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Showing posts from February, 2017

John Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and participating in the reality of God becoming real

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“It’s already done. You just have to find a way to make it real.”

This is John Lewis, Georgian congressman and civil rights icon, explaining his approach to effective social action in an interview with Krista Tippett, recorded during the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage that Lewis led in 2013.

You might remember that back in the day (i.e. just before his inauguration), Donald Trump lashed out at Lewis for opposing his presidency and boycotting the inauguration. He tweeted that Lewis was "all talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!"

In fact, Lewis was one of the most prominent leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He repeatedly put his life on the line for freedom and equality, on freedom rides and sit-ins. He was a chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And he led the first Selma march on Bloody Sunday, where he suffered a skull fracture at the hands of advancing Alabama State Troopers, who assaulted marchers with clubs, whips, and…

Was Niebuhr a "Real" Theologian?

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Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, chuckles at the old quip that has circulated for decades in Protestant circles: Though the Reinhold was more famous and prolific, his younger brother, Helmut Richard, was really the superior theologian. Of course, remarks Sifton (author of a book on her father's "Serenity Prayer"): That has been an inside joke within the Niebuhr clan all along.

What are we to make of Reinhold Niebuhr -- political activist and theorist, preacher, ethicist, and public theologian? Like the "Christmas" that is "in the air" in an interminably replayed holiday cult classic, Niebuhr's name has been in the air for the past several years -- bolstered in part by an ostensible rebirth of political "realism" in the Obama administration and by references to the great German-American thinker in newspaper columns. And just in time for these heady post-Camelot days, when a "reality" TV producer and casino deve…

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.11: The Infallibility of the Church

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Eleventh Question: Is the church infallible or can it err about faith? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

We reach now what is in many ways the main event in Turretin’s ecclesiology. Given that his is an “elenctic” theology—a theology aimed at refuting an opponent; we would not be far wrong to call it a “polemic” theology—it is critical that he deal with this issue because “the question concerning the infallibility of the church is the most agitated of all which lie between us and the Romanists about the church and of so great importance that the papacy seems to rest upon it as its principal fulcrum” (18.11.1). In other words, if Turretin can win this argument, quite a few other dominoes will fall.

Turretin begins, as usual, by clarifying the issue. This is not about the invisible church, but about the visible; it is also not about the mas of believers, but about pastors; and it is also not about individual pastors, but the church’s pastoral office as a wh…

Confessions of a Protestant Anglophile

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I'm nothing if not untrendy. Think about it. Who begins a promising(?) new career as a contributing writer to a Karl Barth website with a series of posts on Walter Rauschenbusch , only to follow it up with a series on the brothers Niebuhr? Who -- having been weaned on The Good News Bible as a kid, then the The NIV Student Bible as a teenager, then the New Revised Standard Version in college and grad school -- in his adult years reverts to being (almost) a King James only guy -- not for any ideological or theological reasons, but out of sheer orneriness and love of anachronism?

And who, in an age when the likes of David Duke(!) exult in a resurgence of white nationalism in high places (shudders); and in an age when Scotch-Gaelic culture remains way more trendy than the spawn of Albion's seed; and in a time when a majority of English voters have thumbed their noses at a stumbling European Union (perhaps our last hope for any international sanity) -- who, in such times, begins a n…

Roland Boer on Ernst Bloch, Utopia, Revolution, and the Bible (oh, and Star Wars)

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As I continue to slog through the vast amounts of German that I must read for my current Helmut Gollwitzer project, I’ve begun to spend my evenings trying to deepen my familiarity with the tradition of socialist engagement with religion and theology. Roland Boer, who is based in Australia and – currently – China, has proven to be a very helpful guide. He has published numerous works on this theme, and you can get a bit of a feel for him from his blog: Stalin’s Moustache.

In any case, I’m currently working through sections of Boer’s book on Lenin, where I discovered something of an aside on Ernst Bloch. This comes while Boer discusses Lunacharsky, whom he sees as an early forerunner of certain themes that reemerge in Bloch. As part of this, Boer summarizes one way in which Bloch interprets various of the biblical stories. The following paragraph jumped out at me, as you no doubt surmised by the fact that I took the time to write up this post and share said paragraph with you…

Roland B…

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Hey! How about that? “Fortnight” was right for a change! It’s only been two weeks since the last link post. We’re back to your regularly scheduled programming here at DET. But before I get to what’s been going on the past two weeks here and around the theoblogosphere, there are two announcements that I’d like to make.

First, an essay of mine recently came into print. This is the final published version of the lecture that I gave to the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowshipin 2015, which can be viewed on YouTube. Of course, you don’t get the footnotes with YouTube, and I write some good footnotes (if I do say so myself). So give the link below a click and check the essay out for yourself:

W. Travis McMaken, “Actualism, Dualism, and Onto-Relations: Interrogating Torrance's Criticism of Barth's Doctrine of Baptism,” Participatio 6 (2016), 1–31.
Second, it was recently announced…

Christ, Conscience, and Revolution: Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

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Barth's political theology is impossible to pigeonhole. Perhaps this stems from his disgust with ideological straightjackets -- just a whiff of anarchism blowing through his writings, which such interpreters as George Hunsinger and Timothy Gorringe have noted.

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Barth's political iconoclasm seeps through his gloss on Questions 37 and 42, which deal with the traditional rubric of Christ's kingship. On the face of it, Calvin's wording might seem relatively innocuous, with an emphasis on the kingship of Jesus as spiritual, leaving more than a little ambuity about what that might mean in terms of how Christians relate to the temporal political realm:

Calvin writes:

But what kind of kingdom is it that you mention? -- A spiritual kingdom, contained in the Word and Spirit of God, which carry with them righteousness an…

Augustine, Ambrose, and Imperial Power in Church Politics: with Garry Wills

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Years ago I posted a mini-series on the Novatian and Donatist controversies in North African Christianity during the 3rd–5th centuries. (You can find it on the Serials Index.) There’s definitely things that I would change and nuance in there if I went back to it today. But I’m not Augustine and don’t foresee ever writing up “retractions” to all my blog posts . . .

In any case, I want to dive in and flesh out part of the Donatist controversy with the help of Garry Wills’s book, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism. Specifically, I want to talk about Augustine’s attitude toward the use of imperial power in church politics as it pertained to this controversy. Augustine’s theorizing of this use of power in the midst of this controversy is generally represented as an important step in the establishment of the unity of political and religious identity that we now call Christendom. But as it turns out, Augustine’s attitude to all this is deeply ambiguous, or perhaps…

Retrieving General Revelation with Robert K. Johnston

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What constitutes an authentic revelation of the divine in everyday life? This is the question I had when I began Robert K. Johnston's creative and spirited attempt to retrieve and reconstruct the theology of general revelation. It was also the question I still had when I reached the end of the book. In fairness, though, Johnston's main purpose in this book is not to provide some sort of phenomenological framework for evaluating revelatory experiences; rather, as I read him, he is trying to carve out a broadened theological space for affirming transformative experiences of the divine in everyday life. In terms of this goal, he largely succeeds, even though I admit to some skepticism about the project.

God's Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation by Robert K. Johnston (Baker, 2014).

Johston offers a rich array of materials: Case studies of transformative experiences of the beyond (reportedly) breaking into the here-and-now in moments of rapture, beauty, and moral cl…

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.9: Is the church always glorious?

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Ninth Question: Ought the church to enjoy perpetual splendor and eminence; or can it be at times so obscured and lessened that no assembly of it appears publically on earth? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

Turretin builds here on his discussion in the previous question. There he argued that the church cannot fail, and he now further maintains that position. But now Turretin makes a distinction between the church’s essence and accidents, so to speak: it is essential to the church that it should exist throughout history, but it is not essential that it should do so “with splendor and eminence”; indeed, it does so “often with obscurity” (18.9.1). This leads to further reflection on the invisibility of the church: there is an invisibility that is essential to the church, which he discussed in section 18.7; but there is also an “accidental invisibility which regards the external form” (18.9.4). In other words, the external form of the church doesn’t have to b…