Johnny Cash and the Gospel

November 29, 2015


Johnny Cash did gospel music right. If you observe the whole corpus of his contributions to the gospel side of country music, he manages to capture and hold together the sentimental and the prophetic. That is remarkably rare.

I have selected eight performances, not in any particular order. The first is from San Quentin State Prison and the last is a performance with his mom on The Johnny Cash Show. In between, there are a couple Kris Kristofferson songs. There is a harrowing song about drug addiction. There is a performance at a Billy Graham Crusade. There is so much good stuff here.


“He Turned the Water Into Wine” (San Quentin State Prison, February 24, 1969)


“The Junkie’s Prayer” (January 6, 1971)


“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (Grand Ole Opry, August 20, 1962)

There is also another rendition (in color) that is well worth watching.


“They Killed Him” (December 1984)

This was written by Kris Kristofferson, who appears at the beginning of the video. The first verse is about Gandhi, the second is about Martin Luther King Jr’s “dream of beauty that they’ll never burn away,” and the final verse is about Jesus Christ.


“Why Me, Lord?”

This is another Kris Kristofferson song. You’ll also want to see both of them talking about another of Kris’ songs, “To Beat the Devil.”


“It Was Jesus” (Town Hall Party 1958)


“One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down And Talk To Paul” (Billy Graham Crusade, Tallahassee, FL, 1986)


“The Unclouded Day” (The Johnny Cash Show, May 13, 1970)

Johnny Cash performs, with his mom on the piano, the first song that he ever sang in public. This is such a beautiful moment.

There is also a DVD of a 1973 documentary / personal journey of Johnny Cash in the Holy Land: The Gospel Road.

The Gospel Road

Barth and Heaven

November 24, 2015

Barth - CD III.3

Given the recent interest in matters pertaining to the afterlife and heaven, I decided to skim through Barth’s section on the kingdom of Heaven in Church Dogmatics III.3. To be clear, I was only able to skim, as I have other responsibilities at hand, so I am not able to give a distillation of the material.

In the process of skimming, I came across the following paragraph in an excursus, and I thought y’all would enjoy it. For Barth, heaven is “inaccessible” though “a created place like earth itself and the accessible reality of earth which we can explore and describe or at least indicate.”


We have not so far considered all the biblical statements from which it emerges that the Old and New Testaments see heaven as a cosmic reality constituted and consolidated by the fact that, as there is an operation of God from heaven, so there is a being of God in heaven. …To the real whence of the divine activity there necessarily corresponds a real Where of its origin, a real place of God as its Subject and Author. This real place of God as the Lord acting in the world is heaven. Even heaven would not be a cosmic reality in the biblical sense if it were only the Whence of the divine activity and not as such also the Where, the place of its Subject and Author. The former itself would not be true without the latter. Heaven is a place: the place of God in view of which we have to say that God is not only transcendent in relation to the world but also immanent and present within it; the place of God from which His dealings with us, the history of the covenant, can take place in the most concrete sense, and His majesty, loftiness and remoteness can acquire the most concrete form, where otherwise they would simply be a product of human fantasy. As the place of God heaven is, of course, a place which is inconceivable to us. It cannot be compared with any other real or imaginary place. It is inaccessible. It cannot be explored or described or even indicated. All that can be affirmed concerning it is that it is a created place like earth itself and the accessible reality of earth which we can explore and describe or at least indicate; and that it is the place of God. The final point is the decisive one. And for good reasons the Old and New Testaments do not hesitate to speak of the fact that God is in heaven and heaven is the place of God.

[Karl Barth, CD III.3, p. 437]

On a related topic, I once posted on Barth’s doctrine of angels: “To deny the angels is to deny God Himself.”

Gerhard von Rad

November 18, 2015

Gerhard von Rad -

“Gerhard von Rad was a theologian who was entirely consumed by his subject matter. If one allowed him to lead the thought process, he was able to impart to his readers and listeners that he was in pursuit of something mysterious and wonderful. In an unobtrusive way, his speaking and writing contained elements of the prophetic voice, almost like a medium able to transfer insights from another world to modern individuals. God as the mystery of the written Word: this was his central concern. In his exegesis of OT texts, he intentionally and successfully pointed to and illuminated the importance of the God of the Bible.”

— Manfred Oeming, University of Heidelberg, Professor of Old Testament Theology

(“Gerhard von Rad as a Theologian of the Church,” Interpretation 62:3 [July 2008], 235)


From 1934 to 1945, Gerhard von Rad was a professor at the University of Jena, where the rector was Dr. Karl Astel. Who was Astel? He was a medical specialist in eugenics and a high ranking officer in Hitler’s SS. This was von Rad’s boss, to some extent. How does a young scholar of the Old Testament, like von Rad, establish himself in such a setting? He could follow the trends and demands of the time — relegate the OT to a primitive era with an antiquated conception of God, unsophisticated, legalistic, and mercifully surpassed by the Christian (i.e., Pauline-German-Protestant) dispensation of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Von Rad refused to do so. Instead, he used his remarkable acumen to subvert the given scholarly paradigm. Far from being an embarrassment to the Church, the Hebrew Bible gave testimony to the Father of Jesus Christ. In particular, von Rad looked at the book of Deuteronomy as especially significant for the Israelite conception of Yahweh, their gracious Sovereign. As Bernard Levinson writes:

As is well known, von Rad argues that Deuteronomy is not law but rather a series of sermons by traveling Levites preaching a renewed message of redemption. He maintained that Deuteronomy’s law code is not a dead text but live instruction, not demands for obedience to incomprehensible requirements, but spiritual exhortations to remember God’s grace.

[“Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany,” Interpretation 62:3, 240]

Von Rad accepts the critical consensus, originating with his Jena predecessor, Wilhelm M. L. de Wette, that Deuteronomy is the reformist legislation discovered by King Josiah in the 7th century BC. As such, it is a recasting of the law of Moses and is given the narrative setting of Moses on the plains of Moad, instructing Israel in anticipation of receiving the promised land of Canaan. Needless to say, von Rad believes the historicity of the text to belong to Israel as such, in both its past and contemporaneous appropriation, precluding our ability to excavate the former from the latter.

Some scholars have criticized von Rad for making the credo of Israel into a proto-Christian credo, as if the latter were the sole validation for the former. In a sense, that is true. As a Christian, I would say that this is unavoidable, given the hermeneutical method of both Jesus and his apostles. But there is a good and a bad way to go about doing this, and it impresses me that von Rad has discerned the good way. Von Rad is unabashedly committed to the Christian belief that Israel’s faith is substantively the faith of Christ and his followers, but he is also thoroughly committed to the exegesis of Israel’s faith proper, without willy-nilly incorporating explicit Christian categories into the text. This would not wholly satisfy a Jewish exegete, nor should it — but it is at the very least a path of integrity for the Christian and one that necessarily disavows any Antisemitism.

In the introductory chapter to his commentary on Genesis, von Rad closes with one of his most pronounced statements on his Christian belief in the Old Testament:

We receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus Christ, and therefore all exegesis of the Old Testament depends on whom one thinks Jesus Christ to be. If one sees in him the bringer of a new religion, then one will consistently examine the chief figures of the patriarchal narrative for their inward religious disposition and by, say drawing religious “pictures from life” will bring into the foreground what comes close to Christianity or even corresponds with it. But this “pious” view is unsatisfactory because the principal subject of the account in the Genesis stories is not the religious characteristics of the patriarchs at all. Any mention of them is almost an aside. Often the details have to be drawn from the reader’s imagination. The real subject of the account is everywhere a quite definite act of Yahweh, into which the patriarchs are drawn, often with quite perplexing results. So the first interest of the reader must be in what circumstances and in what way Yahweh’s guidance is given, and what consequences result from it. …The patriarchal narratives include experiences which Israel had of a God who revealed himself and at the same time on occasions hid himself more deeply. In this very respect we can see a continuity between the Old Testament and the New. In the patriarchal narratives, which know so well how God can conceal himself, we see a revelation of God which precedes his manifestation in Jesus Christ. What we are told here of the trials of a God who hides himself and whose promise is delayed, and yet of his comfort and support, can readily be read into God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.

[Genesis: A Commentary, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 43]

You can scarcely find a finer statement than that. I am aware that many evangelicals will be put-off by von Rad’s historical-criticism, even though he is rather moderate by today’s standards — even comfortable to locate the Jawhist core in the Monarchy. He is well-worth your time. While he is not for the beginner, he is excellent for the intermediate-to-advanced student.


Image: Gerhard von Rad (source)

A wee bit to read

November 12, 2015

This is my current reading, by the end of the month…or year…more or less:

Exciting stuff.

I will also be listening to Chris Stapleton, of course:

I drink because I’m lonesome / And I’m lonesome because I drink

Come tomorrow, I can walk in any store / It ain’t a problem, they’ll always sell me more / But your forgiveness / Well, that’s something I can’t buy / There ain’t a thing that I can do / That’s the difference between whiskey and you

Music for the soul.

Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015


The most astute readers of this blog will remember that I recognized Chris Stapleton in a post back in June: “The Latest in Alt-Country.” Therein, I said that his debut album, Traveller, will be on the year-end best album lists, “I guarantee it.” To be honest, I couldn’t guarantee it; I was just being hopeful and buoyed by the critical acclaim. But, now, Traveller is the #1 album this week across all markets, and it is currently sold-out on Amazon if you want a physical copy. Forbes is reporting that the album jumped by 6,000%! What happened?

The CMA’s happened. But before I continue talking about the CMA’s, you need to watch this performance at the Grand Ole Opry from a couple years ago:

That is Stapleton singing the Waylon Jennings’ classic, “Amanda.”

Now that you have been properly introduced to Chris Stapleton, let’s continue…

The Country Music Association Awards is the longest-running and most prestigious awards show for country music. In the greatest of ironies, the current chairman of the CMA is Gary Overton, who was head of Sony Nashville at the time when he was widely quoted and scolded for saying, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Tell that to Chris Stapleton. Or Aaron Watson. Or Jason Isbell. Or Blackberry Smoke. They all had #1 country albums this year without any radio support. The times they are a-changin.

I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Stapleton received three nominations: Best New Artist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, and Best Male Vocalist of the Year. I was pleased, but we have seen these gestures in the recent past. I am not aware of anyone seriously predicting that Stapleton would win any of his categories, with the slight possibility for album of the year. But it happened. First, best new artist. Second, best album. Third, best male vocalist.

When the hat trick was announced, I jumped off of my couch. I watched the whole thing live. I couldn’t believe it. Stapleton was clearly overwhelmed in the third acceptance speech. The widely-read SCM blog wrote:

What Chris Stapleton did was unprecedented, and historic. There have been plenty of 3-award sweeps in the history of the CMA’s, but never by such an underdog, and an unknown. …When Stapleton was accepting the Male Vocalist of the Year award, you could tell he was taking in what he knew might be the greatest moment of his life, and he promised he would take the honors very seriously.

The Chris Stapleton sweep was not the only thing that made the headlines. A few weeks ago, the CMA announced that Stapleton would be performing live at the awards show, alongside Justin Timberlake, for two full songs! The presence of Timberlake next to Stapleton is actually not surprising. They are friends, and the Memphis-born Timberlake gave his Kentucky friend a huge boost in December of last year by tweeting:

REAL music fans already know. So, mainstream:


Remember that name… –jt

When the CMA gave Stapleton a performance slot in the show, he called Timberlake and asked if he would join him. He agreed, and the result is already being described as one of the great moments in the entire 49-year history of the CMA’s. While there were a few other good performances on Wednesday night’s broadcast (and some truly awful performances), the duo of Stapleton and Timberlake stole the show. It made everyone else look like amateurs. They started with “Tennessee Whiskey,” the third track from Stapleton’s album:

Most of the material on Traveller is original, but “Tennessee Whiskey” was originally recorded by country legends, David Allan Coe and George Jones, in 1981 and 1983 respectively. After performing “Tennessee Whiskey,” they transitioned to Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”:

Like I said, there was nothing else that could compare to these two performances. However, I did enjoy Kacey Musgrave’s “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood,” and Reba McEntire’s set with Brooks & Dunn. There were a couple other highlights as well. Dierks Bentley was joined by violinist Lindsey Stirling to perform “Riser,” which is a song that I blogged about in July. Maddie & Tae, considering their age, did a good job with “Girl in a Country Song.” Also, it was a big night for Little Big Town with three wins.

But it was Chris Stapleton’s night. He dominated, and the Luke Bryan win for Entertainer of the Year was merely an afterthought. You can see the commentary from The New YorkerThe Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. Does this mean that country music has found its savior? Probably not. I do not expect a massive reversal on country radio any time soon. But these things can happen piecemeal. Stapleton is an interesting character. His own music follows the high standards of the 70’s outlaw era which he loves, but he has been writing hit songs for some of Nashville’s biggest names. He is not a “purist.” He is willing to write or co-write pop-country singles, and this is partly why he is so well-known to those in Nashville.

This was a good week for country music. It was a good week for music lovers everywhere. The cynic can find ample room to make criticisms, but this is a time to celebrate. Congratulations to Chris and Morgane Stapleton and to Dave Cobb, the legendary Nashville-based producer of Traveller. The Georgia native, Dave Cobb, is someone you should know. He has produced for Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son), and Whiskey Myers, among many others. That’s impressive.

Chris Stapleton with wife and Dave Cobb

Morgane Stapleton, Chris Stapleton, and Dave Cobb at CMA Awards 2015


Image: Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015 – Taylor Hill, Getty Images (source)

Light of Faith - Aquinas

I came across a fascinating passage in Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae wherein he discusses the “defects” in the humanity of Christ’s flesh, prior to his resurrection and glorification. Yes, defects. De defectibus assumptis a Christo. Immediately this had me thinking about T. F. Torrance’s emphasis on the “fallen” humanity assumed by the Son in becoming flesh. Is there common ground here between Thomas and Thomas?

Let us look at the Scotsman first and then the Italian.


Torrance on the Fallen Human Nature of Christ

Thomas F. Torrance is well-known for advocating that the Son assumed the flesh of fallen humanity, that is, a “fallen flesh.” For example, he writes in his Edinburgh lectures:

But are we to think of this flesh which he became as our flesh? Are we to think of it as describing some neutral human nature and existence, or as describing our actual human nature and existence in the bondage and estrangement of humanity fallen from God and under the divine judgment? [Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 61]

For Torrance, if the humanity assumed by the Son is not our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is “untouched” by the work of Christ (ibid., 62). He then quotes Gregory Nazianzen’s formula, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.” The flesh which Christ healed was a corrupted flesh, and this is the wondrous “great exchange” where he took our infirmities and we take his regal health. This is a basic pattern in the theology of the early fathers, according to Torrance:

Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. [Ibid.]

In a powerful way, Torrance connects this with the obedience of the Son in his earthly devotion to the Father. This obedience in the flesh “was not light or sham obedience.” He continues, “It was agonisingly real in our flesh of sin: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,’ [Phil 2.8] and ‘he learned obedience through what he suffered’ [Heb 5.8]. …His obedience was a battle. The temptations make that abundantly clear” (Ibid., 64).

I do not see a problem with any of this, though I am aware of others who have criticized Torrance (and Barth) on this matter. Torrance is, of course, firm in his belief that Christ’s humanity is not sinful, albeit fallen. Christ’s humanity is necessarily not sinful or else the condemnation of sin in his flesh could not have been achieved. Torrance writes, “His taking of our flesh of sin was a sinless action, which means that Jesus does not do in the flesh of sin what we do, namely, sin, but it also means that by remaining holy and sinless in our flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh he assumed and judged it by his very sinlessness” (Ibid., 63). His holiness triumphs over the falleness from within — by condemning sin in the flesh.

Does it make sense to say “fallen but not sinful”? That is an obvious objection to Torrance’s usage of the term,”fallen,” for Christ’s human nature. But Torrance is making distinctions in the type of defects in Christ’s fallen humanity versus our fallen humanity.

The defects which the Son assumed in our humanity needs to be parsed carefully. Precisely what defects did the Son assume in his becoming flesh? The Son did not assume the defects of a sinful will, but he did assume the defects of a cursed, suffering, and dying flesh, which invariably presses upon a fully human will (e.g., temptations of Christ). It is this latter sense in which Christ bore a “fallen” human nature. And this is what I see Thomas Aquinas saying in his Compendium Theologiae.


Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Caro of the Incarnatio

I am perhaps venturing too far here, without adequate gear. I have not compared this section in the Compendium to any corresponding material in his two Summas, nor have I consulted any secondary sources on the issue. But let’s go ahead anyway.

In chapter 226, Thomas is discussing the satisfaction necessarily rendered by humanity in order to be redeemed. “No punishment undergone by any man could suffice to liberate the whole human race. …God alone is of infinite dignity and so He alone, in the flesh assumed by Him could adequately satisfy for man, as has already been noted [Cf. chap. 200]” (Light of Faith: The Compendium of Theology, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J., 284). This is all very Anselmic, and we need not detain ourselves with a comparison of the different set-up here to that of Torrance.

For our purposes, the following material is relevant to our question of whether — or, in what way — the Son assumed a fallen humanity. This excerpt is kinda lengthy but necessarily so:

…Christ ought not to have assumed those defects which separate man from God, such as privation of grace, ignorance, and the like, although they are punishment for sin. Defects of this kind would but render Him less apt for offering satisfaction. Indeed, to be the author of man’s salvation, He had to possess fullness of grace and wisdom, as we pointed out above [Cf. chap. 213]. Yet, since man by sinning was placed under the necessity of dying and of being subjected to suffering in body and soul, Christ wished to assume the same kind of defects, so that by undergoing death for men He might redeem the human race.

Defects of this kind are common to Christ and to us. Nevertheless they are found in Christ otherwise than in us. For, as we have remarked, such defects are the punishment of the first sin [Cf. chap. 193]. Since we contract Original Sin through our vitiated origin, we are in consequence said to have contracted these defects. But Christ did not contract any stain in virtue of His origin. He accepted the defects in question of His own free will. Hence we should not say that He contracted these defects, but rather that he assumed them for that is contracted (contrahitur) which is necessarily drawn along with (cum trahitur) some other things. …Therefore in Him they were not contracted but were voluntarily assumed.

Yet, since our bodies are subject to the aforesaid defects in punishment for sin — for prior to sin we were immune from them — Christ, so far as He assumed such defects in His flesh is rightly deemed to have borne the likeness of sin, as the Apostle says in Romans 8:3: “God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Hence Christ’s very passibility or suffering is called sin by the Apostle, when he adds that God “hath condemned sin in the flesh,” and observes in Romans 6:10: “In that He died to sin, He died once.” For the same reason the Apostle uses an even more astonishing expression in Galatians 3:13, saying that Christ was “made a curse for us.” This is also why Christ is said to have assumed one of our obligations (that of punishment) in order to relieve us of our double burden, namely, sin and punishment.

…Again, since He came chiefly to restore human nature, He fittingly assumed those defects that are found universally in nature.

[Ibid., 285-287. I am using Vollert’s translation. Also see Richard Regan’s translation in Compendium of Theology.]

So, to answer our question in the title of this post: yes, Christ assumed our fallen human nature. Aquinas does not use the term, “fallen,” and he may have objected to doing so. But he does make clear that the Son assumed our “defects,” his preferred term. These defects are common with the defects of general fallen humanity, though Christ does not assume every defect. The Son does not assume those defects that would render his sacrifice unacceptable. He does not sin. He is not separated from God through any privation of grace. He remains holy. Likewise for Torrance, Christ remains holy and pure, thereby overcoming the power of sin.

This is not to say that Torrance and Aquinas are identical in how they are framing this. As I already alluded, Aquinas favors “satisfaction” for how Christ undoes the curse, whereas Torrance favors an ontological undoing of fallen nature in Christ, in which we partake by the Spirit in union with Christ glorified. These are probably not mutually exclusive, however, especially if we take-in the whole scope of these two theologians’ writings.

Differences aside, I think there is some interesting common ground here.