Thursday 28 August 2008

On Barth and Rome

Unfortunately, posting here will continue to be sporadic over the next week or two. I’m now en route to Rome for the Grandeur of Reason conference, and then I’ll be settling into Princeton for the rest of the year, where I’ll be working at the Center of Theological Inquiry.

The (terrifyingly massive) program for the Rome conference is finally available for download [104 KB]. My own paper on Rowan Williams is at 11.15 Tuesday morning; and F&T guest-blogger Scott Stephens also has a paper on Milbank and Žižek at 9.00 the same morning. There’ll be loads of good stuff, including a closing plenary by Giorgio Agamben. And I’m especially looking forward to this Wednesday afternoon all-star session on politics and theology:

  • Oliver O’Donovan, “Deliberation, Reflection and Responsibility”
  • Stanley Hauerwas, “A Worldly Church: Politics, Theology and the Common Good”
  • John Milbank, “Transcendence and the Scope of Reason”
Meanwhile, be sure to check out Rudy Koshar’s excellent article, “Where Is Karl Barth in Modern European History?”, in the latest issue of Modern Intellectual History. Koshar observes that Barth’s political thought remained “inassimilable to any particular ideology,” and that his “prohibitions on idolatry made up an important part of a developing repertoire of antitotalitarian politics.” Koshar suggests that this anti-totalitarian, anti-idolatry politics “might be applied not only to the classical political ideologies …, but also to the more general phenomenon of the ‘sacralization of politics’, or even to the recent ‘identitarian’ movements, which have acted so corrosively in so many ways.”

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Funeral Meditation: he read the book

A guest-post by George Hunsinger; from a funeral at Nassau Presbyterian Church, 16 August 2008
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:37-39)

Our friend Peter is no longer with us. He has embarked on that journey which some day must be taken by us all. That final journey still lies ahead of us, but Peter now has it behind him. He has entered “the undiscovered country,” the unknown destination, “from whose bourn,” as Hamlet famously observed, from whose boundary, “no traveler returns.”

Peter was forced by the circumstances of his life to give that journey a considerable amount of thought. Having been diagnosed, while still a college student, with a form of cancer that was considered incurable, he knew for the rest of his life — more than most of us do about our own lives, I suspect — that his days were numbered. The experimental treatment program that added decades to his span of years — a span that we may still rightly feel was all too short — left him with an uncommon sense that each new day was a gift, that life was not something to be squandered, that it was to be enjoyed, pondered in its mysteries, and above all lived out in gratitude to God. Like anyone, Peter had to grapple with his doubts, his unanswered questions, his pains, and losses, and griefs. But he did so as a person of faith. His circumstances were often difficult, but his faith enabled him to live above his circumstances. 

His circumstances did not destroy his faith. On the contrary, his faith prevailed over his circumstances. It was not an easy struggle for him. His ongoing bout with cancer was an ongoing bout with death. But in the course of that deadly bout he learned the meaning of a key biblical virtue. It is a virtue that we often discussed in our weekly Sunday morning Bible study class, because it often comes up in the letters of St Paul. Peter was a faithful member of that class for more than twelve years. When we had to consider the theme of what St Paul called hypomone — a word that has no good English translation but which points to the the theme of patient endurance, of perseverance, of calling upon God in the time of trouble, of continuing to trust in the promises of God regardless of one's difficult circumstances, the theme of not losing heart —  Peter paid particular attention. For him it was of more than theoretical interest.

Peter was well aware of what Hamlet meant when he soliloquized about that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns. But he did not quite agree with Hamlet. He did not quite agree, because he had somehow caught wind of a rumor, that rumor which, if true, meant that Hamlet had not quite gotten things straight. Despite everything that might count against it, Peter believed that this rumor was true. And because that rumor was true, Hamlet could not have the last word. It was not quite correct that from the boundary of that undiscovered country no traveler returns. Because a Traveler was known who had returned.

This mysterious Traveler was the One who had not only returned, but by whose power that undiscovered country, that wasteland of death itself, had been robbed forever of its sting. It was this Traveler whom Peter believed would accompany him, and did accompany him, in life and in death. Better, it was this Traveler whom Peter believed that he himself was accompanying. It was this Traveler — the One who had returned from that undiscovered country with the joyful news that His love was stronger than death — it was this Traveler, whose name is Jesus Christ, whom Peter himself confessed, along with all the company of the faithful, as his only comfort in life and in death.

In my last conversation with Peter, a few days before he died, he stressed that resurrection hope — the hope by which he himself had learned to live — was a hope for this life and not just for the next. He wanted the first Question from the Heidelberg Catechism to be included in his Memorial Service. We will recite it in a moment. “Tell them it’s not just a hope about death,” Peter instructed me. “Tell them it’s a hope about life. Tell them it’s our only comfort in life and in death, in life and not just in death.” Those were, in effect, his last words.

How did Peter learn to live by this hope? This is a question which can have no easy answer. I will not try to do it justice but only to lift up one small piece of it. It concerns that piece in which I myself may have played a role, however modestly, as a figure in Peter’s life. I have already mentioned the weekly Sunday morning Bible study. But Peter also attended another class that I lead. He was a reguler member, again over a period of many years, of my Karl Barth Student Reading Group. Karl Barth was a great theologian, though, as anyone knows who has tried it, not an easy theologian to understand. Peter did not just attend the Barth Reading Group. He really read Barth. And what impressed me was that he was always eager for more. He would ask me about what were the best ways to get his hands on the writings of other great teachers of the church, like Calvin, like Luther. Peter read them too. He read them seriously. He made them integral, I suspect, to his urgent quest for faith, for hope, for hypomone.

Peter was primarily a reader of the Bible, but as a Bible reader he also read the great Reformation theologians, who gave him the incomparable gift of wisdom and understanding and hope. We might say that Peter was and became what is called in Yiddish a Gelernter. In Jewish culture to be a Gelernter is a rare and honorable achievement. Many might aspire to become a Gelernter but not everyone has the leisure or the discipline or the motivation that it takes. A Gelernter is not necessarily a Rabbi or a professor. A Gelernter can be an ordinary Jew who manages to achieve extraordinary things. A Gelerner can be an ordinary saint who through diligent study of the sacred text attains to an extraordinary level of knowlege, wisdom and understanding. A Gelernter, in this sense, is an ordinary saint who is learned in the sacred text.

Years ago I heard a story about a Gelernter in a sermon. I wish I could remember it better, but it went something like this. Once upon a time there was a Jew in a Polish village who worked as a tailor or a shoemaker. Somehow he came into some money. He no longer had to repair garments or shoes to make a living. He could do whatever he wished. So he fulfilled his lifelong dream and became a Gelernter. His wife and his family and everyone in the village were proud of him, a simple shoemaker who became a Gelernter. Of course he helped his relatives when they needed money, and he gave generously to the poor. But he did not see any of that as his deepest vocation. He enjoyed talking with the Rabbi and others in the synagogue, even as he applied himself night and day to the sacred text. He was once asked what he would say to the Lord God when he had to stand before him at the Last Judgment. The Lord would ask him, what did you do with your life? To which this former shoemaker felt he had a ready answer, the best answer he could possibly give. He would simply reply to the Lord God by saying: “I read the Book.” He belonged to the people of the Book, and he himself had been blessed to read the Book.

Peter was a serious Christian. He came to church to worship God and to hear the Word of God. With his particular life struggles, he knew there was nothing that he needed more than to hear the Word of God be rightly proclaimed. And of course he did many things with his life. He loved the opera, he loved rowing, he loved Albrecht Dürer and other great works of art. He gave generously to the poor. But he was also one of those ordinary saints with an extraordinary attainment. He was an ordinary saint who, driven by interest and need, attained to the high stature of a Gelernter. He was not a professor or a minister. But he devoted himself to study some of the great theologians of the church. And he did so most of all because they helped him to understand the Book.

Peter did many things with his life, but above all he read the Book. And when he comes to stand before the Lord God on the Last Day — as each of us will finally do in that undiscovered country to which we all must some day embark — and when he is asked what he did with his life, as we will all some day be asked, I think that on this side of that farther shore we can almost hear what Peter will say, as he will indeed be entitled to say: “I read the Book.”
Let us pray: Into your hands, O merciful Saviour, we commend your servant Peter. Acknowledge, we pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Enfold him in the arms of your mercy, in the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and in the glorious company of the saints in light. Grant also, O Lord, to all who are bereaved, the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience, not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the sure expectation of a joyful reunion in the heavenly places. All this we ask through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

Monday 25 August 2008

On the limited importance of intellectuals

“Many elements conspire to render unlikely any serious possibility of a new communal religion borne by intellectuals…. Nor can a religious renascence be generated by the need of authors to compose books, or by the far more effective need of clever publishers to sell such books. No matter how much the appearance of a widespread religious interest may be simulated, no new religion has ever resulted from the needs of intellectuals or from their chatter. The whirligig of fashion will presently remove this subject of conversation and journalism, which fashion has made popular.”

—Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 136-37.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Donald MacKinnon on apologetics

“The philosopher is not an apologist; apologetic concern, as Karl Barth (the one living theologian of unquestionable genius) has rightly insisted, is the death of serious theologizing, and I would add, equally of serious work in the philosophy of religion.”

—Donald M. MacKinnon, The Borderlands of Theology: An Inaugural Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961), 28.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Milton and the problem with rights

I’ve been running a Milton symposium here in Brisbane over the past couple of days. My own paper was on Milton’s political theology, and on the theological basis of his concept of “rights.” Here’s an excerpt:

“In Milton’s view, not all members of a society are fit to participate in the political sphere. In spite of everything he says about the irrevocable rights of all individuals, Milton’s theological understanding of ‘nature’ carries with it the belief that human nature has been corrupted since the fall. Here, I think an irresolvable problem arises from the way Milton maps his political doctrine on to his theological narrative of creation and fall. For Milton, politics is defined not by the actually existing condition of human societies, but by a mythological condition of primal harmony and perfection. It is man’s original nature in the Garden of Eden which forms the basis of his rights, his liberties and his political responsibilities. This means that the fall into sin – the fall from primal perfection into the messiness of human society as it actually exists – introduces a rupture with the very basis of political order.

“Indeed, sin can become so corrosive that it divests human nature entirely of its rights. Where this occurs, the individual is no longer fit for participation in the political sphere. As Milton says, citizens then become ‘unserviceable … to the Common-wealth’ through their spiritual corruption. The benign theological conception of innate created rights thus passes over into the ominous political legitimation of a division between those whose innate rights remain effective and those who have forfeited their rights through sin. The regenerate – those who are returning from their fallen state towards the state of perfection – are now grouped politically over against the masses....

“Milton believes unreservedly in the innate rights that belong to human nature as a result of creation. But because of his corresponding theology of the fall, his conception of political order is always the vision of a regenerate few who embody the proper natural liberty of all.... The commitment to a normative human nature, then, is at bottom a theological commitment, grounded in a specific (and inherently problematic) narrative of creation–fall–regeneration.”

Saturday 16 August 2008

Take a supplement

Sorry, I’ve been too busy to blog over the past few days. So if you need a supplement, just head over and check out some of Haldens excellent posts (especially the first one, on romantic love).

Friday 15 August 2008

Salvation for all

“If salvation is for any, it is for all…. The ‘return’ to the lost, the excluded, the failed or destroyed, is not an option for the saint, but the very heart of saintliness. And we might think not only of Jesus’s parable of the shepherd, but of the great theological myth of the Descent into Hell, in which God’s presence in the world in Jesus is seen as his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation. It is the supreme image of his freedom, to go where he is denied and forgotten…. He comes to his new and risen life, his universal kingship, by searching out all the forgotten and failed members of the human family.”

—Rowan Williams, The Truce of God (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 30.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

A glorious wedding

We were recently discussing whether a Christian marriage ought to be sharply different from the usual ho-hum of wedding ceremonies. Well, here’s a wedding with a difference:

I don’t often experience pangs of nostalgia for my old Pentecostal days. But a clip like this brings back all the fond memories… Oh the glory!

Monday 11 August 2008

Dictionary of the Old Testament: wisdom, poetry and writings

Thanks to IVP, this big black beautiful doorstop of a book has just landed with a crash on my desk: Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings, edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns. This is the seventh volume in IVP’s celebrated Black Dictionary series – surely the most indispensable reference work of its kind – and it’s the third volume in the Old Testament series. In 148 articles and nearly 1,000 pages, it covers Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ruth and Esther.

Some highlights include Ernest Lucas’s crisp discussion of Wisdom theology (pp. 901-12); Marvin Sweeney’s helpful survey of form-critical approaches to the Wisdom literature (pp. 227-41); Peter Enns’ incisive entry on the Book of Ecclesiastes, with its firm insistence that Qohelet’s thought cannot be aligned with any conventional biblical teaching (pp. 121-32); and an excellent article on “Chaos and Death” by Frederick J. Mabie: “The imagery of death as a voracious swallower meets an ironic reversal when we learn that YHWH will permanently ‘swallow up death’. Since death is the ultimate opponent of divine order, the death of death represents the establishment of the ultimate divine order” (pp. 41-54).

While the series’ earlier OT volumes include extended articles for each biblical book, in this volume each biblical book also receives two additional long articles: one on its Near Eastern background, and another on the history of its interpretation. This expanded format produces material which is valuable both for raising important contextual-historical questions, and for opening up questions of theological interpretation.

IVP’s Black Dictionaries have set a new standard for biblical reference works. They are meticulously organised, rigorously researched, accessibly written, and beautifully produced. So forget about all those overrated athletes in Beijing – series editor Dan Reid is the one who really deserves a medal.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Bonhoeffer on the task of the preacher

“It is wrong to assume that on the one hand there is a word, or a truth, and on the other hand there is a community existing as two separate entities, and that it would then be the task of the preacher to take this word, to manipulate and enliven it, in order to bring it within and apply it to the community. Rather, the Word moves along this path of its own accord. The preacher should and can do nothing more than be a servant of this movement inherent in the Word itself, and refrain from placing obstacles in its path.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 4; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), pp. 227-28.

Thursday 7 August 2008

How (not) to preach the parables

I’ve often been struck by the way Jesus’ parables are interpreted in Christian preaching. Several years ago, I heard an extended series of sermons on the parables, and after a while I realised that each sermon had the same basic structure: first, the parable was narrated (with a few observations about historical context and such); then the pastor proceeded, with great warmth and sensitivity, to provide a “balanced” ethical interpretation, carefully guarding against any “extreme” application of the parable. So when Jesus says to sell everything, it’s not about possessions, it’s about the state of your heart – and so on.

I still remember my own psychological response to these sermons. First, the parable would be told in all its starkness and simplicity: and I would feel my heart pounding in dread and anticipation at the challenge of Jesus’ words. Then, by the end of the sermon, all my fears would be alleviated – no need for alarm; God’s command isn’t so uncompromising; Jesus really demands nothing of me after all!

It’s a curious thing that pastors often find it so difficult to preach Jesus’ parables. In truth, the only hard thing about the parables is that they are so simple, so straightforward in what they claim and what they demand. They are so simple that we need to make them difficult in order to escape the piercing gaze of Jesus. Or perhaps some pastors feel they need to soften the parables in order to protect the congregation from God. After all, it is God himself who bursts through these stories, coming on the scene with the unaccountable strangeness of a seed in the ground, with the disruptive suddenness of a thief in the night.

In his great book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer highlights our tendency to “interpret” the teaching of Jesus in a way that leaves us safe, comfortable, unchallenged. Referring to typical interpretations of the story of the rich young ruler, Bonhoeffer remarks (p. 79): “Everywhere it is the same – the deliberate avoidance of simple, literal obedience. How is such a reversal possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus has to endure this game? … Anywhere else in the world where commands are given, the situation is clear. A father says to his child: go to bed! The child knows exactly what to do. But a child drilled in pseudo-theology would have to argue thus: Father says go to bed. He means you are tired; he does not want me to be tired. But I can also overcome my tiredness by going to play. So, although father says go to bed, what he really means is go play.”

In a different context, Karl Barth once told a little parable of his own: “To what shall I liken the basic principles of [liberal] theology? Is it not like a clock which is so cleverly constructed that the hands move from right to left instead of from left to right?” Our preaching about Jesus is often “cleverly constructed” in exactly the same way.

By removing everything offensive from the teaching of Jesus, we might succeed in making it easier to enter the kingdom of heaven – but in this very act, the kingdom is turned into a bland mirror image of the status quo. If we want to preach the words of Jesus faithfully, perhaps we need to lose some of our cleverness, our talent for interpretive evasion, and work instead at making our proclamation simpler – not easier, but simpler.

Milton in Brisbane, and other events

Here in Brisbane, I’ve been organising a symposium to mark the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth. If you’re in the area, you might like to come along either to the public lecture (next Thursday) or to the day of public readings from Milton’s works (next Sunday). One of our visiting speakers, Stephen Fallon, will also be featured tomorrow in the Weekend Australian, and in next Wednesday’s excellent radio program, Late Night Live.

There’ll be plenty more Miltoniana in New Zealand as well, with another Milton conference this December. And if you still want more of the Reformed tradition, there are some good upcoming conferences on Schleiermacher, John Owen, and Herman Bavinck.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Karl Barth and divine freedom

Following the recent exchange with Paul Molnar, Halden has posted a superb quote from Alan Lewis on Karl Barth’s understanding of divine freedom. This is a remarkably acute and perceptive account of Barth’s view – and it rightly draws attention to some of the internal tensions and inconsistencies that remain within the Church Dogmatics:

“God is free, not as one who could do otherwise, but as the one above all who can do no other. Self-bound to one sole way of being, God is committed, necessarily but thus freely, to the cognate course of action. God’s lordship in bowing to the contradiction of the godless cross and godforsaken grace does not reside, as Barth occasionally and illogically asserts, in a prior self-sufficiency and secure immutability, but – as he more often understood and later followers more emphatically underscored – in the uncoerced impulse to self-consistency: love’s determination not to be deflected from its purposes but to flourish and perfect itself through willing self-surrender. What judges us as burdensome imperative illuminates God as free but binding indicative: the truth – for our Creator and therefore for ourselves – that only one who gives up life discovers and fulfills it. On such a basis alone can we understand how the cross and grave truly reveal God’s inmost triune life.”

—Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 211-12.

(Oh, and speaking of Barth, this pastor in Britain is looking for someone to buy his complete set of Church Dogmatics.)

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Blog of the week: per caritatem

Our new blog of the week is Cynthia’s immensely learned and always stimulating Per Caritatem. “Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem – you can’t enter into truth except through love.”

Monday 4 August 2008

A five-year ban on the word "trinitarian"

Following David’s post on annoying theological words, here’s my nomination for the Most Annoying Word (MAW) in contemporary theology:

Trinitarian \ˌtri-nə-'ter-ē-ən\
adj. Relating to a devout but vague fondness for the importance of the number three; the need to incorporate all theological statements within a balanced and inclusive schema; the formal bureaucratic procedure of ensuring that the Spirit does not feel marginalised or excluded. Examples: the real problem with his work is that it is not adequately trinitarian; the book’s focus on christology should be supplemented by a broader trinitarian description of the economy of salvation; Barth’s theology is not fully trinitarian, since it remains hampered by an underdeveloped pneumatology.
Now I like the Trinity as much as the next person, and I happen to think the Nicene Creed is the best thing ever written. But I think the use of the word “trinitarian” in much contemporary theology – as a generic slogan, applied willy-nilly on any occasion – has become an obstacle to real theological thinking.

It’s interesting to note that the English term “Trinitarian” was first used, in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a pejorative description of anti-trinitarians; the heretics were dubbed “Trinitarians”! Then, by the early 18th century, anti-trinitarianism had become so pervasive that orthodox writers were now described as “Trinitarians.” The word’s checkered history already reveals its proper functions and limitations: it has some usefulness as a party slogan, but it’s not so useful as an instrument of serious thought.

Although the late Colin Gunton played a tremendous role in the revival of systematic theology, I suspect his own ubiquitous deployment of the term “trinitarian” has had some unfortunate side-effects in contemporary theology. Worst of all, Gunton was also responsible for coining the unsightly and unseemly adverb “trinitarianly,” which has subsequently made inroads into theological discourse. (Admittedly, there were a few earlier uses of this adverb, but these were mercifully forgotten – the earliest I’ve found is by the American Presbyterian theologian W. G. T. Shedd, who used the word in 1863 to disparage Roman Catholic dogma: the Catholic Church, he growled, is “trinitarianly orthodox” even though it “remorselessly mutilates” and “annihilates” the doctrine of atonement.) As a result of Colin Gunton’s work, the word “trinitarianly” has now (like the word “trinitarian” before it) passed over into a positive slogan rather than a pejorative one.

Throughout his works, Gunton speaks – and these are just a few adverbial examples – of “a God conceived trinitarianly,” of “creation trinitarianly conceived,” of “revelation trinitarianly conceived,” of “trinitarianly conceived agency,” of “glory conceived trinitarianly,” of “immutability trinitarianly construed,” and (it gets worse) of the tendency to define God’s essence “pre- and extra-trinitarianly.” Unfortunately, more than a few theologians have now started using the word in the same way, in spite of its ungainliness, its un-Englishness, and its tendency towards triviality.

Now I don’t mean any disrespect to the memory of Colin Gunton; and I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of thinking “untrinitarianly.” But here’s my proposal: let’s have a five-year ban on the word “trinitarian.” Perhaps if we avoided using the word so easily and so cheaply, we could concentrate more on thinking the Trinity, and on finding fresh, arresting, non-sloganeering language to describe the reality of God.

Oh, and here’s my second proposal: the next time you hear the word “trinitarianly,” you should reach for your revolver. Or if you’re lucky enough to be someone who edits theology manuscripts, you could just reach for your red pen instead.

Sunday 3 August 2008

A few things

Tolle lege

Thanks to Cynthia, the Augustine blog conference is now underway.


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.