Wednesday, 31 May 2006

For the love of God (7): Why I love Jean-Luc Marion

A guest-post by Cynthia Nielsen

Jean-Luc Marion is one of the major voices in philosophy these days. He is both prolific and well-received by philosophers and theologians. Marion knows the philosophical tradition well. For example, he began his career as an expert of Descartes and has written extensively on Descartes. Although he is a Christian thinker, Marion’s excellent scholarship has won wide acceptance in secular circles.

In addition to his theological contributions, Marion is a major player in the field of phenomenology. Husserl’s motto (with Kant in mind) was: “to the things themselves.” However, Husserl did not overcome the problems of Kantianism. As Kant himself points out, God sees the world in a way entirely different from the way in which we see it—God sees it all at once (uno intuitu), not discursively as we do. If you accept that, then you must ask whether the world is really the way God sees it or the way we see it.

Husserl addresses this problem, and though he is unable to solve it, he introduces the concept of the “givenness” of phenomena. Marion takes this Husserlian insight and tries to show how “givenness” allows us to escape from the Kantian problem. Marion is thus able to utilize insights from Heidegger and Husserl in order to work toward a solution to the problems raised by Kant.

In addition to his excellent scholarship and intimate familiarity with the tradition, Marion pushes us forward with his distinctively postmodern insights. Inviting us to see things from new and unexpected angles, he often engages in a deconstructing or subverting project. Personally, I find Marion’s desire to introduce a “new subject” among the most intriguing aspects of his project. Instead of the modern, all-controlling and even idolatrous subject, Marion pursues a subject who subjects himself and is thus constituted by the situation.

Nonetheless, Marion, does not want to do away with all modernist assumptions, nor does he desire to return to a pre-critical realism. In Marion, we encounter both an embracing of and a moving beyond modernist assumptions. Combining pre-modern, postmodern and a selective sprinkling of modernist insights, Marion releases the closed-in Kantian subject and gives us a new subject who can be overcome or “bedazzled” and re-constituted as a witness to the Other whom we know as love.

Humanity as the mystery of God

“We could now define humanity ... as that which ensues when God’s self-utterance, his Word, is given out lovingly into the void of god-less nothing.... And if God himself is human and remains so forever; if all theology is therefore eternally an anthropology; if the human is forbidden to belittle himself, because to do so would be to belittle God; and if this God remains the insoluble mystery—then humanity is forever the articulate mystery of God.”

—Karl Rahner, “On the Theology of the Incarnation,” in Theological Investigations IV (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), p. 116.

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Your favourite Reformed theologian

Thanks to the 164 people who voted in the latest poll. And the winner is—Karl Barth, of course! Barth was clearly the favourite Reformed theologian with 44% of the votes, ahead of Calvin (23%), Moltmann (16%) and Jonathan Edwards (12%). To my surprise, Schleiermacher received only 5% of the votes—even though he’s one of the most brilliant and decisive thinkers in the entire history of Christendom! Still, I admit that it would be very hard to love Schleiermacher more than Barth....

Anyway, stay tuned for another poll soon on modern Anglican theologians (no, I’m not joking).

Hans Hübner: God and faith

Chris Tilling and Jim West have both been talking with great enthusiasm about Hans Hübner’s new book, Evangelische Fundamentaltheologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005); and Jim has written a very insightful and sympathetic review of the book for the next issue of RBL.

If you appreciate Gerhard Ebeling’s hermeneutical approach to theology, then you’ll no doubt want to read this book as well. For Hübner, the “principle of all theological hermeneutics” is that “only the one who believes in God can understand God” (p. 99). Faith and God belong together: “Where God is, there is faith. And where faith is, there is God” (p. 210). It seems to me that the whole of theology is summed up in these words.

Monday, 29 May 2006

For the Love of God (6): Why I love John Webster

A guest-post by D. W. Congdon

“Christian theology is properly evangelical, because it is generated by the gospel” (Word and Church, p. 110).

This line near the end of John Webster’s discussion of Barth and Bonhoeffer stands like a banner over his own dogmatic work. Webster represents the future of English systematic theology simply because of his unwavering attention to the gospel—to the gracious Word of God incarnate, written, and spoken. To borrow a concept from Barth and developed by Eberhard Jüngel—both Barth and Jüngel are mentors as well as scholarly interests—Webster is committed to “thinking after” and “speaking after” God’s own speech in the Word of the gospel.

I was in my third year at Wheaton College when John Webster came as the keynote speaker for the annual theology conference. As usual, he demonstrated his characteristic concern for dogmatic precision. Webster refuses to compromise when the gospel is at stake. He insists on theological clarity in order to preserve what must be preserved: the distinction between Creator and creatures; the perfection of God; God’s being-in-act as a being pro nobis.

Webster is a brilliant expositor of Barth and Jüngel. He is largely responsible both for the current renaissance in Barth studies and for whatever interest exists in Jüngel in English-speaking countries. His own dogmatic work continues to grow and take shape in response to these two figures. When I was speaking with him last week at a Barth conference, he told me about his current work on a commentary on Ephesians, and he said that in perhaps five years his own systematic theology will be well underway. Whether his focus is on Christology, the canon, hope, holiness, Holy Scripture, or the attributes of God, Webster pursues what he calls a more “theological theology,” whose distinctiveness lies “in its invocation of God as agent in the intellectual practice of theology” (Confessing God, p. 25). The triune God of grace is not only at the center of his work, but actually shapes it as the God who acts. Webster knows that he only receives what he is given.

In an introduction to the recent English edition of Jüngel’s Justification, Webster writes the following about Jüngel’s polemicizing: “for Jüngel, contending about the truth is itself a contribution to ecumenism, since it is the truth of the gospel which is the only ground of the church’s peace” (pp. xiii-xiv). The same can truly be said of John Webster himself.

How to do historical research: advice from Karl Barth

“For me it would be a canon of all research in theological history, and perhaps in all history, that one should try to present what has engaged another person, whether in a good way or in a way less good, as something living, as something that has moved him in some way and that can and indeed does move oneself too; to unfold it in such a way that, even if one finally takes some other route, the path of this other has an enticing, or, if you like, a tempting attraction for oneself.”

—Karl Barth, letter 18 January 1967, in Letters, 1961-1968 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 234.

Sunday, 28 May 2006

Zwingli, God and beetles

“Of ourselves we know no more about the nature of God than beetles know about the nature of humans.”

—Ulrich Zwingli, Opera (Turici, 1842), 3:157.

Sunday with Mozart

This afternoon I went to a performance of Mozart’s beautifully intimate Clarinet Concerto, conducted by Werner Andreas Albert.

A Sunday with Mozart is truly a “day of rest.”

Saturday, 27 May 2006

For the love of God (5): Why I love Zwingli

A guest-post by Jim West

My initial introduction to Huldrych (sometimes Ulrich, though he preferred the former) Zwingli was many years ago now in an “Introduction to the Reformation” class I took as an undergrad. The Professor liked Luther and Calvin and gave only short shrift to Zwingli—a man whom he described as a maniac. The Prof opined that Zwingli “hated church music and took the key to the church organ of the Grossmünster and threw it into the lake.”

I wondered where he got these facts, so I started looking. Lo and behold, his story about the key and the organ turned out to be wholly apocryphal. And so, I reasoned, his opinion about Zwingli concerning music must be wrong as well—as it was. Zwingli didn’t hate church music—he was himself an accomplished musician, playing more than a dozen instruments! It was the abuse of music in the church that Zwingli despised.

So, if the Prof were wrong about these things, it seemed to me, he must also be wrong about Zwingli altogether. Zwingli was no maniac; he was the most pastoral and most conciliatory of all the great reformers, and he deserved better than he was getting at the hands of scholars who blindly loved Luther.

Thus began my life-long interest in discovering the real Zwingli. To summarize what this great man means to me in a short space is utterly impossible. I must be content with simply suggesting that, of all the magisterial reformers, he alone and singularly demonstrated that “faith without works is dead.” Luther was possessed by his own notion of “faith,” and Calvin was possessed by a desire for “works”; only Zwingli held the two together in proper tension.

Only Zwingli was a pastor. Only Zwingli was the absolute combination of scholar, theologian, and preacher. That’s why I love Zwingli. He is what I have always wished—and have failed so miserably—to be.

Preaching is hard

Preaching is hard. Damn right it is.

Friday, 26 May 2006

For the love of God (4): Why I love Paul Tillich

A guest-post by Patrik Hagman

My first encounter with Paul Tillich was within the first weeks of my theological studies. Obviously this was not a course I was supposed to take, but I had bluffed my way in. One of the texts we worked with was the final chapter of Tillich’s The Courage to Be. This is not an easy text, especially taken out of its context like that. But something made me read it again and again. A few years later I read the whole book and I decided to write my Master’s thesis (or pro gradu as we call it in Finland) on Tillich and the Systematic Theology.

Many people find Tillich’s language difficult. All this talk of “being,” “ultimate concern,” “self-alienation.” But for me, then completely fed up with conventional religious language, this was enlightenment. It was like I had been given back my faith.

Reading the system was an overwhelming experience. It was as though Tillich put into words every vague notion I had ever had. Suddenly everything made sense. The genius of Tillich’s method is that it creates meaning. Everything becomes relevant. The system is based on experience. It is not the product of cool reflection; it is about getting involved in the world and in the revelation.

I think this was what made me “fall in love” with Tillich: he completely rejected the notion that being Christian meant existing on some higher plane than the rest of the world. He showed that culture and religions are two sides of the same coin: only a false religion separates them.

Tillich’s reinterpretation of the Christina doctrine enabled me to see that theology is a way of life, not a body of information. There are no limits whatsoever to what theology can be or what can be theology.

Blog of the week

Is it true that there is “nothing new under the sun”? In any case, one new thing under the sun this month is Byron’s excellent new blog entitled Nothing New Under the Sun. This is our new blog of the week.

I had the good fortune of meeting Byron in Sydney last week—he’s an excellent chap who has studied both theology and philosophy, and he has special interests in things like Moltmann, Augustine, Nietzsche, Barth and eschatology. His new blog reflects his diverse interests, as well as his own lively theological insight.

So make sure you pay a visit to Nothing New Under the Sun.

G. C. Berkouwer's studies in dogmatics

The full set of G. C. Berkouwer’s 14-volume Studies in Dogmatics will soon be available electronically from Logos. I have the set in print, and it is a marvellous resource for theological and historical study (and especially for study of the Reformed tradition). My favourite three volumes in the set are Holy Scripture, Sin and Divine Election.

Among Berkouwer’s other works are The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism (1965) and the heart-warming intellectual autobiography, A Half Century of Theology (1977). But of course his greatest achievement was the magisterial study, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (1956)—a work of astonishing power and insight, which moved Barth himself almost to tears.

Thursday, 25 May 2006

For the love of God (3): Why I love Sister Marie Keyrouz

A guest-post by Kevin P. Edgecomb

There is intellectual theology, producing writings, but there is also experiential theology, producing prayer. One such experiential theologian is Sister Marie Keyrouz of the Order of the Sisters of Basil, a Byzantine Catholic order. Born and raised in Lebanon and gifted with a beautiful voice, Sister Keyrouz lives the words of a saying of St Basil: “When you sing, you’re praying twice.” Her faith is magnificently apparent in her singing, especially in those instances employing the extemporization of certain traditional Arabic forms of music. Theological words become prayer soaring ever higher on wings of faith, and when they are given such an expressive voice for their medium, one might be truly enchanted, truly inspired.

Sister Keyrouz is partially responsible for my own journey East, just as St Basil is, as well as others. Upon hearing her voice for the first time, I gasped, completely captured by its beauty. Listening further, I marvelled to learn that such faith was possible, and I determined to repent, and, if possible, to have such a faith too. After several storm-tossed years, I was finally able to say, as Yeats wrote:

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

This is not the same safe harbor that Sister Keyrouz found, or that many of you reading this will have found. Sister Keyrouz was, however, a lighthouse on a headland along my tempestuous journey Home, and I thank her for her light.

Hermann Gunkel: creation and chaos

The ever-watchful Jim West informs us that Hermann Gunkel’s great work, Schöpfung und Chaos (1895), will soon be released by Eerdmans in a full English translation. If necessary, you might want to sell a dozen of your other books about creation-theology and buy this one.

From the publisher’s blurb: “Discovering a number of parallels between the biblical creation accounts and a Babylonian creation account, the Enuma Elish, Gunkel argues that ancient Babylonian traditions shaped the Hebrew people’s perceptions both of God’s creative activity at the beginning of time and of God’s re-creative activity at the end of time.”

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

For the love of God (2): Why I love Hans Urs von Balthasar

A guest-post by Fred from Deep Furrows

Christian tradition is like a French cathedral: one cannot come directly into its breadth, but must enter through a particular portal. When I encountered Hans Urs von Balthasar in his books, I was a college dropout with a love of reading and a faith that had persisted from childhood despite my confusion and lack of focus. In Balthasar, I discovered the heart of Western (literary) tradition in the person of Jesus Christ. And Balthasar also educated me to discover a way of living that tradition in my everyday life.

Balthasar showed me that the beauty of the Western cultural tradition is Christ, a beauty Who is symphonic and thus capable of bringing together a dazzling pluralism of temperaments. In his survey of Theological Aesthetics (Clerical Styles, Lay Styles), Balthasar explores the breadth and depth of this tradition through its most original and lucid representatives: Irenaeus, Augustine, Dionysius, Anselm, Bonaventure, Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, Soloviev, Hopkins, and Peguy. This chorus of voices cannot be systematized, but together they sing the diverse approaches to Christian beauty found in other authors.

Seeing the Form (Volume 1 of the Theological Aesthetics) set before me the ideal of the Christian form of life. For Balthasar, formation is based on the form of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels and encountered decisively in experiences synthesized in the Spiritual Exercises. Together with Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar developed the theme of the Christian life as transparency to the splendor of Christ. This splendor is rooted in listening to the Word of God through Scripture (see Prayer), lived out by following the path that Jesus walked in coming to us (see The Threefold Garland), and expressed through missionary kenosis (see Mysterium Paschale and The Moment of Christian Witness).

The aesthetic imperative

“It is a feeble view of art that isolates it as a sphere of its own for those who find it amusing. The word and command of God demand art, since it is art that sets us under the word of the new heaven and the new earth. Those who, in principle or out of indolence, want to evade the anticipatory creativity of aesthetics are certainly not good. Finally, in the proper sense, to be unaesthetic is to be immoral and disobedient.”

—Karl Barth, Ethics [lectures from 1928-29], ed. Dietrich Braun (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 510.

The centre of Old Testament theology

What is the centre of Old Testament theology? Or does it even have a centre? Pop over to Joe Cathey’s blog and cast your vote in his new poll.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

For the love of God (1): Why I love Rowan Williams

A guest-post by Kim Fabricius

Great theologians are like icons rather than religious paintings: you not only look at God, God looks at you. The theology of Rowan Williams is iconography.

In it we meet the gaze of God. It is the look of agape. Not since Barth—an immense influence—have I felt so love-touched by a theologian.

But the divine gaze is an x-ray of penetration, revealing the cor inquietum (Augustine is probably Rowan’s most significant theological other), exposing the self-love and self-hatred that infect the human project, and the self-deceit that blinds us to both. Rowan is completely conversant with postmodernism, but he doesn’t need Derrida to resource his own hermeneutic of self-deconstruction and social suspicion. Iconoclastic as well as iconographic is Rowan’s theology.

In fact, there is hardly a language-game Rowan cannot play (Wittgenstein is another mentor). He quite promiscuously quarries a range of traditions and thinkers for iconic gold—and finds it in the “silence and honey cakes” of the desert fathers; in the “muddle and silliness” of the saint John Wesley; in the exultant poetry of George Herbert and the dark fiction of Flannery O’Connor; not to mention in that contemporary pop-cultural “icon” Homer Simpson!

Rowan’s theology plays as well as prays (as in attendre, “dropping into what is there”). It is also politics. Its “social programme is the dogma of the Holy Trinity” (Nikolay Fyodorov): inclusive (no voices silenced), egalitarian (on hierarchical power, “think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth”); pacific (based on “the truce of God”); and deeply enfleshed (“The Body’s Grace” is already a classic on both the “precariousness” and the creative possibilities of desire, gay as well as straight).

Not to forget Rowan’s personal holiness, at once profound and prosaic. Rowan is such a nice guy, reserved and vulnerable, yet warm and with-you, gaze for gaze.

Perfect? Not quite: Rowan doesn’t like sports—and he is too uncoordinated even to drive. After a meeting in Aberystwyth he once hitched a ride with me to Swansea. With my own focus more on Rowan than the road, he probably wished he’d taken the train!

For the love of God: 20 theologians and why we love them

Thanks for all the great suggested titles for this new series. In the end, I decided on Dan’s suggestion, “For the Love of God.” Kim Fabricius emailed me a good suggestion, too: “Godfathers.” As a great admirer of the Godfather films, I was tempted to go with this one—except that a number of the theologians in the series are women (and “Godmothers” doesn’t have quite the same ring!).

So the full title of the series is “For the Love of God: 20 Theologians and Why We Love Them.” And now that it has a name, we can finally get started—so the first post in the series should be appearing within the next day. All in all, there will be 20 posts on a range of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox theologians. Although the series will focus mainly on contemporary theology, there will also be posts on some significant and interesting historical figures.

The purpose of the series is not to survey a bunch of “great theologians,” or to come up with a list of the most important theological thinkers. Instead, I have simply asked each contributor to explain why he or she loves a particular theologian. So the series is meant to be subjective and personal; it’s meant to offer a glimpse of why particular theological thinkers have become important to different people.

In other words, the series is as much about “love” as it is about “theologians.” Why is it that the experience of love is so closely tied to theological study? Why is it that we are really deeply influenced only by those thinkers to whom we open ourselves in love? Why is it that the absence of love so often constitutes an obstacle to genuine understanding—so that the thinker whom we have not yet learned to love seems remote and unintelligible?

This series won’t try to answer these questions directly. But it might give us an indirect glimpse of the answers, as we listen to others telling us about the theologians they love.

Monday, 22 May 2006

Theologoumenon

Joshua’s excellent blog, Theologoumenon, is back in action, and there has been some great posting there lately on Moltmann and Kierkegaard.

Ecce homo

My good friend Mike Bird has posted some very nice words about me, and Chris Tilling has responded with a photo (just in case any of you were wondering what a real Aussie looks like).

Mike mentions that I only started this blog because he first suggested it to me last year (after explaining to me what a “blog” was). So, if you loathe and despise Faith and Theology—if visiting this blog is always the worst and most tiresome part of your day—be sure to blame Mike, who talked me into the whole thing!

New poll: Reformed theologians

I have just added a new poll to find out which Reformed theologian you like best. This poll presented very special difficulties. On the one hand, it is a curious fact that, since the 16th century, the dominant theological thinkers have tended to come from the Reformed tradition. (To illustrate: which 18th-century theologian from any tradition could be placed alongside Edwards? Which 19th- or 20th-century theologian could be placed alongside Schleiermacher or Barth?)

More than other traditions, Reformed theology has been characterised by a series of tremendously powerful individual personalities. For a poll, this creates a further problem: it would be ridiculous to place other modern Reformed theologians in the same poll as Barth—as though it were even meaningful to draw a comparison between Barth on the one hand, and Brunner, Torrance and Moltmann on the other. Apples are apples; oranges are oranges.

For the purpose of this poll, then, I have chosen a broad historical spread of five thinkers. Since Moltmann is so popular today, I have also added him to the poll—even though I could have done more justice to the history of Reformed theology by adding another formative thinker like Zwingli or Bullinger, or a heterodox thinker like Arminius or Amyraut, or a Puritan thinker like Owen or Baxter, or a later promoter of orthodoxy like Warfield or Bavinck.

Anyway, come and cast your vote—and if your own preferred Reformed theologian wasn’t included on the poll, let us know whom you would have voted for.

Sunday, 21 May 2006

The God of history

“Jesus, who was Israel’s son, reveals God’s power over history, but he does not do this in one or another form of rule or supremacy, such as kingship, priesthood or even abstract human ideals. He does it rather in the form of impotence—the impotence of one who was crucified. God identified himself with someone who was crucified, someone who died as one who had been rejected by society and by the religious leaders of that society. That history is liberating.... God’s last word about human history is not a word of condemnation or anger—it is a word of mercy and liberation.”

—Edward Schillebeeckx, God Is New Each Moment (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), p. 51.

Saturday, 20 May 2006

Alister McGrath: The Order of Things

Alister McGrath has just sent me a copy of his latest book, The Order of Things: Explorations in Scientific Theology, which is due for release within the next month.

The book begins with my own chapter outlining McGrath’s “scientific theology,” followed by nine essays in which McGrath develops various aspects of the dialogue between theology and science. He explores in depth topics such as natural theology (he is also currently writing a whole book about this), emergence and stratification, biological evolution as a model for doctrinal development, and the church as an empirical reality. The volume also contains methodological reflection on the way to go about constructing an entire “scientific dogmatics,” which is McGrath’s major project for the future.

McGrath has been publishing prolifically on theology and science in recent years; but I reckon this new collection of essays contains some of his most interesting and most creative work to date.

Friday, 19 May 2006

A new series

I’ll be starting a new series shortly, in which various guest-bloggers will explain about why they love certain contemporary or historical theologians. There will be guest-posts on many theological thinkers from a range of Christian traditions—people like Jonathan Edwards, Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Eberhard Jüngel, Hans Küng, Rowan Williams, John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and various others.

But there’s just one problem: I haven’t been able to think of a title for the series. And I can’t start the series until I have a title. So please give me some suggestions!

Your favourite Lutheran theologian

Thanks to all those who voted in the latest poll. A remarkable 47% said that Bonhoeffer was their favourite modern Lutheran theologian, compared to only 5% who voted for Bultmann (even though Bultmann was, of course, a far greater theologian!).

But I was surprised above all by the fact that Eberhard Jüngel—one of the most agonisingly difficult theologians ever to walk God’s good earth—came second with 17%, ahead of Robert Jenson (16%) and Wolfhart Pannenberg (15%). Nothing could have delighted me more, since Jüngel is my own favourite living theologian!

Stay tuned shortly for a poll on your favourite Reformed theologian....

Possessed and driven

“Only evil spirits, not good ones, possess a person and drive him.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 31.

A world beyond

“[T]hose who make a distinction between this world and the world beyond delude themselves; at least all who are religious believe in only one world.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 16.

[Byron has more on this topic.]

Breaking the silence

Sorry about the long silence. As it turned out, I had no internet access for a few days. But I'll be back soon....

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Southward bound

I’ll be in Sydney until Friday, teaching a course at Moore Theological College. I won’t be online much, but I’ll try to keep posting now and then throughout the week.

So if you’re in Sydney and you happen to see this friendly face, make sure you stop and say hello!

A four-year-old's ecumenical theology

I have occasionally posted theological insights here from my three-year-old daughter (who is now four). On the weekend, she and I were watching a documentary about Pope John Paul II. Like most young Protestant children, she didn’t know what a “Pope” is. So I explained that, just as our pastor cares for the people in the church, and just as the bishop cares for the people in a whole area, so the Pope cares for all the people in the whole world; he is pastor to the world.

She was satisfied with this explanation, so we continued to watch the film. The film showed the great crowd of people who came to celebrate the election of John Paul II back in 1978. When my daughter asked me why they were celebrating, I said the people were thanking God for their new special Pastor.

And at this point she made her incisive theological comment: “But why are they celebrating both God and the special Pastor?” With this simple question of the “both/and,” she summed up in a nutshell the whole Protestant critique of Catholic theology!

Eberhard Jüngel: God for us

Over at The Fire and the Rose, David Congdon has been doing a lot of excellent posting on Eberhard Jüngel. Here’s one of the quotes from Jüngel that he posted recently:

“I believe, therefore I am astonished. And how! Believing, one experiences God as the inexhaustible mystery of oneself and of all things; as the one who is absolutely surprising, who nevertheless is or should be self-evident; as an absolutely singular event that nevertheless is of unsurpassable generality; as eternal being and yet full of becoming; as the most concrete, who as such is the most concrete universal; as the Father in heaven who reveals himself on earth in the brother of humanity.... In believing, the human person experiences the mystery of the triune God who takes the relationlessness of death upon himself, in order to be the being rich in relations, the being of love in the unity of life and death to the benefit of life.... I believe, therefore I am astonished at the trinitarian mystery as the sum of the gospel: God from eternity and thus in and of himself is God for us.”

Monday, 15 May 2006

Jaroslav Pelikan: 1923-2006

I was deeply saddened to learn that our greatest contemporary church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, has died.

Pelikan passed away on Saturday at the age of 82, after a long battle with lung cancer. He was the Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, where he served on the faculty from 1962 to 1996. He wrote more than 30 books, including the brilliant 5-volume work The Christian Tradition, which is perhaps the best single history of Christian theology ever written. He was also involved in editing and translating many historical works, including the 55-volume American edition of Luther’s Works, and the 4-volume Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition.

A life-long Lutheran and an ordained Lutheran minister, Pelikan entered the Orthodox Church in 1998. He was a profound and gifted scholar who will be sadly missed.

New poll on Lutheran theologians

Who is your favourite modern Lutheran theologian? Cast your vote in the new poll!

Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, it is almost impossible to limit the number of options, since modern Lutheran theology has been characterised by limitless riches of insight, energy and creativity. So in the end I simply chose my own five favourite modern Lutherans (and I disqualified Jaroslav Pelikan on account of his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, which made things just a little easier!).

If only there were a couple more places available, I would also have included Paul Tillich and Gerhard Ebeling....

The fall from freedom

“Like someone who has shrieked too loudly and has lost his voice, so we have been boastful in our freedom, and now freedom ... has been lost.”

—Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology (London: Lutterworth, 1939), 135.

Sunday, 14 May 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival VI: call for submissions

The sixth Biblical Studies Carnival will be hosted here at Faith and Theology on 1 June.

The Carnival presents posts relating to the academic discipline of biblical studies and cognate disciplines. You can nominate either a post of your own or someone else’s post, and you’re free to make multiple nominations (but only one post per author). The posts should have been published recently, within the month of May.

To submit a post for inclusion to the Biblical Studies Carnival VI, you may do one of the following:

1. Send the following information to the email address biblical_studies_carnival AT hotmail.com:

• The title and permalink URL of the blog post you wish to nominate and the author’s name or pseudonym.
• A short (two or three sentence) summary of the blog post
• The title and URL of the blog on which it appears (please note if it is a group blog)
• Include “Biblical Studies Carnival VI” in the subject line of your email
• Your own name and email address

2. Or, more simply, use the submission form here. Just select “biblical studies carnival” and fill in the rest of the information noted above.

To find out more about the Biblical Studies Carnival, visit the Carnival homepage.

[Please circulate this announcement as appropriate.]

An mp3 lecture on Karl Barth

On The Barthian Milieu mailing list, Thom Chittom points out that Dr Angus Paddison’s recent lecture on Karl Barth is available online in mp3. The lecture was given in the University of Durham’s New Testament Seminar back in February, and the title was “Karl Barth on Romans 9-11.”

God’s word and act

“God’s Word is always active in character.... But God’s action is always verbal in character.”

—Ethelbert Stauffer, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1955), p. 56.

Friday, 12 May 2006

The Book Thief

The best new novel I have read in quite some time is the magnificent 560-page work, The Book Thief, by the young novelist Markus Zusak. It’s a powerful, compelling and humorous story about a young German girl in the Second World War who discovers books and the power of words. She also learns a very important skill: how to steal books.

I think the book’s greatest achievement is its intriguing and wonderfully funny narrator. Without spoiling the story, I’ll just tell you that the narrator is not even a human being—he is Death himself (and Death has never been more endearing).

Anyway, if you only want to read one new novel this year, I reckon this should be the one. I devoured it recently, and I’m already feeling like reading it again. To find out more about the novel, you can also check out the author’s very nice website.

Alvin Plantinga: what is a fundamentalist?

Cynthia posts a very funny quote from Alvin Plantinga on the meaning of the word “fundamentalist.” Plantinga provides a very helpful way of identifying people against whom we can use the label.

Are all theologians?

“A church composed of only dogmaticians would no longer be a church but a research center. ‘Are all dogmaticians?’ Paul might have added to his list in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30. The proportion of dogmatic specialists in the fellowship needs only to be small. But those who can benefit from their work needs to be many.”

—Hendrikus Berkhof, Introduction to the Study of Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 14.

Thursday, 11 May 2006

God in a shrinking universe

One of the coolest new blogs out there at the moment is God in a Shrinking Universe, by Patrik Hagman from Finland. This is our new blog of the week.

Patrik sets out to offer a “pessimistic theology.” In his words: “What I want to discuss is the role of the—primarily Christian—religion in a world that is not progressing any more, but is heading towards a scenario with more injustice, suffering and meaninglessness rather than less. It is my belief that this is where our world is heading, and I feel this is something that most, if not all, modern theology does not address sufficiently. Faith in a pessimistic worldview, or God in a shrinking universe.”

Although my own personality tends to be incurably optimistic, I think Patrik is raising some really interesting questions, and he has already written excellent posts on topics like the theology of crisis and the doctrine of creation.

The usefulness of theology

“For dogmatics is really done well only by people who undertake this study not for the sake of any utility they see in it but because they cannot help themselves. This is true, for that matter, of any science. It is studied simply because a person wants to know. And it is precisely then that discoveries are made that prove later to be very useful.”

—Hendrikus Berkhof, Introduction to the Study of Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 13.

Travelling outside karma: U2's Grace

Tonight while I was washing the dishes I listened to U2’s sublime song, “Grace” (2000). I need to listen to this song every now and then, just to be reminded that I still know nothing at all about grace. Many preachers, perhaps even many theologians, do not understand the grace of God half as well as this song does.

The song depicts grace as a beautiful woman who creates music wherever she goes, a woman who “travels outside of karma,” while carrying a single pearl. The woman’s entire existence is nothing more or less than a single, unconditional Yes to the world, a Yes that heals and forgives without a second thought, a Yes that cancels every debt and covers every shameful thing. Her existence is an embodied contradiction of all “karma,” of getting what you deserve. You never get what you deserve from this woman; from her you deserve only silence, but instead she stops to talk, and when she’s near you, “you can hear the strings.” And so the woman finds and creates beauty wherever she goes.

The song’s personification of grace is superb; but the music is just as important, especially that simple, carefree guitar riff on which the whole song rests. Even before Bono starts to sing, this riff itself already conveys everything the song wants to say about grace. The riff is as smooth as a woman’s hips, as soft and easy as her footsteps on the street. In its seamless, circular perfection, it’s like the “pearl in perfect condition” that the woman carries. From the moment we first hear those notes, we know that we are in another world, travelling “outside of karma.” This effortless riff is itself the contradiction of all karma and all works-righteousness.

Beneath everything else in the song—Bono’s voice, the percussion, the guitars and synths that rise momentarily out of darkness and then fade again—beneath all this, that single, carefree riff still follows its own uninterrupted path. Even when Bono begins for a moment to lapse into a kind of vocal works-righteousness, with his too-strenuous repetition of the final line, the guitar riff continues undisturbed, so that the small vocal flaw is sublated and transformed, caught up and carried on the gentle rhythms of grace.

It’s no accident that the song both begins and ends with this guitar riff. At first, we hear nothing but the riff—and when every other instrument has faded into silence, for a moment we hear again only those same pulsing notes, the notes that continue on their way when all else has ceased. In the end, there is only grace.

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Your favourite Catholic theologian

Of the 95 people who voted in the latest poll, 40% said they liked Hans Urs von Balthasar best, followed by 18% who preferred Hans Küng. Karl Rahner and the Pope were next with 16% each, while Yves Congar followed with 11%.

I found these results very interesting—I assumed that Balthasar would win (who could be stony-hearted enough not to love Balthasar?), but I also thought that Rahner would be a close second.

In the next week or so I’ll run similar polls to find out who are your favourite Reformed and Lutheran theologians as well.

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

Dinner with Francis Watson

Mike is one lucky bird.

God and Michael Leunig

This week on the TV show Enough Rope, Andrew Denton interviewed the great Aussie cartoonist, Michael Leunig. When Leuing was asked whether he thought that God was listening, he replied:

“I don’t think of God as a he, or a listener—or a she. I just think it’s a poem.... It’s a sense of God. I just love the word. I love using it. It sings, you know? It’s sweet. It’s a sweet word. I’m at ease with it. My ancestors used it. Some wonderful musicians and composers and poets used it. They must have been talking about something. I feel entitled to this word. I inherited it, you know.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: the paradox of Christ

“He hungered, but he nourished thousands; he is heaven’s bread of life. He thirsted, but he shouted, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink’.... He prays, but he listens. He weeps, but he stops tears.... As a lamb, he is speechless, but he is the Word, announced by the voice of him who cries in the wilderness. He bears infirmity and is wounded, but he heals every disease and every weakness.... He saves even the robber being crucified; he made dark every visible thing.... The rocks are split; the dead rise. He dies, but he makes alive, and by his death he destroys death. He is buried, but he arises.”

Gregory of Nazianzus, Third Theological Oration: On the Son, 11.20.

Kathryn Tanner: the profligacy of grace

Check out the provocative post over at Even the Devils Believe.

Monday, 8 May 2006

What is heresy?

At his new blog, According to Jonathan, Jonathan Brown has an insightful post on the question of heresy. He rightly highlights the human cost involved in identifying any person as a “heretic.”

The way the term “heresy” functions in theological discourse is an immensely interesting topic. One of the most acute discussions of the concept of heresy is that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his Christian Faith, §§21-22. Schleiermacher’s account is especially useful for highlighting the important role “heresy” plays in the construction of dogmatic theology.

Schleiermacher famously categorises the “natural heresies of Christianity” into four basic forms: the Docetic, the Ebionitic, the Manichaean and the Pelagian. Apart from these four forms, he argues, “other kinds of heresy” simply “cannot be conceived.”

Eberhard Jüngel bibliography

Some time ago David Congdon, a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, posted a comprehensive bibliography of books and essays by Eberhard Jüngel that have been translated into English. If you’ve never read any Jüngel, then you might like to start by trying one of his shorter essays. He is a uniquely rich and stimulating contemporary thinker.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

Aussie Pentecostal theology

Chris Tilling points us to a new Aussie blog entitled Pentecostal Discussions, which is aiming to offer serious, contemporary theological discussion from a Pentecostal perspective.

I myself was brought up in a Pentecostal church environment here in Australia; unfortunately, in my experience this environment tended to be characterised by a lack both of social conscience and of theological insight—so it’s encouraging to see the emergence of a new generation of Pentecostal theologians who are concerned to think sharply about their faith.

Whatever we might think of Pentecostalism, those of us in mainline traditions can learn some valuable things from our enthusiastic brethren. So be sure to keep an eye on Pentecostal Discussions.

Hearing the word

“The word of God never becomes our property. The test of whether we have heard it aright is whether we are prepared always to hear it anew, to ask for it in every decision in life; whether we are prepared to let it intervene in the moment of decision.”

—Rudolf Bultmann, Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings (New York: Meridian, 1960), p. 169.

Saturday, 6 May 2006

Fresh speech

“A very grave responsibility rests with us Christians. Our times call for speech that is charged with freshness, youthful vigour, creative energy—and we have not yet found it; the usual exhortation to humility rings false in this atmosphere of social wrongs.”

—Nicholas Berdyaev, Christianity and the Class War (London: Sheed & Ward, 1933), p. 118.

Benedict XVI and Islam

There’s a very insightful essay here, entitled “When Civilizations Meet: How Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam.” The author, Samir Khalil Samir, is an Egyptian Jesuit who is professor of Islamic studies and of the history of Arab culture at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

The essay discusses Benedict XVI’s attempt to foster dialogue with Islam. It begins:

“Benedict XVI is probably one of the few figures to have profoundly understood the ambiguity in which contemporary Islam is being debated and its struggle to find a place in modern society. At the same time, he is proposing a way for Islam to work toward coexistence globally and with religions, based not on religious dialogue, but on dialogue between cultures and civilizations based on rationality and on a vision of man and human nature which comes before any ideology or religion.”

Friday, 5 May 2006

Karl Rahner and extra-terrestrial intelligence

The new issue of The Heythrop Journal includes an article on one of the most peculiar features of Karl Rahner’s thought: his theological reflection on the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence. It’s a quirky topic, but a fascinating article. Here are the details:

Christopher L. Fisher and David Fergusson, “Karl Rahner and the Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Question,” The Heythrop Journal 47:2 (2006), 275-90.

Robert W. Jenson on ecumenism

Over at Even the Devils Believe, Chris Tessone discusses a recent interview with Robert W. Jenson on ecumenism. Jenson expresses his pessimism over the current state of ecumenism, but he also adds this note of hope for the future:

“To be sure, [my] pessimistic assessment indeed abstracts from the unpredictable work of the Spirit. When Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said on several much-quoted occasions that further major ecumenical progress depended on a new ‘depth of faith’ worked by a new initiative of the Spirit. That can happen at any time and is what we should pray for—and prayer is the most optimistic act a creature can perform.”

And speaking of ecumenism, Thomas Adams has posted an excellent discussion of Eberhard Jüngel’s approach to the Joint Declaration on Justification.

Thursday, 4 May 2006

New poll

I have added a new poll to find out which modern Catholic theologian you like best—so come and cast your vote. Unfortunately the poll is restricted to five options, so I was unable to include some of the best Catholic theologians, such as Teilhard, Schillebeeckx, Daniélou, and even (forgive me!) Gutiérrez.

C. S. Lewis conference

If you’re in Sydney this week, you might like to get along to Australia’s first international C. S. Lewis conference, from 4 to 6 May. The conference features many excellent speakers who will be presenting both popular and academic papers, and Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham will also be giving an address.

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Ode to Church Dogmatics

Of thee I sing, Church Dogmatics,
Of thee I sing, grandest and most lofty work,
Mountains of thought, cathedral of the mind,
Symphony of wonder and surprise.
Mighty sentences, I sing of ye:
Phrase upon phrase, tottering in the air, creating worlds
And vistas, heights and darkest depths.
Of ye I sing, black volumes:
Lined up and dressed in sombre orange overcoats, now turning
Autumn-yellow, crowding out entire shelves;
Groaning tomes as heavy as the earth,
With words as light as dust
Or music.

Of thee I sing, Volume One,
Doctrine of self-unveiling Trinity, and Trinity
In self-unveiling Word;
Volume Two, of thee I sing,
Doctrine of love and liberty, of liberating love,
Electing God, elected man, one person;
Volume Three, I sing of thee,
Doctrine of creation and of covenant,
Of heaven and earth called
Out of chaos to redeem, and of a creature
Loved by God.
Volume Four, I sing of thee (longest and best by far):
Doctrine of Immanuel, of God and man
And God-with-man in Jesus,
Doctrine of a servant who is Lord
And the Lord who is a servant;
Doctrine of God’s Yes-made-flesh
Forever in one person, forever for us all.

Of thee I sing, Church Dogmatics:
Work of astonishment and joy,
Work of one life, one struggle,
One long limping wrestling with an angel—
A young boy telling what he saw;
An old man talking on and on, till all his talk
Falls silent
Before the whisper of a Word.

Happiest work of witness, I sing of thee:
A crooked finger pointing
In the dark.

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Chris Tilling’s Church Dogmatics!

Folks, it is a great day. My friend from Tübingen, Chris Tilling, has just received a full set of the German study edition of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics—and all due to the legendary generosity of Jim West!

Within Barth’s own lifetime, his old friend Rudolf Bultmann used to boast that he never read any of the Church Dogmatics. So could it be a sign that God’s eschatological kingdom is breaking into our midst when even New Testament scholars are now beginning to read Barth’s Dogmatics?

In any case, it is a great day for Chris. To celebrate the occasion, I have written a short poem entitled “Ode to Church Dogmatics.” I once tried to summarise the whole Church Dogmatics in a single sentence; and this time I’ve tried to summarise the whole work in the form of an ode.

I’ll post the poem tomorrow; in the mean time, here’s a picture of Barth’s favourite painting, Grünewald’s “Christ on the Cross.” This is the picture that hung over Barth’s desk throughout all the decades in which he was writing his great Dogmatics.

Protestant critiques of scholasticism

“The situation is the same with Scholasticism as with the Roman Catholic church in general. Those who do not admire them, those who are not in danger of becoming scholastics themselves, simply have no inner right to pass judgment on them.”

—Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 26.

More on the resurrection

For more responses to the recent resurrection controversy, see the very thoughtful posts over at Chrisendom, Elizaphanian and Pontifications.

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