Sunday, October 31, 2010

East and West.

I've been doing some outside reading for my Early Christian Thought: Eastern Fathers class at HDS. After reading the letters of Cyril of Alexandria which respond to the (heretical) teachings of Nestorius, my questions seemed endless. I've picked up Justo Gonzalez's A History of Christian Thought and Jaroslav Pelikan's Christianity and Classic Culture; The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Helenism. I know some might scoff at Gonzalez's work, especially for its simplicity, but I like to think of him as accessible. Nothing that I have read thus far has even remotely failed to offer great insights into the development of Christian doctrine, despite his narrative-like prose. I want to get more deeply into J.N.D. Kelly's classic text Early Christian Doctrines, but I only have so much time for outside reading.

Anyhow, I enjoyed the following excerpt from Pelikan this evening. Enjoy.

"It has become a truism of the comparative intellectual history of the Middle Ages to observe that Byzantium never had an Augustine and that this constituted a fundamental difference between East and West. Whether that represents a disadvantage or an advantage for the East is a matter of considerable dispute in both East and West. Although no one figure among later Greek Christian thinkers occupied the same heights that Augustine of Hippo did among the later Latins, the truism needs qualification in important ways. For if it means that there has never been in the Christian East a theological-philosophical genius worthy of being placed alongside Augustine for sheer creativity and power as an individual intellectual virtuoso (whether heretical or orthodox), it is mistaken, because Origen of Alexandria, who was born circa 185 and died circa 254, does deserve to be counted as his peer. But if the chief emphasis lies, as it probably should, on Augustine's position in the century after the "peace of the church" under Constantine and after the codification, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, of the faith that Augustine transmitted to the Latin Middle Ages with his own special stamp upon it then his place in Western Christian history has its counterpart in the joint achievement of three Eastern Christian thinkers belonging to the generation immediately following that of Nicaea and preceding that of Augustine: Basil of Caesrea, who died in 379; his brother Gregory of Nyssa ("Nyssen"), who died circa 395; and Gregory of Nazianzus ("Nazianzen"), who died in 389 - often grouped as the Three Cappadocians. Together the Cappadocians did occupy a place in what Endre von Ivanka has called "early Byzantine intellectual life" - after Constantine, Nicaea, and Athanasius but before Justinian, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and the Iconoclastic controversy - that suggests intriguing analogues to the place of Augustine in the Western Middle Ages."

- Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture, 5-6.

Photo Credit: here

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Barth, Politics, and Tanner.

"...Just as God is love does not mean love is God, God's kingdom may be the basis for a Christian identification of socialism with it without that implying that socialism on its own merits is to be identified with the kingdom.

This irreversibility is no more than assertion, however, unless one can materially show the way the gospel message suggests of itself something like socialism, unless one can demonstrate that the gospel contains within it definite direction of some sort or other for Christian political decision in particular circumstances. One has to turn one's attention to dogmatics, in short, as the starting point for distinctively Christian political judgments, if the claim of irreversibility is to hold water. And this would seem to be at least one intent of the whole project of the
Church Dogmatics after its aborted start:

I am firmly convinced that, especially in the broad field of politics, we cannot reach the clarifications which are necessary to-day, and on which theology might have a word to say, as indeed it ought to have, without first reaching the comprehensive clarifications in and about theology which are our present concern. I believe that it is expected of the Church and its theology - a world within the world no less than chemistry or the theatre - that it should keep precisely to the rhythm of its own relevant concerns, and thus consider well what are the real needs of the day by which its own programme should be directed [CD I/I, p. xvi.].

Only by proceeding in this way can one prove that Christianity offers on political questions anything more than "the secret power of giving to man the inward capacity to seek and attain the aims and purposes which he has independently chosen" [CD I/2, p. 336]. If the goals, content, and direction of human action are not to appear to be imported from elsewhere for simple Christian ramification, if they are not to seem to be based on an autonomous, and what Barth would judge to be sinful, estimation of our own about how to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, then the substance of the Christian position on political questions has to be thoroughly grounded theologically."

- Kathryn Tanner, "Barth and the Economy of Grace", Commanding Grace: Studies in Barth's Ethics, 181-182.

This portion of the article is at once very important to understanding the whole and also only stands as introductory remarks; her main argument goes on to critique Barth's appropriation of capitalism (or lack thereof), among other things. She ultimately proceeds to offer a "Christ-centered dogmatic foundation for ethics" (p. 193) specifically in relation to private property and competition.

I found the above excerpt to be incredibly beneficial and refreshing. As a political science major during my time as an undergraduate, I made the conscious decision to temporarily forgo my future in politics in order to attend seminary. My desire was to gain a robust theological education. When I started seminary, I was a church history student. I had no idea what theology was exactly since all I was given in undergraduate were biblical studies, apologetic, philosophy, and brief church history classes. Dogmatics was an unknown word that I associated with men like Sean Hannity. I became a church history major because I was desperate to gain a deeper foundation for my Christian faith. I hoped that understanding the confessions of the Church would provide an identity, new categories, and tools for future political endeavors. After a systematic theology class, I quickly became a theology student. I didn't know what would become of my interest in politics or broader ethical questions for that matter. All I knew was that the only way forward was to be trained theologically. Ironically, my interest in political thought and ethics has decreased considerably. However, I think this has more to do with previous negative experiences in certain circles where such aspects of thought were prominent. I wonder how (and if) my deeply held political and ethical interests will be weaved into my newfound love for dogmatics. But one thing is true - the decision to gain theological literacy has been one the greatest privileges I've ever been given. I only pray that if I do seek to engage political and ethical questions, that I will be a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Theologies of Retrieval

I picked up The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology today from the library for fun. I started to read the chapter concerning biblical studies by C. Kavin Rowe and Richard B. Hays. However, as I tried to find that chapter while eating lunch, I found a chapter by John Webster entitled "Theologies of Retrieval." If I'm understanding him correctly, he uses this provisional title in reference to the following theological groups: post-liberal, post-critical, restorationist, palaeo-orthodox, intratextual, and ("even") postmodern. At the end of the chapter, he offers a conclusion with some critical remarks. I believe he articulates the weaknesses of these theological groups very well and in a balanced/fair manner.

"A further temptation for theologians of retrieval is to subscribe to the myth of the fall of theology from Christian genuineness at some point in its past (fourteenth-century nominalism, the sixteenth-century Reformation, seventeenth-century Cartesianism, or whatever 'modernity' is considered to have first presented itself). The oversimplifications which attend epochal interpretations of history are well known. But there is a deeper point here. However necessary 'anti-modern' protest may be on certain occasions, however much it may empower the re-engagement of neglected constructive tasks, it should not betray theology into the illusion that all that is required for successful dogmatics in the present is the identification and repudiation of an error in the past. Such a stance can indicate the same illusion of superiority as that sometimes claimed by critical reason. Moreover, it can fail to grasp that the problem is not
modern theology but simply theology. All talk of God is hazardous. Modern constraints bring particular challenges which can be partially defeated by attending to a broad and wiser history, but there is no pure Christian past whose retrieval can ensure theological fidelity.

This does not in any way call the project of retrieval into question or minimize its impact. The recovery of the present ecclesial vocation of systematic theology, as well as the renewal of its public functions, surely require persuation of the weightiness of the past. But however basic a task, retrieval cannot constitute the entirety of theological work. 'In ... obedience to the church's past it is always possible to be a very
free theologian. But it must be borne in mind that, as a member of the church, as belonging to the congregatio fidelium, one must not speak without having heard ' [Barth 1962:181]."

- Webster,
The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 596-597.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


More from John Webster ... I particularly appreciated the parts concerning the resurrection. It reminded me a bit of this post a while ago. Read that post I linked if you have time. It is one of my favorites.

"A second example of the same process is theological talk of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In a fashion similar to what took place in the doctrine of revelation, the resurrection shifts from being an
object of belief to being a ground of belief. That is to say, the resurrection comes to perform a function in an apologetic strategy as part of the endeavor of fundamental theology to defend the possibility of revelation and special divine action. And as its role changes, so also does its content. Extracted from its proper Christological home, it is no longer considered part of the Credo. Instead it is handled evidentially, as furnishing extrinsic grounds for subsequent attachment to the Credo. As a result, the more obviously evidential aspects of the resurrection - notably, of course, the empty tomb - come to occupy centre stage, precisely because they can most easily be assigned a job in the search for transcendental foundations for Christian doctrine.

Neither of these moves could have taken place without a certain forgetfulness of the inner structure and dynamic of Christian doctrine, and without the adoption of intellectual procedures which are themselves seriously underdetermined by doctrinal considerations. The effects of this reach deep into theology's self-understanding and practices, and can be seen both in the literary forms of modern theology as well as in the ways in which it has construed itself."

- John Webster,
Confessing God, 20.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The alienation of theology.

"Tracing the history of that alienation of theology from its own habits of thought would mean identifying how it came about that Christian theology began to argue for its own possibility without appeal to any specific Christian content. In his quite wonderful study At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Michael Buckley suggests that the alienation of theology begins in the very early modern period, when theology left its own ground in order to debate with natural philosophy over the existence of God. He argues that '[i]n the absence of a rich and comprehensive Christology and a Pneumatology of religious experience Christianity entered into the defense of existence of the Christian god without appeal to anything Christian'. The result of this concession, Buckley suggests, was the production of 'an emancipated philosophy which eventually negated all religion'. And so, '[a]s theology generated apologetic philosophy and philosophy generated Universal Mathematics and Universal Mechanics, and as these in their co-opted theology to become foundations of theistic assertions, theology itself became a disciplina otiosa in the justification and establishment of its own subject matter'. ... Far from ensuring the survival of Christian theology in the face of challenges to its plausability, the relinquishment of specifically Christian doctrine in favour of generic theism in fact hastened its demise."

- Dr. John Webster,
Confessing God, pg. 18.

In short, the above quote is spot-on. As a philosophy major during my time as an undergraduate, I have seen firsthand the fruits of Christianity seeking to justify its existence via Christian philosophy and apologetics. Still, I wonder if there is any way to agree with the critique Dr. Webster has given without falling into certain (negative) reactionary aspects of postliberal theology.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gregory of Nyssa.

For my Early Christian Thought class, we've been assigned to read "An Answer to Ablabius: That We Should Not Think of Saying There Are Three Gods" by Gregory of Nyssa. This little section included in volume III of Christology of the Later Fathers has been particularly helpful to read. Gregory wrote this brilliant work in order to answer the charges of tritheism. At the end of the introduction, the translator writes the following:

“It would be difficult to find a Church father who so admirably expresses the full round of Eastern Orthodox teaching: its clear Trinitarianism, its mysticism, its asceticism, its realistic sacramentalism, its ideal of man’s deification, and its blending of Platonic and Aristotelian forms of thought. In Gregory, too, is to be seen the weakness sometimes apparent in Eastern theology:
its failure to grasp the meaning of history and its difficulty in freeing itself fully from Hellenic elements in its approach to creation, sexuality, and death” (p. 250).

Among other reasons, I wonder if this is partly why Barth never found Eastern Orthodoxy fully convincing? Just a small observation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I'm not entirely sure if I should be mortified or excited. Nonetheless, it's quite the honor to represent such an extraordinary institution in this small way.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Theodicy and Inerrancy.

In Early Christian Thought class today, we discussed the primary text of St. Basil's which we are currently reading entitled On the Human Condition. Our professor distributes an outline of the lecture before every class. During this class period, we specifically reflected upon Basil's "Homily Explaining that God is Not the Cause of Evil." Due to the title and the content of this homily, my professor outlined the nature and history of theodicy. My professor's outline states that theodicy is a Greek word, created by the German philosopher Leibniz, meaning "the justice/justification of God." The outline goes on to say that such justification is sought in light of the reality of evil. Human beings throughout the centuries have tried to reconcile the "existence" of evil with the following three propositions:

1. There is one God, creator of all
2. That God is good
3. That God is all-powerful

My professor writes that "a commitment to the previous three tenets is often said to lead to a 'normative ontology' whereby whatever
exists must be good (since the one, good, omnipotent God created it such)."

I found this very interesting. Since God is the author of creation, the previous quote assumes that there is some sort of necessary identity between an omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent God and said creation. In short, creation should have the same attributes of the creator, including goodness and an absence of evil. Since the world obviously includes evil and suffering, many philosophers have concluded that the one who has created the universe (aka God) must either not be all-good, or He doesn't exist.

It seems to me that the same sort of assumption (at least loosely) is present in the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. In the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, Articles VI-VIII affirm the divine inspiration of
every book and word within the canon. It then states in Article IX, "we affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write." It seems that the authors of this statement are making the argument that since the Bible is inspired by God (though they also rightly affirm that human authors were definitely active in the process), it must necessarily reflect the identity of God in guaranteeing truth and trustworthiness in "all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write."

Unless I'm entirely misunderstanding the classic objections to Christianity based on the problem of evil (most notably set forth by David Hume) and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, I'd say that these two camps share one major thing in common - if God is the author of something - either creation or the Bible - those creations must reflect his character of goodness, truth, and perfection. Otherwise, the conclusions are that either God didn't inspire the Bible and it can't be trusted (the inerrantists), or God is either not all-good or He doesn't exist (those stating that the existence of evil is incompatible with God's being).

While I'm not quite prepared to formally and publicly deny biblical inerrancy, might there be some sort of expectation here that is unwarranted? Why do Christians say that the creation of God does not necessarily need to reflect His character in order for it to serve as revelation but the Bible does?

Some biblical inerrantists might reply that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not merely an abstraction but rather based upon what the Bible says about itself (though I find this a bit interesting considering the statement only cites two small biblical phrases, 1 Peter 1:21 and 2 Tim. 3:15, both of which are NOT within the articles themselves nor are any other biblical passages present). The passage most often quoted in support of biblical inerrancy is 2 Tim. 3:16 which affirms that "all Scripture is God-breathed." But I often wonder if that truth, the doctrine of divine inspiration, necessarily entails biblical inerrancy. Furthermore, I question if such an assumption is the same that is made by men like David Hume who were skeptical about the existence of God in light of the existence of evil.

I'm completely open to being corrected. I'd appreciate any thoughts you might offer, dear reader!

Monday, October 4, 2010


I babysit. A lot. I love all the families for whom I babysit. Especially the Spater family - they have the most incredible kids. But I often think to myself that I don't want that kind of life. Not yet. I can't imagine having kids, staying at home, and being a wife.

Then I ask myself what is wrong with me? Did God seriously mess me up? I see all these happy women who are stay-at-home moms on-campus, or in the grocery store, or at Starbucks. I love kids. I am the first to gawk at the cuteness of little Johnny that screams and yells and runs through Starbucks as everyone else thinks "where the heck are that creatures's parents?" But I'm not ready to go there yet.

To make me feel even more abnormal, I read all these cheesy Christian books which try to tell me that all i want is for someone to come rescue me, and lead me, and provide for me and my role is to support them in everything they do. I should happily do the laundry, be the homemaker while they go and do the manly work! And I think to myself, "Wait, what? Do women really feel like this?! Did I miss something? Why do I feel guilty that I am even disagreeing?!"

The three women that are my heroes are all, surprisingly for my readers, stay-at-home Moms. Two of them blog and I love their stories. I admire their courage, patience, wisdom, grace, not to mention their humor. Oh my word, sometimes I choke after laughing so hard at their inner-dialogue posts that are finally typed for the world to read. They are geniuses. They represent every character trait that I can only hope to embody someday. But I'm just not ready.

A lot of my friends, if not most of them, are either engaged or married. I'd be telling a bold faced lie if I said that I want to be single forever. But honestly, I still feel like I'm a high-school graduate. I can't believe I'm already 26. I still feel 18.

The desire to pursue a PhD makes the above struggle even more difficult. There are few men in my field. I found out there are ZERO women in the doctoral program I want to go to in Scotland. All of the men in the program, from what I can tell, are married. And when people find out you are a 26 year-old Christian female wanting to get a doctorate, they make assumptions about you. Is she a feminist? Can she just not find a husband? Will she ever find her true calling and have kids? But the truth is, I'm just a human being that loves theology and has become deeply fascinated with Karl Barth. It is that simple. Why must I have an agenda? Why must I be married? Why must I get the hidden looks of suspicion? Why must I even think about this?

So as I write my applications for doctoral programs and read my Barth books, I'll be happily babysitting every Friday or Saturday night just thankful I'm still only 26 and single.