Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The theological basis of Peter Enns' suspension

Westminster Theological Seminary has now released the official documentation relating to the recent suspension of Peter Enns. Included are the theological and hermeneutical Reports, prepared by Enns’ colleagues, which outline the objections to his book on Inspiration and Incarnation. It makes for unpleasant reading.

The “Historical and Theological Field Committee Report” is especially depressing. The Report makes it clear that Enns’ heterodoxy was already a settled issue for these colleagues; there is no real engagement with his book, no reflection on the theological questions, and certainly not even a glimmer of self-critical humility. Every question is settled in advance; the authors are invincibly persuaded of their own rightness.

The explicit purpose of Enns’ book was to generate discussion about the doctrine of scripture in light of current historical research on the biblical texts and their contexts. He was specifically trying to generate new discussion and new reflection among conservative evangelicals. But his colleagues at Westminster – somehow still entrenched in the old modernist controversies of a century ago – react with a defensiveness that is painful to witness.

They counter Enns’ whole approach by asserting that “Scripture’s author is God, who uses ‘actuaries’ or ‘tabularies’ to write His words,” so that “what men write down is as much God’s own words as if He had written it down without human mediation.” (Am I dreaming? Did a committee of theologians really produce that statement?) You can see why Enns felt it was necessary to write a book like this. You can see why a bit of fresh doctrinal reflection might be in order. But these colleagues will have none of it: they simply retreat back to the safety of another century, insisting that “there is no mention of the human authors of Scripture” in the Westminster Confession (their emphasis). Or they remark that “it is difficult to see” how Enns’ approach “can be made compatible” with the position of B. B. Warfield. No reflection on what Enns is saying. No engagement with his proposal. Not even a pretence at actually listening to him. Just a series of assertions about the self-evidently unacceptable nature of Enns’ book.

But the Report only gets worse. It’s sadly revealing to see the way objections against Enns are simply piled up, willy-nilly, without any modesty or sense of proportion. On a number of occasions, the authors complain that Enns’ book is “unclear.” For example, they complain that his description of scripture as “ultimately from God” and “God’s gift to the church” is “fuzzy at best in that it can accrue to an almost infinite number of things. In that sense, it is not an affirmation of the church’s historic understanding of inspiration.” Fuzzy? Theologians can now be suspended for fuzziness? In any case, the sheer irrelevance of such complaints is precisely the point: when you’ve already made up your mind in advance, any old criticism will do.

In the same way, a large proportion of this theological report is devoted to establishing Enns’ guilt by association. His views smack of “a neo-orthodox construal of revelation.” He “seems to display basic affinity with a Barthian view of Scripture.” There “seems to us to be a connection between the Post-Conservative Evangelical method [i.e. of Grenz and Franke] and the doctrine of Scripture set forth in Inspiration and Incarnation.” None of this is theological argument. None of it demonstrates why Enns’ approach is wrong. None of it has any relevance for the doctrinal question which the Committee is ostensibly addressing. On the contrary, the Committee simply relies on the invocation of cheap slogans – “post-conservative!” “neo-orthodox!” – in order to produce guilt by association.

Unfortunately, that’s the flavour of this “Theological Field Committee Report.” It would be irritating if such a report had been written by mindless bureaucrats who don’t know any better. But the fact that it was written by professional theologians – by Peter Enns’ own colleagues – is simply depressing.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Anarchism and Christianity

When arguing with my wife about politics, I’m usually embarrassed to admit that I’m an anarchist at heart. But these guys don’t seem embarrassed at all. As well as their annual conference, they’ve got an online library with some great essays (Cavanaugh, Ellul, Hauerwas, Milbank, Yoder, et al.).

Monday, 28 April 2008

Agamben on transcendence and evil

“The transcendent, therefore, is not a supreme entity above all things; rather, the pure transcendent is the taking-place of every thing. God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the taking-place of the entities, their innermost exteriority. The being-worm of the worm, the being-stone of the stone, is divine. That the world is, that something can appear and have a face, that there is exteriority and non-latency as the determination and the limit of every thing: this is the good. Thus, precisely its being irreparably in the world is what transcends and exposes every worldly entity. Evil, on the other hand, is the reduction of taking-place of things to a fact like others, the forgetting of the transcendence inherent in the very taking-place of things. With respect to the these things, however, the good is not somewhere else; it is simply the point at which they grasp the taking-place proper to them, at which they touch their own non-transcendent matter. In this sense – and only in this sense – the good must be defined as a self-grasping of evil, and salvation as the coming of the place to itself.”

—Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 15.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Around the traps

There are some wonderful posts around the traps at the moment. Here's a sample:

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Management theory

Following the excellent discussion of managerialism in the latest issue of Studies in Christian Ethics, here’s a piece by Kim Fabricius...

PETER: Eh… Jesus…

JESUS: Yes, Peter…?

PETER: I’ve been thinking.

JESUS: Start the day with a miracle, is it?

PETER: No, seriously, Jesus, I’ve been thinking…

JESUS: What about, Peter?

PETER: About mission – and about the future.

JESUS: Into eschatology now, are we?

PETER: Escha … escha … escha-what-ogy?

JESUS: “Eschatology”, Peter. The “last things” – death, judgement, heaven, hell – the end of the world. You said you were thinking about the future.

PETER: Not that far into the future. I was thinking more about the immediate future.

JESUS: What about it?

PETER: Precisely Jesus – what about it? We can’t go on living like this.

JESUS: Like what, Peter?

PETER: Like “lilies of the field”. You say that they don’t worry about the future, so why should we? Come on, Jesus, get real! Ours is a field for mission, not flowers. If we’re going to go out proclaiming the kingdom of God, we’ve got to plan ahead. “Lambs among wolves” indeed! We’ll get eaten alive.

JESUS: What if I tell you to take some mint sauce along?

PETER: Come on, Jesus, I’m serious.

JESUS: Okay, Peter, tell me about these plans of yours.

PETER: Management theory.

JESUS: Pardon?

PETER: Management theory, Jesus. Haven’t you read the latest pack from Jerusalem? It’s all there. We need a system.

JESUS: A system?

PETER: Yes, a system. We’ve got a product, and we’ve got to sell it – we’ve got to be productive – and to be productive we need a system. It’s all about efficiency.

JESUS: I see.

PETER: We need to establish goals and set targets, and we need to prioritise.

JESUS: “Prioritise”?

PETER: Yes, I mean tax collectors and sinners? It’s a disgrace.

JESUS: I don’t do diss, Peter. But go on.

PETER: Where was I…? Yes, and we need to monitor, evaluate, assess.

JESUS: Of course.

PETER: I was thinking of a market research unit and a performance review team. And we’ll need a director of finance.

JESUS: But I’ve already appointed Judas as treasurer.

PETER: Bad choice according to the Micah-Baruch type test I ran him through, which was confirmed by the little focus group Jim and I set up.

JESUS: Who do you have in mind?

PETER: I’m drawing up a shortlist. And, of course, you’ll need a personal private consultant. And my first job will be to come up with a mission statement.

JESUS: Absolutely.

PETER: You know we don’t even have a mobile phone or a laptop. And we’ll have to have a blog.

JESUS: Is that “blog” as in Gog and Magog?

PETER: This isn’t a joke, Jesus. With that attitude no wonder we’re in such a state. But no more. From now on we’re going to be organised, with nothing left to chance, all the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed. The future will be secure.

JESUS: So we’ll be profitable?

PETER: Yes.

JESUS: And successful?
`
PETER: Yes.

JESUS: And respected, admired, extolled?

PETER: I can see your picture now on the cover of Chronos: “Jesus of Nazareth: Man of the Year”!

JESUS: [Starts laughing.]

PETER: What’s so funny, Jesus?

JESUS: [Laughter increases.]

PETER: Why are you laughing?

JESUS: [Now in stitches.]

PETER: [Testily] Jesus!

JESUS: Peter, you’ve forgotten something absolutely crucial to good practice.

PETER: [Arrogantly] And what’s that?

JESUS: The No Asshole Rule.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Against relevance

One more quote from Michael Korthaus’ new book, Kreuzestheologie: Geschichte und Gehalt eines Programmbegriffs in der evangelischen Theologie (Mohr Siebeck, 2007) – this is from his chapter on Gerhard Ebeling:

“The believer who in the confidence of the word of the cross confesses the death of the sinless Christ as her own death…, no longer requires any worldly assurance, nor any display of faith’s ‘relevance’. To put it another way: the one who asks about the ‘relevance’ of faith, about its supposedly necessary authentication in experience or some other life-praxis, has not yet really believed” (p. 218).

Take that, Moltmann.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Violence and atonement

The latest issue of the Princeton Theological Review is devoted to the theme of atonement. There are some very good articles, together with reviews of recent books on atonement-theology – including my own review of Rowan Williams’ beautiful little book, Tokens of Trust. I just focus on the book’s construal of violence, peace and atonement: “Williams’ meditation on the death and resurrection of Jesus offers rich resources for the ongoing constructive task of envisioning ‘atonement’ as that event in which one man’s violent death becomes the incursion of peace – the event in which a non-violent God shatters our violence and grants us his peace.”

You can download the PTR free of charge.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Carl Schmitt on politics, capitalism, and the Catholic Church

“The Catholic Church is a complex of opposites, a complexio oppositorum. There appears to be no antithesis it does not embrace…. Ultimately, most important is that this limitless ambiguity combines with the most precise dogmatism and a will to decision as it culminates in the doctrine of papal infallibility.

“From the standpoint of the political idea of Catholicism, the essence of the Roman-Catholic complexio oppositorum lies in a specific, formal superiority over the matter of human life such as no other imperium has ever known…. This formal character of Roman Catholicism is based on a strict realization of the principle of representation, the particularity of which is most evident in its antithesis to the economic-technical thinking dominant today….

“The Church requires a political form. Without it there is nothing to correspond to its intrinsically representative conduct. The domination of ‘capital’ behind the scenes [of modern politics] is still no form, though it can undermine an existing political form and make it an empty façade. Should it succeed, it will have ‘depoliticized’ the state completely. Should economic thinking succeed in realizing its utopian goal and in bringing about an absolutely unpolitical condition of human society, the Church would remain the only agency of political thinking and political form. Then the Church would have a stupendous monopoly: its hierarchy would be nearer the political domination of the world than in the Middle Ages.”

—Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. G. L. Umen (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996), pp. 7-8, 25.

Friday, 18 April 2008

A rain of frogs (and other horrors)

Thanks again for all the kind help with my lecture on Magnolia – I’ve just gotten back from presenting it. As it turned out, the lecture was actually a two-and-a-half hour session. So I called it “Monstrous Grace: Pauline Apocalyptic and Popular Culture,” and I talked about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Tom Waits’ music, and finally Magnolia as guides to the interpretation of Paul. Your suggestions for reading on Magnolia were all extremely helpful!

Anyway, I thought people would need to be eased gently into Tom Waits’ music, so I started with this film clip – “God’s Away on Business”:



                Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick
                It’s a job, it’s a job
                Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood
                Join the mob, join the mob...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: the new digital edition

“Dogmatics has no more exalted and profound word – essentially, it has no other word – than this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” If you want to know what Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics is all about, then the whole 9,000-page work is summed up in that single sentence.

The 14 volumes of the existing English edition of the Church Dogmatics were published between 1936 and 1975, and there has never been a new edition until now. Thanks to T&T Clark, a new print edition will be released in September – and thanks to Logos, there is now a highly sophisticated and remarkably user-friendly digitisation of this edition. The digital edition will be released on 21 April (retailing at $699) – but until 20 April, you can pick up a copy at the pre-publication price of $499. (It runs on software called Libronix, a digital library system for Windows-based computers. Fortunately for Mac users, a Mac version of the software is currently in public beta testing – it’s available for download here, and it runs very nicely.)

I’m very grateful to Logos for sending me an advance review copy of this new edition. I use the German and English print editions of the Church Dogmatics on an almost daily basis. And I have to say that, for sheer elegance, efficiency and ease of use, this new digital edition is absolutely unsurpassed. The new edition retains the original pagination, but it is presented in a format that is far more readable and more accessible than any of the previous German or English editions (the digital edition also displays the corresponding German pagination, which is extremely helpful). Barth’s numerous Greek and Latin passages are now rendered both in the original and in a new English translation – not only the extended quotes, but every Greek and Latin word or phrase is also translated. In the digital text you just hover over the asterisk following a passage of Latin or Greek, and the translation appears as a pop-up, as illustrated here:


The digitisation has also created many excellent additional features. Particularly valuable is the ability to mark up the text and to create your own annotations – this feature will be a great help both to general readers and to scholars doing close work on the CD. Further, the digital text integrates with all other Libronix resources (Logos kindly sent me a complimentary copy of the Scholar’s Gold Library, so I’ve been using this as a base library), and this produces a whole range of wonderful features. For example, the CD is instantly linked to any Bible version of your choice. I’ve made the RSV my default Bible, so that any time I come across a biblical reference in Barth’s text, I can just hover over the reference and the full passage appears as an RSV pop-up (or, if you prefer, you can use a Greek edition such as the Nestle-Aland).

This system of biblical referencing is also integrated with all commentaries in your Libronix library. So if I want to analyse Barth’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 in his doctrine of reconciliation (CD IV), I can easily move back and forth between Barth’s text, a critical edition of the NT text, and various commentaries (such as Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament and Anthony Thiselton’s massive NIGTC commentary on 1 Corinthians). And if I’m puzzling over a particular Pauline term in Barth’s exegesis, I can also jump to exegetical resources such as Kittel’s TDNT or the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament). I only wish I’d been able to do all this when I was writing my recent AAR/SBL paper on Barth’s exegesis of Paul! In any case, I’m convinced that Barth’s theological exegesis is one of the most fruitful avenues for future research on the Church Dogmatics – so the integration of this digital edition with so many biblical and exegetical resources should be a major boon to such research.

The text is seamlessly integrated with many other resources as well. Double-clicking any word executes a keylink to your other Libronix resources. For example, if Barth mentions an obscure topic like “J. G. Herder” or “supralapsarianism”, I can just double-click the word in order to find the related entries in a reference work such as The Encyclopedia of Christianity. For this keylinking, you can set up and prioritise which resources to use for the various data types (e.g. English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, etc.).

Further, many major historical texts are linked directly to Barth’s text – so whenever Barth cites the Apostolic Fathers, or Augustine’s Confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes, or Kittel’s TDNT, or various creeds and confessions, the citation links directly to the relevant passage in those texts. For instance, when Barth cites Calvin’s Institutes, you can directly move back and forth between Barth and the passage in the Institutes. And if you’re doing a close study of Barth’s interpretation of Calvin, you can do all sorts of advanced searches as well – you could, for example, find every place where Barth refers to a specific book or chapter of the Institutes (as illustrated here).

And of course the whole text of the CD is searchable as well – so if you want to locate every time Barth uses a certain word or phrase (e.g. “Bultmann” or “fundamentalists” or “imago Dei”) or biblical passage (e.g. John 1:14 or Genesis 1:1-2:4), then the digital search function provides a much more efficient, more flexible and more reliable resource than the old index volume. You can search for any word – a quick search of “reprobation” instantly gets you 69 hits (based on the root); or you can search for any phrase – “in Christ” brings up 725 hits. You could also quickly search Barth to find all the places where he mentions a certain reference in the Apostolic Fathers or Calvin or TDNT, etc. This kind of very specific information would be nearly impossible to find any other way.

You can also search other portions of your digital library for references to the CD. I’ve often thought about writing something on Cornelius Van Til’s interpretation of Barth. If I’ve got Van Til’s works in my Libronix collection, then I can search for every time he refers to Barth’s CD (over 6,000 references). Since the digitisation recognises the pagination of Barth’s German, this search function works equally for references to Barth’s German or English edition. And this function will be constantly evolving as well, since new Logos books which cite Barth will also be linked to the CD.

Okay, let me mention just one more nice feature. If you also like to use Barth’s CD as a resource for preaching, then you can add it to your list of preferred commentaries and exegetical resources. So if I’m preparing a sermon on Galatians 5:1-15, I can just run a quick commentary search for Gal. 5:1-15, and my list of results will immediately include all Barth’s references to that passage, alongside the standard commentaries, etc. Here’s an illustration:


(Oops, it looks as though John MacArthur has turned up in the results as well – but I can easily omit him from my future searches.) In the same way, I can use the CD as a basic reference work: if I’m doing a search on some church-historical topic, then Barth’s discussions of that topic can be displayed alongside reference works like the 3-volume The Encyclopedia of Christianity.

In sum, this is a wonderfully rich and delightfully user-friendly resource both for general theological readers and for students of Barth. The new digital edition will certainly be a tremendous help in my own future research! With its accessible format, enhanced search capabilities and seamless integration with so many other texts, it will no doubt establish itself as an indispensable resource for the next generation of Barth scholars, and for the wider community of pastors, theologians and students.

If you’re thinking of getting a copy, don’t forget that the reduced pre-publication price will be available until 20 April. And thanks to the kind folk at Logos, if you’re interested in picking up one of their base libraries, you can also get a 25% discount by visiting this page, or by entering the coupon code FAITH-THEOLOGY.

Cross and resurrection

This morning I’ve been writing a review of Michael Korthaus’ new book on Kreuzestheologie for Reviews in Religion and Theology. It’s a fascinating work of historical theology, with chapters on all the usual suspects (Barth, Käsemann, Ebeling, Moltmann, Jüngel, et al.). And it also features an impressive constructive sketch of a contemporary theology of the cross.

Korthaus’ cast of characters consists exclusively of German-language writers – which got me wondering whether any Anglo-American writers have contributed anything noteworthy to a theologia crucis. The only person who comes to mind is Rowan Williams – most strikingly in his writings on spirituality (such as the astonishing book, The Wound of Knowledge), but also in his broader work on theological method. I suspect Williams’ frustratingly piecemeal and open-ended writing on doctrine is itself a kind of methodologia crucis, an attempt to come to terms with the shattering significance of the cross for all our speech about God. This resonates with one of Korthaus’ central arguments as well: “The word of cross cannot be translated into a hermetic theological theory…. The word of the cross does not generate a system of cross-theology” (p. 21).

Anyway, here are a few more quotes from Korthaus’ excellent book:

“We define the relationship of cross and resurrection as follows: the resurrection is to be understood as the act of God’s identification with the crucified Jesus Christ, in which the event of the cross is publicly revealed as the unsurpassable salvation-event…. This understanding of resurrection as the act by which God identifies himself with the Crucified is first of all directed negatively against every tendency to understand the cross as a temporary pathway to a salvation which was surpassed and nullified in the resurrection” (pp. 374-75).

A quote from Gerhard Ebeling: “The substance of Easter faith is not that the meaning of the crucifixion is cancelled or nullified or disproved by the resurrection...” (p. 375).

A quote from Ingolf Dalferth: “The cross is mute and makes mute. God was silent. Jesus was separated. The disciples fled. It is not ours to understand the cross in the context of human life-experience. The cross is soteriologically mute” (p. 373).

Monday, 14 April 2008

Feeling a little widgety

If you’re ever feeling a little widgety, you’ll now be able to get F&T as a widget. You can get this any time by clicking the new link in the sidebar.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Balthasar on writing

In her notes on the analogia entis conference, MM has one of the most touching theological anecdotes I’ve ever heard: “Martin Bieler recalled that Balthasar once told him personally that he (Balthasar) had written everything for Barth: ‘I wrote it all for Barth’.”

Thursday, 10 April 2008

God against religion

A new book has just landed on my desk, and I really like the look of it: Matthew Myer Boulton, God against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (Eerdmans, 2008). “There is today,” Boulton observes, “a kind of pious haze that clouds much Christian writing about worship” (p. 4).

Boulton’s argument develops as a new appropriation of Karl Barth’s critique of religion – and at the heart of the book is the claim that Barth’s critique is fundamentally a critique of worship. “It is worship, most fundamentally, that has this double aspect, both veil and clothing, ‘fall’ and ‘reconciliation’. And thus it is worship, finally, that God will cast aside” (p. xviii). Worship constitutes the “fatal disease”, the “wound of human life” – and it is this very wound which God sublimates, transforming it from within in order to effect our reconciliation. Liturgy is both the wound and the cure, both fall and reconciliation. The Eucharist is paradigmatic here: “For whenever it is celebrated, it is simultaneously a meal of consummate betrayal and desertion … and a meal of consummate joy and reconciliation” (p. 17).

Anyway, so far I’ve only read the opening pages. But this looks like a very promising and very provocative work of constructive theology. “As a brief systematic theology of invocation, this book proposes that Christian theology be thought through worship, that it be conceived, developed, and articulated in liturgical terms…. In what follows I argue that God’s reconciliation of humankind is a radically liturgical solution to a radically liturgical problem: the problem, as Barth puts it, of ‘religion’” (p. 12).

As Boulton rightly (and discomfortingly) reminds us, Barth’s critique isn’t merely directed against some vague religion-in-general. It is directed against Christianity – and especially against Christianity in its highest and noblest and most exalted expressions and activities.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Around the traps

Norm has continued his entertaining “theologian trading card” series with a nice one on Karl Barth. And MM has started posting on the analogia entis conference. In her opening post, she gives this summary: “The tone was reverent and charitable, and climaxed with a breathtaking set of remarks by David Bentley Hart. Needless to say, Bruce Marshall’s presentation was the best. And Bruce McCormack indicated that he had changed his mind.” Speaking of conferences, the next one to go to will be the Chicago conference for David Tracy on Augustine: Theological and Philosophical Conversations (and don’t forget about this one either).

Meanwhile, Seth urges writers (God help us) to write like a blogger. And Jon is back with a brand new blog and a very catchy title: Mixophilosophicotheologia. Meanwhile, the latest issue of Studies in Christian Ethics features a very helpful symposium on managerialism in the church. Especially noteworthy is Bernd Wannenwetsch’s excellent essay, “Inwardness and Commodification: How Romanticist Hermeneutics Prepared the Way for the Culture of Managerialism”, together with John Milbank’s polemical anti-Calvinist piece, “‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church”. And speaking of managerial stupidities, Kevin has an entertaining observation about church architecture, while Halden was lucky enough to observe the worst church sign ever.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

The last theologian: a short story

Forgive me for this silly mood – but in a playful moment yesterday I felt like writing a little story:

The Last Theologian

Maxwell C. McKim, Professor of Extinct Religious Thought at Harvard University, is the world’s last theologian. He sits each day at his desk in Robinson Hall, bent over manuscripts and spine-cracked monographs and long neat boxes lined with index cards. His work is nothing if not scrupulous. He arrives at 8.15 sharp each morning, Sunday through Friday. Switches on lights, computer, percolator. Stands by the window overlooking Harvard Yard and takes his morning coffee. Commences work at 8.30, reviewing yesterday’s index cards before proceeding to the day’s research. Breaks for coffee at 10.50, resumes work at 11.05. A cold lunch at 1, then down to the manuscripts room at the Library, where he remains surrounded by the dust of old books and the glow of dead languages until late in the afternoon. Sometimes a single malt Scotch around 5, then back to his desk till 7 or 8 before walking the two blocks home. Through discipline, tenacity and hard work (and, I might add, a good dose of creative genius) he has established himself as a scholar and thinker of the highest order.

You will no doubt have heard of Maxwell McKim’s – it is not too strong a word – revolutionary book on The Formation of Latin Tonsure Ceremonies in the Late Seventh Century. And you will surely have read about his acclaimed two-volume study on The Epistle of Pope Hormisdas to Emperor Justius: A Literary Analysis of the Pre-History of the Filioque Schism – a study for which the author received (back in the days when the discipline of theology was not yet extinct) the coveted Pelikan-Loeb Award for Distinguished Writing on Theology and Classical Languages.

And for the past twenty years, ensconced in that tidy Harvard office, Maxwell McKim has been writing his life’s great work. Two volumes have appeared already, and he is now making serious inroads into the third. By the time it is completed, this six-volume work, The Influence of the Cyrillic Alphabet on Christian Liturgy: A History of Interpretations in the Latin Tradition, will have defined the entire landscape of the field of Studies in Extinct Religious Thought. Although few perhaps will have the requisite technical learning to read the whole work through, the first two volumes have been widely praised for their extraordinary analytical acuity and their exhaustive treatment of the primary sources. (Indeed, as one reviewer noted, these primary sources “would, for the most part, have remained completely unknown were it not for the author’s immense and unremitting archival labors: we owe him a great debt.”)

Maxwell McKim’s reputation as a leading scholar is, of course, complemented by the considerable fame attached to his standing as the world’s last theologian. The tragic circumstances surrounding his sudden propulsion to celebrity are of course known by everyone, and need not be rehearsed here. How he attended, as always, the annual meeting of the Global Theological Academy in Los Angeles. How he was scheduled to give the plenary address that fateful evening, a keenly anticipated speech on the hellenisation of Slavic thought in the writings of St Methodius. How his departure for the Convention Center that night had been delayed by a chance encounter at the hotel bar. (Recognising a woman’s accent, Maxwell McKim had struck up a friendly conversation in Finnish, and twenty minutes and two martinis later found himself back in his room, his best suit crumpled and her pelvis grinding him hard against the mattress, while he glanced furtively at the clock beside the bed.) How afterwards, chiding himself for this lapse in punctuality, he had rushed from the hotel to the Convention Center, knowing that he was already running a full ten minutes late. How he had seen the orange glow and billowing smoke, the streets torn red with screaming fire trucks. How Maxwell McKim had stood transfixed a block away while that capacious building – crammed full with all the world’s theologians, all come to hear him speak – had erupted in a violent conflagration, before collapsing with a roar and the hideous shriek of twisted metal. How they had told him the next day that there were no survivors, that he had no remaining colleagues, that the accident – caused, it was later discovered, by some stray cigarette ash falling on a publisher’s display table – had eliminated his entire scholarly discipline, root and branch. Worst building fire in United States history, and perhaps the worst academic disaster since the big faculty strike of 2011.

As soon as one calls to mind these sad events, one can only feel inspired by Maxwell McKim’s remarkable example of fortitude, steadfastness and courage in adversity. When he returned to Harvard the following week, he declared that his research would continue to schedule in spite of the tragic demise of all his colleagues. When universities everywhere closed their divinity schools, Maxwell McKim remarked that he was, under the circumstances, perfectly content to be relocated to the history department. (Initially, several divinity schools remained open under the assumption that fee-paying doctoral students could continue their studies just as well in the absence of any faculty. In what was to become one of the most celebrated academic scandals of the century, a large British university continued to run its theology department successfully for nearly three years before one doctoral student noticed that her supervisor was no longer around.) When Harvard later appointed Maxwell McKim to the newly founded Chair in Extinct Religious Thought, he declared that he would perform his duties with all the passion and commitment befitting the world’s only living theologian – and the ensuing decades of research have shown that he is as good as his word.

It is true that rumours have begun to circulate that Maxwell McKim will never live to complete his great history on the liturgical significance of the Cyrillic alphabet. Two large volumes completed in the past twenty years; four volumes still to be written. But although our author’s retirement is fast approaching, there is, I believe, no good reason to doubt that he will indeed complete this work – and probably a good deal more besides. His contribution to scholarship has already been enormous. But once his magnum opus is complete, the full scope of his impact will be simply incalculable.

In short, when the history of our century is written, I am convinced that Maxwell McKim will be remembered as not only the last, but also the most eminent theologian of his time.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Quote of the day: even in America

Since we’ll be spending the last four months of this year in Princeton, my kids and I have been having lots of conversations about America. Here’s today’s highlight from my five-year-old daughter:

—Dad, are people in America healthy?
—I guess it’s the same as here. If they eat lots of good food, they’ll be nice and healthy. But if they just eat McDonald’s all the time they won’t be very healthy.
—Oh wow! Do they even have McDonald’s in America?

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics: the new edition

The most eagerly anticipated event of theological publishing is finally upon us: the release of the new edition of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics! The print edition should be available from T&T Clark by September – but the digital edition, published by Logos, will be released later this month.

Logos have kindly sent me an advance review copy of this digital edition, and I’ll be posting a full review shortly. In the mean time, however, you might want to consider ordering this at the special pre-publication price – until 14 April, you can get the digital edition for $499 (after 14 April, the digital edition will go for $699; and T&T Clark are predicting that their print edition will retail for $840).

In the digital edition, you can also do things like annotate Barth’s text and jump directly to the works which Barth cites (since it integrates with any other Libronix resources, e.g. the Scholar’s Gold library).

You can learn more about this edition here, or you can place an order here. It’s a very exciting new resource – stay tuned for a full review soon!

Thursday, 3 April 2008

A plea for reprints

Some of the best and most important theological books are books that you’ll never own – either because they’ve gone out of print, or because they’ve never been available in an affordable edition. So here’s my heartfelt plea to our community of theological publishers: please give us more reprints! Here’s my own wishlist of six theological books which urgently need reprinting:

  • Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (Eerdmans) – undoubtedly one of the most important and ambitious dogmatic works since Barth’s CD, but it has never been issued as a paperback, and the few available hardcover copies are prohibitively expensive
  • David F. Ford, Barth and God’s Story (Peter Lang) – in my opinion, this is one of the best books ever written on Barth’s theology (and, more generally, one of the best books on narrative theology); but it has long been out of print, and it’s virtually impossible to find even a used copy
  • Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God (Labyrinth Press) – although this is a fundamental work in the history of modern theology, it is almost impossible to get a copy (there is one copy for sale here, if you can afford it!)
  • Robert Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Fortress) – a unique, vivid and delightful sketch of Christian theology; I still regularly recommend this to people, even though it’s now difficult to obtain
  • Hans Frei, The Doctrine of Revelation in the Thought of Karl Barth, 1909–1922: The Nature of Barth’s Break with Liberalism (unpublished) – Frei’s 1956 doctoral dissertation has never been published, but it’s a crucial text for the development of Yale-school narrative theology, and I’m sure it would sell like hotcakes if someone printed it.
  • John Milbank, The Religious Dimension in The Thought of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) (2 vols.; Edwin Mellen) – I’m reading this at the moment; it’s a brilliant historical study, and an important work for understanding the later development of Milbank’s thought. Someone ought to publish this as an affordable, single-volume paperback.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

April fool's roundup

Yesterday there were plenty of entertaining April Fool’s posts, including these ones:

New book

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