Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Headed to a Different Blogging Locale

Regular readers and responders are, to say the least, few and far between at Theologia Viatorum, but I wanted to communicate that I'll be joining Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel in blogging at Theology Forum. Kent and Kyle consistently deliver good content and blog in a thoughtful, charitable manner. If you're interested, you can follow TF at http://theologyforum.wordpress.com.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sovereignty and Simplicity: Why the Two Belong Together

Recently, when asked how God could be in the right in slaughtering women and children in certain OT narratives, John Piper responded, "It's right for God to slaughter women and children any time he pleases. God gives life and he takes life....So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing" (to read the text in full, see here). He goes on to underscore the pertinent implication of our sinful state, namely, that our sin is sufficient reason for God to deny us the gift of life.

Bracketing the unnerving effect of some of the language in this piece, I'm in agreement that God is blessedly sovereign over all of life and that he does not owe something to sinful humanity. However, Piper doesn't clarify how God's actions constitute enactments of justice, righteousness, goodness. Does God willing something render that something a righteous action (so nominalism). Or, does God submit himself to an external standard of righteousness and then act accordingly (so hard realism)? This is a well-known issue in both philosophy and theology often called the Euthyphro problem. Neither option seems to be satisfactory inasmuch as God is neither capricious (pace nominalism) nor subject to anything external to God (pace what I would call a hard version of realism about universals like justice and goodness). In my mind, the appropriate response is to maintain that God is subject to a standard of goodness and righteousness, but that this standard is his own nature. To confess God's simplicity is, negatively, to hold that he is not composed of parts. To unpack this, God is not really distinct from any of God's perfections but just is, when viewed under a particular aspect, his corresponding particular perfection (holiness, omniscience, love, goodness, etc.). So God's essence is his own righteousness and this righteousness, internal to God, is the standard according to which God must act and does act in the world.

What does this mean for Piper's statement? It means that, while God is free to act how he pleases, not least in relation to rebellious sinners, he is, contra nominalism's doctrine of God's absolute freedom, not free to contradict his own goodness and righteousness. The pastoral and apologetical import of God's sovereignty is more firmly established if God's sovereignty is wedded to God's simplicity and his commitment always to enact his own goodness in all his dealings with his creatures.

Any thoughts on this?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Metaphors, Carrots, Sticks, and the Divine Authorship of Scripture: A Few Thoughts on Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament

I've enjoyed engaging recently with Richard Hays' book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, not least because he is convinced that, for the Christian, moral reasoning is an exegetical matter. As the best theology centers on unpacking and integrating the teachings of the canonical writ, so developing a Christian ethic centers on attending to and practicing biblical directives for the church. Another strength of the volume is Hays' affirmation of both the determinacy of the meaning of biblical texts and possibility of genuine knowledge of that meaning and also the culturally-conditioned nature of our exegesis and attempts at principlizing our way from the sacred page to the contemporary setting. This leads his work away from the mire of hermeneutical and ethical relativism, but not without a firm grasp of the primacy of the particularity of the text and the significant limitations of abstracting from the Sitz im Leben of the original readers in order to relate Scripture to the church's current milieu. In turn, he lays stress on the need, under the tutelage of the mind-independent meaning of the text, to exercise the imagination in order to discern ways in which the world of Scripture connects up metaphorically with the world in which we now dwell and must make decisions. This, he says, fosters proper contextualization in the task of Christian moral reasoning as we seek to deploy and enact the normative teaching of Scripture, once displayed in previous historical-cultural situations, in the church's present situation. In short, contextualization depends less on pristine principles and more on discovering analogies that enable us to relate the canonical to the contemporary.

One of the helpful points he makes in examining the Pauline ethical material is that "Paul generally prefers suasion to sanctions." That is, the apostle will endeavor first to hold out the incomparable riches of new life in Christ before using the dangers of rejecting Christ as motivation for repentance. He opts for "the carrot over the stick as a strategy of moral exhortation" (p. 40). Of course, as Hays adds, Paul isn't afraid to spell out the real prospect of divine judgment in hopes of prodding Christians to pursue a life of obedience. However, the point is still worth noting for our own interactions with other believers: amplify the joy of a faithful life before resorting to the threat of divine condemnation when aiming to persuade someone to continue along the path of Christian maturity.

In addition to these positive remarks, there are a few questions I would raise. Chiefly, I wonder how a certain subterranean perspective on God's relationship to Scripture affects some of Hays' exegetical and methodological judgments. For example, when he considers the difficult passage on women and teaching in 1 Timothy 2, Hays concludes that the author (not Paul, in Hays' mind) ventures a "lame exoneration of Adam" (p. 67). However, if we believe that in each biblical text we find both the divine and the human voices harmoniously addressing the church, and, if we believe that central to the exegetical task is determining the (unified) "normative stance" (Wolterstorff's phrase) of those two authorial agents, then it seems that both complementarians and egalitarians must do better than to concede a poorly devised bit of argumentation in the Bible. If God through the human author and without violating said author's personality and agency inscripturates the normative stance found in each section of the biblical literature, including a section that posits arguments, I would hesitate to dismiss even a seemingly odd thread of reasoning as "lame." The other options seem to be 1) downplaying God's involvement with certain texts or aspects of texts (which texts? which aspects?) and/or 2) broadly rejecting the claim that God is speaking to the church in the text. (Notice that this concern could be shared by those who do believe Paul wrote all of the Pauline epistles and by those who do not. The question is one of God's relationship to the Bible.)

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sacramental Political Theology: More on Moltmann

Moltmann's The Crucified God begins with musings on the place of the church in society and, after he presents a provocative revision of the doctrine of God founded on the event of the cross, he concludes with some more developed thoughts on constructing a theology of Christian political engagement. To start, he mentions two options for construing the church's role in society: "the model of unburdening" and "the model of correspondence." The former, he says, argues that the church should be freed from politics and politics from religion. For Moltmann, this contains an element of truth in that there's nothing to be gained from establishing a church state or a state church. However, he thinks the model is undesirable for several reasons: it opens up the possibility of the liberation of faith enjoyed in the church simply awkwardly co-existing with oppression in the surrounding society; it also leaves room for spiritual liberation to serve as a substitute for "real political liberation in the world" (p. 319). In the end, the distinction between ecclesial life and politics is indispensable but "of little help in the individual case when the decision is made" (p. 319).

"The model of correspondence" assumes the ecclesial-political distinction but aims "to build a bridge from the realm of free faith and the liberated church into the realm of politics by means of correspondences, reflections, and images." So "liberations from the prisons of capitalism, racism, and technocracy must be understood as parables of the freedom of faith" (p. 320). The problem here, judges Moltmann, is that this construal can be cast in "too hierarchical terms," with the church "idealized so as to become the model of society" (p. 320). Ultimately, the "unburdening" and "correspondence" perspectives share certain deficiencies: both relegate social action to merely "the realm of the possible and arbitrary"; both envision liberation "in general terms first and only then look for 'concretions' of the abstract" (p. 321).

Enter Moltmann's doctrine of God with its eschatological "openness." The trinitarian event of the cross is taken up into the very being of God and from the separation and mutual surrender of the Father and Son the Spirit goes forth to bring new life to humanity (p. 244). With such an emphasis on God in history and, indeed, history in God, Moltmann confesses himself unhappy with only images of spiritual liberation showing up in society. He proposes to begin with the notion of "God in the world," "anticipations and promises in the process of (eschatological) realization, in which the ultimate announces itself in the penultimate" (p. 321). This, says Moltmann, implies "a perception of God's identifications in history" (p. 321). As God identified in the crucified Christ is really present in these "anticipations," "history is the sacrament of Christian ethics" (p. 321).

Moltmann is an interesting character and I have my disagreements with his doctrine of God and his theology of political engagement, but I find that he makes a good dialogue partner on at least these topics. Any thoughts on the above themes in theologizing about the relation of the kingdom and the church to contemporary society?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mary, Martha, and Moltmann

I often think one of the most pressing needs for the church today is to become better acquainted with the rhythm of redemptive history and, of course, the church's place in it. Because of an incomplete or even distorted perspective, a variety of theological, ecclesial, practical anomalies and aberrations crop up. Charlemagne styles himself a new King David, though the time of the people of God as a geo-political entity passed with our shift from old covenant to new covenant mode. A church leader welcomes the congregation to the church building as the "house of God" on a Sunday morning, though the concept of the temple of God is no longer applicable to a building with walls of literal stone but to the church, the people of God who are living stones (see, e.g., Jn. 4; 1 Cor. 6; and so on).

We have several different options for tracing the flow of redemptive history: the Reformed covenantal model, the dispensational model in its diverse forms, the model found in the biblical theology of George Ladd, the five-act model advanced by N. T. Wright, to name a few. Some are more defensible and more suggestive than others, but all should feel the need to clarify the relation between church and society. In reading Moltmann (mostly for the sake of understanding his doctrine of God), I stumbled across some of his material on maintaining both Christian identity and Christian relevance in and to society. He writes:

For Christian faith to bring about its own decay by withdrawal into the ghetto without self-criticism, is a parallel to its decay through uncritical assimilation. And the decline into pusillanimous faith and superstition is a parallel to the decline into unbelief. How close this parallel is, is shown by the way debates within Christianity become polarized in false alternatives....The tension between identity in faith and solidarity in action can no longer be tolerated by either side. Polarizations come into being,which break down this productive Christian tension....In many churches similar polarizations have come into being between those who see the essence of the church in the evangelization and the salvation of souls, and those who see it in social action for the salvation and liberation of real life. But in Christian terms evangelization and humanization are not alternatives (The Crucified God, pp. 21-22).

Put differently, Moltmann rejects "the fragmentation of the church into the true 'church of Jesus' and the evil, political 'church of Barabbas'; or the true 'church of Mary' which alone hears the word of the Lord, and the 'church of Martha' preoccupied with useless social activity" (ibid., pp. 20-21).

For a good many Christians the wedding of overtly Christian practices (e.g., preaching, baptism, interpersonal evangelism) and social action is something of a "no-brainer." And yet I've always wrestled with having such a broad vision of the church's role in society. I have gravitated toward a two-kingdoms approach to the issue and, with recent online contributions from Michael Horton (on the two-kingdoms theory, see here; on the notion of calling, see here) and the publication of David VanDrunen's Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (which I hope to read in the near future), there is momentum for articulating a Reformed rendition of the two-kingdoms take on things.

Moltmann is right that "Mary church" versus "Martha church" is too crude a distinction, but here are a few of the reasons why I have been on a pilgrimage toward the two-kingdoms view:

1) We live in an in-between stage of redemptive history. That is, we live between the time of the Mosaic era with its open amalgam of Israelite faith, society, and government and the consummative establishment of the kingdom of God whose aftermath will again blur the lines between the redeemed community and broader societal life and structure.

2) While I am emphatically no dispensationalist, there is something to be said for the futurist hermeneutic when it comes to reading John's Apocalypse. It's tough to read the book of Revelation and not come away with the sense that Satanically-inspired governmental arrangements can, do, and will systemically persecute Christians. I find it a hard pill to swallow that God would have the church as such invest itself in the ins and outs of government only for governments ultimately to turn around and persecute the church. (Note: I'm thinking of the church as such, not individual believers who may be called to serve in government roles for the limited benefit of society in the present. More on this under reason number five.)

3) The church is the custodian of the gospel of Christ and, in my mind, is meant to specialize in proclaiming and offering redemption in Christ, rather than, as the church, busying itself with political affairs of limited eternal significance. (Though it's unpopular to say, I still think that what is eternal is more important than what passes away with time. However, to clarify, salvation is not about merely future incorporeal entrance to heaven but the reclamation of human persons which begins now and reverberates for all eternity in the new creation. Hence the eternal significance of salvation through Christ). In short, the church need not usurp the role of government. But, to clarify once more, this does not mean that church leaders cannot decry, say, the practice of abortion or that individual Christians cannot be called to serve in the realm of social and political action, strategizing to improve society. Rather, it means that the church qua church is not a social activist group designed to concoct and implement social programs. For example, strictly speaking, it is not the mission of the church to teach ESL classes, but, should a church member, along with other Christians and even non-Christians, wish to lead a non-ecclesiastical organization specializing in ESL, this remains a noble and worthwhile endeavor of service to others. We could debate the implications of hosting said organization's ESL classes in a church building...

4) As Jesus appeals to certain OT texts to describe his mission, he highlights the themes of justice and social restoration, leading some to conclude that his concept of the kingdom of God includes the impetus for transforming societies in the church age. Yet he doesn't go forth to enter into extended dialogue with political leaders about developing systems for bringing justice to all. It seems to me that he creates a community of disciples that can internally exemplify just, compassionate treatment of others as well as offer participation in this community to others. That is, he doesn't attempt to make the kingdoms of this age the kingdom of God but rather instructs the people of the kingdom (understood as the saving reign of God [Ladd's "dynamic sense"]) to embody the values of the kingdom. In other words, I'm not sure that the church refraining from immersion in social activism will compromise the proper social implications of the inbreaking of the kingdom in the present time.

5) The two-kingdoms theory need not begin with an attachment to country which is then open to Christian commitment as an addendum. Rather, we may begin with Christ's reign over all creation and then specify how he rules differently over the spheres of the society and the church. That he does rule them differently and does expect different things of them becomes clear by considering that, for example, only the church is required to practice the Lord's Supper. (Of course, we would hope that all participate in the life of the church and so partake of the bread and the cup.) It seems viable to speak of a "cultural mandate" and a "redemptive mandate" without transforming the former into the latter. In addition, because of Christ's lordship over all, particular Christians may be called to serve in government positions without the nagging feeling of living a compartmentalized life. They can seek to hold society accountable to the tenets of natural law, with Romans 1 and 2 being a good starting place to get a handle on the idea that there are certain ethical imperatives accessible to all. The lordship of Christ, the reality of common grace, and the concept of calling can unify and invigorate believers' lives within the two-kingdoms theory without pressing them to act as if their line of work (government administration, city planning, nursing) in itself is somehow a conduit of salvation.

6) My final reason is more of a question: how does a non-two-kingdoms view stop short of encouraging the government to preach the gospel and so delegating the church's unique responsibility. That's not a scathing, sarcastic question (tone is difficult to convey by blog), but more of an invitation to discussion. Comrades at Denver Seminary (an evangelical institution not afraid to speak about social engagement) may disagree with what I've said here and I'd like to hear their voices. Also, doing this post in the midst of Haiti relief efforts could raise additional questions. Thoughts?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Pastor as Leadership Expert? Confessions of a Cynic

I've been reading through some of Eugene Peterson's thoughts on the nature and central tasks of pastoral ministry and, while I've never been a big fan of The Message, there's something very endearing about his ability to name (often in rather blunt tones) things that ail the church in America and things that can reorient us to the call of God. In Working the Angles he identifies and exegetes what he believes to be the three practices that enable pastoral ministry to retain its proper shape: prayer, the (contemplative) reading of Scripture, and spiritual direction. In conjunction with Peterson's concerns, it might be worth mentioning Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor as well. Baxter has impressed me with his insistence on the pastor visiting regularly with parishioners in order personally to know them and to give them spiritual guidance.

I can't help but notice that neither Peterson nor Baxter seems to have much time for learning the "laws of leadership" or for delving into elaborate schemes for "casting vision" or "getting the right people on the bus." And now I must come clean: over the past few years I've become something of a cynic about the prevalent model of the pastor as leadership expert. Even if one clarifies that this model acknowledges a qualitative difference between corporate or simply non-pastoral leadership and church ministry, I still can't manage to get excited about it. Here are a few of my reasons:

1) there's limited mileage to get out of an abstract notion of leadership; leaders always lead as something (a CEO, a coach, a minister of word and sacrament) and this implies limited cross-over in terms of principlizing one's way from the corporate world to the church

2) for my money, there are more critical things demanding attention: persistence in prayer, rigorous exegesis of and meditation on Scripture, pastorally-minded explorations in historical and systematic theology, development of spiritually rich, intelligently and compellingly worded sermons and teaching material, the practice of spiritual guidance

3) infatuation with sophisticated leadership theories seems to conjure up a sense of impending "success" that might undercut simple, dogged endurance in ministerial labors

To clarify, I suppose I'm not in opposition to thinking (or, better, theologizing) through certain leadership dynamics but to the way in which the acquisition and honing of leadership philosophies and strategies loom so large at the moment. However, are these just the cantankerous ruminations of a blogger who is blinded by his love of theology? Your thoughts?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Knowing God and Studying Theology: Reflections of a Newcomer to Church Dogmatics (Part 2)

Barth, the man regarded by many as the most significant theologian of the twentieth century, writes,

As compared with proclamation dogmatics involves a different mode and function but in no sense a higher stage of faith or the knowledge of faith. It was clearly one of the results of the struggle with ancient Gnosticism that the Church rejected an aristocracy of scientific theologians in its midst. But the idea is a natural one, and in practice it can always be a temptation. We must be very clear that the simplest proclamation of the Gospel can be proclamation of the truth in the most unlimited sense and can validly communicate the truth to the most unsophisticated hearer if God so will. Dogmatics is not the technique of certain people who are better placed spiritually (Church Dogmatics, I. 1. 3).

He goes on a little more, but I think he's made his point. Similar thoughts can be found in Bavinck when he says that those who have no formal theological education and those who do possess knowledge of God that may differ in degree but not in kind. Also, Stephen Holmes opens his book The Wondrous Cross with the claim that theology's job is to clarify what the people of God already know. Hopefully, at Denver Seminary and beyond we theology students (even if we're not Barth or Calvin or Augustine) go about our business with an awareness of this, refusing to locate ourselves in an artificial upper-tier of Christian intelligentsia and aiming to employ theological understanding in a pastoral way.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Evangelical Prolegomena: Reflections of a Newcomer to Church Dogmatics (Part 1)

I must confess that until recently my only firsthand reading of Barth was of his little book Evangelical Theology. It's a book bursting with insights on the practice of theology and I've come to Church Dogmatics expecting more of the same. So far so good.

In section two in the first volume of Church Dogmatics, Barth contends for an Evangelical, unashamedly dogmatic approach to prolegomena: "In order to give an account of the way of knowledge pursued in dogmatics, we cannot take up a position which is somewhere apart from this way or above the work of dogmatics" (p. 41). Again: "We cannot pose the question of formal dogma without immediately entering at these central points (the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ as integral to a doctrine of the Word of God) upon material dogma. Indeed, what is thought to be formal dogma is itself highly material in fact. The only point is that here at the beginning of the whole work it is not to be estimated solely according to its material signficance, but specifically according to its formal significance as the foundation of dogmatic knowledge as such" (p. 43). Formal considerations are indeed formal but are properly governed by the material content of Christian belief.

This Barth is working out in contrast to his understanding of Roman Catholic prolegomena and modern Protestant prolegomena. The former, he says, is tangled up in the presumption of a pre-dogmatic "ecclesiastical reality," while the latter is ensnared by a "prior anthropological possibility." Whether by way of enclosing divine action within the confines of the church or by way of concocting an account of the human condition external to the substance of the gospel, these approaches begin in the wrong places when it comes to getting prolegomena off the ground. We are left, then, with "dogmatic prolegomena," the exercise of mapping out the path to dogmatic knowledge from the standpoint of dogma itself. (To clarify, in utilizing this line of thinking I would opt to spell out how it doesn't necessarily entail a vicious circularity. It is possible pre-critically to encounter God and acquire via Scripture knowledge of him and after this to discern the essentials of a strong theological method and from there launch out into more formal theological study.)

Any thoughts on developing dogmatic prolegomena?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Time and History: Tensions in Ladd

I tend to cringe a bit when in a song for worship or in everyday conversation the Christian hope of the life to come is described as a flight from planet earth or a cessation of creaturely existence in time. On the latter, I resonate with Bavinck: "Time is the necessary form of the existence of the finite" (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:429). Yet, in the new creation, "Time is charged with the eternity of God" (Reformed Dogmatics, 4:729). To develop this a bit further, time just is the creaturely mode of existence and it seems odd to expect this feature of reality to come to a halt with the eschaton and the advent of the new creation. After all, eternality is an incommunicable divine perfection. However, we can expect that the intensification of the presence of God among us, beautifully laid out in Revelation 21, will somehow rework the "feel" of creaturely existence in time. Time continues for us creatures, albeit in an eschatologically revamped sort of way.

With this as a backdrop, I appreciated the comment from Ladd: "In biblical thought, eternity is unending time" (A Theology of the New Testament, 44). But later on he avers, "The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history and consummation at the end of history" (ibid., 90). To give him the benefit of the doubt, Ladd may not mean that, strictly speaking, history as such reaches its conclusion with the consummation of redemptive history. However, I wonder if it might be better to say simply that the inbreaking of the kingdom has two great moments: an inaugural one in the mission of Christ and a consummative one in the future ("future" instead of "end of history"). I don't mean to pick on Ladd, but I think that, in the name of recovering in the church the earthy, presumably temporal contours of resurrection life, selecting different terminology does have some value. Thoughts?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ladd Parses the Kingdom

Given the pervasiveness of the concept of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus and of the Synoptic Gospels, I think the church should still be capitalizing on George Ladd's work to get a handle on the meaning of the kingdom. It's a much thicker feature of the Lord's teaching than not a few churches let on.

In A Theology of the New Testament Ladd treats the kingdom as an integral part of the two-age dualism underlying Jesus teaching. By speaking of a "two-age dualism" he attempts to express only that the people of Israel expected a divine deliverance which would change all the facets of human existence under the rubric of eschatological blessing, distinguishing the present age from the age to come. Ladd champions an "inaugurated eschatology" in which the inbreaking of the kingdom is launched in the mission of Christ and awaits its future consummation. He unpacks the multiple layers of the concept of the kingdom along three lines: 1) "the kingdom" may indicate simply the rule of God; 2) "the kingdom" may indicate the eschatological act of God in which he brings judgment and salvation and thus manifests his kingly power; and 3) "the kingdom" may indicate the future realm in which we will enjoy the blessings of salvation (p. 68). Ladd adds that the kingdom can also be construed as the present realm of salvific blessing or even the present gift of eternal life (pp. 68-71).

For my money, this kind of exposition of such an important theme is pregnant with possibilities for shaping the church's and the Christian's self-understanding between the two advents of the Lord. Has anyone heard a really rich sketch of the kingdom in the local church? Any other thoughts on this?