Monday, February 29, 2016

“Let some Christian answer this”: Heath Carter’s “Union Made”

I recently spent a weekend reading through Heath W. Carter’s recent book entitled Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (OUP, 2015). It is a wonderful book that traces a complicated history in a manner that brings it to life and works to give new life to important voices from the United States’s religious past. And these are voices that it is important for us to hear, as Carter notes as the book concludes, in a time when we are once more approximating the socio-economic dynamics of the Gilded Age, which is the focus of the book.

The story that Carter tells leaves itself open to multiple interpretations, but he frames the struggle of the late 19th c. labor movement in Chicago not as a struggle between moderate and middle-class Christianity on one side and radical socialist atheism on the other. Instead, he explains that “the battle was not between Christianity and secularism, but rather between competing interpretations of the Christian gospel” (p. 31). Eventually this social gospel from below articulated by the labor movement would work its way up the social chain, although it would not remain unchanged in doing so. By the time it was appropriated by the ecclesial establishments in the early 20th c. it was rather toothless – an attempt to ameliorate some of capitalism’s worst excesses rather than to call into question its very foundational principles.

As I said, one of the great things about Carter’s book is that he lets the activists from the labor movement speak for themselves to a great extent, so the reader gets to hear voices in the past whose relevance has hardly diminished. So I will leave you with one instance of this that I found particularly poignant. As always, italics is original and bold is mine.
Union Park’s ministers would hardly have been surprised to learn that, in the pages of the Workingman’s Advocate, Cameron—a known quantity by this point—deplored both the violence against workers during the late riots and the underhanded dealings of the railroad magnates that catalyzed them. Far more disconcerting was a letter published in the Daily News several weeks later, which suggested how precarious the Protestant foothold among the ordinary masses had become. The writer began, “I was at the Second Baptist Church prayer meeting last week, and one of the deacons rose and made the remark that he liked to see a young man come to church and drop a nickel in the box and pay for a seat upstairs. Such men were talented young men. Well, I am not a talented young man of that church, but would like to be.” He went on to explain, “I am trying to live the life of a Christian, but when I look at my bosses, who are members of the Christian denomination, I shudder and wonder how they can impose upon us poor miserable creatures throughout the week; and Sunday you will see them out with their coachman and fine span of horses, going to church, while thousands like myself are plodding along foot sore and hungry.” . . . “I have submitted my case to the proprietor personally, asking for a promotion or more wages,” he related; “the reply was, ‘if you do not want to work for what I am paying you, there are thousands who will.’” The letter closed, “Let some Christian answer this.”

And since there isn't much point in having a blog without engaging in some self-promotion, allow me to briefly note - gentle reader - that this word from the past resonates with some of my previous reflections: "The Blame Lies with the Christians: Helmut Gollwitzer's Engagement with Marxist Criticism of Religion"


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Hey, look at that! This post is only a week overdue, since the last link post was three weeks ago. That’s doing pretty well, considering my track record lately.

There’s been lots of stuff going on as usual at DET and across the theo-blogosphere, and this post is your one-stop-shop to catch up on anything that you missed. So kick back with your beverage of choice, flip your brain into “theology blog” mode, and enjoy some stimulating reads!

Here’s what we’ve been up to here at DET:

No, you read that right: we did have a post about C. S. Lewis. I know! I’m just as surprised as you, gentle reader.

In any case, here’s some good food for thought from elsewhere:


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Did C.S. Lewis Invent the Concept "Atheology"?

Well, things have been hot and heavy around here at DET this week with two dynamite posts from Our Illustrious Leader (see here and here). Our Marketing and Communications departments have been working round the clock to keep up with the traffic and I figured these folks deserve a little time off. So please allow me, dear readers, to switch things up a bit with a post on ... wait for it ... C.S. Lewis.

You heard that right.
Is Lewis in fact the Big Other elephant in the
postmodern atheologian's linguistically-
constructed closet?
The guy who introduced our readership to Walter Rauschenbusch and Teilhard de Chardin (see Shameless Self-promoting Plugs Nos. one and two, respectively) is now squaring the circle by inserting into this venerable blog a post about the beloved children's author, Renaissance lit critic and Oxbridge don.

The veneration that Lewis has garnered among conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic readers, especially, is certainly inestimable. There's an apocryphal story, which I'm unable to confirm as of press time, that when Christianity Today was compiling its famous "Books of the Century"  feature and the results of the first poll of contributors was tallied, Lewis' collected works occupied the first 63 slots of the top 100, leaving a paltry 37 slots for the likes of Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn, Weil and Camus. The editors wisely sent the ballots back out, to broaden the sample a bit.

But if Lewis is much beloved among millions of Christians and other literature loves -- as well as some former employees of the Walt Disney Company -- his reputation among Barthians and other "serious" theologians is, well, a little more (harumph) ... sketchy. Whatever. All the Jack haters can enroll all their kids in "Experiment House," for all I care. I rather like the old guy, warts and all.

Nonetheless, as I shall contend here, the folks who should be troubled by Lewis are not so much the dialectical theologians as much as our friends, the critical theorists and their co-conspirators within the academy and the on the blogosphere. Heads up. We don't throw y'all a bone so often over here at DET, so enjoy it while it lasts.

I was... I mean, um, a friend was recently reading an essay by Lewis in his volume of essays, Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967), titled simply "Historicism."
God's image is strikingly absent here.
No. 61 (Rust and Blue) by Mark Rothko.
From the Museum of Contemporary Art,
Los Angeles.
The odd thing about this essay is that Lewis defines historicism in terms almost exactly opposite to how I usually think of it. To my mind, the word denotes the attempt to relativize and level all efforts to secure a unified meaning that transcends yet unifies the flux of historical experience; so historicism in this sense would be deeply empirical, possibly even positivst. Lewis, on the other hand, is criticizing the very attempt to discern such a meaning from the meager resources of speculative reason. His specific target is idealist philosophers and those influenced by them in other fields, such as theology. So Hegel (old school modernist Hegel, not new school postmodernist Hegel) or Carlisle would be examples of historicists, in Lewis' sense of the word.

But that is not the interesting part. What really caught my ... my friend's attention was this passage, which sets up a contrast between the historian proper, who engages in the legitimate attempt to discern coherent causal sequences, and the dreaded historicist:

The mark of the Historicist [capitalized in the original, to ominous effect], on the other hand, is that he tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or (to coin a word) atheo-logical (pp. 100-101, emphasis mine).

Wait, what? Is Lewis claiming here to have invented the term "atheology"? Not knowing the etymology of this word, so freighted as it is in contemporary academic discourse, I naturally would have assumed some profoundly opaque thinker such as Heidegger or Lacan would have originated it -- not this frumpy, mid-20th century literary scholar known for his popular Christian apologetics and children's fantasies. And, to make matters worse, a Platonic realist to boot!

So what? you're asking. If one were to sidle up to, say, a Barthian with the bold claim: "I am an atheist"or "atheologian (atheologist?)," she's going to be, like, "Meh. Tell me about the god you don't believe in. I probably don't believe in that god either." (This is one reason, by the way, that Barthians are rarely invited to cocktail parties.) So the kind of writer who tends to lurk around a website like Die Evangelischen Theologen is likely to shrug off the whole business: "Whatever (yawning). We have the Nicht-Gott and all that, and we all have copies of The Viking Portable Nietzsche on our bedside tables. Smile! Jesus loves you, nonetheless, though I can't prove it. Get over yourself." (Perhaps no respectable Barthian actually talks this way. Hmm. Perhaps this is why I never get invited to cocktail parties.)

Rather, as an (often bemused) outside observer, I worry more about the atheologians/atheolgists and critical theorists out there. It seems to me their honor, their claims to anomalousness are on the line here. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? The spirit of Aslan, indeed, bloweth where it listeth.

We all own this book. But how
many of us have actually read it?
To be sure, I find no evidence of the deconstructionist backslash or strike-through in Lewis' writings. That innovation would have to wait for Derrida, as far as I know. Still, this potential bombshell is worrisome. For example, the deconstructionist philosopher of religion and atheologian Mark C. Taylor was born in 1945 (so says my journal of record, Wikipedia), a mere five years before this Lewis essay was published. Could the seeds of Taylor's dazzling postmodern project have actually been planted not by reading Altizer in grad school or from pondering the ostensible meaninglessness of life but, simply, from hearing some passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It's simply in the interest of Christian charity -- or if you prefer, basic human decency -- that I call attention to this incongruity, in the hopes that an expert from the critical theory camp will set the record straight. Is this danger for real, or am I simply erring here? Please do respond ASAP, either in the comments below or perhaps on your own blog, so my world of thought will not collapse and my head implode. Paging John Caputo! Paging Slavoz Žižek! Paging Peter Rollins!


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What Am I Reading? Andrew Purves, “Exploring Christology & Atonement”

I’m sorry to say that I’m not familiar with Purves’s work, although I know that he thinks a lot about the intersection of pastoral ministry and systematic theology. So I was excited to read this book as much to become more familiar with its author as to learn about its subject matter. Purves is an engaging writer, and his deep personal concern for the Scottish Reformed tradition’s theology – exemplified here by John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance – comes through on every page. His goal in this work is to think alongside these figures about the intersection of Jesus Christ’s person and work, christology and atonement, as a way of sounding the depths of “the great and central mystery of Christian faith” which is “the central message of Christian proclamation” (9). To this end, his preface includes a ‘theological reflection’ on Colossians 1:15–20 as a way of setting the scene for this inquiry. There he speaks movingly of reconciliation as “restoration of peace and love that had been destroyed,” culminating in “a vast cosmic peace” (15). I also appreciated how Purves situated the theological task as baptismal (see esp. 17–19 and 33–34).

Andrew Purves, Exploring Christology & Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance (IVP Academic, 2015).*

As readers of DET are well aware, T. F. Torrance is not foreign to me. So I came to Purves’s book with the main outlines of the Scottish Reformed tradition that he explicates well established in my mind. But I appreciated seeing how a number of ideas that are often identified as “Torrencian” were actually creative developments of moves made by the earlier two figures. (One can get a sense of this working even farther back in this tradition by looking at Torrance’s book on Scottish theology.) It was Purves’s explication of McLeod Campbell that was most interesting to me. Below I highlight one particular passage that stood out to me from Purves’s discussion of McLeod Campbell. The primary point under consideration is McLeod Campbell’s claim – as Purves puts it – that “the cross, as a Jesus event, has to be seen also as a God event.” As usual, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

The death of Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, in the unity of his one personhood, is a human event in history – no ambiguity there. He died as we will die; it is death as deadly as our death. But the death of Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, in the unity of his one personhood, is also a God event – an event within the mystery of the Holy Trinity. In which case, we have to speak here of dying and death within God, for the Son of God died without ceasing to be God, though there must be no sense of divine death. Clearly and immediately we have hit a wall that we cannot get over; we are confronted by a mystery beyond understanding. We have to speak here of abandoning and abandonment within God, for the correspondence to the Son’s feeling of abandonment is the Father’s allowing the Son to die; and surely we say this with our hands clamped over our mouths, for this is a fearful thing of which we speak. We have to speak here of the Son’s commitment of his spirit to the Father and of the Father’s receipt of that spirit, for the union of love between the Father and the Son is not broken. We have to speak here not just of the terrible experience of the dying Jesus, but also of the terrible grief surely of the loving, sending, then waiting, Father. To speak otherwise would be to say that God, as the man Jesus, Son of the Father, is not dying on the cross, that God, as the man Jesus, Son of the Father, has not entered into our Godforsakenness, and that God, as the man Jesus, Son of the Father, has not descended into the hell of our sin-filled separation from God to reestablish us in communion with God. And to say these things would be to turn the gospel into what is not the gospel by refusing to see the cross of Jesus as a God event. The cross is saving because it is an event within the relations between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. (133–34)

Aside from the knotty issues directly involved in trying to think of Godforsakenness within the triune life, this movement of thought has consequences for how we conceive of the atonement. As Purves puts it shortly after where my quote above ended: “The cross is not where God’s justice is satisfied; it is where the Father’s love is revealed.” McLeod Campbell recasts thinking about the cross as satisfaction so that it becomes “satisfaction of the Father’s love as God’s Son” (158). A satisfaction theory of the atonement where it is God’s love rather than wrath that is satisfied? Now, that’s intriguing…


Monday, February 22, 2016

Karl Barth, Scripture, D. A. Carson, and the Gospel Coalition

Earlier today the Gospel Coalition put up a post on their website (I won’t link it for you) quoting D. A. Carson at some length on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. While Carson’s comments are very gracious to Barth overall, he nonetheless lodges a number of criticisms against Barth.

His critical remarks are exactly what you would expect from someone who elevates a collection of ancient texts as the equivalent of a second or secondary divine incarnation.

Another way to put this is to say that these comments are what you would expect from what I have come to think of as an Islamic doctrine of Scripture, given the similarities to Muslim thinking about the Qur’an.

Anyway, the Gospel Coalition supplements Carson’s comments by providing links to folks that they consider reliable sources of Barth interpretation. Not one of their sources is a first-rate Barth scholar. If you want to get a real look at Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, here are the secondary sources that you need to engage:

[UPDATE: Through the course of conversation across the interwebs and its various platforms, Martin Lloyd-Jones's criticism of Barth emerged once again in the collective consciousness. Therefore, I would point you, gentle reader, to my response to Lloyd-Jones: The Significance of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Humorous Interlude.}


Friday, February 19, 2016

Analogy, Demythologizing, and Eberhard Jüngel: Once More with David Congdon

I provided an introduction of sorts to Congdon’s tome in an earlier post. Today I want to return and highlight a piece of his text that seems particularly valuable to me.

David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress, 2015).

One of the tasks that Congdon undertakes in this work is to clarify just what sort of a thing Bultmann gives us with his “demythologizing” business. He accomplishes this in manifold ways, but one of the most helpful ways that he does so – in my humble opinion – is by connecting the dots between demythologizing and the doctrine of analogy. What I give you below comes primarily from a footnote and puts Bultmann into touch specifically with Jüngel’s account of analogy as an “analogy of advent.” I will, however, begin with some of the main text that elucidates Jüngel’s discussion of “the Christ-myth.” As usual, italics are from the original text and bold is from me. I will also remove the bibliographic information interspersed throughout the footnote – if you want that, get yourself a copy of the book and look it up!

Jüngel argues that the Christ-myth demands the very creator-creature differentiation that calls into question myth’s attempt to provide a theoretical explanation of the world. The Christ-myth, which refers to an identification of God with a human being, “fails if one considers it conversely as the annulment [Aufhebung] of the differentiation between creator and creature. God became a human being in order concretely and definitively to differentiate between God and humanity.”[30]

[***And now on to footnote #30***]

This is one of Jüngel’s central claims, and it is repeated throughout his writings. His work – and, I would argue, that of Barth and Bultmann as well – can be understood as one long exposition of the statement Luther made in a 1530 letter to Spalatin: “We are to be human and not God. That is the summa.” . . . In his 1969-70 theses on christology, Jüngel states that “the revelation of the definitive unity of God with Jesus constitutes the definitive differentiation of God and humanity.” In his 1985 summary of his theology, . . . he discusses as his fifth point the thesis: “I believe, therefore I differentiate.” He argues that faith “differentiates first and foremost between God and the world, between creator and creature, in order to emphasize the right relation between both in terms of an unsurpassable nearness.” And in his 1988 essay on the historical Jesus he concludes by saying that “God and humanity [Mensch] are so differentiated, that God and humanity can be together without restriction.” . . . The simultaneity of both differentiation and nearness in the relation between God and the world is at the heart of Jüngel’s doctrine of analogy as well, which he defines as an “analogy of advent.” Unlike the analogia entis, which defines God in terms of a still greater dissimilarity in the midst of such a great similarity, Jüngel – following Barth’s analogia fidei and his notion of God’s humanity – understands the analogy between God and the world in terms of a still greater similarity or nearness in the midst of such a great dissimilarity or differentiation. . . . It is not widely recognized, at least within anglophone scholarship, that Jüngel’s doctrine of analogy functions exactly like Bultmann’s program of demythologizing. This is due in no small part to the fact that Jüngel’s work on Bultmann remains untranslated, and thus he is perceived strictly as an interpreter of Barth and not equally as an interpreter of Bultmann. This has the unfortunate effect of leading readers of Jüngel to think that he is demonstrating the creative possibilities of Barth’s theology when in fact he is also demonstrating the equally creative possibilities of Bultmann’s. (451–52)

P.S. and N.B. David has a new website that you should be sure to check out:


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Thou Art Dust: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

When I was a student at Princeton Seminary, I remember coming into a darkened Chapel on Ash Wednesday evening. The Chapel was bare, with just purple paraments on the lectern and pulpit. There was scripture and liturgy, based around Isaiah 58, Psalm 51, Joel 2, Matthew 6, but what I remember best was the imposition of ashes. Kneeling in the front of the chapel with my head bowed, the pastor of the Chapel put ashes on the top of my head, and pressing down with both hands she intoned, “O man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” And when he took the pressure off my head, I thought I would faint.

"O man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return…O woman, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return." You can’t get much starker than that. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was at the age of 25 that I first actually realized, actually believed, that I am going to die someday. That someday, this light I carry in me will be snuffed out, and I will go down to the dust, just like everyone who has ever lived.

I have carried this memory with me ever since, and on Ash Wednesdays I always think of it. As I read the scriptures of the “Day of the Lord,” from the prophet Joel, as I lead the penitential Psalm 51, I realize all over again that someday I will be dust. And I think of it as I go through the congregation with the ashes, and I usually have tears forming in the corner of my eye as I put ashes on your heads, because I love you, and to remind you that "O Man, O Woman, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" hurts my heart. I don’t want you to be dust, even as I don’t want me to be dust.

The early church carved out Lent as a time for Christians to prepare for the wonder of the resurrection. When the same church holy days come around year after year, they were seeing that people were becoming used to the fact that Easter would come, and that the complete wonder of the miracle of resurrection was being neutralized by familiarity. That first marking of Ash Wednesday and that first Lent at Princeton Seminary did for me what church holy days and the liturgical season of Lent are supposed to do. They reminded me that God working through Christ is a miracle that needs to be discovered anew every year.

When I worked alongside a young pastor a couple of years ago in New England, he wouldn’t use ashes. He anointed people on Ash Wednesday with oil, seeing Ash Wednesday as a time to receive Christ’s healing through repentance, “Repent, and receive the healing of Christ,” he said. That is not wrong, it is just a different understanding of Ash Wednesday.

To me, hearing these texts from Joel and Jesus, praying the Penitential Psalm 51, says to me something else. It says, “Without God, you have no hope.” And for a moment I realize that I am truly dust, that there is no hope for me, that the light that I carry in me will well and truly go out. And it shakes me to the core. If I lived in another time or another culture, this feeling of hopelessness would cause me to tear my clothes and to collapse in a heap and wail.

But that is not the message of Ash Wednesday or Lent. The message is: "O Man, O Woman, thou art indeed dust, and to dust your body will return, but because of the Lord Jesus Christ, your Savior, to whom you have given your heart, the light that you carry in you is carried by him, and that light cannot go out. "

Lent is the time to think about this. To remember that we are hopeless without the Hope of the World, the Light of the World. To hear the stories in Scripture of how Jesus prepared himself to go to Jerusalem to face his own death, to walk with him toward his death, and to watch with him as he dies. To get a glimpse of the hopelessness that would be ours as the Light of the World seems to be put out on a cross.

O Man, O Woman, we may be dust, but we do have hope, we have faith, we have trust, that at the end of this journey through life, as our bodies return to dust, that the light that is in us is carried by the one whose love will never let us go. "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39). Nothing, no nothing, will separate us from the love of God for us in Jesus Christ.

Let us believe this good news of the Gospel.

[Note: I preached this sermon on February 10th at a small, rural Presbyterian Church in Johnston County, North Carolina.]


Monday, February 15, 2016

Guilty Pleasure Theologians – Fun with Twitter

Some young whippersnappers in the theoblogosphere have been making really good use of Twitter and other social media engines to drive reader engagement on their blogs through things like polls. That looked like fun. So I went on Twitter and found the button to make a poll and, well, proceeded to make a nuisance out of myself.

Blame whomsoever thou willst, but I decided to do a set of three polls to identify which theologians people out there are reading but on the down-low. Furtively. With a sense of shame. Having to wash their hands after turning ever page. You get the idea. Why? Because apparently asking “Who’s your favorite theologian out of these four” just wasn’t going to cut it for my sleep-deprived and caffeine-driven mind.

In any case, the results are collected below with some…let us say…brief commentary.

I'm not shocked by the winner of the above poll. I fully expected Tillich to win. As long, that is, as enough sufficiently wide-read voters materialized. But Barth at a close second?!?!?! Granted, the Center for Barth Studies twitter feed promoted voting for Barth - I'm not sure why. But still. I would have expected Bultmann to come in higher on this. At least, that is, before David Congdon started shifting reception of Bultmann with his insightful and commanding scholarship.

Now, the results for the above poll *did* shock me a bit. Jenson?!?! Really?!?! Jenson is your guilty pleasure theology read?!?! *boggles*

The third and final poll above had the most resounding results, and I am rather gratified by them. Hauerwas is certainly an important thinker, and someone who should be read. But I disagree with Hauerwas enough (and it is a fair bit...) that I'm glad people feel a little dirty while reading him.

Well, I think I've offended enough people for one day. There may be more polls in the future. Someone suggested doing a March Madness style tournament. I can't say that the idea failed to appeal to me. Stay tuned! We'll be back to our usual dry, serious, academic theology programming on Wednesday.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

What Am I Reading? Kevin Vander Schel on "Embedded Grace" - Schleiermacher on the Supernatural-Become-Natural

I don't win many things. I'm not good at playing the lottery (especially since I never play it), and I've never won a round of Monopoly. But the Center for Barth Studies made me a winner, at least once: I entered the winning photo caption for a KBC contest on Facebook and, for this willingness to embarrass myself, was rewarded with this superb monograph by Kevin M. Vander Schel. (Neither the shout out nor the review were obligatory, but I always like to give a hat tip to anyone who sends me a free book.) I was rewarded even more when I finally made some time recently to read it.

Embedded Grace: Christ, History, and the Reign of God in Schleiermacher's Dogmatics by Kevin M. Vander Schel (Fortress, 2013).

It is an academic monograph, of course, based on Vander Schel's doctoral dissertation at Boston College; nonetheless, this erudite -- yet not overly long -- study is eminently readable, even for the non-Schleiermacher expert (of course, some background in modern theology is helpful).Embedded Grace has numerous strengths.
It is, first of all, a first-rate piece of scholarship in historical theology that illuminates fascinating developments in post-Enlightenment German Protestant thought. In that vein, Vander Schel gives a concise and lucid synopsis of a crucial debate in European Protestant theology of the early 19th century -- the debate between the enlightened rationalists who located religious experience in a universally accessible and utterly natural principle of reason, on the one hand, and the supernaturalists who reasserted a unique and unsurpassable revelation codified in the inspired biblical texts, on the other hand. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), profoundly shaped both by his Moravian pietist upbringing and his readings in critical modern research after Kant, emerges as a kind of mediating figure between these extreme positions -- or perhaps better, as an advocate for an innovative third way that honors the concerns of both rationalist and supernaturalist while seeking to transcend the limitations of each school.

Moreover, Vander Schel focuses on the Berlin prodigy's mature work, which he takes to have an integrity in its own right, however it might reflect Schleiermacher's earlier work in the philosophy of religion and Platonic philosophy. He offers a close reading of the main argument of Schleiermacher's dogmatic magnum opus, The Christian Faith (1821), and he shows how these doctrinal concerns ramify in his largely neglected lectures on Christian ethics (which must be distinguished from earlier work in philosophical ethics). Schleiermacher's abiding concern in his later work, as Vander Schel interprets it, was to restate the essence and uniqueness of Christianity in a way that did not contradict the burgeoning natural and human sciences. His solution was to change the terms of the debate, by seeking to recast the "supernatural" in terms of the advent of the unique Savior Jesus within the flux of sinful human history. The sinless piety of Jesus (interpreted as perfected God-consciousness, an utter openness to the divine Spirit sufusing all the activities and passivities of life), cannot be accounted for on strictly natural terms within the process of human development. Jesus' perfection is, thus, "relatively supernatural" -- the one miracle allowed in Schleiemacher's account, albeit the one fact upon which the one decree of God in creation and consummation is seen to subsist.

Vander Schel takes seriously Schleiermacher's often ignored insistence that his dogmatics follows a logic of its own -- a logic that stems from concrete, social Christian experience -- that cannot be simply derived from the general anthropological considerations sketched in the prolegommena.
As Scheiermacher confided to his friend Dr. Lücke, he debated revising the topical order of The Christian Faith, to emphasize that the system as a whole is grounded upon and flows from the collective Christian experience of redemption in Jesus Christ: Schleiermacher insists that the introduction, which sketches a phenomenology of religion as absolute dependence (harkening back to the Speeches on Religion of 1799) and the first part of the dogmatics, which traces the relationship between Creator and creature, are propadeutic moves that find their true meaning in the concrete and collective experience of redemption as conquest of sin within Christian communities. In other words, the (arguably) high Christology of Jesus as the one who incarnates utter openness to the divine presence is the confessional dog that wags the apologetic tail, and not vice versa.

Critics from the right and left, from Schleiermacher's day until now, have criticized (or perhaps praised, as in Barth's case) Schleiermacher's Christocentric focus on a unique Savior as an incongruity that threatens to unravel his system. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), for instance, complained that asserting the Savior's supernatural uniqueness, even in an attenuated form, thwarted the theologian's claim to fully embrace critical historical research. Vander Schel writes:

This observation [by Strauss] touches on the tension at the heart of the present study. Within Schleiermacher's dogmatic theology, the historical appearance of Christ that inaugurates the Reign of God signals the one true miracle of the created world and indeed the miracle of miracles. Yet this affirmation does not -- as Strauss judges -- indicate a point of oversight or inconsistency in Schleiermacher's theology, as if revealing and accidental invasion of transcendence into an otherwise immanent historical system. Instead, Schleiermacher's description of Christ's appearance and surpassing influence in history signals the fundamental relationship underlying his dogmatic vision throughout: the divine redemptive activity of Christ tranforming the natural and historical world from within, bringing creation to is completed fulfillment and perfection (pp. 223-224).

On the contrary, Vander Schel argues: The explication of the figure of Jesus, the new Adam who initiates a new mode of Christian living within the bonds of finite existence, is the linchpin that unites and permeates the system as a whole. By forming a community of discipleship centered on his unique and irreplaceable piety, Jesus initiates a movement that aims to transform humanity from the ground up, building the reign of God on earth. Whether one ultimately accepts, rejects or critically modifies Schleiermacher's revisionist account of Christian faith, Vander Schel at least has made a strong case for the internal coherence and perspecuity -- even beauty, I'd go so far to say -- of the great Berlin theologian's systematic theology.


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Luther on the Thievery of “Secular Leaders”

I’m taking a little bit of a risk in posting this long quote from Luther. It is a compelling quote with important political implications in our contemporary context. But, as you will see, it is possible to interpret this as being anti-government. I am *not* anti-government. And neither was Luther.

Luther talks not only about “secular leaders” but also “secular princes” – i.e., what passed for government at the time. However, I’m inclined to agree with Marx on this one: the heirs of the feudal ruling class are not so much politicians as they are those who directly control capital. In other words, the equivalent of a baron these days is a corporate CEO, not your district’s congressional representative. Now, of course, your district’s congressman may well do the bidding of said corporate CEO. There’s far too much private money in politics – dark and light money, so to speak – to entertain the delusion that this is not the case. And your district’s congressman may in fact also be something like a corporate CEO. They tend to be very wealthy today. But, my point is that this passage should not be read as anti-government, but as anti-“rich-ruling-class.” It is anti-government insofar as particular forms of government are allied with said class.

With that introduction out of the way, I have only this to say about the quote. Wow. Luther dances around so many key issues – such as private vs. common good, the public commons and the evil of privatizing it, the rule of law that is no respecter of persons, the idea that it is possible for there to be unjust or immoral or evil laws, what is owed to those at the lower levels of society, right to health-care access, etc. – that are pressing today in so many ways that it deserves re-reading and careful explication. Unfortunately, I cannot provide that here. It would take a whole series of magazine articles (or blog posts…) to tease out all these connections and implications. So instead, I will leave you (for the time being?) to ponder Martin’s words.

Be sure to be alive to his use of satire. And, coincidentally, this is part of his commentary on Romans 2.1.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, Luther’s Works volume 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972), 172–73. Bold is mine.
On the basis of what authority do secular princes and secular leaders act when they keep for themselves all the animals and the fowl so that no one besides them may hunt them? By what right? If anyone of the common people would do that, he would justly be called thief, robber, or swindler, because he would take away from common use what does not belong to him. But because the ones who do these things are powerful, therefore they cannot be thieves. Or is it really true that . . . we can say that princes and the powerful lords are of course not thieves and robbers but that they nevertheless do the things that thieves and robbers do? The vice . . . is so deeply ingrained in them that they cannot rule without also oppressing people and hunting vigorously, that is, violently, which means seizing for themselves things that do not belong to them. Blessed Augustine in his book, On the City of God says: “What are the great empires but great dens of thieves?” And he adds the following story: “When Alexander the Great asked a pirate who had become his prisoner of war what business he had to make the sea unsafe, the pirate in boldest defiance answered, ‘What business do you have to make the whole world unsafe? To be sure, I do this with a small boat, and I am called a robber; but you do it with a huge fleet and are called an emperor for it.’” . . . They are hanging the thieves and executing the robbers, and thus the big thieves act as judges of the little thieves.

Along the same lines they exact taxes from the people without urgent reason and exploit them by changing and devaluating the money, but they fine their subjects for greed and avarice. What is this but stealing and robbing those things which do not belong to us? Indeed, who will finally absolve of theft people who collect regular tribute and rightful compensation and yet do not fulfill their duties owed to the people by giving them protection, health, and justice? For their eyes are only on tyranny, on collecting riches, and on boasting with empty show of the possessions which they have acquired and kept.


Saturday, February 06, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

This is just embarrassing. I need to take that line about a “fortnight” off of my template for this post because it has been a long, long time since I lived up to it. In fact, it has been over a month since the last DET link post! My apologies, gentle readers, for leaving you for so long without both a handy collection of interesting reads with which to while away your weekends (or, let’s be honest, work-weeks), and a convenient index of what we’ve been posting about around here. Fear not! The links you seek draweth nigh.

Here’s what you might have missed around here at DET:

And here are some things that you may have missed across the wider theo-interwebs:


Thursday, February 04, 2016

That Time When Hunsinger Commended Dutch Neocalvinism

Twenty-one years ago, theologian George Hunsinger wrote an essay titled "What Can Evangelicals and Postliberals Learn from Each Other? The Carl Henry/Hans Frei Exchange Reconsidered."
Leiden's east gate, by Erick Zachte (wikipedia)
Back in the mid '80s, Carl F.H. Henry, the Christianity Today editor and major architect of the post-war neoevangelical movement gave a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School that offered a respectful but highly critical assessment of the burgeoning postliberal theology movement. Hans Frei responded, defending a his narrative-theological biblical hermeneutics and theology.

Hunsinger's essay was printed in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP, 1996) -- an important book, though it has been quite a while since I read it. It was later reprinted in Hunsinger's own book
Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Eerdmanns, 2002) What? Didn't you go out and buy this book when McMaken recommended you do so? If that's the case, go out and remedy the situation now. It's a feast.

The essay, which closes a volume of essays on Barth, actually doesn't discuss Barth at all: It offers, rather, a "thought experiment" meant to advance an ecumenical dialogue among partners who all take the Bible seriously but, otherwise, seem to have a hard time getting along. Hunsinger begins with a lengthy quote from the Roman Catholic thinker Hans Küng and goes on to engage not only Henry and Frei, but also the Dutchmen Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and the Englishmen John Stott and Alistar McGrath. Hunsinger gives a shout out to conservative evangelicals as stalwart defenders of a soteriology of substitutionary atonement -- an affirmation I heartily endorse. But what intrigues me especially is Hunsinger's engagement with Kuyper and Bavinck, two of the most important architects of Dutch neocalvinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who are brought into the conversation as potential catalysts for unraveling the impasse between evangelicals and postliberals on questions of revelation, truth and biblical authority.

I won't unpack here all the nuances in Hunsinger's intensive close reading of the Henry-Frei debate. But just to hit some of the high spots: Henry, a student of Gordon Clark, rigorously affirmed biblical inerrancy and situated the the veracity of the biblical text in the propositional statements found in the text itself or derived from its narrative and symbolic passages. Henry lauds Frei for taking the unity of the biblical canon seriously but chides the Yale thinker for (as he sees it) a certain worrying fuzziness about the nature of biblical truth -- in particular, about the veracity of historical accounts in the Bible. Frei is not deterred by this critique and counters that Henry and other conservative propositionalists have insinuated a major category mistake into biblical hermeneutics: Biblical truth is much broader, richer and mysterious than a narrowly cognitivist approach would have it. Henry and others, Frei claims, have succumbed to a modernist project of vindicating religious truth on rationalist epistemological foundations. For Frei, human creaturely knowledge is much more tenuous and ambiguous, but in God's grace the scriptures are sufficient to render God's true character, whether all the events recounted in the narratives actually happened or not. (He does believe a minimal belief in the existence of Jesus, his proclamation of the kingdom, his death and resurrection remains essential, but faith cannot rest on the effort to prove such matters through modern historical critical investigation). The gospel narratives, in particular, are meant to faithfully render an impressionistic portrait of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Faith accepts this as foundation enough.

Thus, Hunsinger locates the main difference between Henry and Frei in the realm of predication -- particularly, how statements in scripture are seen to refer to God. For the "experiential expressivist" (to use George Lindbeck's categories) scriptural and theological language is equivocal: That is to say, there is no intrinsic relationship between the textual statement and the referent, but the veracity of Christian truth relies in subjective religious experience or in its transcendental horizons.
Henry, by contrast, construes the predicative effect of biblical and god talk as being univocal: That is, there is a direct correspondence between the statement and the reality to which it refers (so the argument goes). One reason Frei can live with the ambiguities and apparent incongruities of a narrative hermeneutics, Hunsinger argues, is because the Yale theologian upholds an analogical view of Christian truth. Such an approach highlights the tenuous, creaturely and fragile character of human language to refer to an infinite and all Holy God; nonetheless, in God's gracious accommodation to human frailty, the scriptural texts are enabled to render real knowledge of God's character, if only through the clay jars of analogy.

None of these moves is too surprising, perhaps, but what is striking is the next move in Hunsinger's argument: He turns attention from the dispute between conservative evangelicals and postliberals over the Bible to a key divide within conservative Protestantism itself in these matters. Frei and his followers (including of course, many Barthians as well) would reject the cognitivist and propositionalist view of truth as univocal. But what if there is a way, via a venerable tradition within Protestant orthodoxy itself, to affirm the high view of scriptural authority typically seen as central to evangelical identity without submitting to univocal propositionalism?

Hunsinger suggests a richer and more organic analogical mode of interpretation and theologizing is a key feature of the work of Kuyper and Bavinck, modern representatives and interpreters of the orthodox Protestant heritage.
Abraham Kuyper
According to Hunsinger, what gives the postliberals and the Dutch Calvinists common cause -- over against a thinker like Henry -- is that it affirms the unity and integrity of scripture without attempted to demonstrate it on a modernist, rationalist, foundationalist basis. Rather, an a priori faith in God's revelation in Christ is the condition for the possibility of for affirming scripture's unity and (for Herman and Bavinck, if not for postliberals) its inerrancy. Such a broader analogical hermeneutic, for example, makes space for typological readings of scripture.

The potential payoff of this investigation, Hunsinger suggests, would be a point of contact for fruitful discussion between conservative evangelicals and postliberals (or, one might add, Barthians more generally). These two major options within contemporary Protestant theology could then be seen as possibly vantage points along one line of tradition stretching back to Calvin.

Hunsinger admits he is not deeply versed in the work of these two Dutch thinkers (nor am I); in interpreting them, he relies on Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) scholar Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. His main goal is to suggest possibly lines of fruitful dialogue that might facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between evangelicals and postliberals. I wonder how relevant this thought experiment might be today, as the movement (if that's what it is) spawned by the work of Yale thinkers Frei, Lindbeck, Brevard Childs and others has spun off in so many directions.

For my part, the heritage of Reformed orthodoxy as a whole is very much the other to my background, inclinations and training. Though I grew up within conservative evangelicalism, our brand was more within the pietist and Arminian heritage. Calvinist doctrine became a dominant tradition within Southern Baptist life only gradually, and mostly after I was basically already grown up. My modern theology exam reading list in grad school focused mostly on the post-Cartesian and post- Enlightenment trajectories of modern theology; we didn't really read the Protestant scholastics, so I find myself always playing catch-up in this arena. And as most of you know, gentle readers, Barth wasn't exactly kissing cousins with the 20th century Dutch Calvinists (the sympathetic and penetrating reading of Barth by C.K. Berkhouwer being a major exception), and even uttering the name "van Til" in Barthian circles elicits a similar reaction to blurting out Voldemort at Hogwarts. But could it be that Protestant orthodoxy, especially this strand of it, has important insights to yield to the patient Barth-leaning theologian? Perhaps we shall see.


By the way, if you're interested, Barth and Bavinck did have a convo -- if only a hypothetical one -- on this very website, in these posts  by Andrew Esqueda and Joel Esala.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3.18–4.2

Malachi 3.18–4.2

[18] Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. [4.1] See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, say the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. [2] But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.


COMMENTARY: Calvin begins this portion of his commentary by reprising the discussion with which he concluded the previous portion, and which I highlighted in the last installment of this series, concerning the question of merit. He summarizes succinctly: “We saw in the last lecture that no works of the faithful please God, except through a gratuitous acceptance: it hence follows, that nothing can be ascribed to merits without derogating from the grace of Christ.” But what comes out here more so than in his previous discussion, is that Calvin regards this as a hermeneutical point, i.e., it explains how different sorts of biblical statements can fit together. So Calvin (again): “We now see how these two things harmonize—that reward is promised to works, and that works themselves deserve nothing before God; for though God can justly reject them, he yet regards them as acceptable, because he forgives all their defects” (610).

The last installment of this series also highlighted Calvin’s discussion of hope, and the idea that faith involves patience during the gap or delay between God’s promise and its fulfilment. In this way faith also means persisting in trust of God when experience or outward appearances suggest that this is fruitless. But for those who persist in this hopeful faith (or, faithful hope?), Calvin points out that verse 18 includes the promise that “experience will then at length teach you” what you have heretofore believed in spite of experience to the contrary (611).

Continuing with verse 18, Calvin notes the parallel between those who are righteous / just and those who serve God, and those who are wicked and do not serve God. He then makes the penetrating application: “there is no justice where there is no obedience rendered to God” (613). This is a typical Calvin point, but there are other places in his work where I have encountered this sentiment (though I can’t think of where off the top of my head right now) where he has more clearly taken the next step and reversed it to say something like there is no obedience rendered to God where there is no justice. But Calvin does not take such a step this time, instead doubling down: “We must then always come to this,—that men must obey God, if they desire to form their life aright.” Talk about a missed opportunity.

This is something of a random comment, but Calvin takes up the issue in connection with verse 1 of God’s timing for the execution of judgment, and it made me think of the college admission process. Some institutions do what is called “rolling admission” where applications are processed and acted on continuously; other institutions (and this was more common in past decades) had particular admissions periods and deadlines. Calvin makes the point that God works more like the latter than the former: “God does not execute his judgments in an even or a continued course, but that he has a fixed time, now for forbearance, then for vengeance, as it seems good to him” (616).

Finally, I want to highlight some larger bits of Calvin’s interpretation of verse 2 specifically relating to his identification of Jesus Christ as “the sun of righteousness” and as “the sun of righteousness” (repetition is mine, as is emphasis on “sun”):
The meaning . . . of the word sun, when metaphorically applied to Christ, is this,—that he is called a sun, because without him we cannot but wander and go astray, but that by his guidance we shall keep in the right way. . . . Christ then daily illuminates us by his doctrine and his Spirit; and though we see him not with our eyes, yet we find by experience that he is a sun. (618)

He is called the sun of righteousness, either because of his perfect rectitude, in whom there is nothing defective, or because the righteousness of God is conspicuous in him: and yet, that we may know the light, derived from him, which proceeds from him to us and irradiates us, we are not to regard the transient concerns of this life, but what belongs to the spiritual life. The first thing is, that Christ performs towards us the office of a sun, not to guide our feet and hands as to what is earthly, but that he brings light to us, to show the way to heaven, and that by its means we may come to the enjoyment of a blessed and eternal life. We must secondly observe, that this spiritual light cannot be separated from righteousness; for how does Christ become our sun? It is by regenerating us by his Spirit into righteousness, by delivering us from the pollutions of the world, by renewing us after the image of God. (618–19)


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast appointed thine only-begotten Son to be like a sun to us, we may not be blind, so as not to see his brightness; and that since he is pleased to guide us daily into the way of salvation, may we follow him and never be detained by any of the impediments of this world, so as not to pursue after that celestial life to which thou invitests us; and that as thou hast promised that he is to come and gather us into the eternal inheritance, may we not in the meantime grow wanton, but on the contrary watch with diligence and be ever attentively looking for him; and may we not reject the favour which thou has been pleased to offer us in him, and thus grow torpid in our dregs, but on the contrary be stimulated to fear thy name and truly to worship thee, until we shall at length obtain the fruit of our faith and piety, when he shall appear again for our final redemption, even that sun which has already appeared to us, in order that we might not remain involved in darkness, but hold on our way in the midst of darkness, even the way which leads us to heave.—Amen.