Wednesday 31 August 2005

CASE in the academy

The Australian institute CASE has just put out the latest issue of its quarterly magazine. It’s packed with good stuff, including articles on Alfred Kinsey, Stephanie Dowrick, Bono and Nick Cave, and theology and evolution (and a short piece by me on humanism). The definite highlight is the essay by Matheson Russell: “Why Concepts Can’t Always Be Trusted: On Deconstruction and Reformation,” Case 8 (2005), 12-15. Russell argues for the theological significance of phenomenology, and he presents one of the most lucid, most engaging and most accessible introductions to postmodernism that I’ve come across.

CASE is the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education. It’s hosted by New College at the University of New South Wales, and it promotes “apologetic scholarship” in the best and broadest sense—i.e., scholarship that engages constructively with contemporary thought across the whole spectrum of academic disciplines.

Creatio ex nihilo

A few weeks back I argued that a commitment to the doctrine of creation does not entail any specific belief about whether or not the universe had a definite “beginning.” A recent book by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig presents the opposite argument: Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).

Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference

This is the great week of the Eleventh Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference. Alas, I was unable to go; but Mike Bird has been kind enough to send me email updates about the conference. He has also posted summaries of both the first day and the second day of the conference. For Mike, the main highlights included Bruce McCormack’s Barthian critique of open theism, D. A. Carson’s discussion of the wrath of God, and N. T. Wright’s summary of his Christian Origins project.

Our American friends

“Stretch forth thy hand from on high,
rescue me and deliver me from the many waters.”

—Psalm 144:7

“Faith and Theology” gets a facelift

Welcome to the new design of “Faith of Theology,” brought to you by Amy from Prochein Amy. Amy drafted several different designs before coming up with this one, which is based on a graphic from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript. I’m delighted with the new look, and I’m most grateful to Amy for her marvellous work.

There is another change as well: I’ve decided to activate the comments field, so from now on please feel very welcome to leave your comments.

Karl Barth once said that “sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable” in theology, since theology is meant to be “the most beautiful of all the sciences.” So perhaps this better, brighter blog design will also make me a better and less boring theologian....

Tuesday 30 August 2005

The election of grace

“The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in his free grace determines himself for sinful man and sinful man for himself. He therefore takes upon himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in his own glory.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 94.

Quote of the day

“The baffling thing about the creation is that since it came into being through the free grace of God it might not have come into being at all, and now that it has come into being it contains no reason in itself why it should be what it is and why it should continue to exist.”

—Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. vii.

Monday 29 August 2005

N. T. Wright and John P. Meier: Christopher McMahon responds

A few days ago I posted a brief critique of Christopher McMahon’s new article on N. T. Wright and John P. Meier. I invited Chris to say a few words in reply—here’s his response:

I would like to begin by affirming Ben Myers’ critique of my recent essay in New Blackfriars. Generally, he is correct to say that the methodological issues involved in the comparison of Wright and Meier are not fully addressed in the essay—more work needs to be done, and I cannot fault his recognition that my essay does not necessarily resolve the matter (especially for those who admire Wright).

But I do contend in my essay that Meier’s performance of historical Jesus research is, in some ways, far more critically realist than Wright’s. I make this judgment with an appeal to the work of Bernard Lonergan. Wright’s critical realist epistemology correctly accounts for the role of the human subject in the act of knowing, but his account of the role of hypothesis and verification is problematic. In a manner not altogether dissimilar to RO’s reading of modern philosophy, Wright narrates the history of NT scholarship so that he might dismiss its account of the formation of the NT.

I will grant that the philosophical commitments of the form critics often left a mark on their account of the NT; it does not mean, however, that one can simply abandon their insights. Wright’s decision to argue for Bailey’s reading of NT formation and his search for larger metanarratives to reconstruct the story-shaped world of the NT are not entirely without merit, but I find Wright’s arguments for the historicity of particular biblical passages largely unconvincing (e.g., Mk 13).

While Meier’s account of historical reconstruction is highly problematic (I think Tony Kelly and the late Ben F. Meyer have offered the best critiques of Meier in this regard), his performance of historical Jesus research lends itself to a critical realist reading (a Lonerganian critical realism). I think those who wish to further Wright’s project would do well to pay attention to Meier’s performance (admittedly with a grain of salt).

All the best,

Christopher McMahon, Ph.D.
Division of Philosophy and Theology
University of Mary
7500 University Drive
Bismarck, ND 58504

Quick quiz

Question: What do the following people have in common: Noam Chomsky, Gustavo Gutierrez, Stanley Kubrick, Hans Küng, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Shirley Temple?

Answer: All born in 1928.

Michael Bird on the New Perspective

The latest issue of the revived Criswell Theological Review 2:2 (2005) is devoted to the New Perspective on Paul. It includes this article from our friend Mike Bird: “When the Dust Finally Settles: Coming to a Post-New Perspective Perspective.”

This essay offers a balanced and constructive evangelical proposal, and I’m sure many readers will find it helpful. As in all his work on the New Perspective, Mike is concerned to offer a mediating position which is at once appreciative and critical of the New Perspective. In this essay he affirms the significance of a Jewish merit theology as part of the background to Paul’s view of justification, but he also notes that Paul was primarily concerned not with legalism but with the problem of Gentile inclusion. Mike feels that we can accept the valuable insights offered by the New Perspective without rashly dismissing the traditional concept of “forensic” righteousness.

All Mike’s work on the New Perspective is excellent—I hope in the future he’ll gather some of these essays together in a book on Pauline theology. And if you haven’t yet seen Mike’s superb online New Perspective bibliography, then you should take a look.

Sunday 28 August 2005

A poem by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis was one of the finest prose-writers of the twentieth century—which writer wouldn’t give an arm and a leg to be able to write like that? On the other hand, Lewis was never much of a poet (and he was well aware of this, although he continued to write poetry from time to time). But I have always liked one of his poems: the beautiful epitaph on the headstone of his deceased wife’s grave.

Here the whole world
(stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

—from C. S. Lewis, Poems (1992)

Quote of the day

“We close the doctrine of God with this evocation of God’s being, beyond which there is no more to say: God is a great fugue. There is nothing so capacious as a fugue.”

—Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 236.

Theology from a three-year-old

A conversation yesterday with my three-year-old daughter:

—“God is my Lord, daddy.”
—“Oh. Is he my Lord too?”
—“Yes, dad. He's everyone's Lord.”
—“Why is he everyone's Lord?”
—“Because ... because he's God.”

Exactly right too. Although she could just as well have said: “He is God because he's the Lord.”

Friday 26 August 2005

Jesus and the Word

The discussion of my six theological theses has continued, with this thoughtful response from Jim West. Jim explains his own understanding of the “Word of God” in greater detail, and he clarifies the fact that he and I were not (as I had suggested) simply “saying the same thing in different ways.”

Here is the basic difference: Jim does not agree with the Barmen Declaration’s statement that Jesus Christ is “the one Word of God”—whereas I consider this to be one of the most fundamental and most decisive of all theological statements. It seems to me that without this theological insight Christian theology is neither possible nor legitimate.

I appreciate Jim’s intention here: as a learned and sensitive biblical scholar, he is concerned that many isolated parts of the Bible (e.g. in the Old Testament) would become “totally meaningless” if we said that Jesus alone is the Word of God. But on the other hand, it seems to me that the entire Bible as a whole is rendered meaningless and incoherent if we fail to perceive it as a witness to this one Word of God.

Jim thinks, then, that God speaks “most clearly in Christ,” but that he also “speaks elsewhere too.” For my part though, I can’t help thinking that the Barmen Declaration was right to reject exactly this conception of the “Word of God.” Here again are the words from Barmen: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.”

New links

I have been updating and improving the links in the sidebar, so you might like to have a browse. In particular, you might like to check out the new links to some excellent audio lectures by Miroslav Volf and Oliver O’Donovan. (If you know of any other good online audio lectures by prominent theologians, please email me.) I have also gone the way of all bloggers and become an Associate, so you’ll now find a discreet search bar beneath the “Theology Booksellers” links.

Thursday 25 August 2005

Schleiermacher and freedom

This morning I came across this new article: C. Jeffery Kinlaw, “Freedom and Moral Agency in the Young Schleiermacher,” The Review of Metaphysics 58:4 (2005), 843-69. It’s an exposition and critique of Schleiermacher’s early treatise on freedom, “Über die Freiheit.” Very interesting, although more philosophical than theological. It’s always a joy to read about Schleiermacher, and it’s great to see some of his shorter writings receiving close attention—another noteworthy article in this respect is Matthias Gockel, “New Perspectives on an Old Debate: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Essay on Election,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6:3 (2004), 301-18.

Quote of the day

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

—George Herbert, “The Agonie” (1633)

Wednesday 24 August 2005

N. T. Wright and John P. Meier

The September issue of New Blackfriars is out, and it includes this article by Christopher McMahon: “Stories, Hypotheses, and Jesus: N. T. Wright, John Meier, and Historical Jesus Research,” New Blackfriars 86:1005 (2005), 537-45. (You can read the article online if your library subscribes to Blackwell Synergy.)

In the article, McMahon critiques Wright’s historical methodology and argues in favour of Meier’s method: “Meier’s project serves as the benchmark for the way historical Jesus research ought to be done—progressing from available sources to historical judgments about the data in those sources, and finally to the verification of a hypothesis about what is moving forward in the history reflected in the data” (p. 544).

Certainly this is one way of viewing the historical task—and McMahon’s critique of Wright rests squarely on this view of historical method. But this hardly settles the problem, since the question at issue is precisely whether such a historical method should be preferred over Wright’s critical realist method. Similarly, nothing would be resolved if Meier were critiqued on the basis of Wright’s critical realism, since this too would simply sidestep the basic methodological question.

It’s unfortunate that McMahon doesn’t attempt to analyse this fundamental difference in historical outlook that separates Wright and Meier. For it seems to me that only such a fundamental methodological analysis can hope to clarify the diversity of current historical Jesus research.

Quote of the day

We should “judge philosophies by their arguments, not by their dates.”

—Étienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas(New York: Arno Press, 1979), p. viii.

The task and theme of theology: a response to Jim West

Jim West has responded to my six theological theses with his own set of six countertheses. Jim’s theses are excellent, and they draw very nicely on the language of the Barmen Declaration (1934). While my theses focus on Jesus Christ as the one theme of theology, Jim opposes this with a focus on the theme of the “Word of God.”

But is there a true opposition here? It seems to me that we are simply saying the same thing in different ways. What, after all, does the term “Word of God” mean? As the Barmen Declaration rightly notes, this Word is none other than Jesus Christ himself: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God....”

So when Jim suggests that the true theme of theology is the Word of God, I can only answer: Yes—and this Word is Jesus Christ!

Still, there is one remaining problem with Jim’s theses. Jim suggests that “the task of theology is to listen to the Word of God.” But here I think theology is being confused with faith. Faith hears and obeys the Word of God. Theology, on the other hand, attempts to think about faith. And theology is therefore concerned with interpreting the Word of God. In theology, we presuppose that both the speaking and the hearing of this Word have already taken place; and we then seek to understand and to interpret precisely this speaking-and-hearing event. In other words, the task of theology is to interpret the gospel.

Tuesday 23 August 2005

Advice for writers

Scot McKnight—himself both a fine scholar and an industrious writer—has posted these marvellous suggestions for writers. Tolle lege.

Quote of the day

“Good will is an antecedent disposition of openness to the horizon, message, and tone of the text.”

—Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament(Allison Park: Pickwick, 1989), p. 92

The task and theme of theology: six theses

1. The task of theology is to interpret the gospel.

2. Formally, the theme of theology is the distinction between God and humanity.

3. Materially, the theme of theology is the history of the man Jesus (his life, death and resurrection) as the eschatological event of God’s deity.

4. These are not two distinct themes, but only two aspects of a single theme. This single theme is Jesus Christ.

5. Theology performs its task (i.e. it interprets the gospel) when it keeps formally and materially to this one theme.

6. Therefore the task of theology is to distinguish between God and humanity by articulating the identification of God’s deity with the man Jesus. To express this identification and this differentiation is to interpret the gospel.

Monday 22 August 2005

What is faith?

I have tried a couple of times to explain what I think “theology” is all about (here and here). But since this is a blog for “faith and theology,” I should also have a go at explaining what I mean by “faith.” And I can hardly do better here than to quote Eberhard Jüngel:

“The faith of human beings is their heartfelt Yes to Jesus Christ and to the divine judgement that has been passed and enacted. This Yes comes from the heart, because the divine judgement has come into the heart of believers, striking them in the centre of their existence.... The affirmation, the Yes that the believer says to God’s judgement, is not just some arbitrary word which could just as well be replaced by some other word. Rather, by this Yes ... the whole person, human existence as a whole, is expressing itself. The Yes of faith is the most concentrated expression of human existence. When we believe, our whole existence becomes a single Yes by which we are affirming God’s decisive judgement over all human existence and thus over our own existence.” —Eberhard Jüngel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 238.

Quote of the day

The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over, and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away

—Bob Dylan, “Highlands” (1997)

Sunday 21 August 2005


Yesterday I read James M. Robinson, Paul Hoffmann and John S. Kloppenborg (ed.), The Sayings Gospel Q in Greek and English: With Parallels from the Gospels of Mark and Thomas(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002). This is essentially a condensed version of the massive Critical Edition of Q(2000). Robinson’s lengthy introduction is a valuable summary of the history of Q scholarship. The critical text of Q itself begins, rather unpromisingly, with: Q 3:[[0]]: [[<...’Ιησου...>]]. But the sayings get a good deal more interesting from here on.

I myself can’t help feeling sceptical about things like the methodology of identifying the strata and redactions of Q, the value of the Gospel of Thomas for the analysis of Q, and the extrapolation from Q to a distinctive Q-community theology. But for all that, it’s definitely interesting to have this handy edition of an attempted critical reconstruction of Q. (And for more on Q, see Mark Goodacre’s excellent links.)

Quote of the day

“Certainty of faith is established in the hearer when he hears in such a way that he is no longer divided; when instead, he is wholly struck by what he himself is then able to say.”

—Ernst Fuchs, Studies of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 1964), p. 198.

Thursday 18 August 2005

“Intelligent Design”

Tyler Williams has pointed out this hilarious essay in the latest issue of the satirical magazine The Onion: “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity with New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory.” This is of course a spoof of all the recent discussion of “Intelligent Design” in the United States.

It seems to me that the new Intelligent Design fad is simply the latest incarnation of the old “God of the gaps” argument. Intelligent Design proponents claim that only an intelligent designer could explain the complexity of various observable systems in the world. Thus “God” is brought in to fill this gap in scientific understanding.

We can be certain of one thing: advances in scientific knowledge will always exorcise any “God of the gaps”—for it is precisely the task of science to eliminate such “gaps” in our understanding of the natural world. And science is well equipped to perform this task. Thus Christians who enthusiastically greet each new scientific “gap” as a new opportunity to secure a place for God are simply setting themselves up for disillusionment, when their God is exorcised yet again—i.e., when he is shown to be only a dispensable God, and therefore only an idol, after all.

Quote of the day

“When the early Christians spoke about God, they had to speak about Jesus; and when they spoke about Jesus, they had to introduce God.”

—Marinus de Jonge, God’s Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus’ Own View of His Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 130.

God’s final envoy

It was a public holiday here yesterday. This allowed me not only to spend a nice morning at the beach, but also to read Marinus de Jonge’s insightful and sensible little book, God’s Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus’ Own View of His Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). I especially appreciated de Jonge’s method of researching the historical Jesus: he focuses on what is “characteristic” about Jesus, instead of simply trying to identify what is “distinctive” through the criterion of dissimilarity. And de Jonge’s emphasis on the “theocentric” character of early christology deserves attention.

More worldview discussion

Those interested in following the “worldview” discussion further might like to check out the comments by Göran Helmersson and Edmund Fearon (and again here). Steven Andresen has also added a valuable comment to Jim West’s post.

Wednesday 17 August 2005

Alister McGrath and worldviews

In his recent three-volume work, A Scientific Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001-3), Alister McGrath has reflected on the relationship between worldviews and theology.

McGrath argues on the one hand that Christian theology can and should draw freely on existing worldviews. In particular, McGrath thinks that the worldview of natural science is an immensely valuable dialogue-partner for theology. On the other hand, though, he argues that Christian theology should never join itself too closely to any particular worldview; above all, it should never allow any worldview to achieve a foundational status: “rather than committing itself to any particular world-view, Christian theology should use or appropriate as many world-views and forms of language as are appropriate to explicate the truth of God’s Word without allowing itself to enter into a relation of independence on them” (Scientific Theology, 2:201).

In other words, theology is free from reliance on any particular worldview; and it is free for constructive engagement with all worldviews.

Tuesday 16 August 2005

Jim West and worldviews

Over at Biblical Theology, Jim West has presented a thoughtful case in favour of a “Christian worldview.” He suggests that “it is precisely the duty of the Christian faith ... to offer a perception of the world, reality, life, eternity, and even death.”

I think this is partly right. Yes, Christian faith should speak about “the world, reality, life, eternity and death.” But is it our role to draw these things together into a “worldview”? Or is our role rather to speak of such things from the standpoint of faith, i.e., to speak the gospel? Should we be offering a cosmology (a “perception of the world”) or a metaphysic (a “perception of reality”) or even a religion (a “perception of eternity”)? If we did all this, would we have fulfilled our task and calling? Or would we in fact still have neglected our true task and calling—namely, to speak the gospel?

So whereas Jim believes that the neglect of a distinctively Christian “worldview” is “the most profound weakness of present day theology,” I think theology’s “most profound weakness” can only ever be its failure to speak the gospel. And rather than being a word about the “centre” of any worldview, the gospel is precisely a word from outside us (extra nos), a word that breaks in from beyond—i.e., the word of God.

Is there a “secular worldview”?

Today many Christian theologians and apologists speak of a “Christian worldview.” Often this worldview is vigorously defended and asserted, while the inroads of various “secular worldviews” are just as vigorously denounced. I suggested in an earlier post that there is no such thing as a “Christian worldview.” And it’s also worth asking whether there is such a thing as a “secular worldview.”

What is meant by “secular worldview”? The very term is a tautology—if something is a view-of-the-world then it obviously relates to the saeculum (world), and is thus saecularis (secular; pertaining to the world). A “secular worldview,” then, is simply a worldview. And any worldview is, by definition, secular.

I think it’s therefore senseless for Christians to condemn any worldview simply because it is “secular”—just as it would be senseless to condemn a university for being “academic,” or a cat for being “feline.”

Monday 15 August 2005

Karl Barth and the “Christian worldview”

Karl Barth concentrated sharply on the question of worldviews, and he concluded that Christian faith should approach all worldviews in a purely ad hoc manner. We should freely and eclectically make use of any and all worldviews, but we should never allow faith to become allied to or dependent on any particular worldview (Weltanschauung). Of course, the situation of the German Christians in the 1930s sharpened Barth’s prophetic critique—here was a situation in which the church identified its own faith with the prevailing worldview; and the result was disastrous both for faith and for the world to which faith no longer had anything distinctive to say.

Here are Barth’s words: “But it is not the business of Holy Scripture or of Christian faith ... to represent a definite world-picture. The Christian faith is bound neither to an old nor to a modern world-picture. The Christian confession has in course of the centuries passed through more than one world-picture. And its representatives were always ill-advised when they believed that this or that world-picture was an adequate expression for what the Church ... has to think.... The Church must beware of establishing itself on the basis of any sort of Weltanschauung.” (Dogmatics in Outline[London: SCM, 1949], p. 59)

Is there a “Christian worldview”?

It has become fashionable in recent years to speak of “the Christian worldview.” Some theologians claim to be able to articulate the contours of this worldview, while some apologists devote their energy to defending this worldview against other worldviews.

But is there such a thing as a “Christian worldview”? It seems to me that such a concept drastically undermines the very nature of faith. Faith ceases to be faith the moment it is identified with any particular worldview. The history of Christian theology shows that faith can in fact exist alongside and within a great diversity of worldviews; it can adapt its language and conceptuality to these worldviews; it can use these worldviews to express the gospel; but all the while it remains something wholly other, something radically distinct from all such worldviews.

Even if we did suppose for a moment that there is such a thing as a “Christian worldview,” how would we decide what kind of worldview this is? Is it the primitive worldview of ancient Israel? Or the apocalyptic worldview of the historical Jesus? Or the more Hellenistic worldviews of Paul and John? Or the Neoplatonic worldview of the fourth century? Or the Aristotelian worldview of the medieval church? What would be the criteria for choosing one of these worldviews over others?

More on this topic:
Karl Barth and the “Christian worldview”
Is there a “secular worldview”?
Jim West and worldviews
Alister McGrath and worldviews

Quote of the day

“Love is actually the essence of free will, and contrariwise the essence of free will is love.”

—Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter (London: SCM Press, 1964).

Sunday 14 August 2005

Albert Schweitzer’s messy desk

Several bibliobloggers have posted pictures of their tidy or not-so-tidy desks. Chris Tilling has offered his own amusing contribution, and he provides a nice quotation on the state of Albert Schweitzer’s room while Schweitzer was writing his classic work The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906): “Books were stacked everywhere in his room, including the floor, and those who came to see him had to edge their way perilously along the narrow waterways between tall islands of books.”

U2’s “Grace”

What is the best theological description of “grace” that you know of? For me, it’s the U2 song “Grace,” especially that remarkable line: “She travels outside of karma.” This line contains the whole gospel in nuce. It expresses the sheer strangeness and audacity of the gospel, the sheer gratuitousness of grace, and it does so in a way that is immediately intelligible within the contemporary cultural situation. The whole song is splendid; but I reckon this line in particular is a model of theological perfection.

Friday 12 August 2005

Gerhard Forde

I have just heard the sad news that Gerhard Forde has died, aged 77. Forde was a leading figure in American Lutheran theology, and he was a very fine theologian.

Quote of the day

“The whole of dogmatics has to be eschatology, that is, an explication of God’s act as an eschatological act. In this way it deals with God and at the same time with Christ, in whom God’s eschatological act takes place.”

—Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (London: SCM, 1984), p. 61

Thursday 11 August 2005

More top tenning

Over at Codex, Tyler Williams has offered his own humorous contribution to the recent flood of Top Ten book lists.

The riddle of Eberhard Jüngel

Eberhard Jüngel is one of the two best theologians in the world today (the other is of course Wolfhart Pannenberg). And I might as well come out of the closet and admit that, in contemporary theology, there is no one I like better than Eberhard Jüngel.

Unfortunately, though, he is also by far the most difficult theological thinker in recent times. He has his own unique and highly refined conceptuality, which draws especially on the philosophy of Heidegger, but also on the theology of Barth, the philosophy of Hegel, and the hermeneutic of Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling. At times it can take an extraordinary effort to penetrate this conceptuality and to grasp Jüngel’s point. In addition, Jüngel has never shown even the slightest interest in English-language theology, and he is even said to have boasted that his own (exceedingly German) theology is untranslatable into English. (Happily, though, translators like Darrell Guder, John Webster and Jeffrey Cayzer have proved him wrong.)

Anyway, all this helps to explain why Jüngel has been largely neglected in English-language scholarship—especially compared to the attention that his fellow countrymen, Pannenberg and Moltmann, have received. Both Pannenberg and Moltmann engage seriously with English and American theology, and they both write in a relatively straightforward way. So they are more obvious dialogue-partners for those of us who don’t live in Germany.

Nevertheless, I think Jüngel is well worth the effort. I don’t think any other theologian since Barth has wrestled more profoundly with the doctrine of God and with the theological significance of the death of Jesus. The goal of all Jüngel’s work is to “think God”—i.e., to “think God” as “the event that happened in the death of Jesus.” This may not be an easy task; but it is nevertheless the task of theology.

God, evolution and cheesecake

This week’s Time magazine raises the question: “Can You Believe in God and Evolution?” I think the very form of this question reveals a drastic misunderstanding: it implies that God is merely one part of reality alongside others, so that we must choose between “believing in God” and “believing in something else.” We might as well ask: “Can you believe in God and electricity?” Or “Can you believe in God and motor-cars?” Or “Can you believe in God and in cheesecake?” All such questions are meaningless and amusing precisely because God is not simply one part of the world alongside others. If we think we need to choose between God and cheesecake or between God and evolution, then the real problem is simply that we haven’t yet grasped the meaning of the word “God.”

Wednesday 10 August 2005

Justification and theology

Speaking of theological autobiography, Mike Bird has posted an interesting account of his own developing understanding of “justification” in Pauline theology. Mike is right on the money when he says: “I wish that systematic theologians would learn a lot more about second-temple Jewish backgrounds, Jewish sectarianism, and diversity in earliest Christianity rather than resorting to atemporal theological categories and fancy Latin words straight up.”

This highlights the very problematic fact that, when it comes to “justification,” systematic theology is currently miles behind New Testament scholarship. Worse still, some theologians have responded to recent Pauline studies merely with a reactionary reassertion of orthodoxy; and some have even offered blanket condemnations on certain approaches to Pauline theology, without first having attempted to learn anything at all from such approaches.

Tactics like these reveal an underlying anxiety which has no place in theological scholarship. For if theology takes seriously its own commitment to the primacy of the biblical documents, then it clearly has nothing to fear from the historical study of the Bible.

The way forward is a way of open, constructive and carefree dialogue between theologians and biblical specialists. Naturally, this does not mean that biblical and theological scholars will always be able to agree on every detail—but it means at least that they will be able to listen and learn from each other.

Eberhard Jüngel in English

The following of Jüngel’s books are available in English translation:

Death, the Riddle and the Mystery (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1975)

God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983)

Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986)

The Freedom of a Christian: Luther's Significance for Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) [available from Dovebooks]

Theological Essays I(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989)

Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992)

Theological Essays II(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995)

God's Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth: A Paraphrase(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001)—previously translated as The Doctrine of the Trinity: God's Being Is in Becoming(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); the 2001 edition is an entirely new translation, with a superb introduction by John Webster

Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith: A Theological Study with an Ecumenical Purpose(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001)

Jüngel’s many untranslated works include a study of Rudolf Bultmann’s theology; a study of Karl Barth’s doctrine of baptism; a book on “analogy” in ancient Greek philosophy; and a New Testament study of Jesus and Paul (with particular focus on the parables of Jesus). And I have heard rumours that Jüngel is currently working on a book on eschatology.


Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.

Tuesday 9 August 2005

Books on Eberhard Jüngel

Although English-language scholarship has not yet given Eberhard Jüngel the attention he deserves, there is a small and growing list of books on his theology. The best introduction is still John B. Webster, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology (1989), and Webster has also edited an excellent collection of essays, entitled The Possibilities of Theology: Studies in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel (1995). Less important, but still well worth reading, are Roland Spjuth, Creation, Contingency and Divine Presence in the Theologies of Thomas F. Torrance and Eberhard Jüngel (1995); and Roland Zimany, Vehicle for God: The Metaphorical Theology of Eberhard Jüngel (1994). More recently, there is a large section on Jüngel in the new volume by Mark C. Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemorary Theology (2004).

And I think the most acute study to date is Paul J. DeHart’s fine monograph, Beyond the Necessary God: Trinitarian Faith and Philosophy in the Thought of Eberhard Jüngel (2000). This is a very profound analysis of some of the deepest dimensions of Jüngel’s theology. Let’s hope that the English-language engagement with Jüngel continues to develop in the coming years.

Dissertations on Eberhard Jüngel

The brilliant Tübingen theologian Eberhard Jüngel is still relatively neglected in English-language scholarship. Still, he does continue to attract a modest number of doctoral dissertations. Here’s a list of the dissertations on his theology since 1990:

The ecclesiology of God: The role of the divine congregation on the human congregation
Frederickson, Scott P., PhD
LUTHER SEMINARY, 2001, 192 pages

Divine simplicity: Theistic reconstruction in Eberhard Jüngel's trinitarian 'Glaubenslehre'
DeHart, Paul Jeffry, PhD
[Now revised and published as a book]

Eberhard Jüngel's theological anthropology in light of his Christology
Neufeldt-Fast, Arnold Victor, PhD

The 'theologia crucis' in the contest of the modernity: The relationship between the cross and modernity in the works of Eberhard Jüngel, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Toniolo, Andrea, ThD

Disputation and interruption: Truth, trinity and the death of Christ in Wolfhart Pannenberg and Eberhard Jüngel
Case, Jonathan P., ThD
LUTHER SEMINARY, 1995, 256 pages
[An online JCTR article based on this thesis is available here]

Toward divine relationality: Eberhard Jüngel's new trinitarian, postmetaphysical approach
Mattes, Mark Christopher, PhD
[Mattes has now published a book with a substantial section on Jüngel’s theology]

Creation, contingency and divine presence in the theologies of Thomas F. Torrance and Eberhard Jüngel
Spjuth, Roland, ThD
[Now revised and published as a book]

Considering the rupture of the Holocaust: A recasting of Emil Fackenheim's conception of the Holocaust as absolute rupture with reference to the theology of Eberhard Jüngel
Ziegler, Philip Gordon, MA

Infinity in finitude: The Trinity in process theism and Eberhard Jüngel
Pedraja, Luis Gregorio, PhD

Analogy and proclamation: The struggle over God's hiddenness in the theology of Martin Luther and Eberhard Jüngel
Paulson, Steven D., ThD

The Cross of Jesus and the Being of God: The fundamentation of a theology of the Crucified as basis of the Christian concept of God in the works of E. Jüngel
Rodriguez G., Fernando, ThD

God is Love: The contemporary theological movement of interpreting the Trinity as God's relational being
Schott, Faye Ellen, ThD

The best systematic theology textbook

I’ve offered my list of the top ten systematic theologies. So I thought I should follow this with a suggestion of the best textbook for the study of systematic theology. I reckon it’s an easy choice:

Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, trans. Darrell L. Guder, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981-83).

This is a very fine work of theology in its own right, and it includes a great deal of historical and exegetical discussion, as well as a brief history of the discipline of theology. Although in some respects Weber’s work is now dated, I think it still provides insight into the fundamental questions of theology in a sharper and more informative way than any other introductory work. And, unlike many other textbooks, this is a genuinely theological work and not merely an “objective” survey of the field.

Unfortunately, Weber’s work has long been out of print; but there are still second-hand copies around (available here and here). It can be expensive getting the two volumes together—but it’s worth every dime.

Monday 8 August 2005

Theology and the death penalty

The new issue of First Things includes this thoughtful essay by Joseph Bottum on “Christians and the Death Penalty.” Bottum presents a strictly theological argument against capital punishment.

Top ten systematic theologies

Some of the biblical studies blogs have been churning out Top Ten booklists on various subjects. So I felt obligated to offer my own systematic theology Top Ten list (and see also Jim West’s outrageous alternative list):

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae
3. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
4. John Calvin, Institutio christianae religionis
5. Origen, De principiis
6. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology
7. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology
8. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics
9. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology
10. Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith

It’s hard to decide the exact order—the first four definitely belong together as the four greatest systematic theologies. Karl Barth has no contenders for top place, but the order of the next three is fairly arbitrary—Calvin and Schleiermacher could just as easily have changed places. Origen’s De principiis (number 5) deserves special honour, since this is really the work that invented the discipline of “systematic theology.”

After Origen, the list gets much more arbitrary: Tillich and Pannenberg definitely deserve their places, but the last three are more a matter of taste. Perhaps among the last three I should have included instead the works of Gerhard Ebeling, or Herman Bavinck, or even Augustus H. Strong (his work is still the only great Baptist systematic theology); or perhaps I should have included the small but still significant systematic works of Karl Rahner (Foundations of Christian Faith) or Hans Küng (On Being a Christian) or Hendrikus Berkhof (Christian Faith) or Peter Hodgson (Winds of the Spirit). But for the time being I will leave things as they are.

Quote of the day

“Walking on a few yards, one stands on the brink of a vast precipice....”

—Charles Darwin in the Blue Mountains, Australia, 17 January 1836 (The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter 19)

Sunday 7 August 2005

Theological autobiography: Hans Küng

The best recent theological autobiography is—by a long shot—Hans Küng’s splendid work, My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs(2003). This is not only a beautifully written, immensely engaging autobiography, but it’s also the perfect introduction to all Küng’s early theological work—his masterful books on Barth, Hegel, Vatican II, and ecclesiology.

Küng also offers penetrating insights into some of the most important theological developments in recent history—most notably, Vatican II. Through Küng’s eyes, you meet theologians like Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, Ernst Käsemann, and, not least of all, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).

While this volume centres everywhere on the theme of “freedom,” the theme of the second and final volume of Küng’s memoirs will be “truth.”

Theological autobiography

Last week Scot McKnight posted some autobiographical reflections about his own journey beyond “Calvinism.” I think there should be more theological autobiography—after all, theology is concerned not just with concepts and ideas, but with life.

Unfortunately the genre of theological autobiography has never really had its heyday. Still, some of the very best theology has been written as autobiography. I’m thinking especially of Augustine’s Confessions—a book which both invented the genre of autobiography, and still remains one of the greatest theological works of all time. Another eminent example is John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

Although there hasn’t been much theological autobiography in the past century, G. C. Berkouwer’s A Half Century of Theology(1977) deserves mention. It’s a stimulating discussion of major developments in twentieth-century theology from the perspective of Berkouwer’s own experience and development.

And more recently, Jürgen Moltmann has given us his Experiences in Theology (2000)—this is both an important work on theological method and an autobiographical account of Moltmann’s own theological development.

Friday 5 August 2005

Quote of the day

“And theological understanding is something very different from knowing the titles of a large number of books.”

—Hans Conzelmann, An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1969), p. xvii.

Thursday 4 August 2005

The Top Five Countdown: a comment

If you have been following my countdown of modern theology’s greatest achievements, you might have noticed something rather peculiar. Almost everything on the list is a formal rather than a material achievement. Revelation as self-revelation; the hermeneutical question; actuality over possibility; the historical-critical method—all these are formal or methodological insights. They are not isolated material doctrines, but they are insights which shape the whole mode and structure of theological reflection.

And I think it’s natural that the most influential and most revolutionary intellectual achievements will tend to be formal rather than material—just think of Aristotle, or Descartes, or Kant, or Derrida.

But this makes any material theological achievement stand out all the more when it appears in the Top Five Countdown. I am referring of course to Number Five: Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. This is not a methodological insight, but it is a specific doctrinal formulation. And it is no accident that this is the only material theological achievement to make it on to the Top Five list.

Let me put it is as plainly as possible: I think Karl Barth’s doctrine of election is the greatest material achievement in the history of modern theology—just as the historical-critical method is the greatest formal achievement.

And it is perhaps worth adding that, according to many Barth scholars, Barth’s whole theology is nothing other than a theology of election.

Number One: the greatest achievement of modern theology

The countdown is complete. Here it is, folks—the greatest achievement of modern theology. As you can see, it was a clear winner all along, with no serious competitors:

The historical-critical method. Here is our winner—the historical-critical interpretation of the Bible. What else can compete with the historical-critical method, in terms of radical, pervasive, irrevocable importance? What else has more radically revolutionised the theological task? What else has more fundamentally transformed the way we approach every theological question? What else has more powerfully propelled theological thinking forward into new insights and new directions? If every other achievement of modern theology has crumbled away within a few hundred years, then this one will still stand as a monument—hopefully a living monument—to the genius of nineteenth-century thought.

In recent years much has been said about the inherent limitations of the historical-critical method. And it’s true that we cannot allow our reading of Scripture to be limited solely to historical-critical interpretation. It’s true that we must place due emphasis on other things as well—on content (Sache), and narrative, and canon. But it would nevertheless be an unforgivable retrogression if we ever moved away from the historical-critical method itself. Rather than moving away from it, we must instead move through historical-critical interpretation into new understandings and new articulations of the Bible’s subject-matter.

As long as we are aware of the historicity of human existence, the historicity of God’s self-revelation, and the historicity of the Bible itself, it should be impossible—yes, unthinkable—for us ever to abandon historical-critical interpretation. We should sooner abandon our homes to live in caves.

Wednesday 3 August 2005

Top five countdown: Two

We’re fast approaching the end of this countdown of modern theology’s greatest achievements. I’ve received various suggestions for what Number One might be—but so far no one has guessed it. Is it really that hard to guess? Surely when you see Number One you’ll agree that it really has no competition. Anyway, here’s Number Two:

The triumph of actuality over possibility. The methodological insight that knowledge should proceed not from abstract possibility but from concrete actuality has penetrated modern theology. This development has come about mainly, but not solely, through the influence of Karl Barth. Simply put, Barth’s principle is that God can do what God does—not that he does what he can do. I think this is one of the most staggeringly profound insights in the whole history of theology. It is an insight which radically alters the discussion of any theological problem. We think theologically not by asking whether a certain thing is possible, but by asking how that thing has actually come about.

Incidentally, I think this principle is demonstrably a greater achievement even than the hermeneutical question (Number Three). For Hans-Georg Gadamer revolutionised hermeneutics precisely on the basis of this methodological principle—i.e., he learned to ask not whether understanding can happen but how it happens.

The countdown continues: Three

The countdown continues. If you’ve just arrived, I’m offering a countdown of the five greatest achievements of modern theology. Here’s number three:

The hermeneutical question. An utterly astonishing achievement of modern theology is its formulation of the questions of hermeneutics: How do ancient texts speak to us across the gulf of time and history? How does understanding take place? What is language, and how does it function? Such questions, which have developed in so many different directions since the pioneering work of Schleiermacher, continue to pose some of the most urgent problems for theological reflection today. Much of the most profound and influential work in modern theology has resulted from attempts to wrestle with the questions of hermeneutics.

Tuesday 2 August 2005

Top five countdown: Four

James Crossley has just mentioned another thing which, alas, has not made it on to my countdown of the five greatest achievements of modern theology. But let’s press on—here is number four:

Revelation as self-revelation. This concept, which can be traced back as far as Hegel, has shaped the whole course of modern theology. Here revelation is understood as a living event in which God discloses and communicates himself; and since God discloses himself, God is (by definition) identified with his act of revelation. Such a conception of revelation has profound implications for every aspect of theological reflection. In particular, it forms the basis of the stunning developments in trinitarian theology which have marked the past several decades.

Top five countdown: Five

Well, it’s time for the “Top Five Countdown” to begin—this is a countdown of the five greatest achievements of modern theology. It’s not an easy choice; I myself am scandalised by the things that I have left out (to see five of the things I have left out, see Jim West’s response). But here we go:

In fifth place: Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. Barth’s doctrine of election is one of the most astounding achievements in the entire history of theology. It would be hard to imagine a more radical, more penetrating and more revolutionary reconstruction of any Christian doctrine. Barth’s doctrine of election has the potential to revolutionise Christian theology in the future, although I predict that it might take two or three centuries for theology to absorb and appropriate Barth’s insights here.

Top Five Countdown: the greatest achievements of modern theology

If a thousand years from now some curious scholar looks back on nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology, what will she say our greatest theological achievements were? What are the most important contributions of modern theology? What are the developments that stand out most within the broader span of church history? What are the theological achievements that will still stand out hundreds of years from now?

Obviously it will take plenty of subjectivity—not to mention pure guesswork—to answer these questions. But I’m going to have a shot at it. Stay tuned, because over the next couple of days I’ll give you my “Top Five Countdown” of the five greatest achievements of modern theology. (Can you guess what the Number One Achievement will be?)

Here is a summary of the Countdown:

5. Karl Barth’s doctrine of election

4. Revelation as self-revelation

3. The hermeneutical question

2. The triumph of actuality over possibility

1. The historical-critical method

And to see a closing comment on the Countdown, click here.

Critical realism and the New Testament

Last week I posted some comments on critical realism, and a Canadian reader asked if I would comment specifically on critical realism in relation to New Testament studies. I hope to do this in the future; but for the time being, there is a post at Euangelion outlining some questions about the use of critical realism in current New Testament studies.

Monday 1 August 2005

Is theology true?

Last week I raised the question “Why is theology boring?” And a blog from the UK replied that the answer is simple: theology is boring because it is not true. This humorous reply is in fact very perceptive, and it should be taken seriously.

I think that the question whether theology is true is actually a fundamental theological problem. Among modern theologians, no one has grasped this problem more profoundly than Wolfhart Pannenberg. We might even say that Pannenberg’s whole theology is oriented around the question of truth (see for instance his Systematic Theology, Vol. 1; and Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 1-27).

Pannenberg makes it clear that the truth-status of theological knowledge can by no means be taken for granted. We cannot simply assume that theology has something truthful to say, and then proceed without further ado.

How then does Pannenberg approach the problem of truth? He highlights both the historicity and the eschatological character of truth. In other words, he argues that truth is itself a historical process which can be known only from the end of the process. Only at the end of history will the unity of truth be fully realised.

But the end of history has not yet arrived—so does this mean that we cannot yet grasp truth at all? No—according to Pannenberg we really can grasp truth. For the end of history has in fact already arrived in advance (“proleptically”) in the resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, because the end of history has arrived only proleptically, our truth-statements must always remain open, always awaiting the full and final disclosure from the future.

So is theology true? We might answer: “Yes—and not yet!”


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.