Friday, August 21, 2015

Sub-project: Does Election Really Break the CD?

I find myself increasingly frustrated by the view—based on Bruce McCormack's work—that the doctrine of election in CD II.2 redefines Christology and therefore soteriology in ways discontinuous with the preceding three part-volumes, or at least with CD I. It came to a head, for me, in connection with a Twitter disputation we had yesterday regarding the opening to section 18.2 in CD I.2, even though the question of the scope of salvation was (to me) clearly a side issue in discussing the meaning of the text in question. (I have a hunch that my perception of that conversation has much to do with being more instinctively the exegete than the theologian when it comes to translation linguistics. Bible folks feel this way in conversation with non-Bible theologians on a regular basis!)

So, of course, I spent most of the day reading and researching. And attempting to avoid coming off at any future point like Paul Molnar in criticism of McCormack's work—I've done that sort of thing enough in earlier "this doesn't work with my system" naïveté, and it's an approach that frustrates me tremendously when Barth's opponents do it. And I've come to a place from which I can see that the problem isn't what McCormack has correctly seen about Barth's doctrine of election. Clearly there is a "Christological redefinition of election" if we look at Göttingen and Münster as successive predecessors to the Bonn/Basel work that would go into the CD. The question is, does this redefinition really break the CD at II.2, such that the mature Barth whose opinions we are obliged to respect isn't the Barth of the prolegomena and the doctrine of the Word?

In other words, while I'm not totally convinced by everything McCormack has built on this doctrine of election and its connection to divine ontology, is he right to believe that election in CD II.2 is disjunctively novel within the Church Dogmatics? Can what he sees be seen earlier?

More to come, obviously, but for now I'll leave you with a map I drew in the very same section 18 of CD I.2 years ago:
My hunch is that this is a compatible pattern, but feedback is certainly welcome!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

What Is a Dangerous Heresy?

It never surprises me when folks reach for the "Heresy!" panic button when faced with even the best forms of non-binary soteriology. And, as happened in the comments section a few posts ago, it's usually connected to the "universalism is moral escapism" trope. (Which I'm pretty sure no amount of persuasion, however well-written, will manage to erase because it's a matter of willful ignorance.) As though we hoped in God for salvation as a way out of the moral dilemmas we constantly get ourselves into ... and that were a bad thing, rather than the entire point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As though the real soteriological question were "Will you be weighed and found wanting by the ultimate judge and determiner of your fate?"—and there were a real possibility of answering "no."

And here's the real kicker: most binary soteriologies are riddled with moral escape hatches. And most of those escape hatches are designed to use group membership as a substitute for moral action, just like the one the Roman community was relying on when Paul decided they had to be corrected. Because the system is set up so that there can be no real escape from moral question, face to face with God. So, rather than ask penetrating questions about the system, which works amazingly well for the purpose it was designed for (allowing us to condemn others and extort compliance to our will), we simply give ourselves a "get out of judgment free" card of some sort. That's the dangerous heresy, right there. Not the studied denial that God will use condemnation to torture or destroy in eternity, but the willful denial that the morality of our actions will be thoroughly judged and found wanting, and that we merit a fate like all others on that basis. Biased grace as an outcome of biased judgment is the truly dangerous heresy.

But what is the criterion for "dangerous heresy"? Clearly, if I were a convicted believer in binary, moral-judgment soteriologies, I'd think it was dangerous to believe that there would be no damnation. Why? Because if there were I might not change my ways and thus effect my own salvation. I might miss my opportunity. Which is the entire business model of American tractarian evangelism. It would be dangerous to base my trust in God on falsehood when truth is a requirement for salvation—but even if truth is not a requirement for salvation, it can be dangerous to base our faith in God on false information. Truth is also a requirement for informed moral action in the world—something that every universalist I know of considers to be very important, opposition PR notwithstanding.

A dangerous heresy, put as simply as I can, is a belief that causes us to mis-trust God. I mean that several ways. It can cause us not to trust God for what we rightly should; it can cause us to trust God wrongly for what we shouldn't; it can cause us to trust a god that is not the God we claim to trust, putting our real trust somewhere else. Valid information about God is very important for faith! What God is like, what God's character is, is the only good reason to trust God—and also the only good reason to distrust God, if one chooses to.

We've really hollowed out the word "faith" over the last several centuries, especially by trying to make it not a morally relevant action, something we have willing control over. And we did that by replacing moral action with faith as the criterion for salvation, instead of fixing the real problem with judgment-based, morally-pendent soteriologies. And rather than seeing the Arminian bug report for what it was, we turned faith into an escape hatch keyed to right self-identification. Faith is important. Faith is a moral act. Where you put your trust matters, and it determines what you will choose to do and not do in the world.

Faith requires knowledge. Faith requires awareness. Faith is an act of will. It can be well-informed, or poorly, and it doesn't need to be fully-informed to begin—faith, after all, seeks understanding—but you cannot trust, or distrust, what you do not know at all. Faith is trust that moves from knowledge to greater knowledge. And it can be lost, and rightly so, if the knowledge it receives proves the object of faith to be untrustworthy.

A dangerous heresy is therefore one that feeds bad information into this process—not good information about a bad reality, but bad information itself. Which means that claims of heresy are never stopping points. You want to claim heresy and denounce me, what you've really done is asserted your information against mine, your authority over mine, with no possibility for argument. And if you're going to do that, chances are good it's a sign I shouldn't try arguing with you. Chances are good it's a waste of time, because you're not open to persuasion. The rest of us, however, get by on actually turning our disagreements into discussions of how we understand God, what we think we know and why we think we know it, what we don't know, and where we might go from there.

The truly dangerous heresies don't just feed in bad information; they lock down discussion in order to restrict the possibilities for growth. Don't put your faith in the church, or the tradition, or any subset thereof. Put your faith in God, if you will, and question God, and question the information you receive about God. Question the sources. A faith that cannot risk this is no faith at all, which is the real danger.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

OK, So What IS Hope?

Meanwhile, in random thoughts carried on from previous posts...

So I think I made myself pretty clear about "hopeful" or, as Moltmann more appropriately names it, "open" universalism. There's nothing of genuine hope involved in keeping open the possibility that God might redeem every individual, especially when that redemption is posited as unlikely due to the eschatological coming-in-judgment as the gateway to the binary afterlives. "God might, just possibly, send all of us through the same door—and not the one we deserve!"

And, of course, I'm a universalist. I don't merely hope that God will finally decide to save every individual, however unlikely it may seem from here. I have a theologically grounded expectation, on the basis of the gospel, that God has in fact seen to the redemption of the whole creation, as the basis for the covenant, and that God is therefore accomplishing its reconciliation—both to Godself and between fellow creatures—as a constant and pervasive intervention against our designs for world history. This is the basis for genuine hope, because what has been promised is being effected, and will continue to be effected, by God—in spite of anything and everything the world presents to the contrary.

Now, I think that as a Barthian, I think that having drunk deeply and critically of Barth's own thought, but it is far from clear that Barth thinks anything like that. What Barth does think is a far muddier matter.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Back to Work-Blogging

The inadvisability of blogging one's developing thesis has left this site relatively spare for a while. But with one last loose-end-tying-up course in the fall term and examination readings to go through, I'm about to return to form. I'll be reading through important sources in the present state of Barthianism, particularly on election and its weird not-quite-Barth bondage to trinitarian ontology. I've done most of this reading before, but I didn't have the grounds to argue with it, or differentiate it from Barth. (Mostly I complained about it then because it didn't make proper sense in my system, which is a separate concern from whether it makes sense vis-à-vis what Barth actually wrote.)

Of course, there's another kind of inadvisability possible in this kind of writing. I don't aim for this stuff to be popcorn-worthy; this isn't theological fight club. But I am about to make a lot of statements critical of or in direct contradiction to the opinions of well-regarded and influential scholars in a field from which I'm not looking to alienate myself. And I'm already getting a few "no serious scholar thinks what you think" readings. (Which I know; it's why I'm the one filing the bug reports and writing the patches, because I'm the one seeing the problem.) That's good, it's important. And I've done the same, in a review that might better be left in someone's drawer, to a recent book that didn't manage to provide proof of its own assertions counter to the best current work in the field.

It's not that I don't like theological fight club; it's that, for lack of a better word, chivalry is advisable. Honorable combat, sparring not for the takedown but for the good fight well-fought against a worthy opponent. (Wow, there's a lot of gender-role garbage back of that.) Put another way, it's the difference between Barth and Brunner arguing with Schleiermacher. The notional busts of Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, John Webster, and many others are going to stay sitting on my notional desk for a long time to come.

So it's about time I started putting up argument demonstrating my engagement with the field. What they have done well, I have to do at least as well. And what they have done poorly, I have to be able to spot and do better. I'm obviously going to make my own errors; I'm as subject to this process as anyone else. But I have at least one advantage, which is that I'm still significantly an outsider. I've worked hard to gain familiarity and currency within the field, but especially when it comes to the assumptions of Reformed theology, as embodied by readers who take Barth as a Reformed theologian, a cradle Lutheran has a different enough lens for what may be better differentiation of Barth's own claims.

First on deck, while I considered a couple of Hunsinger bits (four views of hell, or the one in which he manages to hypostasize periods within eternity), will be McCormack's "Grace and Being: The Role of God's Gracious Election in Karl Barth's Theological Ontology," from the Cambridge Companion. I've never had a stake in the battle between pseudo-Chalcedonians and so-called-Revisionists, and I've been asked to claim a position numerous times over the years. But if I'm going to claim land here, it's going to be Barth's, and it's going for that reason to be my claim and not theirs. So, anyways, a start on that is coming, after I finish wading through this piece carefully.

If you want previews, you can always listen to me complain on Twitter.