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Showing posts from October, 2015

He Who Laughs Last Misses Faith? Niebuhr on Humor

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Reinhold Niebuhr loved to laugh. What's more, he enjoyed making others laugh -- though that's perhaps a little-known fact, hardly self-evident if one, say, peruses works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society. As his biographer Richard Fox notes, Niebuhr enjoyed leading skits to entertain friends and family while retreating in Heath, Massachusetts.

Actually, though, Robert McAfee Brown's anthology contains a pretty interesting piece titled "Humor and Faith"; this piece, as it happens, is not funny in the least but is a fairly sober assessment of the laughter and its limtis that reveals both keen insights and theological limitations in Niebuhr's thought (The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, New Haven, CT: Yale, 1986, pp. 49-60).

Niebuhr's thesis is this: Humor and faith are deeply connected in that both seek to cope with the contradictions of existence that cannot be reconciled or even fully rationalized. The fundamental root of the incongruous human situation, …

A Hard World Communion Sunday to Preach: Revelation 7:9-17

[Author's note: Two things make me doubt the goodness of God: Cancer, and mass death by gun violence. On the week of World Communion Sunday, I had encountered both. The one more pressing for my sermon was the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. I knew I had to address it in my sermon, but I didn't really know how. I have strong thoughts on the gun lobby in the United States, and how we Americans all basically have blood on our hands because we are unwilling to stand up to the NRA when our sisters and brothers, neighbors, and our kids are shot down in cold blood by deranged white men with guns. But my thoughts are out of kilter with the context I preach weekly in. I have been blessed to preach weekly since March at a small Presbyterian Church in rural North Carolina. The people I accompany in ministry are good people, and although we are different in many ways, we have come together to worship the Lord. I can't let loose my vitriol against the gun lo…

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:9–15

Malachi 3.9–15

[N.B. I’ve always used the TNIV in this series. That began more or less on a whim and I just stuck to it. However, I’m switching to the NRSV now.]

[9] You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! [10] Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. [11] I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. [12] Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. [13] You have spoken harsh words against me, says the LORD. Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?” [14] You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts?…

No Happy Mediums: Stringfellow on the "Afterdeath"

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If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.(1 Cor. 15:19)
He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.(Mark 12:27)
Our blogging compadre, the PostBarthian (Wyatt Houtz), has created quite a buzz with two recent posts offering critiques of Karl Barth's (ostensibly) stern perspectives on the afterlife and eternal life; he cites two passages where Barth seems to rule out the possibility for a conscious, subjective postmortem existence for finite human beings.

These posts have elicited, in turn, spirited responses from Kevin Davis and Fr Aiden Kimel. The conversation has spilled over into Facebook and Twitter as well.

I was assigned, initially, the task of encapsulating this social media convo here, but since that task exceeds both my time and technical abilities, I offer something different -- some reflections from William Stringfellow, toward the end of his life, on the same subjects. Stringfellow -- attorney, activist …

Barth’s Word to the Captives: “Saved by Grace”

In his preface to Barth’s collection of sermons preached in the company of prisoners detained in Basel Prison, John Marsh claims that, “if anyone has read Barth’s theology and found it difficult to understand or to accept, let him read the sermon entitled ‘Saved by Grace’; for here is truly evangelical preaching” (9). In the blurb showcased on the back of Wipf and Stock’s recent republication of Deliverance to the Captives, John Updike quotes from this sermon to draw attention to the exemplary character of this sermon collection. Therefore, I think it appropriate to offer a brief yet close reading of “Saved by Grace” to examine not only Barth’s proclamatory technique, but to also draw from it insights as to how Barth’s theology can be appropriated in our contextual preaching practices.

“Saved by Grace” is yet another one of Barth’s “infamous” one-verse sermons, but in contrast to some of Barth’s early preaching, what we see in this 1955 sermon is a deep Biblical imagination at work a…

What Am I Reading? Kevin Diller on “Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma”

This is an important book.* For evidence of this claim, one need only consult the back cover and the blurbs from an intellectually diverse group of scholars who laud the work as . . . well . . . important.

Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (IVP Academic, 2014).

Before I move on to further reflection, let's be clear on what this book is trying to do. Diller expresses the titular dilemma thus: "Christian theologians are required to adopt a high view of theological knowledge while also maintaining a low view of the unaided capacities of the human knower to secure such knowledge" (17). For Diller's money, the tendency is to emphasize one or the other of these. Such a move then results in unhelpful consequences. But never fear, Diller tells us, because it is possible to cut this Gordian knot by drawing on the work of Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga since "each provides a deeply cogent and th…

In Memory of Helmut Gollwitzer on the 22nd Anniversary of his Death

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Helmut Gollwitzer—student and friend of Karl Barth, prisoner of war, pastor, activist, and public theologian—died on this day 22 years ago. It was a shockingly ordinary death that came at the end of what was anything but an ordinary life.

As regular readers here at DET know, I am currently working on a book on Gollwitzer. Indeed, I have been working on it for some time. My hope is to introduce Gollwitzer and his work to a North American context that has much to learn from his life and thought. I am currently in the drafting stage, and so Gollwitzer’s legacy has been laying even more heavily than usual on my mind. As such, I wanted to take this moment to commemorate him.


If you don’t know much about Gollwitzer, I recommend to you his two volumes of sermons that have been translated into English: The Dying and Living Lord, The Way of Life.

But if you don’t want to wait for those books to ship to you, there are a number of things that I have written about Gollwitzer that you can access…

Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 3)

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Note: I've taken a long hiatus -- a few months, actually -- from this series. But I haven't forgotten about it and am ready to pick it up again. If you'd like a refresher, you can review my previous posts,  part 1 and part 2.

Karl Barth's theological existence was fully engaged with the world, and we should expect no less in terms of his ministry of preaching and homilectical instruction.
In the evangelical sermon, as Barth understood it, the content of the biblical text and the lived contexts of its readers, auditors and interpreters should interpenetrate each other, within the free agency of the living Word; how this happens, though, is not necessarily self evident.

Barth explores this topic in a brief but tantalizing passage from his lecture cycle on preaching, delivered at Bonn University in 1932 and 1933 (on the "Actual Situation of the Text") (pp. 111-119). Some preachers may raise their eyebrows at some of the Swiss theologian's counsel -- for exam…

Once more on Calvin and Luther, this time with Christine Helmer

For whatever reason, reflection on the similarities and differences between Luther and Calvin has been a persistent preoccupation of my subconscious ever since I began studying theology. I’ve even blogged about it a few times, including some of Calvin’s own reflections on Luther (Bernard Cottret on Calvin and Luther; Calvin to Bullinger on Luther; Calvin to Melanchthon on Luther; and these are just the posts where this relationship is the primary theme – there are many others in which it arises indirectly).

At some level all trained theologians with an ounce of the historian in their blood (and only theologians with quite a bit more than an ounce of it are worth paying close attention to…) know that the vast majority of what gets said on this score is exaggeration, generalization, and stereotype. But we do it anyway. Why? Answering that question is one of the purposes of Christine Helmer’s article, “Luther and Calvin in Modern Protestant Theology” (in Hooker, ed., Calvin and Luther: …

All That Glitters: Teilhard de Chardin on Money

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So does money have a spiritual dimension? If you're in a hurry, the answer is "Yes!" But if you want to know what a more eminent authority than I though about it, read on.

I recently ran across this striking passage written by the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). The French thinker is well known for his bold attempt to integrate a mystical Christology with the insights of modern evolutionary cosmology and anthropology. But North Americans most likely would have learned of him when the urbane and well-read Diane Chambers quoted him on an episode of Cheers. (Sorry, I can't find the quote or episode online, and I don't remember what she said. All I remember is that she made Sam look like a real doofus in that episode.)

This passage, quoted by one of Teilhard's major biographers, comes from a 1930 lecture, wherein we learn that even Jesuits, poverty vow notwithstanding, can have a taste for bling:

We may declare fir…

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:4–8

Malachi 3.4–8

[4] [A]nd the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. [5] “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. [6] “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. [7] Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ [8] “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings.”

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COMMENTARY: There are three themes or units in Calvin’s commentary on this passage that jumped out at me, so I want to highlight tho…

What Am I Reading? Troeltsch on "The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches"

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The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, by Ernst Troeltsch. Translated by Olive Wyon. (Reprint) Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.
Some time ago, I acquired Ernst Troeltsch's 1910 classic two-volume text, a seminal work early work in the sociology and history of religion. Troeltsch (1865-1923) served as professor in Heidelberg and Berlin as well as posts in the Prussian government. The German liberal Protestant scholar, as most of you know, was probably, next to Harnack, the preeminent theologian and historian from the history of religions school around the turn of the 20th century.

To be honest, though I've always respected Troeltsch, I've tended to approach his work with diffidence. During grad school I found his work of constructive dogmatics (The Christian Faith)a bit...tedious. Not so his seminal writings on theology and modern historical study, however, several of which are available in the the Fortress volume titled Religion in History (Edited by James Luth…