The Ecumenical Edwards

I’m excited to say that my new edited volume, The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians (Ashgate) was Ecumenical Edwardsjust released. This is my attempt to address the idea, now ubiquitous in Edwards studies, that Edwards can be utilized as an Ecumenical theologian. It is, of course, hard to know what that might mean. Up until this point, the focus has been on how Edwards’s unique development of a variety of doctrines seems, at least at first glance, to mirror or overlap with Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic developments. My own focus is a bit different. I suggest, in the introduction, that Edwards’s ecumenical potential lies in two features of his thought: First, his greatness, and second, his distinctively Reformed greatness. In other words, Edwards should be utilized ecumenically because he is great in his own tradition (similarly to how Barth is often employed).

Following these same notions, I am convinced that the disciples of a given thinker cannot claim his or her worth. In other words, it is not surprising that Edwards scholars would be making bold claims about Edwards’s potential. Rather, to really justify these claims, the Church catholic must weigh in. Therefore, I assembled a contributor list of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a wide-variety of Protestant thinkers to engage Edwards with their own expertise. Seven out of the thirteen chapters were written by non-Edwards scholars, and what came out was truly beautiful. Notice that along with my own contribution, Theology Forum’s own Kent Eilers adds an excellent chapter on prayer utilizing Edwards and Pannenberg. See the Table of Contents below: Continue reading

An Overtaking of Depth

41mBxWFfxTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have an article in the new volume of the journal American Theological Inquiry. The essay is titled, “‘An Overtaking of Depth’: Theology as Retrieval.” If you’re interested in checking out my recent book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, this article is a great place to start. Parts of the essay are adapted from it and, I hope, it will whet your appetite to read the book!

The essay has three parts. In the first, my coauthor and I ground retrieval in the basic Christian pattern of receiving and transmitting the deposit of faith. Retrieval in this sense is not unique to our time, but basic and fundamental to Christian theology.

The second part introduces six contemporary theologies of retrieval and locates them within the widespread skepticism about the fruits of modernity that characterized much of late twentieth-century theology.

The final section presents a range of possible outcomes of retrieval. We suggest that one outcome best characterizes theology as retrieval: ressourcement. This outcome demonstrates the effective negotiation of the inherent tensions of retrieval: continuity and discontinuity, stability and change, and constraint and freedom. The term “ressourcement” is well-known for its origin in early twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology, but it has broader applicability. The outcome of ressourcement is possible within any Christian community when theological retrieval seeks to receive and transmit the deposit of faith.

Here are the first few paragraphs (read the entire article here):

Like every facet of the church’s life, theology always begins already in the middle. It is caught in the middle of God’s reconciling activity, drawn along by its current, part of its history. In this sense, Christian theology is a normed practice. Its cadence and grammar are given by the revelation of God in Christ received by the apostles and witnessed in Holy Scripture. What was true for the apostles is thus true for the church today: the initial movement of theological reflection is the astonished response of encountering God’s grace. Indeed, theology springs out from worship and, when healthy, turns us back toward it.

There is a second sense in which theology begins already in the middle. The church’s work of sanctified reason takes shape in the middle of particular cultures, times, and communities. The truth of the Gospel is timeless, but it is always known and expressed within an actual place, time, and people. Such particularity includes, perhaps most importantly, the church. In the church, theological reflection is carried out within the fellowship of Christ’s body, located within a tradition characterized by unique emphases and traits, and simultaneously draws on and contributes to the church’s worship. There, in worship, theology is reminded that the risen and exalted Christ is gloriously present in the church through the transforming work of his Spirit. Thus the church, and by extension the theologian, does not merely act but is acted upon. The kinds of theologians who seek to be faithful both to the givenness of Christianity and the present moment require the skill best described as discernment.

Continue reading

Theology as Retrieval – now available

It is a pleasure to announce that my newest book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, is now available! You can purchase it through your favorite book-sellers. Here is a link to Amazon.Theology as Retrieval

Writing back cover copy is tricky, and I am glad the good folks at IVPAcademic did such a nice job with ours. Here is a quick glimpse of what my coauthor and I seek to do in the book.

In Theology as Retrieval David Buschart and Kent Eilers show that retrieving the Christian past is a mode of theological discernment, a cultivated habit of thought that looks back in order to move forward. Surveying six areas where the impulse and practice of retrieval has been notably fruitful and suggestive, they explore and offer constructive and programmatic proposals for theological reflection, practice and hope.

The six areas are Holy Scripture, theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos (“cosmos” is shorthand for the bold vision of Radical Orthodoxy). Buy the book, and let’s have a conversation about it here on TF!

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Theology for Interpreting Reality (3)

The purposes of theology I am introducing in this series overlap significantly in many cases. The relation between this one and the previous, theology for liberating, illustrates the point. Often to move the Church toward liberation, theology paints a vision of reality such that injustice stands out for what it is. For instance, in Elizabeth Gerhardt’s new book The Cross and Gendercide she argues that the Church’s response to global, systemic violence against women must be rooted in a theology of the cross: “a theological foundation of the cross offers an orientation centered on an incarnational Christ as the pivotal point in the church’s care for the other…A theology of the cross is our lens for seeing more clearly the call God has for our lives and on our churches” (pp. 27, 32). Theology for interpreting reality paints a particular picture of the ways things are—it orients according to a particular narrative—so that the Church sees herself and the cosmos truly, that is according to what Christians believe is fundamental to the way things are at their most basic.

Such a particular picture directs action. Consider Bonhoeffer:

The kind of thinking that starts out from human problems and then looks for solutions from that vantage point, has to be overcome – it is unbiblical. The way of Jesus Christ, and thus the way of all Christian thought, is not the way from the world to God but from God to the world. This means that the essence of the gospel does not consist in solving worldly problems, and also that this cannot be the essential task of the church. However, it does not follow from this that the church would have no task in this regard. But we will not recognize its legitimate task unless we first find the correct starting point (Ethics, Works, Vol. 6, p. 336)

cosmosHere is my pocket edition:

We are presented with a cosmos full of things, beings, and events. We also know our inner world, our inner life – even if we only know it in part. How do we make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live: jobs, kids, nations, trees, rabbits, joy, self-doubt, violence, etc.? What does it all mean? Theology serves the interpretation of all things in terms of their relation to God. For example, a tree is not only a living organism but a creation of the triune God, part of his good world, tainted by sin, though destined for redemption in the Kingdom of God. That tree is not just a tree! And art is not just art, and culture is not just culture, and our bodies are not just collections  of physical material—we are not merely members of the species homo sapiens. We are the crown of God’s good making, image-bearers called to steward and tend the garden of God’s world and destined for participation in God’s fellowship. Christians have sometimes called this “viewing the world Coram Deo”, the world as it is before the face of God. Theology serves this.

Theology for Liberating (2)

The second purpose of theology (not in order of priority; and not necessarily conceptually) is theology for liberating – theology as prophetic witness:martin-luther-king

The world is not as it should be – we all know this, and theologians help the church remember how to say why this is so and what should be done. They name the dark, broken places within our own communities and outside them within our cultures, then they call the Church to follow the Spirit there. Theology for liberation is unflinching – it names the darkness in our midst and calls us into the wake of new creation that flows into those dark, incomplete, groaning places. “Liberation theology” may be a term from the twentieth century, but theology practiced for the purpose of liberation is not a twentieth century invention. Certainly when Martin Luther King preached he was practicing theology for liberation, no less Gutierrez or Cone. But they followed the lead of Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus. Moses, perhaps the first liberation theologian: “leave the corners of your field for the poor and the alien.” Isaiah: “Oh Israel, God will judge you for your injustice! You have forgotten the needy among you for the sake of your empty rituals!” And Jesus, who welcomed women, ate with the least, and called his followers to do likewise. When theology serves liberation it calls attention to the injustice and brokenness of our current situation, communities, and lifestyles. It doesn’t relent, it says the difficult words.

Theology for Worship & Preaching (1)

Two caveats. First, I am not making any effort to place the purposes of theology in order of importance. Yet, thinking about where to start, if theology is a practice of the Christian life – first and foremost – then its relation to the church’s worship and preaching would be pretty near the center. AlleluiaSecond, theologians are often not very good at being brief, so I am aiming for brevity. The guide should be something small that easily “slips into your pocket” (remember Augustine’s Enchiridion?).

Enough prelude. Purpose 1: Theology serves the Church’s preaching and worship.

Theology serves worship and preaching when it deepens and expands our comprehension of God’s majesty and the Gospel. Theology serves the cultivation of our amazement in the face of the triune God as he is approached in the Church’s singing, praying, celebration of the sacraments, and hearing of the Word of God in Scripture. Theology for this purpose is what Rowan Williams calls theology in the “celebratory” mode because its goal is “fullness of vision” (On Christian Theology). The temptation is present (especially among Protestants) to narrow “comprehension” to the intellect, but this must be rigorously avoided. “Explanation” or “definition” is not the main goal of theology related to the Church’s worship. We humans are multidimensional creatures, and thus comprehension entails the intellect as well as our affective, tactile, volitional, and relational dimensions. Related to worship and preaching, the comprehension that theology serves is intensely personal and embodied for its object is the God of grace who embodied himself in Jesus the Messiah.

Some dialogue would be great. Any thoughts?