Wednesday 25 February 2015

Types of Christian theology: a drafted typology

My introduction to theology class this semester will end with a lecture on “types of Christian theology.” I’ve been digging around among the available typologies (e.g. Hans Frei, Justo González), but haven’t felt that they’re sufficiently useful for an undergraduate introduction. So I’m trying to come up with a way of categorising several different theological types. Here’s my attempt so far, with a classic and modern example of each type. Any ideas for improvement? Or anyone know of a good alternative typology? (What I really need is a theologygrams chart!)

Types of Christian theology

With three main audiences: theology addressed to the believer (B), theology addressed to the church (C), and theology addressed to the world (W).

  • (B) Catechetical exposition of the faith (e.g. Origen, First Principles; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics)
  • (C) Polemical exposition of the faith (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is)
  • (W) Apologetic exposition of the faith (e.g. Origen, Contra Celsum; John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory)
  • (B) Template of a converted life (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, The Educator; Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self)
  • (C) Template of a converted community (e.g. Calvin, Institutes; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
  • (W) Template of a converted society (e.g. Augustine, City of God; Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man)
  • (W) Protest against society (e.g. Tertullian, On Spectacles; Gustavo Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation)
  • (C) Protest against the church (e.g. Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; Kierkegaard, Attack upon Christendom)
  • (B) Protest against the self (e.g. Pascal, Pensées; Simone Weil, Waiting for God)

Monday 23 February 2015

Course syllabus: Doctrine of the Trinity

Starting next week, I'll be teaching an undergraduate course on the doctrine of the Trinity. I've pasted below the outline/syllabus for the course. If anyone in the Sydney area would like to sit in on the class, auditors are always welcome!


Welcome! In this subject, you are invited to explore the central teaching of the Christian faith: the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is the belief – shared by all the main historic Christian traditions – that within God there is a living threefold movement from the Father to the Son in the Holy Spirit. This movement of divine life supplies the grammar for the way Christians speak about the world’s creation, redemption, and final restoration.

It was the experience of salvation in Christ that led early Christian thinkers towards a doctrine of the Trinity. From the earliest days, Christians were convinced that in Christ they had experienced God’s saving self-revelation. And if Christ reveals God – if, looking at Jesus, you find yourself looking at God – then Christ must somehow be said to share in God’s divinity. Otherwise, you wouldn’t really have met God in Christ, and God would remain hidden and unknown. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated as a way of safeguarding these basic convictions about salvation and revelation.

In its briefest form, the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarised with the statement that God is “one being, three persons.” In the more elaborate language of the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, [is] eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.”

How exactly does this language about the Trinity relate to the ordinary Christian experience of salvation? How does it relate to the spiritual life? How does it relate to the way Christians read the Bible? Is language really an adequate means of expressing truth about God? How can we be sure that we really know anything about God at all?

These are some of the key questions that we’ll be exploring throughout the semester. You'll get to sample some of the richest spiritual and theological writing in the Christian tradition. And you'll see that those two aspects – the theological and the spiritual; knowing and loving; dogma and mysticism – are very closely connected in our tradition.

In the weekly tutorials we will be reading and studying three major Christian thinkers: two Greek-speaking theologians from fourth-century Cappadocia, Basil the Great (330-379 CE) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 CE); as well as the modern Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Basil and Gregory were key figures in the formation of Christian orthodoxy. Gregory presided over the Council of Constantinople (381 CE), which produced the version of the Nicene Creed that is still used in churches today. In the twentieth century, Karl Barth provoked a "trinitarian revival," leading to widespread interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. Under Barth's influence, the doctrine of the Trinity remains one of the major themes of contemporary theology.

By the time we have worked through our lectures and tutorials, you will have an understanding of the major issues in contemporary trinitarian theology, and you will have the tools to make your own informed contribution to the contemporary discussion. Your final essay will give you the opportunity to put those tools to work.

But the real fruit of studying the doctrine of the Trinity isn't just the ability to write a good essay. The fruit is seen in the way Christians love, pray, preach, sing, contemplate, read scripture, form community, make moral decisions, create art – and so on. The doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of the Christian life.

Weekly schedule

Each week's lecture focuses on one or two main historical figures, and works towards clarifying some aspect of contemporary theology. So for example, the week 10 lecture will focus on Julian of Norwich, but will eventually arrive at the contemporary discussion surrounding Moltmann.
  1. Naming God in the Hebrew Bible 
  2. The Identity of God: The Pauline Letters 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 52-75
  3. Dwelling in God: The Gospel of John 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 76-95
  4. Trinitarian Monotheism (Tertullian and Irenaeus) 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 96-122
  5. Trinitarian Spirituality (Origen) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 27
  6. Trinitarian Exegesis (Athanasius and Arius) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28
  7. Trinitarian Piety and Liturgy (the Cappadocians) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29
  8. The Image of the Trinity (Augustine) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31
  9. The Transcendent Trinity: Christianity and Islam (8th-century Arabic theology) 
  10. The Cross and the Trinity (Julian of Norwich) 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 169-86
  11. Synthesis I: Heresy and Orthodoxy; Language and Limits; Doctrine and Exegesis 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 186-98 
  12. Synthesis II: Persons and Community; Knowing and Loving; Dogma and Mysticism 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 198-204
  1. Short Cappadocian research paper (on Basil, Macrina, or Gregory of Nazianzus)
  2. Theological essay

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Dozy doodlings

What is theology? Theology is talk about God, often slanderous.

Perhaps the most hilarious of self-deceptions is thinking that you know what you’re doing. Human beings really do run on stupid, and we never run out of gas.

Some people say “Jesus saved me!” like they won the lottery. And you know what happens to a lot of lottery-winners…

On the preacher: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress [congregation] information of the state of the union [Romans 6:5ff.], and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” [From the Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 3] 

Sermons are like basketball games: everything is won or lost in the last five minutes.

All you need to know about an Aaron Sorkin script:
[Allegro and staccato] Character A says: “Hi.” Character B says: “Hi.” Character A says: “Blah.” Character B says: “Sure.” Character A says: “Yeah?” Character B says: “Yeah.” Character A says: “Okay.” Character B says: “Okay.” Characters A says: “I gotta go.” Character B says: “Sure.” Character A says: “Right.” Character B says: “Okay.” Character A says: “Okay.” [Cut]

Anti-Clinton media moguls are already planning to produce a TV series on Hilary if she becomes the 44th President. The working title is The West Witch; the central set will be called the Ova Office.

You might say that in Jesus God learned to speak the language of humans. Fluency, however, failed him: he never did get the grammar of violence.

Consider American Sniper:
a point that’s been lost in the hyper –
tackled neither by Clint
nor by those of his bent –
is “Who, friend or foe, is the viper?”

If movie marketers had imagination …
American Sniper – Now showing in a coliseum near you!
Fifty Shades of Grey – Now showing in a dungeon near you!

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Then Jesus paused, consulted his Father, and added, “With one exceptionalism.”
—Matthew 28:18-19 (Original Autograph)

Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” I think he meant “doggerel” and “drivel”. 

In the Church of the Good Coffee, Starbucks is the equivalent of Arianism.

Did you hear about the Seattle Seahawk fan who declared that the Boston blizzard was God’s judgment on the Deflategate scandal, and then at the Super Bowl stood behind the Patriots’ bench holding a placard reading “Ephesians 2:2 (KJ)”?

Pilate went back into the palace and called Jesus (aka Lamb Mode). “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asked him. Jesus answered, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Pilate asked him, “Do you think I am a Jew?” Jesus answered, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Pilate asked him, “Are you a king, then?” Jesus answered, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” Then Pilate went back outside to the people and said to them, “I cannot find any reason to fine him.” Then he handed Jesus over to them. Jesus said to them “What are y’all here for?” They shouted, “Lynch him!”
—John 18:33ff. (Original Autograph)

In the wake of Wolf Hall (the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), critically acclaimed as “close to perfect television”, the BBC website has run a little iWonder called How could you survive in Tudor England? In section 2, “Stay out of trouble”, it describes the draconian treatment of law-breakers during the reign of Henry VIII, when “estimates of the number of executions range from 54,000 to 72,000.” “A good start,” declares a spokesman for D-PE (Death-Penalty Evangelicals), “but this is America; surely we can get that number up to six figures. Meanwhile, in consultation with the steel and pharmaceutical industries, we will be considering the advantages of the axe over lethal injection.”

Satan in the wilderness – what a mug. Stones into bread, a death-defying leap from the Temple, all the kingdoms of the world – big deal. If he were really serious, the devil would have taken Jesus to the Bronx and offered the lad a Major League baseball contract. How could the Messiah resist playing in The Show, even wearing pinstripes?

What Jesus learned in the wilderness is that nothing fails like success.

According to creationists, there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and cladistics.

How would I define “contemporary worship”? As a form of liturgical hazing.

Creatio ex nihilo or ordo ab chao? The former. The latter is too tough an ask. I think of my 2 ½-year-old granddaughter moving from room to room leaving a trail of ground zeros, and then multiply it by a universe – yep, too tough an ask, even for God.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has come to the defence of Stephen Fry who infuriated Christians by denouncing God as ‘utterly evil’, ‘capricious, mean-minded, stupid’ and ‘monstrous’” (Telegraph 5 February). Absolutely (apart, maybe, from the “stupid”: it seems to me that there’s a genius to this deity’s creative malevolence). I look forward to the MPA of the C of E distributing Je suis Ivan badges to every parish.

So the pope told a gathering at the Vatican, “One time I heard a father say, ‘At times I have to hit my children a bit, but never in the face lest someone report me to social services so as not to humiliate them.’ That’s great,” continued His Holiness. “He had a sense of dignity. He should punish, do the right thing, and then move on to his wife.”

At the 1973 National Prayer Breakfast, which occurred two weeks after President Nixon had ordered a ceasefire in Vietnam, Senator Mark Hatfield said, “Today our prayers must begin with repentance…. We must turn in repentance from the sin that scarred our national soul.” That was truth speaking to power. This year, judging from conservative reaction to Obama’s speech, power spoke truth to stupid.

Conversation at the Last Supper: Peter said, jokingly, “Hey Jesus, I got one for you: what do you call a leader with no followers?” Jesus replied, sombrely, “A guy taking a walk.”

Thursday 12 February 2015

When God was everything: A review of Ian McFarland's From Nothing

We theologians are often accused of writing a lot of nothing about God, which occasionally may be the case. But it takes a careful hand to write a lot about God and nothing. “Nothing” is an undeniably slippery concept. As soon as you make a statement about it, you’ve gone and turned it into something! But, if Ian McFarland is to be believed, we can’t just let the nothing be. It simply won’t do to go about life carelessly ontologising nothing. Theology must grapple with nothing, which is to say, it must cease trying to grapple with nothing as though it were something (because it looks rather silly to wrestle with the air).

McFarland has called his book From Nothing. I often berate my students for beginning their essays with clichés, such as “Since the beginning of time…” However, after reading From Nothing, I think that I have been mistaken. I should be praising my students and their clichés. After all, they have demonstrated that they have the theological sense to discern that time has a beginning. This is a fine point to make, as long as one doesn’t make it too finely. Once the theologian starts discussing what existed “before” creation, the language can get rather muddled—since the whole discussion employs a creaturely temporal framework. Of course, some theologians claim that an awful lot existed before creation, even if the things that did exist were the wrong shape and all the bits were in the wrong place.

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is sometimes accused of being alien to the Bible—a downright unscriptural philosophical intrusion into the theological purity of the Christian tradition. The students of Whitehead continue to tell us that ex nihilo—if nihil really means nihil—makes God responsible for the evils of the world. The creation narrative presented by process theism provides a tidy solution to the problem of evil: a God whose creative activity is limited to the persuasion of pre-existent matter cannot be held accountable when that obstinate matter shapes itself into unpleasant things like lawsuits and fire-ants. 

McFarland is aware of the critiques of ex nihilo, and addresses them by looking at the history of the doctrine. Our first written expression of ex nihilo seems to appear in Theophilus’ letter to Autolycus. “While the gnostics used the doctrine of creation as a theodicy, for Theophilus it no longer plays this role. Evil cannot be explained as a natural consequence of creation… Theophilus turns [the doctrine of creation] to the service of soteriology”. Theophilus saw that salvation of the material world hinges on God’s transcendence of the same.

This little history uncovers the principal theme of the book: it is because God transcends the world that God has an interest in the future of the world. Without transcendence, God would be subject the fate of the world, but the transcendent God is the subject of the fate of the world. The affirmation that God creates from nothing is simply another way of saying that “nothing limits God”. God’s creative activity is not conditioned by any environment or matter or circumstance. The Gnostics share with the process theists a disappointingly timid notion of divine transcendence. A truly transcendent God doesn’t need a demiurge. “God’s transcendence does not imply distance from creatures but is rather the ground for God’s engagement with them”.

Unlike this blog post, McFarland’s book does not degenerate into doctrinal polemics. Instead, he puts the doctrine of creation to use—he reveals its problems and promises. When examining an ancient doctrine such as this, one can be either an archaeologist or an engineer. The archaeologist attempts to uncover the ancient use of the doctrine, and perhaps argue for its continuity up until today. The engineer, on the other hand, attempts to build something on the doctrine. McFarland plays the engineer. The strongest case for the doctrine is made, he argues, when one can “identify its dogmatic function” rather than merely establishing “its grounding in Scripture or tradition”. McFarland builds his case upon topics such as evil and providence, glory and light, Christ and icons. McFarland is a fine engineer. He understands how the structure works, and shows that divine transcendence and creatio ex nihilo support and strengthen each other.

It might be possible to compare this book to Kathryn Tanner's God and Creation in Christian Theology, but I cannot think of another volume that treats the topic of creatio ex nihilo as well as McFarland does here. McFarland shows that when theologians talk about God, they talk about nothing. They just need to find a way to do it that allows God to be everything before there is anything else.

Monday 9 February 2015

New F&T group blog

Just a note to let you know that F&T is now officially a group blog. Hooray! This is long overdue, given that Kim has been posting here with me for about a decade anyway. But we're now also joined by Steve Wright, who will start posting soon. And if the Almighty blesses our endeavours, who knows, perhaps we'll be able to recruit another couple of writers down the track.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Solitude together: Charles Lamb on Quakers

For your weekend edification, I have made a quick (and slightly abridged) audio reading of Charles Lamb's 1821 essay, "A Quaker's Meeting." It is a playful meditation on the benefits of communal silence, as opposed to private silence. "Give me a sympathetic solitude!" Charles Lamb is not very famous anymore, which is a shame because he is quite wonderful, a great humorist with a good heart. He was once described as "the most loveable figure in English literature" – a laughable exaggeration given the existence of Boswell's Dr Johnson. But being the second-most-loveable person in English literature is still a pretty good claim to fame. If you want to give him a try, his Essays of Elia are the thing. Here is my Sunday-morning reading of "A Quakers' Meeting" (or you can download it here):


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