Introducing Pannenberg

August 25, 2009

Here is a good introduction to Wolfhart Pannenberg from a series of videos from St. John’s College, Nottingham (HT: Chris Tilling).


My contribution to the Barth Blog Conference was posted a couple days ago on Travis’ blog (click here). The topic is Barth’s rejection of natural theology in his Shorter Commentary on Romans. Shannon’s argument is that (1) Barth is doing exegesis, intending to let Paul speak for himself, and (2) Barth’s exegesis is correct, i.e., Paul and Barth are in agreement. In my response, I affirm the former and dispute the latter. Here is an excerpt, my argument in nuce:


And now we come to my criticism. Given this wholly foreign knowledge of God, hidden until the work of Christ, Barth declares that “it would be very strange indeed, if Paul suddenly regarded the Gentiles as being in full participation and possession of a genuine knowledge of God” (p.15). The difficulty I have with such a statement is that Barth is filling-in the idea of “knowledge” with such terms as “full participation” and “possession” of a “genuine knowledge” of God and contrasting this with the idea of knowledge in the first chapter of Romans, in particular, knowledge of God by the Gentiles “ever since the creation of the world.” This language of “full participation,” etc., heavily tilts the argument in Barth’s favor, but I believe Paul is working with a more limited understanding of knowledge: a genuine knowledge of God but without the soteriological value and definitional content. Thus, famously, Paul is able to say that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” is known through “the things he has made” (1:20), yet “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God (1:21). Also, more critically, Paul ends the section with, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die…” (1:32). A certain knowledge of God is made available to the Gentiles outside of Christ, though it is knowledge that only leaves them in condemnation. It lacks the object of saving faith.

Barth Blog Conference

August 17, 2009


This year’s Barth Blog Conference is underway at Travis’ blog, Der Evangelische Theologe. Here is the introduction and here is the first entry and response. I had the pleasure this year of participating with a response. The topic is Barth’s rejection of natural theology in his exegesis of Romans 1. If you’re only vaguely familiar with the issue, and Barth’s unique stance, then this conference would be an excellent place to get familiarized.

Eve_detail by Claudia Kunin

I’m reading through Genesis again, and I was struck anew by chapter 3, in particular, by the role of aesthetics in verses six and seven.

[6] When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. [7] Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

The forbidden tree, though forbidden, was still a part of God’s creation and thus “good.” As good, it shares in the aesthetics of God’s order and creativity. Eve rightly perceives the form of beauty given to the fruit (“pleasing to the eye”) and its benefit for sustenance (“good for food”). These two qualities are listed with the third quality given by the serpent: “desirable for gaining wisdom.” It is this third quality that exegetes and preachers typically emphasize, since it most clearly exhibits the motive behind Eve and Adam’s act of idolatry and subsequent Hebrew (and Gentile!) idolatry.

The significance of this tree is that it is not given by God for Eve and Adam’s benefit, while the rest of the garden was given for their benefit and, ultimately, for communion with Himself. The health and beauty that the couple enjoyed was supplied by God’s creation, and the pleasures of body and mind allowed for peaceful communion with each other and with God. Likewise, the innocence of their understanding was supplied by God and protected through ignorance of pride, sin, and evil. It is only with severance from God in an attempt at self-providence that evil and strife are known. Thus, by taking the fruit, Eve moves beyond the limits graciously given by God with an impossible attempt to “be like God” (v. 5).

That is the “wisdom” that was desired by Eve, though it is revealed as foolishness. However, its foolishness is masked by the aesthetic and beneficent justifications given. Every sin is justified by its beauty and its service to some supposed need. Examples are innumerable: the “healthy” sex life, the “culture” of learned society, the “expressions of authenticity” through fashion, et cetera, and the gratuitous acquisition of these goods. Their beauty is praised and their benefit endlessly proffered. Yet, it is not their beauty or benefit that is nefarious; indeed, they are beautiful and beneficial. The evil is present when their value is rendered as a service to the autonomy of the individual. When their benefit is praised because it serves the independence and self-sufficiency of the person, there is sin. When their benefit is praised because it facilitates communion with God and total dependence upon God, there is righteousness.

Once the fruit is taken in verse six, this evil potential for created beauty is the consideration of the very next verse. Eve and Adam immediately cover themselves. Their bodies, beautiful and good, are now subject to idolatry by the other person. This beauty is now necessarily masked in order to prevent its misuse in sin.  As such, the Christian stands in a tense relationship with the beauty of the world. Our depravity prevents us from receiving the world’s beauty without great temptation. Thus, we require a great diligence against using this beauty as a means for self-autonomy.

edwards preaching

Jonathan Edwards on how to “beget true apprehensions” of God, in preaching:

“If the subject be in its own nature worthy of very great affection, then speaking of it with great affection is most agreeable to the nature of that subject…and therefore has most of a tendency to beget true ideas of it. …I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth …I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and pathetical way of preaching; and they only have been valued as preachers, who have shown the greatest extent of learning, strength of reason, and correctness of method and language. But I humbly conceive it has been for want of understanding or duly considered human nature, that such preaching has been thought to have the greatest tendency to answer the ends of preaching.” *

And, once again, notice that the end of preaching is to beget knowledge of God — knowledge which must include the affections and the will, as well as the intellect. Scholasticism (knowledge of God as the end of religion) and Pietism (the charity beget by religion) make love in the mind of Jonathan Edwards.

* Quoted in J. I. Packer, “Jonathan Edwards and the Theology of Revival,” Puritan Papers, vol. 2 (P&R, 2001), p. 27. Found in Jonathan Edwards, Works, 2 vols. (London, 1840), vol. 1, p. 391.

Picture (above) taken from the cover of The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth, 2008) by John Carrick.

On Sentimentality

August 5, 2009

Here is a very good account of sentimentality as a vice, from Edward Feser:

“In The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton (building on some ideas of Michael Tanner) puts forward a brief but illuminating account of sentimentality. A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background. Sentimentality thus involves having one’s emotions ‘on the cheap’ – enjoying them, as it were, without paying the costs they entail. For that reason, Scruton says, it is a vice.”

contra Wright

August 3, 2009

There have been two noteworthy recent critiques of N. T. Wright’s latest book and his scholarly project in general. The first is by Paul Helm (Regent College) in a series of posts at his blog, with the most recent: “Why Covenant Faithfulness is not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be).” This is an excellent critical assessment of Wright — clearly written and clearly focused. In sum, Helm faults Wright for being a historian and not a dogmatician. Wright’s narrative trumps any substantive doctrine of God. Helm:

“Sure enough, God’s attitude to sin, his grace, the provision of forgiveness, the vindication of men and women by Christ – is part of what it means for God to be righteous. But this does not exhaust God’s righteousness, it (merely!) expresses it. God is faithful to the covenant of grace and redemption from sin that he has righteously established. It is for this reason that Piper thinks that Wright’s insistence that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness is a ‘belittling’ of it, as Wright puts it (74). Rather, it must be filled out, by understanding God’s righteousness as an essential feature of his character. If anyone ‘belittles’ it is Wright, who reduces the righteousness of God to a set of God’s actions. But God acts (and must act) consistently with his nature.”

Helm goes on to relate this with Wright’s weakened and inadequate doctrine of justification.

The second recent critique of Wright’s book is from Gerald Bray (Beeson Divinity School) in the latest issue of Churchman, an evangelical Church of England journal. Bray’s editorial is more of a survey than a rebuttal. Nonetheless, he is not a fan of Wright’s work:

“Bishop Wright’s views on Paul, Israel and justification have been known for many years, and have often been debated in scholarly circles. As this latest book makes clear, those views have not been widely accepted — indeed, they have been openly opposed by almost everyone engaged in the field, from the most conservative Evangelicals to the most ardent liberals. In response to this, Bishop Wright has gone on digging his heels in ever deeper, and has defended his corner with great determination, despite the fact that his disciples seem to come mainly from the ranks of those who have not studied the subject in any depth. Many of them are students who are bored with traditional ideas that their elders expect them to absorb in parrot fashion, and who are therefore responsive to an alternative voice, like Bishop Wright’s, whose powerful rhetoric has carried them along and helped them across whatever hurdles may be thrown up by the facts.”

That’s pretty harsh, but I think this and the rest of his assessment is correct.

I’m old school in my atonement theology (I agree with Drs. Helm and Bray), but I hope this wave of criticism does not result in a new fashionable dismissal of all things “historical,” “narrative,” “biblical theology,” “redemptive history,” and so on. Surely we have learned a lot from these approaches, even if we find them (some of them) inadequate.