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: http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/2013/07/17/whats-to-be-done-about-john-howard-yoder/) 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.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Resource Request: A Full Bibliography for Rowan Williams

I'm doing a bit of research on Rowan Williams, and am on the hunt for a comprehensive bibliography of his writings (books, articles, essays, interviews, book reviews, etc.). My guess is that plenty of folks out there already have in their possession such a document (and one that's basically up-to-date), given the amount of recent work dedicated to Williams's thought. If anyone has such a document or can point me to one (online or in a published book), I would greatly appreciate it. Feel free to do so via comment or email: eastbk [AT] gmail [DOT] com. Many thanks in advance.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On Christians "Celebrating" the Fourth of July: A Proposal

This is a re-post from July 4th last year.

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For Christians concerned with issues like nationalism, the violence of the state, and bearing witness to God's peaceable kingdom, one might expect the Fourth of July to be a straightforward call to action. An opportunity to debunk American myths; a day of truthtelling about those who suffer as a consequence of American policies, foreign and domestic; a chance to offer a counter-witness to the civil liturgies covertly clamoring for the allegiance of God's people. And there are compelling, laudable voices doing just that sort of thing today.

On the Fourth, however, I find myself wondering whether there might also be another option available. Not as a replacement of those I've listed above, but rather as another way of "being" on the Fourth that, on the one hand, betrays not an inch on the issues (which, of course, do not disappear for 24 hours), yet on the other hand is able to see the holiday as something other than just one more chance for another round of imperial debunking.

To put it differently, I'm wondering whether there might be certain goods attendant to some "celebrations" of the Fourth of July, and whether it might sometimes be a good idea for Christians to share in those goods. If an affirmative answer is appropriate to both questions, I'm wondering finally what faithful participation might look like.

For example, I grew up in a decidedly non-patriotic household. Not "anti-patriotic," mind you, but "non-." It just wasn't an issue. No flag burnings (hence not "anti-") -- but no flags around to begin with. Even on a day like the Fourth, while there was probably a dessert lurking somewhere colored red, white, and blue, that was both the extent of it and about as meaningful as having silver-and-black cupcakes when the Spurs won the championship. In other words, not much. Beyond that, we didn't sing patriotic songs or wax nostalgic about the glories of the U.S.A. or thank God incessantly for making us Americans and not communists. We cooked a lot of food, had lots of people over, ate and laughed and napped and swam and ate again, and concluded the night by watching fireworks. Then we crashed.

Perhaps my experience is not representative, but in reflecting on it, I have a hard time getting very worked up by what is generically derided as hyper-patriotic, nationalistic, blasphemous, violence-perpetuating, etc. No doubt there are gatherings and celebrations which do earn those and other descriptors, and Christians shouldn't hold back even a second in truthfully naming them for what they are. My point is merely that not all are like that. And my question is this: Might Christians' sharing in ordinary gatherings like the ones I have in mind be one faithful option for the Fourth of July?

While I don't see this as some kind of paradoxical subversion of the holiday, the possibility is worth pondering for at least a moment. America's particular brand of individualism and pluralism at times affords some unexpected benefits, not least of which is the notion that the meaning of common set-aside days is not a shared given but rather what each of us decides to make it mean for oneself. Thus we "do" or "do not" celebrate x holiday; or we "don't do it that way," but "this way"; etc.

Well, why can't the church -- not as a day off from its witness to the God of peace against the violent idolatries of the state, but precisely as one form of it -- make its own meaning on the Fourth? The meaning can be simple: Rest from work is good; time shared with neighbors, friends, and family is good; feasting with others (when done neither every day nor alone -- which is generally the American way) is good. I've been part of celebrations like this that go the whole day without waving a flag, memorializing a war, comparing a soldier's sacrifice to Jesus's, or mentioning "the greatest country on Earth" -- and that without anyone present consciously intending to avoid such things! It just happened; and I suspect it did, apart from consideration of the faithfulness of those gathered, simply because of all the good being shared among and between us. Almost like an unconscious tapping-in to that ancient notion of habitual rest and feasting, only we were so preoccupied with one another's company that we forgot "the reason" we were together at all.

So perhaps that can be the understated motto for what I'm suggesting. Let American Christians across the land feel free to "celebrate" the Fourth of July, sharing in its manifold goods with our neighbors with a clean conscience; only let us do so, at every moment and with focused purpose, forgetting the reason for the season.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 3: Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

Previous posts: Part 1: A Fivefold Schema; Part 2: Origen

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

Briefly, I locate Athanasius in the fourth type of the christological schema: Jesus as author and interpreter of Scripture.  I do this because, for Athanasius, one of Christ’s chief tasks was to enlighten us with the knowledge of God—hence we learn from his teaching both about God and about how to live (e.g., we die as martyrs rather than kill). From my foray into Athanasius's writings, however, I found little more that pertained directly to this question, so I'll leave it there.

As for Gregory of Nazianzus, he is clearly the prototypical representative of the third type: Christ as forerunner of the spiritual life. His rhetorical appeal in one of his Epiphany sermons is indicative here. He calls on his parishioners to "[t]ravel without fault through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ.” This journey includes birth, exile, purification, circumcision, presentation at the temple, threatened stonings, Herod's wrath, scourges, blows, and so on. He concludes: "[L]astly, be crucified with him, and share his death and burial gladly, that you may rise with him, and be glorified with him and reign with him."

In this way the life of Jesus is not normative literally—that is, corporeally—but spiritually: we needn't map every particular aspect of his human life to ours, for that would be absurd and would grossly generalize what needn't be universal. Rather, we must discover ourselves in his life, in his way, placed there by grace, and in turn undergo the trials which await through the spiritual example he has set us. For we know how we may succeed without falling because he walks ahead of us; and we practice such triumphs in advance through liturgical, scriptural, and prayerful inhabitation of his life as pictured for us by the Spirit in the prophetic and apostolic texts.

Elsewhere Gregory calls on his listeners to preserve the baptismal gift. For after baptism new Christians cannot give in to languor but must engage, like all Christians, in constant and consistent discipleship to Christ in order to live in purified correspondence to him. Recommended practices include vigils, fasts, sleeping on the ground, prayers, tears, pity of and almsgiving to those who are in need. His exhortation is to remember, for example, how when poor Christ made you rich; how when hungry Christ fed you at table; how Christ became a stranger for your sake; how when wounded Christ healed you; how when indebted Christ forgave all you owed, and so on. Believers' lives follow after Christ's example when they recall what Christ has done for them, and do as Christ did, having already been practicing such obedience through various rituals and habits of mortification of the flesh and spiritual imitation of the incarnate One.

Gregory's views would prove profoundly influential for both the western and especially the eastern tradition of understanding how Jesus's story is normative for the life of Christian faith.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 2: Origen on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

Previous posts: Part 1: A Fivefold Schema;

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

I locate Origen in the first type of the christological schema, wherein Jesus is seen as a binding exemplar for imitation by believers. Origen is justly famous for his christological moralism and ethical perfectionism. For example, An Exhortation to Martyrdom assumes radical and unstinting obedience to Christ’s command and example. The sense one gets is that in order to be saved one has to be utterly faithful, and faithfulness is extremely strenuous. (The connections to his doctrine of the person of Christ are suggestive; if Jesus is fundamentally God-in-(a-)man, then God may rightly expect each of us to be basically as obedient as Jesus.)

Specifically, though along with most everything else in Jesus's life, it is his self-denial in suffering and death combined with total submission to God’s will that is fundamentally normative for all believers’ lives.

The money quote here is from Contra Celsum:
Both Jesus himself and his disciples did not want people who came to them to believe only in his divine nature and miracles, as though he did not share in human nature and had not assumed the human flesh which lusts against the spirit; but as a result of their faith they also saw the power that descended into human nature and human limitations, and which assumed a human soul and body, combined with the divine characteristics, to bring salvation to believers. For Christians see that with Jesus human and divine nature began to be woven together, so that by fellowship with divinity human nature might become divine, not only in Jesus, but also in all those who believe and go on to undertake the life which Jesus taught, the life which leads everyone who lives according to Jesus’ commandments to friendship with God and fellowship with Jesus. (III.28)
Elsewhere, both in this and other works, Origen refers to Jesus as "the moral ideal," "a pattern of the way to endure religious persecution," "an example of the way to despise people who laugh and mock at [religion]," "an example of the life that [men] ought to live," "a noble example to men to show how to bear calamities," "an example of the way to die for the sake of religion."

Jesus's life is thus, in every sense of the word, a compulsory moral paradigm for believers' lives, and most of all in the way he endured suffering and death for the sake of faithfulness to God's will.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 1: A Fivefold Schema on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

In seeking to discover how various theologians in the tradition have answered this question, whether explicitly or implicitly, it seemed to me that they fell roughly into five groups. To be sure, many of them could be classed with more than one group, but nonetheless they usually assign priority to one perspective over others, or in turn the tradition has taken them to do so (and so their openness to other positions tends to drop out).

I organized this grouping into a fivefold schema.

1. Binding exemplar for imitation

On this view Jesus is consistently put forth as the normative pattern for human life—considered morally, spiritually, politically, or otherwise. Allowances and exceptions are of course made, but the most perfect and commended form of life is that in strict correspondence to Christ’s. Representative theologians include Origen and Michael Sattler (in the Schleitheim Articles).

2. Non-binding but trustworthy example

In this approach Jesus’s example is supremely trustworthy and beneficial in every respect for everyone, and yet it is allowed that not everyone can, or should be expected to, follow Jesus’s way so closely. As a consequence, formal and institutional distinctions are made between, e.g., precepts and counsels, or clergy and lay, rulers and priests, etc. Appeal is also made to natural law, reason, virtues, philosophical conceptions of the moral life, and the like. Thomas Aquinas is an instance of this position—although, I hasten to add, he is also one of the most sophisticated christologians on this question, so he is absolutely not limited to this view.

3. Forerunner of the spiritual life

Here Jesus’s life is the spiritual paradigm of the believer’s life, especially in temptation. Rather than making parts of Jesus’s life fit to theirs (i.e., celibate, homeless, itinerant, wonderworking, whatever), believers should locate their lives in his earthly career. In the process they will find that he has paved the way for them to live in obedience to God’s will, purified and empowered to do so by Christ’s having blazed a trail in the flesh by the power of the Spirit. This is a popular patristic perspective, and can be found in Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus Confessor.

4. Author and interpreter of Scripture

This answer to the question is something of a departure from the previous three. Jesus’s life isn’t so much not an example as it is subordinate to his teaching, which on the one hand is a sort of microcosm and intensification of Scripture as a whole, even as, on the other hand, the voice of this One is itself the voice of Scripture. In this way Jesus’s life and teachings are located and qualified within the broad scope of one and the same Lord’s teaching across the whole biblical text, which often will prove to be more relevant than the limited ministry of Jesus, whose words are on a level with those of the rest of sacred Scripture. Athanasius is a minor example, but the two chief figures in this line are Augustine and Calvin (even as each differs in emphasizing aspects of the other answers in the schema).

5. Inimitable summit of righteousness

Finally, as a more polemical response to the first three, this position admits that Jesus’s life is undeniably a perfect model for Christians’ lives, but insists that for that very reason it can be a terror and a scourge to faith and to holy living, especially if taken as primarily or merely an example. Better to consider Jesus’s life evangelically, as the unapproachable and inimitable summit of righteousness, which fulfills what we never could, and thus is to be received as a gift imputed to us by God’s grace, not (first of all, at least) as a model for imitation. Luther is of course the culprit here.

In subsequent posts in the series I will outline the particularities of the theologians' actual answers.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The 2013 Christian Scholars' Conference

Next week in Nashville, Tennessee, Lipscomb University is hosting the annual meeting of The Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars' Conference. This will be my fourth time to attend in the last five years, and it never disappoints (as I've written previously).

This year's theme is "Crises in Ethics: Theology, Business, Law and the Liberal and Fine Arts," and the plenary speakers include Charles Mathewes, John Dean, and David Miller. Further, the annual meeting of the Church of Christ Theology Students will feature an address by Yale's own John Hare. Finally, there will be two performances of the controversial David Mamet play Oleanna, and a one-night-only performance by my personal favorite, TOKENS, led as always by the inimitable Lee Camp.

I have a packed schedule in terms of my own responsibilities this year.

First, I will be delivering a paper in a session on Thursday afternoon dedicated to "Ethical Teaching in the Petrine Epistles." The paper is titled "Patiently Awaiting the Death and Resurrection of the Universe: Eschatological Memory and Ecological Ethics in 2 Peter 3:1-13." It should be fun—we'll see what the text folks make of a theologian reading the Bible! Here's the abstract:
This paper considers the (in)famous passage of the earth's “burning up” in 2 Peter 3:1-13. It proceeds in three steps. First, an exegetical reading that situates the image of God’s coming judgment in relation to the flood—which purified, not annihilated. Second, a theological explication that connects divine judgment to the wider scriptural notion of longed-for divine justice as well as the christological shape of God’s eschatological liberation-through-judgment. Third, a proposal regarding the content of the church’s witness in a world of unabated ecological destruction, finding in this text a resource rather than a hindrance for faithful care of creation.
Second, I will be moderating a session on Friday afternoon titled "Faith in Public: A Conversation Between John Hare and Charles Mathewes on Religious Commitment, Christian Ethics, and Political Engagement." This should be a blast; I basically get to facilitate two brilliant theological-ethical minds discussing Christians and politics. In other words, a nice way to spend an afternoon. Here's the abstract:
This conversation between Professors Hare and Mathewes will focus on the often volatile intersection of “religion” and “politics.” Specifically, the session will reflect on issues relating to public political engagement on the part of Christians in the American context. Some of these include: the role of religious commitments in political advocacy; the relationship between ecclesial communities and public policy; the contribution(s) which formal Christian ethics has to make in this realm; potential limits on Christian political engagement; abiding disagreement among Christians on matters of principle or strategy; the current state of politicized Christianity and hopes and fears for its future.
Finally, I will have the pleasure of introducing John Hare to the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ Theology Students (previous guest scholars include Bruce Marshall, David Bentley Hart, and Gregory Sterling). His address it titled "Three Arguments for the Dependence of Morality Upon Religion," to which Lauren Smelser White, a PhD student in theological studies at Vanderbilt, will offer a response. Here's the abstract:
This paper gives three arguments for the dependence of morality upon religion, "the argument from Providence," "the argument from Grace," and "the argument from Justification." The first argument is that morality becomes rationally unstable if we do not have a way to assure ourselves, through belief in God, that morality and happiness are consistent. The second argument is that we are born preferring ourselves to the demands of morality, and reversing this priority needs assistance from outside ourselves. The third argument is that we need some answer to the question "Why should I be moral?". The religious answer to this question is that God calls us to it.
There are about a thousand other things happening during the conference, not least of which is the sheer proliferation of brilliant scholars presenting original research or responding to others'. Just a few include—and many of these are friends—Joe Gordon, Spencer Bogle (whose theological Padawan I am), David Mahfood, Mark Lackowski, (Yoderian master) John Nugent, Matt Tapie, (force of nature) Richard Beck, Shaun Casey, Joel Brown, James Thompson, Carl Holladay, (the one and only) Jimmy McCarty, Branson Parler, Ron Clark, Richard Hughes, (renowned shortform man of letters) Chris Dowdy, Vic McCracken, (all-around superwoman) Jennifer Thweatt-Bates, Trevor Thompson, Gregory Sterling, John Willis, John Senior, Vadim Kochetkov, Joe Kauslick, Jarrod Longbons, Leonard Allen, Royce Money, Carson Reed, Stuart Love, Thomas Olbricht, Rodney Ashlock, Larry James, M. Eugene Boring, David Scobey, (the delightful) Tracy Shilcutt, Ken Cukrowski, Mark Powell, John Mark Hicks, Eric Magnusson, Mark Cullum, Paul DeHart, Ron Highfield, Mark Wiebe, Lauren Smelser White, Justin Barringer, Randy Harris, John Barton, Steven Kraftchick, and more.

That's a lot of good people. See you there.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Conference: Karl Barth in Dialogue





I'm late with this, as I've been mostly away from the blog this spring, but I still wanted to make sure people heard about it who may not have yet. The annual Karl Barth Conference this year is being held at Princeton Theological Seminary on June 16-19, with the theme of "Karl Barth in Dialogue: Encounters with Major Figures." You can register at the website here or contact those running the conference here. The lineup of speakers includes Nicholas Healy, George Hunsinger, D. Stephen Long, and Paul Molnar, among others. Thinkers put into conversation with Barth range from Catholics like Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs von Balthasar to Orthodox like Georges Florovsky and Sergei Bulgakov to the wildly diverse mix of James Cone, Joseph Ratzinger, Paul Tillich, T.F. Torrance, and Elizabeth Johnson. I'm sorry not to be able to make it myself, but I'm sure it's going to be a wonderful gathering.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Julian of Norwich on Avoiding Thoughts of Other People's Sins

"The soul that wants to be at peace must flee from thoughts of other people's sins as though from the pains of hell, begging God for a remedy and for help against it; for the consideration of other people's sins makes a sort of thick mist before the eyes of the soul, and during such times we cannot see the beauty of God unless we regard the sins with sorrow for those who commit them, with compassion and with a holy wish for God to help them; for if we do not do this the consideration of sins harms and distresses and hinders the soul."

—Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (trans. Elizabeth Spearing), ch. 76

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Karl Rahner on the Words We Say in Prayer and the Single Word God Says in Return

"In the final analysis, talking about prayer doesn't matter; rather, only the words that we ourselves say to God. And one must say these words oneself.

"Oh, they can be quiet, poor, and diffident. They can rise up to God's heaven like silver doves from a happy heart, or they can be the inaudible flowing of bitter tears. They can be great and sublime like thunder that crashes in the high mountains, or diffident like the shy confession of a first love.

"If they only come from the heart. If they only might come from the heart. And if only the Spirit of God prays them together also. Then God hears them. Then he will forget none of these words. Then he will keep the words in his heart because one cannot forget the words of love.

"And then he will listen to us patiently, even blissfully, an entire life long until we are through talking, until we have spoken out our entire life. And then he will say one single word of love, but he is this word itself. And then our heart will stop beating at this word. For eternity.

"Don't we want to pray?"

—Karl Rahner, The Need and the Blessing of Prayer (cited in Kevin O'Brien, SJ, The Ignatian Adventure [Chicago: Loyola Press, 2011], 247)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

John Calvin on the Universality of Love for the Neighbor

"Our Savior having shown, in the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:36), that the term neighbor comprehends the most remote stranger, there is no reason for limiting the precept of love to our own connections. I deny not that the closer the relation the more frequent our offices of kindness should be. For the condition of humanity requires that there be more duties in common between those who are more nearly connected by the ties of relationship, or friendship, or neighborhood. And this is done without any offense to God, by whose providence we are in a manner impelled to do it. But I say that the whole human race, without exception, are to be embraced with one feeling of charity: that here there is no distinction of Greek or Barbarian, worthy of unworthy, friend or foe, since all are to be viewed not in themselves, but in God. If we turn aside from this view, there is no wonder that we entangle ourselves in error. Wherefore, if we would hold the true course in love, our first step must be to turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom might oftener produce hatred than love, but to God, who requires that the love which we bear to him be diffused among all mankind, so that our fundamental principle must ever be, Let a man be what he may, he is still to be loved, because God is loved."

—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge), Book II, 8.55