Friday 30 September 2005

The Scripture principle

“It is not a good sign for Protestants, or for the depth of their view, if they do not feel the difficulties that afflict the Scripture principle as compared to the church principle of Roman Catholics. It is not a good sign if they can present or hear the Roman Catholic doctrine without a certain homesickness for its unheard-of soberness and certainty.”

-Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 204.

Thursday 29 September 2005

Quote of the day

“The authority of Holy Scripture cannot be the foundation of faith in Christ; rather must the latter be presupposed before a peculiar authority can be granted to Holy Scripture.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928), §128.

The Bible and the gospel

At the centre of the Bible is the gospel. Our entire doctrine of Scripture should be determined by this evangelical centre.

This has been my argument over the past couple of weeks. And several readers have raised questions about this distinction between the Bible and the gospel. How can we distinguish between the Bible and the gospel, when the gospel itself is found solely in the Bible? What are the criteria for identifying any “core” or “centre” of Scripture?

Simply put, my answer is that Scripture itself demands that we identify its own evangelical core, its own central message. The gospel is not a preconceived theological category which we then bring to Scripture, but it is rather something which we encounter in Scripture itself, and which demands to be taken seriously as the centre of the whole biblical witness.

In other words, our identification of the gospel as the core of Scripture is nothing more than an attempt to follow the ancient hermeneutical rule: Scripture interprets itself (Scriptura sui interpres). And this means that we should aim to use the word “gospel” as it is used in the New Testament itself—not as a narrow theological slogan but as a fundamentally open concept which remains always related to the decisive saving act of Israel’s God in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

Hans Küng offers a useful discussion of the centrality of the gospel in his important book The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), pp. 40-41. He notes that “[i]t is certainly possible to look impartially for a ‘centre’ in Scripture, by working exegetically from the New Testament texts rather than dogmatically from established preconceptions.” After all, what was form criticism except a massive (one-sided, but still largely successful) endeavour to identify the Bible’s central “gospel” using critical tools?

But what is this gospel? Küng continues: “On the one hand the word ‘gospel’ is not restricted to a particular doctrine..., but is fundamentally open; on the other hand, the word ‘gospel’ in the New Testament is indissolubly linked to the saving event in Jesus Christ.” Thus we can identify the gospel through critical and exegetical research, but this identification will always remain provisional. Precisely because the gospel is the centre of the Bible itself and not some external theological preconception, any identification of the gospel will always remain open to revision in light of further research into the biblical texts.

Küng is also right to point out that the word “gospel” refers not just to one part of the Bible in isolation from other parts, but to the biblical witness as a whole. And it is precisely the evangelical centre of Scripture which allows us to take seriously the witness of Scripture as a unified whole. Without this evangelical centre, we would undermine the unity of Scripture either by selecting certain portions of Scripture in isolation from others (as in Marcionism), or by reducing all Scripture to a single “harmonised” level (as in fundamentalism).

An exegetical and critical identification of the Bible’s evangelical centre, and a sharp theological concentration on this centre, allow us to avoid both the Scylla of Marcionism and the Charybdis of fundmantalism, and to view the whole Bible—with all its inner tensions and divergencies—as the gospel of God.

Wednesday 28 September 2005

Thou, O Spirit

And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667), 1.17-23.

Tuesday 27 September 2005

The Bible and the Word of God

In recent posts I have suggested that the “inspiration” of Scripture should be understood not as a static property of the biblical text, but as an event that takes place in and through the text. I described this event as an act in which God speaks or “breathes out” the gospel. This means that the Bible is unique because of what happens through it, because of something God does when the Bible’s message is communicated.

To describe this event quite simply: the Bible is the Word of God because God himself speaks through it, because through it God “breathes” the gospel. As Karl Barth put it, the Bible is God’s Word because it becomes his Word again and again.

The essential point in all this is that the Word of God is an event that happens. It is not a fixed text, not an object that we could master and possess. The Word of God is God himself speaking and acting; the Word of God is God himself encountering us here and now with a word of salvation. Because this Word happens through the Bible, because God himself elects to speak through this particular text, it is true to say that “the Bible is the Word of God.”

Several readers have thus raised an important question: what is the difference between the Bible and other forms of gospel-speaking? If the Bible is the Word of God “instrumentally” rather than “formally,” how can we claim for this particular text a normative status above all other Christian texts (e.g. sermons, theological treatises, or blogs)?

The answer, I think, is that the Bible has a normative status precisely because of God’s election. God has chosen the biblical writers and the biblical texts to be the primary witnesses to the history of his saving act. God has chosen to speak his own Word through the word of these witnesses. God has chosen to assume these witnesses, to take their human words up into his own saving history. God has chosen that these witnesses should be the rule and guide (κανων) for all subsequent speech about himself, so that these witnesses will in turn bring forth new witness, new speech, in each successive historical moment.

Through the Bible—and through the Bible alone—we learn what it means to speak the gospel. And in so far as, guided by the Bible, we do speak the gospel, the Word of God also takes place through our speaking. This is not a different or lesser Word from the Word that takes place in Scripture. It is the very same Word of God which takes place both in Scripture and in our own gospel-speaking. But it takes place in our contemporary speaking only to the extent that this speaking remains guided by the primary witnesses of the biblical canon.

Law and gospel

“Because God demands nothing from the people of God without already taking responsibility for it, God issues his command in order to draw people into God’s promise of faithfulness.”

—Gerhard Sauter, Gateways to Dogmatics: Reasoning Theologically for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 220.

Hans Küng and Pope Benedict XVI

On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI met with Hans Küng and they engaged in friendly discussion for several hours. In particular they discussed Küng’s new book on faith and science, as well as his recent efforts to develop a global ethic (Weltethos). Küng and Ratzinger had not met since 1983, although they had been colleagues at Tübingen in the 1960s.

Küng is one of the world’s greatest living theologians; notoriously, the Vatican banned him from teaching in 1979. He has long been an outspoken critic of the Vatican, and back in April he lamented Ratzinger’s election as “an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope.”

But Küng described Saturday’s meeting with the pope as “extraordinary” and as “a very significant event”—especially in contrast to the fact that he had unsuccessfully sought an audience with the previous pope for 25 years!

For news reports, see here, here or here.

Monday 26 September 2005

Karl Barth and Scripture at SBL

My current series of posts on the doctrine of Scripture is deeply influenced by Karl Barth. If you’re interested in Barth’s approach to Scripture, then you might like to get along to this year’s SBL seminar on “Christian Theology and the Bible.” Mike Bird recently told me that the theme of this seminar will be “Karl Barth and Theological Interpretation.” The papers include:

Douglad Hrink, “‘Words Spoken from the Deck of a Ship—As It Sinks’: Apocalyptic Exegesis and the Question of Israel in Barth’s Römerbrief (1922), chs 9-11”

Katherine Sonderegger, “The Doctrine of Inspiration and the Reliability of the Text in Barth”

Kathryn Greene McCreight, “Typology, Allegory and Plain Sense in Selections from the Church Dogmatics

Joseph Mangina, “Barth and the Apocalypse”

Quote of the day

“The authority of the Bible is the derived authority of the Gospel.”

— Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1964), p. 57.

Thursday 22 September 2005

Stay tuned....

At the moment I’m moving house, so there probably won’t be much blogging for the next few days. Moving is a wretched business; but I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with a couple of thousand books that have languished in storage for the past several months.

Since I started posting on the doctrine of Scripture I have received many probing questions and criticisms which have given me a great deal to think about. I’m sorry that I haven’t yet had time to respond to most of these comments. I plan to continue posting on the doctrine of Scripture next week, and to try to respond broadly to some of the questions and criticisms that have been raised. So stay tuned!

Wednesday 21 September 2005

The Bible and history

Some of my fellow bloggers—Jim West, Joe Cathey and Mike Bird, among others—have been debating the relationship between the Bible and “history.”

This is an important and highly complex cluster of problems. Although I can’t enter into the discussion in any detail at the moment, let me just offer a theological comment (with particular reference to the New Testament).

In my post on the trustworthiness of Scripture, I said that the Bible “is trustworthy in the way that preaching is trustworthy.” I realise that this is a rather risky way of putting it, and some alert readers might have detected the influence of Bultmann behind the word “preaching.”

But in spite of the risks, I think this is an accurate description which does justice to the kerygmatic character of the biblical writings. I would add, though, that precisely in order to be kerygmatic the Bible must also have a definite historical core, just as preaching itself must have some historical core in order to be true “kerygma” and true “gospel.” (At least in principle, this entails only a minimal historical requirement, even though it does not necessarily limit the scope of historical inquiry.)

Thus at exactly this point I would side with Käsemann and Ebeling against Bultmann. In particular, I would consider historical Jesus research to be not merely legitimate, but theologically indispensable as an attempt to identify the historical core of the Christian kerygma.

Tuesday 20 September 2005

Does Scripture derive its authority from the church?

Does Scripture derive its authority from the church? This was a pressing problem faced by Protestant theologians in the sixteenth century. In his Institutio, Calvin condemned the notion that “the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men,” and he called this a “great insult to the Holy Spirit (magno cum ludibrio Spiritus sancti)” (1.7.1).

In Calvin’s view, “to subject the oracles of God to the judgment of men, making their validity depend upon human whim, is a blasphemy which deserves not to be mentioned (blasphemia indigna est quae commemoretur)” (4.9.14).

And he adds that “these ravings (rabulae) are admirably refuted by a single expression of the apostle. Paul testifies that the church is ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’” (1.7.2)—not that the testimony of the apostles and prophets rests on the church.

How then can we place our confidence in the authority of Scripture? How can we be sure that Scripture is truly the Word of God? Here Calvin rightly appeals not to evidence or reason, but to the witness of the Holy Spirit—that is, to God’s own self-witness in Holy Scripture. “Our faith,” Calvin writes, “is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. Thus the highest proof of Scripture is ... the character of God whose speaking it is (a Dei loquentis persona sumitur)” (1.7.4).

We become certain of the authority of Scripture only when we hear God’s voice in Scripture—i.e., when we hear God himself personally speaking the gospel. Certainty comes from hearing this voice. To look for certainty anywhere else—in rational proofs, or in the authority of the church—is to betray the authority of Scripture. And to betray the authority of Scripture is to betray the authority of God himself.

Monday 19 September 2005

The trustworthy witness of Scripture

Christian faith has always confessed that Scripture is trustworthy. But what does this mean?

Here again, we must emphasise that the important thing about Scripture is simply what it says. When we confess that Scripture is trustworthy, we are saying that the message of Scripture is trustworthy, that it is a true and reliable message.

It is especially important here to avoid lapsing into a formalised notion of a trustworthy or “inerrant” text—as though the biblical texts themselves possess miraculous properties.

The Bible is trustworthy because its message is trustworthy. It is trustworthy in the way that preaching is trustworthy—and this is, of course, entirely different from the trustworthiness of scientific or historical textbooks. In short, the Bible is a trustworthy witness. It is trustworthy because the one to whom it witnesses is faithful and true.

We can take a further step, then, and affirm that Scripture’s trustworthiness lies “outside itself” (extra se). Its trustworthiness is the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ himself. It is trustworthy because it witnesses to him and proclaims him. We may even use the traditional terminology and say that Scripture is “infallible,” so long as we remember that this “infallibility” lies outside the Bible itself—it is nothing more (or rather, nothing less) than the infallibility of Jesus Christ.

Quote of the day

“The Christian Bible—and this is the first and absolutely unshakeable [historical] fact that we know about it—comes into existence from the start as the book of Christ.... Christ speaks in both Testaments and is their true content. This alone is what makes the Bible the Christian Bible, the book of the Christian Church.”

—Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972), pp. 327-28.

Sunday 18 September 2005

Is the doctrine of Scripture “foundational”?

In a recent essay[1] the British theologian John Webster has spoken of the “dogmatic mislocation” of the doctrine of Scripture. The doctrine of Scripture is mislocated when it is placed at the head of a systematic theology, and used as a “foundational doctrine” on which the rest of theology depends. Used in this way, the doctrine of Scripture becomes “a relatively isolated piece of epistemological teaching.”

Instead of using the doctrine of Scripture in such a foundational way, Webster argues that we should regard it as a “consequential doctrine,” a doctrine which rests on our prior theological understandings of God, revelation and salvation.

Here Webster is making essentially the same point that I have been making in this series of posts. We do not start with a theological conception of Scripture, but we start with the gospel of God’s saving act in Jesus, and from this standpoint we develop a theological account of Scripture. When a systematic theology (or a course of theological lectures) begins with a “doctrine of Scripture,” the result is a formalised and distorted view of Scripture that has lost all contact with Scripture’s own subject-matter and significance.

Our knowledge of God is not derived from a certain collection of supernatural texts; rather our knowledge of God arises from God’s own saving self-revelation in Jesus Christ (to which the biblical texts bear witness). In other words, Scripture is not the “foundation” of our knowledge of God, but rather our knowledge of God through the gospel is the “foundation” of our understanding of Scripture.

And this means that the only proper basis for a doctrine of Scripture is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] John B. Webster, “‘A Great and Meritorious Act of the Church?’ The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” in Die Einheit der Schrift und die Vielfalt des Kanons (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), pp. 95-126.

Zwingli and election

What is divine election? Here is Zwingli’s answer.

Saturday 17 September 2005

Hegel on the Bible and theology

“[A]s soon as religion is no longer simply the reading and repetition of passages, as soon as what is called explanation or interpretation begins, as soon as the attempt is made by inference and exegesis to find out the meaning of the words in the Bible, then we embark upon the process of reasoning, reflection, thinking.... As soon as these thoughts are no longer simply the words of the Bible, their content is given a form, more specifically, a logical form.”

—G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 399.

Friday 16 September 2005

The doctrine of Scripture: more to come

Over the past few days I have been posting a series of reflections on the doctrine of Scripture, working from the basic standpoint that Scripture is evangelical (or gospel-centred) in character.

I had planned only to focus on this topic for a couple of days, but I have been enjoying myself so much that I’ll continue with this topic next week as well.

Brevard Childs on exegesis and theology

“[I]t is a common caricature of the relationship between exegesis and theological reflection to suggest that the former is an independent historical and philological exercise ... whereas the latter is a subsequent and subjectively reflective activity, largely of a speculative nature.... Rather, I would argue that the relationship between exegesis and theology is a far more complex and more subtle one which is basically dialectical in nature. One comes to exegesis already with certain theological assumptions, and the task of good exegesis is to penetrate so deeply into the biblical text that even these assumptions are called into question, are tested and revised by the subject matter itself.”

—Brevard S. Childs, “Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?” in Evangelium—Schriftauslegung—Kirche: Festschrift für Peter Stuhlmacher zum 65. Geburtstag (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997), p. 60.

Thursday 15 September 2005

Google Blog

Check out Google’s latest innovation: Google Blog Search. It indexes blogs by their site feeds, so it’s much more up to date than normal web searches.

Quote of the day

“Every word about the God-breathed character of Scripture is meaningless if Holy Scripture is not understood as the witness concerning Christ.”

—G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 166.

Theology and exegesis

A fellow Aussie, Michael Jensen, has raised the question of the relationship between theology and exegesis. This is perhaps the most urgent and most important question for contemporary theology. We might even describe the history of modern theology as a history of the widening chasm between theology and exegesis, with varied and repeated attempts to bridge this chasm.

Any solution to the problem has to take seriously the distinctiveness and relative independence of the two fields. Exegetes would be paralysed if they had to limit their investigations to the terrain sketched out by dogmatics; and theologians would be paralysed if they had to wait for all the exegetical problems to be cleared up before making a theological decision.

The two fields have interrelated but distinct tasks. As Karl Barth put it, the task of exegesis is to ask what the Bible says, while the task of theology is to ask what we must say on the basis of the Bible.

The inspiration of Scripture

Christian theology has long spoken of the “inspiration” of Scripture. The term is adopted from the Vulgate’s translation of 2 Timothy 3:16: “omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata.” Literally of course, the term θεοπνευστος means “breathed by a god,” so that “God-breathed” is a better term than “divinely inspired.”

According to the writer of 2 Timothy, then, “all Scripture is God-breathed.” This has often been interpreted as a technical statement about the origin of Scripture, as though the biblical texts exist because of a miraculous event of divine authorship. But such an interpretation is really impossible in the context of 2 Timothy 3. For the author is not concerned at all with the origin of the γραφαι, but only with the function and usefulness of these writings within the Christian community. The concern here is not with an event of “inspired authorship” at a specific moment in the past, but rather with the fact that the biblical writings, right here and now among us, are “God-breathed.”

This means that the concept of θεοπνευστος should not be interpreted formally, as a statement about the unique textual character of the biblical writings. It should rather be interpreted materially, as a statement about the unique power and function of these writings.

Let me offer this theological formulation then: when we say that Scripture is “inspired,” we mean that God himself breathes out the message of Scripture. The message of Scripture comes to us here and now by the very breath of God. This has nothing to do with a static concept of how Scripture originated in the past, but it has everything to do with how Scripture functions among us in the present.

Let me make this theological formulation more explicit: in Holy Scripture, God himself speaks (or “breathes”) the gospel. This is the inspiration of Scripture.

Wednesday 14 September 2005

A relatively closed canon

“An absolute guarantee that the history of the Canon is closed, and therefore that what we know as the Canon is also closed, cannot be given either by the Church or by individuals in the Church.... The insight that the concrete form of the Canon is not closed absolutely, but only very relatively, cannot be denied even with a view to the future.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 476.)

If we fail to acknowledge this, then we have failed to take seriously the authority of Scripture. Any criterion for declaring that the canon is absolutely closed would be a criterion external to the canon itself. Thus to assert that the canon is closed absolutely and de jure (not just relatively and de facto) would be to betray the canon itself.

The core of the Bible

I have been suggesting in the last few posts that the uniqueness of the Bible should be understood materially rather than formally. The Bible is not unique because the text itself has a miraculous origin. Rather it is unique because it says something unique, it has a unique message. In other words, the Bible is unique because of the gospel.

If we approach the Bible in this way, we can affirm that the biblical texts have a kerygmatic or evangelical “core.” Some things in the Bible are more central than others. Some parts of the Bible are more significant than others.

If we were to approach the Bible via the seventeenth-century doctrine of inspiration, then a priori it would be impossible to identify a biblical centre. If our starting-point was a notion of the word-for-word inspiration of the biblical texts, then we would have no criterion for saying that 1 Corinthians 15 is more central than Jude, or that the Fourth Gospel is more significant than Ruth. Thus the notion that the Bible is formally unique actually tends to reduce everything in the Bible to a single level, so that we are left with no internal criterion by which to interpret the Bible as a whole.

On the other hand, because the Bible has an evangelical core, because the whole Bible is centred on the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can agree with R. P. C. Hanson that the biblical canon is “a circle of light, with dazzling brightness at the centre and twilight at the edges.” This is by no means a disparagement of the “edges” of the canon. Rather, it is simply a recognition of the meaning and purpose of the canon as a whole. It is a recognition that the whole canon finds its meaning, its raison d’être, in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday 13 September 2005

Herman Bavinck on the authority of the Bible

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (1895; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck argued that Jesus Christ alone is the “central content” of revelation (p. 344), and that Scripture is the “word of God” precisely because of this content (p. 443).

In other words, the distinctive thing about the Bible is its message, its witness to Jesus Christ. Because it witnesses to Jesus Christ—or, in other words, because it communicates the gospel—the Bible is the word of God. In the Bible we hear the gospel; therefore the Bible is authoritative.

Bavinck’s position was later developed in great detail by G. C. Berkouwer in his brilliant study Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

Friedrich Gogarten on the authority of the Bible

I have suggested that the Bible’s authority derives from its message, i.e., from the gospel. Friedrich Gogarten sums up this approach to biblical authority in his little book Demythologizing and History (London: SCM, 1955), p. 12. He writes: “what the Bible says is said by men and does not derive its authority from the fact that it is written in the Bible. It is rather the Bible which derives its authority simply and solely from what is said in it.”

Gogarten thus continues that “reliance upon [the Bible’s] testimony can be justified only by belief in what it testifies to.”

Monday 12 September 2005

The authority of the Bible

For Christian faith, the Bible is authoritative. But what does this authority derive from? What sets this particular book apart from other sources of authority?

In earlier times, theologians often said that the Bible is authoritative because it is “inspired,” or because it has been authored word-for-word by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible qua text was believed to be qualitatively different from all other texts. According to this theory, the authority of the Bible is purely formal. What the Bible actually says is authoritative only because it is written in this particular book—and this book would still be authoritative no matter what it actually said.

This theory of biblical authority is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it is historically flawed: historical criticism has demonstrated that the Bible qua text is no different from other historical texts—it is just as conditioned and contingent as all other texts. On the other hand, this theory of authority is also theologically flawed. For the important thing about the Bible is precisely what it says. Any theory of inspiration or authority is legitimate only to the extent that it gives primacy to the Bible’s message.

In its text-character, the Bible is no different from other texts. The distinctive thing about the Bible is simply what it says, i.e., its message. And this means that the authority of the Bible derives solely from its message.

The Ashes

Well, I suppose England would lose interest if we didn’t let them win once in a while....

The biblical canon

Tomorrow I’ll be posting some comments on the doctrine of Scripture. Here’s a quote to get us started:

“We might describe the Canon as a circle of light, with dazzling brightness at the centre and twilight at the edges.”

—R. P. C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (London: SCM, 1962), p. 246.

Recent reading

Most recently, I have read a very thin book followed by a very fat one.

Here’s the thin one (93 pages): Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutics of Consent (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

And here’s the fat one (992 pages, including columns in small print!): William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003).

Sunday 11 September 2005

God is love

“The lover communicates himself. He is the one who communicates and the one communicated. In love he is both simultaneously. Love is the power of self-differentiation and self-identification, and it has its source in this process. The greater the self-differentiation of the lover, the more unselfish the self-communication. When we say ‘God loves the world,’ then we mean God’s self-communication to the world by virtue of his self-differentiation and his self-identification. When we say ‘God is love’, then we mean that he is in eternity this process of self-differentiation and self-identification; a process which contains the whole pain of the negative in itself. God loves the world with the very same love which he himself is in eternity. God affirms the world with the energy of his self-affirmation.”

—Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 57.

Generous-critical-radical orthodoxy

Those interested in postliberalism should check out Mike Higton’s thoughtful post at Kaì euthùs. Mike, who is an expert on Hans Frei, says that he is looking for a new term that will combine the terms “generous orthodoxy,” “critical orthodoxy” and “radical(ish) orthodoxy.” He also notes that a new edition of The Modern Theologians has just been released, with a new chapter on postliberalism. If you’ve never read The Modern Theologians, it’s a marvellous introduction to modern theology which has expanded significantly over the years to keep up with theological developments.

Friday 9 September 2005

Past, present, future

What does it mean to be “fallen”? Among other things, it means that we are alienated from time. We are alienated from our past: we are guilty and ashamed. We are alienated from our present: we are enslaved to lust, sloth, boredom. We are alienated from our future: we are fearful and anxious. All this amounts to saying that we are alienated from ourselves, from the temporal structure that constitutes our very being.

The gospel heals this alienation. According to the gospel, Jesus Christ has risen from the dead: a specific event in the past (his death) has become the final future (the resurrection). And according to the gospel, this is an event of universal significance: our past is now defined by the death of Jesus, and our future is now defined by his resurrection. Our own temporal stories have been taken up into the story—we might even call it the metanarrative—of the man Jesus. Our own temporal alienation has been taken up and healed by the one who unites past and future in his own life.

This means that there is healing for our alienation from the past: instead of guilt, there is now forgiveness. And there is healing for our alienation from the future: instead of fear, there is now hope. And there is healing for our alienation from the present, as this past and this future, this forgiveness and this hope, encounter us here and now as freedom instead of enslavement.

Thus the gospel brings forgiveness, freedom and hope. It brings a new past, a new present and a new future. In other words, it brings a new life—a life-story that has been rewritten from start to finish (or better: from finish to start) by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Quote of the day

“It is a peculiar spectacle to see the way an incisive and penetrating author has his hands full in attempting to keep his thoughts from going in the direction they inherently want to go.” (On Gadamer’s resistance to Hegelianism.)

—Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Hermeneutics and Universal History,” in History and Hermeneutic (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 146.

Thursday 8 September 2005

Preaching the Trinity

Sean Winter has posted these comments on the importance of preaching the doctrine of the Trinity. I think Sean is absolutely right, although the question of how this doctrine should best be preached remains open.

Personally, I haven’t heard many sermons on the Trinity, and almost all the ones I have heard have been either theologically or homiletically disgraceful. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that it is possible to preach the doctrine of the Trinity.

An invaluable resource for this task is Thomas F. Torrance’s superb book, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996). In my opinion, this is one of the finest books around on trinitarian theology. Torrance is especially compelling in his articulation of the practical, experiential, doxological dimensions of the doctrine of the Trinity. For Torrance, trinitarian theology arises from and remains related to our personal encounter with Jesus Christ through the gospel. Further, he argues that trinitarian theology is first of all implicit; it is the underlying structure or “grammar” of our faith, which only later becomes explicit as a formal “doctrine.”

In Torrance’s own words: “we learn far more about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit ... within the family and fellowship of the living tradition of the Church than we can ever say: it becomes built into the structure of our souls and minds, and we know much more than we can ever tell” (p. 89).

Quote of the day

“You bet on a horse and it ran the wrong way.”

—Bob Dylan, “Cry a While” (2001)

Wednesday 7 September 2005


Brandon Wason has designed this new site which “ties together biblioblogs in a single definitive list.” The site is still under construction—but it looks like a great resource.

Theological method

“Methodological questions are admittedly important, but it is imperative that the theologian should not run out of breath when still en route for his goal.”

—Hans Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought as Prolegomena to a Future Christology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987), p. 497.

What does Intelligent Design achieve?

Lately I have been posting a few remarks on Intelligent Design (ID), since I have been disturbed by the recent push to have ID taught in our schools alongside evolutionary theory. Tim Hormon posted a comment here a few days ago, and it’s so perceptive that I asked him if I could reproduce some of his comment in this post (in abridged form). Like me, Tim is objecting to ID not on scientific grounds, but on theological grounds. Here’s what he says:

What, ultimately, does the “Intelligent Design” theory achieve? At best, all it does is point (arguably) to the existence of a distant creative power, who could be either the God of the Bible, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Buddha, or Allah, or a nameless mystical force that permeates and unites all things. Who or what “the intelligent designer” is cannot be answered by ID (I wonder what would Freud say about that acronym?).

What, then, will ID achieve? Intelligent Design does not lead us any closer to a god who is involved in the affairs of the world; [if ID is taught in schools] all we will do (at best) is raise deists in our schools.

In other words, ID cannot achieve what many are hoping it will, and it doesn’t let us out of the “trap” that many of its advocates believe science has “put” god into. In ID god is still the handmaiden of science, science remains the rule against which we must argue. By this I mean that science remains the battleground; science will set the agenda; ID will always be on the defensive, always in a situation of point-counter-point. I can see this going nowhere fast...

Tuesday 6 September 2005

SNTS Monograph Series

Dove Booksellers have just sent this notice:

“We announce with great pleasure that Cambridge University Press has now restored nearly all the out of print volumes of the SNTS Monograph Series in [affordable!] paperback editions.... Although we list most of these books as NYP (Not yet printed), they are due to appear in September, and orders placed now will be shipped as soon as we receive shipments.”

Introducing Hegel

I have mentioned Hegel from time to time on this blog. For those interested in getting acquainted with the great (but painfully difficult) philosopher, there is a new introduction: Frederick Beiser, Hegel (London: Routledge, 2005), 353pp.

I haven’t read this yet myself, but it looks like a very wide-ranging and accessible introduction.

Quote of the day

I dreamed I saw St Augustine,
Alive with fiery breath,
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger,
So alone and terrified,
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried.

—Bob Dylan, “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” (1967)

Divine immutability and prayer

One of the most notorious concepts of classical theology is the idea of “divine immutability,” i.e., the idea that God cannot and does not change. The biblical and theological objections to this concept are well known. But there is another important objection to the concept of divine immutability: the reality of prayer. God hears prayer. He responds to prayer. He is moved by prayer.

The reality of prayer, I suggest, entirely rules out the classical notion of an unchanging and unchangeable God. Karl Barth thought so too. Here is his judgment:

“If ever there was a miserable anthropomorphism, it is the hallucination of a divine immutability which rules out the possibility that God can let himself be conditioned in this or that way by his creature. God is certainly immutable. But he is immutable as the living God and in the mercy in which he espouses the cause of the creature. In distinction from the immovability of a supreme idol, his majesty, the glory of his omnipotence and sovereignty, consists in the fact that he can give to the requests of this creature a place in his will.... God cannot be greater than he is in Jesus Christ, the Mediator between him and man.... For this God is not only occasionally but essentially, not only possibly and in extraordinary cases but always, the God who hears the prayers of his own.” (Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 109)

Monday 5 September 2005

A first-hand account of New Orleans

Michael Homan’s blog had been silent since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. But he is safe, and he has posted this remarkable account of his experience.

John Updike’s Barthian itch

A while ago I commented on the theology of John Updike’s splendid novel Roger’s Version (1986). And I’ve just discovered that a recent volume on theology and literature includes an essay on just this topic:

J. N. Middleton, “Scratching the Barthian Itch: A Theological Reading of John Updike’s Roger’s Version,” in Believing in the Text, ed. David Jasper and George Newlands (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2004).

Flying Spaghetti Monster

The other day I was introduced to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (See also the Wikipedia entry.) The whole universe makes sense at last!

Incidentally, it seems to me that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a parody of religion or religious belief, but only of certain religious ways of interpreting scientific data.

Sunday 4 September 2005

Speaking theologically in times of crisis

Jim West has offered these further reflections on the need for theologians to speak up in times of crisis.

As I said before, I think there are times for silence—times when words would only cheapen the reality of human suffering, times when any words except prayer are wasted breath. Job’s comforters, after all, acted rightly for the first seven days. But as Jim says, there are also times when we must speak—times when we must attempt somehow to say the word “God” within a concrete situation of human suffering.

And in such times—when we do speak—we had better hope that we really have something to say. God forgive us if in such times we indulge in philosophical speculation about “the problem of evil.” God forgive us if in such times we utter pious jargon about “divine sovereignty.” God forgive us if in such times we resort to cheap talk about “the consequences of Adam’s Fall.” Most of all, God forgive us if in such times we merely find an occasion for preaching about heaven, hell, and the brevity of human life—so that the suffering and death of real human beings are reduced to a trivial moralistic example for the rest of us.

In short: God forgive us if in such times we have anything at all to say except the gospel. I’m not talking about a simple repetition of the gospel, but rather a concrete translation of this message, such that Jesus Christ himself is encountered anew right here and now in the depths of crisis and desolation.

Quote of the day

“In the resurrection, one whom we remember, who is a past reality, is the living Lord who comes to us not from the past but from the future, whose judgment we await as the outcome of our lives. Just so, for Christian faith, past and future are joined together; and just so, for Christian faith, God is posited.”

—Robert W. Jenson, Essays in Theology of Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 92.

Friday 2 September 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Continuing the discussion of whether or not theology is boring, Jim West has offered these sobering reflections on why theologians (not theology itself) are boring. Perhaps Jim is right to judge those of us who have kept silent about the current disaster in New Orleans. Rightly or wrongly, for my own part I sometimes feel that it is better to keep silent. Sometimes there are no words except prayer.

The day after I began this blog, bombs were exploded in London. At that time, too, it seemed better to pray than to speak. Theology is useful and important; at times it is even interesting. But sometimes even theologians have nothing more to say than: “Come, Creator Spirit. Come.”

Intelligent Design in Australia

The Intelligent Design debate has migrated to Australia. There is now some discussion here about whether Intelligent Design should be taught in our schools alongside evolution.

This morning’s Weekend Australian newspaper includes an article with the clever title: “Designed to Put God into the Gaps.” The Templeton Prize-winning physicist Paul Davies offers this remark, which I think is spot on: “The problem with the [Intelligent Design] theory is that it puts God into the gaps.... There was a time when rain was a mystery, so rain gods were invented. But now we can explain it and we don’t need a rain god or anybody else.”

The Intelligent Designer is a God of the gaps; and any God of the gaps is doomed to become irrelevant as scientific knowledge progresses.

The Last Day

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

—Kevin Hart, “The Last Day,” in Flame Tree: Selected Poems (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 2002), p. 89.

Quote of the day

“God himself not only is the truth and the whole truth, but he is also the revelation and the whole revelation that he is the truth. How could the statement that the Bible is his word be proved in any other way than by an act of free grace by which he himself makes the proof? Would it be the word of God if it could be verified except by him?”

—Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1928), p. 244.

Thursday 1 September 2005

Why is New Testament theology boring?

I have tried before to explain why theology is boring. Over at Novum Testamentum, William Wrede (1859-1906) now explains why New Testament theology is sometimes boring as well.

The christology of Peter C. Hodgson

Peter C. Hodgson’s book on christology has never really received much attention: Jesus—Word and Presence: An Essay in Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971). But on the whole I think it’s a creative and noteworthy attempt at christological construction. The book is completely devoted to the conceptuality of the later Heidegger and to the “new hermeneutic” (as it was then called!) of Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling. And in spite of its philosophical commitments, it is also a deeply exegetical book in which research into the historical Jesus plays a decisive role.

At the heart of Hodgson’s christology is the dialectic of “presence” and “absence.” He takes the experience of atheism as his point of departure—i.e., the experience of the “absence of God”—and he then constructs an entire christology around the concept of God’s “presence.”

Philip Pullman and Paradise Lost

What is the best book ever written in English? Easy answer: John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Today Oxford University Press released a new edition of Paradise Lost. It features an introduction by the popular novelist Philip Pullman, author of the highly acclaimed (and highly theological) fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials.

Here are the details: John Milton, Paradise Lost, introduced by Philip Pullman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 384pp., hbk., ISBN 019280619X. And here’s part of the promotional blurb:

“In his general introduction Pullman describes the power of the poem, its achievement as a story, how we should read it today, and its influence on him and His Dark Materials.... The book is beautifully produced, printed in two colours throughout, illustrated with the twelve engravings from the first illustrated edition published in 1688.” If you have never read Paradise Lost, now’s your chance to mend your ways.


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