by Kim Fabricius
1. To adapt a famous saying of Emil Brunner, the church exists by ecumenism as fire exists by burning. Church unity is not an optional extra, or AOB on the parish or presbytery agenda, or a responsibility that can be delegated to the ecumaniacs, it is integral to MOAB, the ministry of all believers. Ecumenism is not an ecclesial suggestion, it is a dominical command.
2. In the Farewell Discourse in John, Jesus asks the Father to sanctify his disciples in the truth as he sends them into the world. Then he prays: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world will believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21). The ecumenical imperative is inherent in the missionary imperative. How can the church, with integrity, proclaim shalom to the world when we are not a truly catholic koinonia? And our catholicity must be recognisably visible; a merely “spiritual” unity is a form of ecclesial docetism.
3. And speaking of koinonia and shalom: consider the cases of Martin Niemöller and John Howard Yoder. Niemöller said, “Because I was an ecumenist, I became a pacifist,” while Yoder observed that the ecumenical movement has its roots not only in the mission field but also in the peace movement. However my intention is not only to draw attention to the connection between unity and non-violence, my more general point is this: orthopraxy should be as integral to the ecumenical project as orthodoxy. After all, in the New Testament unity in ethics is no less central than unity in doctrine. Faith and Order Departments are not the only bureaus in our ecumenical instruments.
4. Nor can faith and order issues be reduced to a checklist where churches tick the boxes. Which leads to the question: Do you think of Christian unity primarily in terms of consensus to be reached, or koinonia to be received and witness to be shared? If the former, it would not be surprising if you were indifferent to ecumenism – indeed you would be right to be so: unity-as-consensus is always but a hair’s breadth from a kind of works righteousness. We are called not to agree with each other but to love one another.
5. We are called to be one because God is one. But the one God is Trinity: that is why unity cannot mean uniformity. The watchword of ecclesial diversity can sometimes give the impression that it is simply a tactical ploy to appease Christians who value freedom of conscience and fear centralised authority. On the contrary, it issues from the very nature of God. And scholars as denominationally diverse as Ernst Käsemann, James Dunn, and Raymond Brown confirm that “there is not just a narrow stream of faith in Jesus in the New Testament, but a great wide river of many currents” (Jean Mayland). There are, of course, limits to acceptable diversity, but I would suggest that they lie within the parameters of: (a) a common baptism, (b) a Trinitarian confession of faith, and (c) a belief in Christ crucified and risen as Lord and Saviour. All else, I suggest, is adiaphora – particularly matters of polity. Moreover, it would be unreasonable to expect more agreement between our churches than we accept within our churches.
6. And episcopacy? There is no question about espicopé (oversight) as such. The question is mono-episcopacy. The question is complicated by what John Webster rightly calls “naïve” accounts of apostolic succession – “their incapacity to envisage the history of episcopacy as political and ideological.” And non-episcopal churches, of course, cannot accept that mono-episcopacy is the esse of the church – the ascended, ruling Christ alone, the one high priest (Hebrews) and έπίσκοπος of our souls (I Peter 2:25), is the esse of the church. But that does not prevent us from being open to mono-episcopacy as the practical, rather than constitutive, bene esse of the church, along the lines of what Calvin called “convenience”, and what we might call “practical reason”. The crucial question is: does mono-episcopacy best witness to the ministry of Christ in his church, and best serve the apostolic project of missio Spiritus? Anglicans and Lutherans – as well as non-episcopal churches! – have recently shown some movement on questions concerning the nature of episcopacy and the reconstruction of the episcopate. Of course if Rome pursues the Frank Sinatra school of ecumenism – “I did it my way” – the future is bleak. But you know the old saying: At the next Vatican council the bishops will bring their wives – and at the one after that they will bring their husbands!
7. An even more promising suggestion that relativises the issue of mono-episcopacy comes from the 19th century Wesleyan ecclesiologist Benjamin Gregory. Commenting on the visit of Peter and John to new Christian communities in Samaria (Acts 8), Gregory observed that “whenever they found the work of the Spirit, the apostles lost no time in recognising, receiving, and connecting that which had been established independently of their own initiative.” Which insight leads Gregory to what the Methodist theologian David Carter calls a doctrine of apostolic recognition: namely, that “it should be the duty of the leaders of any church that claims ... a genuine apostolic continuity to recognise the preservation ... of Christianity under whatever forms and structures it may find.” And a doctrine of apostolic recognition, it seems to me, entails, at least, a generous approach to eucharistic hospitality. As Paul tells the divided church at Corinth, it is not because there is one body that there is one loaf, just the reverse: because there is one loaf, there is one body. The fraction prohibits faction. Ultimately, apostolic recognition rests on the acknowledgement that our unity is in Christ alone.
8. Of course it is not only conservative Catholics who can frustrate ecumenical initiatives, conservative evangelicals can be equally obstructive. The card they usually play is that truth trumps unity, and they are fond of citing Ephesians 4:15ff. George Caird, however, comments on “speaking the truth in love”: “Paul is not recommending frankness of speech tempered by consideration, nor is he suggesting that the claims of truth and love must be held in some sort of tension. There is no Christian truth which is not ‘rooted and grounded in love’, and love is the only legitimate test of men’s adherence to the truth of the gospel.... Those who perpetuate the divisions of Christendom on the grounds of their loyalty to truth can draw no support from this epistle.” Or as I once heard a Catholic theologian expound I Corinthians 13: unity of charity trumps unity of faith.
9. In my view, perhaps the greatest obstacle to an ecumenical future is the refusal to acknowledge our anti-ecumenical pasts. Catholics have killed Protestants, and Protestants have killed Catholics – indeed Protestants have killed other Protestants. I submit that progress in unity will be a pseudo-progress, a movement in historical denial, unless we engage in specific, collective, and mutual acts of penitence, forgiveness, and pledges of “Never again!” Only with the healing of memories can the church proceed in a pilgrimage of hope and promise. And, of course, repentance, recognition, and reconciliation are only staging posts on the ecumenical journey: there is an elephant in the caravan and its name is Israel. And journey’s end is the whole οίκουμένη.
10. Finally, a confession: I am part of the ecumenical problem, not its solution. The fact of the matter is that ecumenical work always seems to depend on church leaders, the men at the top – and they usually are men – working at the national or international level, while Christians at the grassroots are marginalised and patronised. Moreover, our discussions tend to focus on deracinated ideas, divorced from their social location and unrelated to questions of ideology and power. They are also often off the pace of hermeneutical developments – and, crucially, contemporary biblical theology. The recent Common Statement by Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification, for example, “ecumenical breakthrough” though it may be, takes little account of the “new perspective on Paul” that has been reconfiguring New Testament studies since the 1970s. Dogmatic theologians are now rightly expected to be fluent exegetes; we should expect no less from ecumenical theologians. With regular, informed, and prayerful meeting around the Word in local communities, dry bones may yet be knit together and live.
Postscript: A Joke
The Trinity were discussing their upcoming holidays. The Father said, “I think I’ll go somewhere in Africa this year: they’re still so patriarchal there.” The Son said, “I’m going to Jerusalem again: they seem to like me there, and I get such good service.” “What about you?” the Father and Son asked the Spirit. The Spirit replied: “Rome: I’ve never been there before.” [For Rome, feel free to substitute Geneva, Wittenberg, Canterbury, Constantinople, etc.]
Tuesday, 27 February 2007
by Kim Fabricius
“Teach me so that I may act, not just know how I ought to act.”
—Augustine, Discourses on the Psalms, Psa. 118, X.3.
Monday, 26 February 2007
Here is a series of mp3 files (4.2 hours in total) of some lectures which Thomas F. Torrance gave at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early 1980s:
- Part 1 (32 minutes)
- Part 2 (49 minutes)
- Part 3 (12 minutes)
- Part 4 (1:01 hours)
- Part 5 (24 minutes)
- Part 6 (31 minutes)
- Part 7 (43 minutes)
The new issue of The Heythrop Journal 48:2 (March 2007) includes some excellent material. I particularly enjoyed Benjamin D. Crowe’s article on “Nietzsche, the Cross, and the Nature of God,” Robert S. Heaney’s article, “Towards the Possibility of Impassibilist Pastoral Care,” and Richard S. Briggs’ review article, “Perspectives on Scripture: Its Status and Purpose” (a discussion of the recent books on Scripture by John Webster, N. T. Wright, Telford Work and Brenda Watson).
But the most interesting essay is Bruce Milem, “Four Theories of Negative Theology.” Milem distinguishes between the following four kinds of negative theology: “The first theory, which I call the metaphysical theory, grounds negative theology in God’s role as the cause of all. The second theory interprets negative theology as an expression of desire for something unknown. The third theory justifies negative theology on the basis of an extraordinary or mystical experience. The fourth theory explains negative theology as an act of renunciation motivated by concern about self-interest in one’s devotion to God.” Milem thus concludes his discussion by saying: “If negative theology as a linguistic practice has no rationale or guiding logic, then no explanation or theory of it can be given.”
Sunday, 25 February 2007
Following our recent discussion of theodicy, I thought I’d post this hymn by Kim Fabricius, which is set to the tune of Scarlet Ribbons:
Children die from drought and earthquake,
children die by hand of man.
What on earth, and what for God’s sake,
can be made of such a plan?
Nothing – no such plan’s been plotted;
nothing – no such plan exists:
if such suffering were allotted,
God would be an atheist.
Into ovens men drive brothers,
into buildings men fly planes;
history’s losers are the mothers,
history’s winners are the Cains.
Asking where was God in Auschwitz,
or among the Taliban:
God himself was on the gibbets –
thus the question: Where was man?
God of love and God of power –
attributes in Christ are squared.
Faith can face the final hour,
doubt and anger can be aired.
Answers aren’t in explanation,
answers come at quite a cost:
only wonder at creation,
and the practice of the cross.
Saturday, 24 February 2007
“Whether we use the past as an inflexible standard of correctness or neglect it as a record of premodern error, we isolate ourselves from the real life of the past. And when the past in question is that of the Church, that real life is in its ultimate depth the life of Christ.”
—Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 110.
Friday, 23 February 2007
This afternoon I was listening to the excellent call-in radio programme, Australia Talks. The topic was contemporary rock music. With intense fascination and amusement, I listened as one caller from a Christian band attempted to commit PR-suicide. The caller stated the name of his band, and went on to make these remarks:
“I play in a band that goes with the Christian message…. We sell on the internet…. There’s six of us in the band, and in the last five years, we’re literally all millionaires…. I’m not a Christian, and none of the members in my band are either. But it’s a bit like The Wiggles. If you put yourself out there and find a market, you cater to it, and it’s as simple as that….”
Taken aback, the host of the programme asked: “So you’re a Christian band doing well on the Christian rock circuit – well obviously doing very well if you’re millionaires – but none of you are Christians?”
And he replied: “Well, it’s a market, that’s all you need to know really. You know, you cater to it. You write your songs to it. And that’s all there is to it. It’s no different to writing a jingle for Marmite…. I don’t really see why I need to be a Christian to play Christian music. If they want to buy it, that’s all that needs to be known.”
I’m sure the other five millionaire-members of the band will be thrilled at the publicity this generates!
Posted by Ben Myers at 9:29 pm
Thursday, 22 February 2007
A bedtime conversation with my four-year-old daughter:
—Dad, does God go to sleep at night?
—No, God doesn’t sleep.
—Because he’s much too busy watching over you while you sleep.
—Oh. So he doesn’t ever sleep at all?
—But wouldn’t he get very grumpy?
One of the most impressive people I met on my recent visit to Mexico was Christopher Southgate, who is not only a scientist and theologian, but also a poet. In Cancun, we talked a little about T. S. Eliot (one of my favourite poets) – so I was delighted the other day to receive in the post a copy of Chris’s book, A Love and Its Sounding: Explorations of T. S. Eliot (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1997), 96 pp. This work, a long poem in seven sections, is a poetic biography of Eliot. And it’s truly delightful. Here’s a sample from section VII (p. 63):
I sit in the Church at East Coker
Your ashes’ resting place. Above them
An understated epitaph –
You ask us from an oval tablet
To pray for the repose of the soul
Of Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet.
There is a sense of our petitions
Being sought for yet longer struggle –
That the pale purgatorial fires
That beckoned you from the desert burn
Still. I do not believe it. The church,
The high dark Jacobean panelling,
The plain space of nave, checked floor, plain swept,
Sturdy house for the elusive God
Of earth and air, rose and fire, shelter
From our storm-flung present anarchy,
Speaks of stillness, clarity of light,
And of the Furies finally befriended.
Wednesday, 21 February 2007
There is a Bob Dylan album for every mood. More than any other songwriter, Dylan embodies Walt Whitman’s characterisation of the poet: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” No matter how you’re feeling or what you’re doing, Bob Dylan always has an album for the occasion. Here are some examples:
When you’re visiting the city: Highway 61 Revisited
When you’re visiting the country: Nashville Skyline
When you’ve just gotten married: Planet Waves
When you’ve just gotten divorced: Blood on the Tracks
When you’re feeling very youthful: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
When you’re feeling very old: “Love and Theft”
When you’re in love with life: New Morning
When you’re sick of life: Time Out of Mind
When you’re dreaming of exotic romances: Desire
When you’ve renounced exotic romances: Down in the Groove
When you’re full of nostalgia: Modern Times
When you’re full of rage: Hard Rain
When you’ve just been born again: Saved
When you’ve just become a pagan: Street-Legal
When you’re feeling smooth: Oh Mercy
When you’re feeling rough and ragged: World Gone Wrong
When you’ve got all the answers: Slow Train Coming
When you’ve got none of the answers: Blonde on Blonde
Sunday, 18 February 2007
by Kim Fabricius
1. Unde malum? Primers on theodicy easily put the question: God is supposed to be both all-loving and all-powerful, yet evil and suffering demonstrably exist. Therefore either God can do something about it but won’t – in which case God is not all-loving; or God wants to do something about it but can’t – in which case God is not all-powerful. Gotcha! Or so it would seem.
2. It is quite astonishing that Christians have allowed themselves to be set up in this way – or at least post-Enlightenment Christians. For as Kenneth Surin points out, “It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every contemporary discussion of the theodicy question is premised, implicitly or explicitly, on an understanding of ‘God’ overwhelmingly constrained by the principles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical theism.” And Surin goes on to observe that the ‘God’ this discussion seeks “to justify is the very ‘thing’ that the adherent of a properly Christian ‘understanding’ of God will find herself being disposed to abjure.” Of course pre-modern Christians wrestled with the reality of evil and suffering, but their faith was not intimidated by it, nor did it throw their belief in the divine goodness into a crisis of coherence. Unde malum? Rather Quis Deus! Not the god of theism who is discussed remoto Christo, but God the Trinity, the Deus incarnatus et crucifixus, who is known in worship.
3. Alas, many Christian theologians themselves do not seem to know this God. They think God requires an apologetics, and their defence takes the form of accusation and explanation. First, they are Job’s comforters, resembling “a circle of police around a suspect” (Girard), reading a list of the charges to the suspect from Uz; and then they are attorneys for God in the dock, arguing the case of their client in absentia with cool calculation and untroubled conviction. The irony is that in explaining evil and suffering, theodicists inevitably explain them away. Wittgenstein said that “What’s ragged should be left ragged,” but the post-Cartesian theodicist, intent on “reducing the muddy and mixed to the clear and distinct,” not only “idealizes the reality of evils” but also, in his theoretical detachment, connives in the conditions that give them purchase (Terrence Tilley); and in making a pact with death in order to defend the deity, he unwittingly turns God himself into a capital criminal.
4. Process theologians are the greatest explainers. Their strategy turns on free will. Evil, they urge, is the inevitable risk of human agency, and if it results in free-fall and its attendant wreckage, well, (a) we can’t blame God; and (b), still, this valley of death is also a vale of soul-making (i.e. suffering has pedagogical or therapeutic value). But even apart from the question “How real is our freedom?”, can bad choices alone account for the sheer scale of suffering, and therefore can the buck be so easily passed? And can so-called second-order virtues bear the burden of vindication that is placed upon them? Marilyn McCord Adams declares that, given “horrendous evils” – the physical agony, the eclipse of meaning (what Simone Weil called “affliction”) – this putative god would be paying us “an inappropriate respect,” and indeed “would not thereby honor but violate our agency by crushing it with responsibility for individual and cosmic ruin.” And D. Z. Phillips refers to the argument from character development as “the outward-bound school of theology,” and suggests that “to rescue sufferings from degradation by employing cost-benefit analysis is like rescuing a prostitute from degradation by telling her to charge higher fees.”
5. Calvinists are the greatest defenders. David Bentley Hart writes of a Calvinist minister who, “positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster – like everything else – was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to attempt to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge” (with chapter and verse, of course). More extreme still are the false prophets who thundered that the denizens of the Sodom of New Orleans only got what was coming to them when the whirlwind of Katrina tore into the city. I admit to finding this whole track of retributive thought so unbearably desolate that I will only say, in answer, that here we see the dead and deathly end of late medieval nominalism, see that potentia absoluta is at best a theological solecism, and at worst sheer satanic power. It is also the inevitable result of the deity known in abstraction from the concrete reality of Christ. God cannot will evil and suffering, either directly or indirectly.
6. And here we come to the nub of the matter. The divine nature is the grammar of the divine will. “God’s action has been held, in orthodox Christian thought, to be identical with God’s being – that is, what God does is nothing other than God’s being actively real” (Rowan Williams). And in being and act, God is love – all the way down and all the way out. The conundrum of the divine love and the divine power that theodicists accept and then attempt to resolve is thus a false one. God is not all-loving on the one hand and all-powerful on the other: no, the only power of God is the power of love:
Here is God, no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.
(W. H. Vanstone)
7. Rejecting, then, the Calvinist collapse of secondary into primary divine causality, shall we say that God permits the evil that is contrary to his will? Philosophically (with Aquinas) it would seem to be a necessary distinction to make, but I remain uncomfortable with the language of permission, and for two reasons. First, because it suggests that God has a psychology like ours only bigger, conjuring up an image of one who has to make allowances for the world to be other than he really intends it to be, “on the lines that the poor fellow couldn’t help it, he’s only God after all” (Herbert McCabe). And, second, because we are still playing the game of explanation. Evil, we must insist, cannot and must not be explained. If the language of permission still seems inescapable, then continuing to insist that the free-will defence is a busted flush, we must confess that we don’t have the faintest idea why God permits evil. Ultimately we can only gaze at the iconic image of the crucified and, like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, freeze at the mystery of iniquity – and then, in faith, be drawn into the more unfathomable mystery of a love that is stronger than death.
8. We must also be modest with the discourse of eschatology. Certainly we must hold fast to the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1, 4). But two points. First, hell. Whatever the Bible says to the contrary – and the Bible actually says many things to the contrary of the contrary – it beats me how an eternal Auschwitz (under a righteous commandant to be sure) could provide an adequate retributive balance to the temporal Auschwitz. If for some the idea of hell performs a successful operation in the theatre of theodicy, for me it kills the patient. And, second, children. When we speak of the glory of ultimate, we must not out-shout the cries of the penultimate; we must speak softly and tenderly, and never say anything that we could not say, paradigmatically, in the presence of parents who have watched their child torn limb from limb by a pack of hunting dogs, or tossed to and fro on soldiers’ bayonets.
9. The images, of course, come from Dostoevsky’s unsurpassable The Brothers Karamazov, as Ivan challenges the faith of his little brother, a novice monk, with a rending litany of human depravity, and then declares that “It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket,” i.e. to the slaughter-house of history. Mark well that Ivan is not an atheist, he is a rebel. He has been to the house of God and knows its liturgies better than many a believer – but he cannot kneel and he will not pray. And also mark well that Alyosha accepts Ivan’s argument that human freedom, ultimate victory, everlasting punishment, all finally fail to persuade: he concedes the case that the universe is not morally intelligible. Theoretically, nihilism triumphs…
10. … But, practically, nihilism fails. It can be thought, but not lived: Ivan himself becomes a monster, twisting the mind of his half-brother Smerdyakov, turning him into a patricide – and he himself finally commits suicide. But Father Zosima presents Alyosha with an alternative – not an alternative explanation but an alternative praxis, presupposing conversion, issuing in awe at reality (Job) and compassion for others, and mediated by the church, the harbinger of horror-healing. It is participation in God’s own triune love overflowing in the cosmos, and in the universal salvation wrought by the atoning death of Christ. It is “joy over the abyss” (Barth). The logical problem of evil and suffering is not thereby solved, rather it is dissolved in the existential narrative of discipleship. As a hymn of mine concludes:
Answers aren’t in explanation,
answers come at quite a cost:
only wonder at creation,
and the practice of the cross.
David Bentley Hart’s little book on theodicy, The Doors of the Sea (2005), is a work of profound insight. Hart observes that attempts to justify evil by appealing to its broader meaning in God’s plan simply render the universe “morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome” (p. 99). Against all such theodicies, Hart rightly argues that “suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all: and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts” (p. 35).
The Christian faith, Hart notes, “denies that … suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all.” Instead, “they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may – under the conditions of a fallen order – make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends” (p. 61).
To offer a rational explanation or “justification” of evil is thus to explain what God himself refuses to explain. In Karl Barth’s words, evil is das Nichtige – it is futility, vanity, emptiness, nothingness. It is that which passes away. It is the absurd nothingness which God refuses to interpret or explain or endow with meaning. It “is” only in as much as God rejects it utterly. It “exists” only as that which God vanquishes and overcomes in the death of his Son. It is that horror which is never synthesised or redeemed, but only cast out. It is the shadow of violence which Jesus Christ exposes and expels with the light of his peace.
The topic of theodicy is often discussed merely as a philosophical problem. In the worst cases, it’s little more than an intellectual puzzle about reconciling various abstract divine attributes with an abstract concept of “evil.” What we really need, however, is to approach the so-called problem of evil from an explicitly theological standpoint – which is to say, from the standpoint of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A number of books have taken up this challenge in different ways. If you wanted to read just four books, I’d recommend these ones:
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50 “God and Nothingness” (1950)
- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (1973)
- Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (1999)
- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)
For the next few days, I’ll be hiding away in a cosy mountain forest. Since there will be no posting here until mid-week, then, I’ll leave you with a few posts on the topic of theodicy.
Posted by Ben Myers at 10:44 am
Saturday, 17 February 2007
“In a world of competition, frenzied chatter, control-obsession, there is a terrible aptness, a rhetorical rightness, in a God who speaks in a child’s cry. And it is so cruelly hard – for believer and unbeliever alike – to face the possibility that silence, stumbling apparent crudity, tell you more of God than the language of would-be adult sophistication. As if the best theology were the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.”
—Rowan Williams, “Telling That Christmas Story Like It Is,” The Guardian, 23 December 2000.
Friday, 16 February 2007
Timothy George, ed., God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 175 pp. (with thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy)
This little volume draws together nine papers originally presented at a Beeson Divinity School symposium on the Trinity. The papers, edited by Timothy George, represent a wide range of ecclesial traditions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Holiness, and Presbyterian. The collection aims not at conceptual discussion of trinitarian theology, but rather at elucidating the relationship between that doctrine and the concrete life of Christian faith and worship. Thus the crucial question addressed is: “How does the doctrine of the Trinity shape the ways of the Christian life, its worship and prayer, its service and mission?” (p. 13).
In the opening paper, Alister McGrath emphasises the fundamental mystery of trinitarian dogma: “The doctrine of the Trinity represents a chastened admission that we are unable to master God” (p. 20). McGrath thus wonders whether some contemporary trinitarian thought has become too speculative and too detached from the witness of Scripture. His target here is especially social doctrines of the Trinity, which leave one “with a sense of bafflement” at how “a series of rather ambitious social and communitarian doctrines [can be deduced] from the mystery of the Trinity” (pp. 31-32). In contrast, McGrath follows Robert W. Jenson in arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity “identifies and names the Christian God,” so that the doctrine functions as “an instrument of theological precision, which forces us to be explicit about the God under discussion” (pp. 33-34).
McGrath’s paper sets the stage for the rest of the collection, since the remaining essays focus on the significance of the Trinity for the concrete practices and experiences of Christian faith. Gerald Bray argues that the doctrine of the Trinity did not arise from philosophical speculation in the early church, but “from the realities of Christian spiritual experience” (p. 55); and James Earl Massey offers a fascinating account of the underlying trinitarianism of the African-American spirituals. Avery Dulles emphasises the ecumenical significance of the concept of the divine processions of the Son and Spirit, while J. I. Packer gives an account of John Owen’s Puritan trinitarian piety. Timothy George highlights the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity for inter-faith dialogue between Christianity and Islam, and Ellen Charry seeks to revive the notion of the divine perfections by emphasising their practical and soteriological significance.
The most enjoyable chapter, however, is Frederica Mathewes-Green’s reflection on Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Mathewes-Green is a popular Eastern Orthodox writer rather than a theologian; but she offers a beautiful, concise meditation on Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity. As in much iconography, Rublev “distort[s] perspective in order to give us a sensation that the scene is bursting out toward us, with the chalice in the center pressing itself our way”; as the scene rushes towards us, this distorted perspective gives us a sense “of being off-balance in an unfamiliar, powerful world” (p. 89). Most significantly, though, Mathewes-Green observes that none of Rublev’s three figures is speaking: “The tranquillity of their silence is sufficient” (p. 90).
Finally, the volume closes with a moving sermon by Cornelius Plantinga: “From all eternity inside God, inside the mystery of God …, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit make room for each other, envelop each other, call attention to each other, glorify one another. It is the ceaseless exchange of vitality, the endless expense of spirit upon spirit in eternal triplicate life. The only competition in glory of this kind is to outdo one another in love” (p. 155).
A couple of my recent F&T book reviews have been re-published (slightly revised and expanded) on the website of the Center for Barth Studies. They’ve got several other excellent reviews too: you can see them here.
Thursday, 15 February 2007
Recently, a reader from the UK got in touch with me about some T. F. Torrance audio lectures. He had old cassette copies of a lecture series that Torrance gave at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, some time in the early 1980s. This reader was kind enough to convert the audio cassettes to mp3, and he has sent me the series of lectures as eight mp3 files (4.2 hours in total). This is a great resource – as far as I know, there are no other lectures by Torrance available online.
So I’ll be posting these lectures as podcasts over the next couple of weeks. The quality varies – unfortunately, the quality is poorer in the first lecture, and the start of the first lecture seems to be missing. (If you happen to know how to edit mp3 files, I’m sure you could improve the sound-quality; please send me an email if you’d like to volunteer for this job.)
Anyway, here’s the first 32-minute instalment: you can listen to it here, or you can get the podcast feed here.
The Aussie writer Peter Sellick has posted an excellent polemical piece on the non-existence of the spirit world. He discusses the Arian heresy as an example of rationalist biblical literalism, and he remarks:
“I can’t help thinking that attempts to make Jesus subordinate to the Father are produced by a refusal to accept that the man on the cross, on the stinking dunghill of Golgotha, outside of the city walls and abandoned by all, is God. This is the offence at the centre of the Christian story.”
Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Yesterday I posted a brief critique of Oliver Crisp’s new article on Robert Jenson; and I invited Crisp to offer his own rejoinder to my critique. Here’s his rejoinder:
It seems to me that whether a particular theological argument is coherent or not is of utmost importance. Part of the reason for writing this piece was that it seemed to me that the obvious resources Jenson could have availed himself of (viz. recent philosophical work on these matters by metaphysicians) he was unable to avail himself of, because of his views about the nature of metaphysics. The result is that what he comes up with does not work.
As I hope came out in the article, I am an admirer of Jenson’s theology, which is provocative and insightful. But, as Jenson himself admits, it is the fate of any theological system to be dismembered and analysed. I was simply subjecting one aspect of his thinking to such analysis to see whether it made better sense than traditional ways of thinking about this matter. In my estimation, it did not. Naturally, this is not the only important matter one could discuss with respect to Jenson's work. But – to repeat – if all truth is God’s truth, it surely matters if a particular view advanced by a leading theologian as an alternative to other, traditional accounts of a particular doctrine, is not a more complete, or satisfying, or coherent alternative. To that extent, I think the essay was worth writing.
Tuesday, 13 February 2007
The other day I mentioned Oliver D. Crisp’s new critique of Robert W. Jenson: “Robert Jenson on the Pre-Existence of Christ,” Modern Theology 23:1 (2007), 27-45.
Oliver Crisp is an impressive young British scholar, and he’s emerging as a significant new voice in the contemporary theological conversation. He’s a very fine interpreter of American theologians like Jonathan Edwards and W. G. T. Shedd, and he has been doing some important work on the doctrine of sin.
So it’s a shame I can’t be more positive about his new paper on Jenson. In this paper, Crisp’s argument is (in a nutshell) that Jenson’s thought is incoherent. His recurring criticism is: “I cannot make sense of what Jenson says” (p. 44).
The main problem with this critique, in my view, is that it lacks imagination. Crisp has his own set of classical doctrinal and metaphysical categories, which differ pretty radically from the categories of Jenson’s own thought. And when Jenson’s ideas cannot be interpreted in the light of these ready-made categories, Crisp simply protests that Jenson doesn’t make sense. For example, one of Jenson’s central themes – that ontology is structured eschatologically and narratively – is said to be senseless: “it seems intuitively obvious that no being that is temporal can constitute its own past and present from its future. This just makes no sense” (p. 42).
Certainly this is one way of critiquing a writer; but it’s not a very interesting way, since such a critique has not yet made the necessary imaginative effort of entering into the writer’s own thought, in order to critique that thought from within.
Monday, 12 February 2007
Aaron Ghiloni has posted an excellent Ten Propositions on Certainty and Theology. The opening quote is from Schleiermacher: “We entirely renounce all attempts to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity....”
Sunday, 11 February 2007
A hymn by Kim Fabricius
Let’s have a meal, let’s have a feast!
Come one and all, from great to least:
the food and drink have been prepared,
the Lord provides and all is shared.
Let’s have a meal, let’s have a feast!
This table cannot be policed:
it’s not the church’s, it’s the Lord’s,
it’s spread for free, not for reward.
Let’s have a meal, let’s have a feast!
From “us” and “them” we’ve been released:
no strangers here, for all are friends,
no need to hide, deride, defend.
Let’s have a meal, let’s have a feast!
Join hearts and hands, and pass the peace:
Christ turned the cheek and walked the mile,
now all to each are reconciled.
Let’s have a meal, let’s have a feast!
Let grace abound, let joy increase!
And as we take the bread and wine,
let who we are be re-defined.
“[W]hat the bread and cup as visible words specifically say, is precisely something about the embodiment of Christ in the life of the church. That Christ is indeed present as body, that he is not in our midst as a disembodied pure spirit, is itself an essential part of the gospel proclamation. If Christ were not present in the body, every gospel-address would be false.”
—Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 107.
Saturday, 10 February 2007
Al Kimel quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar on the humour of the saints: “But the saints are never the kind of killjoy spinster aunts who go in for faultfinding and lack all sense of humor…. For humor is a mysterious but unmistakable charism.”
Friday, 9 February 2007
“He, the Lord of all lords in heaven and earth, becomes and is the most despised and wretched of all servants! He, the divine and human Light, was wrapped in deepest concealment! He, the divine and human Judge, was judged! He, the living God and the only truly living human, was executed and destroyed, disappearing into the night of death! This is the one antithesis in the existence of Jesus Christ.”
—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, p. 349 (KD IV/2, p. 390).
Thursday, 8 February 2007
by Kim Fabricius
1. There is a lot of BS talked about “self-love.” Allow me to wield a pitchfork and begin a cleanout of this particular Augean stable, the whiff of which has become unbearable in our shamelessly therapeutic culture.
2. It is often said that self-love is commanded in the Bible itself: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Such a reading of this text suggests either wishful thinking or exegesis gone on holiday. Luther and Calvin read more accurately and insightfully: they saw that neighbour-love begins only where self-love ends, and vice versa. As Robert Jenson observes: “Though it is sometimes supposed that Scripture’s famous mandate makes self-love a standard which our love for the other is to emulate, the relation in Scripture works the other way; Scripture contains no mention of self-love except as a foil for love of the other. The object of love is always other than the love.”
3. How, in fact, do we love ourselves? With a passion – the passion of distorted desire – which is to say with utter self-absorption. How are we to love others? With precisely that as-myself absorption – but directed entirely to the other-than-myself. The paradigms are the Trinity and the cross. Self-love looks inwards; in contrast, observe the gazes, the looks of love of Father, Son and Spirit, in Rublev’s famous icon. Self-love is full of itself; in contrast, other-love is empty of self, i.e. it is kenotic (cf. Philippians 2:1-11).
4. Am I saying, then, that we should hate ourselves? Heaven forbid! Self-hatred simply plays Tweedledum to self-love’s Tweedledee: both are equally forms of self-centredness, of the homo incurvatus in se. We must be delivered from self altogether – and in Christ we are: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
5. By the way, what about the nostrum “Love the sinner (the neighbour) but hate the sin”? It sounds so intuitively right as to be unquestionable. But is the person so easily separable from the work? Is sin merely accidental, or is it not dispositional, if not ontological? An anthropological can of worms opens! Suffice it to say for this discussion that even if it is a distinction that can be drawn in principle, “loving the sinner but hating the sin,” as a populist ethic, is usually more honoured in the breach than the observance, amounting to the sheerest humbug. Look at the way the rhetoric of evil is deployed to deny the human rights of terrorists or the dignity of paedophiles. Or simply ask a gay Christian if he feels loved by the church that regards him as a sinner.
6. But to return to the main thread, “self-esteem” is the particularly modernist version of self-love (not postmodernist: in postmodernism there is no self to love or esteem!). It goes with the demise of the discourse of sin and guilt, and the ascendancy of the culture of narcissism (and victimhood): the crap of “I’m okay, you’re okay” (but that other bugger is blameworthy). Here we lose all contact with reality, because I’m not okay, I suck – and you do too. Well, don’t you? (If you don’t think you do, I refer you to Jeremiah 17:9.) Alcoholics Anonymous is closer to the truth: “I’m not okay, and you’re not okay, but that’s okay.”
7. But why is that okay? Because – and only because – Christ died for our unokayness are we okay, okay with God and therefore really okay – which is a rather vulgar restatement of the Reformation doctrine of the iustificatio impii. Ours is an “alien” okayness, an okayness extra nos, but this is not a fiction, and indeed it is precisely on the basis of the divine imprimatur that we are freed from self-love for other-love (which is why AA’s “but that’s okay” requires a supplement: to Luther’s iustificatio impii, add Calvin’s iustificatio iusti, or regeneratio). In more felicitous non-religious language, Paul Tillich rephrased the justification of the sinner as the “acceptance of the unacceptable.” Given – but only given – the sola gratia, perhaps “self-acceptance” is the word we are looking for. But even that is not the end of the matter…
8. I suggest that there are huge implications here for so-called Christian spirituality. I say “so-called” because in fact much of what now passes for Christian spirituality is simply cod psychology with a halo. Who, for example, needs the desert fathers when you’ve got John Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” (faith without an object), or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (personality without character – or spirit)? And “inner healing” remains a big buzzword on the spirituality circuit. The presumption would seem to be that God only loves those who love themselves (cf. managerialism’s “God only helps those who help themselves”), with its corollary that only as we love ourselves can we love others.
9. But this is a formula for the crassest form of works-righteousness, indeed practical atheism (cf. managerialism’s relentless pelagianism), as well as a recipe for spiritual pride – or despair. Or were the Reformers not right that God’s love for us is a free gift that has nothing whatsoever to do with self-feeling or self-construction? Can we not trust that God’s grace is sufficient to all our needs? And have not the great saints taught us that the capacity for love embraces an askesis of self-denial and the experience of woundedness?
10. Writing of the nineteenth century Abbé Marie-Joseph Huvelin, Rowan Williams observes that he “was not what many would call a whole man,” that he “lived with a sense of his own worthlessness almost unrelieved by the hope and assurance he transmitted to so many others.” And the question Williams poses is this: “can we, with our rhetoric of the identity of holiness and wholeness, begin to cope with the ‘sanctity’ of a man whose mental and emotional balance was so limited? A man less than perfectly sane. We do not here have to do simply with the question of the holy fool, but the question – harder for our day – of the holy neurotic.” A question we’d better answer before we sell a great theological heritage and spiritual tradition for a mess of Jungianism.
Wednesday, 7 February 2007
The Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler has made this remark about the Virgin Mary: “It is not strange but right and proper that [Mary’s] meaning should be declared and her praise sung from a Protestant pulpit. If we can find it in our competence to honor the witness to the faith of Augustine, of Luther, of Calvin, of Wesley – how grudging before the gifts of God never to utter an ‘Ave Maria: Hail Mary’.”
I must admit, I myself find it enriching to pray the Hail Mary from time to time. What do you think? Should Protestants pray the Hail Mary? And if so, should it be incorporated into our liturgies – or should it simply remain a matter of private devotion?
This is the 1000th post here at Faith & Theology. Thanks for visiting!
Posted by Ben Myers at 8:42 pm
Tuesday, 6 February 2007
Meehyun Chung, ed., Breaking Silence: Theology from Asian Women (Delhi: ISPCK/EATWOT, 2006), 171 pp.
The Korean theologian Meehyun Chung (whom I have posted about here and here) kindy sent me a copy of her new book, Breaking Silence (jointly published by ISPCK and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians). The volume brings together ten new essays by feminist theologians from India, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Thailand.
There are some interesting and insightful essays here. In a challenging paper entitled “Beyond Right and Wrong: An Alternative Path to Liberation” (chapter 9), Rose Wu discusses sexual ethics in Hong Kong, and argues (against conservative ethics) that we must “see a different image of God who is strange and new to us as Christians” (p. 151). Pauline Chakkalakal’s discussion, “Mary of Nazareth: An Indian Feminist Theological Perspective” (chapter 2), offers an Indian woman’s perspective on the traditional portrait of Mary “as a pious, docile maiden, symbol of passivity and humility” (p. 30). And Satoko Yamaguchi’s “Christian Feminist Theology in Japan” (chapter 3) discusses the biblical depiction of the “Fatherhood” of God, and observes that “Jesus expresses [God] as ‘Father’ in such a way that would undermine patriarchal social structures from the bottom” (p. 55).
The most important point, however, is raised by Meehyun Chung, in her essay on Korean feminist theology (chapter 5). Here, she offers a timely caution to feminist theology – and the caution applies equally to other contemporary theological approaches: “The experiences of women … must be acknowledged and recognized, but not made into something absolute or advanced as a yardstick for good theology. When human … experiences and feelings are idealized in theology, or made absolute, then the happenings of the cross and resurrection of Christ are weakened and made relative…. This is what happened with the cultural Protestantism of the nineteenth century, which was the ideological background of the expansion of Protestantism and the colonial domination of the West in the name of mission. It was the experience of Western men that was idealized and made into something absolute” (pp. 87-88).
Meehyun Chung’s point here is an urgent one: contemporary theologies need to be more radical – more alert to the function of ideologies – if they are to avoid falling into precisely the kind of ideological absolutism that they are trying to overcome. Theology can and should be carried out from a diversity of social and cultural perspectives – but it is the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not these perspectives as such, that constitutes the ground and theme of theological reflection.
The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary announces its second annual conference on Karl Barth, co-sponsored by the Karl Barth Society of North America: Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes? The conference will take place in Princeton, 24-27 June 2007.
Speakers include D. G. Hart, Michael Horton, George Hunsinger, John Hare, Clifford Anderson, John Franke, Bruce McCormack, and several others. Last year’s conference sold out, so early registration is recommended.
Monday, 5 February 2007
Ray S. Anderson, Exploration into God: Sermonic Meditations on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 111 pp.
Ray Anderson of Fuller Seminary was kind enough to send me a copy of his new collection of sermons on Ecclesiastes, Exploration into God. He originally preached these sermons back in 1964, when he was pastor of the Evangelical Free Church in Covina, California. At the time, he was immersing himself in the works of Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard, and in the novels and plays of Dostoyevsky, James Agee, Thomas Wolfe and Arthur Miller. The sermons in this book arise from this potent blend of the Old Testament and modern existentialist thought. (In his inscription of the book, Ray tells me: “If you like Bultmann, you will love Koheleth!”)
Ray sums up the melancholy poet of Ecclesiastes with the words of Kierkegaard: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music” (p. 10).
With deep existential pathos and warm pastoral sensitivity, Ray discusses the melancholy of this ancient poet. He observes that this melancholy comes not merely from life, but from God. God has placed eternity in our hearts, and this “means sadness if you are aware of it” (p. 23). And for just that reason, “the sadness of life is its health”! Similarly, “the vanity of life is its hope”; and “the conflict of life is its harmony.”
Ray thus observes that sad Koheleth is no mere cynic. On the contrary, the poet presses us with the question of God as the meaning of our lives – but he refuses to offer an “easy solution” or a “premature answer” to this question (p. 81). He speaks of the “health” of life only by telling of life’s sadness; he celebrates the “harmony” of life only by stressing life’s conflicts; he speaks of the “hope” of life only by lamenting life’s vanity.
Reading Ecclesiastes is thus “like taking hold of the two poles on a battery” (p. 14). It awakens us with a jolt – but in doing so, it awakens us to God.
Our friend Michael Westmoreland-White has launched a new blog-ring for Christian Peace Bloggers – you can read about it here. If you’re interested in a theology of non-violence, you might like to consider joining.
Here’s a related quote from Joe R. Jones: “The church violates its own mission of witness to God when it does not have the practices for peace in the world at the forefront of its outreach practices. The peace the church works for is the peace of God’s kingdom – God’s shalom – in which people flourish without fear of violence and reprisal. The practices of making and promoting peace, even in their truncated and broken historical forms, are essential to the church’s witness to God as the Supreme Lord of peace, to Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace” (A Grammar of Christian Faith, Vol. 2, pp. 632-33).
Sunday, 4 February 2007
I’ve long been disappointed at the lack of online information about “America’s theologian,” Robert W. Jenson. The existing wikipedia page for Jenson was very brief and sketchy, so I’ve now re-written his whole wikipedia page.
At the moment, I’ve just written a general biographical narrative, and I’ve tried to highlight some of Jenson’s main influences and developments. At a later date, I might also try to add another section summarising some of the central themes of his theology (e.g. election, time and eternity, Lutheran christology, ecumenical ecclesiology, etc.).
If you happen to be a Jenson-expert, you might like to make some further additions or modifications to the page as well!
Saturday, 3 February 2007
Several of the leading theological journals have released their first issues for 2007 – and there are some outstanding new articles. Let me highlight a few here.
The new issue of Modern Theology 23:1 (2007) includes Oliver D. Crisp’s sharply critical discussion of Robert W. Jenson’s christology: “Robert Jenson on the Pre-Existence of Christ.” It also includes a tribute to Stanley Grenz, and an article on John Howard Yoder by Daniel Barber: “The Particularity of Jesus and the Time of the Kingdom: Philosophy and Theology in Yoder.”
The new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology 9:1 (2007) includes Drayton C. Benner’s article, “Augustine and Karl Rahner on the Relationship between the Immanent Trinity and the Economic Trinity,” as well as some new work on Karl Barth: Paul T. Nimmo, “Karl Barth and the concursus Dei – A Chalcedonianism Too Far?”; and Piotr J. Malysz, “Storming Heaven with Karl Barth? Barth's Unwitting Appropriation of the Genus Maiestaticum and what Lutherans Can Learn from It.”
Meanwhile, the new issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology 60:1 (2007) contains a very important exchange between Edwin Chr. van Driel and Bruce McCormack. Van Driel critiques McCormack in “Karl Barth on the Eternal Existence of Jesus Christ,” and McCormack offers an extensive response in “Seek God Where He May Be Found: A Response to Edwin Chr. van Driel.”
The same issue of SJT includes a panel on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, with critiques by Francesca Murphy and John A. McGuckin (the latter remarks that Hart’s book “comes among us like a satellite fallen through the roof of the hen house”). Hart then offers his own spirited response, and he says some interesting things about the genesis of The Beauty of the Infinite (apparently, the book was initially planned to be the first in a five-volume series!).
Finally, in the February 2007 issue of First Things, Timothy George has an important article on “Evangelicals and the Mother of God.”
Friday, 2 February 2007
“The conversions to Roman Catholicism in the last year of Reinhard Hütter, Bruce Marshall and R. R. Reno – the last two of whom were trained at Yale, a centre of Barth studies in the last generation – are a symbol of the fact that it is getting harder and harder to do Protestant theology in the Protestant churches of America, and harder and harder to read Karl Barth as a Protestant theologian without meeting resistance – precisely from Protestants!”
—Bruce L. McCormack, from the new foreword to Theologische Dialektik und kritischer Realismus: Entstehung und Entwicklung von Karl Barths Theologie 1909-1936, trans. Matthias Gockel (Zurich: TVZ, 2006).
Thursday, 1 February 2007
by Kim Fabricius
1. In speaking of God’s perfections rather than God’s attributes I pay homage to Karl Barth’s doctrine of God. When we speak of God we must speak in superlatives. As Tina Turner would put it, God is “simply the best.”
2. And “better than all the rest”? But there is no comparison: Deus non est in genere. Yet because God has revealed himself to us in Jesus of Nazareth, “the knowability of God” (Barth), we may speak of God in human language. Because, through the Holy Spirit, the prayability of God, there is an analogia fidei, theological predication is possible. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) is correct – “Between the Creator and the creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude,” which “is one of the great bulwarks against idolatry in the western ecclesiastical tradition” (James Alison); nevertheless veri-similitude there is. There is truthful speech about God, and it is the church’s vocation to speak it, such that to remain silent, or to withdraw into apophaticism, would be strategies of disobedience, ingratitude, and indeed of idolatry itself. So too would any explication of the divine perfections that does not issue from the doctrine of the Trinity, which, as Moltmann rightly insists, “is a critical doctrine of God in a specifically Christian sense.”
3. Two more points of prolegomena. First, the words we use to speak of God are not inadequate, nor are they only contingently related to God, rather (with Wittgenstein) they are grammatically related to God, they define what we mean by “God.” Rush Rees: “Winston Churchill may be Prime Minister and also a company director, but I might come to know him without knowing this. But I could not know God without knowing that he was the Father and Creator of all things. That would be like saying that I might come to know Churchill without knowing that he had a face, hands, body, voice or any of the attributes of a human being.” As the late D. Z. Phillips explains: “The point could be put by saying that … ‘creator’, ‘grace’, and ‘love’ are synonyms for God.” And the point could be expanded by saying that the God’s perfections are not merely adjectival, they are both nouns and verbs: God does not merely have his perfections, he is and does his perfections.
4. Second, although the words we use to speak of the divine perfections are not inadequate, they become adequate only as their meaning is re-defined as God discloses himself to us in scripture. Obviously certain dictionary definitions, and not others, constitute a necessary point of departure in speaking of God – God is righteous, not deciduous! – but the nature of God’s righteousness, as sui generis, cannot finally be determined by ordinary usage or extrapolation, but only by God’s own interpolation. New wine bursts old skins. We may speak of a semantic baptism in which our words are crucified and raised. The classic example is Luther’s hermeneutical breakthrough precisely over the term δικαιοσύνη in Romans 1:16-17, when the tormented Reformer came to see that the scholastic understanding of God’s righteousness as “active” and punitive must give way to an evangelical understanding of God’s righteousness as “passive” and saving.
5. We now turn first to three classical divine perfections, which seem to me to be the three most misunderstood. First, God is all-powerful. Does God’s omnipotence mean that he can do anything that is not logically contradictory? Does it make theological sense, for example, to say that God is more powerful than Satan? It does not. There are different kinds of power, and divine power and demonic power are incommensurable. Nor does it make sense to say that God has chosen divine over demonic power, as if God’s will were primary and his nature secondary (the nominalist fallacy). On the contrary, God’s nature is the grammar of God’s will, which is a Wittgensteinian way of saying that God’s being and acts are one. God is love (I John 4:8) – that is the defining divine perfection – and God is love from tip to toe. God’s only power is the power of love, in which there is no domination, coercion, or violence. Such is the imminent perichoretic, self-giving, non-rivalrous love of the Trinity, economically embodied in the cross (and, as Luther said, crux probat omnia). “Omnipotence,” T. F. Torrance urges, “is what God does, and it is from His ‘does’ rather than from a hypothetical ‘can’ that we are to understand the meaning of the term. What God does, we see in Christ.” Rowan Williams suggests that the mess we often get ourselves into here comes from the tendency to picture God as having a human psychology only bigger. It is the same tendency that opens the Pandora’s boxes both of Calvin’s “horrible decree” of double predestination and of “the evils of theodicy” (Terrence Tilley).
6. Second, God is all-knowing. Does God’s omniscience mean that God is a divine know-it-all? Does God know the future? If the answer is Yes, how do we avoid determinism or fatalism, and what happens to human freedom and prayer? If the answer is No, has God heard the joke about the open theist? I find this discussion a barren one. Maybe I’m just stupid. But maybe what we have here is a kind of theological antinomy, questions to which the answers are neither Yes nor No but, according to Robert Persig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “Mu,” such that we have to “un-ask” the questions. Indeed a question like “Does God know all there is to know about motorcycle maintenance?” simply makes no theological sense. Perhaps we can begin to sketch a meaningful account of the divine omniscience by citing Cranmer’s great Collect for Purity, which speaks of the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.” Pannenberg refers to God’s inescapability. I would want to refer to the biblical concept of the divine wisdom, or, better, the logos, incarnate in Jesus, who knows us (John 6: 6), knows God (John 7:29), knows everything (John 21:17)
7. Third, God is omnipresent. The jaws of pantheism yawn. I will not enter! I rather like Daniel L. Migliore’s take on the subject: “The truth of God’s omnipresence is that God is present everywhere but everywhere freely present. God is present when and where and how God pleases. God is present to all creatures and in all events, but not in the same way.” What about the universe as the body of God? The maw of panentheism opens. I will not enter it either! Rather say the universe is in God. Above all, God is in Christ who descended to the depths, ascended to the heights, and fills the cosmos with his presence (Ephesians 4:7ff.). The wise God who is “acquainted with all my ways,” whose “knowledge is too wonderful for me,” is also the spacious God whom the Psalmist asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:3-7). But there is no place for paranoia or claustrophobia: we cannot hide because “God,” as Robert Jenson puts it, “as boldly as possible, is roomy.”
8. Is God impassible? Jüngel: The cross “has destroyed the axiom of absoluteness, the axiom of apathy, and the axiom of immutability.” Yet this classical divine attribute is perhaps not without value in its insistence that God’s action is never reactive or determined by anything other, rather God is “detached,” not stoically but in the desert fathers’ sense of detachment, which, as Rowan Williams observes, is “not a strategy of disengagement, but the condition for serious involvement with the world, unfettered from the fears and projections of the ego.” Likewise God’s eternity is not a disengagement from time. Rather “The true God is not eternal because he lacks time, but because he takes time”; indeed “His very identity is set by what he does in time” (Robert Jenson) – particularly around AD 30. God, in a word, is not constrained, God is free, free even from the constraint of freedom, and therefore free to bind himself to humanity in Jesus Christ. Inside the doctrine of the divine impassibility is the doctrine of the libertas Dei trying to get out.
9. And what of the divine transcendence? God’s transcendence is God’s Wholly Otherness (Barth). But just as infinity is bad infinity if it stands in contrast to finitude rather than taking finitude into itself (Hegel), so too God’s transcendence is bad transcendence if it stands in contrast to God’s immanence rather than taking immanence into itself. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “God’s ‘beyond’ is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life.” Or as the later Barth himself came to understand, God is transcendent precisely as Immanuel, as God-with-us in the history of Jesus. This history is God’s mystery.
10. Finally, the glory of God, the “sum of all divine perfections” (Barth). God is beautiful, radiantly beautiful. Again, however, Christologically re-defined, and therefore (unsurprisingly) counter-intuitive and counter-cultural: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Indeed in John’s Gospel, the glory of Jesus is focused precisely in the cross: Christ is “drop-dead gorgeous.” Nor is the resurrection a make-over but rather the revelation of the hidden glory of the crucified. But “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6) – it is true that it is but the trailer of the feature to come at the eschaton, when indeed we ourselves “will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (I John 3:2), the “light of hyper-glory that the saints behold” (Gregory of Palamas). Ultimately, as we are drawn into the very triune life of God through the doxological work of the Holy Spirit (II Corinthian 3:18), we ourselves will share, pari passu, in the divine perfections.
The Franciscan monk Alexis Bugnolo has produced the first full English translation of St Bonaventure’s Commentary on the First Book of Sentences. The work is now available on CD-rom, along with the text of Peter Lombard’s First Book of Sentences. The CD-rom includes the English and Latin texts on facing pages, along with footnotes and Scholia. Keep up the great work, Br. Alexis!
Posted by Ben Myers at 7:07 am