Monday 17 December 2007

Three must-read articles: Kevin Hector, Michael Welker, Hugh Nicholson

Kevin W. Hector, “The Mediation of Christ’s Normative Spirit: A Constructive Reading of Schleiermacher’s Pneumatology,” Modern Theology 24:1 (2008), 1-22

This is a remarkably creative and provocative proposal for understanding the work of the Spirit as the mediation to believers of the norms of judgment which are required to know what constitutes following Christ. According to Hector, the Spirit’s work is immanent in human subjectivity – just as there are “no gaps” between the eternal Son and the man Jesus, so there are “no gaps between the Spirit’s activity and human activity.” We can thus understand the Spirit’s work “without having to appeal to shadowy substances, God’s inexplicable power …, or any other pseudo-explanations.” Among other things, I think this important proposal opens the way to a reconfiguration of the subject/object and God/world distinctions – distinctions which are misunderstood and misused in much contemporary Barthian theology. (Pardon the self-advertising, but my own forthcoming IJST paper on Bultmann is also aimed at a reconfiguration of these distinctions.)

Michael Welker, “Wright on the Resurrection,” Scottish Journal of Theology 60:4 (2007), 458-75

This is an excellent, incisive and wholly necessary critique of N. T. Wright’s understanding of the resurrection body. Welker questions Wright’s claim that the disciples witnessed Christ’s “still physical body.” He points out that Wright tends to collapse resurrection into mere resuscitation, and that he emphasises continuity between Jesus’ body and the resurrection body at the expense of the radical newness which pervades the NT witness to Christ. Welker’s sensitive reading of the NT texts leads him to observe: “It is characteristic of the resurrection appearances that they ‘establish a reality’. Or more precisely, there is a transformation of existence and reality which stems from them.” Jesus does not merely return to his physical body (“alive again,” as Wright puts it): “The pre-Easter life and body continues in a new way, extends far beyond itself, yet remains faithful to itself.” Whether or not you agree with Welker’s specific interpretation of the resurrection body, I think his critical questions to Wright are right on target. As I’ve occasionally complained in the past, the problem with Wright’s big book is that it says too much about Jewish traditions, empty tombs, physical bodies, etc, and too little about resurrection!

Hugh Nicholson, “The Political Nature of Doctrine: A Critique of Lindbeck in Light of Recent Scholarship,” Heythrop Journal 48:6 (2007), 858-77

I was talking with someone recently about Yale-School theology, and we agreed that its basic problem is its rationalism – its vision of Christian doctrine as a benign process in which grammatical rules are calmly and rationally expounded. Instead, perhaps theology is more like a power struggle, a (sometimes friendly!) contest between irreducibly different sets of passions and commitments. In this exceptional analysis, Hugh Nicholson (taking Talal Asad and Carl Schmitt as his points of departure) presents just such a critique of Lindbeck. His argument is that church doctrines “resemble the mobilizing slogans of political discourse more than … the grammatical rules governing Wittgensteinian language games.” Doctrine is thus a function of the social and relational antagonism through which Christian communities are constituted. In a very deft argument, he observes that even Lindbeck’s own linguistic analogy exposes the power-relations of doctrine: since we now know that the “standard form” of a language is simply the form which happened to achieve cultural dominance, a purely cultural-linguistic model of religion should lead us to conclude “that the religious mainstream is simply the faction that managed to establish hegemony over its proximate rivals” – i.e., that doctrinal “grammar” is never politically neutral, and is always structured by antagonistic relations. This is a brilliant and important essay which deserves a wide reading.


michael jensen said...

Hmm, Hector's closing of the gap: of course I haven't read the article, but does that make the conscience or some such coterminus with divine agency?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben, for your kind words about my article. It seems that we're working on relevantly similar projects, so I look forward to reading your paper on Bultmann.

With respect to Mr. Jensen's question: I offer a few responses to this objection in the article itself, but for now, let me say that I do not question the fact that the Spirit's work transcends the creaturely "recognitions" in terms of which I account for that work. The issue, to me, isn't whether the Spirit's work is transcendent, but how we account for this transcendence. One way of doing so is in terms of an explanatory "gap" in our understanding of the Spirit's work: the Spirit's transcendence is upheld, on this approach, by the fact it isn't clear how the Spirit's work actually becomes historical, public, etc. I defend an alternative approach which upholds the Spirit's transcendence precisely in terms of the historical, public character of the Spirit's work--in terms, that is, of the objectivity implicit in social-practical norms. The point is that both approaches (try to) uphold the Spirit's transcendence--but since we're so used to seeing the former sort of account, it's easy to forget that (a) departure from such an account does not entail (b) denial of transcendence.

It should be noted, by the way, that we're not talking here about whether the Spirit is an eternal triune hypostasis. We're simply talking about one of the criteria by which we should judge candidate pneumatologies, namely, whether they provide a theoretically adequate account of the transcendence of the Spirit's work. I'm suggesting that my proposal passes this test.

I hope this helps.


Travis said...

Let me second Ben's recommendation of Kevin Hector's article - really exceptional. Not least because he understands that Schleiermacher is perhaps one of the most deeply trinitarian thinkers of modern theology - the rhetoric of the trinitarian "revival" notwithstanding, quite a few post-Barthian thinkers fail to understand the inherent connection between the Trinity and the life of faith as Schleiermacher did (especially important: Sch. can have the pneumatology he does just because his focus is so richly christological and he actually has an account of subjectivity). Refreshing to see Hector stress that the Trinity is the "capstone" of the Glaubenslehre, and on the fact that, though his trinitarian theology might be "Sabellian," it need not have been, and this should not disqualify him as a trinitarian thinker (after all, tritheism doesn't prevent such an appellation these days) - in fact his account would have been even better had he followed the logical consequence of his argument to a more "orthodox" trinitarianism.

The article initially did make me worry I'd been scooped on a dissertation chapter, though!

Steven Carr said...

Paul goes out of his way to emphasise discontinuity between the corpse and the resurrected body, so as to refute the Jesus-worshippers in Corinth who had a mistaken model of corpses rising and so wondered how there could possibly be a resurrection.

To do this, Paul emphasises that earthly things are as different from heavenly things as a fish is different to the moon.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that what goes into the ground dies, and that 'you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed.'

Paul thought it idiotic to even discuss how a corpse could return.

Corpses are dead. They were Adam's body. It was dust.

In Paul's view, who would want Adam's body back, when they had an eternal body in Heaven, not made by human hands.

Paul's writing only makes sense if he was trying to trash all talk of how corpses could be restored, by pointing out how idiotic all such talk was.

You would get a new body to replace the old dead body.

Jonathan Marlowe said...

N. T. Wright has also said that resurrection is different from the mere resuscitation of a corpse. He emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity. He has favorably quoted Polkinghorne's analogy: at the time of death, God uploads our software onto his hardware, until He gives us new hardware on which to run our old software again (thus, for Wright, resurrection still makes sense for martyrs and others whose earthly bodies are completely destroyed).

Anonymous said...

As to Lindbeck's project: I agree that The Nature of Doctrine has an incredibly rational bent to it. He seems to understand language-games as something that can be analyzed pre-linguistically. But is it fair to refer this problem all the way back to Witt? It seems to me that the whole idea of "forms-of-life" being the given (over against the realism/idealism dichotomy) is saying the our "political" selves, or the being-with nature of Being in Heideggerian terms, is where the grammar of our language-games originates. I think this is why Herbert McCabe and Terry Eagleton can be called faithful Wittgensteinians while also being Marxists (at least, in some sense). Maybe Nicholson isn't criticizing the Witt at all, but if he is, then I think it is unwarranted.

Steven Carr said...

Jonathan's model for the resurrection is a good analogy for what Paul believed in, as you can see by reading 2 Corinthians 5.

We leave one set of hardware and are downloaded onto another set of hardware.

Presumably the Corinthians thought that resurrection had to involve a corpse rising, and could not get their heads around that concept.

How could a corpse rise, they must have been wondering?

Jesus, being a god, could easily leave his body behind ,just as Zeus could turn into a swan and back, but how could an ordinary swan do that?

A sensible question if you thought resurrection of mortals involved a corpse rising, as it was a different process to the resurrection of gods.

But idiotic, if you 'knew' like Paul that the body is left behind to decay, and you got new 'hardware'.

byron smith said...

I look forward to reading the Welker article. From my reading of Wright, he would agree that “The pre-Easter life and body continues in a new way, extends far beyond itself, yet remains faithful to itself.” Wright uses the term 'transphysical' to attempt to bring together both continuity and discontinuity. Furthermore, much of RSG is an argument for the radical newness of at least the nature of early Christian belief in the resurrection. I may be missing the point of the article and I am sure Wright needs some incisive critique, but it is not as thought he was simply arguing for the resuscitation of a body, a return to pre-crucified existence.

Steven Carr said...

What is 'pre-crucified existence'?

A body made of flesh and bones, with the wounds that killed it, which eats and digests, and is not made of a material which by its nature can pass through walls?

A body which can walk on water and glow,as in Jesus pre-crucified existence?

A body which could pass for the body of any random gardener?

Marc said...

I've heard Wright speak on resurrection many times and it is a caricature to say his view approaches resuscitation. Wright speaks of a transformed physicality, emphasising that the body of Jesus was not left to rot but restored and renewed. His thrust is over against 2 perceived errors namely a spiritualised resurrection whereby the body rotted and ghostly appearances took place and the idea that Jesus' body was vaporised and replaced by a different body. The latter is popular among certain types of (especially American) evangelicals who favour the idea of having a "shiny new creation" where the old has been destroyed and version 2.0 created and given to us. No, says Wright, this Earth matters, it is God's good Earth and he's remaking and renewing it. This project began on Easter and Jesus was the firstborn and prototype of New Creation.

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