Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Calvin to Bullinger on Luther

Continuing with excerpts from Calvin’s correspondence, today’s tidbit comes from a letter that he wrote to Heinrich Bullinger in 1544. For those of you who don’t know, Bulliner was the chief pastor at Zurich, taking over after Zwingli’s death in the battle of Kappel in 1531. Bullinger was about 5 years older than Calvin, and he outlived Calvin by about a decade. He was the more established and influential during their lifetimes, although Calvin has eclipsed Bullinger in the most recent centuries. 

In any case, in this letter Calvin writes to Bullinger in an attempt to sooth the Zurich pastors. Why are they upset? Because Luther was being himself. Luther had written another treatise on the Lord’s Supper, criticizing Zwingli severely post mortem. The Zurichers took this as quite the insult, as one might expect given that their church’s faith and order was built on Zwingli’s foundation (although, we must remember that Bullinger and Calvin managed to get the Consensus Tigurinus together in the late 1540s). Calvin plays the role he learned from Bucer here, namely, that of mediator between the various reformational camps. He urges Bullinger and the Zurichers to remember Luther’s immense significance and temper their anger. In the process, he has some fun things to say about Luther…

Letter of John Calvin to Heinrich Bullinger in November of 1544, as represented in John Calvin, John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, 4.432-4.
I hear that Luther has at length broken forth in fierce invective, not so much against you as against the whole of us. On the present occasion, I dare venture to ask you to keep silence, because it is neither just that innocent persons should thus be harassed, nor that they should be denied the opportunity of clearing themselves; neither, on the other hand, is it easy to determine whether it would be prudent for them to do so. But of this I do earnestly desire to put you in mind, in the first place, that you would consider how eminent a man Luther is, and the excellent endowments wherewith he is gifted, with what strength of mind and resolute constancy, with how great skill, with what efficiency and power of doctrinal statement, he had hitherto devoted his whole energy to overthrow the reign of Antichrist, and at the same time to diffuse far and near the doctrine of salvation. Often have I been wont to declare, that even although he were to call me a devil, I should still not the less hold him in such honour that I must acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God. But while he is endued with rare and excellent virtues, he labours at the same time under serious faults. Would that he had rather studied to curb this restless, uneasy temperament which is so apt to boil over in every direction. I wish, moreover, that he had always bestowed the fruits of that vehemence of natural temperament upon the enemies of the truth, and that he had not flash his lightning sometimes also upon the servants of the Lord. Would that he had been more observant and careful in the acknowledgement of his own vices. Flatterers have done him much mischief, since he is naturally too prone to be over-indulgent to himself. It is our part, however, so to reprove whatsoever evil qualities may beset him, as that we may make some allowance for him at the same time on the score of these remarkable endowments with which he has been gifted. This, therefore, I would beseech you to consider first of all, along with your colleagues, that you have to do with a most distinguished servant of Christ, to whom we are all of us largely indebted…


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Hang on, this is a long one. With my academic duties resuming next week, it may become more difficult to keep this segment regular and thereby cover all the good stuff out there. So I’ll see how much I can squeeze into this one.

Of course, we’ve had 4 posts here at DET since the last link post, and all of them are significant. First, we had a post from DET contributors Scott Rice and Matt Warren. They added to the reading guide series with their post, So, You Want to Read John Mackay? Then, just a few days ago, contributor Derek Maris posted about Moltmann's “Political Hermeneutics”. Finally, I posted two things. The first is a Defense of Theological Blogging and Belligerence wherein I attempt to stoke the theo-blogging fires for all of our continued betterment. The second is a brief post highlighting a Q&A session that David Congdon and I did with and for a particular Christian discussion community on Reddit. It was a lot of fun to do, and we got to well over 100 comments on the thread, so be sure to follow the links and check it out. 

Alright, then, on to the rest of the links…

Long enough? I think so. Next week I will once again begin earning my keep by attending altogether too many faculty orientation meetings, and preparing in earnest to meet a new crop of students on the field of bat…I mean, in the classroom, the following week. So, enjoy these links during the last few days of my (relative) freedom.  


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Moltmann's "Political Hermeneutics"

My upcoming fall classes will be my final ones. With my official coursework finished in January I will completely turn towards the final major pieces of my program; language and comp work, with the dissertation looming. One of my final two classes is a seminar in theological hermeneutics. Since I work at the campus bookstore I have been able to sneak a peek at the booklist, and when compared with my other doctoral seminars, I have to admit that the course looks particularly "ambitious." I’m actually looking forward to the challenge though, in part because it is already evident that some readings will fit nicely within potential areas of dissertation interest. For example, I will be reading a “healthy” amount of Anthony Thiselton, and in his 2007 book The Hermeneutics of Doctrine he acknowledges at the outset how important Moltmann and Pannenberg are for his work (see xxi). Furthermore, in more than one of his works he engages frequently with Bultmann, another thinker who has recently begun to grab my attention.

All that to say, I am hopeful that this class will be important for me on more than one level. So, in addition to this personal note, I thought I would introduce what might be several posts on hermeneutics over the next few months by outlining some broad contours of Moltmann’s “political hermeneutics,” with reference to Pannenberg.

In chapter 3 of his 2006 book The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics Moltmann outlines his political hermeneutics after discussing political theology and his "eschatological Christology." Describing hermeneutics as “the art of translation from the past into the present,” Moltmann wonders “why should we re-present the past by interpreting the witness to earlier events” (42)? Moltmann’s answer is that there are seeds in the past that bear witness to the future Kingdom of God. As he states it, “Only when something sticks in the past that points beyond itself into the future is there any point in remembering the past … Hermeneutics returns to the past because it seeks the future in this past” (42).

Thus for Moltmann hermeneutics has a “prophetic side” (43). This outlook is grounded in understanding “God … as the ‘power of the future,’” a phrase Pannenberg utilizes in his Theology and the Kingdom of God (43). In this chapter, as in much of their writings, Moltmann and Pannenberg’s thinking appear intertwined. In fact, Moltmann’s reflections on God as the power of the future sound similar to Pannenberg’s “eschatological ontology" (Philip Clayton's phrase), a topic I have briefly touched on here, and is undoubtedly a topic I will discuss further in the future with reference to thinkers like Ted Peters and Christiaan Mostert.

This emphasis on mining the past for the sake of the future comports with Moltmann’s conviction that “hermeneutics does not remain on the level of intellectual history nor on the theoretical level, but wants to lead, by way of the experience of understanding hope, to a new praxis of hope” (44). Moltmann argues for “a differentiated theory-praxis relationship” wherein neither can come to predominate (45). The refusal to sublimate one side of this relationship appears connected to the fact that for Moltmann “the completion of God’s history in the world” is only possible “by God himself” (48). Some of Moltmann's section headings sum this up nicely; it is “by participation in God’s history” that “we learn to understand God’s history” (44).

Again, these emphases are strikingly similar to Pannenberg’s notion of “provisionality” (for a brief and clear explanation of this important concept in Pannenberg, see Timothy Bradshaw's introductory text). As an aside, with all these conceptual similarities it is interesting how differently Moltmann and Pannenberg’s thought fleshed out politically (for a brief discussion of their complicated relationship on this topic and in general, see Moltmann’s A Broad Place, 105-7). In fact, my previous knowledge of both thinkers helped me to articulate what Moltmann is doing here; again, a strange phenomenon given that they often landed on opposite sides of the fence politically.

The goal of political hermeneutics according to Moltmann is “experiences of Christian passion and action,” so he concludes his exploration by articulating an “ethics of hope” centered on “resistance and anticipation” (46-7). Since only God can complete God's history “these anticipations are not yet the kingdom of God itself, but they are real mediations” that are "sacramental" in that in them “we experience the real history, for the ethic is the element of the kingdom of God coming into the material of our history" (46). These “sacramental anticipations” are “holistic,” acts of resistance and fighting against injustice and oppression in their interrelated and various forms.

Although this is the briefest of outlines, leaving detail and substance aside, I want sum up and provide some reflection. For Moltmann, hermeneutics serves the goal of personal and social transformation. To do so with care he proposes a dialectic relationship between theoretical reflection and ethical action, wherein “theory and practice do not belong in two different kingdoms; however, they are never totally equivalent” (45). There is one point related to this on which I remain unsure.  Does Moltmann understand the dialectic to be "resolved" with God completing history, or is it merely discarded. On a different note, it has been awhile since I’ve read any liberation thinkers, but it appears that Moltmann’s model resonates with theirs (for one example, see the Boff’s Introducing Liberation Theology, 32-9). In fact, Moltmann himself notes his affinity with them (A Broad Place, 107).

While some might want to applaud the breadth of Moltmann’s political hermeneutics, one can wonder if, drawing on Thiselton, Moltmann falls prey to the criticism that when “one moves the center of gravity entirely from the past to the present in the task of interpretation … everything becomes dominated … by the interpreter’s own pre-understanding and the ancient text becomes merely a projection of his own ideas or preconceptions” (The Two Horizons, 17). As I hope to show in another post in the future, Pannenberg will level this very accusation at both Moltmann and Barth. While this concern is a classic one, and much of this post is an examination of common knowledge more than anything else, hopefully it lays the foundation for a productive semester of examining (and blogging about!) hermeneutical theory in general and the hermeneutics of Moltmann and Pannenberg.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

/r/Catacombs Q&A w/ Travis McMaken & David Congdon

So apparently there's this thing called "Reddit", which is a big forum / discussion site. Anyway, one of the moderators for the /r/Catacombs Christian sub-directory / -community (a relatively heavily moderated one at that, I'm told) asked my old friend, colleague, theologically conjoined twin, and all things co-belligerent, David Congdon, to do this little Q&A type thing over there.

Anyway, we're doing it tomorrow so if you have some time on your hands, surf on over to /r/Catacombs and join the conversation. See you there!

UPDATE (08.15.2012, 10:17AM CST): This whole thing is currently getting underway, so surf over and say hi!


Thursday, August 09, 2012

In Defense of Theological Blogging and Belligerence, with Christopher Hitchens

And now, for something a little odd…

I mean, of course, the very idea that one might defend the practice of theology blogging by recourse to a self-avowed atheist like Hitch. But perhaps DET readers are not surprised that I, in particular, might do so. After all, I posted about Hitchens previously, even defending his position (to a limited extent) in the comments thread, and I made some suggestive comments about “practical atheism” or “functional secularism” in a post on Dan Migliore and fideism.

To take up another angle: there are theologians, and there are theological belligerents. The former go about their work in a peaceful manner, the latter go about it with, let us say, a polemical horizon. Where I come from, the latter tend to be looked down upon. One hears all sorts of things about how Christians shouldn’t “fight” amongst themselves, etc. I have even heard variations on these sentiments to the effect that blogging about theology is inherently destructive because it so easily takes on a polemical tone. In response, here is Hitchens. I’ll have more to say at post’s end…

Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 20-1.
Christopher Hitchens, by Fri Tanke [CC BY 3.0]
(via Wikimedia Commons)
As a species, we may by all means think ruefully about the waste and horror produced by war and other forms of rivalry and jealousy. However, this can’t alter the fact that in life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation. The concept of the dialectic may well have been partly discredited by its advocates, but that does not permit us to disown it. There must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled. You have probably heard, from one complacent pundit or another, the view that argument produces “more heat than light.” You have certainly been instructed that the truth lies not at one pole or another but “somewhere in between.” And I think I can be sure that you have heard the old standby, to the effect that matters are not black or white, but differing shades of gray.

May I offer you some observations of my own in response? We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light. Reducing the sun to room temperature would decrease light to nothing at all, as well as generating a definite chill. The truth cannot lie, but if it could, it would lie somewhere in between. On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split; one does not look for a synthesis between verity and falsehood; the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next. As for the chiaroscuro, or the light and shade, the platitude is at least a little more artistic. (Watching a Civil War reenactment at Gettysburg a few years ago, I wrote in my notebook that those who wore the Gray had been conditioned to think in terms of black and white.) Neither black nor white are true colors, but then neither is gray.

Tautology lurks, and waits to enclose you. The Greek oracle proclaimed “Nothing Too Much” as the supreme wisdom; the lazy modern translation is “Moderation in All Things,” which is not quite the same. One admires the Greek style for its quiet emphasis on symmetry and balance, but then what if the balance is tipped and the time disjointed? Of what use is the “moderate” then? The Gray uniforms at Gettysburg might not have been deployed, or not have been defeated, if it were not for fanatics and absolutists like John Brown, who regarded compromise as disgrace. No doubt you can think of your own examples.

If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the “center” will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and where it is.
It seems to me that Hitch’s point is twofold:
  1. Intellectual disagreement, debate, struggle, contest, etc., is vital for the development of ideas. I take this to be rather uncontroversial. One need only look at the development of trinitarian and christological doctrine in the early Christian centuries to see that this is fundamentally true (and, consequently, that it can be a good thing). Theological blogging and belligerence is, therefore, helpful for developing theological vision.
  2. Intellectual disagreement, debate, struggle, contest, etc., is vital for the shaping of contemporary theological (and ecclesiastical) culture. Such culture is influenced not primarily by the spectrum of conceivably possible theological positions, but by the spectrum of positions actually offered to it. To take an analogy from politics…

    Even as recently as ~75 years ago, democratic socialism was a live option in the United States. Today, discussing such things positively is an act of almost certain political suicide for a candidate. Why? Because the nation’s political conversation was dominated by other views. As a consequence, the spectrum of “liberal” to “conservative” in this country is skewed: even the so-called liberals are rather conservative when compared to other possibilities. Does one attempt to counter the incredibly damaging effects of such a situation by going about one’s life peacefully and never making noise to challenge the status quo, or is being belligerent and making a nuisance of oneself perhaps more conducive to bringing the issue to broader consciousness?

    The same principle obtains in theological spheres.

    Hitchens gets at this well in another quotation from elsewhere in the same text: “Remember that saying nothing is also a decision, and that the relativists and the “nonjudgmental” have made up their minds just as much, if not as firmly” (83).
All this in support of theological blogging and belligerence. Of course, as Christian theologians, we have to distinguish between the fundamental necessity (I believe) of taking a belligerent stance, and the rules of engagement for waging the battle. At the level of particulars, crass ad hominem is not a suitable option. At the more general level, I have three rules for such combat:
  1. It must be intellectual only. Sure, it’s kind of funny to think back to St Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea, but I expect most people would agree with me in saying that physical altercation over a theological point is not proper.
  2. It cannot be total war. This builds on the previous. One should not attempt to undermine the livelihood, relationships, and other such aspects of your opponent’s life. The goal is not to destroy one’s opponent, but to improve the intellectual and cultural situation in view.
  3. It must be Christian. This is the positive point that undergirds the two previous negative points. Theological belligerents ought not forget that their opponents are those for whom Jesus Christ was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. As such, their basic human dignity must be upheld at all costs, even while vigorously contesting their position.
Well, this has gone on for longer than I expected and certainly for long enough. Just a concluding thought: one of the primary reasons I mourn the decline in theology blogging that has occurred over the past few years is because it in many respects represents a decline in theological belligerence. What was conducted through pamphlet wars in the past can also be conducted through theology blogging, but the practice is greatly diminished – at least among the folks who might uphold the sort of positions for which I am a belligerent. So, if any of you are reading (perhaps you stopped somewhere in the midst of the long Hitchens quotation, or before…), consider this a call to arms.


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

So, You Want to Read John Mackay?

By DET contributors Scott Rice and Matt Warren

Born in the highlands of Scotland, ecumenist, missionary to Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico, and ecclesiastical leader in the United States, John Mackay has left a legacy for the church that compares to a figure like Leslie Newbigin. Last fall, we (i.e., Scott Rice and Matt Warren) participated in a doctoral seminar that assessed the missional and ecumenical legacy of Mackay. Mackay is probably most well known for his The Other Spanish Christ. It has been said that this book, published in the 1930’s, very well might become standard reading in American seminaries as the church comes to grips with how the gospel translates into other cultures, a thrice-over task for Mackay. What we have put together below is a list of resources for anyone interested in investigating the work of this key ecumenical figure.

  1. John Mackay Metzger’s The Hand and the Road: The Life and Times of John A. Mackay. This book was just recently published and is hands down, a great place to start for the reader assessing what aspect of Mackay’s thought and life to explore further. Metzger, Mackay’s grandson, offers a detailed view of Mackay that stretches from his upbringing in Scotland, through his missionary preparation in Spain with Miguel De Unamuno and his studies at Bonn with Karl Barth, to his role as president of Princeton Theological Seminary. What is most impressive about this work is Metgzer’s ability to synthesize a life-story, one that concerns both a deep personal spirituality and a finely tuned theology, with Mackay’s constant attention to the church and its larger mission.
  2. John Mackay’s Ecumenics: The Science of the Church Universal. As a forerunner and leading participant in the ecumenical movement, Mackay attempts to ask in this work, and not uncritically, what is the nature of church universal, the church who confesses that Jesus is Lord, as it functions both internally and towards the world? Of course then, Mackay must take up the difficult questions of the church’s present splintered existence. Is the unity which it seeks external, spiritual, or something else? This is where Mackay puts forward his baldest thesis; that is, the church is most like its Lord and therefore united not when it looks inward but when it looks to the world in its missional task. Unity, for Mackay, happens in missional participation. If Ecumenics is to be willingly received or rejected, it will most likely hinge on this claim.
  3. John Mackay’s The Other Spanish Christ. Of this book, Reinhold Niebuhr said, “[it] must be published for it is rich in both original insights and in erudition in a field of literature still a closed book to most of us.” Its subject is the religious life and history of South America as shaped by the Iberian soul. Its “thesis,” says John Mackay Metzger, “in its most simple form is that the dominant conception of the Spanish Christ . . . is a dead Christ. The ‘other Spanish Christ’ is the living Christ of the Spanish mystics” (Metzger, 227). In essence, Mackay traces the missionary transmission of these two Christs from Spain to South America. Mackay does this in three parts. First, Mackay treats the Conquest and the initial transmission of Roman Catholicism to South America. Next, in Part II, Mackay offers an analysis of the religious system born out of the naturalization of Roman Catholicism in South America. Finally, in Part III, Mackay surveys the spiritual movements of South America that lay outside the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church, including those of both a religious and secular nature. In the latter half of this section, Mackay describes and evaluates Protestant missionary efforts, and reflects on the possibility of ecumenism in South America. To this day, it remains a useful resource for missionaries, theologians, historians, and all who wish to study Latin America.
  4. John Mackay’s A Preface to Christian Theology. Mackay composed this book even as Hitler’s forces marched across France and occupied Paris. The world stood at the end of one era and the uncertain beginning of a another. In this book, Mackay developes his famous call for the church to get off the Balcony and onto the Road. The Balcony and the Road are states of the soul. “By the Road I mean the place where life is tensely lived, where thought has its birth in conflict and concern, where choices are made and decisions are carried out,” says Mackay (30). After likening the world in its present situation to the travelers on the road to Emmaus, Mackay points his readers to where they may encounter Jesus Christ, namely, the Scriptures. Parenthetically, this book will be of interest to Barth scholars as Mackay draws heavily upon his theology. With the encounter with Jesus Christ in view, Mackay puts forth a Christologically informed conception of history as divine drama in which the will to fellowship triumphs over the will to power. In the remaining chapters, Mackay moves from ontology to ethics, from indicative to imperative. “Having dealt with things that are,” says Mackay, “we pass on to things that should be” (106). He discusses the kind of personal and corporate life born out of an encounter with Jesus Christ, and the relation of the church to the secular order. Here, Mackay restates the 1937 Oxford Conference slogan: “The role of the Church is to be the Church” (170, emphasis in original).
  5. John Mackay’s “A Letter to Presbyterians.” An important part of Mackay’s legacy is his brave stance against McCarthyism. After being labled a communist sympathizer by Joseph Matthews in an article entitled, “Reds and Our Churches,” Mackay drafted this letter and submitted it to the General Council of the Presbyterian Church, which adopted it in the fall of 1953. In this piece, Mackay first describes the menace of communism while also criticizing what he observed as a purely negative approach to the problem in American political discourse. Then Mackay sets forth three principles: 1) the church’s prophetic function in society, 2) the preservation of truth, and 3) God’s sovreignty in history. In the end, the letter played an important role in stemming McCarthy’s anti-communist tide. This short piece is an excellent way into Mackay’s thought. You can find a digitized reprint here in Princeton Theological Seminary’s new Digital Journals.


Saturday, August 04, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

I don’t know about you, but this fortnight felt like it flew by! Maybe it’s a result of how busy I am. At least I am finally beginning to feel like my busyness is turning productive. But more on that later. In the meantime, here are some links!

To begin, here are some DET related links:

Alright, enough of the down-home stuff. Let’s see what’s going on in the wider theo-blogging world!

  • Let me begin with what I think is the “big one” out of these links. Here is a letter signed by law professors at a wide variety of institutions across the country urging Obama to stick to his guns on all the matters of purported religious freedom currently circulating in public discourse. This letter argues that it is actually those who challenge the administration’s current policies who are seeking to limit religious freedom, and that these folks are on the wrong side of the relevant law code. Here are the first two paragraphs:
    We are law professors concerned about the Constitution, religious freedom, individual liberty, and gender equality. Today, the egalitarian notion that every American deserves to enjoy religious freedom is under attack from those who would cede employees’ religious-liberty rights to corporate executives and nonprofit directors. In this cramped and one-sided view of religious freedom, supervisors are entitled to decide, based on their religious sentiments, whether their employees will be permitted to enjoy essential health benefits without the slightest concern for their religious beliefs. In particular, advocates claim that the Constitution gives all employers the right to veto their employees’ health-insurance coverage of contraception.

    This view, which is espoused by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others, is both wrong as a matter of law and profoundly undemocratic. Nothing in our nation’s history or laws permits a boss to impose his or her religious views on nonconsenting employees. Indeed, this nation was founded upon the basic principle that every individual – whether company president or assistant janitor – has an equal claim to religious freedom.
  • Collin Cornell, whose blog I have been featuring in this list with some regularity this year, has another good post up. This time he reflects on what it means to do biblical theology today.
  • Here is more from Collin, this time it’s 9 points of reflection on reading Augustine’s City of God.
  • Darren Sumner gives us the abstract of the paper he presented at a recent St. Andrews conference on the subject of Galatians and theology.
  • I don’t often have opportunity to post links to videos here at DET, but today I do. Here is a video of George Hunsinger giving a paper at a BIOLA conference this past May. The subject is: “Barth on What it Means to be Human.”
  • Kim Fabricius gives us yet another set of – you guessed it! - doodlings! Here’s my favorite from this list: “There are rumours of funding cuts at Princeton’s Center for Barth Studies: George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack have been seen wearing “Save the Whale” tee shirts around campus.”
  • Friend of the blog and past KBBC contributor (more than once) Andy Guffey posts: Pauline Soteriology: Theosis or Deification?
  • Wow, I actually went a few links there without mentioning Collin Cornell. But I’m afraid that streak now comes to an end. Let’s be honest – he’s one of the more active young theo-blogger out there. Here is a post entitled: How Not to Prove the Resurrection.
  • Here is yet more Collin, this time it’s a sermon on 2 Samuel 6.1-15.
  • Alright, I swear, this is the last link to Collin for today. Check out his reflections on reading some of Oliver O’Donovan’s sermons.
  • Cynthia Nielsen posts about the challenges facing female and otherwise minority scholars in the academy today, as seen through the prism of stupid things white males have said to her. The post is titled, Awkward Academic Moments: The Woman Issue, Red Herrings, and Other Nonsense.
  • Evan Kuehn posts about the recent shutting-down of the University of Missouri press, and about the current drift in higher education toward for-profit business models (and all that entails for scholarship), complete with what I think is a very insightful cartoon: When is a university not a university?
  • Here is a post highlighting a piece of information that has the American Roman Catholic bishops of the culture-warrior ilk revving up their spin machines: the Pope made a public statement in 2010 endorsing condom use in (very) limited circumstances. Of course, this has amazing implications for the issue tacked by the first link in this category above. Maybe it’s the bishops rather than the nuns that need to be drawn up on CDF charges . . . Anyway, here’s the link.
  • Finally, allow me to end with something from good friend of the blog Jason Ingalls, this time the fifth installment of his series on the BCP baptismal covenant.

There you have it. Happy reading! Until next time . . .


Thursday, August 02, 2012

August Book O’ the Month - "Prayer" by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Immediately following my last semester at Princeton Theological Seminary, I read Eugene H. Peterson’s The Pastor with a local PC(USA) pastor. Reflecting on his pastoral development, Peterson writes “I still had a great deal to learn about the vocation of pastor, but I knew one thing for sure: the work of prayer was at the heart of everything” (150). I underlined and starred the sentence, knowing that this is true—at least in theory. Having been schooled in the theology of Karl Barth, I could support Peterson’s recognition with theological depth. (For, as Barth states in Evangelical Theology,*** “The first and basic act of theological work is prayer” [160].) Theoretical assent notwithstanding, I knew that the work of prayer was not exactly the heart or the basic act of my daily life. During my attempt to make Peterson and Barth’s propositions truer in practice, I stumbled upon Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer.

In the course of a month, I spent a small amount of time reading Balthasar’s book at the beginning of the day. Over the course of that month, my wife and I said goodbye to our closest friends and settled in a completely new place. Prayer became my constant in that month. Each morning, I listened to Balthasar pleading me to listen to God speaking. He writes, “Harassed by life, exhausted, we look about us for somewhere to be quiet, to be genuine, a place of refreshment. We yearn to restore our spirits in God, to simply let go in him and gain new strength to go on living. But we fail to look for him where he is waiting for us, where he is to be found: in his Son, who is his Word” (16). I must confess: when I picked up Balthasar’s book, I was looking for practical tips—a manual for contemplation of sorts. However, Balthasar is well aware of this desire and he resists it on every page. For Balthasar, prayer is a fresh and daily encounter with the God who has spoken and continues to speak. This encounter cannot be prescribed, outlined, or anticipated because it is an encounter with the Living God who reigns in freedom. Balthasar, of course, says it better:

The vital thing is the living encounter with the God who speaks to us in his Word, whose eyes pierce and purify us ‘like a flame of fire’ (Rev 1:14), whose command summons us to new obedience, who each day instructs us as if until now we had learned nothing, whose power sends us out anew into the world upon our mission. (22)
Over this month, Prayer helped me to be the beggar that I am. As such a beggar, listening is the primary activity of every new day.

Prayer is my introduction to Balthasar’s theology. In the book, one gets a good taste of Balthasar’s theological contribution. There is much theological reflection on Mary, divine kenosis, Ignatian spirituality, Holy Saturday, and the mysterious drama of cross and resurrection. This theological reflection is centered on a robust doctrine of the incarnation. According to Balthasar, the Christian contemplates the indivisible work and person of Christ as the “translation of the nature of God in human terms” (164). Or in dramatic terms: “. . . Christ’s suffering, his God-forsakenness, his death and descent into hell is the revelation of a divine mystery, the language which God has chosen in order to render himself and his love intelligible to us” (ibid.). It is Balthasar’s reflection on the humanity of Christ that emboldens Prayer with theological weight and spiritual insight. Due to Balthasar’s thoroughly christological spirituality and theology, I will no doubt return to his work.

I commend Prayer to you not only because it is written beautifully or because it is theologically rich, but because it is a powerful resource for enriching the work of prayer. With the help of Balthasar, I have become a better listener—a better hearer—of God’s Living Word. Prayer helped me to understand why prayer must be the heart of everyday living and the first and most basic work of the Christian life.

[***]Ed. note - Attend, gentle readers, to this very pertinent and meaningful quotation from the book that Darren Sumner so maliciously maligns.