Finishing creation


Crucifixion Lorenzo Monaco

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?

III. Christop Booth, in his Good Friday drawings, tells the story that we remember on this day like this:

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The Quest for the Trinity: a review

The Quest for the TrinityStephen 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.

‘Religious Language under Pressure’: Rowan Williams’ Edward Schillebeeckx Lecture

duck rabbit illusionOn 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.

[HT: Thanks to Chris Green for drawing my attention to this lecture. Chris was particularly enamoured by the section around the 01:01:00 mark; i.e., with the section which I have typed up.]

Academic position: Dean of Studies and Lecturer

kcmlApplications 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.

Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis

Girolamo ZanchiSoon, 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.

A couple of endorsements

It is a privilege to be invited, either by a publisher or an author, to pen a wee endorsement for a book that’s worth endorsing. (In those cases where one is invited to endorse a lemon, the feeling is very much a vexed otherwise, and one feels compelled to either decline the invitation or to employ one’s skills to write in code.) Recently, a number of such invitations have come my way, two titles regarding which I am pleased to see are now available, and which I was pleased to endorse without recourse to the game of codes. They are:

Karl Barth in ConversationKarl Barth in Conversation. Edited by W. Travis McMaken & David W. Congdon (Pickwick Publications, 2014)

‘In this welcome collection of colorful and stimulating input from young scholars, we get to eavesdrop on some new “conversations” surveying a diverse range of themes, and in the wake of the fresh questions raised, we are invited to hear again what Barth and others have heard and misheard’.


Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. By Andrew Root (Fortress Press, 2014)

‘This stimulating and challenging volume advances the claims that theology is grounded in the cruciform ministry of the Triune God and fashioned in the intersections of concrete human affairs, and that ministry is revelatory of God’s being-in-movement. Root’s dogmatic and pastoral instincts inform a renewed and much-welcomed intent to stay on a course recognizably determined by the life of God present and experienced in the world’.

Two conferences to note

Craig KeenI. In Sydney, Australia. On 27–28 June, the United Theological College and Centre for Public and Contextual Theology are hosting After Crucifixion: A symposium on the theology of Craig Keen. The call for papers reads:

Central to Keen’s work is the belief that human reflection on the mystery of God is always embodied. In his latest book, After Crucifixion, Keen shows that theology is structured by a pattern of embodied reflection and embodied giving. The theologian hears and believes the good news, but does not receive this gift as a possession to be retained: “a gift that will not become property is there to be given. To follow Christ is with him perpetually to be emptied.”

The symposium will explore Craig Keen’s contribution to contemporary theology, and will offer scholarly engagement with his work; Craig Keen will also present a lecture and will respond to papers We invite papers engaging with Professor Keen’s work – particularly his latest publication, After Crucifixion (Cascade, 2013) – from a range of disciplines and perspectives. Paper proposals should be no more than 300 words and should be sent to by 28 February 2014.

paul-tillichII. In Oxford, England. On 14–15 July, Ertegun House, St Benet’s Hall and the Oxford Centre for Theology and Modern European Thought are hosting Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy. The blurb reads:

Paul Tillich features on anyone’s list of most significant and influential 20th Century theologians. In an age where it is tempting to retreat into intra-theological discussion or dismiss the secular world, Tillich’s vision for a theology which engages with culture and connects religious language with philosophical reflection continues to influence and provoke contemporary theological reflection.

This conference aims to stimulate and provide a platform for current work on Paul Tillich in anticipation of the commencement of the publication of the Collected Works in English from 2015, as well as providing space and time for scholars with an interest in Tillich’s work to meet, get to know each other, and discuss their work.

Keynote speakers include Reinhold Bernhardt, Marc Boss, Douglas Hedley, Anne-Marie Reijnen, and Christoph Schwöbel. There is also a call for papers engaging with Tillich’s thought. Abstracts of between 300–500 words should be emailed to bFriday 14 February 2014, with a short biographical note.

Tikkun Olam, now available on Kindle

Tikkun Olam CoverA quick note: the Kindle edition for my latest edited volume, Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, is now available from Amazon in the U.S., UK, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.

Those in Australia can download a copy from here.

For those after a paper copy, the publishers, Wipf and Stock, are selling discounted copies for under US$21. Details here.

The 2014 Karl Barth Conference: Barth, Jews, & Judaism

barth conference facebook cover photo

Princeton Theological Seminary is hosting their annual Karl Barth Conference on June 15–18. This year’s theme is ‘Karl Barth, Jews, & Judaism’, and the plenary speakers are:

  • Victoria Barnett (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
  • Eberhard Busch (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)
  • Ellen Charry  (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • Mark Lindsay (MCD University of Divinity)
  • David Novak (University of Toronto)
  • Peter Ochs (University of Virginia)

For the first time, there’s also a call for papers on the theme. Further details on that here.

You can also follow related news and theo-gossip via twitter.

Piet Naudé on why being a ‘Reformed’ systematician or biblical scholar matters

Piet NaudeWhile writing a paper on the historical and theological significance that the Latin phrase Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei seeks to capture, I came across these share-worthy sentences from Piet Naudé on the contribution that ‘Reformed’ theologians and bible scholars make:

[F]rom the view of confessions … being a ‘Reformed’ systematician or biblical scholar does matter, not only because confessions are by their very nature a specific hermeneutical decision about reading the text of Scripture today, but also … because the continued struggle to heal schismatic tendencies among Reformed churches places a responsibility on us to be serious about the ethics of our own reading and academic activities.

Being Reformed really matters if we call for a repentance of our ‘hermeneutical diseases’ manifesting themselves inter alia in a narcissistic obsession with methodologies or a lame acceptance of differences prompted by a cynical postmodern arbitrariness. Put in a positive manner, being Reformed really matters if we recommit ourselves to ongoing conversation (Tracy) and true convivendi (Joerns), because interpretative conflicts and deadlocks are not merely between hermeneutical systems, but between living Christians in a world desperate for signs of reconciliation.

– Piet J. Naudé, ‘Reformed Confessions as Hermeneutical Problem: A Case Study of the Belhar Confession’, in Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity II: Biblical Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Wallace M. Alston Jr. and Michael Welker (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 260.

Two wee notices about the global theology scene

GlobeTheoLibFirst, there’s the Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism (GlobeTheoLib), a joint project of the WCC and which ‘aims to redress a global imbalance of access to research materials in theology and related disciplines’. It contains more than 750,000 articles, documents and other academic resources that can be accessed freely, in six languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Indonesian and Chinese), by registered participants.

Second, the application deadline for next year’s Global Institute of Theology (something that I’ve posted about before) has been extended until 15 January. Applications forms can be accessed here.


On dangerous ideas to change the world

A recent episode of Q&A, filmed during the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, dispensed with the most-usual band of dull politicians and instead hosted Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer (a regular guest on the show), as well as two lesser minds – Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage. (Incidentally, I’ve never seen Tony Jones, who normally does a stellar job, moderate the discussion as poorly as he did. An off night for Tony.) As each guest responded to questions on subjects as diverse as the collapse of Western civilization, internet hook ups, women’s liberation, conservative politics and the permanence (or otherwise) of marriage in the ‘modern’ world, it became startlingly obvious that not only was Hitchens by far the best student of history on the panel but that he was also the only one who seems to hae a scoobie about the moral realities that give shape to such.

The final question, which came from Lisa Malouf, in more ways than one elicited the most revealing responses. The question was: ‘Which so-called dangerous idea do you each think would have the greatest potential to change the world for the better if were implemented?’

Here are the responses:

The entire episode, which is worth watching, can be downloaded here.

‘Iolaire’, by Donald S. Murray

Iolaire Disaster

Donald Murray, who is originally from Lewis but now lives in Shetland, has shared a very moving (and very Calvinist!) poem about the Iolaire Disaster in 1919 for Remembrance Day 2013:

Sometimes we still sit upon that ledge
and consider the dark fervour of the waves,
wondering why some of us went under
while others clung with every fibre and were saved.
There are no answers to that question. Fortune
(whatever scholars tell us) does not favour the brave
or the virtuous. It rescued some
who could be wicked, hard and wretched ones enslaved
to drink or women, and swept aside
the good, the kind, those who each day forgave
others. We only know a rope was hurled
and we possessed both grip and faith
strong enough to hold it. Nothing else is known to us,
all as dark, intangible as the fervour of these waves.

Ministry and theology for a ‘Post-Fukushima world’

The Rev. Dr. Naoya Kawakami is the Secretary General of Touhoku HELP, a highly commendable ministry birthed in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Touhoku HELP produced a video for a presentation at the recent WCC General Assembly in Busan. With Korean narration and English subtitles, it illustrates not only the recent (note: some of the footage was filmed last August) situation in Fukushima but also something of the inspiring ministry that is emerging from the rubble.

Naoya and I maintain a steady and prayerful correspondence. In a recent exchange, he wrote of the overwhelming number – over a half of million! – who live with the effects of radiation. He also wrote of his own need, amidst the crushing wave of need around him, to ‘keep time to think and read’, and of the urgency for what he calls a ‘new theology for this “Post-Fukushima” world’.

Naoya KawakamiHe mentioned too about a recent meeting of Japanese and Korean theologians who conversed about the situation birthed by the Fukushima tragedy. Among the topics discussed was the possibility of post-mortem salvation for the many victims of the tsunami and of radiation poisoning. He said,

In the tradition of the major protestant churches, there is no way of salvation for the dead who have not believed in Jesus Christ as Lord during their living time. But many Japanese theologians who have read PT Forsyth have spoken out against this tradition since the triple disaster. Yesterday, we talked about this issue. I shared the logic of Forsyth for this issue from his book This Life and the Next.

Inspired by Forsyth’s lively challenge (via his Protestant reappraisal of the doctrine of purgatory) that God alone – and not death – determines the time when creation reaches its maturity, these theologians found themselves, in faith and together, straining to hear – but hearing indeed – the promise of the Lord of hope in a land crushed under the burden of fear and despair.

Please join me in praying for Naoya (he carries a great burden for the people who live in the Fukushima area, and for the gospel), and please consider supporting the work of Touhoku HELP.

[Naoya’s dissertation was on Japanese receptions of Forsyth’s theology, and the subject of post-mortem conversion receives attention in the final chapter of my own study, Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All Things in the Soteriology of P.T. Forsyth. Naoya kindly described my latest offering on Forsyth, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History, as a ‘big present for Fukushima’.]

In defence of Clive James’ translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy

The Divine ComedyI’ve started reading Clive James’ translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a volume which has been met with mixed reception. Colin Burrow (LRB) and Ian Thomson (FT), among others, have signalled their being largely unimpressed with James’ efforts. A common charge is that the translation lacks fidelity to the original in which ‘accuracy, precision and concision were sovereign virtues’. It’s not only ‘short on precision’, however. It also has too many ‘slangy phrases’ which betray the voice of the antipodean translator as much as they do the original author.

I’m still in ‘Hell’, so I ought to reserve my comments – and reserve the right to change my mind – but apparent already to me is that while James has taken certain liberties, made certain ‘additions’ (his is almost a paraphrase in parts), the wood is certainly not lost for the trees, and the result is something fresh, energetic, poetically sophisticated. James ‘lets Dante’s poetry shine in all its brilliance’. Moreover, the reader is carried along (a point not lost on Jane Goodall), and with a poem of this size the reader needs all the carrying they can get!

To be sure, it would be a great loss indeed if James’ rendering was the only one we had. But it’s not! And this means that fibre deficient highbrow ilk can take a chill pill, pour a wee dram and enjoy the astonishing offering on hand here. And for goodness sake, show some gratitude – the bloke’s been ploughing away on this work for decades!

Fiona Sampson correctly points out that the Comedy is best appreciated with a host of translations (Singleton’s pretty-flat-but-at-least-annotated version, or Ciardi’s pseudo-paraphrase, or Sinclair’s old English version, or Nichols’ excellent translation) alongside a copy of the magnificent lingua toscana itself – could there be a more perfect language for poetry? – and, I would add, at least one decent introduction (I like Sayers’) and a translation (like Musa’s) that includes some helpful critical apparatus. For, as one reviewer pointed out, not everyone is ‘au fait with 13th-century politics and religious struggle in Europe and the Italian peninsula’. And as another noted, ‘Dante requires at least some exegesis’. James, with genius, includes the footnotes and the exegesis in the text itself, and that without robbing the poem of its music.

Anyway, this grateful reader’s now heading back to his reading, and onwards to purgatory …

James Torrance on ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’

James Torrance 4In 1997, Professor James Torrance gave four lectures on the theme ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’, a theme beautifully articulated in his essay ‘The Place of Jesus Christ in Worship’ (published in Theological Foundations for Ministry, edited by Ray Anderson) and in his 1994 Didsbury Lectures (published as Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace), among other places.

The titles of the lectures were:

1. Prayer as Communion: Participating by Grace in the Triune Life of God
2. Prayer and the Priesthood of Christ
3. Different Models of Prayer: Stages in the Life of Prayer
4. Covenant God or Contract God: Is Prayer a Joy or a Burden?

I posted the links to these just over 4 years ago, but those links are now dead, and a number of people have contacted me recently asking me to make them available again. So here they are, resurrected!

Part 1 [MP3]

Part 2 [MP3]

Part 3 [MP3]

Part 4 [MP3]

Part 5 [MP3]

Part 6 [MP3]

The substance of the lectures – indeed, the substance of JB’s public ministry – is articulated in his hymn, ‘I know not how to pray, O Lord’:

1. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
So weak and frail am I.
Lord Jesus to Your outstretched arms
In love I daily fly,
For You have prayed for me.

2. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
O’erwhelmed by grief am I,
Lord Jesus in Your wondrous love
You hear my anxious cry
And ever pray for me.

3. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
For full of tears and pain
I groan, yet in my soul, I know
My cry is not in vain.
O teach me how to pray!

4. Although I know not how to pray,
Your Spirit intercedes,
Convincing me of pardoned sin;
For me in love He pleads
And teaches me to pray.

5. O take my wordless sighs and fears
And make my prayers Your own.
O put Your prayer within my lips
And lead me to God’s throne
That I may love like You.

6. O draw me to Your Father’s heart,
Lord Jesus, when I pray,
And whisper in my troubled ear,
‘Your sins are washed away.
Come home with Me today!’

7. At home within our Father’s house,
Your Father, Lord, and mine,
I’m lifted up by Your embrace
To share in love divine
Which floods my heart with joy.

8. Transfigured by Your glory, Lord,
Renewed in heart and mind,
I’ll sing angelic songs of praise
With joy which all can find
In You alone, O Lord.

9. I’ll love You, O my Father God,
Through Jesus Christ, Your Son.
I’ll love You in the Spirit, Lord,
In whom we all are one,
Made holy by Your love.

[For those who may be interested, I have included this hymn in my essay ‘“Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan”: J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry’, published in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (eds. Myk Habets and Robert Grow. Pickwick Publications, 2012).]

The 2014 Global Institute of Theology


My mate, Frans du Plessis, reminds me that it’s time to remind folk about the forthcoming meeting of the Global Institute of Theology:

The fourth Global Institute of Theology (GIT) is set to take place in San Jose, Costa Rica, 5–28 July 2014. The institute will be held in collaboration with and under the academic auspices of the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (Latin American Biblical University).

The GIT is a bi-annual program by the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Previously, it has been held in Ghana, United States, and Indonesia. The program is intended for theological students and pastors beginning their ministry. This year, up to 35 participants will be selected. Applicants should have a particular interest in ecumenical theology and mission. The WCRC will take necessary efforts to ensure that the student body will reflect gender and regional balance to represent the diversity of the Reformed family in the world today.

Through lectures, seminars, worship services, exposure visits, contextual experiences, the sharing of stories and participation in the life of the churches in Costa Rica, GIT participants will explore the theme of “Transforming Mission, Community, and Church.” Students will take part in a core course as well as two elective courses out of six possible choices.

“The ultimate goal of the GIT is to form a new generation of Reformed leaders who are fully aware of the faith dimension of contemporary challenges, including economic injustice and environmental destruction,” explains Douwe Visser, Executive Secretary for Theology at the WCRC, and Secretary of the GIT. “Costa Rica, a nation that set the goal to be climate neutral in 2021, and has been ranked number one in the ‘happy planet index’ will provide an interesting background for these discussions,” added Visser.

The GIT faculty will include, among others, Bas Plaisier (The Netherlands), Peter Wyatt (Canada), Aruna Gnanadason (India), Isabel Phiri (Malawi), Claudio Carvalhaes (United States), Philip Peacock (India), Hans de Wit (The Netherlands), and Roy May (United States).

Applications for the GIT will be accepted until 1 January 2014.

Further information can be obtained on the GIT website or via e-mail.

If you’re a young theologian who chooses to develop your work out of the Reformed tradition as ‘a matter of religious and theological conviction’ (to rip from James Gustafson), then I commend it highly.

Some stuff on the stove


Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

October stations …



Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]