Monday, March 23, 2015

The Relief of Being Able to Take the Bible Seriously—and Not Conservatively

Not that long ago I read a Bonhoeffer quote about the relief Bultmann provided, and the renewed faith he enabled, basically by allowing Moderns to be critical of scripture without calling them unfaithful for it. And this morning over at Women in Theology, Maria McDowell provides a must-read reflection on Marcus Borg with similar effect:
I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a relief to me,” or “Marcus helped me find my faith.”

[...]

I wanted to understand what was so appealing about his work. More than understand his work, I wanted to understand the love for him and by him that is so tangible among those who heard him speak, who attended his classes. When someone says, “this person helped me reclaim my faith,” I think we should pay attention. The fruits of the Spirit are precious and beautiful, and in my experience, sometimes too easy to ignore when they are not accompanied by the ‘right’ liturgy, the ‘right’ practice, the ‘right’ theology, the ‘right’ body, the ‘right’ belief. This man and his work was clearly, evidently, and abundantly fruitful.
This is a profoundly important thing to realize about critical scholarship, and one that is so rarely spoken: it serves the faith, and it does good for the faithful!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Being Fairer to Bultmann, and the People

When one is a Barthian, and especially when one also studies exegesis heavily, one tends to give Bultmann a hard time. And unlike David Congdon, whose early magnum opus on Bultmann will be coming out soon (with a smaller handbook to follow), I haven't put in anything like the time on Bultmann that I have on Barth. I'm not likely to, anytime soon, either. But I appreciate David's thorough and scrupulous effort to advocate for Bultmann's project; work like this and the Hammann biography makes it much easier to do the hard work necessary to being fair to the man while I continue to disagree with aspects of his approach.

Bultmann is, in many ways, the exegetical counterpart to Schleiermacher—and misunderstood for the same reasons. Both have been taken to be privileging the "cultured despisers" in an apologetic mode that gives away too much of the store to Modernity. But it is far better to see them taking the opposite approach to Gaunilo's complaints from Anselm and Barth. Gaunilo of Marmoutiers is not an outsider, but an incredulous insider, one who sees the archaisms of scripture and the intricacies of dogmatic history as detrimental to a faith that must be sustained in the everyday world of experience. How can we preach the gospel to such a person, when in its native forms it relies on things contrary to experience?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Races I Don't Have a Horse In: Peri-Mortem Salvation

There are many races I don't have a horse in, to put it colloquially: arguments in which I couldn't care less who wins, because they're arguments I'm not interested in having. And then there are the special cases in which I don't have a horse in the race, but I run against the race itself, because the race is for the wrong goal. This is one of those.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a universalist, and a very particular one. I believe that the whole creation is in fact redeemed in Christ, without concern for moral change, ontological change, or "regeneration." Christian ethics can only therefore be a matter of one's conscious relation to others on the basis of one's own relation to the God by whom this reality has already been achieved. (This in no way replaces the demand for an ethics appropriate to our common life in society, in which moral action must respect the wellbeing of all together, especially those on the margins, without prejudice among the competing and arbitrary systems that we call ways of life. In neither case is religion the fount of morality!)

This makes me a hit at parties, let me tell you. But it also makes me disappointed in much of what passes for "universalism" in the wider world of arguments on the basis of Medieval scholastic principles. The key to so many of those arguments is that salvation is understood as a peri-mortem event, in addition to being a product of judgment at the final eschaton. A future concern, to put it simply. For which reason it is often presumed that universalism involves the irrelevance of all realities prior to salvation—human freedom, right action, wrong action, suffering, patience, evil, etc.—because they a) have been foreseen, b) will be replaced by a new final reality, or c) are simply gratuitous. Side effects, as it were.

The problem, of course, is a linear progressive view of history, from creation to final eschaton, during which eschatological matters are determined. This is, for that matter, the trap into which many predestinarian systems fall in accounting for the assertion that ethics must still matter. This is why the Arminians exist. The old Reformation trap: if it doesn't matter for salvation, does it matter? If it matters, doesn't it in some way relate to salvation? This is how faith becomes a work: not because it isn't in fact something we do, but because it adopts the same functions in the system, and the system never changed.

The only solution, as far as I can tell, is to change the system by removing salvation from the calculus of death and judgment. Until this happens, the system within which salvation is a peri-mortem (including post-mortem) concern will continue to make us the arbiters of our own salvation, even to the point of requiring God to override our self-arbitration in order to save.

This is absurd.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Apocatastasis: A Twitter Essay, Extended

I wrote this as a Twitter storm of sorts, and one piece out of the middle struck a pious note that has been repeated. But that note seems to me no less than a death knell, the annihilation of the old for the sake of the new, and so I'm putting it together here to show why.


"This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this [i.e. non-eschatological] context." CD IV.3.1, 477.

So much of our discussion of Barth on universalism presumes that the answer that follows, on reconciliation and its end, is eschatological. This requires that we simply ignore that reconciliation is explicitly not eschatological, and does not lead to eschatology, in Barth!

When Barth speaks to apocatastasis, the question is whether, short of the eschaton, the kingdom will be actualized in mercy upon the earth. The question is whether human actors, in their impossible and absurdly self-ordered worlds, will not actually reap what they have sown.

Because we assume that judgment is the gateway to eschatology, we misunderstand Barth's insistence on giving just the immanent answer here. And the immanent answer to how the world will look when it ends is, "I don't know, and we have insufficient data to say." This is not leaving open the possibility of eternal damnation. This is refusing to assert that accounts will be settled "fairly" at last. Barth's openness to grace here is the possibility, in other words, of universal reconciliation, without making a statement on redemption.

This is what it means when we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is the grace we request. "Undo our worlds, O Lord, and restore creation to your order as though ours had never been."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

RFC: Researching the Kuyperians and "Common Grace"

The blog has been pretty inactive for about a year, while I've been working on projects that it's not easy or necessarily desirable to blog. But as I gear up for field exams (really, this time) I expect to be increasing my output as a way to keep thoughts associated on topic.

The first of those topics was going to be orders of creation in the Reformation strands, but I realized that there's just no way to do that justice at the level of detail I need. So—quite opposed to my initial Lutheran instincts—I found that if I had to focus on one strand, it was going to be the Kuyper–Bavinck-rooted strand of Dutch Calvinism. These folks are a key antithesis to Barth's doctrine of creation, and they have practically all of the features I could possibly want, including the political implications of believing that culture is in any way providential or natural. I'll be focusing particularly on "common grace," which as I understand it will require a bit of digging into "sphere sovereignty" and possible connections to the reaction against Modernist revolutionary tendencies (i.e. the French Revolution of 1792).

So far, I have Kuyper and Bavinck as contemporaries and roots of the tree, Berkouwer as a necessary point of interaction with Barth constructively, and Van Til as a necessary point of refusal of Barth through modification of this "common grace" tradition. Mouw appears to be useful as a present-day exemplar. I'm not learning Dutch for this; English resources will have to do. Fortunately, the Kuyper translation project has the first volume of Common Grace published, even though I'll have to do without the rest of it and Pro Rege.

This will contribute to my dissertation, to the extent that exponents and students of this tradition are practically the only ones who have reliably seen what I'm looking for in Barth—even if they see it and recoil. But I need to have a solid grasp of where they're coming from, because I need to oppose them fairly and well. They are possibly the best and most thorough exponent of what Barth rejects, and their theology works, even if in diametrically opposed fashion to Barth's own.

I know I have readers who will at the very least be more well-acquainted with this strand as members of the Reformed tradition and students or graduates of Reformed institutions. Suggestions and advice are welcome, especially on what constitutes good secondary literature. Please, help keep me accountable.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Flesh in Galatians: Correcting a Christian Perversion of the Text

This morning, in one of our conversations, Tapji Garba asked me a sidebar question about "flesh" in Paul. To which I said, "That's a huge question!" (Because, of course, it is!) But specifically, about "flesh" in Galatians, where it comes to stand opposite "spirit" in a few loci that have been taken as profoundly pejorative by the tradition.

So I had a look, because it's a good question and not one I had any solid answer to other than "well, the tradition tends to involve people saying X, and sometimes also Y…." And I hate that answer. And I like word studies. And Galatians is manageably small and sufficiently context-rich to come up with a decent answer. And I thought the result was sufficiently interesting that someone else might be able to use it, so here you go.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Research Note: Hebrews as Judean

I'm getting this out as a research note because I have to clear the decks, and it keeps coming back around in my head. So I'm going to tell you a story, as best as I have it worked out right now. I can't write the paper at present, but I will keep writing the commentary, and this is where it's coming from. Testing and feedback will be appreciated!

The New Testament text that we call the epistle to the Hebrews, which circulates in the Pauline canon for its entire recorded existence—even though it is clearly not Pauline—is not a Christian writing. But we fall back on the assertions and speculations of Christian origin and audience because it also does not fit the next natural context: the Jerusalem Temple and its priestly cultus.

It is frequently asserted that the text must be Christian, because we fail to be able to imagine the sectarian environment in which its polemic could be situated entirely within Judean and Jewish concerns. But such a sectarian environment certainly existed, at numerous points, and even exists behind the texts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings that Christians have arranged into the Old Testament. Polemic internal to Judaism and contest over the markers of Judean identity are far from new inventions in the New Testament.

The drastic and often binary reduction of that reality made possible by typically scriptural reflection on the "causes" of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 tends to obscure this plural and sectarian history. Our canonical gospels are examples of such literature. This reductive tendency is amplified by the loss of textual data that results from the destruction of a fortified city by the legions as an example to others in the region. When history is erased and memory changes through story, what existed beforehand is often unrecoverable. We are left with sources that exist only outside, or after the fact, of the event.

The question, then, is where we may find a set of historical realities, available to us and not merely imagined, that provide plausibility to a Judean and Jewish reading of Hebrews according to its text. In this note I wish to propose one such possibility for further exploration: Jericho during the years of the first Judean revolt.