Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Thinking about the (living) nature of tradition

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that ‘Real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone. It is a living force that anticipates and informs the present’. I got thinking about this recently when sparked by a comment over at James Hoffmann’s blog, a blog mainly about coffee. Rejecting ‘the idea that tradition is something immutable, something to be preserved and studied’, he proposes that that we think about tradition as ‘little more than persistent ideas, roughly copied using the human mind’. He continues:

‘Their memetic nature means that a tradition will adapt and change in order to be valuable and be passed on. What distinguishes tradition from historical cultural artifact is relevance to the current culture. What is traditional is not correct, nor perfect, it is merely useful enough to keep alive as an idea’.

He then asks what this has to do with coffee. His answer: ‘Espresso is Italy in 1950 would be further away from espresso in Italy in 2010 than espresso in the USA in 2010. I hope, and strongly suspect, that espresso in Italy today will be abhorrent to an Italian in 2060. Tradition must evolve’.

I love this way of thinking about tradition (and coffee) as dynamic. Indeed, one nature of tradition is that the retelling of traditions typically births stories which themselves become part of the tradition itself. In other words, traditions are living things, birthing realities. So, for example, in his book, Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams, Ian Bradley helpfully recalls how (through 6 epochs or distinct movements of what he calls ‘Celtic Christian revivalism’) the tradition has co-opted and even bastardised Celtic faith and created a mythology with serves its current interests, whether political, ecclesiological or missional.

Or we might prefer to think along lines drawn by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit:

The tradition to which the church appeals, and which it proclaims whenever it calls itself Christ’s church and speaks in Christ’s name, is the tradition of the messianic liberation and eschatological renewal of the world. It is impossible to rest on this tradition. It is a tradition that changes men and from which they are born again. It is like the following wind that drives us to new shores. Anyone who enters into this messianic tradition accepts the adventure of the Spirit, the experience of liberation, the call to repentance, and common work for the coming kingdom. Tradition and reformation, what abides and what changes, faithfulness and the fresh start are not antitheses in the history of the Spirit. For the Spirit leads to the fellowship of Christ and consummates the messianic kingdom. (p. 3)

Two further thoughts on tradition, the first from Steve Holmes, the latter from Katherine Sonderegger:

‘When we learn to listen to the tradition faithfully, not assuming that we already know what we shall hear, but instead allowing earlier voices their own integrity, we will inevitably be surprised by the strangeness of much what is said. At that point we will be faced with a choice: we might take the modern way of patronising earlier voices by assigning them to their ‘place in history’, and so pretending that they have nothing to say to us; or we might believe that to listen to these voices in all their strangeness, and to regard their positions as serious, and live, options is actually a theological imperative. Perhaps the most two obvious areas where this will be true are sexual ethics and biblical interpretation …’. – Steve Holmes, Listening to the Past, 86.

‘It is to be admitted on all sides, I believe, that religions are deeply traditional in character-to their glory or shame-and do not find transformation over and out of their past an easy act, or a welcome one. Indeed, it is this very traditionalism that has made observers of religion-sociologists or anthropologists-keen to compare or conflate religions with the social ideals and structures that they mirror and guide. It is not simply the reductionism of Ludwig Feuerbach, or rather only a caricature of him, that stands behind the association of religion with social practice and ideal. Instead, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber see in religion what historians have long recorded: the antiquarian nature of religious dress and language; the preservation of older, sometimes ancient custom in ritual and rite; the fondness for the old and customary in guilds and furnishings; the retention of laws, texts, and titles from an earlier age that slowly become the cultural and technical terms of the religious world; and finally, the backwardlooking posture of religious teaching that loves its own past and sees in those ancient teachings wisdom that shapes and instructs the new … Tradition is not simply the church’s past. It is not even its living or continuous past. Tradition is both a body of teaching, practice, and lore, and an attitude toward that body. Tradition – to echo a favorite phrase of the Protestant scholastics – is both the piety by which we honor the past and the piety that we honor. It is a communion with the saints and their witness to God that makes them our contemporaries in the life of faith. “The past,” William Faulkner wrote in a haunting phrase, “is not dead; it is not even past.” So we might say of tradition. It possesses a quality of the present that resides in our midst, not in fact because of our recollection or use of it, but rather because as a cloud of witnesses, it participates in the eternal history of God made present in the Spirit to us now. Tradition is itself, in this way, a part of the trinitarian and christological dogmas of the church, and draws its power from the divine reality on which it depends and is given grace to echo’. – Katherine Sonderegger, ‘On the Holy Name of God’, Theology Today 58:3 (October 2001): 387, 389.

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 2 – The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

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© 2009. Photo taken by John Roxborogh, when Robert Jenson visited the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin. Used with permission.

The Burns Lectures are definitely warming up. In this lecture Robert Jenson dealt with the Tanakh, or Old Testament (as is his preferred terminology with appropriate qualification: ‘old’ equals ‘prior’ rather than ‘antiquated’) as Christian scripture. He began by clarifying the appropriate questions – the status of the OT as Christian scripture was never questioned and for Jenson this can’t be the Church’s question since it is both absolutely prior (presumably in the sense that it constitutes the world in which the Christian faith is born) and necessary for the Church’s self-understanding. Jenson says that the really interesting question for the first Christians was a kind of obverse to that which questions the status of Israel’s scriptures, namely whether Israel’s scriptures could accept the proclamation of the resurrection. The Church, he insisted, did not accept Israel’s scriptures. Rather, Israel’s scriptures received the Church. Jenson noted that for the century, it was Israel’s scriptures which served the Gospel rather than the obverse. This question is alive even though it cannot be clearly asked since God has already answered it in raising Jesus.

Jenson proceeded to highlight how this question is constantly in the background of NT writing and how the NT demonstrates in the way it tells its story a ‘narrative harmony’ with Israel’s scriptures – relationship between passion narrative and Isaiah 53 being a case in point. The OT prophets were the one’s who provided the answer to ‘why’ did Jesus needed to die. Jenson argued that we cannot ask why the OT Scripture after Christ. Rather, we can only ask how scripture is the way for the Christian community. He also observed that the Church reads the OT as narrative because her gospel is itself a narrative, and because her gospel recognizes itself as the climax of the story told in the OT. Jenson cautioned about ‘unguarded talk of the unique fullness of God’s revelation in Christ’ [is that the mythological Christomonism?]. Such talk requires, says Jenson, the important qualification that the God present to the OT sages is the same Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught the scriptures with ‘authority’ says Jenson, ‘that is, as if he were the author … because, in a sense, he is’. Jenson continued this line with comments like ‘Christ prayed the psalms as the leader of Israel’s worship gathered as the body of Christ’. When ancient Israel gathered in the temple with their hymns and lamentations they were gathered as ‘the body of Christ’. At this point he introduced some of the difficult issues that were to arise later in his lecture also. In response to those who wonder whether Christians can pray the Psalms that call for the destruction of their enemies and the bashing of babies against rocks, he suggested, with some rhetorical flourish, that they could pray them at the foot of the cross against the devil and his angels. [We shall return to this claim]

The key question which the latter part of Jenson’s lecture focuses on is not whether the OT is Christian scripture but precisely how it so functions. Jenson’s answer is that it functions as ‘narrative of God’s history with his people’, including the Church. This arises because the Church’s gospel is narrative and it identifies itself as the climax of the narrative of Israel’s history. Why this should be so stems from the character of the ‘regula fidei’ as a ‘plotted sequence of God’s acts’ (economy) on the one hand and the nature of the book the Church wrote as a second testament. He interestingly contrasts the two movements to emerge from old Israel with the destruction of the temple – rabbinic Judaism ended up using the Tanakh differently from the Church because their second testament (Mishnah) had a legal character which meant that they read their Torah with law as a guiding concept. On the other hand the Church with its narrative gospel ended up contextualising law within the narrative of God with his people. This also had a lot to do with Paul’s very complex problematisation of the law.

The ‘how’ question in relation to the role of the OT was forged in contrast to various challenges to the initial role of the OT – Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Platonism. Although there was a certain ‘Church History 101’ feel to the lecture here, Jenson’s characterization of the movements and issues was always interesting. In response to all these developments, but particularly to that ‘monomaniacal Paulinist’ Marcion, Jenson says that Christians have no way of avoiding the fact that the God of Israel is a ‘man of war’ who goes into battle, sometimes for, sometimes against, his people, but a God who takes sides in history. This, says Jenson, is the only alternative to a god who abandons history. God is either involved in fallen history as the God of Israel is, or God is not. If God is to engage a violent history God cannot do so without being a ‘God of war’, that is, without getting God’s hands dirty. And it seems, for Jenson, to be involved is to be implicated as an agent of violence. Like Hans Boersma has also recently argued, Jenson seems to hold that God uses violence as a means justified by God’s ends – that God participates in the world’s violence but he does so by entering into that violence and dying in it, through which violence is undone.

When questioned as to whether there was a third alternative, namely to suffer violence as the crucified one, Jenson responded effectively that in relation to this issue it was not really a third alternative since the crucifixion was an event in which God was both the crucifier and the crucified – and therefore, presumably, not non-violent. He also presumed that the question was motivated by the issue of theodicy.

Three critical questions arise at this point:

  1. The first picks up on the difference the revelation of God in Christ makes. Why did Jenson limit the praying of that psalm to prayers against “the devil and his angels”? If he is to be consistently true to the ‘man of war’ motif, why do not Christians pray against their human enemies and their enemy’s babies? And if they do so, how is this consistent with love for one’s enemies?
  2. Is it necessary that if the Father sent the Son to the cross and the Son went to the cross in obedience to the Father that the God of Israel must be seen as both the crucified and the crucifier? Surely the willingness to be crucified and the willingness to let the Son be crucified (not my will but yours) do not entail the agency of crucifixion. Surely the fact that this evil event is ultimately good (Friday) lies in the good consequent upon it (for the joy that was set before him). There is no paradoxical necessity to make God (in whom there is no darkness) the agent of death. Surely the triune God is here its defeater.
  3. Finally, does the fact that the Old Testament is the Church’s scripture rule out the possibility that it, like the New Testament, is a ‘text in travail’ bearing witness to Israel education by God. Is it not possible to discern in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ a journey within Israel to unlearn pagan violence – we think here of a trajectory which includes the Cain/Abel story, the Akideh, the repentance of God post flood, the Joseph story, story of Job, the servant songs and so much more. So rather than accepting a strand which is taken for granted in the scriptures – God as man of war – why not discern how that strand is being deconstructed in the course of Israel’s journey with God? If such a reading is persuasive then the motivation to question the ‘man of war’ motif need not be motivated by theodicy, or not in any simplistic way.

 

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

Following Lectures:

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Learning to listen to the tradition faithfully

Steve Holmes’ Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology is a most valuable and readable collection of essays. I reckon it’s worth buying just for the essays on ‘Why Can’t we Just Read the Bible’, on Anselm, and on ‘Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reprobation’ – especially this latter one. There’s also a fascinating essay on Edwards on the will which begins with some helpful observations on the abiding value and challenge of tradition:

‘When we learn to listen to the tradition faithfully, not assuming that we already know what we shall hear, but instead allowing earlier voices their own integrity, we will inevitably be surprised by the strangeness of much what is said. At that point we will be faced with a choice: we might take the modern way of patronising earlier voices by assigning them to their ‘place in history’, and so pretending that they have nothing to say to us; or we might believe that to listen to these voices in all their strangeness, and to regard their positions as serious, and live, options is actually a theological imperative. Perhaps the most two obvious areas where this will be true are sexual ethics and biblical interpretation …’ – Steve Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 2002), 86.

As Ben devotes a week of blogging to questions of sex and marriage, we could do much worse than heed Holmes’ words.