Friday, January 30, 2015

Noah Hawley's Fargo: In the Shadow of Das Nichtige

A few episodes into Noah Hawley's Fargo, last year's TV reimagining of the Coen brothers' film, my worry was that the show's thematic upshot would be that either there is no grain of the universe (that there is, is a therapeutic fiction we use to get by) or that the grain of the universe is arbitrary predation (as personified by Billy Bob Thornton's character). Happily, that turned out not to be the case. Rather, in a world beset by mysterious chance and arbitrary predation, the grain of the universe is neighborly decency: violence and murder are the elemental chaos against which civilization—families, police departments, diners—prevail in the harsh north simply in virtue of their continuing to exist, of still standing in the morning after the blizzard. He is a fool who, like Lester Nygaard, mistakes the appeal of chaos's temporary success for the long-term stability of common goodness.

To be sure, to live in Fargo, North Dakota, is to live on the outskirts of civilization, and so to court the abyss—to live in the shadow of Das Nichtige. But so long as ordinary people resist its appeal, it won't win the day; ever looming, it won't, because it can't, finally swallow them up. Their neighborliness is unconquerable.

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