Thursday 30 November 2006

Theology for beginners (21): Completion

Summary: At the End, our broken stories are lifted up and integrated into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we are thus included in the story of God’s deity.

Throughout this series, we have been speaking (or rather trying to speak) of Christian faith from the perspective of the gospel. The gospel narrates certain events as the happening of God’s own deity. A certain Jewish man is crucified outside Jerusalem and is raised to new life – this is the event of God’s deity, the event in which God identifies himself, the event in which God is God. In speaking of various main themes, therefore – God, creation, salvation and community – we have tried to take our bearings from this event, so that our talk about God is guided not by any prior conceptions of what a “divine being” should be like, but by God’s own self-definition in the story of Jesus.

In turning now to our final theme – traditionally called “eschatology” or “last things” – we are really not taking up a new topic, but are simply turning back to the same event in a new way. At this point, we are talking again of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the event of God’s deity. But we are now concerned explicitly with the questions: What is the significance of this event for the ultimate destiny of our lives? What does this event lead us to expect from the future?

The story of Jesus, we have said, narrates reality. It is the context of meaning within which all other things become “true” and “real.” This is because God has eternally elected this story to be his own story, the story of his identity. And the story of God’s identity has a specific conclusion: the crucified Jesus is raised to new life. Further, as we have noted repeatedly, the story of Jesus is also a story about ourselves: in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead our own stories find their proper conclusion. We can therefore say quite comprehensively: the end of all our stories is this risen one; the future that awaits us all is this lowly God, this exalted human, this one whom the Father vindicated through the Spirit by raising to new life.

Our future is the “place” where the risen Jesus reigns as Lord in perfect fellowship with the Father through the Spirit. And so even now this future floods our lives with the light of hope and meaning. Even now, we receive our identity from this future.

At present, all our individual and collective stories are marked by fragmentation, confusion, disconnectedness. Our stories lack closure and unity. They are broken stories which lack the harmony of a fitting end. But the gospel tells us a new story – it tells us that God has raised up Jesus “for us and for our salvation.” Our own broken stories thus receive new harmony from this story. Through the power of the Spirit, our own stories are made to cohere in the story of Jesus. Where our lives were fragmented, they are now integrated. Where we were without hope and without a future, we now receive the cohesion of a fitting end from the future of the risen Jesus.

When we speak of the End, therefore, we are speaking of this narrative fittingness that integrates our stories into the story of Jesus. In the final act of a play, all the preceding acts are brought together in a coherent dramatic unity. So too, the final End that we await is the act by which God’s Spirit gathers all our individual, fragmented stories and pieces them together. The Spirit comes from the Father and integrates us into the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection – which is to say, into the event of God’s own life. By including all our little broken stories in his own story, God therefore raises us to participate in his life. Our stories become part of God’s story – yes, part of God’s identity!

Here and now in the present, the Christian community is the place where this narrative cohesion is already anticipated in advance. Here and now – in proclamation, in baptism and in Eucharist – we re-tell and re-enact the story of Jesus as the dramatic unity of the whole created world. Here and now, in acts of justice, beauty and peace, we anticipate the sheer goodness of this story’s conclusion – a cosmic goodness in which chaos, violence and injustice are finally overcome. Here and now, as we live in the freedom of the Spirit and share in each other’s lives, we experience – or rather, we are – the foretaste of the joyful freedom that this story promises. In such ways, the Christian community thus performs God’s deity as an event whose dramatic unity already integrates our lives here and now, and whose conclusion will finally be revealed as the hope and the meaning of all things.

Our existence is thus placed in a new context, transposed into a new key, and we are set free by the Spirit to participate in the unceasing harmony of God’s own thrice-repeated deity. In this divine harmony, all created things find their meaning, their place, their fittingness. And so, in the end, all creatures are brought together in this surprising and joyful dramatic unity, this story of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, this story of the God who is love.

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama, Vol. 5 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998).
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2, § 47; IV/3, §73.
  • Fergusson, David and Marcel Sarot, eds. The Future as God’s Gift (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 395-411.
  • Jenson, Robert W. God after God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), pp. 157-79.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Coming of God (London: SCM, 1996).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 527-646.
  • Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, Vol. 2 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1963), pp. 203-216.

Wednesday 29 November 2006

An even worse liturgical invention

A while back we were all discussing the worst liturgical invention. But my wife has now come across one that’s hard to beat. On the weekend she visited a large church, and the church’s newsletter included the following announcement:

Water baptisms: held the last Sunday of every month.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit: held the second Sunday of every month.

One cannot even parody such an announcement, since it is already its own parody. Anyway, my own suggestion was that they should also schedule regeneration for Tuesday evenings and sanctification for the third Friday of every month.

Reading Paul Tillich

The indefatigable Patrik has now completed his vast 36-part series on Paul Tillich’s systematic theology. Be sure to check out this excellent series – and then take that dusty old copy of Tillich down from the shelf and read a little.

Tuesday 28 November 2006

Pannenberg's eschatological ontology

One of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s most fascinating and controversial ideas is his eschatological ontology. For Pannenberg, the being or essence of a thing is determined by its future. The future exercises a “retroactive” (rückwirkend) causality on the present – and so a thing can possess its essence here and now only by anticipating what it will be in the future.

This is admittedly a very complex cluster of ideas. But in his important book on Metaphysics and the Idea of God, Pannenberg explains all this with a very helpful illustration taken from his home garden (apparently he is quite an avid gardener). His illustration focuses on the pretty zinnia:

“A zinnia is already a zinnia as a cutting and remains one during the entire process of its growth up to blossoming, even though the flower bears its name on account of its blossom. If there were only a single such flower, we could not determine its nature in advance; and yet over the period of its growth it would still be what it revealed itself to be at the end. It would possess its essence through anticipation, though only at the end of the developmental process would one be able to know that this was its essence.” (p. 105)

In a similar way, Pannenberg says that all being is determined retroactively from the future of God’s eternal kingdom.

Monday 27 November 2006

The experiential egg or the doctrinal chicken?

On his nicely redesigned blog, Aaron discusses Yale and Chicago approaches to doctrine: “Which came first, the mature chicken that is developed religious tradition, or the nascent egg of potentially-meaningful experience?”

The highest form of thought

“It is simply the case that the highest and most comprehensive form of thought is adoration. Prayer is the most decisive word that a person can say. There are some highly articulate scholars who are yet in an ultimate sense deaf-mutes: they do not listen to the word of God, and have nothing to say to God.”

—Karl Rahner, Mission and Grace: Essays in Pastoral Theology, Vol. 2 (London: Sheed & Ward, 1964), p. 108.

Sunday 26 November 2006

Bob Dylan on the Bible

“There are over 20 million Bibles distributed every year, and the Bible can be read aloud in 70 hours – though you might want to take a nap between the Old and New Testaments. Nine out of every ten Americans own at least one Bible – what’s up with the other guy?”

—Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour, Episode 19: “The Bible,” 6 September 2006.

John Howard Yoder conference

A reader has kindly alerted us to this conference: Inheriting John Howard Yoder: A New Generation Examines his Thought, 25-26 May 2007.

Friday 24 November 2006

David Clough: Ethics in Crisis

David Clough, Ethics in Crisis: Interpreting Barth’s Ethics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), xix + 143 pp. (with thanks to Ashgate for a review copy)

When Bruce McCormack published his great work on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology in 1995, the whole field of Barth scholarship was decisively altered. Previously, it had been accepted that there was a sharp divide in Barth’s theology between an early “dialectical” method (as in the commentary on Romans) and a later “analogical” method (as in the Church Dogmatics). But McCormack demonstrated that there was no such divide, and that Barth’s theology was in fact consistently dialectical.

In this recent addition to Ashgate’s excellent Barth Studies series, David Clough seeks to build on McCormack’s work by uncovering the deep continuity between Barth’s earlier and later ethical thought. The structure of Clough’s book is simple but effective: he explores the dialectical character of Barth’s ethics in the commentary on Romans (1922), and then he compares this with the more elaborate ethical material in the Church Dogmatics (1932-67). In particular, Clough focuses on three main ethical themes in both Romans and the Church Dogmatics: first metaethics, then love and community, and finally war and revolution. And in each case he argues that Barth’s ethics can be understood properly only when its dialectical character is observed.

Clough demonstrates that some of the recurring criticisms of Barth’s ethical work rest on a failure to perceive the dialectical structure of his ethics. Barth has, for instance, often been accused of occasionalism, or of failing to specify in advance exactly how we hear God’s command. But Clough points out that Barth did not simply “forget” to address such problems – rather, to establish definite principles in such areas would be to “resolve the oppositional tensions in Barth’s ethical thought, close up the openings to the divine command they create, and enact the system he rejects” (p. 114). By situating ethical problems between opposing dialectical statements, Barth seeks to clarify the space in which God’s command may be encountered, rather than prescribing any specific forms of action.

As Clough notes, then, the question to ask is “not whether we should be more systematic in our ethics, but whether we may be” (p. 118) – whether as humans standing before God we can in fact aim for anything more than “to make ethics open to God’s command” (p. 132). For Barth, ethics should never aim to be too systematic; it should never attempt undialectically to describe in advance what God’s command will look like. On the contrary, the task of ethics is more modest and yet more challenging: not to be prescriptive, but to bear witness “to the One who is other than we are” (p. 12).

All theological ethics is thus caught up in a dialectical tension, in a situation of crisis. On the one hand, we are never able to say in advance what God’s command will be; and on the other hand, it is our responsibility to reflect on God’s command, so that we can be ready in each new situation to hear and obey. Ethics, therefore, is “a profoundly problematic but nonetheless inescapable task” (p. xv). It is always precarious, unstable, “set on the edge of a knife” (p. 14).

Clough concludes his study by bringing Barth into conversation with contemporary ethics. Barth’s dialectical ethics, he argues, can offer a way forwards beyond ethical absolutism on the one hand and postmodern ethical relativism on the other. As Clough notes, absolutist ethical models remain deeply entrenched in parts of the Christian church today. In such models – whether appealing to the Bible or to spiritual experience or to ecclesial authority – Christians claim to have “a certain … knowledge of God’s will for how human beings are to live” (p. 123). In contrast, relativist ethicists rightly perceive the “complexity and indeterminacy” of ethics, but merely throw up their hands at the possibility of the whole ethical enterprise (p. 124).

A dialectical ethics, however, offers a way beyond this impasse. Such an ethics offers not a complete system that can resolve all ethical problems in advance, but only a specific way of approaching concrete ethical problems. It is neither prescriptive nor merely critical; instead, it seeks “to remind us of the space in which Christian ethics must exist” (p. 131). This space is opened up by the crisis of all ethics: we must respond to God’s command, and yet we cannot guarantee in advance what God’s command will be. By situating our ethical reflection within this space – within this crisis – we wait for “encounter with God’s living Word,” in openness “to the unexpected grace of God” (p. 137).

David Clough’s Ethics in Crisis offers both significant contribution to the interpretation of Barth’s development, and a sharp and suggestive proposal for our contemporary task of reflecting theologically on the nature of human action and the will of God.

Thursday 23 November 2006

Karl Barth on capitalism

“Fundamentally, the command of God … is self-evidently and in all circumstances a call for counter-movements on behalf of humanity and against its denial in any form – and therefore a call for the championing of the weak against every kind of encroachment on the part of the strong. The Christian community has undoubtedly been too late in seeing this in face of the modern capitalistic development of the labour process, and it cannot escape some measure of responsibility for the injustice characteristic of this development…. The main task of Christianity in the West is … to assert the command of God in face of [capitalism], and to keep to the ‘left’ in opposition to its champions, i.e., to confess that it is fundamentally on the side of the victims of this disorder and to espouse their cause.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 544 (KD III/4, pp. 624-25).

Wednesday 22 November 2006

Ten propositions on being human

by Kim Fabricius

1. To be human is to be contingent. This has to be said first because while ontologically it is rather obvious, existentially it is deeply problematical. One way or another, we all know that we are not necessary, that we are here without a by-your-leave, that we have been “thrown” into existence. Whether by a vicious fastball, a deceptive slider, or a graceful curve depends on your faith – or, better, your trust. But human beings do not live this knowledge of contingency. Gifts of God to the world, we live like we are God’s gift to the world. We act like we are self-caused, self-made, independent, indispensable, as though our non-existence were inconceivable. We act, in other words, like God. And in acting like God we act against God. We sin.

2. To be human is to be self-contradictory. Sin is a surd, or, as Barth said, an impossible possibility. That is why we cannot fit sin into any system: it is inherently inexplicable, irrational – it doesn’t compute. To be human is also to be self-contradictory in the sense that in acting against God, we act against ourselves: we are self-destructive – we are always pushing our delete key. Indeed, left to ourselves we would destroy ourselves, irretrievably, which is not only murder but intended mass murder, for in destroying ourselves we would destroy the world. Homicide is always misdirected suicide. War always begins with a Blitzkrieg on the self. Augustine’s amor sui is in fact self-hatred.

3. To be human is to be physical. We are made from earth, we return to the elements, but the human form is a wonder to behold: “the head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion” (Blake). Of course: this is because we are made in the image of God and God is physical – and beautiful. Process theologians are wrong when they suggest that the world is God’s body: God has his own body. God is Spirit, but “to think about the Spirit you have to think materially” (Eugene F. Rogers Jr.), you have to think body. Further, to be human is to be sexual. Desmond Tutu once said that Adam’s first word upon awakening from the surgery that issued in Eve was “Wow!” To which Eve no doubt replied, “You’re not so bad yourself!”

4. To be human is to be spiritual. But not, needless to say, spiritual as against physical. Unlike Greek anthropology, Christian anthropology is not dualist, it understands human beings as ensouled bodies and embodied souls. Faith itself, Luther said, “is under the left nipple.” Hence the crypto-gnosticism of any soma sema “withdrawal” spirituality. We may speak of the “inner life”, of “interiority”, but it “is neither a flight from relation, nor the quest for an impossible transparency or immediacy in relation, but that which equips us for knowing and being known humanly, taking time with the human world” (Rowan Williams). The self is not secret, it is social.

5. To be human is to be relational. Again, of course: this is because God, as Trinity, is relational. The perichoretic God makes perichoretic people. God’s being-as-communion overflows in humans’ being-in-community. Jesus was the “man for others” (Bonhoeffer); humans have no being apart from others. Humanity is co-humanity: our very identities are “exocentric” (Pannenberg). Margaret Thatcher notoriously said that there is no such thing as society; on the contrary, there is no such thing as autonomy. Here lies the bankruptcy of all social contract theory. Further, as relational, social beings, we are linguistic beings, modelled on the Deus loquens. Here lies the theological import of Wittgenstein’s observation that there is no such thing as a private language.

6. To be human is to be responsible. That is the inner meaning of the “dominion” of Genesis 1:26, which is a dominion not of domination but of stewardship, “dominion by caretaking” (Michael Welker). Yet again, of course: God the world-maker is God the care-taker. Humans properly stand over other creatures only as they stand with other creatures, showing them love, giving them space, and granting them “rights”. Humans are royally privileged, but noblesse oblige. Thus to be human is to be ecological. It is also, of course, to be political. Finally, insofar as we do as we are, we are free – for freedom, libertas, is not the freedom of “choice”, which in fact is slavery, but the freedom for service.

7. To be human is to be ludic. Humans are the animal that plays and laughs. And – yet again – of course: this is because God plays and laughs. Creation itself is play, not work. On the first Sabbath God smiled – and partied! Eight-year-old Solveig is right, against her Poppi, that “Santa Claus is very much like God”, because he is so “jolly” (in Robert Jenson’s Conversations with Poppi about God). And (in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) the bespectacled Franciscan William is right, against the blind Dominican Jorge, that Jesus surely laughed, because he was fully human (tellingly, Jorge objects because laughter “convulses the body” – like sex). Indeed when humans laugh they ape the angels, who, as Chesterton said, “can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

8. To be human is to be doxological. In Peter Shaffer’s play Equus one of the characters says that if we don’t worship, we shrink. Not to worship is spiritual desiccation. Worship is to the heart what water is to the tongue. Not that worship is for anything. Worship, in fact, is totally useless. Indeed the question “Why worship God?” is a foolish one. “We worship God because God is to be worshipped” (J. R. Neuhaus); indeed God, as Trinity, is worship. As service is the ultimate expression of our freedom before others, so worship is the ultimate expression of our freedom before God. It is also the ultimate expression of human dignity, “man well drest”, as George Herbert imaged it; indeed “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.”

9. To be human is to be Christ-like. Indeed we are not truly human, only Christ is truly human, the iconic human, the imago Dei: and God himself “is Christ-like, and in him there is no un-Christ-likeness at all” (John V. Taylor). Here is the truth in the Eastern concept of deification, better, perhaps, called Christification. We are human only as we are conformed to the imago Christi, only as we are in Christ, dead and risen in him. Thus anthropology is a corollary of Christology – and staurology: Ecce homo! Thus baptism is the sacrament of humanity, because it is the sacrament of our death and resurrection en Christo (Romans 6:1-11) – and this is no metaphor! Through baptism, we become human beings – proleptically.

10. To be human is to be glorified. Anthropology is Christology is eschatology. If God has “the future as the essence of his being” (Moltmann), so too do humans. And as “the Spirit is God’s own future that he is looking forward to” (Robert Jenson), so the Spirit is the perfecter of the human. Thus the “being” in my title is a gerund: being human is a becoming human. In trajectory towards the telos, we live by promise and hasten in hope, the heart of the human. In the end, the Father will sit us on his knee and show us what we were really like – and who we really are. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him” (I John 3:2). Glorified, we will glorify – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – “sweetly singing to each other” (Jonathan Edwards).

   And all shall be well and
   All manner of things 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.
   —T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets

Where is God's body?

“[I]t is tempting to say that the space occupied by the bread and cup, and by the space-occupying aspects of the church’s sacraments and sacramental life generally, is God’s pad in his creation.... Saying this would redefine heaven christologically: heaven would exist only in that the Incarnation occurs, only in that God incarnationally occupies space in his creation. It would become conceptually impossible to describe the Creator’s presence to his creatures without reference to Jesus Christ.”

—Robert W. Jenson, “You Wonder Where the Body Went,” in Essays in Theology of Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 221.

Tuesday 21 November 2006

John Webster: Confessing God

John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 232 pp. (with thanks to T&T Clark for a review copy)

“The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend, and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel” (p. 1). John Webster’s latest collection of essays in dogmatics opens with this programmatic statement. Some of Webster’s central commitments are clearly expressed in this opening statement: in particular, the ideas of God’s presence and of God’s perfection.

For Webster, God’s perfection is “the sovereign and majestic fullness with which God is himself” (p. 1). To speak of God’s perfection is thus “to indicate this one in the supreme radiance and completeness of his triune being and act” (p. 88). Following Barth, Webster affirms that God’s perfection includes within itself the movement in which God turns towards his creatures in grace. This means that God’s presence to humanity should not be conceived of as a mediated presence – as though God were essentially remote from his creatures. On the contrary, God is perfect in his movement towards us; he is perfect in his electing prevenience. In Jesus Christ, God is always already “majestically and spontaneously present” (p. 188).

Such an emphasis on the unmediated character of God’s presence has far-reaching significance for the way in which Webster articulates various theological themes. For instance, while biblical hermeneutics often posits a fundamental gap between scripture and the contemporary interpreter, Webster argues that there is no such gap: scripture is already “clear” because of God’s own radiant presence to us (chapter 2). Thus on the basis of God’s prevenient presence we need only develop “an untroubled and circumscribed hermeneutics” (p. 46).

Or, for another example, in an essay on ecclesiology (chapter 7) Webster emphasises the relationship between Christ and the church as one of “precedence and subsequence, giving and receiving” (p. 170) – it is a relationship established by God’s prevenient presence and action. Thus the church is neither an extension of divine agency nor merely a specific form of social community, but it is a responsive movement towards the presence and actuality of the perfect God. Again, in discussing the method of christology (chapter 6), Webster argues against any a priori inquiry into the conditions for knowledge of Jesus Christ, since such a procedure would undermine christology’s real object: the sheer presence of Jesus Christ in the radiance of his “lordly actuality” (p. 139).

These examples further highlight Webster’s consistent strategy of orienting all theological questions around the doctrine of God. We can talk about the clarity of scripture, for instance, only by first understanding the radiant clarity of God’s own self-communicating presence (chapter 2); we can talk about the church only by first understanding the prevenient act and being of the God of the gospel (chapter 7); we can talk about human action only by first understanding the perfect act with which God turns towards his creatures in grace (chapter 8); we can talk about an “ethics of freedom” only by first developing a “dogmatics of freedom” in which God’s own freedom-for-us is articulated (chapter 9).

This profound and rigorous concentration on God’s perfection, God’s prevenience, God’s actuality underlies all Webster’s dogmatic work. And it is precisely this concentration that grounds Webster’s methodological approach to dogmatics as a positive ecclesial science. Theology does not seek to generate knowledge of God; rather, it arises from that knowledge of God which is already present in the church (p. 142). The task of theology, then, is not merely to criticise or reinvent Christian belief (p. 83), but to repeat God’s name, to utter that which has already been uttered (p. 114). Theology therefore has a fundamentally descriptive rather than analytic task (p. 93).

Further, the distinctiveness of theology as an academic discipline lies not in the fact that it talks about God, but in the fact that it invokes God “as agent in the intellectual practice of theology” (p. 25). This positive science therefore requires a “conversion” and “reordering” of reason (p. 112), a grasping of reason by the gracious perfection of God. Methodologically, too, theology thus remains committed to the prevenient actuality of the God of the gospel.

The remarkable essays in this collection show clearly that John Webster is emerging not only as the finest theological thinker working in Britain today, but also as one of the most promising dogmatic theologians anywhere in the world.

David Bentley Hart among the Barthians

Speaking of duels, I’ve been really looking forward to hearing about the recent exchange between George Hunsinger and David Bentley Hart. Brian, David and Joshua have now posted excellent summaries of the session, and it sounds as though it was an interesting discussion. From the reports so far, though, I can’t help feeling that perhaps the criticisms of Hart didn’t quite get to the bottom of things: certainly Hart isn’t interested in replacing the mediation of Christ with “being”!

Instead of attempting the complicated task of directly comparing Hart’s analogia entis with Barth’s theology, perhaps it would be more illuminating to compare Hart’s conception with the formulations of the Catholic theologians Erich Przywara and Hans Urs von Balthasar – and then, via Balthasar, it might be possible to see how Hart relates to Barth’s famous anathema.

In any case, it’s good to see Hart’s work receiving the close attention it deserves.

Monday 20 November 2006

How to settle a theological debate

The Synod of Dort (1618-19) is well known for its confessional formulation of Calvinist soteriology against the theology of the Dutch Arminians. At the Synod, there was extensive debate within the Calvinist party over the question whether predestination is an “infralapsarian” or a “supralapsarian” decree (i.e. whether or not the decree of election logically precedes the decree to permit the fall).

This debate became so heated that on two occasions Francis Gomarus (a high Calvinist) challenged Matthias Martinius (a moderate Calvinist) to a duel.

I suppose that’s a fairly definite way of settling a theological debate – in any case, this sort of thing would certainly add a bit of liveliness to some of our religious studies conferences...

Interdisciplinary controversy

“But the systematic theologian must not shy away from interdisciplinary controversy…. Controversy is far better than unrelated coexistence, because in controversy we are still concerned for the truth, which is only one.”

—Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 19.

The question of pacifism: a response to Kim Fabricius

Over at Nothing New Under the Sun, Andrew Errington has started a new series in response to Kim’s various posts here on Shalomism (i.e. pacifism). Andrew agrees with Kim that the question of pacifism should be settled christologically – but his counter-question is: “Does the pacifist position inevitably end up with a Jesus who dies but is not then exalted?”

It will certainly be interesting to see how this series unfolds!

Just one more thing...

Recently, Jo posted a list of essential detective fiction for theologians. Now, over at Levellers, Michael offers a theological appreciation of that great and endearing detective: Columbo.

Sunday 19 November 2006

Thought for the day

Preparing a good sermon is rather like preparing a marinara sauce. The real secret lies not so much in knowing what should be included as in knowing what should be left out.

Saturday 18 November 2006

The hazards of liturgical Latin

“At that time, the rest of Europe was reduced to a heap of ruins; one day they declared invalid all baptisms imparted by certain priests in Gaul because they baptized ‘in nomine patris et filiae’ – and not because they practiced a new heresy and considered Jesus a woman, but because they no longer knew any Latin.”

—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (London: Minerva, 1992), p. 312.

Friday 17 November 2006

The justification of theology

“The justification for a faculty of theology in the university lies in its willingness to bear witness to an eschatological disclosure of the ultimate foundation of all the disciplines and, in so doing, to the meaningfulness of all disciplines in spite of their inability to demonstrate their foundations…. [T]heology serves the other sciences best when it acts as a disruptive influence; when it reminds the other sciences of their inability to demonstrate their ultimate presuppositions…. If faculties of theology could learn once again to perform this function, they will truly deserve their place at the table. If they do not, if they continue to allow theology to be transformed into metaphysics or reduced to anthropology, well, we ought not to be surprised if theology loses its place altogether.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “Theology and Science: Karl Barth’s Contribution to an Ongoing Debate,” Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 22 (2006), p. 59.

The hidden God of R. S. Thomas

Over at Connexions, Kim has posted an excellent piece on R. S. Thomas, “poet of the hidden God.”

“... He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.”

Thursday 16 November 2006

Theology for beginners

You might have noticed that my interest in the Theology for Beginners series has lapsed for a few weeks – but I’ve finally found the time and energy to write the last two posts (“Completion” and “Glorification”). So I’ll aim to post these within the next week or two. Sorry for the delay – and thanks to all those who sent me emails prodding me to finish the series!

Mark from Beer Hall Revival has designed a very nice Theology for Beginners drop-down menu for his sidebar, so I might put this on the sidebar here for a few weeks too once the series is finished.

Later, I might also try to post a few retrospective additions to the series, e.g. a post on revelation, a post on the divine perfections, and an alternative opening post (the first post, on Faith, is really the worst part of the series – and, as some readers suggested, I’d like to try starting with “Gospel” instead).

Finally, a big thanks to the friends who’ve helped me with the series: in particular, Mike Bird and Jim West gave me feedback on drafts of the OT- and NT-related posts, and Kim Fabricius gave me generous feedback on many of the drafted posts. The series would have been a lot worse without all this help!

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Why I am a Shalomite

Excerpts from a sermon by Kim Fabricius (read the whole thing here)

All my sermons have titles. I thought of calling this one “Why I Am a Pacifist.” But the term is too loaded to be of any theological use. So the title is, instead, “Why I Am a Shalomite.” It’s a term I made up – shalom, as you know, is the Hebrew word for peace, and includes the notions of human well-being and creation perfected. […]

As the American Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it – because he puts it so much better than I could: “Non-violence is not one among other behavioural implications that can be drawn from the gospel but is integral to the shape of Christian convictions.” And further – and to the point of the point: “Nonviolence is not just one implication among others that can be drawn from our Christian beliefs; it is the very heart of our understanding of God.” You see I am a Shalomite – and I believe that at least all Christians and, in principle, all people should be Shalomites – not because of anything I know about the world or human beings, or through a calculus of war and peace, “but because of something I know about Jesus” (William Willimon) and because of something Jesus knows about God: namely, that God is a God of Shalom, that (to adapt what St John says about God and light and darkness) God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all.

And what is Christian ethics, what is the very heart of following the way of Jesus, if not learning to be like the God of Jesus? And how do we learn to be like the God of Jesus if not by obeying the teaching of Jesus? And what is the teaching of Jesus if not: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48)?

We are called to be like God: perfect as God is perfect. It is a perfection that comes by following and learning to be like this particular man Jesus of Nazareth. That is why being a Shalomite is not an ethic of principles, laws, values, or consequences, but an ethic that derives from and demands that we attend to the life and teaching of this specific individual who challenged his culture of violence by engaging in active non-violence, and who ended up on a cross. End of story, you might say, because Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the end of story, the climax of the story, God’s story of creation and redemption: the crucified Christ who yet lives.

I don’t need to say anymore. That is my explanation of why I am a Shalomite. And I don’t intend, because I don’t need – and it is not in my power anyway – to try to persuade you to be a Shalomite too. At the risk of sounding presumptuous – the risk, in any case, that a preacher takes every time he climbs the pulpit and dares to proclaim the Word of God – only the Holy Spirit can turn you into a Shalomite. […]

This alternative world and alternative lifestyle described in the gospels and proclaimed and embodied in Jesus is the real world, a world of grace and truth – and, yes, peace – the real world compared to which the so-called real world, the world of power politics, of wars and rumours of war, is nothing but a grotesque shadow destined to disappear in the full glare of the sun of righteousness.

So my job today is done as I conclude, “Look! See! God’s New World! God’s New People!”

Critiquing O'Donovan

The new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology contains some excellent work on Luther, John Zizioulas, Eberhard Jüngel, christology, hermeneutics, and more.

In view of all the recent discussion here of pacifism, some of you might especially be interested in Justin Neufeld’s article, “Just War Theory, the Authorization of the State, and the Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: How John Howard Yoder Can Save Oliver O’Donovan from Himself,” IJST 8:4 (2006), 411-32.

In this searching critique, Neufeld argues that “O’Donovan’s authorization of secular authority to mediate God’s judgements is the product of an ontology that rules out beforehand both the possibility that Jesus’ death is decisive for understanding his mediatorial representation and, as a result, the possibility that the task set before the church is to model alternatives to the state based on its acquaintance with its own practices of reconciliation and discernment.”

Tuesday 14 November 2006

Tim Perry: Mary for Evangelicals

Tim Perry, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 320 pp. (with thanks to IVP for a review copy)

Since Vatican II, we have seen remarkable developments in ecumenical understanding between Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. But Mariology has remained a point of special contention. The progress in ecumenical understanding was most evident in the CCET’s 2002 conference on “Mary: Mother of God” – and in recent years, American writers like Donald Bloesch, Timothy George and Robert Jenson have made significant steps towards the development of a Protestant Mariology. But until now we have not witnessed a full-scale Mariology written from an evangelical perspective.

In this bold and ambitious new book (released last week), Tim Perry seeks to fill this gap, and to provide a biblical, historical and dogmatic account of the place of Mary in the faith of the church.

Perry begins with a careful exegetical analysis of the diverse portrayals of Mary in the New Testament. For Paul, Mary is merely as an anonymous mother, while Mark portrays her negatively as a misguided opponent to Jesus’ ministry and Matthew focuses on the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. Only in Luke/Acts does Mary begin to emerge as “a major character” (p. 63) with her own theological significance. Perry admits that it is impossible to reconstruct a “historical Mary” based on the material in Luke/Acts; Luke’s infancy narrative is “theological history,” and as a result our interpretation must be concerned not with “the history behind the text” but only with “the text itself” (p. 66). It is especially by “relocat[ing] the locus of God’s salvation from the death and resurrection of Jesus to his miraculous conception and birth” that Luke is led to confer “a new, higher status” on Mary (p. 94).

If the Lucan Mary bears some traces of symbolic representation, it is in the Johannine literature that Mary becomes virtually submerged in theological symbolism. Paradoxically, on the one hand the Johannine literature treats Mary as “a highly developed literary device” (p. 113), but on the other hand Mary’s individuality almost entirely recedes from view. (For instance, the Fourth Gospel refers to Mary simply as “the mother of Jesus” or even “woman”!) Thus Perry observes that the Johannine Mary is, in some ways, really not far from Paul’s depiction of an anonymous mother (p. 113).

Perry therefore concludes that there are two main ways of depicting Mary in the New Testament: there is “Mary the person” and “Mary the symbol.” And in his finely drawn survey of the historical development of Mariology in the West (pp. 119-263), Perry highlights the ways in which the symbolic Mary “has come almost completely to suffocate” the individuality of Mary the person. If we are to develop a biblically responsible Mariology, then, we must give far greater emphasis to “Mary the person,” to the one “who hovers on the margins of her society and on the fringes of the biblical text” (p. 263).

Turning at last to a constructive dogmatic Mariology, Perry argues that Mariology finds its “theological anchor” in the confession of Theotokos, Mother of God (p. 267). The Theotokos makes it clear that Mariology “naturally arises out of Christology – what the church confesses about Mary stems from and is intended to clarify what it believes about Christ” (p. 269). And, for Perry, the importance of the Theotokos can hardly be overstated: “if Mary did not bear God in her womb – if she is not Theotokos – human beings are not saved” (p. 271).

Next, Perry follows Karl Barth in emphasising the sign-character of Mary’s virginity. Her virginity is not primarily a matter of sexual abstinence, but it is the positive determination of her being as “wholehearted fidelity to the prophetic calling of bearing the Word of God” (p. 284).

Further, Perry focuses on divine predestination as the determination of Mary’s place in God’s plan. Drawing closely on Robert Jenson’s account of election and pre-existence, Perry argues that just as the Son’s pre-existence is not an atemporal preincarnate existence but rather a (supralapsarian) movement towards incarnation, so too Mary herself must be regarded as eternally elected to be Theotokos: “If the man Jesus Christ is elect from all eternity to be the humanity of God, then the woman Mary is elect from all eternity to be the mother of that man who is God” (p. 288). Moreover, Mary’s holiness should be understood not in legendary or quasi-biological terms, but simply as “the faithfulness with which she embraced and pursued the divine commission to be the slave of the Lord” (p. 293). Mary’s sanctity, then, consists precisely in her “paradigmatic human response to the grace of God disclosed in Christ” – and not in any legendary notions of a miraculous beginning or end to her life (p. 295).

Finally, on the basis of Mary’s role as Theotokos, Perry argues that we can give a proper place to her role as intercessor, mediator and advocate – although he suggests that, from his own Reformed perspective, Mary’s role as coredemptrix can be affirmed “only in the weakest possible sense,” since from this perspective Mary cannot be regarded as cooperating synergistically with grace (p. 306).

The underlying argument of this whole dogmatic account of Mariology is that some of the central loci of Christian theology will be incomplete and unbalanced unless they also integrate Mariological reflection. Christology requires an emphasis on Mary as Theotokos; the doctrine of God requires an emphasis on Mary’s place in divine election; and ecclesiology requires an emphasis on Mary’s ongoing role in the faith and life of the church. In short, “to pass over Mariology … inevitably leaves other central Christian doctrines underdeveloped” (p. 268).

With its sophisticated historical and exegetical grounding, its careful subjection of church tradition to the witness of Scripture, and its ambitious attempt to integrate Mariology into the whole structure of Protestant dogmatics, this book offers an important and challenging contribution to the contemporary ecumenical conversation.

Interviewing Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham’s new book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, will be released soon, and it could have a major impact on New Testament scholarship. Our friend Chris Tilling has interviewed Bauckham about this book, and he’s now releasing the interview in a series of posts: the first two posts are here and here. Be sure to follow the rest of the series as well at Chrisendom.

Monday 13 November 2006

The analogia entis makes a comeback: David Bentley Hart

This week’s meeting of the Karl Barth Society of North America sounds excellent, and the session on David Bentley Hart will no doubt be of great interest. Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) is one of the most important and brilliant theological works of recent years – so if you haven’t yet managed to read it, this might be a good opportunity. On Saturday there will be papers by George Hunsinger and Archie Spencer, with a response by Hart himself, on the topic: “The Analogia Entis Makes a Come-Back – David Bentley Hart.”

Karl Barth famously remarked that the analogy of being (analogia entis) is both “the invention of antichrist” and the only good reason for not becoming a Roman Catholic. And in a shrewd reversal of this statement, Hart suggests (p. 242) that the rejection of the analogia entis might in fact be “the invention of antichrist” and “the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant”!

Hart is not, however, interested in reviving “any naïve natural theology.” For him, the analogia entis has nothing to do with an essentialist analogy between created being and divine being: “the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of being, but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures; it is as subversive of the notion of a general and univocal category of being as of the equally ‘totalizing’ notion of ontological equivocity.” (pp. 241-42).

Being itself always already differs, and our being lies before us “as gratuity and futurity,” so that “the analogy of being … is the event of our existence as endless becoming” (p. 243). In this event of becoming, we participate in the beauty of God’s own infinity: “God is the infinity of being in which every essence comes to be, the abyss of subsistent beauty into which every existence is outstretched” (p. 245). Precisely as we participate in God, our own differences are accentuated ever more sharply – indeed, Hart suggests that the eschatological kingdom itself will simply be “the endless liberation of difference into the light” (p. 400).

For Hart, therefore, the analogia entis does not concern my being as such, but rather the event in which my act of being participates in God’s transcendent act of being and thus receives from God its own otherness and particularity. The analogia entis thus describes my freedom to be, my emancipation from the totalising violence of identity (p. 245).

Ironically, then, while the analogia entis has often been understood as the reduction of differences to some essential similarity (e.g. that God and creatures share in common something called “being”), Hart brilliantly reverses this line of thought, so that “the analogy of being finds truth in the ever greater particularity of each thing as it enters ever more into the infinite that gives it being” (p. 247). Or, to put it more sharply: the analogy of being describes the triumph of the infinite over every kind of totality. Hence, although Hart seldom uses the term “analogy of being,” one could perhaps argue that the reformulated analogia entis is really at the core of his entire dogmatic proposal.

What will contemporary Barth studies and contemporary dogmatics make of all this? I for one would love to know! So if you happen to be there for the Barth Society Meeting this week, please feel welcome to drop me a line afterwards with some details about the discussion.

Karl Barth Society meeting

Philip Ziegler has sent me the updated programme for this week’s meeting (in Washington, DC) of the Karl Barth Society of North America. I’m very disappointed that I won’t be there myself – it looks like an excellent programme. For those of you who are be able to go, here are the full details:

SESSION I: Friday 17 November, 4.00–6.30 pm (this session is listed as AM17-109 in the AAR Program and will be held in CC-101)

  • Philip G. Ziegler: “Taken Out of Context – Freedom and Concreteness in the Theology of Wolf Krötke”
  • Wolf Krötke: “Barth on the Theology of the Religions”
SESSION II: Saturday 18 November, 9.00–11.30 am (this session is listed as AM18-39 in the AAR Program and will be held in RW-Renaissance West B)

Sunday 12 November 2006

Baptism and ecumenical unity

“Baptism is an incentive to promote the work of unification definitely and energetically. In this whole area, theological and pastoral differences have no really profound significance, much less a significance that could legitimate division.”

—Harald Wagner, in Hans Jörg Urban and Harald Wagner, eds., Handbuch der Ökumenik III/2 (Paderborn: Verlag Bonifatius-Druckerei, 1987), p. 149.

Friday 10 November 2006

Ten propositions on Karl Barth: theologian

by Kim Fabricius

1. Karl Barth was a Reformed theologian. Sounds like a no-brainer. And, yes, fundamental motifs of Barth’s theology have a definite Reformed pedigree – e.g., the glory, majesty, and grace of God; the primacy of the Word in Holy Scripture; the polemic against idolatry; the doctrine of election; the relationship between gospel and law; sanctification. But for Barth, the Reformed tradition was not so much a body of doctrine as a habit of mind. Observe that Barth got himself up to speed with Reformed dogmatics only after he had become famous for his two editions of Romans and taken up a lectureship at Göttingen. His was a theologia reformata only as it was also a theologia semper reformanda. His conversations with his Reformed forefathers, while deferential, were always critical. And the doctrines he inherited he always re-worked with daring and imagination.

2. Karl Barth was an ecumenical theologian. While recognising that theology is always confessional – there is no Archimedean point, you’ve got to stand and start somewhere – Barth insisted that the intentio theologiae must be catholic. His net was broad, its mesh tight, and he cast it far and wide: the magisterial Reformers, of course, but also the Fathers West and East, the medieval schoolmen, the Protestant scholastics, the nineteenth century liberals. Barth had a vibrant belief in the communio sanctorum, and could echo Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” The universal church was Barth’s oyster, and he found pearls (as well as grit!) throughout its history. His Catholic colleague at Basel Hans Urs von Balthasar paid Barth the ultimate compliment when he said that his friend was “a theologian and not a reformer.”

3. Karl Barth was an ecclesial theologian. When Barth began his writing and teaching career, theology was in captivity to the university. His teacher Adolf Harnack was aghast at his student’s cavalier attitude to the academically respectable historical-critical method, and his liberal peers dismayed by their colleague’s hostility to apologetics. However, for Barth, theology is the servant of the church, “called to perform the simple task of being the place where the church evaluates its own proclamation against its given norm, revelation” (John Webster). Hence Barth’s mature theology settled into the form of Church Dogmatics. The German title is Die kirchliche Dogmatik, which (George Hunsinger observes) might just as accurately be rendered Ecclesial Theology. And as the heart of the church is worship, so the soul of theology is prayer. For Barth, we can only talk about God because and as we talk to God.

4. Karl Barth was an exegetical theologian. Barth’s theology began in preaching; it is a homiletical theology. Indeed William Willimon suggests that no one “should venture to interpret Barth who is not a preacher.” And while Barth said that “preaching is exposition, not exegesis,” it certainly begins in exegesis, which he understood as the prayerful attentiveness to “the strange new world of the Bible.” Although Barth moved from the pulpit in Safenwil to the lectern in Göttingen, Münster, Bonn, and finally Basel, and preached very little until the end of his career, exegesis lay at the heart of his dogmatic enterprise. It is not surprising, therefore, that some readers of CD skip the large print altogether and go for the fine print of Barth’s close yet creative readings of scripture. Barth would be horrified at the widespread biblical illiteracy in today’s church, and were he suddenly to appear in our midst, his first words to us would no doubt be his last words to his students at Bonn before he departed for Basel in 1935: “Exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis!”

5. Karl Barth was a moral theologian. For Barth, the imperative of ethics is inextricably connected to the indicative of dogmatics. In announcing who he is, God tells us what to do. But for Barth the moral life is not rule-based, nor even biblicist: dogmatically mediated and contextually located, it is, above all, a matter of prayerful and thoughtful discernment. Nor is obedience a burden, indeed it is perfect freedom: it is gospel precisely as law. And it begins in gratitude: “Grace,” Barth said, “evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” Barth would have agreed with Blake: “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” He would also have had some sympathy with Blake’s radical politics! For Barth there was no such thing as a purely personal ethics; as a moral theologian he was, ipso facto, a political theologian. The author of the Barmen Declaration declared: “A silent community, merely observing the events of the time, would not be a Christian community.” And while the “Red pastor” of Safenwil knew that the left often gets it wrong, he mischievously suggested that conservatives rarely get it right.

6. Karl Barth was a scientific theologian. Not that Barth engaged with the natural sciences, he didn’t. Indeed his disciple Thomas Torrance found Barth’s indifference to science, and his conviction that science and theology are not only non-interactive but non-complementary disciplines, to be perhaps the greatest weakness of his mentor. Nor was Barth the least bit interested in methodology. Rather Barth was scientific in the sense of the German wissenschaftlich, following the observation of Martin Kähler that “every particular subject requires its own from of wissenschaftlich analysis.” In other words, Barth was scientific in the sense that he tailored his theology to the nature of the object of its investigation, namely the person and work of God. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, Barth’s theology was strictly scientific precisely because it was so exactingly Trinitarian and Christological.

7. Karl Barth was a poetic theologian. Indeed Maurice Wiles described Barth as a “theological poet.” Not since Luther has a theologian used such colloquial, energetic, and expressive language. Formally, Barth rejected rhetoric – “No eloquence!” was a slogan of his, particularly in preaching; materially, he was a master of it. Indeed Stephen H. Webb devotes a whole book to the subject: Re-Figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth (1991). And quite right, because how you say something is a significant part of the something you say. And because he was speaking about God, how could Barth avoid stretching his God-talk to breaking point – dialectical discourse corresponding to a dynamic deity, the word on the wing imitating (as he put it) “a bird in flight”? Barth is particularly adept in his deployment of irony and hyperbole, and his metaphors are always apt and memorable – and often explosive, a quality that attracted the novelist John Updike. Hence too Flannery O’Connor’s bon mot: “I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around.”

8. Karl Barth was a contextual theologian. In Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (1999), Timothy Gorringe shows the way Barth’s theology interfaces with and responds to the events of his time, how socially situated it is – even if often in contradiction, “against the stream.” In a sense, all Barth’s work is occasional. In June 1933, when he said that the urgent task was to get on with theology “as if nothing has happened,” Barth was not suggesting that the church withdraw to the hills in denial of the Nazification of Germany, rather he was declaring that National Socialism must not be allowed to set the agenda for the church. For Barth, theology must be related to the contemporary without being dominated by the contemporary, and so “more like the needle of a compass than a weather vane” (Eberhard Busch). Barth himself said: “My thinking, writing, and speaking developed from reacting to people, events, and circumstances with which I was involved.” But Barth also said: “Revelation is not a predicate of history, but history is a predicate of revelation.” So, yes, the Bible in one hand – the right; the newspaper in the other – the left.

9. Karl Barth was a joyful theologian. The evangel was at the centre of his life as well as his thought. But he delighted in the truth wherever he found it: bilingual, Barth was equally fluent in the languages of Zion and Babylon. Like God himself, he was an unashamed humanist, and an irrepressible lover of God’s good creation. Of course he adored Mozart, but, a keen film-goer, he was also head-over-heels about Marlene Dietrich, whom he intended to give a place in CD, “probably in eschatology.” And hilaritas, for Barth, was an inestimable virtue. “What a pity,” he once said about some over earnest fundamentalists, that they don’t “think it worth mentioning that human beings are the only creatures that laugh.” And one of his grandchildren wondered whether “the many creases in my face had developed because I spent so much of my life laughing.” And laughing at himself too. Just four days before he died in 1968, aged 82, Barth told some friends that he had finally found out why there was no end to his volumes of Dogmatics – “the lady in the hoop skirt,” all 28.6 pounds of her (another theologian called CD “Moby-Dick”): “My doctors discovered that my colon was much too long.” No wonder Barth has been called the “happiest theologian of our age.”

10. Karl Barth was a nomadic theologian. He was always a pilgrim in via, writing his doxological Dogmatics in a tent rather than a temple. It sounds trite to say that Barth was a theologian for all the ages, but it is surely significant that he has been called a modern, late modern, and post-modern thinker, with, for example, some scholars pointing to the obvious influence of Kant and Hegel, while other scholars have drawn parallels with Wittgenstein and Derrida. CD, of course, remained incomplete, an unfinished symphony, an un-spired cathedral. But perhaps that is not so much because Barth ran out of time. Perhaps it is because any dogmatics is inherently a work in progress, a fragment however huge. After all, every end is, in fact, a new beginning; it is just that we seldom recognise it at the time.

Writing on the side?

Scot McKnight has some good advice about writing.

Thursday 9 November 2006

Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold: Conversations with Poppi about God

Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 158 pp.

Robert W. Jenson is one of the world’s most profound, energetic and creative theological thinkers – and in my house, there is always great rejoicing when he publishes a new book. So it was a delight to read this remarkable little volume, released just last week (with thanks to Brazos Press for the review copy).

The book consists of a series of transcribed conversations between Jenson (“Poppi”) and his eight-year-old granddaughter, Solveig. The conversations were spontaneous and unscripted; each weekend while visiting her grandparents in Princeton, Solveig talked with “Poppi” about theology, and they recorded the conversations on a cassette recorder.

Their wide-ranging discussions cover everything from liturgy and Lucifer to hamsters and time machines; from church history and ancient Israel to evolution and capitalism. They explore denominational differences: she is a (rather liberal) Episcopalian, and he is “sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran” (p. 70). They talk about the Eucharist: she admits that communion is her “favourite part of going to church” since “I get to stretch and walk around a little” (p. 31). They talk about confirmation and a certain bishop who is “really stupid” (p. 34). They talk about whether masculine pronouns should be used for God (Solveig thinks they shouldn’t, and on one occasion she refers to God as “it” or “The God” [p. 102] – poor Poppi tries to change her mind, but without much success).

Naturally, Jenson’s side of the dialogue is full of sharp and memorable insights: “if heaven just goes on and on and on, and hell goes on and on and on, there’s not a whole lot of difference between them” (p. 15); “the Spirit is God’s own future that he is looking forward to” (p. 42); “if there are kings, that is because God is king, and there are Solveigs because there is something sweet and charming in God” (p. 29).

But, from the first page to the last, it is really Solveig who steals the show. She is perfectly spirited and cheeky and precocious – and even more intellectually adventurous than her famous grandfather. On one occasion she reminds him that “[Jesus] did not write your systematic theology” (p. 141). In another conversation, she wonders whether angels might in fact be “the hidden most important characters in the Bible” (p. 76). She has independent opinions about almost everything, and some of the most delightful conversations are those in which she remains firmly unconvinced by her grandfather’s arguments. In a discussion about heaven and hell, for instance (p. 132):

  Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?
  Solveig: Yes.
  Poppi: You know that is very controversial.
  Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Or in a conversation about Santa Claus (p. 28):

  Solveig: When people thought of Santa Claus – the idea of Santa Claus is very much like God…
  Poppi: No. It’s not.
  Solveig: Sort of. He’s just very jolly and very…
  Poppi: […] He is a little bit like God…
  Solveig: Very much like God.

Many of the conversations focus in different ways on the doctrine of the Trinity, and, theologically speaking, these are the richest and most rewarding parts of the book. In a discussion of pneumatology, there is even a cameo appeareance by the late Colin Gunton. When Solveig argues that the Spirit should come second, rather than third, in the trinitarian formula (“Father, Spirit, Son”), Poppi agrees with her, and the discussion continues (p. 146):

  Poppi: Actually, I agree with you too. I think Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement.
  Solveig: Have you thought that since you were born, or have you…
  Poppi: No, just the last couple of years.
  Solveig: You did?
  Poppi: Yeah.
  Solveig: When you started reading all these theologians?
  Poppi: I am a theologian; I don’t just read them. It’s an idea that’s floating around with a lot of us these days. Colin Gunton – our friend who just died – was very big on having the Holy Spirit in there right from the start.
  Solveig: He’s probably listening to us right now.
  Poppi: Could be.

Throughout these conversations, the generous, affectionate and spirited to-and-fro between grandfather and granddaughter offers a model of good theological dialogue. Neither party has all the answers; each is learning from the other; both are discovering new questions and new answers together. As Jenson remarks in his introductory note, the book is like a Platonic dialogue, “though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth” (p. 10).

Whether you’re a theologian or a child (or a bit of both), you’ll be sure to learn a great deal from these charming and insightful conversations. And if you’re looking for gift ideas this Christmas, what more could anyone want than an attractive hardcover book filled with cheerful conversations about God, Jesus, angels, and Santa Claus?

Paul DeHart's research in progress

I was so impressed by Paul DeHart’s new book that I emailed him to find out what his next research projects will be. He’s currently writing two books, and they both sound like exciting and important works.

First, he’s working on a book exploring the trajectory in English theology running from Donald MacKinnon through Rowan Williams to John Milbank. How do we get from the first two to the last? How can we make sense of this theological tradition, and of Milbank’s place in it?

Secondly, he’s also writing a book about Schleiermacher and the Trinity. He believes that we still have a lot to learn from Schleiermacher’s theology of the Trinity. In this book he’s exploring what Schleiermacher says about the Trinity, how his critiques of orthodox trinitarian doctrine were received, and how he compares on trinitarian issues with Hegel and Barth.

These will certainly be two books to look out for!

Wednesday 8 November 2006

Must-read detective fiction for theologians

A guest-post by JoBloggs

“That’s your job, searching for truth. You never get the whole truth, of course. How could you? You’re a very clever man, but what you do doesn’t result in justice. There’s the justice of men and the justice of God.” —Father Martin to Adam Dalgliesh, Death in Holy Orders (2001)

Detective fiction is about the corruptions of the human heart, the painstaking search for truth, and the complicated relationship between justice and the law. Almost inevitably, therefore, even the most formulaic detective story has something to say to the theologian. These ten books – some novels, some collections of short fiction – not only confront more or less explicitly theological questions, but are also well, even beautifully written. Some are classics in the mystery tradition, others take the genre and run a very long way with it.

So next time you’re getting bogged down in Barth, grab one of these off the shelf, mix yourself a gin and tonic, and settle in for an enjoyable afternoon’s reading:

  • The Innocence of Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton (1911)
  • The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (1939)
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (1934)
  • Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1984)
  • The Dumas Club, Arturo Perez-Reverte (1993)
  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Peter Hoeg (1993)
  • Death in Holy Orders, P. D. James (2001)
  • Black and Blue, Ian Rankin (1997)
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls, Alexander McCall Smith (2002)

Tuesday 7 November 2006

Top theological influences

Aaron is absolutely right – our theology may be influenced by books, but the deepest theological influences are almost always non-literary. These are the things that really construct us and constitute us as persons – only subsequently do we also make a few minor alterations through the influence of books.

Aaron lists his own top 20 influences: the environments, people, and lived experiences that have shaped his theology. I doubt that I’d be able to categorise these kinds of influences (which is really the point, since the deepest influences function tacitly). Wittgenstein famously observed that our language can’t even describe the aroma of coffee – much less can we articulate the experiences and discourses that construct us and give us being!

Still, if I were to try to list some of my own “top 20 theological influences,” I’d have to include (in no particular order):

  • The Eucharist
  • Certain Christmas carols
  • Psalm 23 (I was made to memorise this when I was very young, and ever since I’ve inhabited the “space” created by these words)
  • Walking on the beach (I spent my early childhood living on the bay of a small island, and for me the “meaning of life” is somehow inextricably connected with the sound of waves and the feeling of sand between my toes)
  • The experience of family community as I was growing up
  • A certain family/religious discourse in which the presence and reality of Jesus Christ were always unproblematic, always simply a “given” (I realised much later that such discourse is in fact the presupposition of all theological reflection)
  • Leaving the church tradition in which I was raised
  • Unexpected experiences of generosity and forgiveness
  • Conversations with an elderly Brethren missionary
  • Encounters with people whose theology had made them angry and self-enclosed
  • Holding my newborn child for the first time
  • The rich, diverse and surprising experiences of daily family life
  • Conversations with my wife
  • Reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which gave me “new eyes” (come on, you’ve got to let me include one literary experience!)

Benedict XVI on the meaning of death

Today in St Peter’s Square, Benedict XVI gave an address on the meaning of death:

“Since [Jesus], death is no longer the same: It has been deprived, so to speak, of its ‘venom.’ The love of God, acting in Jesus, has given new meaning to the whole of man’s existence and in this way has also transformed death. If in Christ human life is a departure ‘from this world to the Father’ (John 13:1), the hour of death is the moment in which this departure takes places in a concrete and definite way.”

Monday 6 November 2006

An African creed

On his excellent blog Missions and Theology, our friend Joey discusses theological education in Africa. This made me think of one of my favourite modern creeds – the Masai version of the Nicene Creed [correction: it’s a version of the Apostle’s Creed], which was developed in 1978 by missionaries in Africa. This cultural “translation” of the Nicene Creed strikes me as a perfect illustration of the whole theological task.

I can’t imagine anything more profound or more beautiful – or more true – than the statement that Jesus was “born poor in a little village,” or that he was “always on safari doing good,” or that “the hyenas did not touch him.” Here’s the full text, quoted from Beliefnet:

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

Novels to cry over

In addition to all the other recent top 20 lists, Byron has now posted a list of 20 novels that made him cry. I’ve added a comment listing some of my own selections too.

Saturday 4 November 2006

Hans Frei and the necessity of Jesus' resurrection

I’ve mentioned that Paul DeHart’s new book is an excellent and important work. As an example of the book’s acute insight, here’s an excerpt from one of the footnotes about Hans Frei:

“[Frei’s] claim, formally reminiscent of the ontological argument for God’s existence, [is] that the Jesus whose identity is properly recognized from the gospel portraits can only be conceived of as alive and present, that is as resurrected. This may strike some readers as bizarre and extravagant, but it need not be so perplexing. Frei is simply asserting that the resurrection accounts are integral to the stories which render Jesus Christ’s identity for the reader. In these stories the return from death in an exalted state due to the action of God is a necessary structural element in his total portrayal, making this ‘character’ the person he is throughout the entire narrative. Just as one does not and cannot know Alice as anyone other than the one who passed through the looking-glass, so one does not and cannot know Jesus Christ as anyone other than the one who suffered crucifixion but was raised again. One is not thereby ‘compelled’ to believe that the resurrection actually occurred. But the proper way to deny the resurrection is not to say that Jesus Christ was not raised (since the story of his raising is part of how we know who ‘Jesus Christ’ is), but rather to say that the raised Jesus Christ is a fictional person, as opposed to a reconstructed ‘historical’ Jesus of Nazareth.”

—Paul J. DeHart, The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 116 n. 15.

Thursday 2 November 2006

Paul J. DeHart: The Trial of the Witnesses

Paul DeHart of Vanderbilt Divinity School recently released his second book, and Blackwell have kindly sent me a review copy: The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 296 pp.

Many of you here will be familiar with DeHart’s first book – a profound and incisive analysis of the theology of Eberhard Jüngel. And this new book, too, is a remarkable achievement, both as a historical study and as a constructive theological proposal in its own right.

DeHart has experienced the postliberal controversy at first hand – before teaching at Vanderbilt, he had studied at both Chicago and Yale. And his attempt to make sense of the legacy of Frei and Lindbeck arises from his own personal interest in the question of “how theology can creatively rethink the Christian tradition and yet contribute to the maintenance of its identity” (p. xiii).

In many ways, this entire book could be viewed as an attempt to distance Hans Frei from George Lindbeck. The common association of the two colleagues under the term “postliberal” has tended “to merge their different intellectual trajectories, interests, and goals” (p. 54). In particular, the great commotion caused by Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine has “drowned out independent attention to Frei” (p. 32). Frei himself has thus been eclipsed; his own “highly independent intellectual trajectory” has been “well-nigh invisible” to the theological public (p. 40).

One of DeHart’s central claims is that the methodological proposals of both Frei and Lindbeck were consistently driven by dogmatic concerns. Lindbeck’s entire project was “dogmatically guided by ecclesiology”: his aim was to articulate “the continuity over time of a people of witness” (p. 58). But through a close and critical reading of Lindbeck, DeHart argues that Lindbeck’s entire construction of a liberal/postliberal dichotomy is fundamentally flawed.

In the first place, Lindbeck fails to codify the differences between “liberal” and “postliberal” methodologies. Specific theologians like Aquinas, Rahner, Lonergan and David Tracy simply cannot fit in the categories to which Lindbeck assigns them. Above all, it is Schleiermacher who “lurks … as a troubling presence” behind Lindbeck’s schema (p. 152), resisting every attempt at straightforward categorisation. DeHart also notes the imperceptible move in The Nature of Doctrine from a descriptive account of religious communities to a search for theological norms. For instance, on the surface Lindbeck’s controversy with Tracy appears to be about the proper description of cultural processes; but in fact the whole discussion is haunted by “the theological problem of how to insure the faithfulness of a community to its own identity” (pp. 167-68).

This, then, is a radical flaw in Lindbeck’s project. Not only does he fail to categorise adequately any actual theologians, but he “fails to articulate … the real point at issue: competing definitions of communal faithfulness” (p. 168). Further still, DeHart argues that Lindbeck’s distinction between intratextuality (interpreting a world into a text) and extratextuality (interpreting a text into a world) is deeply problematic. Lindbeck’s notion of “intratextuality” presupposes a highly determinate, tightly coherent system of meaning which can unify all diverse instantiations of Christian community; but, in reality, the semiotic networks informing Christian practice are “simply too plural and informal, too contingent and locally constructed” to allow for such a simplistic model (pp. 182-84).

Having critiqued the basic dichotomies on which Lindbeck’s proposal rests, DeHart turns to an alert and deeply sympathetic engagement with Hans Frei. For Frei, “the foundational dogmatic datum” for theology is “the narrated individual identity of Jesus Christ in the gospels” (p. 201). Thus his theological vision finds its single focus in a “dogmatic concentration on the unique, personally concrete and scripturally rendered object of Christian witness: Jesus Christ” (p. 142). Frei’s interest in narrative, for example, arises precisely from a christological interest in the capacity of narratives to render the personal identity of Jesus as the Christ (p. 113). For Frei, then, the purpose of theological reflection is essentially descriptive rather than explanatory. Frei does not, of course, wish to deny that the gospel narratives refer to external realities; rather, he is convinced that there can be no systematic way of relating these narratives to non-linguistic realities (p. 204).

Perhaps the most profound aspect of DeHart’s study is his analysis of Frei’s relationship to Schleiermacher. Frei’s reading of Schleiermacher, he argues, is at the very heart of his entire theological typology (p. 216). While interpreters have generally assumed that Frei straightforwardly sided with Barth’s dogmatic method against Schleiermacher’s method of apologetic correlation, DeHart argues convincingly that Frei situates proper theological reflection in the space between Barth and Schleiermacher. Barth and Schleiermacher represent the twin dangers confronting all authentic theological reflection: Barth risks intelligibility for the sake of faithfulness, while Schleiermacher risks faithfulness for the sake of intelligibility. These dangers are not accidental; they are in fact “constitutive of theology itself,” so that they “cannot be methodologically neutralized” (p. 238).

With this argument, DeHart powerfully destabilises the dogmatic/apologetic dichotomy which has so often been employed in discussions of “postliberal” method. The crucial point is that, for Frei, external discourses must be used non-systematically, simply as “ad hoc” correlations. The Christian semantic network is systematically irreducible: it cannot be translated into or grounded on the terms of any other semantic order (pp. 234-35). This point is destructive of Lindbeck’s entire postliberal project, since postliberalism “is constructed through a blunt opposition between intratextuality and extratextuality” (p. 237). For Lindbeck, external discourses are simply “absorbed” unilaterally into the Christian network – but Frei resists precisely such a reductive model.

Ironically, then, in stark contrast to Lindbeck, Frei’s work has highlighted “the church’s semantic investment in its cultural location.” The church’s witness is not “the autonomous application of a codifiable, enduring framework,” but rather “the always unfinished interlocutive process of rediscovering the Christ in light of the ‘ad hoc’ encounter with the church’s cultural sites” (p. 244).

On the basis of this reading of Frei, DeHart concludes by offering his own constructive proposal, a practice of “generous, liberal orthodoxy” (p. 279). Theology must be orthodox in its commitment to witnessing faithfully to the scripturally-rendered identity of the resurrected one; and it must be liberal in its commitment to the constant redescription and re-articulation of the resurrected one in correlation to specific cultural contexts. Finally, it must also be generous, since, as witnesses to the resurrected one, we ourselves are always on trial – we are tried and tested in each new engagement with our cultural site.

DeHart’s The Trial of the Witnesses is both the most profound analysis to date of the “Yale School,” and a brilliant attempt to rehabilitate the distinctive theological approach of Hans Frei. But, more than that, it is also a highly suggestive and illuminating constructive proposal in its own right – a proposal for the grounding of all theological practice in the church’s fundamental task of witnessing to the divine identity of Jesus as it rendered in the scriptural narratives.

More top 20 lists

In response to my top 20 list, several people have been posting their own excellent lists. Here are the ones I’ve noticed so far:

Nothing New under the Sun
Inhabitatio Dei
The Fire and the Rose
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Evangelical Catholicism
Sinning Boldly
Exiled Preacher
Sub Ratione Dei
Wally World
Journeying with Those in Exile
Theologoumenon (again)
Mined Splatterings
Adventures in Divinity School
Missions and Theology
A Desperate Kind of Faithful
Prairie Hill


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