Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Part 1

For the following couple of posts, I will be looking at the issue of faith in Gregory of Nyssa by reviewing a book by Martin Laird entitled: Gregory nyssaof Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge and Divine Presence (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Laird discusses Nyssa’s view of the mind, that its energies are often dispersed fruitlessly (through worldly passions), and need to be drawn together and focused through self-denial. A worldly person has a “thick” mind, that squanders its potential on human passions. In Laird’s words, “In order for the heart to be whole the mind must in some way be recollected, withdrawn from the affairs of the world. Here it finds its wholeness and ability to ascend” (39).  He continues on to explain:

If unclouded, untroubled, or unimpeded by the senses and passions, the same mind, and not a different compartment or level, will move upward towards the spiritual, intelligible world. Given appropriate ascetic training, there is in the mind an upward orientation, a dynamic capacity to ascend” (43).

The thickness of the mind, in a move reminiscent of Edwards, is unable to know beauty. Again, “the sense faculties are not suitably trained for the discernment of what is beautiful and what is not” (45). Importantly, the mind is able to know beauty, but it needs training to do so (contra Edwards). Continue reading

The Trinity: A Guide for the Perplexed

As many of you will know, I have been on the search for a good introductory book on the Trinity for use in a seminary classroom. perplexedTowards this end, T&T Clark graciously sent me a review copy of Paul M. Collins’ volume, The Trinity: A Guide for the Perplexed. I should say at the outset that I enjoyed this book, but am not sure if it is exactly what I was looking for. Collins offers an introduction that is not simplistic, but assumes a working knowledge of the major issues, debates and questions for trinitarian thought; which is exactly what I was looking for, but then engages, as seen below, in a reasonably advanced discussion of postmodern concepts which he puts to work for ecclesiology. That being said, that last section could easily be left off, and the remainder of the book stays at a introductory but not overly-simplistic level.

Collins shows a great grasp of the tradition and the various streams of trinitarian thought, offering critique and questions when he deems necessary. The book has only five chapters, looking specifically at: 1) Why the Trinity at all?; 2) Moments of interpretation; 3) Expressing the inexpressible?; 4) The reception of revelation; and 5) Trinity: the Other and the Church. In particular, he charts the rise of social trinitarianism as a response to the overall feeling in the church that the Trinity is without relevance for the life of the body. He develops what he calls the “four moments” in the hermeutical history of trinitarian grammar: 1) the de Regnon paradigm; 2) the problem with Socinus; 3) the Schism of 1054; and 4) Arius and Nicene orthodoxy. Continue reading

The Sacramental Life

sacramental-lifeFor those of you who follow Theology Forum, you know that we have a deep interest in the relationship between theology and spirituality. In light of this interest, this post concerns a book entitled Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer by David A. deSilva. For those of you who recognize the author, you might be surprised by the book title. deSilva is a New Testament scholar and a Methodist, neither of which (one would think) orients him towards this topic! My friends at IVP told me that this was a labor of love for deSilva, coming out of his background in the Anglican church and the rich spirituality he found in the Book of Common Prayer (special thanks to IVP for sending me the volume for review). In his own words,

I am a person of faith today precisely because the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer gave me a language and a context for encountering God in my youth that continue to be essential vehicles for my own spiritual formation.”

There are many things I really liked about this book, and I will highlight a few of them here. Continue reading

Doctrine that Dances – The preacher as ‘doxological dancer’

Guest post: Andy Draycott (Teaching  Fellow, University of Aberdeen)

In Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrine and Teaching to Life (B&H Academic, 2008) Robert Smith Jr. makes an urgent plea for doctrinal preaching through the elaboration of two key metaphors: the doctrine-that-dancesdoctrinal preacher as the exegetical escort and the doxological dancer (review copy courtesy of B&H). Your alliteration alarmbells should already be alerting you to a distinct mode of speech, characteristic of the preacher, that colour Smith’s text; the book is packed with bon mots, illustrations and allusions, and delightful alliterative outlines.

For example, Smith returns several times to the Emmaus road story of Luke 24.  Once he suggests that preaching as doxological dance requires: the right face, the right embrace, the right pace, and the right space.  These the forlorn disciples do not have as they travel away from Jerusalem until they meet the risen Lord and are given to reflect on their experience after his disappearance (124-125). His overall case is this: the preacher, in clear exegetical fidelity to scripture, will lead worshippers as a fellow worshipper on the dance into and in the presence of God, for the purpose of their transformation by God (25).

Refusing to define doctrinal preaching he proceeds ‘towards’ it by description, Continue reading

Practical Prophetic Ecclesiology: Part 3

After addressing the nature of the practical-prophetic task and blueprint eccleisologies in the first two chapters, this post will look at the remainder of the volume. Building upon the first two chapters, Healy proposes that the way forward in ecclesiology is by way of a “theodramatic horizon.” nicholas-healyBorrowing heavily from Balthasar Healy writes, “Balthasar contends that theological discourse should reflect the true nature of revelation and Christian existence prior to the eschaton. The relations between God, world and church are best conceived, he believes, as something rather like a play. The play can best be described in terms of one or other of two main types of Christian horizons and theological styles, the epic and the dramatic” (53).

This bifurcation allows Healy to shuffle modern blueprint theologies into epic construals, highlighting his critique that ecclesiology has focused primarily on the eschaton rather than as the broken pilgrim church. The dramatic orientation of the church is seen to parallel the scriptures and the movement of God both pro nobis as well as God’s life ad intra: “This in a way analogous to (and dependent upon) the way the Father makes room for the Son within the Godhead, God gives us a place on the stage where we may make our free response in gratitude” (62). But this response, being free, is tainted with sin. The church, as the church in via, is caught in between the times, and therefore ecclesiology must address this specific scenario.

The theodramatic horizon Healy offers, based on following Balthasar’s understanding of divine and human agency, gives a theologically laced reality to the “non-church.” Healy explains, Continue reading

Calvin, Participation and the Gift

In this post I am taking a look at the broad billings-coverargumentation of J. Todd Billings in his book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford University Press, 2007). In this volume, Billings puts Calvin in conversation with present day theologies of of the ‘Gift.’ In doing so, Billings carefully explicates Calvin’s doctrine of participation in its own right, as well as  addresses a doctrinal lacuna in the secondary material on Calvin and participation (p. 18). Toward this end, Billings offers a comment and some questions concerning the task of the volume:

These issues raised by the Gift discussion provide an opportunity to frame old questions about Calvin’s theology in a new way. What exactly is Calvin’s theology of ‘participation in Christ’, and how does it relate to the activity (or lack thereof) of believers? What, if any, are the metaphysical dimensions of Calvin’s doctrine of participation? Does the notion of participation connect God’s self-giving and human self-giving in a fruitful way (p.2)?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Gift conversation, Billings use of Calvin isn’t arbitrary, but is seeking to salvage Calvin’s understanding of gift from these theologians. “Calvin denounced reciprocal notions that he found at the core of Catholic theology,” suggests Natalie Zemon Davis, Continue reading

Practical Prophetic Ecclesiology (Part 2)

nicholas-healy1In chapter two, Healy addresses what he calls “blueprint ecclesiologies.” His vision for ecclesiology is that it “can aid the church’s efforts by reflecting theologically upon its concrete identity” (25). Healy moves on to focus on what he considers the ecclesiological styles of the last century: 1) an attempt to encapsulate in a single word or phrase the most essential characteristic of the church; 2) construing the church as having a bipartite structure; 3) these last two elements are combined into a systematic and theoretical form of normative ecclesiology; 4) a tendency to relfect upon the church in abstraction from its concrete identity; and 5) a tendency to present idealized accounts of the church (26).

Healy spends significant time reflecting upon Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church, focusing on number 1 above. The single words or phrases modern theologians have suggested, as mapped by Dulles are: sacrement, herald, institution, mystical communion, servant, and Dulles’ own suggestion, community of disciples (27). One need not reflect long to realize the possible dangers of such approaches – relativizing ecclesiology around a category which certainly will reflect aspects of the church, but probably will certainly fail to encapsulate ecclessiology in its entirety. From here it becomes clear what some of Healy’s presuppositions are: Continue reading

From the pen of Karl Barth, “Insights”

Westminster John Knox just released a great collection of 119 short passages from Barth’s writings,Karl Barth by Oliver Crisp Insights: Karl Barth’s Reflections on the Life of Faith (translated from Eberhard Busch’s Augenblick [2001]).

This little book would make a nice gift for someone you want to give a winsome and easily accessible taste of Barth’s thought.  The excerpts are drawn from across Barth’s corpus including his sermons, ethical writings and, of course, the Church Dogmatics and are organized under broad headings like ‘Confident Courage’, ‘The Christian Life’, and ‘We Will See’. A nice feature of the collection is that each one-page selection is related to a scripture verse, making the book an ideal way to invite Barth into your devotional life. Reader beware: Doing so will surely leave you different than when you began.

One of my favorite selections is on the church entitled “The Upper Hand” and is taken from Barth’s Gespräche 1959-1962. The Scripture verse is Matthew 16:18 – ‘The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’

In all the world, there is only one possibility fro the church: simply be the church! The church means those who are around Jesus and whom he sees all around him. The church is Jesus’ “circle”: the group around him that in a totalitarian world is nourished solely by word of God. And the more totalitarian the behavior of the world, the freer they are to believe and obey, Continue reading

Understanding Jonathan Edwards

As many of you know, my dissertation research focuses on Jonathan Edwards’ theology. understanding-jeIn light of this, I am always keeping an eye out for new material on Edwards. I was particularly excited to hear about a new project by Gerald R. McDermott, one of the more prolific Edwards scholars of our day. Beyond his interests in biblical typology, Deism and world religions, McDermott has shown he has an interest in helping a lay audience grasp Edwards – a task many try and few succeed.

The new volume is entitled: Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian by Oxford University Press, who was nice enough to send me a copy hot off the presses! There are several distinctive features of this volume making it stand alone among the many secondary volumes of Edwards literature (which I will highlight below). What I want to note up front is my favorite aspect – it was written for those who may have little to no knowledge of Edwards or the field of Edwards studies. What excites me about this is that it accomplishes what few (if any) have: an introduction to major themes in Edwards thought that is usable for the classroom. Continue reading

Evangelicals and the Formation of Christian Doctrine

A guest post by David Buschart

Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine.

Formation of Christian Doctrine

And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)-theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.

There is a cluster of questions and topics which surround this intersection, most notably the nature and function of tradition and traditions, and the topic addressed in the book reviewed here, the development of doctrine. To my knowledge, the only two book-length treatments of this topic by evangelicals in recent decades are Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Eerdmans, 1979) and Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Blackwell, 1990). Given the interest among evangelicals in both theology and history, it is surprising that this intersection has not been more thoroughly examined. And, given the nature and relevance of the questions entailed, the development of doctrine is a topic which warrants thoughtful engagement.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell’s book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), will serve as a prompt to this engagement. Continue reading

Worship & Incarnation- Two exciting new releases

I just received two books from Paternoster on which I will be posting some remarks later this Spring (thanks for the review copies). In  Gifted Response: The Triune God as gifted-responsethe Causative Agency of our Responsive Worship, Dennis Ngien sets out to back-fill the contemporary Church’s emphasis on the practicalities of worship (‘how to’) by analyzing the ‘theo-logic’ of worship in the major thinkers of the church’s history. Ngien’s contention is that the underlying theme in the theologies of Basil, Anselm, Bernard of Clarivaux, Luther and Calvin is that worship is God’s gift, in which we participate. He summarizes:

‘The chief motive of worship is grace – that the God who initiates his movement toward us in order to make worship through the Son in the Spirit possible is the same one who draws us into the heavenly sanctuary through the Son and the Spirit…we are passive recipients of what God actively gives freely and unconditionally’ (xv).

In other words, we need to recover a robust sense of divine agency in our theology and practice of worship.incarnation

The other is T.F. Torrance’s posthumously published Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ edited by Robert Walker. The volume is made up of Torrance’s lectures on Christology and Soteriology delivered in his classes on Christian Dogmatics at New College, University of Edinburgh, during the years 1952-78.

The human life of Jesus on earth is the concrete emodiment of the revelation and reconciliation of God, the actual placeon earth and in history, the one man, where God and man meet. In this man, this new man, God the Creator and Father, God the Judge and Saviour, is face to face with man. In this new man, mankind is placed, whether they will or no, face to face with teh saving majesty and power of the living God’ (p. 128).

As I said, I should be able to start posting on these later this Spring. For now, most of my energy is being devoted to finishing up my doctoral thesis in preparation for submission sometime in May. To do that we moved back to the States (Muskegon, MI), and I am now daily holed up in a little third floor study of a home graciously rented to us by a missionary family serving in Africa.

Any readers living in West Michigan? I would love to grab a cup of coffee sometime – on me!

More on Trinitarian primers

Kyle mentioned his disappointment in his last post that Leupp’s The Renewal in Trinitarian Theology did not turn out to be the primer on developments in trinitarian doctrine that he had hoped.

karkkainentrinityLet me suggest instead Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s book, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (WJK, 2007), as an introductory volume that – while not perfect –  might just fill that category and be a good option for classroom use as well. The book is laid out in five sections encompassing a total of 27 short chapters. Parts one and two look at the Biblical roots of the doctrine of the Trinity and the historical growth of trinitarian doctrine. Part three surveys contemporary trinitarian views from both the European and North American contexts. Included here are short summaries and interactions  with (in typical Kärkkäinen style) the trinitarian theologies of Barth, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, and LaCugna to name a few. Part four applies the same treatment to non-Western views such as Latin America (Leonardo Boff, Gonzalez), Asia (Jung Young Lee, Raimundo Panikkar), and Africa (C. Nyamiti, Ogbannaya). The final part distills contributions for the future of trinitarian theology.

oxford-handbook-of-systematic-theologyIf I were teaching a class on contemporary trinitarian theology and/or wanted a resource to glean accessible introductions and bibliographic resources for various modern views, then I would certainly consider using this together with, perhaps, Fred Sander’s essay from the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (This is a fantastic volume if you can get your hands on it!) and J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines for the developments in trinitarian doctrine related to Nicaea and Chalcedon.

Keep in mind, Kärkkäinen makes interpretive decisions throughout that will surely fail to satisfy everyone. However, for the bibliography alone and the exposure to a multitude of trinitarian views in one place, Kärkkäinen’s book is a handy resource. Any other suggestions?

The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

As you might be able to tell from my last several posts, I have been looking at various volumes for possible use in the classroom.trinitarian The latest I have perused is The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology: Themes, Patterns & Explorations by Roderick T. Leupp. I was first interested in this volume because I thought it would be helpful to provide students with an introduction to trinitarian theology that maps the various questions, issues and viewpoints. In the end, this was not exactly Leupp’s intention.

In his introduction, Leupp claims that,

Trinitarian theology is practical. It instructs in the way of Christian salvation and is a shorthand of the gospel. Trinitarian theology is also demanding, calling forth the strict exertions of thought and the purposeful resolve of action. Above all, trinitarian theology glows in its own beauty. Practicality and exertion are caught up into pure delight” (18). Continue reading

Thomas Aquinas – Theologian of the Christian Life

When Kyle and I began working together on a theology of the Christian life project, Nicholas Healy’s edition to Ashgate’s Great Theologians series shot to the top of my list: Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (2003; many thanks to Ashgate for a review copy).  I was not disappointed.

healythomas-aquinasHealy’s Thomas Aquinas is a concise and highly accessible introduction to Thomas’ theology, surveying his historical context and development, reception history, and the major doctrines of the Christian faith in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST). Though a good introduction, likely its most noteworthy contribution is the proposal for a particular kind of reading of ST that makes transparent the evangelical, pastoral and theocentric character of Thomas’ premodern theology. Healy wants to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23).

The book unfolds in six chapters beginning with an historical overview of Thomas’ life and career followed by subsequent chapters addressing Thomas’ Dominicanism (specifically its Christocentric orientation and emphasize on obedience to Christ), doctrine of God, Christology, and conception of the Christian life in light of its ground in the Trinity and in the work of Jesus Christ.

The early material related to Thomas’ identity as a Dominican is actually quite significant for grasping Healy’s interpretative proposals. To be a Dominican was to view the Christian life as a ‘radical’ life, Continue reading