Category Archives: Theology

Quick comment: The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A book famous for being ‘important’ – make of that what you will – but not a straightforward read. It’s a self-assured survey of mostly self-assured enlightenment thinkers whose self-assured positions extremely clever-dumb.

The people Schweitzer surveys are no intellectual midgets, but all hold to starting positions and interpretive shibboleths that are frequently flimsy in the extreme.

For example of an assumed starting position is the facile division between ‘the Christ of faith’ and ‘the Jesus of history’. This seems to be pursuing ‘neutral’ historical truth – but no one is neutral, everyone is committed. There’s no justification in the method of argument that a theological or doctrinal claim is automatically non-historical. Especially if the claim of the whole Bible, including gospels, is that they relate God’s actions in history.

And example of an interpretive shibboleth is the way the theme of the so-called messianic secret is assumed to mean no-one anywhere thought of Jesus as the Christ, even as a possibility (exceptions to Peter, and later the other members of the Twelve). On this basis, other positions follow: there must not have been messianic thought on Palm Sunday’s entrance, because none thought of Jesus that way; John the baptist did not ask about Jesus being the Christ, because he would not have used that term; etc. Again and again, these ‘histories’ explain away the only real evidence they have – the texts – in favour of their accepted agendas.

In many ways, the ‘history’ Schweitzer describes exemplifies the awful dead end of seeing sources as the ‘real deal’. It’s seen in 19th and 20th century literary criticism of the Bible, as well as this historical reconstructionism. It says, texts are only hints to the blurred reality behind them, which we can reconstruct! Hooray for us!

If that seems a harsh judgement, here are two things to say. Firstly, of course there are many fascinating and insightful things written in the histories referenced by Schweitzer. But secondly, pick up the tone of this survey as given in the very first paragraph, and expressed throughout:

When, at some future day, our period of civilisation shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors-of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling-without which no deep theology is possible.

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Quick comment: Metaphor and religious language

Metaphor and Religious Language by Janet Martin Soskice

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This work argues that metaphor is not a simple ‘pretty’ way of saying something that could be communicated with straightforward words, but it its own legitimate and necessary way of explanation. Metaphoric statements, at their best, say things that cannot be said in other ways. They also create opportunities for new learning, reflection, and avenues of enquiry.

Extending this, Soskice argues that both science and theology are – fittingly and necessarily – fields in which metaphor plays a major part. Her argument concludes that a realist position is entirely consistent with use of metaphor, in both science and theology. It’s fine, and actually productive, to speak of electrical ‘current’ or of the divine gift of ‘living water.’ This is not a naive realism, but critical realism (I don’t think Soskice used this actual term, but I believe its current use agrees with her argument). In this, the users of metaphor – and use is always of within a community – are able to ‘really refer’ to something, even without knowing all there is about that topic. Even transcendent realities can be, in part and approximately, apprehended (be they electrons, or God).

One matter not possible to be raised in this work, but I think related, is the possibility of historical knowledge. Looking at the science-theology parallels is wonderfully important. Soskice frequently mentions matters of religious experience as a part-parallel to scientific experiment. In this line of thought, metaphor and theory is always open to revision, at least in theory. That’s fair, to an extent, but opens up theology to too simple a comparison with science, and suggests to me that theological doctrines are as likely to change as scientific ones. Think, for example, of the disposal of the idea of phlogiston after Priestly’s discovery of oxygen: the old theory was dumped.

I think a difference between science and (Christian) theology is the historical givenness of events, especially the ministry of Jesus Christ. Knowledge of this history has everything to add to the knowledge claims of Christianity.

This is not to say Soskise should have covered this topic! She has done an amazing job in her survey of metaphor theory, as well as philosophies of metaphor use in science and theology. And all in fewer than 200 pages! What I do mean to say is that philosophies of historical knowledge will affect some of Soskice’s conclusions about the tentativeness and modifiability of religious statements. If Jesus is alive, then some religious models and metaphors are more solid and unchangeable than any scientific model.

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Quick review: Retrieving Nicaea

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine by Khaled Anatolios

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is quite a book, even though I am certain my comprehension of it is far from complete. In other words: be ready for technical detail and argument.

My summary of the aim of Retrieving Nicaea is that Anatolios wants his readers to engage with fourth century Trinitarian theological grammar, rather than to memorise theological terminology. The why of the orthodox position (ontological unity between divine persons Father, Son, and Spirit) is his interest.

To get there, he starts with an overview before diving into three deeper specific studies: Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine. The overview itself is amazingly helpful. This overview divides the approaches to divine unity into two: unity of will (such as Arius), and unity of being (the Nicaean position). Both start with the supremacy of Christ but take different paths to express this, with major consequences. I am sure the three detailed studies also will continue to be influential amongst serious researchers, too – you know, those who understand all Anatolios says!

Read slowly, because that seems to only way to understand it. But do read it as part of developing a better understanding of the history and interpretation of Trinitiarian theology.

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Quick reaction to re-reading ‘Christus Victor’

Christus VictorChristus Victor by Gustaf Aulén

This is a very influential study of the atonement that I haven’t read since theological college. Aulén claims that his aim throughout was ‘an historical, not an apologetic’ one but that’s hard to believe. He’s really positive about Luther (not Lutherism, so much) and the ‘classic’ idea of the atonement, but not so positive about the so-called Latin and subjective views.

Rather than a review, here are some of my reactions to the book.
* Aulén presents the three positions as choices or alternatives, whereas more recent atonement books treat the theology of atonement as multi-faceted. Still, Aulén’s book reminds us that there are some incompatible theologies.
* The presentation of the argument feels all out of order. The final chapter presents the three views – why not the first? Even so, the book does not start with the New Testament but with the church fathers and then the NT evidence. It feels to me that the evidence does not prove his arguments, but has been assembled to make his position.
* Some distinctions that Aulén insists upon don’t really seem as sharp as he makes them, especially between aspects of classic and Latin.
* Penance. Aulén claims the idea of penance was essential to the development of the Latin view. While not convinced of that, I found it very helpful to read how human penance radically changes one’s formulation of how atonement occurs.
* Aulén is insistent on seeing atonement as a work of God not humanity. I have the feeling a more robust Trinitarian theology might mean his accusations against the Latin theory hold less weight. Overall, a worthwhile read but not as ‘the’ presentation of atonement theology. It’s a book to provoke more thought, deeper reading, and prayer.

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I believe in the church

Picking up the creed, Karl Barth speaks of the significance of the local gathering, the congregation:

[I believe in the church] means that I believe that the congregation to which I belong, in which I have been called to faith and am responsible for my faith, in which I have my service, is the one, holy, universal Church. If I do not believe this here, I do not believe it at all. No lack of beauty, no ‘wrinkles and spots’ in this congregation may lead me astray.

Dogmatics in Outline, page 144.

Death: by Karl Barth

Commenting on Romans 5:12 (some paragraph breaks added) –

Death is the supreme law of the world in which we live. Of death we know nothing except that it is denial and corruption, the destroyer and destruction, creatureliness and naturalness. Death is engraved inexorably and indelibly upon our life. It is the supreme tribulation in which we stand. In it the whole riddle of our existence is summarized and focused; and in its inevitability we are reminded of the wrath which hangs over the man of the world and the world of man.

So completely is death the supreme law of this world, that even that which, in this world, points to the overcoming and renewing of this world, takes the form of death. Morality appears only as the denial of the body by the spirit; the dying Socrates is the only fitting emblem of philosophy; progress is no more than a restless negation of the existing natural order. No flame – except the flame of the Lord! (Exod. iii. 2) – can burn without destroying. Even the Christ according to the flesh must die that He be appointed the Son of God (Rom. i. 3, 4).

We too must pass through death, if we are to render unto God the honour due to Him. We have to learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We would like to turn our backs on all this, if we could. We would like to protest against death in the name of life, if it were not that the protest of death against our life is far more venerable, far more significant. We try to bury out of sight the suspicions and reservations which accompany every unbroken affirmation we make, and to protect our eyes against the grey light of the final negation which is preceded by a whole host of preliminary negations. But we are unable to persist long in our attempt; for it is all too evident that the grey light does not proceed from our caprice, but has a primary origin. It envelops our whole life (Rom. i. 10), for there is no vital and creative human action which is not born in pain and revolution and death.

We are powerless; we are lost. Death is the supreme law of our life. We can say no more than that if there be salvation, it must be salvation from death; if there be a ‘Yes’, it must be such a ‘Yes’ as will dissolve this last and final ‘No’; if there be a way of escape, it must pass through this terrible barrier by which we are confronted.

From The Epistle to the Romans.

Review: A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

A Reformed Approach to Science and ScriptureA Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture by Keith A. Mathison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good thing about buying a book that really is a book is that you get a sense of what kind of book it wants to be. A 600 page treatment is a different beast from an 80 page piece – neither is necessarily better, but the aims will differ.

With an ebook, this is harder. And, perhaps, easier to be disappointed. ‘I thought this was going to be in-depth, but it’s only a brief guide.’ Or, ‘I just wanted something simple, not the history of the universe.’

So let’s explain the intangibles of this book. A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture is a big title, huge. Science! Scripture! Reformed! Wow. Yet it’s not broad, deep, and exhaustive. It is a short work, so does not aim to cover all things.

Even more important, it’s not even really trying to be a reformed introduction to the philosophy of science. (Which I thought it might be – my mistake.) Instead, it is an expansion on some comments made by R.C. Sproul. At a conference, Sproul was answering the question, ‘How old is the universe?’

Sproul’s answer is wonderful. He did not merely indicate young or old, but in a few sentences touched on science, Christianity, and the relation between them.

The answer is quoted in full (tidied up a little for publication purposes). Sproul notes some of the issues:
* The Bible does not state how old the earth is, but some hints suggest it’s young
* Science has plenty to say that is relevant: expanding universe, astronomical dating, etc
* All truth is God’s truth, scripture and nature
* God’s revelation in scripture is infallible as also God’s revelation in nature is infallible
* We know times when natural revelation has corrected the church’s understanding of special revelation
* Nonetheless, that which is definitively taught in the Bible is never overthrown by science
* That is, scientists can be wrong, theologians can be wrong, and we privilege neither
* In conclusion: ‘I don’t know how old the earth is.’

This book by Mathison expands on these points. It has some theological points (eg, Augustine, Aquinas). It has some history (eg, Calvin and Luther on the geocentrism). It does not have much science or philosophy of science.

The crux of the book – and of Sproul’s answer – is the double infallibility of God’s double revelation, special and natural. This is, I think, both the strength and the weakness of the book’s argument.

It is strong, because it highlights the unity of all truth in God. Let God be true, though all men be liars (Romans 3:4). The saying catches it nicely: all truth is God’s truth.

Yet there are problems with the book’s argument. I think these are in the theological terminology used, as well as it’s application in the book. Imprecision is introduced: it does no real damage to this book’s argument, because it has a narrow focus. But such imprecision is problematic if it flows through the (huge) scope of science-theology understanding.

The problem: Mathison persists in speaking of natural revelation, when I think he would do better to speak of truth.

In speaking of natural revelation, Mathison has in mind the knowledge of God accessible to all humans through creation. As Romans 1:19-21 indicates, this knowledge is about God, and it makes us without excuse, because natural revelation cannot save. He helpfully quotes and alludes to Romans 1.

But the book then slides from this knowledge about God to science, without any reason put forward for the connection. Yet it is not evident that knowing more about the planets’ arrangement adds anything to natural revelation. We know more truth, certainly, but no more about God.

In other words, Mathison makes no convincing argument that the theological category of natural revelation also applies to science.

This imprecision has other effects. I note just one – the use of infallible.

Mathison return more than once to a group of seminarians asked two questions by Sproul.

“How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” They all raised their hands. I then asked, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible?” No one raised his hand. It’s the same God giving the revelation.

Two helpful and provocative questions to put! Natural revelation is, indeed, infallible – it does not fail but achieves its purpose. The purposes of natural revelation succeed: people of faith praise the Lord (Psalm 19:1), and rebels against God find they have no excuse (Romans 1:20).

Infallibility is a term of theology, and relates to God’s purposes in his revelation. But Mathison, having assumed a tight link between natural revelation and science, has thereby partly imported infallibility into science, where it does not belong.

Now, that’s a long discussion about being precise in terminology. So let me emphasise this: I think this work well worth reading. Have a read, think well, and thank God that all truth is his.

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The ape and the lamb

I wonder which false theologians C.S. Lewis had in mind in this section of The Last Battle.

“Please,” said the Lamb, “I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture. They kill Men on his altar. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed toward the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet.

The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But the others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”


Whose hope?

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ Disciples of Jesus are armed in an odd fashion: we don’t take up weapons, but daily take up the cross.

Therefore, it makes sense that Christian hope is not for those who entertain high hopes in this world. Here’s a quotation that captures this powerfully:

The hope about which it [the Bible] speaks is valid for the hopeless and not for the optimists. It is valid for the poor and not for the rich. It is valid for the downtrodden and the insulted so that they will learn to walk uprightly, and all this as it will be in heaven, so already here on this earth. As the book of the promises of God, the Bible … points beyond itself into the future which does not yet fill our present.

(Jürgen Moltmann, quoted in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology.)



Science causes natural theology

In the mid seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes identified that science does not undermine theology. Rather, science tends towards (problematic) natural theology.

Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consultation of the effect, to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last, that there is some cause, whereof there is no former cause, but is eternall; which is it men call God. So that it is impossible to make any profound enquiry into naturall causes, without being enclined thereby to believe there is one God Eternall; though they cannot have any Idea of him in their mind, answerable to his nature.

From Leviathon, Chapter XI.