April 29, 2015
I saw Mo Pitney here in Charlotte last week! He did an amazing performance, alongside David Nail, Will Hoge, and others. The most touching moment in the entire show is when Mo talked about losing a loved one to cancer at a young age, which inspired a beautiful song that should be on his upcoming debut album (still in the works). He said, “God is my best friend.” And he seems to be the real deal about his faith. On his Facebook page, he quotes lyrics from “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and writes about listening to the birds in the morning singing praises to our Lord. I hope the best for him.
Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) was a Presbyterian scholar of the Old Testament, equally committed to the homiletical imperative of the church. Among her several books are Nature, God, and Pulpit (Eerdmans, 1992), The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith (Baker Academic, 1994), Preaching from the Old Testament (WJK Press, 1989), Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1998), The Committed Marriage (WJK Press, 1976), and she wrote commentaries on Nahum to Malachi for the Interpretation commentary series. She was also an active leader in the pro-life movement in mainline Protestantism.
In her autobiography, Not Til I Have Done, she talks fondly about her days at Union Theological Seminary in New York City during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. “Union Seminary has never again achieved the theological distinction of having such a faculty,” she writes in reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, John T. McNeill, Paul Tillich, Cyril Richardson, and others. She loved Niebuhr but was far less enamored of Tillich. Here is an excerpt, with a humorous anecdote:
It is difficult to picture the theological intensity that pervaded Union’s campus at that time. Every mealtime involved theological discussion, and if you set forth a theological proposition, there was always some fellow student to challenge it or a graduate student to knock it down There, in those conversations, we hammered out our own positions on the rock of dispute. We learned what could be defended and what was nonsense. Gradually we arrived at theologies that were sound and biblical.
There was no theological professor who was more balanced in his teaching than John Bennett, and it was from him that I learned the essentials of Christian doctrine. Niebuhr taught us about the pride and sin of human beings in a theological realism that is still perennially pertinent. And I think I never knew truly how to worship until I attended morning chapels with Cyril Richardson and heard his “Amen” booming out at the end of collects, as he prayed on his knees.
We had a lot of fun in the midst of that theological hothouse. One day at lunch we discussed Tillich’s theology with Niebuhr. “Tell Tillich,” remarked Niebuhr, “that he’s a damn pantheist.” So off we all scurried to talk to Tillich. Some time later, Niebuhr encountered Tillich in the courtyard, contemplating the flowers growing there. “Paul,” asked Niebuhr. “What are you doing?” The reply came back in Tillich’s accent, “Ze damn panteist is worshiping.”
It always seemed like something of a mental triumph when we managed to wrap our minds around Tillich’s system of theology, a system that he simply read to us in class. But try as he might, Tillich could not reconcile his system with biblical theology, and though he had many disciples most of us faulted him on his distance from the biblical faith. Later we learned about his unfaithful marital life; that simply underscored the weakness in his theology, because a person’s theology is made manifest in his or her actions.
Unfortunately, Union chose to waste the knowledge of the brilliant historian John McNeill by letting him lecture only on dates and conditions in church history, whereas to Tillich was assigned the history of Christian thought. Tillich’s lecture notes proved totally unusable when studying for the history portion of my Ph.D. exams, because they did not illumine the central traditions of the Christian faith.
Contrary to Tillich’s personality, what was impressive about some of the other theological giants at Union was their humility, a humility that we were later to encounter also in Karl Barth. Niebuhr – famous, yet always engaged with students, tall and angular and full of vitality – was never intimidating, but was a beloved friend, and we all wept when he suffered his series of debilitating strokes in the 1950’s. [pp. 38-40]
From 1953-54, she spent time in Basel with Karl Barth, accompanied by her fellow student and husband, Paul Achtemeier. Both would emerge as accomplished biblical scholars at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. You can read her glowing account of Barth in How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim. She writes, “A rumpled, lovable, old giant of learning, Barth acted toward us as a pastor” (p. 108). In her autobiography, she has a chapter on Barth.
She also has a chapter “On Being Female.” In a previous post, I mentioned that Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a “hardnosed” diatribe against feminism in her preface to Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity. And she continues her complaints in the aforementioned chapter. Unfortunately, her kind is pretty much nonexistent in the mainline Protestant world today.
April 22, 2015
Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Well, I’ve got the inspiration you need! A couple of fellow bloggers have posted several audio lectures by T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth, delivered at Princeton Seminary and provided by Princeton for free:
The Barth lectures are from his only visit to the states and are available in print: the much-beloved Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. The audio for Barth’s American lectures are already available in a 1963 vinyl LP set, now published as a CD set by Wipf and Stock. A friend of mine gave me the audio files to this, so I have briefly compared the two sets of audio.
There are a few differences. The audio quality is a little clearer on the LP/CD set; the Princeton audio is a bit muffled but still clear enough. More importantly, the LP/CD set includes all five lectures published in Evangelical Theology (chapters 1-5), whereas the Princeton audio (above) has four lectures. It is missing “The Word” lecture, which is chapter 2 in the book. Otherwise, the content for the four appears to be identical, but the Q/A is different. Also, the Princeton set has the audio for “Karl Barth Meets the Students of Princeton Seminary.” So, my guess is that the LP/CD set is the audio from the University of Chicago, since Barth gave the same lectures at both places…and he also visited Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, but I don’t know if he gave the same lectures there (probably so). Anyway, I thought that some of y’all may be interested in knowing the differences between the two sets of audio. Feel free to offer any corrections in the comments.
April 20, 2015
There have been some remarkable vocal performers in the history of country music. The most famous have been on the male side, where some of the most distinctive voices can be heard: from the yodels of Hank Williams and Dwight Yoakam to the expressive baritone of George Jones and Randy Travis. Next to their male colleagues, we can also list the legendary Tammy Wynette, with her vulnerable tremor, or the wonderfully twangy and confident Reba McIntyre. It is the “distinctive” quality that makes country vocals such a special contribution to American music. A powerhouse vocal performance is not country, though I might make an exception for Carrie Underwood.
Ashley Monroe is an excellent case in point. She is one of my favorite singer-songwriters to emerge in the last ten years, and she has made some influential friends with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. But she is more than a great songwriter. She is also an excellent vocalist, projecting both confidence and vulnerability. Her twang is effortless. She has only received modest success in regard to radio play, yet she is very well-known and beloved throughout Nashville and, indeed, the whole country. Her album, Like a Rose, has been a great success, hailed by both critics and average country fans alike. And there is even a beautiful music video for the title track.
Among her performances at the Opry, I warmly recommend these two:
“Has Anybody Ever Told You,” Ashley Monroe
“Two Weeks Late,” Ashley Monroe
Image: Ashley Monroe (source: Farce the Music, retrieved 22-April-2014)
April 15, 2015
I have been interested in Karl Rahner’s doctrine of Mary ever since I read his essay, “The Fundamental Principle of Marian Theology,” in Mary: The Complete Resource (OUP, 2007). Happily, I just stumbled across Peter Fritz’s excellent lecture on Rahner’s Mariology:
The lecture was hosted by the ICL at the University of Notre Dame. In the title of the lecture, Fritz intentionally puts “minimalism” in quotation marks. As he concludes, Rahner’s Marian minimalism is “a variant of Marian maximalism” and rooted “in the devotional matrix” of Marian piety.
Fritz is the author of Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics (CUA Press, 2014).
April 14, 2015
“Only with Protestantism did Christianity become what it always truly was.” Slavoj Žižek discusses Protestantism:
Slavoj Žižek praises Protestantism (and Pascal’s Jansenism) for its commitment to predestination, in contrast to the “obscenity” of a salvation that “depends on our good acts.” He is particularly impressed by the counter-intuitive fact of Calvinism’s incessant fervor instead of a general lethargy, since the latter would be the common sense fallout of predestination (just “sit down, read pornography, and drink lemonade”).
Žižek conceives of predestination as “an extremely refined dialectical notion,” wherein human acts are “written backwards.” The paradox of freedom, according to Žižek, is that we “constitute our very predestination.” And freedom is most purely manifest in acts of love. Love is the “ultimate free act” and “the freest act of all,” and yet it is experienced as “I cannot do otherwise.” This is true of “all great acts of freedom,” including sacrificial acts for justice.
He ends with some criticisms of Feuerbachian humanist religion.
April 8, 2015
I am particularly excited about several of these volumes. Here is another round of recently released, or soon to be released, books:
Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (IVP Academic), Paul Molnar. This should be a good complement to Hunsinger’s recent book, Reading Barth with Charity (Baker Academic).
Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 (Fortress Press), Katherine Sonderegger
One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (Crossway), Bruce A. Ware and John Starke
There Is No Rose: The Mariology of the Catholic Church (Fortress Press), Aidan Nichols
Mary’s Bodily Assumption (University of Notre Dame Press), Matthew Levering
Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans), Alvin Plantinga
Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Zondervan), Daniel Strange
The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology (Crossway), John Clark and Marcus Peter Johnson
Law and Gospel in Emil Brunner’s Earlier Dialectical Theology (T&T Clark), David Gilland. Now in affordable paperback.
A Public God: Natural Theology Reconsidered (Fortress Press), Neil Ormerod
What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Crossway), Kevin DeYoung
A Question of Consensus: The Doctrine of Assurance After the Westminster Confession (Fortress Press), Jonathan Master
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (Baker Academic), Matthew Richard Schlimm
Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos), J. Todd Billings
Tennessee Love Song, Sarah Gayle Meech
The Underdog, Aaron Watson
Down to Believing, Allison Moorer
Small Town Dreams, Will Hoge
Best song on the radio right now:
“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” Tim McGraw, from Sundown Heaven Town
April 8, 2015
Laura Smit is a professor of theology at Calvin College and the author of Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love (Baker Academic). She is also a contributor to Conversations with the Confessions: Dialogue in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Joseph Small. In the latter volume, the quality of the essays are rather mixed, leaving me unimpressed on the whole. But I did appreciate Smit’s essay, “Who is God?,” even though it only skims the surface of several important discussions in systematics on the doctrine of God. The volume is targeting a broad audience of thoughtful layfolks and their pastors, not academics.
In particular, I liked her remarks in favor of using gendered (masculine) language for God. As every reader of this blog knows, I have no qualms about using masculine language for God, and I am especially disinclined to ever use “Godself.” In the mainline Protestant milieu, this is a battle hardly worth waging. We lost. In a typical mainline sermon, you can expect to hear some of the most tortured English for the sake of avoiding “him” or “himself.” I am not entirely insensitive to their reasoning. I have friends and classmates who disagree with me. I know all of their arguments, often passionately expressed. I still disagree. Laura Smit expresses some of my thoughts:
Gendered language for God clearly fits into the first category [analogical language]. God is beyond male and female, so when we use either male or female language for God, we are speaking analogically, using language that applies properly and originally to human experience and applying it to God. Some people argue that instead of using gendered language, we should avoid the use of either male or female language when speaking of God, simply repeating the word “God” in place of using pronouns such as “he” or “himself.” I once used such God-language for about a year, avoiding pronouns when speaking of God by always substituting the noun “God.” By the end of the year I noticed something rather disturbing: My idea of God had become impersonal. Since our human experience of personal interaction is always gendered, ungendered language suggests a lack of personal presence, and I had come to think of God as an impersonal force rather than a personal being. This is a significant problem, since being personal, like being loving, is a quality that belongs properly and originally to God and is applied to human beings only analogically. Language that makes us think of God as less personal than humans should be avoided, just as we should shun any language that makes us think of God as less loving than we are. Insofar as ungendered language is an effort to speak more literally (or univocally) about God without using analogical language, it is doomed to failure, since human language is simply not up to the task. But we should note that ungendered language also fails to function analogically, since we have no analogous experience of relating to an ungendered person that might illuminate such language when applied to God.
So, why not just use both masculine and feminine?
I had to use either male or female language, or some combination of the two. Thus, I spent another year of my life using male language for the Father and the Son, while using female language for the Holy Spirit. As my understanding of the unity of God deepened, however, I came to realize that such language suggests that the three persons have different natures. In fact, it leads toward tritheism, as if the Trinity is made up of three separate gods rather than three persons who share in one nature.
[Laura Smit, “Who is God?,” Conversations with the Confessions, pp. 96-96.]
There is still the option of alternating between masculine and feminine when referring to God, though not when referring to the persons. I still disagree with that option, though a rebuttal would require a more thorough treatment than Smit offers.
If you would like to delve deeper, I recommend Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language. In the edition that I own, Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a hardnosed preface, expressing her intense displeasure at feminist arguments for revising the church’s language of God. Bloesch also wrote Is the Bible Sexist?, which I have not read. Bloesch is best known for his multi-volume systematic theology and his two-volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology, which you can (and should) purchase used at little cost.
Image: Laura Smit at the Presbyterian Fellowship Conference on Theology, San Diego, January 2015.