Monday, September 30, 2013

Learning the Truth from Lies: Diatribe in Romans

This is going to be a bit of a second introductory post. Seventeen verses of commentary is a bit much to cover in a single blog post, and so rather than write you an entire book chapter at one go, I'm going to split up the necessary information. First, since what I'm basically doing is introducing you to Romans as one massive diatribe from the word "go," I want to take a moment to explain more thoroughly what that means.

Also, since I've gotten a bit of nasty feedback in the form of a suggestion that I'm showing you how to "nullify" scripture, I now have an excuse to explain more clearly the problem with citing diatribes without paying attention to rhetorical markers. (I prefer to think of such complaints as teachable moments.) Remember: scripture is not authoritative in its bare words, as though you could take them out of context with equal validity. The authority of the words of scripture derives in no small part from the ways their authors have used them, and it is twisting the words of scripture to use them in a contrary sense. The question is, in every case: how does the author use these words?

Paul is using the diatribe in Romans in order to teach his audience to tell truth from falsehood, and to correct falsehood with truth. This means that the text of Romans contains falsehoods. Paul is going to lie to us! And then, in every instance, he is going to expose the lie, contradict it, and present the truth. He is going to teach us, if we follow him, to expose the liars who say such things, and to correct them. Which is great! We want that! Except ... those liars are us. If we follow him, we are going to learn humility the hard way.

To the extent to which the words of Romans are authoritative, then, their authority lies in the fact that Paul uses them to correct lies that we ourselves believe—lies about ourselves, lies about others, and lies about God. This is Paul's witness to the truth, and it is a witness against us. As such it is a genuine service to the faith of the church.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Challenge of Romans

Someone suggested I do a post on Romans 1 after I made a quip about Romans 1:18-32 not being sincere in Paul's mouth. And there's no way to do that without starting a series on Romans and at least carrying it out into chapter 2. And there's no way to do that without first explaining some things up front. Whether or not I immediately continue the series, this is that "up front" post.

Critical Exegesis

Part of the problem an exegete faces when communicating critical scholarship in the exegesis of scripture is that the text itself does not change. And the reader's version of the text has generally been set by the standard English translations, generally by the King James English version and its offspring—including the NRSV.

The first effect of this is that free English translation from the Greek, bound by the best of what manuscript evidence and textual criticism indicate, and what the Greek itself says, will differ from this familiar and expected version of the text. That text is one interpretation, mine is another, but the measure of both is the Greek itself.

The second effect of this is that how that Greek text means is subject to a huge array of variables. The standard translations made their assumptions, generally because they are translations of the book we call "the Bible," which contains scriptural writings (in various arrangements, depending on sect) of Christian worshiping assemblies. But the assumptions appropriate to a critically attentive translation of a letter of Paul must be different. They must reflect, not the literary text of a sacred book, but the communication of an author to an audience in its context.

And the trick to this is that I am obliged to uphold the former sense, but I am equally obliged to base the meaning of the text in its canonical sense on the understanding of it gained by relying on its individual context. The real authority of scripture, as a canon of texts sacred to us, cannot come from us or from our canonical collection of those texts as authoritative. Canonical authority is a rubber stamp of the authority of the individual texts we have canonized. The authority of scripture comes from its being what it is, in each and every single instance. It comes from the fact that each text (and all of them together) have already done, in their own ways, what we ourselves aim to do in witness to God.

So the first thing I need to do, in teaching you the address Paul sent to the assemblies of Rome, is to teach you some guiding assumptions behind that second sense of its context.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The imago Dei and Human Nature

This is a Barth v. Brunner post, but hopefully a reasonably enlightened one. I've been trying to answer Brunner as a Barthian but without Barth's direct help, especially in the natural theology dispute. Why? Because I think Barth misses important tricks. Not in the end, necessarily, because he develops better answers—but definitely up front, in his responses to Brunner.

Brunner is walking as middle a way as he can between scholastic orthodoxy and Barth, working against Schleiermacher as he understands him, using Barth for major direction and scholastic work for detail. But Barth looks at him less as a friend and equal, and more as a quixotically enthusiastic younger colleague who regularly takes his ideas and runs off to attack perceived enemies, on the one hand, and combine them with misunderstandings, on the other. This results in Barth being concerned to be understood, more than to understand.

A key part of the problem between Barth and Brunner—and one that will continue to develop out into their later works—is the relation between human nature and the imago Dei. It's been suggested that there's a useful distinction between material and relational views of the imago Dei to be made here, but I think that's not the optimal way to go about the problem. You see, it isn't just the imago Dei, but also human nature—and you can't assume these two things are either synonymous or connected up in the same ways in both systems.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What is "Evangelical"?

Travis has started "Mondays with McMaken" over at DET (wholly appropriate, since he's the proprietor), pushing bits of his new book with Fortress, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Now, part of me is enthusiastic about this book because it's by a friend of mine, it's a Barth book, it seems quite well-written, and it represents a coup for my "home team" over Ashgate et al. (One of several lately!) However, I am also enthusiastic about it as a Barth scholar and a Lutheran whose communion believes in paedobaptism as a norm (but not an ideal) of our sacramental practice.

As I have been trained to understand it, our position on paedobaptism is at least partly contrarian—and definitely connected to that streak in Luther himself! It means, for us, that we do not only baptize adults who can articulate the faith for themselves, but also infants who cannot. With Luther and the confessors, usually in opposition to the "Anabaptists," we believe that the evangelical character of the sacrament is most clearly demonstrated in the baptism of infants. The baptism of infants is a kind of quid sans quo, rather than a quid pro quo. It makes a statement about the true nature of the sacrament.

Whether we take infants as prototypes of the unbeliever, or as those who instinctively trust—and the tradition does both—faith is not to be undervalued. However, it is also not to be understood as constitutive of the sacrament and its validity. God's actions for us, and indeed upon us, are the ground on which faith grows afterwards—and without which there can be no faith. As Luther says, "We maintain that we should baptize children because they also belong to the promised redemption that was brought about by Christ"—and in extending the rite of baptism to children, we likewise extend the promise of their redemption already achieved in Christ. (SA III.5)

Travis, in writing on the doctrine of baptism, also raises the question about what is "evangelical" about it. His post today gives a teaser of the meaning of that term: it "treats of the God of the Gospel." That god is revealed in our εὐαγγέλιον, which Travis employs as a translation for "gospel," and I always prefer to understand in a more literal sense as our "proclamation," the thing we announce, in which we announce God and what God has done. "Evangelical theology" is therefore theology attentive to that proclamation. The first sense Travis gives for what that means is that such a theology is attentive to Jesus Christ, his person and his work, as the content of that proclamation. All subsequent senses are left to be read in the book itself, but that also leaves a challenge for the blog reader to further develop the sense of this word, "evangelical."