Saturday, October 18, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Ok, it has been more like a month since the last link post. It’s a very busy time of year. But then again, what time of year isn’t very busy these days?

Anyway, we’ve had some good posts here at DET, including the beginnings of a pair of new series by contributor Scott Jackson. So be sure to check those out. In any case, here is the full list:

Here’s some interesting stuff for you from elsewhere:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 2)

Paradigm 1. Jesus as the proclaimer of the kingdom.

One line of thought holds that Jesus is the key messenger who proclaims the kingdom in life and deed. He might, for example, be best understood in the mode of a Hebrew a prophet. Like Amos, called away from his farming gig, Jesus receives a specific prophecy that may not have much to do with his personal characteristics or previous vocation. In his prophetic vocation, Jesus' message points beyond the messenger to a greater, more encompassing reality, whether that reality is understood primarily in ethical, socio-cultural or eschatological terms. The message itself is what matters; the messenger, not so much. So too if Jesus' significance rests exclusively in his roles as preacher and teacher.

Anonymous Cynic Philosopher

Though this attempt to draw a strong distinction between message and messenger seems fairly marginal in the history of Christian thought, such accounts have been more frequent since the Enlightenment. A fairly straightforward and dramatic example of this approach would be Thomas Jefferson literally snipping out the miracle stories from the Gospels and retaining what he understood to be Jesus' core ethical teachings. Recent years have seen new, revisionist proposals for interpreting Jesus primarily in terms of his example, teaching and praxis. John Dominic Crossan, a leading voice in the Jesus Seminar, provides a fascinating and provocative portrayal of Jesus as a radically egalitarian, counter-cultural and peripatetic teacher analogous to a wandering Cynic sage. My interest here is not in that portrait per se but rather in Crossan's clear rejection of the notion Jesus proclaimed himself as the gateway to the kingdom: Crossan sees Jesus' kingdom as a radically anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical form of liberated human social existence available, in principle, at any time or place. He writes:
The Kingdom of God was not, for Jesus, a divine monopoly exclusively bound to his own person. It began on the level of the body and appeared as a shared community of healing and eating -- that is to say, of spiritual and physical resources available to each and all without distinctions, discriminations, or hierarchies (p. 113).
Further, Crossan writes, anticipating my typology beautifully:
The historical Jesus was a peasant Jewish Cynic....And lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth nor at Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself.
Now, Crossan's unwashed peasant agitator may seem a far cry from Jefferson's enlightened moralist, but what interests me here is the formal similarity vis-a-vis how Jesus relates to the kingdom. Whatever form it might take, if we accept this paradigm -- we might call it, following Kierkegaard, "Jesus as small-t teacher" -- most traditional christological problems simply dissolve in its wake. Accessing the meaning of such a Jesus doesn't require us to wait for Constantine to convene the bishops at Nicea.

From the standpoint of historical scholarship, the question becomes: How does the interpreter account for the personal veneration Jesus himself receives throughout the New Testament witness and subsequent history of Christian belief and worship? Rudolf Bultmann offers the classic formulation of this hermeneutical problem: "He who formerly had been the bearer of the message was drawn into it and became its essential content. The proclaimer became the proclaimed--but the central question is: In what sense?" (p. 33). Crossan and other like-minded scholars who make liberal use of the hermeneutic of suspicion tend to read the development of ideas of Jesus' dignity and uniqueness largely as a process of wish fulfillment that occludes and distorts the Nazarene's original radically socio-political message. However one sorts out these challenges, it is clear that constructive christology has much more than a merely historical interest riding on them.

Works Cited:

Bultmann, Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament: Complete in One Volume (New York, Prentice Hall, 1970).

Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).


Monday, October 13, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2.6–9

Malachi 2.6–9

[6] “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was on his [Levi’s] lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. [7] For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. [8] But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. [9] “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”


COMMENTARY: Calvin is preoccupied in his commentary on these verses to explain the failings of the priests against whom Malachi’s prophetic word comes and, as the flip-side of that indictment, to sketch a picture of what a proper priestly ministry looks like. Implicitly – and explicitly at various points – this material is a criticism of Roman Catholic clergy. The central factor that Calvin focuses on, taking his cue from the passage, is the teaching office that accompanies proper priestly ministry.

Calvin begins by emphasizing the “mutual” or “reciprocal” (523) character of the covenant made between God and Levi (who stands in for the hereditary line of the Jewish priesthood). Calling back to verse 5, Calvin points out that this covenant was one of “life and peace, because the Levites had found that God was in every respect kind and bountiful, whenever they performed their parts” (523). Things can change, however, if the priests fail to keep their end of the deal. But what does it mean for the priests to do their part? Moving to verse 6, Calvin writes that “the chief duty of a priest is to show the right way of living to the people” (525). This does mean simply living a proper life; rather, “Levi taught the people” (my emphasis, 525). To faithfully exercise the office of priest and thereby to maintain the reciprocal covenant with God must include providing instruction to the people. As Calvin elaborates: “nothing is more preposterous, or even more ridiculous, than that those should be counted as priests who are no teachers. These two things are, as they say, inseparable – the office of the priesthood and teaching” (525). This is a clear assault on the medieval status quo since the majority of Roman clergy did not teach. Mass would be said in Latin and generally without a homily. If commoners heard sermons, they would have been delivered by members of the different mendicant orders who would travel around preaching. For his part, Calvin understands preaching and teaching to be the central task given to church leaders.

This emphasis continues in the discussion of verse 7. Calvin understands this verse to mean that the priests’ lips should act as a “store-house” of truth, not in the sense that it should stay locked up there but in the sense that everyone comes there to get it. The image that Calvin paints is of a pantry or wine-cellar in the house where victuals are stored by the house’s master so that all those in the house can be nourished. Furthermore, this verse speaks of priests as messengers of God. Calvin takes this opportunity to further emphasize that being a priest and engaging in teacher are inextricably linked. Indeed, “it is a monstrous thing when any one boasts himself to be a priest, when he is no teacher” (528).

A negative shift occurs in verse 8, moving from the positive depiction of Levi to the indictment of the priests in Malachi’s day. Calvin likewise makes a negative shift. He identifies how verse 8 mirrors in negative fashion what have been said positively about Levi: Levi enjoyed peace and righteousness while these priests depart from the path; Levi turned many from sin while these priests cause many to stumble.

The problem, identified in verse 9, is that the priests had “shown partiality in matters of law” (above trans.). In my mind, given the context of Malachi, this suggests that they did not apply the law equally to all people but perhaps favored the wealthy and oppressed the poor. This would fit with the material at the end of chapter two and beginning of chapter three. Calvin instead argues that the partiality in play here is preference for themselves, that is, the priests have elevated their own status and arrogated to themselves the prerogatives of God: “the priests in vain glorified in the honour of their office, for they had ceased to be priests of God” (529).

I think Calvin gets a little too far from Malachi in this train of thought, but it makes sense in his context. For Calvin, as for Luther, the problem with Roman Catholicism is the way that clergy had taken it upon themselves to bind the people’s conscience with laws and observances, purgatory, indulgences, etc., holding one’s salvation hostage at gun-point (as it were). As a counterpoint, Calvin and the Reformation maintain that only God can bind consciences and that clergy have only subordinate authority. So Calvin in the present discussion: “Priests are not to abuse their right, as though the highest power were granted to them; for God will not have his Church subject to tyranny, but his will is to reign alone in it through the ministry of men” (530).


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou has deigned to take us as a priesthood to thyself, and hast chosen us when we were not only of the lowest condition, but even profane and alien to all holiness, and hast consecrated us to thyself by the Holy Spirit, that we may offer ourselves as holy victims to thee, - O grant, that we may bear in mind our office and our calling, and sincerely devote ourselves to thy service, and so present to thee our efforts and our labours, that they name may be truly glorified in us, and that it may really appear that we have been ingrafted into the body of thy only-begotten Son; and as he is the chief and the only true and perpetual priest, may we become partakers of that priesthood with which thou hast been pleased to honour him, so that he may take us as associates to himself; and may thus thy name be perpetually glorified by the whole body as well as by the head. - Amen


Monday, October 06, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 1)

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 4:11, NRSV).
Scholarly portraits of the life and ministry of Jesus run the gamut from devoutly credulous to the stridently skeptical in terms of how the canonical Gospels and other early Christian sources are handled.
Still, most interpreters seem to agree that the kerygma of the kingdom of God was the central content and focus of Jesus' teaching and ministry.

Of course, debate persists about just what the basilea tou theou might have meant for Jesus and his original audience: Is the kingdom a pious disposition ("within you") or a form of community life ("among you")? Or both? Is coterminous with the visible community of believers itself, the church catholic? Is it an ideal construct that spurs and shapes discipleship? Or is it a present possibility or a coming concrete socio-political order? These issues are very technical. Perhaps we can explore ways of relating Jesus' identity and vocation to the kingdom without defining the later term too rigidly. At least, that's what I want to try to do.

Christian interpreters throughout the centuries have sought to show how the kingdom, however defined, relates to the person and work of Jesus, both in his original self understanding and in the subsequent witness of the New Testament, to the extent those are consciously distinguished. This is a complex question, of course, but what I will be offering in the posts that follow is a rough typology of how Jesus himself might relate to the kingdom
  1. Jesus is the proclaimer of the kingdom.
  2. Jesus is the bringer of the kingdom.
  3. Jesus himself incarnates the kingdom in person.
In the posts to follow, I will be blurring distinctions between historical-critical treatments of the life of Jesus and constructive or systematic theology. Earlier figures like Karl Barth and Günther Bornkamm will find themseves -- perhaps against their own inclinations -- in conversation with the likes of E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan.

Are you excited yet? Please stay tuned!


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosemary Radford Reuther on Counterrevolutionary Latitudinarianism

I believe I told you before, gentle readers, that I’ve been buying and reading a lot of used theology books from the mid 20th century. Well, the below passage is another fruit of such labor that I thought you might be interested in. So without further ado…

Rosemary Radford Reuther, The Radical Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1970), 39-40:
The earliest school of rationalism arose in England after the Restoration when, wearied of religious controversies, she tried to pull herself together around her traditional religious and national institutions. The mood was summed up by the term “latitudinarian”; a mood not so much of toleration as of narrowly rationalistic prejudices about what was, in fact, “tolerable.” What was intolerable was the enthusiasm and fanaticism, the bickering over points of religious doctrine, the apocalyptic messianism that had characterized the period of the Puritan revolution. What was cultivated was a pedestrian sort of Christianity in which the watchmaker God, who was the architect of the Newtonian universe, served as sanction for the decent-law-abiding morality of the English possessing classes. In fact, the traditional Christian distinction between reason and revelation was commonly interpreted in this period as a class distinction. It was said that the content of Scripture and revelation was essentially identical with that of reason and natural religion, but, for the sake of the ignorant masses, God has revealed this religion of nature in a simple colorful form complete with miracles to impress their imaginations, whereas the enlightened classes did not stand in need of this revelation, being able to attain this knowledge by their own intellects. In effect, the Christian doctrine of the Fall and the debasement of man’s reason had here become a doctrine applicable only to the lower classes.

Such latitudinarianism, far from being revolutionary, was in a sense counterrevolutionary, and was not infrequently espoused by the most impeccable of English high-churchmen. . . . In the hands of these latitudinarians, rationalism did not so much challenge as it sought to bulwark traditional religious and political institutions, and its energies were expended in proving the full and complete harmony of traditional revealed religion with reason and natural religion.
One wonders how far we’ve really come . . .


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why the Niebuhrs Still Matter (Part 1)

Scott R. Paeth, The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians, Illustrations by Ron Hill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014).

Toward the end of 2009, after less than a year in office, President Barack Obama was caught off guard, or so he claimed, when the Nobel Committee tapped him as recipient of its Peace Prize for his efforts in world diplomacy. The new President, rightly I think, interpreted the award less as a celebration of his accomplishments and more as an admonishment for him, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military, to somehow beat the swords of a miserable decade of strife into plowshares. Nonetheless, attentive hearers would have caught a more somber tone in his Nobel acceptance speech. After invoking the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, patron saints of nonviolent resistance, Obama reiterated his role as chief protector of the nation and offered this sobering caveat:

[M]ake no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Quaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. (quoted in Paeth, p. 172)

Furthermore, Obama argued, though war may be a last resort in foreign policy, in a world of tragic human imperfections, the instruments of war are sometimes necessary to keep the peace and redress injustice. Such language echoes that of Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama has claimed as an intellectual influence. Though Niebuhr was among the most eminent Christian theologians and ethicists of the 20th century, and his distinctive form of political realism attracts the attention of secular political philosophers and pundits, he is perhaps still not among the best understood of 20th century religious thinkers.

The same could be said of Reinhold's younger brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose work has been seminal for theologians and ethics even though he is less famous than his more outspoken brother. Thinkers as divergent as James Gustafson, Gordon Kaufman and Hans Frei can lay claim to aspects of his interdisciplinary intellectual output, which ranged over the areas of epistemology, ethics, sociology of religion and constructive theology.

For these and other reasons, Scott R. Paeth's superb primer on the thought of the Niebuhr brothers is a most welcome addition to the burgeoning body of secondary literature analyzing and applying their work. Paeth, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, works primarily in the fields of public and political theology, and is also a blogger. Like other volumes in this series, his text offer educated lay people and students a concise and readable yet substantial entrée into the lives and thought of the two German American pastors and religious thinkers whose bodies of work, along with that of Paul Tillich, have exercised the most decisive impact on the course of mainline Protestant thought in the 20th century. The time is ripe for this book, especially since Reinhold's work in particular is receiving renewed and more careful attention today. This text is especially suited for individual study, for a parish adult education forum or an undergraduate survey course in North American religion, ethics or political thought.

The structure of the Paeth's text is roughly chronological, guiding the reader from the childhood of Reinhold and Richard in the 1890s in Missouri and Illinois to their religions and vocational formations in the German Evangelical Synod (which later was merged into the Evangelical and Reformed denomination and later the United Church of Christ), to their careers as pastors and professors at Union Theological Seminary and Yale University, respectively. Central to this narrative also is the complex, often fraught story of how the Niebuhrs related to and impacted the public issues and events ranging from the two world wars, the social gospel movement, socialist politics, the Cold War, and for Reinhold the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam war. (H. Richard Niebuhr died suddenly in 1962, whereas Reinhold, whose prodigious productivity was hampered by a stroke in later years, lived until 1971).

Though the basic structure of the text is chronological, the chapters are somewhat thematically organized, dealing with the emergence of Christian realism, issues of war and peace and the conflicts between the ethics of responsibility and the impetus to live a distinctive life of Christian discipleship. The life-work of both thinkers is interspersed throughout the texts. Though I think this was probably the correct editorial decision, it does perhaps heighten the key challenge that faces the new student of the work of the Niebuhr brothers - namely, to appreciate their common heritage and areas of substantial agreement without conflating their work. The brothers did have significant disagreements, including a key controversy that spilled out into public discussion in the early 1930s. Though Paeth's exposition is clear and straightforward, the reader unfamiliar with the Niebuhrs will have to pay attention to which of the brother's work is under discussion at any given point of the text. Ron Hill's cartoon illustrations give flavor and a touch of humor to the texts, but I at times found it difficult to identify which drawing was of which brother. Remembering that Reinhold was taller and more outgoing than his brother helped me navigate the illustrations.

Embedded in the narrative are concise and lucid summaries of the major works of the two Niebuhrs, which make this text useful as a study guide or a refresher for someone who hasn't read the Niebuhrs in a while. Thus, we can see how Reinhold's realist political theology emerges in dialogue with the more sociological and historical early works of his brother. We get a good sense of Reinhold's mature Christian anthropology in his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man and we are able to track the major arguments in such texts as Richard's The Meaning of Revelation and what is perhaps his most famous book, Christ and Culture.

In two posts to follow I will use Paeth's text as an entry into a key debate between the two Brothers on the topic of Christian political involvement and I will examine further the ongoing legacy of the Niebuhr brothers for Christian thought today.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Ok, so it’s been nearly a month since the last link post. I’ve been busy with a new semester, and am enjoying introducing my students to “Religious Upheaval in 16th Century Europe.” This past week was on Erasmus, who I think deserves more attention these days. But that’s another story . . .

There have been a lot of interesting and thought-provoking posts here at DET in the past month. Here’s the list in case you missed any:

And here’s some of what’s been going on elsewhere in the blogosphere: