What is a theology exam for, anyway?

In the midst of semester-end examinations I look for inspiration wherever possible (perhaps you find yourself in the same academic malaise). Here Barth gives a lovely account of the value and purpose of theological exams. I close my two semester, undergraduate theology cycle with oral exams for reasons similar to this:

When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 172).

Following Barth’s Thought: 4 Handles

My last post on reading Barth received so much traffic that I thought I would post another section from the little “primer” I put together for students in senior seminar. These four are meant to give readers of Barth useful  “handles” on his thought, like tips for catching the musical tendencies of a great composer:

1.  Music – The flow of Barth’s theology is often likened to music, “the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations. No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say” (J. Webster, Barth, 13).

George Hunsinger expands on the point: “What first appears like repetition turns out on closer inspection to function rather like repetition in sonata form. It is [Barth’s] method of alluding to themes previously developed while constantly enriching the score with new ideas. . . . The more one reads Barth, the more one senses that his use of repetition is never pointless. Rather, it serves as a principle of organization and development within an ever forward spiraling theological whole” (G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 28).

The first section of CD IV.1 (pp. 1-19) is a great example. Barth begins by describing the center of the Christian gospel as “God with us” (pp. 1-4), then builds, expands, develops this throughout the next 19 pages. It culminates on p. 14 with Barth’s assertion that “God with us” concretely means “Jesus Christ.”

2.  Orbit – It has been my sense that, similar to the musical metaphor, following Barth’s thought is often like tracking something that orbits around a center. Whatever the “center” might be for Barth at the moment of reading, his thought will orbit that center. The result, for the reader, is that the center can be viewed from a great many different angles or perspectives, but they must always be attentive and aware of the center around which the orbit is set.

3.  DialecticContinue reading

Reading Karl Barth: Hallmarks

I am leading a seminar this semester on Karl Barth, and we are reading the first part volume of Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV.1).  Reading Barth can be a disorienting experience at first, so I put together a little  “primer” for my students. I thought back to what I found helpful when first encountering Barth, and I remembered Busch’s introduction The Great Passion. This is a fantastic read on many levels, but it was his manner of describing Barth’s theology in terms of characteristics or hallmarks that served me well at the beginning. Much like Hunsinger’s approach in How to Read Karl Barth (although the formats differ),  Busch gives the reader a sense for how Barth’s theology operates, its flavor and feeling, and how one might orient themselves within it.

So I went back over several years of reading journals and cobbled together a series of my own “hallmarks” of Barth’s theology, many of which I am sure you will find said differently in other introductions:

  • Theology points always toward God and not humanity, an idea, or program (I can’t help but think of Grünewald’s painting, “Crucifixion” (right) which hung next to Barth’s desk).
  • Theology, in light of the greatness of God, is best characterized as human “sighing” and “stammering” —regardless of its sophistication, expansiveness, or insight: “Now we have only a dim perception of him, the living God. There can be no talk of knowing him, of ‘having’ him. What awkward sighing and stammering there is, when we try to say something about him” (Insights, 17; Barth describes prayer the same, CD III.4, 89).
  • Theology is carried out before God; God stands before the theologian and makes possible the theologian’s work.
  • Theology enters into God’s self-mediation to us; it is not humanity’s attempt to mediate God to us; theology is, then, a response not an initiative.
  • Theology’s task is the same as preaching’ task: it stands in the service of God’s ongoing work to sanctify (judging and comforting) the church. Continue reading

Plagiarism & the Seven Deadly Sins

I have been thinking about the relationship between plagiarism and the Seven Deadly Sins. Mainly, I am trying to generate distincly theological ways of speaking about plagiarism, and this was a first crack at it. Let me know your reactions.

Pride - Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

Acts of plagiarism are little Towers of Babel, constructed and standing coram Deo as refusals of limitation. A healthy doctrine of creation reminds us that limitation is not evil but part and parcel of being made and not maker. In this sense, pride is the refusal to be what I am: created, finite and therefore limited.

There is honor in being God’s creature of course, but what honor we have is the honor given to us by God.  In plagiarizing we refuse God’s honor, and in pride we steal honor for ourselves.  Barth puts it this way: “The modesty about which man is sharply asked whether in his little steps or great, consists in a recognition of the fact that his honour is before God and comes from Him” (CD, III.4, p. 666).

Envy - Plagiarism is fed by desires for the possessions of another, namely the skills, abilities, or understanding that enables someone else to produce work I cannot. As Aquinas describes, “We grieve over a man’s good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking, and is always sinful” (ST, II.2, 158,1). Envying the work of another, the plagiarizer takes the words and creations of another and (in varying degrees) passes it off as their own.

Sloth -  David Naugle describes sloth as

a distinctively spiritual or religious sin that demotes God’s role in our lives and replaces him enthusiastically with other things. It is a sin of spiritual lethargy and dejection. When we are in the throes of spiritual lethargy, God bores us or seems insignificant, whereas other loves capture our interest and attention, excite and energize us. . . . Slothful people forget church, avoid Scripture, refuse repentance, rarely pray, reject fellowship, don’t witness, shun service, deride duty, rebuff suffering, scorn theology, evade thought or meditation, and in general are repulsed by religion and the religious life. . . . Sloth, then, is a sin of omission in that it fails to find God supremely significant and attractive so as to pursue him enthusiastically (Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, p. 71).

The one who plagiarizes finds the academic tasks at hand unworthy of their own creative efforts. More importantly perhaps, they refuse to seek their ultimate good in God through those assignments. Continue reading

Theology as Apprenticeship

In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the relationship between the crafts of brick laying and theologian (the initial quotation is from Seamus Murphy’s memoir Stone Mad).

‘With hammer mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders. We often curse our material, and often we speak to it kindly – we have come to terms with it in order to master it, and in has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves on it, but we know our material and respect it. We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.’ In like manner, I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular, they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of the faith, so that they might reflect that radical character of orthodoxy. . . . Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ (p. 37)

I resonate with Hauerwas’s description (see here), and it makes an apt metaphor for the professor.   I step into the classroom as a theologian and stand among young men and women who are themselves theologians (whether they know it or not). That they hone the craft of speaking to and about God under my watch and under my care is profoundly humbling. How I interact with the Christian Scriptures, which “masters” I direct them to look with me, and how my life takes shape under the Cross all has a part in their apprenticeship.

Perhaps more humbling is the apprenticeship of my children. Their theological instincts are  shaped through our everyday life together: our prayers, walks, my discipline or lack thereof, my tender or hurried embraces, the way I hold my wife, the look in my eye when they disappoint me. Whether I like it or not—whether I seize the opportunities or not—each are “showings” of life with God, living speech of an ongoing conversation. That is humbling.

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

Most Christian universities or colleges have introductory courses on the Bible, and this is true for a great many secular institutions as well. In giving students an “introduction” to the Bible these courses take any number of different angles or approaches. Some focus on the historical settings in which the Bible was written, its diversity of literature (genres), the history of its oral transmission, production and canonization, etc. Another approach might be to concentrate less on theories about the Bible and direct students toward the Bible itself, its central themes, story line, etc. Or various combinations of the two.

All this presents the daunting challenge of choosing the proper textbooks. I leave questions about the best angle up to you, but I will highlight a text that could efficiently introduce students to the many methods of biblical study. Even with the most eager students, nothing sucks the life from a room like the words “redaction criticism”, “form criticism”, “ideological criticism”, and “materialist readings.”  On these topics many of the textbooks I have reviewed frustratingly seem more geared toward graduate students than first year undergraduates. So I was pleased to see Corine Carvalho’s new Primer on Biblical Methods. Continue reading

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Life in the Trinity – Part 3

This is my final look at Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. Here, I will briefly mention the remaining chapters in the volume and then pose some thought on the overall use of it in the classroom (or at least my general thoughts on its useability, etc.). Fairbairn continues with a helpful look at Patristic exegesis, focusing his attention on the use of the Old Testament. Next, he tackles the incarnation, focusing on Chalcedon and the emphasis on the identity of the Son of God as the same Lord Jesus who took on flesh. In his words, “The one who is consubstantial with the Father is the same one who is consubstantil with us” (145). Building upon these conclusions, he focuses his next chapter, “Redemption,”  on the idea that God the Son died for humanity. He advances his discussion with a look at natures and persons. Walking through sidebars of Athanasius, Cyril and Irenaeus, Fairbairn addresses the issues of Chalcedon, attempting to allow the “metaphyics” of natures and persons to guide the discussion.

Fairbairn shifts gears a bit in the last two chapters, tackling the issues involved in “becoming Christian” and “being Christian.” Becoming a Christian, for Fairbairn, is entering the Son’s relationship to the Father – in other words, becoming a child of God. In the former, he addresses election, justification and reconciliation, while in the latter he focuses on sanctification, issues of living in a fallen world and the eschatological orientation of the Christian life. Throughout each of these chapters, Fairbairn attempts to weave in theosis as the central thread which holds together the whole. Continue reading