Thursday 21 May 2015

How to mark essays: the practical application of the doctrine of divine simplicity

Every academic is a surgeon. I am, you see, a Doctor of the Academy and the red pen is my scalpel. It is my Duty to perform surgery on student essays to safeguard the future of the English Language. Sometimes the surgery is cosmetic, but quite often I am called upon to perform a coronary bypass or an amputation. Occasionally, after working on an essay for some time, I am required to pronounce the time of death.

Most frequently, however, my scalpel cuts down capital letters in the essays that come to my operating theatre. In theology essays, words such as “Omnipotent”, “He”, and “Love” are often piously capitalised. These essays are littered with little impudent letters standing taller than they should, like a beggar who presumes to lift his head in the presence of the King. Such unnecessary capitalisations fill my eyes with red, which I gleefully spill onto the page.

You must understand, I quite enjoy wielding the knife—slicing comma splices, maligning malaprops, abrogating apostrophes. It’s a thoroughly Religious Experience, if you know what I mean. In fact, today, I had a Revelation. 

While marking an essay saying something about baptism, I was caught up—whether in the body or out of the body, I know not—to heaven. A voice spoke to me and asked, “Why do you persecute Me?” I replied, “Lord, I have done nothing but serve you.” The voice spoke again, “Then why do you disrespect My Name?”

At that moment, a choir of angels descended singing a hymn of singular glory. While they seemed to be singing in parts, there were no parts. Somehow, each angel sang the whole song. The plurality of voices added nothing to the music, but each voice was true and necessary. Every angel sang but a single word—“Love”, or “Just”, or “Omnipotent”—and with this word every angel sang the name of God. While they sang, all the essays I had ever marked came up to greet me. I wept as I saw the Names of God shining brightly from their pages, the beautiful capital letters standing tall and glorious. Each capitalised word was a complete and robust description of the divine essence: “Grace”, “Mercy”, “Wrath”.

I startled back to my senses in my study, paper in hand. Putting the paper down, I sent an email to the receptionist to let her know that we will need less red ink in future.

Thursday 7 May 2015

The Divine Unity: Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology

The first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s new Systematic Theology is nearing release, and the curious can sample the preface and first chapter of the book on Fortress’ website. 

It looks like an unmissable volume—if only because she resolutely refuses to begin with Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity. “This theology is neither Christomorphic nor Christocentric” (p. xvii). 

In her preface, Sonderegger observes that “Modern Christian theology has shown an allergy to questions about Deity—what God is” (p. xi). She sets out in this volume to explore the perfections of God through the foundational perfection: divine oneness—“oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God” (p. xiv). 

While some modern theologians have depicted the renewed emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as the victory of scripture over philosophy, Sonderegger points to the priority of divine oneness in scripture. There is nothing more scriptural, she observes, than monotheism. This marks a departure from the modern trend of beginning with the Trinity. The beloved doctrine of the modern West will have to wait until volume 2.

The sample from the first chapter is rich and interesting. Sonderegger enters into extended engagement with Jenson as a prime example of a doctrine of God that “conjoins divine identity, narrative, Trinity, philo-Judaism, and anti-Hellenism” (p. 7). Jenson’s theology is worth examining, she argues, because Jenson insists that “its defiant starting point in the doctrine of the Trinity moves it not away [from], … but closer to the law, observance, and piety of rabbinic Judaism” (p. 7). However, she finds the sidelining of oneness in his treatment dissatisfying. Against Jenson and his comrades Sonderegger argues that the foundational form of the Old Testament is not “narrative” or “story”, but Torah (p. 11). Israel’s scripture teaches divine oneness as a metaphysical commitment.

Whereas Barth, Jenson, and others have suggested that a purely monadic God would be an idol, Sonderegger argues that according to scripture a visible God would be more idolatrous. God’s invisibility is what sets the true God apart from idols (pp. 17-21). How she will reconcile this with christology and the iconoclast controversy remains to be seen.

While it is questionable to offer a critique based on a short sample—a bit like reviewing a movie after having watched only the trailer—a question did keep coming to mind. Sonderegger has decided to avoid treating God as triune in this volume in order to redress the oversight of the unity of God in modern theology. However, I am not quite convinced that the unity of God has been overlooked in the modern renewal of the doctrine of the Trinity. It seems to me that for Jenson (and perhaps for Barth and others), the unity of the divine being is a presupposition that needs to be converted by an encounter with divine revelation. That certain theologians prefer to begin with the doctrine of the Trinity does not necessarily mean, as Sonderegger argues, “that the Oneness of God comes under heavy threat” (p. 9). However, she is right that the current theological climate makes it difficult to know what we can/should say about the oneness of God.

Sonderegger’s prose is alive with scriptural allusions and spiritual insights. Most compelling is her reflection on the spiritual and theological importance of God’s humility: “So humble is this God that He will lay Himself down in our knowledge, making our paths straight, illumining our darkness, raising up the creature in His own ineffable Light… This is the exceeding Goodness of our God, His Lowliness, that He will come to us, and make His dwelling there” (p. xx).

I look forward to reading the full volume. It seems to me that her attentiveness to scripture and to spiritual practices is to be celebrated and emulated. If doing so problematises received models or methods for theology, so be it.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Four talks on Calvin as a social reformer

Starting this Wednesday I’ll be giving a series of talks on “John Calvin, Social Reformer.” Here’s a quick sketch of what I hope to do in each of the talks:

1. Education
– the challenge of educational reform – the Institutes and Commentaries as educational books – catechesis as the foundation of protestant culture

2. Piety
– the challenge of reforming popular piety – reorienting piety around the Word – Calvin’s recovery of monastic psalmody as a practice for all believers – psalm-singing unites Word and Spirit – singing as the energy of protestant culture

3. Society
– the challenge of reforming politics and civil society – the Institutes as a manual for Christian freedom – freedom of conscience in relation to God – freedom in relation to the political order – freedom in relation to the church – tensions between individual freedom and God-given structures – freedom as the basic mode of relating in protestant culture

4. Theology
– Calvin’s social reform derived from his theology of grace – paradoxically, grace provides the impetus to strive for social change – the loss of a theology of grace in later protestant culture, and the subsequent spiritual exhaustion of protestant culture – recap: the symptoms in Western culture of education without grace, piety without grace, and social freedom without grace – recovering a theology of grace today.

The talks are at 10 a.m. each Wednesday over the next four weeks at United Theological College, 16 Masons Drive, North Parramatta. They’re open to anyone who would like to come along, so please come and join us if you’re in the neighbourhood.


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