Saturday 31 December 2005

2005 highlights

Here are some of my personal highlights from the past year:

Travel highlight: visiting Calvin’s Geneva in July

Dining highlight: eating a perfect wood-fired pizza in a cosy little Italian restaurant in northern France

Movie: the Aussie film Look Both Ways

Documentary: the Martin Scorsese film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home

Music: the release of Bob Dylan’s Live at the Gaslight 1962

Fiction: reading Susanna Clarke’s fantasy novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Poetry: reading Kevin Hart’s Flame Tree: Selected Poems

Theology: reading the new translations of Eberhard Busch’s The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology and Wolf Krötke’s Sin and Nothingness in the Theology of Karl Barth.

New Testament: reading the special issue on the resurrection in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus

Old Testament: reading John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1

Autobiographies: reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and Hans Küng’s My Struggle for Freedom

Thanks to all of you who have been reading this blog throughout 2005. I wish you a very happy New Year.

Friday 30 December 2005

Moby Dick and open theism

There’s a passage in Moby-Dick that reminds me of that recent American theological fad, “open theism.” The native cannibal harpooneer, Queequeg, is lovingly devoted to a “black little god” named Yojo, and he is careful to consult Yojo about the future.

In chapter 16, the narrator says: “I have forgotten to mention that, in many things, Queequeg placed great confidence in the excellence of Yojo’s judgment and surprising forecast of things; and cherished Yojo with considerable esteem, as a rather good sort of god, who perhaps meant well enough upon the whole, but in all cases did not succeed in his benevolent designs.”

Not what you want to hear

Tim Farrington’s novel The Monk Downstairs (New York: Harper, 2002) includes some provocative theological comments. In one instance, the former monk, Mike, writes to a friend in the monastery (p. 105): “Tell that to your seminars, proclaim it from the mountaintop: God is the nail that splits our palm to break our grip on the world. He is an unfathomable darkness. He’s not what you want to hear.”

Wednesday 28 December 2005

The pulpit

“Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (1851), ch. 8.

Tuesday 27 December 2005

The learned Faust

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin
und leider auch Theologie
durchaus studiert mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh’ ich nun, ich armer Tor!
und bin so klug als wie zufor....

I have now, alas, studied thoroughly,
With strenuous effort,
Philosophy, law and medicine
And unfortunately even theology.
Thus I now stand, I poor fool,
and am none the wiser....

—Goethe, Faust I.

"Presbyterians and Pagans..."

“I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name. I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects.... Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (1851), ch. 17.

A holiday indulgence

Since I’m now on holidays, I’m treating myself by re-reading my favourite novel—a novel that is, in my opinion, the best ever written. I’m talking about that magnificent mythic monster of a book, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). My friend Kim Fabricius aptly describes this book as “the Church Dogmatics of American literature.” Or, if you prefer, it is the Paradise Lost of prose.

I might indulge myself by posting a few theological quotes from Moby-Dick over the next few days.

Saturday 24 December 2005

O come, let us adore him!

I love Christmas carols; and more than any other I love “O Come All Ye Faithful.” This carol includes a remarkable verse—my favourite verse in the entire hymnbook:

“God of God, Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, Begotten, not created.”

These are breathtaking words, words that stop you in your tracks, words that leave you gasping and speechless. If we could grasp this one verse—just three lines!—then we would have grasped everything. If we could learn to speak this verse—really speak it!—then there would be nothing else to say, nothing else for all eternity.

In this verse is a message of sheer joy—the joy of Christmas! God, God himself, came among us. At a certain time, in a certain place, among a certain people, God was born. He was born not in a temple, or in a church, or in a palace, but in a poor stable. He lay helpless and human in a Virgin’s lap. He emptied himself, so that we might be filled. He humbled himself, so that we might be lifted up. He came to us, so that we might come home to him. And at the final moment, he cried out “I thirst!”—so that we would never thirst again.

The only possible response to all this is one of joyful gratitude. And so the old Christmas carol continues:

“O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord!”

Merry Christmas to you all.

Friday 23 December 2005

Benedict XVI: church and theology

On 1 December, Benedict XVI addressed the International Theological Commission. He had some very profound things to say about the theological task, and about the relationship between faith and theology: “Theology can only result from obedience to the impulse of truth and from love that desires to be ever better acquainted with the one it loves, in this case God himself, whose goodness we recognized in the act of faith.”

He also emphasised the ecclesial context of academic theology: “The revelation of Christ is ... the fundamental normative starting point for theology. Theology must always be exercised in the Church and for the Church, the Body of Christ.... To consider theology a private affair of the theologian is to underestimate its very nature.”

Naturally I have reservations about the Catholic conception of the authority of the magisterium in relation to theology; but I do think that the Holy Father is exactly right in his emphasis on the ecclesial character of theological study.

Justin Nickelsen has the full transcript of the address here.

The incarnation

“[T]he incarnation of God the Son is a reality which grows. It is not complete in a matter of a moment; for example, at Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb or at his birth. The incarnation is not merely a Christmas event. To be man is a process of becoming man; Jesus’ manhood grew throughout his earthly life, finding its completion in the supreme moment of the incarnation, his death, resurrection and exaltation. Only then is the incarnation fulfilled to the very end.”

—Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (London: Sheed & Ward, 1963, pp. 18-19.

Thursday 22 December 2005

Thinking about the virgin birth

What does the church mean when it confesses that Jesus Christ was natus ex Maria virgine, “born of the virgin Mary”?

It is well known that the doctrine was a relatively late and isolated development in the first century. There is no real trace of it in the earliest New Testament witnesses (the Pauline letters), or in the Marcan and Johannine writings. Only in the relatively late writings of Luke and Matthew do we find the virgin birth narratives, in the form of pre-histories to the story of Jesus. Here we are clearly concerned with later theological reflections on the nature of Jesus as the “Son of God,” even though there may well be a (no longer identifiable) historical core to the narratives.

It’s crucial to recognise, then, that the concept of Jesus as the “Son of God” does not depend on the doctrine of the virgin birth; on the contrary, the stories of a virgin birth depend wholly on the Christian community’s prior faith in Jesus as the “Son of God.” And this is still true in christology: the doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus does not depend in any way on the doctrine of the virgin birth, but instead we can speak of the “virgin birth” only because we first believe in the incarnation.

The early Christians knew that Jesus was the “Son of God” because God had vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Because of the resurrection, the early Christians saw that Jesus must have come from God from the very beginning. In other words, they believed in the virgin birth because of the resurrection. Or to put it more sharply: if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, then he would not have been “born of a virgin” either.

We should thus avoid regarding the virgin birth either as a biological explanation of the origins of Jesus, or as an abstract reflection on virginity and sexuality. The New Testament witnesses are not concerned with any such scientific and biological topics. Instead, they are concerned solely with the identity of Jesus in relation to God. Their message is that Jesus owes his existence wholly to the Father. From the very beginning, he comes from the Father through the power of the Spirit. He was crucified, but God has vindicated him. Therefore he is, and always was, the Son of God—even from his mother’s womb! Natus ex Maria virgine!

Conceived by the Holy Spirit

“Gynecology is not the issue, but Christian pneumatology.”

—Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991-98), 2:318.

Wednesday 21 December 2005

Born of a virgin?

As Schleiermacher had already perceived, the idea of the virgin birth “must be considered from a twofold point of view: first, with reference to the available New Testament testimonies on the subject; next, with reference to its dogmatic value” (The Christian Faith, p. 403). And Schleiermacher also noted that “anyone who cannot accept [the New Testament birth narratives] as literally and historically true is still quite free to hold to the doctrine” (p. 406).

So any consideration of the virgin birth must face two main questions: is the virgin birth historical, and does it have any theological meaning? Here’s how a list of modern theologians and scholars have answered those two questions:

Historical?Theological meaning?
F. SchleiermacherNoNo
E. BrunnerNo(emphatic) No
K. BarthNo(emphatic) Yes
H. KüngNoYes
E. SchillebeeckxNo(tentative) Yes
W. PannenbergNoNo
J. MacquarrieNoYes
R. W. Jenson(tentative) YesYes
Raymond BrownYesYes
Gerd LüdemannNoNo
N. T. WrightYesYes

So, to sum it up, we have two-and-a-half votes in favour of the historicity of the virgin birth, and six-and-a-half votes in favour of the doctrine’s theological value. In spite of this diversity of opinion, most modern scholars share one thing in common: virtually no one anymore thinks that the miraculous birth narratives in Matthew and Luke should be interpreted as biological explanations of the origins of Jesus. To do so would be to impose foreign scientific categories on to the ancient texts, and it would only obscure the theological intention of the ancient writers.

Tuesday 20 December 2005

Barth on Zwingli

A remarkably generous friend (who happens to be rather fond of Huldrych Zwingli) has sent me a lovely new copy of Karl Barth’s lectures on Zwingli, which were recently published for the first time as volume II/40 in the Karl Barth-Gesamtausgabe: Karl Barth, Die Theologie Zwinglis 1922/1923: Vorlesung Göttingen Wintersemester 1922/1923 (Zürich: TVZ, 2004), xix + 539pp.

Thanks, Jim!

Barth gave these lectures while he was Professor of Reformed Theology at the University of Göttingen. This was a time of intensive historical study for Barth: at Göttingen he gave remarkable lecture-cycles on Calvin, Schleiermacher, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Reformed confessions; and for the first and only time in his life he presented a complete dogmatics, with the Calvinist title “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (now published as Göttingen Dogmatics).

In the winter semester of 1922/1923, Barth presented a cycle of lectures on the life and theology of Zwingli, which has only now been painstakingly edited and published from Barth’s handwritten notes.Barth’s critical attitude towards Zwingli is fairly well known: he said unkind things about Zwingli in his letters to Thurneysen, and in particular he tried to establish damning connections between Zwingli and nineteenth-century liberal theology. But in these lectures, Barth also has some appreciative things to say about Zwingli, and particularly about Zwingli’s relationship to Luther.

In his final lecture, Barth concludes by saying that when Zwingli died, the real Luther—the living, reforming, prophetic Luther—died with him: “Als Zwingli starb, da starb mit ihm, dem überhörten Wächter, dem abgelehnten Widersprecher auch der eigentlich lebendige, der prophetische, der reformatorische Luther” (p. 510).

A parable

“To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? And with what shall I compare it? It is like a man who receives a new book in the mail, suddenly, and when he least expects it.”

Blog of the week

Here at Faith and Theology, the new blog of the week is Pontifications. The Pontificator is always busy generating interesting posts and quotes, and this week he has done some splendid work, with posts on the incarnation, the secularisation of Christmas, Karl Barth’s view of the virgin birth (with an interesting debate in the comments), and a particularly fine post on the need to preach justification by faith “without too many buts.”

Further, in response to my recent list of essential theological books, the Pontificator offered his own excellent (and much more Catholic) list, which included many books that were excised from my list only at the final moment (although in addition to these, I nearly included Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics and Brunner’s The Mediator, which I suppose would have made my list even more “Reformed”!).

If you’re not yet a reader of Pontifications, then head on over there for a look.

Monday 19 December 2005

Faces in my study

Here are some of the faces in my home study.

The greatest of all philosophers: Plato.

The first great Protestant dogmatician: Jean Calvin.

The greatest of all poets: John Milton.

Seated side by side (where they belong), the greatest of all exegetes and the greatest of all theologians: Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth.

And, in a dark corner, with an entire shelf to himself, the greatest of all songwriters: Bob Dylan.

Karl Barth’s doctrine of election

On the discussion list The Barthian Milieu I recently tried to sum up the deepest dimension of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election like this:

For Barth, predestination is God’s choice and determination of his own being. God chooses to be the kind of God he is—he elects to be the gracious God, the human God—and he chooses not to be without humanity. God’s eternal being is nothing other than this free decision. God constitutes himself in this decision. And the name of this decision is Jesus Christ.

This is why, for Barth, the doctrine of election is part of the doctrine of God: God is his own decision; he is who he elects to be. And this is also why Barth calls the doctrine of election “the sum of the gospel”: the good news of the gospel is that God will never be anything other than what he has decided to be in Jesus Christ.

If we look into the face of God, we will never see anything other than the face of Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of election.

Sunday 18 December 2005

Quote of the day

“The proclamation of the written word is God’s Word, wherever and whenever it pleases Him; the word of preaching is recognised as the Word of God only when and because the Holy Spirit gives it to be recognised as such. The human heart must be opened in faith through God’s own Spirit if that on which everything depends is to come to pass: the knowing of God.”

—Emil Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter (London: SCM, 1944), p. 16.


Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
For dignity

Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
For dignity

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve got deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
”Have you seen dignity?”

Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity

Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure
Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were
And into every masterpiece of literature
For dignity

Englishman stranded in the blackheart wind
Combin’ his hair back, his future looks thin
Bites the bullet and he looks within
For dignity

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed
I went into the red, went into the black
Into the valley of dry bone dreams

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

—Bob Dylan, “Dignity” (1989)

Saturday 17 December 2005

A Christian philosophy?

“[T]here is no such thing as a Christian philosophy; that is an absolute ‘square circle.’”

—Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 53.

Fides quaerens intellectum

“I long to understand something of your truth, my God, the truth that my heart believes and loves.”

—Anselm, Proslogion, proem.

Friday 16 December 2005

Essential books for theological studies

Jim and Sean have posted their lists of “twenty essential books” for biblical studies. So I tried to come up with a parallel list of 20 essential books for theological studies. When I saw that there were already about 50 books on my list, I cut out as many as I could. But, as you can see, I still ended up with 25 instead of 20. Here they are (ordered roughly by chronology, not by importance!):

1. A good collection of creeds and confessions (e.g. Schaff)
2. A good history of dogma (e.g. Harnack or Seeberg)
3. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
4. Augustine, Confessions
5. Anselm, Cur deus homo
6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae
7. Luther, Bondage of the Will
8. Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion
9. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
10. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion
11. Schleiermacher, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology
12. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
13. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
14. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
15. Karl Barth, Romans
16. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
17. Rudolf Bultmann, essays (collected in Glauben und Verstehen, and translated in various English volumes)
18. Karl Rahner, The Trinity
19. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord
20. Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics
21. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope
22. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man
23. Hans Küng, The Church
24. T. F. Torrance, Theological Science
25. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World

Free will: Johann von Staupitz

“[T]he free will is perhaps the cause of people’s fall and frailty, but to rise up and to march on: that is strength that truly a man does not possess, except it be given to him by grace.”

—Johann von Staupitz, in a 1520 sermon on the passion; in A Mystic’s Passion: The Spirituality of Johannes von Staupitz in His 1520 Lenten Sermons (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), pp. 55-56.

Thursday 15 December 2005

Sidebar tinkering

I have rearranged my sidebar, so that the archives for this blog are now at the top (after the blogroll), and the links to various theological resources are below. I’ve also taken the opportunity to update my list of “popular posts”—so you might like to take a look at some of these.

Posts on Eberhard Jüngel

I have compiled here a list of most of my posts on Eberhard Jüngel.

First, here are the posts in my series on Jüngel’s theological anthropology:

Eberhard Jüngel's theological anthropology
Eberhard Jüngel: God and humanity
Eberhard Jüngel: the distinction between God and humanity
Eberhard Jüngel: denying the divinity of humanity
Eberhard Jüngel: the universal validity of anthropological statements
Eberhard Jüngel: fellows of Jesus Christ
Eberhard Jüngel: ever more human
Eberhard Jüngel: existing outside ourselves
Karl Barth: the distinction between God and humanity
Eberhard Jüngel: finding ourselves
Eberhard Jüngel: the justification of humanity
Eberhard Jüngel: humanity is interesting
Karl Rahner: theological anthropology

And here are some translated excerpts from Jüngel's essays:

Eberhard Jüngel: seven theses on the being of Jesus Christ
Eberhard Jüngel: seven theses on the freedom of theology

My other posts on Jüngel include the following:

The riddle of Eberhard Jüngel
Dissertations on Eberhard Jüngel
Books on Eberhard Jüngel
What is faith?
Hegel and theology
Eberhard Jüngel in English
Towards Eucharistic community
"God is a cheerful word": the life of Karl Barth

The task and theme of theology

Back in August I offered six theses on the task and theme of theology. At the time, Jim West responded with six counter-theses. And now the Weekend Fisher also responds with her own very nice list of six theses.

My only question about the Weekend Fisher’s fine list is whether it in fact describes theology or faith. It seems to me that faith is “communion with God,” while theology is a reflection about this communion—i.e., reflection on faith. It is through faith that we know God (or better, faith is knowing God); and faith itself can be more or less implicit, pre-conceptual and intuitive. But where faith becomes conscious of itself, where it begins to think reflectively and methodically about itself, there is theology.

Quote of the day

“All in all, is there not perhaps in our churches today too much self-encircling movement of all kinds, from which we would do far better to rest for a period for the sake of the rest from which alone genuine movement can come ...? There might then be far fewer psychopaths and excited bundles of nerves among zealous Christians, and particularly among theologians.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 558.

Wednesday 14 December 2005

Around the traps

In response to my recent post on Bultmann, Sean du Toit has admitted—shockingly enough!—that he prefers N. T. Wright over Bultmann, and James Crossley admits that he prefers neither. Meanwhile, Todd Vick has been posting an excellent series of reflections on church tradition, Tyler Williams has offered food for thought about the maximalism-minimalism debate, and Jim West has listed his 20 essential books for biblical studies.

The industrious Justin Nickelsen has launched a new blog devoted to Henri de Lubac, and Chris Tilling alerts us to a rib-tickling new-and-improved edition of Karl Barth’s works, while Marc Heinrich tells you how you know when you’ve become obsessed with Calvinism.

On another note, I’m grateful to Todd Vick and Richard Hall for their kind words about Faith and Theology.

Theologians and pastors

“If ... all true theologians also participate in the leadership of the church, and all who are active in church government live also within the theological arena, it follows that both an ecclesial interest and a scientific spirit must be united in each person.... If the opposite were the case, then the scholar would no longer be a theologian.... Likewise, the clergyman’s activity would lack both the skill and the foresight of good leadership, degenerating into a mere muddle of attempted influence.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1966), §12.

Tuesday 13 December 2005

A Rahner joke

In a recent comment on Jim West’s blog, Rick Mansfield related the following joke which he once heard from a Catholic priest:

Hugo Rahner had an audience with the Pope. After a great deal of discussion, the Pope asked Hugo Rahner his opinion of the world’s greatest theologian.

Rahner squirmed a little bit, breaking eye contact with the Pope while he sought the proper and most humble way to answer the question. Finally, he looked up, shrugged, and said, “I suppose, Your Grace, I would have to say the world’s greatest theologian is my brother, Karl.”

The Pope’s eyes widened. He sat straight up in his chair in astonishment and exclaimed: “Your brother is KARL BARTH?!”

The reality of the devil

“He [the devil] can be mentioned and taken seriously only in such a way that he who is myth in person is demythologised and delivered up to ridicule.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, p. 261.

The power of the devil

Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.
(A mere word can topple him.)

—Martin Luther, “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (1529)

Monday 12 December 2005

Speaking up for Bultmann

Mike Bird and I don’t quite see eye to eye when it comes to Rudolf Bultmann. Once before I have chided him for his opinions about Bultmann, and yesterday, over at Jim West’s blog, Mike again commented disapprovingly about the great Marburg scholar. Of course, Bultmann hardly needs me to defend him (does a mouse defend a lion?), but I couldn’t help replying with a list of reasons why Bultmann is still important. Here’s what I said:

Even those who disagree with Bultmann’s specific exegetical conclusions would tend to agree that his commentary on John is one of the greatest biblical commentaries ever written—this commentary is his magnum opus, and it’s impossible to understand and appreciate Bultmann without reading it.

Bultmann’s essay on the New Testament and mythology roused a generation of scholars from their dogmatics slumbers; it transformed the landscape of biblical and theological studies and set the scholarly agenda for decades to come. Bultmann’s conception of “faith” is one of the great material achievements of twentieth-century theology. His work on hermeneutics, interpretation and understanding was of the highest importance in the development of modern hermeneutics (don’t forget that even Gadamer himself was one of Bultmann’s pupils!).

Bultmann’s little book Jesus has been described as one of the finest and most important books on the historical Jesus. And among his numerous essays are many miniature biblical and theological masterpieces—Bultmann was one of the century’s great essayists.

Finally, more than anyone else in the past century, Bultmann united both exegete and theologian in a single person. At a time when the theological disciplines were drifting further and further apart, he modelled a biblical scholarship that is deeply oriented to the concerns of theology, preaching, and the life of faith.

So before speaking badly of Bultmann, just try to think of someone else who has achieved even half of what he achieved!

Karl Barth’s exegesis

A delightful blog called “Becoming” has celebrated Karl Barth’s anniversary with a very thoughtful analysis of Barth’s exegesis in Church Dogmatics IV/1.

Sunday 11 December 2005

A techno mix of Karl Barth

Jon Mackenzie has used his musical talents to produce a very cool piece of music entitled The Barth-Man’s Decklaration. The song mixes Barth’s voice (taken from one of his American lectures) with techno, and the result is highly entertaining. You can download the mp3 at Jon’s blog. (Thanks to Jim for finding this one.)

Blog of the week

It’s time again to announce the blog of the week. This week, the only possible choice is of course Jim West’s Biblical Theology, where Karl Barth’s anniversary was celebrated over the weekend with a series of splendid posts. Jim posted a witty open letter to Barth, a fascinating post on Barth and Zwingli, a collage of Barth-portraits, and posts on Barth’s favourite painting and his relationship to Bultmann.

I should add that, as well as being this week’s winner, Jim’s Biblical Theology is my all-round favourite blog—it’s consistently informative, entertaining, and provocative.

Paul Althaus and the historical Jesus

It does not seem to be very well known that the prominent German theologian Paul Althaus (1888-1966) wrote a little book on the historical Jesus back in 1958. It was translated into English as The So-Called Kerygma and the Historical Jesus (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1959). As you might guess from the title, the book is a polemic against Rudolf Bultmann, and more particularly against Friedrich Gogarten, who had recently written Demythologizing and History (1955) in defence of Bultmann.

As an admirer of Bultmann, I disagree with much of what Althaus says in this book; and at times I find Althaus’s angry polemics a little distasteful (his remarks about Gogarten are especially bitter). But I do think he makes a valuable point about the search for historical authenticity in the traditions about Jesus.

Althaus notes the complex problems which surround the Jesus tradition, and the difficulty of achieving historical certainty about Jesus. He notes that the Jesus tradition “has been shaped by apologetic and dogmatic considerations” so that it has “legendary features”; that the boundary between “genuine” and “fictitious” words of Jesus is uncertain and fluid; that the primitive Christians not only modified Jesus’ words but also “added alien elements to them” and sometimes even “transformed them” altogether (p. 72).

In spite of all these ambiguities and complexities, and in spite of our lack of historical certainty, Althaus offers this crucial observation: “And yet all [these] results and undecided questions of the researches of the historical critics have in no way blurred the characteristic features of the person and the story of Jesus. We must not let our gaze be confused by the dust which research has raised in the foreground, but we must attempt to see through it” (p. 72).

In fact, Althaus says, the fundamental features of Jesus’ outlook and message “have been preserved through every layer of the tradition,” and these fundamental features “make [Jesus] everywhere recognisable” in the tradition (pp. 73-74). Althaus thus concludes that “the boundary between what is supposed to be historically genuine and original, and secondary and later, and the impossibility of everywhere drawing a clear line of demarcation between them, becomes here relatively unimportant. Jesus and His character have left their stamp deeply on the secondary, even the legendary material” (p. 74).

Althaus thus argues that in our search for historical authenticity we should distinguish between “the exact authenticity of the narratives” and the “authenticity of content”—and, he suggests, “that which is inauthentic in the first sense often turns out to be authentic in the second” (p. 74).

Saturday 10 December 2005

Fides et theologia

What is the relationship between fides et theologia, “faith and theology”? In his work In Boethium de Trinitate (q. 5, a. 4, ad 8), Thomas Aquinas has this definition: “Fides est quasi habitus theologiae—faith is as it were the disposition of theology.” This definition nicely expresses the relationship between faith and theology. Theology is not faith, but it proceeds from faith and reflects on faith.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot is my favourite modern poet. One of his greatest works is the remarkable Four Quartets, which closes with these lines:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Friday 9 December 2005

"God is a cheerful word": the life of Karl Barth

The day after Karl Barth’s death, Eberhard Jüngel presented a lecture in tribute to Barth at the Universität Zürich. Jüngel was (and still is) the most brilliant of all Barth’s students, and he had spent a great deal of time not only in Barth’s seminars, but also in personal discussions with him. In his warm and moving tribute, Jüngel concluded by saying of Barth:

“His entire life and thought as a whole announced that ‘God’ is a cheerful word. With nothing more than this announcement, Karl Barth edified the community of Jesus Christ and helped to shape a century.” (Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth, a Theological Legacy, p. 21)

A parable by Karl Barth

“To what shall I liken the basic principles of [liberal] theology? Is it not like a clock which is so cleverly constructed that the hands move from right to left instead of from left to right?”

—Letter from Barth to Thurneysen, 18 May 1924 (in Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925, p. 183).

Karl Barth anniversary

Today, 10 December, marks the 37th anniversary of the death of Karl Barth. Be sure to check out Jim West’s blog today, which is celebrating this anniversary with a series of Barth-related posts. Also, to mark this occasion, I have just completed a series on the Church Dogmatics.

If you have never yet read Karl Barth, then you have a tremendously rich and rewarding experience ahead of you. If you’re looking for a good place to start, then you might like to read some of Barth’s letters. He was a splendid and prolific letter-writer, and many of his letters have been translated into English, in volumes such as Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925, Karl Barth: Letters, 1961-1968, and Karl Barth—Rudolf Bultmann: Letters, 1922-1966.

Satan or "the Satan"?

Mike Bird has offered an interesting post on Satan, which has generated some comments on the question of whether we should speak of Satan in “personal” terms.

In my own comment to this post, I suggest that “to be ‘personal’ is to exist within a structure of relationships; and whatever ‘the Satan’ might be, it is the very antithesis of any kind of relatedness, and thus the antithesis of what it means to be ‘personal’. If we were looking for a suitable metaphor, perhaps we should say that Satan is more like chaos than like a person.”

Quote of the day

“The Gospel portrait implies that Jesus would be found guilty by the self-conscious religious majority of any age and background.”

—Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), Vol. 1, p. 393.

Thursday 8 December 2005

Church Dogmatics: more personal choices

Most exegetical volume: III/1—this whole volume is essentially a massive and brilliant theological exegesis of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Also, the volume on election (II/2) offers a massive theological exegesis of Romans 9-11.

My favourite preface: Readers of the Church Dogmatics will know that Barth’s prefaces are charming, funny and altogether delightful. My favourite is the preface to III/4, in which Barth refers to some Dutch Calvinists who had been criticising and attacking him. He tells these “Neo-Calvinists” that he forgives them for all their attacks on him, but then he adds: “But it is going too far that in their attacks, obviously to offend me the more, they so far forget themselves as to use unrepeatable terms in disparagement of W. A. Mozart. In so doing they have, of course, shown themselves to be men of stupid, cold and stony hearts to whom we need not listen” (p. xiii).

Volume in which Barth’s style is best: I think Barth’s prose is never better than in the little fragment on baptism, IV/4. This was the last piece of the Church Dogmatics that Barth wrote, and by this time his writing style had evolved into a sort of narrative theology, in which the whole argument develops through a narrative-like exegetical reflection on the biblical witness. If you wanted to start reading the Church Dogmatics, it might even be a good idea to start with this remarkable little fragment.

My favourite study of the Church Dogmatics: Eberhard Jüngel, God's Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth: A Paraphrase (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, [1965] 2001)—I have listed some other favourites here.

On this day

9 December is a significant day for me:

On this day in 1608, the great English poet and theologian John Milton was born. Milton is very important to me, and my doctoral dissertation was on Milton’s theology.

This day in 1968 was also the last day of Karl Barth’s life. Barth went to sleep on the night of 9 December and did not wake again. As readers of this blog will know, no theologian is more important to me and no theologian has influenced me more than Karl Barth.

Finally, on this day in 2000, on a sultry summer afternoon in North Queensland, my wife and I were married. Deo gratias!

Wednesday 7 December 2005

Church Dogmatics: some personal choices

Most important volume: II/2—I think this volume on the doctrine of election is the most important part of the whole Church Dogmatics, and I predict that in the future Barth’s doctrine of election will be acknowledged as his single greatest achievement.

My favourite volume: IV/1—I’ll have to choose this one, but it’s a very close contest between IV/1, IV/2 and IV/3. I think the whole of volume IV (Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation) is clearly the best part of the Church Dogmatics. Even if Barth had written nothing except volume IV, he would still be one of the greatest theological thinkers of all time.

Volume I have read the most times: I/1—for some reason I have read this one three times (I know, I really ought to get out more).

My favourite section: It’s almost impossible to decide; but I’ll probably have to choose §50 in III/3—Barth’s remarkable doctrine of evil as “the Nothingness.” (One scholar has said: “When I first read [this section on Nothingness], I felt perhaps for the first time in my life that God truly loved me.”)

My least favourite section: §51 in III/3—Barth’s doctrine of angels. Admittedly Barth’s angelology is both theologically and exegetically the best ever attempted (and it’s the only significant angelology since that of Thomas Aquinas). And admittedly, in spite of all Barth’s polemic against Bultmann, the angels in the Church Dogmatics are still relatively non-mythological beings. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling uneasy about this or any angelology; and I can’t help wondering whether Bultmann’s hermeneutic might in fact offer a better guide to interpreting the biblical angels.

When a cup of strong coffee just isn’t enough...

I kick start my day with Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Tuesday 6 December 2005

Church Dogmatics: summary

Here’s my single-sentence summary of the whole Church Dogmatics:

God speaks a free and loving “Yes” to Jesus Christ; the event of this “Yes” is God’s trinitarian life, and its corresponding echo is a creative and redemptive “Yes” to humanity, so that God’s relationship to humanity is an echo and an analogy of God’s relationship to Jesus Christ.

Towards Eucharistic community

Back in 1998, the brilliant Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel gave an address on Eucharistic community at the German Katholikentag. The address was translated this year and published as “Church Unity Is Already Happening: The Path Towards Eucharistic Community,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 44:1 (2005), 30-37.

Jüngel models a theologically robust form of ecumenical dialogue in which confessional differences are not ignored or brushed aside, but are taken with full seriousness, and are analysed sharply so that a better understanding can be achieved.

In this address, Jüngel notes that the division between Catholic and Protestant communities “is and remains an ecclesiological scandal, to which the only legitimate scandal, the word of the cross, must put an end” (p. 36). Focusing on the Eucharist as an event of the gospel, Jüngel notes that in the Eucharist there is “no law which would demand human activities or human works,” but rather there is “simply the gospel itself, the gospel that presents to us the salvific action of the death of Jesus Christ” (p. 32).

Church Dogmatics: more to come

Well, as promised, I have offered my fast-food version of the Church Dogmatics. Stay tuned, though, because there are still a few more posts to come.

Since I was audacious enough to attempt single-sentence summaries of each volume of the Church Dogmatics, I might as well go one step further: so in my next post I’ll offer a single-sentence summary of the entire work. After that I’ll also note some of my own favourite parts of the Church Dogmatics

Various sites have very kindly been linking to this series. So for the convenience of future linking I have now condensed the whole series into a single post.

Monday 5 December 2005

Church Dogmatics IV/4 (fragment)

Note: Barth drafted IV/4, a volume on “the Christian life,” and his plan was for this volume to be structured around the three main events of the liturgy: baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. But Barth only completed the section on baptism, and this was published as the final “fragment” of the Church Dogmatics.

Summary: At the beginning of the Christian life we are baptised with the Holy Spirit, and as a faithful response to God’s faithfulness we are then baptised with water by the Christian community.

Quote: “Since Jesus Christ is a servant, looking to Him cannot mean looking away from the world, from men, from life, or, as is often said, from oneself. It cannot mean looking away into some distance or height. To look to Him is to see Him at the very centre, to see Him and the history which, accomplished in Him, heals everything and all things, as the mystery, reality, origin and goal of the whole world, all men, all life. To look to Him is to cleave to Him as the One who bears away the sin of the world. It is to be bound and liberated, claimed, consoled, cheered and ruled by Him” (p. 150).

Notable section: Section 1—Barth’s account of baptism with the Holy Spirit as the manifestation in our own lives of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

John Dominic Crossan: the resurrection

“Christian faith itself was the experience of Jesus’ continued empowering presence.... It was the continued presence of absolutely the same Jesus in an absolutely different mode of existence.”

—John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 210.

Sunday 4 December 2005

Church Dogmatics IV/3

Summary: As true God-man, Jesus Christ is the reconciliation between God and humanity: he is the self-communicating witness who triumphantly reveals himself to us, so that we are awakened to the truth and called into fellowship with him in his work as witness.

Quote: “Jesus Christ does actually speak. He does so in the promise of the Spirit as the Crucified. And as such He does not merely murmur or whisper, but through the centuries, and therefore here and now among us, He speaks with a voice ‘as the sound of many waters’ (Rev. 1:15). He speaks so clearly and powerfully that when His Word goes forth all the non-Christian and Christian clamour of the world is reduced to a dying murmur.... He speaks where all others think they do, but in reality only lisp and stutter.... In Him the truth is present, indeed, He is the truth, which, as He speaks, speaks by itself, about itself and for itself with its incomparable force, clarity and distinctness” (p. 409).

Notable section: §73—Barth’s beautiful account of the Holy Spirit and Christian hope.

Peter Jensen: miracles and myth

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, is currently delivering the Boyer Lectures on “The Future of Jesus.” In his third lecture, Jensen discusses the miracles of Jesus.

Admittedly I’m uncomfortable with Jensen’s defence of the possibility of miracles, and with the idea that we must first believe in God (and in miracles!) in order to believe in Jesus. But I think Jensen is spot on when he says that Jesus’ miracles “are not mere wonder-works, magician’s tomfoolery, charismatic ego-trips, or demonstrations intended to silence sceptics about the supernatural; they are experiences of the world to come, reflecting the very abundance and grace of the Father God about whom [Jesus] preached. To that extent, they are mythological: but they are the point at which myth and truth kiss. The truth embodies and transcends the myth.”

Church Dogmatics IV/2

Summary: As true man, Jesus Christ is the reconciliation between God and humanity: he is the servant exalted as Lord, the royal man who shares in God’s own lordship, sanctifying us and exalting us through his death and resurrection.

Quote: “In the union of God with our human existence which then took place uniquely in the existence of this man [Jesus], prior to our attitude to it, before we were in a position to accept or reject it, with no need for repetition either in our soul or elsewhere, we today, bearing the same human essence and living at a particular point in time and space, were taken up ... into the fellowship with God for which we were ordained but which we ourselves had broken; and ... we are therefore taken up into this fellowship in him, this One. The Christmas message speaks of what is objectively real for all men, and therefore for each of us, in this One. Primarily and finally we ourselves are what we are in him” (p. 270).

Notable section: §64,3—this is one of the best sections in the whole Church Dogmatics: it is Barth’s account of the historical Jesus as “the royal man,” focusing on Jesus’s human distinctiveness, his correspondence to the will of God, his life-act expressed in his words and works, and his death on the cross. The discussion of Jesus’s miracles (pp. 209ff.) is especially remarkable.

Saturday 3 December 2005

Quote of the day

“[B]elief must be something different from a mixture of opinions about God and the world, and of precepts for one life or for two. Piety cannot be an instinct craving for a mess of metaphysical and ethical crumbs.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 31.

Friday 2 December 2005

Church Dogmatics IV/1

Summary: As true God, Jesus Christ is the reconciliation between God and humanity: he is the humble Lord who became a servant and brother to us, the Judge who was judged in our place, taking our sin and destroying it, so that we are now justified and reconciled to God.

Quote: “The subject-matter, origin and content of the message received and proclaimed by the Christian community is at its heart the free act of the faithfulness of God in which He takes the lost cause of man, who has denied Him as Creator and in so doing ruined himself as creature, and makes it His own in Jesus Christ, carrying it through to its goal and in that way maintaining and manifesting His own glory in the world” (p. 3).

Notable section: §58—Barth’s survey of the whole doctrine of reconciliation (i.e. the whole of volume IV) brings to light the exquisite architectonic beauty of this doctrine; on account of its intricate structure and design, Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation is one of the most aesthetically beautiful works of theology ever written.

Congratulations to Dr Mike Bird

My good friend Mike Bird announces that his doctorate has officially been approved by the University of Queensland. Congratulations Mike!

Mike’s dissertation is a study of the relationship between the historical Jesus and the early church’s Gentile mission. It’s a very fine scholarly work, and I’m certain Mike will have no trouble getting it published as a monograph.

Thursday 1 December 2005

Church Dogmatics III/4

Summary: In Jesus Christ, the gracious command of God the creator sanctifies our creaturely existence and calls us into a life of freedom: freedom for God, freedom for others, freedom for life, and freedom in limitation.

Quote: “Obedience does not limit freedom. If the freedom of man is the freedom to which the command of God calls him, this freedom is itself perfect obedience. And if the obedience of man is that which the command of God demands of him, this obedience is itself perfect freedom” (p. 595).

Notable section: §53,3—Barth’s rich and moving discussion of prayer as an expression of our freedom before God.

Church Dogmatics III/3

Summary: In Jesus Christ, God the creator remains faithful to his creature, graciously preserving, accompanying and governing it, and rescuing it from the threatening power of the Nothingness.

Quote: “The only free God, who is the Father of Jesus Christ, is the Creator and basis of all freedom worthy of the name. But how absurd and sinister, how unworthy of the name, would be a freedom consisting in the fact that the creature is wholly or in part independent of this God” (pp. 130-31).

Notable section: §50—Barth’s astonishing account of God and Nothingness (das Nichtige), which is one of the most important discussions of evil in the history of theology.

Blog of the week

It’s time again for Faith and Theology to announce the new blog of the week. This week our winner is Ressourcement, Justin Nickelsen’s blog of Catholic theology. Justin has done some outstanding blogging over the past week. Most notably, he offers a post on the French theologian Henri Bouillard, whose magnum opus was a three-volume work on Karl Barth’s theology; as well as two excellent posts on Pope Benedict XVI, one on Ratzinger’s life, and another on his Habilitationsschrift (postdoctoral dissertation), which was a study of St Bonaventure.

Update: See Justin’s delightful response here.


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