Wednesday, March 28, 2012

John Webster on the Two Ways of Responding to the Complicity of the Canon in Moral Evil

"The complicity of the canon in moral evil is undeniable. But one may adopt one of two postures to this state of affairs. The first, dominant in the modern history of freedom, has been genealogical: trace the history, observe the corruptions of producers and their products, and so cast down the mighty from their thrones. No serious Christian theology can afford to be anything other than grateful for some of the fruits of this posture. The other, minority, response, has been to talk of the canon dogmatically as that means of grace through which the judgment of the apostolic gospel is set before the church. If the canon is a function of God's communicative fellowship with an unruly church, if it is part of the history of judgement and mercy, then it cannot simply be a stabilizing factor, a legitimating authority. Rather, as the place where divine speech may be heard, it is -- or ought to be -- a knife at the church's heart."

--John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (New York: T&T Clark, 2001), 46

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Christian Formation and Being "Critical"

See previous entries in this series: Introduction; On (Not) Being a Good Reader; On Daily Prayer; On Practicing Sabbath; On Time Spent on the Internet.

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If you have had the experience of attending a lecture (or the always invigorating "paper") in the academy, you probably know well the numbing rhythm to which the audience's "critical" responses tend to conform. Summarizing their logic, there seem to be two underlying types of reply offered:

"Behold: the invincible reason(s) why your argument/paper/position is not perfect."
"Behold: the invincible reason(s) why your argument/paper/position is not my own project."

The parallelism is telling. More importantly, at least for Christians engaged in theological discourse, this critical echo chamber has to be fundamentally disastrous, both as an intellectual stance and as a self-involving formative practice. Within the academy, how can theologians be faithful when they engage one another merely as instances of ever-reliable failure, when fellow disciples' hard work becomes nothing but fodder for public deconstruction or a screen for personal projection? And within the wider world, much less the church, how can the mission of God or the call of Christ be served faithfully by a totalizing perspective whose line of sight sees only shortcomings, imperfections, mishaps, mistakes, and wrong turns -- rather than strength in weakness, light in darkness, beauty in brokenness, grace in insufficiency?

My experience with Christians formed in this way -- including myself -- is that "critical" invariably morphs into a shorthand, an unwelcome cipher for ingrained ingratitude, inexhaustible exasperation, unrepentant grumpiness, perpetual dissatisfaction; in short, for ceaseless, self-justified complaining. And this from well-educated middle-class Christians in America. The world, other people, the church, popular culture, art -- whatever's under discussion, you can be sure it's falling short, falling flat, failing, evincing some systemic problem. All is a blank canvas for making connections between this and that example of the terrible awful horribleness of whatever species of -ism is in fashion at the moment.

There can be no doubt that a fallen world requires unsentimental eyes trained to see injustice and wrongdoing. But this sort of thing is little more than immature silliness that doesn't know how to smile, and thinks itself noble in the process. If the most basic posture of Christian life is gratitude, illumined by faith that even the worst in this life is not untouched by God's grace, then this kind of "critical" living simply needs to go. And unceremoniously at that.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gregory of Nazianzus on "traveling through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ"

"A little later on you will see Jesus submitting to be purified in the River Jordan for my purification, or rather, sanctifying the waters by his purification (for indeed he had no need of purification who takes away the sin of the world) and the heavens cleft asunder, and witness borne to him by the Spirit that is of one nature with him; you shall see him tempted and conquering and served by angels, and healing every sickness and every disease, and giving life to the dead (O that he would give life to you who are dead because of your heresy), and driving out demons, sometimes himself, sometimes by his disciples; and feeding vast multitudes with a few loaves; and walking dryshod upon seas; and being betrayed and crucified, and crucifying with himself my sin; offered as a Lamb, and offering as a Priest; as a man buried in the grave, and as God rising again; and then ascending, and to come again in his own glory. Why what a multitude of high festivals there are in each of the mysteries of the Christ; all of which have one completion, namely, my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.

"Now then I pray you accept his conception, and leap before him; if not like John from the womb, yet like David, because of the resting of the Ark. Revere the enrollment on account of which you were written in heaven, and adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth, and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to paradise; and worship the manger through which you, being without sense, were fed by the Word. Know as Isaiah bids you, your owner, like the ox, and like the ass your Master's crib; if you be one of those who are pure and lawful food, and who chew the cud of the word and are fit for sacrifice. Or if you are one of those who are as yet unclean and uneatable and unfit for sacrifice, and of the gentile portion, run with the Star, and bear your gifts with the Magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a King, and to God, and to One who is dead for you. With shepherds glorify him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this festival be common to the powers in heaven and to the powers upon earth. For I am persuaded that the heavenly hosts join in our exultation and keep high festival with us today . . . because they love men, and they love God just like those whom David introduces after the passion ascending with Christ and coming to meet him, and bidding one another to lift up the gates.

"One thing connected with the birth of Christ I would have you hate: the murder of the infants by Herod. Or rather you must venerate this too, the sacrifice of the same age as Christ, slain before the offering of the new victim. If he flees into Egypt, joyfully become a companion of his exile. It is a grand thing to share the exile of the persecuted Christ. If he tarry long in Egypt, call him out of Egypt by a reverent worship of him there. Travel without fault through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ. Be purified; be circumcised; strip off the veil which has covered you from your birth. After this teach in the temple, and drive out the sacrilegious traders. Submit to be stoned if need be, for well I know you shall be hidden from those who cast the stones; you shall escape even through the midst of them, like God. If you be brought before Herod, answer not for the most part. He will respect your silence more than most people's long speeches. If you be scourged, ask for what they leave out. Taste gall for the taste's sake; drink vinegar; seek for spittings; accept blows, be crowned with thorns, that is, with the hardness of the godly life; put on the purple robe, take the reed in hand, and receive mock worship from those who mock at the truth; lastly, 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. Look at and be looked at by the great God, who in Trinity is worshiped and glorified, and whom we declare to be now set forth as clearly before you as the chains of our flesh allow, in Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen."

--Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ (Oration 38)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Richard Hays on "the resurrection of Jesus [as] the epistemological key to understanding the world and therefore the key to all history"

"In a significant essay . . . the theologian Robert Jenson . . . asks a provocative question: 'But what if the church's dogma were a necessary hermeneutical principle of historical reading, because it describes the true ontology of historical being?' Let me paraphrase that: if it is true that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word, the fleshly embodiment of the one through whom all things were made -- and if it is true that he was raised from the dead by the power of God and now reigns over the whole world (whether the world acknowledges it or not) -- then it follows that the historical figure of Jesus cannot be rightly known or understood apart from the epistemological insight articulated precisely in the confession that Jesus is Lord -- Jesus is the kyrios. This is where we ought to begin if we want to know the truth about Jesus.

"This is the insight that [N.T. Wright's] whole historical Jesus project doesn't ever quite take on board. The 'hypothesis' that [Wright] seeks to verify by pulling together the evidence of the Synoptics is not a naked inference from uninterpreted data. Rather, the hypothesis that Tom is testing is already encoded in the New Testament texts themselves as proclamatory stories, and already embedded in [his] own worldview by virtue of his lifelong participation in a community that continues to retell the story. So the hypothesis-verification model can't escape the hermeneutical circle. Nor should it. Precisely because the church's dogma names a truth the world does not or cannot know, it rightly describes the truth about history in a way that secularist history is bound to miss.

"Another way to put this point is to affirm that the resurrection of Jesus is the epistemological key to understanding the world and therefore the key to all history. If so, any history that does not begin from the vantage point of the resurrection of Jesus is perforce distorted because it denies or fails to grasp the true history of the world."

--Richard B. Hays, "Knowing Jesus: Story, History and the Question of Truth," in Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, ed. Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 60-61

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Theological Quotes Galore

This past week, I put my spring break to good use and -- wildly, unconscionably -- indexed a bunch of my archived posts. You'll find a few new additions on the sidebar, mainly a few unfinished series, but also "Quotes Galore" at the very bottom of the page, after the collections of "Sunday Sabbath Poetry" organized by year. In going back through every quote I've ever shared as a stand-alone post, I was both surprised (at the sheer quantity) and impressed (at the still-affecting quality). Anyway, I thought I'd group them all together in a post for anybody wanting to rummage around for a bit.

For your enjoyment, then: 36+ months of work-pausing, writer's block stall tactics --that is, a gaggle of theological quotes:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On the End of Systematic Theology

After finishing the first volume of Robert Jenson's systematics, The Triune God, my brother Garrett commented that, though there was much he didn't understand, and, moreover, little of what he read was "practical" or "applicable" in common ministerial terms, he was nevertheless moved profoundly to worship. The upshot, in other words, of Jenson's book was neither final epistemic arrival, nor immediate pastoral application, nor obvious use in ordinary ecclesial contexts. Rather, the vision of the triune God portrayed in the text proved so compelling, so true, so beautiful, that the only response that seemed fitting was sheer praise and exultation, face down before the infinite glory of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The end of systematic theology as doxology.

Sounds right to me.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Worth Reading: Articles by Ben Langford and Spencer Bogle on Missional Theology

Two friends and mentors of mine each have an article in the latest issue of the journal Missio Dei, the theme of which is "Short-Term Missions." Both of them served on the same mission team for six years in Uganda (where I interned in the summer of 2006), and thus write from first-hand experience.

The first article is by Ben Langford, who is Director of the Center for Global Missions at Oklahoma Christian University. The piece is titled "The Art of the Weak: From a Theology of the Cross to Missional Praxis." Here is the abstract:
The terms missions and strategy have gone hand in hand in Western missiology. The words at times are used synonymously, for who can imagine a successful mission without some sort of strategy for how to go about accomplishing it? Unfortunately, the pragmatism of strategy has often superseded theological reflection on the mission of God and its embodiment in the world. The term strategy assumes a locus of control that centralizes power within the self and then moves outward. Theological reflection on the task of mission must take seriously not only the message’s content but also its embodiment. A theology of the cross, in particular, stands as a critique of tendencies towards western notions of strategy and offers a more biblically-informed counter-proposal for mission praxis.
You can read the whole thing here.

The second article is by Spencer Bogle, a second-year PhD student in Systematic Theology at SMU. His piece is titled "The Possibility of Missional Theology: Finding Ourselves in a Globalized World." Here is the abstract:
Missional theology in North America has a rich and complex history of addressing both historical and contextual ecclesiological issues in a globalized world. The present essay contends that elements within postcolonial theory and theology contribute to the working definitions of the “historical” and “contextual,” that function within missional theology. These needed voices from the margins illuminate challenging alternative considerations of Christology, Pneumatology, and Ecclesiology from below. This ultimately enables a fuller understanding of identity and relationship as churches around the globe share seats around the Eucharist table.
You can read the whole thing here.

Here's to substantive scholarship coming from theologians in churches of Christ, as well as to theology done in and for the church in service to the mission of God in the world. Amen and amen.

Monday, March 5, 2012

John Howard Yoder: Supposed Rabid Political Sectarian

"[The] notion of 'rights' borne by each person is the best way we have yet found to interpret in our time, and to defend against encroachment by the authorities, the dignity of every person as created by God in his image. . . .

"Constitutional democracy . . . provides a wholesome way to discipline the innate tendency of the bearers of power to abuse the prerogatives of their office. . . .

"[The] system of checks and balances represents more adequately than does any modern alternatives the biblical vision for a government that acknowledges its limits and provides to its subjects the instruments whereby it may itself be held in line. . . .

"If [the natural moral law] really were evident to all, there would be no argument. That should invite to greater modesty anyone making the claim to interpret revelation with final authority. It tends to mean that when Christians converse with their fellow citizens in the public arena, they properly should express their values in terms the neighbors can follow. . . .

"[Looking] back at these developments taken all together[,] we may speak of them as cultural transformation under the pressure of the gospel, or as humanization. Some socially conservative Christians, for reasons which they have not yet thought through carefully, have come to speak as if 'humanism' were opposed to Christian commitment. . . .

"Yet we must refuse to concede 'ownership' of the 'human' to those who deny creation and redemption. The God of creation, making humankind in his image, was the first humanist. The story of the 'humanization' of Western culture -- limping, imperfect as it is, but real -- is part of the work of the God of Abraham, Father of Jesus, partly done through his body, the church. That humanization of cultures is not the same as the salvation of individual souls, nor is it the same as the praise of God in gatherings for worship, nor is it the same as the coming of the ultimate kingdom of God, but it is a fruit of the gospel for which we should be grateful, and for whose furtherance we are responsible. The fact that persons believing in other value systems share in the humanization process, and that some of them may overvalue it as if it could do away with evil, is not reason for followers of Jesus to disavow it or leave it to unbelievers to carry out."

--John Howard Yoder, The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 121-122, 125-126

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Thomas Troeger

At the YDS chapel service for Ash Wednesday we sang the following hymn, penned by Thomas Troeger, Professor of Christian Communication at the Divinity School. It was deeply affecting, and the text is worth reflecting on as we continue through the Lenten season.

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All Things of Dust to Dust Return

By Thomas Troeger

All things of dust to dust return
on earth and in the sky.
The hottest, brightest suns that burn
in time grow dim and die.

The fish that leap, the birds that soar,
the newborn young that play,
the leaves that fill the forest floor
revert to dust and clay.

Lord, mark with dust and ash my brow
so I may comprehend
that every moment here and now
links me to that same end

I share with all that breathe and burn,
that flare and fade and tire
yet by their waning light discern
your own undying fire.

Lord, make upon my brow this sign:
a stark and barren cross
reminding me that though divine
you know my pain and loss,

and at the touch of dust and ash
awake my heart to view
how death itself is but a flash
that dies away in you.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Question: Recommended Texts and Authors for Comprehensive Exam on Contemporary Systematic Theology

I am currently in the midst of preparing, confirming, and finalizing the questions and texts for my first comprehensive exam, tentatively set for August. The exam is on contemporary systematic theology, and I am focusing largely on developments after Barth.

My three loci are bibliology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. Readers' comments have proved quite helpful in the past in approaching certain projects or academic questions, so I thought I would extend an invitation to anyone who might have something to offer in this instance. With regard to the following sets of issues, what authors or texts would you recommend from the past fifty years as essential reading?

Bibliology: Scripture's normativity for theology; its role and authority in the life of the church; the proper Christian approach to its interpretation.

Ecclesiology: The relationship of the church to the wider society; that which constitutes the church's identity across time; the way in which the life of Jesus is normative for the life of the believer/believing community.

Theological anthropology: The concept of the imago dei; the nature of sin and its relation to God's purposes for human life; that in virtue of which human beings are constituted as creatures before God.

Many thanks in advance. Though I obviously won't be able to read everything, it will be deeply beneficial to cull from a large and representative group of works. Any and all suggestions are therefore most welcome.