Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Another Chance to Hear me Speak: My upcoming AAR / TFT TF lecture on Torrance's criticism of Barth's doctrine of Baptism

Those in the St. Louis area will have the opportunity of hearing me speak tomorrow night on the Christian doctrine of happiness (information here), but - and as observant readers of the program for the American Academy of Religion's national meeting will undoubtedly have already noticed - I'm also slotted to give a paper on Friday afternoon to the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship. The TFT TF has a nice write-up of the meeting on their website, and I invite you to print out a dozen copies and spread it around. :-)

But I wanted to give everyone a better idea of what to expect from that paper, and - perhaps - to drum up some more interest. I would love to see you there if you can attend, and I'm very excited to have had this chance to return to Torrance's thought. This paper also builds upon and extends the analysis of Barth's doctrine of baptism that I undertook in my book and the paper that I delivered to the Karl Barth Society of North America at their AAR meeting in 2013 (subsequently published in IJST). So, here are the vital statistics:

Friday, November 20th, 2015
1:00 pm – 4:00 pm,
in the Hyatt-Hanover D (Exhibit Level) room

“Actualism, Dualism, and Onto-Relations: Interrogating Torrance’s Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism.”

Abstract: Thomas F. Torrance criticized Karl Barth’s doctrine of baptism in Church Dogmatics 4.4, claiming that it exhibited an improper dualism. This essay explicates Torrance’s criticism as both a criticism that arises from Torrance’s own theological commitments and as a criticism of Barth’s doctrine of baptism. It does so by working through a series of four heuristic questions. First, what does Torrance mean when he accuses Barth of baptismal dualism? Second, why did Torrance think that Barth had lapsed into such a dualism? Third, what was Torrance’s alternative to Barth’s alleged baptismal dualism? Fourth, was Torrance right in his criticism of Barth? The essay concludes by reflecting on the question: where lies the disconnect between Barth and Torrance?

(Of course, TFT has been a topic of reflection here at DET before. Most recently: T. F. Torrance on Karl Barth and “the temptation of orthodoxy”. Most famously: Why I Think…Ben Myers Isn’t Quite Right About TF Torrance.)


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

It seems that I have lapsed in my editorial duties since it has been well more than a fortnight since the last link post. In fact, it has been well over a month! There is one upside to my unfortunate neglect, however: I can tell you about a bunch of great posts that we’ve had here at DET since that last index!

Now, I realize that we are just a little less than one week out from AAR, and many of you may be frantically finishing papers or making travel arrangements – all of which doesn’t leave much time for catching up on your blog reading. But, it also means that in a few days many of you will be sitting in airports and on runways. And my hope is that when you find yourselves there, you will reach for some lovely blog reading from the below lists.

Here’s what we’ve been up to at DET:

Here are some interesting posts from around the neighborhood:


Thursday, November 12, 2015

To Believe Is Human, To Doubt...That's Also Human

Through some mysterious medium -- which we are unable to disclose because of editorial discretion and national security interest -- this conversation fragment has emerged the Great (Not-in-Our-Midst) Beyond. -- Eds.

* * *

Karl Barth: Well there, young man, I know you have some questions for me. Fire away! We've got all of God's limitless-but-not-timeless eternity to chat.

SJ: Thanks so much, Professor! I'd like to start with this one: You know, as a theologian I've struggled a lot with the problem of faith and doubt.
You'll recall that Tillich basically elevated doubt to a kind of theological virtue. And in the U.S., in particular, religious doubt has been elevated to a cottage industry -- a highly lucrative one, in fact...well, at least for some people.

So my question is this: Can the dogmatic theologian do her work properly without the existential element of faith?

KB: Good question. You'll recall I discussed this question in Church Dogmatics I/1 (pp. 17-24).

SJ: Funny thing, none of the hoary summations of your theology I've skimmed mention that. Fancy that.

KB: Well, back in the '30s, this worry you mention was finding expression in a renewed call for a certain "existential" disposition as the ground for theology. This went hand-in-hand with the rediscovery and recovery of the writings of Kierkegaard in the early 20th century.

SJ: (Nodding). Ah, yes.

KB: Well, I called foul on this. I think there is a persistent danger here. Of course, in the history of Protestant thought this concern with the faithfulness of the theologian found extreme expression among the pietists. But it certainly wasn't limited to conservative Protestants, and the same basic concern reemerges -- in more rareified form -- in Schleiermacher.

SJ: Excuse me, Professor, would you please speak up a little. I think maybe you're starting to use your "fine print" voice.

KB: Certainly. Is this better? Well, to counteract this dangerous subjectivist trend I proposed returning to a more classic mode of understanding the faith and theology relationship. I contended that the first-generation Reformers had more safeguards to protect the sui generis character of the Word. If it is true that only God can reveal Godself, the locus of revelation must clearly lie outside the believer. If theology is, in analogy with other endeavors at human knowing, concerned with a definite object then of course we'd say that the theologian has an existential relationship with the subject matter. But that's not the same thing as saying that an attitude of existential receptivity is constitutive for the theological endeavor. After all, the object of dogmatics is the ground of faith itself -- God's self disclosure in Jesus Christ.

SJ: Thank you, Professor. That's very helpful. If I've understood you correctly: The content of theology is freely given -- from God's side. Theological investigation cannot be subsumed into the existential attitude or faith stance of the theologian, though one expects the theologian inevitably will not relate to the subject matter as a neutral observer. The effort to ground the theological vocation itself in the faith of the theologian is dangerously subjective. Have I understood you correctly?

KB: Indeed you have, Scott.... (Rubbing his chin). On the other hand, we might say, the faith of the theologian is in fact pretty important to the dogmatic task.

SJ: (Facepalm.)


Ed. Note: Some of you, gentle readers, may suspect these purported statements from Barth sound suspiciously contemporary, and you might suspect redactions may have occurred in the source material. Others of you may be thinking, to put the matter colloquially, "This crap is entirely made up." In response, I invoke the classic distinction, which the great New Testament Scholar Joachim Jeremias articulated in his study of the historical Jesus, between the Ipsissima Verba ("the very words") and the Ipsissima Vox ("the very voice") of an historical subject.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Am I Reading? Brian Gerrish, “Christian Faith”

I read Brian Gerrish’s Grace and Grattitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin while I was an MDiv student at Princeton Seminary. Then, two years ago or so, I read with great benefit his collection of essays entitled The Old Protestantism and the New. When I subsequently heard that Gerrish would give us a dogmatics, I was primed and ready to pre-order it and devour it as soon as it arrived. Which I did, with much enjoyment and benefit.

B. A. Gerrish, Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (WJK, 2015).

Gerrish approaches the task of dogmatics with a three-step process: first, he engages with the biblical material associated with a given dogmatic topic; second, he elaborates the theological tradition on the topic; third, he attempts to speak to the contemporary situation by providing a constructive statement to guide further dogmatic reflection on the topic. These constructive statements are given at the start of each chapter as a thesis (or leitsatz), and they are gathered in an appendix for easy cumulative access (there is also a selected bibliography, index of ancient sources, and index of subjects).

Allow me to make some observations:

First, those who have learned much from Barth might be put-off a bit by Gerrish’s architecture. He sets up a three-part approach that is modelled in some ways (as he explains) on both Calvin and Schleiermacher. So he does some prolegomena, which also serves to articulate “elemental faith.” Then he has a unit on the doctrine of creation and theistic faith. And then he has the largest part on the doctrine of redemption and Christian faith, before concluding with the Trinity and eschatology. But Gerrish is alive to the sorts of complaint that Barthians would want to make, and helpfully clarifies what he is and is not trying to do with all this:

The order of presentation is not experiential—as though a person first had elemental faith, then came to faith in the order of creation, and finally ascended to faith in Christ. Nor does it lay down three steps in a linear argument. My introduction does not provide a foundation for believing in Christ, and part I is not an independent natural theology designed to make an outsider receptive to the credibility of Christian faith. (CF, 32)

Rather, Gerrish understands himself as constructing a teaching order that is determined at every point by Christian faith even if Christian faith is not the clear subject of reflection at these earlier points. Here we can recognize the influence of both Calvin and Schleiermacher.

Second, and speaking of Calvin and Schleiermacher: when Gerrish comes to the portion of his chapters where he discusses the post-canonical / post-biblical tradition, he always privileges the contributions of Calvin and Schleiermacher. This makes sense because Gerrish is himself within the Reformed tradition. Honestly, this may be the aspect of this volume that I most appreciated. So often those of us who do Reformed theology today find themselves caught up in arguments about Barth’s relationship to Calvin, and the related question of Calvin’s relationship to Reformed scholasticism. The prevailing perception, at least as far as I can tell, is that Calvin and Schleiermacher do not belong together. Gerrish shows through his procedure that this is not the case. I am reminded in this connection about the story that Gerrish tells in the preface of Grace and Gratitude (and which I have heard Bruce McCormack tell as well): when Gerrish gave the lectures that would become Grace and Gratitude, McCormack was there. As Gerrish tells it: “[McCormack] made the interesting remark (without disapproval, I am happy to add) that what I presented . . . was ‘a Schleiermacherian’s Calvin.’ He was right” (G&G, x). It seems to me that the further elaboration of this is one of the principle charms of Gerrish’s Christian Faith.

Third, and although Gerrish self-consciously writes as one attempting to make a constructive contribution to dogmatics today, much more might have been done with contextual and political theologies. It seems clear at various points that Gerrish supports forms of these theologies and at the very least is alive to their concerns. For instance, he reflects upon the current ecological crisis (CF, 95), on the question of animal rights (CF, 97), and on feminist criticisms of traditional doctrines of sin (CF, 85). But he does not discuss these things at length and there are many other points where he might have gone in similar directions. The theoretical justification for this reticence is found in an overly sharp (to my mind) distinction between dogmatics and ethics (see CF, 96). Granted, overcoming this distinction would have required him to write a longer book. All I can say is that I would have been happy to read it.

Fourth, I’m less excited about Gerrish’s ecclesiology. He works to build in a missionary aspect to the church, but the organic character of his ecclesiological approach draws extensively on Schleiermacher, and this mutes the actualism that I think ecclesiology requires (very much following Barth and dialectical theology here). This is no doubt tied to Schleiermacher’s christological emphasis on the historical Jesus rather than—to use the language of dialectical theology—the kerygmatic Christ, another point at which I’m with DT and against 19th c. liberal theology. Along these lines, Gerrish is even willing to think about the church as something like the incarnation of the Spirit (see CF, 305). So while there are many things that I like about Gerrish’s ecclesiology, there are also some key points where I demur.

In conclusion, Gerrish’s Christian Faith is a wonderful work that anyone who wants to call themselves a Reformed theologian today needs to read. I highly recommend it and can only say that I hope WJK keeps it in print.* Also, there will be a session on Gerrish’s book at AAR on Monday with Bruce McCormack (Princeton Seminary), Martha Moore-Keish (Columbia Seminary), Roger Haight (Union Theological Seminary), and Dawn De Vries (Union Presbyterian Seminary) on the panel. Be sure to take it in if your schedule allows (alas! mine does not…).

* And, perhaps, even lowers the price a bit so that folks like me could conceivably assign it as a textbook.


Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Chance to Hear Me Speak: Lindenwood Faculty Colloquium on November 18, 2015

I just know, gentle readers, that the thing that you would most like to do, that would put the cherry on your day, week, month, or even year, is to hear me talk about theology. Well, if you live in the greater St. Louis area, now is your chance! I’ll be speaking with two of my colleagues – one from Anthropology and one from Art History – as part of this year’s Lindenwood University Faculty Colloquium Series. The topic for this colloquium is

Happiness in Art, Faith, and Culture

and the title of my talk is

“God Wants You to Be Happy: The Doctrine of Happiness in Christian Theology.”

This talk will be something of a free improvisation on Ellen Charry’s work in God and the Art of Happiness, which you should read if you have not yet done so. And if you have, read it again. (I did recaps on part 1 and part 2 of the book here at DET back in 2011, and if you look around for them you can find another post or two that came from the book.) I took a class through Charry’s work earlier in the year, and this talk will be something like a report on or distillation of that intellectual enterprise.

The colloquium will take place on November 18th, from 4:00 – 6:00pm in the AB Leadership Room in Lindenwood’s Spellmann Center. There will be cookies, and perhaps even coffee. For those of you who are more visually inclined, I include the event flyer below. Perhaps I’ll see you there!


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Redeeming the Powers, One Grant at a Time

The late biblical scholar, theologian and peace activist Walter Wink, long-time Professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, is probably best known for his work retrieving New Testament language concerning "principalities and powers" and retooling it for contemporary socio-political critique and practical engagement. The concluding book of Wink's "Powers" trilogy, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), is a tour-de-force.

In the preface, Wink writes this about the project:

This volume was brought to completion during 1989-1990, when I was honored to be selected as a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Institute, nor has the Institute attempted in any way to censor anything in this book. It is important for an organization like USIP to be able to support, among other things, serious religious scholarship in a number of traditions that bears on peacemaking.

Embarrassed though I am to admit it, when I ran across this passage again recently, I didn't really know anything about USIP, so I checked out the Institute's website. The USIP, I learned, "is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress to increase the nation's capacity to manage international conflict without violence." It's mission: "To prevent, mitigate and resolve violent conflicts around the world by engaging directly in conflict zones and providing analysis, education and resources to those working for peace." The Institute was founded by a Congressional Act in 1984 with a mandate to "serve the American people and the federal government through the widest possible range of education and training, basic and applied research opportunities, and peace information services on the means to promote international peace and the resolution of conflicts among the nations and peoples of the world without recourse to violence." Though the act establishing the institute was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the impetus for the project began a decade earlier, during the Carter administration.

Wink was an untiring advocate for nonviolent resistance to what he called "Domination System," the interlocking network of corporations, institutions and ideologies responsible for the myriad oppressions afflicting human beings and the natural world. He argued that this nonviolent stance went "beyond" certain traditional understandings of Christian pacifism that urged true believers to disengage and isolate themselves from the fallen institutions in the civic realm. Nonviolent resistance, as Wink saw it, was fully active, engaged and militant in its confrontation with the fallen-yet-redeemable principalities and powers. "The church is called to nonviolence not in order to preserve its purity, but to express its fidelity," he writes (p. 217).

According to Wink, the church's vocation to nonviolent resistance goes back to the kerygmatic and apostolic roots of its existence. "The church has a vocation for nonviolence," he writes. "That vocation is grounded in the teaching of Jesus, the nature of God, the ethos of the kingdom, and the power of the resurrection" (p. 217). I don't have the space here to examine these claims, but they do give a sense of Wink's passionate commitment to peacemaking in his writing, teaching and activism.

In very prescient terms about Middle East conflict that are as relevant today as two decades ago, Wink offers this reflection on the first Persian Gulf war:

The astonishing success of the Allied forces in the Persian Gulf may have set back the use of international sanctions under U.N. supervision for years. Why use painstaking diplomacy and time-consuming sanctions when we can get quick results with another photogenic, prime-time war? (p. 216)

(I was a freshman in college in January 1991, when I stared in rapt amazement at the "surgical strikes" from Allied war planes bombing Baghdad. I was 19 back then, and the way some in the government and media were talking, I was pondering whether we might see a reinstitution of the draft.)

Burning oil fields in Kuwait, March 1991, by JO1 Gawlowicz, via Wikimedia Commons.

"We can easily kill oppressive rulers, but doing so makes us killers," he writes (ibid.) I wish someone had printed that statement in banner form and plastered it in the briefing rooms for the Pentagon and the West Wing of the White House for the edification of the subsequent Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

So there you have it. A biblical scholar and activist uses taxpayers' money, with the backing of Ronald Reagan and the Congress, to help articulate a constructive Christian theology of nonviolent resistance. Now that's what I call beating swords into plowshares. So much the pity that, having funded this valuable research, the powers that be don't seem to have paid much attention to it afterward.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Diller on Epistemological “Skepticism” and Defining “Modernism” and “Postmodernism”

As I promised previously, gentle readers, I return to you with more from Kevin Diller’s volume. The snippet that I have to share with you today pertains to defining terms. What does it mean, from an epistemological perspective, to talk about “modernism” and “postmodernism”? I’m not usually a fan of the concept of “postmodernism,” but Diller’s way of defining these terms against the backdrop of epistemological “skepticism” at least helped me understand better – or at least conceive with more clarity and concision than heretofore – what is at stake in this distinction.

So, without further ado, I give you the below.

Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (IVP Academic, 2014), 36 (bold is mine).
The epistemic problem we are after is not the seeming impossibility of knowledge. We accept that knowledge is a human possibility. The skeptic’s requirements for knowledge are unattainable. The skeptic’s requirements are motivated by an idealized conception of the nature of knowledge. It would seem, therefore, that the problem is with the skeptic’s conception of the nature of knowledge. Indeed, rejecting the skeptic’s view of what constitutes knowledge has been the most popular response to the skeptic’s dilemma.

When philosophers of knowledge refer to modernism, they typically have in mind an enterprise that accepted the skeptic’s gauntlet and was optimistic about the possibilities of providing a reasoned solution. Postmodernism in epistemology has generally seen a rejection of the skeptic’s terms in search of a more open view of knowledge. Obtaining this more open view, however, has involved making adjustments to the most fundamental notion in all philosopher: the notion of truth—more specifically, what it means to believe the truth.
What will happen? Will postmodernists successfully redefine “what it means to believe the truth”? Will modernists rally their forces and ride to the rescue? Or will the diabolical scheme of the elusive S.K.E.P.T.I.C. organization and its operatives succeed in overthrowing all possibility of knowledge? Stay tuned (i.e., go read Diller) for the exciting conclusion!

(Hopefully, you read that with the mental voice of the old Lone Ranger series narrator . . .)