Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paul Zahl's (un)Ecclesiology

No one has ever awakened in the middle of the night anxious about ecclesiology per se (225).

In this, my final post on Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life, I will focus on Zahl’s ecclesiology, or rather, his non-ecclesiology. I raise this aspect of Zahl’s thought because, at least in my view, it stands against the flow of current trends. Just as ecclesiology seems to be all the rage, we have in Paul Zahl a resounding indifference.

I have no ecclesiology. ‘Ecclesiology’ is a word that means doctrine of the church. An ‘ecclesiology’ is a teaching or concept concerning the Christian church: what it is, what it consists of, what is important in it, and how it relates to other ideas about the church. When I say, ‘I have no ecclesiology,’ I am not really saying that. I am simply saying that ‘ecclesiology’ is unimportant to me. It is low on my list of theological values (225).

Zahl offers two reasons why ecclesiology is unimportant in a theology for everyday life: 1) positively, other doctrines are more important, i.e., they keep you awake at night where ecclesiology does not, 2) negatively, ecclesiology can tend to set the church off in distinction from the world into a kind of original sin-free zone (225). For Zahl, the only proper ecclesiology, then, is a non-ecclesiology: “To have no ecclesiology is to have an ecclesiology” (226, emphasis original). That is, thinking little of the church is still a view of the church. Such a view, though, stands in sharp contrast to the proliferation of conferences now focusing on the church’s mission, what the church isn’t doing, what it has got to do, and especially, on discerning the church’s missional strategy in a post-Christendom culture. Having no ecclesiology allows the everyday Christian to focus instead on what ought to capture his or her attention, namely, the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In a theology of everyday life our focus turns to the head of the church and away from “a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived” (225). At bottom, Zahl’s ecclesiology is a reminder of where to look.

What Zahl does embrace is what he calls an “ecclesiology of suspicion” (228). This ecclesiology rejects the idea of the church as “original sin-free zone” and limits the church’s authority. For Zahl, “A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to church, irreducibly Protestant” (228). No ecclesial form holds ultimate authority. It is Christ who is over the church and the Spirit who moves it.

Having no ecclesiology is to possess a proper ecclesiology. Whatever form an emerging church takes, it cannot be dried for observation. It is a pneumatic, Spirit-led movement, always, like mercury in motion. Church is flux. A systematic theology of grace puts church in its right place. Church is at best the caboose to grace. It is its tail. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, makes church into the engine (228).

We might summarize Zahl’s ecclesiology as follows: the church as an idea is unimportant, the church stands with the world under the law and ever in need of grace, Christ and his Spirit are the authority over the church, ecclesiological form is subordinate to the experience of grace. With the proliferation of ecclesiologically focused literature, missional conferences, and networks (heck, my own church’s network is called The Ecclesia Network!), I think that Zahl’s non-ecclesiology offers a helpful perspective.

At the very least, reading Zahl on ecclesiology now has me wanting to read Emil Brunner’s The Misunderstanding of the Church.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Paul Zahl on Law and Grace in Everyday Life

“In life there are two governing principles that are at war with one another. The first is law; the second is grace…. The law crushes the human spirit; grace lifts it” (1).

“Law is hell on earth. It is rigidly fixed as the lot of every person who has ever lived. Grace, on the other hand, is what everyone desires. One-way love is the object of all human craving” (80).

For my third post on Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life I here lift up a few quotations from Zahl that I believe capture the essence of his “theology for everyday life” with respect to law and grace. I will allow Zahl to speak for himself, but as you read these quotations do keep in mind that Zahl is attempting to capture an accurate description of “how Christianity works” (27) on the plain of human experience. I have found these insights regarding law and grace to be both theologically challenging and homiletically helpful. All emphasis is Zahl’s.

What is Law?
Any judgment, any evaluation – even if it approves and speaks a blessing – will be heard as a negation. This is an absolute first principle of this book. Law is an attack. It is heard as a negation by its recipient. All laws are negation. God’s law is the negation (6).
Law is true. It is also impotent and counterproductive. It produces its opposite (9).
What I am saying, and what the Bible teaches and demonstrates, is that the law cannot deliver what it promises. We are made in such a way that we instinctually rebut and act against the law in all its forms. If someone tells me to do something, I immediately oppose it. It is my nature to do so (13).

What is Grace?
Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unloveable…. Grace is one-way love. That is the definition for this book. Grace is one-way love (35-36).
Grace as one-way love is thus the opposite of law. Law depresses and incites. Grace enlivens and enables (36).
God’s one-way loves is a love that acts independent of all response to it yet at the same time elicits a response. ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). That is the premise of this book. Grace works independent of its response, but typically engenders it (38).
The dead end of the law succumbs to absolution. This is the continual note in Paul’s voice. Grace, which is absolution, is the second and defining word from God, after the first word of judgment. It is not a word that is said just once or even twice or three times. It is said every hour. The absolving word never fails and never halts. The ‘eternal return’ of Romans 7, by which men and women always go back to square one of their bound repetition-compulsion to sin, is allied with its grace-full replay: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation’ (47).

What is the Relation between Law and Grace?
If we separate grace and law, which life experience does for us, it has the result paradoxically of reunifying the two. When grace is heard and received, when it is not confounded in any degree by the law, it paints a masterpiece: a person unconditionally affirmed who becomes instantaneously the expresser of love, joy, peace, meekness, kindness, and creativity. This graced human being becomes the flesh-and-blood example of the thing the law had wanted of him. Yet the law is gone from his or her mind. Grace produces the appearance of what the law says it wants, but only when grace is able to act unilaterally. Looking at this man or woman, who has been given grace unconditionally, we see established in him or her the very faithfulness and chastity and hopeful spirit that the law had sought to pound into that person (87).
I have emphasized that grace and law are opposite forces resolved in the crucifixion of Christ. Grace and law are separate in experience. There is either grace in love or law in judgment. But law always destroys love in its reception. No exception to this exists within human experience. Either grace is entirely grace or it possesses not a drop of creative worth. There are no double messages in grace. Grace in this sense is against the law. The irony is that grace always produces the sterling character that the law intends. But that promise can never be stated within the initial offer of grace. It cannot even be thought. It cannot even be hoped. If we think this or hope for it, our grace has strings attached. Grace must be tied to nothing. This is the key to its being effective in practice in everyday life. Grace is against the law. Nevertheless, in the twilight zone of the ‘back story’ that operates behind all human beings throughout all of time, grace fulfills the law (92).

An Example: Grace in Raising Children

Over half of Zahl’s book consists of concrete examples of what law and grace look like in various everyday life scenarios. I present here a general comment made by Zahl on law and grace in relation to children because, as Zahl says, “In a systematic theology of grace in relation to everyday life, the relation of parents to children plays the most important role of all” (163):
Law mars and destroys this relationship [between parents and child], even when it is offered in the name of love. Grace, on the other hand, creates lifelong response of love. Every parent I know who has ‘lost’ his or her children sees the effects of the law. If only you could go back and reorder the relationship from the top down, to instantiate one-way love. Every parent I know who has the attentive love of his or her children is watching the effects of grace. Although there is neither a perfect correlation between grace-full parenting and the flourishing of adult children nor a one-to-one correlation between parents as law-bearers and adult children as fleeing hippies, there is still a close link between accepting love and its fruit, which his freed love in response, and stinting ‘love’ and its result, which is half-love, or quarter-love, back the other way (163).
The list of everyday life scenarios treated by Zahl in Grace in Practice includes, among others, the following: grace with parents and siblings, in politics and criminal justice, at the mall, and even in the church.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

It's DET's Birthday!

DET is seven years old! The founder and leader of DET asked me to write about this, so here are some reflections...

For me personally, my appreciation of this blog begins prior to joining on. This blog, along with some others (here are two examples) were extremely important to me as I began to focus more seriously on theology. For a variety of reasons, I've always felt like I was behind in my understanding of theology, and DET provided current snapshots and facilitated discussions. This was invaluable for me. Though I rarely commented, for nearly the duration of my more serious study of theology I've kept an eye on what was going on here.

I especially paid attention to the Karl Barth Blog Conferences. Years later, those posts continue to be interesting, especially the comment threads. Particular discussions and phrases still stick with me. At times, it seemed to me that some of the best thinking by people approximately my age was going on in those discussions. I'd encourage anyone reading to go have a look at those posts.

For roughly a year I've been writing at DET. I've been excited to do this, though with the high standards of those Karl Barth Blog Conferences still in mind, it hasn't always been easy to try to write for those who follow DET. Nonetheless, if has been a great experience for me. I hope to continue to stretch and force myself to articulate where my thinking is headed [without giving too much away of course ;) ].

So those are my reflections on DET's birthday. I'd like to end by asking "what are your memories and reflections on DET? How has it challenged and benefitted you?" While recent posts have shown that DET is still going strong, it would be fun to hear everyone else's "reminiscences." Last thing: I'd like to invite any who are reading to participate. Let us know if you are interested!


Thursday, July 25, 2013

‘Most Interesting Theologians’ Twitter Bonanza

So there I was. Sitting quietly in my office. Reading classic Chinese philosophy of all things . . . Mengzi, to be exact. Then it happened. I saw an article on “The Most Interesting Theologians in the World”. Here is how that post introduces the concept:

By Annagoldbergww (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]
(via Wikimedia Commons)
You’re familiar with Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World." It is said that he once “led a flock of endangered cranes across Siberia on a motorized hang glider.” “When it is raining, it’s because he’s thinking of something sad.” And, “At museums, he’s allowed to touch the art.”

The post went on to provide pictures with clever captions, all trading on the familiar pattern: “I don’t always X, but when I do, I prefer X. Stay X, my friends.”

To put it mildly, this was a meme waiting to happen.

So I did what any sane professor of religion would do. I immediately contacted my friend, colleague, theologically-conjoined twin, and partner in all things nefarious (David Congdon, for those of you who may be new to DET), and showed him the post. He agreed with my conclusion: We must Twitter-bomb this!

So we did.

But then I worried that some of you, gentle readers, may not keep a close enough eye on Twitter to have observed this historic event. So, without further ado, I give you the Congdon & McMaken & Friends “Most Interesting Theologians” Twitter bonanza! (Sorry if this is a bit long, but it's worth it - IMHO...)


Updated on May 26, 2016 in honor of John Webster's entry into the church triumphant:



Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jason Goroncy on Hell in 19th c. British Evangelicalism

Lately I’ve been reading fellow theo-blogger Jason Goroncy’s book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth. A proper review will be published in due course, but in the meantime, I thought that I would let you all in on an interesting paragraph that I found. This paragraph deals with the state of British evangelicalism in the 19th century vis-à-vis the related questions of hell, annihilation, and universalism. I find this passage particularly fascinating because the pendulum seems to have swung soundly in the opposite direction in contemporary North American evangelicalism. It was less than a decade ago, for instance, that one evangelical denomination replaced vague language about “eternal judgment” with the much more concrete phrase “eternal conscious torment.” So what Goroncy has to tell us here may lend some much needed perspective.

Jason Goroncy, Hallowed Be Thy Name (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 180–81. As usual, bold is mine.
Certainly from about 1800, debates concerning the final fate of the impenitent were hotly contested (and not only by Unitarians who took a particular interest in such) and question of an apokatastasis, annihilationism and the possibility of post-mortem probation were all posed as theologically viable options for Christians. Along with reworked doctrines of election, justification and atonement, there were, also, no shortage of theories of punishment that flirted with deterrence, prevention and purgatorial rehabilitation schemes. Part of the fall-out of such debates was a substantial abandonment of the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment. Nevertheless, hell remained – at least officially[*] – a component of Christian dogma, predominantly serving as a moral sanction and witnessing to the abiding magnitude of ultimate ethical axioms. . . . There was . . . a growing sense even among evangelicals that the doctrine of everlasting punishment be not given undue weight. Generally, evangelicals continued to endorse the reality of hell, but even one as conservative as C. H. Spurgeon was able to quote approvingly Henry Ward Beecher that the future of the impenitent was God’s business and not ours. Evangelicals, by and large, no longer dwelt on hell’s prospects, or to its attendant details, and certainly did not relish them. Increasingly, there prevailed an italicizing of God’s love and a hope that ‘there may be some transcendent manifestation of the Divine grace in reserve, of which as yet we have no hint’.
*Ed. note: Who determines this?


Friday, July 19, 2013

Karl Barth on the Idolatry of God’s Wrath

I came across this passage in Barth’s Epistle to the Romans recently and thought it was too good not to share. Here Barth expounds Romans 14.13–15. In the contemporary North American context, appeal is often made to God’s wrath (or, in more polite company, God’s justice) when folks (generally of the more conservative variety) want to marginalize or stigmatize something by means of their religious convictions. How’s that for putting it generally? I’ll let you, gentle readers, fill in the details. This is what Barth has to say on the subject. Those who have ears to hear…

Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 516–17. Bold is mine; caps are Barth’s.
We are exhorted in the Epistle to the Romans to a particular line of conduct, not in order that we may adopt the point of view of God, but that we might bear it in mind, consider it from all sides, and then live within its gravity. To judge involves the capacity to assign guilt and to envelop an action in wrath. God has this capacity and exercises it continuously. But, as the capacity of God, it is invisibly one with His forgiveness and with the manifestation of His righteousness. Our action in judging possesses, however, nothing of this double-sidedness. We do not possess the divine freedom of rejecting AND electing. When we permit ourselves to judge others, we are caught up in condemnation: the result is that we merely succeed in erecting the wrath of God as an idol. . . . When God rejects and hardens there is hope and promise. . . . How different it is when men, putting themselves in God’s place, put stumblingblocks in the way of other men. They seek only to harden, and not to liberate; only to bind, and not to loose; only to kill, and not to make alive. . . . Here once again the supreme right is the supreme wrong, if we suppose that right is OUR right.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Disliking a Hero: Assessing Brevard Childs after Seminary - A guest post by Collin Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

This spring I graduated from seminary and this fall I will begin a doctoral program. The in-between time has been good for revisiting – and interrogating – some of the intellectual sources I brought to seminary.

Primary amongst the figures who shaped my thinking before seminary is Brevard Childs. As with most of my heroes from college, my understanding of this man’s ideas stood isolated from their historical backdrop. His proposals thus appeared more unique and innovative than they really were, as I discovered by reading into a larger discussion within mid-century (German) research. Childs caused a ruckus on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s hard to know how much that owed to his unparalleled command of biblical scholarship from both hemispheres rather than to creative genius. His transcontinental education made him unusually competent to develop and marshal the insights of the one school (theologically supercharged German tradition-historical criticism) to the confusions of the other (American “biblical theology”).

In any case, situating Childs within a wider intellectual horizon has meant that I hear him and his aftercomers in a new way: specifically, I don’t like that they come off as offering a panacea to the problems of contemporary biblical theology. Their tone is combative and mystagogical: here and here only lies the salvation of a badly damaged theological vessel. “The canonical approach” is synonymous with Childs’ deployment of its key concepts. Sadly, I imagine this posturing has created as many wholesale rejections of their project as it has zealous party members. In fact, even if the entire edifice is unique in its assemblage, most individual tenets of Childs’ enterprise find some forebear or analogue in German scholarship. They are arguments like others (it should go without saying), susceptible to debate and improvement.

To take one example, in his most recent book, Childs’ successor, Christopher Seitz, defends “the canonical approach” against various criticisms (The Character of Christian Scripture). One of these is that the canonical approach “does not pay sufficient attention to history” (36). Seitz seems to have conservative evangelicals in view; unlike them, Childs denies that the Bible uniformly represents historical “facts.” With mainstream scholarship, Childs recognizes the gap between the history of Israel as recovered by modern critical methods and the history of Israel as rendered by the Bible. But he does not play the one off the other, empirical history against literary history. Instead, Childs envisions the literary development of biblical traditions and especially their eventuation in the final form as itself a form of history: indeed, as a providential extension and intensification of the empirical history beneath. Childs “sees historical reference as taken up into a fresh account of what history in fact is, lodged at the level of the literary presentation of the final form” (ibid.). Or, in other words, “the development of the text into its final form is also a historical fact, worthy of investigation” (38).

Seitz lists this idea – literary history as history – as a constitutive piece of the canonical approach, which Seitz in turn characterizes as specially tied to Childs as an individual (32). What Seitz’s presentation omits is the genesis of this idea in German research of the early 1960s – and the critical storms it endured at that time.

Gerhard von Rad’s classic OT theology also acknowledged the distance between the two pictures of the Israel’s past, critical and biblical – and proposed to build a theology from the latter confessional record. This decision occasioned much debate. Several exegetes and theologians accused von Rad of constructing a theology out of facts that simply did not happen. Victor Maag deemed the confessional version of Israel’s history a “surrogate” and a “falsifying fiction” (SchThU 1959, 18; all translations are mine). Franz Hesse wrote that “our faith lives from that which happened in Old Testament times, not from that which is confessed as having happened…Kerygma is not constitutive for our faith, but historical reality is” (ZThK 1960, 21). The venerable Walter Eichrodt called von Rad the Bultmann of the Old Testament, because he thought von Rad, too, sundered the kerygma from “historical reality” (TOT, 514).

In reply to such detractors, von Rad insisted that “the kerygmatic picture of history is in its own way also a fundamental fact of enormous historical power [Geschichtswirksamkeit]” (EvTh 1964, 393). How? In a festschrift essay for von Rad, his student Rolf Rendtorff illustrates. As a method, tradition-historical criticism reverse engineers the traditions whose finalized form the Bible enshrines; it traces bundles of story back into earlier forms, and ultimately, to the presumed “historical event” at their starting point. In the case of the tradition about Israel’s being led out Egypt, Rendtorff holds that the kernel of the story “touches ‘fact,’” e.g., nomads emigrated from Egypt to Canaan (“Geschichte und Überlieferung,” 88). But in its subsequent evolution, a mass of other traditions gathered around this kernel: the sea escape, the wilderness wandering, the Sinai covenant, etc. The latter complex, taken as a whole, is the object of von Rad’s theological interest. Not so von Rad’s critics, who wished only to take the isolated “historical” kernel as theologically determinative. But this is arbitrarily to bracket the historical process that followed from that founding event: namely, its interpretation and amplification (89). A true history of Israel comprehends the entirety of a given tradition, and especially its shape at the end of its journey, where the fullest exposition of its meaning is found.

Rendtorff also frames this process theologically by claiming the witness of Israel as an act of God, too, where his critics treated only the “naked facts” at the root of biblical traditions as divinely effected. Rendtorff asks: “does God act only here and there and leave Israel to itself in the between-times?” (90). His answer is no: God’s activity encompassed not only the punctiliar wonders that Israel remembered but their whole life, including their literary endeavor. Here, too, Childs peculiar manner of wedding inspiration and providence finds a parallel. Not only his tradition-historical orientation but his theological mobilization of this method resembles his German relatives.

Childs and his followers are hardly guilty of pastiche; their accomplishments are real, and I stand in their debt. But as with all heroes, I have learned to see him in context. And when this context is so contested – and so very local – I wish that he (and they) had not chosen quite such apocalyptic rhetoric.


Monday, July 15, 2013

More on “Grace in Practice”: Schleiermacher, Barth, and Zahl on an Anthropological Starting Point for Theology

In my initial post on Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice, I indicated that I would like to devote this second one to the anthropological starting point of his “theology of everyday life.” I raise this topic because I believe that Zahl’s Grace in Practice may provide a way toward reconciling the theologies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, especially with respect to dogmatic organization and the role of experience in theology. Zahl does not explicitly make this case, but I do think that his theology opens up such a possibility. A full treatment of this topic could hardly be contained within a blog post. My hope here, then, is simply to highlight a few salient issues and show how Zahl might offer a way forward. With that, let’s now set up the problem that Zahl might help to resolve.

As many readers of DET will know, Barth’s theology explicitly rejects Schleiermacher’s “anthropologising of theology” (CD I.1, 20). That is, Barth rejects anthropology as the normative principle and starting point of dogmatic theology. We see this even in the structure of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which effectively reverses that of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith.

First, where Schleiermacher treats the doctrine of the Trinity in his conclusion (relegating it to a mere appendix in the eyes of some; not mine, though), Barth treats it in the very first of the fourteen part-volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

Second, by locating Christology in the Second Part of The Christian Faith, that is, within his treatment of the Christian consciousness of grace, it appears that Schleiermacher subordinates Christology to anthropology. According to James Duke and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, even in Schleiermacher’s own day, “there was widespread suspicion that Schleiermacher treated Jesus Christ the redeemer as a postulate derived from the need for redemption” (On the Glaubenslehre, 28). Barth’s Christocentrism, on the other hand, is well known.

Finally, where religious experience, i.e. religious self-consciousness and the feeling of absolute dependence, dominates Schleiermacher’s dogmatics, Barth provides religious experience no such place in his scheme. In fact, Barth reserves his treatment of the individual Christian’s experience of faith, hope, and love to the concluding pages of parts 1-3 of CD IV. And even then, “we shall speak correctly of the faith and love and hope of the individual Christian,” says Barth, “only when it remains clear and constantly becomes clear that, although we are dealing with our existence, that we are therefore dealing with our existence in Jesus Christ as our true existence, that we are therefore dealing with Him and not with us, and with us only in so far as absolutely and exclusively with Him” (CD IV.1, 154). So much for an anthropological starting point.

We see the root of Barth’s allergy to “experience” in statements like this: “the term (experience) is burdened—this is why we avoid it—with the underlying idea that man generally is capable of religious experience or that this capability has the critical significance of a norm” (CD I.1, 193, emphasis mine). At issue in these differences between Schleiermacher and Barth over both dogmatic structure and the role of experience is the normative principle of dogmatic theology. For Schleiermacher, “the feeling of absolute dependence,” and therefore anthropology, remains the norming principle throughout his system. And even though Schleiermacher did suggest that he could have reversed the structure of The Christian Faith, placing the Second Part on Christology before the First Part on the development of the religious self-consciousness, nevertheless it seems that the feeling of absolute dependence laid out in his introduction, and therefore anthropology, remains the controlling factor of his system (On the Glaubenslehre, 58). For Barth, on the other hand, only God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ can stand as theology’s norm. Barth will allow for no general human capacity for revelation, no “anthropological prius of faith” to encroach upon the freedom and unconditional grace of the electing God (CD I.1, 38-39). The human experience of God’s self-revelation, then, is not a human possibility; humans do not possess the capacity for revelation naturally. The experience of the event of God’s self-revelation is possible, for Barth, only because God makes it a reality. This means that for him, anthropology cannot be the starting point of dogmatic theology. Against Schleiermacher’s theology from the ground up, Barth asserts his theology from the top down. What, then, of Zahl’s anthropological starting point for his theology of everyday life?

Zahl is unapologetic in saying that Grace in Practice is a “Christian theology that starts from the bottom up” (94). We see this especially in the structure of his second chapter, which is entitled, “The Four Pillars of a Theology of Grace.” In succession Zahl treats anthropology, soteriology, Christology, and finally, Holy Spirit and Holy Trinity (an order that closely follows the structure of The Christian Faith). The structure in Zahl is such that the problems under one locus find their solution in the next. It would seem, then, that Zahl could fall under the same observation made by Duke and Fiorenza noted above, that the redeemer is derived from the need for redemption. We’ll see that this is not the case shortly. With these close parallels to Schleiermacher, though, how is it that Zahl could possibly help to bridge the gap between Schleiermacher and Barth on dogmatic structure and the role of experience in theology?

In order to see how Zahl’s theology could remain compatible with Barth’s while still following after Schleiermacher, let’s first understand what Zahl is not doing in Grace in Practice:

This book is not about the metaphysical or philosophical ideas of Christianity. It is not about the so-called “doctrine of God.” It is not about the Trinity as a normative description of God’s unity in plurality. This book is not about anything related to essences or pure being or ontology or anything like that. This book is about how Christianity works…. It is perfectly fine to say that God is such and such a thing, or such and such a person. But the value of the idea is in its application (27, emphasis original).

By saying that “this book is about how Christianity works,” Zahl means that his book is about the experience of Christianity, the experience of law and grace in everyday life. We have here what we might call a distinction between doing theology ontically (according to the order of being) and doing it noetically (according to the order of knowing), Barth representing the ontic approach, Zahl the noetic approach to theology. But doesn’t that leave Zahl squarely in Schleiermacher’s camp with anthropology as the normative principle of theology? Not necessarily. In Zahl’s Grace in Practice, we have a theology from the bottom up, yes, but I think it is one that assumes a theology from the top down. (Zahl actually says something close to this in the second lecture in a course he taught at Knox Seminary entitled, “From the Bottom Up”).

Zahl’s theology of every day life does not assume an anthropological prius to the event of revelation. Humans are not capable of reaching up to God. But the event of revelation also does not exist in the abstract. For it to be genuine revelation it must (by grace) be understood and experienced by real, live human beings. We see an instance of this concern in one of Zahl’s descriptions of the law:

What we have to do in order to relate the concept of divine unbending law to human experience is to speak from analogy. The point is an old one: you cannot understand God, who is not understandable to human beings on his own terms, without reference to human (thus accessible) experience. I say this without apology. You cannot understand God apart from perceived, true, real life experience. Without connecting God’s law, for example, with the innumerable “laws” that people place on themselves, God’s law is a concept. It is an abstraction (28).

This is perfectly consistent with Barth’s theology insofar as Zahl understands the direction of the analogy as moving from “above to below,” or, as Bruce McCormack has said regarding the analogia fidei in his book on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, if Zahl understands that in this analogy, “God’s act is the analogue, ours is the analogate; His the archetype, ours the ectype” (17). And if Zahl has this understanding in place, then there is nothing to stop him from “starting” his theology of everyday life with anthropology. In other words, I think that it is possible that if one were to take the conclusions of Barth’s dogmatic project and turn them into premises,[*] that person would end up with something like the “theology of everyday life” in Zahl’s Grace in Practice. Ultimately, the key, I think, is that while anthropology is Zahl’s starting point, it is not the normative principle of his theology.

My hunch is that Zahl assumes something like Barth’s top-down theology, but that with that assumption in place, Zahl seeks to express the experience of grace from the bottom up. If Zahl is successful, and if he removes the normative status that Schleiermacher gave to anthropology, then what we have in Zahl is a theology following the pattern of Schleiermacher, but following after Barth.

In my next post, I will lift up a number of examples in which Zahl shows “how Christainity works” in relation to law, grace, imputation and some other cases.

[*] I am indebted to my good friend and co-pastor Scott Jones for helping me to develop this insight within the context of our weekly preachers’ meeting.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

I feel like skipping the intro to this thing today. So, on with the links!

On second thought, before we get to the links, I want to highlight an exciting opportunity for those interested in Barth Studies. Jessica DeCou has started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund research for a book recounting the story of Barth’s visit to the United States. Here is how she describes the project:

A Fantastic Affair”: Karl Barth in America, 1962 (a.k.a. “KBUSA” – under advance contract with Fortress Press, ISBN: 978-1-4514-6553-2) provides the first detailed chronicle of Barth’s sole visit to the U.S. in 1962. Barth arrived at a tumultuous moment in American history and found himself embroiled in some of the nation’s fiercest conflicts: touring prisons and inner city neighborhoods and meeting with communist groups, State and Defense Department staff, civil rights activists, business leaders, and White House officials – just to name a few. The book, therefore, will not only shed light on Barth’s later life and work, but also provide a snapshot of American culture in the early ‘60s – from the highest levels of government to the tourist cultures built along with and alongside the developing Interstate Highway System; from Seminary campuses to high security prisons; from Napa Valley to East Harlem.

So before catching up on your DET and theoblog reading below, surf on over and donate a $ or two so that we’ll all be sure to get to read this!

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming. Here’s what’s been going on at DET:

And here are some highlights from the broader theoblog universe:

Happy reading!


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sounds “a little bit like a beautiful old fairy story”? Helmut Gollwitzer retells Acts 12.1–17

Helmut Gollwitzer is no doubt becoming much better known to DET readers. One more installment can’t hurt, eh? This is from a sermon of Gollwitzer’s on December 11, 1977. In it he imagines what a newspaper headline addressing the events of Acts 12.1–17 might look like if put into contemporary (to him, although in many ways it still rings true) language. Please forgive some translation infelicities, as I’m only reproducing it as the volume does.

Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis (T&T Clark, 1981), 84.
Mysterious liberation of prisoner in Jerusalem!
Flight of Terrorist!
Legal Authorities investigate prison scandal.

Last night a Galilean prisoner Simon Jonasson, who in his circle has the nickname Petros (Rocky), under arrest in Jerusalem prison on the suspicion of membership of a criminal gang, was in a manner still unexplained set free, probably by members of his gang. Although special security measures had been taken, his accomplices have clearly succeeded in making imitation keys and drugging the watch. The escaped man is a member of the hard core of the so-called Galilean Gang whose leader Jesus of Nazareth was apprehended fourteen years ago through the co-operation of our authorities with the Occupying Power and executed. On that occasion Simon, the man who has now escaped, attempted to prevent by violence the arrest of Jesus, and inflicted a severe head wound on a police official, cutting off his ear. The gang, which confined itself to agitation hostile to the State, but had cross-connections with the Zealot Guerillas in the Jewish mountains, of whom two were executed with the aforesaid Jesus, was at first broken up by the liquidation of its leader, and the remaining members went underground, but reassembled themselves and in recent days have been thrusting themselves more and more impudently before the notice of the public. They created a commune on a communist basis, and won sympathizers by the assertion that their leader Jesus was still alive, or had returned to life. They claimed that he would soon change the whole world, and set up a Communist kingdom in the place of all present Governments. Our authorities, who rightly saw in this agitation a danger for our social order, and for the peaceful relationship between the Occupying Power and our State, have for some time been observing the activities of the gang, and have now struck. One of the ringleaders, a certain James, was executed, others, among them Simon, were arrested and submitted to a thorough investigation. It is to be feared that today’s liberation of the prisoner will give a fresh impetus to the gang. Its provocations can lead to reactions on the part of the Occupying Power, whose consequences would have to be borne by the whole population. For this reason it is only to be hoped that the activities of these messianic utopians, who have lost all sense of reality, and have become a public danger, will as quickly as possible be brought to an end. The Legal Authorities have at once begun an investigation of this scandal at the prison, and will certainly see to it that the guilty officials, who have already been put under arrest, are made to answer for their misdemeanor. The hunt for the escaped man, who has gone underground, is already in full cry.
[**]The quotation from the post’s title comes from page 83.


Tuesday, July 09, 2013

My Most Recent Publication

Alright, maybe not the most recent. But a fairly recent one nonetheless.

The International Journal of Systematic Theology has published a review that I wrote for them of Keith Johnson’s book, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. I’ve written about this book at DET before, a number of times.

IJST has had this review in its pocket for a while now – so long, in fact, that the review stills lists my PTS affiliation rather than LU – so I’m very glad that it is finally out. You can access the review online if you have the right permissions. Otherwise, look for it in your local theological library.


Friday, July 05, 2013

Do some theology! Calvin on the importance of theological study to one’s faith

John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, 5.278-79.

One of the facets of Calvin’s work that receives the least attention was his letter-writing to those under sentence – or at least threat – of execution for their Protestant convictions. While France was always eager to support Protestants in Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire, for political reasons, its regime could tend to be fairly vicious in the persecution of Protestants within its own borders. If those imperiled or imprisoned were known to Calvin or any of Calvin’s friends, or even if Calvin got word that they had read some of his work appreciatively, he made it a point to write to them. So for instance, he begins a letter from July 1550 as follows: “Although we have been unknown to each other by sight, yet since you recognize the Master Christ in my ministry, and submit yourself cheerfully and calmly to his teaching, this is a sufficient reason why I should, on the other hand, esteem you as a brother and fellow-disciple” (278).

What interests me most in this letter is the way Calvin connects piety with theological study. He observes that among those who have recently come to their convictions, as his correspondent has, “we see sparks of piety immediately disappear which had shone forth on many occasions” (279). The best plan to avoid this occurrence, Calvin exhorts, is the employment of “daily exercises.” Piety, then, is like a muscle that requires regular exertion if it is to become stronger, disciplined, and consequently more useful. Without these regular exercises, which Calvin says should occur daily, the muscle of piety with atrophy and become so much unreliable and worthless “flab” (I believe that’s the technical term).

But of what, you may ask, ought these “daily exercises” consist? Calvin is glad you asked! He goes on to list two things that these exercises should include. First, “give devoted submission to the will of the Lord” (ibid). One must assume that he means by this that one out to avoid those things that so often extinguish the spark of piety once received: “the empty allurements of the world, or the irregular desires of the flesh” (ibid). So the first thing you ought to do in exercising your piety is to look to your way of life and ensure, as much as you are able, that it embodies the sort of justice-doing, kindness-loving, and with-God-humbly-walking-ness that the prophet charts (Micah 6.8).

Second – and this is where it gets truly interesting – Calvin includes in these daily exercises something that many folk today would not recognize as being central to piety, namely, theology: “you must fortify yourself by his sacred doctrines” (ibid). Why? Isn’t theology just a complicated mind game, bordering on intellectual autoeroticism? Doesn’t it just distract you from actually getting out there and making the world a better place? Doesn’t it just distract you from developing the sort of relationship with God (i.e., in Calvin’s parlance, piety) that Calvin recommends? How could he (Calvin) be so contradictory!

Here’s the thing: it is impossible to live a Christian life without theology. Theology’s task is to answer three questions (not necessarily in this order, at least all the time): [1] Who is this God we’re talking about? [2]Who are “we,” the one’s doing the talking? [3] How do these two things go together? It is theology’s task to ask these questions in innumerable permutations, over and over again, and then – just when we think we might be getting somewhere – to start right back at the beginning once again.

But the key is that Calvin, a universally recognized master of piety and spiritual self-discipline (whatever his alleged failings may have been), thinks that precisely this theological task is central to piety.
  • Don’t really feel like loving your neighbor right now? Do some theology!
  • Could never really get your head around that loving your enemies thing? Do some theology!
  • Don’t feel like donating to charitable causes? Do some theology!
  • Don’t feel like being nice to your sister? Do some theology!
  • Don’t feel like getting engaged in politics to better the world around you? Do some theology!
  • Think that everyone should just leave you alone to do as you please? Do some theology!
  • Think that the only thing that matters is you and Jesus? Do some theology!
  • Finally, and as an explicit key to all of the above: Have weak piety? Need to exercise your piety muscles? Do some theology!
Faith, piety, spirituality, religion – pick your word. Pray an hour a day, 2 hours a day, 10 hours a day – whatever. Show up to church once a month, twice a month, every week, multiple times a week – who cares? All of it is utterly worthless without a constantly deepening and expanding conception of who God is, who you are, and what all that should mean for your life in the world.

Do some theology!

(Disclaimer: I take it for granted that one ought to do good theology. Perhaps this will help.)


Wednesday, July 03, 2013

July Book o’ the Month: Paul F. M. Zahl’s “Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life”

In the introduction to his Homiletics, Karl Barth says, “theology as a church discipline ought in all its branches to be nothing other than sermon preparation in the broadest sense” (17). In that spirit, my church’s preaching team began meeting weekly to discuss three things: last Sunday’s sermon, next Sunday’s Scripture passage, and finally, a book we are all reading together. For July’s Book o’ the Month, I’d like to introduce the readers here at DET to one of those books, namely, Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice. I want to share this with you because it has been one of the most challenging, formative, and helpful books that our group has read since we first started meeting about a year and a half ago. It has especially helped to shape how we think about the experience of grace and how the sermon may be a vehicle for that experience.

Who’s Paul Zahl? He is a retired Episcopal priest, dean and president emeritus of Trinity School for Ministry, and host of PZ’s Podcast, the episodes of which “try to bridge the gap between Old Ancient Teaching…and popular culture.” I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough, especially if you are into Giant Crab movies, Jack Kerouac, or, as Zahl likes to say, “the greatest rock band of all time, Journey. It’s absurd; it’s ridiculous, but it’s also true.” You can also find out more about Zahl, his theology, and the intersection of religion and pop culture over at Mockingbird.

Regarding Grace in Practice, Zahl says:
This book is my attempt, after thirty years of teaching and preaching the message of grace, to set it out systematically, and to do this in the face of the chronic criticism grace receives. I also attempt to connect grace to some contemporary issues in society. How does grace work? That is the theme of the book. No apologies! One-way love is the heart of Christianity. It is what makes Christianity Christian. (ix)

What I would like to do in the next three posts is to first discuss Zahl’s understanding of both law and grace, and (bear with me my fellow Barthians) his anthropological starting point for this “theology of everyday life.” In that post I’ll also discuss what Zahl means by “one-way love,” his understanding of “imputation,” and what he means when he says that he’s written this book “in the face of the chronic criticism grace receives.”

Next, since much of this book discusses the concrete application and experience of grace in relation to contemporary social issues, in a third post, I will lift up several examples of “grace in practice” as discussed by Zahl. Here is where Zahl is at his best, and where he can most help a preacher understand how to connect with his or her listeners’ and find avenues into their own understanding and experience of love, mercy, and God’s grace.

Finally, I would like to discuss why Zahl thinks that “ecclesiology is unimportant” (225). I think that Zahl has some important lessons here for us even as discussions, conferences, and books on discerning a post-Christendom ecclesiology seem ever on the rise.

With that, thank you for reading, and I look forward to sharing and discussing this book with you over the next few weeks.


Monday, July 01, 2013

Top 10 Posts from the First Half of 2013

That’s right, gentle readers, it’s time for another Top 10 Posts installment! I know that you’re all sitting on the edge of your seats with excitement over the chance to read wonderful posts that you’ve already read (perhaps even more than once!), so I won’t overburden you with a long introduction. Of course, if these posts somehow slipped under your radar heretofore, feel free to take this chance to catch up a bit on your DET reading. Of course, if this doesn’t do it for you – or if you like comparing things – you might check out which posts people were reading during the second half of 2012.

Final disclaimer: my metrics in compiling this cannot account for views a post receives when it is read from the main blog page; it can only account for direct views. So it is altogether possible that this list is fallible (*gasps!).

Top Ten:

  1. Why I Think…Ben Myers Isn’t Quite Right About TF Torrance - I’m kind of surprised. If my memory serves me, this post has topped the lists for the past year and a half (by a significant measure) . . .
  2. Is Atheism Evil? Karl Barth on Truly Dangerous Atheism - Never hurts to put “atheism” and “evil” together in a title, at least where traffic is concerned.
  3. So, You Want To Read Karl Barth? - This classic post fell from the #2 to the #3 slot.
  4. Reflections on Teaching Karl Barth to Undergraduates - This might have been the most fun-to-write post that I’ve written so far this year.
  5. Karl Barth on the Trinity, Dogma, Scripture, and Revelation - It never hurts to put “Barth” and “Trinity” in a post title, as far as traffic is concerned.
  6. Types of Theology - This post fell from the #5 slot last time. I’m still not altogether sure why this post generates so much attention (beyond the well-tuned title; perhaps that’s enough?).
  7. The Inexhaustible Problem of Sola Scriptura - a guest post by Collin Cornell - This very recent (not even a full month ago!) guest post deserves every bit of the readership that it has received, and more! I suspect that it will continue to be read. Visit Collin over at his blog, Kaleidobible.
  8. Books I Read in 2012 - This post likely attracts readers due to the same impulse that makes me mentally catalog the books on people’s shelves whenever I go into their offices.
  9. Karl Barth on Christianity, Religion, and Western Culture - Just a short reading note here, albeit covering some interesting ground.
  10. My Most Recent Publication: “The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth” - Pre-order my book!

Honorable Mentions:

These posts were well read but did not quite make the cut and / or they are posts that I think should be better read.

Happy reading!