Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Alvin Plantinga on Richard Dawkins

Alvin Plantinga has just published on article with Books & Culture responding to Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, entitled, “The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism ad absurdum.” Without a doubt, this is the most well-reasoned response yet—far surpassing the apologetic counter-attack of Alister McGrath, though not as purely enjoyable as the response by Terry Eagleton.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Eberhard Jüngel: I believe, therefore I act

I believe, therefore I act. For out of hope in God’s coming kingdom, the believer also finds worldly hope for the future which we ourselves will have to make. Hope is the motive of all action. However, clear hope in God’s coming kingdom has obligated hope to a specific course of action. For in view of the coming kingdom of freedom, of peace, of justice, and of love, the one who hopes recognizes what is to be done and what is to be left undone, given the conditions of the world. He or she hopes to be able to make plausible for human reason at least distant—very distant—parables of the kingdom of God on earth as goals of human activity, and is determined to work for the realization of these goals as much as possible. . . .

Thus because those who hope know themselves to be responsible for differentiating between God’s activity and their own, they will not demand anything that is impossible. But the theology of hope has a political ethos that commands the believer to do his or her utmost for what is possible. Because I as a believer have a foundation for hope, therefore I act.
—Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 16-17.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Genesis, Original Sin, and Scientific History

Over at the Barthian Milieu, a recent exchange took place over the issue of Barth and original sin. The discussion began when one person stated that (1) since original sin is found in the narrative of the Fall in Genesis 3, and (2) since Barth views the first part of Genesis as mythic (the person used the word “allegory” but meant to say “myth”), then the conclusion this person drew was (3) that Barth denies original sin.

Now I do not wish to weigh down this discussion too much by discussing how Barth views Genesis 1-3. He specifically calls the Genesis account a “saga,” which denotes a kind of mythic narrative centered on a particular family lineage. Sagas generally have a particular purpose behind them, which is often etiological in nature. I don’t want to worry too much about biblical interpretation details. Suffice it to say, I agree with Barth and contemporary OT critics. But that is probably a separate discussion.

The point I want to make here is the assumption that since a story is understood as myth rather than as literal, scientific history, the truth conveyed in the passage in question must therefore be denied. While I would like to think such a notion is held by only the smallest percentage of Christians, I suspect that just the opposite is the case. The problem is in the equation of a particular theological truth with the historical nature of the narrative in which this truth comes to expression. Or to put it another way, it is the modern sin of equating science with truth, which has come to be held as axiomatic in the Western world today. Scientific history, scientific method, scientific anything is viewed as the rightful arbiter of what is true and false, right and wrong. If one denies the scientific accuracy of something, then the entire issue in question is denied.

The doctrine of original sin itself is not found in Genesis 1-3 as most people know. Of course, it is affirmed on the basis of the narrative of the Fall and comes to fuller expression in the letters of Paul, particularly Romans. The question is this: Does the doctrine of original sin depend on there actually being a literal “fall” of humanity from grace? Or to put it another way, is there such a thing as “metaphorical truth” (Jüngel) that has at least the same if not more validity than “scientific truth”?

Barth affirms the Fall as the beginning of temporal history. With the Fall, history as we know it began. By making this assertion, Barth gives Gen. 1-3 a qualitatively different status. Eden is a not a record of some historical actuality. If we went back in a time machine, we could not locate these events on the timeline of human history. Humanity as we know it begins with the Fall. The narrative of Gen. 1-3 is not scientific history but theological history—that is, truth is not contained in the literalness of the events but in the theological realities which come to expression in the narrative itself.

Barth says something similar of the resurrection, though he does not render it as purely mythical. Barth affirms a bodily resurrection, but he refuses to view the resurrection as an event in time, as a historical event. To do this would be to view the resurrection as something possible within the realm of human history. But the resurrection, as Barth notes, is a divine event; the resurrection is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The resurrection is not an event that could arise from the processes operative in history; it is purely a divine event, one in which the vertical plane intersects and disrupts the horizontal plane.

I make the comparison with the resurrection only to suggest that what is central with both the creation of the cosmos and the resurrection is that they are not events that can be scientifically analyzed. Eden and the Risen Christ are not “things” within the confines of the created cosmos. They do not denote just one more object on the timeline of history. What the person at the Barthian Milieu did not understand (others quickly corrected him) is that myth—what is non-scientific, non-literal—is not thereby without truth. The narrative of Scripture does not need to be scientifically supportable in order to be the witness to theological realities. Science is not the vehicle for truth. In fact, what the Bible demonstrates is that story and proclamation are the proper vehicles for conveying truth. And the vehicle of narrative does not exclude but rather includes the saga, myth, and legend. These are not the enemies of truth; they are the things of this world that are commandeered by God in order to bear witness to Godself.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Another victory for Bush and a loss for humanity

Shockingly, as reported by the Associated Press, a federal appeals court ruled that foreign-born prisoners who are apprehended as terrorists may not challenge their detention and imprisonment. The U.S. government, in other words, may detain them indefinitely without trial, without proof of guilt, without even the semblance of humanity. This ruling directly supports the inhuman Military Commissions Act of 2006, which not only violates the Constitution; it also violates standards of justice that go back to 1215 CE.

A great generational divide

The differences between the “old generation” and the “new generation” are vast. The new article from New York Magazine is a good examination of this phenomena in modern culture. In the article, there is a hypothetical statement from the “old generation” that sort of sums up the situation:
Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention—and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.
Read more.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sermon: We Are Not Our Own—We Belong to God

Gracious triune God, speak that we may hear, give that we may receive, be that we may become. For it is in the name of the Word who became flesh that we pray. Amen.

Scripture: Mark 12.13-17
Then [the chief priests] sent to [Jesus] some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Caesar and God. God and Caesar. I have to confess at the start that this topic frightens me. I have to walk a very tight line. The dualism between these two authorities has been used historically to endorse the idea of two kingdoms or two regiments, and nowadays, in our modern democratic society, this passage (and its parallels) is often appealed to in support of the separation between church and state. Thus, the twin notions of Caesar and God are at the center of our modern understanding of the church, and that makes it hard to look at this text with truly fresh eyes.

And to be perfectly honest, the statement has always puzzled me. The notion of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s seems like a rather odd thing for Jesus to say. For example, Jesus did not say, give to Mammon the things that are Mammon’s. No, he said you cannot serve two masters. Nor did Jesus say, give to your family the things that are your family’s. No, he says let the dead bury their own dead (Matt. 8:22). Nor did Jesus even say, give to yourself the things that belong to yourself. No, he said that you must hate even life itself and carry your cross in order to be his disciple (Lk. 14:26-27). So why, then, does he allow us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, or to cautiously use contemporary idiom, give to the President what is the President’s? What happened to the Jesus who claims everything, even our very life?

It seems to me that there are three possible ways of reading this passage: (1) his statement was meant only for the people who lived in his particular historical context under Roman rule; or (2) Jesus’ statement means that parts of our lives belong to the government and other parts belong to God, and that Jesus’ call to discipleship only concerns the latter, which is something spiritual and heavenly over against what is material and earthly; or (3) his statement has meaning for us today but it’s quite different from how this passage is usually read.

The first interpretation is tempting but unhelpful, for if we feel free to limit the teaching of Jesus in this passage to his context alone, then any of Jesus’ teachings are potentially open to such radical contextualization. If we wish to retain the validity of his teachings for us today, this first option is not open to us.

The problems with the second interpretation are manifold and much more complex. The problems have become more pronounced in recent years, now that we have seen what can happen when this passage is abused. Just take the German Church’s incapacity to challenge Hitler as only the most prominent example of this problem. As the German situation shows us, the strict division between religion and politics, between church and state, ends up rather ironically in supporting the convergence, even the conflation, of the two. The stricter and cleaner we make the separation between church and state, the less conflict there is between the two. And with less conflict, the easier it is to bring the two together in some kind of harmonious relation. Caesar and God are compatible authorities; their respective realms of influence should not overlap, on this reading.

More recently, the problems with this rendering of the relation between church and state have become even more apparent. Several decades after Hitler, Chile came under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Theologian William Cavanaugh wrote extensively on this situation in order to explore exactly how and why the church offered no resistance to the mass torture and execution of civilians. His conclusion is that, in Chile, the church had bought into the notion that “the soul is the province of the church, and the state has charge of the body.” The clean separation between body and soul, between a spiritual sphere and a physical sphere, all too easily leads to complacency—and thus, eventually, complicity—in crimes against humanity.

Or take the prominent example of pastor and author, Gregory Boyd, who recently received a lot of press for his outspoken stance against the conflation of religion and politics. According to a New York Times article from last year: “[Rev. Boyd] said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing ‘God Bless America and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.”

My own struggle with this passage began in the church in which I grew up. There I watched as recent high school grads heading off to the military would receive what could only be called a divine commission. The pastor would have the person in question come forward and tell the congregation where he would be going. Then there would be a laying on of hands as the pastor prayed for his safety. Moreover, it was during this time that I came across the statement (I don’t know where) that to pray for the safety of a soldier is to pray for the death of his or her enemies. So the whole ceremony became exponentially more uncomfortable for me every time it happened. And when I sought to investigate the rationale for such ceremonies, invariably one of the passages brought up was Mark 12:17.

So if Jesus is saying something else, how else might we understand the passage? Does Mark 12 invite a different reading? The axiom Jesus offers—Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s—begs the obvious question: What things belong to Caesar and what things belong to God? Most people skip this question and simply jump to the application, assuming that we enlightened moderns already know how to divide up our lives into “church” and “state.” We are all children of John Locke, and this passage is thus already self-evident—or so it seems. When we actually look at the text, though, we see that Jesus does not presuppose a division between Caesar and God. In fact, just the opposite, for the challenge posed by the chief priests only makes sense if some conflict between God and Caesar is presupposed. The felt tension over Roman taxation presupposes conflict. In order to answer the problem, Jesus asks for a coin. He then asks his hearers, “Whose image is on this?” The answer, “Caesar’s,” determines the outcome. Because the image of Caesar is on the coin—thus denoting ownership of the coin—Caesar can decide what should happen with that coin, including the paying of taxes.

The question for us, then, is simply this: Whose image are we? Whose image do we bear? According to Gen. 1:27, it is the image of God. Not the image of Caesar; not the image of our President; not the image of Hollywood; not the image of John Calvin or Karl Barth; not the image of Princeton Seminary. No, we bear the image of God, and that image—as with the coin—denotes ownership. If the image inscribed on the coin determines the life of that coin, then the image of God inscribed on those who exist in relation to the triune God determines the life of those persons. Moreover, these are not just impersonal images of some abstract authority. The image on the coin would have been the image of Emperor Tiberius, and the image on those of us claimed by God is, according to Romans 8:29, the “image of God’s Son.” We bear the image of Christ, and thus we bear the image of one who suffered and died at the hands of imperial power on our behalf. We bear the image of one who was tortured that we might live in peace and freedom. We bear the image of one who offered no resistance, who put up no fight, who lived as he taught others to live, by praying for those who persecuted him (Matt. 5:44).

In light of the confession of the Crucified One, Paul writes, “For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). The death of Christ nullifies any notion of self-possession or any lessening of the claim of God upon our lives. If our dependence upon God for our very creation was not enough, we are doubly dependent upon God for our redemption. As the famous first answer to the Heidelberg Catechism makes clear, our sole source of comfort is “that I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” The reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ determines that humanity belongs wholly to God. Here there is no division between body and soul, between physical and spiritual. We cannot say that the soul belongs to God but the body belongs to the nation-state. Rather, we must confess that we are not our own, as John Calvin writes:
We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Institutes 3.7.1)
If we are not our own, what does this mean for us who live in a society in which we are bombarded with numerous claims upon our existence—the claim of a parent upon a child, the claim of a boss upon an employee, the claim of a pastor upon a parishioner, the claim of a professor upon a student, the claim of an advertisement upon a consumer? As God tells Moses when the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:6, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God’s claim does not stand alongside other claims. God is not one claim among others. On the contrary, God’s claim places all other claims in crisis. Indeed, the whole earth belongs to God, including the realms claimed by the emperor or the prime minister or the president. All this belongs to God. Within this space, God calls us to be a people set apart. The passage from Exodus mixes political and sacerdotal terms. There is no division between body and soul. In fact, the whole point of the church, according to Cavanaugh, is to “create spaces of resistance where bodies belong to God, not the state.”

In closing, what does Jesus’ statement mean? What exactly belongs to the President and what belongs to God? If there is anything we should learn from Mark 12 and passages like Romans 13, it is that the President belongs to God. Caesar and God are not two equally valid authorities. As God declares, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine.” But within this space, we are called to live set apart lives. To be set apart means to bear witness to the God of grace—a witness which includes paying taxes and obeying the laws, but which also calls us to testify against dehumanization, militarism, and a narcissistic culture of death. We bear the image of Jesus Christ—the Crucified One, the Son who came to live and die “for us and for our salvation.” We bear the image of the one who turned the other cheek, who spoke truth to power, and who gave up his spirit that we might receive the Spirit of God. As those who bear his Name and his image, let us go forward as a priestly kingdom of peace and holy nation of love. In the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Al Neuharth: Bush Is Worst President of All-Time

The USA Today founder has changed his mind about where Bush stands:
Last year, Neuharth, a World War II hero who has met every president since Eisenhower, listed his five worst as Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. "It's very unlikely Bush can crack that list," Neuharth wrote.

Now he admits: "I was wrong. This is my mea culpa. Not only has Bush cracked that list, but he is planted firmly at the top." By top, of course, he means bottom.
Read more.

Mark Husbands moves to Hope College

My brilliant professor of theology at Wheaton College (Ill.), Mark Husbands, has now taken a chair in Reformed theology at Hope College (Holland, Mich.). This is great for Prof. Husbands, but bad for Wheaton, which has lost its best professor in theology. I give my best wishes to Prof. Husbands who will no doubt become an important and active fixture at Hope.

(Update: I’ve been chastised for praising Husbands too highly. I should make it clear that I mean no disrespect to Profs. Treier and Lauber, whom I also praise. But during my time at Wheaton, Mark Husbands was the only professor I had for theology, so he’s top in my books!)

Impeach Cheney

Read why.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Eberhard Jüngel: I believe, therefore I am

I believe, therefore I am—namely, a new creature and as such, one called to represent the being of Jesus Christ in the communion of saints, as a person existing as a member of the church of Jesus Christ. The believer knows that he or she is called to represent the foundation of his or her faith before the world by a life which corresponds to God, in order to witness to the world the foundation which sustains it as well, and to announce to the world its origin and destiny. The foundation of faith is the foundation of all being: the triune God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ as the community of reciprocal otherness. But such being can only be represented communally. Faith is therefore an eminently societal event. The believer exists in the communion of believers, which is most deeply expressed in communion with Christ at his table. There the trinitarian community of reciprocal otherness finds its most impressive earthly correspondence. . . . Theology therefore inquires about the person who, in the communion of one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, finds his or her fulfilment in correspondence to God. Theology is essentially church theology.
—Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 17.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Barth, Bultmann, and demythologization: Egyptian bondage?

With Jüngel, I have argued that Barth and Bultmann are both concerned about proper speak about God. This similarity is evinced in the former’s emphasis on the self-communicative God who reveals Godself in divine self-revelation in order to commandeer human language for the sake of bearing witness to this self-revelation. The emphasis with the latter is on demythologizing human language in order that our words might actually speak about God, and not about some particular historical concept that we happen to call “God” but which may have nothing to do with the actual God. While both Barth and Bultmann are interested in the relation between God and human language—i.e., the question of hermeneutics—the two approach the issue from very different perspectives.

According to Barth in an essay on Bultmann, Ein Versuch, ihn zu verstehen:
The basis of man’s knowledge, as we saw it, depended on his being known by the object of his knowledge. We were concerned with the Word, God’s (gift and) message to man. ... Our aim was to emancipate understanding, both of the Bible and, for this reason, of things in general, from the Egyptian bondage in which one philosophy after another had tried to take control and teach us what the Holy Spirit was allowed to say as the Word of God and of man in order to be understandable. Although we did not know the word, we were seeking to ‘demythologize’ the belief that man was the measure of his own understanding and of all other understanding. ... Now, as I see it, Bultmann has forsaken our road and gone back to the old one again. He has gone back to the old idea of understanding which we had abandoned. (60; ET 127; qtd. in Burnett, 61)
What’s fascinating about this quote is that Barth confirms Jüngel’s interpretation by explicitly adopting Bultmann’s notion of demythologization to describe what he was up to in his own theology. Even more interestingly, Barth uses his own demythologization against Bultmann, the one who first coined the term!

But why does Barth think Bultmann has gone back to the “old idea of understanding”? Richard Burnett, in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, locates the difference between Barth and Bultmann in terms of their relation to Schleiermacherian hermeneutics—i.e., hermeneutics which begins with the anthropological rather than the christological. The difference might be stated as one between anthropology and christology, or between hermeneutics and dogmatics. Whereas Barth emphasizes our knowledge of God in terms of God’s knowledge of us—“being known by the object of his knowledge”—Bultmann seeks to place the modern human person at the center of the epistemological question. The modern human person is the measure of what is appropriate speech about God. Hermeneutics, for Bultmann, focuses on the human subject rather than the divine object.

What is worth noticing is that both Barth and Bultmann claim “demythologization” to describe this process of clarifying speech about God. Even so, the two have radically different ways of understanding this word. Barth claims that Bultmann falls into the “Egyptian bondage” of making the human person the center of knowledge of God. Bultmann might respond that Barth falls into the “Egyptian bondage” of confining the Word of God in an archaic and historically conditioned form of speech that is no longer adequate to the reality of God about which we wish to speak responsibly. Barth accuses Bultmann of an empty and ultimately non-theological anthropology, while Bultmann accuses Barth of an outmoded and ultimately meaningless dogmatics.

If Barth or Bultmann were alive today, what or who would they accuse of being in “Egyptian bondage”? What is the central hermeneutical concern today? Where is the issue of speech about God most apparent?

Eberhard Jüngel: a more natural theology

The only thing that is ruled out [by the Barmen Declaration] is that there are also other sources of the church’s proclamation outside of the one Word of God, which is Jesus Christ himself. It is not ruled out that God is able to speak in many and various ways. The christocentrism of the first thesis of Barmen is not to be confused with christomonism. Indeed, this very problem, which is at least raised by so-called natural theology, is not simply denounced as an illusory problem and its possible truth denounced simply as untruth. It is important to make that clear in view of a sterile Barmen-orthodoxy! It is in no way impossible, coming from the first thesis of Barmen, and without of course practising any “natural theology”, to acknowledge full well the truth of the problem of natural theology — although dealing with it in a manner quite different from the way in which natural theology itself would be able to deal with it. It is not at all impossible, coming from the one Word of God (to which alone the church has to listen, and which alone the church has to recognise as the source of its proclamation), to outline a more natural theology than so-called natural theology: a natural theology which knows Jesus Christ as the one who has reconciled both human beings and the world (2 Cor. 5:19). He is the one who, together with the prayers of Christians, also hears the groaning of the creation and who leads the children of God with the waiting creation to the redeeming apokalypsis (Rom. 8:19-23). It is a more natural theology therefore, which, along with the recognition of Jesus Christ as the saviour of human beings, is learning to think anew the old notions of the salvation of phenomena. Here new ways open up: ways which give to each man and woman their own responsible “political theology” as well as ways which destine for each creature their own “ecological theology”!
—Eberhard Jüngel, Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State, trans. D. Bruce Hamill and Alan J. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992), 26-27

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Valentine’s Day Playlist

I don’t know how to post music playlists, so I will simply post the list of songs. These are the two discs of love songs that I put together for my valentine, Amy. When it comes to romantic music, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Disc 1:
1. The Way You Look Tonight (Tony Bennett)
2. Hundreds of Sparrows (Sparklehorse)
3. Can’t Help Falling in Love (UB40)
4. And I Love Her (The Beatles)
5. Your Body Is a Wonderland (John Mayer)
6. Have I Told You Lately (Van Morrison)
7. Amie (Damien Rice)
8. When You Say You Love Me (Josh Groban)
9. When I Fall in Love (Chris Botti)
10. I Am in Love With You (Imogen Heap)
11. We’re in Love (Herbert)
12. Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own (U2)
13. I Want You to Be My Love (Over the Rhine)
14. Neverland (Minor Piano Variation) (Jan. A. P. Kaczmarek)
15. Come Away With Me (Norah Jones)
16. Passenger Seat (Death Cab for Cutie)
17. Someone to Share My Life With (Jens Lekman)
18. The Luckiest (Ben Folds)

Disc 2:
1. I’d Do Anything for Love (Meat Loaf)
2. Hey Julie (Fountains of Wayne)
3. It’s Good to Be in Love (Frou Frou)
4. Always on My Mind (Phantom Planet)
5. This Guy’s in Love with You (Burt Bacharach)
6. I Do It for Your Love, feat. Paul Simon (Herbie Hancock)
7. Someday You Will Be Loved (Death Cab for Cutie)
8. Endless Love (Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey)
9. Let’s Get It On (Marvin Gaye)
10. Unchained Melody (Righteous Brothers)
11. Have I Told You Lately (Tony Bennett)
12. Just the Way You Are (Billy Joel)
13. Ribbon in the Sky (Stevie Wonder)
14. You’re All I Need to Get By, feat. Tami Terrell (Marvin Gaye)
15. I’m Always in Love (Jeff Tweedy)
16. I Will Follow You into the Dark (Death Cab for Cutie)

Resquiescat in Pacem: Bruce Manning Metzger (1914-2007)

Dr. Bruce Manning Metzger, New Testament professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary and quite probably the greatest critic and translator of the New Testament in the twentieth century, died February 13, 2007, at his home in Princeton at the age of 93. He was born in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1914 and entered Princeton Seminary in 1938. He was named the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature in 1964. He retired in 1984 and was named professor emeritus.

Dr. Metzger is most well known for his involvement in translation as Chair of the Committee on Translation of the American Bible Society 1964-70, and as Chair of the Committee of Translators for the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible 1977-90. The result of this committee, the NRSV, can be principally attributed to Dr. Metzger's tireless efforts. Throughout the translation process, he was also guided by ecumenical interests. He presented the Catholic edition of the NRSV to Pope John Paul II in 1993, and an expanded edition to His All Holiness Demetrios I in 1976.

There will be a memorial service to give thanks for Bruce Metzger's life on Tuesday, 20th February at 2.00pm in Nassau Presbyterian Church. His love for students, his scholarly mind, and his Christian humility will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A great weekend

This last Saturday I came in third at a Texas Holdem Poker tournament held at my church at raise money for our pastor’s adoption of a boy from Guatemala. My prize: a Cessna flight with a guy at our church. So on Sunday we flew from the Doylestown Airport (PA) to Sky Manor (NJ), a quick but beautiful 25-minute flight on a clear February day. We had lunch there at the airport, flew back, and then had a couple excellent cigars at Classic Cigar Parlor. A great two days.

Alister McGrath on Richard Dawkins

In light of the upcoming release of The Dawkins Delusion, Alister McGrath has written a nice short piece on Richard Dawkins in the Daily Mail with the cheeky title, “Do stop behaving as if you are God, Professor Dawkins.” McGrath’s previous book on Dawkins is titled, Dawkins’ God.

This new book is a basically an engagement in popular apologetics along the lines of N. T. Wright’s rather unnecessary new book, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? Both Wright and McGrath tend to engage in pop apologetics at the expense of careful theological reflection. Will people actually benefit from these books? Perhaps. Is it the best use of their time? Probably not. In the end, it makes for entertaining print wars, but not much else.

HT to David Berge of Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Theotokos and Divine Impassibility

The Christian tradition from the early church to High Scholastic has insisted on two fundamental doctrines: (1) Mary as the mother of God (theotokos), and (2) divine impassibility. The affirmation of both, it seems to me, is theologically suspect.

The former doctrine, Mary as the theotokos, was affirmed contra Nestorius and his assertion that Mary was only the mother of one nature, and not of the whole person. Thus, according to Nestorius, Mary is the mother of Christ, the Christotokos. As an extreme representative of Antiochene Christology, Nestorius stressed the full humanity of Christ at the expense of the true union of the natures. In order to preserve the integrity of each nature, he kept the two as distinct as possible. Part of this distinction involved the denial that Mary could possibly be the mother of the divine nature; she could not have given birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. According to Nestorius, "No one can bring forth a son older than herself." Nestorius was condemned and Nestorianism was rejected as a heresy. Mary has ever since been affirmed as the theotokos, an affirmation that depends upon the unity of the natures in the assumptio carnis by the eternal Logos.

The latter doctrine, divine impassibilty, has also been affirmed throughout the history of the church. But this doctrine depends upon precisely the same logic used by Nestorius. In order for the divine Logos to remain impassible while joined to the passible flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the two natures must be kept entirely distinct, to the point that one can identify the person of Jesus Christ with one nature alone. In the passion, the divine nature must somehow retract, leaving Jesus the man to suffer and die alone (hence the Gethsemane prayer and the cry of dereliction). But this is an incoherent position, in light of the prior affirmation that the two natures are so joined that Mary gives birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. The statement that Mary is the mother of God affirms that the one whom she bears is indeed very God. But if the baby Jesus is indeed the baby God, how then is it possible for the suffering Jesus to not be the suffering God?

What we have in the doctrine of divine impassibility is the return of Nestorianism, and not only the return, but the preservation and blessing of Nestorianism from the same Church that condemned him in 430 CE. So how does the Catholic Church attempt to resolve the issue? Thomas states, with the tradition, that each nature "retains that which is proper to it." The human nature retains the human suffering of Jesus, and thus we can say, by virtue of the fact that the two natures are joined in one person, the Word of God suffered in the flesh. Similarly, human birth is proper to the human nature as well, but since the two natures are joined in one person, we can say that Mary is the mother of God.

The problem is that with Christ's birth, the Church attributes what is proper to the human nature to the divine nature as well: God the Son is born. With the passion of Christ, the Church denies to the divine nature what is proper to the human nature: Jesus the man suffers and dies. As Thomas states, "The Lord of glory is said to be crucified, not as the Lord of glory, but as a man capable of suffering." What determines each position? There are finally two major problems: (1) a foreign metaphysic that predetermines what God can and cannot do; and (2) a poor Christology which leans Nestorian when the two natures must be kept distinct (impassibility) and leans Eutychian when the two natures must be joined together (theotokos). A proper Christology must affirm that the Logos assumes human flesh, and that this union of the two natures constitutes the one person, Jesus Christ. The person is not a third entity apart from the human and divine natures; the unio personalis is the union of deity and humanity in Christ, and therefore what is proper to each nature is proper to the whole person.

In the end, in order to be consistent, the Church should affirm both Mary as the theotokos and the passibility of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Top 10 Most Highly Anticipated Albums of 2007

[This list was composed a month ago, before any of the albums on this list were heard.]

1. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible [March 6]

2. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank [March 20]

3. Radiohead, Title TBA

4. The Go! Team, Title TBA [August]

5. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky [May 15]

6. New Pornographers, Title TBA [Summer]

7. Iron & Wine, Shepherd’s Dog [Fall]

8. Bright Eyes, Cassadaga [April 10]

9. Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City [Feb 6]

10. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away [Jan 23]

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Over at meremission.org, a variety of people (mostly pastors) gather to carry on “an open dialogue in missional theology.” On a theological level, missional theological centers on the missio Dei and the relation between the God of mission and the people who are called into mission as the church. (In a couple weeks I hope to post a lengthy reflection on the meaning of Immanuel that will be my most sustained engagement with missional theology.) On the practical level, the dialogue focuses on what it means to be a missional church; that is, what it means to be the church in a generally post-Christian context and in light of God’s own mission in Jesus Christ.

If you would like to register at this site in order to join the conversation, click here.

Karl Barth Conference: Barth and American Evangelicals

The second annual Karth Barth conference will be held this year at Princeton Theological Seminary from June 24-27. The topic is “Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?” Below is the schedule of events. If you are interested in registering for the conference, you should do so soon here.

Conference Schedule

Sunday, June 24

  • 2:00 p.m. - Registration
  • 6:00 p.m. - Opening Banquet
  • 7:00 p.m. - After Dinner Talk

Monday, June 25

  • 8:00 a.m. - Breakfast
  • 9:00 a.m. - American Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: Van Til's Critique and its Legacy
    • D. G. Hart (Intercollegiate Studies Institute)
    • George Harinck (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)
  • 11:30 a.m. - Worship
  • 12:00 p.m. - Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. - Covenant and Christology
  • 4:00 p.m. - Group Discussions
  • 6:00 p.m. - Dinner
  • 7:00 p.m. - After Dinner Talk

Tuesday, June 26

  • 8:00 a.m. - Breakfast
  • 9:00 a.m. - Theology and Philosophy
    • John Hare (Yale Divinity School)
    • Clifford Anderson (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • 11:30 a.m. - Worship
  • 12:00 p.m. - Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. - Breakout Sessions
    • Barth and Postliberalism - Jason Springs (American University)
    • Barth and Postmodernism (or "Emergent") - John Franke (Biblical Seminary)
    • Barth and Neo-Anabaptism - Todd Cioffi (Villanova University)
    • Barth and Radical Orthodoxy - Kevin Hector (Priceton Theological Seminary)
  • 4:00 p.m. - Group Discussions
  • 6:00 p.m. - Dinner
  • 7:00 p.m. - After Dinner Talk

Wednesday, June 27

  • 8:00 a.m. - Breakfast
  • 9:00 a.m. - Ecclesiology
    • Keith Johnson (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • 11:30 a.m. - Worship
  • 12:00 p.m. - Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. - Election and Eschatology: The Problem of Universalism
    • Suzanne McDonald (Westminister College)
    • Bruce McCormack (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • 4:00 p.m. - Plenary Discussion
  • 6:00 p.m. - Dinner

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Barth: theology concerns every one

The question of the relevance of theology for the general public has occupied the attention of this blog recently. As I was reading through the prefaces to Karl Barth’s Römerbrief, I came across the following statement which I think is apposite:
I have never pretended to be anything else [than a theologian]. The point at issue is the kind of theology which is required. Those who urge us to shake ourselves free from theology and to think—and more particularly to speak and write—only what is immediately intelligible to the general public seem to me to be suffering from a kind of hysteria and to be entirely without discernment. Is it not preferable that those who venture to speak in public, or to write for the public, should first seek a better understanding of the theme they wish to propound? [Leonhard] Ragaz and his friends reply hurriedly that this proceeds from callous theological pride. But this cannot be granted for one moment. Those who are genuinely convinced that the question is at present trivial must be permitted to go their way. Some of us, however, are persuaded that the question, What are we to say? is an important one, particularly when the majority are prepared at any moment to lift up their voices in the street. I do not want readers of this book to be under any illusions. They must expect nothing but theology. If, in spite of this warning, it should stray into the hands of some who are not theologians, I shall be especially pleased. For I am altogether persuaded that the matters of which it treats and the questions which it raises do in fact concern every one. I could not make the book more easily intelligible than the subject itself allows. ... If I be not mistake ... we theologians serve the layman best when we refuse to have him especially in mind, and when we simply live of our own, as every honest labourer must do.
—Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. from sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1968), 4-5.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Christian Peace Bloggers

Michael Westmoreland-White of Levellers has started a blog ring dedicated to issues of peace and justice from a Christian theological standpoint. Currently, there are 20 blogs in the ring. If you would like to be a part of this, you can join here.

Michael has kindly introduced me and some others on his blog. He is a tireless advocate for Christian pacifism, and I heartily support the work that he is doing.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Open theism and universalism

Last year, over at the Open Theism Discussion Board, my series on universalism was brought up as “interesting reading.” I am not sure what I think about that at the moment, but it’s definitely fascinating.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

How well do you know your Bible?

Alastair’s new biblical comprehension quiz is a real beast! I highly recommend it if you need a strong dose of intellectual humility. I rushed through the quiz (on my way to a Superbowl party), so perhaps my results are not entirely accurate. In any case, here’s how I did:

You rank 45% on the biblical comprehension scale.

You obviously have a respectable level of biblical knowledge. However, you fall just a little short of the standard of this advanced biblical comprehension test. Perhaps a more focused Bible-reading plan would improve your biblical knowledge.

How Well Do You Know Your Bible?
Quizzes for MySpace

(Ironically, I’m teaching a class on the Bible in a couple months. Perhaps I need a refresher!)

Review of Yocum, Ecclesial Mediation in Karl Barth

My friend, WTM, has written an excellent review of John Yocum’s 2004 publication, Ecclesial Mediation in Karl Barth, part of the Ashgate series on Barth studies. WTM’s own constructive interests are in sacramentology, particular the sacrament of baptism. Barth’s rejection of baptism as a sacrament is a major concern for people like T. F. Torrance and John Webster, the latter under whom Yocum completed his doctorate.

A response: a crisis of relevance?

The following began as a comment responding to the comments made by others to my previous post. At the end, I decided this was too important not to publish as a separate post.


A very stimulating conversation!

First, I must concur with Kim on the very poor judgments made thus far about Barth. If it hasn't been said a thousand times already, let me just reiterate: Barth saw himself thinking theologically in, with, and for the church. Any attempt to place a wedge between Barth and the church is doing great violence to Barth.

That said, I will not dispute the point made that there has been a great shift from pastor/bishop-theologians to professor-theologians. This is, in fact, a central critique of my own. I believe this is a major issue that the church needs to address. But rather than denigrating the professors, churches need to start actively cultivating a theologically rich environment where such thinking may take place. Theologians are more or less bound to the academic structures in place, but that does not preclude churches from creating an environment ripe for theological education.

The question, it seems, is this: Do churches actually care about theology? Let's put aside the possible counter-claim that there are no good theologians who are seeking to benefit the church. Why put this aside? Because if there were no such theologians, and churches really cared, then not only would the uproar from the Christian communities be a sufficient rebuke of the present-day theologians, but it would also create an environment where theologians could organically arise from within these communities. So I do not think the issue is whether or not theologians exist who seek to write for the church. The burden of proof, it seems to me, rests on the churches. The Christian communities of America and elsewhere need to prove that theology is actually a concern for them. As its stands, I am not convinced that it is.

Or ... and this only underscores my point: these churches do not know what theology actually is, and so the work of Lewis passes for dogmatics, or the work of Borg passes for NT scholarship—just as the books of Dan Brown pass for historically accurate fiction.

It seems to me that Thomas and Miner have set up the following hypothetical scenario: An average lay person (whoever that is!) has two books in her hand. One book is Barth's Dogmatics in Outline and the other is Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. She looks inside the former, and after reading the first chapter on dogmatics as a science, she decides to check out Warren's book. Opening that one, she reads about things that seem relevant to her, like the search for meaning in life. So she puts Barth's book back on the shelf and buys the other more relevant book instead.

This scenario, I suggest, is nonsense—the technical term is actually “bullshit,” but I like to keep potentially offensive words to a minimum. This “crisis of relevance” assumes that people are knowledgeable about the current writers and thinkers, but they are simply going with the ones that seem “relevant” to their daily lives. But this is utter nonsense. Most people have no idea who Barth is, but that is not because Barth is irrelevant. Such a statement could only be made by people who already know of and have read Barth, and yet find him difficult. In other words, the “relevance” position is an elitist position already! Barth is not irrelevant—and any sympathetic reader of Barth would argue to their death to the contrary; rather, he is off the radar. Barth is just not one of the options. To the average person, he never even existed!

The “crisis of relevance” is a red herring. The “crisis of knowledge” is the more basic and more important one. Relevancy is the idol of the “postmodern” church. The word “relevancy” is like the word “authentic”: both are sexy words people throw around for the purpose of making arbitrary distinctions between “relevant” and “irrelevant,” between “authentic” and “inauthentic.” But relevant to whom? And inauthentic according to what criteria? Is anyone asking these basic questions??

Are there problems with people writing and speaking to their own academic choir? Of course. I think people in the Radical Orthodox camp are especially guilty of this, though they are first guilty for producing poor theology. And, in fact, let me suggest something here: I am willing to stake my career on the assertion that “good theology” (theology that is concerned about nothing except being faithful to the word of the gospel) will be, by its very nature, helpful and profitable for the church. When theology attends to the Word of God, it will also by definition attend to the church. If such theology appears “irrelevant” and “foreign,” then such theology stands as a judgment on the community of faith for veering away from the Word of God.

Good theology will always call us back to the gospel, and that means it will often come to us as a word of judgment. That is, good theology functions like good preaching: as a prophetic voice of judgment and grace. Is a word of judgment ever “relevant”? Is a sermon about our sinfulness ever “relevant”? Will a dogmatics that denies the ability for humans to attain salvation through their good deeds ever be popular? Can a book of theology or a series of sermons that places a claim upon our lives ever be a best seller or be “seeker-friendly”?

One such judgment that I think theology can and should make is the judgment that churches today have simply grown lazy and fat when it comes to the life of the mind. Why must Christians give their very best in music, web design, and all the other things people like nowadays, but when it comes to engaging the mind and educating people in the church theologically, we just don't care? Is it because theology today doesn't care about the church, or because the church just doesn't care about theology? I think the latter. And I believe we will have to answer to God for why we were not more concerned about this during our lifetime.

We should not expect theologians to meet us on our level. This is the cry of a lazy church. We must seek to cultivate ecclesial communities that push, challenge, and provoke the theologians! The church ought to be setting the parameters for the issues theologians need to explore. In the early church, arguments within the churches provoked theologians to think critically in response. The closest thing to that now is the debates over homosexuality. Issues of dogmatics are simply ignored altogether. Churches today are simply a watered down form of Schleiermacherianism, in which personal experience is the beginning and the end of religion. But while Schleiermacher wanted religion to be the basis for knowledge and ethics, Christians today want religion apart from knowledge and ethics! This is a travesty!

In the end, the best thing the church can do for the health of theology and for its own health is to ensure and affirm the freedom of theology. We need to preserve a space (ideally within the church) for theologians to engage the important dogmatic issues of the day in faithful response to the Word of God that is heard and preached in the worshiping community. The church must not demand relevancy from theologians, in the same way—and this is a critical comparison!—that the world must not demand relevancy from the church. The moment we give in to the idol of relevancy, we forsake our identity as the people of God. At that point, not only theology but Christian faith itself is simply a waste of time.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Karl Barth, pop theology, and a two-tiered society

In the past, I have lamented what I call the “crisis of ignorance” in Protestantism today. I have commented on the anti-intellectualism which continues to pervade American evangelicalism, and is reflective of the broader society—and even pervades seminaries like Princeton. I have warned of the dangers of experientialism, among others. All of this still deeply concerns me.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend from church who is in a class with me on Barth's famous commentary on Romans taught by Bruce McCormack. Prof. McCormack mentioned that Barth’s Romerbrief is far and away the most influential work of theology in the 20th century. My friend asked me, If that is the case, then why is Barth utterly foreign to the average person in the pews?” Consider what follows an exercise in thinking out loud in reflection upon this question.

I began to think: Is Barth only influential among academic, among the elite who discourse about German idealism, modern expressivism, dialectical theology, and toss around terms like ontology, hermeneutics, epistemology, and opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa? Is Barth only “relevant” to those who interact in this ethereal realm of the mind? Is there any real traction between Barth's dogmatics and the person in the pew? Even if academic theologians insist there are serious points of contact, is that opinion shared by the people who actually sit in those pews? Is Barth just too difficult to read?

This has given me pause to think about the relation between academic and pop theology, if such a term can be used. It seems quite likely, and my childhood experience in the church confirms this, that if people were polled about which theologian is most influential for them, the winner would probably be C. S. Lewis. What is all the more interesting is that Lewis himself refuses to accept the notion that he is a theologian, precisely because he makes a distinction between the work that he does and the work that professional/academic theologians are doing. Lewis, we might say, is a pop-theologian—though clearly leaps and bounds above what passes for pop-theology today (Exhibit A: Rick Warren). Nevertheless, Lewis is not a dogmatic thinker; he is not thinking systematically about the doctrines of the faith. Lewis, rather, expounds upon themes and issues that concern the everyday Christian. He is moralist, a kind of pop-Christian philosopher. None of this is “bad,” except when Lewis (or someone like him; insert whatever pop name you wish) becomes the norm for how the average Christian thinks about the faith.

Barth and Lewis are representative of a much larger issue: the division between the popular and the academic, between the general and the elite. Our society is moving from a three-tiered culture—low, middle, high—to a two-tiered culture—low and high. And the division between the two is far wider today than the divisions between the three-tiered model. Why is Barth foreign to the person in the pew? Because theology itself is foreign. And why is theology foreign? Because contemporary Protestant Christianity (particularly in the United States) is defined by the Great Awakenings, by pietism, by the emphasis on subjective experience.

But this cannot explain everything. Why is Lewis popular? He is an intellectual of the highest degree. But he also writes for a mass audience. He gave radio talks on “mere Christianity,” he wrote children's stories, and he wrote about issues common to the average person, like suffering and morality. So is that what theologians need to do? Write about common human experience? However, Lewis did not just write for a mass audience. He also wrote for those interested in serious literature. These works are not popular at all, and most lovers of Lewis' work would probably never know they even existed. In a way, then, Lewis moves in both spheres: the academic and the popular. He cannot be confined to just one side of this dilemma.

There is perhaps something to be learned from Lewis on this point: he engaged the mind both in the realm of academic literature and in the realm of popular reflection. He did not leave the mind to the academics and the subjective experience to the popular culture. He brought serious intellectual reflection to both areas of existence. We must be clear: theologians are a necessary part of the church. They must not be constrained to engage in a task which is not their own. Not all theologians are called to be translators—that is, others may and will be called to engage in the task of “translating” the work of a theologian into the popular idiom of the day. To force all theologians to fulfill this task threatens the ability of such theologians to think freely. We must preserve a space for free dogmatic reflection in the church. That said, theologians ought also to consider the broader cultural divide in which high and low are becoming independent spheres of existence without any necessary relation to the other. As servants of the church, we ought to be concerned about this. That does not mean theologians should engage in a task not their own; but it does mean possibly thinking outside of the strict confines of the academy.

As I said already, this is simply an exercise in thinking aloud. I do pretend to have fully considered the issues at stake. But I do believe this is a topic that needs to be addressed by the church publicly.

Questions to consider:
  • Which thinker(s) are most important to the people in your church? Who do people read for theological stimulation?
  • Is there a “crisis of ignorance”? If so, how do you think we ought to address this problem?
  • Why is Barth foreign to the average Christian?
  • What makes pop-writers "popular"?
  • What are the ramifications of a two-tiered society? How should the church respond?

Human responsibility for climate change

Read the BBC article here.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

On the divine perfections

Kim Fabricius has another set of propositions, and this one may be the best of them all: “Ten propositions on the divine perfections.” As always, Kim’s stylistic elegance captures so much in so little space. While there are certainly more perfections that need to be addressed—e.g., there is nothing on divine simplicity or on the holiness of God—what he offers us is nevertheless full of deep insight. I recommend them highly.

For my part, I think John Webster’s work on the divine perfections is well worth engaging more fully. Webster writes on the immensity, ubiquity, holiness, and love of God in his recent collection of dogmatic essays, Confessing God. Thanks to the provocative post by Kim, I hope to offer some comments in relation to Webster in the future.

Schleiermacher: the passivity of piety

Piety has also a passive side. While morality always shows itself as manipulating, as self-controlling, piety appears as a surrender, a submission to be moved by the Whole that stands over against man. Morality depends, therefore, entirely on the consciousness of freedom, within the sphere of which all that it produces falls. Piety, on the contrary, is not at all bound to this side of life. In the opposite sphere of necessity, where there is no properly individual action, it is quite as active. Wherefore the two are different. Piety does, indeed, linger with satisfaction on every action that is from God, and every activity that reveals the Infinite in the finite, and yet it is not itself this activity. Only by keeping quite outside the range both of science and of practice can it maintain its proper sphere and character. Only when piety takes its place alongside of science and practice, as a necessary, an indispensable third, as their natural counterpart, not less in worth and spendour than either, will the common field be altogether occupied and human nature on this side complete.
—F. D. E. Schleiermacher, On Religion Second Speech.