Reading the Decree

I am going to be taking a look at the doctrine of election through a couple of recent releases – the first, by David Gibson, is Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (T&T Clark, 2009). This book has been out for a little while now, but I am also going to be looking at Suzanne McDonald’s new book Re-Imaging Election (Eerdmans, 2010). Here, I will focus my attention on Gibson’s read of Calvin and Barth on election. I think that this volume is particularly interesting because of the exegetical emphasis – putting Calvin and Barth’s exegetical considerations in parallel with their doctrinal development. Or, better, that for both thinkers, doctrine and exegesis are not two discrete tasks, but are united around, in one way or another, their “christocentrism.”

Utilizing Muller’s distinction between “soteriological christocentrism” and “principial christocentrism” Gibson invokes a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – extensive and intensive. A hermeneutic is christologically extensive when the center of christology “points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other” (15). Christology does not “dictate” or “control” but “shapes” and “influences” them. Likewise, a hermeneutic is christologically intensive when the center of christology “defines all else within its circumference” (15). This christology draws everything to itself, so that all other doctrinal material is read with an explicit reference to christology. Calvin and Barth represent these two facets respectively. Continue reading

Theological Anthropology: Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies

I am continuing our look at recent theological anthropolog texts with another post on Marc Cortez. We addressed his intro text to theological anthropology in the “Guide for the Perplexed” series, and now turn to his dissertation turned monograph, Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and its Significance for the Mind/Body Debate. This volume appears in the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series, which has continued to pump out really well-crafted dissertation/monographs.

After addressing some introductory matters, Cortez jumps into Barth’s exposition of a Christological anthropology with specific focus on CD III/2. Cortez offers six criteria which, for Barth, are necessary conditions for true humanity:

(1) being constituted by the ontological priority of Jesus in his relationship with God; (2) being conditioned by the salvation enacted by Jesus; (3) having its ‘true determination’ in the glory of God; (4) existing under the Lordship of God; (5) freely corresponding in its proper action to the divine deliverance; and (6) freely rendering service to God as a being who is for God” (38).

Furthermore, these six criteria are the standard by which Barth engages and criticises other approaches to anthropology – three are highlighted: the biological, ethical and existential. Continue reading

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.