Next week, Dunedin will host Professor Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger. During her stay, she will deliver a public lecture (details below). If her books on pastoral care be any guide, this will be a ‘Do Not Miss’ event. If you are in Dunedin, I strongly encourage you to come along and, in the meantime, to help spread the word.
Some moons ago, the Global Mission Office (GMO) of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) kindly invited me to write a little theology of mission. I was very pleased to do so. The wee piece, which has since been elevated to being an official statement of the GMO, seeks to not only bear witness to the ground and end of mission in the triune life (a subject I’ve posted on before) but also to relate this history to what the PCANZ refers to as its ‘five faces of mission’ – to work with others to make Jesus Christ known:
- Through proclamation of the gospel
- Through the nurture and teaching of people in the Christian faith
- Through response to human need in loving service
- Through seeking to transform society
- Through care for creation
You can read the statement here.
I’m excited to learn that Dr Oh-Young Kwon, of Whitley College, will soon be teaching a New Testament course for Korean pastors, Church leaders and anybody else who is interested in studying theology in Korean.
When: On Monday nights (5:30 to 8:30 PM) for 10 weeks, beginning on 28 July 2014.
Where: Whitley College, in Melbourne.
For more information, or to enrol, email or phone (03 9340 8021) Whitley College.
It seems like lots of people are doing it these days. Sometimes they are doing it without the express invitation of the wider assembly, and sometimes with the expressed request of such bodies. But in each case their doing of it represents a defiant expression of the conviction that nothing in life is a settled matter, and that theology, like other responsible sciences, remains an enterprise which opens up space for deeper engagement and reflection on things which matter deeply to us.
So, earlier this year, the Doctrine Core Group of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepared a discussion paper called Christian Perspectives on Marriage: A Discussion Document.
And now the Doctrine Working Group of the Uniting Church in Australia has prepared their own discussion paper on marriage and same-gender relationships in the form of a commentary on the marriage service in Uniting in Worship 2.
The two documents take different approaches, but both are accompanied by an invitation to respond in some way. More importantly, I think, both are an invitation to a form of prayer – an invitation to think, to listen, to confess, to say ‘Thank you’, to say ‘But I don’t understand, although I want to’, to together hear the Word of the patient Lord.
I commend them to you.
John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), pp. x + 298, ISBN 978-0-8028-6716-2 (pbk).
‘Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85-year-old woman who flinches because she thinks he’s a stranger’ (p. 287).
Dementia directly affects some 800,000 people in the UK alone, two thirds of whom are women, and 17,000 of whom are young persons, plus some 670,000 carers; and the numbers are growing. Consequently, it is a subject of increasing interest to medical research, bearing significant implications for government and other funding and care bodies; and accompanied by a growing anxiety amongst a public still largely ignorant of its medical and social realities. John Swinton’s informed, intelligent, accessible, and honest engagement with this subject seeks to speak into and to earth these realities, and to specifically remind us that dementia is as much a relational and spiritual condition as it is neurological. At core, he argues that a relationality characterised by real presence and by the promise of a God whose memories of us are constitutive for our full humanity offer a much-needed antithesis to the malignant narratives often provided by some social psychology and theology. He challenges the inference that to live meaningfully in the present requires the cognitive ability to remember, to recall our past, and to imagine. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his prison letters, more than is understood is present.
Among the book’s many strengths is the care that its author takes to explain and introduce difficult concepts – whether medical, theological, psychological, or philosophical – that are indispensable for thinking constructively about dementia. It also offers many (perhaps too many?) lived examples of how our relationships with those who have become strangers to us can be honoured and sustained in meaningful ways. Insofar as it does this, Swinton’s study serves as a helpful introduction to this troubled subject. Its foremost strength, however, is to champion the claim that this subject might be something that Christian theology, theologians, and communities could be interested in, might learn from engaging with, and about which they might have something valuable to contribute.
Swinton’s stated intention to offer a specifically Christian ‘theological perspective on dementia’ (p. 6) is, however, finally unsatisfying. Specifically, his twin claims that ‘memory is first and foremost something that is done for us, rather than something that we achieve on our own’ (p. 198) and that our being remembered by God is ‘our only real source of identity and hope’ (p. 217) is offered with insufficient regard for the foundation and centre of Christian theology itself; namely, God’s personal entrance into our estranged humanity in Jesus Christ. Had he explored beyond mere paradigm, for example, the ways that the divine journey into memory’s tomb in Holy Saturday – that ‘non event’ and ‘time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs, and of which there is little to be said’ about which Alan Lewis writes in his extraordinary book Between Cross and Resurrection – might transform and deepen and provide the theological grammar for our understanding of his claim about the divine memory, and had he attended more critically to the ways in which his articulation of social trinitarianism (on pp. 158–60) might actually undermine his claims about the relational ontology of human personhood, the book might have offered a more robust witness to the deep resources within the Christian tradition that speak most acutely to the subject at hand.
With these reservations aside, the book is good news for those who embark upon love’s costly journey of remembering and caring for those who, in Andrea Gillies’ words, ‘are no longer able to make memory’. It is also a welcome contribution to theological conversations about the radically-contingent nature of human personhood.
A version of this review will appear, in due course, in the International Journal of Public Theology.
I’ve just finished teaching an intensive on John Calvin. Some of this has involved dispelling myths (ones both positive and negative), and some has been about first introductions to the life and thought of one whom I consider (notwithstanding those nasty words about ‘perverting’ Anabaptists) to be the greatest catholic theologian the church has produced in the past millennia. (The extraordinary study on The Young Calvin by the Roman Catholic theologian and historian Alexandre Ganoczy, for example, points out the astonishing degree to which the Second Vatican Council came to agree with much that was decisive for Calvin – a Christ-centred ecclesiology, constitutional pluralism, a return to biblical and patristic sources, liturgical reforms, Eucharistic renewal, the ministry of the so-called ‘laity’, etc.) It’s been exciting to see students engage with the ideas of, and have their minds changed about, one that some of them had previously thought to be pure rogue, pure saint, embarrassment, and/or simply irrelevant for doing theology and church today. (No one quite followed Barth and called him ‘a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, [or] mythological’.)
We concluded the intensive by reflecting on Calvin’s deeply inclusive vision of humanity, and by returning again to the opening paragraph in Book I of the final edition of his Institutes which articulates the conviction that our knowledge of self and our knowledge of God are inextricably related. Regarding the first of these, some might find it odd or even mistaken, given the way his doctrine of election has sometimes been articulated, to consider Calvin’s vision of humanity to be a deeply inclusive one but it seems to me that Calvin’s vision of the God-given dignity of the human person – broken by recalcitrance and restored in Christ – celebrates the sheer giftedness and mystery and freedom of being a human creature in such a way that all other identifying markers – such as religion, race, culture, social class, or gender – are secondary. And this means that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise; that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected; that justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectarian interests are part of what makes human life valuable and good and beautiful.
Regarding the second, the personal, theological, and pastoral instincts behind Calvin’s claim (in Inst. I.1.1) that ‘nearly all the wisdom we possess … consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves’ are, it seems to me, extremely important. Those who claim to know God but display very little self-awareness ought to send off as many alarm bells in us as those who claim to know themselves really well but have little or no interest in God. If Calvin is right, then the two cannot so easily be disentangled, if at all. This is what it means to be a creature.To be human is to be a person-in-relation, with creation and with the Creator.
This twin reality – the interdependence between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of self – is powerfully articulated some 400 years later in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The question which throbs at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s theology is ‘Who is Christ actually for us today?’ But this question could not be considered in isolation from the question he asked from his Tegel Prison cell in July 1944 – ‘Who Am I?’. ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, and ‘Who am I?’ – for both Calvin and Bonhoeffer, these questions are inextricably linked.
I’m already looking forward to teaching on Calvin again …
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event* a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
* A little note: ‘The event’, of course, to which Updike here refers is, principally, ‘Jesus’ resurrection'; but because this particular resurrection is the event which is the Triune life itself, I see no reason to not allow these words to inform our ‘God-talk’. That thousands of sermons will be preached today that mock Updike’s critical and weighty point – and echo a word more like that of Monty Python’s Three-Headed Knight met by the brave Sir Robin – seems a good reason to repeat Updike’s point today. If, however, you happen to be one of those disoriented souls who happened to land on this post in search of a Pythonesque sermon on ‘the trinity’, and because you figure that Trinity Sunday is the day you better say something about this neglected ‘topic’, then here’s what you were looking for (and your congregation would be most grateful if you looked no further!):
Still, my recommendation is that you go with Updike, even if – and perhaps especially if – you dinnae hay a scoobie what he is trying to say. Happy Trinity Sunday.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the recently-published Silence: A Christian History, was in Australia a few months ago as a guest of The Adelaide Writers’ Week. While visiting that ‘distant and barbarous’ outpost of the Empire where the colonists ‘grow indifferent [and] go on from bad to worse until they have shaken off all moral restraint’ (as Mansfield Silverthorpe once described those blessed enough to be given free passage to Terra Australis Incognita), he was snatched up by the ABC for an interview with Barney Zwartz on Radio National’s ‘Big Ideas’ program. In this lively discussion, they discuss silence, Christianity’s intolerant nature, Apophatic theology, Nicodemites old and new, child abuse in the church, and Anglicanism … and some other stuff too. It’s well worth a listen.
‘There can be no true ordo cognoscendi (order of knowing) which is not based upon an ordo essendi (order of being) conceived entirely as grace, and the ordo essendi reaches its true destiny in the ordo cognoscendi. This is the problem of analogy as Reformed theology sees it today. The analogia entis is entirely grounded upon the analogia gratiae, and only in an analogia fidei corresponding to the analogia gratiae does the analogia entis have any truth or reality. Outside of that, the truth of God is inevitably turned into a lie’.
– Thomas F. Torrance, ‘The Word of God and the Nature of Man’, in Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM, 1965), 116.
United Theological College and the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (PaCT) are hosting a symposium on the patient and provocative work of Craig Keen. Keen’s work is described by Bruce McCormack as “animated by a deep personal desire for an authentically kenotic existence, and a longing for the coming of a community of women and men who understand that they cannot live until they die.” Keen’s sensitivity to issues of embodiment, existence, and faith marry with the constellation of thinkers that he has lived with since his youth to produce his subtle, surprising, and prayerful writings. This symposium will focus on his latest book, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology, and the questions about faith and life that it impels the reader to consider.
Date: 27–28 June, 2014.
Venue: United Theological College, Sydney.
In addition to the conference on sovereignty mentioned in my previous post, Antipodeans are organising two further gigs:
1. The annual ANZATS Conference, on the theme The Eclipse of God: Theology after Christendom.
Dates: 29 June to 2 July 2014
Where: University of Notre Dame, Fremantle WA
Keynote speaker: Graham Ward
Short papers: submissions have now closed. This is probably just as well for there is already a massive line up of papers on a diverse range of topics.
2. The Religious History Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (RHAANZ), the Religious History Association of Australia (THERHA), and the Christian Research Association of Aotearoa New Zealand are conspiring to organise a conference on Religion in Conflict and Collaboration with the Modern World.
Dates: 26–28 November 2014
Where: Albany Campus, Massey University, Auckland
Keynote speaker: Brad Gregory
Short papers: Abstracts for short paper proposals (due on 31 July 2014) should be emailed to the Registrar, Professor Peter Lineham.
Proposed panels for whole sessions (three papers or the equivalent) are also welcome.
The University of Divinity, Whitley College, the Centre for Theology and Ministry, and the Commission for Mission of the UCA are organising what sounds like a wonderful conference ‘to reflect on discourses of sovereignty in the Australian context':
In a context where Indigenous claims remain unresolved, the rights of asylum seekers are contested, and global economic forces are making new demands on nation states, the theme of sovereignty demands closer examination. Beginning with discussion of settler colonialism, this conference brings together people from a range of disciplines to reflect on discourses of sovereignty in the Australian context.
It is a most humanising thing, gratitude. For it is not only the confession of our being-in-dependence, but it is also an expression of our remarkable freedom. We, in the Reformed tradition, do not talk nearly enough about freedom. And perhaps no one has brought this truth home to me more than my friend Michael Weinrich, to whom I am most grateful. I was delighted to learn that Michael recently gave a lecture on Karl Barth (a subject with which he is most familiar) and the sacraments, a lecture in which the promise and gift of freedom featured greatly. The lecture will, in due course, be published by Theologischen Verlag Zürich, but a summary/report is already available. It reads:
„Jesus Christus ist das eine Sakrament“. So versteht Karl Barth das Sakrament in der Kirchlichen Dogmatik (KD). Wie kommt Barth zu diesem Verständnis? Was sagt es über menschliche Freiheit und Gottes souveränes Gott-Sein? Seine Antworten und Thesen hat Michael Weinrich, Professor für Ökumenik und Systematik, auf dem Barth Symposion Anfang Mai vorgetragen.
TATBEKENNTNIS STATT MYSTERIUM
Als Sakrament, sprich als Übersetzung des griechischen mysterion, bezeichnete Barth Taufe und Abendmahl in der KD nicht. Stattdessen sprach er von einem „Tatbekenntnis“ bzw. einer „freien menschlichen Tatantwort“ auf Gottes in Christus „vollzogene göttliche Wendung“ (KD IV/4, 81.IX.99).
Damit unterstreiche Barth, dass nicht nur ein „Gesinnungswechsel“, sondern eine neue „Lebensrichtung“ zur Debatte stehe, so Weinrich.
Ist die Wassertaufe menschliche Antwort auf das Sakrament der Geschichte Jesu Christi, handelt der Mensch als Subjekt. Er gibt, selbst frei, also als von Gott Befreiter, eine Antwort auf Gottes Anrede. Der Mensch entspricht Gottes Verheißung. Weinrich: „Erst in der dann vom Menschen frei gegebenen Antwort kommt die Anrede Gottes zu ihrem Ziel, in dem das ‚Es ist vollbracht!‘ auch zu der ihm entsprechenden Anerkennung findet.“
Das „christologisch orientierte Sakramentsverständnis in der KD“ sei eine Konsequenz, so Weinrichs These zugespitzt formuliert, von Barths Verankerung der Versöhnungslehre in der Bundestheologie. In dem Bund Gottes mit dem Menschen begegnen sich „der freie Gott“ und „der freie Mensch“ als Partner, als zwei Subjekte. Weinrich: „Der Bund ist essenziell auf die freie Antwort des Bundespartners ausgerichtet, die als solche eben auch eine ganz und gar menschliche Antwort zu sein hat ohne eine permanente Inanspruchnahme der Assistenz Gottes“.
DIE ENTSAKRAMENTALISIERUNG DER SAKRAMENTE
Die „Entsakramentalisierung der Sakramente“ bei Barth sei „die Konsequenz einer bundestheologischen Vertiefung seiner Ekklesiologie“, so Weinrich. In dieser müsse Gott Gott bleiben können und der Mensch Mensch. Hier wird der „schmale Grat der Freiheit“ betreten, der menschlichen Freiheit im Bund mit Gott.
Taufe und Abendmahl seien so verstanden keine „geheimnisvollen Rituale“, sondern „gemeinschaftlich eingebundene freie menschliche Antworten des von Gott angesprochenen und auf Gott hörenden Menschen“.
Dabei verweise die Taufe auf die im Geist vermittelte „Begründung“ des christlichen Lebens in Christus und das Abendmahl auf seine allein von Christus zu erwartende „Erneuerung“ (vgl. KD IV/4,72f.).
MYSTERIUM DER OFFENBARUNG
Diese bundestheologische Auslegung von Taufe und Abendmahl wirft einen kritischen Blick auf die Sakramentalisierung der Kirche. Weinrich gibt – mit Barth – zu bedenken:
„Die weithin in den Kirchen vollzogene Sakramentalisierung der Taufe ebenso wie des Abendmahls bedeuten keine Aufwertung beider, sondern deren Doketisierung [Zuschreibung eines Scheinleibes Christi, bs] zu ‚einem sonderbar konkurrierenden Duplikat der Geschichte Jesu Christi‘ (KD IV/4, 112), die sie ihrer spezifischen Würde als freies Tatbekenntnis berauben, indem sie nun selbst als Gnaden-mittel (Sakrament) ausgegeben werden.“
Anstatt Sakramente als Zeichen von Gottes Handeln in Konkurrenz zur Geschichte Gottes mit Jesus Christus aufzubauen, gelte es, das Mysterium der Offenbarung in Jesus Christus zu respektieren, so Barth (vgl. KD IV/4, 168).
Als Sakrament „im Sinne von Heilsoffenbarung oder Heilswerk, Sündenreinigung, Gnadeneingießung oder Wiedergeburt“ schwäche die Taufe „einerseits die entscheidende Deutlichkeit des Christusgeschehens“ (KD IV/4, 233) und gefährde „anderseits die sich hier erschließende Perspektive auf die freie Beteiligung des Menschen in dem erfüllten Bund.“
Fazit: Die Würde der Taufe glänzt „in der befreiten Umkehr zu Gott als das Humanste, was ein Mensch zu tun vermag“ (vgl. KD IV/4, 157), sie besteht nicht in der Zuschreibung eines sakramentalen Sinns.
II. What if James Alison is right? What if …
‘… Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing, completely possessed as he was by his quickened imagination of the ever-living God. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn mime in the midst of this death-based culture, so that he might be killed as a way of leading people out of that culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be, that is, utterly and absolutely alive with Him. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was working so as to bring to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal parody which we have seen, and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being was the fulfillment of creation, and this he knew very well as he was doing it …
This means something rather important: the understanding of God as Creator changes from someone who once did something to someone who is doing something through Jesus, who was in on what the Father was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai – it is accomplished), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death’.
– James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 54–55.
Could it be true? Could this be the promise made to a dying thief? And to a grieving mother who now had new responsibilities?
Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 9780830839865.
The Quest for the Trinity makes plain again that Steve Holmes is among the most erudite and trustworthy theologians working today. His acquaintance with the tradition’s own wrestlings to articulate its speech about God, and its nuances and real game-shifting moves, is extraordinary, and his ability to communicate these in an accessible, albeit at times dense and somewhat dry, 200-page account is nothing short of remarkable.
The book has an encyclopaedic and ecumenical character about it. Holmes writes with a disciplined handle on the primary literature, its various nuances and theo-historical location, and is conversant with, but not distracted by, much recent secondary literature. His treatments on Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, Aquinas, Hegel, Schleiermacher and Dorner, in particular, as well as of the various anti-trinitarian movements between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, are exceedingly helpful and clearly laid out.
Holmes is concerned to defend the thesis that apart from some relatively minor disagreement and development, the doctrine of the Trinity was basically settled by ecumenical consensus in the fourth century, enjoyed ‘essential stability’ until the eighteenth century, and has been the accepted position of the church, with no significant modification, until the modern period and its various ‘recoveries’. Holmes believes that rather than representing a genuine recovery of a lost doctrine, however, the modern ‘trinitarian revival’ represents a departure, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of the received tradition, sometimes in the name of underwriting some social, political, or ecclesial programme. He builds a strong case, and those who believe particularly that unambiguous continuity with traditional articulations of doctrine central to the faith remains an indispensable feature of doing theology responsibly today will find much here to bolster that claim.
Of course, there are additional ways to tell the story of faith’s efforts to think and speak about God – ways which are no less responsible to revelation, which are not necessarily at odds with the articulations offered by the Fathers but which offer some different ways of expressing such claims, and which remind us that we might be better to acknowledge a greater plurality of expressions within the one tradition.
Whether Holmes holds that such different accents represent voices too insignificant to hear, or too far removed from settled orthodoxy, or whether it is due to editorial concerns, he chooses not to engage with modern contextual (including feminist) accounts of the Trinity, or with the work of Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, or with some other ways that faith has sought to ‘speak’ of the Triune God: for instance, ways that some visual artists and poets and musicians have taken. Here, the catholic and innovative work of Sarah Coakley is to be much welcomed (for it represents both a fruit of the tradition that Holmes is keen to guard as well exhibiting something that is actually demanded by it), along with that of J. S. Bach, William Blake, Dorothy Sayers, and Marlene Scholz.
These niggles aside, The Quest for the Trinity is an extraordinary and timely achievement, and no reader – even those who may finally remain not entirely convinced of Holmes’ thesis vis-à-vis modern accounts and retellings of the tradition – could fail to learn much here, and to be challenged again about what it means, and about how, to speak of Father, Son and Spirit, and of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. Such a challenge is most urgent, particularly for those of us whose task it is to preach the gospel, and it may be most timely for those of us who have looked primarily to the likes of Rahner, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gunton, Jenson, Volf, and/or Plantinga to interpret the history, and articulate the meaning, of the doctrine for us. On those parts of the tradition given attention by Holmes, teachers and students alike will find here a reliable and fruitful guide, and, for some of us, a challenge to rethink what we may have been taught about the apparent gulf that exists between Latin and Greek doctrines of the Trinity, and about accounts that have painted the Fathers to be working at some odds with the authors of the Bible. Indeed, if Holmes’ thesis is anywhere near correct, then most of what passes for ‘trinitarian theology’ today will have to be re-thought.
On 13 December last year, Rowan Williams was at the Radboud University in Nijmegen to deliver the Edward Schillebeeckx lecture, an event organised by the Soeterbeeck Programme and the journal Tijdschrift voor Theologie. In what was a very stimulating lecture – are Williams’s lectures ever otherwise! – Williams draws inspiration from Michael Leunig, Cornelius Ernst, Thomas Aquinas, Victor Preller, Buddhist meditation practices, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Edward Schillebeeckx.
Picking up on the theme of the lecture, Williams argued that ‘Our language becomes “religious” when it is most under pressure; when what it does, says, or expresses, or embodies, is a kind of letting go under the pressure of recognising that we have to change the discourse, that the questions no longer work. We let go and ask – ask rather than answer! – “Are there other ways of speaking or seeing or being?”‘
And he unpacks five implications:
1. Language is not just ‘stimulus and response’, a system of cause and effect. We can’t predict or control speech or the way we understand it. Language is risky and unpredictable.
2. Language necessarily has an unfinished/unclosed character about it. There is always something more to be said. One implication of this is that repetition is not really possible.
3. Language is something one does with one’s body. Speech is a bodily event, an act which takes place from a particular location.
4. We place our language under pressure so that we can think better, think more deeply, discover something new; so that we can move out of the frame we started with.
5. Silence in our speech is significant. We expect silence to do some work for us. In other words, silence is never empty. It’s not even silent.
He concludes with these words:
Our religious language is no more than our ordinary language – a simple set of descriptions. We do not look out from the castle of our brain and label that object called ‘God’. On the contrary, when we believe we have found, for the moment, an adequate way of talking about God – a doctrinal formulation, an image, a scriptural text – we need to remind ourselves of exactly what it is we are talking about; which is, supremely, the uncontrollable, the unconditioned. Like the Buddhist, faced with what comes at the far end of meditation, we have to say there are no words that are going to hold this. However satisfactory what I have said so far may appear, I have to recognise what it doesn’t say. I have to put my religious language, so to speak, under the judgement of a God who can’t be exhaustively and finally spoken of. I have to allow my religious speaking to move in and out of silence for contemplation. To put it another way: I have to put my religious language under pressure; I have to make sure that the language of my faith, my creed, my doctrine, is not left to sit complacently without that tightening of the grip of mystery on it which prevents it from being authoritarian, or oppressive; which respects that ‘openness’ (once again to use Father Schillebeeckx’s word), [which] prevents that openness surviving.
And one of the paradoxes about this, a paradox well worth reflecting on, is that instead of this meaning that our religious language is ‘a shot at the truth which makes no great claim to tell us, truthfully, something about God’, the contrary is true: the more our religious language shows that it is under pressure – under scrutiny, under judgement – the more we recognise that what we have said may be true but not adequate, the more we speak truthfully about God, the more we declare and show what God is, or who God is.
Some people speak as though a tentative approach to the language of our doctrine, our creed, our liturgy, will somehow resign all claims to truth, or revelation, or whatever, somehow blur the clear boundaries of the faith we have received. But I don’t believe that. When I say the creed, I do so without any reservation, but I try to do so without any complacency. When I make the declarations I make in the creed – about God, about the Incarnation, about the last things – I accept that these are the best words I can find to carry what needs to be carried, and precisely because of that they remain something that falls short of what is really there. And in that recognition that they fall short, and in the continuous self-examination – [and the] self-questioning that comes with that – I show that God is more than just the content of my mind, or the collective content of human minds, or a construct of the imagination.
If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing something true about God. Let me just repeat that because I do think it’s crucial: If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing what is true about God. And those who speak easily, glibly, fluently about God, may be less truthful because there is less of that openness to the infinite, unconditioned, mystery of the God we speak of. That sense of infinite, unconditioned mystery surrounding our words and our actions, soaking through the practice of our faith, spilling over in different ways into the events and exchanges of the world; that sense of where we stand, how we speak, in the presence of the difficult God was, I believe, something profoundly close to the heart of Edward Schillebeeckx’s theology. What I have shared with you this evening owes a great deal to the inspiration of a theologian who was not afraid to say ‘If it is difficult to speak God, that’s because that is the truthful way to speak of God.
Theologians need, I believe, not to be afraid of recognising that creative, essential, difficulty as the way of finding truthfulness and, perhaps, as one way of recovering that natural theology faithful to human experience which Edward Schillebeeckx shared with us, and still does.
Applications are invited for the position of Dean of Studies and Lecturer at the Knox Centre for Ministry of Leadership in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Knox Centre forms and trains theology graduates for ministry and leadership in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes running a two-year internship programme for people training for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. As Dean of Studies, you will handle course enquiries and manage the ordination programme’s curriculum. As Lecturer, you will teach at least one paper in the ordination studies programme, preferably in the areas of Theological Reflection and/or Presbyterian-Reformed Studies. As well as having the requisite skills in administration and education, you will be familiar with the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, you will have a proven background in Christian ministry and leadership, and you will have either a D.Min or a PhD in Theology. A full Job Description for this position can be obtained from the Registrar. Applications can be submitted to the Principal. The position is available from 1 January 2015. The closing date for applications is 16 May 2014.
Soon, I will be making my way to Austin TX. It will be my first time in ‘the live music capitol of the world’ (other candidates for the accolade are Melbourne and Berlin), and I’m not a little gutted that I won’t be there in time to enjoy the South By Southwest events. Still, I’m very much looking forward to participating in the ‘Inaugural Clarence N. and Betty B. Frierson Distinguished Scholars’ Conference’ at Austin Seminary. The conference theme is Always Being Reformed: Challenges, Issues and Prospects for Reformed Theologies Today.
Any excuse to think critically about matters at the very heart of the reformed project is to be welcomed because this strange beast called ‘Reformed’ can never be a default or settled position, and because it is through such self-examination that the reformed serve the church catholic and its witness to Christ in the world. Is this not precisely the only justification for the reformed project at all?
My paper is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. Here’s a wee summary, for those who may be interested:
I. The first section is an attempt to identify the historical beginnings and theological intentions of the aphorism semper reformanda, and to trace some of the ways in which the commitment to this animus of the reformed project has evolved among us. I note that the etymological history of the reformanda sayings is sketchy, but whether their geneses were in 1670s Holland (in the writings of Jacobus Koelman, Johannes Hoornbeeck, and Jodocus van Lodensteyn) or in 1562 in the Italian reformer Girolamo Zanchi (the strong case for priority in Zanchi’s writings is in reference to some correspondence with Theodore Beza, and his treatise De Reformatione Ecclesiarum), they all use the idea of semper reformanda in a similar way—namely, as a summons to the church to be restored to a former purity. Only then, it is argued, can the church really be called ‘reformed’. Zanchi, Calvin, the early reform movements in France and indeed most of the tradition since (with few exceptions; e.g., the Synod of Privas, 1612, argued that ongoing reform would be destabilizing for the church. Another way to read this is to say that those who found themselves benefiting from past reforms did not want their new positions to be undermined), believed that such reform is both possible and is to be a permanent characteristic of the church’s existence in the world.
History points to a movement whose character and energy were ripe for transformation, believing that such would represent not a human achievement but an action of God who calls the church to renewed obedience and continuing reformation through Holy Scripture. Reform, in other words, was to be the fruit of a people attentive to the Word of God in the Bible and to the living Word who ever breaks himself open to us therein. So understood, Ecclesia semper reformanda is not ecclesia semper varianda. Or, as T. S. Eliot put it, reformation is not an ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, [and] endless experiment’ for its own sake. It is, however, as Michael Jinkins has argued, an invitation to adapt the lessons of the past ‘to new conditions in new environments and to do so in ways that remain appropriate to who we are called to be as a community of followers of Jesus Christ’.
II. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I am arguing for here is that to confess the faith in the spirit of the semper is to confess that the Christian community is, at core, in a state of crisis.
I begin by arguing that confession is first and foremost concerned with the community’s lived wrestle with and response to the live question ‘Who is Jesus Christ today?’ This question calls for some risk—faith’s risk that our response might drive us away from familiar formulations and into previously-unchartered territory. This is what it means to be a living tradition, continuously being brought into being by One who encounters us both in and for new contexts. So while we will speak in some continuity with the past, we must reject all moves to deify past confessions. I suggest that confession exemplifies something of the character of commentary insofar as exegesis always calls for new translation. Such work entails the risks of having misheard, of having spoken out of turn, of living with both continuity and discontinuity with one’s history, and of having no stable culture and no visible institutional identity upon which one can rely.
It seems to me that the formula ecclesia reformata semper reformanda serves to safeguard against the temptation to capture revelation as some fixed given, as ‘a thing’. Consequently, I suggest that it calls for something of an event metaphysics wherein the pilgrim community and its witness are continuously disrupted, created and reformed by the eschatological Word and Spirit. One implication of this is that our claims will have an invisible, indemonstrable, and unprovable character about them, and so will be of little value in the hands of those whose measure of reality is that which is passing away.
Drawing on the work of Hendrik Kraemer, Michael Weinrich, J. C. Hoekendijk, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, William Stringfellow and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I argue that confession, as understood by the reformed, is a form of dispossession. That is, for a community-in-diaspora to confess Christ is to be entirely uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community whose attention to God’s address is such that ‘its whole life is put in question’ (Karl Barth).
III. The final section of my paper attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive their relationship vis-à-vis the modern state. I take it that this section is an implication of the previous one—i.e., an implication of the gospel’s eschatological character and what it means to be a community entirely unsettled and unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world. The Word of God creates a crisis particularly for those who want life to be secure and invulnerable and certain for it calls for faith to live what Donald MacKinnon names ‘an exposed life’ and to boldly resist all efforts to ‘justify’ its position in the world.
My invitation for us to do some critical thinking about what this might mean for our relationships with the state recalls, of course, that the reformed will share radically different—even contradictory—positions on this subject as on others, and this is how it should be. What ought to be unequivocal, however, is that such positions resist being settled ones, and that they emerge from our hearing afresh the Word in context. Again, the issue here is the divine freedom, and the provisional nature of the Christian community elected for service in this world.
I look forward to the ensuing discussion.