Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Can we prove the resurrection?

Can we ever “prove” the resurrection of Jesus, either historically (e.g. Pannenberg, N. T. Wright) or probabilistically (e.g. Richard Swinburne) or scientifically (e.g. various nutty apologists)? In my view, such “proof” is neither possible nor desirable. For resurrection is not a natural or historical possibility, but it is precisely a contradiction of the whole order of the possible. It is not one event alongside other events within world-history, but it is the end and boundary of history as such.

I’m not talking here, of course, about a Newtonian notion that the world is a closed causal system (so that “divine intervention” is impossible by definition). Instead, my point is simply that the resurrection must be understood theologically, as the eschatological act of God in which the existing structures of the world are torn open and something wholly new is brought into being.

Since the resurrection contradicts the very structures of reality, it could be called an impossible event – impossible in the strictest sense of the word! It is not a “historical” event, since it punctures the linearity of history and confronts history with its own shattering “end.” In short, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both the dissolution of the world and the startling creation (ex nihilo?) of a new cosmos. It is the end and the beginning, the last and the first.

All this means that the concept of “resurrection” can never be introduced as the most likely explanation for any historical data. To introduce the resurrection in this way is simply to forget the very meaning of “resurrection”. All such apologetic strategies aim to reduce the resurrection to one particular possibility within the structures of being and history – so that the resurrection is “proved” only by first being rendered innocuous.

We might seek to prove historically that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, and that the disciples had certain experiences after Jesus’ death. Such historical proofs have their own significance – but they are in no sense proofs of the resurrection. Similarly, it’s worth remembering that the early Christians narrated stories of the empty tomb and of the appearances without once attempting to narrate the event of resurrection itself. (Contrast this to the final scene of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, where the camera gives us direct “objective” access to the event – and in this very “objectivity,” the event is rendered meaningless, absurd, and godless. At precisely this point of the film, it becomes clear that Gibson’s Christ is in fact a pagan figure, and that this figure is encountered in the objectivity of voyeurism rather than in the subjectivity of faith.)

When the early Christians wanted to speak of the resurrection, they realised that the event can be named only by speaking (or stammering) of God – after all, as Karl Barth has put it, the word “resurrection” is really just a paraphrase of the word “God.”

Three lectures by Robert W. Jenson

Earlier this month, Robert W. Jenson delivered the Grider-Winget Holiness Lectures at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He spoke on “the inspiration of scripture,” and Dave Belcher has kindly posted summaries of each of the three lectures: lecture 1, lecture 2, lecture 3. The third lecture looks especially interesting – and apparently this material will later be published by Brazos Press.

Monday, 29 October 2007

George Hunsinger and Kim Fabricius: propositions on the logos asarkos

In one of our recent discussions, Kim Fabricius posted (as a comment) 10 propositions on the logos asarkos. He has expanded his propositions here, and George Hunsinger has responded with his own 10 propositions on the logos asarkos. Thanks to both George and Kim for allowing me to post these together here:

Kim Fabricius: ten propositions on the logos asarkos

1. The issue cannot be a theological “To be or not to be”, i.e. ontology or no ontology. The question is what kind of theological ontology corresponds to revelation, God's self-disclosure in Christ, in the Bible.

2. Bruce McCormack posits the options as “essentialist” ontology (Molnar, Hunsinger, Hunsinger’s reading of Barth) and “actualist” ontology (Jenson, McCormack, McCormack’s reading of Barth).

3. The test case is the logos asarkos. Molnar and Hunsinger – and Paul Helm – insist on it. They are good Niceans – and good Calvinists (cf. the extra Calvinisticum). But by the way, if it is true that the ecumenical road ahead must always return to the town in Turkey, Reformed theologians, at least, cannot make the trip empty-handed – for example, over the issue of bishops as the esse of the church. Why, then, can we not affirm the Creed while arguing against a hegemonic ontology?

4. Barth, however, rejects the venerable theologoumenon of the logos asarkos, as an instrinsic part of his revolutionary de- and re-construction of Calvin’s doctrine of election. So I do not see how Barth can be in George Hunsinger’s corner as he fights for the logos asarkos. If he is right, then Barth is wrong. But then perhaps Barth, like Luther’s scripture, has a wax nose.

5. Professor Hunsinger’s point about the logical status of the logos asarkos certainly has a prima facie plausibility about it. As Paul Helm puts it: “as the cup is logically prior to the rim, but not temporally prior, so the logos asarkos is logically prior to the logos ensarkos, but not temporally prior.”

6. But this (if you like) temporal parity between the logos ensarkos and the logos asarkos, on which Calvin and Barth (and I suppose all concerned) agree, doesn’t it rather put the concept of “logical priority” out of a job? That, I think, is Barth’s conclusion. He thinks that the eternal Agent cannot be separated from his temporal Actions, that the narrative plot of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be separated from the character of the eternal Word, that the incarnation has implications for election, and election has implications for the divine being. But if that is so, what “work” can “logical priority” now possibly do except perhaps to help one live at peace with Aristotle – not something Barth would lose sleep over – while yet turning the Logos (the Son) into an indeterminate abstraction?

7. Okay, that’s not fair. The intention of the doctrine of the logos asarkos is to preserve God’s aseity, I know. But name me a theologian who was touchier about the divine freedom than Barth, who yet concluded that this the doctrine is a “fatal speculation”, a verbo incognito? And what kind of freedom is the doctrine trying to protect? The deity’s decision to elect or not to elect humanity, to enflesh or not to enflesh in Jesus? But what – is God (in Barth’s famous image) Hercules at the crossroads? Only an ontological actualism, I suggest, preserves the freedom of God, which is not a freedom from but a freedom for – for human beings.

8. To put it another way, what might the logos asarkos conceivably look like? Can it not only look like Jesus – who is the logos ensarkos, “the man for others” (Bonhoeffer)? Is it not therefore an otiose category? If we must speak of a logos asarkos, it can only be as a gerund – “the Logos is incarnandus in and for himself, in eternity” (McCormack); and the logos ensarkos cannot be thought of as either contingent or instrumental. Now that would be adoptionism.

9. Ben, I think, is right that the resurrection on the third day, empty tomb and all, must be the determinative category in the structuring of a sound theology. However, I don’t want to drive a wedge between the incarnation and the resurrection. And I would certainly not want to separate the resurrection from the crucifixion. Indeed is not the cross the real furnace for reshaping an ontology of God (e.g. on the divine impassibility), the risen One having a hole in his side and scars on his hands? The suggestion about referring to the “Christ event” might be helpful. But there is no doubt that the resurrection of Jesus as the event’s apocalyptic Event requires radical metaphysical repositioning in that we must think of reality as determined by the eschatological future revealed in the apocalyptic Event of c. AD 30 and made present through the Spirit of the risen and coming One – and think all that back into God.

10. But haven’t I collapsed the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity? Okay, so sue me. But I advise the prosecution that I’ll be calling the incarnate, crucified and risen One as a witness. Of course there are problems with this account, not least Hegelian problems – Robert Jenson famously wrote that “Hegel’s only real fault was that he confused himself with the last judge, but that is quite a fault” – but Hegel’s own problem was not that he was too historical but that he was not historical enough, failing to focus rigorously on the concrete history of Jesus. I also admire Molnar and Hunsinger as awesome thinkers. But I’ll humbly take my problems to theirs. In any case, who expects closure on this one? It’ll run and run.

George Hunsinger: 10 counter-propositions

1. Here are certain well-known affirmations of the Nicene-Constantipolitan Creed (AD 381): “begotten of the Father before all worlds … true God of true God, begotten not made … of one being with the Father / ek tou patros gennethinta pro panton ton aionon, … theion aletheion ek theion aletheion, gennethinta ou poiethenta, … homoousion to patri / natum ex Patre ante omnia saecula … Deum verum de Deo vero … consubstantialem Patri.”

2. Among the statements anathematized in AD 325 were: “There was a time when he was not”; and “He was not before he was made”; and “He was made out of nothing”, or “He is of another substance” or “essence.”

3. There is absolutely no way to reconcile these statements with the idea that the second person of the Trinity was somehow “constituted” by his incarnation or by his being raised from the dead. To suppose otherwise would be sheer fantasy.

4.
Nor is there any way to bind these normative credal affirmations to any particular “metaphysics.”

5. I do not now, nor have I ever, subscribed to an “essentialist” ontology. The reason is that I have never subscribed to any ontology, whether “essentialist”, “actualist” or otherwise.

6. Following Barth, however, I do affirm that God’s being is in act. I believe that for Barth the terms “being” and “act” are both logically basic, and that for him neither is derived from the other, and that neither is privileged in relation to the other.

7. No doubt can exist that Barth never rejected the idea of the logos asarkos. He in fact never rejected it.

8. He explicitly affirms it, for example, at KD IV/1, pp. 54-56 (ET pp. 52-53). His point in this passage is largely noetic. While assuming the persistence precisely of a logos asarkos, he denies that we can have, do have, or would need to have any access to it apart from the logos ensarkos. In having noetic access to the logos ensarkos, he argues, we have access to the logos as it truly is, both for us and in and for itself. There is no logos asarkos alongside or behind the logos ensarkos that we should seek to gain independent access to.

9. “In the history of Jesus, we have to do with the reality which underlies and precedes all other reality as the first and eternal Word of God [dass wir in der ‘Jesusgeschichte’ mit der Wirklichkeit zu tun haben, die als Gottes erstes und ewiges Wort aller anderen Wirklichkeit zu zugrunde liegt und vorangeht]” (KD IV/1, p. 55, ET p. 53). No amount of tortured exegesis can make these statements (and scores of similar statements) by Barth mean that he does not see the eternal Word of God as logically and ontologically prior to all other reality, including Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection.

10. From an ecumenical point of view, all “post-metaphysical” or “actualistic” attempts to deny the logical and ontological priority of the eternal Son (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit) can only be regarded as hostile to the Nicene faith of the church. Anyone who wishes to adopt such a position is free to do so. But it has no future in any ecumenical theology or church worthy of the name.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Deliver us from evil

When my five-year-old daughter was saying the Lord’s Prayer tonight, she made a delightful (and utterly profound) verbal slip: “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from email…”

More on the Molnar debate

There are some very helpful posts which offer further reflection on our recent discussions of Paul Molnar’s new book. In another excellent post, Halden critiques the logos asarkos and speaks of the ontological implications of the resurrection; and Brandon discusses (what D. B. Hart calls) “the aetiological fallacy,” or “the belief that the meaning of a doctrine should be determined by the governing concerns and intentions of those who first promulgated that doctrine, rather than by the history of its subsequent theological elaborations and clarifications.”

William Placher and Paul DeHart on postliberalism

The new issue of Conversations in Religion and Theology 5:2 (2007), 136-145, includes a lively and insightful exchange between William Placher and Paul DeHart. They’re discussing DeHart’s recent analysis of “postliberal theology” in his outstanding book, The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (a book which I’ve praised here in review and other occasions).

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Is God imprisoned in history?

Our friend Halden has just posted the latest instalment of his superb series on “radical trinitarianism.” The post is very relevant to the fascinating conversations we’ve been having here about Paul Molnar’s new book.

Halden speaks of “the primal revelation of God in and as the tortured, murdered, and resurrected Christ.” And he observes that “this event of cross and resurrection is the eternal God precisely as God-for-us and God-with-us” – in other words, the being of God is “constitutively manifested in the cross and resurrection of Christ.”

But does such an understanding imprison God within the world’s history? Halden provides a compelling answer to this question: “As Balthasar saw with perhaps more clarity than anyone in recent theology, the radical kenosis of the Triune God in the death and resurrection of Christ and the Pentecostal dispersal of the Spirit does not imprison the Trinity in the world’s fate, but rather lifts the world up into the embrace of the immanent Triune Life.”

This is a first-rate post which deserves a careful reading.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Paul Molnar: a reply to Ben Myers

A guest-post by Paul Molnar (I invited him to respond to my critique of his new book.)

I am grateful to Ben Myers for the attention he has given to my new book on Incarnation and Resurrection, but concerned that in his long discussion my views are not accurately presented. Let me try to clarify my position.

Contrary to what the review states, I do not hold that “we must think first of incarnation and only then of resurrection.” My thesis is, rather, that “incarnation and resurrection are so closely related that if one is compromised in the slightest way then so too is the other” (p. xi). I argue that Christ’s resurrection is the basis of our knowledge of his incarnation, not that his incarnation can be known in abstraction from it. I also argue that Christ’s incarnation is the reason why death could not hold him (Acts 2:24) so that it functions as the basis of his resurrection.

I am concerned to avoid all forms of adoptionism and Hegelianism. Living in a post-resurrection world, theology cannot proceed as though the incarnation had not taken place. Those who argue that God’s ousia is somehow constituted by the resurrection or that Jesus would not be the eternal Word unless he rose from the dead are in danger of contradicting the Nicene faith of the church.

Myers further claims that I adopt a Christology from above instead of a Christology from below. On the contrary, however, I simply claim that we must begin with the man Jesus as attested in Scripture who was and is both truly divine and truly human. As we know in light of his resurrection, he never existed at any time in history as merely divine or merely human, but always as both at the same time.

Nor do I hold that the resurrection is “one occurrence alongside others in a linear ‘history of salvation.’” On the contrary, as I state more than once (e.g., pp. 326ff.), the resurrection is an utterly unique event for which there is no analogy or precedent. Consequently it must be understood from and through itself alone. Resurrection faith begins and ends with Jesus Christ himself (risen bodily from the dead), not with our experiences of hope, nor with our apocalyptic notions, nor with any set of metaphysical ideas (whether actualistically or statically conceived).

Perhaps Myers has so much difficulty understanding my book because he holds views that seem very different from mine. Is he reading back into the NT an adoptionist perspective? Does he hold, contrary to the Nicene Creed, that there can have been no logos asarkos? Is it his view that Jesus only became the Word after the resurrection since his divinity was “constituted” by this historical event?

This thinking seems contrary to the heart of the NT faith as affirmed by Nicaea and Chalcedon. These ecumenical councils did not impose a classical metaphysics upon theology, but simply clarified the identity of Jesus Christ in light of Scriptural revelation.

One of the tell-tale signs of Myers’ idealized view of the resurrection is the fact that he believes that “the category of resurrection functions as metaphysical critique.” Since when was the resurrection a “category”? If, as I believe, the resurrection is indeed an act of God in raising Jesus bodily from the dead, then it could never be construed as a mere “category” that we could wield as the “ground of a proper theological ontology.” That ground has already been laid, and it is, in my view, identical only with the incarnate, risen and ascended Lord himself.

Note: Those of you who’ll be at AAR in San Diego might also like to come along on Sunday 18 November to the meeting of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship, where Beth Felker Jones will talk about Molnar’s book, and then Molnar will talk about Jones’ new book, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection. This meeting will take place at 11:45 a.m. in GH-Madeleine A&B (session M18-15 = A18-134).

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Marx and Hitchens among the theologians?

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

For all of the claims that Christopher Hitchens has abandoned his earlier Leftist proclivities, there is at least one point at which he remains an orthodox Marxist. His recent book, God Is Not Great, is a straightforward reiteration of Marx’s own critique of religion, albeit in the most splendidly bombastic fashion:

“God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.… Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made.”

Hitchens here evokes one of philosophy’s most defiant veins: the reduction of the religious impulse to the product of our basest human instincts. He thus places himself within an intellectual tradition that stretches from Kant (“we cannot conceive God otherwise than by attributing to him without limit all the real qualities which we find in ourselves”) through Feuerbach (“man – this is the mystery of religion – projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself”), until it finally reaches Marx himself (“the foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man”).

But, as one might expect, Hitchens gives this tradition his own contemptuous twist. He is not content just to strip religion of its nobility, to dislodge it from its pride of place as the founding gesture of civilization – the moment when Homo sapiens, driven by its emerging thirst for transcendence, takes the first step out of the domain of primates by investing certain ritualized practices with meaning. He goes further, and dismisses religion as little more than the invention of hucksters and frauds who, at every occasion, aim to exploit our innate fears and profit from our listless servitude.

Here, again, Hitchens invokes Marx’s authority, citing his famous anti-Darwinian quip that “human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape” (though he misattributes it to Engels). His point is that, even as the later manifestations of a process disclose the true nature of its origin, so too the most notorious historical examples of religious fabrication and plagiarism – from Muhammadanism and Mormonism to the preposterous “cargo cults” of Melanesia – provide a window onto religion’s murky beginnings. For Hitchens, the history of religion remains a sordid tale of outright fraudulence preying on a fearful species still trying to master the use of its opposable thumbs. Both sides are thus implicated in the sweeping verdict, “Religion is man-made.”

The basic problem with this depiction is not that it is unnecessarily pessimistic, reducing religion to a quasi-Darwinian universe of predators and prey, but that it is not pessimistic enough. It fails to go to the heart of the matter, quite literally, and identify the full reach of the religious impulse. And it is at this point that Richard Dawkins is at his best. The great (and perhaps only enduring) achievement of The God Delusion is to have radicalized the definition of “man-made,” by transferring the driver behind the religious impulse from those vulgar, primitive instincts – say, fear or predation – to the solipsism of the meme itself. In this book, Dawkins gives his fullest, though by no means best, account of the operations of the “God-meme”, which he first proposed in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene.

The meme, according to Dawkins, is a kind of replicating unit of cultural evolution, capable of adapting and spreading from one brain to another. Its logic is its own and its aim is its own survival, even at the expense of its host. Much like a virus, the meme “parasitizes” the brain, “turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation.” This is indeed a strangely speculative notion – which Daniel Dennett describes as properly “philosophical” – to find developed by so hard-shelled an empiricist. For, in effect, Dawkins is ascribing to religion a life of its own, transforming it from mere fiction to malignant idolatry. The meme is, as Marx put it, “full of theological subtleties and metaphysical niceties.”

In fact, it was Marx who first identified the enigmatic operations of the meme within economic and social life. In that most bizarre passage which concludes the first chapter of his Capital, Marx insists that in order to understand the existence and function of the commodity-form, “we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.”

An uncharacteristically intelligent amalgamation of Dawkins and Marx occurs in Michael Bay’s otherwise terrible film, The Island. Hundreds of survivors of an apparent nuclear holocaust are housed in a sterile, asexual, infinitely regulated environment – part fitness-centre, part preschool, part prison. Nevertheless, a desire grows within these innocents, a spontaneous genetic mutation which craves the corrupting excesses of Western life: the trademark vices of capitalism, from the five strips of bacon at the beginning of the film, to the “lots and lots of sex” which causes a character’s liver failure at the end. The innate lust after these vices drives the inmates to break out of their prison and discover their own garden of earthly delights on the streets of Los Angeles.

It is this idolatry – which courses like poison through our veins, accentuating the egotism of the life-instinct and parasitizing our mammalian drives – that is the real object of Marx’s and Dawkins’ attack on religion. Theirs is a powerful demonstration of the truth of Marx’s dictum, “the criticism of heaven becomes the criticism of earth”: the fight against evil in our time must begin with the opposition to every idolatry, whether religious or economic. And this is the task to which Christian theology must devote itself today.

Essays by David Bentley Hart

If I were really pressed, I would admit that some experiences in life are more enjoyable than reading David Bentley Hart (although I can’t think of any just now). Hart has often published essays in First Things – and David Congdon has now compiled a very helpful series of links to all these essays.

So do yourself a favour today: go and read “Christ and Nothing” (2003), or “The Lively God of Robert Jenson” (2005), or “Tsunami and Theodicy” (2005). And then join with me in prayer for the safe and speedy completion of Hart’s next book....

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Paul Molnar: incarnation and resurrection

Paul D. Molnar, Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 418 pp. (review copy courtesy of Eerdmans)

Paul Molnar’s work on Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (T&T Clark, 2002) is well known in Barthian circles. And in this new sequel, Molnar extends his earlier argument: where Divine Freedom argued that God’s action in the world must always be set against the backdrop of an independently-existing immanent Trinity, the present work argues that the resurrection of Jesus must always be interpreted against the backdrop of the incarnation of an eternal Son. Simply put: we must think first of incarnation and only then of resurrection.

Molnar’s argument here is driven by the same fundamental categories which shaped his earlier book on the immanent Trinity. Although these categories are rarely analysed explicitly, everything depends on a sequence of paired opposites: the priority of eternity over history, of the objective over the subjective, of reality over experience, of God-in-himself over God-for-us. These categories are adopted from the work of T. F. Torrance, and they subsequently structure both Molnar’s reading of Barth and his critique of various contemporary thinkers.

The book’s central thesis is neatly encapsulated in the title: “incarnation and resurrection” – in that order! In Molnar’s view, the incarnation – and behind that, the pre-incarnate Logos – is the only legitimate starting point for christology. All christology must begin with “the eternal Word who was with God and who was God from all eternity” (p. 265). As in his earlier book, Molnar’s basic conviction here is that events in history can never be constitutive of God’s being; God is always God-without-us before he is God-for-us. Jesus’ resurrection, then, can be understood properly only when we start with the fact that the Son “actually existed prior to his human existence” (p. 298), before taking on a human nature “in the Chalcedonian sense” (p. 310). Only on the basis of this cluster of metaphysical assumptions can we then also begin to think about Jesus’ resurrection.

The problem with all this, however, is that it represents a complete reversal of the New Testament witness. The New Testament writers knew nothing of an “independent” doctrine of incarnation. They knew nothing of a thought-pattern which begins with a doctrine of pre-existence before moving to incarnation and then finally to resurrection. On the contrary: the early Christians spoke of incarnation (when they mentioned it at all) only as a theological extrapolation of the cosmic significance of the resurrection. Nor did they interpret the resurrection in light of any prior dogma of Jesus’ divine sonship. On the contrary, they knew that Jesus was the Son of God precisely because God had apocalyptically vindicated him by raising him from the dead. In light of the resurrection, it became clear that God had been at work throughout the entirety of Jesus’ career (i.e. “incarnation”) and that Jesus had come from God from the very beginning (i.e. “pre-existence”).

Thus the miraculous birth stories in Matthew and Luke, and the theology of pre-existence in the Fourth Gospel, are strictly indistinguishable from the impact of the resurrection-event – it is this single event which retroactively determines the whole existence of Jesus as the movement of God into our material world. Jesus’ sonship is constituted in the event of resurrection (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). The resurrection is “the primal mark of his identity” (J. Louis Martyn); indeed, God’s very deity is not only “disclosed” but also “constituted” in this event (Francis Watson), so that all Christian talk about God must take this event as its fundamental point of departure.

To begin christology with any abstract metaphysics of divine being – no matter how “Chalcedonian” that metaphysics might be! – is therefore to fail to allow our talk about God to be guided and structured by the gospel itself.

Of course, Molnar is not trying to interpret the New Testament witness directly; his theological sources are Torrance and Barth. But it seems to me that the Barthian tradition today is faced with a fundamental choice here – I’m tempted to say, a choice between Molnar and McCormack! This is a fundamental choice since what’s at stake is not merely the correct interpretation of Barth, but the whole shape and structure of christology and the doctrine of God – in other words, dogmatics itself.

I can, of course, speak only for myself here. But I believe the future of theology lies not in any incarnational realism or in a scholastic Chalcedonian objectivism, but rather in a radical and rigorous appropriation of Barth’s christological actualism. And the essential resource for this appropriation is, in my view, the category of resurrection.

If we are to pursue theology as a faithful response to the biblical witness, we must seek not merely to defend some particular variety of classical metaphysics, but instead to take our stand on the resurrection itself, and (using whatever conceptual resources we can find) to think the resurrection back into the doctrine of God. This will mean conceptualising the resurrection as absolute divine “advent” (Eberhard Jüngel), sheer “apocalypse” (J. Louis Martyn), pure “event” (Robert Jenson). It will mean thinking an event in which God constitutes his own being (Francis Watson) as a being-for-us in the self-determining movement of Father, Son and Spirit (Bruce McCormack).

Here, the category of resurrection functions as metaphysical critique, or rather, as the ground of a properly theological ontology. The resurrection is not (pace Molnar) merely one occurrence alongside others in a linear “history of salvation” (p. 5). It is the event of absolute singularity and therefore absolute universality, the event which tears open (in order to reconstitute) being itself. It is destruction and salvation, the dissolution and re-creation of the kosmos. Far from being the mere disclosure of an already-existing state of affairs, this event is divine apocalypse, trinitarian becoming – no, it is eternity itself.

Molnar’s claim, therefore, that a prior metaphysics of divine being should “dictate the meaning of the resurrection” (p. 87) has it precisely the wrong way around: any doctrine of divine being or of incarnation must be “dictated” by the gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, by the proclamation that God has acted once and for all in the resurrection of the Crucified.

Likewise, I can only conclude that Molnar’s call for a christology “from above” (i.e., starting with a pre-existent logos asarkos) is a profound mistake. Neither “from below” nor “from above,” but from the event – that, in my view, is the way forward for christology today.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Hauerwas on education

“As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”

—Stanley Hauerwas, “Christian Schooling or Making Students Dysfunctional,” in Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), p. 220.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Kim Fabricius: paddling by the shore

Our friend Kim Fabricius has often posted his hymns here at F&T. And Kim’s church in Swansea, Bethel United Reformed Church, has now published a collection of his delightful hymns. The book, Paddling by the Shore, features 51 hymns, ranging from “A Jewish Boy Named Jesus” (sung to the tune of “Incy Wincy Spider”) to the apophatic “God is the Deepest and Blackest of Holes” and the superb tribute to George Herbert, “Prayer the Church’s Fast and Feast.”

In his acknowledgments (where he also kindly mentions F&T), Kim explains the title of the collection: “Paddling by the Shore … is stolen from Isaac Newton who, reflecting on his epoch-making discoveries about the mysteries of the universe, wrote: ‘I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me’.”

This quote from Newton highlights two of the main characteristics of Kim’s hymn-writing: the sense of divine mystery, and the sense of our own childlike playfulness before the mystery of God.

Here’s a sample from the collection – “Artful Is God, Creation Is His Canvas” (sung to the tune of Som Stranden):

Artful is God, creation is his canvas
     on which he paints his cosmic masterpiece:
brushstrokes both broad and delicate in detail,
     colours and shapes composed in perfect peace.

    Artful is God, creation is his canvas
    on which he paints his cosmic masterpiece.


Zillions of stars, exploding out of nothing,
     dance for the Lord, delightful in his eye;
billions of years it takes for sketching planets,
     time to design an earth to occupy.

Dazzling the sun, and silver-soft the moonlight,
     fruitful the land, and fathomless the sea;
wondrous is life, from single cell to primate,
     awesome is death, the final mystery.

What then of man, the end of evolution,
     image divine defaced by sin and vice?
Artful is God, producing from his palette
     Adam restored: self-portrait Jesus Christ!

Saturday, 20 October 2007

400,000th visitor!

A few hours ago, F&T had its 400,000th visitor. To mark the occasion, I’ll be sending a free book to the lucky visitor. This person hailed from Portland, Oregon, and s/he was reading F&T on a computer with the IP address 76.105.246.# (Comcast Cable). This visitor came here from a link at Halden’s blog. (Come to think of it, perhaps it was Halden himself? – I think he lives in Portland.)

Anyway, please let me know if you’re the visitor in question, so that I can send you your prize. And, to everyone who reads this blog: thanks for visiting!

Faith over the abyss

“Faith is not a ground on which we can place ourselves, not a system which we can obey, not an atmosphere in which we can breathe. Viewed from a human perspective, what was once called religion, conviction and law becomes rather the abyss, anarchy, void. But ‘the law of the faithfulness of God’ [Rom. 3:27] – which is to say, ‘the law of faith’ – is the place where only God can hold us, the place where there is nothing else but God himself, God alone.”

—Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief 1922 (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1940), pp. 84-85 (English edition, p. 110).

Thursday, 18 October 2007

John Franke: Barth for armchair theologians

John R. Franke, Barth for Armchair Theologians, illustrated by Ron Hill (Louisville: WJKP, 2006), 183 pp. (review copy courtesy of WJKP)

Introductions to Barth constitute an entire literary genre. Indeed, Barth’s thought is so challenging and so difficult to penetrate that the production of “introductions” becomes a matter of some urgency. And the existing introductions take many forms: from mechanical summaries (G. W. Bromiley) to expansive readings (Eberhard Busch); from elegant outlines (John Webster) to complex architectonic frameworks (George Hunsinger); from sharply polemical sketches (John Bowden) to enthusiastic contemporary appropriations (Joseph Mangina).

And as the aforementioned names indicate, the calibre of these introductions tends to be very high, since some of Barth’s most distinguished interpreters have produced their own introductory guides.

So it’s surprising and impressive to see that John Franke’s new introduction has found its own niche. Here at last is a real beginner’s guide to Barth – an introduction that assumes no prior knowledge of Barth nor any familiarity with modern theology in general. Franke begins by tracing the early development of Barth’s thought, emphasising Barth’s break with liberalism. Even if the discontinuities are exaggerated a bit in this section, the main emphasis is right: “Barth increasingly believed that to speak of God was something different, strange, and startling” (p. 31).

And while earlier introductions tended to leap from the Romans commentary to the book on Anselm, Franke walks us through the important lectures of the Göttingen years, where Barth discovered the explosive reforming power of Reformed theology. In this period of transition, Barth’s crucial theological/political assertion was that “we are human and not God. God is God” (p. 77).

Franke’s summary of each volume of the Church Dogmatics is likewise crisp and insightful, as is his brief account of Barth’s ethics: “Christian ethics has more to do with the surprises that are part of the ongoing drama of human existence than with the certainties of a stable system” (p. 146).

In a final chapter, Franke considers the recent history of North American Barth-reception, under the three headings of “neo-orthodox Barth,” “postmodern Barth” and “dialectical Barth.” He criticises the “domesticating” tendencies of both neo-orthodox readings (which emphasise God’s objective givenness) and postmodern readings (which emphasise God’s incomprehensible non-givenness). In contrast, Franke suggests that the work of George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack opens the way to a proper appreciation of the “dialectical Barth” – a radical Barth “whose thought is governed by the notion of indirect identity and the dialectic of veiling and unveiling” (p. 161). Underlying this deceptively simple sketch of Barth-reception is a keen instinct about what’s really at stake in Barth’s thought – and it seems to me that the caution about “domesticating” Barth has never been more necessary than it is today.

All in all, then, this is a lucid, reliable and entertaining guide to Barth’s theology. And Franke succeeds admirably in his main objective, which is to show that Barth still has something to say not only to the lonely guild of academic theologians, but also (and especially) to the church.

While some introductions to Barth are like ponderous journeys through a darkening wood, this book is a brisk and cheerful ramble down a sunny street – it is, in other words, perfect “armchair” reading. Franke’s writing is crisp and energetic, and Ron Hill’s delightful cartoons are especially fitting in this introduction to the merriest of all theologians – a theologian who believed that “our daily bread must also include play.”

The problem with Kevin Rudd

As some of you will be aware, here in Australia we are currently in the midst of an extremely boring election campaign. Boring because our two campaigners are all-but-identical, and because the campaign is a calculated attempt to ensure that nothing is at stake. My friend Scott Stephens – who pulls no punches, as you might have noticed – has a column in today’s Eureka Street on the Leader of the Opposition: Kevin Rudd’s Political Cowardice.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

On Capitalism, God and Mammon

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In his review of Don DeLillo’s highly acclaimed Underworld – whose sheer size and overall chutzpah established it as the last great novel of the 20th century – James Wood observed that “the book is so large, so ambitious, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ”.

I’ve often thought that the same description could apply just as easily to capitalism. Every attempt to curb its voracious appetite, to “humanise” its world-wide dominion, to place the economy back in the service of the greater good and thus temper its lust for unregulated growth, has not simply failed, but has been assimilated, folded back into the existing economic order and turned into yet another expression of capitalism itself.

Take, for example, the wide-spread use of “anti-globalisation” rhetoric by designer labels and marketing firms, or even the current wave of chic enviro-fundamentalism. In both cases, there is a kind of coming together of opposites, where two trends which are logically opposed (like popular consumerism and radical conservationism) come to occupy the same space, and seemingly without contradiction. So, the exemplary product of global capitalism are T-shirts made in Chinese sweatshops bearing the “World Without Strangers” motto.

But my favourite instance of this absorption of a potential criticism of capitalism into the inert safety of pop culture can be found in the book version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Its back cover features an endorsement, not from Sir Nicholas Stern, nor even from Tim Flannery, but from none other than Leonardo DiCaprio! (I suppose there is a connection between Leo and big chunks of floating ice – but wasn’t his problem that the ice hadn’t melted?)

Yes – capitalism, too, produces its own antibodies. And it seems that nothing is outside of its grasp.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of global capitalism is to have made choice one of those inalienable human rights, to have ensnared the very notion of democracy within an indiscriminate right-to-excess, to have transposed freedom into economic or consumptive terms. This is an achievement that DeLillo grasped in a remarkable way. As he put it in Underworld:

“Capital burns off the nuance in a culture. Foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisitions, the flow of information through transnational media, the attenuating influence of money that’s electronic and sex that’s cyberspaced, the convergence of consumer desire – not that people want the same things, necessarily, but that they want the same range of choices.”

Choice itself has thus become the true object of human longing, a longing that has parasitised or colonised human nature itself. And so it seems that Karl Marx was right: the vision of capitalism that I’ve just described – which embraces the entire globe, which can generate more money ex nihilo through the mysteries of financial derivatives and futures speculation, which can bring together polar opposites in apparent economic harmony – is, in the end, theological. Or, to put it another way, capitalism is Mammon.

So, here’s my question: how can we take Jesus’ statement, “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” seriously when God and Mammon are now in cahoots?

Let me explain. While everyone loves to poke fun at the ridiculous platitudes of “prosperity theology”, the conspiring of God with Mammon is much, much older. Max Weber, in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, famously proposed that the capitalist disposition to earn and accumulate arose directly from the Puritan sense of calling which embraces all of life.

But now that the capitalist drive has shifted from thrift to choice, from prudence to indulgence, from accumulation to experience, the way religion operates within capitalism has also changed. Instead of a secularised motivation for work, the function of religion today more closely resembles those medieval rituals that provided sinners with the means whereby to atone for their sins.

We have our own thinly veiled forms of penance – like tithing, charitable donations, watching PBS – each of which makes us feel better about participating in decadent consumerism. And not only that, these forms of penance allow us to participate by relieving any sense of guilt.

And so it is that capitalism and charity can cohabitate. The one lets you indulge, and the other lets you get away with it. The problem at the heart of the matter is that Christianity traditionally has geared itself to dealing with the guilty conscience of the West, how to escape from the consequences of our wrongdoing. No wonder it has so readily been accommodated by capitalism as its ideal religious accessory. It was, of course, Marx that first recognised the inherent connection, the deep symbiosis between actually existing capitalism and various forms of religious belief and practice:

“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal basis for consolation and justification. It is the imaginary realization of the human essence, because the human essence possesses no true reality. Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.… The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion.”

When Marx goes on to insist that a critique of capitalism must begin with a critique of religion (“the criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth”), wasn’t he simply repeating Jesus’ warning, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them”? Such expressions of disingenuous charity – performed for one’s own peace of mind and in the service of Mammon – are the oil in the capitalist machine.

Perhaps the best way of breaking today’s alliance between God and Mammon, then, is to refuse ourselves the false comfort of token acts of charity and fashionable faith, so that we can see our behaviour for what it really is and dare really to live differently.

Now just to be clear, so that no one can come back later and accuse me of coming dangerously close to Marcionite language, let me just confirm that I am absolutely a Marcionite! Radical Paulinism – as Barth recognised in the preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans – represents one of the crucial resources for opposing capitalism, liberal democracy, and the inherent idolatry that sustains them both.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Theology essay competition

Jason alerts us to the World Council of Churches’ essay competition for theological students and young theologians. If you want to enter, you have to write about Prospects for Ecumenism in the 21st Century.

Does the eucharist make the church?

Chris has posted an interesting series on this question, and he offers a Reformed critique of de Lubac and Zizioulas.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Devil's advocate: on reincarnating Milton's Satan

If you were to ask who is the greatest of all fictional characters, then Milton’s Satan would have to be very close to the top of the list. The Satan of Paradise Lost (1667) is an utterly powerful and singular character – and he has cast a long shadow over subsequent literary history. Thus some of our greatest modern characters (e.g. Melville’s Ahab) are in fact precisely reincarnations of Milton’s Satan.

But my own favourite contemporary incarnation of Milton’s Satan is found not in literature, but in the 1997 film Devil’s Advocate. The Satan-character in this film (a lawyer named “John Milton”) is modelled very closely on Paradise Lost, and he is brilliantly brought to life by Al Pacino. Like Milton’s Satan, this lawyer is above all a rhetorician – he loves to make long, egocentric speeches. He’s fascinated by himself and by his own unique place in the cosmos: “I’m the hand up Mona Lisa’s skirt. I’m a surprise, Kevin. They don’t see me coming.”

Like Milton’s Satan, this Satan-figure is a champion of human rights and freedoms: “I’ve nurtured every sensation man’s been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I’m a fan of man! I’m a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.” Yep, this Satan is one hell of a nice guy.

Further, he is, like Milton’s Satan, a seductive tempter who is always whispering in someone’s ear, enticing people with promises of becoming like God: “You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fibre-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God – and where can you go from there?”

The big difference, however, is that Al Pacino’s Satan is a rapacious womaniser, whereas Milton’s Satan is (more profoundly) a sexually impotent voyeur who is tormented by the sight of Adam and Eve’s lovemaking. And Devil’s Advocate would have been a much better film if Satan had turned out to be impotent (like the sadomasochistic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet).

Anyway, the most creative and most insightful aspect of Devil’s Advocate is that, while Milton’s Satan was depicted as a heroic parliamentary leader, Al Pacino’s Satan is the head of a big New York law firm. He is a lawyer through and through, “always negotiating.” Indeed, he is nothing less than a pure embodiment of law itself.

Thus this Satan tells his son: “the law, my boy, puts us into everything. It’s the ultimate backstage pass, it’s the new priesthood, baby! Did you know there are more students in law school than lawyers walking the earth? We’re coming out, guns blazing! The two of you, all of us, acquittal after acquittal after acquittal – until the stench of it reaches so high and far into heaven, it chokes the whole fucking lot of them!”

This is superb satire (and we all love to satirise lawyers), but it’s also a profoundly Miltonic twist – a direct identification of law with the Satanic, and thus a paradoxical identity between law and lawlessness. And it’s hard not to be reminded here of the challenging Pauline thought that even God’s own law can become one of the demonic “cosmic elements” (Gal. 4:3, 9) which enact human enslavement. In the same way, do not our contemporary “rights” and “freedoms” function precisely as a cosmic Law whose sole aim is to reduce us to the status of consumer-slaves – i.e., is there not here, too, a precise identity between Law and the demonic?

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Jacob Taubes on Romans 8

The Political Theology of Paul, by the Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes, is an extraordinary work. Taubes was dying from cancer as he delivered these lectures in Heidelberg. He was not able even to stand as he spoke – but the lectures are filled with warm humour, apocalyptic intensity, and striking new insights. Here’s an excerpt:

“You notice that Paul has very peculiar worries about nature. Of course they’re not ecological worries. He’s never seen a tree in his life. He traveled through the world just like Kafka – never described a tree, or mentioned one…. Just find me one place in a Pauline letter where he lets up from this passion, from this obsession, from this one theme that moves him. None at all, it persists through and through. Look through Kafka’s novels some time, whether there is a tree there. Maybe one on which a dog pisses….

“And yet nature is a very important category – an eschatological category. It groans, it sighs under the burden of decay and futility. What does ‘groan’ mean [in Romans 8]? There he explains that we too groan. You must imagine prayer as something other than the singing in the Christian church; instead there is screaming, groaning, and the heavens are stormy when people pray.”

—Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 73.

Pistis christou

J. Louis Martyn’s essay, “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians,” Interpretation 54 (2000), creates a brilliant encounter between Paul’s apocalyptic gospel and Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque. In one of the footnotes (p. 250), Martyn settles the pistis Christou debate with this anecdote about Karl Barth:

“Oral tradition, which I have not been able to find in print, tells of a priest who made an appointment with K. Barth on a personal matter. Coming after a while to the point, he said, ‘The problem, Dr Barth, is that I have lost my faith.’ The response: ‘But what on earth gave you the impression that it was yours to lose?’”

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Here and there

Carolina García (an educator in Mexico City) has translated Kim’s propositions on the literal and the literary into Spanish: Diez pensamientos: de literales y literarios.

David Congdon is hosting a Balthasar blog conference, David Walsh explains his soft spot for Karl Rahner, Scott posts a detailed John Howard Yoder bibliography, and Michael (God bless him) has been reading a bit of Bultmann.

And on the IVP blog, Dan Reid catalogues the many forms of reviewer slothfulness – one of my favourites: “I have a deep-seated need to show my superiority, not least in my area of expertise. And so I will point out certain small but unforgivable failings in this book that will subtly cast it in a bad light.”

Somewhere in the Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth refers to a theologian who died from a scathing review of his work. Barth’s response is that the deceased “had no right to do so” – if you die from a review, you are clearly taking your own theology far too seriously!

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Creation is grace: a sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I wonder what comes into people’s minds when they hear the word “creation”. If you’re a Christian I’m pretty sure that most folk would think of the opening chapter of Genesis, which indeed the Good News Bible entitles “The Story of Creation”. But then when you read Genesis 1, or hear it read as we did this morning, what then comes into your mind?

If you live in America, I can tell you what will come into a lot of people’s minds: the issue of evolution. “Issue”? Rather what you might call not the Revolutionary War but the Evolutionary War – the issue is that contentious, pitting Christianity against science in a life-or-death struggle. The first shot fired in this particular cultural conflict was the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, but the war soon shifted to the US, where it fizzled down over the next 75 years as the Genesis literalists – the so-called “creationists” – made public fools of themselves, not least in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (memorably made into that great Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind).

However the battle has re-commenced with a vengeance, with the anti-evolution forces now having both a traditional “hard” wing, those who stubbornly cling to a 6000 year-old earth and reject entirely Darwin’s well-demonstrated mechanism of natural selection; and a new, “softer”, more science-friendly wing, those who advocate what is known as the theory of “Intelligent Design”. Needless to say, this war, like most wars, is a war that should never have been fought, and is only sustained by zealots from both sides, the notorious Oxford professor Richard Dawkins being the most belligerent commander of the anti-creationist forces that are hell-bent on a scorched earth strategy against Christianity and religion as such.

So much for creation and evolution, for I suspect that when “creation” is mentioned in the UK, folk are more likely to think of cosmology than evolution: that is to say, they are more likely to think of the origin of the entire universe rather than of just the earth and human beings. I am sure that you have all heard of Einstein and the theory of relativity, and of the physicist Stephen Hawking and ideas such as the Big Bang, black holes, and perhaps even the latest mind-boggling speculations on so-called “string theory” (which I won’t try to explain to you because it would give us all severe migraine!). Most of the warfare in cosmology, I am happy to say, seems to take place among cosmologists themselves rather than between scientists and believers. Me, when I read about the latest astronomical discoveries, see extraordinary colour photographs of stellar phenomena zillions of miles away, or get an update from a doctoral student friend about work on the new super-duper particle accelerator being built in Switzerland – which will run experiments that will take us back very close to the moment of the Big Bang – I just gawp in wonder at the world.

Many people will have yet another thought on their minds when they hear the word “creation”: they will think of the environment. Harvest festivals, of course, are a time when we rightly turn our attention to “the fruits of creation” – to sun and soil, to the crops of gardener and farmer, to their “ploughing, sowing, reaping”, as well to lorry-drivers and workers in Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s and what local shops are left. Harvest services are also a time when we remember “the hungry and despairing”, those whose crops have failed due to drought, or been overwhelmed by flood, or who in the South continue to get a scandalously raw deal by American and European bankers and financiers; time also to be disgusted with Western leaders with their broken promises of reducing or cancelling Third World debt, as well as their inaction over protectionist First World agricultural subsidies and tariffs. “Feed the World,” we sang one Christmas, in retrospect rather over-optimistically, as upbeat tears of emotion have turned to cynical cries of rage.

And now, to make matters worse, much worse, perhaps now even irrevocably worse, there is the ecological crisis, particularly the visible, tangible onset of global warming and climate change, about which some right-wing fools with interests to defend remain in denial – “It’s a liberal conspiracy!” they cry – yet the results of which were brought catastrophically home to the unsuspecting people of Yorkshire and Gloucestershire this very summer, when the UK witnessed its worst floods in modern history, yet which we are warned were a mere April shower compared to the downpours yet to come. And how terribly ironic that our Commitment for Life partner this year is Bangladesh – people used to national inundations, yet for whom the monsoons came earlier and more destructively this summer, and whose entire country threatens to disappear within just a few generations under the rising coastal tides. In this global context the word “creation” begins to look like a sick misnomer, as human beings, called to be stewards of creation, become engineers of de-creation, as we work to turn God into a liar, complacently undermining his promise that “never again will a flood destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11).

So, evolution, cosmology, the environment, harvest yields and ecological doom – we may think of any of these things when we hear the word “creation”, but – to the point – none of them, in fact, is the essential note that should sound when Christians hear the word “creation”. When Christians hear the word “creation”, the first sound that should ring, sing in our minds is grace. Creation is grace! And that is because creation, in Christian teaching, is an act of sheer divine generosity. Out of nothing, and not for any reason but only from love and for love, God, the “maker of heaven and earth” (as the creeds put it) creates a world.

God does not need a world, as if the world fills a gap in God’s being, as if God would be the less without a world, or as if God were under obligation or constraint to create. On the contrary, if God did not make a world, God would still be the same God, no less the God that God eternally is in beauty and glory as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That God creates is not a law of nature, it is a completely free and gratuitous decision and act. And, further – what creationists don’t get – “Creation isn’t a [scientific] theory of how things started” – however close we ever get to the moment of the Big Bang, it will tell us absolutely nothing about creation – rather creation is a way of seeing everything that is in relation to God, not only back then but always and forever.

“Whatever you encounter is there because God chose it should be there,” and only because God chose it should be there. “It should be a rather exhilarating thought,” writes Rowan Williams, “that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything.” And – further still – “It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.”

Finally, this. That creation is grace, that God has made a place and space for us – why? Answer: that we may live and flourish with freedom and joy. God creates a rich, intricate, green and growing world that we could never completely explore or explain were we to live a thousand years. And because creation is an act of divine generosity, an exercise in self-giving, an overflow of goodness which seeks only to bless, and in which God himself delights, so does the church teach that the appropriate response of faith is not just to acknowledge our absolute dependence on God, or even to live in gratitude to God – though that is certainly true – but, above all, to imitate God’s lavish generosity and goodness and blessing in our own relationships, so that we might not only respond to God but also correspond to God, indeed become like God, which is what it means to be created in the image of God.

That creation is grace, therefore, is not “just” doctrine, it is ethics: it is how we should live and behave as the creatures we are made and meant to be. The great church father Irenaeus was once asked to define the “glory of God”. “The glory of God,” he answered, “ are human beings fully alive.” You and me, not only the apex of creation but the very glory of God: Wow!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Karl Barth: the word in this world

Karl Barth, The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, ed. Kurt I. Johanson, trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007), 66 pp. With an introduction by William H. Willimon.

In this splendid little booklet, two remarkable sermons by Karl Barth appear in English for the first time. The juxtaposition of these two sermons provides a striking picture of some of the ways in which Barth’s preaching changed over the years.

On the one hand, both of these sermons were preached amidst situations of global catastrophe and crisis. The first was preached in April 1912, just days after the sinking of the Titanic; and the second was preached in November 1934, two days after the Confessing Church had taken a public stand against Hitler (and two days later, Barth would be dismissed from his university post). Both sermons thus take the form of emergency proclamation, of urgent announcement amidst crisis.

On the other hand, the two sermons are remarkably different. In the first, Barth takes the sinking of the Titanic itself as his text – he insists that this event is the organ of divine revelation through which “God addresses us with … power and urgency” (p. 32). The sermon is thus entirely immersed within its specific situation; there is (in good liberal fashion) a presumed identity between divine revelation and the movement of history. This was precisely the position that Barth would later denounce and repudiate so fiercely in his commentary on Romans.

Needless to say, by the time of the 1934 sermon Barth’s mode of preaching is very different. Here the contemporary situation is even more urgent and more dangerous than in April 1912 – here, the German nation as a whole is steaming towards hidden disaster. But Barth only alludes to these specificities in passing – his entire sermon, from the first word to the last, is absorbed by the world of the Bible and by the sovereign command of God. Hitler, for example, is never named, but only alluded to as a mere “nothing.”

The two sermons thus offer a striking contrast. Indeed, the later Barth looked back on his Titanic sermon with considerable horror – in his Homiletics (WJKP, 1991), he called it “the monster of a full-scale Titanic sermon”! Following Barth’s lead, William Willimon also suggests in his introduction that this is a very “bad” sermon (p. 18), since its text is the newspaper rather than the Bible.

Nevertheless, I myself would like to say something in defence of this early (liberal) Barth – for all its theological failings, I think his Titanic sermon is an extraordinarily gripping and powerful piece of preaching. Even if the whole sermon is structured by the sinking of the ship itself (rather than by any specific biblical text), Barth’s perception of this event has already been filtered through a biblical imagination – so that the true starting point of this sermon is not merely a historical event, but a biblical “reading” of this event.

Barth’s main argument is that the sinking of the Titanic is the judgment of God: it is God’s judgment on the “crime of capitalism,” in which “a few individuals compet[e] with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits” (p. 40). Barth thus sees the sinking of the Titanic not merely as an isolated occurrence, but as an event wholly conditioned by a larger web of social and economic relations – the same web of relations which also structures the lives of the working-class parishioners here in the little village of Safenwil. For that reason, the judgment of God on the Titanic is connected – urgently and immediately – to the lives of these parishioners. The theological horizon which shapes Barth’s interpretation of the Titanic, in other words, is the same horizon against which his parishioners must understand their own material struggles.

So while I’ll admit that this very socialist and very “liberal” sermon on the Titanic is a far cry from Barth’s later preaching, I think this sermon also expresses something important about authentic Christian proclamation. In the sermon, God is addressing these particular people. And so the preacher must interpret not only the biblical text but also the world itself through the lens of the gospel.

On one occasion, the Word of God might be proclaimed by making Hitler disappear anonymously into the world of the Bible as a powerless “nothing”; on another occasion, the Word of God might be proclaimed by speaking directly against the “crime of capitalism,” and by summoning the people of God to re-imagine their own material world as the place of God’s reign. Two very different sermons, but – if we listen carefully – are we not hearing the same Word?

Friday, 5 October 2007

Oswald Bayer (and Jüngel?) in translation

Many of you will be familiar with Jeff Cayzer’s brilliant and vigorous translation of Eberhard Jüngel’s Justification (T&T Clark, 2001). Jeff has now also completed a translation of Oswald Bayer’s important work, Freedom in Response (Oxford UP, 2007), and he has also recently translated an old German study on the Lord’s Supper for an SBL series (Albert Eichhorn, The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament – this will be released at AAR/SBL in San Diego).

Jeff is especially keen to translate more of Eberhard Jüngel’s essays – but it sounds as though British publishers are no longer able to fund this kind of work (I suspect the German government is no longer subsidising the translation costs). It would be a fine thing to see more of Jüngel’s essays translated. He is an essayist par excellence – his best work is in this genre, and many of his best essays haven’t yet been translated.

So does anyone know of any publishers who might be interested in this kind of project? And am I alone in thinking that there is more and more interest in Jüngel these days?

Australia's ageing theologians

The other day we were discussing theology in Australia. And now a very interesting article in Eureka Street discusses the problem of the age of Catholic theology teachers in Australia: “over 12% are over seventy, and 42.5% are over 60 years old. Less than 20% are under fifty and 2% under forty. Close to 37% indicated their intention to retire in the next five years or less…. It is near impossible to see how this shortfall can be made up, particularly from the pool of Australia theologians. Younger theologians are not available to fill the gaps.”

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Barth for beginners: a new series?

A couple of years ago I posted my Church Dogmatics in a week series – and these posts continue to attract numerous visitors each week. But since I still get so many queries about how to read Barth’s theology, I’m thinking of starting a new series of brief posts, entitled “Barth for Beginners.” Here’s a possible outline of the series:

I. Background to Church Dogmatics

1. Reading Capital
2. Reading Paul
3. Reading History
4. Reading the Times

II. Church Dogmatics

1. The Electing God (CD II and I)
    Excursus: Barth and Calvin
2. The Rejection of Nothingness (CD III)
    Excursus: Barth and de Lubac
3. The Path of Election (CD IV)
    Excursus: Barth and Bultmann
4. The Goal of Election (on the luminous absence of CD V)
    Excursus: Barth and Pannenberg
5. The Ethics of Election (CD IV/4)
    Excursus: Barth and Hauerwas

III. After Church Dogmatics: or, How Not to Be a Barthian

Does this sound like a helpful series? Any suggestions?

A conference on providence

Our friends at Aberdeen will be holding a conference on the doctrine of providence: Deus Habet Consilium: An International Conference on the Career and Prospects of Providence in Modern Theology. And the website is now open for registration.

To date, there has been far too little constructive work on the doctrine of providence – but if you check out the list of speakers and papers, you’ll see that this conference is poised to be a major event in the career of providence.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Around the traps

Our friends from T&T Clark have now started up their own blog (and, ahem, I’m still waiting for that review copy of Iain Taylor’s new book on Pannenberg…). Jim alerts us to an excellent new internet portal for all things Reformed. Halden suggests that prayer might be “the only way in which capitalism can be resisted.” And Chris reviews David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea – the best book you’ll ever read on theodicy (I, for one, would trade my whole library for a couple of new books by Hart).

Speaking of books, you’ll never guess the title of Mike Bird’s new introduction to Paul. And, speaking of Paul, Byron has come up with a very entertaining translation of 1 Cor. 13 (in Byron’s rendering, Paul even mentions F&T – it feels good to have a little more apostolic clout around here!).

Finally – and on a more sober note – the great New Testament scholar, C. F. D. (“Charlie”) Moule, has died at the grand old age of 98. There are obituaries in today’s Independent and Telegraph.

A new chair of theology

As you might know, dogmatic theology is all but non-existent here in Australia. So it’s impressive to see that The University of Newcastle is establishing a new professorship, the Morpeth Chair of Theology – and it looks as though some sort of theology discipline will be organised around this chair.

Applicants for this senior position are welcome “from any relevant sub-discipline, with preference for [wait for it...] systematic or dogmatic theology.” Details of the position can be downloaded here.

Monday, 1 October 2007

On the quirkiness of theologians

It was very nice to spend some time with Alister McGrath while he was here in Brisbane today. We were talking about the personal quirkiness of theologians, and McGrath related this splendid anecdote about Eberhard Jüngel:

One day, while Jüngel was giving a lecture to his students, he broke off mid-sentence and started writing something down. The students waited patiently – and Jüngel continued writing silently. This went on for some time. When the students finally became restless, Jüngel looked up and said: “Well, if you had a thought this good, you would write it down too!”

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