the lamb is brought back to the flock, not set up in a little dyad with a shepherd out there in the middle of nowhere. It’s trying to recognize that that salvation… throughout, individual life is priceless to God because we exist out of his pleasure and joy… we are his delight and his image and he will not let anything deter his good outcome for that. Our life when lived in a way that really reflects God, is lived together.
As these communities are hearing this, and the New Testament world is trying to reorient itself because of the reality of Jesus having come among them and risen in their midst…the only Scripture they know is the Old Testament. That’s the only Bible, as far as they’re concerned, because none of them are anticipating that their letters are going to end up in a canon that we are reading thousands of years later.
So when these terms—like Paul in Colossians using things like “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn from the dead.” Or the fact that the Father uses the language of Jesus’ baptism to say, “You are my Son whom I love and in whom I am well-pleased.”—when this community hears those kinds of terms, there are layers and layers of echoes that sound. It’s like hitting a gong and all of this history gets played out, and they’re thinking, “oh my goodness, he’s what?” Because they have deep resonant meaning to those things.
Starting from the beginning, every one of these ancient cultures has a creation narrative that has some kind of battle that usually takes place over water – the water is the place of chaos, and who knows what danger is lurking there? Creation usually is the fallout or the byproduct of the negative side of some kind of cosmic battle. Once this thing gets played out, then it’s like, “Then what do we do with this stuff?” If we’ve got those gods or that god who ended up with all this stuff, how do we relate to that god to keep him appeased, or her, making sure that we’re fertile, or whatever their relationship to these ancient gods is.
They all have a narrative that has this description of who God is in relation to them, life coming out of water and chaos, a description of life as sort of this temple-palace garden, and then there’s this setting up of the image of the God in the temple-palace garden. In all of these, whether it’s ancient Egyptian or later Mesopotamian Babylonian, these ancient cultures would have this period where if they were constructing a new temple palace for the god, they would, in the construction of the temple-palace garden, narrate the story of what this God is doing with them, and the priests would come in and undergo what they would call a spiration ceremony or a breathing ceremony.
The assumption was, that once they breathed this ritual over this idol or image of the god, then the god would take up residence there — that the presence of the god was there. It didn’t mean that the god was only that statue, but it meant that where that statue was, that god was present. In the midst of that, whether it’s Egypt and maybe Babylon, but if it’s Egypt out of which God’s people come, and they begin to tell their own creation narrative in response to the polytheism of Egypt or the way that gods are laid out in Genesis 1. “In the beginning God created…and the Spirit hovered over the water…and then God said…” There’s only ever one.
Everything that is a god in Egypt is just creation to God. After six days of ordering and setting, and creating time, purpose, meaning, dimensionality and everything else, it’s on the sixth day that God says, you’re not going to create an image for me, I am going to create my own image-bearer. I will do my own spiration ceremony. We will create them, male and female, to bear our image. It requires them to be together to be truly human, because we are the Triune God, and there is no such thing as a single image-bearer that can bear the image of God without bearing that image in relation.
The Genesis 2 retelling of what it says in Genesis 1 — that here is God who chooses Adam from the earth and breathes his life into him, breathes his Spirit, ruach, into him. Then he becomes the one who literally is for creation. He is to name it, he is to tend it and flourish it, he is to have “the one who completes him as an image-bearer with the other.” She is called the ezer to him, God’s strong helper, which is the language that God uses of himself in the Old Testament. You know, “Woe to Egypt who doesn’t have Yahweh as their ezer.” She’s not his right-hand support system – she, with him, bears the character and image of God in the world.
Genesis 3 then turns around and says, here’s what happens when the story goes bust, when the image-bearer fails to be the one who sees with the eyes of God, fails to see what God sees, which is good in the world, and fails to act in power what God would do, to speak for God and make these things be what they are, and have this divine human communion, not just about humanity in relation to God, but God who loves his world, everything in his cosmos, and who claims the entire creation as his temple-palace garden, who says, the heaven is my canopy and the earth is my footstool…and takes this reigning image of a throne room and says, “It’s all mine. I love it all, and you get to be the one who is for it even as you are for me, and I will be for you, so that I can be for all things.”
Genesis 3 says, when this goes awry, when the image-bearer forgets who he and she are and…and they become ones who try to assume that being like God is something that gives them equality with God, which is not something to be grasped, if we take Jesus’ life seriously, but by grasping something that doesn’t belong to them, they break and lose the image. The Old Testament then becomes this ongoing story of well, how does God restore them? How does he lead them out of that broken place and into the promise of new life, of new creation? They come out of this Eden and into not just barrenness, but a new Edenic situation.
Noah becomes another story where you have water and God whose Spirit hovers as a dove over the water, which shows up again at Jesus’ baptism. You have God who takes this person and his family and says, “I again will make a people for my name. They will look like me, and bear my name and presence in the world and my power, so that when they are present, nobody wonders if Yahweh is present — that is precisely who they are and what they do.” His judgment, even prior to Noah, is: these were my children, but they don’t look anything like me. They’re abusing and destroying, which has nothing to do with the character of the Triune living God. He says, “That is false to the core. My image-bearer cannot bear my name falsely in the world, because no one will know who I am. So I’ll call a people for my name again.”
You get it primarily in the Exodus, where God says, “Out of this people I will call a people for my name again.” He says crazy stuff to Moses. In Exodus 3 and 4 he says things like, When you go before Pharaoh, who happens to think out of the entire planet that he is the only living divine image-bearer of Ra, the sun-god or whoever he’s instantiating, you will go to him and you will be like God to him. You will speak the words of God to him. When I give you Aaron, you will be like a God to Aaron, and Aaron will be like God to him as he speaks for you.”
This re-anointing and image-bearing says, “I will breathe my Spirit into you. You will begin to function again in a way that looks like me and not the power and the oppression of Pharaoh and the rulership, but the releasing of humanity to start functioning as what it really is in relation to me.” It’s a crossing through water again, and light, and those kinds of images.
You get it with the Jordan, and you get it over and over again, until finally in Ezekiel there comes this tragic moment where after so many of these faithful re-gatherings of his people and recalling them and renaming them and reclaiming them, he says, “This is it. You look like the idols you worship. You’ve forgotten who you are, which is (in the technical sense of the term in that day), you are my idol. The reason you’re not allowed to have any idols is because you’re my idol. People are supposed to look at you to know what Yahweh looks like. But you have started to look like these things that you have constructed. You act out of that, you abuse, oppress, defame, hurt, destroy and choose against the other instead of for.”
He says, “I won’t have it, because it’s unfaithful to what’s true. It’s unfaithful to the heart of love that is what allows everything to be what it is.” So the image that Ezekiel gets is to watch the Spirit of God hovering over the ark and saying, “Am I leaving?” He comes to the threshold and says, “Am I going to stay or are we going to go?” The tragedy of the image is that the Spirit goes. “And now you will wait.” So then the promise becomes, “I will take away from them their heart of stone, their law, and I will give to them a heart of flesh and I will breathe my Spirit on them and they will live.”
To look specifically at the Esau question… Here is God who has not only named himself but the un-nameable Yahweh of the sort of transcendent glory that’s so not his creation, which is them…however the Triune language gets put there. This is the God who has no shame, no hesitancy to name himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who are a mess, all three of them. He goes, “I’m happy to be associated with them. Their storyline has become my storyline. I have called them to myself, I’ve loved them in the midst of their brokenness and the things that they’ve done disobediently. I am for them, as I have made them for me.”
For Jacob’s brother, Esau, to be the one who of these twins is the firstborn, the true rightful image-bearer, the true firstborn son who should carry that name forward, that is Isaac, the son who came from nowhere in terms of God’s mercy. When Esau begins to look like the idolatrous people with whom he marries into and begins to…instead of what Yahweh looks like, God says, “No. I refuse to put my name on that. I refuse to say that that is what I look like in the world. I will stand against that, but I will do that by being for it, by coming back around and restoring these people to myself.”
You finally have Jesus, who becomes this messianic promise… All through those Major and Minor Prophets it says, “There will finally be one like the son of man, who is going to come, who God will anoint, who will actually be the one true human image-bearer.” “I have finally chosen my last and only son to bear my name and presence in the world, and it all rests on him to get it right, and to do it like I would have to do it — not dipping in as God, but to take my humanity.”
From the entire human race down to this people of Israel, down to this priesthood, to this king, to these prophets…it gets smaller and smaller to this funnel where you finally have it rest on this one person who is God and man. His life set the entire thing in order and released it from that point forward…from the apostolic fellowship of the believers to become this Gentile mission, to become the whole world… That is way back up here when he promised Abraham, when I call you as a people for my name, this is like the promise to the whole deal…so that Mike and Cherith who are not Jews and they aren’t circumcised will be in on this story thousands of years from now. I will be faithful to this and release it through my Son.
So all of us who are busy trying to figure out if we are okay in relation to God tend to forget when we get caught… (The enemy would love to cause us to look at our own image as it reflects back upon us, instead of to look at the one in whose image we’ve been made and who stands as the perfect image-bearer for us…) we need to keep remembering this isn’t about how well I’m bearing the image apart from Jesus. The only way I get to be in on this story, the only way I get to play, and the only way I get to stand well, even with all of the marks of my woes and shame all over me, is to have that washed, because the person who stands in for me as my high priest…who can only be my high priest if he’s like me. He cannot be my high priest if he’s not like me, because the high priest is the one human being who stands in for the entire people before God. So God becomes his own high priest, in a sense, on behalf of humanity.
If that’s my high priest, that’s also what he’s doing – constantly, permanently priesting for me, permanently standing in for me and offering perfect sacrifice of his life in the perfect human obedience of his life. I am always, as an image-bearer, joined to him. The Father always holds the two of us — holds me and God’s people — but always holds us with his Son — to participate in something. It isn’t about how well I pull it off, it’s the fact that it’s already been pulled off.
JMF: So in Jesus you have the rejected Esau and the accepted Jacob who failed as well…
CFN: That’s right.
JMF: …healed and redeemed.
CFN: Right. God will go to any length to make sure that no matter how far Esau wants to walk away, God will say no, so that his character and love for his world is not compromised. But at the same time, to say every time God says ‘no,’ it’s so that his ‘yes’ can be what it is. To say no to that about Esau is so that he can say yes to what is really true. He’s going to say yes finally…
JMF: Which is the point and conclusion of Romans 11.
JMF: And then Paul brings it up.
CFN: And how do you thank God for that?
CFN: Which is beyond our comprehension.
JMF: Yeah, it’s fascinating.
CFN: It’s tempting to say “but what about this? What about that?” Just stand back a little and say, “What would that mean in the context of this larger, incredible story that I’m in — that I’m not the primary character in? It’s not my private drama, it’s that I’ve been invited into this amazing story that is God’s story of his unfathomable and irresistible love for that which is not him — that he’s chosen to share it with them. Nothing can stop it, so how does that thing that I’m reading, that God hated Esau or whatever we might be fixating on…how would that fit into this larger narrative to understand? What is the yes of God in Jesus that would say no to these other kinds of things?
This suffering of the world (that seems so beyond our comprehension) becomes a “no” precisely by the fact that the story doesn’t end with the crucifixion — God’s “no” to suffering having the last word has to be passed through in order to have a “yes” of resurrection. There’s always going to be these beautiful mysteries of yes and no held in tension, but as followers of Jesus we have to be committed to the whole story, and keep seeing where we are in that big story, instead of just checking our checklist of beliefs and seeing whether we feel like they contradict each other sometimes.
JMF: In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of looking at a poor reflection in a mirror. In the mirror, we see ourselves, and it’s the broken image-bearer we’re seeing. But he’s saying that there is something better than that, that’s already real, that we’re not seeing most of the time — we’re not seeing Christ as the one who has taken up our cause and made it his own.
CFN: Paul is writing a letter to a church he knows well and loves very much, who are trying to dehumanize Jesus and to super-spiritualize themselves in a way that stops them taking their own embodied humanities seriously. He won’t let them. From the beginning of the letter, we are going to preach Jesus Christ crucified. For Paul there is no such thing as Jesus Christ crucified – there’s only Jesus Christ crucified who is the risen one, which is why we can hold this crazy thing, because Jesus Christ is the risen anointed one who was crucified. Often we stop at the cross, forgetting that the cross would be very bad news if he is not the resurrected and ascended one…
Paul set that up and says, “now let’s talk about life in the church.” What am I hearing? I’m hearing that there’s this division around leadership as if somebody has more value in the community of faith, in the community of the saints, one over the other, when the one who we’re supposed to look like has laid his life down. He, who was entitled to be over us, became one for us and submitted to whatever the Father would do for us. I’m hearing that you are having incredible sexual distortion between you marrying your stepmother (or whatever it is) and he doesn’t even address those people directly. He says, “I hear among you that this has happened and that you’re allowing this as a community.”
All these people are hearing this together. He’s saying, “Not even the pagans do that.” “I’m hearing that you’re tootling down to some pagan law court because you’ve got some grievance against your brother, and you want somebody who does not have the power and authority or the presence of the Holy Spirit to usher in true justice in the kingdom of God to settle a dispute for you, when you whose lives are conditioned to be for the other have now been given the power and authority to enact justice, and more than justice, mercy for the other.”
“I hear that there are some of you who aren’t sleeping together. I hear there’s some of you having sex with temple prostitutes — probably because you’re not sleeping together as husband and wife.” “What are you doing that thinks that somehow this isn’t about your embodied life?” “I hear that some of you are eating food from temples and some of you think that’s…” Paul just keeps pressing in, pressing in, pressing in. “I hear you’re disrespecting the table and one another at the table.”
He finally gets to this point: “It’s really all about the fact that you belong to each other, that you are this communal life enjoined to the Triune God together. There’s only allelon (it’s a Greek word that means ‘one anothering’). There’s only one another. You love one another, you forgive one another, you care for one another.” If the story plot of Corinth was looking at you, you wouldn’t know whose image you’re being conformed into. He finally says, “It’s all about looking like the character of God. It’s loving. It’s being patient and enduring and suffering long for the other, and believing and hoping and trusting.” We can’t see where this is all going, but at the same time we can, because we see him.
When he finally calls them to their worship life and he pushes them through their behaviors that they’re forgetting even in their worship life, it’s all driving to chapter 15, where he’s going, “How can I say this to you? Because we serve one who is resurrected and is a new human. Over 500 people saw him, and the apostles saw him, and even I saw him as one…reborn. And because he is who he is, and already holds our new humanity and has this body fit for the age to come, a spiritual body (which is like an oxymoron) but he’s got that body fit for the new creation.
Because Christ is like that, we already know who we are (you know where this is going) and we know that by the power of the Spirit, we’re to be enacting our future reality right smack dab here in Corinth in a way that nobody wonders what the image of God looks like in the world, because they see slaves and free people loving each other, who should have nothing to do with each other. They see women preaching who should have no mouths to bear witness or say anything in the fellowship. They see prophetic gifts running all these directions. They see forgiveness where nobody anticipated it. They see something that they can’t see anywhere else in the world, by how this odd crazy fellowship of Jews, non-Jews, men, women, slaves, every socioeconomic, racial, gender boundary comes together as a new people of God and says “we are going to live ‘the life that’s coming’ right here, because the life that’s coming has already become present to us in Jesus, and we are in on it.”
It’s impossible to do this without the Spirit. Jesus said, “Don’t leave Jerusalem, because you new image-bearers, new creation, you need the ruach of the Spirit, which was promised in Ezekiel 37, in Jeremiah. You need that heart of flesh to be anointed by the Spirit to become this new people of this new age, which hasn’t yet come to completion but has already begun.
It is that mystery, as you said, of seeing in part, but when I think it’s all too hard to figure out, Jesus says, “Just look here, Cherith, take my life seriously, look here, the gospel witnesses to me, and you can’t over-divinize me, you can’t make me too much God and get yourself off the hook that I don’t understand you or you can’t be like me. I also don’t want you to take my humanity so seriously that you somehow separate out that this is God who is present to you, so that everything I do really does restore your life.” That’s the beautiful tension that we get to walk in.
JMF: That is inspiring and encouraging. Thanks for being with us.
CFN: Thank you.
JMF: We’ve been talking with writer, preacher, and lecturer Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling. I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.