Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Deconstruction and the university

“[T]he fundamental movement of deconstruction is a celebration of commitments, pointing out the pledges and promises that ground discourse – and the academy. Thus the university, any university, is founded on faith: before the work of scholarship happens, every scholar says a little prayer, whispers her pledge, commits and entrusts herself to language. The university, we might suggest, is quite religious, even if it has not been founded by priests, and it is this grounding commitment that deconstruction is sworn to celebrate.”

—James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), p. 181. [Thanks to Byron for pointing me to this remarkable book.]

Monday, 30 October 2006

O God of peace

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Sine nomine)

O God of peace, whose peace is Christ your Son,
put on your armour that the war be won,
the war on war, your Word against the gun:
   Alleluia! Alleluia!

O God of power, whose power appears so weak,
call up your soldiers from among the meek,
who won’t turn tail, but turn the other cheek:
   Alleluia! Alleluia!

O God of love, whose love casts out all fear,
steady your people when the warlike jeer,
but rather insults than their blood and tears:
   Alleluia! Alleluia!

O God of hosts, whose host is bread for life,
feed us by faith for strength in times of strife,
and fill with hope the grieving child and wife:
   Alleluia! Alleluia!

O God of time, whose time is always nigh,
keep us alert to leaders’ lethal lies,
come now your reign when truth will never die:
   Alleluia! Alleluia!

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Robert W. Jenson on the priority of the future

“The order of a good story is an ordering by the outcome of the narrated events; its animating spirit ... is the power of a self-determinate future to liberate each specious present from mere predictabilities, from being the mere consequence of what has gone before.... The great metaphysical question on the border between the gospel and our culture’s antecedent theology is whether this ordering may be regarded as its own kind of causality” – i.e., a causality that moves backwards from the future!

—Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 159.

Friday, 27 October 2006

Paul Louis Metzger: trinitarian soundings in systematic theology

Paul Louis Metzger, ed., Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 225 pp.; with a foreword by Bruce L. McCormack and an afterword by Robert W. Jenson. (Thanks to T&T Clark for sending a review copy.)

This collection of essays forms a fitting tribute to the late Colin Gunton (1941-2003). The 15 contributors include former friends, colleagues and students of Gunton – and Gunton’s own wide influence is attested by the remarkable diversity of the contributors, their academic and ecclesial backgrounds, and their various fields of interest.

Colin Gunton’s contribution to contemporary theology would be hard to overestimate. He played a central role in reviving the discipline of systematic theology in Britain, turning King’s College London into one of the most vibrant and productive centres of theological inquiry in the world. He wrote and edited 20 books, co-founded the International Journal of Systematic Theology, and established the Research Institute in Systematic Theology (which even has the dubious distinction of featuring prominently in The Da Vinci Code!).

The essays in this collection offer sharp, concise reflections on a wide range of theological themes, and the whole volume is organised around the traditional loci of systematic theology. Thus the book opens with essays on prolegomena (Murray Rae), revelation (Metzger) and the Old Testament (Paul Blackham), before moving on to topics such as relationality in the Trinity (Peter Robinson), sin and grace (R. N. Frost), the sinlessness of Jesus (Demetrios Bathrellos), pneumatology (James Houston), the sacraments (Paul Molnar), eschatology (Kelly Kapic), and ethics (Esther Reed). The book also includes previously published pieces by Miroslav Volf, Stanley Grenz and Gunton himself.

Let me focus for a moment on just two of the most notable essays. In his fine discussion of “Triune Creativity” (chapter 6), Stephen Holmes argues that only a trinitarian doctrine of creation can “provide room for created creativity” (pp. 73-74). On the one hand, the world’s “relative independence” from the self-mediating presence of God allows room for genuine creativity; and on the other hand, God’s close connection to the world affirms the “ultimate value” of such creativity (p. 79). Further, Holmes highlights the presence of many different perfections and rationalities within the ordering of the created world, and he notes that a “rich diversity of varied … human cultures would seem to be God’s will for the world, perhaps mirroring the unity-in-plurality which is his own triune life” (p. 81).

Later in the volume, in a profound and sharply concentrated reflection on the atonement (chapter 10), the Swiss theologian Georg Pfleiderer argues for the importance of an integrative theory of atonement which incorporates the plurality of biblical models, images and ideas. Such diverse models, Pfleiderer suggests, are unified by their focus on the communicative nature of human life, particularly “its vital ground, its rational external rules, and its internal semiotic structure.” The Christian doctrine of atonement, then, should be viewed as the affirmation that “in all these dimensions human life is dependent upon salvation” (p. 136).

While only a few essays here engage explicitly with Gunton’s work (especially Pfleiderer in chapter 10 and Esther Reed in chapter 15), the whole collection is nevertheless pervaded by some of Gunton’s deepest theological commitments: Trinity, pneumatology, relationality, and mediation.

And in a shrewd afterword, Robert W. Jenson (Gunton’s beloved Doktorvater) remarks on the absence of Lutheran contributors to this otherwise ecumenically diverse volume, noting that most of the essays exhibit characteristically “Guntonesque” patterns of thought: “the lines of argument in most of [the essays] are controlled by a certain reticence about the communication of attributes, and by attention to the problem of mediation between time and eternity” (p. 220). Even if one harbours suspicions about precisely such patterns of thought, one can only admire the consistency with which Gunton himself, and those influenced by him, have pursued and developed such themes within all the diverse loci of dogmatic theology.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Kim Fabricius: on investing in the arms trade

[NB: The following is a paper given by our friend Kim Fabricius at the University of Swansea last week, at a teach-in on the university’s investment in the arms trade. He shared the platform with a Marxist and a Muslim. I think the paper beautifully models the character of Christian “witness.”]

On the Self-Contradiction of a University Investing in the Arms Trade

It is good to share a platform with people who are committed to a university free from all investment in the arms trade. Whether that commitment extends to an equal zeal for non-violence altogether – including whatever strategies of protest or resistance that some of you may adopt as a result of this meeting – I do not know. If not, then I would argue that your commitment is, in fact, totally compromised, indeed self-contradictory – as, indeed, is any commitment whose terms are dictated by what one is against. But that is another platform! For today, I am glad that we are united in our horror at an institution of higher learning that makes money out of mass murder.

I myself am a pacifist, a Christian pacifist. That is to say, my pacifism cannot be abstracted from my discipleship, from my being a follower of Jesus, which in turn cannot be abstracted from the being of God. To re-phrase 1 John 1:5, “God is non-violent, and in him there is no violence at all.” Put another way, my ethics of peace derives from an ontology of peace, which specifically derives from Christology – from the nature of the Prince of Peace. I say this in witness, but also in warning – the warning that, really, there is no reason why my ad hoc ethical solidarity with you should have any purchase whatsoever if you do not share my theological convictions.

That is the truth of the matter, and that is why I share it with you: because violence is always inextricably linked with lies. The tree of war always has deceit for its roots. And that is the single, fundamental point of principled practice that I want to make to you today: that for a university, an institution of further education, a community whose very raison d’être is the pursuit of truth (notwithstanding post-modern nihilists who, with Pilate, mockingly ask, “What is truth?”), for such an institution to be making profits from a business whose own raison d’être is mendacity and mayhem – this is a prodigious oxymoron, an undertaking of extreme bad faith, and indeed an act of academic suicide. For how can a school of virtue do deals with an industry of vice without its own spiritual death being the bottom line?

Therefore there can be no justification whatsoever for any university investing in the arms trade, for even if the operation is “successful” (in the sense of “lucrative”), it is a mortal blow to the patient. Even if one is not a Christian pacifist, or even a pacifist, even if one’s appeal is to so-called Just War Theory, the theory itself rejects that appeal, for the WMD we are talking about demonstrably, flagrantly violate the Just War criteria of proportionality and discrimination. And if the appeal is to so-called “realism” – well, how cynical can you get? The reality of the matter is that we make our own reality of the matter: for it is not that ethical policies have been tried and found wanting, they have not been tried at all.

Things have to be the way they are only if we concede that things cannot be different. But they can be different, because in fact they are different – forgive me if I end where I began – because Christ is risen, and therefore the impossible is not impossible, in fact it is practical. So that, finally, I am not suggesting that the university sacrifice financial prudence to moral purity. Rather I am saying that in rejecting all investment in the arms trade, the university will actually be going with “the grain of the universe” (John Howard Yoder). In short, to disinvest in the arms trade is not only to be right, it is to “get real.”

F. LeRon Shults

I was pleased to discover that the impressive young theologian LeRon Shults has a personal blog, which also includes information about his various current research projects. Among other things, he’s writing a book entitled Christology and Contemporary Science (Ashgate/Eerdmans, 2007), with the following chapters:

1. Introduction
2. Incarnation and Evolutionary Biology
3. Atonement and Social Theory
4. Parousia and Physical Cosmology
5. Resources for Reconstruction

Sounds like it will be another fascinating book! And it looks as though he and I will both be at the same conference in January on Complexity Theory, Emergence, and the Influence of Life on Matter.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Interview with Meehyun Chung, recipient of the Karl Barth Prize

As mentioned earlier, the Korean pastor and theologian Meehyun Chung recently became the first woman to receive the Karl Barth Prize. Meehyun Chung did her doctoral work in Basel on the relationship between Barth and Korean theology, and her dissertation was published as Karl Barth, Josef Lukl Hromádka, Korea (1995). She now works as head of the Women and Gender Division at Mission 21 in Basel.

I caught up with her for an interview (translated here from German) about Barth, Korea, and women in the church.

BM: Meehyun Chung, congratulations on receiving the prestigious Karl Barth Prize this year.

MC: Thank you very much.

BM: In your doctoral work, what were your own conclusions about the relationship between Karl Barth and Korean theology?

MC: Most of the Protestant churches in Korea are Presbyterian. In reviewing the Swiss Reformation, Reformed identity and the development of Reformed tradition in Barth’s theology, I adopted the Barthian approach in the context of Korean theology. In this way, I underlined the social component of theology (over against both fundamentalism and nineteenth-century liberalism). In addition, in Barth’s position during the cold war period I found an impulse for the theology of reunification in Korea.

BM: And how did you get involved with Mission 21 in Switzerland?

MC: Since I had studied in Basel, I already knew about Basel Mission (reorganised in 2001 as Mission 21). At that time, Basel Mission had shown solidarity with the Korean church during the politically difficult time in Korea. So I was already in contact with Basel Mission. Later, I was kindly informed of the Mission’s advertised position, and I was encouraged to bring a woman’s voice from the south to attention here in Europe. And so I came to Basel for the second time in my life.

BM: What does your current work at Mission 21 involve?

MC: Three main things: (1) To strengthen theology from a woman’s perspective in our partner countries, and to bring the voice of women to attention here. (2) To promote women’s networks in our partner churches and organisations, especially by providing information in the Women’s Letter and by providing a special fund for the promotion of women. (3) Gender mainstreaming: to support gender as a transversal subject in all of Mission 21’s programmes and projects.

BM: Do you think Karl Barth’s theology offers resources for the contemporary struggle to improve the place of women in the church?

MC: Not directly. But nor does feminist theology help directly in this struggle. The important thing is the way Barth’s theology took the church so seriously (cf. his change in 1931 from Christian Dogmatics to Church Dogmatics). Feminist theology could and should also take seriously this aspect and impulse of Barth’s theology. In my opinion, contemporary feminist theology around the world has tended to neglect ecclesial things. Feminist theology has achieved various things in the academic sphere, but the voice of women in the church has not actually been accepted – or rather, feminist theology has neglected the everyday voice of women in the church. So I think there are different aspects of Barth’s theology that could be taken into consideration in the discourse of feminist theology. Above all, gender equality in the church could be developed further.

BM: Meehyun Chung, thank you very much for your time. I wish you all the best for your continuing work and ministry.

MC: Many thanks. It was my great pleasure.

Monday, 23 October 2006

The best book on Wolfhart Pannenberg

I love Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theology. Depending on which of his books I’m reading at the time, I find him either baffling, irritating or breathtaking – or occasionally all three at once. In my view, Pannenberg’s finest work is his great book on christology, Jesus – God and Man (1964). And I also think his Systematic Theology is without question the best Protestant dogmatics since Karl Barth.

It always amazes me that there isn’t more secondary literature on Pannenberg (and although I respect Moltmann, I find it incomprehensible that far more is written about him than about Pannenberg!). Still, if you’re looking for an exceptionally good study – yes, the best study – of Pannenberg’s theology, then here it is:

Christiaan Mostert, God and the Future: Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Eschatological Doctrine of God (London: T&T Clark, 2002).

I bought a copy of this only recently, and I realised at once that it far surpasses most of the other secondary literature on Pannenberg – it’s a brilliant exposition of some of the most profound and most significant aspects of Pannenberg’s thought (and of course I’m also happy to report that the author is a fellow Aussie). Anyway, if you want to read just one book about Pannenberg’s theology, then God and the Future is definitely the one to get your hands on.

James Barr, 1924-2006

Unfortunately I didn’t hear this news sooner: the great Scottish Old Testament scholar James Barr died last week in Claremont, California. The Herald, The Times, and Vanderbilt University have obituaries.

Sunday, 22 October 2006

The science of faith

“Theology is the science of faith. That is – as Barth said – a scandal for today’s scientific thought. It is however not something irrational; it is no contradictio in terminus [contradiction in terms]. It means that the knowledge with which this science is occupied is not knowledge that we ourselves can acquire, but knowledge that requires complete participation and devotion, and only so comes to us.”

—Gerben J. Stavenga, “Physik auf dem Wege zur Theologie,” Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 3 (1987), p. 36.

Saturday, 21 October 2006

Free theology books

At Sub Ratione Dei, Richard is giving away dozens of new theology paperbacks. And, on a related note, here are some very nice (but not free!) books.

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Theology for beginners (20): Mission

Summary: The Christian community participates in the mission of the triune God, announcing and enacting the Lordship of Jesus and so summoning all creation into the life of God’s coming kingdom.

We have seen that the Christian community is gathered around the risen Jesus and empowered by the Spirit for a life of freedom. And in every dimension of its life, this community is a sent community, a community propelled by mission.

To describe the Christian community as “missional” is to say that the community participates in God’s own work. The triune life of God is itself an ongoing event of mission: the Father sends the Son into our history; the Son accepts his mission from the Father and follows the path of that mission even to the point of death; and proceeding from the Father through the Son, the Spirit raises the dead Jesus into new life and empowers the Christian community to gather around the risen Jesus in freedom and thanksgiving. God’s own triunity, then, takes place as an unceasing movement of sending-and-being-sent, a movement of mission that breaks into history from the future in order to draw all history forwards into the life of God’s coming kingdom.

As the Spirit breathes life into the Christian community, we too are caught up in God’s movement, in God’s own act of mission. Mission, in other words, is not merely one of the community’s functions alongside others: mission belongs to the very essence of the Christian community. Right from the outset, the community is set in motion towards a future destiny; right from the outset, the life of the community is the life of God’s mission. Strictly speaking, then, the community does not “have” a mission – rather, God himself is a movement of mission which also creates and sets in motion a missional community. Thus to be a member of the Christian community is to be involved in the mission of God.

What does this mean for the life of the community? On the one hand, it does not mean that our role is to establish or advance the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom comes. It comes from God’s own future as the goal of all God’s action in history. It comes from God himself by God’s own powerful act. The Christian community is by no means identical with this coming kingdom, nor does the kingdom in any sense depend on the activity of the community. But precisely here, our own task becomes clear: not to establish God’s kingdom, but to announce it; not to bring the kingdom near, but to enact its nearness; not to advance the kingdom by expanding the institutions of Christendom, but to use these institutions to witness to the kingdom; not, then, to identify our own work with the kingdom, but simply to stand before the reality of God’s future and to summon all creation towards that reality.

The mission of the community is thus to announce and enact something that is already the case: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself! Our task is not to make this happen – our task is to announce it this has already happened. God has already acted in Jesus for the salvation of the world. God has already lowered himself into the depths to make us his friends, he has already raised our humanness into fellowship with himself. On the basis of this “already,” our task is to summon all people to recognise the crucified and risen Jesus as the world’s true Lord, as the Lord who comes to us in grace, as the Lord who waits for us at the goal of history. In every dimension of its life, therefore, the Christian community is to announce and enact this one simple message: “Jesus is Lord!”

The message of the Lordship of Jesus is always a confident message of God’s great “already” – it is an announcement of something that has already happened for all people and for all creation. But at the same time, this is a hopeful message of the “very soon.” Because the crucified Jesus is the risen Lord, he is the goal towards which we are always travelling, the conclusion that will give coherence to all our stories, the ultimate context within which all creation will receive its true meaning. Jesus is, in other words, the destiny of history: he is the one who comes from the future as our hope, as the Lord of God’s kingdom. And so the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” is always an announcement about the future, about our hope, about the kingdom that approaches even now and sets our present lives within the context of God’s reality.

The mission of the Christian community is thus to announce this message: “Jesus is Lord – he is the Lord in whom God has acted, and he is the Lord in whom God is coming!” As well as announcing this message, the community must enact the message in visible and suggestive signs and parables. The Lordship of Jesus is enacted in social and political acts of justice and peace, in artistic works of beauty and meaning, in personal acts of grace and forgiveness. As the community enacts the Lordship of Jesus in such ways, the world here and now catches an anticipatory glimpse of God’s coming kingdom. The world here and now glimpses the context of meaning from which everything else – all history, all creation, every human story – receives its meaning.

There are no simple rules that can prescribe the way the community must carry out this mission. At times, the mission will involve evangelism – but the mission of the community (that is, the mission of God) is by no means identical with evangelisation. At times, it will involve expanding Christendom in its institutional forms – but the mission itself is never identical with or dependent on such expansion. At times, it will involve establishing new ecclesial forms and structures – but the mission itself is never identical with such strategies. At times, it will involve social and political action in the cause of justice and peace – but the mission itself can never be identified with such action.

Our role, then, is not simply to perform a set of tasks that have been prescribed in advance. Rather, our role is to participate in the unceasing event of God’s own mission. This means that our lives and our Christian institutions must be empowered by the Spirit and directed towards the future of the risen Jesus. It means that in all we do, we hasten towards the destiny of creation – but in this hastening, we also wait. We wait for the power of the Spirit. We wait for the missional movement of God’s own life.

In this situation, this “hastening that waits,” we participate even now in the mission of God. We announce and enact the Lordship of Jesus. And so we joyfully summon all creation to share with us in the triune life of God’s future.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Ray S. An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), pp. 178-99.
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1962), pp. 681-901.
  • Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1991).
  • Guder, Darrell L. Be My Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London: SCM, 1977).
  • Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989).
  • Sauter, Gerhard. Gateways to Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 168-79.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, November 2006).

Podcast: Bob Dylan, "Rock of Ages"

Since hundreds of people listened to the last Bob Dylan podcast, I thought I’d do another one here.

Dylan has often opened his concerts with old hymns and gospel songs. In 1997 – the same year that he released the darkly brooding album Time out of Mind – his concerts were featuring songs like “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour,” “Somebody Touched Me,” “I Am the Man, Thomas,” and “Wait for the Light to Shine.”

In particular, many of his concerts that year were opening with a beautiful rendition of Augustus Toplady’s great hymn, “Rock of Ages.” So here’s an unofficial live recording of “Rock of Ages” from 1997. You can listen to it here, or you can get the podcast feed here.

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Ten must-read noughties novels for Christians

by Kim Fabricius

Following on from Fifteen Essential Novels for Theologians, here are “Ten Must-Read Noughties Novels for Christians” (in chronological order).

There were three criteria for selection. First, that the novels have been published since the turn of the millennium. Second, that they carry a significant amount of theological freight even if they do not contain explicitly “religious” characters and motifs (though at least six of them do). And, finally, that I have actually read them – which considerably narrows the field, but then, I confess, the purpose of the list is not only for me to point you to some outstanding recent fiction but also for you, in your responses, to point me to some too. Old oriental saying: One hand washes another.

Ten Must-Read Noughties Novels for Christians

1. Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans (2000)
2. Salley Vickers, Miss Garnet’s Angel (2000)
3. Ian McKewan, Atonement (2001)
4. Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2002)
5. Douglas Coupland, Hey Nostradamus! (2003)
6. Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003)
7. Valerie Martin, Property (2003)
8. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (2004)
9. Orhan Pamuk, Snow (2004)
10. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Kevin Vanhoozer: first theology

Kevin Vanhoozer is one of the finest theologians working today in the tradition of North American evangelicalism – and as a theorist of theological hermeneutics he has few peers. Some of his central insights are articulated in this collection of essays: First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 384 pp. – and I’m grateful to IVP for a review copy.

For Vanhoozer, the term “first theology” describes the complex problematic of God, Scripture and hermeneutics. The proper locus for thinking God and Scripture together is hermeneutics; from this perspective, he says, “the questions of God, Scripture and hermeneutics [are] one problem” (p. 9). In exploring hermeneutics, Vanhoozer is not trying to develop an isolated, pre-theological prolegomenon. On the contrary, he wants to do “theology beyond prolegomena” by pursuing “a way of speaking of God that allows the theological matter to influence the theological method” (p. 16).

One of Vanhoozer’s central claims is that “[o]ur view of Scripture affects our view of God, just as our view of God colors our view of Scripture” (p. 30). This means that we cannot discuss God apart from Scripture, nor can we discuss Scripture apart from a trinitarian doctrine of God.

Vanhoozer conceptualises this God-Scripture relationship by describing “God as a triune communicative agent and Scripture as the written locus of God’s communicative action” (p. 38). Theology itself, then, is simply “God-centered biblical interpretation,” and as such the aim of theology is to develop a biblical imagination, so that we see reality as Scripture sees it (pp. 37-38). Indeed, faith itself means “having your thinking, imagining, language and life shaped by the biblical texts” in all their diverse literary genres (p. 334). Although there is much that is of value here, one wishes that Vanhoozer would attend not only to the literary genres of the Bible but also to the Bible’s historicity – and in this way he might overcome his fundamental distrust of the historical-critical method. (Most professional biblical scholars would be surprised to learn [p. 18] that “the critical approach promises knowledge but does not deliver”!)

Some of the book’s most impressive essays are concerned with specific hermeneutical reflections on the doctrine of God. Above all, Vanhoozer emphasises the communicative character of God’s being. Perhaps his most profound and most significant proposal is the thesis that “God’s presence is neither spatial nor substantive but communicative”; it is “the presence of personal address and response” (p. 90). Here, he suggests that such a communicative conception can overcome the impasse between classical theism and panentheism. Thus he depicts the God-world relationship as one of “communicative rather than causal agency” (p. 117). “God comes to the world in, and as, Word” (p. 123) – God is with his people not substantially, spatially or causally, but “through speech acts” (p. 149).

In dialogue with the tradition of Barth, Vanhoozer seeks to overcome the personal/propositional dichotomy that has long characterised discussion of the doctrine of Scripture. He argues that “[t]he neo-orthodox emphasis on the self-revelation of God is faulty only in its neglect of the semantic means by which this disclosure takes place” (p. 157) – a point that has also been raised by leading British theologians like Colin Gunton and John Webster.

In his depiction of Scripture, Vanhoozer thus utilises speech-act theory to fuse the central emphases of “neo-orthodoxy” and conservative evangelicalism: “the Bible is the Word of God (in the sense of its illocutionary acts) and … the Bible becomes the Word of God (in the sense of achieving its perlocutionary functions)” (p. 195). Just here, the fusion of the doctrine of God with the doctrine of Scripture is clear, since the Bible is precisely the locus of what God does by speaking and of what happens as a result of God’s speech.

Such a view of Scripture is, of course, a long way from “the postmodern despair of language.” In contrast to such hermeneutical “despair,” Vanhoozer advocates a Christian “delight in language” based on the realisation that language is itself the gift of God (p. 33). Further, he suggests that textual interpretation depends on the virtues of faith, hope and love: faith that there is “a voice, a meaning in the text”; hope that the interpretive community can attain understanding; and love as “a mutual relation of self-giving between text and reader” (p. 231). These hermeneutical virtues are not our own achievement, but they are the work of the Spirit – so that the prayer of the theologian is: “Veni spiritus interpres! Come interpreter Spirit!” (p. 235).

Vanhoozer’s attempt to bring together the doctrines of God and Scripture by way of a renewed theological hermeneutic demands close attention. For those who feel daunted by the size of Vanhoozer’s major volumes – Is There a Meaning in This Text? and The Drama of Doctrine – this book’s account of hermeneutical theology will serve as a welcome introduction to the work of one of the most creative evangelical theologians working today.

Monday, 16 October 2006

Barth's encounter with Calvin

In the summer of 1922, the young Karl Barth taught a course on the theology of Calvin. As he struggled to prepare the lectures, he immersed himself passionately in Calvin – and he even cancelled his other announced course (on the Epistle to the Hebrews) so that he could concentrate solely on Calvin. He was overwhelmed by the strangeness and power of what he found in Calvin’s theology. In a letter to his closest friend, Eduard Thurneysen, Barth expressed his astonishment:

“Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”

—Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 8 June 1922; in Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), p. 101.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Giving what is theirs

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life” (Chrysostom).

“When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours” (Gregory the Great).

—Cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994), pp. 647-48.

Stand up

Today the STAND UP campaign will be happening all around the world. Bob Marley sums it up best (with impeccable theology):

Most people think
Great God will come from the skies,
Take away ev’rything, and make ev’rybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights.

Get up, stand up...

We’re sick and tired of your ism-skism game,
Dyin’ and goin’ to heaven in Jesus’ name, Lord.
We know when we understand:
Almighty God is a living man.
You can fool some people sometimes,
But you can’t fool all the people all the time:
So now we see the light,
We gonna stand up for our rights.

Get up, stand up...

—Bob Marley, “Get Up, Stand Up” (1973)

Friday, 13 October 2006

Tom Wright: Simply Christian

In his little book Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006), the distinguished New Testament scholar N. T. Wright offers a lively and refreshing introduction to Christian theology (and I’m grateful to SPCK for a review copy). In 16 short chapters, Wright outlines the broad terrain of Christian belief, beginning with general human experiences of longing (chapters 1-4), before discussing the story of the Old and New Testaments (chapter 5-10) and the meaning of the Christian life today (chapters 11-16).

The book’s central metaphor is that of “echoes.” In our longing for justice, our hunger for spirituality and relationship, and our delight in beauty, we are hearing “echoes of a voice” – and it is in the story of Jesus that we “recognize the voice whose echoes we have heard” (p. 61).

Wright points out that Christianity “is not about Jesus offering a wonderful moral example,” nor is it about Jesus “accomplishing a new route by which people can ‘go to heaven when they die,’” nor about “giving the world fresh teaching about God.” On the contrary, “Christianity is about something that happened” (pp. 78-79). Through Jesus, “God’s future has arrived in the present” – now, “[i]nstead of mere echoes, we hear the voice itself: a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence of new creation” (p. 100).

Our unfulfilled longings are thus echoes of the voice that has now spoken in the resurrection of Jesus: “When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty rose with him” (p. 100). Further, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity derives directly from what took place in Jesus: “God, the true God, is the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth” – and this God “not only happens to love us,” but “he is love itself” (p. 118), so that “within the very being of this God there [is] a give-and-take, a to-and-fro, a love given and received” (p. 102).

In his discussion of worship, sacraments, prayer and scripture, Wright offers a generous and irenic approach, and he emphasises the importance of active participation in the life of the Christian community. Above all, he says, the Christian life is “the new way of being human, the Jesus-shaped way of being human, the cross-and-resurrection way of life, the Spirit-led pathway” – it is life lived in anticipation of “the full, rich, glad human existence which will one day be ours when God makes all things new” (p. 189). Thus Christian ethics is not about mastering certain rules and moral guidelines: “It is about practising, in the present, the tunes we shall sing in God’s new world” (p. 189).

And what is God’s new world all about? It is the perfection of our created world, the fulfilment of all our longings for justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty. Our role is to be “agents” of this new creation in all that we do – “in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting” (p. 202). For the new creation does not lie only in the future: “new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian” (p. 202).

Tom Wright’s Simply Christian is a remarkably fresh, concise, and – in the best sense of the word – simple depiction of the Christian faith. It is grounded in a deep awareness of the fact that we learn who God really is only in the story of what God has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Vatican statement on International Arms Trade Treaty

Speaking of peace and war: the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has released a statement supporting a proposed resolution concerning the international control of the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons. The statement concludes:

“The Holy See is convinced that such a convention can be an important step toward a true global culture of peace, in which states, civil society and the military industry cooperate, with responsibility and solidarity, for a more peaceful and secure world.”

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Theology for beginners (19): Forgiveness

Summary: The freedom of the Christian life is above all the freedom of forgiveness: living in the forgiveness of God, we are set free to forgive the debts of others.

We have spoken of the freedom of the Christian community. And we must now focus on the most distinctive and most fundamental form of this freedom: the freedom of forgiveness.

Right from the start, the Christian life is constituted by the gift of forgiveness. At the beginning of the Christian life, the bath of baptism dramatically enacts the free and unconditional gift of forgiveness by which God receives human beings into the fellowship of his own triune life. In baptism, the past is washed away. All our guilt and shame is removed – it is drowned and left behind in the water. In this way, the power of the past is broken, so that a person emerges from the water into new life, into a life wholly open to the future of God’s coming kingdom.

Forgiveness is not, however, merely the start of the Christian life. Each day and at every moment, we continue to live by the power of forgiveness. Each day, the Christian community repeats the same prayer: “Forgive us our debts!” Each day, we continue to need and to ask for God’s forgiveness. Thus although we are baptised only once, throughout the whole Christian life we continue to share in the eucharistic meal – the meal of forgiveness. Just as we share together in the bread and wine, so we are reminded that God’s forgiving grace is our food and drink, our nourishment, our very life. To eat and drink forgiveness, to be sustained by forgiveness – this is the meaning of the Christian life.

And so our prayer each day is: “Forgive us our debts!” Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange.

Forgiveness is not restitution – it is unconditional pardon. It is cancellation of debt. Forgiveness therefore involves both a recognition of the debt that is owed, and an irreversible decision that the debt will be cancelled. It is thus not a matter of simply forgetting the past – it is a powerful annulment of the past, an act in which the chains of the past are broken. Through forgiveness, the past itself is thus transformed into something new, just as the future is suddenly opened in a new way. Liberated from the power of the past, I am now set in motion towards a future rich with hope and possibility. This, then, is the unique freedom of the Christian life: to stand forgiven before God, and thus truly to be free in relation to my own past and to the future of God’s kingdom.

But our daily prayer is not only “forgive us our debts.” In fact, our prayer is: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” This prayer means: “Set me free from the past, just as I release others from the chains of their past. Cancel my debts today, just as today I release others from the debts they owe me. Do not demand restitution for guilt from me, just as I refuse to demand restitution from others. Set me free from the need to make amends, just as I excuse others from this need. Forgive me unconditionally, just as I forgive without negotiation or condition.”

To pray this way is to pray for something radical, something that shatters all our assumptions and expectations about the basic patterns of ordinary social life. In our world, you don’t get anything for nothing. If you want something, you must pay for it; you must make some kind of exchange. But forgiveness overturns the entire economy of exchange – in forgiveness, I give you something for nothing, without requiring payment or exchange, without demanding anything in return. In the economy of exchange, you are bound to me by various contracts and conditions – but in the economy of forgiveness, you are set free from all bondage to me, unconditionally liberated from all indebtedness to me.

Forgiveness is thus something shocking, something astonishing and unexpected. It lies outside the basic patterns and assumptions that underpin our entire culture. It is wholly undetermined and contingent. It is an event that can never be anticipated in advance. It is an irruption of the ordinary. Until we have been shocked and astonished – yes, frightened! – by the power of forgiveness, we have not yet even begun to understand what is involved here.

Forgiveness is shocking because it is a miracle. In and of myself, I lack the capacity to forgive – but as I receive the forgiving love of God in Jesus, I am empowered by the Spirit to become an agent of that same forgiveness. Because I have been forgiven, I can and must forgive. When I forgive a person who has wronged me, that person is truly forgiven – she is liberated from the chains of the past and set free to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. So too, when this person forgives me, I am truly forgiven – I am liberated from the past and welcomed into the life of the kingdom. Through the power of the Spirit, human society in all its forms can thus begin to glimpse and to participate in the life of the kingdom through this astounding miracle of reciprocal forgiveness.

To forgive, therefore, is not only a personal act – it is also a social and political act, an act pregnant with the promise of a new future for our world. In international relations and in domestic penal policy, it overturns the politics of vengeance. In social relationships, it overturns the demand for retribution and compensation – the violent demand to be “given one’s due” at any cost. Indeed, in the first century the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ entire ministry as a liberating act of debt-cancellation: in Jesus, the Year of Jubilee had arrived, a time in which all debts were written off, so that the poor could be released from their financial servitude. This, too, is what forgiveness means today. This is what we are asking for when we pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” The prayer for forgiveness is thus a revolutionary act, a radical contradiction of the whole economy that underlies the accepted patterns of thought and behaviour which drive our culture.

Indeed, the petition for forgiveness is identical with the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done; … and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” To live by forgiveness is already to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. To practise forgiveness in all our day-to-day social interactions is already to show the power and the life of God’s kingdom.

For the kingdom of God – the kingdom that Jesus announced, the kingdom that is now approaching all history like a fast train from the future – is a kingdom of forgiveness, a kingdom whose fundamental economy is one of unconditional, liberating love. To live in the power of this liberating love is the meaning of Christian freedom.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 430-50.
  • Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • McFadyen, Alistair and Marcel Sarot (eds.). Forgiveness and Truth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001).
  • Milbank, John. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 44-60.
  • Müller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis (New York: Continuum, 1995), pp. 124-41.
  • Shults, F. LeRon and Steven J. Sandage. The Faces of Forgiveness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
  • Tanner, Kathryn. The Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
  • Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

Six things I'm looking forward to

1. A novel: Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night
2. A film: The Children of Men
3. An autobiography: Jürgen Moltmann, Weiter Raum
4. A historical book: John W. Cooper, Panentheism
5. A theological book: Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors
6. A Barth book: R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Propositions on peace and war: a postscript

by Kim Fabricius (a postscript to this discussion)

What a good discussion: resolute statements, discerning replies, penetrating questions – and all spoken with grace and heard with humility. A tribute to the ethos of Faith & Theology. Thank you, all; and thanks to Ben, who has asked me if I’d like to make any final comments. Yes, please!

First – to repeat – the Christian pacifist argument turns on the nature of the triune God; and the normative criterion of the nature of the triune God is the Christ event: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the hinge of history, and his life and teaching, the paradigm for all human action. If there is violence in this God – in this Jesus – the case for pacifism falls. Of course there are plenty of OT references to a violent deity, and a few in the NT too, but unless the opponents of pacifism can demonstrate a violent streak in Jesus himself (the hermeneutical criterion of all scripture), their case is like espresso without caffeine – it lacks the essential ingredient. In my view, the case has not – and cannot – be made.

Second, opponents of pacifism are also surprisingly – or perhaps I should say unsurprisingly – quiet about the pacifist church of the first three centuries. Did the church get it wrong? Or is it that the changing circumstances of the church under empire, and then under nations, changed everything? But if so, why? What does Constantinople – or Washington – have to do with Jerusalem? If Christians were pacifist under pagan rule, why should they abandon pacifism under Christian rule? Indeed, what constitutes “Christian rule”? Is not the very idea that a Christian ruler/government may wield the sword an oxymoron? This is certainly a question that needs to be answered rather than begged. As does the Lutheran idea that secular vocations absolve Christians from obedience to the Prince of Peace.

Third, that hard chestnut, which seems to be the soft-underbelly of Christian pacifism: what about the innocent and defenceless under violent attack, be it family or neighbours at a personal level, or racial/ethnic groups or states at a national/international level? Surely, it is argued, the love commandment itself not only warrants but indeed demands a violent, if surgical, response to violence. But if – and I take this as read – there are no theological grounds whatsoever for violent self-defence (forceful restraint is something altogether different), where is the logic in the leap to justifying the violent defence of others? Furthermore, does not this argument rely on blatantly sub-Christian ethical reasoning – namely, that the end justifies the means? More fundamentally still, does it not assume an understanding of “love” (and “peace”) derived apart from revelation, i.e., apart from the crucified and risen one? In other words, does not the argument rely on natural theology, specifically on natural law theory – i.e., on pagan sources? How interesting that, on peace and war, both Barth, and eventually Bonhoeffer himself, take this detour – or rather cul-de-sac – from their otherwise consistently biblically based and dogmatically mediated ethics.

Fourth, and following, I suggest that the anti-pacifist case is based on a skewered understanding of “realism/pragmatism” (severed from the Jesus-narrative), which in turn is based on the unexamined notion of “common sense.” For what is common sense but a prejudiced way of finding our way around the world which was, if not imbibed with mother’s milk, at least fixed in childhood and adolescence? And what is the gospel if not radically counter-intuitive? Even deeper, the anti-pacifist case seems to accept the assumption that there is nothing worse than oppression, defeat and death. But Christians should know better than that!

Finally, it hardly needs (I hope) to be said that authentic Christian pacifists are not do-nothings, let alone cowards – though (as one wag has put it) being a pacifist between wars is like being a vegetarian between meals. But as Hauerwas rightly insists, pacifism has its roots in Christian character inculcated and matured in everyday discipleship, so that pacifism is not a decision that is made but an identity that is given. Gandhi said that to do nothing in the face of evil is to deny one’s humanity, and to oppose evil with the weapons of the evil-doer is to affirm one’s humanity – but to oppose evil with the weapons of God is to affirm one’s divinity.

Monday, 9 October 2006

Eberhard Jüngel on peace war

“Can the church ... insist that every use of military force is against God’s will and therefore that even the threat of military force, institutionalised in the form of armies, is also to be condemned absolutely? ... Only by describing every war as an offence against God’s gracious and – precisely in its graciousness – holy will, can the church formulate the urgent demand on all states worldwide to condemn solemnly and together the mere threat of military force.... The institution of war can only be abolished if the institution of the potential for war is abolished....

“[I]t is important to ask whether the church can credibly proclaim the Gospel, the glorification of those who make peace, without at the same time rejecting every threat and use of military force. And how can it do this more convincingly than by working for the laying aside of weapons not only by Christians, but by all people around the world? ... [T]he question forces itself inexorably on the church, whether the time has not come in which Christians can only be credible witnesses to Jesus Christ as conscientious objectors.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), pp. 84-92.

Sunday, 8 October 2006

Karl Barth on peace and war

“The decisive contradiction of the kingdom of God against all concealed or blatant kingdoms of force is to be seen quite simply in the fact that it invalidates the whole friend-foe relationship between one human and another.... The disciples are told: ‘Love your enemies!’ (Matt. 5:44). This is the end of the whole friend-foe relationship, for when we love our enemy he ceases to be our enemy. It thus abolishes the whole exercise of force, which presupposes this relationship, and has no meaning apart from it.... In conformity with the New Testament, one can be pacifist not in principle but only in practice (praktisch Pazifist). But let everyone consider very carefully whether, being called to discipleship, it is possible to avoid – or permissible to neglect – becoming a practical pacifist!”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, pp. 549-50 (KD IV/2, p. 622).

More on peace and war

As usual, Kim’s latest post is being discussed on lots of other blogs.

Also, in response to Kim’s earlier post on hell, Dan has now come up with his own 10 propositions on hell.

Friday, 6 October 2006

Ten propositions on peace and war

by Kim Fabricius

1. God is the God of peace. The Father, as the “source of good” (fons bonorum), is the source of peace; the Son, of course, is the Prince of Peace; and the Spirit, as the “bond of love” (vinculum caritatis) between the Father and the Son, is the Spirit of peace. To re-phrase 1 John 1:5: God is non-violent, and in him there is no violence at all.

2. Is this a tendentious use of scripture? Not at all. Christian theology is Trinitarian precisely because it is Christocentric – and it is incontestable that “God is Christ-like, and in him there is no un-Christ-likeness at all” (John V. Taylor). Jesus preached and practiced non-violence – no ifs, ands, or buts. And Jesus is the imago Dei.

3. And the “awkward” New Testament texts? The “sword” in Matthew 10:34 is clearly a metaphor for the conflict that the mission of Jesus provoked; while the “sword” in Luke 22:36 is “grimly ironical” (I. H. Marshall). As for the Cleansing of the Temple, it is hardly a political manifesto but rather an enacted parable (“street theatre,” it’s been called) in the venerable tradition of prophetic symbolism. And Romans 13:1-5? How ironic that just these verses “were taken up by the Christian martyrs of the second century as an integral part of their declarations of loyalty at the moment of execution” (Neil Elliott). Presumably it had not escaped their attention that Romans 13:1-5 happens to be preceded by Romans 12:14-21. There is no support whatsoever in Paul’s letters for Christians engaging in violence. And in the rest of the New Testament, including Revelation, military imagery is deconstructed and deployed in the service of peace: the Lion of Judah goes “Baa!” (Revelation 5:5-6).

4. And the Lord of Hosts of the Old Testament? An ironic counter-question: the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites? More to the point, “the New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament. Just as the New Testament texts render judgments superseding the Old Testament requirements of circumcision and dietary laws, … so also Jesus’ explicit teaching and example of non-violence reshapes our understanding of God and of the covenant community in such a way that killing enemies is no longer a justifiable option” (Richard B. Hays). If angelic armies once bore weapons and cried, “Over the top!”, now they play (mouth) organs and sing, “We shall overcome!”

5. Of course the church has honoured the Sermon on the Mount more in the breach than the observance. They are “counsels” rather than commands (consilia evangelica – the medieval church), or they are inapplicable in the secular realm (Luther), or they are an “interim ethic” (Albert Schweitzer), or they are an impossible ideal (Reinhold Niebuhr, who, by the way, conceded that “the ethic of Jesus is uncompromisingly pacifist”). But although, say, Matthew 5:38-48 is illustrative rather than exhaustive, it is clearly meant to be followed by the entire Christian community – and followed to the letter. But, more, it is spoken to the world – Christian morality is never sectarian – as Matthew 28:20 makes absolutely clear. Observe too the placement of the sixth and final antithesis regarding the love of enemies – it is the radicalisation of the first and the climax of the lot. Declared from a height, it is the Everest of ethics.

6. And so-called Just War theory? It is the Trojan horse in the city of God. If ever there was a knockdown incrimination against natural theology this is it. Its origins lie in Stoicism, the pinnacle of philosophy in the Pax Romana – which, of course, is spin for “imperial terror.” Augustine (who, in fact, was less than satisfied with the implications of his own teaching) acted in haste – and ever since the church has been repenting at leisure. Just War theory is the elephant in the confessional, the bad faith of the church. Its intentions are no doubt good – but then we all know what hell is paved with.

7. And even if there were once a time when a case could be made for the plausibility of Just War theory, that day is long gone. WMD, and the impossibility of meeting the “justice in war” (jus in bello) criteria of proportionality and discrimination, have ensured that only casuistry can save it. And Bush’s so-called “war on terror” has all but discredited casuistry – by the contempt for international treaties and conventions, by the displacement of the more precise principle of pre-emptive strike in response to an immediate threat with the vaguer principle of preventative warfare, and by the repugnant justification of the torture of prisoners. Just War theory is now a busted flush. Even Eberhard Jüngel – and pre-Iraq – says that “the question forces itself inexorably on the church, whether the time has not come in which Christians can only be credible witnesses to Jesus Christ as conscientious objectors.”

8. Time to return to our roots. For its first two hundred-plus years the church was pacifist. “Christ,” wrote Tertullian (c.160-c.225), “in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier” – and Tertullian’s words are echoed by Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Maximillian, Marcellus, et al. Some scholars suggest that early Christian pacifism had more to do with the prohibition of taking oaths to the emperor than with the non-violence of Jesus, but given the weight of patristic evidence, not to mention the centrality of Christ’s command to love our enemies, that hardly seems likely. In any case, pacifist – radically pacifist – the church was until (you guessed it!) the “nationalisation” and domestication of the church under Constantine. Ever since, mainline churches – Just War theory notwithstanding – have consistently given their blessing to wars fought by the empire or nation in which they resided.

9. Time to return to our roots – and to heed the faithful witness of the historic peace churches (like the Waldensians, the Anabaptists, and the Quakers). Karl Barth was right when he said that pacifism “has almost infinite arguments in its favour and is almost overpoweringly strong.” And it should be remembered that while Barth allowed for war – non-nuclear war – in exceptional, borderline, limiting cases (the German is Grenzfall), Barth’s critique of war is devastating and unique in the history of Protestant political thought. With Barth, the possibility of engaging in war hangs by a thread – and if you want to see even that thread cut, check out John H. Yoder, Karl Barth and the Problem of War (1970). I am a mere monkey: Yoder is the organ-grinder. Even Stanley Hauerwas – as he would fully agree – is not fit to untie Yoder’s Hushpuppies.

10. “But pacifism is so impractical!” – as if Christian ethics were utilitarian! “Get real! We live in a sinful world!” – as if the “damage limitation” of Just War theory, precisely given our sinful world, were realistic! “For the Christian, a realistic apprehension of the world does not consist in factual survey and surmise, but in an evaluative reading of its signs as clues to ultimate meanings and causes” (John Milbank), a reading framed by the Christian narrative, by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In any case, it is not as if the whole church has tried pacifism and found it wanting; the fact is that the whole church has not tried pacifism at all. But let Hauerwas have the last word (if he were my co-writer, he’d take it anyway!). “Nonviolence,” he states, “is not one among other behavioral implications that can be drawn from the gospel but is integral to the shape of Christian convictions…. Indeed, nonviolence is not just one implication among others that can be drawn from our Christian beliefs; it is at the very heart of our understanding of God.” And, pulling no punches: “If we do not think it possible to love our enemies then we should plainly say Jesus is not the Messiah.” But he is! Therefore because we may love our enemies, we must love our enemies.

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Blog of the month

Over at the Theology Blogs site, Patrik has honoured me by naming Faith & Theology the inaugural Blog of the Month! Patrik even describes F&T as “the King” of theology blogs. Regardless of whether or not this is true, I’m most grateful for the kind words!

Some book giveaways

Due to a lack of shelf-space, I often have to prune my library to make room for new books. So here are some giveaway books. (If you’d like one of these, please leave a comment stating which book you want, and then send me an email.)

  • Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik I/1 (Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1935), 528 pp. – an extra copy that I once bought by mistake (the bookseller had listed it as Christliche Dogmatik!). It’s a rather worn cloth volume in fair-to-good condition, with some pencil-markings in the first 90 pp.
  • S. Burgess and G. McGee (eds.), Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Zondervan, 1995), 914 pp. – hardcover in excellent condition
  • Rowland S. Ward (ed.), The Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (New Melbourne Press, 2000), 128 pp. – paperback in very good condition
  • Niall Lucy, Debating Derrida (Melbourne UP, 1999), 109 pp. – paperback in as new condition
  • John Hartley, Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2002), 262 pp. – as new paperback
  • Merrill C. Tenney, Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Zondervan, 1967), 916 pp. – a recent reprint; hardcover in excellent condition

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Theology for beginners (18): Freedom

Summary: Through the power of the Spirit and under the lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus, the Christian community is set free in relation to God, to one another, and to the world.

By participating in the life of Jesus through the Spirit, the Christian community exists as a community of freedom: it is characterised by freedom in every dimension of its life.

In the life of each individual member of the community, this freedom is expressed right from the start in the washing of baptism. Through baptism, a person becomes a member of the community. Baptism is a bath that washes away the past and sets the individual free for the new life of God’s coming kingdom. In the bath of baptism, we are immersed into the life of the community – we do not make ourselves members of the community, but we are plunged into the life of the community by the liberating power of the Spirit.

The Christian life thus begins with this joyful and liberating event. And so the community consists of diverse individual members who have been decisively liberated for true fellowship and true communion through the washing of baptism. The whole life of the community, then, is an expression of this freedom, the freedom of the Spirit.

In the first place, the community is free in relation to God. And the special expression of this freedom is prayer. Since we are united to Jesus through the Spirit, we are set free to address God as “Father” – as the Father of Jesus, and therefore also as the Father of the whole community. It is true that we have no inherent right to call God “Father.” The ability to say “Father” is not something that we can ever blithely presume upon, nor something that we can ever strive for or achieve. On the contrary, we can call God “Father” only because of grace, only because God himself has freely gathered us into his family, only because the Spirit is at work in us, uniting us to the risen Jesus and thus allowing us to participate in Jesus’ own unique relationship to God. In other words, we are set free to call God our Father in thanksgiving and petition – we are liberated both to say “Father” and to understand ourselves as God’s own dear children.

Moreover, as members of the Christian community we are free in relation to one another. Just as we have all been washed in the same bath of baptism, and share in the same eucharistic meal, so too each of us is set free to participate in each other’s lives, and to share our own lives with one another. We are liberated from the economy of scarcity, negotiation and exchange, and are ushered instead into an economy of grace, of joyful giving and receiving. In this way, within the community, our lives of mutual interdependence anticipate the coming life of God’s kingdom.

As members of the Christian community, we are also set free to relate to the world in a new way. United to the risen and ascended Lord through the power of the Spirit, we are now liberated from the power of all other “lords.” Vis-à-vis every social, political and economic ideology, the community stands in the freedom of the Spirit under the lordship of Jesus.

In social life, for instance, we are empowered to give freely and unconditionally to the poor and the undeserving. We are set free to give to those who can never repay us, just as we too have freely received grace from God. Similarly, in economic life we are set free from the lordship of possessions, from the vicious cycle of need and consumption. Our participation in the life of Jesus is expressed here as contentment, as freedom in relation to possessions.

So too, those of us in positions of corporate and economic power are set free from the lordship of economic progress, set free from the vicious cycle of ever-increasing production and consumption. Through the Spirit, those with power are set free to renounce their power, to use power not merely for commercial gain but also for the benefit and enrichment of human lives.

Again, in political life the lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus sets us free from the lordship of all political systems and ideologies. Through the power of the Spirit we are set free for political critique and, where necessary, political resistance. This will mean a critique of all tendencies to reify or totalise abstract systems (e.g. “the fatherland,” or “the economy”) at the expense of individual human dignity. On the other hand, it will also mean a critique of every tendency to reify or totalise individual “rights” at the expense of human togetherness in community. Moreover, just as God has entered into solidarity with us by becoming poor and lowly in the crucified Jesus, so too we will seek solidarity with the poor and the marginalised and the oppressed – so that we will have the freedom to critique every system that privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the weak.

None of this should be taken to suggest that as members of the Christian community we are free from responsibility to the state. Rather, we are to carry out our political responsibility precisely by indicating that every political system and ideology is already critiqued and relativised by the coming kingdom of God which has appeared in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

In all dimensions of life, therefore, the community lives in the freedom of the Spirit under the lordship of Jesus. As the community expresses its freedom in these varied ways, it demonstrates its own participation in the life of Jesus. Thus the Christian community provides the world with an anticipatory glimpse of God’s coming kingdom – a kingdom in which all creation will at last be liberated under the kingly lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4, Lecture Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
  • Barth, Karl. Against the Stream (London: SCM, 1954).
  • Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2003).
  • Käsemann, Ernst. Jesus Means Freedom (London: SCM, 1969).
  • Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian (New York: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 581-602.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), pp. 79-111.
  • Tanner, Kathryn. The Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
  • Williams, Rowan. The Truce of God (London: Fount, 1983).

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Forgiveness

“Forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving ... is the only reaction which does not merely act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 241.

Monday, 2 October 2006

Christophe Chalamet: dialectical theologians

“It is strange to realize that we are so close to each other and yet speak such different languages” – with these words, Karl Barth summed up his relationship to his old friend and nemesis, Rudolf Bultmann.

The relationship between Barth and Bultmann is one of the most fascinating and most perplexing subplots in the story of modern theology. From these two thinkers sprung the two dominant schools of twentieth-century theology – and while they had originally viewed themselves as allies in a common cause, Barth and Bultmann came to regard each other with mutual hostility, aversion, and above all bewilderment. Given all this, it’s unfortunate that so few books have explored in detail the relationship between these two theological giants.

So it was a real joy to discover Christophe Chalamet’s impressive new study: Dialectical Theologians: Wilhelm Herrmann, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (Zurich: TVZ, 2005) – and I’m grateful to TVZ for kindly sending me a review copy. In this book, Chalamet offers the most comprehensive exploration to date of the relationship between Barth and Bultmann.

Chalamet’s basic argument is that, in their early years, no one influenced Barth and Bultmann more decisively than their teacher at Marburg, Wilhelm Herrmann. It was here, as young students under Herrmann, that Barth and Bultmann found the basic insights that would lead to the development of their “dialectical theology.” From their earliest days as students, they were both struggling to do the same thing, to fight “against both the left and the right of the theological spectrum” (p. 13), against both “the liberal and orthodox schools” (p. 80).

From Herrmann, these two students learned that God can be spoken of only dialectically. We cannot speak of God with just one word. Instead, there must be at least two words, two opposing statements: thesis and antithesis, “the dogmatic and the critical, the Yes and the No, the unveiling and the veiling, objectivity and subjectivity” (p. 148). The point of such dialectics is not to find a neutralising synthesis or a “middle way” – rather, in the tension between thesis and antithesis, the theologian “leaves a space free in the middle and hopes that God himself will intervene, since only God can say his Word” (p. 148).

Drawing on such a dialectical method, Barth set out to be “more conservative than the conservatives and more liberal than the liberals” (p. 124). When he wrote his explosive commentary on Romans, very few people had the dialectical frame of mind necessary to understand it – but, as a good Herrmannian, Bultmann was one of the few theologians in Europe who appreciated what Barth was trying to do. For his part, under the influence of Herrmann, Bultmann was able to clarify his own theological programme as early as 1925 – and he would then “spend the rest of his life trying to unfold the consequences” of his Herrmannian heritage (p. 164).

It was precisely here, however, that the conflict between Barth and Bultmann had its roots. For, as early as 1925, Barth was bidding “a theological farewell to Herrmann” (p. 177). His crucial step was to reverse Herrmann’s dialectic of Law and Gospel – in Barth’s view, the Yes of the Gospel must precede the No of the Law. Bultmann, on the other hand, remained a faithful disciple of Herrmann (and a faithful Lutheran), and his whole theological programme was radically driven by the primacy of Law over Gospel, by a belief that “the No of [God’s] judgement … conceals the Yes of God’s grace” (p. 199).

As Chalamet persuasively argues, an understanding of the dialectical character of Bultmann’s theology allows us better to appreciate some of the most controversial aspects of Bultmann’s work – e.g. his Sachkritik, his polemic against the Jesus of history, his demythologising, and his existentialist exegesis. For instance, against the common objection that Bultmann made theology a servant of existentialist philosophy, Chalamet points out that Bultmann understood the philosophy-theology relationship dialectically. And while Bultmann’s “demythologising” has so often been caricatured and misunderstood, Chalamet highlights the fundamental dialectic at the basis of demythologising – a dialectic between scripture and Scripture, between human words and the Word of God.

In any case, as the years went by, Barth and Bultmann were increasingly aware of the great distance between them. By 1937, Bultmann was insisting that he no longer read Barth’s Dogmatics, since “it is too awful” (p. 262). And, in turn, Barth reacted with horror to Bultmann’s demythologising, and especially to his reliance on the philosophy of Heidegger.

Still, for all their differences, Barth and Bultmann remained “dialectical theologians.” In very different ways, they were both trying to speak about the God who is hidden in his revelation; following Herrmann, their different theological programmes remained oriented around the dialectic of “the revelation of God in its concealment” (p. 250). Thus both the deep affinity and the irreconcilable differences between Barth and Bultmann were due in great part to their different ways of appropriating and modifying the theology of their early teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann.

Christophe Chalamet’s book is a first-rate study of the two most important theological thinkers of the twentieth century. It’s by far the best book yet written on the relationship between Barth and Bultmann, and it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the origins and development of that extraordinary theological movement known as “dialectical theology.” If your library hasn’t yet got a copy of Dialectical Theologians, then ask them to make amends right away!

Sunday, 1 October 2006

How to tell the gospel

“The story is itself an event and has the quality of a sacred action.... It is more than a reflection – the sacred essence to which it bears witness continues to live in it.... A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a pupil of Baal Shem Tov, was once asked to tell a story. ‘A story ought to be told,’ he said, ‘so that it is itself a help,’ and his story was this. ‘My grandfather was paralysed. Once he was asked to tell a story about his teacher and he told how the holy Baal Shem Tov used to jump and dance when he was praying. My grandfather stood up while he was telling the story, and the story carried him away so much that he had to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. From that moment, he was healed. This is how stories ought to be told.’”

—Martin Buber, as cited in Johann Baptist Metz, “A Short Apology of Narrative,” in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 253.

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