Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Modal Possibilities of Salvation

Since I've started working on universalism, my reading list has shifted. Which has compelled me to read Oliver Crisp's chapter on Barth vis-à-vis universalism in "All Shall Be Well". And it's just as well that I had already decided not to go the route of comparing Barth to a predetermined standard of universalism. But from the analytic perspective, Crisp does something I find questionable in stating his definition, and I'd like to play with it more.

You see, Crisp begins with the statement that there is a difference that must be respected between "all human beings will be saved" and "all human beings must be saved." Now, on that bare point I can agree, albeit for different reasons—I mean it in deontic terms, and he means it in alethic terms. But he bases this distinction on possible-worlds semantics, such that it appears the difference is between "all actual human beings will be saved" and "all possible human beings will be saved." That is, Crisp makes the question to be answered whether universalism is true, or necessarily true.

Now, I'm not sure this is really the modal question that must be answered with regards to salvation. But the game is then to figure out what the good questions are, and to ask them.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Three and the Two

Barth's doctrine of God is an interesting thing. I was once asked where the doctrine of the trinity was in Barth, and I was kind of stumped as to where to start—because where isn't it? There are places I could point to as more or less concise expositions, but they're microcosms of the whole. It's structural. It's a basic presupposition. (Yes, yes, I know, "presuppositionless theology"—which means theology done on its own internal presuppositions, as thoroughly examined as possible.) Dealing with Robert Jenson (well beyond the article I've been wrestling with lately) has forced me to re-evaluate certain things, and crucial among them is my estimation of how structural Barth's doctrine of the Trinity is. Or, more to the point, where and in what way structural.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Doctrine of the Trinity, and Scripture

I've been arguing quite a lot lately about the doctrine of the Trinity, whether here, in other fora, or just in the relative quiet to be had sitting at my kitchen table with books strewn across it. And, frankly, if there's a better thing to be arguing about, I don't have a handle on it! The basic question is, how do we speak about who God is in such a way that we adequately describe who God is? And how does our practice of answering that question relate to our practice of interpreting scripture?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Gospel Happens Offstage

I'm being too critical lately, and not preaching gospel enough. It's wrecking me. There are stupid ways to be intelligent, and I'm engaging in them. So let's see if we can't shift the path I'm on just a little.

In this week's reading from Acts 16, God has maneuvered Paul and company into a corner of sorts. And when they get there, there's a message. Kind of a "Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope" kind of thing. So, straight away, and as directly as possible, they cross the Aegean from Asia Minor to Macedonia, and wind up at Philippi.

This is a key Roman city, a colony founded anew by Octavian on the site founded by Phillip II of Macedon. And it served the same functions for both states: control of trade on a main route, and access to vital resources in nearby mines. A place directly under the thumb of Roman governance, as only a flower in the emperor's lapel could be. A place with a lot of trade going on, since it's on the main road for anything going between Byzantium and Rome overland, and right next to the port at Neapolis.

Not a Judean place. A fact made more evident by our protagonists having to seek outside the walls for a proseuchē at which to worship on the Sabbath. But certainly a place with Judeans in it, as made evident by the fact that they found one! And not ethnic Judeans only, but Gentile "God-fearers" too. A living and active community.

Now, how Paul and Silas wind up at what looks at first glance like an "all-girls retreat" by the river is another question, but the author of Acts doesn't bat an eye at it. There are things I love about the ancient Hellenistic world, and this is one of them. We didn't invent female empowerment. A congregation of faithful women and their households, meeting for their regular Sabbath prayers, when Paul and Silas arrived visiting. And as visiting missionaries and teachers, they did their jobs, same as always. And one of the God-fearers, Lydia of Thyatira, by all indications an influential trader and the head of her household here in Macedonia—my guess, holding down one end of the family business—is moved to be baptized. She is, in fact, from the region they had just left in Asia Minor, and she invites the apostles to be her guests there in Macedonia. (Small world, eh?)

A Snippet on Scripture

Scripture does this little dance. On the one hand, it represents God—literally presents us again and again with God—so that we who have seen God because of the stories it tells can say that we know this God. One the other hand, it insists that this same God, who was living and active in these stories of the past, is living and active today—and so cannot be reduced to the past or its stories. It presents us with icons of the depth of the activity of God—and then breaks them such that we cannot worship the images. Each image, the deeper we follow its lines, forces us out of itself. And this is the nature of the kind of thing that scripture is. Scripture is a field guide for those who rely on the presence of the God who is Spirit in the world.

Friday, May 3, 2013

"Modes of Being" and the Threefold Alterity of God

It's "brass tacks" time. Or at least, it's part 1 of "brass tacks" time. Yes, I'm still working on Jenson's "You Wonder Where the Spirit Went."

The article has five sections. The first explains Jenson's task, which is to "pick a nit"—not an insignificant task, given that it was a pest that both he and the Barth Society at the time saw as lively and unpleasant. And I agree—this article remains worth engaging precisely because, if this pest is really what's biting us, we are obliged to kill it stone dead for the sake of the health of our theology.

Barth has done something salutary in his use of the doctrine of the Trinity to identify the specifically Christian God. Jenson, of all people, knows how obliged the 20th century is to this insight. The problem, however, if it is real, is with Barth's development of this doctrine. Jenson locates it in two places: first, the insufficiency of Barth's "full technical doctrine of the Trinity" as to the nature of persons; and second, the use of that insufficiently-developed doctrine as a framework for everything else. And so, in the second section of the article, Jenson points to three cases of apparent "binitarianism," perceived conflicts of the three and the two in Barth's exposition, in which a two-sided relationship gives primary form to the material. This is the "nit," and Jenson will go on to associate it directly with a Father-Son binary that leaves no room for an equal third in the Spirit.

(Of course, I have my own explanation of Barth's play with the three and the two, and why Barth's dependence upon the relationship between God and humanity, and the corresponding relationship between human individuals, isn't "binitarian"—but I won't get to it today. That has to do with the impact of ethics, and Jenson doesn't go there. Besides, let's take one massive and complicated thing at a time, eh?)

The third section of the article is where Jenson engages in preliminary diagnosis, before proceeding onward to identify this "nit" specifically and trace its ecclesiological implications in the following two sections. And that preliminary diagnosis is where I will begin. Jenson commences this diagnosis with the declaration of the interconnectedness of the filioque, which Barth uses, and the heresy of modalism—which in fact Barth fights. And that is the territory I'm going to engage over today: modalism and the definition of God's threefold personality.