Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bultmann to Barth, and the rest of us

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Barth/Bultmann correspondence, or at least the English edition. My close friend, colleague, co-editor and – let’s be honest – co-conspirator has been generating a consistent buzzing in my ear about Bultmann for some time, so I figured I should pay at least a modicum of attention. The following passage is from a letter from Bultmann to Barth. I’m not clear as to whether the work of Barth’s to which Bultmann responds in the Göttingen dogmatics cycle, or the Münster. This doesn’t really matter since I’m interested in what Bultmann says for material reasons, rather than solely for questions of Barth interpretation.

Without further ado, here it is: from letter 47. Bold is me:
[Y]ou have failed to enter into (latent but radical) debate with modern philosophy and naively adopted the older ontology from patristic and scholastic dogmatics. What you say (and often only want to say) is beyond your terminology, and a lack of clarity and sobriety is frequently the result. You have a sovereign scorn for modern work in philosophy, especially phenomenology. What point is there in saying occasionally that the dogmatician must also be oriented to philosophical work if the presentation finds no place for this orientation…? It seems to me that you are guided by a concern that theology should achieve emancipation from philosophy. You try to achieve this by ignoring philosophy. The price you pay for this is that of falling prey to an outdated philosophy.

It is right that dogmatics should have nothing whatever to do with a philosophy insofar as this is systematic; but it is also right that it must learn from a philosophy that is a critical (ontological) inquiry. For only then does it remain free and make use of philosophy as a helper of theology; otherwise it becomes the maid and philosophy the mistress. There is no alternative; it must be either maid or mistress. Your planned ignoring of philosophy is only apparent. Naturally lordship or servanthood applies to the forming of concepts. But if dogmatics is to be a science, it cannot avoid the question of appropriate concepts.

This correspondence is interesting because it shows Barth working through some central methodological issues, with Bultmann’s help, at the moment when he was turning to constructive (positive) dogmatic work. Bultmann’s warning here has as much force for us today as it did for he and Barth back then, and I think the story of Barth’s theology is of trying to do justice to this concern. Different interpreters might well have different answers to whether or not Barth finally succeeded (same for Bultmann, for that matter). But both this concern to speak for today, and this danger of falling unwittingly back upon a previous and philosophically outdated metaphysics / ontology / epistemology / what-have-you must be consistently held before our eyes. As Barth said decades after this letter from Bultmann, “even the slogan ‘Back to the Reformers,’ cannot promise us the help that we need to-day. ‘Back to…’ is never a good slogan.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Augustine and the Donatists (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2), Augustine and the Donatists (1).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.

Augustine and the Donatists (cont.)

Like the Donatists, Augustine claimed to be the true heir of Cyprian. This is both accurate and inaccurate. It is inaccurate insofar as Augustine was not as rigorous as Cyprian, both in terms of enforcing general morality and in terms of sacramental recognition. For instance, while Cyprian was willing to grant weakness in the congregation but not the clergy, Augustine was prepared to recognize weakness in the clergy as well.

On Augustine’s view, such weakness did not undermine the sacraments precisely because the sacrament’s power comes from Christ, with whom the church is united through the bond of love established by the Holy Spirit. It is Christ and the church as a whole, in that order of importance, who are the true ministers of the sacraments, not the individual celebrants. The union of love established by the Holy Spirit between the church and Christ is the mechanism from which the sacraments receive their saving power. What matters is not the purity of the clergy, but their establishment in this loving union.

The concrete way of enacting this unity is, for Augustine, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He writes that “The supper of the Lord is the unity of the body of Christ, not only in the sacrament of the altar, but also in the bond of peace” (§24). The Donatists, by setting up rival bishops and communities, excluded themselves from this sacrament of the altar wherein the unity of Christ’s body is enacted – union between the church and Christ, and union within the church. They are therefore outside the Holy Spirit’s bond of love, since “he is not a partaker of the divine love who is the enemy of unity” (§50).

Being thus cut off from the bond of love, the Donatists are not able to administer effective sacraments: being within the bond of love, clergy tainted by weakness are able to administer effective sacraments. This emphasis on the church’s bond of love with Christ as the basis of the sacraments’ saving ministry is where Augustine is indeed Cyprian’s heir, although creatively so. But, Augustine goes on to disagree with Cyprian on another point. Cyprian would not recognize that the schismatics had baptism, re-baptizing them – or baptizing them in truth for the first time, as he claimed – on their return to the church. Instead, Augustine made a distinction between a valid sacrament and an effective one, arguing that the Donatists had the former but not the later.

In other words, the Donatists did the ceremony correctly, thus removing the need for re-baptism, but this ceremony was unable to communicate saving grace because the Donatists were outside the church’s bond of love. Consequently, schismatics returning to the church did not need to receive baptism again; rather, the bond of love into which they entered through union with the church activates or makes retrospectively effective their valid schismatic baptism. Here is Augustine again, speaking in the voice of a schismatic pondering reconciliation with the church: “What, then, he says, do we receive with you, when we come to your side? I answer, You do not indeed receive baptism, which was able to exist in you outside the framework of the body of Christ, although it could not profit you; but you receive the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, without which no one can see God” (§43).

In the course of his discussion of these matters, Augustine establishes that a sacrament’s validity consists of the proper word joined to the proper material sign. So, for baptism to be valid, one needs the triune name and some water. Effectiveness, on the other hand, required communion with the church. Some treat this as an unfortunate descent into a minimalist sacramentalism insofar as liturgics are concerned. But Augustine’s treatment of baptism is far from minimalist, theologically speaking. While he establishes a rather low bar for what counts as the valid performance of a sacrament, he establishes a rather full-bodied account of what makes a sacrament an effective and saving event. He tackles in a rather compelling way the complex interaction of christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and – of course – sacramentology, uniting them within a coherent big-picture.

The End. Remember to cf. the series introduction for the polemical horizon of this study. But if you enjoyed it simply as a foray into the history of doctrine, I won't complain. ;-)


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Augustine and the Donatists (1): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.

Augustine and the Donatists

Augustine’s debate with the Donatists was in many ways simply the continuation of Cyprian’s battle concerning rebaptism and the Novatians. Once more, North Africa was faced with a schismatic crisis. This one, however, would – despite imperial attempts to suppress the schismatics – persist until the Muslim conquest of North Africa.

Once again, there was a period of persecution. The particulars of this case are less interesting. However, whereas Decius’ persecution created a new category of faithful Christian, the confessor, this persecution created a new category of lapsed Christian, the “traditor” – one who had surrendered the church’s sacred books to the authorities. Again there were disputes about how rigorous the church should be with reference to accepting the lapsed back into communion. The trouble really began, however, when Carthage needed a new bishop. Caecelian was elected, but the rigorists didn’t think him stringent enough, and they elected a rival bishop, Majorinus. Majorinus died shortly thereafter, and the rigorists elevated Donatus to replace him. The consequence of all this was, of course, schism.

Theologically, the Donatists claimed to be Cyprian’s heirs. One of the three bishops involved in consecrating Caecelian as bishop of Carthage, they argued, was a traditor. Because this bishop was lapsed, the Donatists rejected the validity of Caecelian’s consecration. On Cyprian’s principles, the purity of the clergy had been compromised, and thus the power of the sacraments administered by the compromised clergy was also compromised. What was needed, said the Donatists, was a pure bishop of Carthage. Also like Cyprian, the Donatists re-baptized anyone baptized by those whose ordination they questioned, maintaining that their first baptism was no baptism at all.

The Donatists appealed to the emperor over Caecelian’s consecration, thus involving the secular authorities. They were unable to prove their charges, however, and the emperor declared against them. Thus, they invited upon themselves the secular measures used against them. A fanatic fringe group made things worse by attacking secular authorities and knifing bishops in an attempt to earn what they thought of as “martyrdom.” However, their opponents claimed that even if their charges against this particular bishop had stuck, this would not render Caecelian’s consecration invalid. It is here that Augustine made his contribution.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Cyprian and the Novatians (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.

Cyprian and the Novatians (cont.)

If you remember from the previous installment, the problem that arose from Decius’ persecution was that it created the “confessors,” whose moral authority began to conflict with that of the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. This was especially a problem in North Africa. Cyprian became bishop of Carthage shortly before the persecution began. When it did, he decided to take the church’s administration into hiding to keep it intact and provide remote guidance – sort of like the emergency plans that attempt to keep the president and other key figures safe and, consequently, the government still functioning.

Of course, this looked like running away to some. Cyprian proved his courage by submitting to martyrdom in a later persecution, but this is still in the future for our purposes. In Decius’ aftermath, many claimed that the confessors in Carthage wielded greater authority than Cyprian, especially on the question of what to do with the lapsed. Cyprian was a moderate. He was more rigorous than many, but he was not as rigorous as some of the confessors and their followers.
This controversy progressed to the point where Cyprian called a synod to settle the matter against the confessors. Despite the synod’s ruling, however, the schism continued. Perhaps the schism was most evident in Rome. The rigorists there appointed their own bishop, Novatian, in competition with Cornelius, the established bishop. Eventually, however, the two parties reunited.

To concretize things theologically, the issue was whether those who had been baptized by the Novatian schismatics had to be re-baptized upon admittance to the church. Nota Bene: For Cyprian, the church is like Noah’s ark – it is a vehicle of salvation, a conduit for God’s sacramentally administered grace. This is why he can say that there is no salvation outside of the church. The corollary of this statement is that there are no sacraments outside of the church. In order to maintain the validity of those sacraments, Cyprian thought that the clergy had to be held to a higher standard than the laity.

Cyprian was willing to accept that the majority of Christians will have failings, such as those encountered in Decius’ persecution. The key point, however, was to maintain the integrity of the clergy, who could then supply the faithful, and those who had lapsed, with access to salvation through the sacraments. The problem with the schismatics is that they had separated themselves from the church’s sacramental system (sacramental-industrial complex?) by breaking fellowship with the church’s duly appointed leadership. As he puts it in one letter, “Only those leaders who are set in authority within the church…have the lawful power to baptize and to grant forgiveness of sins.”

Consequently, Cyprian would not admit that schismatic baptism is baptism, and thus did not see the practice of baptizing schismatics upon admittance to the church as re-baptism: this was the first true baptism that they had received. Cyprian’s position was based on North African precedent, but the non-Novatian bishop in Rome – now Stephen rather than Cornelius – disagreed. He supported receiving such schismatics into the church through the laying on of hands, since they had already been baptized. Cyprian persisted, however, calling a number of councils to support his position. Thus, North Africa maintained its own distinctive ecclesiological and baptismal tradition against Rome.

Finally, and briefly, baptism was central to Cyprian’s vision of the Christian life. Through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, Cyprian believes that baptism provides forgiveness from sins, regeneration, and new birth. Given this, Cyprian understands the Christian life as the process whereby one’s baptism is fulfilled in one’s life. It is the process whereby you become what baptism already made you. As Cyprian puts it, “We pray that we who were sanctified in baptism may be able to persevere in that which we have begun to be.” Given the trials faced in Decius’ persecution, Cyprian could even reflect on the fact that it is one thing to begin faith in baptism, but an altogether more difficult thing to preserve and perfect that faith.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

So, I seems to be on a mini-series role around here lately. First, I did the series on Helmut Gollwitzer and theological engagement with the Marxist criticism of religion. Now I’ve undertaken one on baptism and ecclesiology in patristic North Africa. This series was prompted by David Congdon’s recent post, Christological Unity and Pneumatological Plurality: A Theological Reflection on the Church, so be sure to check that out.

Now, here’s some of what went on in the rest of the theo-blogosphere:

Finally, if all this was not enough to keep you busy over the weekend, I’ve added to the recommended reading list.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cyprian and the Novatians (1): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction.

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.

Cyprian and the Novatians

In the late 3rd century CE, Christians were starting to get a bit soft. Christianity was not yet what you would call legal, and it certainly wasn’t yet the official religion of the Roman Empire, but it was generally tolerated. Local persecutions would break out from time to time as mobs got angry about something or another, but there was little systematic, imperial pressure applied. At least, that is, until Decius took the purple in 249.

Decius inherited a bad situation: there was an economic downturn underway, and barbarians threatened the empire’s borders. It wasn’t that Decius was particularly cruel. He just happened to be a traditionalist who concluded that the ills facing the empire were brought on by a lack of consideration for Rome’s ancient traditions, both cultural and religious. One can’t help but make comparisons to some of the less reflective and more vindictive of Christianity’s self-appointed PR representatives in the wake of 9/11.

However, rather than pushing the gospel of return to traditional familial models, as have these contemporary figures, Decius decreed that all Roman subjects had to worship the traditional Roman gods. Those who complied were given a certificate documenting their loyalty, some of which have survived the sands of time, and the incompliant were reduced to outlaw status. Christians were just one group, even if maybe the largest, that had to determine how to respond.

As I said, the church had gotten soft. They were not ready to deal with this systematic imperial program. Making things even trickier for the church was that Decius did not want to kill Christians and make martyrs. He wanted to make apostates. So, when Christians refused to make the required sacrifices, they were arrested and much effort was made through threats, promises, torture, etc., to convince them to make the sacrifices. However, they were only very rarely killed. This created a new category of Christian: the “confessors.” Like martyrs, they had withstood a difficult test of faith; unlike martyrs, they did not die as a result.

Many Christians failed this test to varying degrees. Some of them immediately capitulated to the imperial demands and became apostates, some of them capitulated under duress, some of them acquired forged certificates of compliance with Decius’ decree, some of them capitulated but repented of their capitulation before the persecution had ended and so faced consequences. The persecution only lasted a few years, and when it was over the church was left with a problem: what were they to do with those members who had apostatized when they wanted to return to the church? Given the various ways in which members of the church avoided persecution, there could be no one-size-fits-all answer.

Then the confessors got involved. They began weighing in on who should and should not be allowed back into the church, or on what penance should be required of them. Moreover, in some cases they did so in opposition to decisions made by the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. That was a problem. In the next installment, we’ll see how Cyprian addresses it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Introduction: Baptism and the Church in North Africa

In my continual quest to establish myself as the dry, boring professor-type of the theo-blogosphere, I thought it might be interesting to do some history of doctrine. This series is adapted from a lecture I gave in a class at Princeton Theological Seminary this past January. More currently speaking, I was inspired to post this material by David Congdon’s recent discussion of church unity, entitled: “Christological Unity and Pneumatological Plurality: A Theological Reflection on the Church.” David argues in this post that the sort of visible (organizational / political unity) unity that ecumenical work tends to promote may not be the most desirable sort, if it is desirable at all.

In the comments to his post, David encountered the following critical comment:
I have to utterly disagree. Only when the Church was already shattered in a thousand pieces could one think or say this, that is, in the last two hundred years. That Christological-pneumatic unity is never phenomenologically visible can only appear self-evident to someone living on the far side of schism.
David’s response to this criticism is, in my opinion, sound. Perhaps because he and I discussed it before he wrote his response. In any case, you’ll have to surf over and read the whole thing for yourself. But, this series aims at elucidating and grounding two of the claims that David makes in that response. Here they are:
I think the perception of a schism is a Catholic fiction from the start. The notion that there was ever some kind of pure visible unity is a fairy tale; it never existed.
However, the more important issue is what you think the church "is." If you think the church is an institution that mediates the grace of God to the world, then your position would be understandable.
An excursus in the history of doctrine will bring some thickness to David’s claims. Don’t ever let the Roman Catholics tell you that Protestants destroyed the unity of the church. Long before Martin Luther, well before Rome and Constantinople anathematized each other in the 11th century, and even before the schisms surrounding the Council of Chalcedon, there were the Donatists and the Novatians. And the story of these North African controversies is one of local theological commitments and communities being marginalized through the development of a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology.

This is not to say that the Novatians and the Donatists were ultimately correct. And my discussion is more general, as opposed to a purely polemical undertaking. Hence the dry, boring professor-type bit. But it will show two things relevant to the aforementioned polemical context:
  1. History reveals a relationship between strong support of the church’s visible (organizational / political) unity on the one hand and a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology on the other.
  2. There were indeed serious schisms within the church besides those involving points of what would later be considered dogma – the doctrines of christology and the Trinity. Whatever else is involved, the language of orthodoxy and heterodoxy does not apply to the Novatian and Donatist schisms.
So, stay tuned!


Friday, May 13, 2011

Frei on the Literal Sense and Truth

Hans w. Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, 166.
I plead then for the primacy of the literal sense then and, it seems to me, its puzzling but firm relationship to a truth toward which we cannot thrust. The modus significandi will never allow us to say what the res significata is. Nonetheless, we can affirm that in the Christian confession of divine grace, the truth is such that the text is sufficient. There is a fit due to the mystery of grace between truth and text. But that, of course, is a very delicate and very constant operation to find that fit between textuality and truth. The Reformers saw the place where that fit was realized in the constant reconstitution of the Church where the word is rightly preached and where the sacraments are rightly administered. There is where that fit takes place and there alone – and there without any guarantees. It is a very straight path. It is a tightrope to walk toward a very narrow gate. One constantly has to look with unease to the right, where referential truth theories abound (or at a more humble level, where neo-conservatives beckon us), or to the left, where pragmatists tell us that we have no problem of truth (or, at a more mundane level, where liberationists explode). And in between, it seems to me, is the witness of the Church within the text of the Bible.

I’m not sure I understand the entirety of what Frei says in this paragraph, which concludes a very interesting essay. However, it deserves pondering.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kathryn Tanner on Eternal Life and Action

Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 122-3.
Eternal life amounts to an unconditional imperative to action in that this life in God remains an empowering source of our action for the good, whatever the obstacles and failings of Christians. The imperative to act is also unconditional in that it is not affected by considerations of success. Irrespective of any likelihood that one’s actions to better the world will succeed, and even though one knows all one’s achievements will come to nothing with the world’s end, one is obligated to act simply because this is the only way of living that makes sense in light of one’s life in God. Without primary concern for the consequences of one’s actions, one acts out of gratitude for the life in God one has been given, one acts out of joyful recognition that a certain course of action is part of those good gifts that stem from a special relationship with God…

In another sense, action is a conditional imperative as well; one is also acting in an attempt to bring about a world that more closely matches the one that life in God should bring. Although eternal life is not conditional on our action, since it is in a primary sense already achieved through God’s action in Christ, the blessings in the world that should naturally follow from it are yet in some significant sense conditional in the world as we know it. Blessings flow from life in God but their egress from that source can be blocked by sin, understood as the effort to turn away from relations with the triune God (and one’s fellows), the One from whom all goods flow. In this life, action that accords with the life-giving forces of God runs into the obstructions posed by our world as a realm of death – forces promoting impoverishment, suffering, exclusion and injustice. One is called to act to counter such forces in the effort to bring in another kind of life.

This action cannot, moreover, be delayed in hopes of more propitious circumstances to come. Action is present oriented and therefore realistic. One must work with what one has and that means figuring out the present workings of the world, with, for example, the help of the physical and social sciences, in order to intervene as best one can. Action has an urgency, moreover; every moment counts…

Failure to succeed is not, however, a reason to despair. Certainly, if our action is not primarily motivated by hopes for success, the failure of those hopes is no cause to give up the fight. But to the extent our hopes are for the furthering of God’s blessing through our own action, those hopes can be sustained even in the most dire and hopeless of circumstances; one can continue to hope in God, and specifically in God’s gift of eternal life since that is not conditioned by those circumstances or by our own failure because of them…
These thoughts are, like the entirely of Tanner’s brief book, insightful and thought provoking. While I’m not entirely on board with her in this volume (primarily because it is so brief; further elaboration might ally some of my worries), Tanner is always worth reading. At <$20, this volume is a great place to start.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Johnson on Barth’s Mature Analogy of Being-In-Action

The “analogy of being-in-action” language comes from page 225. But, here is a nice, tidy summary in a sentence of Barth’s position. Keith has done a great job leading his argument to this point, and you really MUST read his book if you want to understand how analogy functions in Barth – contrary to how von Balthasar saw things, along with those who have more or less followed his interpretation. I’m tempted to do a lengthy blog series just on this one chapter of Keith’s book, but I don’t want you to hear it from me – I want you to hear it from Keith. Go buy and read his book. Italics below are from Keith.

Keith L. Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia entis, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology (London; T&T Clark, 2010).
Barth embraces an analogy of being, but his is an analogy of human being in Christ, and it takes the form of correspondence in action as the Christian finds her true being in her act of cooperating with the prophetic work of Jesus Christ in the outworking of God’s covenant of grace in history. (226)
Or again...
The human is a partner with God not because he contributes something to God's grace, as if his own action is necessary to the execution of this covenant; he is a partner because God wills that the human be an active subject as the Word of God prompts him, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to act in correspondence to it by witnessing to God's reconciling act in Jesus Christ. These actions constitute a history of encounter between two distinct subjects, and these subjects stand in analogy with one another inasmuch as their actions are similar to one another in the midst of an even greater dissimilarity. It is certainly correct to say that 'being reenters the scene' here, but we must immediately clarify that this being is not the 'being' given to the human by God in God's act of creation, as it is in the Roman Catholic accounts. It is the being of Jesus Christ, who as true God and true human is the being at the center of the 'common history' between God and humanity and the mediator of their relationship.
Seriously, go read this book.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Time for another link roundup, and there has been a lot happening. So, I’m going to break this down into a few categories…

Here at DET: Helmut Gollwitzer on Theology's Engagement with Marxist Criticism of Religion

Recent Theo-blog Fracas over JKAS

  • “Can hope be wrong? On the new universalism” – James KA Smith (JKAS) started things off with this rather ill-conceived post, picking up on the recent Rob Bell controversy. Regardless of where you stand on the whole “universalism issue,” Smith should have been much, much more careful…
  • “Ressentiment and the ‘new universalism’” - Halden over at Inhabitatio Dei was the first on the scene in responding to JKAS at some length. The reader should be aware that there is a history between these two authors, but precisely what that history is can go unstated. In any case, Halden brings the pain – (“The real problem, I believe, that the whole buzz about “the new universalism” represents — and it is particularly typified in Jamie’s post — is the refusal to engage these questions theologically. Instead it is all a matter of figuring out who the sappy liberal is, and finding a clever way to make the accusation.”) - and over 80 comments appear.
  • “On the new universalism: a response to James K. A. Smith” - Not to be left out or out done, and believing that more needed to be said, David Congdon joined the fray in his usual, “thorough” way. In addition to deconstructing JKAS’ post, Congdon chides him for not paying attention to series scholarly and theological studies of the topic, and of ignoring the important hermeneutical question. He concludes by offering 6 suggestions to those who would criticize the new universalism.

Ben Myers / Faith & Theology


And if it is at all possible that the above isn’t enough for you, be sure to check out the serials index page here at DET. There you will find the Gollwitzer series, two series on Paul Tillich, a series on Yves Congar, and much, much more.


Friday, May 06, 2011

Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 8

This is the final installment of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).

For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. Having treated them, he concludes with two more points that Christians and theologians should bear in mind when engaging with the Marxist criticism of religion.

  1. Harkening back to the discussion in the last installment, Gollwitzer notes that for Christianity to base its message on humanity’s “need” would be to play into the Marxist criticism: “That God is the means to an end, even if an ineffective one, is a point in which Feuerbach and Marx are one” (167). Of course, this breaks down when faced with a more sophisticated way of understanding the Christian God, one based on value and not need: “Anyone who wishes adequately to understand biblical texts must…understand that there are encounters which primarily have their significance as such, and in relation to which the consideration of value is only secondary” (ibid). The encounter in view here is, of course, one with God. That such an encounter is valuable goes without saying. But what Christianity cannot and must not do is attempt to demonstrate the truth or superiority of Christianity on the basis of this value. It must not do so because to make the attempt would be to deny the nature of the case, and it cannot do so because this value is only accessible from within the encounter, not without. So Gollwitzer (bold is, as always, mine):
    It is not man and his needs that can be the meaning of God’s existence, but God is the meaning of the existence of man. Therefore what man receives in the encounter with God is not visible outside of or before this encounter, not outside of “faith”. For only in this encounter does God himself become important to men, not because of his meaning, or any value, but He himself - and just this is the most supremely satisfying answer to the question of meaning (168).
  2. The payoff of the whole of Gollwitzer’s discussion is this: “What the atheist denies is not what the Christian affirms” , or at least not what the Christian ought to affirm, or would affirm if there was more clarity on the issue. So, Christianity must, in the face of the Marxist criticism of religion, undertake “a self-critical examination of [its] own previous statements” (172), and it has made many of the unguarded variety over the centuries. But this does not deny the other side (bold is mine, as always), and I conclude with the following long block quotation:
    The whole polemic of Feuerbach indicates that the Christian faith is interpreted as the ‘assumption’ of the existence of a God, as the hypothesis that there is such an existence, and only distinguishes itself from polytheism by its concentration on one instead of many. The triumph over the fact that the sputnik and the subsequent space-travellers [sic] discovered no such being in the world of space is only an element of bathos in anti-religious propaganda and a booby-trap. The possibility of such primitive argumentation is, however, based on the fact that they denial of God occurs on the same ontological level as that on which people can discuss the existence of Martians; here one can set up theories pro and con; here one can some day by testing discover what is right…The denial which finds expression in the assertion that ‘there is no God’ believes it is speaking about the Christian God, but speaks about something quite different…I make judgments about existent facts without thereby altering myself. But the denial of God cannot at all be spoken in this way as a meaningful sentence: the sentence “God is not” is either thoughtless chatter, or it is a self-cancellation in revolt; “God must not be”.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 7

This is the seventh of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).

For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. The sixth of these tasks pertains to the question of meaning. Explanations of the world – worldviews, or metaphysics – attempt to provide security by means of bestowing meaning on brute phenomena. Ancient Christianity’s worldview/metaphysic was theological in two senses: first, because it made of use of God in explaining the world; second, because it viewed its explanation as identical with that which provides the world with meaning. Marxist makes use of science in a similar way, that is, as an explanation of the world that attempts to provide meaning. In the end, Gollwitzer says, “Marxism is a kind of positive Stoicism; more meaning [than that provided by science] is unfortunately not our lot, but at least we have this much” (160)!

Positively, theology must recognize the difficulty with which one moves from science, or brute phenomena toward meaning. A sense of “need” is similarly not a trustworthy guide. To treat it as such would be to reintroduce something like natural theology, which has lurked behind much of Gollwitzer’s discussion. Ultimate meaning, Gollwitzer insists, cannot be read of the surface – or even from the depths – of human existence. Rather, meaning requires an encounter and fellowship with God. On the other hand, it is not the case that this God-bestowed meaning is entirely disconnected from human “need,” for Gollwitzer. It does, however, add a new depth and aspect to that need, situating it in a greater context and, indeed, showing us what our true need is. So Gollwitzer:
it is not the case that the fullness of meaning experienced in the gospel is the answer to an already manifest question. What the gospel offers is the answering of a question and the fulfillment of a need which is only awakened by the gospel. Therefore it can be satisfied only by the gospel. We are thus confronted here by a circle which we are always coming up against when we concern ourselves with theology; the gospel is the answer to a life-question; relevant, fully satisfying answer, but the question only arises through the proclamation of the answer (162; bold is mine).
Or again, from a different angle:
the death-bringing lack of fellowship with God, and the devastation wrought by evil is visible before the encounter with God’s condescension in the gospel, in all the phenomena of estrangement, lack of fellowship, perversion of life, which cause the ever-repeated attempts to heal life, the religious as well as the atheistic ones. But how deep the injury is, and how inadequate, indeed, how destined to lead to further evil are the remedies offered for healing, this is only evident when God himself comes on the scene and his appearing at once judges our previous state as our own self-inflicted misery and removes it. Only in concrete encounter with the Word of God that speaks to us does man’s destiny become clear, and only in the light of this highest destiny of life in fellowship with God is the previous condition unmasked as the misery of the man who has forfeited his high destiny, and the also previously visible signs of defect and wickedness of life are exposed as consequences of forfeiting his destiny” (163).
What does this mean for Christianity and theology? It means that they must stick to their guns, so to speak; they are “thrown entirely upon…faith in the self-evidencing power of its message” (165). The church ultimately has only one tool in its toolbox, namely, proclamation of the gospel. Granted, that proclamation will take different forms in different places and times. But this plurality of forms must be only that. In no sense can the church base its proclamation of the gospel on a condition that is not itself created by that proclamation. All such conditions have been contested, and contested well, by Marxism and other criticisms of religion. There is no sense casting about in search of a new one, for anything one finds with not be categorically different than those that have come before. Instead, the church must recognize its vulnerable position, and remember the saying of its Lord that his strength is made perfect in its weakness. The church - and theology, - need not "demonstrate to blind eyes, so that these will then be opened by a free decision; it can only proclaim to blind eyes the message committed to it, in the hope that this call itself, and he who is proclaimed in it as the real one will open men's eyes" (ibid; bold is mine).


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 6

This is the sixth of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).

For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. The fifth of these tasks concerns a renewed consideration of what it means for theology to be a science. Gollwitzer recognizes that the tradition has long considered theology to be a science, and he affirms that status. Or, he at least defends its claim to be scientific even if it not strictly speaking an independent science:
Theology indeed participates in the other sciences, has a nexus with them, uses them, welcomes them in its own sphere, inasmuch as here also, for example, philosophy and history in the strict sense are studied. It is certainly not really ‘a’ science, but (in this resembling medicine), a sphere in which different sciences are united by their service of a determinate purpose, the critical self-examination of the Church in relation to the correspondence between its actual achievement and its task (157-8).
Gollwitzer goes on to list three points to bear in mind concerning the responsibility that theology must faced because of its scientific character.

  1. Theology must be sure not to mislead other sciences by taking up a posture that opposes free investigation, or that seeks to enforce a law other than that inherent within the subject matter itself.
  2. Theology must be sure to develop methods that fit with investigation of its subject matter, to do so critically, working to clarify its concepts.
  3. Theology must be true to its peculiarity, and thereby embody an uncomfortable question for the other sciences as to their limits.

Christianity’s peculiarity, and thus theology’s, “consists in the fact that it is related to a history, the history of revelation, about which it must make statements which go beyond the appearances which are accessible to the historian” (158). By doing so, it raises a serious question to the Marxist criticism of religion, making clear that every field of study has a special methodological perspective suited to its object and that, consequently, each perspective is limited. In this theology resists the temptation of the humane sciences to borrow the concept of “science” found in the natural sciences, and encourages the humanities to recognize their limited and provisional status.

The danger on which theology shines a spotlight here is scientism, “the superstition which makes a world-view out of modern science, and uses it as a quarry for the building of world pictures allegedly demanded and authorized by science” (159). For Gollwitzer, this impulse is a product of humanity’s inherently religious impulse deprived, by the Marxist and other criticisms, of the religious outlets previously open to it. Here is a good chunk of Gollwitzer by way of a conclusion (bold is me, as usual):
Every assumption, every hypothesis can in science grow into a prejudice. Rightly understood, theology opens the way unconditionally to every investigation of fact. Faith in the creator is actually an affirmation of things as they are, and is opposed to all well-meaning misrepresentation or taboo. Where science is understood as in conflict with faith (in the biblical sense of the word), and as a substitute for religion, the place is necessarily assigned to it [that] religion previously occupied. It is then required to give what it cannot give. It is then neither free nor subject to criticism, it becomes itself a taboo. Science must prove its freedom also in this, that it recognizes itself as a specific and therefore limited mode of knowledge, to which other aspects of reality are closed…The scientific attitude is not incompatible with Christian faith, but with the superstitious faith in science, and with the subjection of science to the demands of a need to believe, which finds an ideological satisfaction in it” (159-60).


Monday, May 02, 2011

Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 5

This is the fifth of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).

For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. The fourth of these tasks continues Gollwitzer’s sally against apologetics. The particular form of apologetics that attracts Gollwitzer’s ire now, however, is that which would link Christianity with religion as a general category and, attempting to demonstrate that religion is a necessary facet of human culture and development, thus hope to secure Christianity’s pedigree. As true as such claims may be about religion, and Gollwitzer is willing to entertain that possibility, he provides four reflections on the issue.

  1. Such arguments cannot defeat the immanentism of the Marxist criticism. To begin, who cares about this immanentism when leveled at religion? Christianity has no dog in that fight. Furthermore, a general defense of religion will not defeat this immanentism. So Gollwitzer: Christianity “cannot prove, or wish to prove, that the living God to whom the biblical word bears witness does not belong to the immanent conditions of the world, and is not a product of our need. It can, however, indicate that this is not so, by showing how in his revelation he distinguishes himself from the gods” (155). In other words, Christianity should show that its God is not one of the gods, leaving the latter to fend for themselves since “It is with the powers of this world, positive and negative, that we have to do in religion, not with the Creator himself, who must in his freedom encounter us, in order that we may have such dealings with him as to know him and be able to speak with him” (ibid).
  2. Secularism pushes these things further, although Marxism is only one form of secularism. Whereas in the past Christianity could assume the general religiosity of those it encountered, such is no longer the case. It would be a mistake for Christianity to think that it first had to reproduce this general religiosity among its hearers before proclaiming the uniquely Christian message. No, that message must be proclaimed in such a way as to bypass the need for this general religiosity. Of the secular person, Gollwitzer writes:
    Without his putting himself in a religious frame of mind, creating for himself religious experiences, awakening within himself a so-called natural consciousness of God, thus without his being compelled to adopt forms of consciousness which he can no longer recapture, he must be encountered in his life, which has become secular, by the good news from the Lord of the world, who has committed himself in the man Jesus of Nazareth to the world and the secularity of the stable and the gallows” (155-6).
    This, Gollwitzer maintains, is what Bonhoeffer was on about when he spoke of a “non-religious interpretation” of the gospel.
  3. What theology should focus on in the encounter with Marxism, then, is not the antithesis between atheism and religion, but the one “between the ‘God for us’ of the gospel, and the human refusal to live in the strength of the vital reality of this ‘God for us’” (156). In other words, it must call the world to repentance, to abandon the attempt at self-justification, which can take religious, secular, technological, and other forms. Nothing is ultimately gained if a culture or an individual converts from atheism to religion, so far as Christianity is concerned: “The only conversion with brings something new, is that form law to gospel” (ibid). The strength of this conversion is that it tears us away from all these forms of self-justification. It “ends our existence as functionaries of a front representing a world-view, and makes us messengers of the love which from above seeks every individual, the religious man as the atheist, as a creature beloved, which must leave the tense struggle against the feared non-being, to receive fellowship with him who places himself between the creature and non-being” (157).
  4. All this lies behind Gollwitzer’s concluding statement, which provides a very measure paradigm for Christian engagement with Marxist criticism. I’ll quote it in entirety:
    Thus it is possible without prejudice, without irritation, and defensiveness to discuss with the Marxists the phenomenon and the problems of religion. Not the Christian message but our human method of receiving and embodying it, the Christian religion, will there, so far as Christianity is in question, be dealt with, but it must not be withdrawn from criticism. In this, theology will be both the defender of religion over against the onesidedness, the superficiality and the fatuities of Marxist criticism, and at the same time the ally of this criticism against cruelties, stuffiness, terrorism and like inhumanities of the religious life (157; bold is mine).