Saturday, December 17, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Well, this is embarrassing. I’m so ashamed that I nearly decided to trash these posts altogether so that I wouldn’t have to admit that is has been nearly two months since the last link post. And they have been an eventful nearly two months! We had a presidential election, those of us in the religious studies / theology / biblical studies fields had the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, and there was a holiday in there too…oh yeah, Thanksgiving! So, this post is going to be jam packed with all manner of goodies. Before we get deeper in, I need to highlight some things.

After this post, DET will be on holiday hiatus until the new year. Never fear! We shall return to provide the thought-provoking grist for your intellectual mill that you’ve come to expect us to provide. The intrepid Scott Jackson is even ahead of the game, with a number of posts ready to roll in 2017. So we’ll see you in a few weeks. But, until then, you’ve got this post to work through – not to mention all the DET archives. Just remember to use a spool of string or leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you when you dive into the archives – they are so deep and rich that I worry people will get lost!

Ok, the next big announcement is that David Congdon and I (Travis McMaken) have started a Society for Dialectical Theology (you can read David’s announcement post too). So if you like dialectical theology and want to know more about it, surf over and sign up. There are no membership fees or anything like that, and we’d be happy to have you. And if you aren’t entirely clear on what dialectical theology is all about, David and I made an introductory video:

Speaking of videos, my Lindenwood colleague, Nichole Torbitzky, joined me for another video on Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne / Process theology:

David was also video-interviewed about his new book, The God Who Saves:

In addition to that video-interview, David’s book (the same one) was reviewed as well. And while we’re on the subject of interviews, the folks over at Karl Barth for Dummies recently re-posted the text of the interview that I did with them back in 2014.

Finally, to wrap up this rather lengthy introductory section, the intrepid Scott Jackson felt the need to do some moonlighting back at his old blog. Don’t worry: HR is looking into the contractual situation. In the meantime, you may enjoy the post: Yes, the Reformation Still Matters.

Whew! Now on to what’s been happening here at DET!

And here’s a look at what’s been happening around the interwebs:

See you all in 2017!


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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Paging the Real Jesus: Why Kähler Still Matters

Like many of you, I love old books, and Martin Kähler's theological critique of 19th century historical Jesus quests is a classic. But I'd argue this is not the sort of venerable work that one tosses in the dustbin of a footnote. Rather, this is a book those of us interested in the intersection of constructive theology and biblical studies should continue to read. Kähler -- whose work casts an enormous shadow over the work of Barth, Bultmann, Tillich and many other 20th century theologians -- still speaks to us as a contemporary.

Martin Kähler. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans. Carl Braaten (Fortress, 1966).

Of course, as with any great thinker of the past, we can't be expected to swallow the project wholesale.
Martin Kähler (1835-1912)
(Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Much has transpired in theology and biblical studies in the thirteen decades since this short of volume of addresses to German pastors was published. Carl Braaten's superb introduction in this volume helps both to situate Kähler, who served as a professor in the universities at Bonn and Halle, in his own day and to highlight what is of enduring significance in his work. Kähler was a man, a scholar and a believer fully emersed in the concerns of Continental Protestantism in the 19th century. A product of revival movements with strong ties to pietism, Kähler nonetheless rejected what he perceived to be the overly credulous perspective of Protestant orthodoxy. A strong advocate for biblical authority, he nevertheless rejected the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. Immersed in the heady milieau of German idealism, he still kept his own counsel in matters of faith. As Braatan argues, Kähler had common cause with the mediating theologians, who sought to affirm traditional doctrinal commitments without slipping into repristination of the past and while trying to give modern critical scholarship its due.

Kähler's best known contribution to theology, which is the central matter of this book, is his principled rejection of any attempt to ground Christology upon the uncertain results of modern historical-critical investigations into the life of Jesus. He was not dismissive of such historical scholarship per se, and he was aware that modern critics had raised legitimate quesitons about traditional depictions of the savior's humanity. He did not take everything narrated in the Gospels to be historically factual. Still, Kähler affirmed the divinity of Christ and believed something miraculous was in play in the person and work of the Savior -- a transcendent and saving dimension of Jesus's identity that could not be perceived or refuted by historical work. Braaten writes:

Kähler believed that the confession of the true humanity of Jesus was an immediate datum of apostolic faith in the Word made flesh, and not the product of historical scholarship (p. 19)

Kähler's proposal is complex and not unproblemmatic. Still, I would home in on one crucial aspect of his argument that continues to vex folks who think about these matters, myself included. As Braatan notes, the problem of the full humanity of Jesus, always in danger within traditional thought of being subsumed by his divine dignity, became particular acute in the modern period. Kähler admits the legitimacy of this attempt to retrieve the full embodied reality of the Savior. Yet he rejects the notion that ostensibly objective histoircal scholarship offers privileged access to Jesus' reality. In fact, to go further, he suspects something surreptitious is afoot in the world of the liberal scholars who published lives of Jesus during the 19th century. He discerned an unsavory reductionism at work in the historicism of the early Jesus questers. On the face of it, as Braatan writes:

The intention of this quest was to rediscover the authority of the historical Jesus on religious and ethical matters behind the dogmas of the apostles or to trace out the life and thought of Jesus beneath the quilt of ideas thrown over him by the theology of the early church (p. 18)

Thus, Reimarus led the way in attempting to ferret out Jesus' psychological development within his original external context. But Kähler perceives a more subversive and normative impetus, going far beyond the interests of dispassionate scholarship, driving such efforts. Braaten writes:

In Kähler's view it was not so much devotion to the Jesus of history as antipathy to the Christ of dogma which constituted the real interest in the Life-of-Jesus movement. At least for many historians the recovery of the historical Jesus provided the dynamite to explode once and for all the christological dogma of the ancient creeds. Others contrasted the Jesus of history not only to the Christ of the creeds but also to the apostolic picture of Christ. It was not, however, their demonstration that Jesus was a real man of history which offended Kähler in the modern biographies of Jesus, but rather their hidden ebionitism, their obscuration of the trans-human dimensions of the biblical Christ (p. 19).

Assessing the fairness of this accusation goes beyond what I could do in this post. Nonetheless, I note that many more researchers have plowed the field of Jesus studies in recent decades. They have more information than the 19th century Jesus biographers had, and perhaps the more recent scholars avoid some of the mistakes of their forbears in the field. Still the question remains: To what extent can critical historical research help resolve the question of Jesus' religious identity and significance? The churches and the academic guild seem no closer to answering this question today than they were in the time of Martin Kähler.


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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Announcing the Society for Dialectical Theology

"Dialectical theology is the consistent and systematic development of the missionary (i.e., hermeneutical) insight that forms the condition of possibility for modern theology. . . . Dialectical theology thinks within historical consciousness without reducing faith to history, that is, without reducing kerygma to culture. . . . Dialectical theology is essentially an anticonstantinian theology of mission." (Congdon 2015, xxvi, xxviii)

Last week, David Congdon and I announced the formation of a new Society for Dialectical Theology. The SDT was announced publicly through a YouTube video that serves also as a brief introduction to Dialectical Theology (DT). Here's the video:

If you are devotee of DT, conduct scholarship on one or more of the members of the DT movement in the 20th century, or are simply interested in learning more, I encourage you to complete this form to join the SDT and be added to its mailing list. The SDT is in its infancy, and there are no dues or other obligations. We're just trying to get folks together to talk about some theology that is not only interesting but -- we're convinced, at least -- remains incredibly relevant and constructively fruitful today.

So fill out the form, and I'll see you inside the SDT!


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Friday, December 09, 2016

This Shall Be a Sign: Stringfellow on the Politics of Advent

Some time ago, I reviewed a superb anthology of writings by Willian Stringfellow, the Episcopal lawyer-activst and lay theologian, in the Anglican Theological Review (Summer 2015; unfortunately, it's not avaiable online). The book, edited by a close friend and mentee of Stringfellow's, offers a incomparable entree into the life and work of an enigmatic, yet original voice figure in theology and ethics who, it seems to me, is still not not widely enough read and understood (See William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, ed. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, New York, Orbis, 2014).
The Last Judgment, by Micheangelo
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let's do something to help remedy that situation, shall we? A great place to begin is with Wylie-Kellerman's section of texts that explore Stringfellow's unconventional perspectives on Jesus. Today, apropos of the season of Advent, I want to look at a short passage excerped from a 1977 work of political theology (pp. 50-53), that explores the politically pointed, if hidden, aspects of the Gospel infancy narratives.

In my reading, Stringfellow overall is not overly preoccupied with historical-critical questions. So too in this exceprt. For example, he asks: Did a star really appear over a creche in Bethlehem? He isn't really sure, but he doesn't suppose the answer matters that much. Still, the elements of wonder in the narratives bespeak the mystery of salvation in a manner worthy of the subject matter -- Christ's rule over creation. What is not self-evident, though, is how scandalous these stories actually are. The beginnings of the Jesus story foreshadow the Savior's confrontation with the fallen principalities and powers of the world. Stringfellow writes:

The biblical treatment of both advents, the narratives attending Christ's birth and the testimonies about the Second Coming of Christ, is manifestly political. Yet, curiously, people have come to hear the story of the birth as both apolitical and even antipolitical while, I venture, most listen to news of Christ coming again triumphantly with vague unneasiness or even outright embarrassment (p. 50).

Stringfellow is a trenchant critic of sentimentality -- especially religious sentimentality -- and of the privatization of faith.

What with the star and the sheep and the stable, it has been possible to acculturate the birth, to render it some sort of pastoral idyll. But the scenic wonders, the astonishing visions, the spectacular imagery associated with the next advent have confounded the ordinary processes of secularization and thus the subject of the Second Coming has been either omitted or skimmed in the more conventional churches or else exploited variously by sectarians, charlatans, fanatics, or huckster evangelists (ibid.)

What is common to both the mysterious infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and to the cryptic visions of the Apocalypse -- the bookends of the New Testament, as it were -- is the emphasis on Jesus' universal sovereignty over the principalities and powers. Whereas this theme is manifest in Revelation, it is more implicit in the birth stories.

Ahead of his time in the field of political hermeneutics, Stringfellow offers several astute observations about the infancy narratives, which, on a close reading, are anything but the innocuous stuff of a Hallmark holiday special. For example, the tax registration that, in Luke's account, impels the holy family to Bethehem is not merely a source of revenue for the occupying imperial regime; it also serves as an insidious "means of political surveillance of potentially dissident people" (p. 52). Moreover, Herod's agitation at the threat of the Christ child prompts him to try to enlist the Magi as coconspirators in eradicating a potential rival claimant to the throne.

For Stringfellow, the birth narratives are just as eschatological as the scenes of the Christus Victor in the Apocalypse. The angel's proclammation of "peace on earth" to the shepherds foreshadows the restoration of all things at the end of the age. He writes:

[T]he manger scene itself is a political portrait of the whole of creation restored in the dominion of Jesus Christ in which every creature, every tongue and tribe, every rule and authority, every nation and principality is reconciled in a homage to the Word of God incarnate (ibid.)

Such is the literature produced and shared by people on the periphary of empire -- that is to say, the early Christians.


Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Advent and Eschatology at the Dawn of the Trump Era

Another Advent season is now upon us.

We in the United States are living in a time when overt bigotry is once again on the rise. We all seem to live, and move, and have our being in our respective titanium socio-cultural bubbles, separated as much by digital geography as physical. Our new President-elect has won his title by preying on the fears and anxieties of white Americans who feel their economic and cultural hegemony slipping away. A year ago today, we were a nation still very much in healing from our past sins. Now, a year later, our scabs have been torn off and salt has been thrown in the wounds. What comes next is anything but predictable (a concern, not only for us domestically, but for the world at large).

Photo by Alex DeMarco,
Chicago IL, 11/9/16
There is no question: we are a people who walk in darkness. And we live in a land of deep darkness.[1]

My prayer this Advent is that, in the midst of it all, we would also see the Light.
In Advent, we join in the longing of expectant Israel for its promised Messiah—for “the true light” that “was coming into the world” in the time of John the Baptist.[2] But this isn’t just an exercise in looking back, and pretending that we’re looking forward to an event that in truth has come and gone. Rather, we really do look forward to the coming of Christ, from our present place in history, because the New Testament speaks of Christ coming into the world, not once, but twice. Even as we prepare for, and celebrate, his first coming, there is a second that we look to, and long for. Tradition calls it the “Parousia.”

With the Parousia, the world as we know it is at its end. When we look to the Light that is coming (again) into the world, as we do in Advent, we look to God’s beyond—to the reality of the world as it stands in Christ, beyond all the contingencies, possibilities, and impossibilities of history—to that which the Bible calls the “Kingdom of God,” and Gustavo Gutiérrez has dubbed “the utopia that sets history in motion.”[3]

Now, just how to understand the second coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the end of the world, has been a matter of some considerable debate. Is it an outward and political event that we should identify with some particular point in the chronological future, or is it an inward and spiritual event that occurs ever anew in the present (so that “to await the kingdom is, in a sense, to await the gift of freedom here and now”)?[4]

In chapter three of his new book, The God Who Saves (which you should absolutely buy and read immediately if you haven’t already), David Congdon traces the early Christian development of these ideas in the New Testament.[5] Though the early Christians certainly expected the Parousia to be an outward and political event at some point in the (initially rather imminent) chronological future, as time went on there seems to have been a trend toward seeing it more as an inward, spiritual, and present inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Congdon notes that “both Paul and John replace the kingdom that is near at hand with the Christ who ‘lives in me’ or ‘abides in me.’”[6] The big question is:

"Has the ultimate apocalypse already occurred, or is it still outstanding? Is it essential that Christ return as the universally recognizable Lord of creation? Must the reign of Christ become a visible socio-political reality in some distant future, given that the early church’s imminent expectation has been shattered?"[7]

Along with the dominant tradition, Karl Barth answers this last question in the affirmative. He looks at the second coming of Christ as a single event taking place in three forms: Easter (Jesus’ resurrection three days after his crucifixion at Golgotha), Pentecost (“the impartation of the Holy Spirit”), and Future Advent (“the return of Jesus Christ as the goal of the history of the Church, the world and each individual, as His coming as the Author of the general resurrection of the dead and the Fulfiller of universal judgement”).[8] His reply to the question of whether the Parousia is an outward and future event, or an inward and present one, is then essentially: yes.

Georgios Klontzas [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Rudolf Bultmann, conversely, comes down on the side of an inward and present Parousia. And Eberhard Jüngel refuses to either affirm or deny a future advent, since the point of the Parousia (as he understands it) is to place believers in the unsettling position of imminent expectation, and to further unsettle them by its ironic nonoccurrence. This unsettling of the believer is then, paradoxically, the very effective presence of Christ and the fulfillment of the Parousia.[9] To be entirely honest, I’m still a bit baffled by Jüngel’s direction here; but it’s the direction Congdon seems to favor, which tells me that I need to consider it further.

However we conceive of it though, the Parousia is of paramount importance for we who are now walking in darkness.

When it appears as though fear has won the day, and the world is short on hope; when our divisions threaten to cripple us, and for every step forward it feels like we take two steps back -- what we need is to catch a glimpse of another world.

What we need is to see God’s beyond -- not so that we may escape, but so that we may confront, our present darkness.

According to Dale Allison, Jesus engaged the world from just such an eschatological perspective. In his recent book, Night Comes (which I reviewed here last month), Allison writes that Jesus “tended to neglect the conventional gamut of cultural and political possibilities. He rather asked for more—far more—because, mindful of the prophecies, he saw far more coming. In this way, eschatology entered the present as mandate.”[10]

Allison is worth quoting at length here:

"An eschatological worldview that judges the transient in terms of the transcendent has the great virtue of distancing one from the present, of creating a critical perspective on, and a holy dissatisfaction with, all the contingencies that masquerade as necessities…

Contemporary circumstances always carry inertia, their own potent momentum, which makes changing course, whether for the one or the many, no easy task. So we require a compelling vision that surpasses and so relativizes the contemporary moment, a vision that breaks our cultural hypnosis and moves us to hope for more than what we see, a vision that breeds impatience and keeps us ill-adjusted to so-called reality. We need the idealistic faith to move the mountains before us…

For all this, utopia serves us better than Christian realism. Utopia may be nowhere, and it may be as likely as the meek inheriting the earth, but we can’t give it up. To settle instead for the realistically obtainable, to be pragmatic, would be to exchange the “ought” of the city of God for the “is” of the city of man. The status quo isn’t our friend, and we shouldn’t acknowledge its authority. Instead of being content to make a virtue out of necessity, we need to dismantle necessity. The one thing needful, as Martin Luther King Jr. understood, is to dream of what hasn’t happened."[11]

We are a people who walk in darkness.
And we live in a land of deep darkness.[12]

What we need now is to catch a glimpse of the great Light, of the coming again of the One who has come before -- for when we do, we will be drawn indelibly into His brilliant resistance. We will be given the strength, creativity, and perseverance to confront this present darkness in the hope of a world beyond.


[1] Isaiah 9:2
[2] John 1:9
[3] As quoted in Dale C. Allison Jr., Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2016), 90.
[4] David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 70.
[5] Ibid., 64-72.
[6] Ibid., 72.
[7] Ibid., 72.
[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 293.
[9] David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 76.
[10] Dale C. Allison Jr., Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2016), 89-90.
[11] Ibid., 90-91.
[12] Isaiah 9:2


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Monday, December 05, 2016

Martin Luther’s Illnesses, with Andrew Pettegree

Anyone who has read DET for an extended period of time knows that I have a soft spot for the theology and theologians of the Protestant reformation. And very often it is the complicated humanity of these figures that most draws me. I wrote a post on John Calvin’s humanity back in 2010 in which I – among other things – briefly discussed some of his illnesses. It is time now to address this topic with reference to Martin Luther.

The passage below comes from Andrew Pettegree’s excellent and relatively recent book: Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2015). It is a fascinating study of the symbiosis between Luther’s reforming achievement and the printing industry that, in addition to being a real scholarly contribution, is well written (and printed) itself. I can’t say enough nice things about it. Go buy it.

Anyway, Pettegree properly situates his discussion within its broader context, including Luther’s biography. And a portion of that biographical discussion, rendered below, jumped out at me. It’s simultaneously the most concise and comprehensive description of Luther’s health issues that I’ve ever encountered, and it serves to further humanize an already very human historical figure. So here’s the passage to tide you over until you get your own copy of the book. Bold is mine as usual.

Luther had always suffered problems with his digestion. The letters from the Wartburg in 1521 offer an obsessive and at times all too detailed narrative of his battles with constipation. The pleasures of a settled home and Katharina’s market garden helped to some extent in this respect, but as Luther lost some of his physical vitality other problems intervened. In 1527 he collapsed in the pulpit while preaching, the first of many dizzy spells that troubled and disoriented him thereafter; these attacks could also leave a residue of ringing in the ears that persisted for months. Luther also began about this time to experience the first symptoms of angina; in December 1536 he would suffer a severe heart attack. From 1533 Luther also had to deal with the dreadful and debilitating pain of kidney stones. This was a common condition in the sixteenth century, particularly among those who ate a richer diet; Luther, who loved the pleasures of the table, was always a likely victim. The result was frequent, incapacitating pain, which only exacerbated Luther’s problems with his digestion. In 1537, while at an assembly of the Protestant League in Schmalkalden, Luther suffered a urinary blockage so severe that his friends feared for his life. An operation was considered, but without anesthetic the chances of survival were grim, and Luther was in any case too weak for this to be contemplated. The crisis passed, but recovery was slow. In 1538 his entire family was struck with dysentery; in 1541 he developed a painful abscess in the neck and suffered a perforated eardrum.

Luther was by this point an old man, in almost constant pain, dosed by doctors, tended by an anxious wife, but beset always by constant work, the press of problems humdrum or acute that would inevitably be referred to him so long as he drew breath. So if during these last years his judgment or his temper failed, we must bear in mind that like many in this era he lived his life in a constant state of low-level illness or debility, flaring up into acute episodes in which the agony was unbearable.


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Friday, December 02, 2016

Solus Christus: Once Again with Barth at Bremen

And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up on the mountain alone to pray. Now when evening came, he was alone there (Matt. 14:23).

Heinrich Himler, Hitler, and Victor Lutze perform
the Nazi salute at the Nuremberg rally, September 1934.
(From German federal archives, via Wikimedia Commons
What are the practical implications of proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus? In his Bremen sermon of 1934, Karl Barth depicts the church as the sphere of Christ's sovereignty and of the believer's obedience to him. As he probes the passage further he asks: Is this situation unique to the church or is it duplicated elsewhere -- that is to say, in the civic and secular world?

The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, trans. Chrisopher Asprey, ed. Kurt I. Johanson (Regent College, 2007). Fürchte Dich nicht! Predigten aus den Jahren 1934 bis 1948 (Munich, Germany: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1949), pp. 18-31)

Indeed, there are hierarchies in the outside world, there are powers that be, there are laws, and there is submission to them. Why is Christian discipleship different from all that? What -- or who -- guarantees that the way of obedience in the Christian life is a path of freedom rather than an oppressive and dehumanizing servitude? For Barth, it is a question of identity, of whose we are.
It is not because of the people in the church, or their state of mind, or the way they act, but because of the one who is sovereign (der Herr) in the church and sovereign over these people (p. 47).
The passage, for Barth, hinges upon the adverb "alone" (allein): Jesus was alone on the mountain.
In the gospels we often read about Jesus Christ being alone like this. And whenever we read about it, it is an indication of that Jesus is the one who is always utterly alone (der immer, der ganz und gar allein); and indeed, he is alone, alone in the way that God alone is.
The power and diginity of leaders points to something beyond them; it signifies. Not so with Christ: "Jesus doesn't signify (deutet). He is (ibid.)." For Barth, Jesus' power is neither primarily charismatic nor institutional. Rather, it is Christological -- it is grounded in his identity as the Son of God incarnate, fully divine and fully human. In this identity, he is alone -- sui generis. Moreover, his action of prayer is unique, not because of some potent religious quality that resides within him, but simply because of who he is.

This high Christology is vintage Barth, of course. No surprises here. But what is the import of this teaching in the context of pre-war Germany, just months after the National Socialists had come to power?
We talk of a sovereignty (Herrshaft), a command (Gefehl), an obedience (Gehorsam), a willingness and allegiance (Gefolgshaft) unlike any other. When Jesus rules God rules. When God rules Jesus rules. That is why this sovereignty is quite unlike any other sovereignty, and why there is no other obedience on earth like this one (p. 48, emphases mine)
These words naturally point the listener and reader back to the first article of the Barmen Declaration, adopted by the Confessing Church the previous year:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
It's little wonder that the one who spoke these words would soon be forced to vacate his position as a university professor and civil servant under the Third Reich.


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