Monday, November 17, 2014

Two New(ish) Books Worth Looking at While in the AAR Book Exhibition Hall

One of my publishers has asked that I help to publicize a couple of new – well, one brand new, and one new-ish – titles that they have put out on or in the neighborhood of Karl Barth. I also know the authors / editors of these volumes, so I’m happy to oblige. Those of you attending the AAR meeting at the end of the week should be sure to look them over in the book exhibition area and, dare I say, even consider purchasing them. Those of you know attending the AAR meeting should follow the links to the publisher’s website. I will be cut-and-pasting the book descriptions from their respective webpages.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, The Gospel of God’s Reign: Living for the Kingdom of God, Blumhardt Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).

“No doubt, it is common to hear Christians today declaring their allegiance to God's kingdom. But what does this actually entail, and what difference does it make? In his characteristically provocative and daring way, Christoph Blumhardt articulates a vision of God's kingdom that turns much of our understanding of modern Christianity upside-down. In the present volume, available in English for the first time, Blumhardt leads readers to look at the gospel anew, challenging us to follow Jesus in a way that makes God's reign a reality, here and now. Bypassing vague notions of spirituality, as well as transcending simplistic approaches to faith, Blumhardt inspires us to actually live under the rule and reign of God.”

Matthias Grebe, Election, Atonement, and the Holy Spirit: Through and Beyond Barth’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014).

"This book examines the doctrines of election and atonement in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, taking up Barth's own challenge to his reader to surpass his argument and offer a better typological interpretation of the cultic texts. Barth's radical re-working of Calvin's doctrine of election is one of the most important developments in twentieth-century theology. Christ synthesizes for Barth a particular dialectic: the binary structure of God's Yes of election and God's No of rejection. The book's central question--how can Jesus simultaneously be both the elected and the rejected (CD II/2), acting as both the judge and the judged (CD IV/1)?--is followed by an exploration of the roles of the Holy Spirit and human freedom in God's electing and saving action. Commentators both acknowledge Barth's innovation in this area and identify problems with his approach, but few have offered what David Ford has called a correction "from within" Barth, using Barth's own method. Using the concept of Existenzstellvertretung, this critique of Barth's exegetical justification for the doctrines offers an alternative exegesis that not only provides this much-needed correction, but also immerses the reader in a fresh engagement with Scripture itself."

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Maybe we’re getting to the point where I need to change the template for these post from talking about “The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere” to “The Past Month in the Theoblogosphere” . . . . In any case, it has been just shy of a month since the last link posts here at DET. As usual, we’ve got lots of interesting posts to link to, both from DET and elsewhere. We’re also staring down the barrel of this year’s national American Academy of Religion meeting, and I wanted to make sure that all of you – my gentle readers – had a chance to catch up on your reading in the meantime.

So here’s what’s been happening at DET:


And here’s what’s been happening elsewhere:


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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2:9–12

Malachi 2.9–12

[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.” [10] Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another? [11] Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. [12] If anyone does this, whoever he may be, may the LORD remove him from the tents of Jacob – event though he brings an offering to the LORD Almighty.

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COMMENTARY: Calvin picks up in this, his 175th lecture on the minor prophets, right where he left off in the previous lecture—i.e., with (at least) one eye firmly fixed on the Roman church and its failings. Here he anticipates ways that the Roman clergy might try to wriggle out of the censures that Calvin laid upon them in his previous discussion of Malachi’s second chapter, namely, that they might try to distinguish their priesthood from the ancient Jewish priesthood. But, Calvin argues, insofar as it can be distinguished the Roman priesthood comes off as inferior to the ancient priesthood and therefore the censure still applies to them on the logic that censure of a superior form of priesthood must necessarily include censure of inferior forms. Here is how Calvin wraps up (more or less):

We therefore in short draw this conclusion—that what we read here of the Levitical priests not only applies to the Papal priests, but also bears with much more force against them; for they have no hereditary honour, their calling is not true or legitimate, and they cannot be counted the pastors of the Church; on the other hand, they deprive Christ of his honour, yea, they daily sacrifice and slay him. We hence conclude that they ought by no means to be suffered in the Church, for the covenant of God ought to remain inviolable; and what is it? that they keep the law of God in their mouth, and be his messengers and interpreters. (538)

Moving on to verse 10: this is a really interesting verse. If you look at the translation above, it is clear from the given capitalization that the translators think you should read “Father” as referring to God. Calvin argues that Abraham is the proper referent. Thus the passage would suggest first that those addressed are all members of one people defined (as appears toward the end of the verse) by the covenant. It is then within this context that reference is made to God as the common creator. Calvin reads this as a reference primarily to God’s creation of Israel as God’s special people, that is, as a reference to God’s election of Israel. So far, pages 539–40.

For my money, Calvin is right to prefer Abraham as the referent for “father.” And while I see what he is doing with the bit about the creator, I’m not particularly excited by it. It seems to me that what we have here is a clear indication that appeal to God as creator happens from within the covenantal context, not from outside of it. (On a related note, see this post about Paul M. van Buren.) In other words, it is only because the people in question share Abraham as a father as those within the covenant that it makes sense to talk about the affirmation that they are also created by the same God. The point is that this creator God is the same God that they have to do with in the covenant, and that the covenant funds their thinking about this God as the creator. So Calvin missed a neat opportunity here, although I’ll have something to say about how he picks up the general idea later on.

Moving to the end of the verse, we have also the question of how this unfaithfulness or false dealing between members of the covenant community fits into the picture. Calvin says: “the Jews are here condemned, because they were not only perfidious to God, but also fraudulent as to their neighbors” (541). And this fraudulent dealing with the neighbor is also understood to be a betrayal of the covenant. Calvin missed another great opportunity here. And in fact the translation given above brings this out better insofar as it suggest that this breakdown in relationship between members of the covenant community is causally related to the “perfidity” exercised in relation to God. Calvin might have said that this breakdown in love of neighbor is ingredient to the breakdown in love of God (to structure things by the twofold commandment), rather than simply suggesting that in this case you have a seemingly unrelated breakdown on both sides.

I know that I’ve dwelled longer than usual on a single verse, and this post is long enough already. If you want to see more you’ll have to go read Calvin for yourself which, at the end of the day, is seldom a bad idea. But I promised to mention where Calvin picks up on the idea that one can only think of God from within the covenant. This is finally the depth-grammar of the anti-speculative impulse in Calvin’s theology, and he gives vent to it toward the end of his discussion of verse 10. He continues to miss the specific connection to how we think about God as creator, but otherwise he well brings out the point. Here’s a quote, and with this I close (bold is mine):

Some, passing by all means, seek to fly upwards to God; and so they entertain many vain thoughts and devise for themselves many labyrinths, from which they never emerge. We see how many fanatics there are at this day, who proudly speak against God’s word, and yet touch neither heaven nor earth; and why? because they would be superior to angels, and do not acknowledge that they need any helps by which they might by degrees, according to their weakness, ascend up to God himself. Now this is to seek God without the covenant or without the word. This is the reason why the Prophet here unites father Abraham to God himself; it was done that they Jews might know that they were confined by certain limits, in order that they might in humility make progress in God’s school. (542)

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are so inclined to all kinds of wickedness, we may learn to confine ourselves within the limits of thy word, and thus restrain all the desires of our flesh; and that whatever Satan may contrive to draw us here and there, may we continually proceed in obedience to thy word; and being mindful of that eternal election, by which thou has been pleased gratuitously to adopt us, and also of that calling by which thy eternal election has been confirmed, and by which thou has received us in thine only-begotten Son, may we go on in our course to the end, and so cleave, by persevering faith, to Christ thy Son, that we may at length be gathered into the enjoyment of that eternal kingdom which he has purchased for us by his blood. – Amen.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 3)

Paradigm 2. Jesus is the bringer of the kingdom.

Such dominant 20th century Protestant thinkers as Bultmann, Tillich and the early Barth (perhaps) embraced the ambiguities and tensions inherent in the firm distinction between Jesus and his message, on the one hand, and the faith of the church, on the other. This distinction -- or perhaps better put, aporia -- is often framed as a dilemma: The Christ of faith vs. the Jesus of history, or vice versa. These profound thinkers coped creatively with this tension -- in different ways, to be sure -- by shifting the locus of christology from the inner identity of Jesus' personal being, which preoccupied early christologians especially in the second through fifth centuries CE, to the moment of revelation or the birth of faith as noetic event. (I realize I'm oversimplifying here, but bear with me). After Weiss and Schweitzer dismantled a century of quests for a liberal Jesus, these theologians concluded that any bridges that sought to tie the religious experiences of contemporary believers back into the piety of the Savior (a la Schleiermacher) had been irreparably burned.

The pendulum swings, nonetheless, and numerous Jesusologies and christologies of recent decades have attempted, with full knowledge of the critical problems involved, to bring the historical Jesus and the Kingdom he promises back together again. One approach is to try to do an end around the conundrums of classical two-nature christology and elaborate the bond between the Savior and the kingdom in terms of vocation. A good example in this regard is Moltmann's "messianic" christology (that one has to retrieve the "messianic" dimensions of christology, when "messiah" and "christ" are supposed to mean exatly the same thing, perhaps shows how far Christian theology has drifted from its ancient Jewish roots). Something stronger than Jesus as mere proclaimer or exemplar is in view.


The path to this project of reconstruction was paved by post-Bultmannian New Testament scholars, who sought to put back together what a half century of research had rent asunder. One strategy was to tease out christological claims from appeals to unique divine authority ostensibly implicit in sayings and incidents from Jesus' life -- for example, the sovereign freedom with which he presumes to forgive sins. Günther Bornkamm, in an immensely popular book from the mid-1950s, argues that Jesus, in an unprecedented and startling way, sets himself as superior even to Moses by arrogating to himself the direct authority to interpret the law; witness the bold repetition of the phrase "but I say unto you" in the Sermon on the Mount (pp. 96-100). The long awaited kingdom of God is now dawning through the authority of Jesus' words and deeds. His role transcends the role of the apocalyptic seer who merely recounts a heavenly vision:
What distinguishes Jesus from these seers is that he himself enters the battlefield; God's victory over Satan takes place in his words and deeds, and it is in them that the signs of this victory are erected (ibid., p. 68).
Some more recent third-quest Jesus researchers have produced portraits that are more sympathetic -- or at least more neutral than the likes of Crossan -- to the possibility that Jesus saw his own destiny as somehow central to the kingdom drama. In this vein, E.P. Sanders is circumspect:
Jesus may have thought that the kingdom was "somehow" present in his own words and deeds; I cannot prove that he did not think this. I only note that no passage clearly says so. Jesus doubtless thought that the power of God was present, both in his own life and elsewhere; but in view of the lack of good evidence, it is unlikely that he meant that the kingdom was fully present wherever he happened to be (pp. 177-178).
Sanders interprets Jesus as a charismatic prophet who speaks and acts on direct divine authority; his role is to prepare Israel for the coming reign of God, whatever form it might take -- present or future, earthly or heavenly, or some combination of these. The authority Jesus implicitly claimed for himself suggests he may have seen himself as God's "viceroy". According to Sanders, then, Jesus clearly attributed to himself an eschatological role, not merely a hortatory or exemplary one, both for his disciples and for world history:
We also know that he considered his mission as being of absolutely paramount importance, and he thought that how people responded to his message was more important than other important duties. He thought that God was about to bring in his kingdom, and that he, his Jesus, was God's last emissary (p. 248).
Of course, there could be examples of my second paradigm wherein Jesus brings in the kingdom somewhat unwittingly, unaware of his true significance. Still, for most who wish to assert that Jesus is the one who brings in the kingdom, and who furthermore care that his salvific role is somehow rooted in his historical life and ministry, statements such as the foregoing will probably be a historical baseline.
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Works Cited:

Bornkamm, Günther, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLusky (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).

Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

“Some Important Features of the Doctrine of Creation”

David Fergusson published a new book earlier this year dealing with the doctrine of creation. It is somewhere between an introductory overview and a precis of several important foundational moves for a constructive doctrine of creation in the contemporary Western context. All of this makes it a nice little read, and I recommend it. I also wanted to share a piece here or there with you, gentle readers, to whet your appetites for more.

The rather lengthy quote below comes after Fergusson provides a quick reading of the most important biblical discussions – both OT and NT – of the doctrine of creation. These four “important features,” then, represent the payoff of this reading. They also serve as the rough contours of the doctrine of creation as a whole.

David Fergusson, Creation, Guides to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 9.

(I’ve thrown in some bold to help with navigating the paragraph, and to emphasize a couple of good lines.)
Some important features of the doctrine of creation emerge from this reading of Scripture. It is not primarily a philosophical hypothesis about how the world got started. While there are philosophical elements in Scripture, particularly in the wisdom literature, the theology of creation is set within the circle of faith. Four features should be noted. i) It shapes an account of the God-world relationship. The world is not divine since it comes into being by the will and word of God, rather than any emanation from the divine being itself. This enables the Bible to depict God’s transcendence and otherness from creaturely reality, while at the same time allowing it to signify a relationship that can be characterized by the language of covenant and fellowship. ii) The goodness of the world is affirmed. The creation narratives of Scripture do not allow a denigration of the material world or a dualism that depicts the world as a battleground between rival cosmic powers. Even while it is the arena of decay, suffering, and sin, this world remains God’s good creation. Its goodness is not limited to some past golden age in Eden. Even in a postlapsarian setting, the Psalms still testify to the beauty and providential ordering of the cosmos. While this generates problems in the face of evil, the Bible seems willing to embrace these problems rather than to seek an escape route by diminishing either the goodness or the power of God. iii) Creation is imperfect and incomplete. The making of the world is only the first of God’s works. As the beginning of a history, it sets in motion a narrative that has a focal point in the coming of Jesus. The ordering of the Christian canon itself suggests a pattern of promise and fulfillment. God’s creative work is ongoing throughout the history of Israel and the church, even embracing resistance and struggle in its dealing with people and natural forces. Yet this work of renewal embraces rather than abandons creation. It has been said that the Bible offers us not so much a doctrine of creation as a doctrine of the creator. This remark reminds us of the ways in which the description of the world’s creation is deeply related to God’s other works of preservation and redemption. iv) The expression of creation is a doxological act. The making of the world by God is a cause for celebration and praise. Creation is an article of faith that engages both the heart and the mind, and elicits an attitude of trust and confidence. As we shall see, this is particularly evident in the Lutheran and Reformed confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth century.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Leaves from the Notebook of a Lapsed Barthian

I have a confession to make: I never finished reading CD I/2. (Do I hear a collective gasp of shock emanating from somewhere deep within New Jersey?).

It's not like I didn't have ample chances. I made my first pass at it in 1997 in a seminar on the Dogmatics at the University of Chicago. But Chicago is on the quarter system, and it's physically impossible to read the CD in ten weeks -- unless, that is, one doesn't engage in such other activities as eating, sleeping, laundry, etc. As it was, it was bloody hard enough to keep up with the reading.


Portrait of the author as a young man, attempting to read CD I/2 for the first time.


Eight years later, while I was dissertating, I made another serious go at it; honestly, I truly did. It was the summer of Hurricane Katrina and everyone was on edge. My mother-in-law had lived in New Orleans back in the day, as had my parents and I, when I was a wee lad, back when my dad was in seminary. I recall riding from Amherst, Mass., to New York City in the back seat of my in-laws' Honda Odyssey. Despite imminent van sickness -- the nauseating oscillation between the already and the not-yet in my churning stomach -- I attempted to plow through the seemingly endless discussion of biblical authority toward the end of the volume. I got to within 50 pages or so of the end and I just sputtered out. God, in her infinite providence, led me to skip ahead to II/1 -- Barth's magisterial exploration of the being and perfections of God as the "One who Loves in Freedom". (That's my favorite volume, by the way. I remember reading somewhere that von Balthasar liked to carry a copy of that book on his person most of the time. I don't remember where I read that; perhaps the editorial staff at DET can look up the reference for us.) Still, it always bugged me that I never technically "finished" the treatment of revelation in the CD.

To be sure, I/2 is not the sexiest of Barth's part volumes. Liberals who want to hold their noses skim an overview of Barth's method, so they can promptly dismiss it afterward, often read only I/1. I think that's a mistake: There are much shorter works they could read and be done with Barth much more quickly. People who actually enjoy reading Barth and find him provocative and sometimes even inspiring as I did (do), often turn IV/1, the entree into Barth's magisterial (how many times can I use that word in one post?) doctrine of reconciliation, arguably the capstone of the whole set. Others are obsessed with the ground-breaking interpretation of the the doctrine of God and election in II/2. That volume has occasioned much searching debate -- or perhaps, for some of you, mischief, especially if you happen to be a regular reader of First Things. For my part, with my somewhat Lacugnian tendencies, I'm inclined to think a debate about the imminent Trinity is perhaps unsolvable by the very nature of the case. Other folks, hoping to find something morbid or salacious, turn to Barth's interpretation of evil in III/3, only to turn away in perplexity as, even here, Barth still seems too...well, happy.

By contrast, I/2 seems more plodding to many readers than those other texts. At 905 pages in the English trans., it weighs in as the longest of the part volumes of the CD. The book is so long, in fact, that even the master himself -- who evidently had no phobias about prolixity -- seemed a bit embarrassed by the heft of this "half-volume". Many Barth readers would claim that Barth doesn't really get warmed up until II/1 or until his new insights into election start to emerge in II/2; nonetheless, Barth can pull off some amazing feats even before his second cup of coffee, and I/2, I'm convinced, is worthy of careful attention. John Webster wrote that some of Barth's earliest superb writing in the CD occurs here (Again, DET staff, please look it up for me). I did spend considerable time marveling at par. 15, especially the section on "The Miracle of Christmas." In these pages, we find Barth's controversial defense of the doctrine of the virginal conception and, perhaps, one of the cleverest take-downs of Ritschlian ethicism and Harnackian historicism that's ever been written (whether Barth's critique is completely fair of his liberal forbears here is another matter). Incidentally, a recent monograph explores Barth's discussion of the virgin birth in this volume (see this fine review at the Barth Center).

Even in 2014, evangelicals, liberals and post-liberals still argue tirelessly (sometimes tediously) about the issues of revelation, inspiration, canon and biblical authority. CD I/2 offers Barth's most sustained reflections on these topics. I'm going to make another go at reading it cover-to-cover, mainly because I've already read I/1 through several times. Any of y'all care to join me?

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The “Social Creed” of the Methodist Episcopal Church, adopted in 1908

Here’s an interesting historical tidbit for you that I came across recently. It is a “creed” adopted by Methodists in 1908 that addresses socio-economic conditions. As such it is part of the Social Gospel movement, which was recently the subject of a series from contributor Scott Jackson entitled “Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil”.

When reading this I noticed with gratitude that a number of points in this creed have been achieved, with chagrin that a number of the points are clearly relics of their own historical context, and with shame that so many of these points remain even today the stuff of dreams for social progressives.

As quoted in Rosemary Radford Reuther, The Radical Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1970), 90.

The Methodist Episcopal Church stands:
  • For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
  • For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
  • For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality.
  • For the abolition of child labor.
  • For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.
  • For the suppression of the “sweating system.”
  • For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all, and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.
  • For a release from employment one week in seven.
  • For a living wage in every industry.
  • For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
  • For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.

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