A Corollary Between Aryan Nazism and Planned Parenthood’s Abortionism: The Sanctity of Human Life as a Canon of Allegiances

I am reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology Volume 2 (I just recently finished his Volume 1), and in his chapter on the imago Dei. In passing, almost, as he is writing on nihilism’s impact on the way human beings view other human beings he references Germany’s National Socialism and its endeavor to cleanse the human gene pool of peoples it determined were sub-human, relative to the Aryan race; it is here he also mentions America’s Planned Parenthood and how it was just as much a part of the research project of eugenics that the Nazi solution was. Jenson writes:

Germany’s National Socialist thought it scientifically established that the Jewish strain degraded the European genetic pool. Setting out to cull their human herd of these threats to its genetic future was only what any responsible farmer would do on such information. They were, indeed, quite explicit in describing the human gene pool as a herd to be genetically improved; moreover, the holocaust of Jews was organized on the basis of an antecedently established program of positive and negative  eugenics that in its negative mode had been directed against defectives of indubitably Aryan ethnicity. We should remember also that the sort of science that obtained these results was also practiced in England, Scandinavia, Italy, and the United States, resulting, for example, in the American Planned Parenthood organization and in Scandinavian state-mandated eugenic sterilization programs.[1]

It is easy to sanitize, for example, American identity through her psyche of exceptionalism; but we play the fool if we do so. American complicity in the evils of the world is well established and pervasive; the example of her reliance upon eugenics given expression in the practices of Planned Parenthood is indicting.

My intention is not to bash America, but instead to draw attention to the fact that as Christians our primary allegiance is to our Lord Jesus Christ and our mode, consequently, is as the agents of his Kingdom. If we tie our identity too closely to our nationality as Americans we, just like the German Christians, will conflate the Gospel with moral proclivities that have more to do with hell than heaven. I think there is hope to be had, at least in and among many younger evangelicals that any type of overt nationalism, for the Christian, can only result in idolatry which further results in untold evils.

It is clear that almost all evangelical Christians find abortion repulsive, as they should! But my concern is that the same evangelicals haven’t thought systematically enough in regard to how the principle that fosters their hatred for abortion—i.e. the sanctity of human life—is not far reaching enough; that evangelicals fail to see how something like the military industrial complex, and its deployment, can and has fostered the same types of violations against humanity as abortion has. What Jenson notes about America’s engagement with eugenic thought ought to serve as a cautionary tale to Americans in general and Christians in particular. The thing is, I don’t think we have extricated ourselves as much as we would like to think from the evils that we think we have; idolatry has this type of blinding effect.

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 57.

*Image Credit: Mario Mariani

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Can-o-Worms: Robert Jenson and the Resurrection

As usual I have opened a can-o-worms with my posts on Robert Jenson’s doctrine of resurrection—I say “as usual” in the sense that often over the years I’ve touched upon a variety of controversial issues. So I have been processing all of this out in the open allowing you all to provide me feedback—if you will—and this opening has garnered response from learned people; particularly on Facebook (through contacts there). But let’s be clear, just as is the case for anyone, we all must come to our own convictions and conclusions based upon a best faith effort; that’s the effort I am attempting to put forth in regard to understanding Jenson’s doctrine of resurrection.

I received a copy of an essay/chapter a friend of mine, Oliver Crisp, contributed to the recently released volume The Promise of Robert W. Jenson’s Theology: Constructive Engagements. As Divine Providence would have it Oliver’s chapter just happens to be on the very issue that has been causing me some angst—let’s not be too overwrought, whether or not Jenson did affirm the actual and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has no long term bearing on what I actually believe relative to the bodily resurrection of Christ as attested to by the Apostolic witness. Nevertheless, insofar as we are beholden—as people of the truth—to represent each other in a more accurate way, it is important to do due diligence in representing the theology of Jenson vis-à-vis resurrection.

I have actually been getting it from both barrels; as is the case in the theological endeavor there are of course competing angles from, it seems, infinite sides of a position or doctrine. Jenson, just as any theologian worth their salt, has presented us with no cause for small polarization; in other words, his offering, theologically, has the potential to divide—I’d expect nothing less from any sober attempt to divulge the implications and inklings produced by the reality of the God of the Gospel, of Jesus Christ. I have been presenting one line in regard to Jenson, that his presentation on the resurrection comes from a Bultmann-inspired angle; one of demythologizing in light of the “modern progress” and scientific age we currently inhabit. One push back I’ve received on this front from someone who has done their PhD work on Jenson went like this (this is from Facebook interaction, I won’t share the name of the interlocutor since I’m not sure he wants me to):

Jenson isn’t saying that the body of Christ remains dead. He is saying that bodily resurrection is a new body, not a resuscitated old one. I don’t know how one could bracket off the sacramental question. His entire understanding of what a body is is central to his interpretation of the resurrection; ie, objective availability. To say that Jesus’ body could have remained in the tomb is to say that it is no longer the way he is available. One needn’t agree with this interpretation, but it isn’t accurate to suggest that Jenson’s interpretation of the resurrection is subjective or beholden to demythologization. I think there’s much to say about the fact that the old body is the object of resurrection, and therefore that it must be related to the risen body. That’s a valid critical question of Jenson’s theology. But I think what you’ve said in this thread misfires a bit.[1]

TheologianJ, just to reiterate says this: “Jenson isn’t saying that the body of Christ remains dead. He is saying that bodily resurrection is a new body, not a resuscitated old one”; and this: “To say that Jesus’ body could have remained in the tomb is to say that it is no longer the way he is available.” There are many thought experiments taking place in all of this; particularly by Robert Jenson. TheologianJ, in his attempt to represent Jenson more accurately, wants to emphasize that for Jenson there is an asymmetrical relationship between the pre-resurrection and crucified body of Jesus, and the post-resurrection and glorified risen body of Christ. And to get this point across, as TheologianJ rehearses Jenson’s point, the hypothetical of a body remaining in the tomb, even after Jesus resurrected, is the idea that presses into the mystery that actually took place at the resurrection. Yet, the image, maybe strangely, that is conjured in my mind as I reflect upon TheologianJ’s words here, is to think of a caterpillar and butterfly; as if the pre-resurrection body of Christ is the caterpillar and the post resurrection body the butterfly; as if when Jesus resurrects he sluffs off the old body (as if a shell or husk), and assumes the new body that has an inextricable relation to the old ‘carrier-body’, but nonetheless is a brand new body of a different sort. Even though this analogy breaks down, especially on the biblical front, at least at some levels, it does have some purchase to it in regard to noting the miracle that the resurrection body entails and the discordant yet concordant relation that remains present between the old and the new.

Okay, I can accept some of this. But I don’t think this line of thought is neither necessary nor required. As I noted in response to another interlocutor on Facebook, the way I’m approaching this is from a pre-modern/pre-Copernican way of viewing the resurrection—like from a cosmology that simply accepts that what Scripture says about the resurrection simply maps onto what actually is the primal reality of all creation (i.e. without reference to modern scientific theories in regard to cosmogony and cosmology). Jenson, on the other hand, feels compelled to work his thinking in and from under the pressures presented by the modern scientific world; a post-Copernican world. This is why I will remain at disparate odds with Jenson. But there is some irony, because even as Jenson is attempting to work his theological project into the modern 21st century world (late 20th century as he wrote his Systematic Theology) he re-mystifies how he thinks resurrection through his Lutheran antecedents found in Swabian Cosmic Christology and in his stylized mode of sacramental theology.

Let me back off the idea that Bultmann is the primary point of departure for Jenson. But let me maintain that I still think that what Jenson is doing is a kind of de-mystifying and then re-mystification of what the resurrection of Jesus Christ entails; so in this sense I think we can at the very least, insofar as both Bultmann and Jenson are modern theologians (to one degree or another), come to the conclusion that while Jenson’s project of “evangelizing the cosmology of the Christ” is distinct, in his own ways from Bultmann’s, there remains an incidental over-lap between the two insofar as they are indeed working intentionally from modern soundings and categories. Note Jenson:

Copernicus’ new cosmology undid this accommodation. The Copernican universe is homogeneous; no part of it can be more suited for God’s dwelling than any other. It can map no topologically delineated heaven. There is in a Copernican universe no plausible accommodation for the risen Christ’s body; and, indeed, within any modern cosmology, the assertion that the body is upper there some place must rightly provoke mocking proposals to search for it with more powerful telescopes, or suggestions that perhaps it is hiding on the “other side” of a black hole. But if there is no place for Jesus’ risen body, how is it a body at all? For John Calvin was surely right: “. . . this is the eternal truth of any body, that it is contained in its place.”

The disappearance of heaven from the accepted topography of the universe has had powerful and destructive impact on the actual theology of believers. It is safe to say that most modern believers, whatever doctrine they may formally espouse, actually envision the risen Christ as not embodied, as a pure “spirit,” or perhaps as embodied in a a [sic] very thinned-out fashion, as—not to be too fine about it—a spook. A body requires its place, and we find it hard to think of any place for this one.[2]

We cannot go back, or maybe we can, according to Jenson. Here it becomes apparent the type of world Jenson believes we must do theology in; the world that has been bequeathed to us as moderns and now post-moderns. He immediately (following the quote I just shared from him) anticipates that folks, like me, might simply fall back to a traditional pre-Copernican position on thinking resurrection and body-place in the heavenlies. He says that’s not advisable, and that even reversion to the past, prior to Copernicus, as far back as the 9th century, we have Christian thinkers attempting to understand how the bodily presence of God in Christ, in the continued reality of the incarnation in the resurrected body, relates to the world of time-space. This is where he refers, and turns his focus to the Swabian theologians, post-Copernicus, who he thinks provides him with the kind of pregnant theological resource to fund his own incarnational theology of sacrament and how the body of God in Christ continues to be mediated to humanity in the “body” of the broken bread and red juice.[3]

I will say that Jenson is a complex; aren’t we all. He is a modern theologian attempting to think modernly about a reality that transcends all analogies and human categories of wit. His modern impulses, or at least the way he self-consciously owns those, drives him to say things about the “empty tomb” and the resurrected body of Jesus Christ that I wouldn’t say in the way he does. I think this is the rub for me, and will continue to be when I read Jenson. I still can learn from him, but I’d rather learn from people like Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Maximus the Confessor, Athanasius, Irenaeus et al. Jenson looks back and listens to the past too, but his impulses are his own (which of course makes some sort of sense if you think about it). I don’t want to misrepresent Jenson, I’m just thinking all of this out-loud; bear that in mind as you not only read these posts on Jenson, but on every single post I have ever written or will write here at The Evangelical Calvinist. Pax Vobiscum

 

[1] TheologianJ, Anonymous Facebook Source, accessed 11-14-2017.

[2] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God(Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 202.

[3] Ibid., 202-03.

Staying with Robert Jenson’s Doctrine of Resurrection for a Minute Longer

Let me hit on this one more time; i.e. the topic of the last post. Here is the quote I referred to from Jenson in regard to the resurrection of Jesus:

Most of the Gospel’s resurrection stories are of appearances, in line with the tradition followed by Paul. But the other ancient account, transmitted by Mark writing perhaps ten years later than Paul, is of finding Jesus’ tomb empty. The historical difficulties of Mark’s story have, one may think been much exaggerated. It is nevertheless noteworthy that other empty-tomb stories in the Gospels may well be dependent on the single story in Mark, and that the New Testament contains no trace outside the Gospels of a conviction that the tomb was empty, or even of any interest in the matter.

In any case, the two claims are not conceptually symmetrical. The assertion that the tomb was empty could be true while Jesus nevertheless remained dead. But if the claim was true that some saw Jesus alive after his death, then Jesus had indeed been raised. Therefore, whether or not the tomb was found empty, only the appearances could be the actual occasion of the Easter-faith.[1]

The question is basic (I think): Is Robert Jenson waffling some on the actual resurrection, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? The feeling I get as I read Jenson’s whole chapter on Resurrection is that he remains ambiguous as to whether or not there is a correlation between the pre-resurrection crucified body of Jesus Christ and the post-resurrection body of Jesus Christ. In the quote above it does appear that Jenson affirms the resurrection (and as the other quote I shared from him attests, he does conclude that there was some sort of resurrection), but what remains ambiguous with him is the reality of the bodily resurrection; in the sense that there is a one-for-one correspondence between the preresurrection and postresurrection bodies of Jesus Christ. I can’t help but see, for Jenson, that there is indeed a type of Bultmannian Jesus of history/Jesus of Faith distinction; the Jesus of Faith corresponding to the Easter-appearances and Jesus of Faith that the Apostle’s had some sort of mystical experience of.

Some have wanted to respond that because Jenson is subsuming his doctrine of resurrection (as well as other loci) under his doctrine of the church that his ambiguity on the bodily resurrection of Christ is neither here nor there; i.e. that Jenson has bigger concerns in regard to narrating for the church where her significance comes from—even if for him whether or not Jesus genuinely or physically did raise is an incidental.

I don’t really appreciate posturing types of responses to such things (which is some of what I received). Some people responded to my first post by trying to suspend the obvious observation that there is indeed this kind of Bultmann existentialism attending to Jenson’s own formation in regard to his doctrine of resurrection. Just because someone is a devotee to Jenson’s theology in the main doesn’t mean he didn’t have weak spots, and is not vulnerable to any sort of critique in any way. And yet this is the sense you get when trying to elevate something like this vis-à-vis Jenson’s theology. I’m not interested in subterfuge or suspension. Jenson is a clear and good communicator; he’s not unclear in regard to the types of antecedents present for him when it comes to his developments on resurrection.

 

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God(Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 195.

A Quick Report on Robert Jenson’s Bultmannesque Demythologized Account of the Resurrection

I just finished Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God; I’d read most of V1 in the past back in 2005, but this is the first time I read it in full. I have mixed feelings about what he communicates via his theological offering; his Lutheran Christology seeps throughout (i.e. communicatio idiomatum), and his writing style is something to get used to. Since I’ve offered two posts that have been on the constructive/positive side in regard to Jenson’s theology, let me, in this post, offer a critical/critique oriented post. It has to do with what some might call Jenson’s Bultmannesque theology of the resurrection of Jesus; i.e. in regard to the bodily nature of the resurrection.

For the remainder of this post we will look at two quotes from Jenson which will help to illustrate why I have serious concerns with Jenson on the issue of the resurrection. He demurs—and this is to frame it collegially—at just the point wherein historic orthodox Christianity finds its juice; he flounders at just the point where you think he would hit his stride—since he sells his theology as one that pivots on the resurrection, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (or at least that’s what a reader would think based upon the way Jenson uses the language of resurrection). Someone I know (Kurt Anders Richardson) “warned” me about Jenson’s Bultmannian approach to the resurrection, but honestly I was a bit skeptical; that is until I read Jenson for myself. What my friend warned me of turned out to be true in the case of Jenson.

For Bultmann in the modern world of science and human progression something like the bodily resurrection of a divine-man kicks against all rational and empirical sensibilities. And so just as we find with Bultmann, Jenson acknowledges the world within which we live, takes his hat off for it, and attempts to make sense of the orthodox and biblical assertion that Jesus rose again bodily from within the modern milieu; so he demythologizes and attempts to give us the essence and existential gist of what the idea of the resurrection implies self-referentially within the Christian narrative. Realizing that this is in the background of Jenson’s informing theology, in general, it rather guts much of the valuable “sounding” things he connives throughout the rest of his theological meandering. I’ll leave us with two quotations from the pertinent section of his ST:

Most of the Gospel’s resurrection stories are of appearances, in line with the tradition followed by Paul. But the other ancient account, transmitted by Mark writing perhaps ten years later than Paul, is of finding Jesus’ tomb empty. The historical difficulties of Mark’s story have, one may think been much exaggerated. It is nevertheless noteworthy that other empty-tomb stories in the Gospels may well be dependent on the single story in Mark, and that the New Testament contains no trace outside the Gospels of a conviction that the tomb was empty, or even of any interest in the matter.

In any case, the two claims are not conceptually symmetrical. The assertion that the tomb was empty could be true while Jesus nevertheless remained dead. But if the claim was true that some saw Jesus alive after his death, then Jesus had indeed been raised. Therefore, whether or not the tomb was found empty, only the appearances could be the actual occasion of the Easter-faith.[1]

I once heard, in person, at a regional Evangelical Theological Meeting in Portland, OR in 2011, Jesus Seminar fellow, Marcus Borg, make almost a verbatim accounting of Jesus’ Easter-faith resurrection appearances. It is something that we might expect from a neo-Gnostic like Borg, or the demythologizing theologian, par excellence, Rudolph Bultmann, but not what I would have expected to hear from America’s best theologian (according to some), Robert Jenson.

He closes this section on Resurrection with this:

. . . The tomb, we may therefore very cautiously judge, had to be empty after the Resurrection for the Resurrection to be what it is. We can, of course, say nothing at all about what anyone would have seen who was in the tomb between the burial and the first appearances. If the tomb marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is indeed where Christ lay, then it is empty not by inadvertence but as the Temple of Israel was empty.[2]

It strikes me as rather odd that Jenson, a theologian known for placing such emphasis on the resurrection, per the paces of his theology, is so agnostic and ambiguous in regard to the bodily resurrection of Christ. Even in the last quote from him, we need to read that from within the context set for that in the first quote I shared from him. For Jenson, what is important is the existential Easter-faith of the Apostles rather than the actuality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; this comes off as an incidental for Jenson, in regard to whether or not it did in fact happen or not.

While Jenson does have some insightful things to say about church history and ideation, at the end of the day, without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ informing his theology, as the Apostle Paul notes:

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.[3]

In an ultimate kind of way I don’t have very much interest in Jenson’s theology precisely because what should be the capstone of his theology—even on his own assertion—is weakly. Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance et al. are all strong on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for them it can truly serve of primal import in regard to the development of their respective theological offerings. Because of the waningness of Jenson’s own report on the bodily resurrection he cannot claim the same type of bravado when it comes to offering a Trinitarian theology that has the Gospel of the bodily resurrection at the core of the core of his theology.

I plan on finishing up Jenson’s Volume 2, but only to say that I’ve been there done that. Any kind of abiding interest I might have had in Jenson’s theology has been somewhat quenched by his material lacuna in regard to the necessity of an empty tomb or not.

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 195.

[2] Ibid., 206.

[3] I Corinthians 15:12-19, NIV.

On Being a Liturgical Theologian: The Place of Doxology, Aesthetics, and Narratology in Gospel Reflection: Thinking Along with Robert Jenson

Something I’ve come to realize about myself is that I am very attracted to the aesthetics of theology; or aesthetically driven theology. I say this because I think doxology and aesthetics, when it comes to theology, in my view, go hand-in-hand. We might not think about literary studies, per se, or narratology fitting into this way of conceiving of things, in regard to theology, but as a persistent Scripture reader I can see no other place in the economy of God’s Kingdom wherein aesthetics and doxology are given their greatest expression. I think this comes to pass relative to the way we approach Scripture; i.e. how do we read it? Do we read it dialogically and prayerfully; believing that the symbols of the text press on beyond themselves to their reality in the living and Triune God? If so, I think this is where the beauty and effulgence of the text of Scripture can become the Holy ground God has intended it to be for his church. Some might refer to this way of doing theology as liturgics; maybe at the end of the day I am a liturgical theologian then. What I do know is that getting caught up in the grandeur of God’s resplendent life as I meditate upon the living words of Scripture cause me to encounter a beauty and shalomness that is not of this world; even as it has penetrated this world in Christ.

Robert Jenson really captures, quite well, what I am referring to as he writes on the power and beauty of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He captures how the text itself within the context of the church reposing upon the Triune life of God, in itself, becomes the confessional and doxological basis from whence further theological programmatic and detail can be given. He touches upon how speech-act and the text of Scripture, and its nourishing reality is the basis, the cornerstone upon which the church can simply be the church of God in Christ. Let me share a little:

Let us then indeed begin afresh. And let us first recur to the Gospels’ narrative way of interpreting the cross. Freed by a more daring Christology than is usual in the West, we can say: the church’s primal way of understanding the Crucifixion is that we live this narrative, that we rehearse the canonical story, in the context of Scripture’s encompassing narrative and so that the rehearsing is a word-event in our own lives.

The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling action and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell the story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.

That is, what fundamentally must happen is that the passion narrative live in the church as the church’s account of herself and her God before God and the world. One is strongly tempted simply to say: what must above all happen, to understand reconciliation at Golgotha, is that the church recite the passion narrative—traditionally, according to St. John—in a Good Friday liturgy at which the Cross is contemplated, the Old Testament—Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22!—is heard, prayer is offered for Caiphas, Pilate, and their underlings, and the death is recited not only verbally but bodily, by distribution of the Lord’s body and blood. One is tempted to say: what fundamentally must happen in the church, as right interpretation of the Crucifixion, is that the traditional Good Friday liturgy, with its unique prayers and—as the English church called it—its “creeping to the cross,” be celebrated.

Crucifixion is the good that it is only dramatically together with the Resurrection. Therefore its Good Friday representation cannot stand by itself, but can be the church’s primary interpretation of the Crucifixion only in one service with celebration of the Resurrection. Crucifixion and Resurrection together are the church’s Pasch, her passing over from being no people to being God’s people, her rescue from alienation to fellowship, her reconciliation. Only as this is enacted in the church as one event is the Crucifixion understood. One is—again—strongly tempted to say: what must happen as the fundamental explanation of atonement is that the ancient single service of the Triduum, “the Three Days,” the continuous enactment of the Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, covering Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Night, be celebrated.

Readers may take the above mandates as strange systematic theology. Are not these paragraphs instead “liturgics”—and romantic liturgics at that? But if a theological proposition is one that says, “To be saying the gospel, let us say F rather than G,” and if the gospel  is spoken in language and by more embodied sorts of signs, by sacrament and sacrifice, then we must expect theology sometimes to take the form of ritual rubrics, to take the form “To be saying the gospel, let us do F rather than G.” Our commendation of the Triduum simply happens to be the first appearance of such theology in this work.[1]

We can see Jenson, early on, riffing against the Covenantal schema of the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) and other speculative frames for conceiving of the soteriological reality. And it is this, among other things, as noted, that I find attractive with reference to Jenson’s narratival, and yet aesthetically rich telling of what and who the Gospel entails.

The majority of Jenson’s book has been engaging with the history of ideas, patristic theology, medieval theology, modern and postmodern theology. It is in the section I just quoted from wherein Jenson is finally getting to where I’d hoped he get to; to a kind of post-metaphysical narrativialized telling of the Gospel account and what that implicates towards a theological touchstone for further ecclesiological and personal reflection. There is something about simply reading Scripture—and doing so realizing that you are a part of the communio sanctorum ‘communion of the saints’ in the centuries of the church—and allowing the repose of that and the reality that reposition draws us into as we encounter the living God in the face of Christ that is inexplicable. It’s not that we read the Bible nakedly, but that as we read it in and from its own reception in Christ and then in his body, the church, we come to realize that we are indeed part of the fullness of God that transcends our own immediate situations, but at the same time breaks into them and reorients them to their proper telos in the recreation of God in Jesus Christ; in the resurrection past, present, and to come fully unveiled with great angelic shout as Christ comes again. I am enamored by this type of theological engagement; one that is deeply Word based, understanding that the Word is living and active because the Word is Jesus Christ.

[1] Robert J. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 189-90.

The Go Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Way of Reading the Bible: Robert Jenson Helping Us Read the Bible Confessionally Once Again

It isn’t that we haven’t referred to this at the blog before, but I like the way Robert Jenson discusses the futility of late-modern biblical scholarship’s enlightened drive to deconfessionalize their reading of Holy Scripture; as if they can read it purely historically (history-of-religions), without reference to the very reality that has held it together from its genesis—the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s as if we can apply the Apostle Paul’s logic and argument from I Corinthians 15 to modern biblical scholarship’s mode; indeed, such scholars, after they finish dissecting the Bible for the day might as well go eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they die along with the rest of us. Robert Jenson writes:

There is yet a further question: Is there in fact “the” biblical narrative, running through all the Scriptures’ historical discontinuities and non-narrative genres? Israel and the church have supposed there is because they have seen one chief agent throughout. If we say the Christian God is the God identified by the biblical narrative, we must also say there is “the” biblical narrative only as we read the temporally, culturally, and religiously various documents in Scripture as witness to the continuing action of one and the same agent.

The circle just traced is benign. We will follow the one biblical narrative, to identify the one biblical God, only as we read the Bible by the purpose for which the church assembled this book in the first place, to be in its entirety and all its parts witness to Jesus’ Resurrection and so to a particular God. Whenever someone has tried to construe the unity of Scripture otherwise than by the identity of this God, the book has fragmented, first into Hebrew Scripture and New Testament and thereupon into traditions and genres and redactions within each. And when communities other than the church—in modernity, the communities of various ideologies and particularly the surreptitious such community of supposedly autonomous scholars—try to appropriate the Bible for their own purposes, the book falls into more shards—to which, of course, anyone is welcome.

The insistence of late-twentieth-century hermeneutics on the determining role of “communities of interpretation” is fully justified. What is sometimes not then faced is that some bodies of text, like the Bible, were created by specific communities for interpretive purposes, and have no unitary entity at all apart from those communities’ antecedent interpretation of them. The final reason that one cannot interpret the Bible independently of the church and its dogma is that without these there is no such book. The modern attempt to interpret Scripture “historically” has been intrinsically self-defeating and has now defeated itself, since it has curiously supposed that to interpret the Bible historically we must abstract from the history for whose attestation the church assembled this collection in the first place, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.[1]

One aspect of this, in order to avoid us from collapsing this into a strictly ecclesiocentric reading of Scripture, is to end where Jenson ends: “the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.” What is given determinative ultimacy for the church’s reading of the text, for any reading of Holy Scripture, is not some sort of magesteria of the church, but indeed the all constitutive event of God’s life being in becoming in the Incarnation to the Resurrection. In this way the hermeneutic and approach to Scripture reduces back to Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and Ascension; to the person of Jesus Christ himself, the telos of all creation and thus of Scripture as a special aspect of that creation.

It is hugely unfortunate that what Jenson is calling the church back to is still not being taken to heart, even by people who say they are the primary of us all who hold the highest view of Scripture of all; i.e. the evangelicals (of which I am reluctantly one), with their doctrine of inerrancy in tow. The evangelicals, among other sub-communities within the church (and outside of it), have adopted the fragmentizing ways into Scripture foisted upon it by the very folks Jenson is referring to. They are attempting to read the Bible from a community that has sharded the Bible into various forms and redacted pieces, and subsequently created a whole hermeneutic around such proclivities, which has resulted in a field of biblical studies that is strangely (but not so strangely) at odds with what has held the Bible together for millennia in the Christian church; the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why would I want to read the Bible like that? Why would I want to borrow tools from communities that subjectively project their own histories upon the canon of Holy Scripture, and read it that way? I don’t want to.

Has there been no value created by modern biblical studies? I wouldn’t go that far. But at the same time, to attempt to read the Bible from directions that are anti-thetical to Scripture’s very reality makes no sense.

 

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 58-9.

The Determination of the Church’s Witness as the Ground of Theology for the Church and the World: A Reflection Prompted by Robert Jenson

Theology is as Barth would intone early on in his Göttingen Dogmatics, Deus dixit ‘God has spoken.’ In other words, theology, genuinely Christian theology cannot be done from a prethought framework that comes as a prius to God’s speaking to us first. If so, if this was indeed the Christian theological way then how could we ever determine whether or not we were actually hearing from God rather than men and women? This is an important point that I’m afraid much of the theological endeavor has failed to appreciate; not that it hasn’t appreciated it in principle, but I don’t think it has attended to this type of reception-from-God nature of theology that real Christian theology must attend to and be determined by. In other words, so much of the theological task through the centuries, the type that has been done in and from the church, I would contend, has been underdetermined by the church’s reality in Jesus Christ; and instead has focused too much on the mediatorial nature of the church; thus getting lost in its own self-referential and traditioned ways rather than actually doing theology in intentional terms such that the Lord of the Church is both the object and subject of the theologian’s grammar and articulation. Yes, the theologian, in the best of cases, speaks for and to the church, for her edification, but this can only be done as it works from and attempts to elucidate the good news it has received and continues to receive as it reflects upon the Word of God not only written but proclaimed ever afresh anew. Robert Jenson says it this way:

The characterization of theology as reflection internal to the attempt to speak gospel must therefore be amplified. We do not in any unmediated way have this gospel that we are to speak; we have it only as we receive it. To state the full case we must therefore say that theology is reflection internal to the act of tradition, to the turn from hearing something to speaking it. Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old word. Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?[1]

We don’t presume that we could ever speak the Gospel, or think it out loud with all its effervescent realities in face outwith our location and situadedness within the church; it’s just that the church itself, depository as she is, has an instrumental function. The church is made up of a thousand voices, that only have gravitas and foundation as it repeats for each and successive period, in the lingua franca of her admirers, what gives her first and last orientation; an orientation that comes from, over and again the fact that God has spoken, and that he speaks. The church operates in such a way that she goes on mission, starting in Jerusalem and going as far as Samaria and Timbuktu; she seeks to bear witness to the Gospel reality, the always already determinate reality of the church, as she exegetes and translates the depth dimension of the Gospel as that is given as gracious gift through the womb of Mary.

As Jenson underscores, there is a continuity between the ‘old word’ and the ‘new word’; and I would want to suggest that this continuity is sustained because the old word and the new word are always and only circumscribed by the first and last Word of God, Jesus Christ. As the church seeks to speak the new word from the old word we have the freedom, because he who the Son has set free is free indeed, to imagine creative grammars that seek to ‘amplify’ the Word given in the broken body and shed blood of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. This is the gift the church has, as it seeks to do theology only after God has spoken, we have the gift of prophecy which is the spirit of Christ to speak the evangel in gracious ways wherein those we speak to will have manifest ways and endless tributaries to imagine a way from the Way that explicates what it means that Jesus is supreme; that all things have been reconciled by his shed blood, and given new life from his dead body born again as the firstborn from the dead.

Even as I am writing this post I can only really conclude that the process the church has been invited to, of being sanctified from glory to glory, as she seeks to get lost not in the substructures of the church, but instead in the effulgent reality of the Church’s Head and primary Voice, is a doxological act. The act of speaking the old words in new words from the Word is an inherently worshipful endeavor consisting of seeking Christ first, his righteousness and then all these other words will be given to us to speak in concert with the words already spoken before. We will, as genuine Christian theologians, continue to speak these words, upon their reception by the Spirit, not without the past words but with and from them as they have found their fresh and vivacious grammarizations from the plenitude of the first and last Word spoken in the eternal Logos, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. If the church collapses that voice into her own voice, conflates the two without distinction, we will no longer genuinely be bearing witness to the Church’s reality, but instead we will sadly only be found to be bearing witness to ourselves; there’s nothing truly doxological about that.

“What shall we now say and do that the gospel may be spoken?” We must attend deeply to the voice of God in Jesus Christ. Meditate on the rivulets the Gospel opens in the sanctuaries of our hearts and minds, and allow the Spirit to kindle anew and afresh the songs, hymns and spiritual songs that repose in and from the heart of God in Jesus Christ. As we participate in the interpenetration of God’s Triune life, from the anchor of our souls in Jesus Christ, we might come to know how we ought to respond to Jenson’s question.

 

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 14.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Robert Jenson, Thomas Torrance, and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.

Summary

In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.

Summary

In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Over or Under Scripture

My friend, Myk Habets linked to a quote provided by Chris Spinks over at the Wipf and Stock editors’ Running Heads blog. The quote comes from Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, and he is referring to a distinction he sees accruing between what he calls ‘guild exegetes’ and the ‘churches’ theologians’. What he is noticing highly resonates with me, maybe it will for you too; he writes:

No reading of Scripture as Scripture in fact proceeds without theological presumptions. Since many guild exegetes pay no attention to this point, the theology that goes into their exegetical mill is subliminal and almost always childish; and so what comes out is the same. And of course, those scholars who have ceased to read Scripture as Scripture are then simply engaged in a possibly interesting antiquarian enterprise, rather like excavating nineteenth-century pots in Manhattan. [quote and biblio info can be found here, from the original post by Chris]

This is important. If you are going to read scripture as a Christian, then read scripture as Christian. I am afraid that Christians—the ones who actually read scripture—confuse the work that New Testament historians do with a theological reading of scripture. This is my own experience, growing up as an Evangelical; we inherited the rationalist ways of reading scripture that are naive to the fact that in fact scripture is the place that God, without apology, has decided to encounter us, in Christ, as Sovereign Lord. This reminds me of something that Martin Luther pressed; the distinction between the ministerial and magesterial approach to scripture. Do we sit under it, or over it. Jenson would be asserting that the guild exegetes sit over it, and that the churches’ theologians sit under it (or they should) by way of attitude, posture, and thus methodology.