Monday, 31 October 2005

Exorcism today

An article a few days ago in The Australian (27/10/05, p. 11) discusses the contemporary practice of exorcism. A Roman Catholic expert on exorcism, Sydney bishop Julian Porteous, says that Italy has experienced an increase in requests for exorcism in recent years, as a parallel to increasing occult activity.

This year, Rome’s Pontifical Academy Regina Apostolorum even introduced a new course in demonology and exorcism. Julian Porteous explains that the signs of possession can include speaking in unknown languages and recoiling from symbols such as the cross and holy water.

Clearly there are evils in the world. There are even overarching supra-human structures of malevolent evil that can rightly be described as “demonic.” The church really does have something to say about such evils; but it seems to me that mythological talk of ghosts and holy water can all too easily become an evasion of our true task of confronting evil with the gospel of Christus victor.

More from Pannenberg

Here’s another highlight from the aforementioned interview with Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg is asked: “What is your greatest concern for the church as it moves into the next 25 years?”

He replies: “My greatest concern for the church is that it continue to preach the Gospel and not adapt to secular standards and concerns. Some churches and many church ministers think they have to adapt to the secular concerns of people in order to reach them. I think that the opposite is true. If people were to hear in church only what they also get on television and read in the papers, there would be no need for going to church. The church has to proclaim a different thing: the hope for eternal life. It must proclaim participation with the crucified Christ through baptism by faith.”

Sunday, 30 October 2005

Old Testament theology from a three-year-old

Yesterday my three-year-old daughter was asking me about the Old Testament:

—“Dad, why did the Israelites love God?”
—“Because God rescued them from Egypt and gave them a new life.”
—“Where was their new life?”
—“In the desert…”
—“But it’s bad to live in the desert.”
—“Um … well, yes…
—“So why did the Israelites love God?”

The contingence of creation

“The full concept of the contingency of the creation carries with it the idea that God is related to the universe, neither arbitrarily nor necessarily, but through the freedom of his grace and will, when out of sheer love he created the universe and grounded it in his own transcendent Logos or Rationality.”

—T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), p. 105.

Saturday, 29 October 2005

The vastness of creation

“Creation is vast in all directions. The distance to the farthest galaxies is not more impressive than that to the interior of the atoms of my own body. This vastness ... teaches that our meaning is by grace. It is often claimed instead that it teaches there is no meaning: in this unimaginably wide universe, of what account can the speck earth be, or its inhabitants? ... But this argument is only a crude blunder. The size of creation, whatever it be, makes the happenings on earth insignificant only if size and significance are the same—which they manifestly are not.”

—Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), p. 156.

More than sparrows

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground without your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear: you are worth more than many sparrows.”

—Matthew 10:29-31.

Friday, 28 October 2005

Reading the Genesis creation stories

“The expositor [of the creation narratives] must move knowingly between two temptations. On the one hand, there is the temptation to treat this material as historical, as a report of what happened.... On the other hand, there is the temptation to treat these materials as myth, as statements which announce what has always been and will always be true of the world.... Our exposition will insist that these texts be taken neither as history nor as myth. Rather, we insist that the text is a proclamation of God’s decisive dealing with his creation. The word “creation” is controlling for such a view. The whole cluster of words—creator/ creation/ create/ creature—are confessional words freighted with peculiar meaning. Terms such as “cosmos” and “nature” should never be carelessly used as equivalents, for these words do not touch the theocentric, covenantal relational affirmation being made.... The text, then, is a proclamation of covenanting as the shape of reality.... This theological affirmation permits every scientific view that is genuinely scientific and not a theological claim in disguise.”

—Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 16-17.

An interview with Wolfhart Pannenberg

The website of the Metanexus Institute has a 2001 interview with Wolfhart Pannenberg, entitled “Confessions of a Trinitarian Evolutionist” (Part 1 and Part 2). It’s a very nice interview that ranges over many aspects of Pannenberg’s theology, including his engagement with science.

Here’s one of the questions: “Your theology has been described as interdisciplinary. Do you find this description accurate?”

Pannenberg replies: “Because God is the creator of everything and will be the redeemer of everything, theology has to be concerned with everything. This doesn’t make theology interdisciplinary in a superficial sense. It is interdisciplinary because theology is concerned with only one thing, and that is God.”

Thursday, 27 October 2005

Old Testament, New Testament

One of the most important yet discouragingly difficult of all theological problems is the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. There can be no simple answer to this problem, and even the best answers can only be relative and provisional. But, broadly speaking, I accept the view that there is a christological relationship between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament is related to the New as promise is related to fulfilment, or as expectation is related to recollection. Thus together the two collections of texts form an extremely diverse yet essentially unified witness to the saving eschatological act of God in Jesus Christ.

This was the view taken by the twentieth century’s greatest Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, who wrote: “Christ is given to us only through the double witness of the choir of those who await and those who remember.” (Gerhard von Rad, in Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann, p. 39)

Around the traps

Ken Ristau and I recently exchanged several comments about Intelligent Design (here and then here). James Crossley describes this as a “raging” and “entertaining” discussion, while Chris Tilling celebrates Ken’s colourful language, but points out that Ken still has nothing on the language of the patristic polemicists.

Meanwhile, Peter Leithart has an excellent post on the importance of women theologians, and Thom Chittom offers some valuable reflections on the radical “interpretiveness” of Christian faith. But best of all, Michael Pahl enriches his blog with a splendid quote from Karl Barth—a quote that ought to give pause to anyone who thinks that the sum total of Barth’s theology is the old “Wholly Other” slogan.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

Johannine blogging?

I have been troubled by this for a long time, and it’s high time I said something. Why are there no Johannine blogs? There is a very fine website for Johannine studies, but as far as I know there are no biblioblogs devoted to the Gospel or epistles of John.

Various biblioblogs focus on specialised New Testament topics: there are blogs on the historical Jesus, Mark, Luke-Acts, Paul, Romans, the pastoral epistles, and so on. But nothing on the Gospel of John, Johannine theology or the Johannine community! The closest I know of is Alan Bandy’s excellent blog on the Apocalypse (and in a certain sense you might call this a Johannine blog).

Are there no Gospel of John specialists who blog? Not even at Sheffield? Should we petition Alan Culpepper to start a blog?

I for one love the Gospel of John, and I would be immensely interested in reading a specialised Johannine blog. If there’s one out there that I’m not aware of, then please let me know!

Are "God" and the "Intelligent Designer" the same?

“ ‘God’ ... is not synonymous with the concept of a world-cause [or Intelligent Designer].... We may take any view we like of the existence or nature of a world-cause, but it is always posited by man, and therefore even if it is an uncreated, creative and supremely perfect being, it still belongs to the creaturely sphere. It is not God. It is a successful or unsuccessful product of the human mind. It is not identical with the Creator coeli et terrae [‘Maker of heaven and earth’].... The God who created heaven and earth is God ‘the Father,’ i.e., the Father of Jesus Christ.... As He cannot be the Creator except as the Father, He is not known at all unless He is known in this revelation of Himself.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1, pp. 11-12.

Tuesday, 25 October 2005

Peter Jensen, ID, and the God of the gospel

Thanks to Daniel for pointing out this interview in which the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, discusses the current Intelligent Design controversy. Jensen discusses theistic evolution, and explains his approach to interpreting the Genesis creation stories.

As Jensen notes, for theistic evolutionists “God has created the world using the evolutionary process.” I myself prefer to say simply that the God of the gospel is the creator, and that the evolutionary process has no direct relationship to this theological concept of “creation.”

To speak of creation is to speak of the relationship in which we stand before God. To confess that God is our creator is to confess that God is both free and gracious. At each moment our existence depends entirely on the gracious creative act of God. And God the creator remains entirely free, never depending on anything outside himself. Thus in both freedom and grace, he is the God who creates ex nihilo, the God who speaks a free and gracious “Yes” to his creature. As the free and gracious creator, this God is the God of the gospel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our existence rests solely on his “Yes,” the “Yes” that he has spoken to us once and for all in Jesus Christ.

What does "creation" mean?

“In the last analysis, the Old Testament doctrine of creation expresses a sense of the present situation of man. He is hedged in by the incomprehensible power of Almighty God. The real purpose of the creation story is to inculcate what God is doing all the time.... Thus the doctrine of creation expresses man’s sense of utter dependence on God.”

—Rudolf Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1956), p. 18.

Where do we learn what "creation" means?

“It is from this experience of God’s free personal activity within history that the confession of God as Creator of the world ... also acquires its specific vitality and clarity.... The New Testament (like the Old) accepts its knowledge of the world’s createdness in the strict sense from the God who speaks and reveals himself. Further, man only really learns what creating is from God’s free and powerful activity in history, unconstrained by any prior obligation.”

—Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations I (London: Darton, 1961), p. 107.

Monday, 24 October 2005

Darwin on Intelligent Design

In a much-quoted letter to Asa Gray on 22 May 1860, Charles Darwin said:

“I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design.... There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” (The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 8:224)

Darwin highlights an important theological point here. There is much in the world that is beautiful and majestic and good—but there are also ugly, horrifying and demonic sides of nature. There are hurricanes and floods and famines and cannibalistic insects and parasitic wasps that insert their larvae into the living bodies of caterpillars.

If there is an Intelligent Designer, then It has to be the Designer of all aspects of the natural world. Might not the Intelligent Designer therefore be a cruel tyrant or an omnipotent demon? Certainly It would not be the God and Father of Jesus Christ. And this means that, strictly speaking, the Intelligent Designer cannot be identified with what Christians mean by “the creator”—for Christians confess that the “Maker of heaven and earth” is “God the Father Almighty,” i.e., the Father of Jesus Christ.

The creator is not an Intelligent Designer; he is the God of the gospel, the God of grace.

Huxley, Darwin, and the synoptic problem

Thomas Huxley’s support for evolutionary theory is well known, but it is not so well known that he also wrote about the synoptic problem. A new article in Church History explores Huxley’s discussion of the synoptic problem and his view of the relationship between modern biblical criticism and Darwin’s scientific method.

Matthew Day, “Reading the Fossils of Faith: Thomas Henry Huxley and the Evolutionary Subtext of the Synoptic Problem,” Church History 74:3 (2005), 534-56.

Sunday, 23 October 2005

Aussies say "No" to Intelligent Design

In a display of good sense, Australian scientists have published an open letter condemning the suggestion that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools as a scientific theory. The open letter, representing over 70,000 scientists and science teachers, states: “While science is a work in progress, a vast and growing body of factual knowledge supports the hypothesis that biological complexity is the result of natural processes of evolution.” In contrast, the letter states that Intelligent Design is being promoted on the basis of religious and political agendas, not on the basis of empirical evidence.

My own objections to Intelligent Design are theological: the entire theory rests on bad theology. But it is also bad science, or rather pseudo-science: it is ideology masquerading as science. So it’s good to see the scientific community taking a stand against it.

Saturday, 22 October 2005

The weight of sin

“[T]he elusive greatness of the Divine sacrifice is the measure of the danger that threatened once but threatens no longer. There is in forgiven [people] a shuddering thankfulness, as they look back and draw breath in the peace of reconciliation, which seals the horror of the darkness in which we should have sunk but for the dearly paid mercy of God. Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis sit peccatum, said Anselm in his dialogue [‘you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is’]; and the words have repeated themselves ever since, judging facile theories.”

—H. R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience of Forgiveness (London: Nisbet, 1927), p. 159.

Friday, 21 October 2005

The value of small books

It is well known that many of the greatest theological books are big books. Just think of the hefty tomes of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth.

But something needs to be said as well for the significance of small theological books. Small books can have a tremendous impact in their own way: they can be assimilated quickly; they can be read and reread several times; they can express a single idea with penetrating insight.

Personally, some of the books that have impressed and influenced me most have been small books. Many of these books are so important to me (and so small!) that I reread them every year or so. Here are some examples:

Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus (also known as Jesus and the Word)
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology
Friedrich Gogarten, Demythologizing and History
Karl Barth, Nein!
Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum
Karl Barth, The Humanity of God
Gerhard Ebeling, The Problem of Historicity in the Church and Its Proclamation
Gerhard Ebeling, Theology and Proclamation
Ernst Käsemann, Jesus Means Freedom
Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming
Robert W. Jenson, Alpha and Omega
Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise
Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order

The Christian religion

Following Sean du Toit's post on the difference between “Kingdom” and “Church,” let me offer Karl Barth's assessment of the “Christian religion”:

“For the sum total of the qualities of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 354.

Before objecting to Bultmann...

“Before we raise any objections to Bultmann’s view [of demythologizing], we should frankly confess that he is simply putting into words something that even conservative sections of the American Church have long felt, though scarcely confessed openly. One need only read or listen to our weekly sermons to realize how completely we ‘demythologize’ the Gospel in our public proclamation of it. And we do so, either along the lines suggested by Bultmann or by means of the moralizing and spiritual-experience emphasis of the older liberalism.”

—G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital (London: SCM, 1952), p. 121.

Thursday, 20 October 2005

Who reads this blog?

Here’s where the last 100 visitors came from:

The theologian as believing unbeliever

“And the biblical theologian must recognize that unbelief is not just out there, but as contemporary man, it is within himself. Faith is too often a form of repressed unbelief. No longer, if ever, is the biblical theologian or preacher an ‘answer-box’; in many ways he is unbeliever—in hope.... Luther’s simul iustus ac peccator in our time must mean first of all the willingness to demonstrate in one’s own person, not the ready answer of the biblical or theological paraphrase, but the struggle of how to become a believer in the midst of one’s own unbelief.”

—J. Christiaan Beker, “Biblical Theology Today,” in New Theology No. 6 (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 33.

Quote of the day

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings.
Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
Steal a lot and they make you king.

—Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You” (1983)

Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Rudolf Bultmann's grave


Jim West has managed to obtain this picture of the grave of Rudolf Bultmann in Marburg. I will have to make a pilgrimage there some day.

Church history: a history of redeemed failure

“The history of the church is, after all, a history of redeemed failures, from the flight from Gethsemane onward. One first year student, having just read the Gospel of Mark’s recitations of the failures, bungles, and misapprehensions of the disciples, said to me, ‘It’s a wonder that the church exists at all.’ Indeed it is. And our histories ought to reflect our ongoing wonder.”

—Kevin L. Hughes, “The Ratio Dei and the Ambiguities of History,” Modern Theology 21:4 (2005), p. 659.

Quote of the day

Out of all reckoning, out of dark and light,
Over the edges of dead Nows and Heres,
Blindly and softly, as a mistress might,
He keeps appointments with a million years.

Kenneth Slessor, “Out of Time” (1944)

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Eternity, historicity, and the Bible

Don’t worry, I’m not resuming the series on the doctrine of Scripture! But I posted a comment on Michael Jensen’s blog which I wanted to reproduce partially here (I was replying to another comment, not to Michael himself):

Is there a stark contrast between human historicity and “eternal significance”? It seems to me that we need to resist exactly this contrast if we are to take seriously God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. God’s eternal being is not located somewhere above this world, but it is an event that takes place in the history of the man Jesus.

And this means that we should think about questions of “eternal significance” not by turning away from ordinary human history, but by turning towards history, i.e., towards the history of one particular Jewish man.

I think it’s also best to approach the Bible in the same way: the Bible’s message has “eternal significance” not in spite of its ordinary historicity, but precisely by virtue of its thoroughgoing historicity. If the biblical texts were somehow removed from the normal processes of social and cultural conditioning, then these texts would no longer be witnesses to God, i.e., to the God who happens in human history.

Anyway, my point in all this is that historical-critical approaches to the Bible are not only valid and important, but are theologically necessary if we are to be faithful to the Bible itself.

Quote of the day

The past don’t control you
But the future’s like a roulette wheel spinning.
Deep down inside you know you need
A whole new beginning.

—Bob Dylan, “Ye Shall Be Changed” (1979)

Monday, 17 October 2005

Tongues of Flame

Yesterday I came across a novel by Tim Parks which I had never gotten around to reading: Tongues of Flame (London: Heinemann, 1985). So I read it while the kids were taking their afternoon nap.

I wasn’t disappointed. It’s the most autobiographical of all Parks’ novels, and it tells the story of a London church that gets visited by “the Sword of the Spirit”—i.e. by charismatic renewal—in the 1960s. It’s a humorous story with some real insights into the potential hazards of revivalism, and it builds toward a chilling climax. Without wanting to spoil the story, I should also say that it contains a superbly disturbing scene of exorcism.

Here’s the blurb from the cover: “The gift of tongues, prophecy, exorcism ... what might such concepts mean in a complacent backwater of North London? For Richard Bowen, adolescence becomes a nightmare when his parents join the charismatic movement and find a devil in his brother.”

Kierkegaard on infant baptism

Thanks to Wyman Richardson for this entertaining post on Kierkegaard’s view of infant baptism (with a follow-up post here).

Sunday, 16 October 2005

Genesis 3 and the origin of evil

The story of the fall in Genesis 3 has at times been used to explain the “origins” of sin and evil. But Helmut Thielicke is exactly right when he says: “The very point of this ancient story is that it shows us that we put the question wrongly when we ask how evil came into the world. That is to say, when anybody asks the question in this way he is diverting attention away from himself.”

—Helmut Thielicke, How the World Began: Man in the First Chapters of the Bible (London: James Clarke, 1964), p. 165.

Saturday, 15 October 2005

Breaking news: Barth apologises to Zwingli!

Jim West has recently been holding some private discussions with Zwingli. And I suggested this morning that Jim should ask Zwingli what he thinks about Karl Barth's criticisms of Zwinglian theology. I assumed, naturally, that Zwingli would humbly explain that he has changed many of his views now that he has had the opportunity to read Barth's works in the Celestial Library (and to talk with Barth personally, whenever Mozart leaves the room for a few minutes).

But in a startling turn of events, Barth has now retracted his criticisms of Zwingli, even praising Zwingli's theology over that of both Luther and Calvin.

As you will already have realised, this can mean only one thing: up there in heaven, Barth obviously overheard Zwingli speaking highly of Mozart, just after he had heard Luther and Calvin confessing to a preference for Bach.

Quote of the day

“The address of the Christian proclamation, however, is something that a man cannot say to himself. He must always let it be said to him, for he cannot carry its truth around with him as a possession.... If it is faith that grasps Christian truth, then it is a truth that must be grasped again and again anew—and, to be sure, with a struggle; for it is not a truth that is ‘evident,’ but a truth that is paradoxical, a scandal for the ‘natural’ man.”

—Rudolf Bultmann, “General Truths and Christian Proclamation,” in History and Hermeneutic, ed. Robert W. Funk (New York: Harper, 1967), p. 157.

Zwingli chats with Bultmann

Thanks to Jim West for constructing this conversation between two of his theological teachers, Zwingli and Bultmann. Perhaps Jim could also interview Zwingli about his response to Karl Barth's criticisms of his theology?

Friday, 14 October 2005

Rapture index

Just when you thought dispensationalism couldn’t get any sillier.... You’ll have to see it to believe it. (Thanks to Chris Tilling for this one.)

Karl Rahner: theological anthropology

“[Man] is a Christ-centred being, i.e. his being possesses an ontic and spiritual-personal capacity for communicating with Jesus Christ in whom God has forever made the countenance of a man his own and has opened the reality of man, with an unsurpassable finality, in the direction of God; only thus was the real possibility of a direct communication of all men with God established with finality. Hence we can only speak ultimately of God by engaging ... in anthropology; and ultimately any information about anthropology ... can be given only when we engage in theology about God and from God.”

—Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations II (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1963), pp. 240-41.

Eberhard Jüngel: humanity is interesting

“[T]hree fundamental propositions...:
(a) Man and his world are interesting for their own sake.
(b) Even more so, God is interesting for his own sake.
(c) God makes man, who is interesting for his own sake, interesting in a new way.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), p. 34.

Eberhard Jüngel: the justification of humanity

“[T]he Christian faith must speak of God in such a way that it expresses the fact that God’s becoming human—even unto death on the cross—is the justification of a humanity which fails its own humanness.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, “Der alte Mensch,” in Entsprechungen: Gott—Wahrheit—Mensch (Munich: Kaiser, 1980), p. 320.

Karl Barth: the distinction between God and humanity

“Differentiating the creature from Himself, God limits it to be His creature and thus gives it its specific and genuine reality.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 567.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Major

“Forget not to listen unto this: for thereby some have been entertained by angels unawares.”

Thursday, 13 October 2005

Wishlist

Joe Cathey has started up an Amazon.com wishlist, and I thought I would follow suit. I have created this wishlist (consisting mainly of recently-released or soon-to-be-released books), and I’ve added a link to the list at the bottom of the sidebar. Don’t worry though: I’m not hoping that anyone will actually buy anything—I only thought the list might be interesting, since it gives a snapshot of some of the books I’ll be trying to read in the months ahead.

Eberhard Jüngel: finding ourselves?

“The person who in everything seeks his own self will lose himself. The person who is always in pursuit of his own identity runs the risk of finding neither himself nor anything else for that matter.... In the endeavour to realise himself, man loses those possibilities which make human existence human.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1975), p. 130.

Eberhard Jüngel: existing outside ourselves

“[T]hat which is closest to man, the very ground of his existence and his being, is not something which belongs to him.... [H]is life, that which is most his own, is nevertheless not his own.... For man cannot be truly himself without at the same time standing ‘outside himself’ before God. Whether he is aware of it or not, or whether he even cares to be aware of it, man receives his true self from beyond himself.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1975), p. 63.

Quote of the day

“Chasms vanished before the Lord, and darkness was destroyed by His appearance. Error erred and perished on account of Him; and contempt received no path, for it was submerged by the truth of the Lord. He opened His mouth and spoke grace and joy; and He spoke a new song of praise to His name.”

Odes of Solomon 31:1-3.

Wednesday, 12 October 2005

Eberhard Jüngel: ever more human

“The Christian faith is that human view of God in which the human person trusts in the fact that God became and is human, in order that humanity can be human and can become ever more human. More briefly: the essence of the Christian faith is the proper distinction between God and humanity, between a human God and a humanity becoming ever more human.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, “Was ist ‘das unterscheidend Christliche’?” in Unterwegs zur Sache: Theologische Bemerkungen (Munich: Kaiser, 1972), p. 299.

Eberhard Jüngel: fellows of Jesus Christ

“[W]hen any person is addressed in his or her humanness, that person is addressed on the basis of being a fellow of Jesus Christ.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays I (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 140.

Duns Scotus in Modern Theology

John Duns Scotus was one of the greatest of the medieval theologians. His penetrating scholastic theology earned him the nickname doctor subtilis (the subtle doctor). I myself have been very impressed by Scotus’s work on themes like freedom, volition, reason and revelation, and I have sometimes wished there were more theological engagement with Scotus today.

So I was delighted to discover that the new issue of Modern Theology is devoted to Scotus and to his relationship to modern theology (with a particular focus on Radical Orthodoxy). The journal features seven articles on Scotus, by Catherine Pickstock, Thomas Williams, Matthew Levering, Oliver Boulnois, Mary Beth Ingham, Emmanuel Perrier, and Kevin L. Hughes. All the articles are available online through Blackwell Synergy.

Since Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas represent two of the three great schools of medieval theology, this special issue is the perfect complement to Modern Theology’s recent issue (20:1, 2004) on Thomas Aquinas. Now the editors will have to complete the set with an issue devoted to William of Ockham.

Quote of the day

“A mute and obscure God would be an idol. The true and living God is eloquent and radiant.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, p. 79.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005

Eberhard Jüngel: the universal validity of anthropological statements

“[P]recisely because ‘God’ is the presupposition with which theological anthropology works, every statement in theological anthropology must have universal anthropological validity and therefore also universal intelligibility.... The fundamental unity of the utmost concreteness on the one hand and the utmost generality on the other, which Christian theology claims for God and for him alone, compels theological anthropology to make statements whose universal validity must be justifiable even if God ... is left out of the argument.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays I (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 126.

Quote of the day

I was knocked out loaded in the naked night
When my last dream exploded, I noticed your light

—Bob Dylan, “Under Your Spell” (1986)

Eberhard Jüngel: denying the divinity of humanity

“The specific task of theological anthropology ... can thus be defined as denying the divinity of humanity.... To let God be human in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason not to let humanity become God: this is the anthropological task which the Christian faith demands of thinking. Denying the divinity of humanity on the basis of the humanity of God would be the most rigorous interpretation of our humanity.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays I (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 152.

Monday, 10 October 2005

International Journal of Systematic Theology: Yves Congar

The new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology is devoted to the theology of French Dominican theologian Yves Congar, and to the influential theological movement known as the nouvelle théologie. The essays were originally presented at a conference at Cambridge University in December 2004, where theologians from the UK and the US met to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Congar. Here are the essays (all available online through Blackwell Synergy):

A. N. Williams, “The Future of the Past: The Contemporary Significance of the Nouvelle Théologie

Brian Daley, “The Nouvelle Théologie and the Patristic Revival: Sources, Symbols and the Science of Theology”

James Hanvey, “In the Presence of Love: The Pneumatological Realization of the Economy: Yves Congar’s Le Mystère du Temple

John Webster, “Purity and Plenitude: Evangelical Reflections on Congar’s Tradition and Traditions

Karen Kilby, “Aquinas, the Trinity and the Limits of Understanding”

Denys Turner, “How to Read the Pseudo-Denys Today?”

Eberhard Jüngel: the distinction between God and humanity

“The chief thing in Christian theology is that ... the proper distinction between God and humanity is reached. This is the fundamental distinction of Christian theology. For in the last analysis, the revelation of God which it is the concern of Christian theology to understand means just this: for the good of humanity God himself intends the proper distinction between himself and humanity, a distinction which humanity by itself always neglects.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, The Freedom of a Christian: Luther’s Significance for Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), pp. 24-25.

Sunday, 9 October 2005

Eberhard Jüngel: God and humanity

“It is fundamental to a Christian understanding of God and humanity that we neither advance a view of humanity on the basis of a preconceived understanding of God, nor advance a view of God on the basis of a preconceived understanding of humanity.... Rather, judgments about God and humanity can only be made on the basis of one and the same event. For Christian faith, this event is God’s identity with the life and death of the one man Jesus, revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.... The event of God’s identifying with this human life grounds eschatologically the distinction between God and humanity.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays I (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 152.

Saturday, 8 October 2005

Eberhard Jüngel's theological anthropology

Michael Jensen has been posting on theological anthropology, which has prompted me to offer a brief series on Eberhard Jüngel's theological anthropology. First, let me try to summarise Jüngel's approach.

Jüngel follows Barth in grounding anthropology in christology. Barth has been routinely criticised for this christological grounding (some critics have ominously labelled it "christomonism"). A significant part of Jüngel's achievement is to provide a powerful vindication of Barth's approach.

For Jüngel, the theme of all theology is the distinction between God and humanity. In other words, his whole theology aims to let God really be God and to let humanity really be human. But Jüngel claims that it is God himself who makes the distinction between God and humanity, and God makes this distinction in the death of Jesus. God identifies himself with the dead Jesus. This event of identification is God's humanity—and it is precisely this event of the humanity of God which distinguishes God from humanity. To put it another way: our true humanity is established outside ourselves in the event of the death of Jesus, which is itself the event of the justification of the godless.

It seems to me that Jüngel's theological anthropology convincingly demonstrates that the grounding of humanity in christology does not undermine genuine humanity, as critics of Barth claim. Rather this christological grounding establishes the true humanness of humanity.

The cat and the fiddle

Sean du Toit offers this wicked (and wickedly funny) parody of Bultmannian criticism.

Friday, 7 October 2005

No Direction Home

The great day finally arrived. Yesterday Martin Scorsese’s new documentary was released here in Australia: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. It’s a superb, sensitive, compelling, humorous film, with stacks of rare footage, interviews, and remarkable live performances (including previously-unreleased versions of my two favourite songs: “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna”).

If you’re interesting in Bob Dylan, or folk music, or rock and roll, or Joan Baez, or Allen Ginsberg, or the sixties.... then you gotta see this film. And for those of you who, like me, simply can’t get enough of Dylan’s music, the soundtrack is now also available.

Kierkegaard and Socrates

The latest issue of the Søren Kierkegaard Newsletter has just arrived in the mail. It includes this interesting little article by Jacob Howland (also available online): “Kierkegaard on Socrates in the Journals and Papers,” Søren Kierkegaard Newsletter 49 (August 2005), pp. 12-16. The article offers a sneak preview of some of the themes that will be developed in Howland’s book, Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2006).

The relationship between Kierkegaard and Socrates is complex and immensely fascinating, so I’ll look forward to reading Howland’s book when it appears.

Thursday, 6 October 2005

The best experience in dogmatics

“Dogmatics does not require us to say the last word. What must be said in all circumstances is not the last word by which we stand or fall. We can and should be allowed to make mistakes. We must have the courage to make statements that will need to be revised, the courage not to be prejudiced and block any further advance. This courage frees us from the obligation to get everything right—that is the best experience in dogmatics.”

—Gerhard Sauter, Gateways to Dogmatics: Reasoning Theologically for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 274.

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

The doctrine of Scripture: closing reflections

Back in early September I wrote a couple of posts on the doctrine of Scripture, and I got so interested in the topic that it unexpectedly turned into a month-long series. My reflections on Scripture did not represent an attempt at a definitive statement. On the contrary, I was simply trying to think out loud, to experiment with some basic concepts, and to offer a provisional approach toward a contemporary doctrine of Scripture.

The main point I wanted to make was that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the subject-matter of Scripture, and that the gospel should therefore be the starting point for all theological reflection on Scripture.

In this final post in the series, I want to close with some critical reflections on the series as a whole. What are the theological problems that stand out as I look back on the series? If I were to start all over again, what would I do differently? Four main criticisms come to mind:

1. First of all, I think theological reflection on Scripture should take place within a trinitarian context. This context was always in the back of my mind throughout the series (since I view the gospel itself as implicitly trinitarian), but it never became explicit. I think this is a very significant theological shortcoming, and in future I would attempt to make the trinitarian context explicit from the very start. Above all, I would probably try to do this by speaking first and foremost of God the Holy Spirit—which brings me to my next criticism.

2. During the series, a few readers pointed out that I was not saying much about the Holy Spirit. Again, the role of the Spirit was often implicit. But the fact that it was not fully explicit and in the foreground is a serious problem. If I were to start the series again I would try to let the Spirit be both the first word and the last word, and I would try to demonstrate that the whole doctrine of Scripture is in fact nothing more or less than a subdivision of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

3. It is also necessary to criticise the series for its lack of clarity about the relationship between Scripture and the church. In a certain sense it would be true to say that the nature of this relationship is the fundamental question which a doctrine of Scripture tries to answer. I spoke several times about this relationship in negative terms—e.g. “Scripture does not receive its authority from the church”—but somehow I never got around to articulating the relationship in positive terms. And theological negations count for little unless they are first defined by theological affirmations. If I were to start the series again, I would try to focus on the work of the Spirit in such a way that the relationship between Scripture and church becomes clear, so that in turn the concrete ecclesial context of Scripture is articulated theologically.

4. Finally, I should also criticise my conceptual use of the term “gospel.” I think this concept is correct and useful, but I think it should be employed far more sharply and more radically than it was in my own formulations. In particular, if I were starting the series again I would try to give prominence to the proclamatory or kerygmatic character of the gospel. I would thus try to articulate the primacy of proclamation over the written biblical texts, so that it remains clear that these texts themselves are, first and foremost, the records of preaching, and in exactly this way they are also the source of all successive preaching. I would also try to express more sharply the fact that the “Word of God” is essentially an event of evangelical proclamation—and that the biblical texts exist in service of this event and must be understood from the standpoint of this event. Such a kerygmatic use of the term “gospel” is not only more precise theologically, but also more faithful to the true character of the biblical writings.

Perhaps I can schematically summarise these four criticisms by saying that my theology of Scripture should be more Orthodox in its attention to the Trinity, more Catholic in its attention to the church, more Reformed in its attention to the Spirit, and—above all—more Lutheran in its attention to the Word. (Sorry to all my Baptist readers: I just couldn’t think of a fifth one.)

Well, these are my closing suggestions. The challenge here—as always in theology—is never to stop thinking, but always to be willing to start again.

The victory of faith

“Actual progress [in the Christian life] will show itself concretely just in this: that we understand better and better that we are absolutely dependent on grace. As Luther said at the end of his life, ‘It is verily true; we are beggars!’ That is the only sense in which we can speak of the victory of faith.”

—Karl Barth, Credo: A Presentation of the Chief Problems of Dogmatics with Reference to the Apostles’ Creed (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1936), p. 202.

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

Quote of the day

“But we must learn that forgiveness of sins, Christ and the Holy Spirit are freely given to us only by the hearing of faith preached, in spite of our horrible sins and demerits.... A person therefore is made a Christian not by working, but by hearing.”

—Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (1535); on Gal. 3:2.

Angels and demons, Barth and Bultmann

I asked yesterday whether there is “a real spirit world.” Jim West adds a very nice summary of the differences between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann on this question.

Personally, I would tend here (as elsewhere) to agree formally with Bultmann but materially with Barth. Formally, I think Bultmann is right: our task is not to reproduce the biblical writers’ apocalyptic worldview, but to interpret it. And materially, I think Barth’s theological interpretation of the demons has never been surpassed: the demons are personifications of the threatening, chaotic power of the Nothingness (das Nichtige).

Monday, 3 October 2005

Scripture and certainty

One of the points that I have most emphasised over the past couple of weeks is this: God's Word depends solely on God himself, and not on any ecclesial authorisation or confirmation. From an epistemological standpoint, the argument is circular: we know that Scripture is the Word of God because God speaks.

It has long been recognised that exactly this circularity is essential to the Protestant theology of Scripture. It was exactly this circularity that liberated Scripture from a subservience to ecclesial tradition in the sixteenth century; the reformers' assertion of sola Scriptura was intimately connected to this circularity.

D. F. Strauss was thus quite justified to criticise this circular affirmation of the Word of God as “the Achilles' heel of the Protestant system.” The point of this criticism is that the Protestant understanding of Scripture allows no room for any objective certainty about Scripture itself—so that here the whole “Protestant system” threatens to collapse like a house of cards. (Counter-Reformation Catholic theology, in contrast, was specifically calculated to provide objective certainty: the church guarantees for us that Scripture is the Word of God.)

The Protestant conception of Scripture is summed up by Karl Barth, when he says that “the statement that the Bible is the Word of God is an analytical statement, a statement which ... must either be understood as grounded in itself and preceding all other statements, or it cannot be understood at all. The Bible must be known as the Word of God if it is to be known as the Word of God. The doctrine of Holy Scripture in the Evangelical Church is that this logical circle is the circle of self-asserting, self-attesting truth” (CD I/2, p. 535).

There is therefore no prior ground to which we can appeal for certainty. For there is no greater certainty than the certainty of faith itself—i.e., the faith that hears God's own self-witness in Scripture. Thus Barth perceptively notes that although this lack of objective certainty appears to be the “weakest point” of Protestant theology, it is in fact its point of “indestructible strength” (p. 537). And Herman Bavinck makes just the same observation when he notes that faith is grounded solely in God's own self-witness, so that faith possesses the spontaneous certainty of self-evidence—which, in contrast to all “objective” forms of certainty, is truly and unshakeably certain (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1).

Let me leave you with this suggestion: If we present the doctrine of Scripture in such a way that it does not seem to be threatened by the problem of “objective certainty,” then we have simply failed to grasp the one essential point of the doctrine of Scripture. This essential point is that the Word of God is God's Word. We know it is God's Word because God addresses us and claims us with this Word through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are certain of all this, because this Word calls forth faith from the depths of our being.

Theological reflection on Scripture cannot end with such self-attesting assertions; but it has to start here, if it is truly to be the reflection of faith.

A spirit world?

Recently I heard a sermon on the closing chapters of the book of Daniel. On the basis of Dan. 10:20, the preacher declared very emphatically that there is “a real spirit world” in which spiritual beings are at war with one another.

Should Christians really affirm the existence of a “spirit world”? Is such a concept even intelligible? Is it theologically justifiable?

In the case of this particular sermon, I found myself wondering whether such a literalistic interpretation of Dan. 10 rested on a basic misunderstanding of the apocalyptic genre. Do any of my apocalyptically-informed readers wish to comment?

Ring Them Bells

Ring them bells St Peter
Where the four winds blow,
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know.
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plough
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow.

Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son,
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.
For the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep.

...

Ring them bells St Catherine
From the top of the room,
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom.
For the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong.

—Bob Dylan, “Ring Them Bells” (1989)

Saturday, 1 October 2005

The perspicuity of Scripture

Reformation theologians spoke of the “clarity” or “perspicuity” of Scripture. Here their emphasis was not on the words of Scripture themselves, but on the central message of Scripture. According to Reformation theology, the message of salvation shines out clearly from Scripture through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the confession of the perspicuity of Scripture was not intended as a formal statement about the language of the biblical texts. Nor was it an assertion that the individual books of the Bible are easy for anyone to understand without technical assistance. Rather the confession of perspicuity meant that through the witness of the Spirit the message of the gospel becomes clear and compelling right here and now as the Bible is read and (especially) preached.

In his fine book Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), G. C. Berkouwer highlights this point (p. 275): “The Reformation was not dealing with the words by themselves, but with the message in Scripture of which the words spoke. This clarity of the message presupposes the accessibility of the words, but that accessibility was not the subject of the real purpose of the confession. According to the Reformers, the force behind this connection of message and words was the power of the Spirit. For that reason the confession of perspicuity is not a statement in general concerning the human language of Scripture, but a confession concerning the perspicuity of the gospel in Scripture.”

Thus the perspicuity of Scripture has nothing whatever to do with the pious fiction that the individual Christian can understand the Bible perfectly well all by himself, without the bothersome assistance of scholars and commentaries. Such an attitude—which is still prevalent in many churches—masquerades as reverence for the Bible, but actually rests on a fundamental disrespect for the true nature and character of the biblical writings.

The Scripture principle

“It is not a good sign for Protestants, or for the depth of their view, if they do not feel the difficulties that afflict the Scripture principle as compared to the church principle of Roman Catholics. It is not a good sign if they can present or hear the Roman Catholic doctrine without a certain homesickness for its unheard-of soberness and certainty.”

-Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 204.

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