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.

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Speculative theology “belongs to the devil in hell”: A Way for Dialogical Theology

Rather than speculate God why not actually think God in encounter with God, as God Self-reveals afresh and anew in the ever-presenting of Godself in the Christus praesens; in the face of the risen Christ? This is the mode of theological action this evangelical calvinist operates from. But this operation seems too existentialist for some; particularly those committed to classical classical theism. Even so, it is a worthy approach, I think, and not one that was lost on someone as seminal as Martin Luther himself. The spirit of Luther’s Christocentrism lived on in other Germans, even modern ones; ones like Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Eberhard Jüngel et al. But these names, other than Luther’s, stumble people; at least many in the classical classical theistic grouping. Even so, this evangelical calvinist doesn’t stumble at these modern German names; insofar as these names might have something valuable to say, despite their respective theological genealogies, or the poisoned wells they’ve ostensibly drunk deeply from. This evangelical calvinist can find constructive warrant in these Germans (and the Swiss), with the focus, in particular on the so called “existentialist” emphasis they offer as alternative to what counts, currently, as the only orthodox way to do theology. They offer an alternative way to do theology insofar that they ground theological reality in the faith of Christ as that confronts the sinner in the midst of their sin in need of a Savior. Here, these Germans (and the Swiss) provide a relational way for doing theology that reposes upon the subjective activity of the objective givenness in God for the world. They offer an alternative to the theological stasis that “orthodoxy” gives us in its creedal propositionalism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for creedal Christianity; but not of the sort that the living Christ becomes the predicate of the creed, rather, I am for a creedal Christianity wherein the creeds are breathed new life, each day, as the risen Christ meets with His people in the tabernacles of their own fallen bodies.

David Congdon gives us some really good things to chew on as we think about the sort of dialogical theology I have been highlighting in the above comments. Here Congdon is giving us Jüngel’s version of Bultmann’s confessional theology; a lively confession that is based in the ever-coming Christ. Here we have a theology that elides the static God of natural theological provenance, and instead gives us a notion of God that emphasizes God as one known in encounter in the parousia of Christ; as Christ meets the sinner in the midst of their sin, and breathes resurrection into their lives with the result that genuine knowledge of God obtains in a lively and refreshing way. This way of theological endeavor presupposes only what the kerygma does, that is that Christ is risen indeed; and as a result, He is able to meet us as lively and real presence. Congdon writes in extension:

On the basis of this starting point Jüngel turns to what he calls the “practical orientation of theology” (Praxisbezug der Theologie) in Bultmann’s theology. Since it is the case that theology “does not wish to accomplish its pursuit  of cognition [Erkenntnis] through a knowledge [Wissen] that is separable from faith,” it follows that “theology for Butlmann therefore has an essentially practical character.” In this way his theology “stands in the tradition of reformational theology,” given Luther’s claim that “true theology is practical” (vera theologia est practica) while speculative theology “belongs to the devil in hell.” Jüngel notes how Bultmann’s theology obliquely references Luther’s famous claim. For instance, in speaking of revelation as a word that encounters us in a particular situation Bultmann goes on to state that “a speculative theory, a general truth, cannot be this word,” because it does not address us in the moment, and in his 1933 essay on natural theology he declares that all talk of God “outside of faith speaks not of God but of the devil.” Bultmann consistently rejects all associations of Christian theology with speculation or scholasticism, even associating the “ancient ideal of θεωρία” with the metaphysical notion of God as “an existing thing, an object of cognition.” Bultmann associates a theoretical conception of theology with those modes of God-talk that understand the object of theology to be something statically available—e.g., the historical object of liberalism, the propositional statements of Protestant orthodoxy, or the sacramental institution of Roman Catholicism—rather than an event of truth in which faith participates. A theoretical science of God thus aims at the construction of a Weltanschauung valid for all times and places.

The fact that Bultmann, like Luther, rejects a theoretical or speculative form of theology in favor of theology as a practical science must be stated with care. Jüngel rightly points out that we would misunderstand both if we took them to be picking a side in Aristotle’s differentiation between theoretical and practical knowledge, in which “the τέλος of theoretical science is truth” while “the τέλος of practical science is work.” Nor can we locate them according to the modern Kantian differentiation between theoretical and practical reason. The reformational claim that faithful God-talk is a theologia practica does not subscribe to either distinction. Neither Luther nor Bultmann thinks theology is confined to morality or ethics; neither reduces the object of theology to human action. This is clear enough from Bultmann’s repeated refusal to specify ethical commands in advance, since that would be to confuse gospel and law, thus forgetting that the command of God only becomes evident in a particular moment. Jüngel additionally points to Bultmann’s 1933 essay on the reform of theological study where the latter says, in implicit agreement with Barth, that theology is “the theory of praxis.” Theology’s practicality, however, does not consist in its ability to offer guidance for how to act “in all possible situations” but rather “arises from a living [lebensmässige] relation to its object”—or, in Jüngel’s terminology, the “orientation to praxis” (Praxisbezug) consists in an “orientation to the object” (Gegenstandsbezug). Because the object is an active event within history, the relation to this object is necessarily an active, practical relation. God “cannot be grasped in any now as one who remains [der Bleibende], but . . . always stands before me as one who is coming [der Komende],” and therefore praxis (that is, our own ongoing refusal to remain still) is the only proper mode of relating to God. But precisely because God is an event—because revelation is a divine praxis—it follows that in faith’s practical mode of existence one truly knows God. A practical science of God indeed has truth as its telos, and not merely work, and that is because the truth does not subsist in either theoretical statements or practical actions but rather in the divine object of this science, to which one can only relate in a concrete practical way that does not exclude but includes theoretical ideas. Jüngel can thus point to passages in Luther where the Reformer affirms the notion that theology is a scientia speculativa, but only because “the truly speculative [science of the theologians] . . . is all the more practical.”[1]

Even someone as “existentialist” as Bultmann was, even given his defunct understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he still has some rich insights to offer in regard to what we like to call the dialogical theology; particularly as mediated through Congdon’s, Jüngel. People often want to simply relegate this sort of thinking into the dust-bin of the modern theologik, but we shouldn’t move so quickly; particularly as the focus on God’s ability to continuously make Himself known is the emphasis. I want to constructively appropriate some of this from Bultmann’s emphasis, even while rejecting much of his framework. Some would say this is unadvisable since, they might intone, this Bultmannian emphasis on the ‘practical’ is of a piece with the rest of his kerygmatic existentialist approach. But I don’t think we must take all just to get a piece. I think we can get a piece here and there and retext it into a broader theological framework wherein there is fruit even among the pits.

I think this Luther[an] emphasis on the faith of Christ as the source-bed for proper theological modus is the proper focus; particularly as that is placed over and even against the plentiful forms of speculative theology. I’d rather default to the categories of revelation themselves, as those are given in the writ of Holy Scripture’s reality, rather than in the categories of the philosophers. And yet, what it means to do evangelical theology is just this: it is to engage the speculative entailments of the philosophers, as the means by which revelation is ostensibly “unpacked” for the Church. But why should Protestant theologians defer to the “Church’s categories,” when the Church needs her Lord’s categories in order to live the sort of healthy and flourishing life that He has elevated her to live? Why opt for theoretical knowledge when we have concrete knowledge of God given to and for us, on a daily basis, in the presence of Christ as that is mediated by the presence of the Holy Spirit?

I can understand why people opt for natural theology, and the ostensible stability they find in that. I can understand why people want to elevate the Church to lordly levels; I mean the Church and the various churches have addresses and doctors. I can understand why we are afraid of falling prey to heresy, and falling under the spell of existentialist whims driven by turning to the subject of our navels. But I don’t see that in the focus that even someone like Bultmann, in critical appropriation, is giving us. Just because something is labelled “existentialist theology,” doesn’t negate its possibility for offering critical and objective modes for knowing God. Indeed, if we understand who the proper subject of theology is, if we understand that the subject is God, and that in His subject we find objective ground as He is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in His inner life, then maybe this sort of “existentialist theology” is what the Church needs. The sort that finds its existence in the esse of God’s life for us in Christ. This is ‘practical’ and not speculative because it is the wisdom of God to meet the sinner where they are, in their sin simul peccator, and understand that God meets us in the scuz of our bewildered lives rather than in some sort of ethereal theoria of speculative and mind-numbing reality of our own positing—as if we can posit the Holy Ground upon which God meets us; we can’t: He meets us as Holy Fire in things like dusty tumbleweed and in His assumed humanity.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 473-75.

Presenting a Genuinely and Radically Word-Based Christian Theology Contra Theologies of Speculation and Negation

Most of what dominates conservative evangelical Reformed theology these days is rooted in the speculative tradition, or what, more medievally is known as the via negativa (‘negative way’). Katherine Sonderegger, as a contemporary thinker, typifies it this way. Here she writes:

Note what I said here! Our reading of the priestly-prophetic visio Dei is not principally Trinitarian in character. We are not hearing and seeking out in this witness of ancient Israel a sign and foretaste of Triune Persons. It is not the Father, say, that we see breaking through the cloud and smoke to descend upon Moses and upon the people Israel. Nor do we look for an intimation of the Son in these royal Appearances in the temple. We do not bring forward first and principally the Holy Spirit as personal disclosure in Dame Wisdom or in the maternal brooding over the dark sea at creation’s dawn. The forward press of so much modern theology—the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons—does not, I believe, properly attest the Unicity of the God of Israel. The Deity and Nature of God is personal: the One God is a Person; we can dare to put it this way. Monotheism is no shame word! At once God is Nature and Person, and the witness of ancient Israel to its Lord is to an Object inalienably Subject, a Subject lowered and handed over to be Object. This oscillation in Israel’s and therefore our religious life before God—now our experience of the I AM—is the gracious condescension of the Lord God to usward, for these are not two, not distinct or segmented, but One, One Mystery, One God.[1]

There is an ancient pedigree to this approach, one laid down by none other than Peter Lombard in the structuring of his Sentences; we might even call this the salvation-history approach. But inherent to this, as illustrated by Sonderegger, is a need to decentralize the threeness of God over-against the oneness; just because this is the ‘order’ we ostensibly receive in the linear unfolding of the Old Testament disclosure. So, in this sense, in the tradition Sonderegger forays forth for us, we could say she is following the contours of Scripture; but we could also say that she is doing so in an abstract way. Her approach can be characterized as ‘abstract’ at the point that she does not principially ground her ‘Word-based’ theologizing in the Christian understanding of the Logos of God. Contrariwise, what we see the New Testament authors doing, the Gospel of John comes quickly to mind, is a retroactive or recapitulatory reading of the Old Testament wherein the Word of God, who is the Christ, seemingly breaks in and all over the Old Testament and sees Christ as the revelation of God all along. In other words, in light of Christ, we come to recognize, by the Spirit, that the Old Testament was a witness to Jesus the Messiah all along. If this is the case, the so called ‘unicity’ of God is never an abstract oneness, but one that is inextricably understood in the multiplicity of the Triune Life of God as revealed in the Son, who is Jesus Christ.

In contrast to Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies—which is often considered The Tradition of the Church when it comes to theological endeavor in the Western iteration—I want to suggest that we follow the New Testament authors, and understand that our theological entrée must be grounded in the Word of God alone. What I want to introduce us to is not without controversy though. But, I think we can constructively appropriate ways of thinking from contexts that might not end up correlating with the way we end up recasting them vis-à-vis their original context. Here, Eberhard Jüngel, through the telling of David Congdon, helps typify the sort of Word-based theology I think is more principially grounded in the concrete reality of God for us in Christ. Read with me for a moment, and then we will attempt to provide the constructive appropriation I am referring to. Congdon writes:

Jüngel begins by summarizing the way Bultmann differentiates the object of theology from the fides qua creditur of liberal theology, the fides quae creditur of Protestant orthodoxy, and the unknowable God of mysticism. Each of these approaches in theology either loses the divine object of theology altogether or speaks of God in abstraction from God’s “saving deed” (Heilstat) in Christ. If it is not to be mere speculation, theology can be the science of God only as the science of God’s word, the kerygma, the fides quae creditur. But the kerygma is the concrete event in which God’s saving action takes place: it is the eschatological word of God’s justifying judgment in Christ. One can only speak about this event by participating in it and existing as the object of this divine judgment. That is why “theology is the science of God, in that it is the science of faith, and vice versa.” Or as Luther famously put it in his Large Catechism, “these two things belong together, faith and God.” Theology, according to Bultmann, is a particular understanding of God that arises from the event of faith in the word of God. It is a task “enjoined to faith from faith and for faith,” and thus it does not derive from any general account of science or any human capacity for revelation. The encounter with Christ in the kerygma is the sole basis for theological speech and must occur ever anew. According to Jüngel, “the kerygma that faith accepts thus elicits along with faith a cognition [Erkennen], which is a knowledge [Wissen] that is never separable from the event of the kerygma and from the event of faith, but remains related to the Lord who encounters us in the kerygma.” Put more succinctly: “the truth of faith is the event of truth.”[2]

Sounds “existentialist,” right? The emphasis is indeed on encounter, but not an encounter generated by the “I” instead one that comes from the “Thou,” from God in Christ. Some might be concerned that Bultmann’s breath is too close to this to be of value for the conservative evangelical theology. But we can avoid going all the way with Bultmann, and instead critically appropriate the good in the bad.[3] And what we are really being presented with, through Congdon, is Jüngel’s Word-based basis for doing theology that is shaped by the concrete kataphatic reality of God in Christ.

Maybe you also noticed as you read Congdon’s development, the priority that is given to God confronting us, and giving us capacity that we did not have prior to the justification and reconcilation He brings for us in Christ. This, in itself levels a resounding no to the sort of theological method that Sonderegger, and her tradition, gives us. It says no to the inherent analogy of being and natural theology that allows the theologian to speculate about God in the first place; even if that speculation is said to be driven by the salvation-history unfolded in the Old Testament disclosure. For a genuinely Word-based theology there is no space for speculation about who God is, or what God is just because God’s revelation for us is given without remainder in Christ; and our knowledge of God in this frame is fully contingent upon this ‘without-remainder’ givenness for us in the face of God in Christ.

To summarize: Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies, is committed to a speculative mode for doing theology; a mode that presupposes upon an inherent capacity within the human agent to discern or discover God simply by reflecting on the ‘nature’ of things as they are disclosed in the fabric of the created order. It is this mode of theologizing that necessarily starts with an emphasis on the oneness or monadic quiddity or whatness of God precisely because it starts by speculating about the singular power that might have been able to ‘cause’ what the thinker is discovering via the negative of the negating process they are enthralled by. Contrariwise, the Word-based tradition that Jüngel can help us understand is one that is based necessarily upon the premise that ‘reconciliation is revelation.’ What comes with this axiom is the notion that human agents have no capacity in themselves to discover God no matter how hard they try. In this Word-based approach, the theologian is fully dependent upon God encountering them, rather than vice-versa. Herein, in the encounter, the theologian becomes capacious to know God, but only as God is made known to them, without remainder, in the face of Christ.

I commend the Word-based approach to you; even if we might have to do some constructive work in order to keep it genuinely in line with orthodox premises. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as it is possible to critically appropriate themes from existentialism, as it developed in the modern period and retext them under the pressures presented by the encounter of God Hisself. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as the object of our theology is in fact also the Subject of theology; in other words, just as theology is grounded in the personal and Triune givenness of God for us in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ. This, I contend, is the better way forward for doing a genuinely Christian and evangelical theology. A theology that elides speculation about God from our own resources, and instead trusts the God revealed to have the capacity to explain Himself to us as both One and Three, Three in One in the tremendous mystery of the God who is for us, with us, and not against us.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 6577, 6584 Kindle.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 472-73.

[3] The bad being Bultmann’s understanding of the bodily resurrection of Christ and its untetheredness from historical concrete reality. We can follow Barth’s understanding of resurrection while at the same time appropriating some of Jüngel’s Bultmannian-like approach to grounding theological approach in the concrete reality of the Word of God in Christ. Here is Barth’s understanding of resurrection, just for point of reference:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing atrembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself. CD I/2 §14, 115

Terry Eagleton’s Jesus Quested Jesus: Responding to an Atheist’s Understanding of the Parousia of the Risen Christ

When you read atheist authors (or at least agnostic ones), and this is surely what Terry Eagleton is—someone recently told me, on FaceBook, that Eagleton had returned to the Catholic church, but clearly from his writing in this book, he is still in the clasped fist of Marx and the Devil—you will assuredly run across things, as a Christian reader, that kick hard against the goads. While I am being enriched by many of the insights Eagleton has written, even in exposition of Scripture, I ran across one of those paragraphs where it becomes clear that Eagleton hasn’t, as of yet, repented and bowed the knee to the living God in the Risen Christ. In the following quote from him you will see his view of Jesus’s ability to predict the future (an attribute of God), and actually what I take to be a very facile reading of Jesus’s voice in the Gospels. I will respond laterally, and point out the sort of petitio principii (circular reasoning) Eagleton engages in. Here he is talking about the specter and reality of death, and how an ethics can be nobly wrought even in its unrelenting teeth.

To take no heed for tomorrow is possible only by living in the knowledge of that ultimate tomorrow which is death. It is an invitation not to forget about time, but to be mindful of the end of time. Jesus, along with some of those who preached his gospel, seemed to have imagined that the kingdom of God was imminent, which proved to be a rather sizeable error. To their mind, history was simply eschatology. The church had simply to stand fast, surrendered in faith to the Lord who was soon to return. Even so, to live as if the Day of Judgement were at hand, and thus as if the only pressing matters were justice and fellowship, is not an ethics to be scorned. If there is to be any eternity, it must surely be here and now. ‘Eternal life’, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘belongs to those who live in the present’. And since to live in the present, were it possible, would mean to live out of time, it is a way of anticipating one’s death. It is another sense in which, in Eliotic phrase, the moment of death is every moment.[1]

First off, I think Eagleton, just for his own health, would do well to put down his stein of continental spirits, and instead pick up, at first, the chalice filled with the pure milk of the living Word of God; only later to move onto meatier things. But beyond that, let’s respond further.

Clearly, Eagleton is imbibing the Quest for Jesus inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer, back in the day; you know, the eschatological Jesus who was clearly wrong and in ‘sizeable error’ about his imminent return. Further, and this is where we recognize the petitio principii, Eagleton presupposes that Jesus is ‘clearly’ just another [hu]man, which thus delimits the foresight of Jesus’s predictive pronouncements to the ‘near’ future. In other words, since Eagleton starts with his conclusion about Jesus being in ‘error,’ he uses his conclusion about Jesus as his major premise in regard to who Jesus is and his capacities. What these leads to is the conclusion not only that Jesus is just another man, but that because of this, Jesus could err; because to err is human after all. What if Eagleton started with orthodox grammar and premise about Jesus; what if he started with the Chalcedonian settlement and homoousion? If Eagleton started with the premise that Jesus was (and is!) both fully God and fully human, he might not have concluded like the original Jesus Questers did; he might have avoided the very limited notion of ‘time’ and ‘space’ that someone who happens to be God in the flesh could be operating with. This is my response: Jesus wasn’t mistaken about his imminent return, instead his vision of time/space and the future is at least as long as Yahweh’s in the Old Testament. Or did Terry forget that Yahweh had been preparing, through his covenant people Israel, for millennia, with Jesus’s first advent in mind. Do you see the analogy I’m drawing? God took thousands of years, when referring to his covenant people, to layer tradition upon tradition, prophecy upon promise, about the first coming of the Son. If Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh is it strange to think that when he spoke of his near and imminent return, that within his economy of things two thousand years, or a million years, are rather short spans of time for the eternal God; the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever? But that’s what Eagleton gets when he presumes that the Jesus he is looking at looks like him staring back at him in the mirror, rather than the living and eternal God.

It is an interesting corollary, the second part of the Eagleton paragraph refers to eternity being now, and only in the horizontal immanence of the concrete present. I mean what is one to do if you reject any hope in the Risen Christ? You might as well attempt to make the best of now, even live your best life now, and write books about the virtues of Marx’s theology for the masses. I’ve seen this turn made by someone else; David Congdon has unfortunately arrived at this same conclusion about eternity. He has bought into the radically existentialized Jesus of Bultmann, and uncoupled concrete history from any sort of antecedent (eternal) reality in the living God. There are many sophisticated ways to live in unbelief (with reference to the living God Revealed in Jesus Christ), and unfortunately Marxist atheists, like Eagleton, or Existentialist theists, like Congdon, have found those ways. Moral: Don’t follow their lead. God’s Not Dead.

 

[1] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 1476, 1483.

Torrance’s Demythologization of Bultmann: Re-Metaphysicalizing the Gospel Through the Gospel

Because of David Congdon’s book on Bultmann, his book big which I have been reading, I am here going to continue to throw significant noise back at any sort of positive “retrieval” of Bultmann’s theology. The “noise” will, once again, come from my teacher, Thomas F. Torrance. If you want to read his fuller treatment on Bultmann’s theology then pick up his posthumously published book Incarnation and flip to the end notes; Walker (the editor) included a quite lengthy dossier from TFT on Bultmann in critique.

As becomes clear, as you are reading Congdon’s Big Book on Bultmann, there is a disavowal of the metaphysical God of Christian tradition and classical theism[s]. This is simply in line with the period of theological undevelopment that Bultmann was groomed in; the so called postmetaphysical understanding of God, primarily among the Teutonics. Torrance identifies the ideational genealogy of this line of thinking, and helps to further expose the narrow shoulders upon which Bultmann stood in the development of his own thinking. Torrance writes (in extenso):

This brings us to another important but difficult point: Bultmann’s peculiar understanding of history. That is even more clear in the teaching of Gogarten, especially in his little work Demythologisation and History. This is the view that we are ourselves the real creators of history, and that the existence we know is historicised existence. Here two streams of thought run together, and we may best understand that by looking at those two streams of thought: one from Kant through Dilthey, and the other from Roman Catholicism through Heidegger. In Kant’s famous Copernican revolution, idealist philosophers came to think of the human mind as creating its data out of a formless raw material through certain categories of understanding, so that in the very act of knowing we give shape and form to the chaotic flux of experience. Now this notion was carried over by Dilthey to an understanding of history, and so he set himself to write a critique of the historical reason, parallel to Kant’s critique of the pure reason – for Dilthey, this was necessary if the humanistic sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) were not simply to take their criteria and hermeneutical method from the exact natural sciences.

But there is another line of thought that flows into this from the Roman Catholic notion of tradition, that is, of the real meaning of history in an organically developing tradition. This notion was transferred to the understanding of existence by Heidegger, for whom the real existence of a thing is found in its traditions. A thing is what its tradition is, and beyond that tradition there is no thing in itself. In this way, Heidegger transposed the medieval view of existence and essence by telescoping them into each other. For him, essence is found in existence, and on that ground, existence in essence. In Bultmann and Gogarten both of these lines of interpreting history run together, and for them history is that which we make it to be, so that beyond our historicisation of existence, there is no reality.

Historical existence and the history of existence are identical. Applied to the gospel tradition, that means that what is actually historical is what the apostles made of the raw material in front of them, and behind that there is no reality. The historical reality is what they made it to be – apart from their creation there is nothing, there exists nothing. The only real historical Jesus is what we make of him. That helps to explain why for Bultmann the apostles (from our point of view) had to distort the picture of Jesus in their presentation – there is in fact no other Jesus than that, their creation of him. This view of history destroys what Bultmann and Gogarten call the metaphysical interpretation of the faith or the historical Jesus, and eliminates from the Christ-event anything of an objective, independent, ontological nature. Or to put it in other words, according to Bultmann and Gogarten, modern men and women cannot understand history apart from our own responsibility for it; and apart from our responsible handling of it, there is in point of fact no history, for there is no history apart from the changes human beings have introduced into it. By our decisions we give the world its particular form, so that reality is now this changing history which we create, and beyond and apart from that there is nothing real for us.

Now quite frankly this is the biggest myth yet created by man – that we ourselves are the creators of all history, and that apart from the history created by human beings, nothing else is real! Man is the God of history! In view of this, it is clear that it is not the New Testament that Bultmann and Gogarten themselves that need to be radically demythologised! So long as they work with such inverted conceptions of history, scientific interpretation of the New Testament is quite impossible.[1]

Torrance opines further and latterly in his treatment this way:

In point of fact, then, Bultmann’s demythologization of the kerygma means stripping it of its physical elements – its setting in physical history and the physical world of space and time in which we live. The whole process which takes the kerygma out of that setting and plants it in some setting of existential decision, cuts out of the gospel its historical particularity, and cuts out of the incarnation its ephapax, its ‘once and for all’ finality. It cuts the kerygma adrift from history altogether. Now Bultmann declares that he does not do that, for the existential decision is in historical encounter with the crucified Jesus, but once that decision is made, history as we know it is set aside, and in point of fact he does therefore cut the kerygma adrift from history, for history has no essential relation to the substance and content of faith. The historical event of Christ, apart from the appeal it addresses to us, signifies nothing for our salvation, for it is not a source of salvation independent of ourselves. The historical fact of Christ cannot be the object of the kerygma, since it is the kerygma, says Bultmann, that is, the kerygma as he understands it, that declares its meaning and confers on it its value as saving event. It is only because the kerygma is a function of man’s self understanding that it invests the historical fact of the crucified Christ with a meaning and an existential reality which it does not have in itself.[2]

And in a zinging type of way Torrance offers a final critique of Bultmann’s lack of theologia crucis:

The plain fact is that Bultmann shies away from the weakness of God on the cross, as Paul called it, and so is offended at the cross. The fact that the eternal God is there in all that weakness is a scandal to his ‘Greek’ mind, and the fact that his eternal salvation must repose upon a contingent fact of history in Jesus frightens him – and therefore it is Bultmann himself above all who seeks false security by cutting the kerygma adrift from history and all its weakness, so that it will not be open to the criticisms of rationalism. Or, paradoxically, he deliberately uses all the weapons of positivist science in order to destroy the historical foundations of faith, so that faith may rest on something that is not subject to weakness or change and relativity and contingency. He thus has not the courage to rest his faith upon the weakness of God in the historical Jesus, and so seek falsely to secure himself and his self-understanding within the limits of scientism.[3]

Torrance’s critiques do not fall on deaf ears. As one reads Congdon’s book on Bultmann all of TFT’s points are spot on. It is unfortunate that Congdon didn’t really interact with Torrance’s points of critique, but that does not negate the force of Torrance’s critiques. It is interesting to me, because as I have followed Congdon’s theological development and present conclusions, his conclusions are exactly that of Bultmann’s; and thus fall under the mantle of Torrance’s insights and critiques. Congdon offers certain words of pushback against critiques like Torrance’s, particularly in regard to the idea that Bultmann relied upon Heidegger in paradigmatic ways, but he only asserts that Bultmann arrived at his views prior to reliance upon Heidegger, and that he found in Heidegger a like-minded companion to help round out his thinking. But that’s hardly an adequate response to the sort of penetrating critique that Torrance offers.

When you think about it: If God is the center of your thinking you will not have an aversion to metaphysics, per se; but if you are the center of your thinking you will indeed have an aversion to metaphysics. Metaphysics, in a denotative sense, does not mean that the thinker must be overly committed to Hellenic forms of thinking; indeed, as Torrance intimates, Bultmann himself suffers from this over reliance in his so called demythologized postmetaphysics. The concern that some of us have, myself included, is that metaphysics are not properly evangelized by the Gospel reality; that metaphysics come prior to the Revelation thus modulating the Gospel into something it isn’t. But this concern is different than Bultmann and his impulses. He was under the sway of a humanistic idealism that was attempting to navigate the Enlightenment waters by giving full head nod to them while still attempting to have a lively Christian faith under those constraints. Torrance helps us see how Bultmann’s noble attempts failed radically!

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 284-85.

[2] Ibid., 289-90.

[3] Ibid., 290.

Thomas Torrance’s Warning Against the Existentialist Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann and David Congdon

I’ve been referring quite frequently to Rudolf Bultmann lately because of David Congdon’s big book on Bultmann; which I’ve been reading. I’ve finished about two thirds of the book (500 pp.), and I think I’ve seen enough. It is easy to see how seductive reading large amounts of someone like Bultmann can be; indeed, I found myself getting sucked in at moments myself. But ultimately the existentialist Jesus that Congdon presents through Bultmann is nothing more than a Gnostic Jesus who is generated more by the imagination than by the antecedent reality of the eternal God, the eternal Logos. What takes over in this frame is not Jesus the Lord, but my encounter with an idea named Jesus; and my existential state becomes determinative for the type of response this “encounter” might engender. Jesus, in the Bultmannian frame, has no ontological grounding; instead the Jesus of Bultmann comes to only have an existential grounding, an ontic grounding that cannot ultimately surpass my personal experience with him. In other words, there is nothing transcendent about Bultmann’s/Congdon’s Jesus; only if transcendence means that this “encounter” with the so called kerygmatic Christ results in theopolitical action wherein the eschatological is existentially realized in the concrete existence of my lived life among other flatlanders.

Thomas Torrance, who I consider my primary teacher these days, offers critique of the Bultmannian sort of Jesus; and so I want to share some of that for you. It is no surprise that Congdon would discount Torrance’s understanding of Bultmann and the existentialist Jesus produced thereby. Yet, if Congdon wants to discount TFT’s critique maybe he shouldn’t exemplify the very components of the critique in his own lived life and positions (Congdon, that is). TFT writes:

In both liberalism and existentialism the historical Jesus is expendable

That is the denouement that comes over the idealist and liberal conception of Jesus, in which the eternal ideas mediated by Jesus finally set the historical Jesus himself aside. That is called Liberalism, but today there is a whole school of New Testament scholars who are opposed to that liberal approach to Jesus, and they lay stress not on the ideas that he taught, but on the eschatological event which broke into the world in the historical Jesus. What is this eschatological event? The school of New Testament scholars here would call the eschatological event the act of the divine mediated in and through the historical Jesus, but they deny that the divine event is itself also an historical event. In other words, they have substituted the concept of event for that of idea, and in the same way as the idea passes through the historical Jesus and discards him, so this eschatological event passes through the historical Jesus and discards him. Just as the eternal ideas or truths mediated by Jesus had only a temporal and non-essential relation to history, so this eschatological event has only a temporal and non-essential relation to history. Again, just as the eternal truth  mediated by Jesus, once it was disclosed to our knowledge, appears self evident to us as a truth of our own reason, so the eschatological event, once it is disclosed through our decision, ministers to, or is servant to, our self understanding. What is the difference between this view and the liberal one? The liberal view worked with an idealist philosophy [emphasis on ideas], and this works with an existentialist philosophy [emphasis on courageous existence and decision, personal action and involvement in events]; the liberal view was more concerned with static ideas, and this one more with dynamic events and decisions, but in both the result is the same: the truth of reason or self understanding is the net result, while the historical Jesus is relegated as of no ultimate importance.

All that happened here is that the philosophical idiom has changed, the language has changed to suit the times, but we have the same radical divorce of the eternal from the temporal, the act of God from history – with the result that the historical person of Christ as God and man is no longer central or important. This is simply a new and more subtle form of liberalism. Once again the great dilemmas is: either in Jesus Christ we are confronted by the eternal God in history, so that the person of the historical Christ as man and God is of utmost importance; or Jesus is only the historical medium of a confrontation between me and the act of God which summons me to decision, but in which I reach a self understanding which enables me to live my life bravely. Here christology passes away into some kind of existentialist anthropology.[1]

This is an accurate assessment of the existentialist Jesus that David Congdon presents us with in Rudolf Bultmann’s thought. The historical Jesus is still only an accident of history in this frame, a purveyor of eternal ideas, but nothing more; albeit eternal ideas that have actually been sublimated by the immanent conditions of the 21st century. Worse, this Jesus, while said to encounter us, is given shape not by some real eschatological reality, but the one imagined by an immanenist frame that looks more like the enculturated self-imaginer, and the socio-cultural conditions this imaginer is located in, rather than the eschatological life of God who is characterized by an alien holiness.

You might wonder why I’m picking on Congdon so much. It’s because he is an influential personage among millennial and younger thinkers in regard to who God in Jesus Christ is imagined to be. He is helping a generation slip away from the orthodox Jesus confessed and known by the church catholic through the centuries; and is offering us a latter day Jesus who is more like an ATM machine dispensing values that look more like the cultural moment than the heavenly revolution they purport to be. He is helping young people (and older who aren’t wise enough to see past this) apostatize with intellectual rigor, and leaving them in the dust of their own images.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 261-62.

The Analogy of Advent Rather Than The Analogy of Being: The “Christ-Myth” Demythologized

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[1]

The above quote from Robert Dale Dawson captures a significant point in regard to the apocalyptic-dialectical nature of Barth’s theory of history-revelation; particularly this clause: “This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.” It fits well with Eberhard Jüngel’s ‘demythologizing’ project—if we want to call it that—vis-à-vis Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of ‘myth’ and ‘demyth.’

As David Congdon develops Bultmann’s understanding of myth and demythologizing what comes to the fore, particularly as he places Jüngel into conversation with Bultmann, is how ‘myth’ coalesces with what Dawson describes, with reference to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection, as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Often when we hear “myth” we think in terms of its profane or pagan etiology (or lexical origination, colloquially understood); when we hear myth we hear fairytale. But this is precisely not what Bultmann, Jüngel, or Barth understand as the entailment of myth (Barth’s language is actually saga instead of myth; roughly as corollary with Bultmann’s myth). In order to explicate this further I am going to quote Congdon (again, don’t tell him) as he develops Jüngel’s own understanding of mythos as this relates to knowledge of God. Congdon writes at length:

According to Jüngel, faith as the knowledge of God is concerned with a person’s existential relocation (i.e., knower located with the known) and not with the world’s theoretical explanation (i.e., known located with the knower). The knowledge of God is not a worldview but rather and existential event, as the dialectical revolution in theology discovered anew. Demythologizing is necessary in order to prevent theology from losing sight of its proper task as the articulation of this existential relation to God. In this way it furthers the project of dialectical theology. Demythologizing continually unsettles and reorients theology, and in so doing preserves the practical truth of the Christ-myth. Commenting on Luther’s axiom that “our theology is certain because it places us outside ourselves [ponit nos extra nos],” Jüngel presents the summation of his theological argument for the necessity of demythologizing:

Those who in faith know the mystery of Jesus Christ, who are thus placed outside themselves, find their existential place “in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17). This mythical power to localize the knower anew is the truth of myth preserved in Christianity. But this is precisely what is obscured by the “theoretical” act of knowledge that takes place concurrently in myth, which localizes the known—the God who comes to the world—in the context of the reality of the knower and consequently in the context of his or her world, thus making God a worldly object. . . . Christian theology therefore requires demythologizing. It is necessary in order to expose the eminently “practical” truth of the christological myth: the truth of the divine word that interrupts human beings and calls them outside themselves. . . . Demythologizing therefore serves the truth of myth by destroying the “theoretical” world-explanation of myth in order to expose the “practical” power of mythical words to move our existence and in doing so to impart a new approach to human being-in-the-world.

Demythologizing is nothing less than the necessary entailment of faith in Jesus Christ. The knowledge of Christ in faith not only relocates the believer existentially but also precludes from the start any attempt by the believer to give theoretical certainty to her knowledge. Faith that conforms to the truth of the Christ-myth is, to use Jüngel’s earlier expression, an adaequatio totus homo ad rem—a correspondence of the whole person to the thing. But since the res, the object of faith, is Christ himself, the Lord of all creation, the person who corresponds to this object experiences a fundamental displacement from herself. The “certainty of faith” (Glaubensgewissheit), precisely because it is grounded in the “certainty of God” (Entsicherung) of oneself.” We only participate in the practical truth of the christological myth by being placed extra nos. The stabilization of this myth in the form of a theoretical explanation involves remaining in se, and thus is impossible on the grounds of the Christ-myth itself. This is another way of saying that the myth of Jesus Christ demands the ongoing task of demythologizing.

The Christ-myth radically differentiates itself from every other myth. Because the kerygmatic Christ-myth involves a strict differentiation between creator and creature—between grace and sin, gospel and law—that defies every attempt to systematize it and thus secure one’s place within it, the practical truth it communicates is one that cannot coexist with an abstract theoretical truth or worldview. In this way the Christ-myth fulfills the genuine purpose of myth, which “expresses the insight that human beings cannot secure themselves through . . . reason.” Religious myth in the general sense described and denounced within scientific myth-criticism do not have their basis in this creator-creature differentiation. They lend themselves, therefore, to what Calvin calls the “perpetual factory of idols” that characterizes human nature—what we might call the “perpetual factory of worldviews.” Practical truth takes the form of theoretical truth in the case of myth-in-general, whereas the practical truth of Christ is one that perpetually demythologizes theory. Myth-in-general grants existential relocation by providing epistemological certainty (in the form of Welterklärung or Weltanschauung); the Christ-myth provides epistemological certainty only by granting existential relocation (in the form of faith). The myth of Christ overcomes the subject-object divide not through an explanation of the object but through the justification of the sinful subject. Christian faith is essentially a demythologizing faith or it is not faith in Jesus Christ.[2]

On pace with this, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) engaged in a type of ‘demythologizing’ project. Without the illumination, and more, in the case of the Apostles, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the evangelists and the rest of the illuminated masses (particularly the five hundred witnesses alongside the Apostles cf. I Cor. 15), would have simply remained at the level of ‘myth’ when it came to the Christ. Even though they had personal experience with Jesus, the Disciples, without “demythologizing” the events of the “Christ-myth” would have simply remained at the level of subjects looking at an object who had no incisive or theological meaning, no gospel (kerygmatic) significance for their lives. This is what the Synoptics and the Gospel of John are engaging in; giving theological significance to the “mythological” events of Christ’s life (events that appear, on the face, to simply have horizontal significance alone). Does this make sense?

The reason I started this all off with the Dawson quote, with particular focus on his language of “the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God” is because I wanted to foreground this discussion with a category that would allow us to appreciate what is meant by “demythologizing” when it comes to Bultmann’s and Jüngel’s projects, respectively. In other words, as is present in Barth, the reality of the Christ-event is a sui generis non-analogous event that has broken into history and set the limits of real reality by his seemingly and merely historical existence. That’s what Bultmann’s ‘Christ-myth’ is intended to signify (as I understand it); that if left to itself, Jesus Christ appears as just another human who comes to signify a personage of theoretical and religious importance within a worldview system that is pinned up by the manufacturing of various proofs and legendary tales. But what encounter with the Christ does in the lives with eyes to see and ears to hear is immediately invoke a process of ‘demythologization’, or the eruption of recognition that this man [of Nazareth] is actually someone greater than mere myth; instead he is the God-man who has broken the surly bonds of this creation and set it anew. It is as the disciple of Christ comes into this realization that they are decentered and recentered only as they find their human being in the new creation of God in Christ. Here, knowledge of God is ‘secured,’ but only in the faith of Christ and not in any theoretical basis constructed by an abstract humanity come to God on its terms.

P.S. I was unable to work the language of ‘analogy of advent’ into this post; but conceptually it is present. We will have to overtly deal with that as Congdon details that in Jüngel’s theology at a later date.

Addendum: Because of some push back from someone I know on FB, and through blogging over the years let me say the following for other’s benefit: I am not becoming Bultmannian. The content of this post moves liberally and freely back and forth between Bultmann, Barth, and Jüngel; without making important points of distinction. I remain committed, at most, to what Hunsinger calls the “textual” Barth, which means I am committed to a pretty traditional mode of theological reflection and consideration. What is in this post represents something very bloggy. My contact was concerned that I was seemingly moving into a Bultmann and Congdon direction. No, I’m not. If I had the space and time and energy I could draw out what I am doing. But this post before this addendum was already 1500 words; which is long for blog reader’s attention spans. It is hard to broach topics like this in the space I have to work with, and make important and clean distinctions along the way. The reason I felt motivated to post this one was because there are, what I think amount to equivocal soundings in Bultmann’s trajectory that correlate with Barth’s analogy of faith approach. But the reality is that Barth grounds the relationship between God and humanity in a heightened emphasis upon the antecedent reality of God which is not reducible to the sort of soteriological-dialectical approach that Bultmann and Congdon are proponents of. In other words, Bultmann and Congdon ultimately reduce God to an extra-mental reality between the knower and God, such that God’s reality is purely reduced to encounter or experience that people have when they are faced with the “kerygmatic” reality of the Christ. And when I say “extra-mental” what that really means is that the Christ event is not contingent upon his objective and concrete penetration into the world in the incarnation, but instead his reality becomes contingent upon existential encounter in the knower. In this sense the Christ could become evaporated to idea, even if Bultmann et al say otherwise. I do recognize this as a serious problem, and it does lead to other deleterious conclusions such as denying the bodily resurrection of Christ (so we have people referring to the “Easter-Faith-Christ” etc.), and denying any notion of the after-life in the eschaton/heaven (as David Congdon does). So my post was intended to help me process this through (you know “write to learn”), but I can see how it makes it seem as if I’ve softened up to a Bultmannian trajectory; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just to be clear.

Here is something I wrote very recently that attempts to make clear what I ultimately think about David Congdon’s move to a Bultmann mode of theological reflection. Just to reiterate. I haven’t changed on this.

 

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 455-58.

Theology of the Cross Retrieved and Reformed by a Radical and Dialectical Understanding of Correlation and Faith

Sola fide. Faith alone is the material principle of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation, and it is principial for the Reformed basis of knowledge of God and self. But because of classical metaphysics this principle didn’t blossom into the full flowered reality it had inherent to it in inchoate ways. In other words, because of an undeveloped grammar, because of the constraints presented by classical substance metaphysics, the idea of faith grounded in the kerygmatic reality (Evangelical reality) was moribund (I’ll have to leave at the level of assertion) in the sense that its full potential was not realizable until later developments.

Whether or not you agree with my assessment, and the sort of ‘retrieval’ I’m thinking of methodologically, David Congdon describes how faith alone as a material reality vis-à-vis the Gospel has resource to function in ‘critically’ ‘realistic’ ways in how we understood God and his relation to us through the Gospel (kerygma); how we understand the undertaking of theological discourse as that is objectively determined by the reality of God, and subjectively inhabited in human agents as they are in vicarious union with God’s subject for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (that is some of my own interpolation, in regard to constructive thought based upon my reading of Congdon). Here Congdon has just finished some technical philosophical discussion in regard to developing what ‘correlation’ entails, particularly among French continental philosophy, and how grasping that helps us better locate the sort of dialectical theologies that both Barth and Bultmann operate from. For our purposes we will not engage with the technical philosophical discussion and instead engage with some of the conclusions of that as Congdon details its implications for us in the theologies of Barth/Bultmann (and dialectical theology in general).

What, then, is distinctively theological about the kind of strong correlationism that characterizes dialectical theology? Simply this: that the correlation is established and grounded in God. The action of God in the saving event of revelation is what creates the correlation between God and the human person. This correlation is faith, understood as a gift of divine grace. Unlike other objects, the object of faith is the divine subject, who is the active agent in the relation to humanity. The divine fides quae establishes the human fides qua. The human person does not have this correlation at her disposal but can only receive it ever anew. It is thus a kerygmatic correlation in that God constitutes the relation in and through the event of the divine word. A strong correlationism thus accomplishes what critical realism seeks to maintain—a real divine subject only accessible in and through this subject’s self-giving in faith—without the unnecessary and misleading baggage associated with the words “critical” and “realism.”[1]

This is important because God is understood as the personal object and subject of theology, and the gift of himself that he gives us in Christ comes with a corollary reality for us in that faith becomes the most fitting locus by which knowledge of this God can be ascertained by. In other words, there is no prior intuition that a person can come by in regard to knowledge of the Christian God; there is no naked knowledge of God in this understanding of correlation, as if human beings possess some sort of latent capacity (created grace) for an abstract knowledge of God. No, in this frame there is a ‘correlative’ component between our theology (nostra theologia) and God, but it isn’t idealistically determined by a free-floating or presumed upon human agency in the world of nature. Instead, knowledge of God, regulated by the Gospel (kerygmatic) is only accessible through the mediating faith of Christ. As we are in union with Christ’s knowledge of God for us, as he is in the center of God’s life as Godself, the faith we think from in regard to God is itself a reality generated by the ground that this faith breaks into. In short: dialectical theology and the Reformed faith it offers, a kerygmatic correlationist type, is one that is particularly shaped not by the human agent, but by the God who has spoken (Deus dixit).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 422.

Christian Theology Grounded in Faith Rather than Worldview or Apologetics

Worldviews are important to understand, to a point. But when worldview is confused with Christian faith and theology problems of idolatrous heights begin to develop; at least according to Rudolf Bultmann. I want to share further, by referencing David Congdon’s work, on how Bultmann not only distinguished between faith and worldview, but also between talk of God versus talk about God; and how these distinctions implicate the theological enterprise for the Christian. I will follow with my own perspective on these things.

The differentiation of faith from a Weltanschauung [worldview] is stated clearly in a set of guiding principles or headnotes (Leitsätze) written in 1925 in connection with the Düsseldorf lecture. . . . The Leitsätze on faith state:

1) Faith is not a worldview [Weltanschauung], in which the concept of God serves as a principle for the explanation of the world [Welterklärung], and in which the meaning of human existence develops from a general understanding of the world [Weltverständnis]. On the contrary, faith is the posture of the human being placed before God; its content is therefore primarily a proposition regarding the existence of the human being.

2) Faith is not a general trust in God, but rather it is strictly related to the revelation of God in God’s word, and its content is the forgiveness of sins.

3) Faith is not a mystical relation of the soul to God, but rather the posture of the human being who sees him– or herself placed before the claim of God in the concrete situation of the here and now.

These three theses summarize Butlmann’s opposition to the confusion of faith and metaphysics—whether a metaphysics of the object or fides quae (indicated especially by the three Welt– concepts) or a metaphysics of the subject or fides qua (mysticism). Either mode of Christian self-understanding leads to an objectification of God, that is to say, the exchange of God’s reality for a general God-concept. The active God confronts us in God’s word, and this word is a particular concrete occurrence within history that proclaims the justification of the sinner. For this reason the relation between God and the human person cannot be understood in general terms; it cannot become the basis for an explanation or understanding of the world as a whole. The event of revelation thus does not permit the erection of any Weltanschauung.[1]

This is a direct challenge to the traditional approach to Christian theology through the centuries. It gets more intense in that direction as Congdon writes further:

The task of theology is to free our thinking and speaking of God from every entanglement in a Weltanschauung and so to free ourselves “to be addressed by the grace that encounters me in the word of Jesus Christ.” Toward that end Bultmann marshals yet a third contrast corresponding to the previous ones between ontic and the ontological, the fides quae and the fides qua. He does so in the March 1925 lecture that differentiates between Weltbild and Weltanschauung, and this time it is a contrast between a speaking of God (Reden von Gott) and a speaking about God (Reden über Gott). The opening paragraph of the essay differentiates between these two modes of God-talk in a way that programmatically sets forth the task of a theology that truly acknowledges its proper theme (the ontic) and object (the fides quae):

If one understands speaking “of God” to mean speaking “about God,” then such speaking has absolutely no meaning, for in the moment it occurs it has lost its object [Gegenstand], God. Wherever the idea of “God” is thought of it implies that God is the almighty, i.e., the reality determining all things. But this idea is not at all thought of when I speak about God, i.e., when I consider God to be an object [Objekt] of thought, over which I can orient myself if I take a standpoint where I can be neutral regarding the question of God and make considerations about God’s reality and essence that I can reject or, if they are reasonable, accept. Those who are convinced by reasons to believe the reality of God can be certain that they have not grasped the reality of God; and those who think they can give evidence about God’s reality with proofs of God are arguing over a phantom. For every “speaking about” presupposes a standpoint outside of what is being spoken about. But there can be no standpoint outside of God, and therefore it is not possible to speak of God in general statements, in universal truths that are true apart from a relation to the concrete existential situation of the speaker.

The distinction articulated here is between a God-talk that truly speaks of its object and a God-talk that loses its object. The former engages in meaningful God-talk because it speaks of a fides quae that only gives itself in and through the fides qua, and thus cannot be spoken of from a position external to faith. The latter engages in meaningless God-talk, because it attempts to speak about a “God” that is available as a given entity about which we can make general statements that have universal validity. Such statements form a Weltanschauung. And since to attempt “a neutrality with respect to God” is “to flee from before God,” the erection of a Weltanschauung through Reden über Gott is not merely meaningless and erroneous but is in fact sin.[2]

This challenges much; particularly traditional classical theology. Where I stand: personally I am not too far removed (if at all!) from what David is describing in regard to Bultmann’s “existentially” styled theology. But I am not naïve to the radical reality full commitment to Bultmann’s project might require. It might require that we look at all of classical theology and count it as meaningless; particularly the style of theology done after Thomas Aquinas and his Prima pars in his Summa Theologica. I think it is possible to constructively conclude that the way someone like Aquinas, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Athanasius et al spoke “about” God was more in line with speaking “of” God. In other words, I think much of classical theology (especially as we think about premodern) is in fact couched in doxological and dialogical exchange between the believer and God. It is just that the means they had to do that then, categorically, sounded more like speaking about God than might have been healthy; and the means they had to speak of God did in fact come from an orientation wherein God is spoken about more than of. So this requires the theologian, if they think Bultmann has a point, to engage with the classical theologians with constructive care.

One of the theses Myk and I offered in our first Evangelical Calvinism book noted that we are dialogical/dialectical theologians. I think the way Congdon writes on Bultmann, particularly with reference to worldview and speech about versus of God fits well with the mode we are going for in Evangelical Calvinism. The interesting thing for me is the way Congdon himself has developed. As I am reading his big book on Bultmann what we find in Bultmann is actually more orthodox (and historical in that sense) than the way Congdon himself has gone. I am afraid people will look at Congdon’s positions, and equate those absolutely with Bultmann’s. As I am reading Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann what I am finding is an orthodox theological approach, albeit one that is couched in an existential frame.

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 393-94.

[2] Ibid., 394-95.

Semper Reformanda-Always Reforming Regulated by the Eschatological Life of God For Us In Jesus Christ

See, I don’t agree with much of David Congdon’s conclusions (as he has continued to develop personally-dogmatically), but I do agree with him on the Christian reality being an eschatological reality and what that ought to do to the theological endeavor. What that ought to do is ground theological practice in the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit) as that is given to and for us in the faith of Christ. It is as God reveals himself to us in the reconciliation of God and humanity in the man Christ Jesus that theology has place to happen. And it is in this combine that the eschatological becomes the domineering frame by which theology ought to find its orientation; an orientation that is always already outside of us, yet for us; it is in this ‘for us’ in the mediatorial and Priestly work of Jesus Christ that our knowledge of God is refreshed anew just as God’s mercies are new every morning great is his faithfulness.

We will see, as I quote Congdon at length, that Congdon’s explication is mediated through Rudolph Bultmann’s theology; but also with Barth’s presence felt. I am afraid that because of Congdon’s progressivism that people of a more conservative orientation (such as myself) will be put off, and won’t even give this analysis of things a listen. I’m hoping that people can appreciate how we can constructively appropriate theology from places that might seem antagonistic towards our general theological dispositions, and come to the realization that it is possible to reify theologies under more socio-conservative pressures (vis-à-vis the tradition); even while the theology (like Bultmann’s) being reified itself is a reification of the socio-traditional theologies of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular.

Here is how Congdon details the reality of faith, and how ‘the faith that is believed’ is grounded through ‘the faith by which we believe’; hopefully you will come to see how that impacts an eschatological understanding of the theological task—and for my interests, how that implicates a semper reformanda (always reforming) mode.

Glossary of Key Terms: Fides quae creditur (the faith that is believed) and fides qau creditur (the faith by which one believes)

At the other end of the spectrum lies orthodoxy, by which Bultmann primarily, though, not exclusively means the Protestant scholasticism that developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but persists  in the supernaturlistic reaction to rationalism and historicism. This alternative to liberal theology fares no better. To be sure, orthodoxy correctly grasps that “the object of theology is God as the object of faith, as the fides quae creditor,” and in this regard Bultmann stands with orthodoxy over against liberalism, a key fact often lost in the debate over his New Testament exegesis. But orthodoxy loses its object also in its misguided concern to secure a universally valid understanding of the Christian faith over against heterodoxy. The result is a “confusion . . . of kerygma and scientific theory” such that “a doctrine appears as the object of faith.” Orthodoxy makes the same error as liberalism but in an inverted way. Whereas liberalism sets itself (the fides qua) in place of the object (the fides quae), orthodoxy sets the object in place of itself. Either way, faith becomes faith in something human and objectifiable. Whereas liberalism makes history and experience into its object via the projection of the fides qua, orthodoxy reduces the divine fides quae to the level of rational human inquiry. The latter occurs “when it attempts to prove the faith (the fides quae creditor), whether by a natural theology or even from reason, or from an authority, such as scripture,” and “when it . . . requires assent to correct doctrine as to specific notions that are submitted to people from somewhere.” Orthodoxy is thus identical with (a) apologetics, the attempt to establish the object of faith as something one can acknowledge as true (assensus) prior to and apart from faith (fiducia), and (b) confessionalism, which sets up a test of conformity to certain doctrinal formulations as the condition belonging to the (true) Christian community. Each requires isolating the fides quae from the fides qua, so that the object of faith can be rationally verified and discussed as a human artifact.

If liberalism makes science of faith, orthodoxy makes a science of the kerygma. In both cases faith becomes a work, and theology becomes philosophy. What is lost in either case is God as the true object of theology. Theology is supposed to be the science of God, the logos of theos. But if God is an eschatological reality, then theology has to be an eschatological science. This has crucial implications for our understanding of the fides quae and the fides qua. It means, among other things, that the object of theology is not something “in hand” that can be fixed to a specific formula, a single authoritative interpretation: “God cannot be made into an object of our conduct. . . . God does not ‘hold still,’ as it were.” The eschatological being of God requires a strict differentiation between the kerygma, the fides quae, and theology: “Fides quae creditor = quod deus dixit! Theology = what human beings say.” Hermeneutically, therefore, an eschatological fides quae is never finalized and always open to new understandings, and that is because, ontologically speaking, the divine fides quae is transcendent and free, never at the disposal of any person or institution, whether church or state. It further means that the fides quae is not an object one can ascertain and understand prior to the mode of faith and obedience. The notion of “Christian apologetics” is an impossible contradiction; to give an apology for “God’ is to abandon talk of God. Science, as the general discipline that analyzes the ontological, cannot speak of God, who is the event of the ontic.

If God is eschatological, our only access to God must come from God’s own self. The fides quae creditor is “quod deus dixit,” what God has said. God must give Godself to us, must speak to us, in order for God to be known. And since such giving is inherently an act of grace—there being no separation between an intellectual self-giving and a salvific self-giving, since the latter is the former: the word of justification is the word of revelation—it follows that our only access to the fides quae is through faith in God as the Lord: “Should there be talk of God, it is of course clear that there can only be talk of God as the Lord, i.e., as the one who sends the moment and delivers God’s claim in it,” and thus “there can only be talk of God on the basis of God’s revelation, and revelation can only be heard in faith.” The fides quae only gives itself in and through the fides qua: “revelation is only revelation in actu and pro me.” And since the fides qua is given by the eschatological fides quae—since “faith is the answer to revelation”—it further follows that genuine faith is itself an eschatological event in that it is included within the singular eschatological event that is God; faith is an eschatological mode of relating to the eschatological. Concretely, this means that faith takes the form of love, in obedience to the “new commandment” of Jesus (John 13:34). The eschatological age inaugurated in Christ is “the new aeon of love . . . and life.” The eschatological science of theology is an eschatological praxis.[1]

There is hardly anything I find objectionable here. The only thing I would want to qualify is that I maintain a stable core of catholic orthodoxy even as that is continuously attenuated and “filled out” by the eschatological in-breaking of God’s life in and for the church, as that comes with a “fuller knowledge” of the living God; but not a knowledge that is dispossessed of the knowledge of God once for all delivered to saints (as that has been unfolding through the centuries). In other words, David doesn’t contain things enough; in my view. Congdon gives the impression that everything is “open,” and his developing personal dogmatic attests to that. What I affirm though is the eschatological nature of the faith; and that knowledge of God can only be grounded in God’s spoken Word (fides quae) as that is apprehended by the vicarious faith of Christ for us (fides qua). This is the basis, I contend, for a robust Reformed understanding of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). God is not something we can handle, but someOne who handles and approaches us. In this, we have capacity to be confronted and given over to ‘repentant thinking’ such that our thoughts can be continuously reformed as that is regulated (regula fidei) indeed by the faith of Christ. Not something we own, but someOne we are owned by and learn of by constant confrontation of the living Word as the basis of our lived lives in and from the living God who is Triune, Immanuel.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 385-88.