Sunday 31 July 2005

Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938)

On the weekend, with my Saturday morning toast and tea I read Werner Neuer’s little book Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian, trans. Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). I was able to read it in a single sitting—it’s a fast-paced, engaging biography with lots of photos.

I had never realised the astounding breadth of Schlatter’s writing. As well as his famous volumes on New Testament theology and dogmatics, he wrote numerous commentaries, exegetical studies, and books on philosophy, ethics, church history, Judaism, and more. And he remained prolific until the end. Between the ages of 77 and 85 he wrote his nine big scholarly New Testament commentaries (more than one a year!).

Here are my favourite lines from the biography (p. 126): During a period of inactivity and depression in 1915, Schlatter wrote in a letter: “I already close my eyes, full of pain, at the frightful series of books that I have been guilty of writing. One [truly good book] would have outweighed this whole miserable pile, each of which languishes unfinished, hardly begun.”

2000 hits

This new “Faith and Theology” blog is now a little over three weeks old, and yesterday the hit-counter passed 2000. In the past couple of days the blog has had visitors from the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Finland, Croatia, India, Singapore, the Philippines and Japan. The blog has been getting a good number of readers from other Scandinavian countries as well (thanks to Klippt och skuret and Philrids Blogg for the links).

Thanks to all of you who have been visiting the blog, and thanks to all the other blogs and sites that have linked to this one!

My good friend Mike Bird from Euangelion recently asked if anything could be worse than “an evangelical Barthian Theologian who has clandestine sympathies for Bultmann, like the type of person who operates that prosaic blog Faith and Theology!” Of course, I blushed to hear such nice things being said about me....

Friday 29 July 2005

Creation and the beginning of the universe

Christians have sometimes been enthusiastic about Big Bang cosmology, since this cosmology posits an absolute beginning of the universe. And some Christians have argued that the singularity of the Big Bang is itself the very “moment of creation.”

But I think that this rests on a basic misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of creation. The doctrine of creation is not an attempt to describe the way the universe began—it is not a quasi-scientific statement about the origins of the universe, and it thus has no special interest in questions of the universe’s early history.

What then does the doctrine of creation mean? It means, quite simply, that God is our creator. All that we have has come freely from God; and at each new moment we continue to depend on God for our life and being. In the words of Luther’s Small Catechism (1529), the doctrine of creation means “that God created me … because of his pure, fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, not because I’ve earned it or deserved it.”

In other words, the doctrine of creation is a doctrine about grace—“creation from nothing” (creatio ex nihilo) means that we exist purely because of the grace of God. And since the grace of God is not an abstract “divine attribute” but a specific event, we might also add that creatio ex nihilo means that we exist because of Jesus Christ.

So did the universe have a beginning? The question is certainly an interesting one, but it is a question for theoretical physicists rather than theologians. One thing is certain: if it does turn out (as Stephen Hawking has argued) that the universe has no temporal boundary, or that the universe has always existed in some other way, such discoveries would not have any direct bearing on the doctrine of creation.

Whether the universe had an absolute beginning some 14 billion years ago, or whether it had no beginning at all, our confession of faith remains just the same as Luther’s: “I believe that God created me because of his goodness and mercy.”

Thursday 28 July 2005

Theology from a three-year-old

Yesterday, quite out of the blue, my three-year-old daughter asked me: “Dad, do we have life because God has life in him and he puts his life in us?” Astonished by the question, I replied that this was exactly the case. And when I asked her where she had learned this new piece of information, she merely gave me a sage, knowing look.

If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn she had been reading the Gospel of John.

Wednesday 27 July 2005

Speaking matter-of-factly about God: Robert W. Jenson

Robert W. Jenson is one of the best theologians in the world today, and he may well be one of the finest theological thinkers that America has produced. Among his earlier, sadly neglected books is the hermeneutical work The Knowledge of Things Hoped For: The Sense of Theological Discourse (1969). Jenson concludes this book with a series of practical “exhortations” about how to speak of God (pp. 234-240).

Here is his first exhortation: “let us talk of God matter-of-factly.” First of all, this means that we should avoid all talk of God as a spatially or metaphysically distant being—a God who is “out there” somewhere, or who is an immanent “ground” or “principle” of reality.

It also means that we should avoid a certain “christocentric” way of talking about God, in which “Jesus” becomes a supernatural being with no worldly matter-of-factness—like a pious but friendly ghost. An example of such a supernatural “Jesus,” Jenson notes, is the “the spooky ‘Jesus’ who hangs about bothering people at their work” (or, we might add, the “Jesus” invoked by trendy “WWJD” slogans).

What then does it mean to speak matter-of-factly about God? Here is Jenson’s suggestion: “Our utterances containing ‘God’ must all be, at least implicitly, informative statements about the man Jesus of Nazareth and what he has done and will do.” And this means that we should take historical research seriously, so that we “say about ‘Jesus’ only that to which historical research into the life of the man by that name could be in some way relevant.”

The point of all this is that God himself is a matter-of-fact being. He is not “out there” somewhere beyond the clouds; nor is he “in here” somewhere as a principle of goodwill; nor is he “with me” as a supernatural poltergeist. Rather God is the one who has acted in the man Jesus of Nazareth. God has identified his own being with the historical event of Jesus. And this means that we both can and must speak matter-of-factly about God—precisely by speaking of the man Jesus.

Quote of the day

Stop all this weeping and swallow your pride
You will not die, it’s not poison

—Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues”

Tuesday 26 July 2005

The Death of the Living God

I suggested yesterday that the resurrection of Jesus is the contradiction of death. In the man Jesus, God takes death into his own life and maintains his own life through death. And in this way the reality of death is overturned, so that death ceases to be the end and instead becomes (against its will, so to speak) a new eschatological beginning. This means that death itself is changed by the resurrection of Jesus. Death itself has died. Until the twentieth century, no one had perceived this more sharply than G. W. F. Hegel:

“God has died, God is dead—this is the most appalling thought, that everything eternal and true is not, and that negation itself is in God; bound up with this is the supreme pain, the feeling of the utter absence of deliverance, the surrender of all that is higher. However, the course of events does not grind to a halt here; rather a reversal now comes about, namely, God maintains himself in this process. The latter is but the death of death. God arises again to life.” (Philosophy of Religion, Lasson-Hoffmeister ed., 14:167)

The kaì euthùs blog

I recently discovered Mike Higton's excellent and beautifully designed blog, entitled kaì euthùs. Higton is an authority on Hans Frei and Rowan Williams, and he recently co-edited Conversing with Barth (2004). His blog is "about life, theology, and the Gospel of Mark," and it has been focusing lately on hermeneutics.

Monday 25 July 2005

Proving the resurrection?

I suggested in my previous post that “resurrection” is the miraculous act of God by which the impossible becomes actual. If this is the case, then I think it also follows that it is intrinsically impossible to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus. For resurrection is not a natural possibility, but it is the very contradiction of the whole realm of the possible. And you cannot use an impossible entity to explain any set of phenomena.

My argument here doesn’t rest on a Newtonian notion that the world is a closed causal system (so that “divine intervention” is impossible from the outset); rather it rests on a theological conception of resurrection as the eschatological act of God in which the existing structures of the world are overturned and something wholly new is brought into being.

As an act of God which contradicts the very nature of “death,” the resurrection of Jesus does not lie within the realm of the possible—it is impossible in the strict sense of the word, for it is the contradiction of the structures of reality. As such, it is both the end of the world and the decisive beginning of a new age—it is the fulfilment of all apocalyptic expectation.

All this means that the concept of “resurrection” can never be introduced as the most likely explanation for any series of events. To introduce the resurrection in this way would be to deny the very meaning of “resurrection”—it would be to reduce it to some kind of natural possibility which takes place within the structures of the world, and thus to strip it of its true character as the eschatological act of God. It would be like a scientist explaining a puzzling set of phenomena that occurred last Tuesday with the hypothesis that the “end of the world” must have arrived that day—such a hypothesis would be absurd because it would contradict the very meaning of “end of the world”!

We may well seek to prove historically that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, or that the disciples had certain experiences after Jesus’ death. Such proofs have their own value and significance—but they are in no sense proofs of the resurrection of Jesus (just as the early Christian communities narrated stories of the empty tomb and the appearances without ever attempting to narrate the event of resurrection itself). In the nature of the case there can be no proof of such an event.

For in the resurrection of Jesus the impossible becomes actual, as the crucified Jesus negates the finality of death and moves forward into new life, into the new future of the reign of God.

Sunday 24 July 2005

Immortality or Resurrection?

“I believe … in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” This has always been the confession of Christian faith. But belief in “resurrection” has time and again been obscured by notions of “immortality.”

According to the doctrine of immortality, human beings have a soul which is naturally immortal. When the body dies, the soul simply continues to exist. Death is not the end of human existence, but only a point of transition from one state of being to another.

If we imagine that human beings are immortal in this way, we can hardly even begin to appreciate what is meant by the word “resurrection.” For resurrection is the very opposite of any sort of natural transition to a life-beyond-death. To believe in resurrection is to believe in a miracle—in something utterly unheard of, unnatural, impossible.

Death is finality. It is the end of our existence, and it as an end after which there can be no new beginning. Death is the end of all life—so that it is meaningless to speak of an “afterlife,” or of any kind of continuing existence beyond the grave. Even if it were still possible to think of an immaterial “soul” in distinction from the physical “body,” we would have to say that this soul is utterly extinguished by death.

Christian faith affirms all this; but it also says that something unthinkably strange happens: God raises the dead. God does what is intrinsically impossible: he brings new life from death. This is a sheer miracle. It is, in the strictest sense of the term, an impossibility. It is pure contradiction—for to raise the dead means to contradict death itself, to negate death and turn its whole reality upside down. Death is, by definition, the end. But by the act of God death becomes a new beginning. In other words, the resurrection of the dead is the death of death.

As long as our thinking contains even a trace of the notion of “immortality,” we will understand neither the reality of death nor the miracle of resurrection. For to speak of “immortality” is to speak of a possibility latent within the human soul. But to speak of “resurrection” is to speak of the act of God. Or, more precisely: to say “resurrection” is to say “God.”

Thursday 21 July 2005

Critical Realism: Remaining Problems

Yesterday I listed some of the potential benefits which a critical realist method might offer for theological and biblical scholarship. But I think some important problems and questions still remain unresolved, and I don’t think Christian scholars have yet given these problems the serious reflection that they demand. Let me note two of these problems:

1. The question of Marxism. Roy Bhaskar’s own sophisticated critical realism is explicitly and essentially Marxist. Bhaskar’s intention was to develop a theory of knowledge and reality which would make possible the socialist transformation of human societies. At the heart of Bhaskar’s model is the notion that true knowledge is knowledge of the deepest stratum of reality (the “real level”), i.e., not the level of empirical experience but the level of basic underlying structures. And if such structures are both real and knowable, then in turn a socialist transformation of these structures is possible; and, indeed, for Bhaskar such socialist transformation is the exact goal of all knowledge-production.

It is no surprise, then, that the burgeoning critical realist movement seems to a significant extent to be a new Marxist movement (witness the zeal with which older Marxists have thrown their support behind the new critical realist movement). Yet Christian scholarship on critical realism seems barely to have noticed the fundamental political structure of the critical realist method. It should be a task of future scholarship to clarify the exact relationship between critical realism and Marxist politics, and then in turn to clarify the relationship between this politics and Christian appropriations of a critical realist method.

2. The response to postmodernism. Critical realism is frequently promoted—not least of all by Christian scholars—as the definitive response to postmodern thought. It is portrayed as a theoretical position which allows us to move decisively beyond the postmodern impasse. But is this really the case? It seems to me that critical realist scholars have not yet taken seriously enough the questions and problems of poststructuralist theory. Questions about the nature and function of language and about the construction of texts seem to be bypassed or virtually ignored by much writing on critical realism. And if critical realism is really to move “beyond” postmodernism, then it will first have to go through postmodern thought, not merely around it.

I’m not offering these points as objections to the critical realist method. I’m only suggesting that (1) any method has political implications, and Christian scholars should not be unaware of such implications; and (2) enthusiastic announcements of the end of postmodern theory may be premature.

Wednesday 20 July 2005

Benefits of Critical Realism

In my previous post I noted that many theological and biblical scholars today are seeking to appropriate a “critical realist” method, but so far not many Christian scholars have engaged with the formative philosophical work of Roy Bhaskar. I think that in particular Bhaskar’s work allows us to see very sharply both the potential benefits and the unresolved problems of a critical realist method.

Based on my own reading of Bhaskar, here are some of potential benefits that I think critical realism might offer theology today:

  • Critical realism shows that we are actively and creatively involved in the production of knowledge.

  • It suggests that the production of knowledge involves responsibility to reality.

  • It claims that there is a basic methodological unity between the various academic disciplines.

  • It promises a basic method of inquiry which can be applied to any field of study.

  • It justifies the distinctiveness of the academic disciplines; each discipline needs its own methods and conceptuality, since each is concerned with a specific and unique reality.

  • It makes dialogue between traditions and discourses possible, since all discourses are in principle open towards the structures of reality.

  • It ties ethical action to knowledge, and it claims that the goal of knowledge-production is human emancipation.

    In my next post I will try to identify some of the unresolved problems which face a theological engagement with critical realism.
  • Critical Realism: Roy Bhaskar

    The sociological philosopher Roy Bhaskar developed an epistemological model known as “critical realism.” Bhaskar developed this model in several books, but his most influential work is The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences (1979; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1998). Inspired by Bhaskar’s work, there is now a Centre for Critical Realism, an International Association for Critical Realism, and a Journal of Critical Realism.

    Many scholars in both theology and biblical studies have been employing critical realism as a working method, especially because it claims to offer a way beyond the postmodern impasse. But unfortunately not many Christian scholars have engaged directly with Bhaskar’s own work (a notable exception is Alister E. McGrath, in the second volume of his Scientific Theology). Here is a quick list of the central points of Bhaskar’s critical realism:

    There are three fundamental principles in Bhaskar’s critical realism:

  • ontological intransitivity (reality exists independently of knowledge)
  • epistemic relativity (all knowledge is socially constructed)
  • judgmental rationality (there are rational grounds for preferring some beliefs over others)

    According to Bhaskar, reality is stratified, and it consists of three levels:
  • the empirical level (the level of experiences)
  • the actual level (the level of events and states of affairs)
  • the real level (the level of underlying structures, causal laws, and “generative mechanisms”—for Bhaskar, all true knowledge is knowledge of this underlying level)

    In my next post I’ll offer a comment on theological engagements with Bhaskar’s critical realism.

  • The worst book ever written on Karl Barth

    While it’s hard to choose the best books ever written on Karl Barth, fortunately it’s very easy to name the worst book ever written on Barth. It is—of course—

    Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (London: James Clarke, 1946)

    This book presents a comically grotesque misreading of Barth—it would be hard to imagine a more drastic and more wilful misunderstanding of Barth’s theology. Unfortunately, this same book influenced the popular American writer Francis A. Schaeffer, and through Schaeffer it influenced a whole generation of evangelical students and ministers in the United States. And so even today you will occasionally meet someone who, without ever having laid so much as a finger on one of Barth’s books, is nonetheless bitterly and adamantly hostile to Barth’s theology.

    Tuesday 19 July 2005

    The best books ever written on Karl Barth

    The books about Karl Barth could fill an entire library. And on the whole the quality of all this scholarship is extraordinary. Many of the twentieth century’s leading theologians started out by writing brilliant books or dissertations on Barth’s theology. So it’s particularly difficult to choose the very best books. Still, here is my own list (in chronological order) of the Top Eight—if I had to save just eight from my library, these would be the ones:

    Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992 [1951])

    G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (London: Paternoster, 1956 [1954])

    Hans Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (London: Burns & Oates, 1964 [1957])

    Robert W. Jenson, Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1963)

    Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth: A Paraphrase (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001 [1965])

    Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (London: SCM Press, 1976 [1975])

    George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

    Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)

    Doug Groothuis’s new blog

    Personally, I'm no fan of apologetics. But the philosopher/apologist Doug Groothuis has been penning some interesting posts for his new blog, The Constructive Curmudgeon, and it has all been generating quite a lot of discussion. If you haven’t checked out this blog yet, it’s worth taking a peek.

    Monday 18 July 2005

    Why is theology boring?

    If the task of theology is to speak the gospel, then, correspondingly, the task of theology is to speak of faith—for faith alone corresponds to the gospel. To teach or to write theology means to confess one’s own faith.

    Although faith exists within a tradition and a community, faith itself is always intensely personal. And it is impossible to give an “objective” account of faith, because a faith which could be spoken of in a detached, objective fashion would no longer be faith. If we wish to speak of faith we must do it personally, or not at all. I might even attempt to speak of the faith of the church as a whole, but I can do this only by confessing and articulating my own faith.

    This means that theology is an intensely personal activity. If I am teaching or writing theology, I am offering a confession of my own faith, and in exactly this way I am attempting to express the faith of the whole church. Wherever faith is truly expressed, it is eo ipso the faith of the church. And for this reason, as Karl Barth reminded us, there can be no “Reformed dogmatics” or “Lutheran dogmatics” or “Catholic dogmatics,” but only church dogmatics.

    It’s actually very striking that the best and most “universal” works of theology—i.e., those works that really speak to the church as a whole—are always the most intensely personal, individual, even idiosyncratic. Just think of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, Barth. Good theology is exciting, both because it is the passionate expression of the writer’s own faith, and because in it I recognise the expression of my own faith.

    I think all this explains why, for so many people, theology is insufferably boring. I’m not just talking about the general cultural perception of theology: I’m thinking above all of clergy and seminary students. Such people have studied theology for themselves, and they have reached the conclusion—perhaps after a fleeting spell of excitement—that it is boring.

    I suspect that, far too often, such students have attended lectures where the teacher gives an “objective” account of theology. This “objectivity” may take the form of a historical survey of other people’s opinions, or, worse still, of a crude assemblage of “proof texts” from the Bible. (This latter form of theologising is doubly-guilty, since it makes both theology and the Bible boring.) Theologians who teach in these ways fail to do the one truly essential thing: they fail to confess their own faith.

    In the same way, “objective” textbooks like Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology are still widely used because they contain such a wealth of historical information—but faith itself hardly ever comes to view in such books (a survey of the faith of other people is not yet an expression of faith!), so that students who use these books are simply confirmed in the opinion that theology is a very boring affair.

    In contrast, it seems to me that true theology—theology in which faith becomes speech right here and now in the present historical moment—is a vibrant and engaging and exciting endeavour.

    Sunday 17 July 2005

    Wright or Bultmann? Your Verdict

    Well, the votes are in. Who is the winner: the cheerful Bishop of Durham or the solemn man from Marburg? One fellow blogger answered: “Well duh.... Everyone knows it’s Rudolf Karl Bultmann, finest New Testament exegete of this or any century. Wright is well and good—but he can no more be compared to Bultmann than an ant can be compared to a man.” Well, I guess that was pretty much how I felt about it too, although I suspected all along that N. T. Wright would get the votes. So imagine my astonishment when the winner turned out to be—Rudolf Bultmann! Wright came in with 42.7% of the votes, while the man from Marburg cleaned up with 57.3%. Hardly a landslide, but still a respectable win. To view the results, click here, and then click the “view results” link.

    Friday 15 July 2005

    Is N. T. Wright greater than Bultmann? Cast your vote!

    My good friend Mike Bird from the Euangelion blog has made this clever contrast between N. T. Wright and Rudolf Bultmann: “As far as New Testament theologians go, many went to Marburg to sit at the feet of Bultmann, and behold, one greater than Bultmann is here.”

    When Mike first showed me this lovely sentence, I told him that I could never agree: I found it impossible to believe that N. T. Wright is “greater than Bultmann.” Let me explain myself. And then you can decide by casting your vote.

    Bultmann’s unique achievement was to ask new questions. Through profound intuition, Bultmann grasped problems which until then had not been conceived; he formulated questions which until then had never been articulated. These questions shattered existing paradigms and ushered in new ways of thinking about and practising historical research.

    These were questions about the continuity between the Jewish man Jesus and the risen Lord of faith; about the relationship between faith and historical method; about the conceptual gulf between primitive and scientific worldviews. And perhaps most important of all was the question of how, in the first century, Jesus the proclaimer became Christ the proclaimed.

    It was questions like these that transformed New Testament scholarship, and allowed later scholars to progress far beyond Bultmann’s own answers. For even if we disagree with all Bultmann’s answers, there is still no escaping his questions. Whether we love him or loathe him, we are all of his school.

    In fact, doesn’t the significance of N. T. Wright lie, at least partly, in the fact that he has provided such gripping and compelling answers to Bultmann’s questions? Might we not even view Wright’s whole extraordinary “Christian Origins” project as a massive attempt to answer Bultmann’s question of continuity between the proclaimer and the proclaimed? And to this extent, isn’t Wright himself also of Bultmann’s school?

    Don’t misunderstand me: N. T. Wright is a brilliant scholar, perhaps one of the most brilliant biblical scholars of recent times. It takes brilliance to provide compelling answers to profound questions. But it took genius to discover these questions in the first place.

    Wright is a brilliant scholar—but Bultmann was a genius. And genius is above brilliance as the heavens are above the earth.

    Of course I am being deliberately mischievous—just as Mike Bird is when he describes Wright as “one greater than Bultmann.” But what do you think? Is Wright greater than Bultmann? Well, let’s settle this democratically:

    To cast your vote, click here (this will momentarily open a new window where you can vote). I'll announce the verdict in a couple of days.

    Thursday 14 July 2005

    International Journal of Systematic Theology

    The latest issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology is out now, and the contents are, as always, superb. This relatively new journal has fast become essential reading for anyone interested in constructive theological thought. If your library subscribes to Blackwell Synergy, you can get full access online. Here are the articles from this issue, 7:3 (2005).

    The Body of Christ: Rethinking a Classic Ecclesiological Model

    God’s Triunity and Self-Determination: A Conversation with Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack and Paul Molnar

    Beruf and Berufung in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: Toward a Subversive Klesiology

    ‘Honouring the Spirit’: Analysis and Evaluation of Jonathan Edwards’ Pneumatological Doctrine of the Incarnation

    How is Christ Present to the World?
    TERRY J. WRIGHT (winner of the 2004 Colin Gunton Memorial Essay Prize)

    E. P. Sanders Library for Sale

    Some of my New Testament friends might be interested to know that those good people from Dove Booksellers have just acquired a library from E. P. Sanders. The collection has not yet been catalogued on the website, but it should be up for sale soon.

    Wednesday 13 July 2005

    Karl Barth: The “Divine Nature”

    In Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth writes that “the proper being of the one true God” is “in Jesus Christ the Crucified.” He continues: “Granted that we do see and understand this, we cannot refuse to accept the humiliation and lowliness and supremely the obedience of Christ as the dominating moment in our conception of God. Therefore we must determine to seek and find the key to the whole ... concept of the ‘divine nature’ at the point where it appears to be quite impossible,” namely, “the fact that Jesus Christ was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (p. 199).

    Thanks to Fellow Bloggers

    I'm grateful to my fellow bloggers from blogs such as Biblical Theology, Euangelion, The Stuff of Earth, SmartChristian and Klippt och Skuret who have kindly introduced this new Faith and Theology blog on their own sites.

    What does the word “God” mean?

    I suggested in an earlier post that theology has a hermeneutical function: theology interprets the gospel. And we could focus this more sharply by saying: theology interprets the word “God”.

    The gospel is, quite simply, an explication of the word “God”. The gospel narrates the story of Jesus as the story of God’s act. It narrates the history of Jesus as the history of God’s own being. To put it rather bluntly, we might say that the gospel defines God—it defines God as the event that happened in the history of Jesus. A certain Jewish man named Jesus lived for others, was executed, and was raised to life: this is the Christian definition of God.

    It has always been the responsibility of Christian faith to explain the word “God” in this way. And this is a particularly urgent task in our present situation of religious pluralism, where the word “God” has come to mean so many different things to so many people that it has become virtually meaningless.

    But the fact that the word “God” has become meaningless is not a curse but a blessing. For the meaninglessness of this word demands that we take great care in explaining exactly what we mean when we talk about “God”. In other words, it demands that we use the word “God” only as a kind of shorthand for “the event that took place in the history of Jesus of Nazareth”.

    When we speak of God’s “love”, for instance, we are speaking not of some abstract power of benevolence, but of the love with which Jesus freely lived and died for others. When we speak of God’s “eternity”, we are speaking not of some dark realm beyond human history, but of the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth as the past, present and future existence of us all. When we speak of God’s “glory”, we are speaking not of some general divine grandeur, but of the glorification-in-humility of the crucified Jesus. When we speak of God as the “living God”, we are speaking not of some divine imperishability, but of the act in which the crucified Jesus moves through death to new life.

    In short, to say “God” we must tell the gospel; and when we tell the gospel, we are explaining the word “God”.

    Tuesday 12 July 2005

    Ernst Käsemann's Birth

    Jim West from the Biblical Theology blog has just posted this nice note commemorating the anniversary of Ernst Käsemann's birth (12 July 1906). Käsemann was a brilliant and provocative New Testament scholar. Just the other day I was reading his impassioned little book Jesus Means Freedom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), which created such a stir in Germany when it was first published. Regardless of whether I agree with Käsemann's own conclusions, I can only admire his courageous defence of the freedom of theological scholarship to think critically and openly about its sources. It is always truth, not tradition, that matters most.

    Monday 11 July 2005

    John Updike and “holistic” theology

    John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) is set in an American divinity school, and it contains some remarkably acute and humorous theological insights.

    The novel includes extended explorations of Tertullian’s theology (seamlessly intertwined with equally explicit sexual explorations). It interacts subtly with Barth, Tillich and Bultmann—at one point a Bultmannian theologian is beautifully described as having a “minimal, as it were demythologized, mustache” (p. 215).

    But I think the most humorous theological moment occurs when the novel’s narrator, Roger Lambert (a Barthian theologian), tells his student: “I have learned in recent years to loathe most the word ‘holistic,’ a meaningless signifier empowering the muddle of all the useful distinctions human thought has labored at for two thousand years” (p. 171).

    Hegel and Theology

    Hegel’s thought has profoundly influenced modern theology. This influence is often only implicit, but several theologians have sought to bring Hegel explicitly into the contemporary theological discussion. The most stimulating studies of this kind include:

    Hans Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel's Theological Thought as Prolegomena to a Future Christology, trans. J. R. Stephenson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987); xv, 601 pp. This profound and wide-ranging exploration of Hegel’s theological thought focuses especially on Hegel’s vision of the historicity of God’s being. You can also find a crisp summary of the book's argument in Hans Küng, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, trans. Edward Quinn (Garden City: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 127-188.

    Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); vxi, 414 pp. This brilliant work on the doctrine of God includes a detailed analysis of Hegel’s concept of the “death of God”, and of the significance of this concept for theological reflection.

    Peter C. Hodgson, God in History: Shapes of Freedom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989); 287 pp. This work offers a creative response to postmodern thought through a deep engagement with Hegel’s trinitarian and historical conception of God’s being. Hodgson is a leading authority on Hegel, and has been an editor and translator of Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.

    And for a thorough exposition of Hegel’s theological thought, we now have Hodgson’s important new work: Peter C. Hodgson, Hegel and Christian Theology: A Reading of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); 318 pp.

    Prayer: Its Hermeneutical Significance

    Heinrich Ott succeeded Karl Barth as professor of dogmatics at the University of Basel (Ott had been one of Barth’s students; but his theology was above all indebted to Bultmann and Heidegger). Admittedly I am not a great admirer of Ott—on the whole I find his theological existentialism embarrassingly superficial. Nevertheless, Ott’s view of the hermeneutical significance of prayer is worth reflecting on.

    In his little book entitled God (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1974), Ott raises the problem of whether it is possible to speak about God. And he suggests that a solution to this problem is prayer. In prayer, God-talk happens—not as talk about God, but as personal address to God. The language of prayer thus functions within the I-Thou structure of a personal relatedness to God, such that prayer is itself the living act in which the problem of God-talk is overcome.

    One hardly feels that Ott has plumbed the depths of the hermeneutical problem; any coherent response to the problem of God and language must move beyond this kind of analysis of prayer. Still, one has to start somewhere, and prayer is not a bad place to start.

    God would not be God, after all, if we could merely talk about him. If he is truly God, then first and foremost we must be able to speak to him.

    Sunday 10 July 2005

    Recent Dissertations on Moltmann

    The continuing interest in Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is witnessed by the number of dissertations which continue to be written on Moltmann. Recent dissertations from the United States include:

    A critique of the messianic theology of Jürgen Moltmann through the messianic philosophy of Walter Benjamin: Staying with the negative
    by Zathureczky, Kornel, PhD

    'God is faithful, he cannot deny himself': Karl Rahner and Jürgen Moltmann on whether God is immutable in Jesus Christ
    by Babka, Susie Paulik, PhD

    The practice of community in social trinitarianism: A theological evaluation with reference to Dumitru Staniloae and Jürgen Moltmann
    by Matei, Eugen, PhD

    From the church to the world: Civil society, public theology, and the theology of Jürgen Moltmann
    by Paeth, Scott R., PhD

    Friendship from the future: The imago Dei in the work of Jürgen Moltmann
    by Chitton, John T., ThM

    Pneumatological developments in the theology in Jürgen Moltmann
    by Jaeger, John David, PhD

    Shekinah: The indwelling of God in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann
    by Johnson, Alan Julius, PhD

    The dialogue with Orthodox theology in the ecclesiology of Jürgen Moltmann: Trinitarian theology and pneumatology as the twin pillars of ecclesiology
    by Kireopoulos, Antonios Steve, PhD

    The crisis of creation: A critical analysis of Jürgen Moltmann's panentheism
    by Phillips, Benjamin Blair, PhD

    Friday 8 July 2005

    Theology: what’s the point?

    To start with, we should be quite clear that theology has no intrinsic purpose. It does not exist for its own sake. A theology that existed only for its own sake would have already ceased to be theology. Rather theology exists for the sake of preaching. It is meant to be a servant—it exists to serve preaching.

    The church is the gathered community of people who have heard the gospel, the message of Jesus Christ. And this gathered community has only one task and one goal: to tell the same message to others. In short, the church exists to speak the gospel. But as simple as this sounds, in every period of history it has been the church’s greatest challenge and problem.

    Here's the problem: now that I have heard the gospel, how should I go about speaking it? What will it mean, in my own world and my own situation, to speak the gospel? For if I simply repeat the message exactly as I heard it—word for word and phrase for phrase—then I will in fact be changing the message into something quite different.

    In the constant flux of history, words and concepts change, images and metaphors change, the basic structures of human thought change. To take just one example: if today I tell someone on the street that Jesus is the “lamb of God”, it will mean something entirely from what it meant to a first-century Jew with his apocalyptic worldview. Or if I tell someone today that she must have “faith”, it will probably mean the very opposite from what it meant for Paul, when he contrasted faith with all human striving.

    The great problem, then, is to speak the gospel in such a way that it really is the same message—in other words, to change the message precisely so that it can remain the same. Ernst Käsemann described this problem, when he said that “continuity with the past is preserved [only] by shattering the received terminology, the received imagery, the received theology—in short, by shattering the tradition.... The truth is that it is this variation which makes continuity possible at all” (“The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” in Essays on New Testament Themes, pp. 20-21).

    And this is exactly the task of theology. Theology seeks to interpret and to translate the gospel in such a way that it can faithfully be repeated in the present. Theology stands in the transition between hearing the gospel and speaking the gospel—and it seeks to ensure that when we do speak, we are really speaking the gospel.

    This, and nothing else, is the point of theology.

    Thursday 7 July 2005

    Hope for a world gone wrong

    Is there hope for a world gone wrong? Is there hope in the midst of hatred and violence? In his poem "God's Grandeur"(1877), Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

    The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
    Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
    And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    Hopkins was of course writing about the destructiveness of an industrialised world. But the poem's conclusion applies equally to the situation of our own world today: there is hope, because the Spirit of God broods over this bent world. There is hope, because God is our future.

    I suppose at times it is better to pray than to speak: Come, Creator Spirit: brood over the troubled waters of chaos in our world, and bring us your light and your life.

    Wednesday 6 July 2005

    Blogging: a theological history

    Some excellent blogs for New Testament studies have inspired me to start this new blog for theological studies. My current interests include Christology, dogmatics, hermeneutic theory and modern theology, as well as relating theological reflection to New Testament studies. So in this blog I’ll be offering updates on scholarship, suggestions for reading, biographical sketches of theologians, and my own comments on “faith and theology”.

    First, though, a prolegomenous question: what is the theological basis for a blog such as this? Is theological blogging justifiable at all? These are important questions, and we can best answer them through a brief historical survey.

    In Roman Catholic tradition, blogging was regarded a good work (opus bonum) in so far as it arises from the supernatural influence of grace and is performed through the motive of charity (motivum caritatis). Only thus can it be deemed meritorious blogging (blogus meritorii).

    Lutheran theology, in contrast, insisted that human nature is subject to such corruption that even its most excellent acts of blogging are nothing more than splendid vices (splendida vitia). It is thus proper to speak only of a depravity of blogging (pravitatem blogi).

    The theology of the Reformed tradition placed special emphasis on the absolute decree which stands behind all true blogging (blogia vera). The fact that some are able to blog but not others was said to be grounded solely in the good pleasure of God (beneplacitum Dei).

    Arminian theology, however, sought to modify this Reformed position by arguing that the eternal decree in fact rests on the foreknowledge (praescientia) of all our future blogging. Here, then, the concept of foreseen blogging (praevisa blogus) is ultimately decisive.

    In the nineteenth century, liberal Protestant theology claimed that blogging arises from a universal feeling, an experience which is basic to all human consciousness. The object of blogging (obiectum blogi) is thus nothing other than our own pious consciousness.

    But in the early twentieth century dialectical theology rebelled against liberalism by insisting that human blogging stands under the judgment (κρισις) of the Word of God. Indeed, this Word brings a devastating Nein against everything religious—even religious blogging!

    Then around the middle of the twentieth century, existentialist theology distinguished between inauthentic and authentic blogging. Only through a decision (Entscheidung) of faith, in response to the kerygma, can one make the necessary transition to authentic blogging.

    More recently, though, liberation theology has noted that the impulse to blog (which is an essentially Western phenomenon) is part of those oppressive politico-economic structures from which human societies must be liberated. And the theology of hope has argued that true blogging exists only in the future, even though it has already entered the internet proleptically. Meanwhile, many evangelicals have claimed that they want nothing to do with blogging, since the word “blog” does not appear in the Bible.

    Given this great diversity of opinion, we may wonder whether the question of blogging is simply condemned to division and confusion. Indeed, the Anglican communion today remains torn by divisions over the question of blogging (including whether women should be permitted to blog). Fortunately, however, a recent ecumenical commission has published an 80-page report which affirms the deep underlying agreement between the major traditions on the question of blogging. We can thus hope that full agreement will be achieved in the near future.

    On the basis of this hope, I will therefore begin to blog.


    Contact us

    Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

    Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.