Thursday, January 29, 2015

Barth on the Need for Grace in Reading Scripture

"We do not truly appreciate either the light which the Church receives from the Bible, or the darkness which enshrouds it from the same source, until we recognize in both, beyond all the human effort and human refusal which is also present, the over-ruling power of the Word of God itself, either to exalt or to abase. Only then do we realize that we cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God. And it is only on the presupposition of prayer that all human effort in this matter, and penitence for human failure in this effort, will become serious and effective."

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, p. 684

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zechariah as the Sixth Evangelist

Isaiah was famously heralded by the church fathers (originally Jerome?) as "the fifth Evangelist." If there's room for another at the table, I propose we give the honor to Zechariah. Having never read the book start-to-finish before, in doing so the last couple of weeks I was repeatedly struck by how deeply interwoven it is into the canonical Gospels; along with Second Isaiah and the Psalms, it is an ineliminable feature of the Evangelists' depiction of Jesus's person, teachings, ministry, actions, and passion. Tug on that thread, and the texts unravel. Given its importance, I wonder—because I don't know—whether and to what extent the fathers and medievals read and commented on Zechariah, or whether, for whatever reason, it slipped by the wayside. Given its non-linear and non-systematic character, its apocalyptic and sometimes violent imagery, and its simultaneous emphasis on contemporaneous political events as well as the coming eschatological future, perhaps it was less immediately conducive to the sort of readings they would have been interested in undertaking.

But, wow, it is a powerhouse of figural christological exegesis. It's basically necessary pretext, historically, literarily, and theologically, for understanding the Gospels' presentation of Jesus. It's all there: Jerusalem (1:14-17; 8:3), exile (passim), YHWH's return (1:16; 8:3; 9:14), Israel's renewed election (2:12), the divine presence at the temple (2:5; 8:3; 9:8), a second exodus (14:16-19), the forgiveness of sins (3:9; 13:1), the Lord's rebuke of Satan (3:2), the eschatological gathering of all nations (passim), a priest-king named Joshua (6:11-13), the capstone (4:10), the anointed (4:14), the blood of the covenant (9:11), the Spirit's power and outpouring (4:6; 7:12; 12:10), grabbing a Jew by the hem of his robe (8:23), Israel's salvation (9:16), Israel's king at once human (9:9) and divine (14:9), 30 pieces of silver (11:12), the house of David (12:8), a cleansing fountain in Jerusalem (13:1), Jerusalem looking on him whom they have pierced (12:10), the shepherd struck and the sheep scattering (13:7), YHWH's feet standing on the Mount of Olives (14:4), the coming of YHWH with his saints (14:5), the day of darkness that is the first evening of the new creation (14:6-7), the singular sovereignty of the name of YHWH (14:9), the nations coming to worship this self-same king (14:16)—and so on.

I realize I'm not the first one to note this. (I'm vaguely aware that Wright, whose corpus I am making my way through as we speak, has made Zechariah central to his proposal about the historical Jesus's self-understanding.) But it's incredible nonetheless, both at a literary-historical level and, especially, in its implications for Christian theological interpretation of the Evangelists proper and of this unique proto-Evangelist.

Monday, January 26, 2015

On Learning to Recognize Those Who "Get It": Example, Daniel Treier

My dissertation deals with theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS), and at this point in reading through the vast literature in the last two decades on the topic, I've come to realize how quickly I can spot a scholar/theologian who "gets it" (or, alternatively, one who does not). The realization occurred to me as I began Daniel Treier's 2008 book Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Because TIS overlaps so heavily with biblical theology and biblical scholarship, both of which remain (in large part) decidedly modernist in hermeneutics, methodology, and overall theological outlook, the bogeymen of postmodernity, relativism, and antipathy to historical criticism are regularly trotted out and summarily dispatched as threats to the task of proper exegesis. Such moves are trending downward, but remain prominent nonetheless.

So works like Treier's, who went to TEDS and teaches at Wheaton, are a breath of fresh air, because they simply don't traffic in that kind of anxious enemy-identification. Treier models the fitting posture of all Christian theology: equal parts ambivalence and confidence. Ambivalence, because intellectual trends and changes are rarely wholly inimical to the gospel, but can be useful through careful and undefensive discernment; and confidence, because theology's matter, God and the gospel, doesn't depend on theologians' abilities to defend or describe it, but will take care of itself, thereby freeing the theologian to go about her work without the burden of everything depending on its success or failure. Theologians in general and those who write about TIS in particular can sometimes come across as so scared, and that fear inhibits them from seeing the productive possibilities in proposals that otherwise seem new, strange, or threatening.

Happily, there are folks like Treier who get it—theologians whose minds are catholic enough to realize that ostensible threats to the way things are, are often as not opportunities for greater fidelity to an older, deeper tradition or for appropriate change in the Spirit's wake. May their tribe increase.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Augustine on multiple interpretations of Scripture

"There are doubtless other ways of understanding our Lord's words, Why ask me about the good? No one is good but the one God (Matt 19:17). Provided however they do not favor belief that the Son's substance, by which he is the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3), is of a lesser goodness than the Father's, and are not otherwise at odds with sound doctrine, we may cheerfully use not merely one interpretation but as many as can be found. For the more ways we open up of avoiding the traps of heretics, the more effectively can they be convinced of their errors."
—Augustine, De Trinitate I.31

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 3: Appreciating Wright's Massive Methodological Prolegomena

As I have worked my way through Part II of The New Testament and the People of God, I have been frustrated at nearly every turn by Wright's argumentation, hermeneutics, and material methodological proposal. However, as I step back from it, I can't help but both admire and applaud Wright for taking the time to do this. The whole book, in one sense, is a book-length prolegomenon to the subsequent volumes in the series (taking more than two decades to write the next three books that give us his take on Jesus and Paul). But before discussing first-century Judaism or Christianity in Parts III and IV, Wright takes 116 pages, across four chapters, to lay out his epistemology, interpretation of culture, historical methodology, and understanding of theology. How many times, in reading works of history or literature or whatever, do we bang our heads against the wall because the author has offered no warrant whatsoever for her claims? because he has not substantiated his methodological approach? because she assumes ten thousand things to be true that we, her readers, reject one and all?

When reading the rest of NTPG, and indeed the rest of the volumes of Christian Origins and the Question of God, the reader may disagree with Wright's claims and conclusions, but the one thing he—the one thing I—will not do is complain about unstated premises, missing warrants, unjustified methods. Because Wright has done all the painstaking, necessary work to ensure that I can't.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 2: On the Shadow Cast by Bultmann in Wright's Early Work

At first the ubiquity of Bultmann's presence in Part I of New Testament and the People of God surprised and confused me. My reflexive response was something like, 'Aren't we past all that? Why the feeling that Bultmann is the authority to which NT scholarship must be accountable and/or that he still has ongoing relevance for interpreting the NT?' But a couple things dawned on me.

First, I've read and heard Wright say a number of times that, in his formative school years, Bultmann was the thing that was taught; Bultmannianism was the definitive respectable position on offer, and it was omnipresent in the biblical academy.

Second, when Wright began work on NTPG in the mid- to late-1980s, Bultmann had been dead for barely a decade. By comparison to today, NTPG was published twice as long ago. It only goes to show how larger-than-life figures like Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, and Moltmann (still alive!), though their influence has been vast and wide, even to the point of (in some cases) being eclipsed by others' work, are nevertheless thinkers who flourished within living memory. (A guest instructor at Emory, who taught a Reformed Theology short course I took, was one of Barth's last doctoral students in Basel!)

Realizing all this is helpful in reading Wright, in at least two ways. First, it puts into context the trajectories and authorities in NT scholarship with which he was dealing at the time, however alien they might seem in the present context. Second, it reveals just how epochal a shift has taken place in the last two decades, not only in the sidelining of anything like Bultmann's project, but also in the character of NT scholarship, the assumptions one is free to make, the theological projects deemed viable (or passé), and so on. It's a different world for up-and-coming NT scholars today than it was for Wright in the 70s and 80s.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

John Webster on the perennial nature of the intellect's depravity

"[W]e would be unwise to think of the depravity of the intellect as a peculiarly modern occurrence, a collateral effect of the naturalization of our view of ourselves. It assumes peculiar modern forms, such as the association of the intellect with pure human spontaneity and resistance to the idea that the movement of the mind is moved by God. But these are instances of perennial treachery; if our intellects are depraved, it is not because we are children of Scotus or Descartes or Kant, but because we are children of Adam."

—John Webster, "On the Theology of the Intellectual Life," in Christ Across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), p. 107

Monday, January 12, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 1: On the Theological Utility of Historical Inquiry

This spring and summer I'm reading through N. T. Wright's major works. As thoughts, reactions, and micro-critiques occur to me, I'll share them here (or, if I can't find the time, consider this the first and last installment of the series). Wright is undeniably a major and influential figure, but his work rankles as often as it illuminates. There are some crucial problems worth exploring, and hopefully I can do that here in a preliminary way.

Wright writes, "without historical enquiry there is no check on Christianity's propensity to remake Jesus, never mind the Christian god, in its own image" (NTPG, p. 10). This is a patently false claim, but it is important to see why. The historical inquiry Wright has in mind was created relatively recently; with antecedents in the Renaissance and Reformation, it gained momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries and came to maturity in the 19th. So—from a Christian, theological, point of view—was Christianity truly lacking any check on its tendency to idolatry, to projecting onto Christ and God whatever it wanted them to be, prior to the creation of this intellectual discipline?

Partly this is a rhetorical overreach: Wright could simply rephrase to say, "historical inquiry is a valuable check on . . . ." But it's a rhetorical habit that is recurrent throughout his work, which reflects a habit of mind: it isn't merely ornamental. I think Wright really means what he says here. If so, what are the implications, for biblical exegesis, ecclesiology, doctrine of Scripture, doctrine of providence, and historical inquiry itself? What, moreover, might it suggest about Wright's project as a whole?

Here's one global thesis: That it is an irremediably Protestant one.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Difference of Methdological Posture Between Jenson and Pannenberg

Michael Root writes of Pannenberg (my emphasis):
A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.

When Pannenberg broke onto the scene in the 1960s, he was treated as the new candidate for these laurels, the latest thing from Germany, the land of giants. His program of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the Christian message under the rubrics of history and eschatology looked like another interpretive tour de force, another exercise in killing the Oedipal father (or fathers, in the form of Barth and Bultmann) so that the children are free to pursue their own projects. The actual shape of Pannenberg’s achievement has been somewhat different. The quasi-scholastic tone points at least to a different intent, a more humble subjection to the subject matter.

Nevertheless, the manner of the virtuoso has never quite disappeared, no more than it disappeared from the work of Barth. The unique interpretive vision rooted in eschatology continues to color all that is said. As a friend has noted, what Pannenberg will not do is outline the tradition on a theological topic and then simply conclude that the tradition got it right and move on. The subject needs to be reshaped by the unique perspective of the system, like the pianist who insists that somehow, somewhere, her own unique interpretation must shine through.
Compare a footnote to an essay in a recent collection by Jenson. Regarding "such . . . theologoumena as Luther's christological founding of sacrament," Jenson's "Systematic Theology does not attempt to rehabilitate but simply receives with rejoicing" (Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), p. 69n.2).

"Receives with rejoicing": this is an apt characterization for an intellectual habit on recurrent display in Jenson's work, most of all in his systematics. He simply quotes or adverts to some great theologian—Origen, Irenaeus, Basil, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Edwards, Barth—regarding a theological question, affirms his agreement, and assumes its truth in what he goes on to say. This accounts for the economy of some of his argumentation, but more important, it models a posture to the tradition that resists the virtuosic-systematic impulse to revise and reshape everything received, no matter how laudable or exemplary. As such it is a habit for contemporary theologians to consider imitating.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

John Webster on Barth's engagement with philosophy

"Barth's insistence on speaking [with philosophy/non-Christian disciplines] on his own terms is not to be interpreted as obstinate reluctance to come out of his lair and talk to the rest of the world; quite the contrary: in writing, as in life, Barth showed remarkable openness to all manner of ideas, provided he is allowed to exercise Christian nonconformity."

—John Webster, Barth, 2nd ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2000, 2004), p. 174

Thursday, April 3, 2014

On Reading Scripture in Translation: A Brief Critique of Vanhoozer

In their book Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation, coauthors A. K. M. Adam, Stephen Fowl, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson each contribute a constructive essay and then offer a response to the others' essays. In Vanhoozer's response to Fowl, he takes up Fowl's approving treatment of Thomas Aquinas's reading of the prologue to the Gospel of John, where Thomas affirms a number of legitimate interpretations of the literal sense. Vanhoozer writes:
Fowl is in favor of many (but not too many!) legitimate interpretations Yet throughout his essay, he makes a special point of saying that Thomas has no problem ruling out some interpretations to be inadequate or mistaken. How can we delimit what God intends to be understood by the words that are written? The general idea is that, instead of delimiting, we should rather accept as many true meanings as possible. There is, however, an important caveat: "Do not violate the context."

Fowl examines Thomas's suggestion that "in the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1) has (at least) three literal meanings and asks whether Thomas was"right." Specifying criteria for interpreters "getting it right" is, in my book, what hermeneutical theory is all about. So, does Fowl succeed both in establishing many literal senses and in providing a criterion that halts their endless proliferation? Readers will have to judge for themselves. Let me call attention to one interesting fact. Thomas derives his three interpretations of John 1:1 on the basis of the various ways of using the term principium. But this is a Latin term, and the author of the Fourth Gospel wrote in Greek.

"Determinate" means limited in time and space. Is it not a violation of the context of John 1:1 to lift the text from its original time and place, not to mention its original language? There is a christological point here that should not be missed. God makes himself known and communicates to humans not by transcending space and time but by entering into the human condition. To divorce Scripture from its historical context is to suggest that it has the mere appearance of human discourse. This way lies hermeneutic Docetism. In order not to violate the text, must we not eventually say that the eagle has landed in some determinate time and place?

Fowl is right to insist that the divine intention ultimately transcends that of the human author. I argue in my own essay that theological hermeneutics is a matter of "discerning the divine discourse in the work." Where we still differ, perhaps, is in the way that we respond to the injunction not to violate the context. For me, context refers to the historical, literary, and canonical settings of biblical discourse. It is not entirely clear to me how Fowl would appeal to context—which contexts?—in order to delimit the plurality of possible divine intentions.
I want to leave aside Vanhoozer's larger point about delimited meanings and criteria for right interpretation. Instead, I want to focus on his critical comment about language and the proposed christological warrant for it, because I think Vanhoozer is wrong in important and revealing ways here.

The upshot of Vanhoozer's comment seems to be that strong interpretive judgments about scriptural texts should not or even cannot be based on a translation, because to do so is to violate one of the principal contexts within which the text makes sense, namely the language in which it was originally written. This latter justification is given warrant by reference to the incarnation: God neither remains distant in heaven nor comes near in appearance only, but becomes in actual fact a particular flesh-and-blood human being in a particular time and place. Hermeneutic docetism follows christological docetism when it abstracts from the particularities of historical being—time, place, language, finitude, community, culture, social convention—as so much husk masking a transcendent kernel; the reader supposes the text's features are accidental to the substance of what it says, rather than part and parcel of its meaning. On the contrary, what a biblical text says is inseparable from how its said, which includes how the original human author said it in the language in which he wrote.

The positive import for contemporary biblical interpretation is clear enough: basically, a qualified endorsement of the tools and methods of historical criticism as crucial for properly Christian reading of Scripture—though without, of course, endorsing the whole program, especially some of the theological and philosophical presuppositions that tend to underwrite it. The negative implication is twofold. More broadly, the original historical context of a scriptural text's composition (and initial reception?) is one delimiting factor for its right interpretation. More specifically, readings like Thomas's that make exegetical judgments based on a translation of a scriptural text are called into question, perhaps not wholesale, but at least to the extent that the onus is on them to justify their translation-exegesis—particularly if it is controverted or arguable in some important way—at the bar of original-language-exegesis. Principium bows to archē.

This line of reasoning is very surprising, given Vanhoozer's work elsewhere (I'm thinking of The Drama of Doctrine in particular), and it isn't clear to me that he has traced the consequences to their logical conclusion. In short, if Christians can't make strong exegetical judgments when reading Scripture in translation, then one might as well throw out nearly the whole pre-Reformation theological tradition as well as almost every sermon, class, popular book, or personal devotion in the church's history. Most of the East for most of the last two millennia has read the Old Testament in Greek, and most of the West for much of the same time read the whole Bible in Latin. What of their theologies, their ecumenical creeds, their dogmas, their pastoral and ethical decisions? Almost every ordinary church member, in every church on every continent since the church's founding, has heard Scripture read aloud in translation. What of their faith, their edification, their sanctification, their knowledge of Christ and his gospel? When literate Christians read the Bible—say, the prologue to the Gospel of John translated into English, where it says "In the beginning" and not En archē—should they qualify their time spent prayerfully with God's word with the proviso, "So long as the Greek bears it out"?

Doubtless Vanhoozer would have much to say on this; and I know that he values the work of missiologists like Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, who emphasize the inherent translatability of the gospel and its Scripture. But the theological point is crucial, and at least in the quote above, he seems not only to miss it but to presume against it. One way of putting the point is this: When the Bible is read in the gathered assembly, and the lector concludes the passage by saying, "The word of the Lord," to which the congregation responds, "Thanks be to God," there isn't any sleight of hand. There isn't an asterisk with fine print that reads, "A translation of the word of the Lord." When Christians hear (and read) Scripture in translation, what they hear (and read) is the word of the Lord—full stop. Holy Scripture in translation is Holy Scripture, pure and simple. That this is so not only helps to make sense of nearly all Christian experience, devotion, worship, and theological reflection, but is integral to the missionary character of the faith. When the gospel is proclaimed to the nations and women and men believe the good news, they do not get second-rate gospel if they happen not to speak (ancient!) Greek or Hebrew. The gospel is essentially translatable, and so is the book set apart to bear its message to the world.

What are the implications for biblical exegesis and for theological judgments made on the basis of reading Scripture in translation? That's a good question, and one well worth attending to; but it is secondary, insofar as it follows the prior, more determinate and catholic affirmation about Scripture's inherent ability to be translated without material loss.

Are Protestants able to make that affirmation? Do they have sufficient grounds—bibliological and ecclesiological not least—to do so? Is there something genetic in evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed variety, that would keep it from doing so? I wonder.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Whether Victims Need Conversion

Richard Beck has a post up today called "The Victim Needs No Conversion." Per usual, it is thoughtful and robust food for theological thought. I agree with a great deal of it, in particular the move of prioritizing God's act of identifying himself with victims, and locating himself with and among them. However, I think the post reflects a problem that is prevalent in a lot of discussion of victims and the oppressed, namely, a too formal generalization that leaves undifferentiated the complexity of actual human beings who at once experience some form of victimization and themselves make victims of others. There are any number of obvious examples: the abused son who becomes a father who abuses his children; the male slave who oppresses his wife; the emotionally abused wife/mother who emotionally abuses her friends or children; the alcoholic whose genes and social context lead him to drinking yet whose own drinking inflicts evil on others; the sub-manager lorded over by his boss who in turn lords over the workers he manages; and so on.

I don't have time right now to try to articulate fully how I think the gist of the post might be combined with this more differentiated perspective, but I think the move is necessary. Perhaps something like this: all people, even victims, need conversion, because conversion is (by God's grace) a radical turning into a new form of life, and all people, even victims, are in bondage to forms of life that inevitably result in hurting others and/or themselves.

In this way "conversion" isn't code for "believe in this set of propositions" and/or "change your religious affiliation." It means the total revolution of one's life. And, to be sure, victims are in a uniquely privileged place to hear the call to conversion as good news; and in many ways the gospel comes simply as sheer blessing on their life as such. But it nevertheless enables and demands a change of the heart and of one's way of life—and that, too, both is good news for victims and applies to them like all others.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Paul Griffiths on the Figural Reading of Scripture: "possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable"

"I assume that figural reading of scripture is possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable. There are many reasons for this, among the more important of which are these: that scripture itself self-referentially performs and depicts such reading; that the practice and teaching of the church requires it; and that it is axiomatic for Christian theological interpretation that scripture as a whole and in each of its parts is first and last about more than what the surface of its text says. That more is always and necessarily the triune Lord and, necessarily, that Lord’s incarnation as Jesus Christ.

"But what, in more detail, is figural reading? One event or utterance figures another when, while remaining unalterably what it is, it announces or communicates something other than itself. Eve’s assent to the tempter and her consequent taking of the forbidden fruit from the tree figures, in this sense, Mary’s fiat mihi in response to the annunciation and the consequent incarnation of the Lord in her womb. The second event—the figured—encompasses and includes the first, without removing its reality. The first—the figuring—has its reality, however, by way of participation in the second. This is in the order of being.

"Ontological figuration may, however, be replicated at the level of the text, and in scripture it inevitably is. Here, a depiction of a person or utterance or event—say, the lover’s praises of the beloved or the details of the construction and ornamentation of Solomon’s bed—may figure a textual depiction of some other person, utterance, or event. Christian theological commentators on the Song, as on any other scriptural text, must, in seeking their text’s scriptural reverberations, be attentive not only to the sheerly verbal, but also to the figural. Allegory—which may or may not be present in scripture, unlike figure, which necessarily is—differs from figure in that it dissolves the allegorical text into what it allegorizes. Following allegorical method strictly means that an allegorical text’s literal sense must be ignored except in so far as it permits understanding of what it allegorizes. The figural text’s literal sense—like its ontological reality—does not dissolve in this way: Eve remains Eve, the lovers of the Song remain the lovers of the Song (as will be apparent, I do not read them as if they were figures in a parable), and the text of the Song remains what it is: a constant demand for interpretation whose results are not determined and which may, for Christians, often be uncomfortable."*

*"Commentators on the Song with historicist or literary interests often dismiss figural reading along with allegorical reading on the dual ground that both (if any distinction is made between them) obscure the particulars of the Song because they treat it as piecemeal support for a general theory arrived at independently and because they advocate reading the text for itself, free from assumptions imported from elsewhere. Jill M. Munro, Spikenard and Saffron: The Imagery of the Song of Songs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 10–16, is representative (if a little extreme) in making these criticisms. But neither is defensible: figural reading, as defined, requires rather than calls into question attention to textual and literary particularity; and it is not possible to read a text for itself."

—Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), pp. lvii–lviii (with a portion of footnote 36 on p. lviii)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Karl Barth in Conversation Officially Published

A few years back I contributed in a small way to the Karl Barth Blog Conference: I responded to Jon Coutts's lovely imagined dialogue between Barth and the Coen Brothers, centered on the latter's 2007 adaptation of No Country for Old Men. Now the proceedings, since revised and expanded, have been published by Wipf & Stock in a volume edited by W. Travis McMaken and David Congdon, titled Karl Barth in Conversation. It's officially on sale now, with a peak at the table of contents here.

Jon's essay and my response are the very last in the volume, concluding the third and final portion of the book ("Expanding Conversations"). His essay, "No Country for Old Man: Barth Calls the Coen Brothers," is found on pages 234–246, and my response follows on pages 247–254. Some others who contributed to the volume (and I list only those I know from meeting in person!) include Andy Rowell, Ben Myers, Derek Woodard-Lehman, Peter Kline, Halden Doerge, Ry Siggelkow, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

It looks to be an exciting and creative entry in Barth studies, and I'm honored to have played a small part. My thanks to Travis and David for the invitation to participate.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Instrumentality: Drawing an Analogy Between Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Language and Thomas's Christology

It occurred to me, while reading the Philosophical Investigations, that a potentially helpful analogy for understanding Wittgenstein's notion of language as "instrument" is Thomas Aquinas's defense of speaking of the Word using Jesus's human nature "instrumentally." (I suppose the helpfulness could extend in the other direction as well.) For Wittgenstein, language isn't an instrument because it's an item in our world external to us, ready for use in executing goals unrelated to language, that is, as a tool that could otherwise be accomplished equally well without language. (Not: this hammer will do, although that screwdriver would work, too.) Rather, language is an instrument because it performs work: we should keep ourselves from asking about something other than language that is the "real" thing happening or being communicated above or behind or within the language. When talking about meaning and communication, we should simply ask what the language itself is doing—what the words are up to in shared discourse. Language as a feature of human life is pragmatic; it fulfills tasks. If you want to know what the words mean, look to see what particular people are doing with them; observe what they're using them for.

Which isn't to say, as one might take it to mean, that language is not constitutive of human life and being. It unquestionably is. But its centrality to human sociality and existence is not to the exclusion of the practical, even mundane role it plays. Language, in other words, isn't a hammer next to the screwdriver. It's the toolset we're born with and into, which we receive and are trained in the exercise of, and which we develop and refine over a lifetime.

It seems to me that Thomas's understanding of the relationship between the divine Word and Jesus's human nature is quite similar to this account. Thomas argues that the divine incarnate Son's human nature is indeed constitutive of Jesus—who is a divine person enfleshed as a human being—precisely because he would not be human apart from it. But the human nature is nevertheless "instrumental" to the Word insofar as it is a medium of the Word's action and presence in the corporeal world. In this way it is neither accidental (because he wouldn't be human) nor essential (because he either wouldn't be or would cease to be divine), but rather—following the Word's assumption of human nature, resulting in a union in the hypostasis of the Word (not in the divine nature)—subsists as constitutive of the man Jesus of Nazareth, who just is the eternal Son in the flesh. Just so, because the human nature, which includes the soul and body of the man, is the Word's own, it is the instrument of the Word's agency in human, physical, material life. When Jesus acts, it is the Word acting, that is, acting in and through the instrument of its own (assumed) human nature.

In short, language is to human life (for Wittgenstein) as human nature is to the incarnate Word's agency (for Thomas): a not-quite-essential, but nonetheless-not-accidental, instrument.

(Actual scholars and experts in these figures, commence your corrections.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

2014 Annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary

I'm late with this—finishing comps and the birth of a child will do that—but better late than never. This June 15–18, the 2014 Annual Karl Barth Conference will be held at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme will be "Karl Barth, the Jews, and Judaism." Speakers include Victoria Barnett, Eberhard Busch, Ellen Charry, George Hunsinger, David Novak, and Peter Ochs.

The date to note is March 1: the early bird special for registration ends then, and it's also the deadline for the first-ever call for papers. If you plan on going and have something to contribute, submit a proposal!

I will, unfortunately, be on a trip of my own at the time and so won't be able to attend. But I have no doubt it will be a fantastic and edifying gathering, not least due to the quality of the speakers. I look forward to the early reports and to whatever publications come of it. The subject couldn't be of greater relevance and the conversations are sure to be substantial and challenging.

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Discerning the (Holiday) Spirits: On Prophecy in the Negative Mode Only" Published on the Tokens Blog

It's been crickets and tumbleweeds on the blog this fall, due not to inactivity but to a surplus of commitments, professional and otherwise. Unfortunately, I expect that to be the case for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the Tokens blog graciously invited me to be a regular contributor, and my first post went up on Friday: "Discerning the (Holiday) Spirits: On Prophecy in the Negative Mode only." Consider it my semiannual Christmas exercise in not being cranky, and trying to spread the non-crankiness to others.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Which Freud Reveals the Methodological Secret of Historical Criticism

"When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient, and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs. But this is the only way in which to treat material whose trustworthiness—as we know for certain—was seriously damaged by the influence of distorting tendencies. Some justification will be forthcoming later, it is hoped, when we have unearthed those secret motives. Certainty is not to be gained in any case, and, moreover, we may say that all other authors have acted likewise."

—Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1939), 30n.1

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Being a Scholar of John Howard Yoder Without Ignoring or Omitting His Mistreatment of Women

A few weeks ago I followed a link from my friend Jimmy McCarty's blog to a post on Our Stories Untold written by Barbra Graber. Titled "What's to be done about John Howard Yoder?", Graber's piece brought home to me, with a depth and force I had not encountered before, the profound problems bound up with the ongoing scholarly reception and interpretation of Yoder's work in light of his mistreatment of women. Specifically, many of these women (along with their families and friends) continue to belong to and worship in Mennonite communities which often speak in glowing terms of Yoder and his writings. Graber isn't concerned with stamping out interest in Yoder's thought, much less with suggesting that his wrongdoing nullifies any positive contribution his work could have either in the academy or in the church. Rather, she is identifying a disturbing but rarely noted reality: namely, the profound and disorienting disjunction between the memory and modes of speech regarding Yoder on the part of theologians and those on the part of the women hurt by him.

She therefore writes, with people like me in mind:
For journalists and book reviewers: When you discuss JHY’s work, have the courage to acknowledge the controversy, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.”  If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, please forward on to me.
For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy  (right belief) and his severe lack of orthopraxy (right action) in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor.
This is both convicting and persuasive. John Howard Yoder will feature in a good deal of my work as an academic theologian, and I have no interest in contributing to this ongoing blind spot or rhetorical disjunction. I have already published one article in which Yoder features, and I have another article forthcoming whose final editorial version may already be set; but I do have an essay in a book coming out next year which I was revising when I read Graber's post, and I attached this footnote to Yoder's name when he appeared in the text:
Yoder’s legacy is seriously complicated by what was apparently a long history of mistreatment of women, whose complaints only came to be acknowledged—by his denomination and by himself—late in his life. I do not know the details well enough to offer educated remarks, but a short piece written by Barbra Graber (available online: alerted me to the disjunction between, on the one hand, the ongoing process of recovery and healing on the part of women and Mennonite communities who were hurt by Yoder’s actions and, on the other hand, the glowing rhetoric which tends to pervade academic theological engagement of Yoder’s work. Graber remarks that she doesn’t want Yoder scholars to stop studying Yoder; she merely thinks they ought to note the problems involved in interpreting the work of a man whose victims are still alive, and must go on living in his shadow. This request seems to me exactly right, and I mean to signal this challenge in all my subsequent published work on Yoder. How to negotiate the related issue of interpreting the thought of a Christian theologian who fell so short of his own vision—a vision which, by all accounts, does not contain the seeds of his abusive behavior—is an important question for another time.
I am interested to hear from others, whether Yoder scholars or not. Is this sort of comment appropriate? If inappropriate, how so? If appropriate, is it good as stands? Do I say too little? Do I say too much? Should I include a version of it in all my writings which mention Yoder? What sort of personal illicit behavior demands this kind of explicit signal? Is it only required so long as the victims are alive? What other thinkers and authors belong to this (regrettable) category?

I welcome feedback on this whole constellation of issues, which I do not pretend is simple or easy to sort through but which I do believe requires thoughtful, intentional care for the sake of truthfulness regarding Yoder's deeds and justice regarding his victims.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"An Interview With Miroslav Volf" Published in Missio Dei Journal

The latest issue of Missio Dei Journal is beginning to be published online, and one of the first pieces up is my interview with Miroslav Volf. Guest editor John Barton asked me to conduct the interview focusing on matters related to the issue's theme, "Christ's Mission Among the Abrahamic Faiths." The conversation ranges from Volf's book Allah: A Christian Response to Christian–Muslim Relations to the nature and character of Christian evangelism and more. Head on over and check it out, along with the rest of the issue as it gets posted these next few weeks.