Pride Prejudice

I’ve pretty much been on blogging hiatus (and will be until semester ends), but I found this encouraging on Dawn Eden’s blog: “‘Modest Proposals’ in action,” video highlights of the “Modest Proposals” conference recently held by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in D.C. Pray that this message gets wider dissemination. I’ve been long convinced that the culture of death (as it entails all that is wrong with our society) is intrinsically connected to our notions of the body — in other words, chastity is not a “personal” virtue and feeding the hungry a “social” virtue; they each are both and nourish each other.

Understanding Catholicism

November 13, 2007

Halden, of Inhabitatio Dei, has a great post on Christocentrism and Catholicism. This is a fine example of a constructive critiquing of another ecclesial tradition.

Update: I particularly find illuminating Brian Hamilton’s comment in the combox:

“Facing the option of ‘conversion’ to Catholicism quite regularly myself (how could one not, studying at Notre Dame?), my reasons for doing so would be overwhelmingly Christocentric: based on my encounter with and judgment by Christ in every mass, under the form of the Eucharist (which simultaneous blessing and judgment I long for, but cannot, estranged, receive) or the priestly blessing or indeed the homily. The robust doctrine of mediation in this context, eucharistic or priestly, seems to me to increase Catholic worship’s Christocentric character rather than deny it, since Christ is shown to be truly present with us, independent of us, against our sins and the source of our faith. In contrast, my Mennonite community’s high Christocentrism without a real principle of sacramentality means that Christ is only anymore present in and through the congregation, without any real separation, which makes it not less but more difficult to know Christ’s judgment over against us. In my own experience with Mennonites, then, a thorough Christocentrism almost can’t avoid being reduced to a community-centeredness. If I ever became Catholic, I would do it for the touch and taste of Christ. For what it’s worth, one counter-anecdote.”

Barth and Ratzinger

Asia Times recently did a review of Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (HT: Deep Furrows). The reviewer made an interesting comment:

“Karl Barth may have been the greatest theologian of the past century, but he has nary a successor among today’s Protestants. No institution furthers his work.”

Well, someone needs to tell Aberdeen Divinity that, and our friends across the pond at PTS. However, I think there’s a valid point here. Barth may have academic successors, but what about ecclesial influence? This reminds me of something Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote earlier this year:

“Many years ago, I asked [Jaroslav] Pelikan who was the most influential theological mind of the past two hundred years. I had suggested thinkers such as Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Barth. Without hesitation, he said John Henry Newman. I expressed surprise at the certainty with which he named Newman. I may not recall the exact words, but he explained that Newman’s thought has been received into the tradition of the Catholic Church, whereas Schleiermacher and Harnack, brilliant though they were, wrote against the tradition, and Barth was, as he claimed to be, a “church theologian” but a church theologian without a church capable of bearing his contribution through successive generations. Pelikan understood, as Wilken said at Yale, that it is orthodoxy that is the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring.”

For the Asia Times reviewer, the same point is made when reflecting on the immense ecclesiastical influence had by the Communio theologians, such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the Catholic Church, especially as embodied in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a great Communio theologian himself. Why does Barth not have this influence? Historical happenstance, or is it in the nature of Catholic ecclesiology to be able to better absorb these theologians and their great contributions into the living dogmatic structure of the church? I have to say it’s more of the latter.


Pannenberg on Original Sin

November 5, 2007

Adam and Eve 

Finally, we get to Pannenberg’s treatment of Original Sin (p. 231-275 in Systematic Theology, v. 2). Like everything I’ve read from Pannenberg thus far, this is an incredibly impressive yet incredibly frustrating piece. Here’s my take on it:

P. wants to affirm some sort of evil as fundamentally constituted for all humans insofar as humanity finds itself disordered, as demonstrated in the very fact of our free will:

To the extent that it [the will] can choose differently face to face with the given norm of the good, it is already sinful because it is emancipated from commitment to the good. …The will that can choose other than the good is already entangled in evil. (258-9)

Furthermore, we know of our culpability:

Responsibility and guilt arise only when there is a valid norm that we should follow or should have followed. (262)

For Paul, this is penultimately so when one recognizes the law and assents to its validity (i.e., claims on oneself) but finds himself in contradiction to it:

All that is important to him [Paul] is that though we consent to the law of God, we still follow the path of sin. Why do we do that? Because it promises us life. But in so doing it deceives us (Rom. 7:11). In truth it brings death. (262-3)

So, how does this relate to Romans 5 and the classical Reformation (and Roman Catholic) understanding of Original Sin?:

We engage in sin because of the deception. Our voluntary committing of it is enough to make us guilty. There does not have to be a primal and once-for-all event of a fall for which Adam was guilty quite apart from all entanglement in sin. Paul certainly follows the paradise story when he says that “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18). But this was because “all men sinned” as Adam did (5:12). Adam was simply the first sinner. In him began the temptation by the power of sin that still seduces us all today. All of us sin because we think we can attain a full and true life thereby. In this sense the story of Adam is the story of the whole race. It is repeated in each individual. The point is not Adam’s first state of innocence in contrast to that of all his descendants. The analogy of the story of all of us to that of Adam stands in the way of such a reading in Rom. 7:7ff. As the first sinner, Adam is the original of all of us in our sinning. (263)

Now, I’ve criticized classical Reformed theology on this blog, so perhaps I should see this as the logical alternative. Maybe so, but I don’t know how convinced I am of this reading of Paul (and P.’s lack of real exegetical treatment here is disappointing). Paul is saying that “in Adam” we are all accounted guilty (or sinners), and “in Christ” we are all accounted innocent (or righteous). Is this “in Adam” a “like Adam” or “just as Adam”? Or does this “in Adam” designate a guilt apart from our sinful acts but to which our sinful acts attest — so, “in Adam” means “because of Adam”? Most modern theologians (and Christians in the pew) want to go with the first alternative; otherwise, how is it just to condemn all for the act of one? However, and this is the Reformed counter-attack, is it “just” that Christ had to die for our sins? We may protest we didn’t choose to be “in Adam,” but we also don’t choose to be “in Christ” insofar as he is “for us” and chose to be so. In other words, the problem may be protological, but it is also Christological. What does our fudging around with Original Sin doing to our account of Christ? The problem comes with what Pannenberg really means by human “guilt” (as I brought up in my account of his theodicy). As I interpret him, P. considers human sin as constitutive of our creaturely existence. It could not have been otherwise for independent, relational creatures that we are, who seek, rightly, self-distinction (but, wrongly, independence from God, i.e., self-dependence).

…Christian theology ought to find in the permission of sin the cost of the creaturely independence at which God’s creative action aims. As creatures that have attained to full independence, we humans must develop and become what we are and ought to be. In the process we can all too easily give our independence the form of an autonomy in which we put ourselves in the place of God and his dominion over creation. But without creaturely independence the relation of the Son to the Father cannot manifest itself in the medium of creaturely existence. (265)

So, to what extent are we really guilty? This comes back to his account of our “ontological deficiency” where, “That which can turn from the good will at some time really do so” (p. 170). Now, we have to see how Jesus Christ “fixes” this (which is the next section), but this account seems to negate (or highly relativize) our guilt. Classical Protestant accounts have wanted to emphasize our guilt before God — we are fully responsible. This makes the gift of Christ and his sacrifice so much the more as a gift (indeed, Christ paid the price for our sin and fulfilled the law we couldn’t keep — for those of us who are committed to penal substitution). However, the Calvinist account (as I’ve criticized here) also seems to negate the responsibility/guilt by locating it not in our actual sin or even rejection of Christ, but rather in the fall of Adam. So, if both accounts (classical Reformed and Pannenberg’s) are highly problematic, how else can we formulate it? I certainly don’t know. However you go about it, seemingly insoluble problems result. This truly is the difficulty of systematic theology: Whenever you tweak one part, you’ve created a problem elsewhere to which you go to fix, but that opens up another difficulty, ad infinitum.


A Poem for Reformation Day

November 1, 2007

Prot Cross

Reformation Day (when Luther posted his Theses) is certainly a day of trajedy for Christians. Though legitimate protestations there were (and, to a lesser degree, are), the unified voice of Christ in the West was lost and, unhappily, just on the eve of the Enlightenment (which I believe to be following more from the Renaissance than the Reformation proper, which was, in some ways, more of a set-back or strange interlude than an advance) — a time when a unified church was especially needed, as today. However, the Reformation, of course, produced the Evangelical faith in which I was formed and to which much great good can be attributed, not least its literary achievement. Protestantism is rightly praised for its poetry and hymnody (Milton, Donne, Herbert, Watts, Wesley, Eliot, etc.) and, I would add, theological systems (Calvin, Dorner, Bavinck, Barth, Brunner, etc.). Look to these to find a profound love for the Son who gave his life for our sins. The free grace of God for our forgiveness and redemption, of course, is the heart of the Evangelical faith, and few poems express this better than “A Hymn to God the Father,” by John Donne (1572-1631). This is a favorite poem of mine that I continually come back to.

A Hymn to God the Father
by John Donne
WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
    Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
    And do run still, though still I do deplore?
        When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
                    For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
    Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
    A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
        When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
                    For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
    My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
    Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
        And having done that, Thou hast done ;
                    I fear no more.