Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Reading the Bible, Making Moral Decisions" by Shane Wilkins

(As is made perfectly clear by the first few lines of text, this is a guest post by my good friend and co-conspirator Shane Wilkins. Shane runs a blog about medieval and scholastic theology and philosophy, has recently completed his masters thesis at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and is an incoming PhD student in the department of philosophy at Fordham University (David and I are very excited to have him so close by).)

Reading the Bible, Making Moral Decisions

Shane Wilkins

29 May 2007

What relation does the text of the Bible have to the individual moral decisions Christians make? The question is disarmingly simple, but in reality it covers over a multitude of theological and philosophical problems. For the purposes of this paper, I will sketch out my own position on the matter by interacting critically with Gerald Hughes's article “A Christian Basis for Ethics” (Heythrop Journal, 1972).

There are two primary philosophical difficulties I see with relating the Bible to making a moral decision. The first is the general ethical question What is the good for human beings? The second problem is the general hermeneutical question How does a text mean something for a reader?

Both problems are similar in that they easily devolve into epistemological problems. If one takes the view that the good for human beings is determined by reference to human nature and then uses this anthropology to make a concrete moral judgment, there is nothing to stop someone who disagrees from asking why this particular account of human nature is to be preferred to some other one. The same situation obtains in hermeneutics where a person reads a text and appropriates it in a certain way. If I propose a hermeneutical strategy that authorizes one particular interpretive decision, someone who disagrees with that decision can simply propose an alternative way to appropriate the text. All moral judgments and interpretive choices appeal to some fundamentally arbitrary, unjustifiable prejudices (“prejudices” is not necessarily pejorative in this context). For instance, one can never provide a fully rational justification for why incest is wrong.

This arbitrariness vitiaties Gerald Hughes's reflection on the relationship between Scripture and ethics (“A Christian Basis for Ethics,” 1972). Hughes recognizes the arbitrarity of interpretive appropriations, but his response to the this hermeneutical predicament is to try to use ethics to guide the interpretive process (p. 30). The idea seems to be that we know on independent, purely rational, public grounds that x is good and this bit of knowledge helps us read the Bible. Hughes asks a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer: “But can we come to believe [Jesus is the Word of God made flesh] unless we have already satisfied ourselves that the life of Jesus of Nazareth was morally admirable—satisfied ourselves on independent ground?” [italics original]. However, ethics cannot solve the hermeneutical predicament just because it has the same problem as hermeneutics. Hughes is aware of this general line of objection through Keith Ward, but he does not take it seriously enough to bother with providing a response.

I on the other hand, take the arbitrarity of hermeneutics and ethics to be a central fact with which our moral theology must grapple. Now we must point to the specifically theological problem involved in relating the Bible to moral decision making, namely, the doctrine of Scripture. There is no space to dwell at length on the doctrine, so I will only draw attention to a particular deficiency I fear mars Hughes's paper. Hughes's stress on the historicity of the Scripture risks obscuring that the Bible is not just a book like any other (if the claims Christians make on behalf of their Scriptures are actually true). In other words, the hermeneutical predicament is an ineradicable part of reading human texts, but it just so happens that the Bible is more than a human text. A human text, once written is circumscribed in a certain cultural horizon which fuses with the horizon of the reader in an act of interpretation. The reader plays an active role in this fusion, actualizing some possible interpretations and ignoring other, based on his or her prejudices.

The Bible certainly does have a particular cultural horizon but because of its divine inspiration and the activity of the Holy Spirit, it can also happen that the relation between text and reader can be reversed in the case of reading the Bible or hearing it preached. In the case of hermeneutics I can read in a text only what my prejudices allow me to see in it. In the case of revelation, I hear the viva vox dei addressing me. In the act of revelation, God might impart some sort of information to me which would force me to change my prejudices or he might command me to do something. Both possibilities are enormously significant for understanding the relationship between Scripture and moral decision making.

It might be the case, for instance, that God reveals to me some moral fact which I would not have known otherwise. Earlier we noted that moral justifications can never eliminate their arbitrarity foundations. Now I take this limitation to be an epistemological rather than ontological point. The basic tenents of Christianity, imply an objective state of affairs that every action, desire, disposition, etc. is either good, evil, or neutral or good under certain circumstances, etc. These states of affairs are what I mean by moral facts. However, the arbitarity of moral experience implies a limitation of our knowledge of that objective moral order. One of the things that God might reveal to me, then, is his opinion about whether a particular action or class of actions is good, evil, or indifferent. (Since God is omniscient his opinion is identical with the fact of the matter.)

Take homosexuality for instance. I do not know any convincing philosophical arguments that homosexuality is immoral. But it might be the case that God reveals to me through the Bible that homosexuality is in fact immoral. If this happens then it is clear that the Bible adds something to the content of my moral knowledge.

But how could I ever have a justified belief that it was God, in point of fact, who was revealing to me this putative truth about the immorality of homosexuality? How can I be confident that this “revelation” is jnot ust a subconscious expression of homophobia? After all, people sometimes justify terrible things like terrorism on the basis of putative divine revelation. In fact, something like this worry seems to be what animates Hughes's rejection of the idea that Scripture could possibly contribute to the material content of moral knowledge, for he says, “we shall not be able to identify any particular command as being a command of our God unless we can establish independently that the command is morally good” (p. 40). Hughes quickly adds a disclaimer that the word of God is not subject to the bar of human reason, but it seems to me that the practical effect of his statement is to make revelation subject to the arbitarity of ordinary hermeneutics and therefore in vital need of the justification of ethics.

However arbitarity applies at much to ethics as to hermeneutics. (Note that this was brought forward on indepedently philosophical grounds without invoking concupiscence). If this is the case, then it is quite likely that no amount of moral reasoning will ever help me decide definitively and with certainty if I have really received a revelation from God about the immorality of homosexuality or not.

Hughes rightly points out that one cannot manufacture real certainty through proof-texts or specious appeals to theological authority. However, his response is to not to abandon the quest for certainty. Rather, he decides to locate the source of certainty in the rational autonomy of purely secular moral philosophy, with flourishes alluding to natural grace and so forth.

By contrast I think the answer is to abandon the idea that we must be certain about our interpretations or moral judgments. This is not to say that we ought not to make moral judgments or authoritative pronouncements about the interpretation of the Bible. Practical exigencies require such decisions from time to time. Lack of certainty is not the problem: faith always lacks certainty in this sense.

Nevertheless, it is the case that one can cultivate an openness to revelation and an ability to discern spurious from genuine instances of hearing the divine voice. One learns tin the context of the church, for the authority of the Church is the hard-won authority of collective experience reading the Scriptures in order to hear what God has to say.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Karl Barth Reading Group - Week 3

(Below you will find the third installment of my notes prepared for the Karl Barth reading group that I am co-leading here at PTS.)

§ 4. The Word of God in its Threefold Form[1]

The presupposition which makes proclamation proclamation and therewith makes the Church the Church is the Word of God. This attests itself in Holy Scripture in the word of the prophets and apostles to whom it was originally and once and for all spoken by God’s revelation.

1) The Word of God Preached

Barth opens this paragraph by continuing to describe the event of proclamation, and thereby the Church’s being, according to a sacramental analogy. But, he quickly moves on to talk about what the necessary presupposition of all this is, namely, the Word of God. This is elucidated through four sub-points cast in terms of concentric circles, moving from the outside in. (88-89)

(1) “The Word of God is the commission upon whose givenness proclamation must rest if it is to be real proclamation.” Barth spent a good deal of time on the notion of ‘commission’ in the previous paragraph. The point here is that true proclamation is not simply the result of human activity or possibility. Although it includes human activity and possibility, its reality as true proclamation does not have its basis in these things. Rather, these things are the ‘medium’ above which we cannot and should not want to rise precisely because this ‘medium’ is the place of God’s commission. Thus, God’s word here has to do with God’s “positive command,” the commission of proclamation, and thereby “man’s talk about God on the basis of God’s own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation…but which simply takes place.” (89-91)

(2) “The Word of God is the theme which must be given to proclamation as such if it is to be real proclamation.” Barth is here further emphasizing that true proclamation, though fully human, does not rest upon that which is merely human. Proclamation is not concerned with an object of either interior (psychological) or exterior (empirical) perception, but this does not mean that the object of proclamation is not perceived. It is perceived, but only on the basis of its own activity in making itself perceptible. It remains free. It “presents and places itself as an object over against us” and “can never in any sense be our possession.” God’s word here means “human talk about God on the basis of the self-objectification of God which is not just there…which is real only in the freedom of His grace.” (92-92)

(3) “The Word of God is the judgment in virtue of which alone proclamation can be real proclamation.” By ‘judgment’ Barth seems to mean something like ‘criterion.’ Which true proclamation can be assessed on the basis of standards common to other forms of human speech, because true proclamation includes human speech, it is also beyond these standards. This criterion is the Word of God, such that the Word of God preached here means “human talk about God which by God’s own judgment, that cannot be anticipated and never passes under our control, is true with reference both to the proclaimed object and also to the proclaiming subject, so that it is talk which has to be listened to and which rightly demands obedience.” (92-93)

(4) “Finally – and only here do we make the decisive point – the Word of God is the event itself in which proclamation becomes real proclamation.” It is here that Barth drives home the point that, even though true proclamation is fully human, that is not really the decisive thing about it. It is also God’s activity – God’s Word. Barth tells us that we must speak of the humanity as proclamation with the formula “Not only – but also and primarily and decisively.” Furthermore, Barth explicitly makes the move that he has been toying with implicitly, namely, the sacramental analogy slides over to a two-nature Christology analogy. But, then he spins the relation of divine and human activity in an interesting direction, and one that has been commented upon in Barth studies a number of times. Barth understands this relation as non-competitive. The ‘human element’ is obedient and thus cooperative with God in its natural state. It is sin and disobedience that has introduced the competitive factor. Because of this, the human can serve God in obedience without losing true freedom. Indeed, this obedience is true freedom. In the event of true proclamation, then, the human aspect is not set aside but exalted. The Word of God preached here means “man’s talk about God in which and through which God speaks about Himself.”[2] (93-99)

2) The Word of God Written

The church must venture proclamation on the basis of past recollection of and future hope for revelation. God could have worked to deposit within the church all that is necessary for this recollection, thus turning recollection into self-reflection, but God did not do so. That which the church recollects is Jesus Christ, “who has the Church within Himself but whom the Church does not have within itself.”[3] The church is not left alone in relation to God’s Word because God has provided Scripture, whose existence rules out the possibility of recollection as self-reflection. Scripture as Canon is related to the judgment of God’s Word over proclamation for judgment must come from without. (99-101)

There is similarity and dissimilarity between Scripture and church proclamation. In terms of similarity, Scripture is “written proclamation.” However, even though Scripture and contemporary proclamation are thus two species of one genus, there is an order between the two. Scripture is the norm of contemporary proclamation, and this is precisely the point of succession for Barth (and the broader Reformed tradition). This is taken up in conversation with the Roman church in another fine print section, where Barth again affirms that though there is agreement that succession occurs, the difference has to do with how it occurs. Indeed, Barth is even willing to grant that there may be something to an episcopal system as well as the primacy of Peter. But, he does not think that succession is a mechanical thing passed down from one office-holder to another because this makes apostolicity a possession rather than grace. When succession becomes a possession rather than a gift, the system crowds out the lordship of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Instead, “apostolic succession of the Church must mean that it is guided by the Canon, that is, by the prophetic and apostolic word as the necessary rule of every word that is valid in the Church.”[4] (101-104)

It is precisely Scripture’s written form that guarantees its freedom because it can continually reassert itself over-against human interpretation and thereby address the church. This is not possible in unwritten tradition. But, Barth does not want to replace the magisterium with the tribunal of historical-critical exegesis. “The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible.” The distinction between text and commentary must be preserved. Furthermore, Scripture constitutes itself as canon according to Barth.[5] Scripture is the object of the recollection that fuels the church’s proclamation, and it contains the promise that this proclamation looks forward to in hope. This is because of Scripture’s content – “The prophetic and apostolic word is the word, witness, proclamation and preaching of Jesus Christ.” It is this content that demands proclamation. Specifically, this content is “Immanuel, God with us.” (104-109)

Finally, Scripture is the Word of God in the same way that the church’s proclamation is the Word of God – in the event of real proclamation, that is, God’s exaltation of human proclamation. That the Bible functions as Canon and real proclamation is an event, and “In this event the Bible is God’s Word.” It is just as dependent upon God’s free grace as the event in which church proclamation becomes God’s Word. This happens not when we master the Bible, but when the Bible masters us or, in Barth’s terms, “as the Bible grasps at us.” To say that Scripture is God’s Word is therefore a confession of faith, and not something that can be abstracted from God’s free and gracious activity. Furthermore, it is not as though it is God’s Word because we confess it to be so, but we confess it to be so because it becomes such to us on the basis of God’s activity. (109-111)

3) The Word of God Revealed

Scripture is the vital link between church proclamation and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The witness to Jesus Christ given in Scripture sets church proclamation and revelation in relation. Witness and service to revelation are notions that dominate Barth’s treatment.[6] Because of this, the Bible cannot be equated with revelation – it is the (we might say ‘authoritative’) witness to revelation. It is only in the event wherein Scripture becomes the Word of God on the basis of God’s free and gracious activity that we can say that revelation and Scripture are identical. But, the exception proves the rule that they are not always identical and that “their union is really an event.” “One the one hand Deus dixit, on the other Paulus dixit. These are two different things. And precisely because they are not two things but become one and the same thing in the event of the Word of God, we must maintain that it is by no means self-evident or intrinsically one that revelation should be understood primarily as the superior principle and the Bible primarily as the subordinate principle.” (111-115)

“Revelation engenders the Scripture which attests it” – this is the basic relationship. It is precisely because revelation ‘engenders’ or commissions or demands Scripture that we can recognize the unique authority of Scripture over the church. Scripture attests the Deus dixit that happened once and for all in Christ. The OT relates to this as prophecy and the NT as fulfillment. The authority that these authors enjoy over the church is not based upon anything intrinsic to them but because this event of revelation (Jesus Christ, the incarnation) “came upon them, and through them…constantly seeks to come afresh upon the Church.” Jesus Christ is the center of the scripture: the point around which everything else hinges. This is what establishes unity amongst Scripture’s great multiplicity. (115-117)

What of the relation between revelation, Scripture and church proclamation? “According to all that has been said revelation is originally and directly what the Bible and Church proclamation are derivatively and indirectly, i.e., God’s Word…proclamation is real proclamation, i.e., the promise of future revelation, only as the repetition of the biblical witness to past revelation, and the Bible is real witness, i.e., the factual recollection of past revelation, only in its relation to this past revelation attested in it.” God’s freedom supplies the boundaries for the ways in which Scripture and proclamation are the Word of God. We shouldn’t think of this as an abstract freedom, however. God’s freedom is, properly and concretely speaking, Jesus Christ. Thus, it is Jesus Christ or ‘revelation’ that is the boundary of the extent to which Scripture and church proclamation are the Word of God. “Revelation in fact does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ nor from the reconciliation accomplished in Him.” The Bible and church proclamation cannot bring this revelation about on the basis of their own capacity. “They can only attest and proclaim it…It is Jesus Christ Himself who here speaks for Himself and need no witness apart from His Holy Spirit and the faith that rejoices in His promise received and grasped.”[7] (117-120)

4) The Unity of the Word of God

Barth wants to be perfectly clear that in speaking about the Word of God as proclamation, Scripture and Incarnation, he is not proposing three different words of God but describing the one Word of God in its threefold form. Barth speaks of this threefold relation as analogous to the Trinitarian relations. Also, Barth notes that we only know the “direct” Word of God in the “twofold mediacy” of Scripture and church proclamation. We do not have unmediated access to Jesus Christ.[8] This talk of mediacy further underscores the sacramental analogy that Barth has been working with. (120-121)

This discussion of the unity of these threefold forms leads Barth to reflect on the related Reformation tradition. He begins with Luther and is generally pleased with what he finds in Luther. Protestant orthodoxy, however, makes the mistake in Barth’s judgment of overemphasizing the unity of these forms, leading to an overly static account that looses the dynamism found in the insight of the Reformers on this question. Francis Turretin gets special attention here as a case of such a failing. Barth’s analysis is that a focus on the media salutis lead to an emphasis on Scripture’s value for the human person rather than to its service of God and witness to revelation. “Boasting of the objectivity with which the Word of God was invested, especially in its biblical form, was only the expression of a bad conscience” in this regard. The collapse of orthodoxy in the face of the Enlightenment cannot be blamed on the Enlightenment in Barth view. The blame rests with the church that had forgotten itself on this very point – its service to God in bearing witness to revelation. (121-124)

[1] It is interesting to note that the them of this paragraph of Church Dogmatics, the threefold word of God, constitutes one of the formal, organizing principles of Barth’s work in Göttingen Dogmatics. Of the four chapters in DG (not counting the introduction), the first three deal with the first three of the sub-section in this CD paragraph. In GD, however, the order is the exact opposite of that in CD: revelation comes first, followed by Scripture (which in each case is the pivotal point), followed by preaching.

[2] Barth launches here into a rather long fine print section, at least by the standards of CD I/1 thus far. It begins as a survey of patristic theologians on the notion of the Word of God preached but makes a turn to discussing Roman catholicism about half way through. Barth affirms that some notion of succession and the vicarius Christi is necessary if we are to talk about the Christus praesens. The difference between ‘Evangelicals’ and Rome on this question has to do with how this succession works. Barth’s complaint against the Roman church is that it robs Christ of his lordship by subsuming this lordship under the human form of succession. “Personal presence implies the possibility of absence as well,” and there is no such possibility within the Roman system.

[3] CD IV/4, 655: “We cannot avoid the statement that Jesus Christ is the community. Nor do we refer only to Jesus Christ in His form as its heavenly Head, in His hiddenness with God. In Jesus Christ as the Head it can only believe. Here and now it can only look up to Him from the depths as its Lord. It can only love Him as the One whom it has not seen. It can only wait for His revelationIt can only move towards Him. Thus the statement cannot be reversed. It is a christological statement, and only as such an ecclesiological. The community is not Jesus Christ. It is not the eternal Son of God, the incarnate Word, the Reconciler of the world with God.”

[4] Although Barth does not make this explicit, the function of this sort of move is to reclaim that proper distinction between the apostolate and the episcopate and to give the proper superiority to the apostles!

[5] …and Calvin – this is a variation on his theme of Scripture’s self-authentification.

[6] Grünewald’s altarpiece is mentioned in some fine print.

[7] Cf. CD IV/3, Chapter 16, “Jesus Christ, The True Witness.”

[8] There are certain formal similarities here to Schleiermacher’s discussion of the feeling of absolute dependence in The Christian Faith. There we find that the feeling of absolute dependence is only accessed through the lived experience of our relative freedom and relative dependence. Just as the feeling of absolute dependence in Schleiermacher’s through is never experienced in abstraction from this antithesis, Barth tells us that revelation “never meets us anywhere in abstract form.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Jürgen Moltmann on Theology and Barth

The following quotations are self-reflective comments made by Jürgen Moltmann in the preface to his Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000). These comments illuminate Moltmann’s work, even if one disagrees with their content.
“For me, theology was, and still is, an adventure of ideas. It is an open, inviting path. Right down to the present day, it has continued to fascinate my mental and spiritual curiosity. My theological methods therefore grew up as I came to have a perception of the objects of theological thought. The road emerged only as I walked it. And my attempts to walk it are of course determined by my personal biography, and by the political context and historical kairos in which I live. I have searched for the right word for the right time. I have not written any theological textbooks. The articles I have contributed to various theological dictionaries and encyclopaedias [sic?] have seldom been particularly successful. I was not concerned to collect up correct theological notions, because I was much too preoccupied with the perception of new perspectives and unfamiliar aspects. I have no wish to be a disciple of the great theological masters of past generations. Nor have I any desire to found a new theological school. My whole concern has been, and still is, to stimulate other people to discover theology for themselves – to have their own theological ideas, and to set out along their own paths.” (xv)

“There are theological systems which do not merely aim to be free of contradictions in themselves, but which aspire to remain uncontroverted from outside too. In these systems, theology becomes a strategy of self-immunization. Systems of this kind are like fortresses which cannot be broken into, but cannot be broken out of either, and which are therefore in the end starved out through public disinterest. I have no wish to live in any such fortress, and I have resisted the temptation to view Barth’s Church Dogmatics as a fortress of that kind, as the Barthians do. For it is not a fortress, even if some of his followers let Barth think for them, so as to feel safe with him, while other people put him down as neo-orthodox, so as not to have to read him and grapple with what he says. My image of theology is not ‘A safe stronghold is our God’. It is the exodus of God’s people, on the rod to the promised land of liberty where God dwells. For me, theology is not an inner-church or postmodern dogmatics, designed only for one’s own community of faith. For is it for me the cultural study of the civil religion of bourgeois society. Theology springs out of a passion for God’s kingdom and its righteousness and justice, and this passion grows up in the community of Christ. In that passion, theology becomes imagination for the kingdom of God in the world, and for the world in God’s kingdom.” (xx)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award

David Congdon recently declared me a Thinking Blogger. It is an award given by peers in order to recognize the quality of one’s blogging efforts. It was started here back in February of 2007. As much as I appreciate this award, and I truly do, it puts me in a bit of a tough spot. You see, a recipient of this award is obliged to pass the award along to 5 bloggers of similar distinction. The trouble is that almost all of those whom I would like to recognize with this award have already received it. So, I am going to do something a little different by granting one award and then by granting a challenge.

And the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ goes to…

Matthew Milliner! Someone, and I can’t really comprehend this, Matt has yet to be granted this award. (At least, that is what he told me when I asked him.) Anyone who has visited his site will readily grant that he deserves it, and I would argue that he deserves it much more than I did. Matt and I spent some time together here at PTS. He is currently a PhD student at Princeton University, and we are both proud graduates of Wheaton College (IL). It is with great pleasure that I bestow this upon him.


There are three bloggers out there that I think have the potential of meriting this award, but who have not as of yet demonstrated the consistency, commitment and involvement required to earn it. (This is presuming, of course, that I know what the requirements are and have met them…a dubious presumption at best!)

Darren Sumner is a new classmate of mine, and another Wheaton College (IL) graduate. As the title of his blog would suggest, Darren is interested in historical theology, and many of his posts have to do with illuminating certain historical figures, phrases, etc.

Michael Pailthorpe is currently a post-graduate student in Philosophy residing in Sydney Australia. He and I have gotten to know each other a bit through our respective blogs and the occasional e-mail exchange. Michael has not been posting much of late due to the recent birth of his daughter Meg, but he is in the habit of posting quotes from respected theologians with some comments of his own. He has also posted some of his sermons, which are fun to read (at least for me!).

Jon Mackenzie is another theo-blogger that I have recently taken notice of. In recent weeks he has posted some interesting things about Barth and other theological figures at his blog entitled ‘Bazaar of Herecleides.’ This blog, devoted to “theological discourse,” is a new endeavor for Jon, who has another blog that has been around since before I went live here at DET.

This is the challenge: Darren must maintain his current pace and depth; Michael must return to his pre-Meg pace and depth; Jon must continue to impress me with his theological posts at 'Bazaar of Heracleides.' If any of these bloggers meet this challenge by September 1, 2007, I will bestow the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ upon them (if no one beats me to it!). So, have at it gentlemen!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Blog Series You Should Be Reading

There are currently three series going on in the theo-blogosphere that are more than worthy of the time it takes to read them. So, I bring them to your attention here in order to do just that.

The Spirit of the Lord by DW Congdon

David, as is fairly well known, is a friend of mine whom I have known since our days at Wheaton College (IL) and with whom I have had the privilege of attending classes the past two years here at Princeton Theological Seminary. This series was sparked by a particularly bad Christmas Eve sermon. While we definitely need to stamp out bad preaching wherever it is found, in this case we have David’s series as a consolation prize. David describes his project in this series:
"The overall work originated as a response to a version of modern pietistic gnosticism which is views the gospel in terms of a clean separation between body and spirit, between “internal” peace and “external” peace. Against such a notion, I offer these reflections as an inchoate attempt to construct a dogmatic theology of peace rooted in theological exegesis of Old Testament prophecies and a christocentric-missional account of the church."

Barth / Brunner – Natural Theology by Chris TerryNelson

This series isn’t as self-evidently coherent as is David’s (no index! – hint hint, Chris!) but it does seem to be a series and it is definitely worth reading. All the posts are included in the link given above, but that link will take you to an archive page. More installments may be coming, so stay tuned. You may also notice that the above link does not go to Chris’ usual stomping grounds (DG). This series is being posted on the blog for the Karl Barth Society of Amherst.

Heiko Oberman on Scripture and Tradition by Cynthia Nielsen

In the comments section of the this series’ first post, Cynthia writes:
"I hope that this series will at least clear up some of the misconceptions of the Protestant position, while also being open to dialogue with Roman Catholics who disagree."
She further notes:
"Given my experience with these kinds of issues, I expect that some of the comments (from both sides) will be exceedingly negative. I am not interested in wasting my time with non-substantive comments from either Protestants or Roman Catholics (or anyone else for that matter), so I plan to use the moderator feature [as I always do] and reject all comments from both sides that seem to me simply polemical in nature and which do not further the dialogue."
The link above is to Part 1. So far there is also a Part 2 and a Part 3. Stay tuned for more!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology: 18.12

Twelfth Question: The Marks of the Church – Is the truth of doctrine which is held in any assembly, or its conformity with the word of God by the pure preaching and profession of the word, and the lawful administration and use of the sacraments, a mark of the visible church? We affirm against the Romanists.

This section is significantly longer than the preceding, and on the basis of my flipping forward through a few sections, it looks like these sorts of lengths will become standard. What this means is that my treatments of the material will be far less comprehensive than they have been, so those of you who are following along (if you exist!) might want to pull out your own copies of Elenctic Theology V. 3 and take a closer look for yourselves. It is hard to know how to get into this material, so I’m just going to start and hope that something worthwhile emerges.

Turretin begins this section but making a point that he returns to frequently, namely, that the present consideration of the mark(s) of a church has to do with the visible church. That is, he is trying to provide an answer to the question of where, if given two options, one should go to church. Of course, the options were far more stark in Turretin’s day than in our own where all you need to do to find a new church to attend is go down the street a few blocks.
“The question does not concern the marks of the Christian church in general; for the profession of Christianity sufficiently distinguishes this from the heathen and other unbelievers. But it is treated in particular of the marks of a particular visible church that we may distinguish an orthodox and purer church from a heterodox and heretical; so that this being found wanting, we may betake ourselves to the communion of that.” (p. 87)
Now, it is important to note that Turretin does not speak here of an ‘orthodox and pure’ church, but of an ‘orthodox and purer’ church. The combination of a non-comparative (orthodox) and a comparative (purer) is interesting. What we can conclude from this is that Turretin has a very firm notion of what it means to be orthodox, but that he is also willing to allow for imperfection in any particular church. He says as much in bits and pieces throughout this material. In any case, his account of the mark(s) of the church is shaped by this.

Decisively, the single most important (the original) mark of the church is Scripture. Everything else that could be considered a mark of the church, such as church discipline or proper prayer or the proper administration and use of the sacraments, are derivative of this foundational mark. Turretin ties things together in a statement that has certain resonances with Calvin’s famous statement of the marks of the church: “Therefore wherever the doctrine of the apostles and the legitimate use of the sacraments and of prayers are, there the true church of Christ certainly is.” (p. 89)

It is about this time that we get one of Turretin’s famous listings of support for his argument. Here is the short version:
  1. Scripture: John 10

  2. Scripture: John 8, John 14, Matthew 18. Sum – “Christ cannot be found without his church.” (p. 89)

  3. Scripture: Acts 2, Acts 20

  4. Scripture: Similarity of discerning between true / false prophets / teachers and true / false churches. There are too many references to sort through here, but first and second John feature

  5. That which is essential to something is a mark of that thing

  6. If it is present, the visible church is present; if it is absent, the visible church is absent

  7. Patristic Authorities: Turtullian, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine

  8. There are ‘Romanists’ who agree
I will conclude with two points with which Turretin occupies himself in the closing pages of this section, namely, the relation of the church to Scripture, and what counts for the ‘truth of doctrine’ the visible affirmation of which counts for the primary mark of the church?

Church and Scripture
“Better known by nature is one thing; better known by us is another. Scripture is better known by nature than the church because it is the principle and foundation of the church. Hence it cannot be certainly and infallibly known except from the Scripture. The church is better known than the Scripture by us with a confused and inchoate knowledge because it is the means and instrument which leads us to the Scripture and which draws it to us. Thus the Scripture and the church give each other mutual help; but the authority belongs to the Scripture and the ministry to the church. The church shows the Scripture by her ministry…the Scripture shows the church by her authority…” (p. 94)

What counts for ‘truth of doctrine’?
“It cannot be said that the simple crowd and rustics are not capable of examining doctrine and so need other sensible marks which are better suited to their comprehension. It is treated here not of any doctrine whatsoever and of all the questions which can be agitated about it, but only of the doctrine necessary to salvation, in which the essence of faith consists (which stands out perspicuously in the Scriptures and can be perceived by any believer).” (p. 95)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Karl Barth Reading Group - Week 2

(Once again, here are the notes that I prepared on the material covered by the Karl Barth reading group that I am currently co-leading.)

§ 3. Church Proclamation as the Material of Dogmatics

Talk about God in the Church seeks to be proclamation to the extent that in the form of preaching and sacrament it is directed to man with the claim and expectation that in accordance with its commission it has to speak to him the Word of God to be heard in faith. Inasmuch as it is a human word in spite of this claim and expectation, it is the material of dogmatics, i.e., of the investigation of its responsibility as measured by the Word of God which it seeks to proclaim.

1. Talk about God and Church Proclamation

Although all human talk could and should be about God, all human talk is not about God. Life is simultaneously secular and sacred. There are two distinctions: first, the distinction between what intends to be profane and what intends to be sacred speech, and second the distinction between what attempts to be sacred speech and what is actually, by God’s free grace, speech about God.[1] While one has assurance of faith, this is not to become “over-confidence.” (47-49)

“If the being of the Church, Jesus Christ as the acting person of God, sanctifies the being of man in the visible sphere of human occurrence as being in the Church, then He also sanctifies its talk about God taking place in the Church.”[2] Not everything the church does is proclamation. The church also responds to God in various ways. Barth seems to want to distinguish between proclamation in a pure sense and other activities of the church. Social work is understood to be a fitting response to God (“If God exists for man…then this man…must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man.”) but not as proclamation itself. (49-50)

This goes for theology as well. Proclamation is theology’s “presupposition, its material and its practical goal” but “not its content or task. Theology reflects upon proclamation. It confronts it as a court of criticism.” Proclamation in the pure sense has to do with speech about God directed to persons in such a way that God’s claim upon them is brought to bear. Seem from the side of human activity, the church’s proclamation merely serves God’s Word. But, seen from the side of God’s activity, the church’s proclamation is God’s own Word. The church’s proclamation can only aim to service to grace or a means of grace.[3] And the church proclaims because it has been given a commission. (51-53)

The visible church is not necessarily coextensive with the invisible church, although we can expect overlap. This is because, and should remind us, of the fact that the church is not the master of God’s word. God may speak even in a flute concerto or a dead dog.[4] But, though God may speak to the church through a pagan or an atheist, that doesn’t mean that the church must adopt the pagan or atheistic thing. These things are not to be incorporated as independent sources of the church’s proclamation. (54-55)

The commission to proclamation that the church has received takes two forms: (1) preaching and (2) sacrament. Matthew 28 is a foundation of this two-fold commission, but this commission cannot be assumed simply because the church is obedient to it. For it is not obedient, and we must always ask whether God can speak despite this disobedience. This proclamation is response to God’s Word, as other things like social action were seen to be response and not proclamation, but proclamation must also be in a class of its own as a norm of these ‘other’ responses. (56-58)

Given this commission, what does proclamation look like? Proclamation means announcement and repetition of God’s promises and, to be such, it must be “controlled and guided” by Scripture and not simply “arbitrary religious discourse.” But, real repetition is not mere repetition and one (the preacher) must make these promises intelligible in one’s own day and in one’s own words. But, how is God’s Word to be preached also as God’s Work? God’s Word is accompanied by the Holy Spirit which confirms the word with work. This is the role of the Sacraments, which represent God’s promise not in further words but in action. But here the sacraments are still a question of serving God’s Word. (59-61)

Modern dogmatics hasn’t done too well with this in Barth’s estimation. Schleiermacher and Tillich are referenced with the conclusion that “man is finally conceived of as conversing only with himself.”[5] But, for Barth, “Proclamation as self-exposition must in the long runt urn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking.” Roman Catholics get this wrong too, and not just because the emphasize sacraments in the same way that Protestants emphasize preaching. Instead, preaching is not seen to be a means of grace. That the Mass can be seen as complete without preaching demonstrates this. (62-66)

The Reformation wanted to find the center of the Church’s life in preaching as the repetition of God’s promises and in hearing with faith as their reception, and all this understood as an event of the presence and grace of God. The importance of faith is primary here, and this is what the Roman Catholics don’t get in Barth’s opinion. Instead of proclamation, encounter and faith, they have a system of divine cause and creaturely effect. (67-69)

What then is the proper relation between preaching and the Sacraments? The Reformation wanted to think “not as cause and effect, but as Word and faith.” If the sacraments are understood as proclamation of God’s promises through symbolic action, then this presupposes a verbal repetition of these promises (preaching). “The former [sacraments] must exist for the latter [preaching], and therefore the sacrament for the sake of preaching not vice versa. Hence not the sacrament alone nor preaching alone, nor yet, to speak meticulously, preaching and the sacrament in double track, but preaching with the sacrament, with the visible act that confirms human speech as God’s act, is the constitutive element, the perspicuous centre of the Church’s life.” (70)

2. Dogmatics and Church Proclamation

The church’s proclamation “is always and always will be man’s word…When and where it pleases God, it is God’s own Word. Upon the promise of this divine good-pleasure it is ventured in obedience.” IT cannot be self-assured but is responsible to God. And, precisely because of the importance of this responsibility to God, it is completely free from responsibility in other quarters. This responsibility is situated between yesterday and tomorrow, critiquing yesterday’s proclamation for the advance of tomorrow’s. The church must fear God and not the world, but it is only when the church fears God that it need not fear the world. Criticisms coming from the world are really just demands for the church to do its thing properly and with all seriousness. (71-74)

The fear of God demands the corresponding activity on the human side of self-critique, a practice which Barth takes as undermining the Roman Catholic notion of the church’s infallibility. But, “The Church can neither question its proclamation absolutely nor correct it absolutely. It can only exert itself to see how far it is questioned and how far it ought to be corrected.” Theology and dogmatics concerns itself with this responsibility of the church. (Great fine print section!) On the basis of how the church spoke of God yesterday, dogmatics asks about how it should do so tomorrow. It measures the church’s proclamation, which seeks to be God’s Word, by God’s Word. (75-77)

Because it takes its bearings from ‘yesterday,’ dogmatics must be concerned with the Christian tradition, for yesterday is the sum of that tradition. Furthermore, it turns to the form of yesterday’s proclamation that has already been tested, that is, it turns to the history of dogmatics. For this reason dogmatics is a scholastic undertaking.[6] But this does not mean the development of a “system of Christian truth” because dogmatics can only be done sufficiently for the next day and because dogmatics is not itself the material of proclamation, although dogmatics helps to shape proclamation.[7] Still, exegetes and practical theologians must also give attention to the dogmatic question because one’s dogmatics shapes one’s exegesis, etc. (78-81)

What then can be said of the relation between dogmatics and proclamation? (1) The necessity of dogmatics is different than that of proclamation in that proclamation is primary and dogmatics is secondary. Thus, (2) dogmatics serves proclamation. This goes along the lines of the juxtaposition of the notions of pistis or credere on the one hand, and gnosis or intelligere on the other. There are three sub-points here: (a) Dogmatics is a different mode but not a higher stage of faith than proclamation. There is no great spirituality attached to dogmatics. (b) Dogmatics does not take its cues from a different or higher source of knowledge than does proclamation. Neither is dogmatics more profound than preaching. (c) Dogmatics is not an end in itself; again, it serves proclamation. For this reason, Scotus was right against Thomas in affirming that theology is / should be understood as a practical as opposed to a speculative science. (3) Dogmatics is needed in order for proclamation to be responsible. Still, it does not pin down what faith and revelation are in themselves. “God, His revelation and faith always live their own free life over against all human talk, including that of the best dogmatics.” Dogmatics is simply guidelines about this proclamation.[8] In this sense, then, church proclamation must remain free even from dogmatics. (82-87)


[1] Barth mentions an “antithesis of judgment and grace.” Could this be an allusion to part 2 of Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith and its antithesis between sin and grace?

[2] What does Barth mean by speaking of Jesus as the “acting person of God?” Furthermore, Barth seems to be working with a notion of ‘in the church’ rather than ‘in Christ’ here. It is true that he talks about Christ as the being of the church, but this still seems a bit different from some of his later patterns.

[3] The notion that Barth seems to be getting at here is “instrument of grace” or, if we go even further behind the text, “instrument of the Spirit,” which can be quite a different thing than a ‘means of grace’ traditionally conceived.

[4] These are two of Barth’s own examples. The former is a reference to Schleiermacher’s autobiographical remarks concerning the Christmas Eve Dialogues, which were inspired by a flute concerto.

[5] The contrast seems to be about the proper role of symbol (sacraments as actions in the service of the Word) and the improper role (symbols as religious self-expression).

[6] Barth talks about a “gymnastic” undertaking, and he also speaks of dogmatics’ business as “that of the school,” all of which leads me to the notion of scholasticism.

[7] Fine print: “It is a familiar and perhaps unavoidable beginner’s mistake of students and assistants, when preaching, to think that they can and should confidently take the content of their preaching from their treasured college notebooks and textbooks of dogmatics. On the other hand, older preachers are usually far too confident in removing themselves from the jurisdiction of this critical authority." Large print: “One cannot and should not expect to hear the content of proclamation from dogmatics. This content must be found each time in the middle space between the particular text in the context of the whole Bible and the particular situation of the changing moment. Dogmatics can only be a guide to the right mastery and the right adaptability, to the right boldness and the right caution, for the given moment when this space has to be found.”

[8] Interestingly, this sounds a bit like Lindbeck to me.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology: 18.10

Where was our church before Luther and Zwingli, and how was it preserved?

In this ecumenical day and age, it is easy to forget that questions such as this could and were asked with great seriousness in the past. When I saw this question in the table of contents, I knew that I had to read it and let you all in on what Turretin has to say. He discussed in 10.9 the ways in which the church (true church, mind you) can be obscured from visibility for a time. Still, Catholics keep asking where the Protestant church was in the years before the Reformation, so Turretin will give them an answer. What he is looking for is not the visible, concrete order of Protestant ecclesiology nor is he concerned with certain disciplines or opinions. Instead, he will show that “true and catholic doctrine” (p. 57), such as the Protestants affirm, was present but obscured in the preceding age.

Now, before Turretin can really get going on answering this question, he has to be perfectly clear that it is absurd that this question should even be asked, or, in his words, “the absurdity and unfairness of the demand [to prove the existence of the ‘true church’ according to Protestant reckoning] must be marked” (p. 58). There are six reasons why this demand is absurd:
  1. Because the Catholics would first have to prove that the true church always exists with splendor.

  2. It is false to argue from our ignorance of a thing to the non-existence of that thing (or, just because we don’t know that something existed doesn’t mean it didn’t).

  3. It is false to argue from our ignorance of a thing’s location to the non-existence of that thing (or, just because we don’t know where something was doesn’t mean it wasn’t there).

  4. This is a historical question and one can be saved without knowing the answer to this question.

  5. The Catholics “treacherously corrupt the writings of the fathers” (p. 59).

  6. If we Protestants have to answer this question, then the Catholics have to show us where their church was in the New Testament.

With this rather able deconstruction of the question’s foundation in place, Turretin can move on to pick apart the question itself and provide his answer. He will do so by addressing the question in terms of faith, persons, place, and government.
  1. ”[I]f we treat of the Christian faith, we say the substance of the things to be believed and done in order to salvation was always in the Scriptures, in the Apostles’ Creed, in the law of God and the Lord’s prayer, sealed by the sacraments, which by a special providence he willed to preserve always in the church for sustaining the elect, although that doctrine was frequently mixed with various errors” (p. 60).

  2. [I]f we treat of the persons themselves…we say that it subsisted in all the elect who were from the time of the apostles, who in all ages have believed in Christ according to the publicly preached truth of the gospel, who separated the substance of saving doctrine in public ministry from the errors repeatedly creeping in” (p. 60).

  3. With reference to place, Turretin says that this should not be understood in terms of the pope or of apostolic succession, but rather offers a litany of examples of “various assemblies separated from the Roman church” (p. 60), and though this is the primary place where we should look historically, Turretin also affirms that God preserved a remnant even within Babylon / the papacy. At this point, Turretin begins listing evidence to show that this is the case.

    1. The first point offered in support of this claim are passages of Scripture that imply something like this. Of special interest are the books of Revelation and Daniel, although others are cited.

    2. Second, we find numerous examples in history of those who stood up to the errors of the papacy from within the Roman church. Indeed, “the catalogues of…Fox and others prove” (p. 62) that this is the case.

    3. In his third point, Turretin again returns to Scriptural citations from both the Old and New Testaments.

    4. Fourth, Turretin thinks that there exists a telling conformity between the Reformational churches and the ancient church.

    5. Turretin is by now repeating himself as he comes to his fifth point, which is very similar to his second. Rather than simply pointing out that there were those who opposed Rome, Turretin now notes that even supporters of Rome admit this.

  4. Turretin now comes to the question of polity or government. He is perfectly ready to admit there was no external order in keeping with Reformational principles prior to the Reformation, which makes perfect sense. Furthermore, this does not mean that a remnant did not exist within the Roman system because the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of working things out. One note that Turretin sounds frequently here is that “true believers could separate the purer and sound doctrine from the deadly, and the healthful food from the poison” (p. 64). The Roman hierarchy did largely teach the truth, even though this truth was diluted and obscured by error. Of course, there is also the bit about God raising up people to oppose Rome from time to time who taught a purer doctrine. Turretin sums this all up under “the wonderful dispensation of divine providence” (p. 67).

This is the bulk of Turretin’s discussion. But, I want to mention what he brings up as the very last point, namely, why is the Reformation important if in the past it was possible for the ‘true church’ to be maintained through the corrupt ministry of the papacy? Turretin’s answer: it was especially bad and God decided to deliver his people. This is fine as far as it goes, but I tend to think that there were a lot of other socio-political factors that deserve to be mentioned, even if these are simply the means that God employed to cast “off the yoke of the Antichrist” (p. 69).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An Introduction to St. Thomas’ Method in “Summa Theologica”

The following comes to us through the courtesy of Timothy M. Renick, author of Aquinas for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), which I have recently finished reading. Although I am no Thomas specialist – more like a Thomas novice – this little volume was very easy to read and at least seemed to me to be enlightening. Moreover, as the lengthy quote below will amply illustrate, it is written with a great sense of humor. For all these (an potentially other) reasons, I recommend this volume.

Below is reproduced Renick’s attempt (pp. 147-9 of the volume mentioned above) to provide an illustrating and orientating example of the methodology and form with which Thomas argues in the Summa Theologica:
Question 7: Proteins
(in Thirty-Seven Articles)
First Article

Whether chunky or smooth be the more perfect form of peanut butter?

Objection 1: It would seem that chunky is the more perfect form of peanut butter. For Plato argues that a thing is more perfect as it more closely approaches its original form. But peanut butter takes the peanut as its original form; therefore chunky, having more of the perfection of the peanut, is the more perfect form of peanut butter.

Objection 2: Further, according to the Philosopher, that object is more perfect which contributes most directly to being, and that object is less perfect which detracts from being. Now, smooth detracts from being by means of its tendency to stick to the roof of the mouth, bonding the upper and lower palates. (There was that spate of tragic choking deaths in Sicily last year.) Therefore chunky is the more perfect form of peanut butter.

On the contrary, Peter and Paul together have declared, “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t’.”

I answer that, a thing may be perfect in two ways. The first is with regard to its means and the second with regard to its end. Now, smooth is the more perfect peanut butter with regard to the means since, due to its physical properties, it can serve as the means for not only nourishment but for bonding one’s dentures, repairing tableware and, as Augustine points out, “performing acts so shameful and perverse that the multitudes of Carthage would pay to observe them.” But chunky is the more perfect with regard to the end as when Marcia Brady declares to her beloved housekeeper Alice, “Oh Alice, this sandwich is the living end.” Hence, the wisdom of the angelic Saints Peter and Paul is confirmed: “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.”

Reply Obj. 1: Are you going to listen to Plato? The guy wore a dress.

Reply Obj. 2: An object may be less perfect in and of itself (I always forget the Latin for that), or it may be less perfect because of the way an object is employed. Hence a chalice, which is inherently a good object, becomes imperfect when it is embedded in the forehead of your Dominican brother who mocks you incessantly for being the “Dumb Ox.” Similarly, smooth peanut butter, when not joined properly with the appropriate amount of jelly, causes the bonding of the upper and lower palates, as was the case in Sicily. Yet this speaks to the imperfection of the application of the peanut butter; not an imperfection of its being. Peanut butters do not kill; people do.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Karl Barth Reading Group - Week 1

I mentioned in the post dealing with my Summer Plans that I would be co-leading a Karl Barth reading group for six weeks in May and June. The group had its first meeting today in the Center for Barth Studies here at PTS. Lively discussion quickly developed about topics such as Barth’s interpretation of Schleiermacher, analogia entis / analogia fidei, theological science, and the relation of Christ and the church. One point that we didn’t get a chance to delve into directly but that I hope we come back to is the place of Scripture in Barth’s conception of dogmatics.

Below I have included the notes that I prepared for this first meeting. It is basically a summary of what Barth does in these two paragraphs. Hopefully they will be interesting and / or helpful in to someone in some way. Also, if you are in the Princeton area and would like to attend the reading group, feel free to contact me.

§ 1. The Task of Dogmatics

As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.

1. The Church, Theology, Science

Theology is tied to the unity of the church’s being and act, even while the church’s act does not coincide with its being. The confession of the church is both a confession of God and the confession of the need for responsible human action. (3)

Theology can be spoken of in three ways: as a science, as testimony and as service. Barth is concerned with the former, which has to do with the church’s critical reflection on its talk about God. It is meaningful as obedience to grace. The criterion by which theology (as science) evaluates the church is the church’s being, namely, Jesus Christ.[1] (4)

Biblical theology = basis, practical theology = goal, dogmatic theology = content. Theology is not a science to the exclusion of other sciences, which only create the need for theology as a distinct science by their inattention to the object of theology (God – cf. the editor’s preface where it is noted that God as theology’s ‘object’ is a concession to the translation task; in German there is more of a sense of an acting subject). (5)

The other sciences have tried to critique the church but it is necessary to do so on the basis of the church’s being (Jesus Christ). Since the other sciences do not use this criterion, theology as a distinct science is necessary. (6-7)

Calling theology a ‘science’ means [1] it is concerned with “a definite object of knowledge,” [2] it has a definite and consistent methodology, [3] it must give an account of this methodology. The existence of other sciences spurs theology on to greater faithfulness to itself, but it does not have to justify itself before the other sciences. (8-9)

In calling itself a science theology does not submit to the standards of the other sciences. Theology as a science is not systematically related to the other sciences because this would be admitting that theology as a distinct science is a necessary thing rather than an emergency measure. Theology proves itself as science by doing its own work. (10)

Theology should be called a science because [1] recognition of other sciences engenders humility, [2] it protests against the general concept of a science which is pagan, [3] theology shows that it does not take the heathenism of other sciences seriously enough to withdraw from them. (11)

2. Dogmatics as an Enquiry

[1] Dogmatics as enquiry presupposes that God can be known. This on the basis of Jesus Christ, the criterion of dogmatics which is given in completeness. (This is the analogia fidei.) The second event of human dogmatics or speech about God is united to but distinct from this first act (sacramental language employed). (12-13)

[2] Dogmatics as enquiry presupposes that the true content of speech about God must be known. It must conform to Christ, but this conformity is never unambiguous. Though the divine answer is perfectly given, dogmatics continues in the form of a question. “[T]he creaturely form which the revealing action of God assumes in dogmatics is never that of knowledge attained in a flash…but a laborious movement from one partial human insight to another…” This is the meaning of theologia crucis. Humility. The notion of church as divine and human reality supports all this. (14-15)

Dogmatics does not just repeat the prophets, apostles, creeds, etc, but asks what we must say today on the basis of these things.[2] (16)

3. Dogmatics as an Act of Faith

Dogmatics is the work of human knowledge but human knowledge under the decisive condition of faith. What is faith? Faith is obedience to the call of Christ, and therefore faith knows God. It is only through such faith that human action (knowing?) is related to the being of the church (Jesus Christ). Faith, however, is not a determination that one can give to one’s own activity, but it is always a matter that rests with God. “[I]f we say that dogmatics presupposes faith…we say that at every step and with every statement it presupposes the free grace of God which may at any time be given or refused…” (Small print on Anslem, Schleiermacher, etc. – avoid anthropologizing theology.) The church must act and do theology, but whether it does so in accordance with its being is up to God.[3] (17-21)

Because of all this, dogmatics must be done as humble, repentant obedience. The act of faith makes dogmatics possible and calls it into question. (Predestination is mentioned as a way of basing faith in God’s activity.) we are thus cast upon the necessity of prayer. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (22-24)

§ 2. The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics

Prolegomena to dogmatics is our name for the introductory part of dogmatics in which our concern is to understand its particular way of knowledge.

1. The Necessity of Dogmatic Prolegomena

It is said that prolegomena to theology is particularly necessary presently, and that it should be conducted in terms of a ‘point of contact’ in the human person for the Gospel. This is to be rejected: [1] because there is no theological reason to assume that times are different now and thus require this procedure, revelation has always contended with unbelief, [2] to proceed in this way would be to abandon the serious task of dogmatics for it puts the resistance of human reason to the Gospel at the center, [3] though this procedure claims to make theology relevant it actually makes it less so because dogmatics is relevant to the extent that it carries out its unique task and [a] in this proposed procedure faith must take unbelief so seriously as to not take itself seriously enough, [b] dogmatic work is presumed to be complete, [c] if this battle is won then dogmatics will likely become complacent. “Apologetics and polemics can only be an event and not a programme.” (25-31)

Faith is not primarily in conflict with unbelief, but with itself, insofar as it recognizes that it possesses the potential for unbelief within itself and expresses itself as such. This happens especially with reference to heresy for “In this conversation the Church must wrestle with heresy in such a way that it may itself be the Church. And heresy must attack the Church because it is not sufficiently or truly the Church,” that is, what is taken for faith is confronted with the possibility that it is actually unbelief. (31-33)

Barth specifically has in view Roman Catholicism and “pietistic and rationalistic Modernism,” against which “the Evangelical Churches” must position themselves. In each case the church must stand against itself and against the possibilities that its own faith possesses. This has been a special problem since the time of the Reformation, and the Scripture principle has been important in sorting out where the Evangelical churches stand with reference to both of these antagonists. (34-36)

2. The Possibility of Dogmatic Prolegomena

Prolegomena since the enlightenment has been done by establishing a general ontology or anthropology to ground the claims that will be made. Schleiermacher and Schweizer come up in fine print. “The assertion of an existentially ontological prius to ontically existential faith, or the definition of faith as a mode of the historical being of human existence, is a cardinal proposition of the faith which understands the being of the Church and itself decisively as a definition of the reality of man, of piety.” There is a fairly lengthy (at least judged by the text thus far) fine print section on Heirich Barth and his overcoming of the philosophical trends that this sort of prolegomena relied upon. (36-40)

On the other hand, the Catholics do things differently and end up trading Jesus’ lordship for the Church’s existence. Analogia entis. Countering, the being of the church (remember, Jesus Christ) must be understood as actus purus, which means that he is other than the church and that dogmatics can be done only in the moment of his speaking and our hearing. (40-41)

Thus, prolegomena must be done as part of dogmatics. Dogmatic knowledge can only be an event and thus is not grounded in “general human possibility or an ecclesiastical reality.” Prolegomena is, therefore, when theologians “give an account of the way which we tread.” Basically and / or practically, prolegomena means establishing the Scripture principle, but not Scripture in a restrictive sense but as subordinate to a more robust account of the Word of God.

[1] In GD Barth speaks of sciences in general, and of theology as science, thus: “I myself would equate ‘scientific’ and ‘objective,’ objectivity being the closest possible adjustment of knowledge to the distinctiveness of its object. The most fitting means to establish objective truth, the most certain way to achieve coherence in knowledge, the freest critical norm, and the most logical grounding of all knowledge will in ever field of science be the truth itself, which we do not have to produce but which is given to us. If, then, the means of knowledge, the coherence, the criticism, and the grounding must be determined by the distinctiveness of the object in dogmatics, this does not preclude its scientific character but includes it.” (8)

[2] A similar notion appears in GD when Barth writes: “But there comes a point – and no theologian can evade it – at which theology does become dangerous and suspect. This is the point where the twofold question arises: What are you going to say? Not as one who knows the Bible or Thomas or the Reformers or the older Blumhardt, but responsibly and seriously as one who stands by the words are are said: you? And what are you going to say?…You? What? These are the questions of dogmatics. We have to consider the fact that ‘in some way’ we have to speak about God.” (6)

[3] Cf. Barth’s discussion of the relation between church and Christ, as well as the relation between the communio sanctorum and the communio peccatorum, in CD IV/2 (614-726).

Friday, May 11, 2007

Karl Barth Society Newsletter: Spring 2007 (#34)

I was presented with a present surprise when checking my mail yesterday (coincidently, it was Karl Barth's birthday yesterday), namely, I had received my copy of the current Karl Barth society newsletter. Although I do maintain membership in the Karl Barth Society of North America, I often forget about this benefit of membership. The newsletter is always a wealth of information on the current state of Barth scholarship, and is a resource that anyone interested in Barth would appreciate. That said, I heartily recommend membership in the society. With annual dues of only $15 USD ($10 USD for students), it is a great value.

Below I offer a table of contents for the current newsletter, in hopes that its exemplary content will encourage those who might find it here to apply for membership in the society. The dues of the society membership help to facilitated the society meetings in conjunction with the AAR, as well as contribute to the funding of the Barth Conferences held here at PTS.

  • Philip G. Ziegler, “Taken Out of Context: Freedom and Concreteness in the Theology of Wolf Krötke” – Summary of paper presented at the November 2006 Barth Society Meeting in conjunction with the AAR. This, and the summaries that follow, are substantial and take up a number of pages in single space, 10 pt. type.

  • Wolf Krötke, “A New Impetus to the Theology of Religion from Karl Barth’s Thought” – Summary as above.

  • Walter Lowe, “Why We Need Apocalyptic” – Summary as above.

  • George Hunsinger, “David Bentley Hart: An Attempt to Understand Him” – Summary as above.

  • Archie Spencer, “Causality and the Analogia Entis: Barth’s Rejection and the Analogy of Being Reconsidered” – Summary as above.

  • David Bentley Hart’s Response – Summary as above.

  • Michael T. Dempsey, “Review of John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology: Four Studies

  • List of recent publications in Barth studies.

  • Ben Myers, “Interview with Meehyun Chung, recipient of the Karl Barth Prize”

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology: 18.8

Is the true church indefectible, which always was and always ought to be in the world until the consummation of the ages? We affirm against the Socinians.

Our explication of Turretin in this section will proceed in three parts: first, introductory matters; second, seven reason why the church cannot fail; finally, a concluding quotation.

Introductory Matters

Employing a pattern that is quickly becoming familiar to us, Turretin distinguishes between “a twofold aspect” (p. 41) whereby this question can be considered, one that is visible and one that is invisible. He is interested in the invisible aspect, as usual. Noting this, Turretin makes some distinctions so that we know precisely what he is getting on about. First, the church is not perpetual on the basis of its own strength, which would all to easily fail, but on the basis of God’s sustaining activity. Second, although the church (remember, invisibly conceived and thus concerning properly only true believers – cf. 18.3) is perpetual, this is not to say that it may not at times disappear from sight. Third, it is the catholic church (cf. 18.6) that is perpetual, not any particular local church.

In terms of polemic horizon, Turretin is precise (as usual) about who he is arguing with. We see this even in the posing of the question. His target is ‘Socinianism’. Furthermore, Turretin goes out of his way to make it clear that he actually agrees with the Romans about these matters, except that they try to base the perpetuity of the church upon the papacy / episcopate.

The last point that interests us in this material is another set of distinctions. First, Turretin distinguishes between the contingent and necessary perpetuity of the church, siding for the latter. Personally, this distinction is a bit too strong for me. Certainly, the perpetuity of the church is not based upon human activity. But, at the same time, the perpetuity of the church includes human activity, and without this human activity the church would not be perpetual. Perhaps it would be better to speak of ‘contingent necessity,’ although the dialectical form of this notion would likely be abhorrent to Turretin. Second, Turretin makes a distinction between the “first” cause of this perpetuity – the will of God – and the “second and proximate” causes – Word and Spirit.

Seven Reasons Why the Church Cannot Fail

Why is the church perpetual?
  1. Because it is the body of Christ

  2. Because the covenant of grace is an eternal covenant

  3. Because of numerous promises given by God in Scripture that either state or strongly imply such perpetuity

  4. Because Christ’s threefold office (prophet, priest, king) is perpetual (Note: I really appreciated how Turretin brought in the munus triplex at this point, and I specifically recommend this paragraph to your attention)

  5. Because the presence of the Spirit with the church and Christians is given as perpetual

  6. Because the church has not failed throughout all of history: OT, NT, and subsequent (Note: It is suspicious to me that Turretin would resort to historical argumentation to prove his point, but since it comes so low on the list I’ll let it go)

  7. Because all the things that could destroy the church – Satan and sin – have been defeated by Christ and thus no longer pose a threat

Concluding Quotation
“Although this and that particular church can fail (as in the place in which God today gathers a church for himself by the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments, through heresies and persecutions the purity of the divine word may in the course of time be expelled from it; nor to any particular church is given an absolute promise that it will be perpetual and not at all exposed to defection), still, speaking absolutely and simply, the church never fails because God gathers to himself a church from the human race until the end of the world; if not in this, yet in another people and place.” (p. 47)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Summer Plans

I just turned in my last MDiv papers. One was on Schleiermacher and the other was on Yves Congar, in case anyone is interested. But, now that this whole seminary thing is over (at least academically - we still have the commencement thing), I can’t help but look ahead to the summer and to the next academic year. You’ll notice, if you look at my profile, that it no longer makes mention of my MDiv status, but now proudly proclaims that I am an entering first year PhD student in systematic theology here at Princeton Theological Seminary. The admissions committee in their collective wisdom (or folly!) offered me a position (not before first putting me on a waiting list just long enough for all my other schools to reject my applications). Since my status changes as of today (not technically, but go with me here), I’m expecting to witness a categorical leap in my academic skills and my capacity for clear thinking, although this might not show up until after graduation. There is really no telling with these things.

“Well, then? What of the summer?” I’m glad you asked! I’ll be spending the next few weeks working at the Barth Center, preparing for the upcoming Barth conference at the end of June. A couple days after the conference is over, my wife and I will be taking our first real vacation. Well, it is more like a series of vacations encompassing three weeks and three different locales. But, it will be lots of fun. After we return from our gallivanting, I will be taking a kamikaze course that will (supposedly) prepare me for reading academic French. That course will be followed by about two weeks of freedom, PhD orientation, and the beginning of classes.

“No, no, no, you idiot! I meant, what can we expect to see on your blog this summer?” Ah! Another good question!

  1. I’m sure that David, Chris and I will blog the Barth conference to some extent.

  2. Also, I still owe my philosopher friend Shane a post on ‘Creation, Covenant and the Knowledge of God’ that I hope to get done soon.

  3. I have an exciting multiple author collaborative project in the works that I am eager to get posted, hopefully before the Barth conference. Keep an eye out for it, because it will come fast when it comes.

  4. My goal is to finish writing the current series on Turretin’s ecclesiology, as well as to finish writing the current series on Calvin’s interpretation of 1 Peter (although I’m probably not going to get all the Calvin material posted before September).

  5. I am going to be co-leading a Karl Barth reading group leading up to the Barth conference. We will be reading the prolegomena material in Church Dogmatics I/1. I imagine that some posts will develop out of that, both here at DET and elsewhere.

  6. Last but not least, below are a list of books that I hope to read this summer, some for the first time and some with (hopefully) new eyes. I will likely post quotes from almost all of them, but I’ve put asterisks (*) next to the ones that I would like to engage in a bit more depth. These are listed in no particular order:

    • Hans Küng, The Church

    • Timothy Renick, Aquinas for Armchair Theologians

    • *Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians

    • *Richard Jungkuntz, The Gospel of Baptism

    • *Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther

    • Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

    • *World Council of Churches Faith and Order paper #111, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry

    • *Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church

    • *John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch

    • Donna Bowman, The Divine Decision: A Process Doctrine of Election

    • Eleonore Stump, Aquinas

    • *George Hunsinger (ed), For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology

    • *Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science

    • Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom

    • *Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth

    • Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell

    • Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology

    • Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives

    • Thomas F. Tracy (ed), The God Who Acts: Philosophical and Theological Explorations

    • Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), Marks of the Body of Christ

    • Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

    • *St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

    • *Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology

    • Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Trier (eds), Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates

    • John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection

    • Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

    • Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas

    • G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in Karl Barth's Theology

    • Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

    • *Thomas F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science

Suffice it to say, it is going to be a busy (but, I hope, productive) few months. Stay tuned for all the excitement. I’m going to go rot my brain with videogames for a while…

UPDATE: I will indicate which projects have been accomplished as the Summer progresses by changing them into bold type.