Thursday, 31 May 2007

Barth in techno

Ladies and gentlemen: Jon’s wonderful Karl Barth techno mix is now available on YouTube, together with a new film clip (the audio is from Barth’s American lectures). So if you need a good chuckle, be sure to head over and check out the Barthman’s Decklaration.

Rethinking mission

David points us to a valuable essay by John Stackhouse on “A Bigger – and Smaller – View of Mission.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Does this mean that other religions are salvific? Certainly not. No religion is salvific: not Hinduism or Shinto or Islam, but also not Christianity. God is salvific. Practicing religion, however correct it is and however correctly one practices it, will not save you. That is basic Christian conviction. It is trusting God that will save you – that also is basic Christian conviction.”

Pre-release articles

The International Journal of Systematic Theology has an excellent new feature: online early. This allows you to read selected articles online before they are officially released in the next issue. There are some very good articles available at the moment – including Jean-Yves Lacoste’s profound and challenging essay (translated by Oliver O’Donovan): “More Haste, Less Speed in Theology.”

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Encounters with tradition (1): from Pentecostal to Anglican?

A guest-post by Aaron Ghiloni

I did not leave Pentecostalism because I had somewhere else to go. I wasn’t conscripted by the Catholics or pursued by the Presbyterians. I left because I had to. Theologically frustrated, spiritually dry and emotionally exhausted, I quietly bid farewell.

Like many Pentecostals, I was nurtured in revival. From birth, I was born-again on a weekly basis (if not more frequently). This was my life, my family’s life. Therefore, departing was incredibly difficult. If you’ve gone through this, you will know what I mean. It was obvious that I must leave – still, leaving was gruelling.

And so, I not only left holy-rolling and tongue-talking behind, but also good friends and a lifetime of memories. I had nowhere to go. I shook, sighed, and swayed. The vertigo of an ex-Pentecostal is ferocious. Since my Pentecostal days I have worshipped with a Baptist congregation, studied at an evangelical seminary, and been employed by various churches (non-denominational, Methodist, and now Anglican).

I have gone from Pentecostalism to – what? Officially, I’m Anglican, but unofficially I’m undecided. I’m denominationally ambivalent. It’s not that I frivolously bounce about like an excited toddler or a volatile teen, but that for the formerly-staunch Pentecostal, traditions and denominations are greatly relativised. One can have only one first love. Once a Pentecostal, always a Pentecostal (at least in some ways).

Being a part of this or that movement is no longer that important. And while for career purposes I may identify myself with a particular church, it is not because they have won my devotion. I simply cannot change the fact that my heart beat the hardest and my blood pumped the fastest at an old Pentecostal altar.

Would Jesus vote green?

Here in my own very conservative state of Queensland, many churchgoers simply take it for granted that they should vote for conservative parties, or even (shudder) for right-wing “family values” parties. This situation makes Byron’s excellent series very relevant: would Jesus vote green?

On the same topic, Aussie readers might enjoy the recent Quarterly Essay (a great periodical on Australian political and cultural life): Amanda Lohrey, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia (2006).

A Barthian limerick

Inspired by David’s poetry contest, here’s a nice limerick by Kim Fabricius:

    There once was a gourmet named Barth,
    who had tasted Rousseau and Descartes,
    and though Hegel bar none
    was his haute cuisine Hun,
    he dogmatically dined à la carte.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Poems for Barthians

David Congdon is hosting a nifty poetry contest at the moment: you have to write a poem about not-being-a-Barthian. There have been some entertaining entries already – and this one is fantastic.

So if you’re in a creative mood, why not head over and submit an entry.

On Kevin Vanhoozer

Guy points us to Andreas Köstenberger’s extended review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine, together with a good-natured response by Vanhoozer.

The Drama of Doctrine is an extraordinary work – probably the most important study of the hermeneutics of doctrine since Lindbeck. To be honest, I read this some time ago with the intention of posting a review here at F&T – but I still haven’t found the energy to review it. I found it a difficult book to review – it’s so big and ambitious and wide-ranging that it’s hard to know what to say about it. But seeing Köstenberger’s review (as well as earlier reviews by Guy and Michael) makes me feel very lazy. So I’ll try to come up with a review of it within the next month or so.

Update: Be sure also to see Guy’s delightful new post on the dangers of The Drama of Doctrine – there’s an important lesson here for all of us about Library Safety....

Monday, 28 May 2007

New series: encounters with tradition

Understanding the function of tradition remains a central task for theology today – and ecumenical progress requires an ever deeper understanding not only of one’s own tradition, but also of the internal “grammar” of other Christian traditions. But this is by no means easy. Indeed, as Gerhard Ebeling once remarked, relatively few Christians have ever had to made a real choice between traditions – in most cases, one’s own tradition simply maintains its own powerful self-evidentness in contrast to all other traditions.

Ebeling’s observation highlights the complex difficulties surrounding ecumenical understanding: if I have never encountered (say) the Roman Catholic tradition as a genuine possibility for faith, and so have never had to choose between this possibility and the possibility of my own tradition, then I’ve not yet really begun to understand the Roman Catholic tradition at all.

For this reason, we can learn a lot from people who have made a transition from one Christian tradition to another. Such people have experienced tradition itself – they have encountered both the non-self-evidentness of their own tradition, and the attractiveness and coherence of another tradition. So if we listen to the stories of people who have made such ecclesial transitions, it’s possible that the function of tradition will become a little more translucent, a little more thinkable.

With that in mind, we’re starting a new series here at F&T, entitled “Encounters with Tradition.” The series will feature guest-posts from several people who have made a transition from one Christian tradition to another – from Protestant to Catholic, from Baptist to Anglican, from evangelical to post-evangelical, and so on.

Perhaps these stories of diverse “encounters with tradition” will help us all to encounter our own (and other) traditions in a fresh way.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Holy Spirit, sudden gust

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Kelvingrove)

Holy Spirit, sudden gust
     and darting tongue of flame,
one whose presence is a must
      or worship’s limp and lame,
as we gather here to meet,
come and sweep us off our feet,
where we’re cold, turn up the heat –
      it’s new creation time!

Holy Spirit, gentle dove,
      all-animating breath,
you bear fruit in peace and love,
      you bring life out of death,
draw together those apart
with your reconciling art,
stimulate the stony heart –
      it’s new creation time!

Holy Spirit, one of three,
      the God who goes between,
you declared the Jubilee
      through God the Nazarene,
through the church communicate
words and deeds that liberate,
and the world will be a fête –
      It’s new creation time!

Note: You can also read Kim’s Pentecost sermon, The Anonymous Spirit.

An icon for Pentecost

My friend Ann Chapin, who often contributes to our discussions here at F&T, kindly sent me some photos of her huge and wonderfully vivid icons. Here is her Pentecost tryptych, entitled “The Descent of the Holy Spirit” (each of the three murals is about ten feet tall):

On being a bibliophile

Our friend Todd loves books.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Ten reasons why baseball is God's game

by Kim Fabricius

The story is told of the aristocratic English cricket supporter who dies and appears at the Pearly Gates. St Peter checks his list, but, alas, the old gentleman is not on it. “There must be some mistake,” the man protests, “I have a permanent seat in the Lord’s enclosure!”

Well, Lord’s may be the home of cricket, but if cricket is heaven – and I write as an American expat who has lovingly lived in the UK for over thirty years – then heaven is as the cartoonist Larson depicts it: a bored bespectacled soul sitting on a cloud, thinking (in his thought balloon): “Wish I had a magazine.” Cricket is indeed baseball on Valium, while baseball is “chess at ninety miles an hour” (Roger Kahn). Baseball is God’s game. And here are just ten reasons why.

1. “The game of ball is glorious” – Walt Whitman.

2. Baseball is about coming home. The whole point of the game is to finish where you begin – home plate – and once you are home you are finally safe.
    “In my beginning is my end…
    Home is where one starts from…
    In my end is my beginning.”
    (T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”)

3. Its rudiments come from another world, i.e. England (!); its beginnings are shrouded in myth and legend (Abner Doubleday, “Casey at the Bat,” etc.); and its origins are rural, its destiny urban, i.e. it began in a garden and ends in the urbs. And the Original Sin: the banning of black players.

4. Its believers are nourished on Word and Sacrament, viz. the umpire’s shout, “Play ball!”, and the pilgrim fare of Crackerjacks and soda, hotdogs and beer. And, amidst elaborate ritual, there is that numinous moment of stillness as the pitcher takes the sign, winds up, and delivers, and that most majestic of sounds – the crack of the bat (rubric: All stand).

5. It has its saints – e.g. Lou Gehrig (the Iron Horse) and Jackie Robinson (the first African-American player of the modern era) – and sinners – e.g. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (who took a bribe) and Barry Bonds (who is alleged to have taken steroids). And there is the Great Satan: the New York Yankees.

6. It has its cathedrals – ballparks, awesome, hallowed grounds, the immediate playing area the “diamond” – and its Temple in Jerusalem, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York – replete with relics!

7. It had a Reformation with a splinter church, viz. the advent of the American League – with, alas, its ultimate descent into the heresy of the “designated hitter”!

8. It has its Suffering Servant, viz. the Chicago Cubs, the “Cubbies,” a team annually “like a sheep led to the slaughter” (and crucial to the game is the play called the “sacrifice”). But “Cub fans love the Cubs, warts and all, no questions asked. This quality is called faith” (Peter Glenbock).

9. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive this game as a little child will never enter it (cf. Mark 10:15). Magically, baseball always brings out the child in you, and draws you back to your childhood, indeed makes your childhood present (anamnesis). And it is a tie that binds the generations, communio sanctorum.

10. Finally, baseball abounds in hope (cf. Romans 15:13): “Next year!” – and, indeed, past-redeeming eschatological promise: “If you build it, he will come” (Field of Dreams). Maranatha!

Friday, 25 May 2007

Oh mercy!

Now this is good news – may the name of the Lord be praised.

Scot McKnight and Mariology

Over at Internet Monk, there’s an interview with Scot McKnight about the new evangelical interest in Mariology. If you’re not yet familiar with Scot’s excellent blog, you might also like to check it out.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Must-read theological books

Michael Jensen asks for a list of “the must-read theological books that are coming out soon or have recently appeared.” So I thought I’d try to respond with a series of suggestions in various categories.

First of all, though, if you somehow missed David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (Eerdmans, 2003), then you should skip all these other books and start with that one – it will almost certainly prove to be the most important theological work of the decade.

Anyway, here are my selections of “must-read books” under various headings (restricted to books that are forthcoming or that have appeared within the past 18 months or so). These aren’t necessarily my favourite books, but they’re the books that I think are (or will be) “important” in the theological conversation. I’d welcome any other suggestions as well!

Old Testament

New Testament
  • Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006) – I haven’t read this one yet myself, but I’ve read a lot about it at Chrisendom, and it sounds like an extremely challenging revisionist proposal.
Historical theologyTheological method / fundamental theologyDogmatics
  • John Webster, Confessing God (T&T Clark, 2005)
  • Neil MacDonald, Metaphysics and the God of Israel (Paternoster/Baker, 2006) – I’m reading this one at the moment, and will post a review of it soon.
  • Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors (Cambridge UP, 2006)
  • Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures (T&T Clark, forthcoming 2007) – I don’t know whether I’ll like this book, but I reckon it will be very influential.
  • Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge UP, forthcoming 2008) – The first volume of this major new 4-volume project of feminist dogmatics will be sure to make a big impact.
Theology and culture
  • Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory (Eerdmans, 2006)
  • Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University (Blackwell, 2007) – This was released a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t read it yet, but it will no doubt be a challenging and controversial proposal.
  • Trevor Hart, A Poetics of Redemption, Vol. 1 (WJKP, forthcoming 2007)
Ethics
  • Gerard Loughlin, ed., Queer Theology (Blackwell, forthcoming 2007) – This collection will be sure to generate a lot of discussion: it includes essays by Graham Ward, Eugene Rogers, Catherine Pickstock, Gerard Loughlin, and others.
Spirituality
Ecumenical theology
  • Tim Perry, Mary for Evangelicals (IVP, 2006)
  • George Hunsinger, Let Us Keep the Feast (Cambridge UP, forthcoming 2008) – A major new attempt at developing an ecumenical approach to eucharistic theology and practice.
Inter-faith dialogue
Theology and science
Digital resource
Journal
Encyclopedia
  • Religion Past and Present, 10 vols. (Brill, 2006 to 2011) – A full English translation of the massive German encyclopedia, Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (RGG).

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Matt Jenson: The Gravity of Sin

Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 202 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

The doctrine of sin has fallen on hard times in recent decades, especially in the wake of Karl Barth’s argument that we can speak of sin only in the light of grace, so that an independent “doctrine of sin” becomes illegitimate. Of course, Barth himself developed a massive doctrinal account of sin; but his methodology has made subsequent generations of theologians reticent about this theme. Indeed, in a 1993 article, David Kelsey wondered: “Whatever happened to the doctrine of sin?”

It seems, however, that this situation is now changing. In recent years, Eberhard Jüngel has offered an intensive existential analysis of sin in his work on Justification (1999); Marilyn McCord Adams has offered a brilliant philosophical account of Horrendous Evils (1999); James K. A. Smith has argued for the hermeneutical significance of sin in The Fall of Interpretation (2000); Alistair McFadyen has demonstrated the ability of Christian language to interpret distinctively modern pathologies in Bound to Sin (2000); and younger scholars like Joy Ann McDougall (Emory) and Dirk Evers (Tübingen) are currently working towards new accounts of the doctrine of sin and its relationship to theological anthropology.

In this elegant study, Matt Jenson (a regular reader and commenter here at F&T) has made his own timely contribution to this renewed exploration of Christian talk about sin. Jenson takes up the traditional metaphor of humanity as “curved in on itself” (incurvatus in se), and he argues that this metaphor can serve as a model for the interpretation of diverse forms of human sinfulness within the broader framework of a relational anthropology. If human personhood is constituted by relationships, then sin can be understood “as a violation, perversion and refusal of those relationships” (p. 2).

Jenson begins by exploring the development of the introversion metaphor in the theology of Augustine. He offers a charitable (perhaps too charitable!) interpretation of Augustine’s theory of original sin – namely, that this is a “profoundly relational” affirmation of the involvement of all human beings with one another (p. 16). And he observes that, for Augustine, “freedom” and “autonomy” are mutually exclusive terms, since we are truly free only to the extent that we are turned towards God rather than towards ourselves. Nevertheless, Augustine threatens his own relational account of sin with his emphasis on a spirituality of inwardness. Such inwardness, as Luther later discovered, can itself become a powerful expression of sin, drawing us into “a disorienting spiral in on ourselves” (p. 45).

Luther thus built on – but radicalised – Augustine’s understanding of sin, since he saw clearly that the homo incurvatus in se may be precisely the same as the homo religiosus. While Augustine envisioned salvation as the healing of human nature, Luther’s more radical vision demanded nothing less than the death and resurrection of the sinful self. Still, both Luther and Augustine believed that the self is drawn out of itself only when it is turned towards God, so that its identity is located in him.

Luther’s account of sin and personhood has been subjected to sharp critique, especially by feminist theologians who believe that such a conception serves to underwrite oppressive and abusive power structures. Jenson explores this critique as it is developed in the work of the post-Christian feminist, Daphne Hampson. Hampson advances a relational theory of selfhood, but she rejects the metaphor of sin as a “curving inwards.” According to Hampson, this metaphor focuses on prideful egoism as the paradigm of human sinfulness, so that salvation is subsequently understood as a humbling of the proud. But she argues that this is a fundamentally masculinist conception of sin; women, after all, “have simply never been in the position of power which would give one the opportunity and the imaginative resources to conceive of a prideful setting oneself in the place of God” (p. 103). The focus on pride, then, simply entrenches women in the sins to which they really do incline, especially to a sinful diffusion of the self in others.

Jenson criticises this argument for its rather simplistic characterisation of the different gender-types of sin (men’s sin as self-assertion; women’s sin as self-denigration). But he notes that Hampson is right to emphasise the diversity of sins: we don’t all sin in the same way. He thus takes up Hampson’s two main categories: “we sin in both self-exaltation and self-denigration” (p. 128). Further, he accepts the crucial point that it is inadequate simply to regard “pride” as the paradigmatic form of all sins.

In the final chapter, Jenson thus asks whether the model of sin as curvature can be extended to describe “the (often radically) different experiences of people in sinning” (p. 130) – in particular, whether it can account for sins both of self-assertion and of self-denigration. These two main categories are in fact parallel to Karl Barth’s categorisation of the paradigmatic sins of “pride” and “sloth.” And Jenson argues that Barth’s construal of the types of sin broadens the scope of our understanding of sin in a way that “anticipate[s] many of the concerns of feminists” (p. 183). But while Daphne Hampson thinks of freedom as the endeavour to extricate the self from all forms of dependence (on God and on others), Barth offers a more radically relational vision of freedom: “freedom is always freedom ‘for another’ and as such has one direction and one direction only. That is the direction of the Son, whose way is towards God and others” (p. 181).

And so Jenson concludes that the concept of homo incurvatus in se provides a model which can interpret a diverse range of sinful experiences, while foregrounding the relational structure of human personhood. To be human is to be in relation; to be a sinner is to pursue relationlessness. The church, therefore, should be viewed as the body of people who are “called out” – “out of the world, yes, but also out of ourselves”! To be included in the church is to be among those “who live excurvatus ex se, finding … ourselves in Christ and in one another” (p. 190).

The Gravity of Sin is a stimulating and lucid account of Christian talk about sin, and it’s a welcome contribution to the contemporary retrieval of this doctrinal theme. Naturally, there are many remaining questions that a full reconstruction of the doctrine of sin would have to answer, such as:

  • What is the connection between a relational model of sin and the broader social, political and economic structures of evil?
  • What is the relationship between the dogmatic language of sin and contemporary biological, psychological and anthropological understandings of human personhood?
  • What is the connection between the phenomena of sin and human mortality?
  • What is the relationship between specific experiences of sin and the universality of sin?
If, as Jenson proposes, the concept of introversion can be taken up as a general model for the interpretation of sin, then one might also be able to bring fresh – and properly theological – approaches to questions such as these.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

2007 Michael Ramsey Prize

This week, Rowan Williams announced the winner of the 2007 Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing: Timothy Radcliffe, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (2006).

What is theology?

Our friend Michael Westmoreland-White tries to answer this question in an excellent post. Theology, he says, is:

  1. pluralistic (as a struggle for truth rooted in the conflict between different contexts and traditions)
  2. narrative-based (using scripture to construe the community’s lived experience)
  3. rational (as an intellectual practice rooted in communal practices)
  4. self-involving (as a practice that takes place within the convictional community)
What do you think?

Monday, 21 May 2007

G. C. Berkouwer on divine and human action

In his brilliant work on Divine Election (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), the Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that the relationship between divine and human action must not be understood in competitive terms – as though there were either a conflict or a mere “distribution of work” (p. 50) between God and human beings.

Berkouwer observes that divine sovereignty and human responsibility have often been viewed “as factors that limited one another on … the same level” (p. 21). Although such a competitive construal is clearly flawed, Berkouwer does not suggest that the relationship between divine and human action is simply a “complementary relationship.” Rather, in polemic against both Catholic and Protestant forms of synergism, he insists that divine and human action are not “component factors, functioning side by side” (p. 44). Faith is not the complement of grace, but its correlate.

What, then, is the nature of this correlation? “The divine act makes room, leaves open the possibility for man’s act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth, by it” (p. 46). God’s action is thus a summons to human action; grace creates the space within which the human response becomes possible. Here, Berkouwer draws directly on Karl Barth’s polemic against synergism. Barth speaks of the theological “fear-complex” (Angstkomplex) which causes God’s action to be viewed as a threat to creaturely freedom: “as though we were perhaps ascribing too much to God and too little to the creature, as though we were encroaching too far on the particularity and autonomy of creaturely action and especially on human freedom and responsibility! As though there could be any sense in sheltering from such an intrusion under the safe cover of a crude or subtle synergism!” (CD III/3, pp. 146-47).

This is precisely Berkouwer’s point as well: there can be no thought of a competition between divine and human action, since God is the one who makes room for human action in the first place. To be human is to exist in the “space” of God’s grace.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Jesus Christ, electing God

There is a beautiful passage in Karl Barth’s volume on election: “Jesus Christus ist der erwählende Gott. Wir haben nach keinem anderen als nach ihm zu fragen. Wir werden in keiner Tiefe der Gottheit einem anderen als ihm begegnen. Es gibt keine Gottheit an sich. Sie ist die Gottheit des Vaters, des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes. Der Vater ist aber der Vater Jesu Christi und der Heilige Geist ist der Geist dieses Vaters und der Geist Jesu Christi.” (KD II/2, pp. 123-24; CD II/2, p. 115)

Instead of a prose translation, I thought I’d turn it into a short poem:

Jesus Christ, electing God!
None but him,
None else to ask about,
No depth in God where we could ever
Meet another.
No Godness to be found, except in him:
Father of this Son, Spirit of this Son and of his Father;
Father, Spirit, Son –
The depths of God are in his face,
The face of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Schleiermacher, textbooks and oral tradition

In his charming little book On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr Lücke (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), Schleiermacher makes a humorous observation about textbooks (p. 75): “Not only must we always take care that there is enough room to shelve these printed pages, but in my opinion it is important that our students have books that they can carry around comfortably…. Moreover, in our universities there is a great deal of oral tradition about both the teachers and the texts, and it seems to have quite an influence on our beginning students.”

I love this tongue-in-cheek reference to “oral tradition.” And he’s right, too: when you talk with first-year students in a theological faculty or seminary, it’s often very striking to see that they have already formed crystal-clear opinions about which books and authors are important or unimportant, which teachers should be taken seriously, which ideas are childish and naïve, and so on.

It would be interesting to know something about the sociology of all this. What is the precise nature and function of such oral traditions in academic institutions? How formative is the role of oral tradition in the development of students’ education?

Friday, 18 May 2007

On textbooks: Hendrikus Berkhof

I reckon one of the best texts for theological students is Hendrikus Berkhof’s profound and exciting work, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Eerdmans, 1979). Although this book is dated in several important respects, in other respects it’s still far more “up to date” than many recently published works. Berkhof is a real theologian who really knows what theology is all about: he grapples intensely with the history of theology, with the best biblical scholarship, with the surprises and possibilities of other Christian traditions, and with the specific demands of contemporary faith and proclamation.

In the opening pages of Christian Faith, Berkhof rightly notes that systematic theology is “not something to learn so much as something to do and practice” (p. xii), so that the task of a textbook is simply to induct students into this practice. Or, as he puts it in a later essay: “Theology is not so much a set of convictions, but a way of discoveries.”

Thursday, 17 May 2007

In search of a good theology textbook

Yesterday we were discussing Wayne Grudem’s widely used theology textbook. In a comment, I suggested that “a good theological textbook should model actual theological thinking, instead of merely providing students with the illusion of ready-made answers. After all, many theological students will go on to become pastors: and in pastoral ministry, what’s needed is not ready-made answers, but the ability to think theologically in new and unpredictable situations.” That’s why, in my view, some of the most popular books (e.g. Wayne Grudem, Louis Berkhof, Millard Erickson) are fundamentally unsuitable as classroom texts – even though they might be interesting and informative in many ways.

Anyway, several people yesterday raised the question of which books would be best-suited as theological texts. What do you think? I’d welcome any comments regarding the texts that you prefer or that you’ve found most useful – or whether you think classroom texts are useful at all.

Bob Dylan and the pope

A while back, I mentioned Benedict XVI’s dislike for the music of Bob Dylan. Now Sean Curnyn (who has a blog with the unlikely title Right-Wing Bob) has written a nice piece about “The Pope and the Pop Star” in First Things: “In a world of popular music that often seems dominated by nihilism and its close relations, Dylan’s work can be seen as sneakily inserting important question marks and surprising diversions toward biblical truths.”

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Some discouraging statistics

“The impact of this book [Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology] on evangelicals should not be underestimated. Over 135,000 copies have been sold, and the abridged version, Bible Doctrine, … has sold over 35,000 copies. The former is now the most widely used systematic theology text in evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges in North America and most other English-speaking countries.”

—Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 20.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Podcast: John Webster on mercy

John Webster recently gave a lecture on “mercy” at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Jordan Barrett made a recording, and (with Webster’s permission) he has now made it available as a podcast. The sound-quality isn’t perfect, but the lecture is well worth listening to.

Mozart and the invitation to freedom

In a delightful essay in the latest issue of New Blackfriars, Thomas Casey explores the depiction of human freedom in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni: “Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Invitation to Full Freedom,” 
New Blackfriars 88:1015 (2007), 288-299. Here’s an excerpt:

“The truth that ushers in our freedom is the realization that there is more to each of us than we suspect: as persons, we exist beyond ourselves. We can never be circumscribed within the immanent horizons of culture and society. We are not commodities or things. However limiting the culture we inhabit, it can never definitively stifle the infinite desires that surge and rise within us. We are excessive creatures, elastically exceeding the web of finite contexts. This is because we are founded upon a freedom that is full and expansive and perfect. We find our origin – and goal – in God.”

Monday, 14 May 2007

The God Delusion: podcast

The main talks from our Brisbane seminar on Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion are now available as podcasts.

Theology databases: Alexander Street Press

My university library has just purchased subscriptions to two theology databases, both published by Alexander Street Press:

These are research databases of the highest quality. The organisation is elegant and intuitive, and the search capacities are highly sophisticated. For instance, you can find every time Barth’s correspondence mentions “Bultmann” and “myth” in a single sentence, or you can search Barth’s exegetical writings for the words that occur most frequently in close proximity to the word πίστις; or (in the Protestant Texts database) you can search for every time Calvin cites Romans 11:33 in his sermons, or every time he refers to Luther in his early letters; and so on.

This is the first time an Australian library has purchased these databases, and I’m sure they’ll prove to be indispensable resources for future research. If you want ask your own library for a subscription or free trial, you can get in touch with the sales team at Alexander Street Press.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Prayer in a time of war

A guest-post by George Hunsinger

O Lord our God, heavenly Father, King of the universe, grant us wisdom and courage in this time of endless war, especially the unjust war we have promulgated in Iraq.

Grant us the wisdom to seek the things that make for peace. Where there is misery, let us seek compassion; where there is hatred, let us seek healing; where there is falsehood in the public square, let us seek to recover the truth.

Let us not be blinded by narrow national self-interest, by unnamed greed, by callous disregard for the suffering of others. Why are we so stricken by slaughters at home, like Virginia Tech, O Lord, and so unmoved by massacres abroad?

Grant us the courage that we so desperately need: courage to face the wrong where we have done the wrong; courage to repent where we have departed from your Law, descending into the moral corruption of torture, of secret prisons, of indifference toward traumatized children, of pious invocations of your Name. Let not crime be compounded by blasphemy.

Renew a right spirit within us, we pray, that confessing the error of our ways, we might undertake a measure of satisfaction for the devastations we have wrought. Let us not appear more righteous in our own eyes than we are in yours.

        From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
        From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men;
        From sale and profanation of honor and the sword;
        From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Miroslav Volf: The End of Memory

Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 244 pp. (review copy courtesy of Eerdmans)

It’s a piece of conventional wisdom that we should never forget the wrongs of the past. In this delightful new work of theological psychology, Miroslav Volf offers a patient and probing critique of such conventional wisdom. On the one hand, he argues that we should remember past wrongs not only for the sake of the victims, but also for the sake of the perpetrators; and on the other hand, he argues that the proper goal of such remembering is in fact non-remembrance.

Volf weaves his theological and psychological analysis around an unsettling set of memories from his own past. In the communist Yugoslavia of the early 1980s, Volf’s theological studies were interrupted by a summons to compulsory military service. As a Christian married to an American, an advocate of non-violence, and an expert on Marxist socialism, Volf was perceived to be an opponent of the Yugoslavian communist regime. He was thus forced to endure a protracted period of interrogation under the military police (his interrogator is described throughout the book as “Captain G.”).

Long after these events, Volf has remained haunted by the memories of his interrogation. Thus the central question of this book: how do we “remember rightly”? This was a question of great importance for Volf himself, since “My soul was at stake in the way I remembered Captain G.” (p. 17). So what does it mean to remember rightly? If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we must be committed to remembrance as reconciliation – to memory as “a bridge between adversaries instead of a deep and dark ravine that separates them” (p. 35).

As Christians, we have received a “framework for remembering.” The pivotal events of Israel’s exodus and Christ’s death and resurrection are “meta-memories”: they provide a broad framework which “regulates how we remember wrongs suffered in our everyday lives” (p. 94). These framing memories, moreover, are fundamentally “memories of God” (p. 101); in bringing them to mind, we are also recalling God’s promise as the reality of our own future. To remember rightly, therefore, is to remember past wrongs through the interpretive lens of these meta-memories from salvation-history. When, for instance, Volf remembers Captain G. through the lens of Christ’s passion, he is remembering a wrongdoing that is “already forgiven,” and indeed already “overcome” (p. 123).

But is such remembering a transgression against the wrongdoing itself? Does it take sin too lightly? Volf’s reply is that such remembering in fact demands the greatest possible recognition of the seriousness of wrongdoing – for to remember in this way is to perceive that the wrongdoing has been “borne by God” (p. 123). This is not, therefore, simply a matter of interpreting and integrating the past, but it also involves the “driving out” and “overcoming” and “healing” of the darkness of the past (p. 188).

Having addressed the question of how to remember, Volf turns next to the question of how long we should remember. Here, he argues against the widespread assumption that wrongdoings should be remembered forever. He is not advocating a mere “forgetting” of past wrongs; rather, he believes that the forgiveness of sins issues finally in “non-remembrance” or “not-coming-to-mind” (p. 145). The argument here draws on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud, all of whom believed that a certain kind of “forgetting” is an essential aspect of human wholeness. In Nietzsche’s words, if the past is not properly forgotten, it becomes “the gravedigger of the present” (p. 161).

While it is often said that we would lose our identities if we ceased to remember, Volf draws on Luther’s anthropology to present an alternative construal of personal identity. We receive our identity from “outside ourselves”; we are located in God, and our identity is found in him. Thus the non-remembrance of past wrongs does not violate our identity. On the contrary, “being in God” sets us free from “the tyranny [of] the unalterable past.” The God who redeems the past does not take anything away from us – “God does not take away our past; God gives it back to us” (p. 201). In this way, we are truly redeemed, truly reconciled.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal of the book is the argument that even the death of Jesus will eventually fall into the oblivion of non-remembrance. Against the view that the cross of Jesus is “an eternal event in God” (a view that he had advocated in his 1996 book on Exclusion and Embrace), Volf argues that the cross is in fact merely “a stage on the road to resurrection and exaltation” – and, as such, it is “a stage that can be left in the past even if its effects last for eternity” (p. 201). Sin-bearing does not “exhaust the identity of Christ” (pp. 190-91). My own suspicion is that this proposal fails to take seriously enough the character of Jesus’ death as an event of God’s own self-giving, and thus as an event that belongs to (or even constitutes) God’s identity; nevertheless, Volf is right to underscore the sheer eschatological triumph of God’s reconciling work.

Indeed, Volf’s greatest concern is to articulate an eschatological form of non-remembrance. If we did not believe in the Last Judgment, we would surely want to remember wrongs forever. But because we believe that the end of history belongs to God, we’re able to let go of the past, to allow memories of wrongdoings to “slip into oblivion.” Indeed, such “oblivion” will be an essential aspect of God’s new world, as both the wronged and the wrongdoers are brought together and reconciled in “a dance of love in the embrace of the Triune God” (p. 181).

Volf thus offers a major new interpretation of the concept of memory. His style is crisp and accessible, and the book is both remarkably insightful and often deeply moving. Volf’s aim, in a nutshell, is to present a new understanding of the function and significance of memory. By remembering rightly, we follow “the enemy-loving God” (p. 9) on his path of forgiveness and reconciliation. And the goal or “end” of all such remembering is love – a love that, in the end, remembers no wrongs.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Thinking bloggers

Various people have kindly nominated Faith & Theology in the “thinking blog” meme (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here and here). So I thought I should return the courtesy – here are five blogs that make me think:

Per Caritatem
This is the only philosophy of religion blog that I visit. Cynthia is extremely engaging, and her blog has a delightful “flavour” that I really appreciate. At her blog, you can learn all sorts of exciting new things about Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, Augustine, jazz, and more.

Missions and Theology
Joey is a Filipino missionary working near the border between Thailand and the Philippines. He’s a bright and well-read guy whose theological and missiological reflection is deeply shaped by his own challenging ministry context.

The Fire and the Rose
David is a promising Princeton student who is passionate about his theology. He’s got stacks of good ideas, and his posts are always filled with verve and vigour.

Euangelion
Together with Chrisendom, this is one of my two favourite New Testament blogs. Mike helps to keep me in touch with current research on Jesus and Paul; and he’s also the guy who first persuaded me to start a theology blog myself.

Subversive Christianity
This relatively new blog is a real gem – it’s full of sharp and provocative insights, written in a lucid, no-nonsense style.

Finally, let me give me an honourable mention to Insight Scoop, a very smart and classy Catholic blog that I’ve just started reading recently.

Karl Barth's birthday

Jim celebrates Karl Barth’s birthday (10 May) with a nice post. He notes that Barth is now “in heaven, listening to Mozart and being rightly corrected by Zwingli.” What more could anyone want?

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Twelve indispensable books on creation

Here’s a list of 12 indispensable books on the doctrine of creation. It’s not really a balanced list – e.g. there’s nothing here on the New Testament, and I’ve restricted the list to modern works. But in any case, these are some of the books that I’ve found most impressive and most useful. Here they are, in chronological order:

  • Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton (1895; translated 2006)
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1 (1958)
  • Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (1988)
  • Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural (1967)
  • Claus Westermann, Creation (1971)
  • T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (1981)
  • Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation (1985)
  • Bernhard Anderson, Creation Versus Chaos: The Reinterpretation of Mythical Symbolism in the Bible (1987)
  • Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology (1988)
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (1994)
  • Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, Vol. 1: Nature (2001)
  • David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (2003)

Free for God

“Not for anything in the world would I be free from God; I wish to be free in God and for God…. God must again be the centre of our whole life.”

—Nicolai Berdyaev, The End of Our Time (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1933), p. 105.

Conference: the offence of beauty

Jason alerts us to a conference at St Andrews on the offence of beauty: “what can a theological perspective on beauty offer to the arts today?” Speakers include Robert Jenson, Jeremy Begbie and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Christianity and capitalism

Over at Journeying with Those in Exile, Dan has been posting a long and challenging series on Christianity and capitalism. He advocates radically “nonsensical” forms of sharing, and in the latest post he highlights the economic significance of the eucharist: “We will have sufficient for all, even the least, as long as we break bread together. What we need to remember is that every time we partake of the Eucharist, we are breaking bread with the global body of Christ, with Christians in the two-thirds world. Thus, after such bread breaking, how can we not also share all things with them?”

The world's luckiest kindergarten

Apparently Bob Dylan has been performing songs at his grandson’s kindergarten: “The kids have been coming home and telling their parents about the weird man who keeps coming to class to sing scary songs on his guitar.”

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Michael Bird: The Saving Righteousness of God

My good friend Mike Bird has released his second book: The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective (Paternoster, 2007), 230 pp.

James Dunn describes Mike’s work as “a calm, judicious and irenic voice amid the welter of paranoid accusation and counteraccusation” of the New Perspective controversy. Robert Gundry says that “for fair treatment and thoroughness of coverage, … this book is probably unmatched.” I. Howard Marshall describes this as a “fresh and sane approach to a difficult area,” which “will clarify the essential issues for students and preachers alike as they wrestle with expounding the thought of Paul for the contemporary church.”

Mike’s aim is to offer an evangelical integration of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification with the framework of the New Perspective on Paul. He argues that the covenantal and forensic dimensions of justification should be viewed as two sides of the same coin, not as opposing interpretations. For Paul, faith alone in Jesus Christ is the instrument of eschatological vindication, and it is this same faith which marks out the people of God. In my view, one of Mike’s most valuable contributions is his concept of “incorporated righteousness” – a remarkable concept that successfully brings together the New Perspective and the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification.

If you’ve been struggling to get a handle on these issues, or if you’re eager to see the doctrine of justification reshaped in light of contemporary New Testament research, I’m sure you’ll be very grateful for Mike’s balanced and irenic approach.

ETS president converts to Rome

Aaron notes that, in a fascinating turn of events, the current president of the conservative Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Francis Beckwith had planned to keep his conversion under wraps until the end of his term as ETS president. But unfortunately a talkative blogger broke the news. So now, in an attempt to minimise controversy, Beckwith has decided both to resign as president and to withdraw his membership from the ETS. (Ironically, however, he observes that “I can in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement.”)


On his blog, Beckwith discusses his conversion to Rome, as well as his resignation from the ETS. It’s depressing to see the rancour of some of the Protestant responses. Even a professional theologian (who ought to know better) adds a comment describing Beckwith’s conversion as “a sad day for all true sons and daughters of the Protestant Reformation, for all who lived and died for its truths” – as though the religious violence of the 16th and 17th centuries (“living and dying”) were the proper norm for a contemporary understanding of ecclesial differences – or as though our primary responsibility today were to honour the dark legacy of this violence!

Monday, 7 May 2007

Three things I do (and do not) believe

Today’s a public holiday here, so I’ll be spending a leisurely day in Maleny, one of my favourite Aussie towns. In the meantime, here’s a brief re-posting (originally posted last year):

Three things I believe

1. I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s self-giving Word.
2. I believe that this Word is a wholly good Word for all people.
3. I believe that this good Word is the meaning of life.

Three things I do not believe

1. I do not believe that the meaning of the word “God” is obvious or self-evident.
2. I do not believe that God is either self-evidently “transcendent” or self-evidently “immanent.”
3. I do not believe that God’s will and work can be directly identified with anything in our religion, culture or experience.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

The practice of creation

“It is widely held that creation became a crucial claim of Israel’s faith in exile, when Gen. 1:1-2:4a is commonly dated. This setting for creation faith suggests that affirmations of creation as an ordered, reliable arena of generosity is a treasured counter to the disordered experience of chaos in exile. If this critical judgment is accepted, creation then is an ‘enactment,’ done in worship, in order to resist the negation of the world in exile. As a consequence, creation is not to be understood as a theory or as an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.”

—Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), p. 533.

JesusPets

“If Jesus returns tonight, who will feed your pets tomorrow?” I’ve always wondered about that. So I was relieved to hear about JesusPets, an organisation which is “assembling a community of heathen pet-lovers to care for pets that are left behind” at the rapture. Now we can really fly away with an easy mind!

Meanwhile, though, let’s just hope and pray that these heathen pet-lovers don’t get born again – otherwise, little Poochie could be in serious trouble when the glorious day arrives....

Friday, 4 May 2007

The worst theological invention: results

Well, after 579 votes, it’s time to announce the winner of “the worst theological invention” poll. It was a very close contest. It was looking as though biblical inerrancy would be a clear winner – but at the last moment, Christendom inched ahead to a first-place tie. So our joint winners are biblical inerrancy and Christendom, each with 18% of the votes. These winners are closely followed by the rapture and papal infallibility (17% each), and then Arianism (14%), double predestination (11%), and just war theory (5%). (In our egalitarian sub-poll, penal substitution was a clear winner, with 24% of 223 votes, followed by God as a male, with 21%.) So congratulations to our deserving winners: biblical inerrancy and the empire of Christendom!

It was interesting to observe the geographical distribution of the votes. While biblical inerrancy and the rapture were more popular among North American voters, the Christendom vote was dominant in Europe and Asia (and, to a lesser extent, in the United Kingdom). Here in conservative Australia, only a couple of people voted for biblical inerrancy, and most voters chose the rapture or papal infallibility. Although the just war vote was not dominant anywhere, it was considerably more popular in the United Kingdom. Biblical inerrancy was very popular among voters from the United States – not many people from the west coast voted for it, but it becomes increasingly dominant as you scroll the map towards the east coast. Finally, it’s interesting that among the relatively small number of voters from South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, biblical inerrancy didn’t receive even a single vote – in contrast to the numerous votes it received in the US and the UK.

Anyway, thanks for participating in the poll!

Thursday, 3 May 2007

The God Delusion?

Tomorrow night, I’ll be participating in a public seminar on Richard Dawkins’ controversial book, The God Delusion. It should be an interesting and lively discussion – if you’re in the Brisbane area, you’re welcome to come along and join us. And on Sunday night (unless, by then, Dawkins has persuaded me to become an atheist) I’ll be preaching on “creation” at St Mark’s Anglican Church.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Ten propositions on being a minister

by Kim Fabricius

A few years ago, as part of a working group in the Welsh Synod of the United Reformed Church, I wrote a report to launch a programme for local churches to explore the question, “What are ministers for?” It was entitled Great Expectations. I began by deconstructing the question, suggesting that its pragmatism (as I would now put it) is theologically vulgar, and that, in any case, it begs a couple of questions: namely, that before we can say what ministers are for, we need to know what the church is for; and before we can say what the church is for, we need to know what God is up to. And as what God is up to is nothing less than cosmic reconciliation and renewal, and as the church is called to bear witness to God’s great work-in-progress, insofar as ministers are “for” anything, it has to do with helping to align the church with the missio Dei.

Having thrown a spanner into the works, I then got down to some nuts and bolts. Here is an adapted summary.

1. Ministers should be able to lead and to organise, but they are not called to be managers – and woe unto the minister who would run the one, holy, catholic, apostolic – and “efficient” McChurch!

2. Ministers should be able to conduct worship winsomely and to preach intelligently – but woe unto the minister who would be an entertainer or cheerleader – or turn prayer into a “resource.”

3. Ministers should be able to listen, empathise, care, advise, and give spiritual direction, but they are not called to be therapists, let alone life-style coaches – and woe unto the minister who would turn out well-balanced citizens who make the system “work”!

4. Ministers are not called to be casual visitors, but they should certainly be sharing in the lives of their people, and meeting them where they are most truly themselves, in the quotidian as well as the crisis – often at home and, for chaplaincies, at work – laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep.

5. Ministers are not called to be scholars, but they need to rediscover their roles as community theologians (as teachers, not just “facilitators”). Breaking “the strange silence of the Bible in the church” (James Smart), they must ensure that the scriptures are at the centre of congregational life, and that their churches are cultures of learning. They must also ensure that the hermeneutical and ethical tasks are one, shaping character as well as transforming minds.

6. Ministers are not called to be scientists or sociologists, but they should be keen observers of, and articulate commentators on, what is happening in the world, to enable their congregations to engage their faith with their life and work, vigilantly discern the signs of the times, and boldly witness to Christ in the polis.

7. Ministers are not chairmen of the board, and their ministries should be exercised collaboratively. And ministers should not be doing what others can do; otherwise they disempower them and rob them of their own ministries. Making themselves as redundant and unnecessary as possible, ministers should help people to discover and deploy their own particular grace-gifts, equipping the saints for building up the body of Christ.

8. Ministers are shepherds – though many a member would prefer a pet lamb. As they call their flock to new pastures, and to experimental patterns and models of ministry, they are inevitably going to piss off some of the fat sheep. So ministers must expect to be butted. Another zoological metaphor: ministers should be horseflies, not butterflies – better to be swatted than mounted.

9. Ministers represent the local church to the wider church, and the wider church to the local church – and the church is very wide. You know the story of the Welsh parch who was finally rescued after years stranded on a desert island, where he had built a little village: when the sailors asked why he had constructed two churches, he replied, “That is the one I don’t attend.” Ministers should nurture ecumenical collegiality. And if it is said that an ecumenical freeze has set in, Emily Dickinson wrote: “Winter under cultivation / Is as arable as spring.”

10. Finally, ministers, remember this: your congregations are unlikely to resemble the early church in Acts, so whenever you get stressed out, read Paul’s Corinthian correspondence – and thank God for the awkward buggers he has given you to love!

A conference on providence

The University of Aberdeen is hosting an exciting dogmatics conference in January, entitled “‘Deus Habet Consilium’: An International Conference on the Career and Prospects of Providence in Modern Theology.” The list of speakers and papers looks superb.

And, speaking of conferences, LeRon Shults alerts us to a conference on Schleiermacher and the future of the church.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Benedict XVI: Jesus of Nazareth

Here’s something to look forward to: Benedict XVI’s first book written as pope, Jesus of Nazareth, will be published in English soon. It looks as though it will be an excellent book, blending historical scholarship with pastoral and theological reflection. Chris and Zadok have been reading the German and Italian editions – and they’re both pretty impressed with it.

Princeton Theological Review

Thanks to the hard work of David and Chris, the new issue of the Princeton Theological Review is now available online. This issue is devoted to theology and the arts – and, as Chris points out, most of the authors are hard-working theology-bloggers.

New book

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