Faith Without Apologetics

August 26, 2014


The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,

Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)

Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.

As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!

Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:

To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?

A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]

Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”


Image: “Feeling Cheeky” by Olivia Bell. I wanted an image to capture the joy of theology, so I went with this! Do check-out her other work. It’s great.

Mandolin Orange

August 22, 2014

mandolin orange

If you follow the folk and alt-country crowd, as I do, then you already know Mandolin Orange. From their latest album, This Side of Jordan, here is a fine performance on Audiotree Live:

You can watch the whole set at the Audiotree website. It is excellent from beginning to end, with bits of interview in-between.

They also did a set with Folk Alley Sessions. In particular, I recommend “Darling Girl,” which reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” Also, “Waltz About Whiskey” is another favorite of mine.

God’s aseity

August 20, 2014

Frederiks Kirke, Copenhagen

Frederiks Kirke in Copenhagen. The inscribed Danish text is John 17:3.


I tend to value those theologians who have a notable capacity for descriptive analysis, with a healthy measure of an imaginative semantic range, which bespeaks a healthy imagination itself.

That’s a turgid way of saying that I am not inclined toward overly analytic theology. Even where formal accuracy is achieved, the material richness is impoverished and thereby the “accuracy” has only a relative value, namely for those who have already assumed the truth.

This capacity for descriptive analysis is especially important in matters pertaining to the doctrine of God proper and especially all matters pertaining to God’s aseity, that is, his perfection as the One whose being derives from himself. This is metaphysics, and metaphysics requires eloquence — notwithstanding Paul’s self-approbation in 1 Cor 1:17.

You can consider the above musings as a preface to the following brief excerpts from Hans Martensen. Yes, Martensen again. This is part of his description of God as The Eternal:

As the Being who has life in Himself (John 5:26), in whom is contained all fulness (πλήρωμα), God is The Eternal. In the eternal God are all the possibilities of existence, all the sources of the entire creation. The eternal is the one who is, the I AM, who is a se, the unalterable and unchangeable. But His unchangeableness is not a dead unchangeableness; for it is to produce Himself with infinite fruitfulness out of Himself. His eternity, therefore, is not an eternity like that of the “eternal Hills;” it is not a crystal eternity, like that of the “eternal stars;” but a living eternity, blooming with neverwithering youth. But His self-production, His Becoming [Werden], is not the fragmentary growth or production we witness in time. Created life has time outside of itself, because it has its fulness outside of itself. The Eternal lives in the inner, true time, in a present of undivided powers and fulness, in the rhythmic cycle of perfection. The life He lives is unchangeably the same, and yet He never ceases to live His life as something new, because He has in Himself an inexhaustible fountain of renovation and of youth. For this reason the Church magnifies the “Ancient of Days,” as the “incorruptible” (ἄφθαρτος) and eternal King, who alone hath immortality (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; Psalm 90:2.)

And a little later, Martensen correlates the various attributes of God, very well stated:
Considered in relation to the universe the communication of the Divine life is goodness; considered in relation to personality, it is Love. All creatures participate in the goodness of God; but personal creatures alone can be constituted partakers of His love. God is love (1 John 4:16). He neither can nor will be without His kingdom— the kingdom which is constituted by “I and Thou,” in which not merely Divine powers and gifts, but the Divine personality itself dwells in the soul and the soul in it. All the Divine attributes are combined in love, as in their centre and vital principle. Wisdom is its intelligence; might its productivity; the entire natural creation and the entire revelation of righteousness in history are means by which it attains its teleological aims. When the fulness of the time came love revealed its true nature to the object beloved, and prepared itself in Christ a Church for eternity. And as Christ in His gospel made known to our race the inmost thoughts of His wisdom —” if He had had a better gospel, He would have given it us “—so does He make those who believe partakers of His own divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This unity is more than a moral union; it is one of essence; it is more than the mystical unity of pantheism, for it is one of holiness. Viewed in relation to sin eternal love is compassionate grace; viewed in relation to the education of sinful man, it is longsuffering; viewed in relation to its promises and the hope which it awakens in the hearts of men, it is faithfulness (1 Peter 4:19: “As unto a faithful Creator.”)

[p. 99]

Defending Brevard Childs

August 15, 2014


I hesitate to make any comments on the field of biblical studies. I am pretty sure that I’ve embarrassed myself in the past, but that is common enough for most who step outside of their special area of interest. Having said that, I really enjoy Brevard Childs and his chief proponent today, Christopher Seitz.

Given the luminaries on the banner of this blog, that is not surprising. And one of the most common criticisms of Childs is that his work lacks a certain scientific objectivity in favor of dogmatic commitments (James Barr) or that it lacks a certain contextual sensitivity in favor of dogmatic commitments (W. Brueggemann). According to Seitz, these and the many other criticisms are failures in grasping the category of “canonical” and what it implies, as if it flattens or runs roughshod over the historical layers which have been the focus of critics for two centuries. Rather, for Seitz, the final canonical process is itself integral to the historical process, as well as the divine appropriation of said process.

Seitz’s The Character of Christian Scripture (Baker, 2011) is a passionate response to Childs’ critics. I am far from capable of understanding the deeper intricacies in these debates or many of the qualifications that Seitz clarifies, much less could I rally a defense in my own terms. But I am learning a lot as I read Seitz’s volume, and I heartily commend it to all.

To give you one excerpt, here is Seitz (using Timothy Ward) on the “historical purveyors” on both the left and right who dismiss the canonical method:

In the context of a different discussion of this issue, Ward has also issued a challenge that might catch the allegedly “historical” purveyors of interpretation off guard. A canonical method, he suggests, does not value the later hands because of some moral superiority — or lack of it, in Collins’s view — they possess. Rather, the later hands have a greater historical perspective, due to the sheer range of their awareness of the past, which is still unfolding at the time of early tradition-levels. History lies out in front of “the original words of the prophets” because of what God is doing with them, under his providential guidance. It is a legacy of romantic theories of “inspiration” and “origins” that has set much historical-critical work off on the wrong foot, and it cannot be emphasized enough that this wrong footing has tripped up both conservative interpreters and their putative opposites. This results in maximalist or minimalist accounts of what can be secured for the “original, inspired author/prophet/source/tradition,” starting from the same quest for an authoritative base independent of the canon’s own final-form presentation.

[pp. 52-53.]

He cites Timothy Ward’s Word and Supplement (Oxford, 2002), p. 249. Here is another excerpt:

There is an inspired and coherent Word of God to Israel and to the world, which arises from the historical speech of Amos and Hosea, in the canonical form of the Twelve, but which entails a “history” they saw only partially (and which God over time was revealing in his history). The canonical approach seeks to describe that process, and “success” is less in getting every diachronic detail right (that would be a wrong tack and would end in an “eclipse of biblical narrative”—to use Frei’s language) and more in accounting for the present structure and presentation of the Book of the Twelve, to choose but one example, as it now sits before us (or in front of us). The historical dimension of God’s real speech with real men and women is not eliminated. Amos preached a message to the northern kingdom and to Amaziah the priest at Bethel, and he likely did this before Hosea and probably certainly before Joel. A canonical approach wishes to understand this inspired speech in all its historical and human particularity. Those who shape the books associated with them and the collection of books within which they now reside did not treat them like “plucked instruments” or like the girl (was it a girl?) on the swing whose sweet (but fortuitous) singing converted Augustine. At the same time, they did seek to hear in their words the abiding and accomplishing Word of God, and so human authorship was always tied up with divine authorship and with the providentiality of the Holy Spirit’s knowledge and work.

[p. 81]

You can read and download both the introduction and the first chapter of Seitz’s book at the Westminster Bookstore.

Later in the volume, Seitz deals with the changing norms for sexual behavior in his Anglican context. Alastair Roberts has a good review of this portion of the book. Alastair also has a helpful response, in the comments, to the ever-vexing issue of OT warfare.



Hans Martensen with Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years as bishop of the diocese of Zealand


De omnibus dubitandum est.

Everything must be doubted.

Hans Martensen popularized this Latin expression in his lectures on philosophy, and it carried over into the debates of the day within Hegelian circles. According to Jon Stewart, Martensen developed a genealogy of modern philosophy that began with Descartes’ radical doubt (see p. 238ff.). De omnibus dubitandum est. This inauguration of modern philosophy received its final maturation and systematization in Hegel’s philosophy. So, Hegel agreed in substance with this principle of skepticism as the foundation for modern knowing. But…

That doesn’t strike me as really what Hegel was doing, however indebted he was to Descartes’ subjectivism, leading toward the internalizing of metaphysical realities. (Thus, for Hegel, dogmas are symbols, not realities.) Anyway, back to Stewart’s fascinating study. Stewart disagrees with Martensen’s reading of Hegel on this point, and he is probably right. But it is Martensen’s interpretation of Hegel that has been the dominant reading of Kierkegaard’s work, Johannes Climacus Or, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. Yet, if Stewart is right, then that reading of this text, now published with Philosophical Fragments, is wrong.

Kierkegaard’s character, Johannes Climacus, is an eager young man, attending university lectures on philosophy, hearing about the modern principle of De omnibus dubitandum est. He then applies it throughout his life — doubting everything. The work is a satire. Climacus’ project of radical doubt is reduced to absurdity. Most interpreters have assumed that Kierkegaard is satirizing Hegel, but Stewart makes a strong case that it is Martensen in fact that Kierkegaard is satirizing. Kierkegaard was attacking the Hegelianism of Martensen and not Hegel himself, which is demonstrated by the striking similarities between Martensen’s lectures and Kierkegaard’s satire.

But, and here is the really interesting bit, Martensen rejects the principle of De omnibus dubitandum est, in the clearest of terms, in his systematic theology, Christian Dogmatics. I will provide the excerpt below. Martensen is arguing that the Christian principle of Credo ut intelligam is fundamentally at odds with De omnibus dubitandum est. He is developing some of his earlier thoughts in the volume, which I have previously provided: “Theology begins with certainty.” And for those who have read T. F. Torrance, you will detect some close similarities.

Earlier in his study, Stewart discusses how Martensen was “never a full-fledged devotee of Hegelianism” and that he repudiates ever being a Hegelian in his autobiography (Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, p. 63). Stewart then provides a brief analysis of how Martensen departed from Hegel, such as belief in a personal God. Yet, in Stewart’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, Martensen is portrayed as a rather thorough Hegelian, in agreement with Hegel’s skeptical starting point, albeit not a wholly accurate representation of Hegel. So, that is where I am left confused. If Martensen’s lectures are so Hegelian, then why is his Christian Dogmatics so critical of Hegel at key points, which (once again) Stewart himself recognizes earlier in his study.

The solution may simply be that Martensen changed his evaluation of Hegel throughout his career. Indeed, Stewart states that “the issue of how Hegelian he was after the entire course of his intellectual development remains open” (ibid.). It does seem clear that Martensen admired Hegel for his repudiation of Schleiermacher’s attack on speculative reason, and this criticism of Schleiermacher remains in Martensen’s dogmatics. Yet, even while Martensen is anxious to maintain the objectivity and integrity of the Christian faith, he repeatedly repudiates the pantheism he detects in Hegel and the wider trends in the theology of his day.

In opposition to this pantheism and metaphysical anti-realism, Martensen proposes a speculative personalism, which I can only characterize as a combination of Hegel and Emil Brunner! Seriously. To my mind, that is awesome! And that is why I am enjoying Martensen so much, even when I hesitate on certain details.

The excerpt from Martensen is below, where he distinguishes between doubt as a metaphysical a priori and doubt as a dialectical tool. He repudiates the former and affirms the latter, which is (as stated above) similar to Torrance, who basically got it from Barth.


For human knowledge, all independence is conditioned by dependence; all self-activity, all intellectus activus, is conditioned on susceptibility, on intellectus passivus. The false gnosis which will not believe in order to know, denies not only the creatureship of man, but also his sinfulness and need of redemption. For it is only through regeneration that the human mind, darkened by sin, can be lifted up to that stage of life and existence, at which it can have a correct view of divine and human things. But regeneration expresses itself in faith. The assertion of Christians, that faith is the mother of knowledge, is substantially confirmed by the analogy of all other spheres of human knowledge; for all human knowledge has its root in an immediate perception of the object. And, as it is useless for one who lacks hearing to talk about music; as it is useless for one who has no sense for colours to develop a theory of colour, the same holds true respecting the cognition of sacred things. “The Strasburg minster,” says Steftens, “and the Cologne cathedral, tower up high into the air, and yet, like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they have been to whole generations buried, and men have not seen them, because they lacked the faculty.” And so, we may add, there are whole generations who have not seen, and do not see, the Christian Church in history, although it is like a city on a hill. They have no eye for it because they have no faith.


By its “credo ut intelligam” Christian dogmatics is distinguished from that form of knowledge which starts with the proposition, “de omnibus dubitantum est,” so far, namely, as this proposition means that thought must cut itself loose from all presuppositions and start oft’ on a voyage of discovery, in order to find truth, be the truth what it may. In Christian knowledge the motive power is not doubt, but faith. Yet we may allow the existence of a sceptical element in Christian theology, if we use the expression to denote the critical and dialectic impulse contained in faith. Since faith finds itself in a world of sinfulness, of falsehood, and error; and since the church has the world not only out of itself, but in itself, faith must have a tendency to criticise, to try the spirits whether they are of God, to test whether the church and Christianity coincide, to test itself in order to assure itself of its own genuineness. And, since faith is also a cognition (§ 8), it must have a dialectical impulse to make clear to itself the antitheses involved in its own trains of thought. Christian faith is very different from artless credulity; and what has been said in recommendation of childlike and simple faith must be understood cum grano salis; for true simplicity of faith requires one to try the spirits and to try one’s self. Accordingly, Luther had doubts respecting ecclesiastical traditions and respecting the genuineness of his own monastic Christianity; and the different periods of the history of the church show that church teachers who were distinguished alike for the simplicity and the heroic strength of their faith, felt an impulse to make their faith clear to themselves by means of the sharpest dialectics. From the earliest ages of the Church this critical tendency has manifested itself in the sharp line of separation drawn between the proper doctrines of Christianity and heretical elements. This procedure necessarily, in every case, gave occasion to a dialectic examination of the particular points in question; for to draw a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy must surely be impossible, unless we test each individual doctrine by our view of the essence of Christianity; and test our view of the essence of Christianity by its harmonious conformity with the entire chain of Christian conceptions. In this sense, taking it as critical and dialectic, we may concede the presence of an element of scepticism in dogmatic theology; to a certain extent we must doubt, not merely in order to know aright, but also to believe aright. But if we break loose from the foundation of faith, if we become regardless of the vital interest we have in Christianity, if we cast aside its fundamental idea instead of seeking to correct our view of it, and to understand it more completely, and set up our scepticism as an independent source of truth, we shall fall, as the history of Protestantism plainly illustrates, into Rationalism with its all-dissolving criticism and empty dialectics.

Observations. — It frequently occurs that thorough-going doubt relative to the foundations of Christianity becomes the means of leading the soul to a living conviction of its truth; important, however, as may be the influence of such doubt, not only in a religious and moral, but even in a scientific respect, it has nothing whatever to do with dogmatic theology as such. One who entertains doubt as to the very basis of Christianity cannot feel an interest in dogmatic theology; for his sole enquiry is δος μοι που στω [give me the place to stand]; a demand which must be substantially satisfied ere strictly dogmatic investigations can begin.

§ 32.

The proposition — credo ut intelligam — to which we have just given prominence in opposition to every form of autonomic Rationalism, is not to be taken either in the scholastic sense or in that of the theology now commonly designated the “Theology of Feeling.” The scholastic divines fell very soon into a mechanical view thereof; for they drew the substance of their faith without any sort of critical examination from the creeds prevailing in the church, and started with preliminary principles which totally lacked an inner reality answering to their outward form. The mystics, and more recently Schleiermacher, struck into a path directly opposite to that pursued by the scholastics :—they viewed faith as an inner vital principle, and constituted religious feeling the guide and pioneer of religious knowledge. In consequence, however, of the mystics misapprehending the nature of revelation, and Schleiermacher’s defining dogmatic theology as a description of religious states and experiences, both of them fell into a new error, relatively to the “credo ut intelligam.” Dogmatic theology became in their hands a mere doctrine concerning the nature of a religious man, or of piety, instead of being a doctrine of the nature of God and His revelation; it treated rather of man’s need of Christianity and his experience of its workings in his soul, than of Christianity itself, in its eternal truth and its claim to be accepted as such by men. Thus defined, it relates simply to the subjective ordo salutis; whilst the facts of revelation, the pillars and foundations of the truth, are left to be accepted and moulded, agreeably to the particular ideas and needs of individual believers. If the full significance of faith as an inner vital principle is to be recognized, it must be considered not merely as the experience of the practical workings of Christianity, but also as the intellectual organ, or the contemplative eye, for the domain of revelation. This latter aspect is recognized by speculative mystics and theosophists (like Joseph Böhme), who teach that faith itself involves a vision. And although they, in their turn, fell into an error, the error of attaching too slight importance to the historical, attention was called in a profound manner to the objective religious relation of faith. Taking for granted therefore the relation to an objective historical revelation, we define dogmatic theology, not primarily as the science of ” the believer” (the proper and only place for treating fully of the ” Christian Believer,” his character, life, and the roots thereof, is Christian Ethics); but as the science or doctrine of faith (fides quce creditur), not primarily as a system of pious emotions, but as the science of the truths of the Christian Faith; not primarily as a description of the states of pious souls, but as a development of the believing view of revelation. We are aware, indeed,—and many illustrations of the fact might be adduced from the history of speculation, both in former and modem times,—that the demand for such an objective mode of consideration has frequently led to revelation being treated in a purely theoretical spirit by men totally destitute of religious experience; has given rise to an intellectualism which paid no regard to the practical aspects of Christianity: but this is by no means necessarily involved in the idea of a knowledge which, besides being the knowledge of religion, is itself religious. Whilst we cannot regard feeling as a principle of knowledge :—for the proper and only principle of knowledge is the idea, the thought of the divine wisdom ;—we must maintain it to be a condition. The idea, which is the true principle of knowledge in matters of faith, can never arise save in a man that is actually religious; and our intellectual eye grows dim the moment it ceases to draw nourishment from the heart; it becomes like the lamp of the foolish virgins which went out for lack of oil. On this ground the profoundest thinkers of the middle ages justly demanded that Scholasticism should be united with mysticism, that the intellectus should not be without affectus.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 59-62]


Image: Hans Martensen with the Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years of service as bishop of the diocese of Zealand, Denmark.


I had to put aside Hans Martensen, due to other obligations. But I am now continuing with his Christian Dogmatics, which has been a joy.

Given the time period (mid 19th century), it is expected that he would treat, early in the volume, the controversies surrounding the supernatural in the doctrine of revelation. He affirms the orthodox position, but he wants to articulate it with greater sensitivity to the doctrine of creation. In my estimation, he does a fine job. The supernatural and miraculous is an anticipation of the new creation, completing and fulfilling nature in a perfect freedom given from above. This involves new “potencies” and “forces” that are discontinuous with nature as we generally experience it and observe it, and it is therefore genuinely miraculous, as in the miracles of Christ.

In the context, he is targeting Spinoza’s monism, which rejects any distinction between the divine and the natural, collapsing the former into the latter. Martensen sees this as the template for the naturalism of his own day, as popularized by David Strauss whom he also targets.

Martensen is arguing for a continuity within discontinuity, between the natural and the supernatural. The telos of creation is manifested through the miraculous, but the natural as such does not lend itself to the new creation bestowed by Christ and the Spirit. Nature is susceptible to the supernatural, capable of being molded by the supernatural, but it does not generate the supernatural. There is a real movement from God to us, from the beyond to the here. But this does not overthrow creation; rather, God is bringing creation to its proper end — the kingdom of God. The “lower forces” of nature, as we experience them now, are temporal and temporary. They give a provisional measure of freedom, but God is enacting genuine freedom in the new creation, inaugurated by Christ.

So long as nature is understood as fixed and eternal — or worse, commensurate with divinity itself — then the miraculous is impossible. It would be incoherent. The miraculous would have to be subjectivized, as in existential freedom (Tillich’s “miracle” of faith), which is the sort of thing that Martensen is wanting to avoid. At least, that is how I read him.

I have also provided an excerpt, later in the book, where he treats the bodily resurrection of Christ in similar terms. Herein, he also faults both Hegel and Schleiermacher.


Here we come to the opposing principles of Supernaturalism on the one side, and Naturalism and Rationalism on the other. If a distinction is to be made between naturalism and rationalism—they being in fact only two sides of one and the same thing, each necessarily leading to the other—the former is referable primarily to the objective, the latter to the subjective, side of existence. Both reject miracles; but naturalism directs its opposition chiefly against the miracle of incarnation, because it recognises no higher laws than those of nature; rationalism directs its main attacks against the miracle of inspiration, because it denies that there is any other and higher source of knowledge than reason. But, although there will always be men who affirm that the notions of nature and revelation, of reason and revelation (the latter taken in the positive, Christian sense of the word), are notions that exclude each other, yet within the Christian Church itself this can never be conceded.

We take first into consideration the issue between Supernaturalism and Naturalism. Here the decision of the question depends upon how the system of law and forces which we call nature, is conceived—whether it be conceived as a system in itself, finally and eternally fixed, or as a system that is passing through a teleological development, a continued creation. In the latter case new potencies, new laws and forces must be conceivable as entering into operation; the preceding stages in the creation preparing the way for them, and prefiguring them, though not the source from which they can be derived. This is the Christian view of nature. In terming itself the new, the second creation, Christianity by no means calls itself a disturbance of nature, but rather the completion of the work of creation; the revelation of Christ and the kingdom of Christ it pronounces the last potency of the work of creation; which power, whether regarded as completing or as redeeming the world, must be conceivable as teleological; operating so as to change and limit the lower forces, in so far as these are in their essential nature not eternal and organically complete, but only temporal and temporary. Hence the point of unity between the natural and the supernatural lies in the teleological design of nature to subserve the kingdom of God, and its consequent susceptibility to, its capacity of being moulded by, the supernatural, creative activity. Nature does not contradict the notion of a creation; and it is in miracles that the dependence of nature on a free Creator becomes perfectly evident. But, while nature does not contradict the notion of a creation, the assumption of a creation is quite as little inconsistent with the notion of nature. For, although the new creation in Christ does do away with the laws of this nature, yet it by no means destroys the notion of nature itself. For the very notion of nature implies, not that it is a hindering restraint to freedom, but rather that it is the organ of freedom. And as the miraculous element in the life of Christ reveals the unity of spirit and of nature, so the revelation of Christ at once anticipates and predicts a new nature, a new heaven, and a new earth, in which a new system of laws will appear; a system which will exhibit the harmony of the laws of nature and of freedom,—a state for which the whole structure of the present creation, with its unappeased strife between spirit and nature, is only a teleological transition period.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 19-20]

And here is how Martensen treats the bodily resurrection of Christ, related to the above discourse:

The denial of the miracle of the resurrection is not, therefore, the bare denial of a single historical fact, it is a denial of the entire prophetic aspect of the world which Christianity presents; which finds in the resurrection its beginning in fact. A view of the world which makes the present order of things perpetual, and which considers the eternal to be only a continual present, naturally allows no room for the resurrection of Christ, which is an interruption of the order of this world by the higher order of creation still future; and which is a witness to the reality of a future life; yea, it is even that future life itself in the actual present; the beginning of “the last things,” concerning which the Apostles witness that we who live after the resurrection of the Lord live “in these last times” (1 Peter i.20), and that it now remains for the risen Savior again to manifest Himself to judge both the quick and the death. This, the Christian view of the world, overthrows the mythical interpretation of the resurrection advocated now-a-days, and the biblical criticism resting thereupon. As Hegel omitted this Christian escatology, it was natural that those who followed in the steps of his philosophy would go on to deny the resurrection as something which had no foundation in fact. And when Schleiermacher, though reverence for apostolic testimony prevented his denying the fact of the resurrection, yet could attribute to it no doctrinal significance, nor draw any inference from it; this in like manner arose from the well-known uncertainty and indistinctness of his teaching in relation to future and final realities.

[pp. 319-320]


Karl Rahner’s Prayers for a Lifetime is a selection of prayers that Rahner composed throughout his life as a priest and professor. The “prayers” are often in the form of meditations that approach theological discourses in their own right, as you would expect from Rahner.

The following is a humorous bit from his meditation on the law. What I love most is how, after poking fun and displaying a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek, he then turns to a grateful consideration of the church’s law. In other words, Rahner does not let the frequent silliness of the church disturb him or, worse, let him slip into a fashionable spiritualism (what Barth dubbed, “ecclesiastical docetism,” in CD IV.1, 653). Instead, he ends with a profound affirmation of the visible church.


But, Lord, what of the commandments imposed upon us by human beings, issued in Your name? Let me tell You quite frankly what rumbles through my heart when the spirit of criticism and discontent is upon me, O God of freedom and of sincere, open speech. I can tell You with confidence — You listen indulgently to such things.

Lord, You have abrogated the Old Law, “which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). But You have established rulers in this world, both temporal and spiritual, and sometimes it seems to me that they have diligently set about patching up all the holes that Your Spirit of freedom had torn in the fence of rules and regulations by His liberating Pentecostal storm.

First there are the 2414 paragraphs of the Church’s law-book. And even these haven’t sufficed: how many “responsa” to inquiries have been added to bring joy to the hearts of the jurists! And then there are several thousand liturgical decrees clamoring for our attention. In order to praise You in the Breviary “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” in order to “sing and make melody in the heart” (Eph 5:19), I need a road map, a directorium, so intricate and elaborate that it requires a new edition every year! …

And what delicate calculations must go into the granting of an indulgence! Only recently some learned theologians found occasion to dispute whether a sick person is obliged to kiss the crucifix of Your Son fourteen times or six times, or fewer, in order to gain an indulgence. What incredible zeal Your servants and stewards have shown in Your absence, during the long period while You have been away on Your journey into the distant silence of eternity! …

I don’t mean to accuse them, Lord, these wise and faithful servants whom You have placed over Your household. Rather I must say to their praise that they are usually not vulnerable to the reproach which Your Son once made against the Scribes and Pharisees who sat upon the chair of Moses (Matt 23:4). Unlike those rulers and teachers of old, Your modern stewards have imposed heavy burdens not only on others, but on themselves too.

A little later, Rahner then comes around:

I know too that all the detailed rules and regulations, the ceremonies and customs, methods and tricks of the trade which are commanded, or at least recommended to me, can be made the external expression of my interior love, provided of course that I have the love. I know that these things are dead weight only when I myself am too weak and lifeless to put my heart into them.

Your Church, O my God, has to be visible. Only thus is she the “vessel of the Holy Spirit,” as Irenaeus called her. And if she is to be visible, if Your Spirit is to become ever more visible and tangible in her, then she must express herself in commandments and customs, in “yes and no,” in “here and now,” in “thus and not otherwise.” And he who grasps all this with a believing heart and a vigorous love, enters through the narrow gate of the commandments into the broad expanse of Your Spirit.

[Prayers for a Lifetime, Crossroad Publishing, 1985, pp. 27-30.]


Image: Karl Rahner, S.J. (source)


July 28, 2014

Schleiermacher stamp

German “mediating theology” — or Vermittlungstheologie for the nerds among us — was an important movement in the theology of the 19th century. Given its great diversity, it is probably best to not call it a “movement,” which recalls the same difficulties with labeling dialectical theology as a movement in the following century. Nonetheless, the general context and purported aims do give some unity.

The Vermittlungstheologen were working in the wake of Schleiermacher’s noble project of rethinking Christian dogmatics for the modern man, with his acute awareness of historical contingency and the subjective conditions for knowledge. The “mediating theologians” agreed that we cannot pretend the Enlightenment never happened, and thus they agreed that Schleiermacher was an important figure for the responsible theologian. But they disagreed, with Schleiermacher and with each other, on precisely how the church should navigate her way forward. They sought to mediate between the confessional Protestant theology of the past and the critical philosophy of the present, while also responding to the skepticism of figures like David Strauss in biblical studies.

Among the Vermittlungstheologen, probably the greatest name is Isaak Dorner in systematic theology. While this is a Protestant movement by and large, similar happenings can be found in Catholic circles. Johann Adam Möhler at Tübingen and John Henry Newman in England both sought to rearticulate Catholic orthodoxy in the wake of Romanticism and Historicism of the 19th century. Newman’s thesis on the development of doctrine is a perfect example of recognizing historical contingency within doctrinal formulation, and his moral epistemology in Grammar of Assent is a brilliant display of an aesthetic mind grappling with “modern” doubt.


German Roots

This morning I happened to read a few reviews of Annette Aubert’s book, The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology (Oxford, 2013). Aubert argues that the influence of German theology, and Vermittlungstheologie in particular, has been neglected in studies of American theology of the 19th century. She uses Charles Hodge and Emanuel Vogel Gerhart as her test cases, representative of those who expressed their theology in considerable dialogue with German mediating theology. In Hodge’s case, it is a sharply pronounced rejection, whereas Gerhart is favorable, along with his better known colleague at Mercersburg Seminary, Philip Schaff. In regard to Schaff, see my post, “On the Significance of German Theology.”

Here are the reviews, all of which are available free:

James D. Bratt (Calvin College)

Zachary Purvis (Regent’s Park College, Oxford)

Daniel Ritchie (Queen’s University, Belfast)


Lesslie Newbigin accepted the reality of pluralism — without accepting, as Lamin Sanneh expresses it, the “modern historical consciousness” that contextualizes and relativises all religious claims, subsuming them under the all-encompassing category of power. Under the pretense of tolerance, religion loses — as does genuine pluralism.

Lamin Sanneh (Yale Divinity School) provides one of the most incisive accounts that I have read of Newbigin’s work and lifelong project to rethink Christian exclusivity within pluralist societies:

…It is not true that all roads lead to the peak of the same mountain. Some roads are false short cuts, and even if they do not lead over the precipice, they leave people self-centredly entangled. For Christians, the ultimate clue, the rock of ages, is Jesus, the one God chose to honour and to glorify the divine name, and who has gone before them in honour and faithfulness.

Newbigin makes the point with some force that religious pluralism, in the sense of competing truth claims as well as of simple numerical multiplicity, does not exclude claims of absolute uniqueness. Without some sense of objective truth people will become totally imprisoned in subjective relativism. Religion can become relativist only by turning into an ideology, in which case tolerance will become a relative value as mere expedience. There would be no independent basis for it. That is why truth claims are not convertible currency that give people personal advantage; they are not a question of will power, à la Nietzsche: you want in this case a liberating creed, so you produce the sacrosanct truth of the infallibility of revolutionary relativism and smash your way to victory by gutting truth claims, any or all of them. Will power can only produce a wilful world based on power. Its truth claim leaves no room for difference or variety, or for openness and tolerance.

The point about pluralism reducing theology into ideology is really the key to the whole thing. And now my favorite part:

To assume [pluralism] is to settle for a beguiling notion that to concede truth to the other side somehow represents an advance on mutual tolerance when in fact it only triggers an unintended domino effect: the fall of Christian uniqueness would be followed in turn by the fall of all the other claims of uniqueness. Fewer generalisations would be possible until all religions are excluded — a most unsatisfactory state of affairs in which the generalisation of exclusion, not pluralism, would be left ascendant.

[Mission in the 21st Century, eds. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross; Orbis Books, 2008, pp. 140-141]


Image: Lesslie Newbigin (source)

Here is another photo from my recent vacation to California:

Golden Gate Bridge Kevin

Click to enlarge. We stumbled upon this incredible view of the bridge, away from the tourists.


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