The Word of God for the People of God: A Review

With classes wrapped up and grades finally in I am starting a summer review series on the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). A chapter in my book on theologies of retrieval will survey this as one of several instances of retrieval for the life of the Church, so I will be spending the next month or so working through recent publications.

I begin with J. Todd Billings’ The Word of God for the People of God (Eerdmans, 2010), a timely and well-crafted addition to the growing—but often highly specialized and technical—body of scholarship on theological hermeneutics and interpretation. This book, however, is aimed toward readers who Billings describes as having a love for Scripture and Christian ministry, but have “no idea why they should be interested in ‘the theological interpretation of Scripture.'”

The question is well put, and I have had a number of conversations with students and fellow academics about the very same. In fact, an NT scholar candidly asked me not long ago (without hiding a bit of skepticism) to define TIS. From what I have seen in the literature, Billings’ definition is an excellent place to start (see also the April issue of IJST):

the theological interpretation of Scripture is a multifaceted practice of a community of faith reading the Bible as God’s instrument of self-revelation and saving fellowship. It is not a single, discrete method or discipline; rather, it is a wide range of practices we use toward the goal of knowing God in Christ through Scripture (xii).

Billings’ treatment of TIS stands out because of its consistent attention to the theological/doctrinal commitments that fund TIS. Continue reading

Choosing a Theology Text: Life in the Trinity

I am starting a new blog series based on Kent’s increasingly read post on choosing a theology text. This series will look at various volumes for classroom use, sometimes offering one-off reviews and, such as in this case, more in-depth reviews. Here, I am  going to be doing a series of posts looking at Donald Fairbairn’s volume Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. This volume seems like a good place to start, because Fairbairn wrote the text to be used in classrooms as a secondarily theological text (to be used in parallel with primarily doctrinal texts).

Fairbairn starts, in my opinion, exactly where he should – on the bifurcation of theology and the Christian life. In his explication, he makes an important point:

Theologians have unintentionally given the impression that the doctrines, the ideas about God, are the subject of our study [rather than God himself]. As a result, students and others unwittingly substitute truths about God for God” (5).

To remedy the division between God himself and doctrine, Fairbairn suggests a return to theosis as the thread which ties theological grammar to God himself – as language centered around the relationship of Father to Son shared in by believers in the consummation of all things, and known through a glass darkly in our pilgrim existence. Continue reading

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 Fruit of Doctrine

As most of you know who have followed Theology Forum for any length of time, we have a real interest in the nature and task of theology and the spiritual aspect inherent in being a theologian and to “doing” theology. As we’ve mused on what this might mean, I have looked at several spiritual theologians, and, recently, reviewed Mark McIntosh’s volume Divine Teaching. There, as I noted in my post, he suggests that the outcome of a theology must speak to the quality of the theologizing itself. In other words, good theology will bear good fruit, we may say.

In light of this, I was wondering your thoughts about the inevitable move backwards – judging theology by bad fruit. Could we, for instance, attack an evangelical doctrine of Scripture by pointing out the reality that, were you to go to ETS, you are more likely to find a paper on the use of the aorist-passive in Greco-Roman shipping industry between the years 20-27 than you are to find a paper on a dogmatic account of Scripture? Along these lines, could we point out the seemingly backward use of integration in evangelical theology, commandeering history, philosophy and psychology well before doing any serious dogmatic work – as fruit of a sick tree?

How far can we take some of these issues? Is this a valid theological critique? I’m very aware of how this can be used poorly, but is there a place for this kind of analysis?

Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Hermeneutics, Doctrine and Meaning

We continue our look at Nicholas Lash’s book by picking up his chapter, “What Might Martyrdom Mean?” To set the stage, I will let Lash speak for himself:

There is a received account, in this country, both of the character of these enterprises, and of the relationship between them, which goes something like this. Christian hermeneutics is principally concerned with negotiating the ‘gap’ between what was once said and what might appropriately be said today. The biblical scholar, and the historian of doctrine, are expected to recover, today, what the text meant; the systematic theologian is supposed to transpose the recovered meanings into contemporary idiom; and Christian living is conceived as the practical application…In this essay I propose to indicate some of the reasons why I regard this hermeneutical model as profoundly unsatisfactory” (75).

Lash is allergic to building one’s exposition around what the text “meant” towards what it “means,” and offers a series of responses to Stendahl. First, Lash is concerned about the positivist account that this kind of analysis will bring. What does it mean to exposit what the text meant – apart from what it means? Is this somehow to believe that historical work exists pre-interpretation? Second, Lash is concerned about the meaning of the concept…well…”meaning.” Is the concern Paul’s intent or the Corinthian audience’s reception? Translation, Lash fears, is then pushed to the systematic analysis, and is somehow after the historical task. Continue reading

Theology on the Way to Emmaus: A Theology of History

We continue our look at Lash’s volume, Theology on the Way to Emmaus with the chapter “How Do We Know Where We Are?” As good a question as any I suppose! Lash muses that our trouble with a theology of history is that we have no summit from which to stand beyond and view our situation. Likewise, he adds:

But if the philosophy of history now seems so questionable an enterprise, how much more problematic must be the idea of a theology of history. If ‘the meaning of history’, the idea that history has some single sense or direction, is a will-o’-the-wisp, how much more insubstantial must be any attempt to perceive how such ‘meaning’ stands in relation to the mystery of God” (64).

There is a sense, of course, that to be a Christian, let alone a theologically minded one, is to necessarily be historically minded. Again, Lash states, “To put it as baldly as possible: whatever be the case with some other religions, I do not see how a Christian theology could fail to be, in some sense, a ‘theology of history’ (64). Continue reading

Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading

Luther as Spiritual Adviser

I am taking a look at Dennis Ngien’s volume, LutherLuther as Spiritual Adviser: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings (Paternoster, 2007). Ngien focuses on Luther’s devotional writings, emphasizing the material in volumes 42 and 43 of the American edition of the works of Luther. In his own words, “The aim…is to unfold the pastoral, not the polemical, side of the Reformer, drawing on the spiritual insights he offered to people of high and low estate. These writings are devotional and catechetical in shape and intent, yet not devoid of rich theological substance, the fruit of his rigorous reflections. They are the exercises of Luther’s basic calling as a theologian-pastor, and are concrete illustrations of the interface of theology and piety, the former being the abiding presupposition and logical cause of the latter” (xvii).

In a quote that reminds me of many posts on this blog, Ngien claims that, for Luther, “The theological curriculum ought to be taught differently, that is, in a way that takes seriously the spiritual formation of a theologian, since his primary vocation is to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus” (xix). Likewise, in advice to young theologians, Luther suggests prayer, meditation and struggle as rhythms of life. Ngien offers interpretation: Continue reading

Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Part 2

I hope that the remaining posts answer some of the questions from the comments on the first post on this book. As I read Lash I continue to be curious, but, as of yet, am not sure what I think about the project. Chapter two is entitled: “Theologies at the Service of a Common Tradition.” He sets the stage for the discussion by offering a brief look at several inadequate models of diversity:

  1. Classicism – The classicist assumes that there is just one culture, and that is not attained by the simple but those who study Latin and Greek authors. “Within this set-up the unity of faith is a matter of everyone subscribing to the correct formulae” (20).
  2. Liberalism – On the liberal assumptions, the life of church mirrors the life of the academic seminar. “In other words, the weakness of theological, as of political, liberalism lies in its neglect of the calculus of power and in the inadequacy of its analysis of the grounds and sources of conflict and contradiction” (22).
  3. The Unity of Mankind – This account seeks to put man’s common nature to work, which is unfortunately merely a biological reality that does not form the social (in any interesting way). “The ‘unity of mankind’, far from being a mere biological datum, remains a permanent task and responsibility” (23).

Lash pushes forward with a discussion concerning the “practical and political implications of the church’s vocation to sacramentality” (24). Continue reading

Theology on the Way to Emmaus

THeology on the way to Emmaus.LashIn Nicolas Lash’s volume, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, many of the themes we continually address here at Theology Forum are brought together in one volume on pilgrim theology. From the outset, Lash shows allergy to systematics as such, claiming that, “God elegantly orders our world, but we lose all truthful purchase on this claim if we forget that the manner of his action disrupts our easy use of all such concepts, for the focus of his ‘ordering’ is the disorder of Calvary; the appearance of his beauty the disfigurement of the crucified” (x). Using the disciples on the way to Emmaus as the governing illustration, Lash claims,

Those disciples, like the rest of us, had some difficulty in ‘reading’ their history, and the context of ‘recognition’, the occasion on which things began to make sense was, not some ‘religious’ event in a sacred space, but an act of human hospitality” (xii).

Criticism or Construction? The Task of the Theologian

Here, I will consider the first essay in the volume (title noted above), a title which Lash himself shows some hesitancy over. In answer his own question, Lash hopes to bridge the divide between academic theology and life, proposing a mode of theology that isn’t abstracted to the academy and yet doesn’t lose its ability to be critical. Continue reading

“I believe”: A few thoughts on confession & creeds

Nicene-Creed.croppedI invited students to think with me last week about the nature of the confession “I believe” and the relationship this might hold to the ecumenical creeds and confessions of the Church. 

Students read selections of New Testament proto-creeds and excerpts from Origen, Karl Rahner, Georges Florovsky, and John Webster. It all made for vigorous discussion about the various ways we can conceive the purpose and role of confessions in the church’s ongoing life. Consider the following two excerpts, one from Rahner and the other from Webster, and let me know what you think: What is the ongoing role of the creeds in the life of the church – if there is one?

Rahner first:   

[T]he effective mission of the church in the face of modern disbelief likewise requires a testimony to the Christian message in which this message really becomes intelligible for people today … This message has to be able to express the essentials briefly for busy people today, and to express it again and again … [H]owever much [the Apostles Creed] will always be a permanent and binding norm of faith, nevertheless it cannot simply perform the function of a basic summary of faith today in an adequate way because it does not appeal directly enough to our contemporary intellectual and spiritual situation (Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, p. 449. Emphasis mine).

Set this next to Webster’s and you immediately see stark differences: Continue reading

Simone Weil & Theology’s Invitation

I have not historically found myself at home in the writings of Christian mystics, so I don’t spend a great deal of time in them. However, I find Simone Weil’s description below quite beautiful – and very near the mark for how we might think about the theologian’s practice of “pushing all those who come near into the opening”:

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few Simon Weilsteps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merly turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening” (“Forms of the implicit love of God,” in Waiting for God [1951; 2001], p. 103)

We might even view a Christian liberal arts education along the lines of Weil’s thinking here:  Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part Two

McIntosh continues on by addressing Christian belief. He states, “By now it should be abundantly clear, Mark_McIntosh_PhDas I tried to warn you at the beginning of this book, how weak and hapless a thing theology really is in and of itself – apart, that is, from its divine source. And here will come the first critical test for a would-be theologian. For the pressure of wanting to have something under our control, something that we can really say for ourselves – and feel as though we know what we’re talking about – this pressure is going to entice would-be theologians into taking matters into their own hands” (33).

This is something we’ve mused on a lot here at Theology Forum, and I personally find it really refreshing in an intro textbook. McIntosh warns that this impulse or temptation can become a way of holding God at bay, of controlling this wholly free being by our use of language and concepts. Wisdom seems to be McIntosh’s preferred register to navigate these theological temptations. McIntosh notes, “In saying that theology is a kind of wisdom, I am saying that it is possible for God to befriend the human mind well enough for human thinking, so to speak, to lean on the divine mind” (35).

McIntosh, continuing to impress, pushes ahead by putting Origin, Aquinas and Barth in parallel (with large brush strokes), helping the reader to grasp the dogmatic flow (and content) of their respective approaches to theology. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on seeing the church’s future in the church’s past

I am working on a book that explores historical “retrieval” as a mode of theological reasoning, and I find Rowan  Williams characteristically on the mark in his brief (but excellent) little book Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church (2005). I especially like the way he turns loose his doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ on the act of appropriating from the tradition.

I would be interested to hear: do you find overtly theological/dogmatic reasoning such as this driving the engines of contemporary historical recoveries (how about The New Calvinism movement in the US or Paleo-orthodoxy)?

Rowan Williams 1To engage with the church’s past is to see something of the church’s future. If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth. If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun. And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours. That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible (p. 94) …

The dangers of looking to the past for a solution of present difficulties are obvious enough; but there is another way of approaching this which is less fraught with risk. Continue reading