Theology


This is good: Hitler on Wright and Piper

HT: Joel Willits

But I also really like what my students have prepared:

One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

In my experience one basic problem with contemporary preaching is that most preachers are poor speakers. Not only do many of them not have a good command of their subject matter, but they give relatively little time to thinking about how to present the material. This could stem from several reasons, for example: a lack of confidence when speaking publicly; lack of time to prepare; or a rejection of the idea that a sermon should be well delivered. The first of these can be overcome with time. The second arises because of the general downplaying of the sermon in many of today’s churches. The role of the pastor-preacher has shifted away from the preaching of God’s Word to an administrator who manages church resources and staff. Ministers find all their time occupied by hospital visits or counselling sessions . Well these things are important (and I don’t want to downplay their signficance), the focus on them as the key components of a minister’s responsiblities reveals a shift away from preaching.

The third point stems from a misunderstanding and misuse of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 2.1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (ESV)

This text is taken to mean that Paul didn’t give attention to how he spoke and whether he attempted to speak persuasively or not. Such a reading misses the contextual issues at play in the Corinthian church and overlooks the way in which Paul composes his letters.

The outcome of such neglect of speaking well, though, is that many people find the sermon boring and powerless, which breds the sense that the sermon is irrelevant to our contemporary lives. The striking thing, though, is that the ‘monologue’ is still a key element of public speaking in other fields. Political speeches are still highly valued, while people will listen to lectures from famous academics on subjects about which they know very little. The reason people listen to these others is because they speak well.

I think that the sermon has a vital role in the future of the church and the development of disciples. One key to recovering the power of the spoken Word is for ministers to give attention to how they speak. There has been signficant discussion about this in recent years, and a good place to start is the recent blog post by Ian Paul ‘Rhetoric in Preaching’, which draws attention to the place of rhetoric in contemporary society and in current reflections on preaching. He concludes by drawing attention to the practical implications of preaching persuasively:

Given the sense of growing hostility to Christian faith, the importance of good, persuasive, engaging preaching is not just about satisfying religious consumers in the supermarket of faith. Increasingly, Christians in the West need to have good reasons for what they believe, and encouraging faith involves continually making a persuasive case for trusting in God.

I’ve just learned that John Webster is leaving the University of Aberdeen for the University of St. Andrews. What a huge move!

A friend of mine tipped me off about a new and helpful work on the Holy Spirit in  modern theology: Najeeb Awad’s God Without a Face?: On the Personal Individuation of the Holy Spirit, published with Mohr Siebeck in their newly established series Dogmatik in Der Moderne.  Mohr Siebeck kindly offered me a copy of the book to review here.

This engaging and challenging monograph began its life as doctoral thesis submitted to King’s College London, under the supervision of Colin Gunton and later Murrie Rae.  The title–God Without a Face?–points to ambiguity most Christians have with regard to the Holy Spirit.  God the Father, they understand, and God the Son, but what do we really think about the Spirit?  Many think of the Spirit as merely a way of talking about God’s action, and if they distinguish the Spirit from the Father and/or Son, he is merely an “it”, an indistiguishable grey blob of energy (cf. Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, 24).  However, Awad wants the church and the academy to think more clearly about the distinct personhood, or “individuation” of the Spirit, so that one cannot think about God as Father and as Son without at the same time thinking about God as the Spirit.

Awad’s work is a fruit of the return to Trinitarian studies in the 20th century, which was spurred on by Barth but moved beyond him with the work of Moltmann and later Gunton and Torrance and a slew of other contemporary theologians.  This movement is not merely centered in Protestant thinking because it is highly influenced by greater ecumenical discussions particularly with Orthodox theologians as well as the patristic resourcement–a return to patristic sources as central to theological discussions.  Awad is no different in this, in that his study, is largely focused on patristic debates as means to assess modern Trinitarian constructions.  In particular, Cappadocian Trinitarian thinking is central to Awad’s argument.  This, I think, is a helpful move for all sorts of areas of theology, as my own thesis work on Greek patristic soteriology as a helpful introduction to reading Paul.  Accordingly, before picking up Awad’s monograph, I was already amenable to his methodology.

At the same time, I think the problem that Awad addresses is a central issue within Christian theology.  What place does the Spirit have in our theology?  Are we truly Trinitarian or do we merely use this language out of habit and out of tradition?  When I was in seminary and took my first class in systematics, my prof helpfully guided us into the Trinity as the foundational framework for doing theology.  As my essay for that class, I did a brief survey of different Protestant churches asking things about their stated views of God and their practice of incorporating the Trinity into their preaching and teaching.  I, unsurprisingly, found much continuity between different traditions about the Father and the Son, but there were wildly different conceptions of the Spirit portrayed.  This spurred me on to write almost every optional-topic essay I had in seminary about the Spirit–Spirit in the OT, Spirit in the New Covenant, etc.–so that I could better conceive of the Spirit in the divine economy.  I don’t think I personally scratched the surface, but I began to get a better feel for the Trinity.  I am woefully conscious of the continued general lack of Spirit-awareness, as my recent post on Christomonism demonstrates.

For my review I’ll do a few more posts as I interact with his helpful volume, so check back for those.

In the spring I’m teaching NT Theology (undergraduate), and I want to have my students to consider the relationship of the OT to the NT.  In particular, I want an essay/article length assessment of Covenant, New Covenant, (Progressive) Dispensational and (possibly) Lutheran perspectives for my students to read.  I would prefer an essay that attempts to address each area objectively, but one by a proponent of one area or another would be okay if it adequately addresses the other areas.  Again, my preference would be for a journal article or essay from a book rather than a website.  Thoughts?

I picked up Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009) from the college library yesterday, intending to read through much/most of it. I have skimmed bits and pieces of it before – after all, who has time to work through all 1,200 + pages? Well, I’m sure some of you dedicated academics do! But as of this afternoon, after skimming through a few more chapters, I gave up again. I have decided (for now) to spare myself a month’s worth of free time and to settle for reading a couple of published review articles on it instead. So, I started with Barry Matlock’s and will shortly get to Grant Macaskill’s. Both are published in JSNT 34.2 (2011). I have to say, for a quite wordy 35-or-so-page book review, Matlock’s article is thoroughly entertaining. I found myself grinning repeatedly throughout, especially as he critiqued Campbell’s caricature of “Justification theory.” Here is how Matlock summarizes his comments on Campbell’s portrait of Justification theory:

It is the most elaborately constructed straw man I have ever witnessed, and to watch Campbell parry and thrust with it across hundreds of sprawling pages is a singular and uncanny spectacle (137).

Ouch!!!

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 706 other followers