The Biel — Sandstrom Correspondence

A Critique by Clifford Biel, Mondovi, Wisconsin, of "Between the Magnificat and the Genealogy" by Peter Sandstrom and Peter's Response to Clifford

by Clifford Biel

Biel's Critique:

If I had wanted to join a church where the clergy deny the full divinity of Christ, I would have joined the Unitarian; if I wanted a church and journals that subvert the authority of Scripture, subjecting it to rationalistic formulae I would have stayed in the Lutheran Church and subscribed to The Christian Century; and if I wanted to belong to a church where Scripture is edited, used or ignored according to personal whim I certainly would have considered being a disciple of the greatest flim-flammer of them all: Joseph Smith. But I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church and what do I get? Pietisten, where under the guise of rediscovering Covenant roots and dynamic, I get all three: Unitarianism, Scripture reduced to human authority, and truncated Scripture. I had hoped the article on the Temptation of Jesus [Vol II, No I ] was an anomaly; obviously I was wrong.

First, let me commend you on your imagination! Anyone who can see a "dialog" between competing theologies of when Jesus "became" the Son of God must certainly be very imaginative. The only evidence from Scripture that would point, potentially, to adoptionism is the existence of the two genealogies, both of which, as you correctly point out, arc carefully qualified to exclude the possibility that Jesus was fathered by Joseph or by any other male. Why weren't you as careful with the Apostle Paul's Letter to the Romans where he is equally careful (I:3, 9:5) to add, "... as to his human nature" and "...traced human ancestry"? But then, you were so eager to show him to be an adoptionist.... I can't understand why you are completely silent about the most obvious reason for the inclusion of the genealogies: to show a connection between Jesus and the Son of David covenant promise. If there is adoptionism, it is at this point, when Joseph adopts Jesus into the Davidic, line. Contrary to a "dialogue between competing theologies" there is an overwhelming consensus in the New Testament about the pre-existent Christ.

I am perplexed that one so scholarly as yourself should choose to overlook and confuse the meaning of very basic words. What a world of difference there is between "becoming" and "declaring," for example. The Apostle Paul likes to say about the resurrection of Jesus that in this manner He is "declared" to be the Son of God. This is entirely consistent with St. John (whom you obviously don't respect as a "Gospel" writer) that Jesus "came to His own and His own received Him not" and that, though the world was made through Him, it did not recognize Him. And Peter makes the same point in Acts 3:17, "...I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders." To "become," on the other hand, speaks of beginning, and this word is not used to describe the genesis of God's Son. In the Baptismal accounts the same sense is true: God declares who this already existent one really is. Or consider St. Paul's argument in Gal. 4:4-7, that believers in Christ are true sons of God, whose birthright it is to receive the Spirit. It's not receiving the Spirit which makes them sons.

Was St. Paul an adoptionist? Why then does he consistently use the language of pre-existence? "God sent His Son..."? Why does he write in Eph. that we were chosen "in him before the creation of the world...," etc.? Or in Eph. 4:7-10 what then is the meaning of the play on words of not "ascending" without first "descending" ? Why does he write in Col. 1:16 "For by him all things were created...," etc.? Or what then does he mean in I Cor. 15:45-49 — "the man from heaven...."? How can he speak in Col. and Eph. about the O.T. Law and Covenants as being a shadow, except that the substance that casts the shadow was already there? Or why do you, sir, truncate Phil. 2:6-11, where the obvious meaning is that our attitude is to be like that of the Son, who did not disdain humbling himself, but "being in very nature of God...made himself nothing...taking the very nature of a servant" etc., and completely change its meaning by pretending that v. 9 is the place where Jesus supposedly acquires, with the resurrection, Sonship?

You quote Peter (Acts 2:32-36) as though Peter is saying that in virtue of the Resurrection Jesus became the Son of God. But what does St. Peter actually say? Going back to v. 22, we hear him saying that Jesus of Nazareth is already being accredited by God as David's descendant by the miracles of His ministry. He quotes two Psalms, 16 and 110, where David says: "I saw the Lord...," etc. and "The Lord said to my Lord...," etc. (the latter being the one Jesus had also used to make a point — Luke 20:41-44). He makes the point that because Jesus is the one to whom the Psalms refer, therefore death could not hold him. As to v. 36, Jesus (the man) is made "Lord" and "Christ" (functional titles relating to what He will be from this time on in relation to the people of the world).

Now I must say a word in reference to the point you attempt to make about the Gospel beginning, as in Mark, with the Baptism of Jesus, or in Paul the focus on the resurrection (actually a focus on the death and resurrection) of Jesus. If these are not about adoptionism, what are they about? The answer is simplicity itself. The ministry of Jesus marks the place where he begins to touch our lives as Savior. Especially the death and resurrection of Jesus is where the forgiveness and new life from God intersect by faith in Christ with our own death and life.

I find it difficult to understand why you choose to overlook the clear consensus of Scripture regarding the person of Christ, ignore the book of Hebrews, I John, etc., unfairly charge the Apostle Paul with a position clearly not his own, and generally treat the N. T. authors as though they were speaking on their own authority and not through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Why, even the Apostle Peter recognizes that Paul's writings are "Scripture" (II Peter 3:16).

Now let me take a moment to respond to our queries, supposing that there were no male father of the child born to Mary.

I believe the omission of the male is deliberate: man will not save himself. God Himself will come to gather and save His sheep (Ez. 34:11). Eve is sufficient to provide the human link; she is "the mother of all living." Further, the story of Jesus is meant to provide a parallel with our own experience of salvation (John 1:12-14). In the presence of God we are all of the earth, female, able to receive the implanted Word and Spirit by which new life is brought forth.

Beyond this, there is a great mystery in the Spirit, who is the keeper of our individual identity, especially as relating to life eternal (Rom. 8:9-11). Consider the story of Christ as an enactment of our hope: the Spirit was able to communicate to the womb of Mary, in human form, with full integrity of identity, the Son of God. At the Baptism by John He communicated the fullness of the attributes of the ministering Son. During death He was the keeper of the Son's identity, raising Him at the indicated time.

There is an inconsistency in your attitude, for you strive to be fearlessly logical about questioning Scripture, doctrine, orthodoxy, Creeds, Councils, etc., but oh, so quiet about the inevitable conclusion of your line of reasoning: that Jesus not God. If he is not God then He cannot exercise the attributes and functions reserved to God alone: to forgive sins, to baptize with the Holy Spirit, to raise the dead, to judge all flesh, and to reign in glory.

Yours in the service of Christ,

Clifford Biel, Mondovi, Wisconsin

Sandstrom's Response:

I want to thank you for sending me such an extensive and heartfelt response to my article in the last issue of Pietisten. I appreciate the time and seriousness which you gave to entering into our conversation. You cover such a variety of subjects and do so with such passion that I don't think I can respond to all your comments in just one letter. Instead I think I'll try to get to just a few of them with some longer responses and save the others for future correspondence with you if you would be willing to keep writing. I hope that you will.

It seems to me that you bring up a number of topics that aren't directly related to my article but are of importance to you and to me as well. The first appears to be the issue of the differences between what you expected to find in the Covenant and what you actually found once you became a part of our fellowship. Among the things you found are an openness to and use of rational and historical critiques of scripture and a very non-creedal freedom of theological interpretation, including christology. While such things are not to be found in some evangelical bodies, say, Evangelical Free Church, Southern and General Conference Baptist, and Assemblies of God church circles, they are very much a part of the Covenant in both its present and its past. I would strongly suspect that Pietisten is not the first place in the Covenant that you have encountered them. Your reading of mainstream Covenant publications, such as The Covenant Companion, The Covenant Quarterly, and Narthex should already have alerted you to these and other aspects of Covenant thought and life that may not have been what you were expecting. I would also think that your extended listening in any conversations with Covenant pastors at Midwinter Conferences and other retreats would have witnessed much the same thing.

In regard to the issue of freedom to use rationalism or historical-critical methods, it should not be surprising to find this either in Covenant publications or in its clergy. I believe that even those who don't favor them would nonetheless agree that use of rational/critical methods in the Covenant goes all the way back to Waldenström and Ekman in Sweden. This continues in the Swedish Covenant today. In the American Covenant this use was present in the very beginnings of the Covenant seminary at North Park with its first president, David Nyvall, continuing with the seminary's dean and New Testament scholar, Nils Lund. It is represented in the second half of this century by Dean Erik Hawkinson and several of the faculty who came during and after his tenure. Hawkinson and these others were not only sympathetic to these views, but were educated at the University of Chicago and/or Union Seminary in New York which were the centers of those schools of thought. It says something very basic about the Covenant character of that time that these were the people chosen by the denomination to be responsible for education and training the vast majority of your current brother and sister Covenant pastors.

For the above reasons, I believe that when I use critical methods I am not doing something "under the guise of rediscovering Covenant roots and dynamic," as you wrote, but rather I am doing something that is very much a part of the dynamic and roots themselves. It is these methods I employ when I affirm that over the course of the Pauline letters we see differences in language and theology and that some of these transitions take place in regard to christology. These distinctions of thought and terminology may be the result of insertions from sources other than Paul, such as confessions or hymns that he himself included or that were added by editors long after Paul had passed from the scene. It may also ,be the case that we are witnesses to a process of change and growth in Paul's thinking over his years of ministry.

One small example of this would be the change in the language Pauline epistles use to describe Jesus from the earliest letters to the later ones. In the opening chapters of the first Corinthian letter and those to the Thessalonians, the earliest tradition of titles for Jesus is used: Lord, Christ, and son of God. Each of these titles was also presented by thc gospels as being used by the disciples in reference to Jesus long before any thought of hi s being God was even considered. However, as the years move on, the language in Paul's letters shifts as is seen in the later letters to the Philippians and still later to the Colossians. In Phil. 2:5-6, it is written: "Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped." And in Col. 1:15, "He is the image of the invisible God." Regardless of the sources, I think it is fair to say that it is quite a journey from the titles Lord, Christ, and son of God, to the ideas of "form of God," "equality with God," and "image of the invisible God." Yet, not even one of these goes as far as John's stating in the very first verse of his gospel that "the Word was God." And not even this remarkable leap of John's thought goes as far as the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus was "of one substance with the Father." Hence, I believe that both process and diversity are characteristics of New Testament christology.

I must also challenge your thinking on at least two other points that you so strongly stated. In your method you seem to assume that if I (or someone else) say or think one thing, then we must necessarily come to only one conclusion. This is not so. For example, you assert that since I do not believe in the virgin birth, I logically (and silently, as you say) must also reject the divinity of Christ. This is not at all the truth. My own christology tends to favor a pre-existent Christ who became one of us but without all the hocus-pocus of a virgin birth. I credit much of that theology to the gospel of John which is, in fact, my favorite gospel. Using your method, you conclude, incorrectly, that I do not consider John a gospel at all. One of the central themes of my article was that from any given theological or scriptural position we do not all have to proceed in the same direction in order to stay scriptural or Christian. I perceive that this is also one of the hallmarks of pietism.

Thank you again for the time and thought behind your response to my article and for your reading of Pietisten.

Yours in Christ,

Peter Sandstrom

Clifford Biel is a retired Covenant pastor.

See all articles by Clifford Biel