December 29, 2015
There is some quality below, in my most humble opinion. I am actually surprised myself. Thanks to outside circumstances, the blogging has been haphazard, which has the potential to yield some interesting results. Looking back, I am satisfied. We had some good discussions on Protestant ecclesiology, Roman Catholicism, various aspects of modern dogmatic theology, and I took a trip to France and Catalonia with my brother! The above picture of Sainte Chapelle is mine.
Thank you for reading, commenting, and emailing. I always enjoy it when a reader sends me an email. You can do so at email@example.com.
Here is a list of this year’s content, organized into a few categories.
Not Karl Barth
Is the Psalmist a Protestant? (G. C. Berkouwer)
Systematic Theology Guides
October 14, 2015
“I don’t want to go, unless heaven’s got a dirt road.”
— Kip Moore
For whatever reason, the topic of the afterlife has not been a common topic among students of Karl Barth.
After all, we have so many other matters which direct our attention, usually pertaining to trinitarian metaphysics, divine election, incarnation and atonement, incarnation and ecclesiology, and the perennial “knowledge of God” questions. And if you want to establish yourself in the Barthian guild, you better attend to these matters! But I am grateful that Wyatt Houtz has addressed the doctrine of the afterlife in Barth’s theology: “Karl Barth’s Argument Against Afterlife.”
I do not agree with Wyatt, and you can read my brief comments in the combox for further indications of why. I am not in the least convinced that Barth believes in such a depressing afterlife, where the temporal is absorbed and annihilated into the divine — where the individual consciousness is decisively negated. This is the very worst of Gnostic speculation, and it makes the eternal-finite dialectic the end-game of Barth’s dogmatics. If this is true, then Barth is a truly terrible theologian, scarcely worth our time and energy.
In contrast to one of Wyatt’s reflections, I am perfectly happy with a “pagan” image of heaven as a “Valhalla” where beer is on demand and abundant. At the very least, I hope that heaven is nothing less! By way of illustration, let me offer you the country-rock song, “Dirt Road,” by Kip Moore:
When a preacher talks of heaven, he paints it real nice / He says, you better get to livin’, better get to livin’ right / If you’re gonna get your mansion / he’s been saving for your soul / If you’re gonna do your dancing / on city streets of gold
But unless it’s got a dirt road / leading down to a fishing hole …
As is often the case, country music does theology better than students of theology. The existential heaven of a temporal “hope” is worthless [I sanitized my previous language!], and it is long overdue for us to call a spade a spade. Perhaps, dare I say, we should “absolutize” our temporal experience, as in the Rolling Stone interpretation of this song: “he didn’t want to enter the Pearly Gates if the afterlife wasn’t akin to his beloved South,” also in reference to Hank Williams Jr. Of course, we do not need to do this in an overly literal sense, though I am rather tempted to do so!
My point is simple, and it requires a “new creation” that is at least as good as the old creation. I am very doubtful that liberal Protestants are up to the challenge, as in Christopher Morse’s The Difference Heaven Makes, which does a fine enough job of making the Kingdom present and with moral imperatives. But it does little more.
The resurrection of the body — even a “spiritual body” — is surely good enough for a dirt road, fishing poles, and beers with a pretty girl.
July 3, 2015
It has now been a week since the Supreme Court issued its fanciful decision on gay marriage — legally contrived and morally suspect. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote (or co-authored), “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a good summary statement of postmodern nominalism. There is nothing higher, nothing to which we are accountable, except our own experience of “meaning” and “mystery.”
Justice Kennedy continued his romanticist jurisprudence in last week’s Obergefell v. Hodges case. He formulates the first premise on which the majority decided: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (p. 3). This is why, we are told, bans on interracial marriage were invalidated. He continues, “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.” So, “personal choice” and “individual autonomy” are the founding principles upon which interracial marriage is a marriage? We are then given flimsy attempts to define marriage as “a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals” and “an intimate association.” Same-sex couples aspire to “the transcendent purposes of marriage” (p. 4), which are what exactly? Kennedy then finally proceeds to offer the only constitutional basis of the majority’s opinion: a highly dubious interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.
The subsequent media parade offered scarcely any attempt to digest and discuss the moral rationale. At this point, I suppose, Kennedy’s moral logic is self-evident to the culture. The corporate blitz to capitalize was unlike anything we’ve seen in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision, as seemingly every major corporation proudly displayed its support. Social media followed suit. The White House went technicolor. News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm. This united front gave voice to our new era of social discourse. We emote and shame, whereas our forefathers reasoned and convinced. Twitter is more powerful than Aristotle.
If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you to read the SCOTUS decision, both the majority opinion and the dissents. Justice Scalia never holds back: “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic” (p. 75.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, offers the most conservative dissent, insofar as he directly targets the redefinition of marriage away from its procreative ends and offers this sober warning:
It [the court’s decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. [pp. 101-102]
Below, I have collated some of my favorite articles that have dared to wade through this torrent of powers, the potestatis publicae. I will begin with “The Empire of Desire” from R. R. Reno. Unlike most of the subsequent articles, this was not written in response to the Supreme Court decision. It was published in the June 2014 issue of First Things. This is one of Reno’s most incisive essays, more important now than then.
“The Empire of Desire,” R. R. Reno (First Things, June 2014):
Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.
“The Benedict Option for Evangelicals,” Phillip Cary (First Things, June 30, 2015):
The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.
It’s a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today’s evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can’t the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?
“Can Evangelicals See Themselves in the LGBT Movement?,” Alastair Roberts (The Gospel Coalition, July 1, 2015):
While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality.
…the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.
“After Obergefell: The Effects on Law, Culture, and Religion,” Sherif Girgis (Catholic World Report, June 29, 2015):
It’s not that the majority opinion offered bad interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantees; it hardly interpreted them at all. Huge swathes of it read less like a legal argument than the willful paradoxes and obscure profundities you might hear at a winetasting.
…now the most prestigious secular organ of American society—the Court that helped make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality—stands for the propositions that deep emotional union makes a marriage, and that mothers and fathers are perfectly replaceable; indeed, that it “demeans” and “stigmatizes” people to think otherwise.
“The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion,” David French (National Review, June 26, 2015):
This isn’t constitutional law, it’s theology — a secular theology of self-actualization — crafted in such a way that its adherents will no doubt ask, “What decent person can disagree?” This is about love, and the law can’t fight love. …
Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.
“A Conversation With My Gay Friend,” Jennifer Fulwiler (July 9, 2012):
“Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”
[Andrew:] “So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”
“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”
…”If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”
“Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?,” Wesley Hill (Spiritual Friendship, June 27, 2015):
Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.
“The Episcopal Church on Its Way Towards Adopting Gay Marriage,” George Conger (Anglican Ink, June 29, 2015):
“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.
Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation. By the way, TEC officially voted — overwhelmingly — to adopt a new rite for the marriage of any gender configuration. The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.
Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)
May 6, 2015
“It’s inimical to me that any religious entity or organization should be compelled by government to compromise any jot or tittle of their doctrine,” Andrew [Sullivan] said.
Addressing [Gordon College President] Lindsay’s case, he said, “Any personal hurt that he experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really hurts me that people would demonize, stigmatize, and attack people for their religious faith, whatever it is. I think the Gordon College thing is a clear step beyond anything we have seen before.”
In order to justify biotech reproduction outside the womb, in order to justify surrogacy, and in order to justify same-sex marriage, that natural connection [between biology and parenthood] had to be denied. It is the nominalist position: there is nothing natural inherent in the structure of nature; it’s only matter, upon which we can impose our will.
There is a biotechnical revolution upon us that treats children as products to manufacture. In the United States and around the “civilized” world, individuals flip through catalogues or search online to purchase sperm and eggs from (usually anonymous) donors whose genetic characteristics they find appealing. These shoppers then hire lab technicians to create embryos for implanting in a womb, often of a leased surrogate, for purchaser retrieval after gestation completes.
Thereby do these people manipulate children into existence in a manner divorced from marital love, in which adults intend to deprive them of relationship with or knowledge of at least one, and perhaps both, of their biological parents, as well as their extended kin.
This practice of human reproduction without relationship, of reproduction arranged by commercial transaction with service providers, graphically instantiates the precepts of same-sex marriage ideology. By eliminating the husband-wife marital norm, that ideology sunders even the conceptual connection of the marital union and fertility.
This threat is more radical than many people realize. It’s not merely that Christian schools will have to choose between accepting federal funds and keeping their religious views about sexuality. If the choice were to follow the example of schools like Hillsdale College or New Saint Andrews College and forego taking any federal money, the decisions about what to do would be painful, but obvious.
But what is being proposed is to revoke non-profit status, a move that would destroy many schools. According to the IRS, if an organization’s tax-exempt status is revoked it is no longer exempt from federal income tax and is not eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. As Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, notes, “The loss of tax-exempt status would put countless churches and religious institutions out of business, simply because the burden of property taxes and loss of charitable support would cripple their ability to sustain their mission.”
Given the constant threat of terrorism with which we now live, do you believe we are facing a cultural war? Is Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the world is divided into several civilisations based on religious ideals that can be fault lines for conflict still valid for the 21st century?
Scruton: There is certainly some kind of clash of civilisations occurring. However, Islam seems to have forgotten its civilisation, and it is rare now to meet a Muslim who has ever heard of enlightened Islamic scholars like Ibn Sinna, or Rumi, or Hafiz, or who is even aware that a great civilisation once existed, built upon the revelation of the Koran. Western civilisation, too, is losing the memory of its religious inheritance. I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s “On Dover Beach” in which he expresses his fear for a future in which “ignorant armies clash by night”. So yes, there is a clash—not of two civilisations but of two competing forms of stupidity: one given to violence and the other to self-indulgence.
Image: Andrew Sullivan portrait by Trey Ratcliff (Flickr)
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.
March 31, 2015
Now that I have dealt with Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, I am curious to explore the Death of God movement that appealed to Bonhoeffer for support. At the seminary library, I stumbled across The Honest to God Debate, a very interesting volume featuring Richard Hanson, among several other notable contributors.
R. P. C. Hanson (1916-1988) was one of the English-speaking world’s most accomplished patristics scholars, beginning with his first major academic post as Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in the early 60’s. His later roles included professorships at Nottingham and Manchester, plus stints as a bishop in the Church of Ireland and an assistant bishop in the Church of England. His many publications include monographs on Origen and, most importantly, his magisterial tome, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (T&T Clark, 1988), first published in the year of his death. It was republished by Baker Academic in 2006 and remains unsurpassed in technical detail and discussion of emerging Nicene orthodoxy. He also contributed to Sources Chrétiennes.
During his time at Durham, Richard Hanson contributed to The Honest to God Debate, a collection of short reviews and articles in response to John A. T. Robinson’s infamous 1963 volume. The firestorm of controversy and debate is indicated by the fact that SCM Press was able to publish this response volume in the same year! Among the several short reviews are those written by C. S. Lewis, E. L. Mascall, Rudolf Bultmann, and Herbert McCabe, and then there are a few articles, featuring John Macquarrie, Daniel Jenkins, Alisdair MacIntyre, and John Robinson himself. There are even several letters from readers. It’s a fascinating volume, that I’ve only had a chance to skim through, reading bits and pieces. It is still in print by SCM Press, but I would buy it used.
Hanson’s review of Honest to God is especially good. Hanson notes that Robinson’s book is “full of warm piety and strong faith,” on account of his belief in a personal God. Yet, Hanson is wary about how Robinson is also “deeply influenced by Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Bultmann and by the current flight from metaphysics in philosophy.” Here is Hanson:
I suspect that at the critical point of his philosophical argument there lurks a confusion. This God is not ‘outside’ the world and is not a divine Being separate from it, yet he must be a Person, for how can love (which is his very essence) be anything but personal or experienced by persons? Dr Robinson never faces this dilemma. Again, a transcendence which is not ‘outside’ or ‘above’ our world, but part of it, without being pantheistic, sounds philosophically ersatz. The terms in which both Jewish and Christian thought as reflected in the Bible stated God’s transcendence were not those of metaphysical abstraction nor separation but of sovereignty, control. Dr Robinson never recognizes this. His brief Christological sketch (pp. 70-75) is a fine piece of work which will command the assent of many scholars. But he never faces the fact that what gives the self-emptying and self-abandonment of Christ its burning power and irresistible attraction is that this act is the act of the sovereign God of the Old Testament who is in command of the world which he is redeeming. We cannot apprehend the depth of the divine love displayed in the self-emptying until we apprehend the mightiness of the God who empties himself. Or is this mightiness merely ‘primitive philosophically’ (p. 33), and part of an obsolete myth, a ‘superworld of divine objects’? Again, our Lord did not claim to reveal to us the love of the ‘transcendental, the unconditional in all our experience’ (p. 131), but of our heavenly Father. There is something slightly ludicrous in the Bishop’s attempt to reduce God to ‘the ground of existence’ after the manner of Tillich, and then to insist that he is nothing but love. Dr Robinson will have to consider much more carefully what he means by ‘love’.
Hanson recognizes the incoherence in appealing to a transcendent “unconditional in all our experience,” which is also somehow personal and yet also somehow not “outside”! It’s bewildering indeed. Hanson then continues by discussing the influence of Bonhoeffer on Robinson:
The Bishop appears to be intoxicated with the thought of Bonhoeffer as a martyr, but we must also remember that the Arians in the fourth century appealed for support in their heresy to the words of the martyr Lucian of Antioch. Bonhoeffer’s theory, much admired by the Bishop of Woolwich, that man has now ‘come of age’ seems to me a silly and unprofitable one. How can we know whether the human race has come of age till we know for how long it is going to exist? Robinson appears to use this concept in order to maintain the autonomy of modern man, his non-dependence upon God. …
Finally, will the Bishop succeed in commending the Christian faith by his new ideas? He may commend it effectively to intellectuals. But will this new approach appeal to the housewife in the housing estate, the trade-unionist in the factory, the railwayman on the footplate? ….
[The Honest to God Debate, pp. 108-110]
I gather that Hanson is not a fan of the later Bonhoeffer.
March 17, 2015
See part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from others.
This is the second and final installment of my exploration of Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity, found in his prison letters. I am more critical in this post — certainly, more questioning. Some of the footnote comments may be of interest, to alert those who ignore footnotes.
Bonhoeffer acknowledges that Barth was the first to recognize the mistake of “making a space” for religion in modern life, illustrated by the apologetic theologies discussed in the previous post. But, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth failed to guide us in the “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts,” which is necessary for a responsible theology today. Bonhoeffer bemoans Barth’s “positivism of revelation.” What does this mean? As far as I can tell from Bonhoeffer’s brief comments, Barth failed to carry through his criticism of religion. He stopped at his criticism of these false apologetic strategies, but in their place he offered the received dogmatic material of the church’s faith. “Positivism” was sometimes used as a label for any conservative theology that subordinated itself to a given and stable authority, namely the Bible and derived confessional standards. Thus, the theological task is the explication of this material, the enterprise known as dogmatics, often valuing precision of expression and analytical rigor. We do not know exactly what Bonhoeffer has in mind, but he is clearly not happy with this turn in Barth. And he uses Barth as an example of neglecting the task at hand. (We have to leave to the side whether this is fair to Barth.) This task is to interpret Christian concepts into non-religious concepts, thereby rendering them more truly faithful to Christ. Why does Bonhoeffer see this as such a pressing matter? Because only in this way can modern man encounter God again, confronted with the demand of love in every situation. Thus, it is ultimately an ethical concern for Bonhoeffer, as we would expect from his previous writings. And as such, these prison letters on “religionless Christianity” can be seen as having strong continuity with his prior treatments of ethics as encounter and decision, not law and duty.
But, what are we to make of this “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts”? It is here that criticisms can emerge. In many (not all) of these statements, the “non-religious” appears to be a norm and authority for Bonhoeffer – a norm and authority derived from the world as such. So, as we see, Bonhoeffer has been discussing his impression of reading a book on physics, realizing that, as he later states, “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’” He will elsewhere describe this as “the world come of age.” That is true, of course, insofar as it goes — for a large segment of European society, and we would not want to recover the various defensive theologies that have attempted to deal with this.
But why does Bonhoeffer then suppose that the (post)metaphysical assumptions of this “non-religious man” are determinative for the church’s proclamation? Is this not just another apologetic theology? This is the curious thing about Bonhoeffer’s account of how the church must now relate to secular man. It is remarkably uncritical about this non-religious man, to whom the church must address its liberative Word. A good illustration is when Bonhoeffer recognizes that the concern for “personal salvation” is a question that has “left us.” And, thus, the church should leave it as well. I am wary of how Bonhoeffer handles this. We do not have to endorse everything that may be associated with “personal salvation,” but Bonhoeffer fails to question whether this leaving behind of concern for matters of personal salvation may be an indictment of modern man, an illustration of his rebellion. More to the point, here is another instance where Bonhoeffer simply presents, without question or criticism, that “people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more,” as he stated earlier.
Bonhoeffer appears to be endorsing, without sufficient criticism, the maturation of Western philosophical and social development. Indeed, Bethge notes that in June of 1944, “coming of age” appears in his letters for the first time, a term which he held “with noticeable joy” and which, according to Bethge, “he had learned from Kant.” As such, Bonhoeffer is taking modern philosophical anthropology and using it as a norm for the theological task of the church. That, at least, is my critical reading of these particular statements. But, what about his ethics and Christology?
Simultaneously, Bonhoeffer attempts to ground this concept of autonomy in his Christology, perhaps circumventing my above criticism. As Bethge notes, “The genesis is his Christology; the cross of Christ not only judges and delivers the world, but also give it freedom to be what it is in its own worldly structures.” And this takes us back to his criticisms of existentialism and theologians like Bultmann and Tillich who failed to account for how “Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations,” not just man in crisis. So, for Bonhoeffer, it is Christ who liberates us to live freely and joyfully in this world, and therefore this Western autonomy is properly Christian. But, we must ask, is it just a coincidence that modernity, in its own ever-progressing quest for man’s autonomy and success in doing so, is fulfilling this properly Christian anthropology? In other words, it seems that Bonhoeffer has two approaches, two starting points even, which have not been correlated or reconciled. The one originates from the phenomena of modern human life as such, and the other originates from the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Bonhoeffer had more consistently located his “religionless” project in the latter, instead of appearing to give undue weight to the former, then perhaps he could avoid censure from those of us who are wary about his proposals in these letters.
Lastly, I must mention his interesting, albeit perplexing, comments on Bultmann’s demythology project. Bultmann has appeared elsewhere in the letters, but here is perhaps the clearest statement:
Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the ‘mythological elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essense’. My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept – the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision).
I find this perplexing, because I really do not know what he means. He wants to retain (in some sense not defined) the miraculous and mythological but interpret them in a non-religious, non-metaphysical way, which is what I thought Bultmann was doing! And the concern about not making these metaphysical assumptions (a world where virgin births and bodily resurrections can happen) into “preconditions of faith” is at the heart of Bultmann’s project, as far as I understand it. So how exactly is Bonhoeffer retaining the mythological? Behind this question is the question of what Bonhoeffer means by “metaphysics” in his criticism of “religion.” I have noted the ethical concern, but there seems to be more. Bethge claims that, in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, “Metaphysics here means a conceptualization of the message within the philosophical framework of both the Greeks and the idealistic philosophers of the nineteenth century.” That’s pretty standard. If that is the case, then what precisely in this metaphysics must change in Bonhoeffer’s reinterpretation into non-religious categories? That is the big, glaring question to which I do not see any satisfying answer, nor does Bonhoeffer even give an attempt to answer this question. I am no fan of Bultmann’s project, but is Bonhoeffer really all that far from him?
But, as I said at the beginning of the previous post, these are suggestive reflections in the form of letters, while being imprisoned by a genocidal regime! They are not theological treatises, as we are accustomed. As a result, we are left with a lot of questions.
 Not to be confused with “logical positivism,” a philosophical movement of secular post-metaphysical scientism. In theology, “positivism” can also indicate a theology that eschews natural reason, as in Paul Janz’s definition: “Positivism in theology is any position that seeks to uphold the integrity of transcendence (or revelation) by giving up the integrity of reason or of natural enquiry” (Janz, God, the Mind’s Desire [Cambridge University Press, 2004], p. 5; Qtd. in Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma [IVP Academic, 2014], p. 80).
 It seems especially odd to criticize Barth in this way, given Barth’s creative and ingenious reworking of the Christian tradition: to wit, his comprehensive rejection of natural theology and his reworking of the doctrine of election, to name two areas where his “novelty” is most criticized to this day. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Barth wrote that “positivism of revelation” is “a concept still incomprehensible and unintelligible to me.” See Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Fontana, 1971), 119-122.
 Bonhoeffer, ibid., 325. The book is The World-View of Physics by C F Von Weizsacker and referred to on p. 311, ibidem.
 Ibid., 329, 341, 361.
 Ibid., 286.
 Ibid., 279.
 Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer’s Christology and His ‘Religionless Christianity,’” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 23:1 (Fall, 1967), 68.
 Bonhoeffer, ibid., 342.
 Ibid., 329. In an earlier letter (p. 285), he criticizes Bultmann for “abridging the gospel” by separating God and miracle, both of which must be interpreted “in a ‘non-religious’ sense.”
 Bethge, ibid., 66. Bethge describes the ethical concern as “to relocate genuine transcendence in this world – in the person next to me” (ibid.).
Image: Painting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (source)
January 2, 2015
In Douglas Farrow’s account, the developed doctrine of Mary (mariology) is an expression of the church’s displacement of Christ with its own self. That which belonged to Christ was gradually co-opted by the church, with Mary as the more truly human mediator. In medieval and baroque Catholic piety (and still today), Mary often acquires the mediatorial role as the human means to God/Christ. For Farrow, this is a consequence of a defective theology of the ascended humanity of Jesus Christ, which safeguards the church from deifying itself in response to the absence of Christ.
Farrow spends considerable energy tracing how Irenaeus’ theology, wherein Jesus’ time is not collapsed into creaturely time, was betrayed by mystical, Platonist, Gnostic influences, especially beginning with Origen. With Schleiermacher, he discerns a similar faulty understanding of Christ and especially the events of resurrection, ascension, and parousia. This results in a faulty ecclesiology, where the church is the continuation of the incarnation of the Son. Here is part of Farrow’s account:
On Schleiermacher’s view doctrines such as the resurrection, ascension, and parousia do not speak of things that happened to Jesus, but of things that happen in us; that is, they articulate in various ways our recognition of his ‘peculiar dignity’ and our longing to be united with him in his perfect God-consciousness. Internalizing these doctrines was not a new thing, of course, but for the first time we encounter from within systematic theology the really quite astonishing contention that the Easter events and the parousia ‘cannot be laid down as properly constituent parts of the doctrine of his person.’ That is, they have no organic connection with belief in the redeemer qua redeemer. So far from being ‘one of the chief points of our faith,’ then, as Calvin thought, the ascension ‘is not directly a doctrine of faith’ at all! From one perspective it is merely ‘an accidental form’ for effecting Christ’s heavenly session. [footnote: See CF § 99, cf. 29.3, 158.1]
The immediate impact on the Where? question was to collapse the spatial distance on which Calvin had insisted into something radically Lutheran, that is, to render it in strictly existential terms. [footnote: By describing our relationship with Jesus as a ‘mystical’ one, Schleiermacher (§ 100) moves the whole issue of distance and nearness back into Lutheran territory, so to speak. In effect, it becomes an hamartiological question, related to the waxing and waning of the God-consciousness.] But at the same time it opened up the temporal dimension to Christ’s absence which the reformers had largely ignored. Jesus’ contemporaneity could no longer be taken for granted. For the new christology to work, a bridge between past and present was required, rather than a bridge between heaven and earth. Schleiermacher set out to build it, spanning Lessing’s ‘great ugly ditch’ with an attractive Romanesque structure: In the society of his followers Jesus’ unique God-consciousness (which is also his true self-consciousness) has survived and indeed widened with the advance of history; his personality and spiritual activity have been prolonged in the common life of the church. Here was Protestantism’s own mariological turn, modestly performed yet even more decisively. The church itself was now the τόπος [“place”] of Jesus, the only possible answer to the Where? question.
[footnote: Schleiermacher’s construct allows us to speak of an ongoing incarnation that passes from Jesus to the church: ‘And so, since the Divine Essence was bound up with the human person of Christ, but is now (his directly personal influence having ceased) no longer personally involved in any individual, but henceforward manifests itself actively in the fellowship of believers as their common spirit, this is just the way in which the work of redemption is continued and extended in the Church’ (§ 124.2; cf. 122.3).]
[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 181-182]
When Farrow gets to Kierkegaard and Barth, he is obviously happy that they broke with a speculative logos asarkos, and related matters. In his treatment of Irenaeus and Origen, earlier in the book, Farrow had identified Origen’s logos asarkos as a big part of the problem, in contrast to Irenaeus’ consistent identification of the Word with Jesus. Yet, Farrow is not happy with Barth’s identification of eternity with time, reconciliation with revelation, act with being, Christ with creation, just to name a few! This is an enormously complicated part of the book, spanning twenty-five very dense pages (pp. 229-254) in an already very dense book. I won’t even attempt to summarize. He ends with T. F. Torrance, who emerges as (finally!) the one who comes closest to getting back to Irenaeus (and the Bible). Farrow interprets Torrance as, for the most part, correcting Barth’s speculative pitfalls while maintaining all that is good and proper in Barth, which Farrow recognizes is enormous.
The answer we have been advocating is a disturbing one. It is not disturbing because, in maintaining that Jesus has gone in the flesh to the Father, it refuses to admit that ‘we do not know what has happened to him.’ On the contrary, it is disturbing because it states quite categorically that we do not know; that we cannot place him, spatially or temporally or materially or spiritually, with respect to ourselves; that he is not above us or ahead of us or alongside us or within us, even if each of these metaphors has something helpful to say about his actual relation to us. It is disturbing because it challenges the assumption that to talk about a human being who cannot be so placed is meaningless, and because it implies that every attempt to define him as something other than a human being is really an act of violence designed to force him to yield his meaning on our terms. It is disturbing because it challenges our entire frame of reference, physical and metaphysical, by allowing one particular man to stand over against us as a question mark against our very existence.
Ascension and Ecclesia was published in 1999. More recently, he published a follow-up volume, Ascension Theology, in 2011. From the reviews that I’ve read, it is partly a concise presentation of the larger, prior book, but it is also a reframing in terms of his newfound Catholicism. He converted to Roman Catholicism halfway between writing the two volumes. I am curious how he understands mariology now.
Image: Friedrich Schleiermacher (source)
December 26, 2014
I am reading Douglas Farrow’s much-acclaimed study on the doctrine of the Ascension. It is slim pickings when it comes to books on the Ascension. They are few and far between. Since I haven’t finished, I cannot properly give my overall impression, but so far it is a stimulating work. In order to give you a taste, here is an excerpt from early in the book:
The notion of Christ’s universal presence is an exceedingly common one, as we shall see. …What is sacrificed for the sake of this Christus praesens, as Calvin noticed long ago, is his specificity as a particular man. Christ is everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere. In the ascension he becomes ἄτοπος [“out of place”] in the most literal sense: he is unnatural, absurd, for he has no place of his own. (Vague talk among modern theologians about ‘a change of state, not of place’ hardly alleviates that difficulty, however effective it may be in turning aside impolite inquiries as to Jesus’ actual whereabouts.) For that reason, and others we will encounter later, we begin to hear of the ‘post-existent’ Christ or about the period after the incarnation. In other words, just when the gospel has taught us to think of salvation in the most concrete terms, as an act of God in the flesh and for the flesh, the story of Jesus is turned against itself. His humanity is betrayed and marginalized after all.
[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 12-13.]
If that doesn’t get you excited, then I don’t know what will. A little later, as you could guess, he critiques theologians like Macquarrie and Bultmann, though (so far) not in a great amount of detail. He also admirably engages with some of the historical-critical conclusions, e.g., those who dismiss the Ascension because Luke is the only Evangelist to mention it, not counting the longer ending to Mark. In the quote above, he is criticizing those theologians who conflate the Ascension with the Resurrection and, thereby, with Christ’s overall glorification and exaltation over all things. It’s an ambitious project, to state the obvious.
I would also like to quote from Oliver O’Donovan, as Farrow does on p. 39 in a footnote:
The incarnation is not simply a mythic portrayal of the fellowship between men and God, nor the ascension of the triumph of the cross. Insofar as these transitions have one foot in our space and time, they are seen there as events — events which, however, have another end to them beyond the historical sequence of which, at this end, they form a part.
[On the Thirty-Nine Articles, Paternoster 1986, p. 36f.]