Thursday, July 30, 2009

Church as Creature of Word (and Sacrament?)

Before being so rudely interrupted by the need to comment on DET’s third birthday, Dave K, Bobby Grow, and myself were having a discussion about the way in which the church is ordered under preaching and sacraments. Is the church exclusively the creature of the word? Is the church primarily the creature of the word? Of the sacraments (specifically, the Supper / eucharist)? Here are a few sentences to further that conversation:
George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let us Keep the Feast (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 184-5:

“Called into being by proclamation, and ruled by the authority of scripture, the church is a creature of God’s Word (creatura verbum Dei). Founded in baptism and nourished by the eucharist, the church is also a creature of the sacraments (creatura sacramenti). While the Word is the normative vehicle of Christ’s self-witness, it is also the vehicle of his self-impartation to faith. In turn, while the sacraments are more nearly vehicles of his self-mediation, they are also vehicles of his self-witness at the same time.”
A few observations:

  1. Don’t let the capitalization throw you: whether talking about the “Word” or the “sacraments,” Hunsinger will finally refer them both to Jesus Christ as their “dimension of depth,” to steal a phrase that Hunsinger in turn stole from TF Torrance. In other words, both Word and Sacrament refer first and foremost to Jesus Christ: he is their basic form. There are then derivative forms - Scripture and preaching, on the one hand; baptism and eucharist, on the other – with their own intersecting relations and orderings.

  2. Word and Sacrament, for Hunsinger, do the same things (self-witness / self-impartation) albeit with different emphases and in different aspects.

  3. There would seem to be an asymmetrical ordering of these two activities of Jesus Christ in which Word and Sacrament are instruments, namely, self-witness and self-impartation. While we would certainly not want to separate them from each other – every act of self-witness is also an act of self-impartation, and vice-versa – Jesus Christ’s self-witness must be basic. Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ suggests this, for instance. For Calvin (cf. Institutes, 3.1) the way in which the Holy Spirit unites us with Christ (self-impartation) is through awakening us to faith - which Calvin later defines as a sure and certain knowledge of God's benevolence to us (Ibid, 3.2.7; self-witness). While this knowledge is clearly embodied - that is, not intellectual in a reductive sense - it is still fundamentally knowledge as opposed to experience, feeling, or some other designation.

  4. As a parallel to this, there is a fundamental and asymmetrical distinction – I would argue – between the way in which the church is a creature of the Word (“called into being”) and the way in which it is a creature of the sacraments (“founded” and “nourished”). The former is basic to the latter, establishing the church’s existence which is then built up by the sacraments.
I’m optimistic that Hunsinger would agree with me (who knows, he may even stop by), although I’m sure he would have his own modes of analysis – even though I’ve self-consciously adopted a number of his usual analytic tools in my above glosses.

Monday, July 27, 2009

DET is Three Years Old!

Ok, perhaps the exclamation point is a bit over the top. It is a decided possibility that I am the only person in any way pleased by this blog’s existence. But, I’m happy, so I’m leaving the exclamation point.

In any case, if you want to hear more about what DET is here for, there are two posts that you should check out: my first post ever, and the manifesto published on DET’s first birthday.

The 3rd Annual Barth Blog Conference is coming soon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

T.F. Torrance on the Church as the Creature of the Word

Thomas F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957): 27.
None of the Gospels ever give us the slightest hint about what Jesus looked like. They tell us nothing at all about His appearance, but they do speak about His voice, and they tell us of the amazement of the multitudes who wondered at the gracious words that fell from His lips…When Jesus rose again from the dead, even Mary Magdalene did not recognise Him until Jesus spoke to her by name, and then immediately she recognised Jesus by His voice. We recall also how the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter evening did not recognize Jesus when He joined their company, although the words He spoke to them made their hearts burn within them.

That is just how it is today. We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it to be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child.
This is another absolute gem from good old TFT. Against those who would argue that the church is founded upon the eucharist (Chris will give you more details), TF here argues that the church is a creature of the Word (and, interestingly, doing so by appealing to a passage often claimed in support of the importance of the eucharist to the origins of the church!). It is the risen and living Word of God, Jesus Christ, that calls the church forth from death to life. And, the church is called not only to life, but to a particular kind of life – namely, the life of mission. Furthermore, the church’s mission has a very particular character. It is not a mission to general humanitarian work, to community improvement, or to the combat of suffering – although it is also these things (notice, TF speaks of the church’s mission as inclusive of “the witness of its members,” which I take to refer to their living witness as opposed to their vocal witness). The primary mission of the church is the proclamation or explanation of Scripture to “every man and woman and child.” This runs counter to a picture of the church as a society or culture unto itself which, by the aesthetic power of its attractiveness, seduces unbelievers into its number (a picture one gets even in the chapter on the church as apostolic in Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America). Rather, it is a picture of a church that is engaged in crossing its own boundaries in a constant outward movement that runs parallel to and is impelled by the eternal outward movement of the triune God: the church’s mission is “to carry the Bible to all nations.”

In any case, I offer this simply as another example of how Torrance’s theology remains very lively and fresh even today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Good, Old Fashioned Potpourri

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but here goes!

  1. Roger Cohen, who has quickly become one of my favorite NYTimes op/ed writers, has recently produced some reflections on life, happiness, and monkey diets.

  2. Darren continues a conversation with Oliver Crisp on whether the Eternal Son assumed a fallen human nature in the incarnation. I posted my own reflections on this topic once-upon-a-time.

  3. Kevin has concluded and indexed his series on the canon in Protestant dogmatics.

  4. Ben provides some reflections on another’s reflections on writing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Back from Vacation

That's right, gentle readers, the entire DET team (is it still technically a "team" if there is only one person?) has recently returned from a few days of vacation up on Cape Cod. To commemorate this trip, I want to share with you a photograph that I took at the Massacheusetts welcome center just over the state line from Rhode Island on Interstate-195. This sign was posted on a Nestle vending machine at the welcome center.

For those of you who can't read the picture, for whatever reasons, it reads: "All money is periodically removed from this machine on a daily basis."

As far as I can tell, there are two possible meanings of this sentence taken as it stands. Either there are sporadic periods of time when the machine is emptied of money daily, or the machine is emptied of money at a number of semi-scheduled times every day. Neither of these scenarios seems likely to me, and so I am left to conclude that this sign is simply one more example of the failing United States educational system.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Most Recent Publication: Barth, Election, and Atonement

An essay of my production is included in the summer issue of the Journal of Reformed Theology. The relevant issue is already available online for those of you with the proper permissions, and is soon to be released – or very recently released – in hard copy. Here is the article’s bibliographic information, followed by the abstract. The subtext of this essay is an attempt to bring both McCormack and Hunsinger's ways of reading Barth into fruitful conversation. You, gentle readers, will have to be the judges of whether or not I succeeded.
W. Travis McMaken, “Election and the Pattern of Exchange in Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement” in Journal of Reformed Theology 3.2 (2009): 202-18.
ABSTRACT: Bruce McCormack has described Barth’s doctrine of the atonement as even more forensic than the traditional Protestant account due to the role played therein by his doctrine of election. The content of this election is fleshed out by the covenant of grace. This essay gives attention to the place of one aspect of that covenant of grace—the pattern of exchange—as it is found in Barth’s account of the atonement, arguing that a mutually constitutive relation of unity-in-distinction obtains between the pattern of exchange and election in Barth’s treatment of the atonement, with an asymmetrical priority given to election.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Remembering Calvin’s Birthday

Lots of things have happened on July 10th. For instance: Dublin, Ireland was founded on July 10th, 988 CE; Death Valley, CA (USA) recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States on July 10th, 1913; John D. Rockefeller III died on July 10th, 1978; and Jessica Simpson (yes, that Jessica Simpson) was born on July 10th, 1980. Still, of all the things that have occurred on July 10th, the one for which I’m most thankful is the birth of John Calvin in 1509.

As those of you who have been readers of DET for any significant length of time know, I’m a big Calvin fan. This doesn’t mean that I consider myself a “Calvinist” in the usual sense of the term (I suspect that most “Calvinists” wouldn’t want to include me in their club, anyway), my theological thinking has been deeply impacted by Calvin. I have only become more interested in him as I have studied him over the past 8 years or so, and every new facet of him that I become acquainted with – whether it is his commentaries, his sermons, his biography, his civic accomplishments, etc – only serves to pull me in deeper.

There are a number of conferences and events taking place this summer to commemorate this 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Information on such things is not hard to find. For my own part, I have written two pieces on Calvin and preaching for the two most recent issues of Homiletics, which I – of course – would be most vainly gratified if you happened to look up in your local theological library. But, I also wanted to take this opportunity to point you to some of the resources on Calvin to be found here at DET:
I look forward to posting more about Calvin in the future. For now, let’s all be sure to take some time out today and raise a glass of wine in Calvin’s memory!

P.S. My friend and colleague Darren is posting a series on Calvin’s christology in commemoration of this event. Be sure to check it out.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Reinhold Niebuhr on Religion

I'm not a huge Reinhold Niebuhr fan. I think the reason for this is that, by and large, he strikes me as similar to the early Barth - primarily interested in critical and negative endeavors rather than positive. Maybe with RN it is more that he is just best (as far as I'm concerned) at the negative stuff, not that he doesn't try to be more positive. But, such reflections are based on my very limited engagement with his corpus.

In any case, every now and then I come across a bit of his text that has some good traction. This is one such bit on religion, and the way in which can become the occasion and fruit of sin.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942): 200-3
“[R]eligion is not simply as is generally supposed an inherently virtuous human quest for God. It is merely a final battleground between God and man’s self-esteem. In that battle even the most pious practices may be instruments of human pride. The same man may in one moment regard Christ as his judge and in the next moment seek to prove that the figure, the standards and the righteousness of Christ bear a greater similarity to his own righteousness than to that of his enemy. The worst form of class domination is religious class domination…The worst form of intolerance is religious intolerance, in which the particular interests of the contestants hide behind religious absolutes. The worst form of self-assertion is religious self-assertion in which under the guise of contrition before God, He is claimed as the exclusive ally of our contingent self…

“Christianity rightly regards itself as a religion, not so much of man’s search for God, in the process of which he may make himself God; but as a religion of revelation in which a holy and loving God is revealed to man as the source and end of all finite existence against whom the self-will of man is shattered and his pride abased. But as soon as the Christian assumes that he is, but virtue of possessing this revelation, more righteous, because more contrite, than other men, he increases the sin of self-righteousness and makes the forms of a religion of contrition the tool of pride.

“Protestantism is right in insisting that Catholicism identifies the church too simply with the Kingdom of God. This identification, which allows a religious institution, involved in all the relativities of history, to claim unconditioned truth for its doctrines and unconditional moral authority for its standards, makes it just another tool of human pride. For this reason Luther’s insistence that the pope is Anti-Christ was religiously correct. A vicar of Christ on earth is bound to be, in a sense, Anti-Christ…

“But as soon as the Protestant assumes that his more prophetic statement and interpretation of the Christian gospel guarantees him a superior virtue, he is also lost in the sin of self-righteousness. The fact is that the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers may result in an individual self-deification against which Catholic doctrine has more adequate checks. The modern revival of Reformation theology may be right in regarding the simple moralism of Christian liberalism as just another form of pharisaism. But the final mystery of human sin cannot be understood if it is not recognized that the greatest teachers of this Reformation doctrine of the sinfulness of all men used it on occasion as the instrument of an arrogant will-to-power against theological opponents. There is no final guarantee against the spiritual pride of man. Even the recognition in the sight of God that he is a sinner can be used as a vehicle of that sin…

“Religion, by whatever name, is the inevitable fruit of this spiritual stature of man; and religious intolerance and pride is the final expression of his sinfulness. A religion of revelation is grounded in the faith that God speaks to man from beyond the highest pinnacle of the human spirit; and that this voice of God will discover man’s highest not only to be short of the highest but involved in the dishonesty of claiming that it is the highest.”