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?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When God Becomes Flat

As I've tracked and engaged the writings of the late Stanley Grenz and his theological comrade John Franke, I've tended to use them as dialogue partners primarily with respect to issues of theological methodology and epistemology. However, it's been intriguing as of late to mull over their statements on the doctrine of God. In his Theology for the Community of God, Grenz makes this assertion:

In that God is love apart from the creation of the world, love characterizes God. Love is the eternal essence of the one God. But this means that it is not merely one attribute of God among many. Rather, love is the fundamental "attribute of God." "God is love" is the foundational ontological statement we can declare concerning the divine essence. God is foundationally the mutuality of the love relationship between Father and son, and this personal love is the Holy Spirit....Because throughout eternity and apart from the world the one God is love, the God who is love cannot but respond to the world in accordance to his own eternal essence, which is love. Thus, this essential characteristic of God likewise describes the way God interacts with his world. "Love," therefore, is not only the description of the eternal God in himself, it is likewise the fundamental characteristic of God in relationship with creation (p. 72).

Love as the "fundamental" divine attribute is picked up in Franke's new book Manifold Witness: "In seeking to know the character of God in response to the action of divine self-revelation, we must seek to understand the fundamental biblical assertion that 'God is love'" (p. 56, emphasis mine). I must add that I have been reasonably optimistic about the methodological progress Franke makes in this book. He seems less insistent on buying into hard linguistic constructivism and focuses more on the notion that the truth of the gospel demands to be set forth in multiple heuristic models (hence the book's title). However, I'm wondering what to do with the thought of combining the claims that love is the fundamental divine perfection and that theological reality should be rendered polyphonically.

It seems to me that Grenz and Franke flatten out the divine essence and so pass up the opportunity to stress one vital way in which the testimony of theology should be pluriform. Those of a more classically theistic bent can say, "Yes, love is God's essence. But his righteousness, immutability, aseity, faithfulness, and so on are equally his essence. Each of the divine perfections just is God's essence considered under some aspect." However, it seems to me that Grenz and Franke lose sight of an important piece of the Christian tradition and at the same time shoot down a potentially illuminating feature of doing theology in a multiple-models manner. In short, I would like to hear more on why not only, say, the atonement but also the multi-aspectival divine nature deserves a pluriform theological witness.

I also have questions about the biblical case for the centrality of the divine attribute of love. To be sure, the apostle John teaches us that God is love, but the same teaches also that God is spirit and God is light. Why not argue that God's spirituality is his fundamental perfection? Here Grenz and Franke would probably appeal to their doctrine of the Trinity, but that is an issue for another day. Any thoughts on this?