Sunday, 29 April 2007

What's wrong with biblical inerrancy?

With biblical inerrancy leading the current poll on “the worst theological invention,” a few people have emailed me to ask if I could explain my own view of biblical authority. I wrote a lot of posts on this topic back in September 2005 – so I thought I’d reproduce two of those posts here, on the Bible’s “authority” and “trustworthiness”:

1. The authority of Scripture

For Christian faith, the Bible is authoritative. But where does this authority come from? What sets this particular book apart from other sources of authority?

In earlier times, theologians often said that the Bible is authoritative because it is “inspired,” or because it has been authored (directly or indirectly) by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible qua text was believed to be qualitatively different from all other texts. According to this theory, the authority of the Bible is purely formal. What the Bible actually says is authoritative only because it is written in this particular book—and this book would still be authoritative no matter what it actually said.

This theory of biblical authority is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it is historically flawed: historical criticism has demonstrated that the Bible qua text is no different from other historical texts—it is just as conditioned and contingent as all other texts. On the other hand, this theory of authority is also theologically flawed. For the important thing about the Bible is precisely what it says. Any theory of inspiration or authority is legitimate only to the extent that it gives primacy to the Bible’s message.

In its text-character, the Bible is no different from other texts. The distinctive thing about the Bible is simply what it says, i.e., its message. And the authority of the Bible comes solely from this message—which means, solely from the gospel.

2. The trustworthiness of Scripture

Christian faith has always confessed that Scripture is trustworthy. But what does this mean? Here again, we need to emphasise that the important thing about Scripture is simply what it says. When we confess that Scripture is trustworthy, we are saying that the message of Scripture is trustworthy, that it is a true and reliable message.

It is especially important here to avoid lapsing into a formalised notion of a trustworthy or “inerrant” text—as though the biblical texts themselves possess miraculous properties. The Bible is trustworthy because its message is trustworthy. It is trustworthy in the way that preaching is trustworthy—and this is, of course, entirely different from the trustworthiness of scientific or historical textbooks. In short, the Bible is a trustworthy witness. It is trustworthy because the one to whom it witnesses is faithful and true.

We can take a further step, then, and affirm that Scripture’s trustworthiness lies “outside itself” (extra se). Its trustworthiness is the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ himself. It is trustworthy because it witnesses to him and proclaims him. We may even use the traditional terminology and say that Scripture is “infallible,” so long as we remember that this “infallibility” lies outside the Bible itself—it is nothing more (or rather, nothing less) than the infallibility of Jesus Christ.

Friday, 27 April 2007

The worst theological invention: egalitarian sub-poll

Some folks have been disappointed that certain theological inventions didn’t make it on to the main poll. So just to show how egalitarian we are here at Faith & Theology, you can now vote in this sub-poll for the most eligible runner-up!

Which of these things do you think should have made it on to the main poll?

Results (from 223 votes):

Penal substitution (24%)
The denial of penal substitution (15%)
Original sin (12%)
God as a male (21%)
Theologians who deny biblical inerrancy (10%)
Theology blogs (especially this one) (4%)
Polls about the worst theological invention (15%)

Thanks for voting!

Understanding postliberal theology

Over at Disruptive Grace, Chris asks us to suggest books “relevant for understanding postliberal theology today.” My top two recommendations are Paul DeHart’s Trial of the Witnesses and Kathryn Tanner’s Theories of Culture. If you want to make any other suggestions, head over to Disruptive Grace.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Voting: the worst theological invention

Thanks for all your nominations for the worst theological invention. There were plenty of thought-provoking and entertaining suggestions, and it has been hard to decide on the finalists. I vetoed some suggestions (e.g. historical criticism, “all forms of Protestantism”) because of my own personal biases; and I vetoed others (e.g. theology blogs, technical terminology) because they hurt my feelings. There were some other good candidates like the prosperity gospel and “the purpose-driven anything” – but these are so embarrassing that I thought it best to pass over them in silence.

There were plenty of close runners-up as well: male headship, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, Christian Zionism, the norm of “sola cultura,” timeless eternity, God as a male, the German language, etc. But alas, we can’t include them all! So here are our seven finalists:

  • Biblical inerrancy
  • Double predestination
  • The rapture
  • Papal infallibility
  • Arianism
  • Christendom (not to be confused with Chrisendom, which is also one of the worst theological inventions...)
  • Just war theory
The poll is now up in the sidebar – so come and cast your vote for the worst theological invention!

Karl Barth and American evangelicalism

In an insightful post, Chris Rice takes up Karl Barth’s critique of 19th-century theology as a guide for critiquing contemporary American evangelicalism.

Old Testament theology

“[M]y image for the Scriptures is to think of them as a photograph album. What the New Testament does is provide us with a new set of pictures. Their subject is the same as that of the preceding set, but they are not identical; they are taken from some new angles in some different light with some different lenses. They therefore tell us more and fill out the picture. But they do not offer a revolutionary new revelation. And thus we can study the theology of the First Testament separately from that of the New Testament without losing too much – and certainly without losing as much as we do if we follow the church’s practice of studying the New Testament separately from the First Testament, which it allegedly regards as Scripture.”

—John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 2: Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), pp. 19-20.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Nominations: the worst theological invention

Last year, we voted for the worst liturgical invention (see here and here). Now, it’s time to nominate “the worst theological invention.” What do you think is the worst (or silliest, or most absurd, or most destructive) theological invention? Which theological idea causes you the most grief or embarrassment or hilarity?

Leave a comment with your nomination. I’ll choose five finalists from the list of nominations, and we’ll run a poll to find out which theological invention is really the worst of all. So don’t get “left behind” – get your nominations in now!

Monday, 23 April 2007

The gospel according to Star Wars

The Barth scholar John McDowell has just released a new book, entitled The Gospel according to Star Wars – and he talks about the book in a guest-post for LeRon Shults.

I’ve always loved the original Star Wars trilogy, and I’ve watched the films numerous times over the years (as a little boy, I always wanted to be like Darth Vader). But in spite of my admiration for Star Wars, it seems I have an important and fundamental disagreement with John McDowell. Apparently, he likes the new trilogy as well – whereas I think these films were mournfully, disgracefully, irredeemably bad in every way (okay, except for the martial arts choreography).

But I’ll try not to hold this against McDowell; and I’ll certainly look forward to reading the book.

Some new journals

The good people at Brill have launched two new theological journals this year: the International Journal of Public Theology, and the Journal of Reformed Theology. The latter is also connected to a new monograph series, Studies in Reformed Theology. One of the forthcoming volumes in the series is entitled The Doctrine of God in African Christian Thought: The Holy Trinity, Theological Hermeneutics and the African Intellectual Culture, which sounds very interesting indeed.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

A lecture by Rowan Williams

A few days ago, Rowan Williams was in Toronto, and he gave a lecture on “The Bible: Reading and Hearing.” The full text is available online – it’s a profound and brilliant theological meditation on the place of biblical interpretation within the eucharistic life of the church. Here’s an excerpt:

“[T]he ‘time’ in which we hear Scripture is not like ordinary time. We are contemporary with events remote in history; we are caught up in the time of recitation, when we are to reimagine ourselves. For this moment, we exist simply as listeners, suspending our questions while the question is put to us of how we are to speak afresh about ourselves.”

Friday, 20 April 2007

Paul Helm: John Calvin's Ideas

Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 438 pp. (review copy courtesy of Oxford UP)

Paul Helm is a leading authority in the philosophy of religion, as well as a historian of early Protestant thought. In John Calvin’s Ideas, Helm brings these two fields together in an engaging philosophical account of Calvin’s thought.

Throughout the 20th century, Calvin scholars tended to exaggerate the distance between Calvin and his medieval background. Thus Calvin was often portrayed as an anti-scholastic thinker, or as an anti-philosophical biblicist, or even as a proto-Barthian “theologian of the Word.” Recent Calvin scholarship has gone a long way towards dismantling such interpretations, and the best scholarship (e.g. that of Richard Muller) has foregrounded Calvin’s complex relationships to medieval thought on the one hand, and to later Protestant scholasticism on the other. Paul Helm builds on this recent approach to Calvin, and, focusing especially on the contexts of late medieval philosophy and theology, he offers a portrait of Calvin “as a receiver, user, and transmitter of … ideas” (p. 1). He shows that Calvin has “an intimate knowledge of scholastic distinctions and their associated doctrines” (p. 282), even though Calvin used and criticised these distinctions and ideas with considerable freedom.

Helm’s interest in Calvin here is driven largely by debates within contemporary North American analytic philosophy. Thus he explores themes such as providence, the soul, free will and determinism, religious epistemology, common grace, and the natural knowledge of God. He offers some very pointed (and convincing) criticisms of contemporary “Reformed epistemologists” like Alvin Plantinga. For example, Plantinga uses Calvin’s concept of the sensus divinitatis to support his own theory of “properly basic” beliefs, so that Calvin is interpreted as a theorist of the rationality of religious belief. But as Helm observes, Calvin has no interest in questions of religious rationality or of epistemic justification, nor is he interested in debates between foundationalist and non-foundationalist epistemologies. Rather, Calvin’s interest is soteriological: what human beings need is “not the development of an alternative epistemology, but the knowledge of God the Redeemer freely given to us in Christ” (p. 240).

In all this, Helm is keenly alert to the dangers of anachronism. And the book’s most interesting arguments often arise from a sense of Calvin’s historical distance from our own anachronistic concerns. In his account of Calvin’s doctrine of God, for instance, Helm rightly observes that Calvin “is not a modern Trinitarian theologian” (p. 34), and that his distinction between God in se and God quoad nos “requires a robust metaphysical theism” (p. 29) that has little to do with “the theological agnosticism of … post-Kantian Protestant theology” (p. 193).

Indeed, Helm argues that this medieval distinction between God-in-himself and God-towards-us is of great importance for understanding the structure of Calvin’s theology. Unlike modern theologians, Calvin drives a “wedge” between the immanent and the economic Trinity precisely in order to preserve this fundamental distinction between God in se and quoad nos (p. 48). So too, Calvin’s insistence on the so-called extra calvinisticum arises from the same distinction: the incarnation “expresses the divine essence without exhaustively revealing it,” so that God-towards-us can never be identified with God-in-himself (pp. 63-65).

In a similar way, Helm observes that Calvin’s whole christology is shaped by an asymmetry between the person of the Son and the Son’s “assumed” human nature. At the heart of Calvin’s extra, therefore, is the claim “that the expression ‘Jesus Christ is God’ cannot be an expression of identity” (p. 91). If all this sounds strange (and intensely problematic) to modern ears, it should nevertheless remind us that we cannot simply impose our own theological agendas back on to the 16th century – as though Calvin could or should have been alert to our characteristically modern (i.e. post-Kantian and post-Barthian) concerns.

Helm’s important chapter on divine accommodation and religious language includes a similar reminder that Calvin’s view of accommodation has nothing to do with Kantian concerns about God’s knowability. Indeed, “the reasons Calvin gives for the language of accommodation have surprisingly little to do with the limitations of human knowledge” (p. 193) – his focus, instead, is on the problem of human idolatry and the mode of God’s gracious intervention.

Helm’s consistent attempt to recover Calvin’s thought from its entanglement in anachronistic frameworks is of great value – like Richard Muller, Helm wants to present a Calvin who has not been “accommodated” to the concerns of contemporary frameworks and debates. Of course, Helm’s own theological and philosophical commitments occasionally lead him into anachronisms of his own – for instance, while his critique Reformed epistemology is exactly right, one can’t help wondering whether his own interpretation of Calvin as the proponent of an “internalist,” evidentialist epistemology is also straining too hard to find the answers to modern questions in Calvin’s work.

Similarly, while Helm is right to concentrate on the contexts of Calvin’s thought, I’m not sure he always attends to the most appropriate contexts. Above all, I’m not convinced that Calvin’s context owes more to Thomas Aquinas than to Duns Scotus (even though Helm is right to highlight Calvin’s divergences from Scotist thought). And I’m not convinced that we should downplay the significance of the Lutheran controversy for the development of the extra calvinisticum – as though here Calvin were simply repeating well-worn patristic insights.

In spite of such isolated problems, though, Helm’s approach to Calvin models a very fruitful way both of interpreting Calvin contextually and of bringing Calvin’s thought into dialogue with contemporary philosophical and theological questions. The book thus offers both a creative contribution to Calvin studies, and a wonderfully spirited engagement with contemporary philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Amazon Unspun, and other spin-offs

This week Amazon.com released Unspun, a new site for generating lists. A number of theology lists have already been created: if you sign into your Amazon account, you can rank your favourite theology blogs, or biblical studies blogs, or theologians, or systematic theologies. If you’ve got far too much spare time on your hands, then head over and check it out. As Patrik says, the internet is for making lists.

Elsewhere, the Aussie blogger Craig Harper has created a list of the most popular 100 Australian blogs (listed on his sidebar) – and, to my surprise, Faith & Theology is ranked #22 (just behind the ABC, but ahead of the Herald Sun).

Meanwhile, this guy really needs some more visitors (even though he misunderstands lightweight theologians like Barth and Paul). And if you want a good laugh today, be sure to check out Chris Tilling’s diabolically funny catalogue of popular evangelical prayers. Lord, we just want to thank you, Lord, for posts like this....

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Theology with Tom Waits

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Tom Waits’ extraordinary three-disc album, Orphans (2006). It’s a magnificent album, and there are some startling theological insights as well. Here are the lyrics to Waits’ gentle but gritty gospel song, “Down There by the Train” (the song was also covered by Johnny Cash in 2002):

There’s a place I know where the train goes slow
Where sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb
There’s a river by the trestle down by Sinner’s Grove
Down where the willow and the dogwood grow
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell
From the halls of heaven to the gates of hell
And there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time
You’ll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes
If you’re down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

There’s a golden moon that shines up through the mist
And I know that your name will be on that list
There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

So if you live in darkness and if you live in shame
All of the passengers will be treated the same
And old Humpty Jackson and Gyp the Blood will sing
And Charlie Whitman is holding on to Dillinger’s wings
They’re both down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

If you’ve lost all your hope, if you’ve lost all your faith
I know you will be cared for and I know you will be safe
And all the shameful, and all of the whores
Even the soldier who pierced the heart of the Lord
Is down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

Well, I’ve never asked forgiveness, I’ve never said a prayer
I’ve never given of myself and I’ve never truly cared
I’ve hurt the ones who loved me, and I’m still raising Cain
I’ve taken the low road and if you’ve done the same
Meet me down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

The song offers a startlingly uncompromising depiction of the universality of grace. The train’s whistle is heard equally by those in heaven and in hell. Salvation is for the most notorious criminals of history, from the school shooter Charles Whitman down to Judas Iscariot. It’s for the “shameful” ones and the “whores,” for the criminals forsaken by the world, for those who take the “low road” – and, finally, it’s for the blatantly irreligious who have never even “said a prayer.” On this train, all the lonely outcasts are finally gathered into community; all sins and crimes are finally pardoned. On this train, God’s judgment is pronounced as the judgment of “the lamb,” and thus the judgment of grace. For this reason, there is here “no eye for an eye, no tooth for a tooth.” And so the train is filled with the most unlikely characters – they are “all treated the same,” not because they are the same, but because on this train you never get what you deserve.

Should we be committed then to a thoroughgoing universalism – the apokatastasis? I don’t think so. But I think any proper account of the death and resurrection of Jesus will have to take the unconditional character of grace with full seriousness – as seriously as this song does, with its unsettling catalogue of criminals; or rather, as seriously as Jesus himself does when he feasts with outcasts and hookers, and welcomes condemned criminals to join him in his kingdom.

If we can’t finally turn the universality of grace into a system, that is not because of any deficiency in grace itself, but only because grace is always more than we can anticipate or conceptualise: Deus semper maior! And so grace is always a riddle, a disruption, an excess that defies all systematic explanation. It is utterly free and boundless, so that we can never legitimately prescribe its boundaries in any way – not even with a system of universalism.

Still, in encounters with specific individuals, no matter what their crimes or faults, we should always be able to say (not self-righteously, but as one criminal to another): “And I know that your name will be on that list / There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth….”

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Failed humanity

“If salvation is for any, it is for all…. The ‘return’ to the lost, the excluded, the failed or destroyed, is not an option for the saint, but the very heart of saintliness. And we might think not only of Jesus’s parable of the shepherd, but of the great theological myth of the Descent into Hell, in which God’s presence in the world in Jesus is seen as his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation. It is the supreme image of his freedom, to go where he is denied and forgotten…. He comes to his new and risen life, his universal kingship, by searching out all the forgotten and failed members of the human family.”

—Rowan Williams, The Truce of God (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 30.

Monday, 16 April 2007

A two-year-old's doctrine of creation

A recent conversation between my two daughters (aged 4 and 2):

Older sister: Do you know where animals come from?
Younger sister: From the Ark.
Older sister: (Laughter) No, God made the animals.
Younger sister: No he didn’t. Noah made them.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Lord Jesus Christ, your mighty resurrection

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Charterhouse)

Lord Jesus Christ, your mighty resurrection
    fills us with overwhelming joy and fear,
as you begin your world-wide insurrection,
    and lead the way as faith’s great pioneer.

Your cross proclaims the depths of our corruption,
    your empty tomb the heights of grace sublime,
your risen power causes an eruption
    of love exploding out through space and time.

You lived a life of challenge, trust and service,
    you suffered death in doubt and agony,
you live again and stride ahead with purpose,
    and bring your friends along for company.

As risen Lord, you call us all to mission,
    embracing people, creatures, earth and stars,
you give to each a personal commission
    to share your healing as we bear your scars.

Exalted Christ, the victim’s vindication,
    we follow in the slipstream you release,
propelled by promise of the new creation
    when the whole universe will be at peace.

Friday, 13 April 2007

R. Dale Dawson: The Resurrection in Karl Barth

R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Barth Studies Series; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 246 pp. (review copy courtesy of Ashgate)

In this latest addition to the Barth Studies Series, Dale Dawson offers the first full account of Karl Barth’s theology of resurrection. Dawson views the resurrection as “the theological a priori” of Barth’s theology (p. 3), and he argues that the resurrection has “radical systematic significance” for the whole structure of Barth’s thought (p. 12). Dawson thus traces Barth’s work on the resurrection from early Göttingen lectures through to the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

One of the strongest parts of the study is the chapter on Barth’s 1924 exegetical lectures on The Resurrection of the Dead. In these early lectures, Barth engages in polemic against historicising approaches to the resurrection – he insists, for instance, that the “empty tomb” is irrelevant, and that there is no historical basis for belief in the resurrection. But Dawson rightly observes that Barth’s intention here is not to deny that the resurrection actually happened; instead, Barth is “combating an inadequate historicist interpretation” of the New Testament (p. 55). Knowledge of the resurrection is not the apprehension of one historical object alongside others, but it is a knowledge “of the relatedness of God to the entire scope of history, a knowledge which apprehends the ending of history,” and so it is a knowledge of “God’s primordial and definitive reality” (p. 59). In the resurrection, God reveals his relationship to all space and time, to the living and the dead alike. The resurrection-event, therefore, is not “a past event with present historical implications”; it is rather “an event on the horizon of history, creating and sustaining history” (p. 63).

Central to these 1924 lectures is the idea that the resurrection makes the existence of Jesus Christ contemporaneous with all other times and histories; the particularity of Jesus’ existence is universalised in the resurrection. On the basis of this insight, Dawson argues for an underlying continuity between this early resurrection-theology and the mature accounts of the resurrection in volumes III and IV of the Church Dogmatics.

In his discussion of the CD, Dawson emphasises the dogmatic character of Barth’s resurrection-theology. Barth is not concerned primarily with the usual philosophical questions of history or hermeneutics (e.g. Lessing’s ditch, the subject-object problem, etc.), but with the dogmatic question of how the reconciling action of Jesus Christ moves into the history of all other human beings. While Dawson’s point here is important, I think the significance of Bultmann’s approach to the resurrection should not be underestimated. Indeed, one could read the entire CD IV as a massive attempt to overturn Bultmann’s project – not by engaging with Bultmann, but by refusing to engage with his questions, and by foregrounding instead the dogmatic question of the mode in which Jesus Christ becomes contemporaneous with our existence. So while it’s true that Barth’s concern is theological rather than hermeneutical or philosophical, I think it’s also the case that the development of Barth’s mature dogmatic approach to the resurrection is best understood in the context of a radical conflict with Bultmannian hermeneutics.

Dawson is right, though, when he argues that Barth’s resurrection-theology undermines the much-rehearsed criticism of “christomonism” – that is, the claim that the subjectivity of Jesus Christ in Barth’s theology simply overwhelms and eliminates the proper subjectivity of human agents. Against such an interpretation, Dawson points out that Barth’s resurrection-theology is precisely an account of Jesus’ transition “from the narrower christological sphere to the anthropological sphere” (p. 172). In his resurrected life, Jesus Christ himself bridges the gulf between God’s reconciling agency and the effectiveness of this reconciliation in the lives of specific human agents.

Admittedly, the discussion of the resurrection throughout the main body of this book (chapters 1-7) is not exciting or theoretically creative – it is not, for instance, on the same level as John Webster’s brilliant essay on the topic (“Eloquent and Radiant,” in Barth’s Moral Theology [1998]), or as David Ford’s acute analysis of the primacy of Jesus Christ (Barth and God’s Story [1981]). But it is nevertheless a solid and workmanlike interpretation of a prominent aspect of Barth’s thought, and it fills an important lacuna in the study of Barth’s dogmatics.

In the final chapter, however, Dawson changes gears, and he offers some profound critical reflections on Barth’s theology. In particular, he suggests that Barth gives insufficient attention to the reality of the divine being in the resurrection. While Barth focuses on the soteriological function of the resurrection (as the movement of Jesus Christ to others), he doesn’t take the next step of extending the Father’s resurrection-work “into the trinitarian dynamic of the Father’s begetting of the Son” (p. 216). If the resurrection is indeed grounded in the reality of the immanent Trinity itself, and if God’s act is indeed identical with God’s being, then, Dawson argues, we should conclude that “the resurrection is an act of God of the same character and effect as that of the eternal trinitarian self-differentiation of his own being” (p. 216).

According to Dawson, the death of Jesus brings “the threat of dissolution to the Trinity,” so that the resurrection is God’s triumphant reaffirmation of his own self-differentiated life; it is “the reaffirmation, in the face of utter nothingness and dissolution, of God’s self-determination to be God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (p. 216). Thus the resurrection is the Father’s vindication of God’s own trinitarian being – and in this movement of God’s self-vindication, the second person of the Trinity emerges as “inextricably bound up with human being,” in “a union which entails the resurrection of humanity in him” (p. 221). In short, therefore: “The resurrection is the outward form of God’s reaffirmation of himself as trinitarian being” (p. 222). This strikes me as an excellent proposal for the contemporary reception of Barth’s theology, and as a necessary radicalisation of Barth’s own christological commitments.

The only improvement I’d suggest on Dawson’s proposal is that a connection be drawn at precisely this point between resurrection and election. If Jesus Christ is already the subject and object of God’s own trinitarian self-determination, and if God is therefore already eternally the “human God” in Jesus Christ, then we might also say that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the primordial actualisation of God’s decree. It is the event of God’s own self-constitution, the unfolding of God’s being as a being-towards-humanity. Or, to put it in a more explicitly anti-metaphysical form: the event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the self-elected locus of God’s being as Father, Son and Spirit.

Political side-effects?

Over at the Boar’s Head Tavern, an extended discussion developed in response to Kim’s recent propositions on political theology. The discussion is summarised, with all the related links, at Confessing Evangelical.

There were lots of other detailed discussions of this post as well, including one at Imaginations in Unity, another at Ponderings on a Faith Journey, another (in French) at TheoHead, and another at Spaceman Spiff.

In the last few days, there have also been some very interesting engagements with Kim’s propositions on freedom: see the discussion at Pseudo-Polymath, and the critical response at Positive Liberty.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Theology in the second person

Over at Disruptive Grace, Chris gives some autobiographical insight into the potential pitfalls of theological study: “My theological language has changed subtly from the second person to the third person over the years. As my love for theology has grown, my conversation with God has ceased.” And a recent post at Subversive Christianity (an excellent new blog) makes the same point: “Theology becomes theory. Theology becomes systematic…. Theology becomes comprehensive. Theology, if one isn’t real careful, becomes God-in-a-Box.”

As Schleiermacher tirelessly emphasised, the faith of the theologian is simply ordinary, everyday faith: and it’s this everyday faith that makes theology possible (and interesting) at all. To turn theology into a substitute for faith would be like buying a set of these sheets: it might look like the real thing, but in the morning you’ll still wake up alone.

Although it’s necessary to practise theology in the third person – theology as academic reflection – we shouldn’t forget that theology is always most at home when it takes the form of second-person address. In the best theological work ever written – Augustine’s Confessions – theological reflection becomes indistinguishable from prayer; talk about God merges with talk to God.

This, then, is theology in its most basic and most characteristic form: “Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new – late have I loved you! For you were within, and I was abroad; and there I searched for you, and tried to fill my heart with those lovely forms that you had made…. You called, cried out, and shattered my deafness. You flashed, shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed your perfume, and I drew breath, and now I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burn for your peace.” (Confessions, 10.27.38)

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Ten propositions on freedom

by Kim Fabricius

1. An intellectual history Europe since the Enlightenment could be written with the title “The Decline and Fall of the Concept of Freedom”. The nadir has now been reached with the banality of freedom as “choice”. From life-style and shopping, to schools and hospitals, to our bodies and death itself, the mantra is “choice”. Such an understanding of freedom “presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf” (Rowan Williams). A more vulgar anthropology is hard to imagine.

2. Nor a more dangerous one: for “freedom of choice” read “will-to-power” and social nihilism. And all the more dangerous for the rhetorical force of the word “freedom”, with its claim to ideological innocence and, indeed, quasi- religious righteousness. Here a hermeneutics of secular suspicion is de rigueur – but so too is a hermeneutics of theological retrieval and reconstruction.

3. Writing at the beginning of the Cold War, Isaiah Berlin famously plotted a pre- to post-Rousseau trajectory of freedom. Initially Berlin referred to these two types of liberty as the “liberal” and the “romantic”, the former understood as the absence of obstacles to thought and action, the latter understood as self-expression and -actualisation. Later, in a seminal inaugural lecture at Oxford in 1958, Berlin recast these concepts as “negative” and “positive” liberty. Berlin did not reject positive liberty as such, but he observed, historically, a “strange reversal”: what began (for example in the French Revolution) as reformation ended in terror and tyranny.

4. Berlin was attacked from both left and right. The right resented his challenge to liberal elites and disputed his claim that the values of freedom and truth may be incompatible, and his insistence that liberty should therefore be disconnected from projects of liberation. The left argued that his critique of self-realisation, while right about Rousseau, was a distortion of Kant; and that while on target about Stalinism, it left laissez-faire regimes to run amok.

5. Needless to say, theologians must look on these internecine secular polemics with astonished detachment. The scene really is Pythonesque. How, we wonder, can these philosophers be unaware of the elephant in the room? Because, they think, the beast has long been banished to the Reservation for Otiose Deities. But why the enforced exile? Because they think that divine and human freedom is a zero-sum game, an exercise in irreducible agonistics. Because, in short, they have a pagan notion of divine omnipotence and presume the Trinity to be a mathematical nonsense.

6. Herbert McCabe (following Aquinas): “God’s activity does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free…. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures. 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.”

7. The inevitable and predictable upshot of this oppositional understanding of human and divine freedom is an antagonistic reading of human freedom over against nature, other individuals, and society as a whole. And thus the “convention” of freedom as human autonomy, pre- or post-Rousseau, personal or political, is unmasked as “destructive of the very reality of liberty which it seeks to uphold and defend…. What is required is a gospel-derived account of freedom as that which creatures discover in fellowship with the free, self-bestowing God made known in Christ and in the Spirit” (John Webster).

8. The starting point for such an account will be freedom as divine gift, the gift of me and the gift of others. I am free to be the unique person the Father has created me to be, freed by the Son from the false self I have become, enslaved to sin and death, freed for life in the Holy Spirit who perfects human freedom. The Trinity sets me free from self-concern, above all the self-concern of fear. But in the same dynamic movement, the Trinity sets me free for other people, given to me to love. Evangelical freedom is thus not the “freedom” to do what I want. “What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. The source of man’s freedom is also its yardstick” (Karl Barth).

9. Luther: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” The relationship between freedom and obedience is not antithetical but dialectical. Ben Quash suggests that Karl Barth “wants the creature to have the obedient embrace of freedom,” while Hans Urs von Balthasar “wants the free embrace of obedience.” Both, however, are agreed that the free creature is characterised, above all, by joy and thanksgiving – and by prayer and praise.

10. Finally, a theological account of freedom must have not only a relational and social but indeed a political dimension, a baptised version of Isaiah Berlin’s “positive liberty”. The Old Testament paradigms are the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the return from Babylonian captivity. In the New Testament Jesus reconfigures Isaiah (of Jerusalem, not Berlin!) with his Jubilee manifesto (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). The freedom of the children of God is more than political freedom, but its telos cannot be less than political freedom. When Western missionaries translated the Bible into African languages, for “redemption” they often used words that meant, literally, “God takes the chains from our necks.” Libertas is a package deal – even if the package is finally unwrapped only in the civitas Dei.

A metaphysics of beauty

“[I]f beauty eternally generates being, and if beauty impregnates being, then being is the eternal image or reflection of beauty. In this case, the relation between beauty and being might be called a mediated immediacy. In other words, the divine beauty might be understood as mediating itself through being. In being, beauty sees itself.”

—Stephen Fields, “The Beauty of the Ugly: Balthasar, the Crucifixion, Analogy and God,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9:2 (2007), p. 183.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Rowan Williams' Easter sermon

In this year’s Easter Day Sermon, Rowan Williams spoke of the revelation of sin and grace in the death of Jesus: God brings us healing, and so reveals our deep need for healing. Here’s an excerpt:

“If the purpose of Jesus dying was that all might be made whole, the implication is that all have been sick. So that Good Friday tells all of us, those who think they’re good and those who know they’re bad, all alike, to look inside and ask what part we would have played in the drama of the Lord’s death.… In some way, however small, we have already contributed to the death of Jesus. He is there on the cross because we are the way we are.

“But on Easter Day, this bleak recognition is turned on its head. We were all involved; yet the combined weight of every human failure and wrongness, however small or great, all of that could not extinguish the creative love of God. We share one human story in which we are all caught up in one sad tangle of selfishness and fear and so on. But God has entered that human story; he has lived a life of divine and unconditional love in a human life of flesh and blood…. The vortex of error and failure that affects everybody in the world draws Jesus into its darkness and seems to destroy him body and soul. That, says Good Friday, is the kind of world this is, and we are all part of it.

“Yet there is more than the world to think about. If that love is really what it claims to be, eternal and unconditional, it will not be destroyed. What’s more, the human embodiment of that love, the flesh and blood of Jesus, cannot be destroyed…. So: if we can accept the unwelcome picture of us and our world that Good Friday offers, we are, in the strangest way, set free to hear what Easter says.”

International Journal of Systematic Theology

The new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology is out now, with a range of excellent articles on Catholic and Protestant theology. Suzanne McDonald writes about Barth’s early doctrine of election; Paul Dafydd Jones discusses Barth on Gethsemane; Stephen Fields and Edward Oakes explore Balthasar’s theology of crucifixion and Holy Saturday; and Francis Caponi discusses Rahner’s view of religious language.

This issue also includes my review of Paul DeHart’s brilliant work, The Trial of the Witnesses (adapted from the online review). If you haven’t read DeHart’s book, I really recommend it – it was my pick for the best theology book of 2006.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Easter

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.

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

—George Herbert, from “Easter” (1633).

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Holy Saturday

          He leaves no room
For his own hand; you shall be history,
You shall build heaven, you shall quarry hell,
No one shall say you have (or not) made well.
And, bored and pious, talk of mystery,
When weeds are choking up his tomb.

We make, he sleeps. Only his bloody dreams
Tell him the works of freedom on the earth.
Your liberty his flight, your future and his death.
He dreams your hell for you to draw your breath,
Out of his emptiness he lets your birth,
It is his silence echoes back the screams.

—Rowan Williams, from “Great Sabbath,” in The Poems of Rowan Williams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 43.

Speaking of Holy Week

Over at Connexions, Kim Fabricius has posted his sermons for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Eastern Easter

Kevin Edgecomb has posted a series of Holy Week hymns from the Eastern Orthodox Church, including the Paschal troparion – one of the most powerful of all Christian hymns:

Χριστος ανεστη εκ νεκρων
θανατω θανατον πατησας
και τοις εν τοις μνημασι
ζωην χαρισαμενος

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And to those in the tombs
Giving life!

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Ten propositions on political theology

by Kim Fabricius

1. The doctrine of the ascension is the basis of all political theology – and why there can be no such thing as apolitical theology. The church cannot be a cultus privatus because Jesus of Nazareth, “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” reigns and his edict is public truth. Remove Christ from the forum and it does not remain empty: nature abhors a vacuum; idols love one and soon fill it.

2. God is political. Cut the political bits out of the Bible – as Jim Wallis and some friends once did – and you’re left with “a Bible full of holes.” God is political – and God takes sides. In the Old Testament, Yahweh’s exodus and covenant “bias / preferential option for the poor” is now a well-worn phrase – but an undeniable fact. And the New Testament – Luke in particular – doesn’t drop the ball: the Magnificat and the Jubilee Manifesto suggest the game plan.

3. In my view it is legitimate to speak of an “epistemological privilege” of the excluded and oppressed. Bonhoeffer, writing in prison, was avant la lettre of liberation theology: “We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.” Here is the “more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.”

4. With a shrug of their shoulders, conservatives love to quote the text, “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7), as if poverty were an order of creation (cf. “the rich man in his castle, / the poor man at his gate”), and there is nothing we can – or should – do about it. But Jesus was not being cynical, or even realistic, about the inevitability of an excluded underclass, rather he was reminding his disciples where they will be found if they are faithful – among the poor and oppressed.

5. The point is not that the poor and oppressed have a monopoly on virtue, let alone that they are an elect group, rather it is simply that they are the ones who get screwed – and God doesn’t like people getting screwed. So God sends his servant Moses, his spokesmen the prophets, and finally his Son Jesus, their Big Brother, to take care of the bullies, though he fights with his mouth not his fists. Not, of course, that God loves the oppressor any less than he loves the oppressed; indeed his rescue mission is to liberate them both, the latter from their humiliation and suffering, and the former from their pride and violence.

6. Nor does any political theologian who is not a straw man hold the Marxist delusion that utopia can be built. Karl Barth, responding to an ordinand who had heard him lecture, wrote: “Many thanks for your kind letter. But … now you manage to put down on paper again all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the whole Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of pastor.” The antidote to political pelagianism is a critical eschatology. Barth himself, of course, was no quietist. “A silent community,” he said, “merely observing the events of its time, would not be a Christian community.”

7. Still, calling governments to account and repentance, the critical component, and praying and working for a community of shalom and an economy of grace, the positive component, are essential elements of the political vocation of the church. Strategically Christians should work for a world that asymptotically approaches the kingdom of God. Tactically Christians should form ad hoc alliances with all people of good will in pursuit of a more just society. Indeed, as Bonhoeffer discovered, we may well find more saints among the pagans than the pious. Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). We should not fear dirty hands but bloody hands.

8. The flipside of an apolitical church is a sacralised state. This is “the Constantinian trap” (Lesslie Newbigin). And a sacralised state easily becomes a demonic state. The cross is draped with the flag, and discipleship is absorbed into citizenship. The German Christians are the paradigm nationalist idolaters; history repeats itself in the farce of the Religious Right. “Never was anything in this world loved too much,” wrote Thomas Traherne, “but many things have been loved in a false way, and all in too short a measure.” The true love of ecumenism trumps the sentimental love of patriotism.

9. The church’s political witness ends in the public square, but it begins around a table. At worship the church bows neither to Caesar, nor to Mammon or Mars, but to the crucified and risen One. At worship the Spirit begins to straighten our disordered desires, as we hear an alternative narrative to manifest destiny, and learn an alternative praxis to Realpolitik. Yet worship can be a bolthole rather than a sign of reconciliation and resistance. “Where the body is not properly discerned, Paul reminds the Corinthians, consumption of the Eucharist can make you sick or kill you (1 Cor. 11:30). This might explain the condition of some of our churches” (William T. Cavanaugh).

10. The Apocalypse of John is “a visionary theological and poetic representation of the spiritual environment within which the church perennially finds itself living and struggling” (Richard B. Hays). It is a samizdat text of protest to the pretensions of power, a warning against complacency, and a call to discernment in reading the signs of the times. The powerful inevitably twist it into a self-serving mandate for accumulation and aggression; only those who long for justice and peace see that the hermeneutical key is the slaughtered Lamb who gently roars. Here is the text for a political theology that begins to re-imagine and re-shape the world in anticipation of the parousia of Christ.

Post-9/11 Postscript
In Apocalypse Now: Reflections on Faith in a Time of Terror (2005), Duncan Forrester proposes an interesting juxtaposition: on the one hand, the statement of support for the Kaiser published by a group of ninety-three leading German intellectuals, including theologians, on the day the First World War broke out; on the other hand, the public “Letter from America: What We Are Fighting For” in support of President Bush’s “war on terror,” signed by sixty prominent American intellectuals, including theologians, five months after 9/11. Both letters are so theologically thin, however, that they amount to pom-pom propaganda for imperial states. The first letter awoke Karl Barth from his Schleiermacherian slumbers, the second letter aroused Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths to a polemical response. But by and large the people of Germany and the US sleepwalked into slaughter. Moral: When political theology is faithful, expect it to be critical and subversive; when it is unfaithful, expect it to be ideological and fatal.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Worst theological problem meme

Our friend Halden has started a new meme. I’ll try to have a go at this soon. If you want to join in, you need to describe the most problematic aspect of the work of your favourite theologian – i.e., you need to subject yourself to a sort of theological self-flagellation. Which means it will be both fun and good for you.

Top ten books on the Reformed tradition

Here’s my top ten list of works on the classical Reformed tradition. I’ve restricted this to works on the post-Reformation period, so specific works on (e.g.) Calvin are excluded. I really could have listed Richard Muller’s books in the top five spots – but I’ve spread them out through the list, just to be fair. I was tempted also to include Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2, since it’s such a creative and brilliant interpretation of the Reformed tradition – but I’ve restricted the list to historical studies. Anyway, here they are:

1. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 4 vols. (2003)
2. Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (1875-76)
3. Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France (1969)
4. Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (2002)
5. Richard A. Muller, God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (1991)
6. Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism, c.1590-1640 (1987)
7. Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (1986)
8. Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (2005)
9. G. Michael Thomas, The Extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus, 1536-1675 (1997)
10. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (1985)

Sunday, 1 April 2007

A Palm Sunday hymn: Jesus Goes from Jericho

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Yankee Doodle went to town)

Jesus goes from Jericho,
    behind him Bartimaeus;
next stop town of Bethany,
    the last will be Emmaus.

    Praise to Jesus – wave your palms! –
    masterful in meekness,
    Prince of Peace who comes unarmed
    and wins the world through weakness!


Jesus nears Jerusalem
    and looks upon the city,
sees it won’t give peace a chance
    and weeps a tear of pity.

Jesus sends two friends ahead
    to get a donkey ready;
at the city gates the mood
    is cheerful, charged and heady.

Jesus enters on the colt,
    the crowd goes wild with cheering,
waving branches, spreading cloaks,
    no hint of mutineering.

Jesus sees some Pharisees,
    their faces pursed and pouting;
“Were the people dumb,” he says,
    “the pavement would be shouting!”

So begins the Holy Week,
    a day of benediction;
who would ever have believed
    by Friday – crucifixion.

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