Theology


My thanks to Zondervan and Mike Bird for a copy of his latest book, What Christians ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine through the Apostles’ Creed.

I haven’t had the chance to work through the whole volume yet, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. The structure of the book is simple. After some overview chapters about the development and importance of creeds and the nature of ‘faith’, Mike works through the Creed line by line. In his exploration of each line, Mike shows the connections with the Bible and ancient traditions. The chapters are also filled with personal stories, hymns and movie references.

One element I appreciate is that the book is pastorally sensitive. Mike connects the Creed with every day life but doesn’t shy away from aspects that can be uncomfortable for some (such as the language of Father for God). This is a book that takes the Creed seriously as a summary of the Christian faith and as a call to shape one’s life by that faith.

This book is not written for the scholar. That is, you won’t find here complex discussions of the text of the Creed (although it is discussed briefly) or lots of footnotes. The volume is written for the average church goer. I can imagine this book being used in a small group or Sunday School class. It is undoubtedly much better than much of the other material commonly used in small groups.

I know there are other books available on the Apostles’ Creed, but I’ve not looked at them. Perhaps Mike could do a couple of blog posts on how his book relates to other studies on the Apostles’ Creed.

In nearly every work in theological or biblical anthropology one finds a discussion of the ‘image of God’. The recent volume The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology (eds. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016) seeks to place this phrase in its biblical context and to draw out the theological and ethical implications of the idea that all humans are created in God’s image. The editors describe the aim of this work in this manner: ‘The Image of God in an Image Driven Age encourages continued reflection on the imago Dei in a time when narcissism reigns and new patterns of living are desperately needed’ (p.261). The papers originated from the twenty-fourth annual Wheaton Theology Conference and draw on scholars from Wheaton and wider. A unique aspect of this volume is that the papers are not only by biblical scholars and theologians, but also artists. The reflections on the place of image theology in art and culture adds a new dimension to the usual discussions.

Part One of the book addresses the biblical material and rehearses the usual explanations for what image of God means. The papers are clear although the discussions don’t bring any significantly new evidence to the table. Catherine McDowell’s and Craig L. Blomberg’s papers would serve well as entry routes into the discussion. In Part Two the authors connect the image of God with the themes of sexuality, iconoclasm and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The chapters are interesting attempts to trace how humanity as image bearers is reflected and distorted in various ways. Similarly, Part Three expands the link between image bearing, culture and theology. One of the more interesting papers is Janet Soskice’s piece ‘The God of Creative Address: Creation, Christology and Ethics’. She contends that image bearing should be linked with speech. She emphasizes that image bearing is a physical idea and cannot be limited to rationality. The paper is a creative theological reading of Scripture. Part Four focuses on the ethical implications of humanity as image bearing. Beth Felker Jones’ piece ‘Witnessing in Freedom: Resisting Commodification of the Image’ presents a strong challenge to the selling of the human in practices such as slavery and marketing of body images in adverts. She addresses sexual ethics as a specific form of the exploitation of humans.

The volume brings up some interesting issues related to the image of God. I did feel that there was a lack of explicit Christological reflection on this subject. The Genesis account of the image of God was given priority and seemed to set the agenda for many of the papers.

Here’s a nice interview with Mike Gorman about engaging Paul as a theological reader.

Let me also note that Mike contributed a fine essay to our Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination that just came out: “The Apocalyptic New Covenant and the Shape of Life in the Spirit according to Galatians”

HT: David Capes

Ben, Jason, and I are excited to announce the release of our most recent edited volume Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress Press). This book has been several years in the making, the main contents of which were initially presented and discussed at an SBL event of the same name in November 2014. The volume contains 17 excellent chapters at 488 pages. The retail price is a reasonable $39.00, though Amazon and other online book sellers are currently offering it as cheaply as $24. Below I’ve pasted the book description and table of contents. We’d be delighted if you and/or your library would obtain a copy!

Since the mid-twentieth century, apocalyptic thought has been championed as a central category for understanding the New Testament writings and the lePaul and the Apocalyptic Imaginationtters of Paul above all. But “apocalyptic” has meant different things to different scholars. Even the assertion of an “apocalyptic Paul” has been contested: does it mean the invasive power of God that breaks with the present age (Ernst Käsemann), or the broader scope of revealed heavenly mysteries, including the working out of a “many-staged plan of salvation” (N. T. Wright), or something else altogether? Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination brings together eminent Pauline scholars from diverse perspectives, along with experts of Second Temple Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy, patristics, and modern theology, to explore the contours of the current debate. Contributors discuss the history of what apocalypticism, and an “apocalyptic Paul,” have meant at different times and for different interpreters; examine different aspects of Paul’s thought and practice to test the usefulness of the category; and show how different implicit understandings of apocalypticism shape different contemporary presentations of Paul’s significance.

Part I.
1. Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction—Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston
2. “Then I Proceeded to Where Things Were Chaotic” (1 Enoch 21:1): Mapping the Apocalyptic Landscape—David A. Shaw

Part II.
3. Apocalyptic as God’s Eschatological Activity in Paul’s Theology—Martinus C. de Boer
4. Apocalyptic Epistemology: The Sine Qua Non of Valid Pauline Interpretation—Douglas A. Campbell
5. Apocalyptic as Theoria in the Letters of St. Paul: A New Perspective on Apocalyptic as the Mother of Theology—Edith M. Humphrey
6. Apocalyptic and the Sudden Fulfillment of Divine Promise—N. T. Wright

Part III.
7. Some Reflections on Apocalyptic Thought and Time in Literature from the Second Temple Period—Loren T. Stuckenbruck
8. The Transcendence of Death and Heavenly Ascent in the Apocalyptic Paul and the Stoics—Joseph R. Dodson
9. Second-Century Perspectives on the Apocalyptic Paul: Reading the Apocalypse of Paul and the Acts of PaulBen C. Blackwell
10. Some Remarks on Apocalyptic in Modern Christian Theology—Philip G. Ziegler

Part IV.
11. Righteousness Revealed: Righteousness of God in Romans 3:21-26—Jonathan A. Linebaugh
12. Thinking from Christ to Israel: Romans 9-11 in Apocalyptic Context—Beverly Roberts Gaventa
13. Apocalyptic Allegiance and Disinvestment in the World: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 7:25-35—John M. G. Barclay
14. After Destroying Every Rule, Authority, and Power: Paul, Apocalyptic, and Politics in 1 Corinthians—John K. Goodrich
15. Plight and Solution in Paul’s Apocalyptic Perspective: A Study of 2 Corinthians 5:18-21—Jason Maston
16. The Apocalyptic New Covenant and the Shape of Life in the Spirit according to Galatians—Michael J. Gorman
17. The Two Ages and Salvation History in Paul’s Apocalyptic Imagination: A Comparison of 4 Ezra and Galatians—J. P. Davies

Index of Names
Index of Ancient Writings

After reading through a good bit of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I’ve assigned my students to read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, a summary and exposition of Taylor’s work, so they can benefit from the fruit of this important piece. Smith’s account of how (some forms of) modern apologetics “diminishes Christianity” (p. 51) reminds me of MacIntyre’s treatment of God in God, Philosophy, Universities. Smith summarizing and quoting Taylor writes:

What [Taylor] finds [in modern apologetics] is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is the reponses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways…. As he notes, ‘ the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity–as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice. (Smith, 51)

MacIntyre’s lack of specificity about distinctly Christian claims appears to fall into this trap. I’m not arguing that any specific interpretation of these Christian claims should dominate, but if they are not even raised, then what warrants the adjective ‘Christian’ to describe terms like philosophy, theology, etc.?

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently read Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. I noted then how I found several points from the book helpful and engaging, particularly as he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.

A few things seemed puzzling to me, however, in that he seems to play right into the Enlightenment inspired problems that he decries. For instance, by only preferencing a generic theism, I felt his call for a distinctively Catholic voice in the conversation was muted and even deficient. That is, if you almost never talk about specifically Christian doctrine, then how can you contribute a Christian voice to this open conversation? Let me offer a few examples:

  • Key Christian ideas are ignored or only barely mentioned. Based on my e-search through the book, the most distinctive claims of Christianity–Jesus’ death and/or resurrection–are never mentioned. The Trinity as essential to historic Christian faith and philosophy or the role of Jesus as fundamental for forming a Christian anthropology are briefly mentioned in passing, only a couple of times, throughout the whole historical section, which takes up over two-thirds of the book. Yet, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. would have never conceived of metaphysics, epistemology, etc. without reference to the specifically Christian claims and debates related to the Trinity, incarnation and atonement. The generic recourse to “theism” without specific Christian content therefore appears to reflect a post-Enlightenment, least-common-denominator God.
  • MacIntyre regularly speaks of the “secular” world when speaking of patristic and medieval Catholic philosopher-theologians, and this appears to betray a post-Enlightenment dichotomy between sacred and secular. Of course, Augustine can speak of the City of God vs the City of Man, which might seem to allow this, but he and other pre-modern thinkers would have placed all this in an ordered cosmos rather than a flat secular universe (I’m thinking of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one of my current favorite books). Thus, to separate philosophy into the secular and theology into the sacred would be to demonstrate a post-Enlightenment separation rather than a pre-modern ordered hierarchy of ontology, epistemology, etc.
  • Though he mentions three big issues, he only focus on the second. Thus, the human (rather than God) takes center stage in his discussion. He essentially leaves behind the problem of evil, which would provide a obvious lens on the specifically Christian perspective on this discussion, and he repeatedly returns to the question of human composition, of the relationship of body and soul. This not an unimportant question, but the Christological debates about Jesus’ humanity radically shaped these discussions in the history of Catholic thought. At the same time, the anthropological focus rather than a theological focus reflects a post-Enlightenment perspective rather than one shaped by the Catholic tradition.

Though he regularly notes how the tradition sees philosophy or reason as inadequate on its own, and therefore in need of revelation, his consistent lack of any engagement with what revelation actually has to say (or with how the tradition engages the content of revelation) appears to show that revelation has little or no place in the actual practice of philosophy. That might be true for contemporary post-Enlightenment “Christian” philosophy, but it surely isn’t for Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. who spent as much and even more time writing commentary on scripture as doing philosophy. (This is the exact kind of separation that led Karl Barth to reject a natural theology.)

My critique of MacIntyre is not based on my desire to have one, right, Orthodox Christian voice that only coheres with certain interpretations of special revelation. But to ignore the most foundational tenets of Christianity, much less the specific contribution Catholic Christianity makes, leaves me wondering what contribution does Christianity actually make other than providing some key figures in the history of ideas. I contend that the best conversations arise out of robust discussions, where particularities don’t have to be erased. Thus, a distinctively Catholic Christian voice should have a seat at the table of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, and it need not denude itself of anything distinctly Catholic or Christian. If our post-Modern context has shown us anything, it is that our particularities make us unique. So, while we can and should have robust conversations with a variety of partners, it need not be based on a bland, least-common-denominator basis, but one that is honest about the history and current position from which one comes. This includes highlighting points of commonality with others, but is therefore not limited to it.

One very enjoyable aspect of my work at HBU is a reading group that I participate in. It draws primarily from other faculty in other arts and humanities disciplines: history, government, classics, music, honors college, philosophy, etc. We read a variety of texts drawing from diverse genres and time periods–Gilead, Thomas Nagel, King Lear, etc. Tonight we discussed Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

In this short and engaging book, he gives a history of the Catholic philosophical tradition and then proposes a way forward for situating Catholic philosophy in the context of modern universities. The survey of the philosophical quest is appropriately selective, as he explains several of the key figures in the history of western philosophy (including Muslim and Jewish ones) and their contributions. One key theme is the question of the relationship of theology to philosophy, or we might say special and general revelation. He also notes three key issues that will serve as a delimiting lens on the discussion: the problem of evil, the independence of finite beings, and how to speak meaningfully about God. It is the second question that gets most attention as he returns to the question of the relationship to soul and body and to the question of the temporal vs eternal existence of the world.

As a positive contribution, I thought the summary of philosophical history served as a nice refresher on the historical progression. Integral to his argument is that (mono)theistic faith traditions share central common foundations and questions. This, therefore, helps foster conversations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims since we have common concerns. He also rightly argued that religion does not need to be minimized in the questions and research of a modern university. Accordingly, he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.

I’ll comment on my critiques tomorrow.

 

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