Monday 31 July 2006

Three things I believe

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list—but here are three things I believe:

1. I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s self-giving Word.
2. I believe that this Word is a wholly good Word for all people.
3. I believe that this good Word is the meaning of life.

Bultmann anniversary

Yesterday, 30 July, was the anniversary of the death of Rudolf Bultmann. To mark the occasion, Jim West offers a list of Bultmann’s best books, as well as a series of posts about little-known aspects of Bultmann’s life and work. Did you know, for instance:

I like Bultmann better than almost all other modern theologians; his face peers at me from the wall, right next to the face of his friend and nemesis, Karl Barth:

Sunday 30 July 2006

For the love of God (26): Why I love Wittgenstein

A guest-post by Sam Norton

“If what we do now makes no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with”—a remark which Ludwig Wittgenstein made to his friend Drury, skewering the universalist heresy.

Wittgenstein was a deeply serious man, and I believe he developed insights which all theologians need to absorb. While it is debatable whether he was in fact a Christian, he certainly believed in God, and he infamously saw things “from a religious point of view.” While at service on the Eastern Front in World War I, he was known as “the man with the gospels,” as he never went anywhere without taking Tolstoy’s summary with him.

He was a rather tortured soul in terms of his sexuality; he revered Augustine (the greatest influence on his own thought—he felt the Confessions to be “the most serious book ever written”); he hated virtually all modern music (you could “hear the machinery in Mahler”); and he gave up all his wealth to his sisters, since he felt that they were the only people unlikely to be spoiled by it. Clearly, in a different era, he would have been a monk, possibly a hermit. I find him a compelling human being: complex, flawed, yet gripped by the claim of the divine upon his life.

What is most important about Wittgenstein is his method of philosophy, which prevents a fruitless pursuit of metaphysical “solutions”; more precisely, it teaches us what metaphysics actually is. Thus Wittgenstein’s method is a necessary discipline for theologians, as it prevents us from mis-characterising the nature of Christian doctrine. As he put it himself: “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.” Wittgenstein has had a great influence on contemporary theology, from Stanley Hauerwas to Herbert McCabe—and it seems to me to be a wholly beneficial influence.

While most understandings of Wittgenstein emphasise the “Sturm und Drang” of his life, I think there is also an under-appreciated current of joy. He used to relax by going to the cinema, especially enjoying Westerns—and he found this to be of value. He wrote early in 1947, “I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film”—and I believe that he watched something that year which gave him some inner peace, that allowed him to believe that his life was worth something after all. After all, his last words were: “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” I like to think it was what he had in mind.

Saturday 29 July 2006

Sound like anyone you know?

John Updike’s wonderful novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), includes a character named Matthew, who belongs to a bizarre Adventist apocalyptic sect. Have you ever met someone who fits this description:

“Matthew ... had his relentless, humourless powers of persuasion but could only talk to other Adventists; when he got among people reared on other premises, with no expectation of a Prophet and of the world’s soon ending, he was lost, dumbfounded by the vastness of such skepticism” (p. 415).

The worst liturgical invention: results

Well, after 715 votes, it’s official: the worst liturgical invention of recent times is the use of tiny cups of eucharistic grape juice (31%). This was followed by liturgical dance (28%), PowerPoint sermons (25%), altar calls (14%, including my own vote), and finally banners on the walls (2%).

Thanks especially for all the entertaining and informative comments—and, believe it or not, there are even more comments about this over at Father Jake Stops the World.

Friday 28 July 2006

Kurt Anders Richardson: Reading Karl Barth

Many thanks to Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of Kurt Anders Richardson’s recent book, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology.

In this book, Richardson brings Barth’s theology into dialogue with various aspects of contemporary theology, and he seeks to take up Barth’s thought as an instrument of theological and ecclesial reform. Although it is an uneven book, and although it is not structured as clearly as it might have been, Richardson has a fine instinct for interpreting Barth, and he understands clearly what is involved in reading the Church Dogmatics: “To read the CD is more than a literary act or even a philosophical one; it is a religious act because Barth’s work is so fundamentally shaped by his testimony to the Word of God” (p. 12). To read Barth correctly, then, we must read him as a “witness”—and this will always mean to read him in relation to our own theological questions, “to read him and then to move on” (p. 23).

At the heart of Richardson’s own reading of Barth is the conviction that we should begin at the end of the CD, reading the whole work “back to front.” The little fragment on baptism (CD IV/4) thus becomes a “lens” for interpreting Barth’s theology. Although this exciting approach is announced at the beginning of the book, Richardson only develops such a reading in detail in Chapter 6. This is by far the best and richest part of the book—and it’s worth the admission fee for this chapter alone (pp. 161-208).

Here, following Eberhard Jüngel, Richardson explores the (anti-) sacramental theology of CD IV/4 as the hermeneutical key to the whole of Barth’s dogmatics. The triadic structure which Barth develops in IV/4—Deus extra nos, Deus pro nobis, Deus in nobis: “God outside us, God for us, God in us”—is taken up as the underlying logic of the entire CD, and as the most refined expression of Barth’s doctrine of election.

No one has written more acutely and extensively on Barth’s doctrine of baptism than Eberhard Jüngel. And in a lengthy engagement with Jüngel (pp. 176-208), Richardson defends Jüngel’s interpretation of Barth and sharply critiques George Hunsinger and John Webster for muting or dismissing this radical, reforming doctrine of baptism.

Just as Jüngel makes IV/4 the true test of Barth-reception—“whoever wishes to baptise infants should not proclaim his closeness to Barth’s doctrine of predestination!”—so too Richardson critiques all readings of the CD that privilege the sacramental language which Barth was still using in I/1.

Only with the development of his doctrine of election (II/2) did Barth wholly overcome the notion that human action can in any way be “analogous to divine action” (p. 193). Here, Barth’s “analogy of faith” (analogia fidei) achieves its full depth and systematic expression. And it is finally in the doctrine of baptism (IV/4) that “the trajectory of the entire CD achieves a striking degree of clarity” through its expression of the central themes of “correspondence, election, and the distinction between divine and human action” (p. 206).

Thursday 27 July 2006

Do you believe in the devil?

I posted on this topic a while back, and you can now vote on it in Jim West’s poll.

Karl Barth once remarked that it is impossible to “believe in” the devil, since the devil deserves only an attitude of utter disbelief—we do not believe in him, but against him. Barth was right: if you want to “believe in” something, it’s much better to believe in God! And belief in God is itself also a denial and rejection of the powers of nothingness and of all the dark glory of their parasitic pseudo-existence.

Scottish Journal of Theology

The new issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology is out now. I was particularly interested in these two articles, both by younger scholars:

Carl Beckwith, “A theological reading of Hilary’s ‘autobiographical’ narrative in De Trinitate I.1-19,” SJT 59:3 (2006), 249-262

Jordan J. Ballor, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933-1935,” SJT 59:3 (2006), 263-280

Tuesday 25 July 2006

The one book meme

I’ve sometimes wondered how these blogging memes originate—so I thought I’d try to start one myself. If you’d like to participate, just post your own responses to these questions and tag five people. Welcome to the One Book Meme!

1. One book that changed your life:
Augustine, Confessions (398 CE)

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (1988)

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

4. One book that made you laugh:

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1952)

5. One book that made you cry:

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (2005)

6. One book that you wish had been written:
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics V/1

7. One book that you wish had never been written:

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

8. One book you’re currently reading:
John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2006)

10. Now tag five people: In the hope of getting this meme started, I’ll tag anyone who happens to read this!

For the love of God (25): Why I love Emil Brunner

A guest-post by Jon Mackenzie

“I am inexpressibly grateful that the Lord of my life has granted to me in such abundance these opportunities to take part in the life of his ecclesia and to bear witness to the Living Christ in so many places and in so many ways.” —Emil Brunner

Being an undergraduate in St Mary’s College at St Andrews University, there is little chance you will survive without some knowledge of the giant of twentieth-century theology, Karl Barth. The place is steeped in his legacy, and his name is bandied about throughout the disciplines—in theology, church history, ethics, and even biblical studies. However, being a naturally rebellious type, I quickly tired of the irrational love of Barth among my fellow students (many of whom had only flicked through Dogmatics in Outline), and I sought out ways to shatter their naïve dreams of theological completeness.

And there he appeared in the shadows: a man who was facing the same Sisyphean task as myself; a man who stood up to Karl Barth; a man who provoked Barth to cry “Nein!”; a man who travelled against the grain. These were the circumstances of my introduction to Emil Brunner, peripheral as they were, yet leading to a fully-fledged appreciation of this Swiss theologian.

Of course, “loving a theologian” seldom correlates to “agreeing completely with a theologian.” This is the case with my love of Brunner. Why then do I love Brunner? In reading theology, my main criterion is to be provoked to thought. There are some tomes of theology that I can read without caring at all. But Brunner provokes thoughts that will not go away. His is a theology of the real world. It does not leave you alone. As Wilhelm Pauck said, Brunner’s theology “is a modern theology in the sense that it interprets the gospel in such a way that [people] of today can feel themselves addressed thereby in their particular conditions.”

There are many other reasons why I love Brunner—his books are cheap because they are shadowed by Barth; unusually for a German-speaking theologian, his work is concise; his name has a wonderfully mystic ring; and he had a missionary heart, and served in such places as Japan, Korea, India and Pakistan.

But time has gone, and my words have been few and clumsy. If you ever see that Brunner volume lying forlorn on the dusty shelf of the library or the second-hand bookstore, pick it up. Lose yourself in the pages of a man whose main aim was to meet with the God who communicates himself, and to tell the world of this God who relates.

Saturday 22 July 2006

For the love of God (24): Why I love Dorothee Soelle

A post by Kim Fabricius

This is my fourth post in the series. I admit it: I’m a promiscuous pilgrim who likes to sleep around! I can also be fickle. Dorothee Soelle is a good example: while I love her dearly, she also gets on my nerves. But then so does my wife!

I discovered Soelle in the late seventies when I came across her little Political Theology (1971) in a second-hand bookshop. She did not come well recommended, as my main man Barth had said of her “that that woman should keep silence in church!” Nevertheless, there was something passionate and powerful about this working mother who would not shut up.

Soelle was certainly a persona non grata in the German theological establishment: never was she offered a chair in her homeland. But then Deutschland’s loss was New York’s gain, as Soelle became a professor at Union Theological Seminary (1975-1987). She thrived in the cultural pluralism and social activism of the Big Apple, which markedly influenced her theology, an eclectic mix of politics and poetry, mysticism and ecumenism. No ivory tower academic, Soelle visited both Vietnam and Nicaragua in the cause of her praxis of peace and justice.

Sure, Soelle’s fragmentary work lacked academic rigour and failed to engage both with tradition and with the theological heavyweights of her time. And, yes, her obsession with the Holocaust clouded her judgement when it came to contemporary Israeli politics. But the theological scene of the last three decades of the twentieth century would have been the poorer without this godly gadfly, who died in 2003, aged 73, while leading a workshop in Bad Boll. Just hours before, Soelle had read some protest poetry on the war in Iraq, but ended with words she had written to her grandchildren: “Don’t forget the best!”

Juxtaposing Soelle’s flawed theology with her political instincts and commitments, I am reminded of a conversation between Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller. Barth: “Martin, I’m surprised that you almost always get the point despite the little systematic theology that you’ve done!” Niemöller: “Karl, I’m surprised that you almost always get the point despite the great deal of systematic theology that you’ve done!”

Friday 21 July 2006

Defending Charles Hodge

Can anything good be said about the theological method of Charles Hodge? In response to Kevin Vanhoozer, Paul Helm offers a spirited defence of Hodge’s notorious method of “inductive” biblicism. (Thanks to Exiled Preacher for the tip.)

Wednesday 19 July 2006

Milton's theology of freedom

My new book, Milton’s Theology of Freedom, was released today, so you might like to request a copy for your library. The book’s chapters are:

1. The Theology of Freedom: A Short History
2. The Satanic Theology of Freedom
3. Predestination and Freedom
4. The Freedom of God
5. Human Freedom and the Fall
6. Grace, Conversion and Freedom

And here’s an excerpt from the preface:

This book offers a new reading of Milton’s poetic thought in the light of a detailed examination of post-Reformation theology. It aims to clarify and enrich our understanding of Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, and to open new perspectives on to the fascinating complexities of Protestant theology in the seventeenth century. I hope the result will, therefore, be of interest both to Milton scholars and to students of post-Reformation theology.

What Albert Schweitzer once said of the Enlightenment writer Reimarus may with equal truth be said of John Milton: “He had no predecessors; neither had he any disciples.” Milton’s poetry and thought tower above their time and context, consistently inviting historical explication, yet refusing to be explained away by any historical determinant. His poetry continues to resist interpretive determinisms, while his thought continues to challenge theological and philosophical determinism. Milton’s work is thus a monument to the freedom of the individual and to the irreducible singularity of the creative impulse. Acknowledging this creativity and individuality is not, however, to argue that Milton’s thought existed in a vacuum. On the contrary, Milton absorbed entire traditions of linguistic, literary and theological discourse; and having absorbed them, he transmuted them and freely pressed them into the service of his own creative vision. Paradoxically then, the historical and contextual positioning of Milton is essential if we are fully to appreciate his uniqueness and individuality.

It is, for instance, only by recognising Milton’s appropriation of the epic tradition that we can appreciate the achievement of Paradise Lost, a work that transforms and transcends this tradition. Similarly, we can understand Milton’s theological achievement only when we situate his thought within the context of the theological traditions to which he was indebted, especially the traditions of post-Reformation Protestantism. In exploring Milton’s relationship to that theological context, I therefore endeavour to highlight the creative freedom of his own theological thought. In two respects, then, this book is a study of freedom: it is a study of Milton’s theological vision of freedom in Paradise Lost; and it is also a study of the freedom of Milton’s own theological creativity as embodied in the poem.

I should indicate at the outset that my own theological horizons are shaped principally by the traditions of Nicene trinitarianism and Reformed Protestantism—traditions of which Milton himself was by no means uncritical. As a result, I have often found myself disagreeing with Milton’s theological formulations. Such disagreement has, however, remained silent throughout this study, since my purpose is not to contest, but to listen to Milton himself as openly and as sympathetically as possible. In any case, regardless of the criticisms I might make of Milton’s theology, I feel only profound admiration for the work of this poet and thinker. If it is true that Milton had neither predecessors nor disciples, it is also true that he had few peers. His profound intuition, penetrating insight and uncompromising individualism set him apart from other writers and thinkers of his time. For this reason, I have found my engagement with Milton to be a unique challenge and a unique joy.

Monday 17 July 2006

New poll: the worst liturgical invention

I’ve just added a new poll, which asks you to vote for the worst liturgical invention in recent history. This will be a tough competition—and there are so many other worthy candidates that could have been included.

Each church tradition has its own array of bad or silly or questionable liturgical inventions. But for this poll I simply included some of my own favourite candidates, ranging from the embarrassing (e.g. tacky banners which guard against the possibility of deep feeling) to the bizarre (e.g. liturgical dance, especially when performed by people who cannot dance) to the downright pernicious (e.g. the altar call as the third Protestant sacrament).

If I could have chosen just one more for the poll, I might have mentioned the custom of baptising with as little water as possible (just a tiny damp smear on the forehead), or perhaps the use of ludicrous clip-art in church bulletins, or the serving of undrinkable coffee after worship, or those harsh wooden pews that can turn even a sermon about heaven into a foretaste of hell.

Anyway, come and cast your vote—or, if you prefer, you might like to suggest your own “worst liturgical invention.”

The history of Jesus

“The history of Jesus was so determined by the power of God’s near reign that, trusting in the power of love, he would dare to bring God’s being to expression as an event of love to the very end.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, Paulus und Jesus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1962), p. 163.

Sunday 16 July 2006

The exodus to Scotland continues

Via Novum Testamentum, I’ve just heard that yet another leading scholar will be abandoning England for Scotland: Markus Bockmuehl, currently Professor of Biblical and Early Christian Studies at the University of Cambridge, will be joining the Divinity School at the University of St Andrews.

As far as theological studies are concerned, Scotland is definitely the place to be these days. (And there’s a nice poll about this at Theologoumenon, in which Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews are all currently miles ahead of Oxford.)

Friday 14 July 2006

Hitting the road

I’m hitting the road for two weeks of holidays up in the lovely tropics of North Queensland, so the posts here might be a little sporadic for the next couple of weeks. Naturally I’ll be taking my trusty iBook with me, so I’ll still be posting, but there won’t be any posts while I’m on the road. I love a good drive, and I should be doing at least a few thousand kilometres over the next couple of weeks. To make the drive even more enjoyable, I’ve just finished compiling a six-hour mp3 CD, featuring songs like:

  • Bob Dylan, “I Was Young When I Left Home” (1961)
  • Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne” (1967)
  • Joan Baez, “Boulder to Birmingham” (1976)
  • Traveling Wilburys, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (1988)
  • Geoff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (1994)
  • Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier” (2002)
  • Carla Bruni, “Quelqu’un m’a dit” (2002)
  • Stringmansassy, “Red on Blue” (2002)
  • Nick Cave, “Into My Arms” (2004)
  • Joaquin Phoenix/Reese Witherspoon, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (2005)
  • Johnny Cash, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (2006)
And for holiday reading, I have packed:
  • John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
  • John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)
There’s nothing else quite like a good John Updike novel—there’s something wonderfully intoxicating about that unique blend of sex, theology and the American landscape. Anyway, time to hit the road...

Ray S. Anderson on emergent theology

Rhett Smith features an excellent guest-post by our friend Professor Ray Anderson of Fuller Seminary (who also posted here recently), in relation to Anderson’s forthcoming book, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches. This will definitely be a book to look out for!

Ten essential books on the Trinity

The development of trinitarian doctrine is perhaps the most exciting and most significant aspect of modern theology, and it has paved the way for many other important developments (not least of all ecumenical advances). So here’s a list of ten essential books on the Trinity.

(Although this is a list of modern books, an engagement with the early defining works is of course essential—e.g. the Gospel of John, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine.)

Anyway, here’s my list, in chronological order:

1. G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures in the Philosophy of Religion (1827), parts 1 and 3
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 (1932), §§8-12
3. Karl Rahner, The Trinity (1967)
4. Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming (1965)
5. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (1980)
6. Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity (1982)
7. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (1988), ch. 5
8. Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991)
9. T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (1996)
10. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (2003)

Discussing Barth and Bultmann

Thanks for the various posts about my fictional piece on Barth and Bultmann. Over at Jared Coleman’s blog I’ve also posted some comments about Barth’s relationship to his beloved assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum.

Thursday 13 July 2006

Theology blogs

Inspired by the superb Biblioblogs site, our friend Patrik has set up a new site for Theology Blogs. If you have a theological blog, you can submit it so that it is included on the list.

A big book

I was thinking of preaching next week on the parable of the tenants in the vineyard (Mark 12:1-12). But when I saw that John Kloppenborg has just written a 651-page study of this parable, I suddenly felt strangely ill-prepared:

John S. Kloppenborg, The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006).

Wednesday 12 July 2006

Barth and Bultmann: an imagined conversation

[In an idle moment, I invented this fictional conversation between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They are in a German pub, along with Barth’s personal assistant, Lollo von Kirschbaum.]

They were sitting together, a woman and two men, at the big oak table by the fire. It was late, and the pub was quiet now except for the murmur of voices and the crackling of the fire. The woman was laughing, as the first man said, “No, Lollo, it’s true—Rudolf insists that he cannot understand me, and yet I have heard from the most reliable sources that he never reads any of my books.”

The second man snorted, and said: “So, you have spies among my students, Karl! It’s just as I expected. Anyway, I don’t mind telling you that it’s true: I have given up trying to read your endless Dogmatics.”

“Ha!” cried the first man. “You see, Lollo—just as I told you!”

The woman laughed again, and sipped her wine. “So, Herr Bultmann,” she said, “you cannot understand Karl’s books, and yet you do not read them. There’s a nice paradox for the ‘dialectical’ theologians.”

Bultmann chuckled and struck a match. He chewed on his pipe for a moment, and then said, “Well, Karl, if only you would take the time to explain your concepts to me, then I would have some basis for understanding you. As it stands, though, I can hardly comprehend a word you say—all this talk of reconciliation and resurrection and the history of Jesus! What does any of that mean? How can a person in today’s world make any sense of it?”

“So you think my books are meaningless?” Barth replied, leaning across the table to refill Bultmann’s glass. “Or should I say: mythological?”

“Well, naturally it remains to be seen whether you speak in the language of myth. And I don’t need to insist right now that you do speak like that. But the important point is that you speak without reflection. You use words and concepts without first clarifying what they mean. And that is why—” he paused as a log snapped and turned in the fireplace “—and that is why I simply cannot understand you.”

Barth sipped his wine, his eyebrows arched playfully above the black-rimmed glasses. “All this talk about ‘concepts’ and ‘understanding,’ Rudolf! So serious, you German theologians! You want me to explain everything before I begin to speak—but I, on the other hand, feel perfectly content just to speak.”

Bultmann furrowed his brow and breathed a long stream of smoke. “Ah, yes, you are happy simply to speak! And so you think you can merely adopt the language and concepts of the New Testament, as though nothing could be plainer. But you forget all about the gulf that separates our world today from the world of the New Testament. The people who read your Dogmatics are no longer living in the first century, Karl. So how are they to understand you when you use concepts that no longer have any clear meaning? How are they to understand you unless you first interpret these concepts? To be more precise, how can the message of the New Testament be communicated without first being translated?” He tapped his pipe sharply against the ashtray to underline each syllable of the final word.

“Oho! So it’s interpretation that we need, is it?” Barth leaned toward his friend and reached for his own pipe. “The way I see it, this is nothing but natural theology all over again—” (Lollo was filling their glasses) “—yes, just like Emil and his comical ‘point of contact,’ just like Gogarten and his all-too-serious ‘orders of creation.’”

Bultmann grunted in protest. “Frankly, I don’t see what natural theology has to do with any of this.”

But Barth waved his pipe excitedly and continued. “You think there’s a gulf between modern people and the message of the Bible. You think that, in spite of God’s revelation, this gulf remains. It’s not only God who crosses this gulf—but we must also do our part to cross it. We must also ‘interpret’ revelation. We must also make revelation understandable. In a word, we ourselves must make revelation possible through all our hand-wringing hermeneutical endeavours. You see, my friend: natural theology!” He thumped the table and took a triumphant mouthful of wine. Lollo was leaning towards him in silent approval.

“You can characterise hermeneutics as natural theology,” Bultmann retorted, “only because you remain unaware of your own hermeneutical presuppositions. Everyone interprets, Karl—even you! But whether you do so reflectively and with discipline is another question entirely.”

Barth shook his head. “Another question? Well, there are good questions and bad questions. Some questions I try to answer; but others—reflectively and with discipline!—I avoid at all cost. And I myself think that the hermeneutical question happens to be a very bad one. So I choose— he pointed his finger at the ceiling “—to ignore it.”

Bultmann threw up his hands in exasperation. “What are you proposing, then? A dogmatic repristination of a mythical worldview? A repetition of the words and phrases of the Bible?”

“No, no, no,” Barth said so loudly that his glasses slipped from the bridge of his nose. “Dear Rudolf, you make so much of the gulf between modern people and an ancient revelation. But don’t you see? In principle, the gulf would be the same even if revelation had taken place only yesterday. There would still be a gulf between the ‘there and then’ and the ‘here and now.’ The fact that revelation just happens to have occurred nineteen hundred years ago is, for me, of no special importance.” He leaned close towards Bultmann, peering up at him over the black rims of his glasses. “Here’s what I think, Rudolf: I think there’s no gap whatsoever between the ‘there and then’ and the ‘here and now.’ It belongs to the very nature of revelation to include within itself our own ‘here and now.’ Jesus Christ has already risen! He already lives and acts! There’s no gulf for us to cross in order to reach him—he reaches us already through his own living actuality! His history already includes our own little histories. His story is already—not accidentally, but essentially!—our story.”

Bultmann was smoothing his broad moustache with his thumb and forefinger. He raised a sceptical eyebrow, and remarked, “All these words, Karl: history, story, revelation, resurrection. What is one to make of such words when you so steadfastly refuse to interpret them?”

But Barth ignored the question and pressed on. “In other words, all that needs to be said is that revelation is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ is not only God for humanity—he’s also the human being for God. He’s not only the Word from God to us—he’s also our human response to this Word. You see, there can never be a gap between revelation and humanity—for Jesus Christ is himself the reconciliation between God and humanity. And so he is the end of every so-called ‘gulf’—yes, the end of Lessing’s ugly ditch!”

Bultmann frowned deeply at his pipe, which had gone out again. “Do you know what I think you’re really trying to do?” he said after a long silence. “I think you’re trying to bypass all the advancements of historical criticism. I think you’re trying to carry on as though the nineteenth century had never happened. But beware!” he said darkly. “Beware that in throwing off the legacy of the nineteenth century you do not find yourself in the world of the sixteenth century, in the world of—” and he shuddered visibly as he said the word “—orthodoxy.”

But Barth was only laughing. He glanced across the table and said, “Well you know, Lollo, if I did have to choose between the historicism of the nineteenth century and the orthodoxy of the sixteenth...”

Lollo smiled—not at him, but at Bultmann—and said, “What do you think, Herr Bultmann? Another bottle of wine?”

They signalled for the waitress, who approached them yawning and dishevelled with a chewed pencil stub behind her ear. When they asked for another bottle, she mumbled assent and scribbled something in her notebook. With the empty bottle in her hand she made her way back to the bar, scratching her head with the pencil before returning it to its perch above her ear. It was late, and the pub was nearly empty. All she could hear was the laughter and excited chatter of the three old friends beside the fire.

Tuesday 11 July 2006

The meaning of election: Robert W. Jenson

“The eternal ‘pre-’ of Christ’s existence, which is identical with the ‘pre-’ of predestination, occurs also within time.... Thus—to put it in the most strenuous possible context—to the penitent’s question, ‘But how do I know I am among the elect?’ the confessor’s right answer must be, ‘You know because I am about to absolve you, and my doing that is God’s eternal act of decision about you’.... A right doctrine of individual predestination is precisely a doctrine about what happens to and for individuals when they encounter Christ in his gospel: that the judgment they then hear is nothing less than God’s eternal act of decision.”

—Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 177-78.

And yes, there is a hell...

At Connexions, Kim Fabricius has posted one of his own hymns about life beyond death. The hymn concludes with these provocative verses on the emptiness of hell and the triumph of Christ over death and hell:

And, yes, there is a hell,
a state of black despair,
but Christ assumes what we deserve,
so not a soul is there.

Our hope is Christ alone,
divine humanity,
who lived and died and lives again
for all eternity.

Systematic theology world cup

Well, the agonising suspense is finally over, and Jürgen Moltmann has emerged as the winner of Patrik’s Systematic Theology World Cup. This is a good outcome. Although I think there are better systematic theologians working today (most notably the three Lutherans: Pannenberg, Jüngel and Robert Jenson), I doubt that any other recent theologian has connected so deeply and so concretely with the concerns of an entire generation. Especially in his earlier works, Theology of Hope and Crucified God, Moltmann brought the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ into direct contact with the situation of a post-holocaust world.

So congratulations to Moltmann, and thanks to Patrik for doing such an excellent job!

Monday 10 July 2006

For the love of God (23): Why I love G. C. Berkouwer

A guest-post by Charles Cameron

At a conference for Scottish students in 1975, I met two Dutch visitors, one of whom was a theological student. On the bookstall, there were some books written by the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996). Some of my conversations with this theological student focused on Berkouwer.

After the conference, I showed the Dutch students around our capital city, Edinburgh. We visited a Christian bookshop where I bought the book Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, which contains an article on Berkouwer (written by Lewis B. Smedes). Describing Berkouwer’s contribution to contemporary theology, Smedes writes: “Berkouwer has called orthodox Reformed theology away from its love affair with metaphysics…. [H]e has called it back to its proper and humble service as hand-maid to the preaching of the gospel” (p. 96). For Berkouwer, “divine election is identical with the grace of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ … [and is] not to be confused with a notion of an arbitrary, graceless decree of a purely Sovereign Deity” (p. 74). After reading this I said, “I must read Berkouwer!”

In 1976, while visiting Canada, I bought Berkouwer’s book Holy Scripture. Living out of a suitcase, I didn’t have many books with me. What did I do? —I read Berkouwer. Reading became studying and writing. By the time I met him in his home in 1986, I had written a PhD thesis based on his writings. I spoke with him for one hour, but I felt like I had known him for a decade. Long before I ever laid eyes on him, I had loved him as a “father in the faith” (1 Cor. 4:15). He had helped me to praise God and to preach the gospel of grace with joyful thanksgiving.

Your favourite theologian

After 148 votes, the winner of the last poll is Augustine, with 30%. Quite right, too. The Bishop of Hippo was followed by Barth (24%) and Bonhoeffer (19%). Thanks for voting!


Patrik’s Systematic Theology World Cup is now famous (and again here and here).

Sunday 9 July 2006

Like so much poor preaching...

“How could the Word ... be a Word which contains both Yes and No and is therefore self-contradictory? How could it speak, like so much poor preaching, half of grace and half of judgment, half of life and half of death, half of the love of God and half of the power of the devil?”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, p. 230.

Saturday 8 July 2006

Church and synagogue

“The fact that the dialogue between Church and Synagogue is no longer felt to be a burning necessity is related to [the] secondary position of the Old Testament in theology. If the Old Testament is not really important for the question of the understanding of the biblical message, then there is also no compelling necessity to enter into a true dialogue with Judaism, which claims and listens to the Old Testament as its scripture.... [S]uch indifference would become unthinkable if the Old Testament were to be understood as a part of the authentic revelation of God to his people.”

—Walther Zimmerli, The Law and the Prophets: A Study of the Meaning of the Old Testament (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), p. 3.

Friday 7 July 2006

One year today

Faith & Theology is a year old today. Do you have any favourite posts or discussions from the past year? Or anything you’d like to see more focus on in the year ahead? Anyway, thanks for visiting—and a special thanks to anyone who has been visiting for the whole year!

The myth of expository preaching

An interesting post on the myth of expository preaching has generated some valuable discussion at Rhettsmith, Awakening, and many other blogs.

I think this is a topic well worth discussing. I myself appreciate good expository preaching, but I have also seen expository preaching carried out as a kind of joyless textual legalism. And, of course, in many cases a line-by-line exposition of a biblical passage (e.g. of a narrative or a parable) is actually unfaithful to the character of the text itself. One can hardly communicate a parable by breaking it down into separate lines or verses—rather, one can communicate a parable only by evoking it as a whole, in such a way that the original language-event takes place again in the present. (In the same way, one communicates a joke not by expounding it, but by re-telling it).

So I think the problem with any single preaching “model” is not only that it will tend towards a narrow legalism, but also that it will fail to do justice to the diversity of Scripture itself.

And this immediately raises the (far more important) material problem: The purpose of preaching is not to proclaim the Bible, but to proclaim the gospel—or rather, to proclaim Jesus Christ himself as Lord. Expository preaching is an excellent thing if it brings Jesus Christ into the foreground and witnesses to him; but such preaching has failed completely whenever the text itself is made the object of attention, whenever the text rather than Jesus Christ is brought into the foreground.

In the privacy of her own study, of course, the preacher must engage as deeply as possible with the text. But she does so not in order to speak about the text, but in order to communicate the reality to which the text bears witness.

Thursday 6 July 2006

For the love of God (22): Why I love Herbert McCabe

A guest-post by Kim Fabricius

It was love at first (sound) bite: a nineties newspaper article on “spirituality” referred to a Catholic spiritual director named Herbert McCabe, who defined prayer as “wasting time with God”. Exactly, I smiled! Prayer, like play, is useless; it is not necessary – it is much more important than that. I’ve got to find out more about this guy, I thought!

But there wasn’t a lot to discover. There was a book called God Matters (1987), but over a quarter of it was on transubstantiation. My separated brothers and sisters, forgive me, but that was one way I did not want to waste time with God! Eventually I came across an obituary – McCabe died in 2001 – and posthumous collections of his writings, lectures and sermons suddenly began to appear.

The style is engaging – elegant and exact, conversational and caustic, reflecting McCabe’s rigour of thought and nose for humbug: rightly it has been compared to that of Chesterton.

And the expanded content (I am happy to report) transcends transubstantiation. The influences of Marx and Wittgenstein are evident, as McCabe speaks passionately about the incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism, and writes insightfully about sacramental language and faith’s forms of life. But there is always a “dumb ox” in the room – the presence of Thomas Aquinas. And out of the mix on ethics and virtue, prayer and liturgy, evil and atonement – all the old loci – McCabe always brings new mint, coined in the memorable phrase.

And what a character! As befits a don of Dominic, who founded his order in a pub, McCabe liked his Scotch. He was zestful and jestful, and at home at high and low table alike. And no jobsworth was McCabe. A colleague tells me that so radical were his leaders as editor of one particular journal that he was sacked. But the unemployment of such a class act was temporary. Re-hired, McCabe began his first leader back: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted ...”

Among those inspired by McCabe are not only theologians like Eamon Duffy and Nicholas Lash, and philosophers like Anthony Kenny and Alasdair MacIntyre, but also critics and poets, including Terry Eagleton and Seamus Heaney. Testimony to a man lazy in publication but powerful in presence.

Faith as recognition

“Faith is not first of all accepting certain truths about Jesus.... Faith is knowing Jesus for who he is. It is like when you recognise a friend and say, ‘It’s you of course.’ And then you go on to say, ‘Do you remember when we met in the pub? I’ll never forget how you rescued me from that terrible old bore.’ Those memories are rather like the articles of faith or the story in the gospels; we use them to celebrate our recognition. We recite the creed out of our exuberance at meeting Jesus again. But the doctrine, the statements of faith, the scriptures, are nothing without the faith, the recognition of who Jesus is that they contain and express.”

—Herbert McCabe, “Resurrection and Epiphany,” in God, Christ and Us, ed. Brian Davies (London: Continuum, 2005).

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Prayer as the justification of God-talk

I’m thinking of writing an article about prayer as the justification of human speech about God. I’ve been deeply impressed by the way this concept has been articulated among some of Bultmann’s followers (e.g. Heinrich Ott, Gerhard Ebeling, Eberhard Jüngel)—the hermeneutical problem of speech about God is resolved into the givenness and the demand of prayer as speech to God. So if anyone has any reading suggestions relating to this topic, I’d be most grateful.

In the meantime, here’s a quote from Jüngel that sums up this whole approach:

“Who then is God, that we must speak of him? God is he whom we must thank. To be more precise: God is he whom we cannot thank enough” (Jüngel, “Gott—als Wort unserer Sprache,” in Unterwegs zur Sache, p. 103).

Kurt Anders Richardson: Reading Karl Barth

Thanks to Baker Academic for kindly sending me a complimentary copy of Kurt Anders Richarson’s Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology, to review for Faith & Theology. I’m reading the book at the moment, and I’ll post some comments about it within the next week or so.

On grief

Aaron Ghiloni offers some wise words about grief.

Tuesday 4 July 2006

Karl Barth's wicked sense of humour

Karl Barth had a very lively sense of humour. And at times his humour was decidedly wicked (in the best sense of the word), not least of all when he made fun of other theologians with whom he disagreed. He was, for instance, always making fun of his old friend Rudolf Bultmann. One of the most entertaining features of CD volume IV is Barth’s constant lampooning of Bultmann—while Bultmann himself is almost never named, he is the object of numerous wicked jokes about mythology, hermeneutics, self-understanding, demythologising, and so on.

Barth’s published letters also contain many funny characterisations of other theologians. For instance, after reading Pannenberg’s new book Jesus—God and Man, Barth wrote to Helmut Gollwitzer that “even the ravens I see on the top of a high tree from my seat here, though they do not do ‘biblical work,’ ... do not regard this work on christology as a good book.”

But funnier (and more wicked) still is his characterisation of Dorothee Soelle. In another letter to Gollwitzer, Barth describes Dorothee Soelle as a woman “of great brilliance and even greater lack of understanding!” And in a letter to Karl Rahner, Barth says that Soelle is “a lady of whom the only thing one can really say is that that woman should keep silence in the church.” Ouch!

New poll: the finalists

I’ve added a new poll—so come and vote for your favourite theologian from among the finalists of the previous five polls. There is a patristic theologian (Augustine), a Reformed theologian (Barth), a modern Lutheran (Bonhoeffer), a contemporary Anglican (N. T. Wright), and a modern Catholic (Balthasar).

And while you’re in a voting mood, you might like also to stop by Exiled Preacher and vote in the poll there on conservative evangelical theologians (at the moment Don Carson and Sinclair Ferguson are both ahead of Kevin Vanhoozer, which is simply criminal).

Also, make sure you’re visiting God in a Shrinking Universe each day to vote in the finals of the Systematic Theology World Cup (you need to leave comments in order to vote).

Getting over Rahner?

Over at Pontifications, Al Kimel suggests that the Catholic Church needs to “get over” Karl Rahner. The Church’s future, he suggests, lies with Balthasar rather than Rahner.

Personally, I think it would be better to get back to Rahner. After all, hasn’t he already become a theological “classic,” i.e., someone whose books are always mentioned but never read? And is it a good thing if we “get over” a thinker like Rahner without first coming to terms with him for ourselves?

So although I feel perfectly happy about the current Balthasar renaissance, my own suggestion is that we should get “back to Rahner” as well—just as some Protestants (yes, even Barthian Protestants!) are now starting to get “back to Schleiermacher” in new and fruitful ways.

Monday 3 July 2006

9.5 theses on listening to preaching

by Kim Fabricius

1. Preparing. You must prepare because you may prepare. God is about to gift you with the gospel! Although you can do nothing to be ready for it, you must do everything you can to get ready for it. You rightly expect the preacher to prepare before he preaches – and he rightly expects you to prepare before you listen. No lazy bastards in pulpit or in pew!

2. Expecting. When the preacher speaks, God will speak – to you: that must be not only your hope but also your expectation. So what that the Revd. Bloggs is errant and inept? The power of the sermon no more depends on the excellence of the preacher than the effectiveness of the eucharist depends on the character of the president. Treasure comes in cracked clay jars. Homiletics too is theologia crucis.

3. Focusing. More precisely, attendre, which is a “waiting” as well as a “centring”. This is never easy, but in contemporary culture, where the word has been displaced by the image and most people have the attention span of a gnat, it is harder than ever. Assume the same posture for the sermon as you do for prayer: resolute yet relaxed. Then fasten your seatbelt. (All churches should come equipped with seatbelts.)

4. Discerning. There is, of course, no guarantee that God will speak to you through the preacher. The preacher may come with gold, or with fool’s gold. You must test the spirits – which means that you must be critical. You must listen not only to the Word but also for the Word – which means (as the Reformers taught) that you must distinguish between Bible and gospel.

5. Praying. Critical intelligence is a necessary condition for listening to the sermon, but it is not a sufficient condition for hearing the gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the ears of evangelical faith and understanding. “Veni, Creator Spiritus!” Epiclesis is as crucial in the ministry of the Word as it is in the ministry of the sacrament.

6. Dying. “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die” (Bonhoeffer). Every act of worship is a funeral. In the sermon the preacher hereby notifies the congregation that it is dead and buried – an ex-people. This is not a metaphor, this is our reality coram Deo. Listen to the sermon as if it were your own obituary: it is. Judgement is now.

7. Rising. The sermon is your own obituary – it is also the announcement of your own re-birth. The preacher has been likened to a surgeon; he is also a midwife. If the first reaction to the sermon is recoil, the ultimate response is “Rejoice!” – and pass around the cigars! The non-people are a new people! Resurrection is now!

8. Serving. One who hears the Word but does not do the Word has not heard the Word. George Herbert said that “sermons are dangerous things; that none goes out of church as he came in.” “Pastor,” said the worshipper, “what a wonderful sermon!” “That,” replied the preacher, “remains to be seen.” When the liturgy is over, the leitourgia begins: your ministry of reconciliation and liberation.

9. Persevering. Once you belong to a church, the only grounds for leaving it are heresy or apostasy. Lousy preaching, alas, is not a status confessionis! Besides, God does not speak only from the pulpit, he speaks in the readings, prayers, creeds and communion. Bear with your preacher – he may be a cross sent for you to bear! – and make him a better preacher by being a better listener...

9.5. ...though Heckling might help too!

Sunday 2 July 2006

A Korean shijo poem

A shadow is reflected in the water:
a monk is crossing the bridge.
Monk, stay a moment; let me ask you where
you're going?
Stick pointed
at white clouds, he passes without a backward glance.

—A poem by Chong Ch'ol (1536-93), in Shijo Rhythms, trans. Kevin O'Rourke (Seoul: Eastward, 2001), p. 57.

Saturday 1 July 2006

Dogmatics and ethics

“Our theological discussion has ... been divided into a conservative insistence on the dogmatic tradition, and a liberal repudiation of dogmatic content in exchange for an ethic of shared humanity. We are thus falling back into the worst tradition of the nineteenth century, in which conservative theologians were wont to be conservative in politics also, and the liberals believed themselves obliged to discard dogma in exchange for humanism. But this means tearing asunder things that belong together. Every article of the confession of faith has explosive and aggressive significance for the status quo of the old world, and an article that leaves our relationship ... to society as it was, is not worthy to be an article of the Christian faith.”

Helmut Gollwitzer, The Rich Christians and Poor Lazarus (New York: Macmillan, 1970), p. 3.


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