Friday, March 24, 2017

Should We Speculate on the Fate of the "Unevangelized"?

I began this series with an overview of an older but well-worn book by John E. Sanders that contributes significantly to an evangelical theology of religions. To review: Sanders asks what, as Christians, we can say about the fate of those who never hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ explicitly proclaimed, or who through some incapacity are simply unable to receive it?

No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, by John E. Sanders (Eeerdmans, 1992).

I have to wonder if this is the sort of theological project that someone like me, tainted by Barthianism as I am, might even wish to engage. Perhaps some of you, gentle readers, might have the same question.
The Last Judgment, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1904)
Photo by Scatestle (Via Wikimedia Commons, PD-1994)

I can think of two reasons why I might demur from such a project: On the one hand, why should I commit to anything that bills itself as an evangelical theology in the first place? Nowadays -- and I scarecely need to point this out to most of you -- the question of evangelical identity is particularly fraught and vexed, especially for anyone hailing from a conservative Christian background who has even a modicum of a social conscience (and thank God, many do). Far be it from me to contribute here to the neurotic hand-wringing that pervades this topic.

Am I an evangelical in the contemporary North American sense, anyway -- albeit a poor one, corrupted by reading Schleiermacher and higher biblical criticism? Perhaps such questions are best left to the eschaton.

Still, there is another reason one might give a project such as Sanders' one a miss. Maybe the whole business is pointless speculation. We have our marching orders -- share the Gospel! -- and perhaps we shouldn't agitate our puny mortal neurons with such high-minded matters. Perhaps theologians should embody the humility of the Psalmist: "Lord, I am not high-minded. I have no proud looks. I do not exercise myself in great matters which are too high for me" (Ps. 131:1-2, Book of Common Prayer, 1928).

For my part, I find it refreshing, if also somewhat frustrating, when theologians admit they don't know what we're even talking about. If only a certain chief executive and his spokespersons ever showed such reticence! Perhaps on the question of what awaits the unevangelized, we should practice a "reverent agnosticism." Sanders quotes evangelical luminary J.I. Packer on this issue:

[I]f we are wise, we shall not spend much time mulling over this notion. Our job, after all, is to spread the gospel, not to guess what might happen to those to whom it never comes. Dealing with them is God's business (p. 16)

Now Packer has written or co-authored something like 60 books, so he's not necessarily mum in the face of mysteries, in the Wittgensteinian sense. Yet his rejoinder to this inquiry no doubt would be: Where scripture is silent, we should be as well. But isn't Packer making a larger point here? Perhaps having "very little theology" is not such a bad thing? Aren't there enough practical enigmas and problems in this world to keep our plates full until humankind destroys itself, an asteroid decimates our atmosphere, or the sun explodes -- whichever comes first? And assuming the question of the fate of the unevangelized is existentially significant -- and for the sake of argument let's concede that it is -- how can we even begin to answer such a question?

Don't "biblical" Christians, after all, trust that God is just and will do the right thing? Of course, Sanders writes, but he thinks we can do more than shrug our shoulders at this question. He argues that we can and indeed must attempt an answer if our message and mission as Christians is to have any credibility. He writes:

It is true that our primary task ought to be following Jesus and spreading the good news of his kingdom to all the world. But accomplishing that task involves the theological activity of answering new questions as they arise. If we did not speculate about subjects not directly revealed in the Bible, we should have very little theology; we would have no doctrine of the Trinity, no doctrine of Jesus having both a human and divine nature in hypostatic union (p. 17).

For my part, I take Sanders' side of this debate. Whether or not one agrees with his own solution (a "wider hope" theory) or one of the other historical viewpoints he surveys, we as believers must take some sort of stance on the question of humankind's ultimate destiny, including what we might hope from the love and power of God revealed in Jesus Christ, as attested in scripture and recapitulated in worship and tradition. Still, what are the epistemic conditions for the possibility of even posing a plausible and compelling response to the question of our hopes for the "unevangelized"? To address such issues, as Sanders does, we need to untangle the knots of biblical hermeneutics and sift through the history of Christian thought.

I'm beginning to expect this series may take a little while.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Moltmann, Barth, Bloch, and Blumhardt (any 'B's missing?)

While reading Moltmann’s autobiography I came across an interesting reflection on his relationship to Barth and Barth’s reaction to his Theology of Hope. And his reflections are too interesting to not share with you, gentle readers. So I have done so below. I’ve taken out some references and such to streamline I a bit, and I’ve inserted some of my own editorial comments. As usual, bold is mine.

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place (Fortress, 2009), 109–11.

By Maeterlinck (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Karl Barth read the Theology of Hope together with Eduard Thurneysen immediately after its publication. On 8 November 1964 he wrote to an old friend that he found it ‘very stimulating and exciting, because the young author makes a vigorous attempt to cope better with the eschatological aspect of the gospel than the old man in Basel did in his Romans commentary and his CD. I read him with a completely open mind, but hesitate to follow him because this new systematization, though much can be said in its favour, is almost too good to be true.’ To me personally he wrote more critically, so that the young theologian wouldn’t get a swelled head [Ed. note: ! ]: ‘To put it somewhat brutally: isn’t your Theology of Hope just a baptized version of Herr Bloch’s Principle of Hope?’ I suspect that he had in fact never read a word of Bloch’s [Ed. note: ! ], so the admission that follows is more important: ‘You know that I also once had it in mind to strike out in this direction, but that I then decided not to touch it.’ It was only later that I followed up this hint of Barth’s about his youthful decision and came upon his love for Christoph Blumhardt, whom he had visited in Bad Boll in 1915. In his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, he called Blumhardt a ‘theologian of hope,’ and his first commentary on Romans of 1919 is still full of Blumhardt’s spirit of hope. . . .

Barth presumably ‘decided not to touch it’ because in the end, like Franz Overbeck, he viewed such an eschatological theology as too radical, and because, on the other hand, Blumhardt was still very much imprisoned in the nineteenth century’s faith in progress. In 1922 Barth’s second commentary on Romans appeared, and lo and behind: Blumhardt has now been replaced by Kierkegaard, and the time-eternity paradox has superseded the dynamic dialectic of past-future. Blumhardt’s dynamic forward-looking hope has fallen victim to the enveloping mantle of eternity in the moment of time, and Blumhardt’s importunate expectation of Christ’s future has been replaced by the contentedness of faith in the eternally bounteous God. Eternity is now supposed to encompass time from all sides—pre-temporally—con-temporally—post-temporally—but it is no longer to have any particular ties with the future of the God ‘who will come.’ My Theology of Hope had reminded Barth of this key turning point in his theological development in 1920–21. Hence the contradictory reaction.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Marilynne Robinson on Theology

Marilynne Robinson, novelist and essayist, is one of my literary heroes. She is witty, wise, and unabashedly Reformed. In April 2016, Robinson was in Princeton, NJ, giving a lecture as part of the University’s Comparative Literature lecture series. In her lecture, titled “Beauty and Grace,” Robinson made this elusive comment regarding her theological commitments:

“I hold to theology because only theology embraces the true, tenable, and flawed as reality holds them.”

Naturally, this statement shocked me, as I have never in my seven years of theological inquiry heard theology defined as such. Theology, as it has classically been construed, is systematic, ordered, and dogmatic. Mashing together the true and the flawed is a systematic theologian’s worst nightmare.

Shocking as her statement may be, I think Robinson is on to something profoundly relevant for the current state of theology, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about its ramifications. What if Robinson is right? What if theology really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an endeavor to systematize and constrain, but is rather supposed to be a tentative, open, and flexible process of holding together the true and the flawed, the defined and the undefined? Built within theology itself, as defined by Robinson, is the ability for it to accept more expansive and even conflicting horizons.

In my attempt to better understand just what Robinson was getting at in her PU lecture, I read her essay, “Theology,” in her latest book, The Givenness of Things. According to Robinson, theology has been “persistently and inappropriately…influenced by a kind of scientific thought—which happens to be two or three hundred years out of date. This old science was very inclined to expose and denounce the impossible” (211). Religious thought went wrong by trying to clear away the impossible and improbable. What’s so ironic about this outdated method of religious thought, for Robinson, is that religion itself is the expression of a human intuition that there is something beyond the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Instead of living into theological language’s beauty and power, too often religious thinkers have settled on common sense, utilitarian language that is routine in the larger world. Robinson issues a call back to the beauty, subtlety, and power of Christian theological language, to recognize that our role in the universe is of singular, unique importance.

This call is connected to Robinson’s high Christology; for Robinson, Christ being present in Creation asserts the presence of human beings in creation as unique and sacred. Because of this unique location in creation, human beings have “privileged access to the unique source of insight” (217). This leads Robinson to reflect upon her own existence, where she concludes that we never know as much of ourselves as we think we know; we come to know ourselves as we happen. We have gone to great lengths to try and explain the mind and brain, though have focused very little on its actual brilliance. We struggle to put language to just who we are as creatures. Rationalistic and scientific accounts of human life fail to truly define Being. As such, Robinson claims that human beings may just be the most improbable and impossible things of reality. The universe is so perfectly fitted to our existence and delight that it is hard to call the beautiful order of things anything but Providential. Robinson understands providence in the same sense as Jonathan Edwards, who defined providence as arbitrariness. Our existence is arbitrary, according to Edwards, because it could only exist by the active intention of God. Edwards, and by extension, Robinson, saw nothing intrinsic or essential in human beings that implied their necessary existence. Existence is by the providence of God alone.

Because of the seeming arbitrariness of our existence, Robinson concludes that there might just be an Arbiter of our being who acts in freedom toward us, who presents us with Truth and confronts us in ways that are comprehensible to us. Human existence, for Robinson, implies a Being beyond our reality, and yet immanently present in that reality. It is on the grounds of human experience—an experience shared by the Godhead in Christ—that allows us to engage in the task of theology at all.

Because of this, Robinson can easily say to the University’s comparative literature students that theology holds together the true and the flawed. The experiences of human beings throughout the globe are indeed filled with truth and falsity, shadow and light. And that is all held within theological discourse. I bring Robinson to this venue because I’m really interested to know what the theological community makes of Robinson’s critique of theology’s outdated method and how we should receive her call to root theology in human experience, made possible by her Christological commitments. It’s not natural theology, but it is a theological method grounded in the stuff of our nature and being. Robinson’s writing, especially her fiction, shows that she knows humankind. She knows that humans are beings of shadow and light, truth and falsehood, and that God came to dwell among us and with us.

As for me, I am particularly concerned with the theological method, how we go about constructing our theological vistas. I have listened to scholars like Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter; both are going about theological and critical discourse in radically new ways precisely because of the ways (Western) systematic theology has been used to oppress and close off non-white and non-Western theologies. I mention Jennings and Carter because I find their theological work to be rooted in the ‘stuff of Being’ much like Robinson advocates for—their theology is led primarily by narratives of human experiences. They honor the unique privilege and insight that human beings into matters of the Divine.

Maybe Robinson’s insights come as no surprise to you; though they certainly did to the few seminarians gathered to hear her speak. Where do you begin your theology? What makes you continue to hold to theology? It’s systematic and organizing power, or its beauty, subtlety, and fragility?


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…


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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Well, it’s been over a month since the last link post, and there have been quite a few goings on. Here’s some of the most exciting stuff (imho) before we get to the link lists.

First, DET contributor Kathryn Heidelberger published a book review on the Center for Barth Studies website: Spencer, Archie J. The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability . . . Reviewed by Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger. Well done, Kathryn!

Second, the podcast version of my “Why go Barthian?” conversation with Tripp Fuller was published. Access it here, or wherever you download your podcasts. Just remember, this was recorded back in August 2016, and I was already saying that we needed to revive anti-Nazi theology. Tripp, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure…

Third, it’s been a really busy time on Twitter. I created a Twitter moment on Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” music video, for instance. And David Congdon, whose name will be exceedingly familiar to any regular DET reader, has also created a number of Twitter moments that are well worth your time:

Perhaps even more exciting, David has started an initiative called #TwitterSeminary! There have been two #TwitterSeminary lectures so far, and one guest lecture by yours truly. David has also created some indices to help with organization. Here’s all the links:

So, yeah, lots of stuff happening. Hopefully you’ve been tracking along with them but, if not, now you can get all caught up.

But wait, there’s more—on to the links! Here’s what we’ve been up to here at DET:


And here’s a good back of links from elsewhere around the interwebs:


Happy reading until next time!

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

If You Died Tonight... Or What Does Salvation Even Mean?

I have been writing on this page, for the past couple weeks, about the question of the fate of the "unevangelized" -- to wit: What might the Christian believer hope for the countless throngs of humanity who have never encountered the explicit Gospel of Jesus Christ or through some incapacity quite beyond their control have been unable to receive it (including infants and perhaps even the unborn). In my review of a superb text by John E. Sanders, I surveyed, in painfully broad strokes, three kinds of answers to this question: 1) Restrictivists hold that no one can be saved without an explicit encounter with the Gospel and response to it in faith; universalists affirm that, ultimately, God will save everyone; and advocates of wider hope theories (including inclusivists) assert that every human being will encounter the Gospel and enjoy an opportunity for -- not a guarantee of -- eternal salvation, whether the encounter occurs in this life or in an afterlife.

Jacob's Dream by William Blake (1805)
(via Wikimedia Commons, PD-1923_
Pondering all this convinces me that, before one can hope to adequately address this issue, one must wrestle with a meta question: Just what is the nature of salvation anyway? When I was growing up in Southern Baptist churches in the '70s and '80s, it might not be uncommon for an evangelist to begin an altar call with something like this: "If you died tonight, do you know that you would spend eternity in heaven with Jesus?" Stated thusly, perhaps, the question makes some of us uncomfortable. But prescinding from conservative evangelical, voluntarist soteriologies for the moment, I'd broaden and re-frame the question a bit, to something like this: Do you believe that some portion (or even perhaps all) of humankind will enjoy 'salvation' in the form of a blessed post-mortem existence (however we might conceive it) that retains personal self-consciousness and individual identity?

I think one can respond in one of four basic ways, with logical consistency and intellectual integrity, to wit:

1. Yes, I do. This, on my reading, is the most traditional and widely held view in the history of Christian thought. We don't have to get into contemporary debates about mind-body dualism, the putative immortality of the soul, or ostensibly outmoded "Greek metaphysics." Those discussions are important, to be sure, but that's not what I'm talking about here. Let's say Wolfhart Pannenberg, C.S. Lewis, and Pope John Paul II go into a bar.... Well, that's just it: Whether it's a pub in heaven or in some renewed and transformed earth in an eschatological future, the point is that they are getting together, somehow and somewhere, recognizably the same individuals they were during their earthly sojourns.

2. I don't know, but I sure hope so. What's interesting about this option is that it seems to suggest Christian hope might direct and inform Christian faith.

3. I don't know, but I think it's very unlikely. To my mind, that's a depressing answer, but it's certainly one that is logically and existentially possible.

4. No, I don't. This answer ramifies into three basic sub-categories: "No, I think the notion of salvation, properly interpreted, pertains to life in this world only." Or "No, I believe salvation involves the extinguishing of personal consciousness, as one's life force is reabsorbed into some sort of cosmic whole or infinite, impersonal ground of being." Or "No, I think this whole discussion about 'salvation' is bogus."

Apropos of option 4, I don't think we're forced into a false dichotomy between belief in personal, post-mortem existence, on the one hand, and a salutary concern for the concrete struggles of the world. Marxist criticisms (which I do take seriously) notwitstanding, I do believe something like the traditional understanding of eternal salvation can be integrated with a radical socio-political critique of existing powers and structures, and I've addressed that conviction in this post.

As I wrote last week, Sanders writes from the perspective of a fairly traditional evangelical Christianity, so of course, his discussion presupposes answer no 1. But what he does say (or presuppose) about the nature of salvation, and the way that these commitments shape his accounts of the scope and extent of salvation requires a closer look, but that task would require another blog post.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.13: Against false marks of the church

Thirteenth Question: Are the name catholic, antiquity, continued duration, amplitude, the succession of bishops, harmony in doctrine with the ancient church, union of the members with each other and with the head, holiness of doctrine, the efficacy of the same, holiness of life, the glory of miracles, prophetic light, the confession of adversaries, the unhappy end of the persecutors of the church and the temporal happiness of those who have defended it, marks of the true church? We deny against the Romanists.

Buckle your safety belts, because this is a long one…

In fact, I thought about splitting it into two parts, but I worried that created a precedent which would ultimately spiral out of control. Oh, and while I’m offering random preliminary reflections, questions 12 and 13 remind me of Calvin’s discussion of the sacraments in book 4 of the Institutes: you get his teaching in chapters 14–17, and then you get his deconstruction of the Roman position in chapters 18–19. But enough throat clearing.

Turretin makes an interesting offhanded comment at the start of this section. The reason that the Romanists proliferate these sort of marks is because they conceive “in their minds the idea of the church as similar to a civil monarchy” (18.13.1). This would need to be nuanced further, but I think there’s an interesting connection here to Catholic thinking about temporal / historical extension and the church as incarnatus prolongatus. Anyway, Turretin moves quickly on to point out that his opponents can’t agree among themselves as to how many marks of the church there are, and what they are. But he decides to respond to Bellarmine’s list of 15; perhaps just because it’s the longest list he knows, but also perhaps just because it’s Bellarmine’s list. Turretin also admits that Augustine sometimes seems to appeal to these marks, but he does so—according to Turretin—“not principally, but secondarily and as something over and above” (18.13.5).

  1. The name ‘catholic’—This doesn’t work because “we seek here real, not nominal marks” (18.13.6); i.e., things that aren’t just names, which can be applied arbitrarily. Besides, all the heretics in the ancient church claimed to be catholics. And when the ancient doctors distinguished between catholics and heretics, they didn’t do so on the basis of one side or the other calling themselves ‘catholics’ but on the basis “of the catholic and orthodox doctrine which they constantly held” (18.13.8).
  2. Antiquity—This is an accidental not an essential mark and, besides, not everything that is old is good. You can’t judge things from their age; you have to judge them by their truth. This means that the only antiquity worth worrying about is antiquity of doctrine, and the most ancient doctrine is found in the scriptures: “Antiquity of doctrines, however, can be estimated form the Scripture alone, so that it only is considered to be true, not which is drawn from a few ages, but from the first origin and the institution itself” (18.13.12). This marginalizes all unwritten traditions, and Turretin goes on a long digression to deal with various arguments and counterarguments made in favor of unwritten tradition and against scriptural primacy. One of the most interesting moments here is when he appeals to Jesus’s way of correcting belief and practice in his own day: “He employed only Scripture and doctrine, teaching us by his example what way we ought to follow in uncovering and reforming errors” (18.13.17). Turretin also provides a quick survey of when various doctrines (e.g., purgatory, transubstantiation, etc.) were first officially codified, although I can’t independently attest his accuracy (see 18.13.18).
  3. Perpetual duration—Again, this is accidental rather than essential. After all, lots of other institutions seem perpetual, and Jesus said that tares would be with the wheat until the end. The only duration that matters is duration of doctrine, and this means that we’re talking about the duration of the invisible rather than the visible church.
  4. Amplitude—Again, this is accidental rather than essential, and Jesus said that he would be present (i.e., his church would exist) wherever two or three gathered in his name. Furthermore, “paucity is a mark” of the church (18.13.24). This is a Reformed basso continuo, namely, that the true church is always a small remnant and therefore measurable success cannot be a guide to identifying it. Turretin quotes a number of fathers in support here. I like the quotes form Nazianzen and Jerome. Naz: “Where are they who define the church by multitudes and despise the small flock? They have homes, we are sojourners; they have temples, we have God…; they have the crowd, we have angels; they have rashness and boldness, we have faith; they have threatenings, we have prayers and discourses; they have gold and silver, we have the unadulterated doctrine of faith.” Jerome: “A multitude of associates will by no means prove you to be a catholic, but a heretic” (18.13.25).
  5. Succession—In contrast to the Romanist position that succession “is personal and local,” Turretin argues that it is “doctrinal”: “the church is not to be sought in walls and temples, but in doctrines. The church is where true faith is” (18.13.28). And whenever the fathers appeal to succession, they are talking about doctrinal succession rather than personal or local succession. Turretin quotes Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Augustine in support here.
  6. Harmony in doctrine—Given how Turretin has frequently turned his discussion toward the question of doctrine, one might be forgiven for thinking that this mark would appeal to him. But everything depends on what you think you’re supposed to be in harmony with. If harmony with the apostolic church is meant, for instance, Turretin grants this mark because that means the same thing as allegiance to Scripture. But if it means harmony with the ancient church in general, Turretin demurs; after all, even heretics can claim harmony on many points. And it isn’t like all the non-heretical fathers agreed on everything, or never made any mistakes, so even harmony with them as such doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Not even the Romanists accept everything that every father said!
  7. Union of believers with the head and each other—The invisible church has this unity internally but the visible church does not necessarily have it externally. But even if we’re talking about the former, to make it a mark of the church puts the cart before the horse because “unity is to be estimated by faith, not faith by unity” (18.13.37). In other words, shared faith produces other forms of unity; unity doesn’t produce the shared faith. Of course, Turretin brings this all back to doctrine. But he wraps it up nicely in a great line: “union must be evangelical and founded upon the truth of faith.”
  8. Holiness of doctrine—Again, we have a case of cart-before-horse because holiness here is a quality of doctrine, and that’s just to say that doctrine is the mark of the church. This, of course, is what Turretin wants to say: “to say that holiness of doctrine is a mark of the church is to say that the truth of doctrine or conformity with the word of God is a mark (which we maintain)” (18.13.40).
  9. Efficacy of doctrine—Turretin is less happy with this one than the previous one because, again, Reformed theologians cannot accept success as a mark of the church. If anything, it is a mark of apostasy. Even Satan has a kind of efficacy, Turretin tells us.
  10. Holiness of life—This doesn’t work as a mark because “true holiness is something internal, known to God alone (the searcher of hearts) and is often so counterfeited by hypocrites that hey are considered to be saints who are most corrupt” (18.13.42). A number of heretics have been renowned for holiness, and just think of the Donatists!
  11. Glory of miracles—Here we get another Reformed distinction: cessationism, the idea that miraculous spiritual gifts were instituted only for the first stage of Christian history to confirm the truth of the message until Scripture became available. As Turretin says, “miracles are accidents and extraordinary gifts which were given to the church only for a time, not always; for the establishment of Christianity, not for its continuance” (18.13.43). Besides, even in the biblical text one finds stories about false teachers and such doing miraculous things. Turretin even comes up with a quote from Bellarmine that seems to limit miracles to the period of establishing faith in the missionary context.
  12. Prophetic light—Here we’re talking about predicting the future or interpreting such predictions, but (again) this “is an extraordinary, not a perpetual gift” (18.13.47) like the miracles discussed above. One you have scripture, you don’t need this kind of miraculous prophecy. Besides, “not every gift is a mark” (18.13.48).
  13. Confession of opponents—Just because your enemies say you’re a true church doesn’t make it so. Why would you “borrow strength from the testimony of enemies” (18.13.49)?
  14. Unhappy end of enemies—Much like the previous point, why would you “say that what is outside the church can be a mark of it” (18.13.50)? Just because things go badly for your enemies doesn’t make you a true church. There have been plenty of times in history and scripture where things have gone well for the church’s enemies and badly for the church’s members.
  15. Temporal happiness—This is the mirror image of the previous point. Turretin reminds us that God doesn’t promise happiness to Christians. In fact, “the cross and calamity [is] the standard of Christ, the companion of truth and the portion of believers” (18.13.51). This dovetails with everything we’ve said already about success.

Turretin wraps up by noting that even the four marks given in the Apostle’s Creed—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—are “descriptions of the true church…only on account of faith and true doctrine” (18.13.52). He then proceeds to argue that, even if these fifteen marks he has just deconstructed were true they don’t actually fit the Roman church.

I think we can all agree that this post has gone on for long enough, but I just want to register in closing that I have been surprised / impressed / intrigued by how central doctrine is for Turretin throughout his ecclesiology but especially in his discussion of the marks. Of the traditional tripartite analysis of faith in the Protestant tradition, he seems to reduce faith in this context to notitia (true knowledge) and assensus (acceptance of that knowledge) while downplaying fiducia (trust). I would accept many of his arguments at the formal level, but I would stress the fiducia aspect of faith instead. For instance, recall this bit that I quoted above: “the church is not to be sought in walls and temples, but in doctrines. The church is where true faith is" (18.13.28). It is not obvious to me that these sentences are saying the same thing, i.e., that the “faith” of the second sentence can be reduced to the “doctrines” of the first. I much prefer the second sentence.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

What Am I Reading? No Other Name by John Sanders

In my post last week, I offered a somewhat whimsical entree to John E. Sanders' impressive book on the scope of salvation. I then received a tip that an anonymous interlocutor thinks this book deserves some closer exposition, so I've been reading it carefully during this past week. I have not been disappointed. Sanders did his research and produced a truly fine, and eminently useful, work in historical and constructive theology.

No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, by John E. Sanders (Eeerdmans, 1992).

The animating question in Sanders' book is this: What, as Christians, can we say about the fate of those who never hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ explicitly proclaimed, or who through some incapacity are simply unable to receive it?
The Last Judgment, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1904)
Photo by Scatestle (Via Wikimedia Commons, PD-1994)

Sanders writes from a conservative evangelical perspective, and he masterly refutes the caricature that what he calls restrictivist soteriology is the only serious option on the table in the history of conservative Protestant thought. Restrictivists, he writes, believe that "the only legitimate answer to the question of the destiny of the unevangelized is that there is no hope whatsoever for salvation apart from their hearing the message about the person and work of Christ and exercising faith in Christ before they die" (p. 37). Taken to its logical extreme, this view entails that the vast majority of humankind throughout the ages is lost -- including members of other religious traditions and even infants who die before they can make a decision for faith. While a number of key thinkers -- particularly within Reformed orthodoxy and old-school Roman Catholicism -- have toed the line on this position, Sanders shows that there have always been dissenters, and, especially since the dawn of modernity, an increasing number of believers (evangelicals included) have found themselves unable to stomach restrictivism and its concomitant claims about the nature of God and human destiny.

He states the issue poignantly in his preface:
How can we believe that God is just and loving if he fails to provide billions of people (including infants who die) with any opportunity to participate in salvation through Jesus Christ? Why did God create so many people if he knew that the vast majority of them would have no chance of ultimate salvation? On the other hand, if the unevangelized do have an opportunity for salvation, how is it made available to them (p. xvii)?

The dilemma stems from holding two claims that, on the face of it, might seem incongruous: On the one hand, New Testament passages such as 1 Tim. 2:3-4 seem to claim that God desires the salvation of everyone. On the other hand, passages such as Acts 4:12 seem to claim that "the particularity and finality of salvation" reside in Christ alone, and that personal salvation entails explicit faith in him (p. 25). Obviously, if either of these claims is qualified, weakened, or rejected, the issue will need to be re-framed (for example, in accounts of double predestination and limited atonement).

Of course, one major alternative that eschews this dilemma entirely is universalist soteriology -- the claim that, in the end, all human beings will be saved, whether through divine fiat or through the effects of God's persuasive love working in and through human free will. In early chapters of the book, Sanders offers fair-minded and clear summaries and evaluations of both restrictivist and universalist positions -- exploring both the biblical foundations and theological implications of these two schools of thought and offering helpful annotated bibliographies for further research.

In the final chapters, Sanders explores various versions of a "wider hope" soteriology -- the approach that he finds the most promising. He shows that this school of thought ramifies into a variety of approaches, including theologians who argue that everyone eventually will encounter the gospel, whether in this life or at the moment of death; or that everyone who missed out in this life will be evangelized in the afterlife; or that everyone who seeks God or has implicit faith will ultimately be saved, whether or not they ever learn anything about Jesus whatsoever. This last option, known as inclusivism, can boast a very wide -- and growing -- currency among post-Vatican II Roman Catholics, mainline-liberal Protestants, and (increasingly) conservative evangelicals.

I envision certain kinds of readers who might not find a study of this compelling, or perhaps even interesting: An increasing number of revisionist, radical, and post-Christian theologians view any notion of post-mortem salvation for individuals as inherently problematic. Some might be liberationists focused on retrieving and reinterpreting Christian soteriology to focus on concrete socio-political and spiritual transformation in this life, in this world. They might be existentialists who would demythologize Christian soteriology to emphasize the decision for an authentic existence in the here and now. Or they might be process thinkers who believe the lives of all people, after the light of personal consciousness has been extinguished, are redeemed through incorporation into the broader cosmic whole that is the divine life and memory. And then there are the atheists and agnostics....

I do believe, though, that there is something useful for most everyone in a book like this, so, gentle readers, please stay tuned for more to come.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Gollwitzer Gold (part 3): Twitter Gleanings Trifecta

Many folks know that I am in the late stages of preparing a book manuscript on Helmut Gollwitzer's theology and politics. If all goes according to plan, it will appear before the end of the year. Bits and pieces of it are currently flying back and forth between my editor and I. In the meantime, I thought that I would collect another "Gollwitzer Gold" installment (part 1 / part 2) for you to enjoy, gentle readers. So, without further ado, I give you the tweets!








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Monday, March 06, 2017

The Theology of the Cross Finds a Way

I had just finished my prep-work for our Youth Ministry Committee meeting that was set for this particular evening. Our task was to begin the process of crafting a vision statement for the ministry—one that would capture the direction we felt God was calling us to go with our Jr. High and High School programs, one that would inspire youth, parents, leaders, and staff alike. But now that everything was set and ready to go, I decided it was time to step away and change gears for a bit. I didn’t have long before I had to be back, but I wanted a change of scenery. So I went to the Starbucks around the corner, ordered my tall chai tea latte (go ahead espresso junkies, have your laugh), sat down, and cracked open my copy of Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God—completely unaware of how potentially jeopardizing this decision was for the future of my ministry (or at least for my job as the Youth Director at this particular church).

By Hans Olav Lien (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
I was in the second chapter, where Moltmann is busy dispelling all the pleasantries and ways that the cross tends to be prettied up and made palatable, coopted into an uplifting and self-affirming religious humanism. The cross, he argues, is an ugly thing. It is not uplifting or affirming (or if it is, it is only by way of its radical opposition to us and our idols, freeing us from ourselves and our delusions). Fundamentally though, the cross contradicts “all conceptions of the righteousness, beauty and morality of [human beings],” and “everything [human beings] have ever conceived, desired and sought to be assured of by the term ‘God’” (46-47).

Quoting H.J. Iwand, Moltmann affirms that coming to terms with the cross means coming to terms with the fact that our faith begins with “…the triumph of death, the enemy, the non-church, the lawless state, the blasphemer, the soldiers. Here Satan triumphs over God. Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose that it must be at an end…with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt” (44-45).

About half-way through my latte, I paused to consider what a youth ministry vision statement inspired by this chapter in The Crucified God might look like. Pages 49-50 seemed like they would help me sum it up well:
By Emőke Dénes (kindly granted by the author)
[CC BY-SA 2.5],
via Wikimedia Commons
“Following the way of the cross, our youth ministry will not be ‘positive and constructive,’ but ‘critical and destructive.’ It will not bring students into a better harmony with themselves and with their environments, ‘but into contradiction with [themselves] and [their] environment[s].’ It will ‘not create a home for [students] and integrate [them] into society, but [will make them] homeless and rootless,” and in doing so will set them ‘free from their cultural illusions, releasing them from the involvements which blind them, and confronting them with the truth of their existence and their society.’”
In the end I decided against pushing for this kind of Crucified-God-style vision statement (in other words, I do still have a job). I justified myself to myself (hmm, sh*#) saying: “now Alex, remember, this vision statement doesn’t exist to enshrine your own present theological emphases.” And after all, I didn’t want to run off all the students and their families (remembering Moltmann’s warning on p. 47 that this might happen).

However, if I may adapt the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcolm: the theology of the cross will not be contained; it breaks free, expands into new territories, crashes through barriers, painfully, and hopefully pastorally (and within the broader framework of a theology of hope); yet, when all is said and done, the theology of the cross finds a way.

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Friday, March 03, 2017

Pinnock: Paging Evangelical Inclusivists?

I've started doing a little research lately in the theology of religions. We'll see what may come of it. In that vein, I ran across the following passage, which delighted me with its verve and rhetorical punch (quite apart from how one might evalute the author's claim). These comments come from a forward, penned by the late Clark H. Pinnock, to the book No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, by John Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992).

Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven
From The Divine Commedy, Illustrated, Completeby Dante Alighieri
(ed. Henry Francis Cary, 1892)
(PD-US, via Wikimedia Commons)
As Pinnock notes, many critics of conservative evangelicalism are scandalized by the apparent incongruity between claiming, on the one hand, that God loves everyone and, on the other hand, that the Creator, nonetheless, has consigned to eternal damnation billions of human beings across time who have never encountered the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is needed, Pinnock avers, is a responsible articulation of an inclusivist soteriology, written from an evangelical perspective -- and, he claims, Sanders has delivered a work that helps to close the "credibility gap" caused by this lacuna in scholarship (p.xiii). (Quick refresher: The term "inclusivism" is theological shop talk for the position that Jesus Christ is the only savior, but that individuals might come to a saving relationship with him outside the bonds of explicit faith and membership in a church). Pinnock writes:

It [Sanders' book] has come none too soon, in that liberal theologians are jumping all over us for not making better sense of God's universal salvific will and are capitalizing on our vulnerability to mount outragous proposals of their own which deny the Incarnation and promote what they call theological pluralism but which is really only religious relativism (p. xiv).

Keep in mind that this was written 25 years ago -- back when a poor, humble Arkansas boy was running for President (ah, be still my neoliberal heart!). Still, it seems the "jumping all over" has continued apace. And I wonder what Pinnock would have made of DET and some of our liberal-pluralist-universalist-leaning friends (discretion restrains me from naming names, but you know who you are!). But wait, there's more:

Our position on the accessibility of salvation to the unevangelized gives liberals a window of opportunity to float really heretical notions. By sticking stubbornly to what Sanders calls restrictivism, evangelicals have made it ridiculously easy for liberals to attack classical theology (in particular, its christology). Scholars such as John Hick have been making mincemeat out of us, arguing all too convincingly that evangelicals have nothing to contribute to the discussion of religious pluralism (p. xiv).

In case you've forgotten, gentle readers, Hick was the British philosopher-theologian who argued, rather forcibly and persistently, that all cats are grey in the nightscape that is humankind's glorious religious diversity: The religions, he claimed, are pathways heading toward the one God, the transcendent Real that is the origin and goal of our lives and the source of our common ethical aspirations. In other words, Hick updated classical deism, and gave it a markedly English accent (wait, what? I suppose it already had an English accent, didn't it? Quite.) By "restrictivism," I assume Sanders means what the guild usually calls "exclusivism" -- the position that there is no salvation outside of an explicit, professed faith in Jesus Christ. As this blog post is due in half an hour, I don't have time to double check that.

To wrap up this post (no doubt to your great relief), some final words from Pinnock:

It has seemed for some time now, not only to liberals but to many evangelicals as well, that traditional theology is stuck in deep mud, having no new ideas to put forward and no defense to the serious criticisms made of it. Even the minority of evangelicals who are not restrivists have not been able to construct a decent full-scale defense of the inclusivist paradigm, only bits and pieces of which have been available in print. Well, they can breathe a sigh of relief now, for help has arrived (ibid.).

Note: The notion of having a defense vis-a-vis criticism is logically and existentially distinct from being defensive.

Pinnock himself, I understand, was fond of "new ideas." For example, he had the idea that, if you should want to know what your spouse is cooking for dinner, or whether the hurricane is to hit landfall this weekend, or what tomorrow's lottery numbers are, don't ask God, because He don't know. God perhaps also couldn't tell me whether my editor is ever going to let me anywhere near this website again.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Theopolitical reflections on Katy Perry's "Chained to the Rhythm"

Katy Perry went public with a new music video for her "Chained to the Rhythm" single last week.



I was up late grading when it came across my desk and, never one to waste an opportunity to divert my attention from grading, I proceeded to watch the video. For everything that followed you can blame Katy and co. for this symbolically rich piece of art.

To make a long story short, I sent out a number of tweets on the subject and then gathered them into a "moment," reproduced below.



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