God and Motion

In this post I am looking at Simon Oliver’s Philosophy, God and Motion. You might wonder why motion matters to theology at all. Oliver offers a terse overview of some options concerning the nature of motion: “For Plato, in wholly undualistic fashion, motion is the eternal stability of the Forms; it is, for Aristotle, the means of our passage from potency to actuality, it is, for Grosseteste, the means of the propagation of the universe from the simple, eternal light; it is, for Aquinas, the means of our participation in the eternal dynamism of the Trinitarian life of God” (2). I will, as far as I am able, provide an economic overview of the chapters with some concluding thoughts.

Chapter 1: Plato’s Timaeus

Oliver looks at Plato’s Timaeus to examine Plato’s cosmology of change and becoming, focusing his attention on the nature and purpose of motion in the treatise. The Demiurge forms a hierarchy of motions, based on the World soul’s division into sameness and difference. The sameness governs the motion of the universe, with all other motion participating in it. Mankind comes to move away from base opinion, furthermore, by participation in the motion, symmetry and proportion of the World Soul, which is the “ontological condition of possibility” for knowledge of the forms. Reason itself is a motion, and with all motion knows perfection cyclically, and obtains that perfection as a participation in the forms – most specifically the form of the good. Motion is, therefore, teleologically oriented towards a deeper participation in the Forms, and motion is the mediation between the forms and the cosmos. Oliver provides a nice summary: Continue reading

Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: A Review

I continue my summer review series on theological interpretation of Scripture with Mark Bowald’s Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Ashgate, 2007). As the subtitle suggests, Bowald’s main interest is to map the relationship between divine and human agency in a number of prominent exponents of theological hermeneutics,  such as Frei, Vanhoozer, Fowl, and Wolterstorff among others.

The study is valuable on a number of fronts. Bowald’s historical sketch of the eclipse of divine agency in post-Enlightenment epistemology  is tight and suggestive (chapter 1), and his typology for mapping and comparing various figures in the modern discussion on hermeneutics and theological interpretation related to their balancing of divine and human agency  is well-conceived and exceptionally clear (chapters 2-5)—even if you dispute his judgments concerning where particular figures appear in the typology. And, his proposal for a “divine-rhetorical” hermeneutics has left me seriously thinking about its viability (chapter 6. Bowald develops this further in a recent essay: ““The Character of Theological Interpretation of Scripture” in IJST, 12.2 [April 2010]: 162-83).

Because of my current research into theologies of retrieval, my interest in Bowald’s book concerns its relationship to other proposals for theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) that directly or indirectly advocate the retrieval of premodern (or, “precritical”) methods, dispositions, or habits of reading Scripture. Let me comment on what Bowald’s study offers in this regard.

Continue reading

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

Incarnation & Bioethics: the vindication of finitude

I am reading a really fine collection of essays by Brent Waters, This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics. Waters’ project is straightforward, and ambitious: “to employ and explicate the doctrine of the incarnation in examining a range of selected bioethical issues.” In other words, he wants to investigate what it might look like to allow the doctrine of the incarnation to impact and even (heaven forbid) shape our thinking about mortal life, finitude, embodiment, and the counter-narratives of posthumanism.

In taking on and redeeming human flesh, Christ vindicates our embodied-ness; it is a counter-argument to the narratives of posthumanism in which finitude is simply a barrier to be overcome and mastered. With our imaginations shaped by the incarnation, we are free to embrace createdness (our finitude) and, as Barth said, to praise God for it as his good gift to us (CD, III.4). Take the following excerpts from chapter 6 on late modern medicine and posthumanism for example:

[W]hat Christians believe about the Word made flesh presumably shapes their normative convictions regarding the purpose and practice of medicine. Moreover, it is a timely doctrine to revisit, given medicine’s growing predilection for turning its attention away from the care of patients in favor of transforming them into beings capable of transcending their embodied, and therefore finite, limitations (p. 115).

And how would the Incarnation (birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ) shape a Christian imagination regarding this shift?

It is the risen and exalted Christ through which the good and the eternal delineates and redeems the necessary and the temporal. It is this eschatological hope the enables Christians to consent to finite limitations, for through the gift of the Spirit they have received the freedom to obey the constraints of their finitude, because these limitations have already been vindicated, redeemed, and taken up into the eternal life of God (p. 128).

I am impressed by just how theological Waters is committed to be throughout these pieces on biotechnology, reproductive medicine, genomics, stem cell research, cloning, mortality, and euthanasia. I am presently teaching a course in theological bioethics, and Mortal Flesh is proving an excellent resource for my students as we work to craft a theological imagination able to reason well about bioethical issues.

Coming back to Torrance: a review of Incarnation

I was reading around in preparation for teaching on Christology last week and ended up spending time in T.F. Torrance’s collected lectures published as Incarnation:The Person and Life of Christ (Paternoster). Every time I come back to Torrance I am reminded just how significant a theologian he was.  His work is shot through with careful attention to the Scriptures, passion for the Gospel, and fluid clarity characteristic of a seasoned lecturer.

Take the following passage on Christ’s assumption of fallen flesh:

When the Word became flesh, he became all that we are in our opposition to God in our bondage under law – that is the amazing act of gracious condescension in the incarnation, that God the Son should assume our flesh, should enter a human existence under divine judgement, enter in the situation where the psalmist cried Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, so that the Word or Son of God himself gave out the same cry when overwhelmed with the divine judgement upon our flesh (61).

Incarnation comprises Torrance’s lectures on Christology and Soteriology delivered in his classes on Christian dogmatics at New College during the years 1952-1978. Torrance had gathered his notes during the years 2001 and 2002, but before they could be edited for publication he suffered the stroke that brough both his scholarly career to an end and the process of bringing these lectures to print. Thankfully for the editorial work of Robert Walker we, together with Torrance’s students who heard them first hand, can benefit from his immense learning, insight, and strength of faith.

The volume makes at least two contributions. First, it offers the most systematic and complete presentation of Torrance’s thought available. While he had hoped to do so, he had never produced a dogmatics. Second, it provides a fine introduction to Torrance’s theology that will surely open the way for readers to mine the depths of earlier publications. If you have read any of Torrance’s other works, then you know that for all its liveliness and depth, it is not light going; it is challenging – immensely rewarding to be sure – but challenging. One hopes these published lectures would give readers encouragement to engage Torrance’s other works, which undoubtedly will reward.

If they are anything like me, readers of Torrance’s lectures just may find a sense of home, a resonance with the Gospel long-proclaimed in the Church but rarely heard clearly resounding in the academy.

The stark actuality of Christ’s humanity, his flesh and blood and bone, guarantees to us that we have God among us. If that humanity were in any sense unreal, God would be unreal for us in him. The full measure of Christ’s humanity is the full measure of God’s reality for us, God’s actuality to us, in fact the measure of God’s love for us. If Christ is not man, then God has not reached us, but has stopped short of our humanity – then God does not love us to the uttermost, for his love has stopped short of coming all the way to where we are, and becoming one of us in order to save us. But Christ’s humanity means that God’s love is now flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, really one of us and with us (185).

Amen indeed.

Book Review: Desiring the Kingdom

For those of you who have been following, I have offered some interaction with Jamie Smith’s new volume Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation in previous posts (here, here and here). After these superficial looks, I do something closer to a robust book review here. I think Smith makes some important points, and deals with some strands of scholarship often ignored in evangelicalism, and for that reason alone I think his volume is a worthwhile engagement. Furthermore, in my own ideological moorings of spiritual formation, Smith raises language, concepts and issues that either need to be dealt with, accepted or engaged.

Importantly, as we look at Smith’s work, it should be kept in mind that this is only the first volume in a trilogy, therefore some of our interaction will simply be highlighting issues he has yet to address. In this volume, Smith seeks to primarily address the issues of Christian education, casting a new vision of what that entails, but hopes to secondarily (what he calls “collateral impact”) address church practices and orientation towards formation. In his words,

In short, the goal is to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born – and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship. This doesn’t require rejecting worldview-talk, only situating it in relation to Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship” (11).

The critique of worldview discussion is navigated by his employment of a counter-anthropology. Continue reading

A Question of Personhood

I have been thinking about the issues of personhood a lot these days – mostly through Jonathan Edwards – and how one’s understanding of what a person is, and what “human” entails, often does a lot of work in one’s theology. In an attempt to feed my inquiry, Oxford was kind enough to send me Lucian Turcescu’s Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons. I would like to use some of Turcescu’s reflections on Gregory to talk a bit more broadly about the concept of personhood and how it functions theologically. Taking a look at Gregory of Nyssa will hopefully prove instructive as more and more theologians scan the horizon of Cappadocian theology for answers concerning trinitarian personhood and theology.

To begin, Turcescu offers a broad definition of a person: “A person is ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.’” He, furthermore, suggests that prior to the Cappadocian work on the Trinity there was not a notion of “person” in circulation. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume modern beliefs about willing personal agents and apply that wholesale as a starting assumption. Starting with God for instance, Turcescu suggests that it would be tautological to speak of free will in God for the Cappadocians. 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

What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule

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David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part 3

McIntosh moves into the second part of his volume by grounding his theological endeavor in salvation. He maps the options by posing either the order of knowing or the order of being. He then offers his rationale for beginning with salvation:

Christians believe that the place where our way of knowing and God’s way of being most intimately encounter one another, so that our knowing is transformed, is in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is so, first, in the sense that our human way of knowing is, in Christ, taken up into a particular divine way of being, and second, in the sense that as people encounter Jesus in various ways, their forms of knowing are transformed” (59).

Moving in this fashion allows McIntosh to dive into Christology through some low-flying biblical exegesis and discussion, noting that, “the act of salvation becomes the lens by which everything else is perceived and understood” (65). Something I’ve meant to say earlier, which just occurs to me as I’m reading through this section, is how excellent a volume this really is. McIntosh is truly gifted with conceptual clarity, the ability to use graphs, charts and diagrams, not to mention analogies and metaphors, to actually clarify, instead of using them as I do, where I merely muddy the water of even the clearest of issues! Continue reading

Jonathan Edwards and the Philosophy of History: Part 2

Picking up where we left off, I start the major section of the work, entitled simply “Time.” Zakai places Edwards in a day divided by biblical-centric evangelicals focusing their intellectual capacities on religious experience, while the world increased in scientific and philosophical imagination. Zakai offers some explanation:

One of the main reasons for the growing privatization of religious life and experience was that during the eighteenth century the Christian theological and teleological explanation of the nature of reality had steadily declined in persuasiveness because of the attraction of scientific thought in interpreting the nature of the material world and the influence of the British school of moral sense, which developed the rationalistic idea of disinterested benevolence as the criterion for moral judgment” (135).

This age saw a major conflict between reason and revelation, the former taking precedent and the latter being dethroned from its former glory. As a helpful summary, Zakai states, “The disenchantment of the world led therefore to the reenchantment of the soul, or the heart, as the main locus of religious life and experience” (136). It is here where Zakai slowly turns his attention to the Holy Grail of Edwards studies – 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

Jonathan Edwards’ Philosophy of History

After reviewing Ben Quash’s volume addressing von Balthasar’s theology of history, I thought I would wade back over Zakaito my personal area of interest and take a look at Jonathan Edwards’ philosophy of history. Avihu Zakai’s volume, put out by Princeton Press (and mostly written at the Center of Theology Inquiry) is entitled: Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. I will skip over the initial chapter covering biographical material and move right into his argumentation.

The Soul

In the second chapter, entitled: “Young Man Edwards: Religious Conversion,” Zakai focuses in on Edwards’ conversion experience, asserting, “This spiritual experience informed Edwards’s theology of nature and led directly to his quest to reconstruct the whole material world after the model of his newly acquired religious vision” (54). He then builds on his already provocative thesis, asserting baldly, Continue reading