“We must not, when we do speak, say too much.”

I don’t have time at the moment to comment on this section from the first volume of Sonderegger_Katherine_photo2014-256x300Kate Songeregger’s dogmatics, “The Doctrine of God.” I simply put it here with some reading notes to mull over. In the section I’m excerpting from she wrestles with the long-standing tension between God’s knowability – he does not remain hidden – and his utter incomprehensibility – he is not a being to be comprehended in the way we know beings of our own sort.

What strikes me every time I read this volume is her boldness to attempt two things at the same time, neither of which come easily. She works to solidly situate her restatement of Christian teaching squarely within the stream of Christian thought, while simultaneously reconsidering the sources of Christian theology afresh. As in the following bit, you can’t miss her sense that the question is still fresh for us, for her: how shall we speak of God?

We cannot stress too strongly the radical novelty that is human knowledge of this incomparable Subject. Again and again we must be broken on this novelty, this transcendent Uniqueness. We may speak, if we care to, of the ancient puzzle of the One and the many – but the Lord God of Israel, the One God, outstrips and explodes even that ancient mystery, this One without Form or Likeness. “No one has ever seen God,” John tells us in the close of the great epilogue; but “the Only Begotten has made Him known” (John 1:18). Its all there, in that one verse, isn’t it? Everything we have said about God’s Uniqueness and Formlessness, His majestic Life as dynamic Light, His deep Hiddenness and Humility—is it not captured in a few simple words? And our knowledge “at a distance,” our success in knowing the Lord—as Mystery, our earthen vessels that hold such Light—is that not also set forth here, a gift of our Lord Christ?…God is known! A positive relation, a beachhead has been established, between Creator and creature, and in that Radiance, God has been made known. But such a knowledge! (390-91)

In short, when speaking about the knowledge of God we have ground to stand on, a “beachhead”: the Incarnation of the Son. But still, perhaps the knowledge we gain in the appearing of the Son should drive us to silence. Or perhaps compel our use of Platonizing concepts that hold God at reserve—out of respect for his divinity of course. Perhaps its all too great for us to really do anything with besides stunned silence! Indeed, she asks, “Why should we speak rather than hold our peace when in the presence of this great Mystery?”

I found her response poignant. Continue reading

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A Reforming Catholic Confession

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To mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a fresh Christian confession has been written to accentuate and celebrate theological unity among Protestants of diverse traditions. “A Reforming Catholic Confession” (RCC) was posted online just days ago. When asked to join an initial group of signatories months ago, I eagerly read the confession and happily signed.  Now that it’s posted I invite you to read it and consider adding your signature here.

The RCC is clear about the Gospel, robustly trinitarian, and “catholic” in all the ways I seek to be catholic myself—without apologizing for my place within the Protestant tradition. The rationale for the RCC is explained in some detail on the website, including the following samplings about Protestant “catholicity”:

[1] The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). […]

[2] … While we regret the divisions that have followed in [the Reformation’s] wake, we acknowledge the need for the sixteenth-century Reformation, even as we recognize the hopeful possibilities of the present twenty-first century moment. Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one. We dare hope that the unity to which the Reformers aspired may be increasingly realized as today’s “mere” Protestants, like Richard Baxter’s and C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christians,” joyfully join together to bear united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its length, depth, breadth, and width – in a word, its catholicity. We therefore aim to celebrate the catholic impulse that lies at the heart of the earlier Reformation even as we hope and pray for ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come.

[12] “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith.

What I appreciate about the RCC, and I would not have signed it otherwise, is that it makes no attempt to bash, caricature, or slight brothers and sisters from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of faith. I don’t believe it will harm ecumenical dialogue or partnerships in mission with non-Protestants. In fact, perhaps it will galvanize both, tamping down fears about compromise by articulating a generous, catholic center. Drawing confessing Protestants around a shared theological center is the goal, and I believe the RCC does that admirably.

For instance, here’s the article on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who knows anything about the Reformation, or the subsequent splintering of Protestant factions, knows how controversy and disagreement swirl around these.

That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call “sacraments,” are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper communicate life in Christ to the faithful, confirming them in their assurance that Christ, the gift of God for the people of God, is indeed “for us and our salvation” and nurturing them in their faith. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are physical focal points for key Reformation insights: the gifts of God (sola gratia) and the faith that grasps their promise (sola fide). They are tangible expressions of the gospel insofar as they vividly depict our dying, rising, and incorporation into Jesus’ body (“one bread … one body” – 1 Cor. 10:16-17), truly presenting Christ and the reconciliation he achieved on the cross. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper strengthen the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins and communion with God and one another through the peace-making blood of Christ (1 Cor. 11:26; Col. 1:20).

That’s a confession I can make. Even as I’m aware that Protestants of different traditions would nuance this statement, or emphasize certain parts in keeping with their liturgical traditions, I hope it’s a center around which we can celebrate the feast.

 

The Bible’s Ideal Reader

The literary theorist Umberto Eco has a theory about readers. Every text calls for an ideal reader. The ideal reader of any given text is the person receptive of its content and formed to follow its patterns (see, The Role of the Reader, 1979). In other words, the person who is willing to “see” as the text sees (this is how the world is) and then live accordingly is the ideal reader.

Consider the following picture:

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That guy is NOT the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda. He refuses to buy into the Nazi’s picture of the world – choosing not to “see” as they see. And he won’t live accordingly by offering his salute to Hitler and all that his regime stands for, despite the very obvious social pressure. “Nope,” you can hear him saying to himself.

Today, in a class that surveys the entire Bible in one semester (crazy, I know), I challenged my students: “Be that guy.” Refuse to become the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda, and if you find that easy enough then go ahead and refuse to become ideal readers of all the other counterfeit stories on offer today: consumerism’s story (you are what you buy), nationalism’s story (our nation is the best nation), humanism’s story (you have all that you need to become your true self), naturalism’s story (all that matters is matter). Instead, become the Bible’s ideal reader. Read this book and accept its invitation to see as it sees, and then live accordingly. Sure, its a strange world we find in the Bible (to borrow Barth’s phrase). Who can deny that? But in light of Jesus we Christians believe it tells the true story about God, us, and the world.

“Be that guy,” I challenged. With your arms resolutely crossed, say “Nope” to all the counterfeit stories, and read the Bible as an invitation to see the world truthfully and to live accordingly.

 

Another Giveaway: Over 30 Books by NT Wright and Greg Boyd

Howdy fellow theologians,

I just got back from a late afternoon run in the summer heat and was happily surprised to find a link to another giveaway. (If you missed the last one, there is still time to enter the Homebrewed Christianity giveaway!)

This time around, it’s Theology Curator who is offering quite the lot. They are giving away over 30 books (worth $550) written by N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd. You can sign up for the giveaway by clicking here.

N.T. Wright (left) and Greg Boyd (right) are two of today’s most influential theologians.

While you’re at it, give some of Theology Curator’s podcasts a listen and follow them if you like it!

Until next time,
Zen

Giveaway: Ten Walter Brueggemann Books

The good folks over at Homebrewed Christianity are giving away TEN books by renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Whether you want to read them for yourself or give them to your nerdy friends (like me!), this is a giveaway worth entering.

Click here to enter the giveaway (you will be redirected to Homebrewed Christianity’s website). While you’re at it, subscribe to their podcast!

We are always beginners: Barth on discipleship

For Barth, the Christian life is all grace from beginning to end, so the Christian is always a “beginner,” leaning upon God’s grace in all things.

[T]hose who through grace (because Jesus Christ became and is their Brother) karlbarthpipehave the freedom to call upon God as their Father will never once, when they make use of this freedom, encounter God except as those who are inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature, as children in this sense too – little children who are totally unprepared for it. The invocation “Our Father,” and all the Christian life and ethos implicit in this invocation, can never at any stage or in any form be anything but the work of beginners. Even at the most advanced stage and in the ripest form it can never be anything better, for in this field what is supposedly better can only be worse, indeed, it can only be evil. What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, of a learned and practiced art. They may and can be masters and even virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children. As masters and virtuosos they would not live by God’s grace. … In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in the littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father (Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 79-80).

Neighborly Theology: A Review of Amy Laura Hall’s “Writing Home, With Love”

On the day that I read Professor Amy Laura Hall’s Writing Home, With Love, I was sent home three hours early from work. In Greenville, South Carolina, things start shutting down not when the snow starts to fall, but when people are adequately convinced that the snow might actually fall. This is also, more or less, true of Durham, North Carolina. I remember sitting in the Divinity Library one evening and receiving an e-mail informing the Duke community that classes were cancelled for the night and until 10AM the next morning. I looked out the window and, to my surprise, the snow had not yet started. In my hometown of Huntington, Indiana, school was only cancelled if the roads were basically impassable.

Hall’s new collection of essays is an important effort to remind those of us doing the work of theology that we must resist the desire to make our theology somehow universal — one size fits all, if you will. “Blizzard,” “white out,” and “treacherous conditions” do not mean the same thing to people in Greenville and Durham as they do to people in Huntington and Chicago. Likewise, our theology should be localized. If “local” is too much of a buzzword, perhaps I should say our theology should be “neighborly.” And, throughout this collection of essays, written for Durham’s local newspaper The Herald-Sun over the course of two years, Hall tries “to weave the gospel through all of the essays…in ways that will be useful politically and personally for my neighbors of faith and my neighbors who think faith itself is the primary problem” (p. 4). Continue reading