John Cusack and Sabbath as Submission to Finitude

In the movie High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character reflects upon his life and recognizes he suffers from a certain kind of neurosis – one which assumes at the youthful age of 25 that his present singleness is inevitably unending. I, like many others, tend to assume the same thing about theology. Present ignorance somehow leads to the belief that I must give myself to an onslaught of neurotic reading habits to somehow make up for lost time – lest I be “single” (read ignorant) forever. This disposition is enslaved to a subconscious belief that there is a hidden wormhole in the fabric of the creature-Creator distinction which I can access through sheer fortitude, and, in a moment always eluding my grasp, will one day deliver me to an infinite knowledge of all things.

But, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, there is a sabbath rest for the people of God. Sabbath, for those of us who suffer from this kind of theological anxiety, is a submission to finitude – a time to rest in our calling as broken witnesses and to put down our strategies to undo our creatureliness. It is a sacrifice of our desire for transcendence and an acceptance of the real messy, broken finitude of our existence. This, I suggest, should be spurred on by our relation to the ecclesial community in which we partake as theologians – feeling the weight of the mundane as we secretly wish to disappear to our office and read something interesting (as opposed to, to use Eugene Peterson’s example, talk to some lady about her cat). Continue reading

A Word from Berkouwer

If theology is to have meaning for our problematic times, if it is to be a troubler of man’s conscience and a comfort to troubled men, then it is more than imperative that our theological reflection be reflection in the Word. Only as a real theology of the Word shall theology avoid the destructive luxury of being a beautiful system with which the instructed few may be entertained, but which stands aloof from the tumult of life. It can and shall have – without any pretensions – living significance for the practice of faith, for the preaching and the confessing of the Church in the modern world.”

Faith and Justification, 10

Theology Fail or Prophetic Utterance? Yes.

I noticed that Tony Jones has a new book out called: The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. The basic gist of the book is that the Didache provides a helpful way to think about community life. Which, in and of itself – fair enough. I’m not really concerned to comment on the volume itself (as far as I know it is insightful), but instead the reactions from the volume. It is a worth while exercise to go to Amazon and look at the comments, just to get a feel for what many evangelicals think about theology and, more importantly, ecclesiology. The general concensus seems to be that Jones’ volume is not a work of theology (which is why it is deemed valuable), but a practical work which goes beyond the point in time where everything went wrong (Nicea?). It is hard to know what the issue here is, but this is such a standard failure in theology by evangelicals that it needs to be noted – that if we could only find a really really old document, then it would be correct. I would point out the errors but they are just too obvious.

So, it would seem, that this is just theology fail at its finest? But not so fast. I think what Jones and guys like McLaren are doing is true prophetic utterance – not in achievement but in error. In other words, theology fail is prophetic utterance, because it should expose the wrongheaded notions of an a-theological approach to, well, theology. I think their voices are exactly what the evangelical world needs to hear, because their errors are simply the errors of  the bulk of evangelicals. I have no doubt that we are close to one of these guys picking up Strauss, but now utilizing the Didache (or fill in the blank with whatever cultural assumption you want) as the “criteria by which to distinguish the unhistorical in the Gospel narrative.” This would be remarkably similar to McLaren’s recent project which, in the words of one of his more generous interpreters, is simply von Harnack reimagined.

So why are children of evangelicalism returning to accounts of ecclesiology, Scripture and theology proper that fail to start with specifically theological Christian commitments, looking instead to reconstruct and baptize a time in history that was too early to have lost the plot (as it were)? This, again, is the prophetic utterance of judgment on the horizon of evangelicalism unless it is willing, like Ninevah, to repent, and in the case of evangelicalism, repent of a biblicism absent from any theological moorings.

An Introduction to Theological Anthropology

I am doing a review on Marc Cortez’s Theological Anthropology: A Guide For the Perplexed, and I thought it would be worth while discussing here (hence my question concerning human ontology here). Before I ask some questions for our consideration, let me give an overall glimpse of the volume. I should start by saying I think this volume is fantastic. Now, note, I don’t say this because I necessarily agree with his choices on what to cover, nor because I think he provides a helpful introduction to a specifically theological anthropology (although he does some helpful work in this regard). Instead, what I love about this volume is that it is perfect for classroom use. It covers everything you personally don’t want to take class time to cover (free will anyone?), and does an excellent job of mapping the various options. In fact, Marc’s modus operandi seems to be to do about 90% mapping and about 10% construction. In doing so, I think this should be seen as the archetype for the “Guide for the Perplexed” series. It does what all of these volumes should – provide overall mapping and advice to navigate constructive work without turning it into his own personal soapbox.

All that being said, I do have a question I would like some feedback on. Marc chooses to cover the image of God, sexuality, mind and body (human ontology I asked about before) and free will. It would be easy to criticize him for choosing these specific emphases, but I think that would be unfair. He was trying to give an introductory account which necessarily included dealing with the historically prominent issues and ideas, so these seem about as central to the discussion as you can get. My question is this: If you were to offer an account of theological anthropology, with the emphasis on the theological, how would you do it? Where would you begin?

Theological Anthropology and Human Ontology

I’m going to be doing a post soon on a volume on theological anthropology I’m reading, but before I did I wanted to hear some thoughts from those of you who follow TF concerning human ontology. How many of you are committed to a kind of substance dualism? How many to a strictly physicalist position (or even a “weak” physicalist position)? Does anyone just not care?! It has been a long time since I’ve worked through some of these issues, and I wanted to see where people are at with all of it.

For those of you who want to comment further, I would be interested to hear what doctrinal commitments and moves you would want to emphasize in this discussion. Furthermore, are there strictly exegetical commitments which seem to delineate one view, say a sort of dualism, over others?

Conference: Theology, the Church and Controversy

There is a theology conference on at the University of Aberdeen this July, which will, in their words: “…explore the dynamics of prophetic difference by asking whether controversy is integral to the Christian church.” Click here for more info. It should be good, among the presenters are: John Webster, Robert Jenson, Carl trueman, David Bentley Heart, Brian Brock and Peter Leithart.

Handing Over the Kingdom

I was reading an article the other day by Richard Muller entitled: “Christ in the Eschaton: Calvin and Moltmann on the Duration of the Munus Regium (the last post made me think of this). The focus of the article is on how we should understand Jesus’ handing over the kingdom to the Father, based most specifically on 1 Cor. 15:24-28. Moltmann’s worry, it seems, is that a certain interpretation of this would make the incarnation superfluous. In his The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, Moltmann writes,

The eternal Son of God so to speak retreats into the Trinity, and the man Jesus enters the host of the redeemed, or conversely, the whole of redeemed existence enters into the divine relationship of the unio personalis, i.e., into immediacy with God. The manhood of Christ which was crucified for the redemption of sinners no longer has a place in existence which has been redeemed and placed in immediacy with God” (258-9, see Muller, 31).

The problem, Muller argues, is that Calvin is clear elsewhere that this passage does not conflict with passages arguing for an eternal reign of Christ. There is some kind of distinction, in other words, in the consummation of all things, where Christ’s reign shifts but does not deteriorate. Continue reading

Bloesch on Scripture

I have been perusing some of Bloesch’s thoughts on Scripture and wanted to offer a quote for some interaction. I’m quoting from volume 1 of his Essentials of Evangelical Theology in the section where he is railing against rationalism. He states, “The Bible is not directly the revelation of God but indirectly in that God’s Word comes to us through the mode of human instrumentality” (76). This comment is the result of the incarnational analogy Bloesch develops with worries of Christological heresies applies analogously to the various views of Scripture. Bloesch continues by grounding the conversation in his broader analysis of revelation:

Revelation is better spoken of as polydimensional rather than propositional in the strict sense, in that it connotes the event of God speaking as well as the truth of what is spoken: this truth, moreover, takes various linguistic forms including the propositional. Objective intelligible truth is revealed (though not exhaustively), but the formulation in the Bible is one step removed from this truth even while standing in continuity with it. The truth of revelation can be apprehended through the medium  of the human language which attests it but only by the action of the Spirit. Those who reduce the content of revelation to declarative statements in the Bible overlook the elements of mystery, transcendence and dynamism in revelation” (76).

The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Proposal

The question regarding a subjective or objective rendering of pistis Christou has been plagued by an overemphasis on the ability of grammar and linguistics to answer theological questions. Deep exegesis is needed, to be sure, but no number of studies on how Paul tends to use genitive constructions can give us insight into his other usages – that simply is not how human beings use language. The broader theological questions have tended to be ignored, but fortunately, a theologian has taken up the question, and in this post I will outline his argument.

R. Michael Allen, in his volume The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2009) argues for a subjective reading of pistis Christou. Allen focuses his attention on the necessary Christological implications of this kind of reading, arguing for important theological import into Reformed theology specifically. To do so, Allen navigates a critique of Aquinas’ understanding of Jesus’ beatific knowledge (thereby excluding faith for the incarnate One), works alongside Barth and develops his constructive proposal within the broad contours of Reformed theology. Allen invokes Morna Hooker to highlight the general concerns with a subjective reading:

(1) ‘a concern lest this translation undermines the basic Reformation emphasis on faith'; (2) ‘the assumption that faith is an appropriate action for the believer, but is inappropriate for Christ himself'; (3) ‘dislike of the principle of imitatio Christi‘ (25). Continue reading

The Christ’s Faith

Sometime this week I am going to be addressing the question of whether we can talk about Jesus’ faith (through the issues of the subjective or objective genitive – pistis Christou – Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:22; Phil. 3:9; and Eph. 3:12). I wanted to prime the pump a bit and see first where people stand on this issue. I haven’t done too much thinking about it lately, but several years ago when I did I found the arguments for a subjective translation to be convincing. What are your thoughts? Has anyone done a lot of work in this area? I would love to hear your opinions, especially on the implications of this view.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

Contemporary evangelicalism, as I understand it, started out as a populist movement. It was, therefore, not primarily concerned with theology but with practice – and theology tended to be tacked on as something of a necessary evil. As a populist movement, its virtues were simplicity, repeatability and method. A specific kind of evangelicalism, forged in the revivals, has developed a value system that is primarily unbiblical, where savvy rhetoric, church competition and the ability to “rate” ministry based on numerical analysis have become the norm.

For many who grew up in this movement, they recognize both the great virtues as well as the vices, and seek to purify evangelicalism through a broader engagement with the Bible, church history, theology, etc. If my brief comments about evangelicalism are true, this, in a real way, undermines its very foundation. The problem, as I see it, is that those of us who seek greater biblical and theological clarity are still evangelicals. We still identify as such, except our vision for being evangelical means that we must continue to reform rather than simply circling the wagons. Continue reading

The Future of Evangelicalism

I just read a characteristically helpful post by Steve Holmes on defining evangelicalism. Holmes wants to emphasize that evangelicalism is not simply defined materially, but also formally. What makes one an evangelical, in other words, is not only what they hold to, but how they hold to it (I encourage you to read the post after my terrible summary).

Since we have spent a lot of time on Theology Forum talking about the nature and boundaries of evangelicalism, being evangelical and all, I thought it might be helpful to take Holmes’ point to talk about the future of evangelicalism. If he is right, and I think that he is, we could see a lot of the fragmentation in evangelicalism as disagreements over the location of certain doctrines. The missional discussion is a certain material understanding of the Church-world relation as well as a specific understanding of the centrality of that doctrine to the nature and task of any evangelical church. Spiritual formation, likewise, entails a certain material understanding of the Christian life as well as the belief that spirituality is central, and therefore orders discussions concerning the Church-world relations (for instance). James posted earlier about the 9 Marks ministry’s concern about “liberalism” in evangelicalism (meaning something like, reading broadly, rather than theological liberalism), which specifically lays out 9 actual marks that are central organizing commitments.

That said, is this a helpful way to understand the various debates being had in evangelicalism? Can we use this as a way to talk about what could be defining debates in the near future (I tend to think that theological interpretation, Church-world relation and anthropology will be those kinds of debates)? Any thoughts?

United Against Theology

I’ve been puzzled a bit about Jamie Smith’s new volume (reviewed in several posts) and its popularity. In one sense, it isn’t surprising – he is a great writer, a deep thinker and he addresses concrete problems in our congregations and lives. But there is another sense where it is downright shocking that his program is so universally well-received by American evangelicals (my focus is on North American evangelicals in this post). First, his conversation partners are not the conversation partners evangelicals typically turn to (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodox). Second, his emphasis on liturgy is not something (sadly) that evangelicals are typically excited about. Third, his exposition of practices, particularly the ex opere operato nature of liturgical practices runs directly against the sensibilities of evangelicals who fear, almost above all else, rote practices. So why such enthusiasm?

I have a theory. Evangelicals hate theology. Continue reading