Should Theologians be Spiritual? Part 1

There is a sense where this question is obvious. Of course theologians should be spiritual, shouldn’t everyone? hans_urs_von_balthasarBut the question is a bit deeper than this. In taking upon oneself the task of being a theologian under the Word, for the church, is part of the task holiness? In so doing, we will be asking a further question, namely, does personal holiness in any way affect the quality of theology?

I will do a handful of these posts looking at this question as somewhat of a follow up to my previous post on the seven deadly spiritual sins for theologians. In this post, I will look at Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Word and Redemption to see what insight Balthasar has for this question.

The Great Divide: Theology and Spirituality

Balthasar starts his chapter entitled “Theology and Sanctity” with: Continue reading

The Seven Deadly Spiritual Sins of Theologians

My wife and I are reading a book with our small group at church called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The author reminded me that John of the Cross suggests seven deadly spiritual sins in beginners that must be purified. After reading through these, and being reminded of John of the Cross’s never ending existential insight, I thought it might be prudent to direct these towards being theologians. Here is the list as presented in the book (sadly, I don’t have my copy of Dark Night of the Soul with me in Scotland to quote from it directly):

1. Pride: they have a tendency to condemn others and become impatient with their faults. They are very selective in who can teach them.
2. Avarice: they are discontent with the spirituality God gives them. They never have enough learning, are always reading many books rather than growing in poverty of spirit and their interior life.
3. Luxury: they take more pleasure in the spiritual blessings of God than God himself.
4. Wrath: they are easily irritated, lacking sweetness, and have little patience to wait on God.
5. Spiritual gluttony: they resist the cross and choose pleasures like children do.
6. Spiritual envy: they feel unhappy when other do well spiritually. They are always comparing.
7. Sloth: they run from that which is hard. Their aim is spiritual sweetness and good feelings.

To begin a new list then, lets think about the seven deadly spiritual sins for those who seek to serve the church as theologians. Continue reading

The Conundrum of Choosing a Theology Textbook

booksAnyone who has taught an undergraduate or graduate introductory theology course knows the nerve-wracking anxiety that surrounds picking the right text(s). Do I use a standard systematic theology or an anthology? Would articles and excerpts be more helpful? How do I determine the reading levels of my students? How will the use of my text relate to students’ other classwork? Which book will be accessible yet challenging, organized well but not pedantic, innovative but historically grounded? And on, and on, and on…

Stephen Holmes (University of St. Andrews) wrote an exceedingly helpful post not long ago on choosing a textbook for introductory theology courses. If choosing a textbook is your conundrum, read Holmes’ post here.

Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth

Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), 320 pp; £15.00/ $32.00 [Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

It is easy to forget just how good a reader of nineteenth-century theology orthodox-and-modernBruce McCormack really is. Given the stature and boldness of his proposal regarding Jesus Christ as the subject of election (and the many implications that follow from it), the other many facets of his work have, of late, tended to be darkened by its shadow. Interestingly, McCormack’s renown has come about, chiefly, by his identification as the reader primarius of Karl Barth’s theological development, particularly as this development is situated within its surrounding historical context. In fact, without indulging too much in haliolatry, I think it would be safe to say, that if you want to get to grips with Barth, that is, if you want answers to the kinds of questions Barth was preoccupied with, one of the voices you should be listening to is that of Bruce McCormack.

While the entire collection of essays brims over with the kind of meticulous research and able marshalling of the sources one has come to expect from McCormack, it is in the first of the four sections that the reader is given a clear and firm reminder of why reading McCormack so compelling and, indeed, necessary. The motivation for some readers to get to the juicy material (and by juicy, I mean the material found under the title ‘Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology’) is naturally understandable but in so doing one bypasses over 100 pages of important stuff. Because a substantial part of McCormack’s project is devoted to offering an ‘orthodox’ profile of Barth, time has to be given to an analysis of those factors that facilitate such a position. As McCormack explains, ‘…what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity‘ (17). Continue reading

Heresies and How to Avoid Them

Ben Quash is one of my favorite young, British theologians. His study of theodramatic conceptions of history, Theology and the Drama of History, was great; his expositions of Hans Urs von Balthasar are lucid, his judgments judicious, and his prose makes you believe he really does find joy in crafting them. He also contributes the essay on ‘Revelation’ in the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology which is equally good. So I was excited to get hold of his most recent edited volume, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters what Christian’s Believe.

Here is a short excerpt from his essay: “Donatism: Do Christian ministers need to be faultless for their hereisies-and-how-to-avoid-them-2jpg1ministrations to be effective?”

[T]he border between schism and heresy is a blurry one. And in fact, one of the instructive features of the Donatist dispute as a whole is precisely  the way it highlights the artificiality of separating faith (or belief) from love (or practices). Christian practice is a sort of theology, an exposition…And in lots of ways the Donatists (at least those not marauding or supporting the marauders) embodied just that proper emphasis on right practice as inseparable from Christian truth…They wanted at their best, to be disciplined communities of character.

The problem was that their practice betrayed two things at the heart of Christian teaching: the ineradicable fallibility of creation (including the Church) and its consequent unavoidable need of grace on this side of the end of time. It is God’s job to make the Church pure, not ours, and he will do it when he is ready. However morally zealous we are, we will never by our own effort carve out a pure space which we can call the true Church by pointing to the unimpeachable lives of its members. Instead, they will sin, and they will need to be forgiven, and they will do so constantly. The holiness of the Church is precisely that it is a place where this circulation of forgiveness goes on all the time; it is not because forgiveness is never necessary in the first place. A Church which insisted that its members – or even just its clergy – had to be spotless would be an empty Church, or else a dishonest Church (p. 83, 88-89)

Apocalypse and Ecclesia – 2008 TF Torrance Lectures in Aberdeen

A couple weeks ago Joseph Mangina gave the T.F. Torrance Lectures here in Aberdeen (details here). Mangina is both an mangina_000accomplished scholar and – gratefully – an engaging presenter. The main purpose of his lectures was to pursue the following question: What would it mean to view the church in light of the Apocalypse? In keeping with the apocalyptic angle, his lectures took the form of ‘notes on scripture’ and followed the text of revelation as a form of theological interpretation of scripture (he has a revelation commentary in the Brazos series coming out in 2009).

While our remarks certainly won’t be comprehensive of Mangina’s lectures, a couple things stood out to us:

Divine Agency - Related to his reflections on the theological interpretation of Scripture and to the nature of the book of Revelation – as the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ – Mangina’s lectures consistently registered the importance of divine agency for a theological account of the church. Mangina contended that the genitive related to Jesus in Revelation 1:1 (‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’) must be read here both as subjective and objective – Jesus is the author and the content of revelation. In turn, this impacts the way the church should read the later ‘scary bits’ in the book of Revelation related to judgment and tribulation. In reading the Revelation, then, ‘It means first’ Mangina explained, ‘that we are dealing with and beholding Jesus and secondarily (only) are we dealing with the prophetic contents of the book.’ Specifically concerning the political implications that could be drawn from Revelation, when Jesus is properly seen as the object and subject of the Revelation, ‘it provokes a horizon of divine action that does not take human politics seriously.’

Concerning the former (theological interpretation of Scripture) he said,

To read scripture theologically is to read it ecclesially, which is to read it typologically. This starts with the assumption that God is the primary author of scripture and most specifically the Spirit and that all Scripture points to Jesus Christ.

Continue reading

Edward Knippers » Art & Incarnation (5): On art and not “playing in the shallows”

Edward Knippers concludes our exhibition, “Art and Incarnation: Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers”, with a few responses, words of gratitude, and reflections on not “playing in the shallows” (may our stammering attempts at speaking about God risk the same).

The high level of theological discussion this week on Theology Forum about my work is more of a tribute pm_32than any artist could expect in a lifetime. That is because Professors Sanders, Myers, and Buschart each understand in a profound way what I have been trying to do in my artistic calling.

Their articulations of my core concerns of incarnation and resurrection have embodied my, often, intuitive understandings in a clear verbal form. When I read Professor Sanders’ succinct summation of my artist enterprise as an exploration of “…a visual vocabulary capable of expressing the remarkable things Christians believe….” I could only say, “Yes, that’s it.”

Professor Myers’ discussion of my cubist vocabulary in terms of Gerard Manley Hopkins stating that God’s grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” only makes me realize how much further I have to go in order to even “stammer,” (Prof. Myers’ word) about such things.

Professor Buschart’s discusses the nudity in my work in terms of universality and particularity (also mentioned by Professor Sanders) stating that “…the absence of dress in his human figures removes an excuse for someone to hold the images at a distance, and yet these are particular people.” In reading his essay, I realized that he had seen past merely naked people to the common denominator of our humanity, the body and its place in the cosmos.

More importantly, each of these scholars has penetrated to the core of my work by talking more about our pm_421Lord’s Incarnation and Resurrection than about me. This is as it should be if I have done my job well. I have maintained over the years that art is not merely self-expression but an exploration of a reality greater than the Self. I have also maintained that the artist should be concerned about the most profound parts of that reality, not just play in the shallows. These essays are a conformation that with God’s help, I have accomplished in some small way what I have preached.

I offer my deepest thanks and appreciation for the essays of Professors Fred Sanders, Ben Myers, and David Buschart. I also offer my heartfelt gratitude to Kent Eilers and his colleagues at Theology Forum for making this conversation possible. I hope that many will find the rewards of reading and participating in Theology Forum in the years to come.

David Buschart » Art & Incarnation (4): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

The spirit and work of the artist can be a rich means of grace, especially to those of us who lack either the  temperament or the ability to “create” as they do. My sister was given all the artistic ability allotted to my family of origin, and so God blessed me with a wife gifted with both the spirit and the abilities of an artist. And, my Christian faith has been refined and enriched through her.

Some artists suggest that they can meaningfully communicate only through their art. Others, like Edward Knippers, can do so through both their art and their written words. (And, there are, of course, also art forms for which the primary medium is words.) I am glad for the opportunity to consider the work of Knippers, and, in light of my above-mentioned limitations, will take my prompts from the latter.

Commendations: Physicality and Hope

Allow me to begin by highlighting and commending three of Knippers’ observations. (And, these commendations are not a polite set-up for negative critique. I happen to fundamentally agree with Knippers’ comments.)

First, “disembodiment is not an option for the Christian.” ed-knippersjohn-comforted-in-prisonDisembodiment is not an option because our Creator-God has not made it an option. Disembodiment may occur for the Christian during the interlude between earthly death and eternal redemption, but as theologians point out, this is a temporary aberration. It is unnatural and not the way God planned it. God made and makes and redeems human beings only as enfleshed creatures.

Second, physicality is “messy” and uncomfortable. To be sure, it can be pleasurable and a means of grace. But, because the world and all that is in it is, with a nod to Cornelius Plantinga, not the way it’s supposed to be, physicality is messy and uncomfortable. This is undoubtedly a significant factor in some Christians’ inclination toward a Gnosticized faith (to which Knippers, too, refers). As with many aspects of Christian faith and life, a healthy embrace of physicality is not always easy or pleasant but it is the right thing to do (consider “John comforted in Prison”, above).

Third, physicality is an essential element of the Christian message of hope. As Knippers’ nicely puts it, “we are able to make our bodies a living sacrifice to God because of Christ’s real and complete sacrifice for us.” As we often need to be reminded, the only way to Easter is through Good Friday. Continue reading

Ben Myers » Art & Incarnation (3): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

Edward Knippers and the resurrection of the body

Edward Knippers has always foregrounded the human body, and his work has long been preoccupied with the relation between God and bodies. Knippers has thus rightly been described as a painter of “incarnation.”

But in this new series of paintings – with its remarkable integration of baroque bodies and cubist forms – it becomes clear that the theological centre of Knippers’ work is not the incarnation of flesh as such, but the resurrection of the flesh. These paintings reflect an artist’s search for a language with which to articulate the theological truth that God’s identity – and likewise the identity of human selves – is inextricably connected to the reality of resurrection. God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead: this is not an incidental aspect of God’s character, but it is a description of God’s very “essence.” The resurrection of Jesus is what makes God God.

And similarly: the relation between God and humanity depends on the event of Jesus’ resurrection. Our own identities are mysteriously caught up in this event. If we want to discover who we really are, what it really means to be human, we have to look to the place where God and humanity overlap, the place where God intersects humanity. And the resurrection of Jesus is this place.

The overlap in Knippers’ paintings between human bodies and a profusion of refracted forms of light and colour is an attempt to locate this place, this startling moment in which the world of God intersects and interpenetrates our own material world.

Consider The Raising of Lazarus (right) . Here, a cubist concept – that an abstractly reassembled object can be viewed simultaneously from multiple perspectives – is employed as a language for articulating the intersection of the world of God and the world of human flesh. The forms and colours intersect and interpenetrate one another: bones, bandages and bodies are shot through with ribbons of light. As Gerard Manley Hopkins has put it, God’s grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Amidst the death of the tomb we witness a sudden explosion of life, an astonishing surge of colour and form. Above Lazarus stands the figure of Christ, with hands spread out in a gesture of creation, of forming. It is Christ who dissolves the formlessness of death, and brings forth the new form of sheer uncontainable life. The creative presence of Christ fractures and disrupts the world’s material order, bursting it open and reassembling it, wholly interpenetrating it with the flash and flame of God’s own life. Continue reading

Fred Sanders » Art & Incarnation (2): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

Edward Knippers is a hard-working painter, and what he’s been at work on since the ‘70s is exploring a visual vocabulary capable of expressing the remarkable things Christians believe.

In the old days, you could just paint a halo, but not anymore.  Christian art once had a symbolic vocabulary at its disposal that included all kinds of ciphers for spiritual things, and pointers to the transcendent.  Those halos meant holiness; a beam of light from a golden hemisphere in the sky meant spiritual illumination; an almond-shaped mandorla around a body signified that the person in it was simultaneously occupying our world and a world beyond; an angel meant an angel.

Knippers is not dismissive of all that traditional visual vocabulary; all of his work is carried out under the blessing of the fifth commandment’s charge to give your father and mother their due honor.  His paintings show a deep gratitude to the tradition. He knows his art history and understands the place he occupies in the stream of influences flowing through him.  What is rarer, he has pondered the theological implications of his place in the Western tradition.

But for all that, a Knippers painting doesn’t deploy the ancient visual language of pre-Renaissance painting.  There are no halos here -not in the form of golden circles painted on the background, nor yellow dinner plates attached to the backs of heads and improbably becoming ellipses in obedience to the laws of perspective, nor sunbursts conveniently occurring behind holy figures.  He doesn’t try to press those ancient symbols into service in his work.

Instead, Knippers paints human bodies.  He paints big, solid, fleshy forms engaged in vigorous, muscular movement.  There is a monumentality to a Knippers painting that you can sense even from a catalog photo or a tiny jpeg on a web page.  The images are well composed enough that seeing little copies of them is meaningful, but you should jump at any chance you ever have to get in the same room with one of his Truly Gigantic Panels (–one of those six or eight foot tall things, like The Anunciation of the Shepherds (below) (for more, visit Knippers’ website).

Up close, a Knippers painting is a revelation: in your space, in your face, confrontational and aggressive.  His pinkish giants don’t stay in a polite middle distance in his images, but crowd the foreground. A room with three or four of them in it feels more like a wrestling arena than an art gallery. Continue reading

Art & Incarnation (1) » Artist Statement by Edward Knippers

Our exhibition opens today with an essay from Edward Knippers himself. Subsequent posts engaging Knippers’ art and theology will follow every day this week.Tomorrow will feature Fred Sanders (Biola University), probably the world’s greatest systematic theologian cartoonist.

The human body is at the centre of my artistic imagination because the body is an essential element of the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.

ed-knipperswith-his-stripesone-color-intaglio.jpgDisembodiment is not an option for the Christian. Christ places His Body and His Blood at the heart of our faith in Him. Our faith comes to naught if the Incarnation was not accomplished in actual time and space – if God did not send His Son to us in a real body with real blood.

Heresy results when we try to minimize the presence or pre-eminence of the body and the blood. Yet even believers have become comfortable with our age as it tries to disembody reality. Physicality is messy; it is demanding and always a challenge to control.

The naked human body is one way of starkly stating that we have nowhere to hide. Further, it allows me to have something of the spiritual timelessness of the Eastern Icon tradition by avoiding the cultural trappings of modern or ancient dress and, at the same time, enabling me to ground my subjects in the specifics of time and space (the glory of the Western tradition). This bridging of the two traditions is important to me because the spirituality of the Biblical events is as solid and real as the events themselves.

In finding the spiritual in the interactions and choices of real people, incarnation can be shown as the symbiotic reality that it is. In other words, the choices and actions that we make always have profound spiritual ramifications because we are human beings. Continue reading

Next Week: Art & Incarnation – Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

We are very excited to be hosting our first ‘blog exhibition’ showcasing the art and theology of Edward Knippers. Starting next Monday we will post an essay each day accompanied with several pieces of Knippers’ stunning, confrontative artwork. The theologians involved will be reflecting theologically on Knippers’ work related most specifically to the doctrine of Incarnation but will discuss other doctrinal and cultural implications that attend Knippers’ thoroughgoing commitment to ‘physicality’.

The exhibition will begin on Monday and proceed along the following schedule:

Monday, Nov. 3 – Artist statement from Edward Knippers

Tuesday, Nov. 4Fred Sanders (Biola University)

Wednesday, Nov. 5 - Ben Myers (Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton)

Thursday, Nov. 6 – David Buschart (Denver Seminary)

Friday, Nov. 7 – Edward Knippers will respond to the exhibition

Please stop in, reflect on Knippers’ art, and join the discussion that will follow the posts each day.

Will we allow history to critique us?

When reading historical figures, do we allow ourselves to be critiqued by them? Or, do we stand over them from the vantage point of some ‘far superior’ late modern position?

There has been an interesting interaction between Ben Myers (Faith and Theology) and George Marsden in response to Marsden’s Stone Lectures at Princeton. Myers’ big worry about Marsden’s methodology for reading Edwards, and any historical figure for that matter, is that in distinguishing between Edwards’ great “‘perennial ideas’ (e.g. his doctrine of the Trinity) and his outdated nonessential ideas (e.g. his biblical literalism, his millennialism, and so on)” we isolate ourselves from being critiqued by him:

I realise that Marsden was only sketching some brief remarks on historical method, but I think this represents a deeply flawed approach to the question of how we can learn from the Christian past. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the timeless “perennial core” from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we’re acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history – we’re assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we’re no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn’t find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards’ millennialism, his doctrine of progress, or his theology of the election of nations. (Seriously, isn’t all this just a little relevant to American identity and to US foreign policy?).

…Once we perceive that a thinker like Jonathan Edwards was “ultimately concerned with the Christian faith,” it becomes impossible to distinguish between any timeless “core” and the mere “husk” of culturally-bound ineptitudes. Instead, by encountering the strangeness and offensiveness of Edwards’ ideas, we are encountering something new and unexpected about the nature of Christian identity itself. Continue reading