Thursday, 31 August 2006

Theology for beginners (9): Election

Summary: The triune God constitutes himself through a free decision: he decides to be God-for-us.

We have said that the triune God is the event that happens in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But we must now take a further step: the God who happens in the history of Jesus also precedes that history. God does not become the triune God as a result of Jesus’ history – rather, the history of Jesus expresses what God already is.

This means, then, that God’s relationship to the history of Jesus is a relationship of freedom. Behind the history of Jesus stands God’s free decision – his decision to let his own life unfold in this particular historical way. In other words, the God’s triune life is a free decision. Before human history, God decided to be the God of human history. Before humanity had existed, God decided that he would be none other than the God of humanity. Before the man Jesus had existed, God decided that this particular man would be the goal of God’s own triune life.

Thus God constituted himself through a free decision. He decided what kind of God he would be. God does not first have a “being” which then makes certain decisions; rather, God decides to be who he is, he decides what his “being” will be like. And the name of this decision, this election, is – Jesus Christ!

Jesus Christ is the whole content of God’s decision about himself. God chooses that his triune life will unfold in the historical existence of Jesus. God chooses that his triune life will travel down a particular path, and will arrive at one particular goal: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus, God arrives; in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s decision about his own triune life is fulfilled. In the resurrection of Jesus, God becomes what he has decided to be – he becomes what he has always been! In the resurrection of Jesus, God reaches the goal of his own decision, his own life, his own movement through history.

Another way of saying all this is that God has decided to be the gracious God. The content of God’s eternal decision is Jesus Christ. God decides that he will be the human God, the God who unites himself with humanity, the God whose whole triune life is expressed in this covenant union. From eternity, God is for us. From eternity, God has made us humans the goal of his life. From eternity, God has taken humanity into his own heart and life. Even before we humans had existed, God had gathered us into the living fellowship of his triunity! Even before we existed, God had been our God!

Indeed, humanity exists only because of God’s free decision. In the overflowing life of the triune God, the Father sent the Son to become human, and the Son freely obeyed the Father, freely choosing humanity as the mode of his divine life. This is where humanity originated: here in God’s own triune life, here in God’s eternal decision! Human history is the path down which God’s humanity will travel. Before any human history has existed, God has already been human, and has already decided that his triune life will travel the path of human history.

In a nutshell: we exist because of the man Jesus! Even from eternity, his story is our story! The story of Jesus is like a mould into which all human history is poured. The purpose and meaning of all our history is found in this one man – the man whose story is the content of God’s decision.

We have been saying that God’s triune life “precedes” the story of Jesus. But we can now expand this thought and make it more precise. After all, God’s eternal life is not merely historically prior to the life of Jesus. Rather, the “place” of God’s life is the future – from eternity, the triune God is the God of the future. He stands not only behind history, and not only in history, but also ahead of history, creating it and summoning it towards him. Thus God’s election is an event not only of the past but also (and especially) of the future. From eternity, God summons human history forwards into the future of his own kingdom. From eternity, God gathers us into fellowship with his triune life.

This, then, is the meaning of election: God chooses to live his life not for himself, but for us, in covenant with us. And so we are chosen to participate in God’s life – in the life of the future, the life of resurrection.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), pp. 3-194.
  • Barth, Karl. The Humanity of God (London: Collins, 1961), pp. 69-75.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 173-78.
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. God’s Being Is in Becoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 83-98.
  • Maury, Pierre. Predestination: And Other Papers (London: SCM, 1960), pp. 19-71.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Human Nature, Election, and History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 45-109.
  • Weber, Otto. Foundations of Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 411-507.

Wednesday, 30 August 2006

God's being

“As all the ontological determinants of the God of classical Western culture-religion came together in his ousia, so those of the gospel’s God come together in the event of Jesus’ resurrection.... If we bend the old language a little, instead of replacing it, we may say that the resurrection is this God’s ousia.”

—Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), p. 168.

Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Theology for beginners (8): Triunity

Summary: In the story of Jesus, God defines himself as Father, Son and Spirit in a triunity of love.

We have seen, then, that if we want to speak of God we must tell the story of Jesus. The question “Who is God?” is answered by the story of Jesus. “God” is name of what happened when Jesus was raised from the dead. In the first century CE, a certain Jewish man was executed and then raised into the life of the future: that is what we mean when we use the word “God.”

Throughout his earthly life, Jesus was defined above all by his unique relationship to the God of Israel. He calls this God “Father,” and he understands himself as the Father’s obedient Son. He lives to do the will of his Father. His entire life is nothing other than an expression of faithful obedience to the Father. He gives himself over fully to the will of the Father – and this self-giving obedience finally culminates in his obedient death on the cross. In just this way, Jesus shows that he is truly the Son of the Father, truly the one in whom the Father’s will finds expression.

But Jesus carries out the Father’s will not in his own strength. Rather, it is the Father’s Spirit that empowers him to do the Father’s will. The Spirit – the living Spirit who comes from the future in the power of the kingdom – comes to Jesus and rests on him. The Spirit sets Jesus apart, leads him, anoints him (literally: “Christs” him!) as God’s messenger, and empowers him to be the Father’s Son, to live and act and die in radical obedience.

When Jesus’ ministry terminates in crucifixion, even then he continues to trust in the Father. Even then, strengthened by the Spirit, he continues to do the Father’s will. And when Jesus is dead and buried, the Father vindicates him by raising him into new life through the Spirit. Coming from the future in the power of God’s kingdom, the Spirit proceeds from the Father to the Son and raises Jesus from the dead. Thus the Father bestows on Jesus this final, decisive act of affirmation: he shows that Jesus is the true Son of the Father, the one on whom the Spirit rests, the one with whom the Father is well pleased.

This story of Jesus’ resurrection is the definition of God. God is the historical event that takes place between the Father and the Son through the Spirit when Jesus is raised from the dead. God is not a “divine substance” or a “first cause” or even a “supreme being” – God is a living event. God happens! God takes place as a unity of self-giving, reciprocal life between Father, Son and Spirit. The Father sends the Son; the Son goes from the Father in obedience; the Spirit is the uniting power of this relationship. God is this narrative; God is this triune life.

In a word, then, God is love. In the story of Jesus, God defines himself as an event of self-giving love. He defines himself as a life rich in relationships, full of movement and energy, a harmony of repetition in difference. God is not an isolated, motionless “being” – he is not a static unity, but a dynamic triunity. He is not a single voice, but a harmony; not a monologue, but a conversation; not a march, but a dance.

God is God a first time; and then God repeats himself, and so he is a God a second time; and then God is also the bond between this “first time” and this “second time,” between God and God. Like repetitions and differences within music, God is thus a living harmony – he is always in motion, always on the way from himself to himself, always giving himself and responding to this giving. Thus – in unity and in difference – God is love.

In this vibrant, energetic unity, God is Father, Son and Spirit. He is an event of love. No, he is the event of love – the love that sent Jesus from the Father and then raised Jesus from the dead into the triune life of God’s future.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), §§8-9.
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 155-249.
  • Jenson, Robert W. The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. God as the Mystery of the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), pp. 343-96.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 259-336.
  • Rahner, Karl. The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970).
  • Torrance, T. F. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996).

Monday, 28 August 2006

Bob Dylan's best songs

Speaking of Bob Dylan, here’s my selection of the two best songs from each decade of his career so far.

Sixties
“Desolation Row” (1965)
“Visions of Johanna” (1966)

Seventies
“Tangled Up in Blue” (1975)
“Idiot Wind” (1975)

Eighties
“Blind Willie McTell” (1983)
“Dignity” (1989)

Nineties
“Highlands” (1997)
“Things Have Changed” (1997)

Noughties
“Mississippi” (2001)
“Ain’t Talkin’” (2006)

Saturday, 26 August 2006

Bob Dylan: Modern Times

Bob Dylan’s new album, Modern Times, will be released next week in the United States. But it was released today here in Australia (they don’t call this the “lucky country” for nothing!), so I hurried off to get a copy, and I’ve been listening to it all day.

Without wanting to spoil too many surprises for my American friends, let me just say that this is a stunning, magnificent album – even better than I had hoped. In one song, Dylan taunts: “You think I’m over the hill, think I’m past my prime” – if that’s what you’re think, then every song on this album will prove you wrong. By the time you get to the eighth track, “Nettie Moore,” you think the album has reached its climax. But nothing could prepare you for the final track, “Ain’t Talkin’” – a powerful, haunting apocalyptic epic which is as good as anything Dylan has written in the last 15 years.

As on his previous two albums, Time out of Mind (1997) and “Love and Theft” (2001), Dylan remains preoccupied with themes like love (“A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day”), ageing (“Hand me down my walkin’ cane”), memory (“I’m haunted by things I never meant or wished to say”), sin (“Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide”), failure (“My mule is sick, my horse is blind”), cities (“The bright spark of the steady lights has dimmed my sights”), social decay (“The world has gone black before my eyes”), and apocalypse (“… in the last outback at the world’s end”).

As usual, there are numerous biblical allusions: “No man, no woman knows the hour”; “We all wear the same thorny crown”; “I’m gonna be with you in paradise”; “Frailer than the flowers, these precious hours”; “I’m sweatin’ blood”; “I’m beginning to believe what the Scriptures tell”; “I’m tryin’ to love my neighbour and do good unto others / But, oh mother, things ain’t goin’ well.”

Further, some of the album’s best songs are concerned with faith. Here are some memorable lines:

“I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned,
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road”

“Today I’ll stand in faith and raise the voice of praise.
The sun is strong, I’m standing in the light –
I wish to God that it were night.”

“Thunder on the mountain, rollin’ like a drum,
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music’s coming from,
Don’t need a guide, I already know the way.”

“The fire’s gone out but the light is never dying,
Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?”

“Preacher said salvation can be waitin’
Around the next bend in the road.”

“I’ve already confessed, don’t need to confess again.”

Friday, 25 August 2006

The purpose-driven planet

As you will have heard by now, Pluto is no longer a “planet.” Rick Warren, however, has other plans....

Thursday, 24 August 2006

Theology for beginners (7): Resurrection

Summary: The dead Jesus was raised into the life of God’s future, and in this way Jesus has become the goal of all history.

Three days after his burial, the dead Jesus appeared to his followers as the Risen One. Though this man had been put to death, he and his message were powerfully vindicated by Israel’s God. Through the power of God’s Spirit, this dead man was raised from the tomb into new life.

Jesus was not merely resuscitated. He did not simply come back to life. Nor did he enter into a disembodied afterlife, or “go to heaven.” Rather, God took this dead man through death into new life, into the life of God’s future. Precisely as a dead man, he lived! Precisely as the Crucified One, he became the Risen One! The power of God’s future entered into death and transformed death from within.

Jesus had proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. He had proclaimed that God’s own future was dawning. He had proclaimed that history was about to reach its climax. All this came true – although not necessarily in the way that Jesus himself had expected! For Jesus died without having seen the kingdom of God – but then God himself came crashing into history from the future, thrusting the dead Jesus forward into the life of the future, into the life of God. And so history’s appointed goal did arrive! The end of history came crashing forward into the present like a missile from the future. Through his powerful Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead: that was the arrival of the end – ahead of time!

Thus this dead man, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared to his disciples as the world’s true Lord, as the Risen One whom God had affirmed and vindicated even in death. And thus the earliest Christians proclaimed that the Crucified One was Lord – “Jesus is Lord!”

Jesus had been raised into the life of God’s future. The future is the “place” where the risen Jesus now lives. And this means that he is himself the end of history, the final goal towards which everything is heading. In exactly this sense, he is called “Lord” – he is the kingly Lord who lives and reigns from the future of God’s kingdom.

When the early Christians remembered Jesus, their memory of him was wholly shaped by the overwhelming reality of his resurrected life. When they looked back on the course of his earthly life, they saw retrospectively that he had always been the Lord, he had always been destined for death and resurrection, he had always stood in a unique relationship to the God of the future. Thus they understood that Jesus was the “Son of God” – the one who perfectly expressed the Father’s will, the one who had been with his Father from the beginning. Because Jesus had been raised into the life of the future, he must always have been the meaning and purpose and goal of all that exists.

A story makes sense only because it has an end; it is the end of the story that gives meaning to everything else in the narrative. In the same way, the whole story of Jesus has meaning only because Jesus was raised from the dead. The gospel-story narrates the meaning of all reality only because this story ends with the resurrection.

And it is for just this reason that the gospel is also a story about God. For God is the one who lives from the future. God is the context of all reality – he is the context which gives meaning to everything else. The gospel tells the defining story about God, since it narrates the final end of history. The end of history arrives beforehand in the resurrection of Jesus. And the name of this “end” is – God! To tell the story of Jesus is, in other words, to define God by narrating God. Or to put it more sharply, God himself is the event that happens when the dead Jesus is raised into the life of the future.

Further, since the gospel is the story about God, it’s also a story about ourselves. God is our goal – as the end of history, he is the goal of all our personal narratives. So to tell the story of God is, by definition, to narrate the reality of our own existence. When we speak of the resurrection of Jesus, we are also speaking about the goal of our own lives; we are speaking about that final end which will put everything else in its proper context; we are speaking about God as the meaning of reality, and therefore as the meaning of ourselves.

Throughout the rest of this series, then, we’ll be exploring these two dimensions of the gospel: in the story of Jesus, God defines himself, and in the same story God also defines us.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 299-357.
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 825-79.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. The Nature of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), pp. 58-71.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 179-206.
  • Marxsen, Willi. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (London: SCM, 1970).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Way of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 213-73.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 53-114.
  • Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003), pp. 587-738.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

David Bentley Hart's beautiful theology

Gaunilo’s Island and Gower Street are currently blogging their way through David Bentley Hart’s masterpiece, The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

I was talking with a friend today about Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, and I tried to persuade him that it’s one of the best books ever written by an American theologian. It really is an extraordinary book – profound, searching, beautiful, and often very humorous. In good Eastern Orthodox fashion, Hart is infinitely composed, beautifully serene – there is no Protestant anxiety, none of the darkness of Good Friday, but only the peaceful and radiant glory of the triune God.

In contrast to such light and serenity, Hart likes to shake his head at what he calls the “nihilistic” tendencies of Lutheran theology – e.g. “the ghastly Wagnerian opulence of Jüngel’s cult of Verwesung [decay] and the dark, late romantic coloratura of his unwholesome theological Liebestod [love-death]” (p. 373). If ever a book could persuade you to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, this would be the one!

Anyway, here’s one of my favourite quotes from the book:

“God is, so to speak, infinite discourse, full of the perfect utterance of his Word and the limitless variety of the Spirit’s ‘reply.’ Here, in the most elementary terms, is Christian metaphysics: God speaks God, and creation occurs within that speaking, as a rhetorical embellishment, a needless ornament” (p. 291).

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Theology for beginners (6): Crucifixion

Summary: The mission of Jesus ended in death by crucifixion.

The young wandering prophet and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed by state authorities around the year 30 CE. From one point of view, we might conclude that his mission had been a failure. He was put to death on a cross – a symbol of death and defeat, like a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. Yet the cross of Jesus, in all its offensive bleakness, forms the great climax of Jesus’ mission – and, indeed, the climax of the whole story of God’s journey with Israel.

At the decisive turning-point of Jesus’ life, he and his followers left Galilee for Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Jesus was welcomed jubilantly as the inaugurator of God’s new kingdom. But Jesus sharply provoked the religious authorities in Jerusalem. While the city’s Temple was at the very heart of Israel’s religious, economic and political life, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple, and he performed a violent symbolic cleansing of the Temple court as a radical enactment of God’s coming judgment. It would have been impossible to have offered a more direct threat and challenge to the religious and political status quo. And so, as a result of such actions, Jesus was arrested.

As Jesus had travelled towards Jerusalem, it’s very likely that he had increasingly anticipated his own death. Throughout his ministry, he had been devoted wholly to his Father’s will. His message of God’s imminent kingdom was proclaimed out of obedience to the Father. The forgiveness he extended to social outcasts was an expression of the Father’s will for Israel. His prophecies of the judgment and vindication Israel were expressions of the Father’s nearness. But other prophets who had acted in such faithful obedience to God had been rejected and martyred by Israel; and Jesus probably realised that his own mission was similarly fated to end in rejection and death.

Jesus himself would not, however, have regarded such a fate as the failure of his mission. Rather, he would have viewed his own death as part of the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel: at the climactic moment of Israel’s history, God’s appointed messenger would take upon himself the tribulation of the end of the age, and in precisely this way the kingdom of God’s future would be ushered in. And like other Jewish martyrs of the time, Jesus would also have expected Israel’s God to vindicate him at the end of the age.

Thus Jesus’ arrest would not have come as a surprise. After the arrest, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion – a typical fate for revolutionaries and political criminals. And so Jesus was crucified.

Even at the end, though, he did not struggle against his fate, but he continued to entrust his life to the one whom he called Father. Right to the end, Jesus submitted himself wholly to the God of Israel whose coming he had proclaimed. Right to the end, he put his hope in God, believing that God would vindicate him, and that the great climax of history would arrive. Right to the end, Jesus looked to the future of God’s kingdom.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ career ended in the death of a common criminal, a death of abandonment and humiliation. But shortly after his death, his followers came to believe that he was the world’s true Lord, and that history had in fact reached its climax – not in spite of his death, but precisely in the event of his death! The fulfilment of all God’s promises had arrived in Jesus; the goal of history had dawned in him. This was the conviction of Jesus’ pupils and followers, and their earliest confession was the simple but remarkable statement: “Jesus is Lord.”

But how is it that they came to call him – a dead man – Lord? How is it that they came to see his bloody execution as the climax of history? How is it they came to regard his death as the end of the world’s great narrative, as the fulfilment of all God’s promises?

Further reading

  • Bornkamm, Günther. Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 153-68.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994).
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 765-824.
  • de Jonge, Marinus. God’s Final Envoy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 12-33.
  • McKnight, Scot. Jesus and His Death (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), pp. 112-53.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 245-69.

Church growth?

Gregory A. Boyd had the courage to tell the truth about conservative American evangelical politics – and as a result, 1000 people left his church. Now that’s what I call real “church growth”!

Sunday, 20 August 2006

Theology for beginners (5): Jesus

Summary: Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed and enacted the imminent nearness of Israel’s God.

In the first century CE, a wandering Jewish prophet and rabbi announced the end of history. He proclaimed a radical re-ordering of power, and the arrival of a new age: the “reign” or “kingdom” of Israel’s God was now dawning, and the story of Israel was fast approaching its climactic moment. Through both his words and actions, this young Galilean peasant announced that the promises which God had made to Israel would soon be fulfilled: God would reign, he would liberate his people from oppression, he would judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous, and the new age of God’s future would dawn. This was the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ entire message was concentrated on the theme of God’s “kingdom.” He proclaimed the kingdom of God as the power of God himself, breaking in from the future. The kingdom of God was not merely something that God would do – it was God himself coming to Israel in kingly power. The God of promise, the God of hope: this God was now drawing near, so that the final goal of history was at hand. Jesus thus chose for himself twelve pupils, as a symbolic announcement that the twelve tribes of Israel were now being gathered for the final scene in the drama of Israel’s history. God is coming! God is near! Now, at last, God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled!

Indeed, God was so near that Jesus even spoke of him in a new way. He referred to God with striking personal familiarity, and his most characteristic designation of God was “Father.” Israel’s God was no longer the God of a distant future, the God of unfulfilled promises – he was now the Father of the imminent future, the one whose arrival was expected at any moment and who could therefore be spoken of only in the context of mundane, everyday life. Thus Jesus described God’s kingdom by telling parables, simple stories that relate the surprising ways in which God’s nearness impacts on daily life. A person finds hidden treasure in a field; a farmer plants seed and discovers a great harvest; a man pounds on his neighbour’s door in the middle of the night; a thief breaks into a house while everyone is sleeping – this, Jesus said, is what God’s imminent arrival will be like!

Further, Jesus enacted the coming of God’s kingdom by enjoying table fellowship with social outcasts and “sinners.” To such people, Jesus extended forgiveness and acceptance. He indicated that they, too – or rather, they especially – were being gathered into fellowship with God. Thus Jesus demonstrated that the coming of God’s kingdom is wholly unconditional. It is a kingdom of freedom and joy. It is a royal banquet to which everyone is invited – indeed, it is the banquet, the great and final celebration that awaits all people at the climax of history.

This message of God’s imminent kingdom was enacted most dramatically in Jesus’ works of healing and exorcism. However we might wish to interpret such works today, from a historical point of view there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus’ entire ministry was characterised by healings and miraculous wonders. The disabled, the diseased, those tormented by mental illness – such people flocked to Jesus, and he healed them. Here Jesus was enacting his message of the kingdom – he was performing God’s nearness through the power of God’s Spirit. When God comes near to reign as king, it is the end of oppression and darkness. The victorious power of God’s future drives out all other powers. It lifts up the broken and the disabled. It affirms and restores those whom society considers unclean. It shines light into lives tormented by darkness. It expels everything that negates and destroys life. It brings wholeness or “salvation” – the salvation of God’s future!

Thus Jesus proclaims God’s imminent arrival – and even as Jesus is announcing it, the power of God’s future begins to dawn all around him. In the ministry of Jesus, God’s kingdom comes so near that its effects are already felt – like the wind before a storm, like tremors before an earthquake. And thus Jesus himself expects that Israel’s history will reach its climax at any moment – so near is the one whom Jesus calls Father!

Further reading

  • Bornkamm, Günther. Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 53-152.
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 339-611.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. The Nature of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), pp. 44-57.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Way of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 87-150.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 225-44.
  • Theissen, Gerd. The Shadow of the Galilean (London: SCM, 1987).
  • Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), pp. 147-474.

Saturday, 19 August 2006

Book giveaway: congratulations

Thanks for the various comments about the emerging church. I enjoyed all these comments, and it was hard to single any of them out. But since the criteria were “interesting” and “entertaining,” I’ve chosen the interesting comment by One of Freedom and the entertaining comment by Byron. So both these folk will be receiving free copies of Ray Anderson’s new Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, courtesy of IVP.

Friday, 18 August 2006

Theology for beginners (4): Israel

Summary: The story of ancient Israel is a story of promise; this is the beginning of the gospel.

In order to tell the gospel, we begin not with Jesus himself but with the history of ancient Israel. The story of Israel begins with a decisive act of God: the Exodus. A Palestinian mountain god known as Yahweh liberates an oppressed tribal group from a life of forced labour in Egypt. Yahweh drives these fugitives forward into a promised future, into a new land where they can find their own home and their own identity.

From the very beginning, then, Israel exists as the people of Yahweh’s promise. Israel’s faith is, from the beginning, a faith that looks to the future on the basis of specific past events and promises. Yahweh has acted decisively for the liberation of Israel; Yahweh has made a covenant with Israel, and has opened Israel’s future with his promises. Thus Israel lives by Yahweh’s promise; she lives by expectation and hope.

When the people of ancient Israel want to understand their place in the world, they tell stories about the patriarchs who had lived before the foundation of Israel, and they narrate the ways in which these patriarchs, too, lived by God’s promise. A herdsman from Ur named Abram leaves his city and the god of his city, and sets out to migrate to a new land which a new god has promised him. Abram has not seen this land of promise, but he and the tribe that follows him live by hope and expectation. Stories like this reinforce the promise-character of Israel’s faith: right from the start – even before Israel existed! – God has been creating a future for Israel through promises. Here, then, lies the core of Israel’s hope.

Indeed, just as Israel has emerged from the life of nomadic tribes, so too there is always something distinctly nomadic about Israel’s history. Israel is never at rest for long. Her existence is always oriented towards the future; time and again she is forced to rely on Yahweh’s promises; time and again she is driven forward in expectation of a promised future. Throughout her history, Israel remains poised between the past and the future, waiting expectantly for some climactic event, some act of Yahweh which will fulfil every promise and bring Israel’s story to a close.

It is for just this reason that the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE is so shattering to Israel’s faith. In the experience of exile, it seems that Israel’s story has come to an end – not the end promised by Yahweh, but an end that contradicts Yahweh’s promise and thus contradicts faith itself. So the prophets interpret this exile as Yahweh’s judgment of his own people. And yet, even while pronouncing judgment on Israel, the prophets also speak in new ways of Yahweh’s unconditional mercy and favour: although Israel has been unfaithful to Yahweh and has not lived by his promise, still Yahweh remains unilaterally faithful to his own promises. In this way the prophets summon Israel back to faith in Yahweh, inviting her to lean forward into the future of Yahweh’s promise.

According to the Old Testament texts, many of the exiled Jews were able to return to their homeland by 538 BCE. But still there is no real fulfilment of promise, no final vindication of Israel, no real climax to Israel’s story. One of the strangest and most unsettling things about the Old Testament is exactly this anti-climactic aspect. Although Yahweh has made promises to Israel, and although Israel’s whole story has been defined by these promises, somehow Israel’s story finally leads – nowhere! At the end of her story, there is no fulfilment, no dawning of the promised future, no climax that can give meaning and structure to this story as a whole.

When we read the Old Testament, at the end of this long story we find only promise without fulfilment, suspense without a climax, hope without a future. But the drama of Israel’s history was to find its surprising final act in the first century CE.

Further reading

  • Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, Vol. 1 (London: SCM, 1994), pp. 23-66.
  • Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 221-65.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), pp. 13-31.
  • von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).
  • Rendtorff, Rolf. The Canonical Hebrew Bible (Leiden: Deo Press, 2005).
  • Zimmerli, Walther. Old Testament Theology in Outline (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1978).

Thursday, 17 August 2006

Book giveaway: emergent theology

Would you like a free copy of Ray Anderson’s new book, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (which I’ve reviewed here)? Our friends at IVP have kindly provided two free copies of Ray’s book for readers of Faith & Theology.

So if you’d like copy, just leave a comment that relates in some way to the “emerging church” (I’ll give you a day or two to post your comments). The two people with the most interesting or entertaining comments will each get a free copy.

Ray S. Anderson: Emergent theology for emerging churches

Ray S. Anderson of Fuller Seminary will be known to many of you here at Faith & Theology – he has posted here before, and he regularly contributes to our discussions. Ray has written over 20 books, and he has kindly sent me a copy of his latest one, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

While the emergent discussion hasn’t always been marked by sustained theological reflection, here Ray offers a probing and passionate theological contribution to the conversation. He is deeply sympathetic with the emerging church (his own Lutheran church is both traditional and emerging), but he warns that new forms of community and worship alone are not adequate – above all, what emerging churches need is “a clear and compelling story of the gospel” (p. 86).

At the centre of this book is a contrast between two churches recorded in the New Testament: the church of Jerusalem and the church of Antioch. In a nutshell, Ray’s argument is that “[t]he Christian community that emerged out of Antioch constitutes the original form and theology of the emerging church,” so that “the emerging churches in our present generation can find their ecclesial form and their core theology by tracing out the contours of the missionary church … in Antioch” (p. 20).

With close attention to the New Testament texts, Ray develops this argument in relation to the work of the Spirit, church polity, kingdom living (the workplace is “a secular sacrament of the kingdom of God,” p. 115), biblical interpretation, an ethics of love (“grace … embraces moral and spiritual ambiguity for the sake of bringing persons to a greater dimension of human wholeness,” p. 156), charismatic gifts, mission and social justice (“Jesus came to right wrongs, not only to create righteous people,” p. 195), and the eschatological nature of church tradition.

Although I’m not involved in the emerging church movement myself, I found this book to offer an exciting and refreshing vision of the Christian church as a community empowered by the Spirit of Christ and directed towards the future of God’s kingdom.

[If you’d like a free copy of this book, stay tuned for the next post....]

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Theology for beginners (3): Gospel

Summary: The verbal expression of faith must be shaped and guided by the story of Jesus.

Theology is the attempt to articulate faith verbally. But while theology provides the vocabulary of faith, it is the gospel which provides the grammar of faith. Just as every language has an underlying grammatical structure, so too faith has its own grammar: it has an underlying structure of meaning, a set of fundamental “rules” which determine the way faith can be expressed.

And the grammar of faith is the gospel: it is the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This means, then, that faith is fundamentally structured by narrative, by story. If we want to bring our faith to verbal expression, we cannot simply use concepts and ideas and symbols – first and foremost, we must tell a story. We must allow all our speaking to be shaped and structured by the story of Jesus.

The gospel is not, however, simply an ordinary historical narrative. It is not simply a recollection of certain events that took place in the first century CE. Rather, the gospel is a very special kind of story. For the point of this story is not simply the narration of historical events, but the narration of God. When we narrate the gospel, we are telling the story of God himself – we are narrating who God is, what he has done, and what he will do. In order to speak the gospel, then, we must tell the story of Jesus as the story of God.

This means, further, that the story of Jesus has universal significance. If the story of one particular first-century man is also the story of God, then this must be the true story, the story of reality as a whole, the story that tells us the way things really are. And thus the gospel is a story about ourselves – it is a story which has truth and meaning for every human person. We could thus describe the gospel as a “meta-narrative,” as the one great story which puts all our own personal stories into their proper context. My own personal narrative, or the narrative of my own family or community, finds its true meaning only within the context of this story about God. God is reality, God is truth; he is the context of meaning which makes all other things meaningful.

In order to speak the gospel, then, we must do two things: we must tell the story of Jesus as the story of God, and we must tell it as the story of ourselves. Only when we have done both these things together have we truly narrated the gospel. And in just this way, the gospel functions as the grammar of faith, as the underlying structure which determines how we speak about God and about ourselves.

So as we seek to articulate our faith verbally, we must allow all our speaking to be guided by the grammar of the gospel. At the deepest level, everything we say about God and about ourselves must be shaped by the story of one particular Jewish man in the first century CE – a man who lived, died, and was raised to life.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. “The Proclamation of God’s Free Grace,” in God Here and Now (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 34-54.
  • Bloesch, Donald G. A Theology of Word and Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), pp. 107-138.
  • Jensen, Peter. The Revelation of God (Leicester: IVP, 2002), pp. 31-63.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3-60.
  • Newlands, George. God in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 209-221.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “What Is Truth?” in Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. 2 (London: SCM, 1971), pp. 1-27.

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

The book meme revisited

The one book meme continues to make its way through cyberspace. And in a fascinating piece of blog-research, Kevin Stilley has analysed 275 posts from this meme, and he has come up with a list of the most popular books. Of the 275 posts that he viewed, one book was mentioned positively 48 times (can you guess which book?). And I was especially pleased to see that Augustine’s Confessions was also among the ten most popular books.

Monday, 14 August 2006

Theology for beginners (2): Theology

Summary: Theology is the attempt to express faith verbally in a responsible way.

We find ourselves, then, in the situation of faith. But faith is never mute. Faith speaks; it comes to expression. Speech, or confession, is of the very nature of faith. And when we discover that we believe, at once we begin to struggle to find appropriate speech with which to express our faith. What shall we say, now that we have been grasped by God? How shall we speak, now that we have seen our lives in the context of God’s reality?

With questions like these, faith naturally gives rise to theology. Theology is not the same as faith. In no sense does faith depend on theology. Faith depends only on one thing, and that is God. But the speaking of faith, the confession and communication of faith, requires theology. And theology is really nothing more than the attempt to give voice to faith. Theology is the struggle to give faith a proper vocabulary, a proper idiom with which to speak of God. Faith wants to express itself, it wants to worship, confess and witness, it wants to be heard. And so theology seeks to verbalise faith, to help faith to speak meaningfully and intelligibility – and above all faithfully – about the reality of God.

This means that theology is always responsible. It is responsible to the Christian community, since it exists to serve this community by articulating the faith of the community. It exists so that the community will be equipped to verbalise its faith in worship, confession and witness. Even more importantly, though, theology is also responsible to God. Theology cannot simply be the spontaneous creation of a theologian’s own imagination; rather, it must take the form of a response – a response to the reality of God as it is encountered in the life of faith. If theology is to be of any value, it must therefore fulfil this twofold responsibility: it must faithfully serve the Christian community, and faithfully respond to the reality of God.

Theology, then, is the language-school of faith. Its whole aim is to allow faith to speak in a responsible way. In other words, the true aim of theology is to make itself redundant – just as the aim of a school teacher is to become redundant and superfluous. Wherever a teacher has succeeded in her teaching, she becomes unnecessary. And in the same way, theology seeks to make itself redundant by teaching faith how to speak.

Theology itself, in other words, is not intrinsically necessary. Only one thing is necessary: the expression of faith in worship, confession and witness. But until faith has become articulate, theology has a vital service to perform – a service which must be performed again and again for each new generation.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 3-41.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. Word and Faith (London: SCM, 1963), pp. 424-33.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3-60.
  • Nichols, Aidan. The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 13-38.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 1-61.
  • Sauter, Gerhard. Gateways to Dogmatics: Reasoning Theologically for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
  • Schillebeeckx, Edward. Revelation and Theology, Vol. 1. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1987), 95-181.
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Brief Outline on the Study of Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1966).

Sunday, 13 August 2006

Jesus' healings

“When Jesus expels demons and heals the sick, he is driving out of creation the powers of destruction, and is healing and restoring created beings who are hurt and sick. The lordship of God, to which the healings witness, restores sick creation to health. Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly ‘natural’ thing in a world that is unnatural, demonized and wounded.”

—Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 98-99.

Friday, 11 August 2006

Theology for beginners (1): Faith

Summary: In faith, we respond to the God who has already grasped us, and we discover that the reality of God is the meaning of our lives.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves in the situation of faith: we find that we believe. This is a very peculiar situation indeed. For faith is by no means a necessary feature of human existence. It is also possible not to believe; a person can be human without ever being a believer.

Why then do we believe? At bottom, we must admit that the reason for this lies outside ourselves. The only answer we can give is that we believe because unbelief has become impossible for us. We believe because we have been grasped by a reality outside ourselves. Or, to put it more succinctly, we believe because of God. For some reason or other, God has stepped into our world, has encountered us personally in all the astonishing power of his own sheer there-ness – and, suddenly, we have found that we believe! We have found that our entire being has cried out “Yes!” to the reality of God.

That’s what faith is all about. Faith isn’t an intellectual acceptance of certain doctrines or ideas. Nor is it merely a special psychological state. Rather, to speak of faith is to speak of the entire self in action. Faith occurs as my whole self responds to the reality of God. Faith is thus the total transformation of my existence. God addresses me; God confronts me; God calls me; God summons me into fellowship. God becomes more real to me than I am to myself, so that my whole existence is placed in a new context – in the context of God! And as I see myself in this new light, I realise that the only proper response to God is an unqualified “Yes.” So my whole self becomes a single “Yes” to God, a free and cheerful and obedient “Yes” to the God who is himself the truth of my existence, the context within which my own life becomes meaningful.

Faith awakens us to the meaning of life, since life finds its true meaning only within the context of God. Human life is a narrative or story, and like any story it must have an end in order to be meaningful. If you want to understand a detective novel, you can understand the whole narrative only when you have reached the story’s end. In the same way, if you want to understand the meaning of your personal life-story, you must first know something about the end of this story. And the end of all our stories is – God! Thus when we awaken to the reality of God, we also become aware of the true goal of our own stories, of the structure and context that gives our lives meaning. Faith, then, is oriented towards the future – it is a “Yes” to the God who is our future, to the God who is the end and goal of our life-stories.

So in faith, we find God – and at the same time, we find ourselves. And for just this reason, faith is always a gift, always a surprise. It’s never an achievement, never a possession at our disposal, never something that we can work to produce. Rather, we simply find ourselves in the situation of faith. We discover ourselves as those who have been grasped by God. We discover that we now believe – just as someone might suddenly discover that he has cancer, or that he is in love. In the exact moment of discovery, one’s whole life-story appears in a new light and a new context.

In this way, we discover faith itself as a free and surprising gift, a gift which opens our eyes to the reality of God as the meaning-giving context of our own lives. That wonderful discovery of God and of ourselves, that surprising gift – that is faith.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM, 1949), pp. 15-34.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. “What Does It Mean to Speak of God?” in Faith and Understanding, ed. Robert W. Funk (London: SCM, 1969).
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. The Nature of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), pp. 108-117.
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. Justification: The Heart of Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 236-51.
  • Küng, Hans. Does God Exist? (Garden City: Doubleday, 1978), pp. 568-76.
  • Newlands, George. God in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 9-19.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 136-72.

Thursday, 10 August 2006

Barth on a budget

Do you want to get acquainted with the thought of Karl Barth, but don’t know where to begin? Do you want to start reading Barth, but are confined by a budget? If so, then this post is for you! (And, more specifically, I’ve written this post in response to a recent request.)

Here are two lists of recommended reading: first, a list of books by Barth, and then a list of books about Barth’s theology.

Books by Barth

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
A simple, straightforward, heart-warming discussion of what it means to practise “evangelical theology.”

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a summary of the Church Dogmatics (it is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, and it has no specific relationship to the Church Dogmatics). But it’s a very accessible introduction to Barth’s theology, and it contains some remarkably profound chapters (e.g. the chapter on creation).

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God
A modest little book, but a work that is important for understanding Barth’s mature theology and some of the ways in which his theology changed over time.

Karl Barth, Letters, 1961-1968
Barth was a prolific correspondent, and his letters make for delightful and humorous reading. The letters collected here offer unique insight into Barth’s personality, social context and acquaintances. There’s no better way to get a “feel” for Barth’s personality than to read his letters. (This book is out of print, but second-hand copies are readily available.)

Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1
One of the best ways to get acquainted with Barth’s thought is to read this volume (based on an early lecture-series from the 1920s), which was Barth’s first attempt at a full-scale dogmatics. Although Barth’s theology matured and developed in many ways, this early work offers a highly accessible, energetic account of some of Barth’s deepest and most radical concerns. (For instance, the chapter on the relationship between theology and preaching is crucial for understanding Barth’s whole theological project.)

Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation
This is a cheap and attractive paperback reprint of the first section of Church Dogmatics IV/1 – and it’s one of the best and most beautiful parts of the entire Church Dogmatics. If you want a cheap and easy way to start reading the Church Dogmatics, this is a great way to begin.

Books about Barth

John Webster, Barth
This is by far the best short introduction to Barth. With clarity, conciseness and sharp insight, Webster introduces the main themes of Barth’s theology and summarises important controversies about the interpretation of Barth.

Eberhard Busch, The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology
This is a brilliant introduction written by Barth’s former personal assistant. Busch draws together his unequalled knowledge of Barth’s personal life and his penetrating insight into the themes and structure of Barth’s theology.

John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth
A first-rate collection of essays by leading scholars and theologians. The only major shortcoming is that there is not enough specific focus on Barth’s biography; but this collection is very helpful for thinking about Barth’s relationship to the contemporary theological discussion.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Hegel: a trinitarian theology of the cross

This extended quote is admittedly rather dense – but it’s a profound passage which, I think, describes one of the deepest fundamental structures of Christian belief: namely, that the death of Jesus is an event in God, and that this event can be understood only if God is the triune God. Here’s the quote:

“The history of the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the right hand of God begins at the point where this history [of Jesus’ death] receives a spiritual interpretation. That is when it came about that the little community achieved the certainty that God has appeared as a human being.

“But this humanity in God ... is natural death. ‘God himself is dead,’ it says in a Lutheran hymn, expressing an awareness that the human, the finite, the fragile, the weak, the negative are themselves ... within God himself, that finitude, negativity, otherness are not outside of God and do not ... hinder unity with God.... [D]eath itself is this negative, the furthest extreme to which humanity as natural existence is exposed; God himself is involved in this.

“... For the community, this is the history of the appearance of God. This history is a divine history, whereby the community has come to the certainty of truth. From it develops the consciousness ... that God is triune. The reconciliation in Christ ... makes no sense if God is not known as the triune God, if it is not recognized that God is, but also is as the other, as self-distinguishing, so that this other is God himself..., and that the sublation of this difference, this otherness, and the return of love, are the Spirit.”

—G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 468-69.

The suffering God

An excellent post from Gaunilo: six theses on divine suffering.

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Theology for beginners: outline

Here’s a provisional outline of the new “Theology for Beginners” series (21 posts in 6 sections). As you can see, I couldn’t think of single-word titles for posts 14 and 15 – so let me know if you’ve got any good ideas (I didn’t want to use the traditional terms “humiliation” and “exaltation,” but those are the concepts I have in mind).

No doubt this outline will change once I start writing the posts – but it should at least give you a rough idea of what to expect:

Faith
1. Faith
2. Theology
3. Gospel

Jesus
4. Resurrection
5. Crucifixion
6. Jesus

God
7. Triunity
8. Election
9. History

Creation
10. Creation
11. Upholding
12. Humanity

Reconciliation
13. Sin
14. Jesus: God lowered
15. Jesus: humanity lifted

Community
16. Spirit
17. Church
18. Freedom
19. Forgiveness
20. Mission
21. Future

Monday, 7 August 2006

Alister McGrath's biography of T. F. Torrance

There is a growing number of books on the theology of T. F. Torrance, but if you were going to buy just one, you’d want to get Alister McGrath’s important work, Thomas F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999). This volume has just been released in an attractive new paperback edition, and the good people at Allen & Unwin (via their marketing guru Drew) have been kind enough to send me a copy.

McGrath’s work offers both an overview of Torrance’s life (supplemented with lots of nice photos) and an account of the development of his theology, with particular focus on Torrance’s relationship to Karl Barth. And while other studies of Torrance rely solely on published materials, McGrath also closely analyses Torrance’s unpublished lectures on dogmatics from the late 1930s. As McGrath shows, this unpublished material is especially valuable for grasping the early shape and development of Torrance’s thought.

Further, this book is important not only for an understanding of Torrance, but also for an understanding of McGrath’s own recent work on the relationship between theology and science. His three-volume Scientific Theology (also abridged as The Science of God) is indebted above all to Torrance – McGrath describes Torrance as his theological “role model,” and he dedicated the first volume of his Scientific Theology to Torrance.

Sunday, 6 August 2006

New series: theology for beginners

Richard Hall has kindly offered me a “tip” for improving Faith & Theology. Here’s his suggestion: “I’d like some ‘theology for beginners’ ... type of posts. Please.”

I must admit this had never occurred to me, but I think it’s a splendid idea. So, in obedience to Richard, I’m planning a new series entitled “Theology for Beginners.” The aim of the series will be to sketch the terrain of Christian belief in about 20 short posts (the posts will probably be scattered over several weeks). I’m still trying to decide on the structure of the series (it will look something like a very small dogmatics) – but I’ll try to kick off the series later this week.

Anyway, thanks to Richard for the tip!

Saturday, 5 August 2006

Does prayer change God?

Joe Cathey raises the question: does prayer change God, or does it only change us?

It seems to me that the only way to take the biblical witness seriously is to say that prayer really does “change God.” If we approach the concept of prayer via a philosophical or theological analysis of “the divine nature,” we may well end up concluding that prayer cannot “change God.” But nothing could be plainer about the God of the Bible: he hears prayer, he is moved by prayer, he responds to prayer, he changes his mind when people pray. Nothing is more characteristic of the God of the Bible than his attentiveness and responsiveness to prayer.

We’ll always get into trouble if we start out with a prior concept of what the “divine nature” must be like (e.g. that God must be transcendent, or immutable) and then try to understand prayer. Instead, as Gerhard Ebeling has pointed out, we should start with the reality of prayer, and we should allow prayer itself to determine the way we think about who God is and what he is like.

One of the best discussions of this topic is Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/4, pp. 87-115. Barth writes: “If ever there was a miserable anthropomorphism, it is the hallucination of a divine immutability which rules out the possibility that God can let himself be conditioned in this or that way by his creature. God is certainly immutable. But he is immutable as the living God and in the mercy in which he espouses the cause of the creature. In distinction from the immovability of a supreme idol, his majesty, the glory of his omnipotence and sovereignty, consists in the fact that he can give to the requests of this creature a place in his will.... God cannot be greater than he is in Jesus Christ, the Mediator between him and man.... For this God is not only occasionally but essentially, not only possibly and in extraordinary cases but always, the God who hears the prayers of his own” (p. 109).

Friday, 4 August 2006

An interview

Steven Harris has interviewed me about faith and theological studies.

John Webster: Barth's earlier theology

John B. Webster is one of the finest interpreters of Barth writing in English today. He has published no fewer than six books on Barth, all of them works of the highest importance:

I’ve just finished reading the most recent of these, Barth’s Earlier Theology—and it’s a stunning work which offers profound insight into Barth’s relationship to the Reformed tradition.

Webster performs close readings of four of Barth’s early texts (all of them based on lecture-series from the 1920s): The Theology of Zwingli, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, The Resurrection of the Dead, and Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. He does not attempt to reduce these texts to generic themes or to questions of Barth’s development, but instead he simply tries “to observe what happens when Barth reads” (p. 7). The result is a penetrating (and refreshingly generous) account, which positively bristles with new insights into Barth’s distinctive manner of practising history, his profound engagement with the Reformed tradition, and the ways in which his later theology remained stamped by those formative years as Professor of Reformed Theology at Göttingen (1921-25).

Karl Barth and Bob Dylan

Like all people of excellent taste, David Williamson has a soft spot for both Karl Barth and Bob Dylan. He has just posted a marvellous and moving discussion of Bob Dylan’s music, and he has also created a short (5-minute) film about Karl Barth and the women in his life.

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Ten propositions on penal substitution

by Kim Fabricius

1. The doctrine of penal substitution is a theory – or, better, a model – of the atonement, an extended metaphor that narrates how God reconciled the world to himself in Christ. It is one model, but it is not the only model. Indeed, without radical recalibration, it is a theologically repugnant model with potentially vicious and disastrous social and political implications. For now, however, the point is this: while the church dogmatically defined its Christology at the Council of Chalcedon (451), it left its soteriology underdetermined. Therefore penal substitution – or any other doctrine of the atonement – should not be deployed as a litmus test of faith. Stanley Hauerwas says, “If you need a theory to worship Christ, worship your f---ing theory!”

2. The doctrine of penal substitution finds its classical expression in the theology of John Calvin (1509-64), and its definitive form in the theology of Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Today it is the lynchpin of “sound” conservative evangelical theology. In essence it says that the divine justice demands that humanity must “pay the price of sin,” and that the sentence is death; but that on the cross, Jesus identified himself with our sinful condition and died in our place, taking our sins to the grave with him.

3. It is usually claimed that the doctrine of penal substitution is Pauline (indeed, pre-Pauline), but Paul Fiddes observes that while Paul certainly thought of Christ’s death in terms of “penal suffering” (since “Christ is identified with the human situation under the divine penalty”), Calvin’s doctrine requires the additional idea of the “transfer of penalty” – and this theory “requires the addition of an Anselmian view of debt repayment and a Roman view of criminal law” (Calvin, remember, was trained as a lawyer!). A fortiori, to cite patristic evidence for the doctrine is anachronistic.

4. It is also usually claimed that St Anselm (c. 1033-1100) anticipated Calvin. Insofar as Calvin was dependent on Anselm’s view of debt repayment, and also added to Anselm’s feudal emphasis on the compensation of God’s honour his own late medieval emphasis on the expiation/propitiation of God’s wrath, this claim is true. However, in contrast to Calvin, for Anselm punishment and satisfaction are not equivalents but alternatives: aut poena aut satisfactio. For Anselm, Christ is not punished in our place; rather he makes satisfaction on our behalf. Therefore Anselm does not propound a doctrine of penal substitution. “Indeed, in the end,” according to David Bentley Hart, “Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: recapitulation.”

5. If the doctrine of penal substitution is to have any place in contemporary soteriology, there are certain elements of its demotic form that have to be eliminated: especially the notion that Jesus died to placate or appease God, or to secure a change in God’s attitude, or to settle a score or balance the books – and, indeed, the notion that the cross is itself a divine punishment. Rather than drive such a wedge a between God and Jesus, the cross expresses their unity and mutual love. It is not a matter of anger or honour but of rescue and risk, obedience and self-sacrifice, of putting the world (Anselm’s ordo universi) to rights and making it beautiful again. Penal substitution is often narrowly construed in individualistic terms, so that the cosmic scope of the atonement is marginalised or missed altogether.

6. I repeat: God does not punish Jesus, or even will the death of Jesus tout court. Herbert McCabe: “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.... [T]he fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged.” That is, the crucifixion of Christ is not a penalty inflicted by God but the result of human sin, what inevitably happens when human sin encounters divine love. The cross, therefore, represents the wrath and judgement of God not directly but indirectly: God “gives us up” (παρέδωκεν, Romans 1:24, 26, 28) to the consequences of our destructive desires and actions, the human condition with which Christ identified himself in life, and to which God “gave him up” (παρέδωκεν, Romans 8:32), and to which we (with Judas) “betrayed”/“handed him over” (παρέδωκεν, Mark 3:19), in death.

7. Expounders of the doctrine of penal substitution often elide the juridical with the sacrificial. This is a mistake: the law court, not the temple, is the metaphorical setting of this model. Sacrifice, in the Bible, is never punitive; rather, it is a divine gift which, as human offering, becomes an expression of praise and gratitude. It is also a demonstration that reconciliation is a costly matter. But justice too, in the Bible, is not essentially punitive or retributive; it is restorative. If we continue to think of the atonement in forensic terms, it is essential to see it not as a legal transaction but as the transformation of a relationship. No cross without a resurrection, and no justification without sanctification – connections not always convincingly made by advocates of the doctrine of penal substitution.

8. Substitution – or representation? Did Jesus die “in our place,” or “on our behalf”? The debate is barren: both are true. They are, as Colin Gunton says, “correlative, not opposed concepts. Because Jesus is our substitute, it is also right to call him our representative.” But, again, it is in the court, not the cult, that substitution gets its metaphorical purchase: in Christ, the judge steps into the dock and is judged in our place (Barth). And, again, the theme is God’s liberating initiative, not the demands of the law. “The centre of the doctrine of the atonement is that Christ is not only our substitute – ‘instead of’ – but that by the substitution he frees us to be ourselves. Substitution is grace” (Gunton). And grace, not sin, runs the show.

9. Nevertheless, others – particularly students of René Girard – declare that penal substitution is an inherently violent model of the atonement; moreover, that it underwrites a culture of brutality and vengeance, ethically, socially and politically. Radical feminist theologians Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker have gone so far as to speak of “divine child abuse,” and to argue that the model’s image of Jesus voluntarily submitting to innocent suffering contributes to the victimisation of women. Black liberation theologian James Cone links the model to defences of slavery and colonialism. Michael Northcott suggests that it is no coincidence that leaders of the Religious Right, for whom the model is so central, are such staunch advocates of the lex talionis, capital punishment and the war on terror. Yet even Miroslav Volf, hardly a conservative evangelical, argues that “the only way in which non-violence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.”

10. I am unimpressed and unconvinced by – and find myself finally opposed to – the idea of divine violence. Spin it as retributive justice all you like, I am with James Alison: “Nothing that is dependent on vengeance can be called reconciliation.” How can one say such a thing? The doctrine of the Trinity! If opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa, and if the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity (Rahner’s rule), how can the Spirit-anointed Jesus of Nazareth, who rejected the way of violence and vengeance, have a violent and vengeful Father? Not surprisingly, expositors of the doctrine of penal substitution usually isolate the cross not only from the resurrection of Jesus, but also from his life and witness. To rephrase I John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is non-violent, and in him is no violence at all” – not even the violence of retributive justice! The work of Moltmann and Jüngel is an indispensable resource for working out the soteriological implications of the inextricable relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and a theologia crucis. A doctrine of substitution may be salvageable, and still serviceable – but not a doctrine of penal substitution.

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

The book meme spreads...

Our friend Kevin has done a great job on the latest Biblical Studies Carnival—and he mentions there that the One Book Meme has been “explosively popular” since it started six days ago (here is Google’s list of the meme’s progress). So thanks to all of you who helped to get this going!

Three things I do not believe

Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list—but here are three things that I don’t believe:

1. I do not believe that the meaning of the word “God” is obvious or self-evident.
2. I do not believe that God is either self-evidently “transcendent” or self-evidently “immanent.”
3. I do not believe that God’s will and work can be directly identified with anything in our culture, religion or experience.

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