Theology as Apprenticeship

In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the relationship between the crafts of brick laying and theologian (the initial quotation is from Seamus Murphy’s memoir Stone Mad).

‘With hammer mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders. We often curse our material, and often we speak to it kindly – we have come to terms with it in order to master it, and in has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves on it, but we know our material and respect it. We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.’ In like manner, I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular, they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of the faith, so that they might reflect that radical character of orthodoxy. . . . Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ (p. 37)

I resonate with Hauerwas’s description (see here), and it makes an apt metaphor for the professor.   I step into the classroom as a theologian and stand among young men and women who are themselves theologians (whether they know it or not). That they hone the craft of speaking to and about God under my watch and under my care is profoundly humbling. How I interact with the Christian Scriptures, which “masters” I direct them to look with me, and how my life takes shape under the Cross all has a part in their apprenticeship.

Perhaps more humbling is the apprenticeship of my children. Their theological instincts are  shaped through our everyday life together: our prayers, walks, my discipline or lack thereof, my tender or hurried embraces, the way I hold my wife, the look in my eye when they disappoint me. Whether I like it or not—whether I seize the opportunities or not—each are “showings” of life with God, living speech of an ongoing conversation. That is humbling.

Divine Simplicity and Theological Epistemology

I’ve been reading a well written, helpfully conceived and clear minded work on divine simplicity (no easy task). Furthermore, it was a former dissertation under Lewis Ayres (and yes, I said it is well written and clear). The volume is entitled Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (Oxford, 2009) written by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, and it is in the “Oxford Early Christian Studies” series. Radde-Gallwitz notes that much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with divine simplicity (most notably in the philosophy of religion sector in the analytic philosophy sphere) starts with the assumption that Aquinas’ view on divine simplicity is the standard and definitive statement. Going back to the Cappadocians and focusing on Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, Radde-Gallwitz seeks to show that the early adoption of the position was not simply (pun intended) the uncritial acceptance of Neo-Platonic thought.

Central to the debates were epistemological questions concerning the knowledge of God. For Eunomius, for instance, knowledge of God necessitated knowledge of God’s essence. Basil’s attack on Eunomius focuses, in contrast, on how knowledge of God does not depend on a knowledge of God’s essence. Continue reading

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Life in the Trinity – Part 3

This is my final look at Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. Here, I will briefly mention the remaining chapters in the volume and then pose some thought on the overall use of it in the classroom (or at least my general thoughts on its useability, etc.). Fairbairn continues with a helpful look at Patristic exegesis, focusing his attention on the use of the Old Testament. Next, he tackles the incarnation, focusing on Chalcedon and the emphasis on the identity of the Son of God as the same Lord Jesus who took on flesh. In his words, “The one who is consubstantial with the Father is the same one who is consubstantil with us” (145). Building upon these conclusions, he focuses his next chapter, “Redemption,”  on the idea that God the Son died for humanity. He advances his discussion with a look at natures and persons. Walking through sidebars of Athanasius, Cyril and Irenaeus, Fairbairn addresses the issues of Chalcedon, attempting to allow the “metaphyics” of natures and persons to guide the discussion.

Fairbairn shifts gears a bit in the last two chapters, tackling the issues involved in “becoming Christian” and “being Christian.” Becoming a Christian, for Fairbairn, is entering the Son’s relationship to the Father – in other words, becoming a child of God. In the former, he addresses election, justification and reconciliation, while in the latter he focuses on sanctification, issues of living in a fallen world and the eschatological orientation of the Christian life. Throughout each of these chapters, Fairbairn attempts to weave in theosis as the central thread which holds together the whole. Continue reading

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Life in the Trinity – Part 2

Fairbairn starts the third chapter with a discussion of the Trinity. There are several helpful elements to this. First, he does a great job of recognizing that his audience, if the book is used as he envisions it (as an intro text), will have little to know technical knowledge of the Trinity.  He does an excellent job of explaining technical terms and distinctions, as well as walking the reader through the development of trinitarian dogma. Second, he has patristic quotations interspersed throughout each chapter which he references in his discussion. I think this will be a helpful way to introduce students to some of the key thinkers without over-burdening them with lengthy and arcane readings. Lastly, his discussion of the Trinity is not simply to explain what trinitarian dogma is – but also how it functions. In his development, theosis, being grounded in a patristic reading of the immanent and economic Trinity, orients the theological task and highlights the particularity of Christianity:

Only Christianity affirms that within God there is love and fellowship. Only the Christian God has such fellowship to share with humanity. Thus only Christianity is willing to say that people are and always will be lower than God, but at the same time, we are not meant to be merely servants. We are meant to be Christ’s “friends”…We are meant to remain creatures and thus remain lower than God but at the same time to share in the fellowship and love that have existed from all eternity between the persons of the Trinity” (56-57). 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

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