Friday, 30 January 2009

What is systematic theology?

The latest issues of the International Journal of Systematic Theology and Irish Theological Quarterly contain a great pile of essays exploring the nature of systematic theology from Catholic and Protestant perspectives. Interestingly, a couple of the articles refer to Lewis Ayres’ polemical call for “a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology as such, an uncovering of the conditions that make it possible, and a sketch of the sort of theological culture that would enable a deeper and more attentive engagement [with historical sources]” – but none of the articles really attempts to respond to this remarkable challenge. Anyway, here’s a list of the articles, with a few remarks about each one:

Nicholas M. Healy, “What Is Systematic Theology?”
This is one of the most interesting and stimulating of all the essays. Healy distinguishes between “official theology” (the production of church institutions), “ordinary theology” (the reflection of virtually all believers), and “professional-academic theology.” The purpose of academic theology is to mediate constructively and critically between the other two kinds of theology. In order to do this, academic theology must maintain a certain distance from both church and academy; “systematic theology must necessarily be a bit of an outsider in both the church and the university if it is to contribute fruitfully to the quest for greater understanding of the Christian faith.” Professional-academic theology suffers if it is accommodated too much to the demands of the university, or if it is “required to serve the church rather too directly, either by teaching the official theology or working to support it.” On the whole, Healy argues that the university provides the best environment for this kind of academic theology, provided it always stays in close relation to both “ordinary” and “official” theology. Thus theology can work “as a constructively unsettling element in both places,” the church and the university.

Fáinche Ryan, “Theology as a Road to Sanctification?”
I think this is by far the most important and most challenging essay. Ryan opens with this: “In an article entitled ‘Théologie et sainteté’, written in 1948, Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that for a long tract of Christian history the great theologians were also the great saints, but that this no longer seems to be the case.” She thus raises pointed questions about the kinds of people who are responsible for teaching theology: “Is God truly the subject of this ‘academic’ theology? Do theologians, indeed does the Catholic Church, expect students to become formed and transformed through the doing of theology? … Who might teach this discipline which seems to pertain to the sacramental life of the Church?” Through a close reading of Aquinas, Ryan argues that theology should be regarded as “a sanctifying activity”, indeed that it is a kind of sacrament – or at least a “quasi-sacrament.” Prayer and contemplation are of the essence of a theologian’s life; and “like true prayer, authentic theology leads to transformation, it leads towards God, towards holiness, and in this way may be seen as pertaining to the sacramental life of the Church.”

John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology”
A defence of the contemplative nature of systematic theology. Theology’s rationality is made possible by the trinitarian relations; the Father and Son “open to creatures a share in the divine knowledge.” The article provides an interesting window on how Webster’s current work is being shaped by his ever-deeper immersion in the world of Reformed scholasticism (so that the influence of Reformed orthodoxy appears to be eclipsing that of Barth). He says things like this: “The first material object of systematic theology is God considered in himself.” And this: “It must be emphasised: theology is possible; there is a proportion between theologia in se (the divine knowledge) and theologia nostra (creaturely knowledge).” And this: “Systematic intelligence is fitting, and it is appropriate to attempt a consistent overall presentation of Christian teaching, in which the infinite divine archetype is echoed in finite ectypal modes of intelligence.”

Paul S. Fiddes, “Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology?”
An argument for the importance of an “aesthetic theology” which utilises extra-biblical novels and poetry as theological source materials. Fiddes responds to Francesca Murphy’s book, God Is Not a Story. He agrees that systematic theology is concerned with concepts and realities, not merely narratives; but he concludes: “God is indeed a story, but a story that is more actual than anything in the world about which the story is told. To say this is ‘poetic’, but it is also a matter of sheer realism.”

Neil Ormerod, “What Is the Goal of Systematic Theology?”
A critique of the residual Kantianism of contemporary systematic theology, and an argument (via Lonergan) for the role of judgment in systematic theology: “if we acknowledge the constitutive role of judgment in knowing truth, then … dogmas are essentially ecclesially constituted judgments of truth, not reinterpretations of interpretations of experience. They seek to express in precise and concise terms truths presented to us in the Scriptures.”

A. N. Williams, “What Is Systematic Theology?”
An argument that “systematicity – the fact of being systematic, of expressing connections between doctrines – is of the essence of theology.” The subject-matter of systematic theology is the relationality within the Trinity and the relations between God and the world; this means that theology is always concerned with the “system” of these relations and connections.

In conclusion, this is a very interesting range of essays, including a couple of first-rate articles: but all this talk of “systems” has given me a sudden urge to go read some Rowan Williams...

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009: a glance at his theology

I was very sad to hear that one of my favourite contemporary novelists, John Updike, has died. Updike was deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and Karl Barth; he is the most theological novelist you’ll ever come across. In an early essay, he remarks that, at one time, Barth’s theology was the only thing supporting his life; he used to keep Barth’s Romans commentary beside his bed, to read a few pages at a time. Much of his fiction could be read as an extended reflection on Barth’s dictum: “There is no way from us to God…. The god who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.”

Pastors and theologians today could still learn a great deal from Updike’s fiction. Just think of the Lutheran pastor Fritz Kruppenbach in Rabbit, Run (1960), a deeply Barthian minister who utters this thunderous denouncement of pastoral work – in conversation with another minister, he asks: “Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job…. I say you don’t know what your role is or you’d be home locked in prayer…. In running back and forth you run away from the duty given you by God, to make your faith powerful.... When on Sunday morning, then, when you go out before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ, hot with Christ, on fire: burn them with the force of our belief. This is why they come; why else would they pay us? Anything else we can do and say anyone can do and say. They have doctors and lawyers for that…. Make no mistake. Now I’m serious. Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work.”

Or think of Roger’s Version (1986), a novel set in the halls of a fictional divinity school (based partly on Princeton Seminary). The main character is Roger Lambert, a Barthian theology professor (and a Tertullian expert) whose faith is shaken by an evangelical student who thinks he can write a computer program to prove God’s existence. The novel seamlessly weaves together sex and theology – one of the great moments is a lengthy sex scene which simultaneously unfolds as an extended commentary on Tertullian. At one point Roger describes his insatiable reading of theology, and then adds: “Lest you take me for a goody-goody, I find kindred comfort and inspiration in pornography, the much-deplored detailed depiction of impossibly long and deep, rigid and stretchable human parts interlocking, pumping, oozing.”

If Christians are tempted to take offence at Updike’s explicit (at times almost pornographic) portrayal of sex, we should remember that the relation between God and the human body is a central tenet of Christian faith. It’s no accident that the sex-obsessed Updike is wiser than so many theologians when he describes Christ’s resurrection in these terms (in a poem entitled “Seven Stanzas at Easter”):

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

And then there is In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), probably my favourite Updike novel. The story follows four successive generations of an American family, and it provides a gripping and poignant portrayal of the loss of religious faith in 20th-century American society. The first protagonist is Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian pastor who had studied under Benjamin Warfield at Princeton (in the classroom, Warfield was “erect as a Prussian general, with snowy burnsides”). Clarence owns 44 volumes of Calvin’s commentaries, but still loses his faith – he reads a bit of critical scholarship, and then one hot afternoon, in a sudden flash, his faith is gone. He leaves the ministry and becomes an unhappy door-to-door encyclopedia salesman (still peddling “the word,” but with no success). Most importantly, his loss of faith coincides with the emergence of cinema in American culture: Clarence now finds his only solace in the cinema. At every opportunity, he escapes to the cinema and is transported by the screen; in the absence of faith, cinema functions as an opiate, supplying the fleeting memory of a vanished transcendence. In the Beauty of the Lilies is one of the most beautiful and insightful accounts I’ve ever read of the disappearance (and, later, the disturbing reappearance) of faith in modern life.

Updike once offered this account of his affection for Karl Barth: “Really, Barth’s mind, so invariably earnest, always penetrates to some depth tonic for me; he makes me feel that rare thing, with authors, called love – one loves a man for thinking and writing so well.” In the same way, I loved John Updike, and I am sad that he is gone.

Monday, 26 January 2009

God does not magnify himself: on Thomas Schreiner and Jonathan Edwards

Michael Jensen mentions Thomas Schreiner’s recent New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Baker, 2008). Michael is right to be troubled by this interpretation of the New Testament: “Schreiner wants to argue that the anchoring theme of NT Theology is something like: God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. That is, God’s concern for God’s own glory is the driving heartbeat of the NT witness and mission. God’s self-referencing self-regard is what perpetuates his plans and his interaction with his creatures.”

I had a similar complaint when I recently read a friend’s essay on Calvin’s doctrine of God: Calvin was not an Edwardsean! This whole business of “God magnifying himself” or of God redeeming the world “for the sake of God’s own glory” is really pretty perverse.

Personally, I’ve read Jonathan Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World a number of times, and I think it’s an amazing achievement of speculative philosophical theology. (I haven’t read any John Piper, but I’ve heard that he popularises the same argument.) At one point in my life, I was persuaded by Edwards’ argument: its logic is so tight and so compelling; its vision of an always-self-glorifying God seemed so charged with religious awe and solemn Calvinist reverence. It was only as I was reading the Fourth Gospel one day that it occurred to me that Edwards had made one small mistake: he had forgotten to include “Jesus Christ” in his definition of God. And of course this one mistake invalidates the whole elaborate procedure: if a doctrine of God is wrong here, it’s wrong everywhere.

According to the Fourth Gospel, the divine “glory” is manifest in Christ’s cross. This presents a very different picture of what it means for God to “glorify himself”: God does not “magnify himself” (literally “make himself bigger”, from the Latin magnus); rather he humiliates himself and makes himself smaller. God’s glory travels a path of abasement and lowly self-giving. God’s glory, in other words, cannot be understood apart from God’s humanity – the eternal decision in which he becomes God-for-us in Jesus Christ.

An Edwarsean interpretation of the New Testament, then – in which God’s interactions with humanity always serve the higher aim of God’s self-magnification – can only be said to represent a stunning theological misreading of the New Testament witness. It’s one of those rare instances in which you wish a biblical scholar had read a little less theology.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Hans Urs von Balthasar on writing and living

The other day, a friend gave me a very charming little book by Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work: In Retrospect (Ignatius, 1993). It includes some remarkable reflections on the processes of writing – including the following, on the gap between one’s life and one’s writing:

“It is not possible to make a clean separation between [writing and living]; a book must reflect much of the meaning that the writer seeks to give his own existence, even if this meaning is rather often stamped on the book against the direct will and supposition of the author…. Whoever has truly experienced this gives up the attempt to bring his literary work into harmony with his life; when he writes, he is ahead of himself in a dream of the totality in which he would like to give his fragments a sure home; then once more he limps along behind his own self, or even creeps backward and looks around, like Lot’s wife, into a beloved image of the past, an image that entices all the more magically since it is already ablaze. Who can keep up?” (pp. 17-18).

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Postcards of the hanging




Saturday, 17 January 2009

Advice for theological students: ten steps to a brilliant career

1. As a theological student, your aim is to accumulate opinions – as many as you can, and as fast as possible. (Exceptional students may acquire all their opinions within the first few weeks; others require an entire semester.) One of the best ways to collect opinions is to choose your theological group (“I shall be progressive,” or “I will be evangelical,” or “I am a Barthian”), then sign up to all the opinions usually associated with that social group. If at first you don’t feel much conviction for these new opinions, just be patient: within twelve months you will be a staunch advocate, and you’ll even be able to help new students acquire the same opinions.

2. At the earliest possible opportunity you should also form an opinion about your favourite theological discipline: that is, you should choose your specialisation. To communicate this choice to others, you should dismiss as trivial or irrelevant all other disciplines: the systematic theologian should teach herself to utter humorous remarks about the worth of “practical” theology, while the New Testament student should learn to hold forth emphatically on the dangers of systematic theology; and so on.

3. As far as possible, you should try to avoid all non-theological interests or pursuits. All your time and energy should be invested in reading important books and discussing important ideas. (Novels in particular should be avoided, as they are a notorious time-waster, and they furnish you with no new opinions.)

4. Every successful theological student must master the proper vocabulary. All theological conversations should be peppered with these termini technici (e.g. “Only a demythologised Barthian ontology can subvert the différance of postmodern theory and re-construe the analogia entis in terms of temporal mediation”). The less comprehensible and more sibylline the sentence uttered, the better. There are some stock-in-trade terms that are de rigueur (e.g. perichoresis, imago Dei, Heilsgeschichte, Bullsgeschichte), but the really outstanding student should find creative ways to deploy a wide range of foreign polysyllabic words. Phrases of Latin, Greek or German derivation are particularly prized. (Those of Hebrew of Syriac extraction should be used more sparingly – they are usually greeted with some puzzlement, or with cries of “Gesundheit!”)

5. Now that you’re a theological student, you will discover that the world is filled with people who don’t share your new opinions. Every conversation should thus be viewed as an opportunity to persuade others of their simple-mindedness and to convert them to a better understanding. If you’re feeling shy about this, you should start by practising on your family and closest friends. And it’s not always necessary to engage in a full-blown discussion; at times a single Latin term or a knowing smirk is all that’s required to demolish another person’s argument.

6. Were you raised in a conservative Christian family? If so, your theological education provides you with the perfect opportunity for rebellion. The benefits of theological rebellion should not be underestimated: rejecting all your parents’ religious opinions allows you both to assert your independence and to imply that your parents are backward and naïve. In this respect, theological education can be every bit as effective as smoking cannabis or moving in with your boyfriend: but without all the bad smells.

7. Every true theologian is an avid collector of books. The day you became a theological student, you entered a race to amass a personal library larger and more impressive than those of your peers. Books should be acquired as quickly and as indiscriminately as possible; second-hand books are even better, since they give the appearance of having been read, which can save you a great deal of time.

8. When you are asked to preach in a parish, you should take the opportunity to display the advantages of theological education. Every good sermon should quote the words of some great theologian (a “great German theologian” is even better). And the phrase “the original Greek says…” should be used sparingly but effectively – perhaps just two or three times in a sermon.

9. The goal of theological education is a good career: preferably an academic career, although in some cases you might have to settle for pastoral ministry (or worse, just a regular job). It’s never too early to get your career on track: every essay, every conversation with a professor, every question you ask in class – these are the opportunities to show the professor how deeply you share their opinions, and how superior your own insights are to those of your classmates. In all circumstances you should revere, admire and emulate your professors. Even if they are neither wise nor virtuous, your goal is to become their perfect reflection, mirroring back to them their own opinions, preferences and prejudices. To show that you are the professor’s true protégé: this is the beginning of wisdom, and the bedrock of any good career.

10. Under no circumstances should you resort to old-fashioned pieties like daily prayer and Bible-reading. There are far too many important things to be thinking about, and far too many important things to be reading. (Church attendance is acceptable, however, since it gives you the opportunity of improving your pastor’s theological education.)

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Paul Nimmo: Being in Action

I was delighted to hear that Paul Nimmo has received the Templeton Award for Theological Promise – a prize that comes with $10,000, plus an additional $10,000 to fund a series of international lectures. Paul received the award for his excellent book on Barth, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (T&T Clark, 2007).

Drawing deeply on the work of Bruce McCormack and Eberhard Jüngel, Nimmo shows that Barth’s ethical thought is structured by an actualistic ontology. “The action of God in electing to be God for humanity in Jesus Christ is not the act of an already existing agent. Rather it is an act in the course of which God determines the very being of God.” God’s being is an act, and the human agent is likewise constituted as a being-in-action through its ethical correspondence to God’s act in Christ. Indeed, Jesus’ history is the occurrence of human being. As Eberhard Jüngel puts it, “Between the being of the man Jesus and the being of all humanity there is an ontological connection, because in the history of Jesus, God makes history for all humanity.”

For Nimmo, the ontological connection between human agency and God’s act in Jesus does not entail any deification of the human, but rather “the humanization of the ethical agent.” Nimmo thus rightly critiques George Hunsinger’s argument that Barth envisions a realistic “participation” in Christ: for Barth, “participation” is a matter of actualistic/historical correspondence, not of mystical union. Indeed, there is no divine substance in which the human could somehow share; the divine essence is nothing other than the history of God’s way with humanity, arising from God’s eternal election of the man Jesus. The human agent thus participates in Christ not through a mystical union, but through an ethical correspondence to God’s will. In this life, “participation” takes the form of witness.

Nimmo thus also responds in detail to Stanley Hauerwas’s critique of Barth’s ecclesiology: Barth is able to relativise the moral function of the church precisely because of his confidence that God is acting in the church. Since the church depends on God’s action, it “cannot arrogate to itself the role of moral teacher or former of moral character.” The church is set free to be the church only where its identity is understood in terms of act and witness – or to put it another way, the church can be the church only where God is really conceived as God.

Being in Action is a superb study of Barth’s ethics, and an important analysis of the actualistic ontology which structures the Church Dogmatics. It’s great to see the Templeton Foundation recognising this kind of high-calibre theological research – and it’s very exciting to see the new directions that are opening up in some of the current work on Barth.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

The most expensive books

Are you a bibliophile? Does your spouse harass you for your immodest spending on books? Do you have to resort to strategies like this? Well, now you can prove your great frugality by pointing your spouse to Abebooks’ list of the most expensive sales of 2008.

Monday, 5 January 2009

A painting of Karl Barth

Speaking of Oliver Crisp, here’s a photo of the painting he made for me in Princeton. It will soon be hanging proudly on my study wall:

Friday, 2 January 2009

2009: the year of the Calvin

Jean Calvin was born in July 1509 – so all around the world this year, there will be celebrations of his 500th anniversary. Princeton Seminary has organised “A Year with the Institutes”, a wonderful programme in which people can join together reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year. The seminary will provide a daily text (just a few pages), together with an audio reading of the text. So you can subscribe to the audio version through iTunes (it’s all free), and by the end of the year you’ll have gone through the entire Institutes. All the details are here.

So why don’t you join in the fun, and read Calvin’s Institutes this year! No matter what you might think about Calvinist theology, the Institutes is one of the most remarkable theological works ever written. And don’t be taken in by those rumours about Calvin’s gloomy austerity – as far as works of dogmatics go, the Institutes is almost unrivalled for its sensitivity to scripture and its pervasive pastoral warmth. If you want to learn what it really means to think theologically, you could hardly find a better guide than Calvin. Even his mistakes are full of momentous significance; even in his worst moments, he is a magnificent figure who towers above most others.

Anyway, to help correct the impression of Calvin’s bleak austerity, here’s Oliver Crisp’s new painting of the young Calvin – a portrait in a sort of Flemish style, painted recently in Princeton. I think this beautifully captures something of Calvin’s personal sensitivity, his resolute but deeply pensive sense of vocation and commitment to the will of God:

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