A Clarification on My Radical Correlation B/W Thomist and Nazi Natural Theologies

I want to clarify something I wrote in my last post, this:

The theology that most of the Reformed evangelical theologians of today are retrieving for Western Christians is rooted in Thomist realism. A realism that operates in and from natural law and the idea that there is a hierarchy of being that is absolutely and causally interconnected and thus collapses God’s being into the structures of the Church itself.[1]

I received a response from a brother on Facebook with reference to the above content, he wrote:

I get disagreeing with Aquinas, and Thomistic thought, I just don’t see how Thomism ‘’…. collapses God’s being into the structures of the Church itself.’’ Or how that is even an option or even an unintended consequence of Thomism or natural law.[2]

I struggle to see how this brother does not see how this is a consequence or unintended consequence of Thomism. Todd Billings (unfortunately I don’t have his book at hand) refers to the ecclesiology that funds Roman Catholicism as one that is grounded in an understanding that sees the (Roman) Church as the ‘prolongation of the incarnation.’ But where does such thinking come from? Seven Ozment notes this, in regard to the Thomist framework (the framework that largely funds all things Roman Catholic):

The assumption that real relations existed between God, man, and the world made possible Aquinas’s confidence in a posteriori proofs of God’s existence; finite effects led necessarily to their origin, because they were really connected with it. The same assumption underlay Aquinas’s distinctive views on the “analogical” character of human knowledge and discourse about God. According to Aquinas, one could speak meaningfully of one’s relationship to God by analogy with one’s relationship with one’s fellow man because a real relationship existed between the values of people shared and those God had prescribed.[3]

Thomas Aquinas himself writes: “All things deriving from God are ordered to one another and to him. And that is what makes the unity of the world. Material plurality cannot be a goal, for it has no determinate limit and what is without end cannot be an end.”[4]

We can see even from this cursory gloss and engagement that embedded within Thomas’s thought there is the idea that there is a ‘real’ and substantial connection between God as the causer of all reality and reality as the effect of that cause. True, Thomas clearly makes a distinction between Creator/creature, indeed his whole structure is premised on this distinction; but in my view, his view of the nature/grace combine leaves room for the sorts of distortions we see operative in something as demonic as the Nazi program and ‘church.’

David Congdon writes the following with reference to the sort of mechanical and substance metaphysics we get from someone like Aquinas. As you read this you will notice Congdon is noting how modernity problematized the sort of ‘chain-of-being’ thinking about God and the world that is inherent to Aquinas’s et als. theology[s].

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].” No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.[5]

What is illuminating for our purposes, in Congdon’s quote, is the thinking he underscores in regard to a metaphysical understanding of history with its ‘chain of being’ notion in tow. It is this component, dominant not just in Thomas’s theology, but in many of the ‘pre-critical’ theologies of the period, that I think provides theological ‘precedent,’ or ideational ‘space’ for demonisms like we find in the Hiterlite protocol to take over the world. Wherever there is natural theology, as Karl Barth might say, there is the ‘anti-Christ.’ Whether it be in the Roman Catholic Church, in regard to its funding ecclesiology and theory of authority, or whether that be in the Nazi church and state that the Confessing church was protesting, therein is anti-Christ.

So, my original post operated off a generalization in regard to natural theology in the main. But I don’t think it is an ill-conceived generalization. There is cross-pollination, in principle, between all natural theologies. This is not to say that their relative applications all look the same, indeed they don’t! But just because they don’t all end up in the abyss of Third Reich theology, this doesn’t mean there is no correlation. In the case of Roman Catholicism, I do think that God’s being is collapsed into the structure of the Church itself; insofar as God’s being is present in the being-in-becoming in Jesus Christ. And I don’t think Catholicism gets this thinking from nowhere; indeed, it comes from Thomas’s chain-of-being understanding. Just because Roman Catholics aren’t Nazis doesn’t mean they don’t share in a similar appeal to a belief that God and all his effects are interconnected. It is a small step from that belief to what we end up getting in Nazi theology. That is, if I believe that an ecclesiological body is in fact the prolongation of God’s life in Christ for the world, whose to say that someone else cannot come along, like Hitler, and say the same thing about his Third Reich?

This is why I think there is a corollary between Thomist ecclesiology and Nazi theology; it is the shared commitment to natural theology. Now, I do not think Hitler was a Thomist, or that he had any genuine interest in ecclesiology. But that’s really not my point. I am only highlighting how pervasive natural theology is, to the point that even atheists, especially atheists make appeal to it every day. It is the modern project itself, ironically, to collapse God’s attributes into the human and discard God. But there is an ancient precedent to this, again, ironically, and I think someone like Aquinas with his natural theology helps set a trajectory for the world wherein Grace and Nature are too closely linked. When this linkage happens, when ‘grace is understood to perfect nature,’ the spirit of anti-Christ can sneak in and imbue nature with a pseudo-grace that presents itself as an Angel of Light when in fact it is the devil all along.

[1] Source.

[2] Anonymous Facebook comment.

[3] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550, 49.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1989), 90.

[5] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.


Some Final Impressions on Bultmann’s Theology and David Congdon’s Book: The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology

After a couple of years I finally finished reading through, David Congdon’s tome, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology. It comes in at a total of 953 pp., including the end matter (the body of the book covers 856 pp.); so not a quick read. This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review or even a review at all. Instead this will simply be concluding impression as I move on past Bultmann and Congdon. If you are interested in reading my engagement with Congdon along the way, then go to my ‘David Congdon’ category, and you will find a multitude of posts engaging with the content of this book.

My basic impression of Bultmann’s theology and methodology is this: It is unnecessary to ‘demythologize’ the kerygma, rather we are in need of being demythologized by the Gospel. In other words, the weltbild or world-picture at the time of the writing of the New Testament, in particular, is not in need of being deconstructed in order to get at the pure kernel of the kerygmatic reality. This is the contention of Bultmann, and Congdon; viz. the Gospel should not be collapsed into its cultural world-picture, instead it needs to be ‘demythologized’ and translated, thus transpropiated into its now received weltbild in the 21st century. Bultmann (and  Congdon) maintain that the kerygma is misunderstood when it is too closely wedded to its original historical milieu; i.e. under the literary, socio-historico-politico conditions present at the time. As such this mythology needs to be demythologized, deconstantinized in a way that allows the message and fresh reality of the Gospel to shine through in all its transcendent glory as that confronts us anew in our own existential existence in the present. It is only by the apperception of faith that the Gospel reality is known, and that is an apperception not contingent upon the mythos and cultural locatedness of the Gospel’s historical iteration in the first coming of Christ. To put it in Lessing’s terms: the Gospel’s reality and explication is not contingent upon the accidents of history, but through demythologizing its esse[ntial] reality can be known and forever experienced through the approach of the faith seeking heart.

Underneath Bultmann’s approach, as with any modern theologian of the time, is a serious commitment to the Kantian epistemology. As Congdon points out, Bultmann was doing his own project; but it is clear that Kant’s dualism between the noumenal and phenomenal remains an ever present voice. Further, there is, as with Barth, a significant allergy to natural theology in Bultmann’s way. But he goes to unnecessary lengths in an attempt to squash the possibility for natural theology to seep in and undercut the analogy of faith. It is unnecessary, in my view, to fear natural theology and metaphysics to the point that the theologian is led to renounce any sort of good basis in the protological norm of creation itself. This is what Bultmann attempts to do with his emphasis on the eschatological nature of his dialectical theology. That is, he wants all of Christian reality to breath and move from the eschatological reality of God to the point that all historical reality prior is gutted of any concrete meaning vis-à-vis the Gospel, who is the Christ. This is why Bultmann so emphasizes the faith in the kerygma, and deemphasizes things like the historical and concrete reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ. If the resurrection of Christ can be located in the normal or profane history of nature, then God has been subjugated to or made a predicate of nature. In order to get around this, Bultmann constructs a whole elaborate process of identifying myth, and a way for demything the husk which the myth represents. Which is to say: the Gospel or kerygmatic reality can never be contained by its natural reception. The fear for Bultmann (and Congdon) is that nature would lay hold of revelation, rather than revelation lay hold of nature. I understand and appreciate this fear, but it is unnecessary to go to the lengths that Bultmann does in order to escape this dilemma; Barth does much better in this complex by focusing on a Chalcedonian pattern for negotiating with revelation and nature in the hypostatic union of the Godman, Jesus Christ.

There are emphases and themes in Bultmann’s theology that I find helpful in regard to critique of natural theology, and a focus on the faith of Christ. But the lengths he goes to in order to undercut natural theology, driven by his modern commitment to an anti-metaphysical mode, leads him to hermeneutical positions that are too extreme; extreme to the point that they end up undercutting the Apostolic understanding of the Gospel as presented in the New Testament. And this is precisely to the point, Bultmann (and Congdon) maintain that the Apostolic times, should not be understood as the absolute form of the kerygmatic reality. So, Bultmann wants to extract the kerygmatic message from its original giveness and form in Second Temple Judaism, and translate it into its new forms in the 20th, or now 21st century (which remains an ongoing project). In this way, and this is a critique: the Gospel reality essentially becomes contingent on whatever cultural moment the receiver inhabits as they are confronted with the Gospel proclamation. Bultmann’s approach presents us with an extreme form of Gospel relativism by presuming that he has been able to penetrate the hull of the Gospel (its historical mythos), and find its essence to the point that there can no longer be anything normative about the forms within which the Gospel originally presented itself within (like in the ‘fullness of time’ as we find in Galatians 4). There is an ethical/moral implication to all of this that fits well with the suspicious hermeneutic of Post Modernity, but not does not sit well with the Gospel’s own self-understanding and sufficiency as that is presented in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament witness. As noted: the Apostle Paul believed that the Son of God in Jesus Christ came at just the right [fullness of] time wherein the Gospel reality could break-in and ‘turn the world upside down.’ The Apostle Paul, let alone Jesus himself, had no apparent self-understanding that the socio-cultural milieu within which Christ came was insufficient for bearing the weight of the Gospel hope. They never seemed inclined to deconstruct or demythologize the Old Testament canon through which the Christ event comes to make sense. They didn’t look for a kerygmatic essence abstract from its historical givenness.

I might share more impressions in days to come. But these are some initial ones. Congdon anticipates many of these push backs, but that does not mean his answers are sufficient or that they overcome such push back. One contemporary push back, among others that Congdon deals with, comes from Helmut Thielicke. Thielicke’s push back to Bultmann is similar to what I just sketched above. Congdon’s response, in my view, ends up being circular insofar that he simply privileges an anti-metaphysical anti-natural theological mode as a ‘just is’ the way things are (as if a basic given). But for my money, we want to examine the way that Jesus and the Apostles themselves engaged with the Old Testament witness. Did they attempt to demythologize its witness in the way that, Bultmann attempts to? Even if they only did that in an inchoate way, did they in fact engage in this sort of practice? Nein. But they were just human after all, and this is the response that Congdon would most likely push back with. With reference to Christ there is also a serious commitment to a kenoticism, and thus marginalization of Christ as simply human in regard to what he knew and how he operated. This would be the way Congdon and Bultmann might get around an appeal to Jesus’s approach to the Old Testament; they would just say: ‘yeah, Jesus himself was a product of his own mythological times, and an appeal to Him does nothing but confirm our modern need to demythologize even Jesus himself.’


Being ‘Self-Interpreted’ by the Living Word of God: On Theological Exegesis as Participation

Theological exegesis goes hand in hand with what some have called ‘participatory exegesis,’ alongside of what others have called ‘self-interpretation.’ In regard to the latter, it is important to ground ‘self’ in the reality that there is an ecstatic source to the self who presents us with the knowledge to more accurately engage in this sort of self-interpretation; of the sort that Calvin is famously known for in regard to his so called duplex cognitio Dei (twofold knowledge of God). David Congdon, once again, gives us some insight on Bultmann, and from Bultmann, in regard to the way that Bultmann conceived of theological exegesis:

Bultmann, “Das Problem einer theologischen Exegese des Neuen Testaments,” 55 (21). This early essay situates existential interpretation within the specific context of a theological interpretation of Scripture. Participatory exegesis is uniquely demanded by the Bible. According to Bultmann, the biblical text is marked by an “existential liveliness” (existentielle Lebendigkeit), and thus the interpreter must be “inwardly alive” (innerlich lebendig), that is to say, “ready to let the text speak as an authority. . . .” In this early writing Bultmann describes a genuinely participatory exegesis as one in which an existentially concerned interpreter encounters the existential vitality and power of the text. This encounter occurs when the exegete confronts the claim of the text upon her, that is, when the text is no longer a historical object but becomes the occasion for her “self-interpretation.” Self-interpretation occurs when the exegete “hears the word of the text as a word” that demands a decision within her concrete situation: “The word, which enters anew into her situation, confronts the exegete with a decision, and thereby the word becomes for her an event. . . .” The question of self-interpretation, of self-understanding, is finally a question of our obedience to the authority of the biblical word.[1]

Even for non-Bultmannians (such as myself) this ought to be a good word for any Christian to hear. The ancient Christians approached Holy Scripture in the way, at least in spirit, that Bultmann underscores. The text isn’t a modern specimen ready to be analyzed, but a living Word presenting itself as gift to be interacted with and submitted to in filial attachment. This is the sense I draw from Bultmann’s teaching; i.e. that when we, personally, or collectively as a people engage with the text in the fellowship of the Spirit of Christ, we are being confronted with a knowledge of ourselves that requires an action. We are being confronted with the Word who requires holiness, and a transformative motion of singular movement into the depths of God’s bosom in Christ. The Word, as we are confronted with it, afresh and anew, requires an ‘obedience’ that the Word Himself has accomplished for us in His vicarious humanity. It is this Word who we are confronted with in the text. As such, we are invited into the banqueting table of His effervescent life, and commanded to be holy as He is Holy. The text, as we participatorily interact with it, doesn’t present us with Law, but with the Evangel of Hope that since we can never really obey to the level that God requires, that He has provided that elevated level of obedience for us in His own assumption of flesh.

The Word will never leave or forsake us. We might forsake Him, but He will never forsake us. One way to ensure that we don’t forsake Him is to be enmeshed in the text of Holy Scripture; allowing its Wordly reality to transform us from our worldly structured lives, and into the strangeness of His other-worldly life of renewal, power, hope, and eternal Life. Being in the ‘biblical word’ allows for these times of refreshment to confront us over and again, daily as we take up our crosses and follow Christ. As we lose our lives we will find them in the Word, but we won’t have the fresh capacity to lose our lives unless we are confronted with the lively Word of God as disclosed in Holy Scripture. It is in this existential complex that we come to have a genuine knowledge of ourselves; that is, as we are interpreted by the living Word through the fire of the Holy Spirit’s breath as that is pressed into our lives as we sit in and under the written Word of the living God.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 756-57, n.150.

The ‘Community of Faith’ or Tradition of the Church as the Presupposition of Theological Exegesis

Bultmann and Church Tradition, or the so called Great Tradition don’t seem to go together; indeed, most might think this represents an oxymoron par excellence. But this would be wrong thinking, according to David Congdon. Bultmann and Theological Exegesis, on the other hand, go together quite well; maybe not under the conditions that many ‘conservatives’ think theological exegesis. Nonetheless, Bultmann offers a theological exegetical program, in my view, and in principle that I think is laudable. I think it laudable because Bultmann, like Barth in this area!, operates from a methodological anti-natural theology mode. This is laudable, I think, because natural theology, in any form, in my view, is unlaudable. This does not mean I follow Bultmann in every step; indeed, I think he oversteps when it comes to the way he attempts to erase any form of natural theology. But I think his aim is laudable; even if he might over-existentialize things in his attempt to radicalize a non-natural theology approach.

The above noted I want to share from Congdon on Bultmann with reference to Bultmann’s sense of an anti-natural theology theological exegesis, and how that fits into the Great Tradition. This is actually an encouraging development for me, because it reflects something that I thought represented a severe weakness; not only in Bultmann, but in Barth and after Barth theological endeavor. That is, I’ve had a concern that the Tradition was so glossed by that any sense of catholicity might be lost; if not with Barth, at least with Bultmann. Bruce McCormack has corrected this misunderstanding of Barth’s theology (in his book Orthodox and Modern), and now I think Congdon helps to overcome the same misunderstanding with Bultmann.

Neither one of these virtuosos has ‘left the faith,’ as some would have us think; indeed most conservatives would have us think. Au contraire, they simply attempted to self-consciously translate the faith under the modern conditions within which they lived. Some fear, obviously, that the modern period is a lost cause, thus the attempt to repristinate or “retrieve” the past; as if that could be done via some sort of DeLorean that transports the exegete into a vacuous pre-modern mindset. The reality is that we are modern people. This does not mean we can’t or shouldn’t be critically minded modern people. But then I have to ask: By what means are we to be critical? It seems to me that the means God has supplied is the kerygmatic event itself (Bultmann); the one that apocalyptically breaks-in upon us and disrupts our locatedness from a location that is above over against and yet with our belowness (Barth). The Gospel Hisself gives us the critical way for negotiating the fall-out produced not just by modernity, but pre-modernity just the same. This is why speaking of (and thus from) God by an analogy of faith rather than being is so central to the theological exegesis of both Barth and Bultmann. We, according to them, cannot speak a right word of God apart from God first speaking Himself to us in the event of faith that we encounter afresh and anew by the Spirit’s confrontation of us in and through the Yes, No, and Amen of God in Jesus Christ.

With the aforementioned noted, let’s hear from Congdon on Bultmann and theological exegesis:

“all human speaking of God outside of faith speaks not of God but of the devil.” [Bultmann]

Similarly, in 1925 Bultmann declares that New Testament exegesis is distinct from secular exegesis in that the exegete of the New Testament confronts the text’s disruptive claim that “people do not have their existence at their disposal in such a way that they could pose the question of existence [Existenzfrage] to themselves and possess the possibility of free action; all of that is given only to faith.” Theological exegesis requires not just any questioning of existence but only a faithful or believing questioning: “A valid questioning of the text can only be a believing one, i.e., a questioning grounded in obedience to the authority of scripture.” Yet this faithful questioning would seem to beg the question, for its presupposition (viz., faith) is also the goal. The circularity of the exegetical task would therefore seem to be a serious problem. If one can only hear the word of the text in light of the questionableness of existence, and if that questionableness is only given in the word of the text, how is one able to hear and respond to the kerygma? Bultmann’s answer might come as a surprise to those who see him as an advocate of a purely individual and isolated act of interpretation. He says that the “concrete situation” for exegesis of the New Testament is “the tradition of the church of the word.” As the interpreter, I cannot stand outside my historical context, but in that “I stand in my existence in the tradition of the word there is a readiness for faithful questioning.” In a rather remarkable move, given his reputation, Bultmann actually makes the community of faith the true presupposition for the interpretation of scripture. Indeed, we can even say that for Bultmann the tradition of the church is the necessary preunderstanding for the hearing of God’s word. Tradition, in fact, funds demythologizing.[1]

This is significant towards developing a self-critical hermeneutic that is grounded not in a self-postulated nature, but a God-given Grace understood by a relation of faith that is concretely grounded in the mediating humanity of Jesus Christ. Bultmann’s approach operates from an existentialist posture, but one that I think sees God’s existence preceding our essence; which would be to flip a secular or “modern” understanding of existentialist philosophy on its head (which is to collapse God’s existence into ours, and posit our self-existence as a prius to our essence — which we then have the ability to shape whatever which way we want). If our existence, and thus our “essence” is preceded by God’s, if God’s Yes for us in Christ circumscribes our No to God, then we have graciously been given the capacity to operate in and from God’s Yes; a Yes which is situated in the faith of Christ for us. This is the basis whereby the modern, pre-modern, or even the antediluvian can be critical of their own particularity and operate as if their historical location is a gift of God and not a burden to be shirked off.

If the Gospel if the Power of God, if it has the capacity to transcend the scandal of particularity, even while accommodating to it, this should be of great encouragement to each and every one of us. We don’t have to demonize one period of history in order to get back to a pure or sanitized period wherein the Gospel supposedly has its greatest capacity for a purist expression. No. The Gospel has this purity no matter what period the human agent is enmeshed within. This means that the Gospel has the lassitude to reach into every time and place and shape it from its other-worldly reality, while at the same time working within the time and place it reaches into. This, to me, is a better way for conceiving of a framework for thinking theological exegesis. It is one that privileges not a period of history, but the period of God’s life that He has and does mediate to us through a relation or analogy of faith in and of Christ.

Church tradition, for Bultmann, according to Congdon, operates as a framework of living faith wherein as Christians today, we have a witness-base to understand the ways that God has faithfully shown up in and throughout the corridors of ecclesial history. The Tradition shows us how God acts moment by moment; how God circumscribes each of us, no matter what period, with the overshadowing of the Gospel. It is this long-view of God meeting the Church that shows us that it is the Power of God, or the Gospel that is central to theological exegetical process; insofar as that as conditioned, not by a pure nature, but a pure faith as that is held and given to us afresh and anew in the faith of Christ.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 720-21.

Speaking OF God Rather Than ABOUT, Speaking OF the Text Rather Than ABOUT: Josh Harris and the Classical Calvinists as a Case Study

I just recently had interaction with some classical Calvinists, once again. The topic was Josh Harris and his ‘apostatizing,’ from the faith of Christ. The claim was made that Harris was unregenerate all along: “It’s sobering that an unregenerate pastor could give God’s people great insights into the Scripture without knowing the God of the Scriptures. It’s also sobering to think that many who were with the Apostles turned away from the Gospel preached by the Apostles (2 Tim. 4:10).”[1] But at this moment I am less interested in discussing Harris, and am more focused on the hermeneutical theory to arrive at the exegetical conclusion that someone like Harris was unregenerate all along. My interlocutor references 2 Tim, but more apropos, and what I think is informing even more didactically is 1 John 2:18-19, which reads: “18 Children, it is the last hour, and just as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us. But they went out[, in order that it might be shown that all of them are not of us.” This represents hard teaching, which 2 Tim. is illustrative of rather than a direct teaching. But this issue, again, points up, in my view, a prior commitment to a particular theological or dogmatic construct which is used to artificially arrive at exegetical conclusions that aren’t as ‘objectively’ present in the [con]text as it might seem. Categorically we might affirm the idea, in a de jure fashion, that there are people who fabricate an appearance of salvation in order to reach certain social statuses, and other achievements; whatever vanity might drive those. But just because there are a sampling of people who meet this criteria, as laid out in passages like 1 John and 2 Timothy, does not necessarily mean at a de facto level that all people who “deny the faith,” are not ‘regenerate,’ per se. In other words, it would be wrong to simply read passages like 2 Tim. and 1 Jn. and presume that all people, at a prima facie level, simply fit that category in a reduced way. And this gets us into the issue of theological exegesis.

All people do theological exegesis when they read Holy Scripture; even atheists. If Kant has taught us anything, he has taught us that we are captive to our own enculturation and location; as such, we need to be critically aware of this, and understand how that impacts our interpretation of the biblical text. This is where many classical Calvinists, and many others (myself included) fall prey to the idea that their ‘confessions, creeds, and catechisms,’ represent some sort of objective standard by which the “most faithful” reading of Scripture can be gained in codified fashion. With this belief in hand, the classical Calvinist (just picking on them for this post) feels free to dogmatically assert that someone like Harris was never regenerate to begin with; and this having less to do with the biblical texts, and more to do with the metaphysics and doctrinal material that stands behind their reading of the text. For example, in the history of interpretation, classical Calvinists have concepts like ‘temporary faith’ and ‘experimental predestinarianism’ at play. Temporary faith (which Calvin ironically also held to) is the idea that someone can look, sound, and smell like one of the elect, but in the end never really were to begin with. We can see how this might superficially correlate with a passage like 1 Jn. 2. Conversely, experimental predestinarianism maintains that a person might indeed have only a temporary non-efficacious faith, and as such the proof in the pudding will be to see if they actually and finally persevere to the end. If not, they never were one of the elect, and thus never were “of us.” With these doctrinal loci in play the classical Calvinist will dogmatically read these into passages like we’ve had reference to, and arrive at conclusions that the text itself, in contextual array, may well not be teaching whatsoever.

All of the aforementioned noted to get us into a discussion about how our engagement of Holy Scripture always entails a level of subjectivity that cannot simply be surpassed by assertion. In order to push into this further I wanted to refer to David Congdon’s treatment of Rudolf Bultmann, and how Bultmann confronts the faulty notion of catechetical objectivity as that implicates our interpretation of the biblical text. Congdon writes:

Bultmann’s response is one he would continue to give throughout the entirety of his career: such an approach is simply impossible. “Every exegesis, as something undertaken by a subject, is subjective.” The claim by these forms of modern exegesis to have overcome subjectivity by way of a fixed method is simply a “new subjectivism,” for the chosen method is always the “perspective that follows from the underlying interpretation of human existence.” The very selection and execution of a method is a subjective act, involving specific judgments and contextual presuppositions. For that reason “there is no neutral exegesis.” The modern pursuit of a purely nonsubjective interpretation is an act of “self-delusion,” for “the interpretation [Auslegung] of the text always goes hand in hand with the self-interpretation [Selbstauslegung] of the exegete.” To interpret the text is to interpret oneself, or rather, to find oneself interpreted by another.

Here we have the hermeneutical equivalent of Bultmann’s theological-epistemological claim, also published in 1925, that “talking of God, if it were possible, would necessarily be at the same time a talking of oneself.” In the same way that there can be no meaningful talk about God, so there can be no meaningful talk about the text. Talking about each is the delusional attempt to confine either God or the text to a purportedly objective and neutral method. Instead, one can only meaningfully talk of God and of the text, which means there has to be a genuine encounter in each case, one in which the human subject participates in the reality of the subject matter. The pursuit of neutrality is the truly pernicious form of subjectivism, for there the human subject is in full control of the text that denies the text’s capacity to speak to us with authority. For this reason “exegesis must be explicitly guided by the question of self-interpretation, if it does not want to fall into subjectivism.”[2]

In order to engage Scripture under the terms outlined for us by Congdon, vis-à-vis Bultmann, requires that the interpreter live in a mode of vulnerability and humility before the living God with trust that God truly speaks and has the pneumatic capacity to confront us in all of our vainglorious certainty about just how things are. The moral of Congdon’s development is ‘the question of self-interpretation,’ this is a matter of being self-critical and understanding that we never approach the text of Scripture from a neutral standpoint. In the case of the Harris and classical Calvinist example, the reality is that the classical Calvinist exegete ends up reading an a priori theological construct onto the text of Scripture with the result leading to a view that absolutely damns Harris (and others like Harris) to an eternal hell. But maybe the classical Calvinist should move slower. If we are being self-critical interpreters, do these texts operate from an inner-theological thrust that necessarily leads the exegete to the classical Calvinist conclusion about Josh Harris? Is it possible that the collectively formed confessions and creeds appealed to by such interpreters are so mired in the subjectivities of their drafters that the text of Scripture ends up being sublated by the culturally inspired intellectual mores of their day?

These are deep matters. But the basic point should be to highlight the fact that we all bring theological constructs to the exegesis of Holy Scripture. The question remains: which constructs are most organically proximate to the Gospel reality? Which constructs are most open to recognizing that God still speaks; that He didn’t stop doing that in 16th and 17th century Western Europe? These are important questions. There are important questions to ask of Bultmann’s thinking as well. That will have to wait for another day.

[1] Anonymous Facebook Source.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 716-17.


An Anatomy of Unbelief in the Physical/Literal Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Engaging With the “Logic” of Bultmann’s [and Congdon’s] Rejection of the Cosmogony of Holy Scripture

Here I want to address the anatomy of Rudolf Bultmann’s unbelief in the historicity and physical/literal/bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, I will share a lengthy quote from David Congdon on Bultmann’s thought, in this regard, and then provide my commentary latterly.

The political dimension of Bultmann’s hermeneutical program is only one aspect, albeit a crucial and often-overlooked one. Given its importance to Bultmann, we also need to address the question of natural science. The cultural world-pictures the kerygma traverses in its ongoing movement through history include, among other things, cosmological assumptions. In other words, a Weltbild involves presuppositions about not only the kind of God who acts in the world but also the kind of world in which God acts. Bultmann signals this at the very beginning of his Entmythologisierungsvortrag, where he presents as a key mark of the mythical Weltbild the idea that the world consists of “three stories,” with earth in the middle, heaven above, and the underworld below. It is at this same level of cultural Weltbild or “social imaginary” that Bultmann places the modern scientific method, within which we live. In contrast to the mythical Weltbild, “in this modern world-picture the link between cause and effect is fundamental.” Bultmann’s cultural context presupposes “a closed interdependent nexus [Wirkungs-zusammenhang] in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect. Miracles, in the sense of publicly visible and objectifiable occurrences, belong to a foreign cultural context that no longer obtains in modernity. Deconstantinizing therefore entails the radical differentiation of the kerygma from the cosmological assumptions of the ancient world and the translation of the kerygma into new contexts operating under new cosmological-scientific norms.

As scandalous as it may sound, Bultmann’s rejection of all supernaturalism, including the literal interpretation of the resurrection as a physical occurrence, is actually in service of the missionary truth of the gospel. Gerhard Ebeling spells out the logic of Bultmann’s move in his own dogmatic inquiry into this issue. The traditional notion of resurrection makes use of “apocalyptic modes of thinking” and “apocalyptic conceptual elements” that belong to an “apocalyptic world-picture,” and “we cannot assume that the apocalyptic thought-forms are a world-picture we could readily make our own.” The notion of the resurrection of the dead “belongs to a world that has become strange [fremd] to us,” indeed, to “a world-picture that has become obsolete.” We need not get into the details of the debate over apocalyptic. The point here is simply that to make the traditional notion of resurrection a sine qua non of genuine Christian faith is to conflate the kerygma with an alien cultural thought-form and thus to replace “a liberating experience of faith” with “an oppressive law of faith.” Faith in Christ cannot be bound to antiquated or alien cosmologies, even if the translations of the kerygma into those alien contexts are entirely valid and remain a valuable witness for contemporary communities of faith. It is both possible and necessary for the church to carry out translations of the kerygma into a modern context in which the scientific norms of the day render impossible the ancient apocalyptic Weltbild, at least in its literal, mythological form, just as our context today renders impossible ancient cosmology, biology, and the like. We no longer accept antiquated accounts of the planetary system or human reproduction, for example, nor should we.[1]

What to say?

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel, not with clever speech, lest the cross of Christ be emptied. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,and the intelligence of the intelligent I will confound.”20 Where is the wise person? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. 22 For indeed, Jews ask for sign miracles and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a cause for stumbling, but to the Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. –I Corinthians 1.17-25

12 Now if Christ is preached as raised up from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ has not been raised either14 But if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. 15 And also we are found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if after all, then, the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised either17 But if Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty; you are still in your sins. 18 And as a further result, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have put our hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most pitiable. –I Corinthians 15.12-19

There is no compelling reason to follow Bultmann’s line of reasoning. He is responding to his own German contextual problematics, and attempting to work within ad hoc conditions that the reality of Holy Scripture and the Holy Life of the Triune God know nothing about; except in condemnation at the cross of Christ.

Yet, Bultmann (and Congdon following) unfortunately presume that to ‘go back’ to an alien Weltbild or ‘world-picture’ is a move of intellectual sacrifice (sacrificium intellectus) that any modern person simply won’t commit themselves to. It is this sort of evolutionary progressive and linear understanding of historical intellectual development that Bultmann, Congdon et al have unnecessarily committed themselves to, and that has led them to think the 20th and 21st century thinkers simply can no longer abide by the strange and “antiquated” world of the ancients. But what is rather strange to me is the notion that just because there was a certain phenomenological understanding of the cosmos in “biblical times” that we must necessarily, according to Bultmann’s logic, throw the belief in the resurrection out with that cosmogony in toto. I am unclear why this is necessary. What if the cosmology and the “apocalyptical” view of the world in say Second Temple Judaism, and even more anciently, is more advanced than the modern understanding of the world? What if the modern understanding of the world is antiquated by the heavenly realities of God’s more advanced ways of working such that the “fullness of time” (cf. Gal 4) which He choose to advent within represents a more accurate way of understanding His ways than modern ways do?

Bultmann’s understanding of things is overly-simplistic and even naïve as it is captured by a sort of positivistic rationalism that is enslaved to the optics of the modern day. All one must do to undercut the whole of Bultmann’s project is reject his premise that the modern categories of thought are the canonically correct ones, and instead presume that the ones that Holy Scripture presumes upon are the correct ones. Further, it is just as easily possible for the kerygmatic reality of the Gospel to even fit into the modern categories, insofar as those are reified by the more primal apocalyptic realities that are revealed in and through the history and epistemic delimiting reality of the literal-physical resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. In other words, even as modern people, it is possible to ‘filter’ modern intellectual developments in and through a Christ-conditioned lens that does not submit the reality of the biblical cosmology to the ambit of the modern immanentization of all things. Karl Barth, in contrast to Bultmann, represents a modern who does not fall prey to the sort of naïve approach that Bultmann ends up giving into. Barth works from what he calls a second naïveté, in regard to ‘critical scholarship.’ Yet, within this he does not give away the [Holy] Ghost when it comes to the miraculous workings of God; indeed he revels in them to a point that even bothers certain scholastics.

As a matter of historical and theological-intellectual understanding, reading about Bultmann’s theology (all 800pp of it!) is an interesting reading project. But it boggles the mind, when someone reads about his theology, why that someone would also feel compelled to simply sign onto Bultmann’s premises; at least if you are a biblically formed Christian. There is no compelling reason to accept the premise that the modern is the most advanced form of understanding how things are in the world. This represents a petitio principii that makes the critical thinker wonder why anyone would want to privilege this intellectual paradigm over the biblically given one; the latter paradigm is one that presents the bodily resurrection of Christ as the sine qua non of all that is real and powerful and hopeful in the world, of what makes Christianity stand or fall.



[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 661-63.

Theology as Christology: Theology Ought to be Based on an Analogy of Faith Rather than Being

There is an ancient way, even a via antiqua for doing theology in the history of the Church. This fact is undeniable, and is something to praise the Lord for. But this doesn’t mean that this ancient way is the absolute and Divinely sanctioned way for doing theology. Some refer to ‘the Great Tradition of the Church’ (particularly in the West), and/or the Consensus Patrum of the Church (mostly in the East). What is being referred to are the identifiable doctrinal contours of the Church that are said to coalesce the orthodox among all traditions that make up the historic Church catholic (whether that be Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant). The Church catholic and the Great Tradition or Consensus Patrum are often thought together, such that anything that falls out of these ‘ancient’ ways are thought, at best, to be heterodox; if  not heretical. But for the Protestant the criterion for determining ‘catholicity’ is not ultimately the councils, confessions, and creeds that make up the Great Tradition of the Church; instead, for the Protestant it is the Word of God, and a robust theology of the Word by which we come to conclude whether a doctrine is catholic (universal) or not.

With the above noted, I want to get into what has become a pet-theological-project of mine. That is engaging with the issue of knowledge of God. This locus implicates how we think of the Great Tradition of the Church, and what theological method was used, by and large, to arrive at its various theological conclusions. But what I have in mind doesn’t undercut, per se, the intent of the Great Tradition; rather, it reifies it through a radical or robust theology of the Word. By now I am sure you know what I am referring to, or rather who: Karl Barth’s theological alternative to what has come to be called the analogia entis (analogy of being), particularly among the Thomist Roman Catholics, but also as that has been imbibed by contemporary Protestant Reformed theologians, which is known as the analogia fidei. Barth’s analogy of faith seeks to definitively pronounce the only way a genuine knowledge of God can obtain. He argues against Catholic forms of the ‘entis,’ by forcefully pointing out how the analogia entis, in his mind (and mine), ends up projecting creaturely modes of intellection onto transcendent and Divine reality. David Congdon writes of Barth’s critique thusly: “Barth means that metaphysics is a projection of the phenomenal onto the divine, and thus a confusion of immanence and transcendence.”[1] Barth sees a common bond between the ancient way, as developed in the scholastic theologies of both the Catholics and the Protestants, and what eventually flowered into what came to be known as ‘Liberal theology,’ most notably associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher and the tradition he spawned. Barth sees an anthropological starting point among all theological parties herein, and as such seeks to despoil this hallowed ground by offering an alternative way towards knowing God that is principially grounded in God’s explicit Self-revelation (Deus revelatus) of Himself in the special face of Jesus Christ. Barth’s analogy of faith is decidedly grounded in a patently revealed theology, rather than in the speculative theology of the ancient way currently being retrieved by many Protestant Reformed theologians in the Western Church.

Congdon offers an excellent summary of what Barth’s doctrine on analogy of faith entails, and how it is intended to dagger the analogy of being, and natural theology more broadly, with the blade of a theological frame that starts in Christ rather than in an abstract humanity and knowledge of God therefrom.

By the time he reached his mature dogmatics, however, Barth had crystallized his criticism as a protest against what he described as the analogia entis, or thinking about God in abstracto. The metaphysical concept of God is abstract in that it describes God in terms derived from general categories and having general validity, that is, in terms not derived from the particular event of God’s self-communication. Speaking about God in abstracto (according to the analogia entis) occurs whenever creation functions effectively as the norm for theological speech. This occurs principally in the employment of what Barth elsewhere identifies as the Dionysian via triplex, which attempts to derive conceptual categories for God from those that pertain to the world, whether through causal derivation, negation, or infinite elevation.[2]

In footnotes Congdon elaborates further on what Barth’s critique is getting at, and what its reference entail in regard to historical antecedents.

Barth explicitly equates the terms in abstracto and analogia entis when he says that to speak of God in abstracto is to claim that “God is knowable—knowable even without God’s revelation,” which means that one “acknowledges an analogy between God and humanity and therefore one point at which God is knowable even without God’s revelation: the analogy of being [Analogie des Seienden], namely, the analogia entis, the idea of being, in which God and humanity are in all cases comprehended together” (KD 2.1:88–89/81). In this context Barth has Roman Catholic theology in view. The subsequent part-volume on the doctrine of election levels the same charge of in abstracto God-talk against Protestant orthodoxy’s concept of the decretum absolutum. The common ground is the attempt to speak about the creator by first looking to the creature. See KD 2.2:46–53/44-50.[3]


The via triplex bases knowledge of God on any of the following three ways: (1) via causalitatis (way of causality), in which one begins with a creaturely reality and then posits a supernatural cause (God as first cause); (2) via negationis or via remotionis (way of negation or remotion), in which one begins with a human attribute and then negates it (God as infinite or impassible); and (3) via eminentiae (way of transcendence), whereby one begins with a human attribute and then raises it to the level of infinite perfection (God as omnipotent or omniscient). See Barth’s discussion of this in KD 2.1:389-91/346-48.[4]

Congdon expands further, as he more broadly places Barth’s critique into a critique of theologia naturalis or natural theology:

Barth’s comprehensive concept for the above is “natural theology” (theologia naturalis), a term he applies to both liberalism and scholasticism. In one fine-print passage he connects the two genetically by arguing that it was the very methodology of Protestant orthodoxy that led to the rise of modern liberalism, precisely because, as the “scientific consciousness after the Renaissance” demanded, the true object of theology (i.e., God) was “moved from a transcendence [Jenseits] that was genuinely opposite from the place of humanity into the sphere of humanity itself.” The loss of a genuinely transcendent god is manifest not only in orthodoxy’s talk of God ad intra above and without God’s economic actions ad extra but equally in liberalism’s talk of God in terms of human experience. From Barth’s perspective both modes of theology are determined by a general anthropological starting point and are for that reason inappropriate forms of analogous God-talk.[5]

Understand the significance of this, and you will understand my whole theological mode! This cannot be overstated enough; I find the analogy of being and natural theology to be the most fundamental point of departure we might find when thinking about what defines good theology from bad theology. This is not to say that theology done under the pressure of the analogy of being hasn’t generated any good theology, but it is to say, for my money, that as a theological prolegomena or way for doing good theology it does not provide one.

As a Protestant Christian it is exceedingly hard for me to understand how what Barth is after isn’t simply the intuitive approach. I do not understand these sorts of artificial divides that people present between theologies done under certain periods of time; as if the more ancient just is the Great Tradition in static and absolute terms, and the more modern, insofar that it might demur from the ancient, is heterodox or heretical. The theologian is interested in translating the kerygma in such a way that the pressures it works from are not determined by period-conditioned realities, per se, but rather by the weight of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. And yet, most simply respond to critiques like Barth’s by superficially slumping back into a supposed ancient way, and never actually offer rejoinders to Barth; other than asserting, ‘oh, haha, you must be a Barthian,’ or some such nonsense. And this is why I remain ultimately dissatisfied with the theology that is mostly being done by evangelicals today. There is this attitude, which is just noted, but then there is also a posture of just ‘receiving’ a static body of tradition that has no dynamism or life to it by definition. And the only life it does have is based in the speculation of their masters, and their own wits, which really only gets them as far as their collectively bounded frontal lobes. We can construct conceptions of God all day long; we can tie those to a supposed established hierarchy of theological and intellectual development without end; but if those conceptions are not ultimately and principally based in God’s own Self-revealed knowledge of Himself; then all we end up with is an idol no different than Aaron’s Golden-Calf.

The Deus ex Machina of evangelical Protestantism will continue, and it will blithely continue on without so much of an acknowledgement of a ‘Barthian tradition.’ But it will do so to its own eternal loss. Not in the sense that justification before God is not present, but in the sense that sanctification and discipleship will be severely quenched; to the point that spiritual growth will be stunted by devotion to a conception of God that falls short by not adhering to a Self-given notion of the living God. This is why I take this so seriously. It is not merely an academic exercise to consider these things, but one that impinges on our daily Christian lives. If we get God wrong we get everything following wrong. Our knowledge of God is to be a growing and lively thing, not one settled down in a static body of knowledge that requires constant apology and assertion in order maintain its viability. Barth’s tradition, I’d argue, offers a way towards a knowledge of God that is not ultimately contingent upon Barth’s period, but instead the lively reality of the risen Christ who is present in all the centuries and millennia time immemorial. Solus Christus

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 621 n. 128.

[2] Ibid., 622.

[3] Ibid., n. 130.

[4] Ibid., n. 131.

[5] Ibid., 623.

The Hermeneutical Problem for All Christian Traditions: ‘Theology as Translation’

When Protestants say they affirm the ‘authority of Holy Scripture,’ they are doing nothing more, or less, than being good stalwart Protestants. The Protestant Reformation at the end of the day was an authority protest; and the Reformers believed that all authority reposes not in the Catholic church (or any church), but in Holy Scripture instead. They took the paper of Scripture to be the instrumental medium between God and humanity rather than the Church simpliciter. Some have claimed, including Heiko Oberman, that Protestants ended up having a ‘paper pope’ rather than a pope with an address (my paraphrase). Be that as it may, the Protestant ‘Scripture Principle’ is at the center of what it means to be a Protestant Christian; the Christian in this frame looks to Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) as their authority coram Deo (before God), rather than a magisteria of cardinals under papal regency. But this begs a certain and significant question; one not lost on Catholic critics of Protestants, viz.: whose interpretation of Scripture is the Protestant going to follow; or: if there is a multiplicity of interpretations of Protestants then given such diversity how is the Protestant to know whose interpretation is most proximate to the reality versus the others? Yet, I don’t really think this gets the Catholic off the hook so much; they suffer from the same sort of ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ that they claim the Protestants do. It is just that the Catholics have identified their papal oversight to be Roman, whereas Protestant oversight has the potential to simply posit multiple ‘popes’ based upon the interpretation of Scripture they deem most faithful to the Gospel reality. So, maybe the papalists have a certain sort of rightful critique of Protestantism, but it is a double-edged sword; and all it really does is help identify a ‘problem’ that all Christian people (and people in general) have. All Christian people, in particular, have a hermeneutical problem; viz. we all our subjects spatially located under conceptual pressures framed by whatever period of history we find ourselves embedded within. In other words, we are sinful creatures who live in and from sinful epistemic realities that serve as a real challenge for ever arriving at an ultimate capacity to know with absolute certainty what is the reality and what instead might just be our own self-projections onto reality.

If the above is the case: Paper and Papal both suffer under the same hermeneutical and epistemic problems that all creatures do. True, Christians have the Spirit of God, and of course this is the point of departure, ecclesiologically between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics have institutionalized and collapsed the measure of the Spirit into the Catholic Church and magisteria itself; whereas, Protestants have institutionalized and collapsed the shedding abroad of the Spirit into the collective of elect peoples wherever they might show up. Either way, in on a positive note, what becomes manifest is that Christians, no matter what tradition, are reliant upon the Spirit of God if they have any hope of actually being able to claim that they have a concrete knowledge of God and self. Without an extra nos (outside of us) experience of the Holy the Christian remains a hopeless beggar without the possibility of receiving Apostolic ‘silver and gold.’ But, and note the adversative force of this ‘but,’ we do have the Spirit; and by God’s Grace in Christ, we do have the capacity to know God and ourselves. We are not limited by our locatedness, because God is not so limited. God in Christ has broken into the spatial realities of our world, culturally situated as they are, and continue to be, and Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’); and He continues to speak!

With the aforementioned considered, what I think this bespeaks is a need for humility while engaging in the theological task. There needs to be a recognition that we are at the sole mercy of the living God to speak to us where we are. We can, at a very basic level, come to the realization that the incarnation of God in Christ shows us that God is not limited by the heavens; instead the soil of this earth has become resplendent with God’s glory in the shed blood of the Lamb slain before the earth’s very foundations. God is able to speak under variant pressures, and transpose us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son of Love afresh and anew. God is stable, we are not; and so we look to His perduring voice, and understand that in His wisdom He has made His voice available to us even under the pressures set forth by our 21st century context and conceptuality. In other words, God is able to speak in the 1st century just as clearly as he is able to in the 21st. What becomes of issue then is a matter of ‘translation.’ God doesn’t change; His reality is everlasting and eternal; and yet even with that as the case, He is happy to speak to us in a language we understand. This was an insight that Luther understood well; with his emphasis on the vernacular for the common people, in regard to the translation of Scripture, this, in principle remains an important reality for the doing of theology today. We have a 21st century Anglophone vernacular in North America that the Gospel is able to penetrate from above (outside of us), and ‘commandeer’ its language for purposes of communicating the transcendent tongue of the heavenly Gospel in the glossilia of the peoples of the nations all throughout the global world.

Because I reject the ‘genetic fallacy,’ I am not afraid to share things from people I largely disagree with; that is, when they provide important insight that can stand independent, in certain pretextual ways, from their larger theological or what have you projects. In this instance I am thinking of Bultmann and Kasemann. They both offer some important insight on the reality of translation as the premise of Christian theology.

The translation of the New Testament demands scientific work. Not only because every translation produced is imperfect and needs to be revised critically in accordance with the original text, but above all because even the most accurate translation needs to be translated again in the next generation. For language is alive and has its own history. Conceptualities change, and scientific research on the New Testament has the task of communicating the text in the language and conceptuality of each particular present.[1]

And Ernst Käsemann:

Bultmann was entirely right to pose this catchword that so terrified and infuriated his opponents. There must be demythologizing. . . . Without question God does not intend that we wander around as living mummies of the ancient world, everywhere presupposing and utilizing for ourselves the technology of our time, but spiritually and religiously setting ourselves back 1,900 years. Faith must be lived today, and this means it must think today and given an account of itself. The dry bones of the past remain ghosts if there are no living witnesses facing the present to take up their message.[2]

Without committing myself fully to either Bultmann or Käsemann, and recognizing that they have proverbially swung the pendulum to another extreme, what they uppoint for us is helpful. It recognizes, at the least, that we are time conditioned creatures that need to hear the Gospel afresh and anew. It recognizes how translation is indeed present in the theological task, precisely because of our locatedness on the historical spectrum. What they fail to recognize, and this is deleterious to their broader projects, respectively, is that it’s possible to excavate from the past in order to help in the translation and inculturating project of the present. They are too committed to evolutionary advance, in linear fashion, ironically, thus failing to grasp that God’s voice can and has been deposited for the fulgent present. In other words, they place so much emphasis on the existential moment as decisive, that they seem to get lost in Lessing historical ditch, consequently disallowing for the possibility to realize that our present is part of a continuum that keeps on giving. They seem to forget that the linguistic dialects that we traffic in presently have a historical prius that furnishes the present with its own linguistic living room; indeed manufactured from the conceptual matter of the past.

All of the above noted to simply state: theology is not a static thing. We have extremes on all sides; whether that be a desire to slave ourselves to the schoolmen of the scholastic past, or to cohabitate with the ‘modern’ Teutonics of the present. No matter, theology is the task of translating the Gospel into language and conceptual apparatuses that most proximate the Gospel’s transcendent and immanent reality in the incarnation of God. Theology that fails at this task isn’t a theology worth its name.

Catholics and Protestants, not to mention the Orthodox all have to deal with this same hermeneutical problem and eventual task. We cannot simply fall back into the safety of our confessional towers; we are called to go outside the city walls with Christ, and give our lives daily as living sacrifices well pleasing to the living God whom we serve. Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, “Theologie als Wissenschaft,” ZTK 81, no. 4 (1984): 447-69, at 459-60 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 566.

[2] Ernst Käsemann, In der Nachfolge des gekreuzigten Nazareners: Aufsätze and Vorträge aus dem Nachlass, ed. Rudolf Landau and Wolfgang Kraus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 97-98 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 569.

The Antihermeneutical Turn of the Evangelicals: Deferring to the Authority of the Church As Regulative of Biblical Interpretation

You don’t have to love, you don’t even have to like him; but I think David Congdon offers some valuable insights, particularly with reference to issues surrounding theological prolegomena and hermeneutics. His insights are penetrating, for my money, because he isn’t working from within but without the evangelical theological mainstream; and yet he is aware of the subculture that world is characterized by. I have my own and serious qualms with Congdon’s theological conclusions, but to constructively engage with him in spotty fashion does not commit the thinker to arrive at the place he has, respectively. With these ground clearing caveats in place, let’s engage with Congdon’s poignant critique of what he calls ‘the antihermeneutical turn.’

Hermeneutics or prolegomena (theological method) represent a very significant part of what I am about; if you hadn’t noticed. For many years as an evangelical I never realized that people weren’t just reading the Bible, as it is, straight off the page. In other words, it wasn’t until about seminary (a little prior in my later years of Bible College) that I realized the power that ‘interpretive tradition’ has for everyone! Once this sort of ‘Kantian’ lightning bolt hit me, I came to be a big believer in discerning how one’s prior theological system contributes to their biblical exegetical conclusions. In fact, one day in Reformation Theology class, when this realization hit me with passion, I raised my hand and pressed my professor on this very problem; viz. the hermeneutical problem. He simply, and at that point, wisely said: ‘that’s a good question.’ If we all have informing theologies shaping the way we read Holy Scripture, then who’s to say that my reading is more biblically faithful than that person’s? This represents the nub of the hermeneutical problem. There are differing ways to engage with it. Typically, at least among many Protestants, it is either to disengage with the problem; or if one is more disposed toward the more academic bent, it has become popular in those circles to simply refer to the rule of faith (regula fide) of the ‘Great Tradition’ of the Church to serve as regulative for how one reads Scripture. In fact, I have a Protestant friend who is just going to publication with an essay that, as I recall, premises in this very vein.

Congdon identifies the genealogy of the antihermeneutical problem in a lengthy footnote taken from his big tome on Bultmann. I want to share what he communicates therein, and then engage further with what I take some of the implications of his genealogy (and critique) to be. He writes:

The history of this “turn” is closely connected with the legacy of Bultmann. In the 1970s the academic fascination with Bultmann’s theology came crashing to a halt. There are two equally valid explanations for this. On the theological “left” Bultmann was superseded by theologies (represented especially by those of Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothee Sölle) that relocated the hermeneutical problem within sociopolitical praxis. On the theological “right” Bultmann was superseded by two interconnected movements, what we might call ecumenical ecclesiocentrism and antihermeneutical postliberalism. The ecclesiocentric revolution was initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and gave rise to what has become known as communio ecclesiology. Even many of those who rejected this specific ecclesiology nevertheless embraced the ecumenical insight that there is a common ecclesial-doctrinal substance beneath its contemporary permutations, namely, the shared Nicene orthodox faith. For our purposes the key aspects of this movement have been (a) the identification of the church qua corporate body as the primary and authoritative reader of scripture and (b) the identification of the church’s orthodox tradition as the criterion for the reading of Scripture.

Ecumenical ecclesiocentrism, in all its various forms, is closely related to the second movement that contributed even more significantly to the overthrow of the Marburg school’s dominance in the theological academy. What I have called antihermeneutical postliberalism names the turn away from the hermeneutical problem to the plain text of the Bible. Many of the leaders in postliberalism, such as Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck, were also leaders in the ecumenical movement. As with the ecclesiocentric turn, the antihermeneutical turn is notable for the way it came to be embraced by North American evangelicals. While evangelicals had their own concerns, they were nevertheless involved in the surge of interest in biblical interpretation and authority that was taking place more generally; in response to postliberalism many evangelicals (e.g., Roger Olson and Kevin Vanhoozer) developed their own postconservative alternative. The following are some key dates: in 1970, Brevard Childs published Biblical Theology in Crisis; in 1974, Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative appeared; in 1975, David Kelsey’s The Use of Scripture in Recent Theology; in 1976, Carl F. Henry’s six-volume God, Revelation and Authority; also in 1976, Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible; in 1978, the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”; and in 1980, David Steinmetz’s seminal article, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.” These early developments continue today in the form of so-called “theological interpretation of scripture,” which has become a joint movement of both mainline postliberals and evangelical postconservatives. The cumulative effect of this intense interest in scripture has been, at least in many circles, the overthrow of critical hermeneutical inquiry—the Sachkritik approach advocated by Bultmann—in the theological academy. This is what I mean by “antihermeneutical.” To be sure, many postliberals and evangelicals show a profound grasp of the hermeneutical problem, but they respond to this problem by neutralizing it via recourse to the church and its tradition. Today many of those who were once enthralled with historical-critical methods are advocating the use of the regula fidei as the norm for exegesis. Whether these developments are to be welcomed is another matter entirely.[1]

What resonates greatly with me are the folks David lists as being formative for the evangelical surging into the antihermeneutical problem. In other words, in my evangelical training, almost every single person he lists, whether postliberal or conservative, figured greatly in my education. Towards the end of that in my undergrad days, I began to discern and sense some of the problems associated with the way these teachers were seemingly attempting to gloss over the hermeneutical problem; mostly by deferring it.

I want to suggest, along with Congdon, that this antihermeneutical mode has only become that much more acute over the last two decades. There has been a doubling-down by evangelicals, in particular, to abandon the historical-critical method of biblical engagement, for the rule of faith and precritical biblical exegetical method. There typically is very little argument given for this move, except for demonizing the whole modern period of thought; and it is now just assumed that return back to the past is the way forward for the development of evangelical theology and bible reading practices. So, the evangelical response, is to throw themselves in with the high Church, and defer to its authority for arriving at the most faithful exegetical and theological conclusions the Christian can ostensibly arrive at.

This doesn’t sit well with me; indeed, my whole project, my whole blogging career might be my attempt to engage with this problem at some level. With many evangelicals, and others, I have issues with the modern historical-critical reading of Scripture; but I equally have problems with the retrieval movement currently underway in the evangelical sector. The former, in my view, is simply a deferment to the authority of the individual (even collectively), and the latter a deferment to the authority of the “Church.” Neither of these options honestly engage with the ‘problem,’ they simply kick the can back to what they deem as established authorities as those have taken form in the history, one way or the other. But you see how this only reinforces the problem, right? We are deciding who has the authority to tell us what the text means; yet all this then becomes is a self-projecting project of ‘my’ or ‘our’ authority to defer to someone else’s. The loop never has any other beginning but the human agent; even as that is constituted by the institutional Enlightenment or the institutional Church. Indeed, this is what Feuerbach was so critical of: the issue of self-projection and the circular nature that entails.

Congdon’s denouement is a turn into missiological theory, and Bultmann’s contribution to and development of that in his own method. My denouement is to turn to dialogical and dialectical theology, primarily that of Barth’s and Torrance’s. I am not totally sure how to highlight the distinction between my alternative and David’s, other than to say that ecclesial grammar has greater play for me than it does, I think, for Congdon. Congdon is arguing for a greater convergence between Barth and Bultmann than many of the Bultmannians have wanted there to be; and following Congdon’s line, I think there probably is. But in my view, Bultmann still gives too much place to the human agent, and an existentialism devoid of real groundedness in history, than does Barth. Barth still has an ‘existential’ component, particularly as that is grounded in his analogy of faith/relation (see Jüngel), but he still moves and breathes within the contours set out by the Nicene grammar that Bultmann seemingly moves beyond; and Congdon certainly moves beyond.

What is the real conclusion here?: I need to write more on dialogical and dialectical theology in such a way that the distinction I am noting between myself and Congdon gains greater traction with understanding. My approach to biblical studies is grounded in ‘encounter’ that is continuous and ongoing with the living Christ. In this sense, there is an aspect of existentialism present. But I would argue that the “authority” is not from ‘my side’ but in the One who is encountering me as Lord. How this gets turned into a normative hermeneutic that has some sort of salience between me and others, without reducing to an absolute subjectivism, is fodder for another post. But I think there is a way forward that takes Congdon’s points seriously, without committing oneself to a Bultmannian roadmap. More to come.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 545-46 n. 95.

What is Culture? And Our Ambassadorial Role Within the Cultures

Culture is an amorphous thing to get one’s head around. We use it casually, and as if we all just understand what we mean; but do we? David Congdon offers a nice sketch and discussion of this in his book The Mission of Demythologizing, and I’d like to share a bit of what he has written for our consideration.[1] Congdon writes:

Despite the problems associated with the word, it remains a useful nomenclature for whatever it is that differentiates one group of people from another. Notwithstanding his own misgivings about the concept, Eagleton provides a helpful definition of the word along these lines:

Culture can be loosely summarized as the complex of values, customs, beliefs and practices which constitute the way of life of a specific group. . . . Culture is just everything which is not generically transmissible. . . . Culture is the implicit knowledge of the world by which people negotiate appropriate ways of acting in specific contexts. Like Aristotle’s phronesis, it is more know-how than know-why, a set of tacit understandings or practical guidelines as opposed to a theoretical mapping of reality.

At a very general level, then, culture refers to the implicit categories and preunderstandings that differentiate some people from others. This “implicit knowledge” concerns the whole matrix of social relations constituted by linguistic, socioeconomic, religious, and other characteristics.

We will have occasion in the next chapter to flesh out this understanding of culture more concretely in relation to Bultmann. For now we can simply note that culture refers not to a theoretical Weltanschauung or worldview (“know-why”), but rather to the tacit Welthild or world-picture (“know-how”). The tensions and conflicts between cultures are related to the tensions and conflicts between divergent world-pictures. Understood in this way, the word “culture” indexes the prereflective factors related to why one person is strange to another person. These factors can be as broad as a nation or as narrow as a particular historical situation. At the same time, because cultures are not worldviews they are also plastic and permeable, open to the infinite possibilities of intercultural exchange and transcultural commingling. Cultures are intrinsically hybridizable. For this very reason the contested nature of the concept is appropriate to its contesting subject matter. The polysemy of the concept corresponds to the way cultures are continually bearing witness—that is, con (together) testare (testifying)—to the coexistence of multiple identities, the crossing and blurring and renegotiating of our various horizons and situations. Precisely in this way the idea of culture lends itself to missiological and hermeneutical reflection.[2]

I don’t have much follow up on this. But I think something as basic as this goes a long way towards helping us engage the ‘culture.’ Even though, as Congdon and Eagleton help us understand, culture, as a word, symbolizes something that is prereflective; it is nevertheless helpful to be aware of this. As Christian theologians we are called to engage with the culture, even as we live in the culture. We are called to translate the new-culture, or the new-creation we have been brought into by the grace of God in Christ, and deliver this reality to the broader world.

One more point: the idea of culture being ‘related to why one person is strange to another person’ is very pertinent for the Christian reality. The Gospel, according to the Apostle Paul, is considered foolishness, dare we say ‘strange’ to the Greek. This illustrates the definition of culture as just presented. There is strangeness to the Gospel, and the culture it creates for those of us participant within its reality, precisely because it invades the various worldly cultures from another ground. The culture of Heaven is the true culture, or the culture that will last. The culture of Heaven is other-worldly, and yet because of Who God is, it has the capacity to accommodate itself to the cultures of this world; transforming and redeeming them from within. As God’s culture in Christ penetrates the cultures of the world, it provides these various threads with a telos and trajectory that can give them ultimate meaning. But it doesn’t leave these cultures unchanged or unhinged; indeed the culture of Heaven often contradicts and puts to death the cultures of the world that attempt to construct self-purpose apart from God’s self-sustaining purpose that is truly Life.

Whether we want to appropriate the concept of culture the way I have just done, either way, I think David’s notion of ‘culture’ is helpful in a basic and broad-sense way as we think about what in fact culture entails. It is something we take for granted on a daily basis, and as we can see this taken-for-grantedness, in regard to understanding what culture is, is in fact what culture is in many important ways. It is a tacit reality that we are groomed in and learn. But that said, as Christians we also understand that there are many things we ‘tacitly learn’ that need to be unlearned and repented of when confronted with the reality of Heaven’s culture; even as that other-worldly culture confronts us right where we are, and often in the forms of our various cultural nexuses. It is an inescapable fact that we are embedded and enculturated creatures. God knows this, and in His Wisdom and Capaciousness, He has the capacity to meet us where we are moment by moment afresh and anew. As we are confronted by Him in this midst, we can learn His ways of translation and accommodation to the broader cultures of the world; while at the same time not becoming captive to the cultures of the world that would seek to undercut the Heavenly culture we have become ambassadors of.

[1] Let the reader understand: Just because I refer to Congdon’s work does not mean I endorse the conclusions of his work in regard to the appropriation of Bultmann’s theology in the main. But I am committed to reading through the whole of his 800pp+ book in order to better critically engage with that sector of the Church. Not to mention that David presents much that can be constructively appropriated for those of us who still see value in the modern theological project. Anyway, this particular reference to Congdon has nothing to do with Bultmann, per se. Instead, it is more of a ground clearing point of development that David is engaged in, in order to more faithfully and critically engage with the implications of Bultmann’s work. I am lifting this quote, as it were, as a pre-text, and then using it differently than David does in his work.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 528-30.