A Word from Berkouwer

If theology is to have meaning for our problematic times, if it is to be a troubler of man’s conscience and a comfort to troubled men, then it is more than imperative that our theological reflection be reflection in the Word. Only as a real theology of the Word shall theology avoid the destructive luxury of being a beautiful system with which the instructed few may be entertained, but which stands aloof from the tumult of life. It can and shall have – without any pretensions – living significance for the practice of faith, for the preaching and the confessing of the Church in the modern world.”

Faith and Justification, 10

Theology Fail or Prophetic Utterance? Yes.

I noticed that Tony Jones has a new book out called: The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. The basic gist of the book is that the Didache provides a helpful way to think about community life. Which, in and of itself – fair enough. I’m not really concerned to comment on the volume itself (as far as I know it is insightful), but instead the reactions from the volume. It is a worth while exercise to go to Amazon and look at the comments, just to get a feel for what many evangelicals think about theology and, more importantly, ecclesiology. The general concensus seems to be that Jones’ volume is not a work of theology (which is why it is deemed valuable), but a practical work which goes beyond the point in time where everything went wrong (Nicea?). It is hard to know what the issue here is, but this is such a standard failure in theology by evangelicals that it needs to be noted – that if we could only find a really really old document, then it would be correct. I would point out the errors but they are just too obvious.

So, it would seem, that this is just theology fail at its finest? But not so fast. I think what Jones and guys like McLaren are doing is true prophetic utterance – not in achievement but in error. In other words, theology fail is prophetic utterance, because it should expose the wrongheaded notions of an a-theological approach to, well, theology. I think their voices are exactly what the evangelical world needs to hear, because their errors are simply the errors of  the bulk of evangelicals. I have no doubt that we are close to one of these guys picking up Strauss, but now utilizing the Didache (or fill in the blank with whatever cultural assumption you want) as the “criteria by which to distinguish the unhistorical in the Gospel narrative.” This would be remarkably similar to McLaren’s recent project which, in the words of one of his more generous interpreters, is simply von Harnack reimagined.

So why are children of evangelicalism returning to accounts of ecclesiology, Scripture and theology proper that fail to start with specifically theological Christian commitments, looking instead to reconstruct and baptize a time in history that was too early to have lost the plot (as it were)? This, again, is the prophetic utterance of judgment on the horizon of evangelicalism unless it is willing, like Ninevah, to repent, and in the case of evangelicalism, repent of a biblicism absent from any theological moorings.

The Doctor is in the House – Congratulations Kyle!

Anyone defending their dissertation dreams the viva (defense) will reward all the blood, sweat, and tears with challenging but fair questions and the coveted “minor corrections.”  Leading up to the viva, the expectation and sense of foreboding is incredible. In the British system, until that fateful meeting, until you walk through those doors, your examiners have given you zero feedback; how your dissertation has been received is a total mystery!

Well, I am delighted to report — and I never doubted it would turn out any other way — that Kyle successfully defended his dissertation, received minor corrections that were speedily completed the next day (modifying a few section headings and the like), and is now Dr. Kyle Strobel. Congratulations Kyle and job well done!

A little about Kyle’s labor of love. His dissertation devoted itself to a trinitarian reading of Jonathan Edwards’ theology of redemption, and he describes it as follows:

This thesis has a threefold structure which provides a “top-down” read of Edwards’ theology. In advancing Edwards’ theology as fundamentally trinitarian, we start with God in se, as the “fountain” from which history and reality flows. Second, we place God’s economic movement in creation in parallel with the saints’ participation in the beatific life of the Godhead in eternity. God’s act and purpose in creation parallels his act and purpose in consummation, thereby bracketing and governing the work of redemption. Lastly, we broadly answer the question: “How does God redeem the elect?” by addressing spiritual knowledge, regeneration and affection. By addressing the nature of the triune God with this God’s purpose and aim in creation, we offer a systematic reconstruction of redemption.

We all look forward to reading it when it hits the presses buddy!

Conference: Theology, the Church and Controversy

There is a theology conference on at the University of Aberdeen this July, which will, in their words: “…explore the dynamics of prophetic difference by asking whether controversy is integral to the Christian church.” Click here for more info. It should be good, among the presenters are: John Webster, Robert Jenson, Carl trueman, David Bentley Heart, Brian Brock and Peter Leithart.

Bloesch on Scripture

I have been perusing some of Bloesch’s thoughts on Scripture and wanted to offer a quote for some interaction. I’m quoting from volume 1 of his Essentials of Evangelical Theology in the section where he is railing against rationalism. He states, “The Bible is not directly the revelation of God but indirectly in that God’s Word comes to us through the mode of human instrumentality” (76). This comment is the result of the incarnational analogy Bloesch develops with worries of Christological heresies applies analogously to the various views of Scripture. Bloesch continues by grounding the conversation in his broader analysis of revelation:

Revelation is better spoken of as polydimensional rather than propositional in the strict sense, in that it connotes the event of God speaking as well as the truth of what is spoken: this truth, moreover, takes various linguistic forms including the propositional. Objective intelligible truth is revealed (though not exhaustively), but the formulation in the Bible is one step removed from this truth even while standing in continuity with it. The truth of revelation can be apprehended through the medium  of the human language which attests it but only by the action of the Spirit. Those who reduce the content of revelation to declarative statements in the Bible overlook the elements of mystery, transcendence and dynamism in revelation” (76).

The Christ’s Faith

Sometime this week I am going to be addressing the question of whether we can talk about Jesus’ faith (through the issues of the subjective or objective genitive – pistis Christou – Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:22; Phil. 3:9; and Eph. 3:12). I wanted to prime the pump a bit and see first where people stand on this issue. I haven’t done too much thinking about it lately, but several years ago when I did I found the arguments for a subjective translation to be convincing. What are your thoughts? Has anyone done a lot of work in this area? I would love to hear your opinions, especially on the implications of this view.

“Past thought cannot solve modern problems”

Cultural changes, such as the one that gave birth to the modern age, have a definitive and irreversible impact that transforms the very essence of reality. Not merely our thinking about the real changes: reality itself changes as we think about it differently. History carries an ontic significance that excludes any reversal of the present [...]

We have witnessed the birth of neo-Aristotelians, neo-Platonists (in both senses of the term), neo-Thomists, and, most recently, neo-nominalists. Those who, by updating past thoughts, hoped to neutralize such baneful features of modern thought as the oppositions between subject and object or the loss of a transcendent component underestimated the radical nature of the modern revolution. Its problems cannot be treated as errors to be corrected by a simple return to an earlier truth. That truth is no longer available; it has vanished forever … [P]ast thought cannot solve modern problems. Though eternal in its own way, it does not address conditions that are exclusively our own – such as the fragmentation of our world picture. It may assist us in sorting out modern issues, but it does not provide ready answers. Modern culture has contributed a totally new way of confronting the real.

A genuinely new synthesis, if ever to come, will have to rest on newly established principles [...] Our present task may well be the humble one of exploring how the fragments we are left with serve as building blocks for a future synthesis.”

Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale, 1993), 6-7.

James K. A. Smith on “Going through the motions”

I have mentioned in earlier posts that I think Smith overstates his case with practices, particularly with practices that are done without a real depth of meaning. Here is what Smith says:

I recognize that some might be uncomfortable with this claim, since it seems to suggest that there can be some sort of virtue in ‘going through the motions.’ On this point, I’m afraid I have to confess that I do think this is true. While it is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices (this is in the ballpark of the principle of ex opere operato)” (167 fn. 29).

I just don’t buy it. You can see my previous post for thoughts. I just don’t see how this meshes with Jesus’ comment, channeling Isaiah, that people honor him with their lips but their hearts are far from him. Any change that does take place in “going through the motions” is superficial. It seems to me that Smith gets a bit alarmist concerning practices, and sets up a philosophical discussion rather than a theological one which ends up naturalizing the topic, but I’ll leave that for my full review.

Christian Education and Anthropology

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) James K.A. Smith’s new volume Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, which is the first volume of three in a series he is doing entitled the “Cultural Liturgies” series. I’ve just started it, but I wanted to throw out what seems to be his main premise for discussion. In short, Smith wants to argue that in both Christian education (often focused on “worldview formation”) and evangelical church practice, pedagogy has sought to utilize a misguided anthropology. The focus, says Smith, has been on persons as thinking-beings or believing-beings, rather than, with Augustine, on persons as loving-beings.

By emphasizing persons as lovers, Smith wants to put more weight on the embodied reality of persons, pushing against the prevailing view in certain sectors that we are simply minds trapped in meat. It also means that Smith has grown allergic to Christian discipleship and education as simply information formation – helping people to think according to Christian ideals – rather than a formation of one’s loves to follow the sum of the commandments.

I want to focus on this argument more later, but I thought that this would be a good place to start discussion. I think Smith is right, and I think it is a particularly important point that we are not called to make people lovers, but to help form and direct their loves. In other words, the key question for education is what has formed the students’ love, and what is that love is directed towards.  Everyone loves an equal amount, as it were, but that love is often forged in the depths of self-love and cultural assumptions rather than Christian, and therefore necessarily kingdom, visions of reality.

Blogs make you superficial, not thoughtful

From a recent interview:

I’m amazed at the amount of time people spend on the internet. I’m not against technology, but all tools should be used to their best advantage. We should be spending our time on things that have staying power. Instead of on the latest thought of the latest blogger – and then moving on quickly to the next blogger. That makes us more superficial, not more thoughtful.

J.I. Packer

Divine Persons and Attributes

Halden has been musing about the divine persons and attributes here and here, and I thought it would be helpful to posit Edwards as a distinctive in the tradition. The two major issues brought up in Halden’s posts seem to be, in the first, the question of relations in the Trinity and simplicity, and, in the second, the question of attributes. In the second post, Halden questions the move to punt difference to procession and spend the rest of the time making sure there is no difference in attributes between the triune three. I think Edwards has a solution.

Using the psychological analogy, Edwards suggests that the Son actually is the Father’s understanding and the Spirit actually is the Father’s will. To be clear, these remarks do not function on the level of appropriation but being. So, how is the Son a person? Edwards runs personhood through the machinery of perichoresis so that personhood obtains only insofar as perichoresis obtains. Continue reading

Luther on Proper Meditation: Part 1 – Evils

I will continue our look at Dennis Ngien’s book, Luther as a Spiritual Advisor: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings. The chapter we will look at here is entitled: “Gems for the Sick: Proper Meditation on Evils and Blessings,” and is taken from Luther’s work Fourteen Consolations. Ngien summarizes:

In all these consolations the victorious image of Christ looms large, by which we are lifted outside ourselves (extra nobis), and are so caught up into Christ that we might see how, with such eagerness, Christ was willing to suffer on the cross to make death contemptible and dead for us (pro nobis)” (48).

The fourteen consolations are made up of seven evils and seven blessings. Instead of focusing his attention solely on glory, Luther accepts the reality of the cross as forming the Christian life – thereby making this work – as Ngien argues, an exercise in a “theology of the cross.” Luther, Ngien explains, “accentuates the unity of word and Spirit, working together in accomplishing the proper outcome of any act of meditation. The Holy Spirit assigns value and meaning to a thing on which our mind focuses so that whatever he considers as trivial and of no significance will move us only slightly, be it love as it comes to us or pain when it disappears” (49). Continue reading

A New Doctor, Pannenberg and Reconciliation

I am excited to announce that our very own Kent Eilers is now Dr. Kent Eilers! kentKent flew over to Aberdeen for his viva and came out on the other side with an hours worth of minor corrections (mostly random footnoting stuff and accent marks). Kent finished his corrections as we watched the fifth Harry Potter in my living room, and went back to the states with Ph.D in hand. To commemorate Kent’s achievement and hear about his project, I’ve had Kent send me an abstract of his work so we can get a glimpse of where his attention has been these last three years.

“Pannenberg on God’s Reconciling Action”

In the course of [his doctrine of reconciliation] Pannenberg’s attention turns time and again both to the saving movements of the trinitarian God in history and to the “commerce and communion” generated between him and his creatures. The task and challenge of marking out these patterns of encounter so that God’s actions are found to include creatures exerts a great deal of force over Pannenberg’s formulations. The study is required therefore to consider how Pannenberg’s presentation shapes one’s understanding of specific, temporal instances of creaturely commerce and communion. Doing so reveals how Pannenberg works to demonstrate that God’s reconciling action includes human activity, how the particularity and independence of human creatures are not set aside but transformed. In short, as Pannenberg’s doctrine of reconciliation marks out God’s action in the world as the true Infinite, it issues an invitation to consider how such a God extends himself in reconciling love to his creatures so that their finite creatureliness is at every turn affirmed and found to be in the end good.

Congratulations again Kent!

(Not to take the attention off Kent at all, but I would like to add that our own James Merrick has become the youngest theologian, nay, human being, to write 100 book views. Well done indeed).