Friday, 29 June 2007

Ten theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian, Christian, martyr

A guest-post by Ray Anderson, Fuller Theological Seminary

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian. Rather, one should say that he became a Christian theologian. Eberhard Bethge, his former student and biographer, notes the year 1933 as a “transition from theologian to Christian.” In 1936 Dietrich wrote to a girlfriend and confessed: “I plunged into work in a very unchristian way.… [T]hen something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible…. I had often preached. I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it, but I had not yet become a Christian” (Bethge 2000, 203-5). By his own admission, his two most scholarly writings, Sanctorum Communio (1927) and Act and Being (1930), were written by a theologian who was not yet a Christian. I take the word “Christian” here to mean “disciple” – one who does not merely believe in Christ, but experiences Christ.

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a lonely theologian. Though he had a twin sister, was home-schooled by his mother, and was raised in a highly interactive social environment, his decision to become a theologian was met with curiosity and even some scorn. He was caught between his mother’s piety and his father’s open contempt for religion. Kenneth Morris says that in making his decision to become an academic theologian his “father pitied him and told him so” (1986, 75). For all his analysis of the social aspect of the self, Dietrich grew increasingly isolated in the midst of his activity. “With some exaggeration it might be said that because he was lonely he became a theologian, and because he became a theologian he was lonely” (Bethge 2000, 37). When a theologian writes (in Discipleship, 87), “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads to death” (Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod), we know that the door to life has become so narrow that only one can pass through at a time. Perhaps Bonhoeffer had already read the bleak observation of the 19th-century German underground theologian, G. J. Hamann: “In a world of fugitives / One who moves in the opposite direction / Will appear to run away.”

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a conflicted theologian. While others perceived in Dietrich self-assurance and even a bit of arrogance, he often experienced self-contempt and even periods of depression in his own soul, or what Bethge, who perhaps knew him best, called accidie or tristitia. These periods often followed times when he had been particularly effective in preaching, teaching or leading others. However, as Bethge recalls, after his arrest and imprisonment in 1943, he no longer experienced these times, as he was gripped by a sense of duty. In spite of enforced inaction, he had finally achieved the concrete discipleship that he longed for (Bethge 2000, 506, 833).

4. Bonhoeffer was a worldly theologian. While the “worldliness of Christianity” became a dominant theme in his Letters from Prison, underlying this perspective was his conviction that the God who became human in Jesus Christ abolished the distinction between religion and the world. In his earliest writing he stated that religion is dispensable, God is not. “Not religion, but revelation, not a religious community, but the church: that is what the reality of Jesus Christ means” (Communio 1963, 112). Later, having witnessed the utter failure of the church as a religious institution to act on behalf of the oppressed Jews, he followed Christ out of the church into the world. Only those who live fully in the world have a claim to follow Christ, he wrote from prison. The God of religion whom we seek to call into the world on our behalf, has already entered the world in the form of a suffering God. “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God” (Letters, 360). The “worldliness” of Christianity is not our invention, but our calling. The ambiguity of this situation, he asserted, is precisely what the incarnation created for us. It is ambiguity that creates prophets.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prophetic theologian. He was one of the first to recognize and point out the disastrous consequences of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. In June 1933, when the church struggle erupted over the National Bishop (Ludwig Müller) and the opposing General Superintendents were suspended, Bonhoeffer urged an interdict upon all pastoral services (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) as a way of confronting the German Christians with their unholy alliance with Hitler. But he could not arouse sympathy for this drastic action. In fact, Barth advised against this radical proposal, suggesting that “we should let the facts speak for themselves.” In September, following the Brown Synod, Bonhoeffer urged the formation of a new Free Church and even wrote to Barth requesting his support. But here again Bonhoeffer was disappointed at Barth’s counsel to wait until the present leaders “discredited themselves” (Bethge 2000, 292). It was in April 1933 in his article on “the Church and the Jewish Question” that he suggested that the only way to act responsibly would be by “throwing a spoke in the wheel” of the national government. Prophets often die by their own words; theologians seldom do.

6. Bonhoeffer was a postmodern theologian. Postmodern ethics was anticipated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he turned the “modern” basis for ethics (as advocated by Kant) on its head. He wrote: “In the sphere of Christian ethics it is not what ought to be that effects what is, but what is that effects what ought to be” (Communio 1963, 146). The problem of Christian ethics, said Bonhoeffer, is the same as the problem of Christian dogmatics, the realization of the reality of revelation in and among God’s creatures in the form of concreteness, immediacy, and obedience. In a world where good and evil are mixed, and where ambiguity conceals the divine commandment, the Christian’s ethical responsibility is to follow and obey Christ, not merely to adhere to abstract ethical principles. There is no place for “self justification” by virtue of reliance on predetermined principles for action. “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable” (Ethics 1995, 71).

7. Bonhoeffer was a post-denominational theologian. What he viewed as the demise of the church was its claim to a special place as a religious institution and its failure to exist in solidarity with the world in obedience to Christ. His participation in ecumenical conversations and dialogue marked a blurring of denominational boundaries and the recognition of authentic Christian existence in mutual friendship, as expressed in his final words sent to Bishop Bell in England from his death cell: “for me it is the end but also the beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and that our victory is certain – tell him too that I have never forgotten his words at our last meeting.” Writing from prison, his view of the church’s future was incarnational and ethical in a truly worldly sense. “The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give always all its property to those in need…. The church must share in the most secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving” (Letters, 382). Denominations are religious institutions at the edge of the world; the church is an incarnational presence in the midst of the world.

8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a practical theologian. Practical theology deals with God’s self-revelation and activity through the life and ministry of human beings. From the early Barth, Bonhoeffer learned that the act of God reveals the being of God. His second dissertation, Act and Being (1930), attempted to bring Barth’s concept of “pure act” into the historical realm through Heidegger. But Bonhoeffer was never a disciple of Barth. True, Barth led him away from idealism into critical realism with regard to divine revelation, but God’s life and activity through the human person Jesus Christ became for Bonhoeffer the praxis of revelation and thus the form of practical theology. His Christology was orthodox so far as Christ is the form of God in the world, but practical so far as the Christian is the form of Christ in the world. Because the former was merely a dogmatic assumption, his own theological praxis was concerned with action prior to reflection – a statement that scandalized his students.

9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a maverick theologian. John Maverick was a 19th-century Texas rancher and legislator who received a herd of cattle in payment of a bill and turned them loose on the range without a brand. When one of them turned up without a brand, it was assumed to be one of Maverick’s. Many have tried to mark Dietrich with their own brand, to no avail! He slipped away from the death of God theologians when they realized that the same man who wrote from prison about living in a world without God was the one who invited a Russian atheist fellow prisoner to participate in a final communion service just before being executed. Pacifists put a claim on him but felt betrayed by his admission that he would kill Hitler himself if the lot fell to him as a member of the conspiracy. Evangelicals like his talk about Jesus but wish Bonhoeffer had been more concerned about his unsaved relatives and friends. Social activists applaud him for his concern for the oppressed but are embarrassed by his orthodox Christology. Even in death, as in life, he remained unbranded.

10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a martyred theologian. There is disagreement over this, of course. His complicity in the conspiracy thrust him directly into political resistance. In the minds of many traditional Lutherans, this excluded him from being a Christian martyr. In a sermon preached in 1932 he had this to say about martyrs: “the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness” (Bethge 1975, 155). By his own definition, he was a martyr. He never claimed justification for his actions, other than to assume guilt as a necessary component of responsible action. Whether it was true or not, he thought that his actions, to the very end, were those of a Christian disciple in obedience to Christ. Martyrs live for what they confess to be true, and die for it. Only those who confess the same truth will call a person a martyr.

For the love of God

A friend asked me for a link to last year’s “For the love of God” series. So I’ve tagged the series, and you can now see all the posts listed together under these two tags: Part 1 and Part 2. If you missed this series, I reckon it was fantastic – 26 guest-posts on a wide range of theologians from various traditions, with a special focus on contemporary theological thinkers.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Encounters with tradition (5): becoming a global Baptist

A guest-post by Michael Westmoreland-White

I was not raised Baptist. I grew up in a family of active United Methodist Christians. Some of the strengths of that tradition are with me still: a stress on faith as an act of free will, a focus on piety of the heart, and strong emphasis on both personal and social sanctification – although I have never accepted any form of perfectionism or “entire sanctification,” not even Wesley’s “perfection of love.” But I quit catechism classes at age 12 and was never confirmed.

In my late teens, God used African-American Christians, primarily Black Baptists, as the human agents in my conversion. But before I could find a church home and be formed in the practices and virtues of Christian discipleship, I joined the US Army. A friend who was opposed to my joining the military challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount during Basic Training. I did, and it led to much cognitive dissonance, but I compartmentalized my doubts and was soon deployed to Heidelberg, Germany. I didn’t want to go to the base chapel and looked around for a church to attend. There is a Baptist congregation in Heidelberg and, at least in those days, it offered services in both German and English with the same sermon. I went to both because I was hoping to improve my German.

The pastor introduced me to Christian pacifism. Pacifism is not rare among German Baptists; it is a significant minority position there. I became convinced of this view and sought a conscientious objection discharge from the army. So my initial initiations into Baptist life were through the African-American Baptist tradition in the US – an Exodus-shaped faith forged from the fusion of African religious views, the experience of slavery and its aftermath, and revivalism – and the German Baptist tradition which is broadly Reformed and deeply Pietist.

Returning to the States, I joined a local Southern Baptist congregation, not knowing the differences among Baptists. At the same time, I was cementing my pacifism by reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and the collected sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. I quickly found out that pacifism was far rarer among Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists themselves are a blend of several strands of tradition, but I did not know that.

I would probably have stayed with the Southern Baptists if not for two overlapping experiences: seminary and “The Controversy,” i.e., the internal feud among Southern Baptists c.1979-c.1994. Depending on which “side” one is on, this conflict is either referred to in triumphal terms as “the Conservative Resurgence,” or denounced in horrified tones as “the Fundamentalist Takeover.” I have mostly been in the latter camp. Shortly after I responded to a perceived call of God to study for the gospel ministry (at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY), I discovered that Southern Baptists had been undergoing an internal power-and-identity struggle for several years. I had experienced Southern Baptist life as broadly evangelical, but not fundamentalist. For instance, the pastors I had known had never mentioned the word “inerrancy.” I had been taught that Baptists held Scripture to be authoritative with Christ as hermeneutical norm, and no one had ever mentioned any form of scientific or historical inerrancy. Now, I found that the institutions of the SBC were being taken over by those who stressed inerrancy (and defined it very much like the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy), were hostile to critical biblical studies, opposed male-female equality and the ordination of women, and were mostly aligned with conservative Republican politics. Later, opposition to legal abortions (with which I had some sympathy) and to either equal inclusion of GLBT folk in church life or civil liberties for GLBT folk would be added.

None of this sat well with me. It was alien to my experiences as a Baptist Christian in both Germany and the US. I decided that if the “conservatives” were right about who Baptists were supposed to be, I would be something else. So I began a deep search into historical records in the seminary library. I knew that Baptists had begun in the 17th century in England out of Puritan origins. I found that we also had minor influences from Dutch Mennonites – a branch of the Anabaptists. The Anabaptist emphasis on active discipleship, nonviolence, religious liberty, simple living, and disciplined, covenant community resonated with me. I nearly became a Mennonite, but I also discovered that some Anabaptists had cultivated a “withdrawal ethic,” and the Puritan emphasis on the “cultural mandate” had kept Baptists from following suit. So I remained a Baptist (leaving the Southern Baptist Convention for the Alliance of Baptists), but of an Anabaptist type.

Since that time, I have been employed at two Catholic universities, a Catholic seminary, a multi-denominational evangelical seminary, and in an ecumenical (but Mennonite-dominant) peace organization. Each of these contexts has caused me to re-appropriate my Baptist tradition. I have learned to compensate for weaknesses by drawing on others’ strengths, but have also deepened my appreciation for Baptist strengths in the face of others’ weaknesses.

For the past 15 years or so, I have been trying to experience and learn about Baptist life all over the globe. I have grown tired of descriptions of Baptist identity that draw only from Southern Baptist or only from North American or British categories. I want to learn about Baptist life from all these sisters and brothers, too. I want my Baptist identity to be a global one, not a parochial one imposed on the rest of the world.

I am a Baptist as part of the larger Believers Church tradition, that collection of denominational groups which always rejects legal establishment, which must be joined individually by personal faith and believers’ baptism, and which stresses active discipleship and gathered churches of visible saints. Such groups, which James Wm. McClendon named “small-b baptists,” include Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, the Stone-Campbell movement, the Church of God (Holiness), most Pentecostal groups, many of the indigenous churches in Asia and Africa, Nazarenes, the Church of the Brethren and other “Dunker” groups, Plymouth Brethren, and so on. I am a Baptist, but it is even more important to me that I am “baptist.”

I am enriched daily by folks from other traditions within Christianity. But I am a Baptist because this is the limb of the Body of Christ where I feel called to live and serve. Being Baptist seems to me, despite some contrary publicity, to be one good way of being Christian.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

An interview

Our Welsh friend Guy Davies has interviewed me as part of his new series. We talk about books, blogging, Barth, evangelicalism, how to act like an Aussie, and much more....

Kim's ten confessions

Here is Kim’s contribution to the new meme.

I confess that:

1. I think a lot more about baseball and sex (the order varies, particularly in the off season) than God.

2. I much prefer Mark to John (a little less conversation, a little more action, please), and the wit of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde to the wisdom of Solomon.

3. I find the state of the church – and not only denominationalism but also the snake oils of managerialism, therapeutics, and the latest “vision thing” – to be much more threatening to my faith in God than the reality of suffering.

4. I consider the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to be a veritable compendium of Christian heresies.

5. I stand in awe at the edifice of Roman Catholic theology, as one might stand before Chartres Cathedral – or the Tower of Babel.

6. I hold in equal contempt ministers who do not read theology and theologians who do not read poetry and fiction.

7. I have no time for the cultured despisers of the Enlightenment on the one hand and of “postmodernism” (curate’s egg that it is) on the other, and I seriously doubt the intelligence of people who consider the likes of Foucault and Derrida to be “intellectual impostors.”

8. I am vexed by the abyss between the beauty of eucharistic theology and the banality of eucharistic practice.

9. I am uncomfortable with Christians who never swear, as if, missing a chromosome, they are less than truly human.

10. I find the telephone to be a necessary irritation, but the mobile phone to be the invention of Antichrist.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Google Street View: a shocking sighting

When Google Maps first announced their new Street View function, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was another sign of our spiritual bankruptcy; whether the conversion of entire cities into material for voyeurism was indicative of our fundamental cynicism about human society; whether our craving for more comprehensive techniques of surveillance arises from a deep secret belief that we really don’t exist; whether, at the core of all this voyeurism, is a gaping void.

Well, my worst fears were confirmed when I saw this image: the void itself has been sighted on a busy San Francisco street….

A spreading meme

Here are some of the contributions to the new out of the closet meme – I’ll update this list as more posts are added:

Philosophy over Coffee
Sub Ratione Dei
Andygoodliff
The Ivy Bush
Journey Toward Grace
ADKF
Catholic in the Third Millennium
Renewed Theology
Ponderings on a Faith Journey (again)
A Greater Courage
A Man Called Preach
Exiled Preacher
Flying Farther (again)
Deep Furrows (again)
Inhabitatio Dei (again!)
Armless But Not Harmless
One Thing I Know
Deviating
Vindicated
P. T. Forsyth Files
Sean the Baptist
Euangelion
Semper Reformanda
Prog(ressive)Nostications
A Skinny Fairtrade Latte
Paul Whiting
Waiting Room of the World
Leaving Münster
Elizaphanian
Per Caritatem
Progression of Faith
Mind Splatterings
Imaginations in Unity
Loretta’s Basement
Mattopia
Striped Theology
Nothing New under the Sun
Your Own Personal Jesus
The New Perspective on Rob
A Thinker’s Progress
Kim Fabricius
Ponderings on a Faith Journey
Fallen into Knowledge
Jim West
The Normal Christian Life
Levellers
Inhabitatio Dei
Aaron Ghiloni
Deep Furrows
The Fire and the Rose
Homilia of a NT Scholar
Flying Farther

And it’s good to see that Benedict XVI himself has decided to participate in this meme – he writes: “I confess: when I turned 70 (ten years ago), I would have so much desired that the beloved John Paul II would allow me to dedicate myself to study and research.” Yep, we’ve all been there….

Monday, 25 June 2007

Out of the closet: a meme

Peter Leithart lists a series of theological “confessions” – so I thought I’d do the same. If you’re easily shocked, you might want to skip this.... Then again, perhaps we should make a meme of it – the “out of the closet meme.” To participate in this meme, just post a list of intellectual confessions. Here are some of mine:

I confess: one of the great turning-points in my life was reading Pannenberg’s christology (Jesus – God and Man).

I confess: no theologian makes me feel more comfortable, more at home, than Rudolf Bultmann.

I confess:
I tend to read Karl Barth through the metaphysical lens of Robert Jenson’s theology.

I confess: until I read John Webster’s Confessing God, I was convinced that theology should rid itself completely of the doctrine of God’s “attributes.”

I confess: I get inordinate pleasure from reading Plato and Hegel and Marx.

I confess: I sometimes wonder whether Schillebeeckx – rather than Rahner or Balthasar – might have been the greatest 20th-century Catholic theologian.

I confess: though I’ve tried and tried again, I’ve never managed to find Colin Gunton’s theology exciting.

I confess: I think David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

I confess: I sometimes wish that I had pursued historical Jesus studies instead of theology.

I confess: I think Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of election and triunity is one of the most important theological proposals of recent years.

I confess: I always believed that the sermon was more important than the sacrament, until I had young children – at that point, it became impossible to concentrate properly on the sermon, and so my eucharistic theology became much “higher.”

I confess: although it’s fashionable to say bad things about Augustine, I think he was the best theologian ever to walk the face of the earth.

Brevard Childs

Jim West relates the sad news that Brevard Childs has died. Kevin Wilson has posted a moving personal tribute to this great scholar.

Walter Brueggemann once said of Childs: “The late twentieth century is not an easy place for faithfulness. In a daring way, Childs has shown us what faithfulness might now mean. His reading is indeed ‘against the stream.’ He may, in the end, even reverse the flow of soft-minded, embarrassed theological accommodation.”

There’s a helpful site devoted to Childs’ writings here.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Where, we ask, is God today?

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Emma)

Where, we ask, is God today –
    in the gaps that science leaves,
    gaps that close as knowledge grows?
Such a God is on reprieve.

Where, we ask, is God today –
    in the private place of prayer,
    where we find security?
Such a God’s a teddy bear.

Where, we ask, is God today –
    in the church, behind its walls,
    for a cause in quarantine?
Such a God is far too small.

Where, we ask, is God today –
    in jihad or cruel crusade,
    in the council room of war?
Such a God’s the devil’s aide.

Where, we ask, is God today –
    in the questions that we ask,
    in the puzzles and the pain?
God is in the toils and tasks!

Where, we ask, is God today –
    are we where his Christ would be,
    with the outcast and ignored?
Such is God’s humanity!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Interpreting the past with Karl Barth

The excellent Karl Barth Blog Conference has come to an end. Travis should be congratulated for conceiving and organising this project. He did a great job – and, happily, he’s planning to organise a similar event next year.

I’ve written a concluding post, which you can read here. And if you want to read the best part of the whole series, then be sure to check out David’s excellent discussion of Barth and Hegel.

Is dogmatics useful?

“Of course, dogmatics ought not to be preached: one cannot ‘use’ it immediately in pastoral care, not even in Christian education or parish study groups. But the serious study of dogmatics helps us to become acquainted with the framework of theological interconnections, and it affords us with numerous perspectives from which to perceive the ambiguities of human life as well as showing us their limits of applicability.”

—Gerhard Sauter, Protestant Theology at the Crossroads: How to Face the Crucial Tasks for Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 62.

Friday, 22 June 2007

The Other Journal

JR Woodward alerts us to a new(ish) online journal, which looks superb:


The journal combines theological reflection with progressive social and political perspectives – they’ve had articles by heavyweights like William Cavanaugh, John Milbank, Miroslav Volf, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sallie McFague, and Stephen Webb; and they also feature poetry, paintings, film reviews, and music.

Some of the recent issues have focused on capitalism, sexuality, and the environment. What more could anyone want in a journal?

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Chocolate Jesus

One of my favourite songs at the moment is Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus,” from the album Mule Variations (1999). He gave a stunning performance of the song a few years back on the David Letterman show – you can watch it below (or you can read the lyrics here).

It’s a wonderfully entertaining song, and it’s packed with genuine theological insights. “It’s kind of an immaculate confection....”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Over one hundred German theologians have expressed support for Peter Hünermann’s recent call for an “intelligent restructuring” of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Hünermann observes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “has preserved the structure of a censor’s office, which it had at the beginning of the modern era.” And he notes: “Today, it’s necessary to elaborate the ratio fidei in a very complex culture, with its grave social, scientific and human problems. This presents a degree of complexity that a censor’s office according to old models is absolutely not capable of handling, even on an organizational and technical level.” He is, of course, exactly right.

In 1968, Ratzinger himself signed the Nijmegen Declaration – a similar call for reform, which stated that the teaching office of the pope “cannot and must not supersede, hamper and impede the teaching task of theologians as scholars.”

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Alister McGrath's scientific theology: is it scientific?

The latest issue of Theologische Zeitschrift 63:1 (2007) includes a fascinating exchange between Alister McGrath and Heiner Schwenke.

In his article, “Theologie als Mathesis Universalis? Heinrich Scholz, Karl Barth und der wissenschaftliche Status der christlichen Theologie” (pp. 44-57), McGrath introduces his project of Scientific Theology to German-language readers by exploring the debate between Karl Barth and Heinrich Scholz over the “scientific” status of Christian theology. He emphasises the priority of ontology over epistemology, and the fact that theological science is responsible: that is, it seeks to respond to reality itself; and its findings are accountable both to the Christian community and, ultimately, to God himself. The crucial thing in this article, however, is McGrath’s translation of “scientific theology” as “naturwissenschaftliche Theologie” – it is this choice of terminology that draws such sharp criticism from Heiner Schwenke in the following article.

Schwenke’s article (pp. 58-78) is entitled “Epistemischer Partikularismus als Weg der Theologie? Warum Alister McGraths ‘naturwissenschaftliche Theologie’ nicht naturwissenschaftlich ist” (“Why Alister McGrath’s ‘Scientific Theology’ Is Not Scientific”). Schwenke’s basic argument is that McGrath “abuses” the term “scientific,” i.e. naturwissenschaftlich (p. 77).

Schwenke argues that the essence of the scientific method is “epitemic universality” – and he criticises McGrath’s attempt to turn scientific method simply into one “epistemic particularity” alongside other methods. The mark of any authentic science is that its findings are “intersubjectively reproducible,” and thus universally available. Theology can be scientific, then, only when its statements are formulated as hypotheses which can be verified through repeatable tests.

For Schwenke, the problem with McGrath’s project is that it does not include this dimension of reproducibility – and thus instead of developing a universal method of knowing, it relies merely on a particular form of knowing which is accessible only to believers. For instance, McGrath claims that theology should presuppose a basic commitment to scripture – whereas such commitment to authority, in Schwenke’s view, undermines the very possibility of theology’s scientific status. McGrath “again introduces absolute epistemic authority into scientific methodology – after we had successfully rid ourselves of such authority at the dawn of modernity!” (p. 75).

One of the central arguments of McGrath’s Scientific Theology is that each science has its own distinct object and thus its own distinct methods of knowing. But Schwenke sees this simply as special pleading for theology: “If each science has its own method according to its own object, and if there are no general methodological specifications, then it would be impossible to deny the ‘scientific’ character of McGrath’s own methodology” (p. 74). What McGrath is really seeking, then, is “to use the term ‘scientific’ for his theology but nevertheless to be free to select his own theological method – a method which has little chance of being recognised as ‘scientific’ by natural scientists” (p. 74).

Further, Schwenke argues that McGrath’s view leads to dire ethical consequences. Heisenberg has described the scientific endeavour as a bridge that can connect different people-groups. But this can occur only where the universality of the scientific method is affirmed. In our current environment, where global peace is threatened by religious conflict, such scientific “bridging” is especially urgent. But it is undermined by McGrath’s pursuit of “epistemic particularity” – effectively, such a move seals off theology from public dialogue with other religions. While McGrath labels his theology “scientific,” he really ends up with a “religionistic theology” (religionistische Theologie) which cannot be tested or questioned by people outside the confines of the Christian community (p. 77).

In short, therefore, Schwenke insists that McGrath’s methodology represents a “fatal escape into the dead end of epistemic particularity” (p. 77). It fails to meet the requirements of authentic “scientific” method, and it undermines the ethical demands of inter-religious dialogue.

This is certainly the most vigorous methodological critique of McGrath’s project yet published. I sympathise with Schwenke’s general perspective – especially his commitment to the public accessibility of theological discourse – but I think his interpretation of McGrath (and, more broadly, of the theological task itself) has some deep flaws. I’ll try to address these problems soon in another post.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Here and there

Halden discusses radical trinitarianism, and he also describes a fascinating and unlikely debate about same-sex relationships. In case there was any doubt, Shane makes it clear that Thomas Aquinas is not a semi-Pelagian, while Aaron asks who can hope, and Michael raises the important question whether jazz is the meaning of life.

Meanwhile, Andy asks whether Moltmann is a theological giant (the answer is No: but Pannenberg is another story). Scott gives some nice insight into theology at Aberdeen, and he also alerts us to some online lectures by Slavoj Žižek (I was especially interested in these, since I’m currently reading Žižek’s Interrogating the Real). Last but not least, Chris has come up with own new statement of biblical inerrancy (here and here) – and for his trouble, he was even branded a “faithless demagogue”!

Monday, 18 June 2007

Eschatology with a five-year-old

A recent theological conversation with my five-year-old daughter:

—When will God bring all the dead people back to life?
—God will bring everyone back to life at the end of the world. And we’ll all live again with him.
—Here, or in heaven?
—Here in this world. But he’ll make the whole world brand new.
—And the lion won’t eat the lamb anymore?
—That’s right. In God’s new world, no one will be hurting anyone else. We’ll all be at peace. Do you know what ‘peace’ means?
—It means it’s quiet.
—Yes, it could mean it will be quiet. But it also means that no one will fight anymore, no one will ever get angry or hurt – and there’ll be no more wars. Everyone will be friends. And because of that, there’ll be no more tears in God’s new world.
—No tears ever?
—Nope.
—Not even tears of happiness?
—Oh yeah…. Well, I’m sure we’ll still have tears of happiness. Have you ever had tears of happiness?
—Yes, of course I have.
—When?
—Umm…. When you come home from another country.
—Oh, I see. Actually, that makes me think of God’s new world as well. In God’s new world, all of us will be coming home from another country – coming home for the first time. So I guess we’ll have tears of happiness forever.
—But are they real lions?

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Essential films of 2006 for theologians

Biblical scholar and film aficionado Tyler Williams has posted his definitive list of Essential Films of 2006 for Theologians (following the success of last year’s post).

I haven’t seen some of these yet, but it looks like a very good list. Some of my favourite films of the year are there (Babel, Borat, The Departed, and especially Children of Men); and I might also have expected films like United 93, Sophie Scholl, and the delightful Thank You for Smoking to have made the list as well. I haven’t yet seen the German film The Lives of Others, but I’ve heard that it’s outstanding too.

For those of you who enjoy the finer things in life, I should also mention some excellent Aussie films of 2006: Candy, Jindabyne, Ten Canoes, and (the most crappy film ever made) Kenny.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

A book for each doctrine

Following my previous post, Andy Goodliff asks: if you had to choose one book for each major doctrine, what would you choose? And so he posts a list of one book for every doctrine.

I thought I’d attempt a similar list – but I found it impossible to choose just one, so I’ve expanded it to two books for each doctrine. Here are my suggestions (with no more than two books from a single author – otherwise, the whole list might be overrun by Barth and Pannenberg). Which books would you choose?

Theological method:
Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (1983)
John Webster, Confessing God (2005)

Doctrine of God:
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 (1942)
Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity (1982)

Creation:

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (2003)
Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning (1995)

Christology:
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man (1964)
Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity (2001)

Anthropology:
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1985)
Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self (2001)

Salvation:
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (1953)
Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord (1980)

Pneumatology:
Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 1 (1983)
John Taylor, The Go-Between God (1972)

Ecclesiology:
John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (1985)
Hans Küng, The Church (1967)

Eschatology:
Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (1964)
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 5 (1998)

Friday, 15 June 2007

A dogmatics for every occasion

An imaginative dogmatics: Origen, De principiis
A majestic dogmatics: Calvin, Institutes
An informative dogmatics: Donald Bloesch, “Christian Foundations”
An encyclopaedic dogmatics: Pannenberg, Systematic Theology
An intricate dogmatics: Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
A patient dogmatics: Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae
A deep dogmatics: Tillich, Systematic Theology
A legalistic dogmatics: W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology
A dogmatics for worshippers: Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology
A dogmatics for the oppressed: Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation
A dogmatics for theorists: D. B. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite
A cultural dogmatics: Langdon Gilkey, Message and Existence
A boring dogmatics: Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
An energetic dogmatics: Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology
A sleep-inducing dogmatics: Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology
A nightmare-inducing dogmatics: Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics
A traditional dogmatics: Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology
An untraditional dogmatics: Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology
A cheerful dogmatics: Barth, Church Dogmatics
A mystical dogmatics: Matthias Scheeben, Mysteries of Christianity

Whosoever will

“As it is the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ is the host who presides and invites participants to the table…. Insofar as it is Christ’s table, the church is invited, and therefore the church and its officers are not the presiding hosts. The church people who do preside at the table are only the servants who have themselves been invited…. [T]he table is a place of welcoming by God to sinners. When we get too strict about the right intentions, we might tend to lose sight of the fact that we are sinners welcomed to a table we do not deserve and over which we do not preside.”

—Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 2:673-75.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Ten propositions on heresy

by Kim Fabricius (his 25th set of propositions!)

1. Heresy comes from the Greek hairesis (literally “choice” or “thing chosen”) and denotes an “opinion” or a “school of thought.” In I Corinthians 11:19 the RSB translates haireseis as “divisions”, the NRSV as “factions”; and while Paul suggests that “there have to be (δεῖ) factions among you,” as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, nevertheless, as the context confirms, he deploys the word in a negative sense. See also the list of vices (“works of the flesh”) in Galatians 5:20: “factions” (NRSV), “party intrigues” (REB).

2. Of course what constitutes heresy is not pre-packaged; there is no timeless, pure dogma, discovered, simpliciter, like a diamond. On the other hand, a purely constructivist account of orthodoxy is inadequate, as if it were costume jewellery. There is a real sense in which dogma gives expression to what has been given to the church from the beginning, to what the church already knows before it recognises it, yet comes to recognise it only through relentless arguments about it, arguments issuing in fine and fragile articulations that say neither too little nor too much, and sometimes say it in negatives (cf. the apophaticism of the Chalcedonian Definition). The rough diamond has to be cut.

3. The early cuts, set in the creeds, were made in the context of ferocious Christological controversies. In dispute was the very identity of God, the God who creates and redeems us, to whom the church witnesses and prays (lex orandi, lex credendi). The arguments were not “academic,” what was at stake was “personal,” viz. the experience of salvation in Christ, and the transmission, through careful conversation, of the parameters within which the experience may be realised. Augustine called sound doctrine the hedge that protects the field where the Christian encounters God. I would only add that a hedge is made of shrubs, not bricks and barbed wire.

4. Another image: if orthodoxy is the bull’s eye, heresy is, as Rowan Williams puts it, the “near-misses” – which actually help guide the church towards the target (cf. Schleiermacher’s reference to his own teaching on God as “inspired heterodoxy”). The early heretics were generally neither knaves nor fools but pious and passionate men, zealous for God, morally serious, scrupulously scriptural. They were very clever, but conventional, fetchers and carriers for the zeitgeist. Heretics like a “wrap”, and heresies are fastidiously neat and tidy, the product of minds stuck inside the box of common sense. “Consistency,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Unsurprisingly, then, heresy is aesthetically unattractive, even ugly.

5. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that there are no such things as whole truths, there are only half-truths, and treating half-truths like whole truths plays the devil. Whitehead might have been talking about heresy. Heretics are one-eyed, they lack the “vision thing”: failing to see the bigger picture, they take the part for the whole. That’s why heresy is inevitably rather boring. Heretics have no sense of adventure; they go only so far, they won’t go “all the way.” You could say they are theological prudes, often wearing philosophical chastity belts, who resist being ravished by revelation.

6. Marcion was a literalist who couldn’t get his head around the apparent contradictions between Old and New Testaments, and so he hacked the Bible in two. Arius was monomaniacally monotheist and uncompromisingly conservative and resistant to conceptual innovation; his “notion of unity is devoid of the richness – and the mystery – of God’s unity. It is devoid of the unity of love” (Arthur C. McGill). Eutyches was “a confused and unskilled thinker ... blindly rushing forward to defend the unity of Christ against all attempts to divide Him”; while Nestorius, if not perhaps a Nestorian, launched such a “maladroit, crudely expressed exposition of the Antiochene position” on the two natures of Christ that he was never able to explain coherently what constitutes His centre (J. N. D. Kelly).

7. And then there are those perennial pests, Pelagianism and Donatism (technically a “schism,” an error of love rather than faith). A fair-minded comparison of Pelagius’ exegesis of Psalm 14, and Donatus’ interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, with Augustine’s is initially embarrassing. But when the bishop of Hippo raises the bar, deconstructing the human soul and insisting that God is always greater than we think, the two heresiarchs, the one monkish and severe, the other hawkish and charismatic, both perfectionists, are out of their depths. They are noble figures, and theirs are heroic theologies, but, as Rowan Williams observes, commenting on Augustine’s legacy, “God asks not for heroes but for lovers; not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”

8. “Remember,” wrote Chesterton, “that the church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer.... This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.” And the mark of the mad: “this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” And so: “Whenever we feel that there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.” Heresy is uncomfortable with the oddness of God.

9. “The truth of dogmas does not depend on the fact that the church maintains them. But is this really so? This is an abiding question, and dogmatics must always leave it open!” (Gerhard Sauter). Tradition always gets the benefit of the doubt, but might some of it be but “agedness of error” (Milton)? An ancient dogma, now widely contested, is the divine impassibility. With Moltmann, Jüngel declares that the cross “has destroyed the axiom of absoluteness, the axiom of apathy, the axiom of immutability, all of which are unsuitable axioms for the Christian concept of God.” Process and liberation theologians join the troops, while Thomas Weinandy and David Bentley Hart mount rearguard actions. Were the Theopaschites (if not the Patripassianists) right after all? In any case, claims to infallibility – a kind of tradition fundamentalism – bring orthodoxy into disrepute, and church history is littered with enough ill-conceived defences of orthodoxy to warrant theological vigilance and modesty. Moreover, while doubt plays black to trust (Wittgenstein), the acute post-enlightenment awareness of the historical and social location of ideas, and the undeniable insights of Tendenzkritik regarding the power-interests that texts serve and legitimate, entail a loss of dogmatic innocence that must give suspicion its due.

10. Finally, what do you do with heretics? Burn ‘em (though in fact none of the early heresiarchs were murdered)? Or at least track them down and corner them? If you’ve got a magisterium, you can fire the Küngs and the Currans. If you’re a powerful and aggressive church leader, you can threaten to take your ball and go home while at the same time invading other pitches (or is it Bishop Akinola who is the [Donatist] heretic?). Karl Barth warned against witch-hunts against Bultmann, and the author of the Barmen Declaration found the contemporary “confessional movement” “dead, cheap, fly-sieving, camel-swallowing, and Pharisaic.” On the other hand, I’m sure Barth would have approved of declaring apartheid a heresy. Finally, however, Stanley Hauerwas is right: “That one of the tests of orthodoxy is beauty means orthodoxy betrays itself if it is used as a hammer to beat into submission those we think heterodox.” And, of course, unless orthodoxy itself issues in orthopraxis – because truth is not so much thought as done (John 7:17) – well, hypocrisy isn’t heresy, but it ain’t pretty. The telos of orthodoxy is not conformity but faith working through love in joyful obedience.

Karl Barth blogging conference

Travis is hosting the first Karl Barth Blog Conference (in anticipation of this year’s Princeton Barth Conference, which will commence later this month).

The blog conference will focus on Barth’s great work on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. Each day (until 23 June), Travis will feature a guest-post on this work – and I’ll be contributing some concluding reflections at the end.

See the two initial posts – and be sure to keep an eye on the series as it unfolds over the next couple of weeks. If you’ve got a theology blog, you might also consider adding a temporary widget to your sidebar (as I’ve done here).

The real sin of Sodom

What was the real sin of Sodom? Kim sets the record straight.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Encounters with tradition (4): from Pentecostal to Vineyard

A guest-post by Frank Emanuel

There is a saying in the Vineyard: you don’t join the Vineyard, you find out you always were Vineyard. This captures the sense of family that I experienced when I finally found my home in the Vineyard movement. The Vineyard began in the 70s in Los Angeles, California. In 1977, John and Carol Wimber, easily the most recognizable names from the Vineyard movement, had left their Quaker church to be part of the Vineyard movement within Calvary Chapel. Calvary Chapel was the denomination made famous for starting the Jesus People movement of the early 70s – images of thousands being baptized in the Pacific Ocean made the cover of Life magazine.

The Vineyard blends Pentecostal spirituality with conservative evangelical theology. Many of the early Vineyard leaders were associated with Fuller Seminary, a conservative evangelical institution. For me, and many others, the Vineyard represents the best of both worlds, bringing together the passion of the Pentecostals and the assuredness of the evangelicals.

I discovered the Vineyard during the early years of my pastoral career. I was interning at my second Foursquare Gospel church when my whole world was yanked out from under my feet. A number of factors led to this, many of which were my own doing. I was a young Christian, four years into ministry but without a lot of real life experience. I had become cocky and thought I knew how everything should be done. It was also around that time that I began to question some aspects of Pentecostal theology; this did not help my case any. I found myself thrown out of my ministry position, in a strange city far from my family. All but one of my friends went to that church, so I was alienated on that front as well.

I remember calling up the Toronto Airport Vineyard and asking if they had any home groups I could go to. I explained that I was technically on staff at a local church so I was unable to come Sundays, but that friends kept telling me I needed to find what they called a Kinship (home group). I was invited into one not far from my house in Clarkson.

I don’t think I will ever forget my first visit. It was nothing like I expected; the worship was wonderful and intimate (I was the primary worship leader in my own church), and the teaching was simple. What struck me was the prayer time; they asked me to sit on a chair and began to sing songs of the Father’s love over me. I spent a few months healing up at that Kinship until an opportunity came to head back to Ottawa.

I landed in Ottawa with the intention of making my way back to Nova Scotia. There was no Vineyard in Ottawa and I quickly realized that I didn’t want to fit into the Pentecostal church anymore. I was busking a bit to make ends meet when I met up with my friend Mike – through Mike, I ended up in a wonderful little Convention Baptist church. My time in the Convention was restorative. It was also the time to sort out my life a bit more. I went back to school and completed college. I met my wife to be and was made a lay minister in the church. Things were going well, but I was still restless inside. It soon became apparent that this church wanted me to pursue formal ministry, but I knew in my heart that I wasn’t a Baptist.

I left the Baptist church with a fiancé, a job as a college teacher, and new hope, since a Vineyard had just started up in Ottawa. It was especially exciting as the couple that pastored this Vineyard came from my hometown; they had pastored the Alliance church around the corner from the house I grew up in! It looked like everything was finally coming together.

That did not last long. The Vineyard I had left in Toronto had been experiencing wonderful renewal. But as a result, folks in Ottawa expected the new church simply to be an extension of the same renewal. Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the Vineyard is the belief that we are hyper-charismatic; the reality is, we don’t focus on these things, but we don’t stop them when they happen either. Our focus is on being Christ to the world. Sometimes God shows up in amazing ways, but John Wimber always exhorted us to stick to the main and the plain of the gospel. All this made planting a new Vineyard really hard, and my fiancé was hurt in the process. So we left the Vineyard, even though this broke my heart.

We were married and three years later we both felt a clear call to go back to the Vineyard. Lots had changed, but coming back for me felt like coming home. We spent two years helping close down what was left of that congregation, and not long after we were released to start a new Vineyard, to build one from the ground up. That’s the church we’ve been planting. It’s very much a part of me; I long to give back some of what was so graciously given to me. This is why I am a Vineyardite.

The book meme continues

Believe it or not, the one book meme (started nearly a year ago) is still making the rounds: see the four most recent posts. Maybe it’s time to start a new meme – any suggestions?

On theological communities

Recently Andy Goodliff posted some nostalgic reflections on Colin Gunton’s famous Research Institute in Systematic Theology. He notes that “these kinds of theological communities are sorely needed – communities that cross theological boundaries, places where ideas can be tried out and positive critique can be given.”

Monday, 11 June 2007

20 great Satanic characters in novels

Following our list of literary Christ-figures, Kim and I decided to put together a list of great Satanic characters as well. Here are our top 20, listed in chronological order:

1. Daniel Quilp: Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
2. Roger Chillingworth: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
3. Ahab: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
4. Simon Legree: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
5. Count Fosco: Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1859)
6. Ivan Karamazov: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
7. Mr. Hyde: Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
8. Dracula: Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
9. Kurtz: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)
10. Naphta: Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924)
11. The bureaucrats: Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
12. Pinkie Brown: Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1938)
13. O’Brien: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
14. Johann Ulrich Voss: Patrick White, Voss (1957)
15. George Rayber: Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (1960)
16. Nurse Ratched: Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
17. Alex: Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962)
18. Jorge: Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)
19. Daryl van Horne: John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
20. Kevin: Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003)

The witness of chaplaincy

Over at Swords to Plowshares, Scott asks whether military chaplaincy can be a valid form of Christian witness. And he also points us to some excellent online video-lectures by Stanley Hauerwas.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Because I'm afraid

A prayer by Kim Fabricius

It’s because I’m afraid, Lord.

I’m afraid of you:
afraid of your presence,
afraid of your absence,
afraid of what you expose and what you demand.

I’m afraid of me:
afraid of what I know,
afraid of what I don’t know,
afraid of what I might discover.

I’m afraid of others:
afraid they’ll get too close,
afraid they’ll let me down,
afraid they’ll challenge and change me.

It’s because I’m afraid, Lord,
that I hide from you,
lie to myself,
and shut out others.

Lord, love my fears away,
so that I may trust and serve you,
accept myself without deceit,
and reach out to embrace others:
Amen.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

25 great Christ-figures from novels

Kim and I got together and compiled a list of our favourite Christ-figures from novels. Here’s our top 25, listed in chronological order:

1. Don Quixote: Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605, 1615)
2. Dinah Morris: George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859)
3. Prince Myshkin: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (1869)
4. Jim: Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (1885)
5. Billy Budd: Herman Melville, Billy Budd (begun c.1886)
6. Gerassim: Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
7. Benjy: William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
8. Gandalf: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1937-49)
9. Jim Casey: John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
10. The priest: Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)
11. John Singer: Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
12. Tarrou: Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
13. Stephen Kumalo: Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
14. Aslan: C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
15. Santiago: Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
16. Simon: William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
17. Himmelfarb: Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (1960)
18. Asher Lev: Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev (1972)
19. Hazel: Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)
20. Krishna: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986)
21. Oscar: Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
22. Owen Meany: John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
23. Harold and Raymond McPheron: Kent Haruf, Plainsong (1999) and Eventide (2004)
24. Vianne Rocher: Joanne Harris, Chocolat (1999)
25. Nakata, tracer of lost cats: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (2003)

Friday, 8 June 2007

What is historical theology?

A little thought-experiment: here are four proposed theoretical points for understanding “historical theology.”

1. What is the history of theology?
The history of Christian theology is a history of conflicts and negotiations over the identity of God.

2. What is historical theology?
Historical theology is a disciplined analysis of the conditions of these conflicts and negotiations, resulting in the construction of narratives about the dispute over the identity of God.

3. What is the relationship between historical theology and dogmatic theology?
By constructing histories of theology, the discipline of historical theology makes available the conditions of theological dispute for contemporary reflection, and in that way it participates in contemporary disputes over the identity of God.

4. Does historical theology have a history?
Very little work has yet been done on the history of historical theology – but such work would aim to analyse the specific conditions under which the historicising of theology becomes possible, and the manner in which such historicising participates in theological conflicts over the identity of God. It would thus demonstrate the way in which the discipline of historical theology participates in dogmatic theology, and, conversely, the way in which dogmatic theology passes over into histories of theology.

Update: This post has also been translated into Chinese.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Kevin Vanhoozer: The Drama of Doctrine

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: WJKP, 2005), 488 pp.

A guest-review by Byron Smith

What is the place of doctrine in following Jesus? Is it a human construction that distorts the Bible? Or a luxury of decadent, introspective Christianity substituting for practical action? Neither, claims Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine; doctrine is precisely what relates the Scriptures to our individual and corporate obedience. In doing so, he aims to reclaim doctrine as energetic, energising and ecumenical in an age that sees it as dull, distracting and divisive.

Taking his cue from the world of theatre, he proceeds at some length to develop the metaphor of drama in four directions: drama, script, dramaturge and performance. First, adopting and adapting work by Balthasar, he recasts salvation history as a divine comedy, a “theo-drama” in which God is protagonist and Jesus the pivotal climax. Of course, like all good plays, this one has five acts: Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton

Second, having oriented us to the (theo-)drama, we meet the authoritative script: the Bible. Vanhoozer agrees with Lindbeck’s desire to move beyond a narrow pre-critical cognitive theology of fundamentalism and an equally reductionist liberal experiential-expressivism. For Lindbeck, the cultural-linguistic turn in twentieth century western thought means that biblical hermeneutics (and thus theology) must be grounded in the practices of the ecclesial interpretive community. Yet there is a dangerous circularity in which the Bible read through the lens of contemporary church life can only affirm that very life; the church becomes unreformable and the externality, the potentially critical otherness of God’s voice in Scripture, is silenced. Therefore, while loath to lose the hermeneutical insight linking reading to community praxis, Vanhoozer argues for authorised canonical practices that guide our reading and help avoid the solipsism of fundamentalism. Thus, he retrieves the possibility and actuality of error in and by the church (p. 233), yet without thereby cutting loose hermeneutics from tradition. And so, instead of Lindbeck’s postliberal cultural-linguistic theology, Vanhoozer introduces a postconservative canonical-linguistic one.

Third: enter playwright, stage left. Just as in the larger theo-drama, the climactic third act of the book sees the author join the action. Unlike the primary performance, however, this is no divine hero-saviour come to set all things right, but merely a theologian. The function of the theologian is instead that of the little-known dramaturge, mediator between script and director. The theologian as dramaturge is a resource for the company, helping the director in ensuring the script is understood and applied with creative faithfulness, neither parroting nor forgetting previous acts and scenes of the theo-drama.

Fourth, the contemporary performance itself takes the spotlight. Again, Vanhoozer shares Lindbeck’s concern for the regulative function of doctrine but wants to base this primarily on canon, not church. More than a collection of true statements about God, doctrine orients performers towards apt action. Here, his ubiquitous (and by this stage more than slightly stretched) metaphor comes into its own in foregrounding the instrumental rather than intrinsic value of the Bible and theology. The goal of both script and direction is to serve the drama: “script and performance are equally necessary, though not equally authoritative. Biblical script without ecclesial performance is empty; ecclesial performance without biblical script is blind” (p. 362). The authority lies with script (Bible); the teleology with performance (praxis); the mediation with direction (theology).

These insights and benefits notwithstanding, apprehension remains concerning Vanhoozer’s almost allegorical application of a single metaphor to explain a whole company of concepts. Has theatre become the master key to all theology? Like a Shakespearean company with more roles than players, the same faces appear in different guises. God is the playwright, the executive director, and the protagonist (pp. 64, 243). While a robust trinitarian theology may take this in its three-legged stride, the Bible also (somewhat disconcertingly) makes three appearances: as the authorised memory of the original theo-drama, as an actor in the ongoing performance (pp. 35, 48), and as script for that performance (pp. 115-241). Christians are alternatively audience then actors, mirroring God’s move from actor to audience (p. 37). Part of the confusion is comprehensible when one keeps in mind that there are two performances: the primary theo-drama in five Acts, and a multiplicity of secondary local shows that comprise Act Four (p. 252).

Even so, the characterisation of the Bible remains unresolved. The Bible as “script” works well in discussions of authority in Part Two, yet becomes cumbersome and is virtually denied by the idea of “improvisation” in Part Three (pp. 307, 335). The “script” doesn’t have all the lines for Act Four (the life of the church) and so its authority is of a particular kind: setting the dramatis personae, plot line, and ultimate resolution in Act Five, as well as exemplifying previous faithful improvisations (p. 344). The Bible as actor also seems to be a category error (p. 48), unless it is always understood as a shorthand for God’s agency through Scripture as instrument.

Although it may seem masochistic to accuse such a voluminous volume of sins of omission, the treatment of Scripture’s relationship to Christ also lacks much recognition of the theo-dramatically relative role of Scripture: “The only Christ we have is the Christ of the Scriptures” (p. 46, emphasis added). Although it is true that even the apostles had “the Christ of the [OT] Scriptures,” they also had the Christ of the flesh. Vanhoozer’s reluctance to get his hands too dirty in the history of canonical formation (pp. 142-43) is echoed in the lack of a detailed theo-dramatic account of how God communicated prior to the completion of the canon.

Those criticisms aside, his theological treatment of Scripture remains a highlight of this approach. Central to Vanhoozer’s project in Part Two is the claim that sola scriptura is not so much principle as practice (pp. 115, 141, 153). Crucially, this Reformation battle cry was not answering “how many sources should one use in doing theology?” but “where can we find the supreme norm by which to measure Christian deeds and Christian doctrine?” (p. 232). The sufficiency of Scripture is material, rather than formal (p. 156). Vanhoozer’s rich and nuanced account is thus able to acknowledge that tradition and church are valuable, even indispensable aids in the interpretive process, without compromising the irreplaceable and unaugmentable centrality of the Bible in our knowledge of and obedience towards God.

Similarly, his recognition of the dangers of generic reductionism is refreshing. Each genre has its own voice, its own factual precisions, its own irreducible input to the diverse unity of God’s scriptural communicative act. The canon has “an eschatological completeness, differentiated wholeness and plural unity” (p. 275). As with canon, so with theology: what no single genre can assert (a unique and exclusive possession of the entire truth), no tradition can demand; what each genre can enjoy (a unique and necessary contribution to the apprehension of God’s being and acts), each truly Christian tradition must be granted.

Of course, Vanhoozer is not the first theorist to earn an intellectual living making a spectacle of the dramatic metaphor in our mise en scène. His novelty lies in attiring the task of doctrine in this fashionable dress. His eclectic and multi-disciplinary interlocutors enrich his contribution to each of the many academic conversations he joins. However, as already noted, this breadth can occasionally leave him looking sloppy or naïve. For instance, in his epistemological discussion (pp. 265-305), he mistakenly assumes that foundationalism entails infallibilism, and he misapprehends the purpose of the web metaphor and so commits a category error in comparing it to his map metaphor (p. 297). Unfortunately, even his specifically theological epistemology confuses the effects of sin with (good) creaturely limitations on our knowledge, and, in doing so, obscures the hermeneutics of suspicion behind the hermeneutics of finitude. Human fallenness does not lead to fallibilism as he claims, but to a healthy suspicion of our ability to hide selfish motives, even from our own consciousness.

When all’s said and done, Vanhoozer’s (over)long performance is sometimes sloppy, often inspiring, always stimulating. The stars that shine most brightly are the indispensability of canonical authority, the urgency of contemporary obedience, the responsibility of conceptual creativity, and the possibility of dogmatic relevancy. Four stars.

Note: Byron has also posted a longer version of this review on his own blog.

Here and there

Rory Shiner highlights the theological value of Christopher Hitchens’ atheism, while Patrik reflects on the constructedness of nationalism and patriotism. Inspired by Kim’s recent post, David has launched a new series on theology and film; and LeRon Shults has two excellent guest-posts on interdisciplinary theology.

Meanwhile, Paul Helm has posted a draft of his forthcoming essay on Barth and McCormack. Scott Prather, who is writing a dissertation on Barth and Yoder at Aberdeen, has started a new theology blog, Swords to Plowshares. And at GodSpy there is an excellent interview with William Cavanaugh “about the Eucharist, politics, consumerism, war, and how Catholics can repair the rift between faith and life.”

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