Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Yale, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Academic Culture, and Africa: Some Highlights from Thomas Oden’s “A Change of Heart”

As I told you before, gentle readers, I’ve been reading Tomas Oden’s memoirs, and in this post I want to briefly highlight some of the bits that I found most interesting.

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).


Oden tells the story of his doctoral student days at Yale, where he worked under the supervision of H. Richard Niebuhr. These were the days when “Hans Frei, George Lindebeck and James Gustafson were all young faculty members at Yale” (p. 64), and David Kelsey “ran the divinity bookstore” (p. 65). Still, Oden felt bored there compared to Perkins, where he did his masters work, and considered making a switch to Drew. He finally decided to stay at Yale, primarily because he didn’t want to squander the opportunity to work with Niebuhr. Of that experience he writes:

The individual tutorial with Niebuhr on Augustine and Calvin was timely for me, ending all doubts about my purpose at Yale. Niebuhr proved to be a searching mind, probing Socratic questions on issue after issue. I discovered more clearly the profundity and range of Niebuhr’s intellect. He was a rigorous editor, attentive to every flaw in my thinking and writing. His careful critique of the papers I submitted helped me correct many shortcomings. He coached me in the accurate presentation of evidence, dispassionate objective reasoning and clear argument. (p. 68)

Hillary Rodham Clinton

When I later tried to explain my early views to students in their twenties, I found that the easiest way to connect was to show how closely my ideological history paralleled Hillary Rodham Clinton’s in her Smith College days. ***[Ed. note: Clinton attended Wellesley, not Smith.]*** That context helped those students grasp immediately where I was coming from. Although I never met Hillary Rodham, and though she was younger than I, she was reading my essays and working out of the same sources and moving in the same circles as I had been.

Hillary and I had the same sociopolitical mentors: Saul Alinsky and Joe Matthews. My former Drew colleague, ethicists Donald G. Jones, had been her high school pastor who had drawn her into the circle of activist Methodists. The core curriculum of Matthew’s Chicago Ecumenical Institute . . . was where she learned to combine existential theology with political activism. I was a writer for her core curriculum. Our trajectories mirror the same story of many Methodist social activists. We shared the same working sources, which were Tillich’s cultural analysis, Bultmann’s demythology, early feminism and especially Saul Alinsky. Her educational trajectory was remarkably parallel to mine with Yale, Methodist Student Movement activism, experimental ecumenism and Chicago-style politics as prevailing features, which were always moving leftward politically. Although we traveled along the same path, we never connected personally, but I provided some theological rationalizations for her and others for this brand of situational ethic. (p. 86)

Academic Culture

There is a lot of stuff in the book about academic culture through the decades of Oden’s career, but one of the things that stands out to me is how he got his first teaching job. Rather than applying to dozens and even scores of institutions, adjuncting for years (as many these days do), postdoctoral fellowships, meat-market interviews at national meetings, etc., Oden received his first position at Perkins when the dean made a trip to Yale to see him and offer him the position. Oden was still writing his dissertation at this time, to boot! On top of that, he had another offer – from Smith College in MA! (All this is on page 71.) Things certainly were different . . . although, I increasingly suspect that things still work in much the same way once you penetrate the reality masquerading behind all the distracting hoops that I outlined above.


I have emphasized in my undergraduate teaching the North African character of much important early Christian theology. Augustine may have had Berber blood, for instance, and then there are other North Africans like Cyprian and Athanasius (who is sometimes referred to as the “black dwarf”). Oden connects some interesting dots:

The flow was from Africa to Europe. It was not that Europeans brought Christianity to Africa as I had been taught. This “south-to-north hypothesis” became evident to me the more I studied the flow of patristic exegesis. (p. 301)

Then a little later, with more detail:

I could see this most clearly in the history of Scripture interpretation, especially in the clear succession from Origen to Gregory Thaumaturgus, from Egypt to Cappadocia, from the Old Latin Bible of Africa to Cyprian and Augustine. Africa was in the forefront of the surging current of intellectual imagination that matured into doctrinal agreement. Africa was the continent that excelled in systematically describing the relationship between the Old and New Testament. Christians in second-century Alexandria were living in the midst of a huge Jewish population. It was in the setting of advanced Jewish scholarship that the principle of analogy of faith was first clearly articulated for Christianity. (p. 306)

Oden later makes much of the stories about St. Mark’s work in North Africa (p. 328ff), but I’m not sure what the historians would say about this.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

T. F. Torrance on Karl Barth and “the temptation of orthodoxy”

It has been a long time—altogether too long!—since I’ve posted about Torrance here at DET. (For interested parties, the last post on TFT was from 2010 and was entitled “Torrance on the Church’s Relation to Christ”.) Well, I’ve been reading Torrance intensively again lately in preparation for a paper that I will give at a conference before too long. (Never fear, gentle readers: I will indubitably post an abstract of that paper before its presentation.) Rather predictably, I’ve found a gem from Torrance that I want to share with you. (Coincidentally, what’s with all the parenthetical comments today?)

Torrance is concerned in the following passage with Barth’s “dogmatic turn,” so to speak, and specifically with Barth’s engagement with Protestant scholasticism. Indeed, he is concerned with how Barth’s own work takes on certain scholastic characteristics. So Torrance endeavors to provide a little differentiation so that his readers will understand that there is, nonetheless, an important difference between whatever sort of scholasticism Barth is up to and the old scholasticism of ‘Protestant orthodoxy.’

Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910–1931 (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 101–02. As always, bold is mine.
It must be said that the temptation of orthodoxy, and all scholasticism, for all their appearance of objectivity, is to fall a prey to their own subjectivities through converting the truths of the Word of God into rationalised objects. In so far as the objective descriptions of the Truth are confounded with or mistaken for the Truth, and do not fall under its questioning and judgment, they easily become assimilated to the prevailing intellectual trends and fall under the power of its patterns of thought and speech and their philosophical presuppositions. That is what happened, for example, in the medieval world, when Roman theology made extensive use of neo-Aristotelian thought-forms in which to express and articulate its doctrine, for in point of fact the philosophical presuppositions carried by those thought-forms triumphed over the doctrine and have permanently influenced and altered it. Barth’s studies in the history of Protestant theology convinced him that when it took over so much of the mediaeval intellectual apparatus with which to articulate doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became overloaded with philosophical presuppositions, and so compromised itself with natural theology, and a supposedly enlightened understanding, that it easily fell in with the stream of philosophical development, at length assimilating into itself or become assimilated to Cartesian subjectivism, in which the objective truths of the Word of God were converted into psychological objects, to a much greater degree than many modern champions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century orthodoxy would care to admit.
This sort of analysis amply bears all evidence of Torrance’s characteristic idiosyncrasies, but it nonetheless carries with it a certain not unimportant explanatory power. Besides, “the temptation of orthodoxy” is - quite simply - an excellent turn of phrase.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Three weeks this time, to be precise, since the last link post. That’s a lot better than a month and a half, which was the gap last time. There hasn’t been a ton happening here at DET to warrant another post, but the truth of the matter is that I have a huge pile of links to share and I want to unload some of them on you, gentle reader. And while DET posts have been few, there is at least one excellent one awaiting you (if you have not yet read it).

Here are DET’s most recent posts:

And here are some interesting posts from around the interwebs:

Happy reading, until next time!


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Am I Reading? Thomas Oden, “A Change of Heart”

I’ve always been a sucker for biographies. So when IVP published an autobiography by Thomas C. Oden, I was interested. To be clear, I had a very limited idea of Oden’s identity and significance. From my Wheaton days, I remember seeing his systematics on shelves, and I knew his name in association with the Ancient Christian Commentary series (also published by IVP). My subconscious had associated the term “paleo-orthodoxy” with all this as well. So with these associations in mind, and in view of some hints that the work revealed interesting aspects of mid-20th century North American academic culture, I seized the opportunity to learn more.*

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

There are a number of interesting parts of this book, and I don’t intend to short-change it. I’ll be posting another time or two to give you glimpses of some of those parts. But I feel compelled to say at the outset that I developed a rather complicated relationship with this book (and with Oden, by extension) as I read it. The basic plot structure is that Oden grows up in a very socially engaged and progressive form of mid-20th century Methodism, academically pursuing the intersection of Bultmannian theology and psychoanalysis, before turning his back on all of that—having realized its bankruptcy—and working for a reclamation of patristic “consensual Christianity” (passim).** Consequently, the book paints his earlier radicalism (both theological and political) in a very negative light, and functions as something of an apology for his later conservatism (again, both theological and political). As someone who is deeply sympathetic with Oden’s early progressive theology and politics,*** I cannot but lament the (what I see as) polemical mischaracterizations of these positions offered throughout the work. This made the book a rather uncomfortable read at times.

That said, I’m deeply sympathetic to Oden because he and I (and by no means do I intend to suggest that I am as historically significant as he) have moved on opposite trajectories: he from a political and theological radicalism to a political and theological conservatism, and I from a political and theological conservatism to a political and theological radicalism. So when Oden laments that the problem with his radicalism was that it was unmoored from the Christian intellectual tradition, and that he finally realized that he needed to plumb that tradition, the polemics fail to sting me precisely because whatever radicalism I possess is a direct consequence and outgrowth of my immersion in the tradition. And what Oden’s own biography prevents him from seeing in sufficient clarity, I submit, is that there are forms of the early theology and politics that he renounced—although not the ones with which he was himself engaged, perhaps—that belong within the Christian tradition rather than without. It made this writer wish that Oden had been better grounded in the tradition in the first place, thereby allowing him to approach these issues with (what would, in my humble opinion, be) greater balance.


* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy.

** It is highly significant that Oden takes the Apostles’ Creed as the quintessential articulation of this consensual position: “Those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed with full integrity of conviction and live out Christian moral norms, as well as worship in Spirit and truth, are all part of a classic consensual family of faith” (299). Why not the Nicene Creed? The reason that presents itself to my mind is that the Apostles’ explicitly claims bodily resurrection where the Nicene does not. “Consensual Christianity” for Oden seems to equal acceptance of pre-modern interpretations of things like resurrection and incarnation, as well as a rejection of abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc. As a close friend of mine has argued, Oden decided that he wanted to intellectually inhabit the ancient Mediterranean culture (or, I would add, an idealized reconstruction of that culture) rather than modern North American culture. (Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing [PTS Library dissertation version], 280ff)

*** One of the most interesting aspects of this work is how, in the first 100 pages or so, one is treated to an overview of theology and church politics in the mid-20th century, including the not insignificance place of socialism in that context. It would seem that our society as a whole, like Oden himself, has engaged in a retrograde movement for the past half-century or so.


Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Martin Luther on Being a Pastor (or Professor?)

In those rare and fleeting chimeras that I call “moments of spare time,” I have been ever so slowly working through Luther’s 1515–16 lectures on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. I know, I know. No one could ever sustain against me the accusation that I lack ambition . . . In any case, I plan to share snippets of Luther’s text with you along the way, as is my wont.

Luther remarks in the below passage on what he thinks it takes to be a pastor, and he also identifies some of the pitfalls of navigating this vocation. What he has to say is obviously interesting to me on that level, but it was another level that jumped out at me. Much of what Luther says about being a pastor here also applies – as I see it – to being a professor. So long as you make some appropriate substitutions, much of the dynamic translates. Consequently, it seems a fitting piece upon which to reflect near the beginning of another academic year. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the text. Judge for yourselves.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, Luther’s Works volume 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972), 139. Bold is mine.
A servant of God should be a “wise and faithful servant” (Matt. 24:25). If he does not pay attention to the former qualification (wisdom), he will become a mere specter and slothful and unworthy of such honor. Thus in those people who in foolish humility try to get along with everybody everywhere and to be popular with their charges the influence of authority is necessarily lost, and familiarity breeds contempt. How gravely do they sin! They allow the things that belong to God and that have been entrusted to them to be trampled underfoot. They should have seen to it that these things were honored. On the other hand, if he does not pay attention to the latter qualification (faithfulness), he will become a tyrant who always frightens people with his power. He wants to be considered grim. Instead of striving to make their authority as fruitful as possible for others, such people try to make it as frightful as possible, even though according to the apostle that power was given not to destroy but to edify. But let us call these two faults by name: softness and hardness. . . . These are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come. No wonder! For softness is rooted in evil desires, and hardness is uncontrolled wrath. These two faults are responsible for everything that is evil, as everybody knows. Therefore, it is difficult to accept an office unless these two beasts are first slain.
The pastor, therefore, must steer between the Scylla of hardness and the Charybdis of softness. So too must the professor. Too soft? Your authority is undermined, while your subject matter and academic tradition are betrayed by neglect. Too hard? You misuse your authority, while your subject matter and academic tradition are betrayed by – perhaps – taking them with a misplaced seriousness. In both cases, however, the real betrayal is the failure to educate. Or at least the failure to make oneself available to educate should students want to be educated, which is itself a whole other problem… But, again, much the same dynamic obtains for the pastor. In these ways the pastor fails to truly shepherd through ministration of the Word. Or at least fails to be available for the exercise of that ministry should a congregation want to receive it, which is itself a whole other problem…


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Teaching While White - A guest post by Collin Cornell

"The greatest impediment to racial justice [is] well-meaning White people who would rather maintain injustice than risk the decentering of our Whiteness and White comfort." [1]

This language of "centering" black lives and "decentering" whiteness is provocative. It works by a spatial metaphor: Our way of life as white people enshrines one governing concern (maintaining white power), but that concern stands in urgent need of replacement. The picture reminds me of Gideon: There was an altar to Ba'al and an Asherah pole on the high place of his hometown – idols and abominations to the Deuteronomistic writer, but beloved to Gideon’s fellow villagers. But Yahweh commanded Gideon to cut them down, and to replace them with an altar to Yahweh (Judg 6).

By contrast, the language of many a seminary syllabus assigned this fall will configure curricular concerns and black lives quite differently. The latter will be "included." Perhaps a reading by a scholar of color will be brought alongside readings by more mainstream authors. Or perhaps the pressing issues of the day will be addressed in less formal classroom venues: a Q&A, an excursus, office hours. Truly sympathetic professors may even dedicate special lectures to the crisis of black life in America and the movement to protect it. But the spatial metaphor that describes these efforts is one of addition: There are other preoccupations that remain in place, and the struggle for black humanity supplements them. Biblically, it calls to mind Naaman the Syrian. Healed by Elisha of his skin disease, he confessed the truth of Israel's God. But he also demurred: When he returned home to Syria, he must of course additionally maintain the worship of his ancestral deity, alongside his newfound devotion to Yahweh. "May the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing" (2 Kgs 5:18, CEB).

For white educators like myself, "including" the movement for black life in our practice of teaching is not enough; "centering" it is necessary.

I teach Old Testament. I am not a sociologist or an expert in black theology (or theology at all). In view of my relative ignorance, someone could rightly caution me to hold off on writing about so a complex and volatile subject as "educating while white" in an era of racial emergency. Someone else could rightly warn that the internet is already brimming with white male bloviation; hardly the need for more.

And yet at the same time, I will be teaching this fall, and in more semesters thereafter. The task of teaching will not wait for me to exhaust the relevant literatures: I must carry on as an amateur to critical race theory and all the rest. I also teach a definite discipline; I do not have the freedom -- nor do I think it necessary anyway -- to swap out the classic texts of my area for Michelle Alexander or Franz Fanon. And lastly, the internet is indeed surfeited, as most media, with the white male voice. But with few exceptions, this white male voice does not call for a rejection of white business as usual. This kind of confrontation is typically delegated (by inaction and default) to people of color, who must shoulder the brunt of anti-racist education. It is my hope that, rather than discrediting me, my qualities as an amateur, a beholden textualist, and an insider to whiteness may in fact reach readers of like position -- who might otherwise remain outside the signal radius of such a plea.

So why, theologically, make such strong claims for the primacy of blackness in doing education? And how can one even "center black lives and black issues," if, as is the case for many of us, the texts stay the same?

For me, the two questions run together, in a way that may not apply to instructors of English or German lit, but which may find analogies in other wings of the theological academy. The questions implicate one another because the texts we teach open onto the present American crisis. More to the point, down deep at their roots, they stake out God's hatred for white supremacy and they witness to God's solidarity with blackness. By centering blackness now, I am only hewing to the texts' true north.

The above statement is, of course, a credendum, as well as a program for interpretation. There is no way of demonstrating that the Old Testament "takes sides," as it were, in the serial American collisions of white power and black resistance. And there can be no room for shortcuts and slipshod liberationist readings; the Old Testament is difficult, violent, and Israel-centric, hardly an egalitarian or post-racial manifesto. There is, for me at least, only at bottom a trust: that the Old Testament (and its God), for all of its cultural and theological remove, is not a stranger to American bloodshed, and also not an impartial onlooker. A trust, and also an insistence, on the partisanship and particularity of Israel’s God.[2]

This means my onus as an instructor is not to connect all the dots or to sell one particular theological articulation of God's involvement with initiatives for black freedom. Rather, I must uphold this main truth, and then teach the texts, "centering blackness" by raising up ad hoc themes and episodes that echo out to the present: God's loyalty to a single people, God's sorrow over violence and exploitation, God's rage against the unjust and powerful, God's ability to make a way out of no way, God's promise of victory to an embattled and disenfranchised people. By consistently making the current black struggle my paratext, I can suggest a primordial convergence between these texts and this, our context – on which basis students cleverer and more informed than me can mobilize particular interpretations.

Yes, it is essential to "include" writings by scholars of color and to supplement normal classroom functions with extra occasions to address black lives and black issues. But it not enough: rather, we must reenvision our approach to the same texts, from the bottom up, so that God’s own commitment to protecting, saving, and dignifying black lives becomes evident.

[1] http://changefromwithin.org/2015/08/09/interrupting-bernie-exposing-the-white-supremacy-of-the-american-left/

[2] After all, per the Talmud, “the world was created for the sake of Israel” (and not the other way ‘round, as in so much “missional” literature). See also Paul the apostle’s account that God only opened the covenant to Gentiles to make Israel jealous (Rom 11).

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


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Karl Barth’s Three "Words" to Atheism – More from Kimlyn Bender

Kimlyn J. Bender, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

One of the chapters that I want to highlight from Bender’s volume is chapter nine, “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism.” Atheism isn’t exactly an untouched topic here at DET. We’ve had a letter To my deconverted friend, an answer from Paul M. van Buren to the question “Is God dead?”, reflections from Gollwitzer on Christianity, Atheism, and the Existence of God, and even a post about Barth that addressed the question “Is atheism evil?” In this chapter, Bender takes up a number of the themes that appear in those posts and weaves them together by thinking about what “words” that Barth’s theology might speak to atheism.

  1. The first “word” is “The Word of God in Jesus Christ” (p. 272). This has to do with Christian particularity. Bender reminds his readers – by way of Barth – that any Christian response to atheism must be properly Christian, and not vaguely theist: “Theism may appear as a proper response to a growing atheistic secularism, but for Barth, such was fool’s gold. Theism may be an appealing alternative to a generic secularism for those who lament the loss of so-called Christian culture, but generic theism is helpless before a true idolatry” (p. 273).
  2. The second “word” is “A Word of Judgment” (p. 273). Here Bender draws on Barth’s criticism of religion to make the point that atheism is “but a new form of religion, which is itself a very old form of idolatry” (p. 273). This is why the proclamation of Christian particularity is the only proper response, i.e., because a programmatic apologetics “always takes unbelief more seriously than it takes revelation and faith” (p. 276). Bender is quick to note, however, that rejecting programmatic apologetics is most definitely not the same as rejecting “a hearty polemics within the dogmatic task” (p. 278).
  3. The third “word” is “A Word of Grace” (p. 278). Barth’s doctrines of election and christology, whose consequences reverberate throughout Barth’s thought, mean that there is a “Yes” to be spoken to atheists by God and attested by Christian theology insofar as atheism “is not left to itself to decide its own meaning” (p. 278). Rather, “God has eternally chosen to be with humanity in Jesus Christ and thus to be God for us despite our unbelief and rebellion” (p. 278).

Bender’s chapter concludes with some helpful clarity on Barth’s stance vis-à-vis atheism, especially as expressed in society through secularism:

Barth . . . did not see secularism so much as a threat but as a clarifying reality of postwar Europe that forced the church to confront the problems created by its having become wedded to culture and serving as its handmaiden. . . . For Barth, secularism was the shadow side of the church being the church, the lesser of two evils, the greater one being the conflation of church and culture. Therefore, as with atheism, Barth was less threatened by secularism than his contemporaries. . . . The great threat in Barth’s estimation was not the secularization of culture but the secularization of the church, whereby the church sacrificed its unique identity in merging with the society around it. (p. 280)