Steve passes his PhD viva!

ImageCongratulations to our very own Steve Duby for passing his PhD viva at St. Andrews (Dr. Duby)! We are all thrilled for you Steve. Enjoy the sweet relief of having the preparation and inevitable stress of the unknown behind you.

It is impossible to forget the moments immediately before my viva and those right after it – they are indelibly etched in my memory. There are no other experiences quite like it, nor is there any adequate way to explain or help someone prepare for it. Sure, you can brush up the argument your thesis puts forth, and all that, but no amount of pre-thinking or strategizing prepares you for the moment it actually begins. ImageAnd it is all compounded by the strange relationship you develop with your PhD thesis. For years you agonize over it, laboring on the argument, fussing over the formatting, laying in bed thinking about it when you wish it was the one thing you could stop thinking about. Then you have to send it off like a child leaving the house at 18 for your examiners to…well, you don’t entirely know what they will do with it. And suddenly its all over. You make a few corrections (Lord willing, only a few), then wonder what you are going to do next.

Here’s to you Steve, and whatever comes next!

Prayers for Overwhelmed Students (from my students)

Student-led prayer is an essential part of the daily repertoire of my theology courses. The prayers are composed in the form of collects, an ancient form still regularly practiced in many churches. For each class one student composes a collect according to the theological content of the day. Following the collect form, the prayer springs out from the day’s content into a fitting address to God that leads to petition. As the preface to our study, it sets our feet on the cadence of lex orandi, lex credendi. The idea for this practice originated years ago with something Ben Myers wrote on the purpose of theological education: “not simply to make students cleverer, but to help them learn better ways to speak to God in prayer, and to one another in witness…In this way, scholarly discipline becomes a form of discipleship; theology becomes an exercise in prayer.

I can hardly emphasize this more: the daily collect prayers my students write time and again amaze and humble me, both in their theological richness and in their sensitivity to the lived moment of the day in which they are spoken.

The following two were recently offered In the midst of semester-end busyness. I reproduce them here for the sake of  students elsewhere who are experiencing the same (the doctrinal topic for the day is in italics).

Image[eschatological hope] Hebrews 10:24-25 – “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Everlasting God, sovereign creator from the very first day till the very last, as we all look forward to the near horizon of the end of this semester – the day – let us remember not to neglect to meet with one another these last few days, but to hold together both our sadness at departing and our joy of the future, let us hold all of these emotions in the hope of you. In the same way, let us all look to the far horizon – the Day – and let us not neglect to hope for all that you will do for us in the future. You are our hope. Do not be ashamed to be called our God” (W. Stauffer).

[theological interpretation of film] “When we come to the place of exhaustion, where we question the purpose of hard work, and the fruits of our labours, I pray we look to you for our reward. I ask that you help us to persevere not in the hopes of greater recognition, but in the hopes that we are no longer able to depend upon ourselves so that we learn dependency on you, and so that we are humbled by what we accomplished knowing it was all through you and not in ourselves. Let us rejoice in this recognition of your grace and guidance. God be glorified in all things, in our weakness and in our strength. We delight ourselves in you who is our awesome maker and our true source of life” (O. Watkins).

Here is a short reflection from another student on what she sees happening in the process of composing the collect:

What took place was a giving back to God what I thought I had accomplished on my own. I had done the reading. I had answered the questions. I did the learning. But it is God who teaches. He enables me to learn. By praying my learning to him, I praise and acknowledge him for it. Grace encounters even my pride in my studies and begs me to be transformed; to acknowledge and worship God for everything in my life, including my studies (H. Lutton).

 

Sanctified by Grace (Contents and Contributors)

Sanctified by Grace_cover_March62014 With Sanctified by Grace Kyle and I have in mind a vexing challenge for contemporary theology: the hyper-specialization of the academy which causes divisions unnatural to theology, such as between mind and heart, belief and action, dogmatics and spirituality, etc. Spirituality, the Christian life and Christian practice are all relegated to other disciplines and no longer flow from and speak back (prophetically) into theology. Rather than recognizing the death of spirituality when it is divorced from theology (and vice versa), the modern academy baptizes this separation with academic programs and books in which theology and spirituality rarely collide (let alone mutually influence).

In a modest way we hope the book addresses these temptations by providing a theological account of the Christian life in which doctrine and life, confession and practice are held together in the divine economy of grace. The approach is straightforwardly doctrinal – focusing the life of the Christian on the triune God who creates, elects, calls and redeems.

Part One—The Gracious One
1. The Triune God   •   Fred Sanders
2. The Electing God   •   Suzanne McDonald
3. The Creating and Providential God  •   Katherine Sonderegger
4. The Saving God   •   Ian McFarland
5. The Perfecting God   •   Christopher Holmes

Part Two—The Graces of the Christian Life
6. Reconciliation and Justification   •   John Burgess
7. Redemption and Victory   •   Christiaan Mostert
8. Communion with Christ   •   John Webster

Part Three—The Means of Grace
9. Scripture   •   Donald Wood
10. Church and Sacraments   •   Tom Greggs

Part Four—The Practices of Grace
11. Discipleship  •   Philip Ziegler
12. Prayer   •   Ashley Cocksworth
13. Theology   •   Ellen Charry
14. Preaching   •   William Willimon
15. Forgiveness & Reconciliation   •   D. Stephen Long

Though we did not edit the book specifically for  classrooms (a publishing practice I sometimes despair over), we nonetheless hoped it will be a natural fit for courses in Systematic Theology, Practical theology, Spiritual theology, and those more narrowly focused on Ecclesiology or the Christian Life (such as the one I teach at HU).

Prayer for Holy Week (Karl Barth)

ImageLord our God, we are gathered here on this day to consider how you have carried out your good, firm will for the world and for all of us, by allowing our Lord Jesus Christ, your dear Son, to be captured that we might be free; to be found guilty that we might be found innocent; to suffer that we might rejoice; and to be given over to death that we might live forever.

Under our own power, we could only be lost. And we have not deserved such a rescue – no, not one of us. But in the inconceivable greatness of your mercy, you have shared in our sin and our poverty, in order to do such a great thing for us. How else could we thank you but to grasp, take up, and acknowledge this great thing? How else should this happen, but that the same living Savior who suffered for us, was crucified, died, and buried, and was also raised up, should now come into our midst, speak to our hearts and minds, open us to your love, and guide us to trust in it completely and to live by it and by it alone.

So we ask in all humility, but also in all confidence, that this happen in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (2008), 23-4.)

Prayer for Lent (Walter Breuggemann)

“Loss is indeed our gain”

The pushing and shoving of the world is endless,
We are pushed and shoved.
And we do our fair share of pushing and shoving
in our great anxiety.
And in the middle of that
you have set down your beloved suffering son
who is like a sheep lead to slaughter
who opened not his mouth.
We seem not able,
so we ask you to create the spaces in out life
where we may ponder his suffering
and your summons for us to suffer with him,
suspecting that suffering is the only way to come to newness.
So we pray for your church in these Lenten days,
when we are driven to denial
not to know the suffering,
not to engage it,
not to acknowledge it.
So be that way of truth among us
that we should not deceive ourselves.
That we should see that loss is indeed our gain.
We give you thanks for that mystery from which we live.
Amen.

(Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth [2003], 153)

Poems for Lent: Luci Shaw

Continuing the series on Lenten poems, here is “Royalty” by Luci Shaw (fitting for the week of Palm Sunday).

He was a plain man
and learned no latin.

Having left all gold behind
he dealt out peace
to all us wild men
and the weather

He ate fish, bread,
country wine and God’s will

Dust sandalled his feet

He wore purple only once
and that was an irony

(A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, edited by Luci Shaw [1984], 91)

Poems for Lent: Ephrem the Syrian

ephrem-the-syrianEphrem the Syrian (d. 373) was a theologian and poet of the ancient Syrian Church. He wrote Bible commentaries, sermons, and hymns, but it is for his poetry that he is most widely known – his contemporaries called him “the harp of the Spirit”. Some poems were verse homilies and probably recited, but the majority were composed in stanzas and meant for singing in communal worship. For Ephrem, the poetic form was ideal because it suited his understanding of the Christian mystery: God takes flesh to himself and offers it for us to consume as Bread and wine. The Christian life is enveloped in mystery, and Ephrem’s poetic hymns are meant to guide Christians into an encounter with the mystery of grace and participate in it through worship.

This is from Ephrem’s poem “On the Resurrection (1)”

1. The Lamb has come for us from the House of David,
the Priest and Pontiff from Abraham;
He became for us both Lamb and Pontiff,
giving His body for sacrifice, His blood for sprinkling.Blessed is His perfecting!

Refrain: Blessed is Your rising up!

2. The Shepherd of all flew down
in search of Adam, the sheep that had strayed;
on His shoulders He carried him, taking him up:
he was an offering for the Lord of the flock.
Blessed is His descent!

3. He sprinkled dew and life-giving rain
on Mary, the thirsty earth.
Like a seed of wheat He fell again to Sheol
to spring up as a sheaf, as the new Bread.
Blessed is His offering! [...]

16. His birth gives us purification,
His baptism gives us forgiveness,
His death is life to us,
His ascension is our exaltation.
How we should thank Him! [...]

22. Whom have we, Lord, like you -
the Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
the Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
the King who bore disgrace to ensure honor for all!
Blessed is Your honor!

(Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, translated by Sabastian P. Brock and George A. Kiraz [2006], 81-83, 91, 95)

Poems for Lent: Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of NazianzusI have lately been reading the poems of Gregory of Nazianzus and Ephrem the Syrian, both 4th century theologians. As I was pondering one this morning the thought struck me how fitting it is for Lent. This is from Gregory the Theologian’s “On the Son” (De Filio):

First of all we shall sing the Son… [1]
He didn’t shave off any bit of Godhead, and still he saved me, [60]
stooping as a doctor over my foul-smelling passions.
He was a man, but God. David’s offspring, but Adam’s
Maker. A bearer of flesh, but, even so, beyond all body.
From a mother, but she a virgin. Comprehensible, but immeasurable.
And a manger received him, while a star led [65]
the Magi, who so came bearing gifts, and fell on bended knee.
As a man he entered the arena, but he prevailed, as indomitable,
over the tempter in three bouts. Food was set before him,
but he fed thousands, and changed water into wine.
He got baptized, but he washed sins clean, but he was proclaimed [70]
by the Spirit, in a voice of thunder, to be the Son of the One Uncaused.
As a man he took rest, and as God he put to rest the sea.
His knees were wearied, but he bolstered the strength and knees of the lame.
He prayed, but who was it who heart the petitions of the feeble?
He was the sacrifice, but the high priest: making an offering, but himself God. [75]
He dedicated his blood to God, and cleansed the entire world.
And a cross carried him up, while the bolts nailed fast sin.
But what’s it for me to say these things? He had company with the dead,
but he rose from the dead, and the dead, the bygone, he raised up:
there’s a mortal’s poverty, here the incorporeal’s wealth. [80]
Don’t you dishonor, then, his divinity on account of his human things,
but, for the divine’s sake, hold in renown the earthly form
into which, thoughtful towards you, he formed himself, the
incorruptible Son.
(translated by Peter Gilbert, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus [2001])

Conversion and Ritual

In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative inImage which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.

The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).

This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading

What do we mean by “the Christian life”?

We promised some excerpts from our forthcoming book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, so here we go. An obvious question is simply what we mean by the construction “the Christian life.” To what does it refer, what is its range of meaning, and from where does one draw to fill out its content? This is taken from the Introduction:

‘The Christian life’ is theological shorthand for redeemed human existence in communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit. That is, it names the temporal experience of ImageGod’s eternal purposes for fellowship as they are realized in human beings according to God’s grace. To state it yet another way, to address ‘the Christian life’ is to speak about the character of reconciled and renewed human existence. God’s gracious purpose to conform fallen people to the image of Christ takes shape and fulfills itself in time and space; this is the Christian life.

Putting it this way points out the rich doctrinal nexus within which the doctrine of the Christian life is situated. While the primary reference of ‘the Christian life’ is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension.

Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading

Abiding in Relationships

Ben Quash’s 2013 Lent Book, Abiding, is a beautiful meditation on the Christian life. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, “Abiding in Relationships.”

ImageHuman relationships will sometimes fail – often in small ways and occasionally in big and terrible ways. The Christian confidence is that no failure that is enacted by the embroiled human will can outrun grace. The Christian belief is that our abiding in relationship with God and one another is a ‘work’ that prospers only because God first abides in relationship with us. And God can bind all things – including the times, the seasons, and our fractured lives – not because God is one solitary and almighty will, but because he is faithful, and makes covenants, and gives himself, making an ‘us’ that will abide for eternity because it is established in the power of this infinitely responsive love (p. 128)

Sanctified by Grace is coming (finally!)

Kyle and I have been working for several years on a theology of the Christian life. In fact, we started the project while office mates and quick friends at the University of Aberdeen. We are verySanctified by Grace_cover_March62014 happy to say it is done and will be published in the early summer by T&T Clark! (you can preorder here) In the meantime, we are going to post some excerpts to whet your appetite.

The following is from the book jacket:

Books on the Christian life abound. Some focus on spirituality, others on practices, and others still on doctrines such as justification or forgiveness. Few offer an account of the Christian life that portrays redeemed Christian existence within the multifaceted and beautiful whole of the Christian confession. This book attempts to fill that gap. It provides a constructive, specifically theological interpretation of the Christian life according to the nature of God’s grace. This means coordinating the triune God, his reconciling, justifying, redemptive, restorative, and otherwise transformative action with those practices of the Christian life emerging from it. The doctrine of the Christian life developed here unifies doctrine and life, confession and practice within the divine economy of grace.

Drawing together some of the most important theologians in the church today, Sanctified by Grace achieves what no other theological text offers – a shared work of dogmatic theology oriented to redeemed Christian existence.

Letters to a Church Father

I tried something in class yesterday with wonderful results. In an upper level theology letter writingcourse we came to the end of several days grappling with writings from a handful of early church figures on the topic of Christology: Irenaeus, Arius, Athanasius, Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus,  Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem. We had walked through these readings together, and along the way I  sprinkled our conversations with background information, pointed out doctrinal connections they might not have seen, and drew their attention to particularly salient points.

Yesterday, as we pulled the threads together, I asked my students to write a letter. “Chose one of these ancient figures and reach back across the centuries” I told them. “They, like us, sought to contend for the Gospel – can you express to them how their Christology benefits you today? And they, like us, did so imperfectly – even if you disagree with their Christology, could you receive them as a legitimate conversation partner?”

Their letters were immensely encouraging and showed theological maturation on many different levels. The points of agreement and disagreement between the ancient figures did not go unnoticed, and many were able – without being asked in the assignment – to articulate the rationale which motivated the arguments. They drew wisely upon relevant biblical material, were sensitive to their place within the tradition of faith, and showed surprising maturity related to the pastoral issues connected to the doctrinal debates. These are all good and show the development of the technical skills required for theologians, but, frankly, more encouraging to me was the tone of the letters.

“Bravo!” I said to them today, “My young theologians, you sought to genuinely hear from these figures, to enter into dialogue with them, and not merely stand over them.” For instance, many more than I expected wrote to Apollinarius, Continue reading