Monday, September 30, 2013

First review of my “The Sign of the Gospel”

Long-time and well-known biblio- and theo-blogger, Jim West, who currently writes over at Zwinglius Redivivus, recently posted a link to a review of my book that he has written. As far as I know, this is my book’s first review ever!

(In case any of you, gentle readers, have a terrible memory or some kind of amnesia, my book is entitled The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Fortress: 2013.)

As I read it, Jim’s review is very positive. And that means quite a bit to me because he represents part of the demographic to which I addressed the volume. I am particularly gratified by his following comment:
M., unlike other Barth commentators, actually correctly perceives Barth’s purpose and he understands Barth well enough to ‘get him right’. M., in brief, doesn’t do Barth the disservice of putting words into his mouth. Barth speaks with his own voice and M. interacts with the Basel theologian at every turn: not in an attempt to correct Barth, but to extend his views.

However, I must take one small issue with the review. Jim concludes by considering whether my book would likely convince Barth to change his mind on the question of infant baptism and renders this imaginative judgment: “Would Karl Barth, sitting in his rocker with his secretary at his side at their Alpine retreat, smoking his pipe and listening to Mozart on the grammaphone, change his mind about infant baptism if he read this book? Nein! But he would very much enjoy M.’s attempt to get him to.”

Now, to be clear, I’ll grant Jim that my book would not be likely to change Barth’s mind. But I think it is worth pointing out the following: that Barth would be unlikely to grant the success of my argument depends at least as much upon his own intractable (if, nonetheless, good-natured) personality as it would upon the strength of my argument, and perhaps even more so.

In any event, my thanks to Jim for providing his review, and I encourage you once again to surf on over and order a copy of the book!


Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Legacy of Hans W. Frei – Conference Announcement

Folks, I’ve recently been notified of a conference to be held (shortly) at Princeton Theological Seminary – sponsored by the Center for Barth Studies and the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology – dealing with the legacy of the preferable (imho) of the two post-liberal founders, Hans W. Frei. The official publicity copy on the conference is below, following by a banner image for the event. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend. But maybe you can!

The Center for Barth Studies and the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology are sponsoring a free one-day conference on the legacy of Yale theologian Hans W. Frei on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his death. No pre-registration required.

Saturday, October 12th, 2013
9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
(with break for lunch)

Princeton Theological Seminary - Princeton, NJ
Cooper Conference Room, Erdman Center

George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary
A. Katherine Grieb, Virginia Theological Seminary
James J. Buckley, Loyola College in Maryland
Jason Springs, University of Notre Dame

For more information, contact George Hunsinger at George [dot] hunsinger [at] ptsem [dot] edu or The Center for Barth Studies at barth [dot] center [at] ptsem [dot] edu


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Original Sin and Reconciliation in Bonhoeffer’s “Act and Being”

I recently decided to buzz through Bonhoeffer’s Habilitationsschrift. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few years now, staring at me reproachfully. So I took it down and read with what turned out to be rapt attention. It is simply amazing that he wrote this at the age of 24 . . . But, all jealousies aside, it is well worth reading. It is unfortunately neglected because it is (shall we say) a bit more intellectually demanding than (shall we say) some of his other writings. The first half is especially compelling, although the answer that he proposes to the problem he identifies there is less attractive to me than (shall we say) other possible answers.

How’s that for being vague?

Anyway, the bit that I want to share with you deals with the subject of original sin and reconciliation and, more specifically, how the two fit together. Bonhoeffer further develops his thinking on the original sin side especially in his Creation and Fall, which I also highly recommend.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 146. As always, bold is mine.
In the judgment brought upon me by the death of Christ, I see myself dying in my entirety, for I myself, as a whole, am guilty as the actor of my life, the decisions of which turned out to be self-seeking ever and again. I made false decisions and, therefore, Christ is my death; and because I alone sought to be the master, I am alone in my death as well. But the death of Christ kills my entire being human, as humanity in me, for I am I and humanity in one. In my fall from God, humanity fell. Thus, before the cross, the debt of the I grows to monstrous size; it is itself Adam, itself the first to have done, and to do again and again, that incomprehensible deed––sin as act. But in this act, for which I hold myself utterly responsible on every occasion, I find myself already in the humanity of Adam. I see humanity in me necessarily committing this, my own free deed. As human being, the I is banished into this old humanity, which fell on my account. The I ‘is’ not as an individual, but always in humanity. And just because the deed of the individual is at the same time that of humanity, human beings must hold themselves individually responsible for the whole guilt of humankind. The interrelation of individual and humanity is not to be thought of in terms of causality–otherwise the mode of being of the entity would once again come into play; rather, it is a knowledge given the individual in God’s judgment–given in such a way that it cannot be used, in detachment from that judgment and in theoretical abstraction, for purposes of exoneration. On the contrary, because everyone, as human being, stands within the humanity of Adam, no one can withdraw from the sinful act to a sinless being; no, the whole of one’s being a person is in sin. Thus, in Adam act is as constitutive for being as being is for act; both act and being enter into judgment as guilty. The structure of Adam’s humanity should not be conceived in terms of theories of psychological-historical interpretation; no, I myself am Adam–am I and humanity in one. In me humanity falls. As I am Adam, so is every individual; but in all individuals the one person of humanity, Adam, is active. This expresses both the contingency of the deed and the continuity of being in sin. Because sin is envisaged through the concept of ‘Adam’, in the mode of being of ‘person’, the contingency of conduct is preserved, as is the continuity of the person of humanity, which attests itself in action–the person that I also am.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Did the early church baptize infants? - Mondays with McMaken

Time for another appetite-whetting installment of this wonderful new series. Don’t forget to tell your theological librarian to order a copy of the book. Also, Christmas is right around the corner and nothing makes a better stocking stuffer than a theological treatise on baptism! Better yet, it's a healthy and uplifting alternative to candy as an option for handing-out on Halloween...

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 16.
Taken together, one must conclude that the church both did and did not baptize infants in the early Christian centuries. It did baptize infants in situations where death threatened; it did not as a standard practice baptize infants who were not threatened by impending death. This state of affairs meshes well with Tertullian’s comments above, as well as those of Gregory the Theologian who argued that parents should wait until their children achieved three years of age before bringing them forward for baptism, since “at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives” and they can “listen and . . . answer something about the Sacrament.” In other words, baptism was to be conducted when the candidate had reached a responsible age, barring unfortunate and dangerous circumstances.

Such practice reveals something important about infant baptism in these early centuries as well, namely, that . . .
To learn more about the evidence that lead me to this view, and to discover just what important point about infant baptism all this reveals, buy the book!


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

You all know the drill. Here’s the DET stuff:

And now for the rich offerings of the wider theo-blogosphere:


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Troeltsch’s Understanding of the Historical Relation between Dogmatics and Ethics

Once upon a time there was an assistant professor who saw a book in his colleague’s office, bought it, and read it. He subsequently found some interesting stuff in it and decided to share that interesting stuff with others.

You get the point.

So this is an account of how Troeltsch understood the historical relationship between dogmatics and ethics in Christian theology. I found it interesting; you might too.

Hans-Georg Drescher, Ernst Troeltsch: His Life and Work (Fortress, 1993), 180:
For Troeltsch, the course of the more recent history of theology since the Reformation went like this. Originally an understanding of Christian faith and religion which was not discussed further included a bent towards action; the result was that the methodological question of the relationship between dogmatics and ethics went unanswered. Rather, ethics retreated behind dogmatics and stood in its shadow. That changed with the Enlightenment and its concern to develop a universal theory of morality. Kant represents the end of a development in which the relationship between ethics and religion changed. Ethics was understood as the fundamental science, and religion was incorporated into it or subordinated to it. This definition of the relationship now in turn changed with the rise of the individual sciences in the form of psychology and history. That posed a new task for the understanding of religion, namely and analysis of religious feeling to be made from a historical and psychological perspective. That meant that the dogmatic element again became independent from the ethical element, as a result of a specific view of the concept of religion, namely, the independence of the religious from morality and metaphysics. This understanding is to be found in Schleiermacher. However, it was crossed by Schleiermacher’s inclusion of theological ethics in doctrine, as a result of which the idea of ethics as subordinate to dogmatics, which was believed already to have been overcome, once again emerged. So it was right for Richard Rothe in his ethics not to begin from Schleiermacher’s theological ethics but from his general ethics and to be inspired by the idea of developing theology from an overall ethical view. According to Troeltsch, no account before that of Hermann did justice to the possibilities presented positively by Rothe, which at the same time are a consequence of the modern development. Here already Troeltsch saw the remarkable merit and special achievement of Wilhelm Hermann’s Ethics.
Expect more from / about Troetlsch in the future.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Center for Barth Studies Book Review

KBBC contributor Matthias Gockel reviews - Erik Peterson, Ausgewählte Schriften, vol. 9 – Theologie und Theologen: Texte (9/1), Theologie und Theologen: Briefwechsel mit Karl Barth u.a., Reflexionen und Erinnerungen (9/2), edited by Barbara Nichtweiß (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2009). Matthias’s review helps to make this very interesting material more accessible to English-language Barth scholars, and we hope to offer a German version of his review in the future as well. Check out this window into one of Barth’s formative conversations and conversation partners! Be sure to check out Scott’s review!


Thursday, September 12, 2013

God and the gods: The theological fruitfulness of a history-of-religions approach - 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.]

Theological scholars have texts to which they return time and again; passages and pages that bear the telltale thumb-smudging of high traffic. What chapters and articles these are depends on our particular disciplines and the problems that each of us find compelling. Theologian friends of mine have chapters from James Cone or Helmut Gollwitzer on speed-dial; for the range of issues I think through, I suspect Pat Miller’s article “God and the Gods: History of Religions as an Approach and Context for Bible and Theology” may come to have such a “(deutero-)canonical status” for me (orig. pub. in Affirmation, 1973; reprint in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology, Sheffield, 2000). Why?

In short, Miller’s piece makes an apology for the theological fruitfulness of a history-of-religions approach: that is, a study of Israel’s religion that maps its features comprehensively and traces its development over time, especially by drawing on comparative data. These objectives set the history of religions enterprise at cross-purposes with treatments of Israelite religion (such as B. Childs’) that privilege the perspectives of the Bible’s own texts – since these texts focus overwhelmingly on what is distinctive to Israel’s worship and do not give much attention to changes in Israel’s religion or its continuities with neighboring religions. As a matter of fact, the relation of the two (text-centered and comparative approaches) is complicated, as a quote by even such a Childs-sympathizer as J.G. Gordon McConville illustrates:

[W]hen we ask what is meant by ‘God’ in the Old Testament, of course it is true that we know this by reading the Old Testament story…That account, however, is completely entwined with factors that we know by means other than merely reading the Bible. In Genesis and Exodus, El who meets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is found to be Yahweh, God of Israel. Yahweh is introduced by reference to a deity about whom we have knowledge from history and archaeology. In other parts of the Old Testament, Yahweh is known in relation (now in contradistinction) to Baal (or the baalim), about whom, again, we have substantial extra-biblical knowledge.…The creation narratives are a further example, where the relation of God to the world and humanity is articulated in dialogue with other creation narratives in its religious environment. These examples raise a host of subordinate questions for interpretation (not least why Yahweh could also be called El, but was kept sharply distinct from Baal). But they show at a minimum that the boundaries between the discourses of ‘religion’ and ‘theology’ are exceedingly elusive (“Biblical Theology: Canon and Plain Sense,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 19 (2001), 129-33).

Despite this complex overlap, history of religions has sometimes gotten short shrift, particularly in camps associated with dialectical theology. As readers of this blog may know, this “school” defended the freedom of God and the gratuity of grace by polemicizing against “religion” and “natural theology.” These were human attempts at finding God, and consequently, their piety was the peak of damnable hubris. Even the Bible in the hands of the crisis theologians became but “an empty canal” of revelation, a fallible human collection through which the lightning of revelation had once passed. In fact, “revelation” shrank to become only the most enigmatic point, “as a tangent touches a circle.” The movement of history of religions scholars was often in the opposite direction, hallowing more terrain rather than less: given that the Bible was (in some way) specially revelatory, then the religions to which its contents bore such strong resemblance and genealogical debt must also share it in its revelatory character! An odd quote of Gunkel’s illustrates this: “the theologian will do well to handle even the Marduk myth with piety; one honors his parents not by thinking less of his ancestors.” Or again, elsewhere: “we Christians have no basis for the assumption that everything good and worthwhile could stem only from Israel. . . . The seed of divine revelation has not been strewn only on Jewish soil” (qtd in Miller, 371).

This is also the route that Miller’s article takes, albeit in an updated and subtler form. Miller rehearses the challenges that the history of religions approach faces (e.g., “It is hard enough to relate to Yahweh, but if Yahweh looks a lot like Marduk, that makes it even tougher!” p 377), and the body of his essay presents a clear account of Yahweh’s history, in both its debt to and distinction from other gods. But Miller’s closing theological remarks show his hand, i.e., his view of revelation:

Any systematic theology that seeks to exploit the conceptions, language, and imagery for God in the Old Testament will quickly find itself speaking out of a continuity with the gods of Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, whether aware of it or not. This should not, however, be surprising or unexpected. The revelation of God is not confined to acts, events, moments, or insights that break into or erupt out of the historical context isolated from and undetermined by that context (393, italics mine).

To make the above idea work theologically, Miller invokes two theolegomena: the christological analogy and an overall theological understanding of history, especially as developed by Gordon Kaufman and Wolfhart Pannenberg, respectively. That is, first Miller exposits Jesus Christ in both his continuity with humankind and also his discontinuity – as a way of picturing Israel’s own double relation to its religious environs (394). Secondly, Miller envisions the totality of history as the locus of God’s self-revelation, such that (quoting Pannenberg) “the alien religions cannot be adequately interpreted as mere fabrications of man’s striving after the true God,” but in some way constitute appearances of God (395).

At very least Miller gives an informed and provocative entree into the problem of God and the gods. What its potential methodological consequences may be (does this mean that I can treat Ugaritic myths somehow emically? what would that even mean?); and whether Miller need appeal to the theological formulations he does to stay true to his historical instincts…these I will be considering in days to come.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On Reading and Not-Reading Barth

I’m sure DET readers have been clued into this developing conversation for a while, but I wanted to formalize DET recognition of it – especially since none of the posts made it into the link post on Saturday (didn’t get that far in my queue). I also wanted to wait until a further post was available and, now that it’s online, I can draw your attention to it. So here are the links in chronological order, including what we can see as the precipitating post for this reflection:

Update: Here are three most related posts that have come to my attention in the time between when I wrote this yesterday and when I published it this morning.


Monday, September 09, 2013

What makes a doctrine properly evangelical? - Mondays with McMaken

What’s the point of having a blog if you don’t occasionally engage in some shameless self-promotion? With that in mind, I’m starting a new shameless self-promoting series entitled “Mondays with McMaken.” In these posts I will highlight small snippets from the book that I recently published on Barth and baptism (see below). If you find this stuff interesting, tell your friends about it. If you find it really interesting, buy a copy. If you find it epically interesting, buy 10 copies!

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 5.
What makes a doctrine properly evangelical? In the most formal sense, such a designation refers to doctrinal positions that are deeply reformational in orientation. Barth himself defined evangelical theology as “that theology which treats of the God of the Gospel.” What does it mean for a theological position to be governed by such an attention to the God that is revealed in the gospel (euaggelion)? It is the gospel itself that must hold one’s attention in doing theology of this character. In the first and constitutive sense, this gospel is that of Jesus Christ (see Mark 1:1), and so a properly evangelical theology will attempt to articulate doctrine with a self-conscious attention to his person and work. In a second and derivative sense, . . .
To learn more about the second and derivative sense, buy a copy!


Saturday, September 07, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Well, that was refreshing. The short blog hiatus, I mean. But it’s time to rev up the DET engine once again. At least there was plenty of good stuff out there to read in the meantime. Here’s some of the best of it since the last DET link post (hang on, it’s a long one!):

To begin, however, read this from George Hunsinger: Don't Attack Syria: No Justification by Just-War Criteria