Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Miss Objective Facts

Here is a good quote from A. K. M. Adam based on a good quote from Augustine, followed by a mediocre question from me:

If Augustine rightly asks, “what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses,” then the biblical theologian’s task must more appropriately involve learning how to flourish in that divine abundance than in devising conventions whose function is to attenuate the variety God provides for our wellbeing.

Donald Guthrie reads the Gospels and gets the "sense" that Jesus was not a political figure and is not a model for contemporary political engagement. John Howard Yoder reads the same Gospels and gets the "sense" that Jesus was very much a political figure, though a deeply subversive and counterintuitive one, and that imitation of this Jesus is inherently political. My question: how do we decide which one of these two readings is right/true/correct/faithful? Is there some criteria by which they can each be measured, like a ruler which can measure the length of two different objects and determine which is longer? I want to know which interpretation is longer! Er, I mean, I want to know how we can determine which makes the best sense. And yet, I want to know this without giving the historical-critical method hegemonic power which can be wielded only by the privileged and knowledgeable few. What is the way forward other than saying "Well that's your reading and this is mine"? Are hegemonies really that bad?

I Love You, Sam Rockwell

Have Owen Wilson and Sam Rockwell been in a film together? If not then someone with women power money needs to make that happen. I watched The Way, Way Back at the weekend. As a former awkward teenager who never got the pretty girl I am built to like this kind of film, no matter how crappy it might be (I'm looking at you, I Love You, Beth Cooper). Thankfully TWWB had nothing of ILYBCs complete lack of charm. But most importantly, it had nothing of ILYBCs lack of Sam Rockwell. Rockwell cranks up his schtick to notch 11, and I can't get enough of it. And if you want more of it, check out The Winning Season, which is like TWWB except told from the perspective of Sam Rockwell's character, and instead of running a water park he's running a girls basketball team, where hilarity ensues! Indeed, watching these two film made me want to be either a girls basketball coach or the manager of a water park when I grow up, which is both testament to Rockwell's performances and disturbing on any number of levels.

The Possibility of Evangelical Theology, or, A Scattered Rant

I get all hot and bothered when I see or hear the word "evangelical." I don't believe Evangelicalism has ever existed. If people say that they are "evangelical," I don't know what the word entails other than that they are in fact Christians, in which case I think they should use the word "Christian". When people write for an "Evangelical" audience it is never clear who that includes; or, rather, it is never clear who that excludes, other than people who don't believe the gospel.

I say all this in the light of Michael Bird's forthcoming book Evangelical Theology. In the time-honoured tradition of commenting on a book one is yet to read, I am deeply suspicious of such a work. First of all, it seems to cater for "students." Ben Meyers has convinced me that theology aimed at students is unhelpful. Barth has convinced me that theologians will be most useful to everyone when they do the work of theology as theologians and for the sake of the discipline of theology. Students don't need books catered to them. They (we) are students of theology, not students of student-friendly theology. When I read that a work of theology contains a "'What to Take Home' section that gives students a run-down on what they need to know" I get upset, and worry about what kind of students will be produced by such books.

Second, while the "centre, unity, and boundary of evangelical faith" may be the gospel, this is not true of the Christian faith. The centre, unity, and boundary of the Christian faith is the God of the Gospel. When Karl Barth wrote his introduction to Evangelical Theology he made it clear that what made it "evangelical" was that it had to do with the God of the Gospel. Barth was a fan of the word "evangelical," because it was for him an ecumenical word, a catholic word. He says that there is such a thing as evangelical Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, in the sense that there is Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology that is concerned with the Christian God. Yet when we put it like this Barth's use of the word "evangelical" is hardly charitable. Roman Catholic or Orthodox theology has always been concerned with God, with or without the adjective "evangelical" attached to it. What, it must be asked, is the difference between an evangelical Roman Catholic and a Roman Catholic? What is the difference between an evangelical Baptist and a Baptist? And if the difference is that the evangelical Baptist has to do with the Christian God, then what the heck does the word "Baptist" mean or do?!

I don't think that the word "evangelical" has the ecumenical potential Barth thought it had. Indeed, a reliable South American source informs me that in at least one of the countries over there, "evangelical" distinguishes someone from "Catholic," rather than being a term that brings everyone together. It is a synonym for "Protestant," which usually functions as a synonym for "Christian" (with the odd "evangelical Catholic" exception). And it is in South America (and other so-called "developing" regions) where "evangelicalism" is said to be flourishing. This faux-tradition is Western Christianity's "gift" to the rest of the world, but it is a gift that comes at considerable cost, because it leaves every tradition that doesn't adopt its label on the outside. No longer is it sufficient to be a Presbyterian. One must now be an evangelical Presbyterian, or a Presbyterian AND an evangelical. Of course don't go joining the actual Evangelical Presbyterian Church, because that wouldn't be very evangelical. Or would it? Who knows!?

The irony of evangelicalism is best captured by Martin Marty:

I often, and gladly, accept invitations to evangelical gatherings, think tanks and schools, where I am introduced as the participant-observer "nonevangelical." I like then to point to a linguistic irony: I am often the only person in the room whose very denomination has "evangelical" in the title and whose confessional tradition was "evangelical" in dictionary senses (gospel-centered, German-Lutheran or Reformed, mainstream Protestant) before the Newsweek version was patented in America.

Of course the word will continue to be used, and continue to refer to something or someone. Personally, I have never thought of myself as an evangelical. If someone were to ask me if I am an evangelical, I would ask them what they mean by that word. If they tell me that it means you believe the gospel, then I would tell them that I do believe the gospel, but that I have a different term for a person who so believes: a Barthian.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Gregory of Nyssa

Humans are needy creatures. Indeed we are needy precisely because we are creatures. "Dependent, rational animals," MacIntyre calls us. While Gregory doesn't deny our being created, he does see our neediness as putting a question mark over the conviction that humans are made in the image of a needless God. How can we be made in the image of God when we get hungry and require food for sustenance?

Gregory, in his treatise on the making of man, puts this down to our falleness, but says that in the age to come we will be like the angels, and thus no longer have any need for food. Hunger, it seems, is part of the groaning of creation, but in the new creation we will feast on the bread of life and never go hungry again.

I'm not sure if Gregory is right or wrong here, but I want to say that he's wrong. The resurrected Jesus ate fish. Was he hungry? Did he eat it simply for pleasure? Gregory seems to be saying that the needs and appetites we experience now are just a shadow, a slightly embarrassing indication of our commonality with beasts that we will eventually transcend. Should we, like Gregory, long for the day when we no longer go hungry because we no longer need food, or should we long for the day when we will no longer go hungry because the abundance of God's creation will not be exploited and hoarded by the few but will be accessible to all? "Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Saturday, October 26, 2013


A better script I have not heard. It has the kind of dialogue that makes you dream of being as silver tongued as J.J. Gittes, and a story that moves along effortlessly as a private detective follows a piece of string all the way to the fat cat whose playing with the ball at the other end of it.

Chinatown was number on the Guardian's recent Top 10 Crime Films list, and while it is quite easy to argue that the list is deeply compromised due to its almost indefensible exclusion of Heat (another film with a dream of a script), it is hard to argue with Chinatown being number one.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Eternal Return

Russell Brand, in the interview below, says that the current political-economic system is coming to an end. Is the snake really going to die? And if it does, will it not just rise again? And again?

Brand brings up the concept of "profit," and calls it a "dirty word," even a "filthy" word. Can anything change until people start to think like this? Should we think like this? And how on earth does one get people to think like this?

Christians have been given a prayer so that we can pray like this: Give us this day our daily bread. When, then, did it become okay for Christians to chase after profit?

Monday, October 21, 2013


Officially, Origen is the Luis Figo of theologians. Figo poured so much of his talent into the cause of FC Barcelona, yet he cannot be remembered by Barca fans as one of their own. His heretical move to Real Madrid in 2000 made him anathema. A pigs head, thrown in his direction as he took a corner in the Nou Camp, symbolised a conciliar decision beyond reversal. Origen suffered a similar fate.

He is one of the greatest minds ever to pay scholarly attention to the Bible, yet the church could not overlook his perceived heresy. He believed, to paraphrase DB Hart's language, that the fire that God has stored up for wayward humans is not, ultimately, the fire of eternal punishment, but the fire of an infinite love. In other words, he believed that all things will be restored to their original state of peace and bliss and beauty, because the end must mirror the beginning. He also believed a few other kooky things, but which of the early Christian theologians didn't?

Unofficially, however, Origen is the Michael Laudrup of theologians. Sure, he left orthodoxy (Barcelona) for heresy (Madrid), but we can forgive him that slip up. We can look back on his works (Youtube videos) and appreciate the genius in them. We can perhaps even feel he was a little hard done by by the powers that be. Laudrup, it should be remembered, didn't feature in the Barcelona squad humiliated by Milan in 1994. The next season he found a new home in Madrid, where he went on to win the league for a fifth consecutive year, beating Barcelona 5-0 along the way. Barcelona fans are generally happy that his talents remained on display in Spain, and can even appreciate the poetic justice that he meted out to the club following his departure. Perhaps something similar is true of Origen. The fire he has been cast into has enabled us to discard the dross and hold on to the gold.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Hermeneutical Problem

"Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it."

- Jacques Ranciere

"The problem with using a word is that everyone interprets it differently"

- Johann Cruyff

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sons of David

Last week one of our lecturers gave a "public lecture" (which, unfortunately, most of the public didn't attend) on a theology of success/prosperity in the book of Kings. He looked specifically at Solomon, and through a (very) close reading of the text was able to subvert the public's surface evaluation of Solomon as a good king but with a insatiable libido.

Interestingly (or not), Solomon isn't mentioned much outside of the books of Kings and Chronicles. His names crops up only once in all the prophetic books. But even more (or less) interesting is that when his name appears in the New Testament, it is in the context of some form of criticism (apart from when it is attached to the word "porch").

Jesus mentions Solomon twice in the Gospels, with both incidents recorded in Matthew and Luke, though in reverse order. The first incident is when Jesus asks his disciples to consider the lilies. Their natural, god-given beauty, he argues, is more glorious than Solomon's expensively purchased beauty.

The second incident involves a judgement which Jesus pronounces upon some of his listeners. Even the Queen of the South travelled far and wide to hear the wisdom of Solomon, he says, "and behold, something greater than Solomon is here."

Greater than Solomon, eh? This the same Solomon who, in some ways, made Israel an empire to be reckoned with, who brought the nation great wealth, who made it a militaristic force, who expanded its boarders and built a magnificent temple. And here is Jesus saying that something greater than Solomon is here?

Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines. Jesus had none. (Well, one, if NT scholar Dan Brown is correct.) Solomon lived in an expensively constructed palace that took twice as long to build as the temple. Jesus had nowhere to lay his head. Solomon made people work. Jesus took people away from their jobs. (Jesus, the cause of and solution to unemployment!) Solomon built a temple. Jesus was killed partly because he was accused of threatening to destroy the temple.

Here are two "sons of David," yet the appear to wear that mantle very differently. It might be much of a stretch that Jesus was, in many ways, the anti-Solomon. His superiority to Solomon was not quantitative, but qualitative. Jesus subverts popular theologies of wealth (can I get an amen, pastor Kevin!?). His kingdom is, quite literally, not of this world. Solomon's was.

Finally, here is a somewhat imaginative reading of another NT text that contains Solomon's name. Jesus has dis-appeared, the church has appeared. Peter and John are walking into the temple. They are confronted by a crippled man asking for money. They don't have any. But what is most interesting is the language Peter uses to tell the man that they are broke: "I have no silver and gold." Here they are, standing near Solomon's porch. The same Solomon who, we are told in the book of Chronicles, "made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone." But in this upside down world inaugurated by Jesus, silver and gold are not its currency. That magic that is money (and it really is a magic) is replaced by the power of God's spirit that works through people who name Jesus as Lord. The church is clearly not ignorant of financial needs, concerning itself with purely "spiritual" matters (though it was only a matter of time before this kind of ethic would come). Yet the unprecedented accumulation of silver and gold that spoke of Solomon's greatness is no longer the criteria by which wealth is judged.  The have-nots have something that silver and gold cannot buy. They have a God who is on their side.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Even those unfamiliar with Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, have perhaps come across two of his more famous quotes. One of them I first read in that John Eldredge book that says a man can only be a real man if he lives in Colorado, where rock climbing, white water rafting, and fly fishing can be everyday pursuits. In Dunmurry, the most manly thing I can do is order a late night kebab from Ali’s take away, and I don’t even like kebabs. Lucky for me I don’t buy into Eldredge’s stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity. I am perfectly content to find my identity as a man in my ability to play soccer, so go sell your idyllic Colorado lifestyle somewhere else, John. I'm all stocked up here!

Anyway, that quote. It goes something like this, depending on where you read it: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Or, “the glory of God is a living man.” Or, to be more accurate, “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” Either way, that truly is an inspirational quote, worthy of a place at the beginning of a new chapter, or on a Facebook status update. It seems to echo Jesus when he told us that he came so that we could have “life to the full” or “abundant life.” We may not be quite sure of what such a life consists, but it sounds good. I think of the cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (still the best version), and the scene where the children first hear the name “Aslan” and a smile comes across their faces, even though they don’t know who Aslan is.

Thankfully, Irenaeus doesn’t leave us in the dark as regards the content of a life that is fully alive, though the very next part of the passage is almost always left out. Perhaps it is a little too “theological” or “religious” or “mystical.” Perhaps it strikes us as heretical, or impossible, or as a quaint desire of past generations that no longer holds sway in our modern world. I mean, what else was there to do back then? But Irenaeus will not budge. “The glory of God is living human beings; and the life of human beings consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book IV, chapter 20).

That a full life consists in the vision of God is not an idiosyncrasy of Irenaeus but is, as Vladimir Lossky shows us, a major theme in Christian literature, from Scripture through Maximus the Confessor and beyond. The human’s perception of God is something I hope to touch on in my dissertation next summer, but whatever else it means, it means that what is properly called “life” and “living” must be intimately related to God. That is why the evangelistic message of Christians can be summed up by the phrase “Be reconciled to God!” In this reconciliation is found life. In beholding this God in the face of Jesus Christ we find truth, goodness, and beauty, though not in a form we could ever have imagined.

Which leads on to the second of Irenaeus’s hit quotes. “He became like us so that we could become like Him.” Or, “[Our Jesus Christ became] what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Call it theosis, call it divinization, call it sanctification, call it transfiguration. It should all point to the same reality, namely, that we are conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God. What this does to the “infinite qualitative distinction" between God and man that Barth talks about in his commentary on Romans (borrowing from Kierkegaard), or the difference between Being Itself and begins that is central to DB Hart’s theology, remains a question mark. It is unclear whether the incarnation dissolves this difference or accentuates it. There is, after all, only one Incarnate One, yet there also really is a human who is god, a human who calls us his brothers and sisters.

We are not to grasp at divinity, which is the primordial sin, yet by grace we are made participants in the divine nature. This can sound like too grand and lofty a thing for us, like the sort of doctrine that fuels our enlightened egos. Yet it only sounds like this if we understand the term “divine nature” or “divinity” apart from Christ, the form of a servant, the crucified Jew. Neither Barth, nor Irenaeus, nor Hart (though perhaps his new book will change this) will allow us such an understanding.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Protestants and the Canon

William Wrede, one of the foremost New Testament scholars/theologians at the turn of the 20th century, has some controversial things to say in his essay on New Testament theology. One of these is a call for all Protestants to seriously question the idea of a canon. Wrede writes that,

anyone who accepts without question the idea of the canon places himself under the authority of the bishops and theologians of [the second-to-fourth] centuries. Anyone who does not recognise their authority in other matters - and no Protestant theologian does - is being consistent if he questions it here, too.

Is there, as Wrede suggests, an irony at work when a Protestant accepts uncritically the authority of the canon despite not accepting the authority of those who decided upon the canon? Or to put the question a different way, if the church that emerged out of the first century was Protestant in character rather than Catholic, would Christianity ever have had something it could call its Scriptures (give or take a few books)?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


"Be obedient to your bishop and contradict him in nothing."

"Where there is Christianity there cannot be Judaism."

These words were penned by Ignatius at the turn of the second century. It didn't take long for the church to become a hierarchical, anti-Semitic institution, did it!? Calls for congregations to be "subject" to bishops and presbyters are scattered throughout Ignatius's letters. Indeed, one of Ignatius's rather novel titles for Christ is "the true and first Bishop".

It is perhaps hard for some today to shake the idea of a bishop as power-wielding, child-abuse-masking hypocrite from their minds. But - and hopefully this is stating the obvious - there are other kinds of bishop out there. Think of Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass, an assassination very much related to his denunciations of injustice and oppression and solidarity with those on the receiving end. Bishop Ignatius was perhaps thought of in much the same way back in his day, what with him writing these letters while in chains and on the way to Rome to be executed.

Therein lies the key to Christian leadership: if you want to be taken seriously as a leader in the church, you have to be doing the kinds of things that make the government want to kill you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The End of Protestantism?

I will leave it to more learned bloggers - aka Kevin - to offer an answer to this question (whenever you're done with 'The Ten Series', of course...unless you want to include it tomorrow as part of '6 Questions I Will Now Answer':

Ulrich Luz notes (in an essay entitled 'The Contribution of Reception History to a Theology of the New Testament') that the study of reception history will aid Protestants in discovering their own “traditioned-ness,” but were Protestants to discover this would it not mean the very dissolution of the Protestant enterprise?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Year Ahead

I have officially begun an MTh. What, exactly, will that entail? My "field" is theological aesthetics, in the Hans Urs von Balthasar/David Bentley Hart sense of the term. I won't, therefore, be looking at the role of the arts in Christian worship, though I will no doubt do some reading on that. Rather, I will be aiming towards concepts such as form, sense perception, and more specifically, a dissertation on the human body as understood by (potentially) Maximus the Confessor and Jonathan Edwards (two theological aestheticians par excellence). Individual modules will focus on the interface of Scripture and theology, which, as a former graduate from Emmaus Scripture school and as one who has been most heavily influenced by New Testament scholar Dr Arden Autry, is a topic I care very much about. From what I've read of Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, there is potential in the realm of theological aesthetics for better understandings of, for example, the relation between Old and New Testament, Scripture and theological reflection, philosophy and theology, and all sorts of other "conundrums".

Thus far my reading has concentrated on the phenomenon known as "New Testament theology", with the final two essays in this particular module examining the relationship between biblical criticism and dogmatic theology (Hauerwas's essay in response to Richard Hays will make for a fun dialogue partner here!) and my own lecturer's proposals regarding the Christ/Adam relationship as they conflict with the proposals of Barth and his heirs. Needless to say, the result is predetermined: Barth will win, for he has been elected in Christ to win before the foundation of the world.

Anyway, below is a sample of the kind of work I intend to do over the next year. I found it hard to get excited about the prospect of more study while I was away from the world of theological education for the first time in 4 or 5 years, but the joy that is the presupposition of the task has returned quicker than I ever expected. Thank God for that. And thank God for 'Quel (or to use NT jargon, 'Q'), who, among other things, leaves print outs of 'how to make fruity porridge' on my desk while I take a nap in the afternoon because my sleep patterns are still a little screwed up (I'm wide awake at 5.30am every morning!).


Robert Morgan, like Rudolf Bultmann before him, sees the necessity of Sachkritik (content-criticism) for any prospective New Testament theology. Since the writers of the NT were human beings and ipso facto fallible, some of their articulations of the gospel have no doubt fallen short of the gospel’s true character. Accordingly, theological interpretation of the NT must be critical interpretation. Some – for example, Richardson – may see in this method the seedbed of heresy, but for Morgan and others this critical practice does not intend to destroy the Christian faith but to articulate it afresh in a new generation. The danger of pure subjectivism lurks, but Morgan thinks that this can and should be mitigated by the New Testament theologian’s existence within a community of interpretation, with which he or she is always in dialogue.

As is argued by several New Testament scholars – Keck, Dunn, Morgan – the New Testament itself is justification for scholarly disagreements and reformulations of old truths. This, it is claimed, is precisely the way theology was done by the NT writers. To squeeze the differences out of the NT is to squeeze the life out of it. Difference – which is as much an aesthetic category as anything else  - should not be feared but embraced, for in this case it an appropriate consequence brought about by the focal object of NT vision: Christ, in all of his mystery and glory. One wonders if some contemporary New Testament theologians would ever have allowed all four Gospels a place in the NT canon, in the interest of preserving a “unified” perception of Jesus – that is to say, a perception of Jesus which has eradicated all difference, and therefore all mystery, glory, and beauty.