Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Types of Philosophy: A Serioues Jest?

I’m no philosopher, and I am happy to proclaim my philosophical ignorance to any who will listen (although, truth be told, I’m slowly trying to remedy this and, as it turns out, I can claim the pedigree of Socrates for such proclamations). But, one of the joys of being involved in teaching introductory courses on theology is that one often gets asked questions that one does not expect and has not prepared for, and that force one to do one’s best to give answers, which in turn forces one to organize whole heaps of information on the fly, the result of which is to produce gross overgeneralizations like the following. So, I present to you my gentle readers, four types of philosophy. Once-upon-a-time I presented some types of systematic theology, in case you are interested.
Type 1

The British are, by history and – perhaps – by natural inclination (whatever that means), mercantile in orientation. Thus, their philosophy bears a striking resemblance to accounting: ledgers must be balanced, sums figured, and columns put neatly in order. There is a place for everything, and everything ought to be in its place. They have given us analytic philosophy.

Type 2

Americans are the great achievers. They build large bridges and buildings, and sometimes it seems that they (alright, “we”) do it just for the fun of it. Scratch that, I know we sometimes do it just for the fun of it: exhibit A, Las Vegas! In any case, what matters here is weight supported, office space provided, and financial return garnered. Our philosophical gift to the world is pragmatism.

Type 3

Crossing the pond once again, we return to Europe and cast our eye across Germany. The Germans are, paradoxically, great poets and scientists. As poets they are fascinated by stories, mythologies, and big, sweeping ideas; as scientists, they tend to work out these mythologies and ideas in a very comprehensive and precise way. In essence, their poetic side dreams up ways to explain the world, and their scientific side goes to work making those ideas make sense. Quintessential German philosophy is speculative idealism.

Type 4

Finally, the French. Ah, the French! France is the land of sommeliers and chefs. They enjoy producing and consuming the finer things in life in a relaxed, convivial environment. Given that environment, they tend to be in great moods when they philosophize, and seldom alone. French philosophy is characterized by two thinkers sitting in a Paris café with lattes and cigarettes, bandying about big ideas in an effort to pull one over on their companion. Conversely, it is an exercise in dismantling these big ideas. Thus, the French have given us structuralism and deconstruction.
So, there you have it – the secret to understanding philosophy is out of the bag! I expect comments from British folks aimed at trying to tighten up my arguments by putting them into syllogistic form, from Americans trying to get me to explain why this typology matters in concrete terms, from Germans presenting alternate typologies, and from the French explaining to me why language is too full of slippage for this sort of typology to be helpful. ;-)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bonhoeffer on Genesis 1.1 – “And God said…”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004): 40-1:
“[T]he God of the Bible remains wholly God, wholly the Creator, wholly the Lord, and what God has created remains wholly subject and obedient, praising and worshiping God as Lord. God is never the creation but always the Creator. God is not the substance of nature. There is no continuum that ties God to, or unites God with, God’s work – except God’s word…That is, ‘inherently’ [‘an sich’] there is no continuum; were the word not there, the world would drop into a bottomless abyss. This word of God is neither the nature nor the essence of God; it is the commandment of God. It is the very God who thinks and creates this word, but as One who chooses to encounter the creature as its Creator. God’s creatorship is not the essence, the substance, but the will or commandment of God; in it God gives us God’s very self as God wills. That God creates by the word means that creation is God’s order or command, and that this command is free.

“God says, God speaks. This means that God creates in complete freedom. Even in creating, God remains wholly free over against what is created. God is not bound to what is created; instead God binds it to God. God does not enter into what is created as its substance; instead what relates God to what is created is God’s command. That is, God is never in the world in any other way than as one who is utterly beyond it. God is, as the word, in the world, because God is the one who is utterly beyond, and God is utterly beyond the world, because God is in the world in the word. Only in the word of creation do we know the Creator; only in the word addressed to us in the middle do we have the beginning. It is not ‘from’ God’s works, then, that we recognize the Creator – as though the substance, the nature, or the essence of the work were after all ultimately somehow identical with God’s essence or as if there were some kind of continuum between them, such as that of cause and effect. On the contrary we believe that God is the Creator only because by his word God acknowledges these works as his own, and we believe this word about these works. There is no via eminentiae, negationis, causalitatis!”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

TF Torrance on Calvin

Being officially out of coursework, I'm such a glutton for punishment that I am nevertheless auditing a seminar on John Calvin this semester offered by George Hunsinger. So, I thought I would throw this up as kind of a kick-off to the semester.

I wish that I had more to say about this extensive quote I’m about to show you, whether comments of criticism, clarification, construction, or addition. But, the fact is that I don’t quite yet know what to do with the notions that TFT relates here. Some of them resonate, and some of them chafe. There are certainly things that I would want to criticize, clarify, use to construct further positions, or add. For instance, some of the dichotomies that TFT sets up for how Calvin ought to be understood seem a little forced, that is, there are certainly other options for viewing Calvin than those offered here. But, TFT’s vision of Calvin here is so much a whole that I want to be very careful before beginning to pick it apart. It is one of those things that one needs to sit with a while. In any case, I invite you to join me in contemplating what TFT has to tell us about Calvin.
Thomas F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church (Wipf & Stock, 1996): 1.91-3:

“All Calvin’s teaching and preaching have to do with salvation through union with Christ in His death and resurrection. That is very clear in the Institutes in which the central message is worked out more and more clearly and fully from book to book, and is given most magnificent form in book four. In the history of theology Calvin represents the movement to bring the doctrine of the Person of Christ into the centre. In that he stood consciously in the tradition of Augustine and Bernard (the two fathers he cites more frequently than any others) in their emphasis upon personal Christological truth, but in Calvin it is more biblical, more dynamic and eschatological, than mystical – and certainly much less individualistic that it was in Bernard. Calvin, for example, would have nothing to do with Bernard’s notion that the individual soul is the Bride of Christ. It is of the whole Church that we must speak in this way, and union with Christ is essentially the corporate union between Christ and the Church as His Body.

“It is around this doctrine of union with Christ, then, that Calvin builds his doctrine of faith, of the Church as the living Body of Christ, and his doctrines of the Christian life, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Apart from union with Christ, Calvin says, all that Christ did for us in His Incarnation, death, and resurrection, would be unavailing. An examination of the structure of the Institutes makes it clear that this forms the main substance of his theology, and that the idea of predestination is not given a central place. Predestination or election is important, but Calvin speaks about it as a rule in connection with certain controversies (notably with Castellio and Pighius) but never as a basic doctrine in itself – except in so far as Christ is Himself the Beloved Son and the mirror of our election. And so right in the heart of his Christology Calvin devotes a small chapter to that fact, the really central point of election…Rather, then, does Calvin give predestination a place on the circumference of his theology, where it acted like a protecting wall for the central emphases of grace and adoption or sonship in Christ…

“Nothing has done more harm to Calvinism than the invention and perpetuation of the myth that Calvin’s theology was a severely logical structure. That notion grew up on French soil and was perpetuated by the great succession of Calvinist Schoolmen on the Continent, eminently in Holland. Modern research, however, makes it indubitably clear that Calvin’s whole theology was formulated in a very definite reaction against the arid logical schematisms into which the doctrines of the Church had been thrust by “the frigid doctors of the Sorbonne”, as he called them, and that again and again he was content to leave the ends of his theological thinking loose for the precise reason that theology runs out always to the point of wonder where we can only clap our hands on our mouth and remember that we are humble creatures. The whole inner substance of Calvin’s teaching…enshrines mystery and resists rationalistic schematization – so that it is a great disservice to interpret him as above all a logician.

“That is not to say that his theology is not amazingly consistent; as it is. It is consistency, however, that derives not from formal logic but from the thoroughness with which he stated his theology in terms of the analogy of Christ. In his prefatory letter to the King of France, in the 1559 edition of the Institutes, Calvin pointed out that, following the Apostle Paul, Christian theology must operate with the analogy of faith, and that when doctrine is tested by this its victory is secure. By the analogy of faith Calvin meant both that all doctrine must be based upon the exegetical study of Holy Scripture in which Scriptural passages are interpreted in terms of each other, and more basically, that all doctrines are to be thought out thoroughly in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, for example, in regard to repentance, which was such an important issue at the Reformation, while the Roman Schoolmen divided repentance into three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, Calvin, following the analogy of faith in Jesus Christ, showed that repentance has two essential parts, mortification and vivification, corresponding to the death and resurrection of Christ. It was in carrying that Christological analogy through all the doctrines of the faith that Calvin achieved such an astonishing consistency, but it is consistency determined not by logical relation or by some kind of Calvinist philosophy (so-called), but by the principle of Christological analogy – i.e. Christology applied to the whole of our life and work and thought.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hans Frei, “Types 1 & 2,” and a Rhetorical Flourish

I’ve been reading Hans Frei’s Types of Christian Theology (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992) and, coming across the following spunky paragraph, I just had to share it. As for context, this paragraph comes at the end of a section of the book where Frei is considering whether one’s theological ‘type’ makes a hermeneutical difference concerning how one handles the literal sense of Scripture. He has considered types 1 (Gordon Kaufman / Immanuel Kant) and 2 (David Tracy and, implicitly, Paul Tillich - although Frei suggests that Tillich belongs in type 3) independently, but is here drawing these two threads together. Frei’s basic contention is that these two types have no real use for a literal sense, and it is this conclusion that lies behind the following invective. The following paragraph is written sarcastically in the voice of a member of the second type, meanwhile lampooning academic theological bureaucracy and, to add injury to insult, hypocrisy when it comes to social issues (thankfully, some of the latter has been positively addressed, although I’m not sure the former has):
Pages 64-5:

“Now one needs to say that to the extent that the name and title Jesus Christ function within the sociolinguistic context of the specific community called Christian, and theological talk about “Jesus Christ” is part of the self-description of Christianity, the language rules are such that culture as the history of collection consciousness and its linguistic self-expressions are simply not apt representations…Still, it is a relief to have symbols that live and die organically rather than having images paraphrasing rational constructions that are brought about by deliberate analytical (as for Kaufman) reflections, so that, say, the image of God as monarch may be abolished by scholarly theological committee vote under the auspices of the A.A.R., and a prize issued for the invention of a more fitting image for these times, which are, on the one hand, threatened by complete self-destruction in nuclear war and, on the other hand, obviously no longer mythical or absolutist in political sentiment. The “Suffering Servant” image for God and for Christ is always all right as long as it is not taken to provide religious legitimacy for the status of non-unionized domestic help. But enough.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My Most Recent Publication

Ecclesiology has just published (online; I think the hard-copy will take a little more time to get out) an essay of mine. Those of you with the proper permissions can likely access it. The essay deals with Barth on infant baptism, and it does two things: first, it traces the development of Barth’s doctrine through the Church Dogmatics period; and, second, it concludes by hinting at the line of thinking I intend to pursue in my dissertation. Here is the bibliographic information, and below is the abstract:
W. Travis McMaken, “Authority, Mission, and Institution: A Systematic Consideration of Matthew 28.18-20 in Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism,” in Ecclesiology 53 (2009): 345-61.
ABSTRACT: Many of Barth’s most faithful and devoted interpreters have taken issue with his unapologetically non-sacramental account of baptism in CD IV/4 and his attendant rejection of infant baptism. While many questions have been raised concerning the veracity of the exegesis that Barth produces in support of his position, little attention has been paid to the way in which Matthew 28.18-20, when systematically considered, relates to his account of baptism. Taking the themes of authority, mission and institution as analytic tools, this paper examines the role played by the Matthean passage throughout the Church Dogmatics period, and considers how these themes relate to Barth’s rejection of infant baptism. It is suggested in conclusion that understanding baptism as the ‘sign of the gospel’ allows us to move beyond Barth’s rejection of infant baptism without abrogating his concern for mission.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Barth on Church Growth

So, I’m reading through Barth’s ecclesiology paragraphs in volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics, and I’m finding – as usual with Barth – some really good stuff. Here is one bit that I thought I would share. Barth is talking here about what it means to speak of the church’s growth. He has already explained that the church is not one organism, but that the metaphor of organic growth is helpful insofar as the church does extend itself out of its own internal resources (it being the body of Christ) rather than by means of external resources. Next comes the question of whether the church’s growth is extensive or intensive. Although Barth certainly affirms that the church adds new members, he is wary of what happens when this becomes a church’s focus. And so he gives us the following.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2, 648.

“The true growth which is the secret of the upbuilding of the community is not extensive but intensive; its vertical growth in height and depth. If things are well—and there is no reason why they should not be—this is the basis. The numerical increase of the community indicates that it is also engaged in this very different increase. But the relationship cannot be reversed. It is not the case that its intensive increase necessarily involves an extensive. We cannot, therefore, strive for vertical renewal merely to produce greater horizontal extension and a wider audience. At some point and in some way, where it is really engaged in vertical renewal, it will always experience the arising of new Christians and therefore an increase in its constituency, but perhaps at a very different point and in a very different manner and compass from that expected. If it is used only as a means for extensive renewal, the internal will at once lose its meaning and power. It can be fulfilled only for its own sake, and then—unplanned and unarranged—it will bear its own fruits. As the communion of saints takes place, the dominant and effective force is always primarily and properly that of intensive, vertical and spiritual growth.”

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

T.F. Torrance on Barth, Mozart, and Beethoven

This is from Torrance’s introduction to Barth’s Theology and Church: Shorter Writings, 1920-1928 (Louise Pettibone Smith, trans.; New York: Harper & Row, 1962): 9-10.
One more aspect of Barth’s humanity we must note is its genius. That is to say, it is a humanity that is full of surprises. Here, although no doubt he would resent it, we may compare his theological thinking to the music of Beethoven with its breath-taking turns rather than to the predestined texture of Mozart’s inimitable compositions. Mozart may well be the greater genius, but when he has announced his theme and swept you into the skies like a lark, he creates in you the power of anticipation and you can hear the music from a long way off, and Barth certainly has this quality, too; but again and again Beethoven’s music suddenly breaks in upon your ear with astonishing novelty that startles you, and you protest that he has shattered the logic of his composition, but before you can recover your breath you find that he has worked the whole symphony into such a rich and complex movement that the new element actually contributes to its unity. That also is the genius of Karl Barth.
I was very gratified to come across this point because, at the risk of losing my membership in the Karl Barth Society of North America, I have always preferred Beethoven to Mozart. Back during the few years I spent being classically trained in piano performance, nothing got to me more, or gave me more joy in playing, than did Beethoven. If Mozart captures the joy and freedom of being human, as Barth has intimated, Beethoven catches humanity’s tragedy and pathos. And he does so, as Torrance points out, in often surprising ways.