Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Andrew Burgess: The Ascension in Karl Barth

Andrew Burgess, The Ascension in Karl Barth (Barth Studies Series; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 209 pp. (with thanks to Ashgate for the review copy)

Douglas Farrow’s 1999 work on Ascension and Ecclesia has gone a long way towards reviving interest in the theological significance of Jesus’ ascension. In a more recent article, Farrow suggests that Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV is “one of the major works of ascension theology” – and in this new study, Andrew Burgess seeks to develop this suggestion by demonstrating that the concept of “ascension” plays an important role throughout the Church Dogmatics.

Although Barth does not often explicitly affirm Jesus’ ascension, Burgess proposes that the ascension functions as “a presupposition in Barth’s thought” (p. 23), and he argues that this presupposition has far-reaching implications for the whole dogmatic structure of Barth’s theology.

For Barth, “the ascension informs a dynamic of presence and absence – Jesus Christ’s coincident presence and absence during ‘this time between’” (p. 19). The church is the community that exists in this “time between,” in the dialectical space between Christ’s presence and absence. Burgess thus highlights the significance of ascension in Barth’s conception of time. Through his lordly agency, Jesus “reaches into the lives of His people … in such a way that they are now made to share His time” (p. 38). Barth’s whole account of ecclesiology and Christian life is thus structured by this view of the church’s existence in the “time between.”

One of Burgess’ most interesting suggestions is that Barth’s fundamental disagreement with both Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant ecclesiology rests in part on different conceptions of Jesus’ risen lordship: Roman Catholic theology places too much emphasis on the identity between the life of Jesus and the life of the institutional church, while liberal Protestant theology places too much emphasis on the faith of the individual believer (pp. 101-2). In contrast, Barth wants to differentiate as sharply as possible between the agency of the risen Jesus and the agency of the Christian community.

After discussing the function of the ascension throughout the Church Dogmatics, Burgess brings Barth’s theology into dialogue with T. F. Torrance, Douglas Farrow and Robert W. Jenson. He critiques Jenson’s conception of Jesus’ presence in the Christian community, Farrow’s conception of Jesus’ eucharistic presence, and Torrance’s notion of Jesus’ high-priestly work in heaven. In each case, he argues that Barth’s own dialectical emphasis on the church’s existence “between the times” provides a more reliable basis for ecclesiological reflection.

All in all, Burgess offers an interesting new way of reading Barth’s theology, and he rightly highlights the importance of the agency of the risen Jesus in Barth’s thought. As an interpretation of Barth, then, this book is valuable. But I have some reservations about Burgess’ own attempt to demonstrate the contemporary dogmatic importance of the ascension of Jesus.

On the one hand, Burgess is certainly right to point out that some theological projects have suffered from a lack of ascension-theology: for instance, projects in which Jesus is simply assumed to be absent, or in which the risen life of Jesus is simply identified with the Christian community. In contrast to such approaches, Burgess rightly argues that Jesus is “present” not merely passively or noetically, but “as agent of His [own] reconciliation” (p. 49).

Nevertheless, to conceive of this “agency” in terms of an ascended physical body seems intensely problematic. Both scientifically and theologically, it scarcely seems intelligible to speak of the risen Jesus as though he were simply removed to a different spatial location. What does it mean to say that Jesus “departs ‘physically’ in the event of the ascension” (p. 26)? Or that “Jesus is ‘physically’ located somewhere other than the church and sacraments” (p. 187)? Certainly we should distinguish between Jesus’ agency and ecclesial action – but is it meaningful to speak without further ado of a “physical location,” or to give the impression that Jesus is perhaps simply acting from a distance?

It seems to me that Barth wanted to avoid precisely such mythologising when he insisted that resurrection and ascension are simply two “moments in one and the same event” (CD IV/2, p. 150). Indeed, as New Testament exegetes have pointed out, the (late) Lucan depiction of a bodily ascension introduces a temporal distinction between ascension and resurrection that was not present in the church’s earliest proclamation (see, e.g., C. F. Evans, Resurrection and the New Testament). To speak of the risen one is to speak of the ascended Lord; and to speak of the ascension is to speak of the man whom God raised up from death.

In other words, to say that Jesus is ascended is to make a theological statement about God’s exaltation of the crucified Jesus. It is not a quasi-historical description of Jesus’ movement through space, or a statement about the “physical location” of Jesus. Rather, it is (in Barth’s words) the confession that the crucified and risen Jesus “went to God,” and so entered the “reality [Weltwirklichkeit] by which humans are always surrounded” (CD IV/2, p. 153).

Burgess is right, then, to emphasise the present agency of the risen Jesus, and to distinguish between Jesus’ agency and all forms of ecclesial action. But (so it seems to me) we can offer a meaningful account of this divine agency only by resisting the development of a spatial mythology, and by placing much greater emphasis on the theological unity between resurrection and ascension.

A canon of recent theology

Based on readers’ votes, Patrik has compiled a canon of the 15 most important theological works of the past 25 years. Although (like every canon) it’s not perfect, this is a pretty convincing list.

Monday, 29 January 2007

10 theses on B. B. Warfield

I was very interested by the recent discussion of the “Old Princeton” Calvinists – I had no idea there would be so much interest in these characters! So in the wake of this discussion, I decided to offer these 10 theses on Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921):

1. It is fashionable to disparage B. B. Warfield without having actually read his work.

2. Of all the “Old Princeton” theologians, Warfield was the best: he was a far better theologian than his predecessor Charles Hodge, and an infinitely better theologian than his successor Loraine Boettner.

3. Warfield was not a mere repristinator of Calvinist tradition, but he appropriated the tradition constructively and creatively: for instance, in contrast to classical Calvinist theology, he taught that the great majority of human beings are elected for salvation; and, again in contrast to the tradition, he taught that God is universally and immediately gracious towards those who die in infancy. The fact that Calvinist tradition needed to be much more radically revised is no belittlement of Warfield’s own insights.

4. Warfield was a scholar of broad and diverse learning: before teaching systematic theology at Princeton, he had specialised in both Old Testament and New Testament, and he was widely read in poetry, fiction and drama, and in the scientific research of his day.

5. Warfield was a very fine historian of theology: his historical work on (inter alia) Tertullian, Augustine, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, Edwards, and Ritschl remains valuable.

6. Unlike most of the other early “fundamentalists,” Warfield took scientific knowledge seriously, and he made an admirable effort to integrate Darwinian evolution with Christian theology.

7. Only a relatively small part of Warfield’s theological work focused on the doctrine of Scripture, and it is regrettable that he has been remembered almost solely for his (deeply flawed) work on revelation and inspiration.

8. Warfield was a great reviewer: the collected edition of his works includes an entire volume (487 pp.) of his critical book reviews, in which he interacts constructively with an impressive range of British, American, German, French and Dutch scholarship.

9. Warfield knew a good book when he saw it: during a visit to Switzerland early in the 20th century, he shrewdly purchased from the Geneva Public Library – for $20! – a lovely first edition of Calvin’s 1536 Institutio (the volume is now held in the Special Collections at Princeton Seminary).

10. Warfield was a good man: throughout his productive career he was quietly serving as a fulltime carer for his disabled wife, Annie.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Eternal Father, almighty Father

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: You are my sunshine)

Eternal Father, almighty Father,
you made the heavens and formed the earth;
you shaped all creatures
with wondrous features,
and in time brought Jesus to birth.

Eternal Jesus, incarnate Jesus,
the one who sits at the Father’s knee,
through human mother
became our brother,
lived and died for me, even me.

Eternal Spirit, life-giving Spirit,
love of the Father, love of the Son,
you live inside us
and safely guide us
through the church to worlds yet to come.

O Liberator, Son and Creator,
we worship you, Lord, in song and prayer;
your soul is gracious,
your heart is spacious,
in your joyful being we share.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

A shorter dogmatics?

My friend Aaron offers a provocative call for a much shorter dogmatic: “Theology has an obesity problem – we’ve said yes to ‘super-sizing’ too many times.”

Friday, 26 January 2007

Theological modesty

“[Theology] has often overshot its goal and degenerated into repeating the same empty phrases…. Sometimes it seemed to proceed from the idea that it could answer all questions and resolve all issues. It has often been lacking in modesty, tenderness, and simplicity. This was all the worse inasmuch as theology has to do with the deepest problems and comes into contact with the most delicate stirrings of the human heart. More than any other science, it has to take to heart the admonition ‘not to think of itself more highly than it ought’ (cf. Rom. 12:3). It is better honestly to admit that a thing is not clear than to make a wild guess.”

—Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 605.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

From the Princeton cemetery





Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Schleiermacher on dogmatics

I have been reading Schleiermacher’s delightful little book, On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr Lücke [1829] (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981). Here are a few quotes about the nature of Christian dogmatics:

“[One position] understands dogmatics to be a conjoining of the ideas from which piety should then emerge. Or perhaps dogmatics is expected to prove these ideas…. But I know nothing about such ideas and even less about proofs for them, and I do not know where a dogmatics would come from unless piety were already present.” (pp. 41-42)

“[A] doctrine of God that takes its colors primarily from the pre-Christian era and derives its layout from some philosophical school cannot be accepted as a valid and correct exposition of Christian consciousness.” (p. 53)

“[T]he verse John 1:14 is the basic text for all dogmatics, just as it should be for the conduct of the ministry as a whole.” (p. 59)

A note from Cancun

There won’t be much posting here for a couple of days, as I make the long journey home from Cancun to Brisbane. The conference here has been very helpful, and it has been especially good to meet so many interesting people, including some brilliant younger theological scholars like Dirk Evers, LeRon Shults and Jamie Smith.

Anyway, to conclude my time here I’ve been sitting on the beach drinking Piña Coladas and reading Schleiermacher. So, for your enjoyment and edification, I’ll post a couple more Schleiermacher quotes before I head off to the airport. Adiós.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Schleiermacher: making do with science

“Just think of the natural sciences as they increasingly develop into a comprehensive knowledge of the world. A short time ago no one could have conceived of this development. What then do you suppose the future holds, not only for our theology, but for our evangelical Christianity? … There are those who can hack away at science with a sword, fence themselves in with weapons at hand to withstand the assaults of sound research and behind this fence establish as binding a church doctrine that appears to everyone outside as an unreal ghost to which they must pay homage if they want to receive a proper burial. Those persons might not allow themselves to be disturbed by the developments in the realm of science. But we cannot do that and do not want that. Therefore, we must make do with history as it develops.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr Lücke [1829] (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), p. 60.

Friday, 19 January 2007

The eucharistic event

“The eucharistic event, as a movement from absence to presence, is as such a movement from chaos to order, darkness to light, death to life. It is an inventive, ordering event on the same plane as the act of creation, though its actual results are largely withheld from our view.”

—Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), p. 5.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

A note from Princeton

I’ve had a very happy and productive stay here in Princeton, and I’ve been astonished by the quality of the Karl Barth Research Collection (meticulously organised by Clifford Anderson, who is himself an excellent Barth scholar).

It has been especially good to make so many new friends here. In particular, I’ve spent some very happy hours talking with Robert Jenson and Bruce McCormack, and I’ve been able to chat with many of the other students and faculty as well. A real highlight has been getting to know Chris and Anneli, and David and Amy – they’ve been wonderfully warm and hospitable, and they’ve shown me every kindness while I’ve been here.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be heading off to a conference on theology and science in Cancun, Mexico. As LeRon Shults has pointed out, this one’s a tough assignment, but someone’s got to do it....

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Twelve propositions on same-sex relationships and the church

by Kim Fabricius

1. Let it be said at once that the question of same-sex relationships and the church is a question of truth before it is a question of morality or discipline. Is the church’s interpretation of scripture true? Is the church’s traditional teaching true? If they are not, then they have to go, otherwise the faith of the church becomes bad faith. As Milton said, “Custom without truth is but agedness of error.” One other thing in anticipation: Jesus said that the truth will make us free (John 8:32); Flannery O’Connor added that “the truth will make you odd.” But before we say anything more, we must know what we are saying it about. In most discussions on the issue of human sexuality we talk at each rather than with each other; in fact, we talk past each other.

2. I take it that homosexuality – and certainly the homosexuality I am talking about – is a given, not a chosen (a “life-style choice”); a disposition recognised, not adopted; a condition as “normal” as left-handedness – or heterosexuality (whether by nature or nurture is a moot but morally irrelevant point). I also assume an understanding of human sexuality that is not over-genitalised, where friendship, intimacy, and joy are as important as libido, and where sexual acts themselves are symbolic as well as somatic. Needless to say, the “Yuk” factor deployed in some polemics has no place in rational discussion, while the language of “disease” and “cure” is ignorant and repugnant. Fundamentally, homosexuality is about who you are, not what you do, let alone what you get up to in bed. This is a descriptive point. There is also a normative point: I am talking about relationships that are responsible, loving, and faithful, not promiscuous, exploitative, or episodic.

3. What about the Bible? This is the Protestant question. “The Bible says,” however, is a hopelessly inadequate and irresponsible answer. Nevertheless, we must certainly examine specific texts – and then (I submit) accept that they are universally condemnatory of homosexual practice. Arguments from silence – “Look at the relationship between David and Jonathan,” or, “Observe that Jesus did not condemn the centurion’s relationship with his servant” – are a sign of exegetical desperation. No, the Bible’s blanket Nein must simply be acknowledged. But Nein to what? For here is a fundamental hermeneutical axiom: “If Biblical texts on any social or moral topic are to be understood as God’s word for us today, two conditions at least must be satisfied. There must be a resemblance between the ancient and modern social situation or institution or practice or attitude sufficient for us to be able to say that in some sense the text is talking about the same thing that we recognise today. And we must be able to demonstrate an underlying principle at work in the text which is consonant with biblical faith taken as a whole, and not contradicted by any subsequent experience or understanding” (Walter Houston).

4. The first condition is not satisfied. The Bible knows nothing about homosexual orientation, or about homosexual relationships as defined in Proposition 2. In the Old Testament, the stories about Lot and his daughter (Genesis 19) and the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19) are about gang-bangs, while the prohibitions against homosexuality in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) are about (a) cultic cleanliness and (b) male dominance (i.e. a man should not treat another man like a woman). While purity concerns are not entirely anachronistic, Brueggemann is surely right to say that if push comes to shove, justice trumps purity.

5. More pertinent are attempts to ground an anthropology of heterosexuality in Genesis 1 and 2. But as sympathetic as I am to understanding the imago Dei in relational and social terms, there are serious exegetical problems with this reading of Genesis 1:26-28, particularly if you read the text Christologically. As for Genesis 2, there is a rather obvious aetiological reason why a man and a woman would have to parent the human race, which says nothing about “compulsory” heterosexuality. There is certainly more to say about Adam and Eve than not Adam and Steve, and much in the rest of the Bible that would dissuade us from taking reproductive sex as the norm. Finally, a major omission from most references to the Old Testament: the Wisdom literature, with its emphasis on the observation of the world as a clue to discovering the way things are with God and creation, and therefore the suggestion that empiricism itself is biblical, and scientific findings germane to the discussion.

6. In the New Testament, the gospels are shtum about homosexuality. That leaves three references in the Pauline corpus (Jude 7 is irrelevant: cf. Genesis 19). The condemnations in I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11 depend on the translation of two obscure words (malakoi and arsenokoitai), but let us assume that they refer to same-sex relationships. There is certainly no question about the matter in Romans 1:18ff., undoubtedly the most relevant Pauline text about same-sex relationships. Or is there?

7. It is at least noteworthy that Paul deploys the language of dishonour and shame, rather than sin, to describe male-male relationships, which, in any case, are but a specific instance of the universal distortion of desire that enters the world as a result of the primal sin of idolatry. And Romans 1:26 is an interesting verse. We assume it refers to lesbianism (the only one in the Bible if it does), but the early Fathers, until John Chrysostom, and including Augustine, took it to refer to male-female anal intercourse. A cautionary tale here about the “obvious” meaning of a text! There is also the question of the rhetorical function of Romans 1:18ff. – or rather Romans 1:18-2:5. As James Alison observes (rightly ignoring conventional chapter and verse denotation), Paul’s argument works by condemning Gentile sexual practices – why? – so as to set his Jewish-Christian “hearers up for a fall, and then delivering the coup de grace” (Romans 2:1), such that “the one use to which his reference could not be put, without doing serious violence to the text, is a use which legitimates any sort of judging” such behaviour.

8. More to the point, again, is the question of the nature of the homosexual relationships being condemned. Are they the kind of relationships defined in Proposition 2? Is, therefore, the first condition of the hermeneutical axiom stated in Proposition 3 satisfied? The answer is No to both questions. The Hellenistic homosexual relationships that Paul condemns, if not forms of cultic prostitution, would normally have been both asymmetrical in terms of age, status, and power (the “approved” form was pederasty) and therefore open to exploitation, as well as inherently transitory. And as Rowan Williams reflects on Romans 1: “Is it not a fair question to ask whether conscious rebellion and indiscriminate rapacity could be presented as a plausible account of the essence of ‘homosexual behaviour’, let alone homosexual desire, as it may be observed around us now,” let alone in the church?

9. Summing up the Old and New Testament texts as they contribute to the contemporary discussion on homosexuality, the late Gareth Moore says: “In so far as we can understand them, they are not all concerned with the same things, they do not all condemn the same things, and they do not all condemn what they do for the same reasons. Most importantly, they do not all condemn same-sex activity, some of them do not condemn same-sex activity, and none of them clearly condemns homosexual relationships or activity of a kind which is pertinent to the modern Christian debate.”

10. Unlike Protestants, Catholics approach the issue of same-sex relationships indirectly through the Bible but directly through tradition as interpreted by the magisterium. In particular, appeal is made to “natural law”, norms of being and precepts for action said to be knowable apart from revelation, through ordinary experience and practical reason. Cultural pluralism and post-critical insights about the social construction of reality have radically problematised the concept of natural law. Nevertheless, the condemnation of same-sex relationships on the basis of natural law even on its own terms is intrinsically contingent. Thomas himself accepted that natural law may not be immutable, and that specific judgements are open to change. With the Wisdom literature, empirical evidence is indispensable. One recalls Wittgenstein’s advice: “Don’t think, look!” And when one looks at gay and lesbian people, what does one see? Does one see defective heterosexuals with an inclination that is “objectively disordered” leading to behaviour that is “intrinsically evil”? Whose experience? What evidence?

11. My own view is that, following the biblical trajectory (cf. the “underlying principle” in the second condition of the hermeneutical axiom stated in Proposition 3) of an ever-expanding inclusiveness of once-marginalized people (Gentiles, women, blacks), it is only a question of time before the list expands to embrace homosexuals. Theologically, the issue before us is not that of “rights”, or even justice or emancipation (the discourse of liberalism), it is a matter of divine grace and human and ecclesial ontology. The issues we have to tease out together include biblical hermeneutics (particularly as it relates to the prescriptive use of scripture in Christian ethics and to Augustine’s regula caritatis), empirical evidence, and personal experience. With my own eyes I have seen the certainties, caricatures, and phobias of Christians melt away through the warmth of contact and fellowship with lesbian and gay people, and, indeed – crucially – through the visibility of their holiness and charisms. The biblical paradigm is the story of the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 – which, of course, is actually the story of the conversion of Peter himself, an “Aha!” moment before “Truth’s superb surprise” (Emily Dickinson), an event which sent the early church back to torah and tradition trusting that the Spirit would guide it into new heuristic strategies of reading and interpretation.

12. For all Christians, as the drama unfolds, the question must surely be this: How, as embodied and sexual creatures, do we live in the truth and witness to Christ? “Live in the truth”: acting not according to law, either biblical or ecclesiastical, but not according to personal feelings either, rather following the truth that must ultimately lead to Christ, while refusing complicity in conspiracies of secrecy and deceit, particularly in clerical culture. And “witness to Christ”: as forgiven sinners with no claims to infallibility, not being judgmental on the one hand or contemptuous on the other, and not seeking to score points against one’s opponents, or to back them into a corner, let alone bullying, un-churching, even demonising them. Amidst the rubble of cognitive dissonance caused as the tectonic plates shift, the building blocks of the future will be the practice of “hearing one another to speech” (Nelle Morton) and piles of patience and perseverance, for (to conclude the Dickinson verse): “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” We will certainly discover what the church is made of, whether we Christians really trust the Spirit, practice peace, and live in hope.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

The question of Catholicism

“I would like to ask in all seriousness whether Protestantism can be a real answer to anyone for whom Catholicism has never been a real question – whether we still have any real business with the church of the Reformation if in the meantime we have left alone the counterpart with which it struggled. And I would like to issue a warning of the unhappy awakening which might some day follow such detachment. Those who know Catholicism even a little know how deceptive its remoteness and strangeness are, how uncannily close to us it really is, how urgent and vital the questions it puts to us are, and how inherently impossible is the possibility of not listening seriously to those questions once they have been heard.”

—Karl Barth,“Der römische Katholizismus als Frage an die Protestantische Kirche,” in Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1925-1930, ed. Hermann Schmidt (Zurich: TVZ, 1994), p. 313.

Monday, 15 January 2007

The possibility of knowing God

“The linguistic event which is constitutive of the knowledge of God is, rightly understood, not a word about God, but Word of God. For it is only as one who himself speaks that God can reveal himself as God…. Knowledge of God as word-event implies knowledge of God as Person. For that reason, what is called knowledge of God stands or falls with the possibility of prayer. Prayer is the most direct expression of the knowledge of God, in so far as it is answer to God’s Word.”

—Gerhard Ebeling, Word and Faith (London: SCM, 1963), p. 352.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Still more of Bob Dylan's best lines

Following three earlier posts, here are some more of Bob Dylan’s best lines on various topics:

Most dishonest line
“All I really want to do – is, baby, be friends with you.”
(All I Really Want to Do)

Best lines on education

“Don’t wanna learn from nobody
What I gotta unlearn.”
(Do Right to Me Baby)

On war
“For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.”
(With God on Our Side)

On wealth
“… but I’m helpless like a rich man’s child.”
(Temporary Like Achilles)

On self-righteousness
“With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks.”
(Ballad of a Thin Man)

On marriage
“A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day.”
(Nettie Moore)

On marriage failure
“The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
’Neath the bed where we slept.”
(We Better Talk This Over)

On friendship
“We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.”
(Cross the Green Mountain)

On being a parent
“I hear a voice crying, ‘Daddy’ –
I always think it’s for me.”
(Caribbean Wind)

On a cultural environment
“Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who-knows-when;
Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion.”
(Joey)

On alienation
“I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the bible is right, the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can.”
(Things Have Changed)

On salvation
“I bargained for salvation, and they gave me a lethal dose.”
(Shelter from the Storm)

On making small-talk
“The party’s over and there’s less and less to say.”
(Highlands)

On kissing
“If I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean,
I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss…”
(Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather)

On Bob Dylan’s career
“One of these days and it won’t be long
Goin’ down in the valley and sing my song
Gonna sing it loud and sing it strong
Let the echo decide if I was right or wrong.”
(Silvio)

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Byron's books

A final update on the friendly appeal: Byron has made his way over to Amazon.com, and has chosen the following books (including some great second-hand bargains):

  • George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age
  • Robert W. Jenson, On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions
  • David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of The Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
  • Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology
  • Rowan Williams, Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross
  • Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another and Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2
  • Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV,4 Lecture Fragments
My deepest thanks to all of you for participating in this – and my apologies to Byron’s wife, Jessica, who will now have to put up with a rather distracted husband! In a few days, Byron will also be posting something on his own blog about why he chose each of these books.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Robert W. Jenson: A Large Catechism

Rummaging around in a dark corner of the Princeton library, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a little book by Robert W. Jenson that I hadn’t seen before: A Large Catechism (Delhi, NY: ALPB, 1991), 62 pp. Drawing on Luther’s Larger Catechism, Jenson discusses the main topics of a traditional catechism: the ten commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. Here are some highlights:

“In our fallen religion, we think salvation would be escape from temporal existence, from the threats and opportunities of an open future…. But the true God is the one coming as the future rushes upon us; he is life rather than release from life. His very identity is set by what he does in time” (p. 8).

“God, according to all the Scriptures, is above all the great Speaker; he is his own Word, and never relates to others by mere force, but always by personal address. That he creates something new means that he expands the field of his conversation…. That he creates, means that Father, Son and Spirit among themselves mention others than themselves: they speak together of … the great sea beasts, and so there are the great sea beasts for them to discuss. God converses the world into being” (pp. 21-22).

“The Spirit is the Power of the End, God as his own and our Fulfillment rushing upon us” (p. 30).

“‘Sanctification’ … is often misunderstood as a progress, kicked off, as it were, by baptism. This has obviously to be false. Baptism initiates into the life which God’s three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, live among themselves; what would we progress to from that? Rather, sanctification is the continual return to baptism…. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past; I can always, as Luther said, ‘creep’ back to it and begin anew” (p. 50).

“The bread and wine are … the appetizer of the great Wedding Supper. Let the bread therefore be hearty and the wine the best affordable” (pp. 58-59).

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Books for Byron

Many thanks to all of you who so generously responded to my friendly appeal. It was humbling to see so many people joining together in this way. One person even donated the Amazon gift voucher that his daughter had given him for Christmas – he and his daughter agreed that there would be “no greater joy” than to pass the gift on to Byron.

Anyway, we’ve raised much more than I had anticipated – the total is:

US$242.54

So we’ll let Byron choose some new books to that value, and I’ll tell you later which books he has chosen. Thanks again for your kindness and generosity – and thanks above all for your prayers for Byron’s full and speedy recovery.

Best contemporary theology meme

Patrik has started this new meme: Name three (or more) of the most important theological works from the last 25 years (1981-2006).

To choose just three would have been unbearable, so I’ve chosen five (in chronological order):

  • George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (1984)
  • T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (1985)
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (1988-93)
  • Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (1997-99)
  • David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (2003)

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Expecting more

“Theology ... should expect more from God than that He should simply provide ideological support for the goals we happen to set for ourselves. That theology today by and large expects no more from God than this is a scandal.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “A Scholastic of a Higher Order: The Development of Karl Barth’s Theology, 1921-31” (Princeton: PhD diss., 1989), p. 677.

The Spirit

“Palpable yet impalpable, invisible yet mighty, essential to life like the air we breathe, charged with energy like the wind of a storm – that is the Spirit.”

—Hans Küng, Der Anfang aller Dinge: Naturwissenschaft und Religion (Munich: Piper, 2005), p. 175.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

On flying over Arizona on a clear day: a sonnet

What ancient chaos thundered here?
What waves rage-clawed these rocks for a thousand million years,
Before subsiding with a hiss?
What formless deep lurched up and tore the earth,
Peeling back her skin and baring every vein?
What gods were hurled here flaming from the sky,
When these charred and bloodied plains were rent and stained?
What giants crossed these mountains,
Shaking the deep, and scarring jagged footprints in their wake?
What waters surged and boiled,
What Spirit brooded here at the beginning?
And when this Canyon – ah, my God! –
When some dread hand reached down and carved the Canyon,
The angels hid their faces and fell down.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

En route to Princeton

I’ll be in Princeton for the next couple of weeks, doing some research in the Center for Barth Studies. Naturally I’ll still be posting here from Princeton, but there will probably be some gaps while I’m in transit.

Meanwhile, thanks to all those who have been contributing to my friendly appeal. I’ll keep receiving donations for the next few days, and then I’ll let you know how much we’ve raised.

Stanley Grenz: Reason for Hope

Stanley J. Grenz, Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 318 pp. (with thanks to Eerdmans for a review copy)

With the untimely death of Stanley Grenz in 2005, North America lost one of its most significant and influential dogmatic thinkers. Grenz did his doctoral studies under Wolfhart Pannenberg, and his own constructive work remained deeply influenced by Pannenberg. So it was fitting that, towards the end of his life, he went back and revised his 1990 book on Pannenberg, Reason for Hope.

Grenz first wrote Reason for Hope while Pannenberg was still working on his three-volume Systematic Theology. At the time, Grenz produced the first detailed overview of Pannenberg’s entire dogmatics, based mainly on lectures presented in Munich in 1987-88. For this second edition, however, Grenz was able to utilise the complete published Systematic Theology, as well as a great deal of recent scholarly discussion.

So although this new edition follows the same basic format as the first edition (an overview of Pannenberg’s dogmatics, together with a critical evaluation of the main debates engendered by each locus of the Systematic Theology), the book is greatly enhanced by its up-to-date engagement with Pannenberg’s own work and with the contemporary scholarly discussion.

Grenz is an attentive and sensitive reader, and his analysis of Pannenberg’s methodology is particularly acute. He situates Pannenberg’s mature dogmatics within the context of the earlier methodological works such as Jesus – God and Man (1964), Theology and the Philosophy of Science (1973), and Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1983). And he argues convincingly that Pannenberg’s dogmatics flows from and builds on the methodological programme that had been so rigorously developed throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Further, Grenz is alert to changes and developments within Pannenberg’s thought, and he points out many instances in which Pannenberg has revised his earlier ideas in light of ensuing criticism and debate. Notably, Pannenberg’s christology underwent major methodological and material change between Jesus – God and Man and the Systematic Theology. And even more strikingly, his approach to the doctrine of God changed radically: earlier, Pannenberg had viewed the doctrine of God only as the final task of dogmatics; but by the time of the Systematic Theology, he had gained “a new-found confidence to develop the doctrine [of God] itself and to treat the other subjects of dogmatics from its perspective” (p. 57).

Indeed (as LeRon Shults has also argued), this orientation of all theological themes around the doctrine of God is the fundamental structuring principle of Pannenberg’s thought. Since God is the all-determining reality, the task of dogmatics is “[t]o show the illuminating power of the Christian conception of God” (p. 7). By proceeding in this way, Pannenberg offers an ambitious attempt “to give reason for the hope” (1 Pet. 3:15). Thus his whole dogmatic theology seeks to combat “the dominant trend toward the privatization of religious belief” (p. 290).

This second edition of Grenz’s work is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion of Pannenberg’s theology. Although scholars like Chris Mostert and LeRon Shults have more profoundly explored the underlying grammar of Pannenberg’s thought, Reason for Hope remains the most lucid, reliable and accessible introduction to the work of our most brilliant contemporary theologian.

A friendly appeal

You might have heard that our friend Byron has been having a hard time lately. A few weeks ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. So while most of us have been relaxing over Christmas and the New Year, this cheerful 28-year-old has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy (and I for one have been deeply moved by the patient trust and joyful hope with which he has faced all this).

Perhaps, as an expression of friendly solidarity, we could join together to get Byron a couple of books from his Amazon wishlist. If several of us each gave a dollar or two, we could easily raise enough to send him something nice to read during those unpleasant hours at the hospital.

Update: Thanks to everyone who generously responded to this appeal. To see the total amount raised, click here.

Saturday, 6 January 2007

The freedom of God's future

“If the futurity of God is thus the structure of his trinitarian life with and for us, we do not need to safeguard God’s freedom by the clumsy device of calling the ‘dispensational Trinity’ the ‘image’ of an ‘immanent Trinity.’ For futurity is the condition of freedom. God is free over against the realized actualities of his trinitarian life with us, because he is always ahead of them; he always can be otherwise triune than he has so far been. This freedom is his trinitarian life.”

—Robert W. Jenson, God after God: The God of the Past and the God of the Future, Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), p. 174.

Twentieth-century Catholic theology

“The history of twentieth-century Catholic theology is the history of the attempted elimination of theological modernism, by censorship, sackings and excommunication – and the resurgence of issues that could not be repressed by such methods.”

—Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 4-5. [Stay tuned for a review of this excellent new book.]

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Ten propositions on worship

by Kim Fabricius

1. Why worship God? Because God is to be worshipped. Worship is a holy tautology.

2. Does worship make God present? No, worship presupposes God’s presence. But God’s presence is unlike any other. “God does not exist,” said Kierkegaard, “he is eternal.” Compared to all existents, God’s presence is an absence. The Holy of Holies is empty. If worship is fundamentally eucharist, you could say that it is “thanks for nothing”. Without this apophatic point of departure, worship inevitably becomes idolatrous.

3. Is worship necessary? Not for God it isn’t. God does not need our worship – because God is worship, the perichoretic adoration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Worship is, however, necessary for us, for it is only as homo adorans, participating in the very life of the Holy Trinity, that we become truly human. As the psychologist says in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, “If you don’t worship, you’ll shrink.”

4. Does worship please God? The question’s assumption is right: God is the audience of worship, not the congregation (though you wouldn’t know it from many an act of worship). But whether or not the audience approves depends. Worship pleases God when we wash our hands before we raise and fold them, that is, when our praise begins in penitence – and then issues in the politics of peace. Then we are all reading from the same hymn sheet. Otherwise see Amos 5:21-24.

5. How should worship begin? But worship never begins, or, rather, it has always already begun. You could say that we are always late for worship, because we always enter worship in medias res, the praise unceasing of the communio sanctorum. Never forget that when there are only three old ladies and a dog in the pews.

6. How should worship proceed? Worship is a dialogue, or, better, a two-beat tempo of revelation and response, grace and gratitude. Worship is also an ellipse, spiralling around the foci of word and sacrament. And worship is a time machine that takes us back to the future. And the various liturgies? They are aides-memoirs, not incantations, synopses of the unfinished story we are invited to indwell and improvise; therefore they should not aim at closure but make space for contemplation and imagination.

7. How should worship end? With an ellipsis…. For when the liturgy is over, the service (λειτουργία) begins. Leaving the church is the ultimate liturgical act: Ite, missa est. On Romans 12:1-2, Ernst Käsemann observes that “the cultic vocabulary serves a decidedly anti-cultic thrust. Christian worship does not consist in what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere.” Or as Michael Marshall puts it: “You do not become a Christian by sitting in the pew anymore than you become a car by sitting in the garage.”

8. What should we get out of worship? Wrong question. Worship is not a utility but an offering, i.e. a sacrifice, an economy of grace that interrupts and critiques the feverish cycles of production and consumption – which is why the collection is not fund-raising but cultural critique. If you want relevance, excitement, or profit, go to a rally, a concert, or the stock exchange. To put it most counter-culturally: Blessed are the bored, for they will see God.

9. What about people who don’t worship? We are responsible for them. Hence intercessions. But more: all worship is a vicarious act – in fact, Christ’s vicarious act – so that when we come to worship, we bring the whole world with us. Worship is the end of “us” and “them” – and a sneak preview of the reconciliation of all things.

10. And what about worship as evangelism, education, ethics? Of course, but as the blessings, not the motives, of worship – blessings given as worship reconditions the habits of our hearts and reshapes our disordered characters.

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