Saturday, 31 March 2007

Fergus Kerr: Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians

Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 230 pp. (review copy courtesy of Blackwell)

In this book, the brilliant Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr surveys of some of the leading Catholic thinkers of the past century. The book opens with Walter Kasper’s remark that “the outstanding event in the Catholic theology of our century is the surmounting of neo-scholasticism” (p. vii) – a remark that sets the tone for the whole volume. Throughout the book, Kerr’s main interest is in the different attempts of modern Catholic theologians to overcome their unwelcome heritage of neoscholastic Thomism.

The story thus begins with Marie-Dominique Chenu, who developed a new historical and existential approach to the study of Thomas Aquinas. Chenu critiqued the neoscholastic Thomists for preferring “a philosophy of essences” over “the problems of existence, action, the individual, becoming, and time” (p. 23). Coming from very different directions, theologians like Rahner, Lonergan, Schillebeeckx and Karol Wojtyla engaged in epistemological work as a way of subverting the rigid conceptualism of neoscholasticism. And Henri de Lubac’s brilliant theory of the “supernatural” was a radical attempt both to “undermine neoscholastic dogmatic theology” and to “destroy standard natural theology” (p. 75). Again, in contrast to neoscholastic metaphysics, Karl Rahner forged a theology which “could not be more radically embedded in the historical existence of Jesus Christ” (p. 91).

Interestingly, the Jesuit theologians Rahner, de Lubac, Lonergan and Balthasar all agreed that the Thomism they had been taught as students was in fact Suárezian metaphysics. The most explicit critique of this Suárezianism came from Balthasar, who condemned its “apologetic all-knowingness,” its lack of “feeling,” and its tendency to “annul the experience of reality and [to enclose] thought in a sphere which is characterized by bare, essential predications” (p. 126). For Balthasar himself, it was especially Karl Barth’s doctrine of the divine beauty that provided the means to dethrone this “sawdust Thomism” (p. 131).

In any survey like this, there will, of course, be regrettable omissions. It’s surely unfortunate that Kerr excludes from his treatment all Catholic theologians writing in Italian and Spanish – so that liberation theology, for example, is scarcely mentioned. But there’s no point complaining. The book is really an introduction to European Catholic theology (centred around Vatican II), and it makes no pretence of being global in scope. (Incidentally, the only non-European included is Bernard Lonergan; and I couldn’t help wondering whether the book might have been even better if Lonergan had been passed over in silence – but enough said about that.)

The book is peppered with humorous and memorable insights, thanks to Kerr’s alert sense of irony. We discover, for instance, that scholars of immense learning like Schillebeeckx and de Lubac were effectively self-taught, relying only on their own voracious reading; while Hans Küng, on the other hand, “is the only one of the theologians we are considering in this book who completed the seven-year course in neoscholastic philosophy and theology at a Roman university” (p. 145). Some other examples: after years of marginalisation, de Lubac learned that he had been summoned to help draft the texts for Vatican II only while casually reading a newspaper; Rahner failed his first attempt at a doctoral dissertation (on Thomas Aquinas); the young Ratzinger was forced to rewrite his postdoctoral dissertation because of its “modernist” tendencies; and when Karol Wojtyla became pope (John Paul II), the Vatican tried to stop publication of his book on The Acting Person – until the book’s translator threatened to sue the Vatican!

There is plenty to chuckle over in incidents like this. But the best thing about the book is the sheer patience and sympathy with which Kerr discusses controversial figures like Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Küng. For instance, he defends Rahner’s theory of “anonymous Christianity” against misunderstanding; he highlights the unsurpassed scope of Schillebeeckx’s exegetical-theological synthesis; and he observes that Küng’s work is, like it or not, essential “for beginning to understand what happened at Vatican II” (p. 151). The only thing that really ruffles Kerr’s feathers is the recent move towards “nuptial mysticism” and the (Barthian) anthropology of sexual differentiation – themes that have become influential through the work of Balthasar, John Paul II and Ratzinger.

The book concludes with the observation that, since Vatican II, the Church has been characterised by confusion, by “deep divisions and intractable rifts” (p. 222). This is not a criticism of Vatican II, of course – indeed, it highlights something important about the nature of the Catholic Church itself. As Kerr points out, the Catholic Church “is not the monolithic entity that her enemies and her most zealous members believe” (p. 203). And if the aftermath of Vatican II has been widespread confusion, this should not detract from the fact that the Council was a great and decisive moment in the history of the church. After all, as Newman himself observed back in 1870, “there has seldom been a Council without great confusion after it.”

Friday, 30 March 2007

Neil MacDonald: Metaphysics and the God of Israel

Of all the new books that will be released this year, here’s the one I’m most anticipating: Neil B. MacDonald, Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Systematic Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker, scheduled for May 2007).

In this book, Neil MacDonald – who also specialises in Barth, Luther and Wittgenstein – sets out to forge a new integration of systematic theology and biblical studies. Brevard Childs praises “the author’s grasp of the whole spectrum of modern biblical scholarship, both in Old and New Testaments,” as well as “his unique mastery of philosophical theory.” And Christopher Seitz describes the book as “a brilliant effort to combine the very best in historical-critical and theological exegesis with dogmatic and philosophical reflection of a very high level.”

Anyway, I can’t wait to see this new book. If it’s even half as good as it looks, I reckon it could turn out to be one of the best theological works of the year.

Society for the Study of Theology Conference

The Society for the Study of Theology met this week in Cambridge for its annual conference. John Paul Hoskins points out that all the plenary papers are now available online.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Sacramentum caritatis

A couple of weeks ago, Benedict XVI released the apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis” (Sacrament of Love), which he described as a complement to his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (God Is Love). In case you haven’t seen this yet, it’s a fascinating and impressive exhortation that deserves a close reading (all 97 paragraphs!) – you can see the full English text here.

Although both Protestants and progressive Catholics will have many reservations with the document, it is nevertheless a beautiful theological and pastoral meditation on the eucharistic mystery. As anticipated, the Holy Father reinforces some of the most problematic aspects of Catholic teaching, such as the necessity of priestly celibacy (§24), the refusal of the eucharist to divorced and remarried persons (§29), and the eucharistic obligation of Catholic politicians to “support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature” (§83). He also advocates the reintroduction of the Latin Mass (§62) with Gregorian chants (§42), as well as a series of more modest (and very sensible) reforms in relation to the offertory (§49), the exchange of peace (§47), and the homily (§45).

The exhortation concludes on a joyful note that reiterates the relation between eucharist and mission: “The Eucharist makes us discover that Christ, risen from the dead, is our contemporary in the mystery of the Church, his body. Of this mystery of love we have become witnesses. Let us encourage one another to walk joyfully, our hearts filled with wonder, towards our encounter with the Holy Eucharist, so that we may experience and proclaim to others the truth of the words with which Jesus took leave of his disciples: ‘Lo, I am with you always, until the end of the world’” (§97).

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Ten propositions on being a theologian

by Kim Fabricius

1. Actually, there is no such thing as a theologian, anymore than there is such a thing as a Christian. Theologians are not solitary creatures. Theology is the outcome of good conversation, the conversation of friends. Though – the rabies theologorum – you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite! Which is why, in the interest of world peace, it is probably wise that theological conferences are held infrequently. Theologians are like horse manure: all in one place and they stink to high heaven; they are best spread around.

2. “Theology is not free speech but holy speech” (John Webster). The theologian is a servant of the word: in multi-logue with other theologians, she thinks about what God has told us in the Bible. Thus – but only thus – is she also a servant of the church, creatura verbi Divini. The theologian tests the church’s preaching and teaching, and the work of other theologians, to keep them honest, i.e. to ensure that they are about the love and grace of God.

3. The theologian, therefore, is not an academic but an ecclesiodemic. He may work in a university but he is not of the university. He must be multilingual, but he must remember that his hometown is Jerusalem, not Athens. So he must hang loose to criteria of academic respectability. Submission, for example, to the idea that theology must never be homiletical, or that a theologian should not begin a lecture with prayer, suggests a Babylonian captivity. To switch biblical geography, the theologian must not hanker after the fleshpots of Nile College.

4. Can a theologian be an unbeliever? Don’t be ridiculous! Theology is fides quaerens intellectum: no fides, no intellectum. Furthermore, one can speak about God only as one speaks to God. Prayer is the epistemological precondition of theology, which to issue in pietas must begin with invocation. A prayerless theologian is an oxymoron; indeed a prayerless theologian is a moron – which is not to say that God cannot use the braying of Balaam’s ass.

5. Since the 12th century the notion has been around that the theologian is a speculator in ideas, and since the Enlightenment that he is a specialist in certain distinct areas of enquiry. We must lament “the disappearance of the ‘complete’ theologian, the theologian who is also a saint” (Hans Urs von Balthasar), and insist that theologians are “[none] the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our hearts” (John Owen). And the notion that the theologian can be biblical, historical, dogmatic, pastoral without all these disciplines encroaching on each other is a cloven fiction indeed.

6. Theology (with Aquinas, Calvin, Barth) is thus a very spiritual matter, and a very practical, very ethical matter. In fact the theologian, as a student of the humanity of God, is the quintessential humanist. She will have in her sights not only God but also the good, God in his perfections and humanity in its perfectibility, i.e. she will be concerned with human flourishing. And as humans can only flourish in community – in the polis – a question that one should always ask about a theologian is: How does her theology politic?

7. All good theology is always contextual theology. Which is not to say that the context sets the agenda of the theologian, because contexts never come neat, they are not self-interpreting: the theologian must be an exegete not only of the text but also of the context. Rather it is to say that the theologian works at the interface of text and context, and seeks to address specific text to specific context. The letters of Paul – all occasional, none systematic – are the paradigm for the theologian.

8. The theologian will be a person who, off his knees, can think on his feet. He will be a bricoleur, engaged in ad hoc “selective retrieval and eclectic reconfiguration” (Jeffrey Stout). If the Holy Spirit is a dove, the theologian is a cuckoo, free to squat in any nest – and steal the eggs. Incorrigibly kleptomaniacal, while the theologian may not long for Egypt, he may certainly rip off the Egyptians.

9. Strictly speaking, all believers are theologians, because all believers, willy-nilly, think about God. The only question is whether we think well or poorly. It is not the theologian’s job to think about God for us, it is the theologian’s job to help us think about God better, so that we may believe, pray, live and die better. Dorothy Sayers said that “Christians would rather die than think – and most of them do.” The theologian is out to make Ms Sayers a liar.

10. Ultimately, of course, theologians do not know what they are talking about. So they should exercise meticulous word-care – and not talk too much. I often think that books of theology should contain occasional blank pages, to signal the reader to pause, in silence and wonder. There will be no theology in the eschaton. Before the divine doxa, we will confess, with St Thomas, “All my work is like straw.” Karl Barth famously said that when he gets to heaven he will seek out Mozart before Calvin. Quite right – and presumably he spoke to Calvin only to compare errors. Me – I’ll be heading for the choir of angels, to find Sandy Koufax, to see how he made the baseball sing.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Kathryn Tanner

Last week, Kathryn Tanner presented the 2007 Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. She gave six lectures on the theme “Christ as Key” – and, luckily for the rest of us, three of those good-hearted Princeton bloggers joined forces to offer detailed reports of the entire series. David, Chris and WTM each wrote posts on two of the lectures, so that the whole series was covered with impressive thoroughness. Here’s the list of posts, one on each lecture:

1. “In the Image of the Invisible” (Monday, 19 March)
2. “Grace Without Nature” (Tuesday, 20 March)
3. “Trinitarian Life” (Tuesday, 20 March)
4. “Kingdom Come” (Wednesday, 21 March)
5. “Death and Sacrifice” (Thursday, 22 March)
6. “Workings of the Spirit” (Thursday, 22 March)

It’s well worth reading all this – I for one wish I’d been there to hear the lectures. In my view, Kathryn Tanner is one of the best theologians working in the Reformed tradition today – she has both a profound grasp of the dogmatic tradition and an acute sensitivity to the contemporary theological situation. If you’ve never read her books like Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity and Theories of Culture and Economy of Grace, then you’re really missing something special. Let’s hope that these lectures on Christ as Key make it to print soon too.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Conference: Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture

In November, the Australasian Theological Forum will be hosting its sixth “Task of Theology Today Colloquium.” This year’s conference is entitled “Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture,” and it will be held in Canberra from 23 to 26 November 2007.

The keynote speakers are Francis Watson (who will present two papers: “Hermeneutics and the Doctrine of Scripture” and “Towards a Theological Evaluation of Non-Canonical Gospels”), Terence Fretheim (who will speak on “Biblical Authority and Problematic Old Testament Images of God”), and William Loader (who will speak on “Approaching the New Testament as Source of Faith and Witness to Faith”).

There will also be a series of workshop-style electives organised around the three themes of “Practising Exegesis,” “The Creed and the Bible,” and “Current Research.” And there will be a public forum discussing the use of authoritative scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The conference website isn’t up yet, but you can download a brochure here, which includes details for registration and submission of abstracts. I’m sure it will be an excellent event – perhaps I’ll see you there!

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Acknowledging Google

It’s always interesting to read a book’s acknowledgements. One of the most humorous and most honest acknowledgements that I’ve seen recently is in the preface to Fergus Kerr’s excellent new book, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (Blackwell, 2007). Kerr concludes his preface with the remark: “I cannot resist adding a word of thanks to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of the Internet search engine Google, without which my claims to learning would be even more tenuous” (p. ix).

Friday, 23 March 2007

Journal of Theological Interpretation

The biblical studies publisher, Eisenbrauns, has launched an exciting new journal: the Journal of Theological Interpretation.

The JTI is edited by Joel B. Green, and its task is to explore the question, “How might we engage interpretively with the Christian Scriptures so as to hear and attend to God’s voice?” The journal’s first issue is due to appear shortly, and I’ve been reading an advance copy – it really does look like an excellent and exciting new project.

In his editorial introduction, entitled “The (Re-)Turn to Theology,” Joel Green notes that theological interpretation of Scripture is concerned with the function of Scripture in the Christian church. “Theological interpretation emphasizes the potentially mutual influence of Scripture and doctrine in theological discourse and, then, the role of Scripture in the self-understanding of the church and in critical reflection on the church’s practices” (p. 2). And Green sets out the journal’s agenda in a series of challenging questions (p. 3):

  • What is the status of the theological tradition, including the tradition of biblical interpretation, in theological interpretation today?
  • What is the role of history and historical criticism in theological interpretation?
  • What is the status and role of the OT in the two-testament canonical Scriptures?
  • What is the place of exegesis in theological method?
  • What is the nature of the “unity” of Scripture?
  • What is the role of the canon in theological interpretation?
  • Does theological interpretation extract theological claims or principles from the Bible?
The articles in this inaugural issue begin to tackle such questions head-on. Richard B. Hays proposes that faith is the epistemological precondition for reading Scripture; Murray Rae explores the phenomenon of hermeneutical plurality; Michael Rynkiewich argues that the local church needs to develop its own specific contextual hermeneutic for the interpretation of Scripture; Christine Helmer proposes that the unity of the biblical canon is anticipatory, and that both unity and multivalence can be grasped together through Spirit-filled trust; R. W. L. Moberly defends the validity of reading the OT as Christian Scripture; and (in a particularly fascinating article) Brent Laytham discusses Jesus’ performance of the Scriptures in the Emmaus story (Luke 24) as a theological basis for eucharistic performance.

At a time when more and more biblical specialists and theologians are seeking to make sense of the theological function of Scripture in the church, the JTI has an important niche, and it will no doubt be a welcome addition to the libraries of students and scholars from very diverse disciplines.

The theology of the past

“An explicit judgment, the feeling that for better or for worse we can be ‘finished’ with this or that, always means the closing of a door that ought to remain open, the silencing of a voice that ought to continue to speak…. History writing cannot be a proclamation of judgment…. The condition for a legitimate concern with the theology of the past is rather that we should escape again from the unavoidable intoxication of the moment of our own theological recognition as quickly as possible, and with the utmost speed meet up again with our fathers, with those whose voices we think we have heard often enough before.”

—Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History (London: SCM, 1959), pp. 23-24.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Tom Wright, folk singer

Who would have guessed that Tom Wright was not only an accomplished writer, speaker and bishop, but also (and most importantly) a folk singer?

At the opening of a recent lecture, the Bishop of Durham strapped on an acoustic guitar, and delivered a very nice rendition of Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Brian Brown has the details, and you can listen to both the song and the lecture here.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Ten propositions on the resurrection

by Kim Fabricius

1.     I got me flowers to straw Thy way,
    I got me boughs off many a tree;
    But Thou wast up by break of day,
    And brought’st Thy sweets along with Thee.
    (George Herbert, “Easter”)

The resurrection in propositions? May the poets forgive me!

2. The most prosaic of approaches to the resurrection are those apologetics modelled on courtroom drama: the authors invite the gospel witnesses to take the stand, elicit their testimonies, cross-examine them, explain away any inconsistencies or contradictions, dismiss the counter-evidence – and the defence rests: that Christ is risen is beyond reasonable doubt. But Rowan Williams objects – and the objection is sustained: “As far as the historical question goes, it is clear that the scholarly analysis of the resurrection narratives has not yielded a single compelling resolution to the numerous difficulties that the texts pose.”

3. And (to switch metaphors from the courtroom to the operating theatre) were the operation successful, the patient would be dead on the table. How so? Because the resurrection is “a paraphrase of the word ‘God’” (Karl Barth) – and God is ultimate mystery. God is no deus ex machina who, in raising Jesus from the dead, provides dramatic closure, or, for that matter, secures a happy ending.

    It was by negatives I learnt my place.
    The garden went on growing and I sensed
    A sudden breeze that blew across my face.
    Despair returned but now it danced, it danced.
    (Elizabeth Jennings, “The Resurrection”)

4. Am I saying that the resurrection was not an historical event? That depends. If your understanding of “historical” is based on the famous criteria of Ernst Troeltsch – probability, relativity, and analogy – then, no, it was not an historical event. But why, asks Wolfhart Pannenberg, accept these criteria? Why accept a definition of history that rules out, ab initio, the singular and unique (and its presupposition of an ontology incarcerated in immanence)? Why, pace Bultmann (who here follows Troeltsch), indeed. Yet Pannenberg also maintains that the conventions of modern historiography, including its procedures of proof, can successfully be applied to the appearances of the risen Jesus, such that we can infer the resurrection from the evidence. And this is where I part company with Pannenberg and join Barth. The resurrection is historical – i.e. it happened in space and time – but it is not historically demonstrable. The resurrection is, in principle, historically falsifiable, but not historically verifiable. With Moltmann, its verification can only be eschatological.

5. “The point of the appearances is precisely the arising of faith in the Risen One. He did not show himself to everyone, he did not become an object of neutral observation. Nor can one say that the appearances presupposed faith in him. Rather, those to whom they occurred became believers.” True, “in every case knowledge of Jesus is presupposed, and that means that the question of faith has already been raised…. But the witness of faith is recognised only when one accepts his witness in faith” (Gerhard Ebeling).

6. Was the tomb empty? Of course! Not least because “no Jew would have used the word ‘resurrection’ to describe an afterlife in which the physical body was left to the grave” (George Caird). The (liberal) notion of a “spiritual” resurrection is irredeemably docetic. It is the perishable, corruptible physical body that must put on immortality (I Cor. 15:53). Nor should we miss the gnostic understanding of creation – and the new creation – that is implicit in a Jesus who is risen only in our hearts – or, for that matter, in the kerygma (Bultmann). “Let us not mock God with metaphor”:

    Make no mistake: if He rose at all
    it was as His body;
    if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
         reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
    the Church will fall.
    (John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter”)

7. I sense the same docetism in those who would elide the resurrection with the cross. It is quite true that the resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory, not the abrogation of the cross but its inner meaning. So Jüngel is quite right to say that “the message of the resurrection does not cancel the logos tou staurou but gives it its proper weight.” But he is quite wrong to conclude that the resurrection is not a discrete event subsequent to the crucifixion. Von Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday stands as a warning to such a collapse of Easter Sunday into Good Friday. And so too is I. H. Marshall’s recent insistence on the importance of the resurrection, as well as the cross, in a truly biblical theology of the atonement.

8. It is characteristic for the risen Christ to greet his disciples with the word shalom: “Peace be with you!” He calms their fear – of retribution, perhaps? After all, these were the men who, despite their protestations of loyalty, had abandoned their master to his fate. Perhaps now it was payback time for their betrayal? And what of Caiaphas and Pilate and all who had connived in the murder of Jesus – might we not expect a risen Terminator: “I’ll be back – and this time it’s personal”? Christian pacifists are often accused of arguing their case from the Crucified who refuses the way of violence. But the power of pacifism equally comes from the Risen One who refuses the way of vengeance. “Jesus is judge because he is victim; and that very fact means that he is a judge who will not condemn” (Rowan Williams).

    So let us love, deare Love, like as we ought,
    – Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
    (Edmund Spenser, “Easter Sunday”)

9. The risen Christ meets no one without calling them to witness and service. The meaning is in the mission. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus leads to two missions. Did you ever notice that, according to Matthew (28:11), it is the soldiers, professional killers, who first bring news of the events at the tomb to Jerusalem – to the chief priests, who then bribe them and commission them to spread a lie about what had happened (28:12-15)? By contrast, in the closing verses (28:16-20), Jesus commissions the disciples to make more disciples, teaching them what they had learned from Jesus (in particular, Ulrich Luz suggests, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount). Lies and violence, very lucrative – that is the one mission. Truth and peace, very costly – that is the other mission. On this mission, the risen Christ said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

10. Finally eschatology (of course!) – or doxology. “Jesus,” says Robert Jenson, “is risen into the future that God has for his creatures. What certain persons saw after his death was a reality of that future.” Which is another way of saying that Jesus is risen into the glory of God. The resurrection is, as it were, the coming attractions of the Coming Attraction, the human being fully alive who is the glory of God (Irenaeus).

         In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
    I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
    This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
              Is immortal diamond.
    (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire”)

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Translucent to God

“Jesus of Nazareth is the face of God turned toward us in history, decisively and definitively. All this life is God’s act. The church did not invent the doctrine of the Incarnation: slowly and stumblingly, Christians discovered it. If Jesus is translucent to God in all he does and is, if he is empty so as to pour out the riches of God, if he is the wellspring of life and grace, what then? He is God: in infancy, in death, in eating and drinking, in healing and preaching…. [H]e is there for all, because he has made himself God’s ‘space,’ God’s room in the world…. God and humanity are knotted together there in that space of history, those short years in Palestine, so that that history is the sign that interprets all history.”

—Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1994), p. 60.

Talking about Christ

Aaron notes that I’ll be giving a talk on christology to a group of Anglican laypeople here in Brisbane tomorrow night – so if you’re in the area, you’re welcome to come along and join us.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Kim Fabricius, nuclear madness, and the BBC

In the UK, as you’ll know, the House of Commons has approved the government’s plan (in defiance of international law) to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system.

Our own theological pacifist, Kim Fabricius, was on BBC radio this morning, debating the ethics of nuclear deterrence with an Anglican priest (who offers the frightening argument that weapons of mass destruction might help to usher in God’s kingdom).

It’s an appropriately heated and vigorous discussion – you can catch it online here (starting about 7 minutes into the programme).

Chesterton on Aquinas

“Indeed, I think there are fewer people now alive who understand argument than there were twenty or thirty years ago; and St Thomas might have preferred the society of the atheists of the early nineteenth century, to that of the blank sceptics of the early twentieth. Anyhow, one of the real disadvantages of the great and glorious sport, that is called argument, is its ordinate length. If you argue honestly, as St Thomas always did, you will find that the subject sometimes seems as if it would never end…. Being himself resolved to argue, to honestly, to answer everybody, to deal with everything, he produced books enough to sink a ship or stock a library.”

—G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1943), p. 100.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Herbert McCabe: Faith within Reason

Herbert McCabe, Faith within Reason, ed. Brian Davies (London: Continuum, 2007), 173 pp.

Reviewed by Kim Fabricius


Here is the latest collection of unpublished papers of the late Herbert McCabe, and what a treat it is. The combination of crystal logic, sparkling wit, and interrogative fides quaerens intellectum, deeply informed by Aquinas and richly modulated by Wittgenstein, are again on bravura display. McCabe was rather slipshod about his own work – we learn in the Forward by Denys Turner “how the first page of Herbert’s celebrated lecture on the politics of John’s gospel was eventually retrieved from his shoe where it was plugging a leaky sole” – so we must be immensely grateful to Brian Davies for his labour of retrieval.

McCabe defines theology as “thinking about what God has told us,” and, following Thomas, sees theology as a practical matter. Reason serves revelation properly (a) when it tests church doctrine to make sure that it is about God’s love and does not degenerate into a test of confessional loyalty, and (b) when it is concerned with human well-being. Wisdom is basically en-lightened common sense

“A Very Short Introduction to Aquinas” is just what it says on the tin (a mere eighteen pages), but it is packed with goodies. “Thomas Aquinas thought that theologians don’t know what they are talking about,” McCabe says. “He was, I suppose, the most agnostic theologian in the Western Christian tradition.” McCabe gives a helpful thumbnail sketch of Aquinas on virtue ethics, making clear that Aquinas believed that the foundation of Christian morality is our friendship with God. In turn, human society, when it is functioning rightly, is a community of friends. McCabe provocatively describes Aquinas as the first Whig (though, knowing McCabe, he might have said Marxist), declaring that he “would undoubtedly have welcomed the welfare state.” And how’s this for a great “Did you know?”: “Aquinas says in one place that separation from God by sin has so distorted our emotional life that we do not enjoy sex enough.”

Then there is “Forgiveness”. It must be a sermon. And, boy, does McCabe nail grace. How’s this for a winsome start: “It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve.... You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like this at all.” In fact this image of a punitive God is “the view of God as seen from hell,” such that damnation “must be just being fixed in this illusion.” This is the illusion that defines the sinner. To see that this illusion is an illusion is to recognise that one is a sinner, and in this very self-knowledge one ceases to be a sinner.

This, in short, is McCabe’s take on the prodigal son as he comes to his senses. “The rest of the story is not about the father forgiving his son, it is about the father celebrating.... This is all the real God does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.” So it is not that if we are contrite, God will forgive us our sin. On the contrary, “You confess your sin, recognise yourself for what you are, because you are forgiven.” Thus confession becomes a celebration, where you “come to put on the best robe and the ring on your finger and the sandals on your feet, and to get drunk out of your mind.” Could Barth himself have put the case for grace more vividly?

For a third taster, the outstanding “On Evil and Omnipotence”. McCabe says RIP to the theodicist’s free-will defence, agreeing with Antony Flew that it is “worthless”, but disagreeing why. It is not, as Flew argues, because freedom is not incompatible with determinism – it is, insists McCabe – but rather because there is a mistaken understanding of freedom at work here, namely that God’s activity and ours are in competition, as if (as I would put it) freedom were a zero-sum game. But as McCabe states: “The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.” For the same reason “the famous ‘Argument from Design’ (commonly attributed to William Paley) is a silly one.”

McCabe is also excellent on evil as a privatio boni – and at his best with the funny example. Some people, he writes, assume that when we have described evil as a negation we are saying that evil isn’t real. “But we (or I anyway) do not mean this at all. If I have a hole in my sock, the badness of this consists in the absence of wool where there ought to be some. This does not mean that the badness is illusory or unreal. If I jump out of a plane and discover that I have not got a parachute, it is of no comfort at all to be told that the absence of the parachute is not a real thing at all.”

But McCabe concludes modestly. He hopes to have “disentangled a puzzle,” but “When all is said and done, we are left with an irrational but strong feeling that if we were God we would have acted differently. Perhaps one of his reasons for acting as he did is to warn us not to try to make him in our own image.”

Had I read McCabe two months ago, I would have written my Ten Proposition on Theodicy differently. But that’s just what a readerly tutorial with McCabe on any theme always does: sends you back to theology differently.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Crying nonsense: on the rhetoric of controversy

One thing you can say about those 17th-century theologians: they really knew how to use rhetoric as a weapon of cruelty. Here’s a humorous example for you.

In 1690, Dr William Sherlock (who later became Dean of St Paul’s in London) wrote a book defending the doctrine of the Trinity against the Unitarians. One of Sherlock’s former friends, Robert South (Canon of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford), was also an orthodox trinitarian; but he disliked Sherlock’s defence of orthodoxy, so he wrote a book attacking Sherlock. The title was Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock’s Book Entitled A Vindication of the Holy and Ever Blessed Trinity (London, 1693).

After hundreds of pages of bitter criticism, South offers this humorous depiction of Sherlock’s rhetoric (p. 370): “But above all, that beloved word, Nonsense, is always ready at hand with him; and out it flies at all Persons and upon all Occasions. And hardly can he write three or four Pages together, but, right or wrong, he throws it in his Adversary’s Face. One would think that he was Born with the Word in his Mouth, and that it grew up with him from his Infancy, and that in his very Cradle he Cryed Nonsense, before he could Speak it.”

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Here and there

Over at Levellers, Michael talks about theology and popular culture, and he also interviews our friend Patrik. Halden reviews one of my favourite little theology books, Robert W. Jenson’s Story and Promise (which will, mirabile dictu, soon be coming back into print), while Michael Jensen talks about Rowan Williams’ view of “orthodoxy”. Guy Davies highlights some issues in conservative Reformed dogmatics; and for those who’ve purchased Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Chris Rice presents the CD challenge.

Meanwhile, David Congdon asks whether science could ever disprove Christian belief, while LeRon Shults asks why Radical Orthodoxy is more popular in America than in northern Europe. Aaron points out that a new issue of the Australian EJournal of Theology has been released (including an article on Karl Rahner’s trinitarian theology); and Chris alerts us to an interesting new book on christology by Oliver Crisp.

Finally, the ever-cheeky Chris Tilling responds to my Bultmann poem with his own humorous poem, which includes some interesting rhymes:

    You see, in an age of electricity and light switches,
    Those stories of angels and demons left him in stitches,
    And so he pursued a course of demythologising,
    But his results were for some unpleasantly surprising.


I don’t know about you, but that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a rhyme on “demythologising” (I suppose “agonising” would be another option)….

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Ten propositions on sin

by Kim Fabricius

1. Reinhold Niebuhr famously described original sin as the one empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. Niebuhr was wrong. We know whence his statement gets its intuitive purchase: the omnipresent reality of self-alienation and social disorder. But sin is a theologoumenon, and, like all theologoumena, it is a matter of faith, not disinterested observation. To be specific, sin is a matter of faith because, definitively, it is a disruption between human beings and God – and the knowledge of God is itself a matter of faith.

2. What is the nature of this disruption? The fundamental form of sin is disobedience. “The Lord God commanded…” (Genesis 2:16) – and our paradisal parents did not do as they were told – for their own good. They transgressed the “Thou shalt not,” they trespassed on the Edenic orchard. As Paul typologically interprets Genesis 2 in Romans 6, the key terms are Adam’s παράβασις and παρακοή and, in contrast, Christ’s ύπακοή. It is precisely as the obedient one that Jesus is the sinless one.

3. Do I take the story of the “fall” in Genesis 2 to be “history”? No more than I take the three-story universe of Genesis 1 to be “science”. So the story of the fall isn’t true? Don’t be silly! Only a discredited positivism would reduce truth to the “facts” of history and science, quite apart from the issues of contructivism and perspectivism. Robert Jenson disagrees. He takes Adam and Eve to be actual hominids, “the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God’s command.” Jenson’s target is an idealist understanding of the fall as a “myth”, but his palaeo-anthropological alternative is, in my view, a category mistake. The fall is neither a timeless idea nor a chronological moment but a pre-historical narrative disclosure of the way it is with you and me. The fall is a foil to the history of humanity.

4. The fall-as-foil forestalls two other errors. First, “The Bible knows no ‘sinless man’ and consequently no state of innocence” (Claus Westermann, citing H. Haag); thus the fall “is not a fall in the sense that man after has become anything else than man was before” (Bruce Vawter). Brueggemann observes that there is no “pre-commandment” human being; neither is there a pre-disobedient human being. And, second, the story of the fall is not an aetiological narrative; that is, it is not an explanation of sin. Sin is sure – and sin is a surd: irrational, non-necessary, inexplicable. Kierkegaard, that great anatomist of sin, is our teacher here.

5. After disobedience, there are several contenders for the clown crown of foundational sin. Unbelief and pride feature prominently in the history of harmatology. Karl Barth, the theologian of grace, appropriately accents ingratitude. In Thomas Mann’s disturbing retelling of the Faust legend Doctor Faustus, the satanic counter-commandment is “Thou shalt not love.” And to add to the witches’ brew, consider Augustine’s take on sin as disordered desire (concupiscentia), and Luther’s take on the sinner as homo incurvatus in se.

6. A word on “total depravity”. Calvin’s doctrine develops Augustine and Luther’s insight that we are (in Alistair McFadyen’s incisive wordplay) “bound to sin”. It is both polemical and dogmatic. Polemically, it is an attack on Origen’s platonic privileging of the mind, and Erasmus’ privileging of the will, over against the “lower appetites”. Thus does Calvin correctly interpret the Pauline category of sarx. Dogmatically, total depravity “means, not that there is no capacity for good in human beings, but that no human activity is altogether blameless”; “no privileged area of the personality can be depended on for salvation” (William J. Bouwsma). As grace goes all the way down in God, so sin goes all the way through and up in humans.

7. A Pauline anatomy of sin must also observe a crucial distinction between sin and sins. Paul’s fundamental harmatological category is not sins as moral failures but sin as alien and enslaving power that foments sins. Consequently Paul almost never speaks of the forgiveness of sins, rather he speaks of sin’s defeat and conquest – by Jesus Christ. Indeed that is how we gauge just how radical and universal sin actually is: it takes the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ to break it. That is, it takes grace to reveal the human condition. As E. P. Sanders puts it: Paul “deduced the plight from the solution.”

8. You know the phrase “ugly as sin”? Whenever I think of it I picture Duccio’s “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain” with its nightmarish figure of the devil. I also catch a whiff of Luther’s shitty Satan. But how could the utterly repulsive be so totally tempting? Consider, then, the film The Devil’s Advocate (1997), in which Al Pacino plays a Lucifer whose attractiveness contributes as much as his corporate clout to his persuasiveness. His text might come from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” Sin is no Ugly Betty.

9. On the other hand, the devil is a liar. He makes sin seem so exciting, both as lust and lure to power. “Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing,” C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood. In fact, sin itself always turns out to be unoriginal, recycled, predictable, dead boring – the Same Old Thing. But Satan is so streetwise that, like gullible teenagers or old folk with bad memories, we are always falling for his provocative promises. Thus W. C. Fields on original sin: “A sucker is born every minute.” By the way, one of the best antidotes to temptation is a sense of humour. Like all tyrants, the devil insists on being taken seriously, so take the piss and remove the sting.

10. Finally, a crucial pastoral point, based on an acute theological insight, which Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger puts powerfully and succinctly: “The paradox of the knowledge of human sin is that human beings can ultimately know themselves as sinners only in the light of forgiveness. Known sin as such, Barth argues, is always finally forgiven sin. We cannot fully perceive ourselves as sinners, he suggests, apart from Jesus Christ.” Which is why repentance “cannot possibly perpetuate debilitating shame”; rather, as a homecoming, it is ultimately an act of sheer joy.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Rudolf Bultmann

In the shadows of high shelves you sat in heavy silence,
reading old Greek books and smiling
grimly.
You seemed so still, an unmoved mover
in your airless German office,
but you were poised on that fixed point
between the weight of other people’s centuries and the burden
of the moment.

Then at last with happy seriousness, like a child
playing with matches,
you took those legends, myths, pious certainties,
and placed them neatly on the floor, arranged them
by strict principles.
With cries of protest deafening your ears,
with fists pounding the door, you calmly
set them alight
and watched them burn, hoping
that from those ashes would spring
that fragile phoenix (so ancient and so new)
of faith in him who hides himself, but
tears time, splits graves, and strips
existence to the bone
when he pulls back the veil.

2007 Gifford Lectures

Stephen Pattison has presented the 2007 Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen. His lectures were entitled “Seeing Things: From Mantelpieces to Masterpieces,” and they focus on the challenge of altering the way we conceive of vision and our relationship to visual artefacts. The titles of the six lectures are: “Ordinary blindness”; “Touching sight”; “Sticky objects”; “Getting personal”; “Drawing near”; and “Loving things.”

As always, the lectures will eventually be published. But for a limited time, the full texts of the six lectures can be downloaded here.

Thanks to Philip Ziegler of Aberdeen for letting me know about this.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Hans Urs von Balthasar and beauty

“Balthasar’s theological aesthetics begins with ‘beauty’…. That which appears in the beauty of natural and created forms is the glory of being, der Glanz des Seins. It speaks of the mystery of that which transcends and yet inheres in all existents. Consequently, aesthetics is not just one department of knowledge, which in relative independence of others constitutes a relatively autonomous discipline. When one sees the beauty of a person, a work of art, or a sunset, one is confronted at the same time with the mystery of its otherness. This sense of the wonder of beauty, Balthasar believes, is at the root of all serious metaphysical endeavor.”

—Louis Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 122.

Barth in haiku

Over at Living Wittily, Jim Gordon offers a very nice series of Barthian haiku, including this one:

Neo-orthodox,
Theological donkey –
Karl spells out the Word

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer: Karl Barth and divine subjectivity

Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer, Subjektivität und Selbstinterpretation des dreifaltigen Gottes: Eine Studie zur Genese und Explikation des Paradigmas “Selbstoffenbarung Gottes” in der Theologie Karl Barths (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2002), 637 pp. (with thanks to Aschendorff for a review copy)

This big and ambitious book on the Subjektivität und Selbstinterpretation des dreifaltigen Gottes (“The Subjectivity and Self-Interpretation of the Triune God”) explores Karl Barth’s conception of divine self-revelation in the context of the modern problem of human freedom. Menke-Peitzmeyer rightly notes that the concept of divine self-revelation is really “the great theme of 20th-century theology” (p. 555), and he argues that the notion of the absolute subjectivity of God in his self-revelation is central to Barth’s entire theological project.

It was Hegel who bequeathed to modern theology the themes of absolute subjectivity and self-revelation. In taking up these Hegelian themes, Barth was trying to overcome some of the intellectual dead-ends that had been inherent in the Enlightenment understanding of subjectivity and freedom. And according to Menke-Peitzmeyer, Barth’s own account was developed both (negatively) through his critique of Schleiermacher, and (positively) through his reception of Anselm.

Menke-Peitzmeyer agrees with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s judgment that Barth “comes from” Schleiermacher: “Schleiermacher was for Barth what Plato was for the thinkers of the Renaissance, what Spinoza was for Herder and Goethe, what Schopenhauer was for Nietzsche” (p. 40; citing Balthasar, p. 199). Drawing creatively on Anselm’s thought, however, Barth sought to turn Schleiermacher’s problematic on its head, so that human subjectivity would now be grounded in the subjectivity of God. While (in Barth’s view) Schleiermacher risked turning divine freedom into a predicate of human subjectivity, Barth now reversed this problem by making human freedom a “predicate of God” (p. 48). For Menke-Peitzmeyer, however, the critical question is whether this approach really resolves the Enlightenment problem of freedom, or whether it simply “leads to new aporias” (p. 48). And he argues that Barth’s view in fact creates a new (and equally disastrous) aporia within the same basic Enlightenment paradigm. Thus Barth “misses his goal of extracting theology … from the ‘Logos’ of modernity” (p. 48).

At the core of this critique is the claim that Barth’s account of divine subjectivity finally eliminates human freedom. “The incarnation of God as evidence of God’s freedom for humanity turns out to be evidence of God’s freedom instead of that of humanity.” And this means that the human agent “appears as a puppet in the divine plan of salvation” (p. 388). Ultimately, then, in Barth’s theology there is “no free relationship between God and humanity at all” (pp. 388-89). Instead of the Enlightenment displacement of divine freedom, Barth reverses the process and so leaves us with “the elimination of human freedom” (p. 415).

Menke-Peitzmeyer argues that this “elimination of human freedom” was not a necessary component of Barth’s account of the divine subjectivity in CD I/1. At the early stage of Barth’s dogmatic project, he could still have avoided this aporia. But it is in the doctrine of election (CD II/2) that the aporia becomes necessary and inevitable. Further, Barth’s doctrine of election eliminates genuine divine freedom as well.

In CD II/2, Menke-Peitzmeyer argues, the predestination of Jesus Christ and of humanity becomes the condition for the existence of an immanent Trinity. This means that it becomes impossible to think of God as freely acting in salvation-history. Menke-Peitzmeyer thus raises a series of pointed questions: “Is there a material difference between the immanent Trinity (and thus the self-constitution of God), and predestination as part of the self-interpretation of God – in which case predestination becomes a contingent act of God? Or is the immanent Trinity nothing other than the carrying-out of predestination? Or more sharply still: Is the immanent Trinity, for Barth, identical to God’s eternal (and supralapsarian) decree of the incarnation?” (p. 416). These questions, he insists, are of great importance, since the freedom both of God and of humanity is at stake. “If there is an identity between the immanent Trinity and predestination, that is, between God’s self-constitution and God’s self-development (or self-interpretation), … then there would be no room for a free salvation-event between God and humanity, and thus the importance of this event would be marginalised” (pp. 416-17).

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this argument is the way it intersects with the current North American controversy surrounding Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth. According to McCormack, God’s triunity is a function of the divine election; it is the act of God’s decision to be God-for-us that constitutes God as triune. Menke-Peitzmeyer offers a very similar reading of the inner logic of Barth’s doctrine of election – although he concludes that this position radically compromises God’s freedom. Presumably this conclusion is not a necessary one, however, since McCormack’s own interpretation rests on exactly the opposite vision of God’s freedom. For McCormack, the thesis that triunity is a function of election is precisely an affirmation of God’s lordly freedom: in his freedom, God is Lord even over his own being and essence.

In any case, according to Menke-Peitzmeyer’s argument, Barth’s doctrine of election finally amounts to “a self-manipulation of the divine love, which avoids the risk of salvation-history and thus the actual dialectical tension of the relationship between infinite and finite freedom.” In place of this dialectical tension, Barth constructs “an a priori synthesis” of divine and human freedoms (p. 547). Ultimately, then, Barth does justice “neither to the freedom of God nor to human freedom” (p. 585).

Against Barth, Menke-Peitzmeyer proposes that we should speak of “the absolute subjectivity of God as the self-interpretation of the triune God”; and this means speaking “both of the self-constitution of the triune God in his immanence, and of God’s self-development in history” (p. 586). God’s subjectivity “manifests itself in God’s immanent self-interpretation, which is carried out in the epiphenomena of salvation-history” (p. 547).

In this whole argument, Menke-Peitzmeyer is following critics like Pannenberg, Trutz Rendtorff, and Peter Eicher, who have argued that Barth’s theology remains ensnared in the fundamental problems of modernity. While among Anglo-American scholars today, there is an increasing tendency to see Barth as an advocate of Chalcedonian christology and evangelical orthodoxy, certain scholars in Germany have continued to advance radical critiques of Barth’s theological project, and have continued to argue that Barth’s theological ontology is systemically flawed. In particular, scholars influenced by Rendtorff and Pannenberg (whose opposition to Barth is fundamental) have argued that Barth’s response to the Enlightenment is inadequate, and that Barth’s account of divine and human freedom is incoherent.

On the one hand, then, Menke-Peitzmeyer’s book is of great value precisely because it so clearly embodies and develops this radical German reading of Barth. On the other hand, however, Menke-Peitzmeyer’s critique suffers acutely from its isolation from major developments in recent English-language scholarship. To mention the two most important examples: John Webster’s meticulous work on divine and human agency poses a systematic challenge to this interpretation of Barth; and Bruce McCormack’s groundbreaking work on Barth’s genetic development poses fundamental problems to Menke-Peitzmeyer’s rather schematic depiction of Barth’s early development as a straightforward negotiation between Schleiermacher and Anselm.

But in spite of these problems, it would be a mistake to dismiss Menke-Peitzmeyer’s argument out of hand. His critique is based on a painstakingly close and patient reading of Barth, and on a deep wrestling with the internal grammar of Barth’s dogmatics. He rightly perceives that, for Barth, the most important and far-reaching dogmatic decisions are made not in the prolegomenon (CD I/1) but in the doctrine of election (CD II/2) – and he rightly perceives that Barth’s doctrine of election is aimed at nothing less than an entire ontology of divine and human agency. Even if this book’s conclusions are ultimately unconvincing, then, they still provide a vigorous and welcome challenge to the complacency of our (sometimes all too easy) “orthodox” readings of Barth.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Benedict XVI and Bob Dylan

Back in 1997, John Paul II invited Bob Dylan to perform in Bologna, before the Pope delivered his sermon to the crowd of 300,000 people. According to Dylan, “That show was one of the best I ever played in my whole life.”

In a new book, however, Benedict XVI expresses his dissatisfaction with this publicity stunt. Bob Dylan, he says, “had a message completely different from that to which the Pope was committed. There was reason to be sceptical – which I was, and in a certain sense still am – to doubt whether it was really right to involve ‘prophets’ of this type.” (You can get the whole story here or here.)

I guess it looks like Dylan won’t be getting any more invitations from the Vatican any time soon – as one of his songs puts it, “You know it’s not even safe no more in the palace of the Pope.”

Still, if he really is a “prophet,” then it’s probably too bad for us if our message is “completely different” from his. In any case, though, let’s let Dylan have the last word on the matter:

    But I know I ain’t no prophet
    And I ain’t no prophet’s son.
    I’m just a long time a-comin’
    And I’ll be a long time gone.

Who is Kim Fabricius?

Kim’s posts here always attract a lot of attention, and I occasionally get emails asking: “Who is this Kim Fabricius person, anyway?” To answer that question, I’ve just expanded this page with a picture of Kim and some info about his background. And stay tuned for more of his provocative “propositions” soon....

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Making the gospel difficult

“Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities.... And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.”

—Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 236.

Four-year-old theology: prayer

Yesterday my four-year-old daughter erupted into a loud and vibrant song about prayer:

    If I need anything
    I can just pray to God;
    He might do it His way,
    But He still gives me what I want,
    Oh yeah, still gives me what I want.


Sounds pretty good to me.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

New journal articles

Some exciting new journal articles were published this week.

The new issue of Dialog 46:1 (2007) includes Robert W. Jenson’s excellent piece, “A Theological Autobiography, To Date” (pp. 46-54), along with a series of articles on Luther and Paul (including David Brondos’ humorously-titled essay, “Did Paul Get Luther Right?”). Dialog also includes an article about one of my favourite films: Jan-Olav Henriksen, “Grace – and Lack Thereof: A Different Angle on the Horrible and Unrepresentable in Polanski’s The Pianist” (pp. 55-65).

The latest New Blackfriars 88:1014 (March 2007) is a special issue devoted to “contemporary perspectives on the eucharist.” Among several others, there are essays by Nicholas Lash, “Traveller’s Fare” (pp. 128-41), Timothy Radcliffe, “Eucharist: Sign of Inclusion or Exclusion” (pp. 158-69), and Eamon Duffy, “Benedict XVI and the Eucharist” (pp. 195-212).

Meanwhile, the Journal of Religious Ethics 35:1 (2007) includes Roger Gustavsson’s massive paper, “Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe and the Barthian Outlook: A Few Observations” (pp. 25-86).

And – in case you thought journals were simply filled with dry academic discussion – Zygon 42:1 (2007) includes a poem by my new friend Christopher Southgate, entitled “Crick, Watson, and the Double Helix” (pp. 257-58).

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Ten propositions on the Holy Spirit

by Kim Fabricius

1. Two’s company, three’s a crowd: pneumatology has always been the odd “ology” out in trinitarian thought. In the Nicene Creed (325), the third article is so minimalist it’s almost a footnote. Only in the aftermath of Nicaea, mainly as a result of Basil of Caesarea duking it out with the Pneumatomachi, did the Holy Spirit get some extended creed cred at Constantinople in 381. Then there was the domestic bust-up between East and West over the filioque clause from the 9th century, leading to the messy divorce of 1054. In the 20th century the Pentecostal and charismatic movements foregrounded the Spirit in the Western church, but, again, not without controversy. No doubt about it: while often rather anonymous, the Spirit is a holy troublemaker.

2. The Holy Spirit is God. By “appropriation,” after a nod to creation, we tend to associate the Spirit with ecclesiology, and also with anthropology – the Spirit within us (as in Calvin’s “testimonium internum”) and among us (as in John V. Taylor’s “Go-Between”). And that’s okay, indeed crucial – as long as there is no collapse into immanentism. But immanence is always ominously imminent: witness the pervasive influence of Kantian and Hegelian idealism, the historicism and subjectivism of liberal theology, and the ecclesiomonistic preoccupations of much postliberal theology. The Holy Spirit must never be confused with, collapsed into, or commandeered by the human spirit or the church. The Holy Spirit is God.

3. What about the filioque? Too much ink, let alone blood, has already been spilt on this contested issue for me to add to it. There are good biblical as well as patristic grounds for positions both pro and contra. The pneumatological advantages of a double procession include: a stress on the Spirit as personal being rather than impersonal force, a specific (Christological) content and criterion for discerning the spirits, a guard against lapsing into natural theology, pantheism, and fuzzy mysticism. The pneumatological advantages of a single procession include: an assurance of the cosmic and global sweep of the Sprit’s activity, a break on Christomonism, a bulwark against dualism, modalism, and subordinationism. Of course the Western church, with its unilateral action, must take most of the blame for the Great Divorce. In my view, it should now retake the initiative, this time in reconciliation, with the widely accepted ecumenical formula that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father through the Son.”

4. Is the Holy Spirit feminine? Don’t be silly! None of the Trinitarian personae is gendered. And I’m afraid the Fathers would smile at any sisters (and brothers) who think they thought otherwise. Thus the idea that taking the Spirit to be feminine would provide a maternal balance to masculine and patriarchal Father-Son imagery rests on a mistake at source, quite misunderstanding the nature of trinitarian imagery and theological language. The intention of revisionists is to achieve a balanced differentiation, and thus transcendence, of the sexes in God, but I wonder if it doesn’t rather just sex him/her up, misleading the church into a kind of Canaanite captivity. The Holy Spirit is neither he, she, nor it. The Holy Spirit is God.

5. And God is who God is in God’s acts. What, then, does the Holy Spirit do? In the Old Testament, the Spirit is the divine dynamo that quickens life, empowers people, and inspires prophets. In the (synoptic) gospels, the Spirit quickens, empowers, and inspires Jesus. It is Luke, in particular, who highlights the intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and Jesus – in his birth, his baptism, his temptations, his Nazareth manifesto, his healings, his prayer-life, his passion – to which Paul adds his resurrection. Colin Gunton emphasises the role of the Spirit as “the mediator of the Son’s relation to the Father in both time and eternity,” as the source of the “otherness and particularity” of Jesus, and as the agent of his freedom and obedience. “The Spirit,” says Kathryn Tanner, “radiates the humanity of Jesus.” Gunton also stresses that it is the Spirit “who forms a body for the Son.”

6. Eugene F. Rogers picks up this theme in After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (2005), and extends the discussion to the resurrection and ascension – and to Pentecost and beyond. “In the world,” Rogers writes, “the Spirit is not Person or thing, because the Spirit is Person on thing. And the Spirit is Person on thing because the Spirit is Person on Person. The Spirit rests on material bodies in the economy, because she rests on the Son in the Trinity.” Again: “To think about the Spirit it will not do to think ‘spiritually’: to think about the Spirit you have to think materially.” Following Rogers’ trajectory, I would suggest that there are rich pickings here for a political pneumatology: the Spirit of Jubilee who inspires a praxis of liberation and an economy of grace.

7. The church is itself a body-politic, instituted by the ascended Christ, constituted as the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, however, koinos (unclean) is the exact opposite of hagios (holy). And as Jesus crossed cultic boundaries, Paul Avis ventures that “if the Old Testament concept of holiness means separation, the New Testament concept means, even more than ethics, participation.” Which is to say that it is not moral rectitude but the forgiveness of sins – the credal characteristic of the communio sanctorum – that distinguishes the citizenship and embodies the holiness of the church. “There is no greater sinner than the Christian church,” said Luther. Which is why in the ecclesial body-politic, the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer and the practice of mutual confession are the centre of the civics of sanctification.

8. The Holy Spirit gathers the church – in order to send the church. “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning” (Emil Brunner). In his seminal Transforming Mission, David Bosch observes that whereas Paul relates pneumatology primarily to the church, “the intimate linking of pneumatology and mission is Luke’s distinctive contribution to the early church’s missionary paradigm…. For Luke, the concept of the Spirit sealed the kinship between God’s universal will to save, the liberating ministry of Jesus, and the worldwide mission of the church.” Bosch also observes that while the early Fathers focussed on the Spirit “as the agent of sanctification or as the guarantor of apostolicity,” and the Reformers “put the major emphasis on the work of the Spirit as bearing witness to and interpreting the Word of God,” it was only in the twentieth century that there was “a gradual rediscovery of the intrinsic missionary character of the Holy Spirit.”

9. Mission, however, transcends monological evangelism. Missionaries once commonly spoke of “the great unreached.” “Unreached by whom?” I ask. Religious pluralism? On the contrary, (a) I find the exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism paradigm confused and unworkable; and (b) I resist a purely conversionist missiology precisely on the basis of a high Christology, a cosmic pneumatology, and a robust ecclesiology. The Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says, “We know where the church is; it is not for us to judge where the church is not.” Thus the Holy Spirit inspires the church to engage in mission without closure, mission that does not predetermine the divine action, mission practiced as dialogue, a listening as well as a speaking witness. Indeed Rowan Williams (in a fascinating essay “The Finality of Christ”) speaks of a “readiness for dispossession,” warns of the “seductions of ‘totalized’ meaning,” and, trying to break the logjam of the exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism paradigm, points to a Christ that, as the revelation of God, “is God’s question, no more, no less. Being a Christian is being held to that question in such a way that the world of religious discourse may hear it.”

10. The Holy Spirit is the divine glorifier. After Moltmann, both Pannenberg and Robert Jenson find a direct connection between pneumatology and eschatology. Both accord an ontological priority to the future and link it to the Spirit: Pannenberg speaks of the future as God’s mode of being, and Jenson says that “the Spirit is God’s own future that he is looking forward to.” They both seem to bind God’s deity to the perfecting work of the Spirit, which is the apotheosis of creation. Although there are philosophical (Hegelian) problems with this vision, and theological dangers too, there is an awesome boldness, beauty, and grandeur to it. In the eschaton, the Holy Spirit is stage centre, cover of anonymity blown, face-to-face in the faces of all the redeemed in their infinite diversity (Vladimir Lossky). The end is doxology.

Monday, 5 March 2007

People in church

“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Khaled Anatolios: two books on Athanasius

Thanks to Routledge for review copies of these two books:

Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (Routledge Early Church Monographs Series; London: Routledge, 1998; paperback 2005), 258 pp.

Khaled Anatolios (ed.), Athanasius (Early Church Fathers Series; London: Routledge, 2004), 293 pp.

In the first of these two books, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, the brilliant young theologian Khaled Anatolios offers a close analysis of the internal “grammar” of Athanasius’ thought. The study focuses consistently on what Anatolios sees as the centre of coherence in Athanasius’ theology: “the distinction, and simultaneous relation, between God and the world” (p. 3). This is an essentially Irenaean reading of Athanasius, and Anatolios argues that Athanasius is deeply indebted to Irenaeus’ theology (or at least to an Irenaean tradition), with its underlying theme of an immediate relation between God and creation.

Athanasius’ own ontology is based on a conception of “the relationship between God and creation, precisely in the radical opposition of created to uncreated” (p. 31). In his early works, Athanasius developed a fundamental ontological structure which would underpin all his later theology: namely, a structure of convergence between God’s transcendence and nearness. In the act of creating, “God asserts his transcendence over that which he brings into existence from nothing, as well as demonstrating his love which leads him generously to grant existence to what was not” (p. 41).

This view of the convergence between transcendence and immanence shapes Athanasius’ christology. God’s redemptive work in Christ follows the pattern of God’s relationship to the world as creator; it is in Christ that the distance between the world and God is both affirmed and traversed. Likewise, the total otherness between Christ’s two natures is decisively “bridged over” by the initiative of grace (p. 83).

In his mature anti-Arian writings, Athanasius develops his trinitarian theology on the basis of this same structure of transcendence and nearness. At the heart of his doctrine of the Trinity is the idea that “the relation between God and the world is both contained in and superseded by the relation between the Father and the Son” (p. 120). God’s (free and external) creative act is grounded in God’s (necessary and internal) act of generating the Son, so that the relation between God and creation is “contained or ‘enfolded’ within the intra-divine relation of the Father and the Son” (p. 123).

Further, the incarnation of the Word modifies the relationship between God and creation at every point. Indeed, Athanasius is not interested so much in describing the specific constitution of Christ’s person as he is in describing “the new relation between God and creation that is given in Christ” (p. 146). In Christ, the God-world relation is “divinised,” and the christological model of this divinisation is a pattern of God’s (active) “giving” and the creature’s (passive) “receiving.” It is thus precisely God’s “gift” (χάρις) that radically qualifies the distinction and separateness between God and created nature.

If Athanasius conceives of christology in terms of giving and receiving, he also views anthropology in terms of “active passivity” (p. 60) – a passivity in which human agents maintain their proper openness towards the active giving of God. Nevertheless, this account of human passivity does not preclude a strong emphasis on the co-operation between humans and God. The fundamental model of this “synergy” is, for Athanasius, prayer: “Prayer, understood as the invocation of divine presence and assistance, is the human counterpart to the divine power” (p. 186). Prayer is thus active passivity; it is receptivity and openness to the initiative of the divine generosity.

Anatolios concludes his study by proposing that Athanasius’ theology offers a valuable resource for the contemporary theological task of articulating the Christian gospel. He suggests that Athanasius’ model of the relation between divine transcendence and nearness steers a safe course between both the “anthropocentric monism” of Schleiermacher and the “incipient dualism” of Barth. That is, Athanasius’ model “succeeds in affirming both the ineffable, sovereignly free and transcendent being of God (with Barth) and the nearness of this ineffable presence within the human realm (with Schleiermacher)” (p. 209). Even if this account rests on a rather schematic critique of Barth and Schleiermacher, Anatolios has convincingly demonstrated the powerful insight and the continuing dogmatic significance of Athanasius’ ontology.

Furthermore, this very fine study is now complemented by Anatolios’ impressive edition, simply entitled Athanasius. This work brings together new translations of some of Athanasius’ most important writings. There are selections from the Orations against the Arians (pp. 87-175) and Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit (pp. 212-33), together will the full texts of On the Council of Nicaea (pp. 176-211) and Letter 40: To Adelphius (pp. 234-42).

Anatolios introduces each text and provides extensive annotations, and he introduces the whole collection with an excellent overview of Athanasius’ life and thought (pp. 1-86). In this lengthy introductory essay, he emphasises (as in the monograph) the God-world relation as the structuring principle of Athanasius’ theology. But he also places special emphasis on the christological and soteriological character of the relation between God and creation – and he surveys the whole broad terrain of Athanasius’ thought, demonstrating the sharp christological and soteriological concentration of that thought at every point.

Together, these two works by Khaled Anatolios offer a lucid, compelling and richly rewarding account of the thought of the great Egyptian bishop. Anatolios’ deep learning and profound sympathies with his subject make his work an indispensable guide to Athanasius’ theological thought.

From Athanasius

“We know that ‘in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’, and we worship the Word who has become human for our salvation, not as if he has become equal to the body, but as Master taking on the form of a servant, and as the Creator and Maker coming in a creature so that, by granting freedom to all in himself, he might bring the world near to the Father, and make all things to be at peace, things in heaven and on earth.”

—Athanasius, Ad Adelphium 8 (ca. 370 CE).

Friday, 2 March 2007

Richard Bauckham on Jesus' family tomb

Over at Chrisendom, Richard Bauckham has contributed a superb guest-post responding to the recent claims about the discovery of Jesus’ family tomb.

Colin Gunton conference

I’ve just been informed of this day-conference on Colin Gunton: The Triune God in the Theology of Colin E. Gunton. The conference will be held on Monday 10 September 2007, at Spurgeon’s College in London (from 10:30 am to 4:45 pm). There will be four speakers who will present papers on Gunton’s theology:

Robert W. Jenson (Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton)
John E. Colwell (Spurgeon’s College, London)
Stephen R. Holmes (St Mary’s College, St Andrews)
Douglas H. Knight (Birkbeck, London)

With speakers like these, I’m sure it will be an excellent conference – so you might like to go along if you’re in the London area. For further information, contact Terry Wright here.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Paul Helm on Karl Barth

Paul Helm of Regent College has written a critique of Barth’s doctrine of election for a forthcoming volume entitled Karl Barth’s Theology: Collected Critical Perspectives; and he has posted a draft of the essay on his blog.

Helm has done lots of excellent work on philosophical theology and on the history of Christian thought, so it’s interesting to see him attempting to grapple with Barth. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet really penetrated into the structures of Barth’s thought – and his interest in Barth seems to have derived mainly from Bruce McCormack’s essay on election in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (2000).

Bruce McCormack’s interpretation has generated heated debate among Barth specialists. And Helm attempts to weigh into this debate with his own rather heavy-handed philosophical critique: “It is no good saying, with McCormack, that for Barth ‘essence is given in the act of electing, and is, in fact, constituted by that eternal act.’ For necessarily actions have agents. The act of electing must be the action of someone; it cannot be an act of no-one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes the agent as a someone.” Although that seems like a common-sense objection to McCormack (and to Barth), it is in fact a petitio principii – it simply begs the whole question of the relationship between act and being. From one perspective, Barth’s entire theological project could be seen as a challenge to precisely Helm’s common-sense assumption that the agent must precede the act.

In the same way, when Helm objects to Barth’s view of divine freedom, his criticism rests on a theological petitio principii: “It may be granted, with Barth, that God is free in the sense that he is under no obligation to do what he does. But could he have done other than he did? On Barth’s view … it does not seem to be possible.” Again, Barth’s whole theological project could be viewed as a challenge to precisely this assumption that “freedom” entails alternativity of choice, a formal ability to choose between different options. For Barth (as McCormack has rightly emphasised), God is free precisely in his decision to be this particular God. To ask whether God “could have done other than he did” is simply to bypass Barth’s own understanding of what divine freedom is all about.

I enjoyed reading Paul Helm’s paper, and I’m delighted to see that a volume of “critical perspectives” on Barth is being published – this, at any rate, is better than any uncritical repetition of Barth! But an effective critique of Barth’s doctrine of election will have to engage much more deeply with the structures of Barth’s own thought, and will have to take seriously Barth’s own highly distinctive understanding of divine freedom on the one hand, and his highly actualistic understanding of the divine being on the other.

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