Using Modern Theology as Apparatus for Retrieving Classical Theology: Spinoza, Kant, Barth, and Luther in Critical Convergence

It is not always easy to grasp what drives modern theology; indeed, most traditional evangelical theologians have steered away these days, seeking to skip back to the 16th and 17th centuries and back from there—in regard to what they are attempting to retrieve from the classical theistic tradition. But I think this is at their peril, in some ways. Modern theology, one way or the other, impacts the Christian thinker, simply because we are conditioned by our location in the 21st century and the history of ideas (as our context) therein. Sure, we can attempt to distantiate ourselves from our intellectual locations, but to what end? I think it’s more prudent to admit where we are, and then think constructively from there; allow the fruit of the present to help pollinate the past, and at the same time allow the past to contradict any of the rot our locations have presented us with (maybe only realized when placed up against the past).

With that said, I want to help introduce some of the primary soundings of modern theology through engagement with Paul Hinlicky’s analyses; particularly of the impact of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (‘theology of the cross’) as that is indeed used as a constructive cross-point to enter into a constructive theological project that emphasizes God’s Self-revelation and mediation of Godself to the world—to meet us where we are; to bring His transcendence to our immanence in a broken humanity. Let me quote Hinlicky at some length (of course!), and then close with some reflective comments in response.

Spinoza, not Kant, represents the true antagonist in the story of modern theology’s loss of subject matter and of audience. That is to say, the great role apparently played by Kant masks the real story. The knowledge he putatively destroyed to make room for faith was the moral knowledge of God as Judge through the law inscribed upon the human heart (Rom. 2:15) on the basis of which an acknowledgement is due of God as creative Origin worthy or praise and thanksgiving through consideration of His cosmic works (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17). This inchoate “sense of divinity” becomes a historical possibility in the religions, as Wolfhart Panneberg argued at the beginning of his illustrious theological career. In turn, the philosophical doctrine of the being of perfection inferred from created effects represents a rational critique indigenous to the religions — analogous to the Hebrew prophets’ assault on idolatry — which functions ethically to expose the superstitious manipulation and distorting representation that attend the cults. The “natural knowledge” of God thus acquired in philosophical theology ascertains minimal core requirements for any adequate conception of God as origin and norm of what exists. It is this rational/moral knowledge of God as origin and norm of what exists that Kant destroyed; with Kant God becomes a subjectively necessary regulative idea and as such the practical postulate of a transcendent Guarantor of human moral striving. God as origin and humanity as estranged from this origin in guilt and fallen under the powers of sin and death cannot henceforth emerge for theological thought. Christian theology cannot build upon its ruined foundation; it cannot offer a Cyrillian Christ for Augustinian humanity, since neither the need of such a Christ nor the possibility of such a God can any longer appear. So it appears today.

Once the dominant Kantian narrative of the modernization of theology is deconstructed, however, we are able to see what really has transpired. Karl Barth’s antifoundationalist doctrine of the advent of God’s reign in the act of trinitarian self-revelation accomplished this; it overcame Kant by Kant. John Dillenberger posed the decisive question in this connection in his study on Barth’s revisionist “Lutheranism” a generation ago: “Is the transcendence of God to be defined from the side of man’s inability to grasp God, or is it grounded upon man’s confession of the act of revelation?” Is God’s transcendence something we already know when we know that God is ineffable, beyond words, beyond thought? Or is it something we come to know in its own act and event, and so also in words, something available for thought? Is God’s transcendence God’s inaccessible location, as it were, beyond space and time, or God self-locating into the depths of at the cross of Jesus, there in space and time to win back the wayward creation? What if the transcendence we imagine we know about in our state of guilty alienation merely reflects that alienation back outward and projects to infinity the sinful aspiration for escape? What if the unknown God remains, too, just another idol? What if the unknown God is just another strategy for keeping the true God safely away? If transcendence on the other hand is the eternal life of the Trinity into which we are incorporated through faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of transcendence is “grounded upon man’s confession in the act of revelation.” The believer comes to ascribe the life that is truly eternal to the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. The first possibility of transcendence as professed ignorance or agnosticism but that actually knows how to keep the God of revelation at a safe distance is Kantianism; the second is Kantianism overcome. But, as I have just implied, this latter only awakens us to see what the real problem is.[1]

This is the constant pink elephant in the room that so many of my evangelical ilk don’t ever seem pressed to address; and this precisely because they choose to ‘skip’ merrily over these sorts of dilemmas—even as the ‘dilemmas’ themselves have direct reference to reformational and classical theologies, respectively. But beyond this, what of the import that Hinlicky is identifying materially?

Just from a practical point of view: the continual problem that plagues all theological knowledge is how the potential knower believes it possible to have actual knowledge of God. This process involves a whole complex of various loci, but for my money what is a constant is the relationship between the ontological and the epistemological and the impact that the noetic effects of the fall have had upon that complex. That’s what Luther’s theology of the cross seeks to ameliorate and help theologians come to understand that the bases of their knowledge of God—even, and especially in his transcendence—can only come as our capacities as knowers of God are recreated. This is where Barth’s ‘reconciliation is revelation’ coalesces so nicely with Luther’s theologia crucis, and at the same time turns Kant’s dualism of the noumenal/phenomenal on its head. The veiledness of God (transcendence) can only really come to be known for human agents as God chooses to become unveiled, but only for the eyes of faith, in the sarx (flesh) and the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s transcendence can’t be connived from a distance, but only as he freely elects to penetrate our fallenness in and through the flesh and blood of the baby in the wooden manger, and in the shed blood of Man on timbered cross.

This is why I constantly have an aversion to the seemingly unvarnished and all enthralled embracement of classical metaphysics when it comes to doing Christian theology. It is not that I think that metaphysics have no place in Christian theology; it is that the Gospel itself contradicts metaphysics only just as they are attempting to get started in the machinations of a fallen humanity. I honestly do not think many evangelical theologians et al. are self-critical enough about these issues, and as such don’t offer theological projects that I find very attractive or even biblical. Hinlicky’s sketch of these things, as I have offered it, only represents the introduction to his chapter; he will develop these dilemmas and theses more. But I hope you can see the dilemma, and why it is important to not skip over modern theology per se. It can help to provide a self-critical apparatus that actually allows us to retrieve from reformational theologies et al. with much more fruitful and evangelistic productions and redressments.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 43-4.

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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.

Retrieving the Modern Conception of God’s Being-in-Becoming For the Sake of the Church; For the Sake of Orthodoxy and Biblical Faithfulness

We will get back to the analogia entis and a doctrine of creation at a later date. In this post we will explore, briefly, a theology proper of God’s being-in-becoming within a dialectical theological frame. What I am going to share (again from David Congdon — I’m currently reading through his big book on Bultmann) represents an approach I was first exposed to probably back in about 2005, and is the style of theology that has in-formed the shape of my theological existence since. As you will see it has shreds of narratival, existential, dialectical, post-liberal components making up the trajectory; but importantly, for me, while I am a serious fan of this idea of ‘being-in-becoming’ I still am also committed to orthodox components, and traditional elements that go into supplying a grammar for thinking God that I believe best comports with what we have given to us and for us in God’s Self-revelation and exegesis in the eternal Logos made flesh, in Jesus Christ. So maybe I’m Orthodox&Modern. But it should also be noted that while I retrieve from the modern period, I’m doing just that. In other words, I’m not arriving at all my theological conclusions under the same pressures say as someone like Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, or Jüngel; instead I’m reaping the benefits of their labors and conclusions, attempting to constructively bring them into relief such that they help to edify a doctrine of God that, in my view, best reflects the Evangel.

In the following Congdon helps explicate the soundings of Bultmann’s theology proper for us. What you will see is that at this level Bultmann and Barth have much in common (you’ll also want to reference Eberhard Jüngel’s book God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth); they have a shared vision, at least when it comes to the actualism funding this understanding of God. Let’s dig in, and then I will follow with some closing comments (this post will not be as long as the last one).

We must begin where Bultmann himself does: with Jesus as understood in the tradition of early Christianity. In his 1926 Jesus book Bultmann describes the concept of God that comes to expression in as his teaching within the Synoptic tradition. He begins by contrasting the Jewish and Greek notions of God. The Greeks conceive of God as a law-governing worldly phenomena, as “the origin and formative principle of the world” that lies beyond but always connected to the cosmos. God is therefore an idea graspable by reason, an object that “can be subjected to observational thinking.” Judaism, by contrast, views God not as an idea or principle but as the sovereign, creative will. God is the creator who wills the existence of the world, and thus “in relation to human beings God is the sovereign lord who deals with people according to God’s will as the potter deals with the clay.” There is no talk of metaphysical natures or substances. God’s transcendence is not secured by rational principles that bind the idea of God necessarily to the world; rather, God is transcendent by virtue of the creation’s relatedness to and dependence upon the will of the creator.

As a Jewish prophet and teacher, Jesus shares the Jewish conception of God and weds it to his proclamation of the coming eschatological kingdom, which serves only to heighten the distinctiveness of his understanding of God in contrast to all Hellenistic notions.

For him God is not an object of thinking, of speculation. . . . God is for him neither a metaphysical substance [Wesenheit] nor a cosmic power nor a law of the world, but rather a personal will, holy and gracious will. Jesus speaks of God only to say that the human person is claimed by God’s will and is determined in the person’s present existence by God’s demand, God’s judgment, God’s grace. The remote God is form him at the same time the God who is near. . . . Jesus speaks of God not in universals truths and theorems but only of how God is for human beings, how God deals with human beings. He therefore does not speak objectively of the attributes of God, of God’s eternity, immutability, etc., by which Greek thinking endeavored to describe the transcendent essence of God.

Anticipating the objection that this account seems to suggest that Jesus only speaks of God subjectively, in terms of God’s being ad extra, and not objectively in terms of the ad intra, Bultmann adds that “Jesus does not differentiate between a remote, mysterious, metaphysical essence of God and God’s action toward us as the expression of this essence. Rather, the remote and the near God are one, and we cannot speak of God in Jesus’ sense if we do not speak of God’s action.” In other words, God is what God does, the being of God, according to this interpretation of Jesus, has to be identified with God’s action in history. The divine essence is the divine will. God’s will is determinative of God’s very being.[1]

If you have ever heard of a postmetaphysical or anti-metaphysical approach to theology then what you just read is that. What you just read is also what is at the nub of controversy between Barth scholars (e.g. “Barth Wars” or “Companion Controversy”); some believe Barth should be read just as we have explicated above, and others believe Barth should be read more “metaphysically.” Personally, I slide back and forth on a continuum in-between. Sometimes I feel more metaphysical in orientation, but usually my default is more post-metaphysical; what I prefer to call narratival (i.e. following the contours of the narrative of written Scripture; Robert Jenson exemplifies this style).

Many will be rebuffed by the Jewish versus Greek distinction underscored by Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann, but I still believe that distinction has teeth (even acknowledging the von Harnackian thesis and its supposed defeat among certain thinkers; thinkers who want to “Greekify” God in certain ways). But I will submit: I think the reason I have been attracted to this distinction and to the actualist narratival approach to developing a doctrine of God, in particular, and doing theology in general is because I have first and foremost been a bible reader (and remain such). So my own default is going to almost sound like de nuda scriptura (or solo scriptura) rather than a sola scriptura that allows the tradition of the Church to inform its interpretation of Scripture, theologically. But, again, I’m somewhere in-between; but then again I think Barth was too. I’m interested in engaging constructively with the grammar the tradition of the church has supplied for us, and then reifying that grammar, or better, refining that grammar such that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, under the terms we have just been exposed to through Congdon’s Bultmann/Barth, is allowed to excavate the traditional symbols under the recognition that God’s being in becoming looks exactly like Jesus acts (e.g. ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father’ cf. Jn. 14). Thomas Torrance is also in this camp; representing more of a mediating character from Bultmann/Barth to an even more focused approach and emphasis upon the ecclesiological symbols or grammar of the tradition. Bringing Torrance into this discussion; I often find myself siding with the Barth side rather than the Torrance ecclesiocentric type (the Barth emphasis of God’s being-in-becoming).

Anyway, another blog post; more to think about; thanks for thinking with me.

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 322-24.

Natural Theology as the Baptizer of Jesus: Thinking From René Descartes to an Interrogation of Natural Theology

René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) philosopher and mathematician extraordinaire’s natural theology is worth reflecting on. Some have wanted to argue that Descartes’ methodological skepticism, where he doubted to the point where he thought he could doubt no further (cogito ergo sum), served as the basis for the modern turn-to-the-subject rationalism we experienced in the English Enlightenment and French Renaissance. But this can be contested, and has been. That notwithstanding what I want to briefly survey in this post is indeed Descartes’ natural theology. What is interesting to me about his style of natural theology was that he was attempting, in dualistic fashion, to on the one hand think as a Christian (when it came to his personal salvation), and on the other hand think as a critical philosopher as if he could think himself (critically so) to the base of all ‘being’ without reference to a Christian metaphysical framework; that he could achieve this purely as a rational exercise in philosophical reflection.

Étienne Gilson offers some excellent coverage on Descartes in this regard, so I wanted to share a snippet of that with you here. Gilson writes:

We are not beginning to see why, and in what sense, the metaphysics of Descartes was a decisive moment in the evolution of natural theology. Evolution, however, is not always synonymous with progress; and this time it was destined to be a regress. I am not arguing here on the dogmatic assumption that the God of Saint Thomas is the true God. What I am trying to make clear is the objective fact that, even as a philosophical supreme cause, the God of Descartes was a stillborn God. He could not possibly live because, as Descartes had conceived him, he was the God of Christianity reduced to the condition of philosophical principle, in short, an infelicitous hybrid of religious faith and of rational thought. The most striking characteristic of such a God was that his creative function had integrally absorbed his essence. Hence, the name that was hereafter going to be his truest name: no longer “He who is” but rather “The Author of Nature.” Assuredly, the God of Christianity had always been the Author of Nature, but he had always been infinitely more than that, whereas, after Descartes, he was destined progressively to become nothing else than that. Descartes himself was too good a Christian to consider Nature as a particular god; but, strangely enough, it never occurred to him that to reduce the Christian God himself to no more than the supreme cause of Nature was to do identically the same thing. Metaphysical conclusions so necessarily follow from their principles that Descartes himself reached at once what were to be the ultimate conclusions of his eighteenth-century disciples when wrote the following sentence: “By Nature, considered in general, I am now understanding nothing else than either God, or the order and the disposition established by God in created things.”[1]

We know Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes, went further with Descartes’ project and radicalized to the point that indeed for Spinoza a pantheist conclusion would be arrived at on some of the very premises produced by Descartes’ own thought processes.

Whether or not Descartes ought to be implicated in the modern-turn, to one degree or another, what is rather clear (at least to me) is that his ‘naturalism’ coheres well some of the later rationalisms that would indeed develop. What these things highlight for me once again is that attempting to think God based purely upon natural/rationalist reflection does not produce the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Some might argue (and do) that inherent to fallen nature there remains a residue of God waiting to be discovered and plundered for the purposes of providing details about who God is (categorically) in such a way that the Revelation of Godself can be pollinated for the edification of the Church and Christians.

But I constantly ask: why? Why as Christians, those who know the voice of our Shepherd, indeed those who are only paying attention to his voice because we have his Spirit, do we need to rely upon the philosophers (of any age) to fill in the gaps or provide the bedrock foundations (like immutability, infinity, omnipotence, etc.) for the Christian to genuinely articulate a theological grammar for explicating who God is? Descartes provides an excellent example of someone who made this attempt, and failed.

What differentiates Descartes from Aristotle? One thing is that Descartes actually had a Christian theological grammar in place as a Christian even before he charted out to think first principles as a philosopher; and even still he ended up thinking a god from negative reflection upon creation. Aristotle didn’t have the advantage of Descartes, maybe some would say this actually was an advantage for Aristotle; in the sense that his discursivity was of a more pure type; that his reflections were actually taking formation in a genuine process of discovery, in regard to arriving at actual infinity and pure being. Either way, and once again, why the need to trek this path? The response from the proponents is: because the ecclesial tradition walked this path, that the church developed these patterns of theological grammar, this sacra doctrina by appealing to figures like Plato, Aristotle, et al. But this itself is an appeal to a ‘natural theology,’ it’s an appeal to reading God’s providence off of the face of the history of church doctrinal development; as if: just because patterns of “orthodox” doctrine have developed in certain lines of trajectory, and have come to dominate the “mind of the church,” that this must be God’s stamp of approval on the ‘way’ that the orthodox doctrine has indeed developed.

But to appeal to church tradition and its development as if God has thus so seen to this in a providential way is only to presume upon the very premise under contest: i.e. natural theology. Why should we commit ourselves to a circle of reasoning like this? It’s as if God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ is not enough; that it does not provide a robust enough explication and exegesis of who God is for his church. What if God were to want to correct certain trajectories in his church; even big trajectories that we call tradition? I mean are there even means to challenge certain trends or trajectories (such as natural theology) in the Church, in the sacra doctrina?

I’m pretty sure the Reformed think so. And yet what counts as the dominant voice in Reformed theology (i.e. the aspect of Reformed theology that is being retrieved) affirms natural theology (not all, but many). Indeed, the movement in Reformed theology, think of Mike Allen and Scott Swain as two young and prominent voices, are constantly arguing for and appealing to a catholic Reformed faith; a faith that is fully contingent upon a common cored commitment to and affirmation of the tradition of the church (particularly as that entails theology proper and Christology and its attending loci). But what if the tradition has component parts in it that undercut the possibility for its own regulation and even contradiction? In other words, what if commitment to natural theology (and an analogia entis as a subset) itself quenches the possibility for self-reformation and re-trajectorizing even within the solid boundaries set by the so called ecumenical creeds? How does a genuine theology of the Word have space to do its reformative work (semper reformanda) at a theological ontological/epistemological level if a prior commitment to a natural theology as a prius is allowed to say what a genuine knowledge of the living God looks like or not; and this prior to meeting God in the New Covenant of his blood in Jesus Christ? What happens when natural theology is the baptizer of Jesus; what kind of Jesus do we encounter in these waters; and as such, what kind of God do we come into union with if natural theology is his preamble to the world rather than the risen Christ?

 

[1] Étienne Gilson, God And Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 88-90.

Do Not Be Anxious to Be PreModern in Theology

Derek Rishmawy just reposted a link (on FB) to a blog post he wrote back in 2017 Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern in Theology. Since this issue is one I constantly contemplate and attempt to mediate in my own self-understanding as a young theologian; and since I’m often at logger-heads with the way I see many young evangelical theologians taking (in regard to their approach when it comes to the theological history they see as normative); Derek’s post piqued my interest enough to make a comment. In order for the following (which is just me sharing the comment I made in response to Derek’s post at his blog) to make sense, you will have to first go and read Derek’s post.

Okay, you’re back? Good! Now go ahead and read my reply to Derek, and it should make more sense. If not let me know in the comments. Here’s my reply:

Some of us, who enjoy modern theology, don’t follow the ‘logic’ you note (through Long et al). I do know some, personally, who I could quote (from personal messages they’ve sent me) that would indeed help to illustrate your depiction of the ‘millennial turn’. Nonetheless, the way I look at these things is not linearly, but ‘apocalyptically’; as if God’s living voice can, has, and does break in upon the church in various ways and expressions—but always through the Son (Heb 1.3). What I see happening among many in the evangelical world is actually the inverse; i.e. a privileging of the pre-modern as the prism by which the modern is retrieved (if it is). So this sort of longitudinal ‘cutting off’ can work in both directions. I say let the earth be ‘flat’ and God be allowed to round it as he will; irregardless of whatever period his voice may be speaking to us in. That said, and also, it is an exceedingly difficult task for the theologian to become fluent in the various dialects through which God speaks to his church. The dialect of the premodern may well be simply an issue of dialect that needs translation; as that occurs we might come to realize there is substantial convergence between the modern and premodern dialect on whatever loci being considered (which wouldn’t be in disagreement with some of what you’ve offered, Derek). But my concern, again, continues to be the ‘direction of retrieval.’ It seems as if many conservative evangelical theologians (so called) simply start with the premodern/critical developments as normative and use that as the scalpel by which good modern developments might be exculpated as helpful additions to the normative trad. But I see that mode as foreclosing on the ‘freshness of the Word’ that you refer to in your post; thus potentially quenching the viva vox Dei simply because it might expand the normative trad beyond its perceptual breaking point. I actually see these things as products of material theological production more than simply matters of prolegomena or pre-Dogmatic reflection. In other words, I see privileging the Western trad (or Eastern as the case may be) as necessarily elevating the form of theologizing one is a priori committed to doing prior to a pre-critical reflection upon what that might entail at a sourced level. In other words, what Long, Leithart et al seem to be doing (by way of smuggling) is presupposing upon an ecclesiocentric mode of theologizing (rather than radically christocentric) thus already disallowing the sort of ‘freshness’ that a robust theology of the Word has the capacity to bring semper reformanda. In other words, this whole meditation seems to presuppose upon a certain ‘natural’ (i.e. ecclesial) conception of the theological task without asking the prior question of whether or not such a task does not necessarily collapse the voice of the Christ into the voice of the Church. If this conflation of voices is allowed to exist I wonder, as a Protestant, if I were to sign onto this approach, how my theory of authority ultimately differs from the Roman Catholic theory vis-a-vis a theory of the church.

Anyway, I was going to write a blog post in response, but apparently I just made it a comment instead.

Okay, so there’s more to say, but what I offered in reply to Derek was off the top and represents some of the issues I have with his non-anxiety about being modern (or not). I will say though, it’s pretty hard to not at least be modern as a people who indwells the 21st century. I mean, yes, we certainly can pretend that the various theological developments of the modern period were corrosive and corrupt (mostly) to the ‘orthodox past’—and I don’t see Derek fully wanting to do that, at least I don’t think—but that notwithstanding, what doesn’t change is that we are still intellectual inheritors of our own located conditioning whether we like it or not. This is not to say that we cannot critically become aware of the voices and ideas that have conditioned us, but even so, even after we distanciate, we remain inhabitants of our times and places with all of the intellectual baggage or prizes in tow.

 

The Naked Gospel: Primitivism, Protestant Orthodox Theology, and Solo Scriptura

I am often critical of what I have called solo scriptura or what has been called more formally, nuda scriptura. This is a sort of sola scriptura run amuck—some would say taken to its logical conclusion—an approach that believes all tradition making is wrong-headed (except of course for its tradition in regard to Scripture’s ability to speak independent of other interpretive traditions), and thus appeal to Scripture all by itself should be the mode of the theologian’s method. Indeed, there is a fine line between historic sola scriptura and nuda scriptura; in principle we might see them as univocal, but in function the former leaves place for the tradition of the church whereas the latter wants to negate that through “critical” or “deconfessionalized” means that are not reliant upon the church’s doctors or its reception of the tradition itself. This sort of naturalizing of the text of Scripture, and its meaning, started becoming prominent in Protestant theology late in the 17th century; it’s a mode that continues into the present in a blossomed form (maybe even gone-to-seed form) as we continue to see as the dominant form that funds what is currently called biblical studies. Richard Muller, once again, helps to identify how this unfolded in the 17th century in a writing called The Naked Gospel. He writes:

Theological debate was intensified early in 1690 by the anonymous publication of The Naked Gospel by Arthur Bury. The work was not, strictly speaking, either Socinian or directly supportive of the Socinian doctrinal program, but it offered such a blistering attack on the Christian tradition, whether of the later fathers or of the orthodoxy of the late seventeenth century, that it was easily associated with some of the arguments of the Socinians. Specifically, Bury argued that “scholastic” thinking, particularly the use of logic and metaphysics, had created a grand and confusing edifice of “new doctrines” not found in the gospel. It was the task of his book to criticize the rational or “natural” religion of the church in his time and propose a return to the original, simple, “naked” gospel of Christ and the apostles. Bury attacks the ecumenical councils, particularly Nicaea, blaming them for creating a false and highly rationalized christology instead of more simply and directly the high “dignity” and “divinity” of Christ’s person and his divine sonship in the office of mediator. As for the doctrine of the Trinity, Bury indicates that it is ultimately confusing, inasmuch as the identification of three divine “persons” in no way indicates three Gods and the language of the traditional doctrine, therefore, has not good analogy to typical usage. Bury was suspended from the university.[1]

In some ways Bury’s approach might sound what I have been proposing here at The Evangelical Calvinist over the years. There might seem to be a radical biblicism funding the Evangelical Calvinist mood such that people of more trad or conservative sensibilities become concerned or immediately critical.

What we have had described for us by Muller, in regard to The Naked Gospel, might make certain readers think of the 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s approach to doing theology. Schleiermacher, ironically, was someone who actually started to reign in much of radical biblicism that we see inchoately in someone like Bury, and which had gone to seed by time Schleiermacher. Nevertheless, as E.J. Hutchinson notes with reference to Schleiermacher’s mode, there is a perception that Schleiermacher was still operating in a way that sought to undercut what had developed previously in the traditionary models of theological doctrinism. That Schleiermacher wanted to reformulate all Christian Dogma under the pressures provided for by a clean (Enlightened) reading of Holy Writ. Hutchinson writes:

Aside from the fact that this view is paradoxical—if “fresh treatment” is adesideratum as such, how can anything ever be “finally settled”?—there is a more basic point that should be highlighted with respect to the idea of “reformation.” On Schleiermacher’s reading, “reformation” entails that all dogmatic loci be revised and overhauled from their very foundations. According to the gloss of a recent commentator, Schleiermacher believed that the Protestants of the sixteenth century “too uncritically took over earlier views without testing them against the Protestant spirit.” Schleiermacher is explicit in the work’s final section that his placement of the doctrine of the Trinity is due to just such a desire for total overhaul. The assumption lurking behind this viewpoint—and it is an assumption—is that there was a unifying drive broader than and undergirding particular theological revisions, that it ought to be generalizable to all doctrinal topics, and that if it has not been so generalized, it is due to a lapse on the part of the Reformers in carrying their Grundsatz all the way through. Thus Schüssler Fiorenza can gloss Schleiermacher’s stance as follows: “The traditional doctrinal formulations [about the Trinity] fail to express [the] reformation impulse.”[2]

Bury and Schleiermacher, while separated by passage of time, might be convergent in ethos and outlook in regard to sensibility and a desire to present a Naked Gospel.

Evangelical Calvinists, following after Barth et al., I believe, are seen as compatriots of the Bury/Schleiermacher feeling. There is a fear that we have imbibed the wrong spirit because we have seemingly chained ourselves to an anti-orthodoxing move that began in the very presence and development of 16th and 17th century Protestant orthodox theology. If this is the perception of Evangelical Calvinism, particularly of those entrenched in classical Calvinism or Reformed theology, then Evangelical Calvinism will always be understood, at least in those quarters, as a marginal or fringe movement that need not be engaged with, or instead, if engaged with, segregated into the mood of Bury et al. and as something that needs to be repented of. But Evangelical Calvinism is more polymorphous than that; we are, for the most part, very traditional and conservative (way more than Bury or Schleiermacher).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 123.

[2] E.J. Hutchinson, “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation? The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 571, 581, 593, 603 kindle version.

Not All Modern Theology Fits the Socinian Mode Contra Post Reformed orthodox Impulses

In some ways I think the following represents the battle that Protestant orthodox, so called, see themselves in. There isn’t a one-for-one correspondence, per se, between the combatants, but I think the corollary, by way of ethos, is present enough in order for the historical battle between the Socinians and the orthodox to provide the sort of role-playing that I think many orthodox see themselves in as they battle modern theology (developments occurring primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries and how those have been taken up by the mainliners et al following) currently. You might wonder what I am referring to. Let me quote something from Richard Muller and then follow with some concluding thoughts.

The problem of antitrinitarian exegesis was, certainly, the most overtly intense of the issues faced by the Reformers and their successors, given the Protestant emphasis on the priority of the biblical norm. For the various antitrinitarians consistently rejected tradition in the name of their own exegesis of Scripture. In addition, in the seventeenth century, there was a partial coincidence, given the textual problems of such texts as 1 John 5:7 and 1 Timothy 3:16, between the Socinian position and the views of various text-critical scholars. The orthodox found themselves in the very difficult position of arguing a traditional view of the Trinity against an antitrinitarian exegesis that appeared, in a few instances, to represent the results of text criticism and, in a few other instances, to represent a literal exegesis of text over against an older allegorism or typological reading — at the same time that, in many of its readings, it appeared to be a contorted and rationalizing attempt to undermine not only the traditional but also the basic literal sense of the text. This latter characteristic of Socinian exegesis cut in two directions: on the one hand, it could be presented, as was typical of the Socinian argumentation, as on a par with the text-critical results used in the Socinian reading of other passages, giving warrant to the antitrinitarian reading at least by association; on the other hand, it could be seen as an excessive result of the newer hermeneutical approaches, creating and otherwise unwarranted suspicion of certain kinds of textual criticism on the part of the orthodox. In either case, the orthodox task of building the primary justification of the doctrine of the Trinity on exegesis was made more difficult.

There were, therefore, three basic issues to follow in the discussion of the trinitarian thought of the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox — namely, the careful use of a well-defined patristic vocabulary, increasingly tuned to the particular needs and issues of Reformed thought, the intense battle over the exegetical ground of the doctrine in both testaments in view of the biblicistic assault on the doctrine from the Socinians and other antitrinitarians, and the struggle to find a suitable set of philosophical categories for the understanding and explanation of the doctrinal result, given the alteration or at least the fluidity of the conception of substance. At the heart of these lay the exegetical issue, given the Reformation emphasis on the priority of Scripture over all other norms of doctrine and alteration of patterns of interpretation away from the patristic and medieval patterns that had initially yielded the doctrine of the Trinity and given it a vocabulary consistent with traditional philosophical usage.[1]

Unfortunately for those in the current iteration of Post Reformed orthodoxy (and its softer evangelical corollaries) they often flatten modern theology out to the point that it ALL ends up falling prey to playing the Socinian and other antitrinitarian role. Much of what is called ‘theology of retrieval’, done by Post Reformed orthodox practitioners is an attempt to correct and even rebuke the purported ills brought upon the evangelical churches by the advent and development of modern theological categories. Note John Webster on theologies of retrieval (who I respect, but take some issue with in regard to the sort of negative hue he gives modern theology [which he knows very well given his many years with Barth and Jüngel]):

For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[2]

Are there certain theologians in the modern period that might fit the Socinian mode? Yes! But not all and this is the rub. Obviously, for me, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance represent modern theologians who not only critically and constructively engaged with the deep past, but they also were beneficiaries of some of the important movements of thought we find developed in the modern period as well. In short: not all modern theology can be or should be relegated to the Socinian mode of the Post Reformed orthodox period; but this seems to be a general characteristic in regard to the way many ensconced in this camp approach those of us who recognize that modern theology is not in fact only something that needs to be ‘overcome.’

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 62.

[2] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 585.

Modern Theology versus PreModern Theology: A Genuine Impasse?

There is a battle in theology; it’s a battle I’d rather work through constructively, but I’m coming to the conclusion that the sides are real rather than facile. We could identify the battle this way: there is pre-modern theology and modern theology; some choose to work from the categories provided for by modern theology and others want to work from those offered by pre-modern theology. So called pre-modern theology seeks to retrieve by repristinating the earlier categories of theological development; the benefit of this approach is that there is an in-built catholicity vis-à-vis church tradition. So called modern theology seeks to do theology by deploying newer categories mostly based upon enlightenment categories; the negative of this is that there is a potential loss of catholicity (if that is adjudicated by its relationship to church tradition). David Congdon offers a good summary of this, and how modern theology has moved beyond the categories provided for by pre-modern theological developments. Here Congdon opines on the ostensible reality of a modern theology in the context of his developing of Bultmann’s theology. You will notice Congdon referring to some of these modern theologians, but for our purposes I want you to see the type of distinction I’ve already highlighted above; the distinction between the means of a pre-modern theology vis-à-vis modern theology.

By referring to historical consciousness Cahill draws on themes developed extensively by Bultmann’s contemporaries and students, especially Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. According to Gogarten, the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world and our existence in it, which understood the world to be the unfolding of an overarching divine plan, was replaced by a historical interpretation:

Just as the contents of a play are established beforehand in the major and minor roles which appear in it, so too the occurrences in this history are predetermined in the “spiritual substances of all hierarchies,” which “are united in the church into a mystical body, which extends from the trinity and the angels that are nearest to the trinity down to the beggar at the church door and to the serf kneeling humbly in the furthest corner of the church to receive the sacrifice of the Mass.” But since history is understood in this way as a kingdom of metaphysical essences or substances, moved teleologically in itself and encompassing the entire world in this teleology, we lose precisely what we understand as the actual occurrence, namely, the living personal experiences of particular individuals in their distinctiveness and responsibility, their historical significance. Their historicity is taken away when history anticipates them by occurring within the framework of metaphysical essences. And it is only because this metaphysical framework contains the life of human beings with all that has happened that they have a part in the history which takes place there.

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.[1]

There is a clear distinction, as far as the universes that periods of theology are formed within and their categorical apparatuses, that is at play for us. Pre-modern typically is what ‘conservatives’ traffic in and modern is typically what ‘liberals’ operate in. There is a genuine impasse here, I think. Someone like my teacher Thomas F. Torrance sought to work in-between these poles and offer a constructive way forward. But in some ways I am having a hard time with the idea that there actually is a constructive way forward for these apparently disparate modes of theological endeavor. Take Barth for example, he reformulates, under his actualism etc., all of the traditional categories in a highly Christ concentrated form; under the pressures noted by Congdon, in regard to the development of historical-critical ways of thought.

In some ways I find myself in a dilemma. I don’t always see a clear cut way to navigate through these choppy theological waters. A contemporary theologian (who just recently went to be with Jesus), John Webster, offers an interesting case study here. He started with Barth and ended with Aquinas; he still constructively engaged with Barth, but his mode turned from the ‘modern’ to the ‘pre-modern.’ Interesting developments.

 

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

Kant by Barth on What The Biblical Theologian Can and Can’t Do and What The Philosopher Can and Can’t Do

I thought it would be interesting to see how Karl Barth sketches Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the relationship between [biblical] theology and philosophy; you might be surprised. What is interesting to me is to see how closely Barth’s development of Kant’s thought here mimics Barth’s own approach towards an understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy.[1] We will hear from Barth at some length and then close with some concluding thoughts (per my usual format for blog posts):

Kant, as we have seen, with the notion of the Church as his starting point, pondered the possibility of the Bible having a position and significance, which, even if it were not ‘divinely statutory’ would yet be extraordinary and qualified, and he went on from this to ponder also the possibility of a theology which would be different from the philosophical theology he himself was propounding. He explicitly calls this other theology, which limits philosophical theology, ‘biblical theology’, and it is his with that the affairs of this biblical theology should not ‘be allowed to mingle’ with those of philosophy. He wants rather to form for it a definite distinct idea as befits its own peculiar nature. For Kant the possibility for such a discipline or faculty, which is theological in the narrower and specific sense, is given, first of all formally, simply with the existence of the Church which has its foundation in the Bible. Philosophy would be exceeding its rights if it were by any chance to proceed to the formation of a Church, to a special philosophical preaching, on the basis of its own understanding of religion. Philosophy does not offer itself as a rival to theology, but as a ‘friend and companion’. ‘A minister of a Church is bound to convey his message, to those he is teaching the catechism, and to his congregation, according to the symbol of the Church he is serving.’ Kant disputes the idea that a minister’s task as an office-holder is dependent upon any historical-philosophical convictions he might hold as one learned in the subject. A preacher would be bound to abandon his office for this reason, only if he should find something flatly in contradiction of the ‘inner religion’, as he must understand it as a philosopher, in the teachings of his Church, but not if these teachings do not happen to correspond exactly with his historical-philosophical convictions. Even if such a conflict between the office-holder and the scholar in him should take place, the scholar can always explain that it is not completely impossible for ‘truth to lie hidden’ in the things he has to represent in the Church as one holding office.

And with this we have arrived already at what, according to Kant, constitutes the material possibility of a biblical theology. Kant guards against the reproach that it seems as if his critical religious teaching is presuming to dispute revelation. This is not his intention, ‘since it might be after all, that the teachings of revelation stem from men supernaturally inspired’. He does not wish to assert that in matters of religion reason is sufficient unto itself, but acknowledges (let us think once again at this point of that letter to Jung-Stilling) that reason, after it has established in religion those things which it is fitted to establish as such, ‘must await the arrival of everything else, which must be added beyond its capacity, without reason being permitted to know in what it consists, from the supernatural helping hand of heaven’. ‘Even at that point where philosophical theology seems to accept principles in opposition to those of biblical theology, e.g. in respect of the teaching concerning miracles, it confesses and proves that it does not assert them as objective principles, but only as subjective ones; they must, that is, be understood as maxims, when we merely wish to make use of our own (human) reason in judging of theological matters; and in so doing we do not dispute the miracles themselves, but merely leave them without restraint to the biblical theologians, in so far as he wishes to judge solely as a biblical theologian and scorns any alliance with philosophy.’ What Kant does dispute is the idea that the reality and possibility of revelation, its availability as data for human reason and its perception by human reason, are things which can be accounted for by philosophical means, the idea that over and beyond the philosophy of religion there is a philosophy of revelation and of faith, and that by its theology might be represented, or make its position secure. At the same time, however, he disputes the philosopher’s right to deny revelation because it cannot be accounted for by philosophical means. He therefore advises both the theologian and the philosopher ‘not to indulge his curiosity in those things which do not pertain to his office and of which in general he understands nothing’. For him theology is a ‘privileged body’, which he quite plainly instructs to do precisely those things in matters of religion which philosophy dare not do, and to refrain from doing precisely those things which philosophy is bound to do.

What may theology not do? It may not ‘interfere in the free profession of philosophy and attempt to prove or refute its principles of belief least of all, by philosophy’, just as philosophy for its own part has to resign itself that it cannot pass any definitive judgment upon the authority and exposition of the Scriptures. Theology ‘does not speak according to the laws of the pure and a priori knowable religion of reason, for in so doing it would debase itself and set itself down upon the bench of philosophy’. It may not, ‘in what concerns the fulfillment of the divine commandments in our will . . . by any means count upon nature, upon man’s own moral capacity (virtue), that is’. The interpretive method of ‘giving another meaning to something’ is forbidden for theology: theology cannot be entitled ‘to give the sayings of the Scripture a meaning which does not exactly suit what is expressed in them; with a moral meaning, for instance’, ‘and since there is no human expounder of the Scripture authorized by God, the biblical theologian must rely upon a supernatural enlightenment of the understanding by a Spirit which guides into all the truth, rather than concede that reason intervenes’. ‘The biblical theologian as such cannot and may not prove that God himself spoke through the Bible, since this is a matter of historical fact, and thus belongs to the philosophical faculty.’ He must, as Kant at one point says, certainly not without malice, as a pure (purus, putus) biblical theologian, be ‘still uninfected with the accursed free spirit of reason and philosophy’. What, on the other hand, should theology do? The answer: ‘The biblical theologian is really the scribe of the Church faith, which rests upon statutes; laws, that is to say, which stem from the arbitrary choice of another authority.’ Theology ‘speaks according to statutory prescriptions of belief which are contained in a book, preferably called the Bible; contained, that is, in a codex of the revelation of an Old and New Covenant of men with God, which was joined many hundreds of years ago, and whose authentication as a historical faith (and not, particularly not, as a moral faith, for that might also be drawn from philosophy) should surely be expected from the effects of the reading of the Bible upon the human heart rather than from . . . proofs’. ‘The biblical theologian proves that God exists by means of the fact that he has spoken in the Bible.’ He may, in the question of the realization of the will for good, count only upon grace, ‘which, however, man cannot hope to partake of in any other way than by virtue of a faith which fervently transforms his heart; which faith itself he can, however, in his turn expect of grace’. Theology, with these premises it has: the Church, the Bible, historical revelation, and grace, should allow itself to be ranked together with other branches of learning and content itself with the influence it can acquire as such by its own dignity.[2]

I don’t want to say too much because this post is already starting to run long, and I want you to read what Barth has written of Kant here. But if you are aware of Barth’s theology you’ll recognize some of the ethos of Kant’s thinking (as reported by Barth) in Barth’s own mode. Of course, as we noted in a recent post, Barth could not live with the dualism that Kant operated from and thus reified such thinking by taking Kant’s dualistic thinking (as evinced by his rupturing of the ‘knowledges’), and declawing that in the union of God and humanity in the hypostatic union that occurred in Jesus Christ; such that the objective and subjective aspects of knowledge are brought together in the singular person known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Nevertheless, what Barth offers us here, in sketch, I think provides an interesting look into Kant’s thought vis-à-vis Barth’s. Further, it is interesting to take Kant’s duality and apply that to what happened to the disciplines of theology and biblical studies in the 18th century (and into the present); it’s ironic that biblical studies, as a discipline, actually traversed Kant’s ‘lines’ and instead began developing its systems based upon the grounds that Kant would reserve for the philosophers; thus ‘de-confessionalizing’ the Bible and its study by placing it on a naturalist trajectory.

 

[1] For an in depth analysis of this locus in Barth see Kenneth Oakes most fantastic book: Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (OUP).

[2] Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 192-95.

On the ‘Orthodoxy’ of Modern Theology and Its Conservative Evangelical Despisers

To be a purveyor of ‘Modern Theology,’ at least in the conservative evangelical world makes you suspect in regard to your ‘orthodoxy.’ For some reason among conservative evangelical theologians and pastors, in the main, there is this pervasive belief that in order to imbibe a ‘catholic’ faith the church must bring herself to orbit around the classical theism of Thomas Aquinas and the supposed linkage from him to the patristics in regard to a doctrine of God and its implicates towards constructively working out theories of salvation and so forth. Anything after the 18th century, according to this optic, falls off into the sphere of at best, heterodoxy, and at worst, heresy. But when it comes to actually material theological concerns and ideation construction, when an honest effort is made to engage with modern theologians (which I would suggest is rare among the conservative evangelical theologians who believe we must skip past that period back to the catholic faith propounded as nearly as the 16th and 17th centuries and backwards) what is found is the same spirit that has pervaded all theological construction through all the periods. It strikes me as odd! when folks summarily write off the modern period as if people aren’t still people and God still is not God; as if the Enlightenment and Renaissance so upended the epistemological moorings of the world that a new class of ideators was given birth to such that they are best relegated to the land of theological monsters and zombies rather than Christian people and theologians who like the rest of the Christians in the history of the church are attempting in good faith to know God and make him known. When I survey the history of Christian thought what is striking to me is the commonality shared among all the theologians of every period; indeed, in the modern period we see the same types of ideas, even if “sophisticated” in modern dress, being wrestled with as we see in the early church and medieval periods. This is why I continue to scratch my head in wonder when I see young and old conservative evangelical theologians ridiculing, and at best suspiciously engaging with modern theologians; as if they are potentially going to become heretics by mere association.

In an attempt to underscore with some sobriety what modern theology entails when placed upon against the other periods of theological development, here is Bruce McCormack’s sketch. You will notice that he mentions none of what I just have, and instead simply focuses on various theological themes and doctrines to allow such questions, as each period was so preoccupied with them respectively, to be the way into engaging with modern theology among the various other periodized theological developments. This has the effect, I think, of disarming the often antagonistic approach to the moderns, and allows material theological concerns to frame the entryway.

“Modern” theology emerged, in my view, at the point at which (on the one hand) church-based theologians ceased trying to defend and protect the received orthodoxies of the past against erosion and took up the more fundamental challenge of asking how the theological values resident in those orthodoxies might be given an altogether new expression, dressed out in new categories for reflection. It was the transition, then, from a strategy of “accommodation” to the task of “mediation” that was fundamental in the ecclesial sphere. In philosophy, as it relates to the theological enterprise (on the other hand), the defining moment that effected a transition entailed a shift from a cosmologically based to an anthropologically based metaphysics of divine being.

The transitions I have in mind, insofar as they registered a decisive impact on Christian theology, were effected by means of a few very basic decisions in particular. Every period in the history of theology has had its basic questions and concerns that shaped the formulation of doctrines in all areas of reflection. In the early church, it was Trinity and Christology that captured the attention of the greatest minds. In the transition to the early Middle Ages, Augustinian anthropology played a large role—which would eventually effect a shift in attention from theories of redemption to the need to understand how God is reconciled with sinful human beings. The high Middle Ages were the heyday of sacramental development, in which definitions of sacraments were worked out with great care, the number of sacraments established, and so on. The Reformation period found its center of gravity in the doctrine of justification. In the modern period, the question of questions became the nature of God and his relation to the world. Basic decisions were thus made in the areas of creation, the being of God and his relation to the world, and revelation, which were to become foundational for further development in other areas of doctrinal concern. It is to a consideration of these basic decisions that we must now turn in our efforts to understand what it means to be “modern” in Christian theology.[1]

An important aspect to note in McCormack’s sketch is the shift he identifies in the modern period from accommodation to mediation. As David Congdon develops in his big book on Bultmann mediation has much to do with missiology and mission. So if this is the case modern theology as a mediating-factored endeavor focuses on translating received theological concepts into is modern milieu under the intellectual and social pressures present during that time. The fear, of course, is that these ‘pressures’ exert too much force on the translator with the result being that the orthodox faith which is ostensibly being translated becomes a tertium quid and no longer recognizable as a catholic reality as that is defined by the classical theistic confines. Even so, I contend that what modern theologians were doing was far less sinister than it has been made to be, and have very valuable considerations and innovations to offer the ongoing development of the church catholic as she draws nearer and nearer to the unity of the faith once and all delivered to the saints.

On a personal note, because I am vociferously enamored with certain developments in modern theology, and because of that critical of some of the classical theistic project, conservative evangelicals tend to view me with suspicion. This is ironic to me because I am quite conservative evangelical myself. I am hoping that the quote from McCormack illustrates how we might approach modern theology with the sobriety it ought to be approached with, and allow that to temper the constant suspicion and indeed animus that so many operate with towards modern theology. It is true that modern theology and theologians can be and are just as antithetical towards “pre-modern” theologies of retrieval, and the material theological ideas being resourced therefrom, but not all of modern theology has this type of animus; indeed the best modern theologians recognized the relative value of even classical theistic conceptions and constructed their theological programs from there. It would be a blessing if conservative evangelical theologians and pastors could come to the realization that God has spoken (Deus dixit) and that God still speaks (Deus adhuc loquitur) even in the 21st century; indeed he still speaks under the conditions present—intellectual and social—and desires to be heard even in this day.

 

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, “Introduction,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012), 11, 14 scribd edition.