Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tributes to John Webster (Index)

As I’m sure you are aware, gentle readers, John Webster passed away last week. I posted my reflections about the role that Webster played in my own theological development, and there have been a number of other tributes posted around the web. I thought that I would gather them for you. If you know of any that I’ve missed, or you see that more have been written, be sure to leave a comment or contact me on twitter (@wtravismcmaken) so that I can update this listing.

Here’s the list, in the order that I happened to find them.


Special thanks to Andy Goodliff (@andygoodliff) who pointed me to a number of these.


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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…


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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

We’re actually just a couple days shy of a month since the last link post. Lots has happened. I finished a semester, spoke at commencement (there are photos posted online), started in on a summer course, and of course – and very sadly – renowned theologian John Webster passed away (my reflections here, and listed below).

It feels like a good time to stop for a moment to look back and face forward.

DET Posts:


Food for Thought from Elsewhere:


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Thursday, May 26, 2016

John Webster (1955-2016): Requiescat in pace

The news broke on social media last night and was confirmed today by The University of St. Andrews.

A great deal will be written and said about Webster's significance as a theologian, his powers as a thinker, and his virtues as a human being. As it should be. And the people who will write and say these things will have much more of a right to do so than I. I was not close to Webster by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, he impacted my intellectual life in a number of crucial ways and at a number of crucial moments, and I feel compelled to pay him some small tribute.

I cut my theological teeth as a student in the Biblical and Theological Studies department at Wheaton College in the first years of the 21st century. It was clear at that time to even the most casual observer that there were three preeminent interpreters of Karl Barth in English language theology. They were, in alphabetical order: George Hunsinger, Bruce McCormack, and John Webster. While it would later be my privilege to study with Hunsinger and McCormack, it was Webster who decisively shaped my entry into Barth studies.

My adviser at Wheaton was Mark Husbands. He moved on from Wheaton a few years after I graduated, and spent most of a decade as the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Chair of Reformed Theology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, before announcing—only a few weeks ago—that he is on the way to Northwestern College in Iowa to serve as Provost. But before all that, Webster was Mark’s doktorvater at the University of Toronto. So it was through Mark’s mediation that Webster became the first of those three major Barth scholars to impact me.

Church Militant and Triumphant, fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto
(via Wikimedia Commons)
I met Webster in April, 2004. At that point I was a senior, about to graduate and go to Princeton Seminary for my MDiv. Mark played a big role in organizing the Wheaton Theology Conference that year, on the theme of ecclesiology, and Webster came to give two keynote addresses. They are preserved in the conference volume. My department honors thesis, completed the summer before, was on the Lord’s Supper and I had always been interested in ecclesiology. Webster’s lectures pushed me further in that direction, and I continued to grapple with the sacramental account of the relation between divine and human agency that he previewed in those lectures. This issue ties in to Webster's scholarship on Barth, and especially his treatment of baptism in his book on Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation. In many ways, all my work on Barth’s account of the relation between divine and human agency as explicated from his doctrine of baptism—both in my book and in my essay published last year—owes its genesis to Webster.

Anyway, I said I met Webster in 2004. Mark introduced me to him, along with some other students. Webster was very gracious in answering our questions and questioning us in turn about our theological interests. I remember also seeing him half-slouch and half-stretch out in one of the seats in Barrows Auditorium to listen to the other conference speakers. He closed his eyes during their lectures and we were convinced he was sleeping. Mark told us that he just closed his eyes to aid his concentration. I don’t know if Mark was telling the truth or just trying to cover for a jet-lagged Webster.

I also remember that one day a largish box appeared in Mark’s office. He had found a great deal on remainder copies of Webster’s book on Barth’s Moral Theology, and proceeded to give copies to his advisees and other interested students. If this wasn’t the first secondary source on Barth that I owned, it was very close, and my copy is worthless for resale because of all the markings. At some point Mark also assigned Webster’s little introduction to Barth in a class, and my copy of that one is in a similar condition. And then there was Word and Church, the hardcover with the bright red dust-jacket. Mark assigned that one in an upper-level ecclesiology class that I took from him. A fellow student in that class—now a doctoral student in theology and a pastor—used to carry that book around everywhere with him, even on late-night burrito runs.

The next time I met Webster was in May, 2006, when he gave a paper at the Princeton Barth conference. The conference theme was Barth and scripture, and Webster spoke on Barth’s lectures on the Gospel of John. His lecture is available in the conference volume. I had just finished my middler year as an MDiv student, and I was gearing up to apply to doctoral programs. Webster was kind enough to sit down with me for a chat about the possibility of my coming to Aberdeen to study with him, and we talked about my ideas concerning a dissertation on Barth’s doctrine of baptism. His candor, encouragement, and insight in that conversation not only influenced the later course of my education, institutionally speaking, but also helped me to clarify some issues materially. Or at least to identify a few of the issues that I would need to address. I remember he told me to be alert when reading Barth to the way his authorial voice becomes shriller the less well-grounded his argument is. I’m not sure that’s always true, but the comment stuck with me (obviously) and changed the way I read Barth.

In any case, Webster was kind enough to correspond with me off-and-on over the years since 2006. He also read over at least two exploratory essays that I wrote while trying to get my bearings on the topic of baptism. That he would read them at all is a shining testament to his generosity, to say nothing of the thoughtful and insightful comments that he provided.

I feel compelled also to mention his “dogmatic sketch” of the doctrine of scripture. Only a month or six weeks ago I had occasion to recommend this book to an undergraduate student. It is a masterful articulation of a doctrine of scripture that is both within hailing distance of North American evangelicalism and attuned to the importance of historical critical interpretation. To put it differently, he skillfully balances treating scripture as a human text and as the bearer of God’s word—and he does so by way of the doctrine of providence rather than that of inspiration.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Webster’s absence will leave a gaping hole in the contemporary theological landscape, and he will be missed both for his intellectual contribution and for his admirable humanity. On the former, I suppose we’ll have to see how much of his systematics he managed to draft. (I remember that his systematics was already a topic of conversation when I first met him in 2004.) On the latter, I look forward to getting to know Webster a little better even if “too late,” as it were, as others who knew him better tell their stories.

The ecclesia triumphans is enriched, and the ecclesia militans struggles on.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What Am I Reading? Thomas Oord’s “The Uncontrolling Love of God”

I first became aware of Oord and his work when a year or so ago he landed in the middle of one of the many faculty vs. administration showdowns that have been happening in Christian higher education lately. Well, the nice folks over at IVP Academic asked if I would like to read his book and offer some reflections on it for the benefit of yourselves, gentle readers, and I was only too happy to oblige.

Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).

Oord in the midst of professing.
This book wasn’t written for people like me. It was written to communicate with thoughtful and theologically curious laypeople. Oord does a wonderful job in making his thoughts and ideas accessible when they are anything but simplistic.

The primary goal of this book is to communicate a doctrine of providence that can account for the reality of genuine evil while also not making God responsible either for causing that evil or for failing to prevent it. Chapter 4 sketches a set of models that have been used to make sense of divine providence in the past but that fail to account for these critical points. The model that Oord proposes, which he introduces here and advances in the remaining chapters, is called the “essential kenosis model.”

Now, those who are familiar with theological terminology will read that designation and immediately think that Oord proposes that God somehow gives up or gives away or otherwise denies aspects of the divine essence. This could not be further from the truth. For Oord, kenosis is best interpreted as “self-giving,” such that God understood by way of Jesus is, essentially, “self-giving and therefore others-empowering love” (p. 159).

Critically for Oord, this kenotic love of God is not merely one aspect of the divine essence that needs to be balanced with other aspects. Rather, it is the core of God’s being and therefore cannot be overridden by other attributes. Still further, God does not decide when to love in this way:

The vast majority of theologians fail to take uncontrolling love as God’s logically preeminent attribute. We see the logical prioritizing of sovereign choice, for instance, when theologians say God is free to choose whether to love. Choosing whether to love implies that choice logically comes first for God. If divine love logically precedes divine choice, God necessarily loves because love comes first. (p. 163)

What Oord supplies here is an intellectualist rather than voluntarist account of divine being. God acts as the one God is, and does not first decide whether to do so. Thus loving in this way becomes necessary for God not because some outside force constrains God, but because God is the God that God is, and God is faithful to Godself.

I’ll leave you with Oord himself from the volume’s Postscript:

Essential kenosis solves both questions raised at the outset of this book. To the question of why a loving and almighty God does not prevent genuine evil, essential kenosis says God necessarily loves and consequently cannot prevent such evil. For God to prevent such evils unilaterally, God would have to deny himself, which cannot be done.

To the question of how God can be providential despite randomness, chance and luck in the world – especially those events with negative consequences – essential kenosis says God gives existence, including spontaneity, to all things. Random events are possible because of God’s existence-giving love. God cannot foreknow with certainty or prevent random events from generating negative consequences.

God’s gifts provide being to creatures in each moment, and God is ever active in giving and receiving relationship with each creature. Kenotic love empowers creatures to be and to act, and this love enables complex creatures to act freely. When creatures and creation respond well to God’s uncrontolling love, well-being is established. The kingdom of God is present. Love reigns in heaven and on earth. All that is good derives from God’s essential kenosis, which comes before and makes possible creaturely response. (p. 219)

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

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Layer Cake of Knowledge: John Haught on Evolution and Theology

In a recent post, apropos of Schleiermacher, I defended a notion of creation theology as standing in a noncompetitive relationship with modern scientific cosmology: In this view, Christian theologians who speak of creation are speaking in a different register from the empirical descriptions and theories of natural processes offered by cosmologists, physicists and biologists.

John F. Haught, a renowned "evolutionary theologian" and expert in science-and-religion dialogue, makes a similar point, specifically in terms of the encounter between theology and Darwinian evolutionary theory. The broader agenda of this lucid book is to bring scientific and theological perspectives on human origins and destiny into a closer, more fruitful, and non-reductionist dialogue that respects the prerogatives and concerns of both modes of inquiry; since Haught writes as a theologian and not as a scientist, his special concern is to expand and enrich contemporary Christian thought through this encounter with evolutionary science.

John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (WJK, 2010)

He does have a bit of a polemical word, though, for the scientific reductionists who cloak their atheist metaphysical presuppositions within the respectable framework of objective empirical research and theory. Haught is pointed here, but not shrill; while eschewing Christian defensiveness, he nonetheless takes to task the "new atheists" who use evolutionary theory to discredit religious faith as such (their names will be familiar to most of you; I won't engage them here, thus they remain unnamed). Far from working from mere scientific objectivity, Haught contends, such critics are in fact crypto-theologians -- or better, anti-theologians -- who operate from an a priori materialist metaphysics that exceeds the limits of what science as such can teach us. In other words, in their attacks on religious belief, they aren't playing fair -- or at least they are operating from assumptions just as rigidly unchallenged as those of the stalwart religious fundamentalist.

Keeping Theology and Science Distinct

In essence, Haught argues that both scientists and theologians need to exercise "methodological modesty" when faced with perspectives outside their sphere of specialization. He writes: "By any acceptable definition, scientific method is not cut out to answer ultimate theological questions" (p. 35). Early modern scientists, such as Newton and Boyle, may have woven a bit of theology into their theories, but this move makes no sense in the contemporary setting. Natural sciences must operate within strict methodological limits. Science "is no longer concerned with ultimate explanations, purposes, or intentions. It is not permitted to appeal to the idea of divine creation or infinite goodness at any point in its inquiry" (ibid.).

Does theology operate within analogous constraints? In a sense, yes. But in another sense, not quite. To be sure, theologians cannot supervene the frameworks and findings of the natural sciences. Still, it seems, from Haught's vantage point, that theology is able to listen, to take in the results of the natural sciences and theologize about them. (Indeed, that's the point of the book). The relationship of theology to science is not reciprocal; science as such cannot take in theological claims into its researches in any fashion.

Take, for example, the question of the biodiversity spawned by millions of years of natural selection. Haught writes:

Theology, on the other hand, by definition wants to know the ultimate reason why things are the way they are. Consequently, theology must never cease looking for deeper reasons than science can provide about why life on earth diversifies into so many groups, phyla, species, subspecies, and individuals (ibid.).

He goes on to suggest that a rich biodiversity that emerges over millions of years in a painstakingly slow process somehow may serve to broaden our notion of God, in contrast to the deity of earlier cosmologies, wherein the universe is just thousands, not billions, of years old and God creates each species through a discrete, special action.

Two main things about Haught's position here strike me as significant. The first, for me, is not particularly controversial, but the second raises some questions. On the one hand, like myriad theologians before him -- and many pre-modern ones, I would emphasize, such as Thomas Aquinas -- Haught accepts the principle the notion of causality is not unequivocal when we discuss the God-world relationship. I don't know if the classic dual causality schema quite fits what he's trying to do in this book (still trying to figure that one out). But he clearly has no problem claiming that divine causality operates at a different register from world occurrence at the finite, empirical level, and he advocates a non-competitive epistemology as concomitant with this position. Haught affirms that divine creation and providence unfolds indirectly, through creaturely media -- that God "makes things make themselves." Consequently, the fortuitous character of natural selection is not a problem for the theologian. "Natural selection of random variations is a good scientific answer to this question [of how life ramifies across the ages], but isn't it possible that both science and theology can jointly render intelligible the 'mysterious mysteries' without being rivals?" (ibid.). On the face of it, this position suggests that scientific and theological discourses have no basis for competition, as they are incommensurable with each other.

A herd of elephants in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (via Wikimedia Commons)
On the other hand, the theologian, it would seem, has a sort of upper hand, for the theologian aims at a God's-eye view of natural world, which is broader, deeper, and more encompassing than the natural scientist's perspective. Thus, the theologian may wish to claim that the vast processes of natural selection through random genetic mutations, including all the false starts and wastage within the grind of evolution, represent a divine extravagance. This claim functions as a sort of theological explanation -- an apologetic, if you will -- for why the Creator would allow such suffering, waste and death as are inherent in blind, random natural processes. Such a stance, it seems to me, is basically an aesthetic defense of a deeper providential design within the patent chaos of competition forms of life across time.

To draw out the broader conclusions of this move: "Reality" is multifaceted, and causality is not univocal. Haught offers an analogy. What explains the existence of a book? One can point to the fact that a book is the result of a run through a printing press. But at a deeper level, and without doing violence to the narrower explanation, one can point out that a book emerges because a publisher anticipates a certain manuscript will resonate with a readership and thus decides to support the project. Neither explanation can be reduced to the other and neither contradicts the other. Indeed, both answers are equally valid. Such an anecdote might well serve as a textbook example illustrating an Aristotelian-Thomist account of multiple types of causality (though that's certainly not quite where Haught wishes to take it).

Still, the analogy raises a couple worries for me, when we move into the question of theological and scientific "explanations" for natural processes. As for the analogy itself, the naturalist (or materialist) can turn it on its head pretty easily: All these supposedly different kinds of causes for the book's existence can be mapped out in a chain of strictly efficient causes: 1) author has idea and presents project to publisher; 2) publisher has a sense of the potential marketability of the work and chooses to support it, thereby appropriating the resources necessary; 3) the various phases of editing, proofing and typesetting culminate in the physical artifact (etc., etc.).

Into the Depths

There is another piece to this presentation that gives me pause. Haught invokes Tillich's notion that theology, in distinction from the empirical and technical sciences, explores the "depth dimension" grounding and suffusing all of created reality. But this suggests to me that theological accounts of creation are a kind of metaphysical description. Can theology function as a sort of causal explanation for why things are the way they are -- indeed, for why anything exists at all -- but simply at a register that transcends empirical data and analysis? To be sure, as becomes when one reads into later chapters in his book, Haught has anticipated the limitations of the language of causality to describe the relationship between God and creation. Drawing upon Tillich's descriptions of God as the "ground of being" and the "abyss" undergirding and suffusing all creation, Haught affirms that, ultimately, the relationship of Creator to creature is a mystery, perhaps best approached in the register of poetry and metaphor. This affirmation is of a piece with a major constructive goal of Haught's book -- deconstructing the fixation on "design" that afflicts both the evolutionary naturalists and the Intelligent Design advocates.

Be that as it may, I still question whether Haught has engineered a metaphysical end-around designed to trump the materialist critique of Christian theism. That move may be in order; still, I wonder how effectively it represents the radical, counter-intuitive and Christian faith in God as Creator. The appeal to depth notwithstanding, doesn't Haught's God still function as a sort of explanatory hypothesis?(Alas, it seems impossible to hold my polemical Barthian urges at bay for too long!). What's more, if that is the case, is it really fair to say the scientific naturalist and the Christian theist have nothing to fear from each other? Having made peace on the main floor of the house, each agreeing to occupy a delineated space, won't the theologian and the scientist potentially take up arms again in the attic -- or, to keep with the Tillichian framework, the basement? If the theologian is staking out grounds from a metaphysical perspective, it seems the scientist (in this case, a rational skeptic or empiricist) has every right to challenge the theological system at the metaphysical level. Are we okay with that? But what if scientific and theological accounts of reality -- even if they are talking about the same cosmic reality -- are incommensurable in a more radical sort of way?


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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"I could hardly put it down" - a blog review of my "The Sign of the Gospel"

Back in April 2015, Matthew Codd wrote a review of my book and posted it over on his blog. It's a fun review to read and I asked Matt if he would mind my reproducing it here at DET for your benefit and indulgence, gentle readers. He agreed. So here it is! Everything below the link (points down) is from Matt...except for where I couldn't help but add some bold.

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Fortress, 2013).

Let it be know up front, if you have come to this blog hoping to discover what the “W” in W. Travis McMaken’s name is, you have come to the wrong place. For whereas this book proved to be informative and challenging in many ways, it left the reader to wonder “what about that W?!”. I can only imagine I have lost half of my readers at this point, the mystery remains, but for those of you left I would like to write a quick review of this book; which, spoiler alert- was very good.

I am not a neutral spectator on the issue of infant baptism, I myself was baptized as an infant into the Catholic church, and both of my daughters have been baptized as infants into the Nazarene church, infant baptism is a practice I support and encourage. That being said, I am also a fan of Karl Barth, I am slowly working my way through his Church Dogmatics, and have read scores of authors influenced by Barth or directly responding to Barth (Some of those texts I have read recently include Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Preoccupation by D. Stephen Long, and The Witness of God by John G. Flett, both challenging and illuminating texts that have increased my desire to dive into Barth further).

My support for infant baptism and my appreciation of Barth has had its issues. To my dismay Karl Barth takes a rather intense stand against infant baptism going as far as to say

To all concerned: to theologians, for unfortunately even theology has not yet realised by a long way that infant baptism is an ancient ecclesiastical error; to Christian congregations and their pastors; to Church leaders, presbyterial, synodal or episcopal; to all individual Christians , however simple, let it be said that they should see to it whether they can and will continue to bear responsibility for what has become the dominant baptismal practice, whether they might not and must not dare to face up to the wound from which the Church suffers at this genuinely vital point with its many-sided implications…

Long, D. Stephen (2014-02-01). Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Kindle Locations 5776-5784). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Long is quoting Karl Barth from Church Dogmatics 4.4.

An ancient ecclesiastical error?! That stance seemed so Ant-Barthian to me, what of this man of Revelation, so powerfully speaking God’s role into our lives?!

Insert W. Travis McMaken’s work, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. This book had me hooked by title alone; it appeared to be a text that would support my frustration with Barth and give me scholarly clout to back it up. I had all kinds of ideas for what I wanted this book to be. To my surprise and delight, it turned out to be none of these things.

Rather than summarily dismissing Barth’s stance on infant baptism as I was hoping McMaken would do, he decided to take seriously Barth’s stance and theological objections to the practice. McMaken explores Barth’s “No” to sacramental infant baptism, and Barth’s “No” to covenantal infant baptism, placing them in context and showing their consistency with Barth’s Soteriology and views on covenant. Where I hoped Barth’s stance was nothing more than an odd opinion, he held at the end of his life; that hope was quickly dismissed by McMaken as he quoted Eberhard Jungel’s insight on the matter:

“The doctrine of baptism is . . . not an appendix to the Church Dogmatics, but rather . . . a test -case.” Consequently, anyone who “wants infant baptism should not seek nourishment for the pulpit from Barth’s doctrine of election. . . . It is one or the other— one must decide for oneself.” [149]

McMaken, W. Travis (2013-08-01). The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Emerging Scholars) (Kindle Locations 919-922). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

I wanted Jungel to be wrong, and in fact I contacted McMaken on twitter after reading that quote early in his book hoping he would laugh it off as a fault of Jungel’s. Instead, that insight seemed to help shape the book as McMaken explores Barth’s stance as just that, a test-case.

Included in McMaken’s work are a few excursuses (I looked up the plural of excursus on Google, Word Hippo may have led me astray) that engage Scriptural texts and Barth’s interpretation of them. These excursuses are fascinating and challenging as they started to make clear to me my desire to outright dismiss Barth’s stance may indeed be foolheaded. I found myself explicitly convicted of this when I read the following quote towards the end of McMaken’s second excursus.

But those who dismiss Barth’s position on the assumption that his exegesis is less than convincing have not yet grasped this nettle. Their cavalier dismissal of Barth on this point says more about their own theological presuppositions , which they bring to the biblical passages in question, than it does about the quality of Barth’s exegesis or the exegetical support for his doctrine.

McMaken, W. Travis (2013-08-01). The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Emerging Scholars) (Kindle Locations 2050-2052). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Now a fascinating testimony to the quality of this work is that whereas this book was nowhere near what I expected it to be; I could hardly put it down. The book was great. McMaken has a familiarity with Barth that I can’t help but envy. His research and in depth scholarship shine throughout the text, and ultimately he prods the reader on with a well written book that pushes beyond Barth’s conclusions only after faithfully placing the reader into the context in which Barth formed his stance.

If this book was what I hoped it would be; a dismissal of Barth’s stance on infant baptism and an apologetic for the practice, than the church wouldn’t benefit from the very sound critiques that Barth brings to our practice of baptism. McMaken allows the critiques of Barth to shape a more robust and more faithful theology of infant baptism that places it into “a lifetime of catechesis about which the church must be intentional” (Ibid, 268).

I don’t want to spoil the text and flesh out all of the suggestions McMaken posits, but I do want to highly recommend this book as a helpful and challenging resource on the very important topic of infant baptism.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Jürgen Moltmann and Higher Education

I’ll be speaking at the Lindenwood University undergraduate commencement exercises tomorrow morning, and this has had me reflecting on this whole higher education business in a more concentrated way than my usual slow burn of reflection on the issue. For instance, have you ever reflected on how even calling this enterprise “higher education” prejudices how we think about it in interesting and definitely-not-merely-neutral ways? That was a relatively new realization for me.

In any case, Moltmann has some interesting things to say about living through the Americanization of the German university system. Or, perhaps better, the first round of this Americanization. My understanding is that it continued and continues even today. So I offer his comments below for your reflection (bold is mine, as usual) while I put the finishing touches on this speech…

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place (Fortress, 2009), 242.

During those years it was not the left-wing students who wanted to change the system; it was the bureaucrats in the ministry of education. They tormented the universities and faculties with continually new regulations which they termed ‘reforms’. Every new dean in our faculty had to revise all the examination regulations yet again. With a total lack of imagination, the ministers of education were bent solely on an Americanization of the ancient German university, their aim being to satisfy the short-term interests of industry. So they turned students from academic citizens into attenders of vocational schools and made the university faculties into technical colleges. ‘Freedom of research and teaching’ was restricted through ‘courses of study’. At that time universities throughout the country were forced to build up bureaucracies for themselves in order to counter the ministry of education and to defend their liberty, and we spent endless time and energy, and frittered away a great deal of public money, in meeting about the senseless regulations imposed on us. We could have worked better with the students if we had not been prevented by the ministry. During the whole of my time at the university, I did not encounter a single reasonable suggestion from that quarter that was worth considering from an academic standpoint. But the gentlemen were themselves not notably well qualified personally in their own academic fields.

We in the US may not be under pressure so much from a centralized ministry of education, but there are the accrediting bodies, and we're all trying to negotiate the "short-term interests of industry."

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

“The agnostic does not know what he is saying” – Karl Barth

[Ed. note - Karl Barth was born 130 years ago today. So, here's a Barth post to celebrate.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about agnosticism and atheism over the past few years. For instance, I’m sure that many of you gentle readers know that Christians were often accused of atheism in the early centuries of its development because of their criticism of Greco-Roman gods and their ‘failure’ to worship a deity that comes equipped with tangible cultic representation. In any case, what has stood out to me recently is how different this kind of critical, atheistic impulse is from agnosticism. It turns out that Barth thinks so too.

There I was, reading along in Church Dogmatics, 1.2, minding my own business, when I came across a small print section on the subject of agnosticism. It is only about half of a page long, but it got me thinking.

Barth’s discussion here has to do with “The Freedom of Man for God” (the heading for §16), and his point is that agnostics do not mean the same thing when they say that it is impossible to be certain of God’s existence as do theologians when they say that humans are not free for God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. “Indeed, no agnostic statement can even remotely attain to what is intended by this theological statement” (244). Agnostics look heavenward and find that they are incapable of discerning whether or not God exists. They therefore shrug their shoulders and make general remarks about human incapacity. But their presupposition, as Barth teases it out, is that this just happens to be the case in actuality but need not be in principle. In other words, the agnostic procedure assumes that God is the sort of thing that human beings could know under other circumstances—it’s just that we don’t have conclusive evidence at our disposal.

As Barth points out, this leaves the question at the level of human disposition: “It is upon the certainty of our disposing that the agnostic ultimately depends.” The agnostic assumes that we are competent so to dispose, and that is the fundamental misstep. Barth doesn’t say so, but the atheist is actually a bit more honest here. The atheist openly and honestly takes a certain amount of responsibility in rejecting God; the agnostic denies taking that responsibility, while nonetheless claiming it in principle (if not exercising it).

The problem here is two-fold, as Barth elucidates. First, the claim made by the agnostic concerning human inability is too weak. It is not simply a matter of having insufficient evidence, but of having insufficient equipment: “Instead of eyes which blink (and blink continually), he would have to speak about our blindness and the healing of the blind.” Second, the claim made by the agnostic concerning human inability neglects to factor in God’s own action in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, the agnostic considers only humanity’s readiness for God without reference to God’s readiness for humanity. Thus, when the agnostic says that we cannot make a conclusive judgment with reference to God, the agnostic does not in fact speak of the same God as do the theologians: “If he did mean God, he would have to allow the renunciation he makes so absolutely to be bracketed and relativised by the reality of the Holy Spirit.”

I particularly like how Barth concludes the fine print section. As usual, bold is mine:

This incidental note has nothing to do with apologetics. The only reason for it is to make it clear that when we say that apart from the reality of the Holy Spirit we are not free for God, this has nothing whatever to do with the above philosophical theory [WTM: i.e., agnosticism]. The agnostic does not know what he is saying when perhaps he agrees with us that man is not free for God. As an agnostic, he knows nothing about it. For this is something which can be known only by revelation, only by the Holy Spirit. (p. 245)

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Thursday, May 05, 2016

All Christologians Got a Place in the Choir: Some Sing "Lower," Some Sing "Higher"

English arguably has few advantages over German for theological expression. From the grammatical subtlety of inflected nouns to words that are just plain...well...long -- as befits a nuanced and profound Erkenntnistheoretischen -- the Teutons have us beat. With one crucial exception: In German all nouns are capitalized, whereas in English proper nouns begin with capitals and common nouns start with lowercase letters.

So what? you ask. (I like our DET readers: Y'all don't just click and share info because it pops up on your computers screens. Y'all want to know why).
Well, the payoff for the lowercase/uppercase distinction, for Christian theologians, is that it helps us illustrate what is, perhaps, the central issue in Christology: Is Jesus of Nazareth a mere human being, or is he also divine -- the eternal Son of God incarnate in the flesh? In his classic Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, frames the uniqueness of the Savior with a capital letter: Whereas Socrates teaches small-t truth, a teaching in principle distinguishable from its human messenger, Jesus Christ brings large-T Truth, because he just is the Truth; thus, for S.K., the Truth Christ brings cannot be abstracted from his inner being and character.

(Though I don't read Danish, I reckon from this example it must more closely resemble English than German, at least in terms of capitalization. Unfortunately, the allure of reading S.K. in the original proved insufficient to motivate me to learn the language for myself. "Ah," a schoolmate once reminded me, "but learning Danish will open up to you the world of Ibsen." Quite. Tatsächlich.)

(A quick perusal of my copy of Philosophical Fragments, well-marked up but a bit dusty, suggests S.K. might not have expressed himself in precisely the terms I have above -- particularly the issue about capitalization. S.K. scholars: Please roll with us. We're on a tight deadline here! At any rate, I hope the gist of what I offer here might be deemed, at least, to be within the esprit de Kierkegaard -- that is, within the capital-S Spirit, if not the lowercase-l letter.)

Put another way, as a grad school classmate reportedly groused during a seminar: "There is no small-i incarnation!" The entry of the Son of God into a fully human life is sui generis, and its Subject uniquely divine. We are not, each of us, receptacles containing particles of divinity. We are not divine stardust. Not even David Bowie was. He was just the garden variety sort of stardust.

Furthermore, to invoke another binary -- I like to irk postmodernists by invoking as many of them as possible -- the divide between a low and a high Christology is ineluctable; a fundamental decision is required here. A priest friend of mine once quipped, "Jesus is divine, just as a sunset is divine." On the contrary, I retort: Jesus is divine -- better Divine -- as the second person of the Trinity. To the extent the sunset is divine too, it is derivative; as a prop in the theater of Christ's eternal glory, a mere reflection of that Glory -- at best small-d divine.

In a very fine blog post, J.R. Daniel Kirk defines "low Christology" nicely:

When I use this phrase what I mean is that the person or text in question sees Jesus as Messiah, as Christ, as specially empowered by God to act in God’s name, as specially anointed by the Spirit to work deeds of power over the entire created order–and that the document or person does not simultaneously depict Jesus as preexistent or otherwise divine. That is to say, its understanding of Jesus is a unique human.

Just so. Only, perhaps as a trained New Testament scholar, Kirk has in mind the ancient Ebionites, early Jewish Christians who affirmed Jesus as human Messiah and wonder-worker. Our low-c christologians today tend to be more post-Enlightenment in their thinking. Think, for example, of a deist like Lord Herbert of Cherbury, for whom Christ is subsumed within the universal religion of reason; of an Immanuel Kant, for whom Jesus is at best an exemplar of a universal, categorical moral ideal; of a John Hick, for whom the incarnation serves as a metaphor for a religious experience of transcendence available in principle to any one at any time.

If one follows this path, one might do well to ponder the rigorous consistency of Thomas Jefferson, who excised all supernatural claims in the Gospels to craft a portrait of Jesus as the itinerant teacher who traverses the grainy hills of Galilee dispensing enlightened bon mots upon anyone with ears to hear. (Sorry, but sometimes a French expression is more apropos than a rough equivalent in English. Or perhaps you think I'm just showing off -- if not my own language skills, at the very least my facility with Google translate. Touché.) Thus, low Christologies have abounded, especially in modern times, though they often go by other names -- i.e., "spirit christologies" (though that's a can of worms I'll save for some other times).

On the other side, in what used to be considered the mainstream of Christian thought, many key texts articulate and defend (if that's even possible) a high Christology, stressing the doctrine of the Incarnation as the linchpin for Christian soteriology, ethics, and even perhaps the doctrine of God itself: Athansius' On the Incarnation and Anselm's Why God Became Human, are classics in this genre, along with conciliar statements from Nicea to Chalcedon and, perhaps, beyond. For my money, though, the best text exemplifying this commitment is the New Testament itself. But I'm not going to proof-text you here.

Kierkegaard refused to mess
with Mr. In-Between
Now, lest you think I'm denigrating anyone holding a low christology -- or even no christology at all, per se -- let me say that any serious effort to put Jesus' ideas, even just a few of them, into actual practice propels one far beyond the tepid, lowercase-d discipleship that characterizes the conformist lives of millions of Christians, myself included. Perhaps the moral exertion involved in trying to follow Jesus' teachings, even if it issues in frustration, can be a propaedeutic (that's propædeutiske in Danish) for receiving the Gospel. Wait: I forgot I'm Reformed and a Barthian and am not supposed to believe that, exactly. Let's re-frame it in a more Kierkegardian vein: The Christian life, even if not attainable in this life, is not to be taken for granted, and it's salutary to be reminded of this when many who would never darken the door of a church are making a better stab at living a good life than many on the inside.

And yet, despite such caveats, I'm still left with with the stark decision forced by the Lord's vexing question at Caesaria-Philippi: "Who do you say that I am?" For my part -- perhaps your story is different -- but by my lights, a little-c christianity with multiple little-i incarnations just doesn't hold together very well. Those of us who think the doctrine of the Incarnation is crucial for the veracity and viability of the Christian faith -- not to mention the vibrancy of the Christmas-card industry -- having a neat (if facile) linguistic convention to emphasize the need for a high Christology seems, well, apt, (angemessen).

Perhaps I'm painting the picture too black and white, succumbing to a false dichotomy in doctrine. Doubtless some of the Aristotelian Golden Meanies out there -- the majority of whom, admittedly, tend to read blogs other than this one -- might desire some sort of Christological middle way (or, to use the king's English, via media). This desire is perhaps analogous to the plight of the beleaguered voter in the U.S. Presidential primaries seeking in vain for a centrist candidate between the liberal Democrat (Bernie Sanders) and the conservative Republican (Hillary Clinton).

Might there be a "middle c" Christology, lying somewhere between the old-school Incarnation dogmas of the past and the more deflationary accounts portraying Jesus as a mere mortal? Stay tuned: Next time I will consider an alternative.


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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Jürgen Moltmann on the distinction between Joy and Fun

I’ve been thinking about how happiness fits in with Christian theology ever sense I had the chance to serve in a support role for Ellen Charry as she worked on her book, God and the Art of Happiness (I did a two-part recap of that work here at DET: part 1, part 2; I also spoke recently on the topic).

I’ve also been reading Moltmann’s recent book, as those who follow my Twitter account may have figured out…



Moltmann makes what I thought was a very insightful distinction between “joy” and “fun” in the course of this work that I wanted to lift up for you, gentle readers. Moltmann is working here in part from his earlier book on joy, of which I was not previously aware. I’m not sure how widely it circulated in North America. In any case, this is what he has to say. As usual, bold is mine.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (WJK, 2015), 97.

Here the distinction between joy and fun is helpful. We are living in the wealthier of the earth’s societies, and in the “upwardly mobile” sections of them. This is a “fun society.” “I want to have some fun,” young people who can afford it say, and throw parties—if possible with music that is so loud one can’t hear oneself speak. But then, one is not supposed to talk and listen, after all, but everyone is supposed to be “beside oneself,” each for oneself, in the dancing throng. If one has had this kind of fun, one is by no means sated and contented; one is hungry for more and more of it. Life is supposed to be an endless party. The elderly rich have their cocktail parties, where courtesies and platitudes are exchanged, and everyone watches to see what the other one is doing. One no longer knows how to be festive, and one has stopped trying. One engages an entertainer and an event managed, because one no longer knows how to set about these things oneself. But I will stop my mockery at this point, because I don’t want to be a “spoilsport,” as they say.

The distance between joy and this kind of fun is as wide as the gap between experienced happiness and a game of chance, or between a successful life and a lottery win. Real joy is a feeling about life, but fun is a superficial experience; joy is lasting and enduring, and puts its stamp on one’s whole attitude to life. Joy is fulfilled time; fun is short-lived and serves to pass the time, as they say. The feeling about life behind the party-making, fun society is probably boredom and a certain contempt for life. Real joy stimulates the soul, makes relationships flourish, makes the heart light and limbs nimble, mobilizes undreamed-of powers, and increases confidence. Genuine happiness lays hold of the person’s whole being. In joy, the ecstatic nature of human existence finds its true expression. We are made for joy. We are born for joy.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Remembering Helmut Gollwitzer on May Day, with Jürgen Moltmann

May Day, or International Workers’ Day, has rolled around once again. I commemorated this day back in 2013 with a post about Gollwitzer, and I thought that I would do so again this year. But this time I have Moltmann to help me.

Moltmann reflects on Gollwitzer in the context of his (Moltmann’s) editorial work with the periodical Evangelische Theologie, on whose editorial board Gollwitzer also served. These comments from Moltmann give a good sense of Gollwitzer as a particular human being as well as an influential (and sometimes controversial!) theologian and public intellectual. I hope that you will join me in remembering him today. As usual, bold is mine.

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place (Fortress, 2009), 245–46.

In order to describe the inner relations of the editors of Evangelische Theologie, I must talk about a man who, after Ernst Wolf, became the secret spiritus rector of our periodical: Helmut Gollwitzer. His all-embracing human kindness and his youthful capacity for enthusiasm kept us together and at the same time drove us apart. The rebellious students of 1968 had divided the editorial committee of our periodical as they had the university faculties. Helmut Gollwitzer embraced their concerns as well and declared himself to be on their side. When their leader, Rudi Dutschke, was shot, dying later as a result, he took the funeral in the midst of the outcry of the protesting students; for Rudi was a sincere Christian. Gollwitzer accompanied the squatters into empty apartment houses. He expected a renewal of the universities with a democractic basis from everyone, from us too. He wrote splendid contributions for the periodical. But not everyone was able to go along with his generosity of heart. We lost some of the co-editors, who had misgivings.

Then at the beginning of the 1980s came the era of the peace movement. The discipleship of Jesus made of Helmut Gollwitzer an unremitting friend of peace and an opponent of rearmament. He had spent four years in Russian prison camps. In the periodical and in the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (the Society for Protestant Theology), we declared ourselves to be decisively against rearmament and unequivocally committed to the service of peace ‘without weapons’—not simultaneously ‘with weapons,’ too, as a Heidelberg declaration said, hoping to satisfy both sides through this complementary formulation. But who can make a decision in complementary terms? . . .

The person who was behind the criticism which Helmut Gollwitzer had to face in the periodical after 1968, and again after 1980, was an old Barthian friend of his, Helmut Traub . . . . Traub considered this politicization of the gospel to be a betrayal of Barth and of the periodical’s tradition. Through Ernst Wolf’s son, . . . he suggested that we ought to remove Ernst Wolf’s name from the imprint and abandon the periodical’s name. With this Traub caused considerable unrest among the editors, because no one really knew whom he had goaded on, and who had been taken in by him. However, we survived and kept faith with Helmut Gollwitzer until his death, as he did with us.

May 1 is also a significant day in Gollwitzer’s biography. It was on this day 79 years ago, in 1937, that he arrived in Dahlem to take up his post as assistant pastor under Martin Niemöller. Niemöller would be arrested by the Gestapo on July 1st, at which point Gollwitzer became the de facto pastor of the radical Confessing Church congregation until he was himself silenced by the Gestapo in 1940.

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