Tagged: Biography

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014), Theological Outflanker

pannenberg bw

Wolfhart Pannenberg, retired from a long theology career at Munich, has died at age 85.

Pannenberg was a major twentieth-century theologian by any count, with a series of brilliant articles, important books on the topics of revelation, christology, ethics, science, anthropology, and metaphysics, and a hefty 3-volume Systematic Theology to cap off his career.

Pannenberg was a theologian of history in three senses: first, the concept of history was central for his constructive thought (more on this below),  and second, he always always situated his doctrinal deliberations within the history of ideas; so although his writing was fairly clear (and English translations were always timely), his meticulous style of argumentation was too consistently demanding to attract very many readers without considerable academic training. And third, Pannenberg was a theologian of history in the further sense that he made history: his work is a monumental achievement of late twentieth-century theology. To some audiences, his Systematic Theology began to seem dated as soon as it was published, but theologians ignore it at their peril. Even where Pannenberg is judged to have taken a wrong turn, he was so thorough and explicit in his decisions that his errors are instructive. And wherever he was on the right track, those same merits make him a uniquely useful guide.

In the Fray, Thinking More Comprehensively

Pannenberg’s characteristic theological posture was to lean in to challenges, in order to come directly to terms with objections to Christian faith. He identified the chief temptation for modern theology as the temptation to hide from the conflict of ideas, imagining itself to be dwelling safely in some sort of zone of immunity, some shelter from harsh warfare and heavy weather. His project was essentially an apologetic one, and that put him, self-consciously and intentionally, at odds with the influence of Karl Barth.

But if Pannenberg was fundamentally an apologist, he went about the task in such a comprehensive way that his apologetic had none of the ad hoc or reactionary character of many apologetics projects. He never gave the impression of someone waiting to see what the world’s questions were. Instead, his intention was to think about reality itself in such a comprehensive way that his theology was always occupying a higher conceptual ground than the ground from which objections were launched.

Theology as Ultimate Truth about Everything

In Pannenberg’s view, the dominant schools of midcentury Protestant theology were too  focused on the life of faith itself, and he wanted to redirect attention to the proper subject of theology: God, and everything in relation to God. As he reflected in a 1988 autobiographical essay, “I soon became persuaded that one first has to acquire a systematic account of every other field, not only theology, but also philosophy and the dialogue with the natural and social sciences before with sufficient confidence one can dare to develop the doctrine of God.”

And he meant it. As Michael Root noted not long ago in a great essay in First Things,

Pannenberg’s project is breathtaking in its audacity. The theologian must stand ready, at least in principle, to discuss every topic. “A doctrine of God touches upon everything else. Therefore, it is necessary to explore every field of knowledge in order to speak of God reasonably.” Theology so understood seems to require a universal genius, a Leibniz or a Newton. Pannenberg’s range of knowledge is so extensive, one is tempted to believe the job possible.

Ever since Pannenberg’s work emerged in the 1960s, it was obvious he was up to something exciting. Observers had some trouble categorizing him: he talked about the future so much, perhaps he was part of the “theology of hope” movement. He was a respected German academic who actually believed in the resurrection of Jesus, perhaps he was part of a return to orthodoxy (though as William C. Placher pointed out, “the salient point of even his earlier work was not that he believed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection but that he believed one could argue for it”). But as he published more and more ambitiously, his real program became clearer. Stanley Grenz was on the scent in an article where he called Pannenberg’s project “the classical quest for ultimate truth in the midst of contemporary, post-Enlightenment culture.”

Confident and Open to Criticism 

It’s hard to miss the fact that Pannenberg believed that Christianity is true, and that it could be shown to be true when exposed to critical scrutiny. So he welcomed critique from outside, and he rejected any attempt on the part of Christians to avoid such critique:

The tendency toward a subjectivization and individualization of piety…expresses itself in an especially crass way in the usual structure of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is widely taken as a catchword for the view that the content of faith is present only for the pious subjectivity, so that its truth cannot be presented in a way that can claim universal binding force…The Spirit of which the New Testament speaks is no asylum ignorantiae for pious experience, which exempts one from all obligation to account for its contents. The Christian message will not regain its missionary power, nor church life its health, unless this falsification of the Holy Spirit is set aside which has developed in the history of piety especially in reaction against the assaults of the Enlightenment.

In his Systematic Theology, Pannenberg described the main task of theology as a critical examination of the truth-claims made by the church. Rather than presuppose the truth of the gospel, Christian theology must systematically force itself to face the question of truth.

Spoiling the Egyptians

Just as the early Christian apologists “spoiled the Egyptians” by laying hold of all truth and claiming it as their own (think of Justin Martyr enlisting Socrates as a witness to Christ), Pannenberg set out to use secular disciplines like anthropology and the philosophy of history in service of Christian truth claims. In these fields, Pannenberg worked hard to learn the language, issues, and methodology of the disciplines thoroughly, and then undertook to show how these sciences are dependent on the reality of God.

But Pannenberg never just grabbed these ideas and said “mine!” He re-thought them from within, until he could show that they had in themselves a tendency toward Christian truth. The relevant examples are pretty complex, but here are two. In grappling with Gadamer’s hermeneutical principle of the interpretive “fusion of horizons,” Pannenberg insisted that Gadamer needed to confess the ontological assumptions behind his view. Texts could only be interpreted in that way if there were a total, universal history really underlying and uniting the texts and their readers. But Gadamer would not affirm that, prompting Pannenberg to write that “it is a peculiar spectacle to see how an incisive and penetrating author has his hands full trying to keep his thoughts from going in the direction they inherently want to go.” Similarly, in his book on anthropology, Pannenberg focused on the widespread anthropological concept of “eccentricity”, or openness to the world, and relentlessly pursued the meaning of this central anthropological concept until he has demonstrated that it finds its best interpretation in “openness to God.” His conclusion was that “the genealogy of modern anthropology points back to Christian theology. Even today it has not outgrown this origin, for as has been shown its basic idea still contains the question about God.” Pannenberg was determined to remind the Western intellectual world of its Judeao-Christian pedigree.

Who’s Got Whom Surrounded?

Taken all together, these Pannenbergian commitments put him in a position to oppose secularism and its critiques of Christianity with a strategy of outflanking. Any attack on the side of your opponent’s forces is a flanking move; but when you flank them on both sides, or on all sides, you’ve really got them surrounded: outflanked all around. Pannenberg was that kind of thinker. He surrounded his opponents by thinking bigger, by pushing every question to a more comprehensive level.

And when you outflank your opponents thoroughly enough in an intellectual contest, you find out they’re not primarily opponents after all, at least not in the straightforward sense that a frontal assault would have presupposed. What Pannenberg worked toward was a comprehensive quest for truth in all the disciplines that seemed most important for Christian witness, and he found himself engaged in conversations about the nature of reality, of history, of humanity, with a distinctively Christian contribution to make to those discussions.

Pannenberg’s outflanking strategy had its pluses and minuses; as I write this appreciation the day after his death I am mainly thinking of the pluses. He gave to theology an impulse to engage in the public discussion of its truth claims rather than to flee to a private, inward, indefensible safe zone. It was an impulse toward reality, and a confidence that the road to reality, pursued with intellectual honesty and rigor, would lead to Christ, in whom all things hold together, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. That is a great stimulus to have given theology, and it could only have been given by someone polymathic enough to carry out a big part of the program singlehandedly. It’s hard to think of anybody quite like him among contemporary theologians, and he will be missed.

 

One of Those Critters

Bob Warrens ABCsHere is a link to some footage of Bob Warren, who died last week, doing his thing: teaching.

This is vintage Bob –although in one sense this footage is not characteristic of him, in that he doesn’t have his Bible open and he’s not digging away at a text.

In every other way, though, this session displays so much of what I remember about Bob from the years I spent studying with him in Kentucky (1986-1990): the homespun affability, the intensity, the immersion in Biblical patterns of thought, the excitement of learning directly from Scripture, the deep concern to connect with his audience, the unhurried pace. There’s also the fact that this is amateur footage with a slightly restive baby being patted near the microphone.

In this talk, Bob gives part of his testimony, with just enough basketball and rags-to-riches (“I chased the wrong rabbit”) to draw people in. He shares how surprised he was to find out that most people who show up to hear a basketball player talk about the Bible don’t really want to hear about the Bible. He tells how he learned in his 60s that he has dyslexia, and how that diagnosis made sense of so many of his struggles in life.

And he also explains the spiritual dynamics that he calls “the Law of the Circles.” It’s a wide-ranging insight, not easily summarized and in some ways peculiar to a small-town Bible Belt setting, or other subcultures where Christianity can be presupposed and taken for granted. The basic idea is that many believers have a cramped and tightly circumscribed notion of what the Christian life is: basically accepting Jesus so they are forgiven and heaven-bound. But others seem to move in a larger spiritual world, to understand more about God’s ways and words, to see that there is something out there beyond forgiveness-now-and-heaven-when-I-die.  Christians of this type are among us, and as Bob says, “all you gotta do is meet one of those critters, and your life will never be the same.” They call you out of the ruts of circle A into the larger world of circle B. And there’s no route back from B to A; horizons expanded in this way never quite contract again.

It is certainly a problem that circle A is so small and densely populated. But the real problem Bob sees is that there’s a circle C, wherein believers relegate their faith to some sort of subjective commitment, and resolve (consciously or unconsciously) not to think about it anymore. Theologizing, connecting the dots between the great doctrines, meditating on the underlying unities of all of Scripture –these modes of thought are dangerous for circle C, since avoiding them is the whole point of being in circle C and getting on with your life. This resolution also requires that you can only do certain very limited types of Bible study: a thought for the day, perhaps, or a word of encouragement without context.

Some of the residents of circle C have made the whole trip: they became Christians in circle A, grew into circle B, and, worn out by the intensity of B, spun out to C. That’s sad enough. But some of the C people came there straight from circle A. In fact, one of the reasons this is worth attending to is that Bob saw this happening to Christians in their college years: they leap straight from a minimal, reductionistic version of Christian faith to a subjectivized, compartmentalized version of it. They never even saw the big picture.

This is not the main burden of Bob’s life of Bible teaching. That main burden would be much more like the big, central ideas of Scripture itself, to which he was quite devoted. But it is an insight that he reports from a unique location, as a sensitive observer and a committed parachurch Bible teacher, and one that he returned to time after time to account for the vagaries of Christian behavior. He describes it, quite obviously, as a non-academic, and no footnotes are forthcoming at any point. You’ll probably need to paraphrase this into your own terms for your own setting. But if you’ve got an hour to listen to a Bible teacher from Hardin, KY who talks a little bit like Andy Griffith, looks a little bit (as he points out) like Dick Van Dyke, and had a pretty good run in professional basketball, give this a listen and see what you think.

I will miss Bob Warren greatly. He was one of those critters you never get over meeting; whose life and conversation communicated something of a larger world.

Remembering Chris Mitchell

On Thursday night, my dear friend Chris died of a heart attack. We in the Torrey Honors Institute were—are—in complete shock. There were no warning signs, nothing indicating that his health was in decline. (An undetected heart disease proved to be the cause.) Chris and his wife Julie had moved to LA only a year ago to work at Biola and, after a blissful first year, they had just arrived in Colorado for a long stay with kids and grandkids. In his early 60s, Chris had just begun the last leg of his career, returning to the classroom after years overseeing The Wade Center at Wheaton College, which housed the papers of C. S. Lewis and his friends. It promised to be a golden season, full of spiritual fruit in the mentoring of students, lived in the splendid company of a wife he cherished, kids and grandkids he adored, and friends he couldn’t get enough of. (The feeling was mutual.) You should hear the way Chris spoke of Julie, see him puff with pride over his children. And his friends—a more marvelous and motley group is hard to imagine. It seemed Chris knew everyone. And, he was interested in everyone. He had a knack for seeing people for who they were and delighting in their company. Whether sitting with eminent historians, farmers, or freshmen, Chris knew only peers. Needless to say, after only a year at Biola, Chris’ absence leaves many students, faculty, and staff deeply saddened. He mentored and taught with such a remarkable mix of compassion, glee, wisdom, and always, always a love for Jesus. And, while Chris wasn’t really the type to formally say, ‘I will be your mentor, my child’, he was a mentor despite himself. Quick to tell on himself, I heard Chris on more than one occasion talk about his wife’s relief that he had become so much nicer over the years. And yet he knew he could still be a son of a gun, even on his best days. He knew other people had their faults, too, but he was always eager to see past those to the mysteries and glories of each individual. He was curious—about life, people, about God and his strange ways with the world.

chris mitchell on the lake

He was humble. He loved adventure, but he wasn’t naturally a daredevil. He loved the good things of the world—his pipe, a good book, a good meal, friends. But, he never confused the good things of the world with the things of heaven. In fact, while loving the earth, Chris talked more about heaven than anyone I know. He had just a real sense of heaven and was looking forward to the reunions there, to laughter, and above all to the joys of being with the Lord. I would’ve loved twenty more years to live close to that man and become like him. As it is, in just a few years of close friendship, I caught something of the joy and wonder of being a child of God, even at an older age. Here was a mix of holiness, happiness, and hope in a man who took the Lord seriously but didn’t take himself seriously. In Gilead, one of Marilynne Robinson’s characters says, ‘I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.’ Chris got a head start on that. He possessed a holy levity when he reflected on who he had been and how the Lord had renewed him. In life, Chris demonstrated how to love learning and love people and love God, all in one package, and in the right order. And now that Chris has died, we’re seeing the profound mark one mentor can make on the lives of those around him. What a gift he was to us, and to so many others.

How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. How blessed is the man whose strength is in You, In whose heart are the highways to Zion! For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God Than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, How blessed is the man who trusts in You!  (Psalm 82:1-2, 5, 10-12)

May Chris’ joyful witness, shot through as it was with the hope of the resurrection, resound in and amongst us, stirring in us a longing for the courts of the Lord. Here’s to the resurrection of the dead.

Happy Birthday, Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889)

Today (March 7) is the birthday of Alfred Edersheim, the nineteenth-century Bible scholar who really made the grand tour: He was born in Austria, converted from Judaism to evangelical Christianity in Hungary, studied theology in Edinburgh and Berlin, was a missionary to Jews in Romania and a preacher in Scotland. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland and then the Church of England, preached and lectured at Oxford, and died in France.

Edersheim’s greatest works are The Temple: Its Ministry and Service, and The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. These are sprawling, leisurely, learned works in which Edersheim’s delight in being a Jewish believer in Jesus are evident throughout. These are big books, but they represent a deeply conservative response to the lives of Jesus that flourished in liberal scholarship of the nineteenth century.

My favorite Edersheim book is (brace for a Victorian devotional title) his Golden Diary of Heart Converse with Jesus in the Book of Psalms. It only covers a select few Psalms, but Edersheim’s messianic reading of them is profound.

An oddity in the Edersheim bibliography is the posthumously published Tohu Va Vohu. What is a Tohu Va Vohu? It’s a phrase from the opening verses of Genesis, translated “without form, and void,” an appropriate title for this grab-bag of Edersheim quotations. Here are a few selections:

For a good many religious statements and preachers’ inferences there is no other Scripture reference than to Ephesians 12:95!

There are two facts which are never past: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ.

In Scotland they mostly learn the New Testament through the Old; in England, the Old Testament through the New.

Israel’s first sin was in asking, their last in rejecting, a king.

Man’s forgiveness is quantitative (‘how often shall my brother sin against me?’). God’s forgiveness is qualitative. Man forgives sins; God forgives sin. God’s forgiveness both cleans and cleanses; man’s can do neither.

With reverence be it said: Our modern theology has almost lost sight of the Father. Our thoughts and our prayers are almost exclusively directed to the Second Person of the Godhead. Yet it is to the Father we are to come through the Son and by the Holy Spirit; and it was the object of the Son to reveal the Father, through the Holy Spirit given unto us.

Christianity is a constant negation. Its teaching is a negation of what naturally occurs to the mind; its practice a negation of what naturally presents itself to the imagination and the heart.

Neither is it sanctification that causes justification, nor yet justification that causes sanctification. The cause of both alike is our new relationship towards God through and in Christ.

The chief use of apologetics is to answer a fool according to his folly; that is, to silence him.

There is no depth so deep but the everlasting Arms are underneath.

Thank God for what He reveals, and thank God for what He conceals. The faith which follows God into the light is supplemented and completed by that which follows Him in the dark.

Spiritual life has its double beat of the heart: receiving all from God, and bringing all to God, as it is written: ‘All my springs are in Thee.’

The Korahite Psalms differ specially in this from the Asaphite, that the former treat chiefly of the Kingdom, the latter of the King.

For the German word Haltpunkt, the French have point d’appui. Does not this mark the intellectual difference between the two nations? What to the French is merely a point du’appui whence to make a spring, is to the German a Haltpunkt, or ‘Hold-fast-point.’

Most of our modern theology consists of casting the grand old Jehovahism into Western mould –substituting logic for worshipful intuition and intuitive worship. But, after all, those ideas belong to the Isles of the West, where the sun goes down, not where it rises.

…the inapplicableness of old sermons –I have read most of the Puritan divines and Jonathan Edwards. In morals –see the slave question.

He is great who is great in small things and on small occasions.

Some people always oscillate between faith and unbelief, like the pendulum of a Dutch clock, and with the same loud and disagreeable tick.

Every man has his own idol, unless he has a God.

There is no ignorance so dangerous as experienced ignorance.

Claus von Stauffenberg: German Patriot and Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

Today, November 15, is the one-hundred and fourth birthday of Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a Catholic aristocrat and officer of the German Wehrmacht who led the anti-Nazi resistance within the German war machine.

On the 21st of July, 1944, this man, along with two other German army officers, Henning von Treskow and Hans Oster, attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and the High Command of the Wehrmacht and remove the Nazis from power. He and his cohorts, Catholic aristocrats and lovers of their land, desired to save Germany from the devastating war Hitler had doomed the nation into, and saw it as their duty to bring this murderous regime to an end. They almost succeeded.

The plan was to have Colonel von Stauffenberg, chief of the army reserve, plant a suitcase with a bomb inside at Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), five miles east of the East Prussian town of Rastenberg (now Kertzyn, Poland), one of Hitler’s many command posts. Once the bomb had done its work in disposing of Hitler, Operation Valkyrie would be put into action: overthrow the central government in Berlin, and make peace with the Allies. The conspirators had an inside man in Berlin–General Olbricht–who would coordinate the operations in the top command.

All went awry, however, when the suitcase was removed several feet away from Hitler. It went off, but Hitler suffered minor injuries. In the meantime, von Stauffenberg was on his way to Berlin to carry out Operation Valkyrie, and he and General Olbricht arrested some top officials, inlcuding General Fromm, commander of the reserves, until word came back to them that Hitler was alive. Fromm was released, with the understanding he would support the conspiracy, but in the end, he turned on them. Staufenberg and Olbricht were shot the next day, Oster and Treskow were arrested and executed the following week, along with seven-thousand Germans suspected of conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (including German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel).

The Allies were not too keen on Operation Valkirie, since, according to Prime Minister Churchill, an early overthrow of the Nazi regime from within the ranks of the Wehrmacht might have given Hitler underground support, thus frustrating the Allied plan to make Hitler’s defeat so humiliating and certain that any Nazi resistance would have been unthinkable. They might have been right on that count. But von Stauffenberg and his companions can be credited with rising to the call of duty, the call every patriot feels when his beloved land is in the throws of murderous madmen intent intent on taking his countrymen to hell.

While the plot failed, the name of Claus von Stauffenberg is nevertheless the most beloved and revered name in Germany, giving proof to many Germans that even in that darkest hour of their history, chivalry, honor and goodness were not lacking.

For this singular act of courage and commitment to the life and welfare of his countrymen, may his memory be eternal.

Archduke Otto von Habsburg: A Belated Eulogy

It has been one month since the passing of one of my greatest heroes of the twentieth century. I heard of his passing from my friend Charles Coulombe when I rang him that day, July 4. Both of us agreed that he had been a salient influence in our lives from childhood. He had been a part of my conscious experience for as long as I can remember taking an interest in the history of Europe, which for me began when I was twelve years old.

We both lost someone we had both looked up to for many years as children of the post-World War II era, having in him a living link to a world that no longer exists.

When he was born on 20 November, 1912, he was heir to a dynasty that had ruled a series of realms known first as the Holy Roman Empire, and then, from 1867 to 1918, with the union of Austria and Hungary, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of the history of the European continent can’t be told without some reference to this illustrious house, having expanded its dynastic influences to over sixteen kingdoms and duchies. His father, Karl I, was the last ruler of an ancient dynasty that had played an important role the European political scene since 1438. Under his reign, Austria-Hungary was a diverse set of kingdoms representing many nationalities and cultures, and also many faiths, primarily Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish. His “abdication” in 1918 was done under duress, and therefore carried no legal authority.

Young Otto, then, saw the end of one world, and the beginning of another. He was witness of the aftermath of the “war to end all wars,” sweeping away, in an instant, not only the Habsburgs, but also the Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties as well. The Treaty of Versailles, eager to exact a victor’s peace upon the vanquished Germans and Austrians, laid the foundations for the scourge of Fascism and Nazi-ism.

Hitler wanted to meet the young Archduke Otto, but the young Archduke could not countenance shaking hands with the nefarious and murderous tyrant. Hitler returned the favor by marking him for death upon his capture.

Thankfully, the Archduke was able to escape Hitler’s grasp, and lived to see a new Europe emerge after the war. He desired to lend a hand in building this new Europe, on the basis of tradition, faith, and respect for the rights and dignity of every individual. He was active in the European Parliament, championing traditional virtues, and being a powerful advocate for Europe’s Christian heritage. He did not experience many legislative victories, as the politicians running the new Europe wanted to take it in a decidedly “new” direction, but his legacy will always be one who stuck by his deeply-held Catholic principles in the face of insurmountable opposition, and let the chips fall where they may. He never folded and gave up the fight, struggling for the Europe he loved to the very day he left this world.

The world seems a bit poorer now that he is not around. In him we had a man who represented a Europe that was conscious of its Christian character, and of the fact that there are things worth preserving and fighting for. The world has lost a true Christian gentleman.

My wish now is that his son Karl will take up the mantle, and carry it further than his father so valiantly did.

Happy Birthday Adolph Saphir

Adolph Saphir (1831-1891), born today (September 26) was a highly-regarded nineteenth-century preacher and Bible expositor. His entire family converted from Judaism to Christianity when the Scottish Free Church sent missionaries to Hungary in 1843. Saphir studied in Berlin, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. He entered the ministry in 1854, and after time as a missionary to Jews in Hamburg, he was pastor of churches in Glasgow and in London from 1861-1888. From these parishes he carried out an influential writing ministry. Andrew Murray’s books are filled with extended quotations from Saphir, and R. A. Torrey described his best book, The Hidden Life, as “one of the most helpful books in English literature on the subject of prayer and the deeper Christian life.” He was a major influence on David Baron, and W. A. Criswell considered Saphir the best expositor of Scripture, bar none, on the basis of his two-volume sermonic Hebrews commentary.

But Saphir is mostly forgotten today. He deserves to be remembered, because he is the powerful spokesman for evangelical Protestantism at its best, a rich voice from the golden age of evangelicalism. I’m finishing up the editing on an annotated edition of The Hidden Life, to be released by Kregel.

Saphir’s biography was entitled Mighty in the Scriptures. The book most highly regarded during his lifetime was probably The Divine Unity of Scripture. And don’t miss his Christ Crucified or The Lord’s Prayer.

How Augustine Died

Today (August 28) is the day Augustine of Hippo died in the year 430. His first biographer, Possidius, tells us how it happened in his Life of Augustine.

Augustine died in the city of Hippo, which was under siege by barbarians throughout his final illness (he contracted a fever “in the third month of the siege”). Augustine was cheered that the city’s church still stood, though many in the surrounding areas had been destroyed. Shortly after his death, though, the entire city was destroyed by the invaders. In his illness, Augustine had prayed,

I would have you know that in this time of our misfortune I ask this of God: either that He may be pleased to free this city which is surrounded by the foe, or if something else seems good in His sight, that He make His servants brave for enduring His will, or at least that He may take me from this world unto Himself.

And, as Possidius notes, his prayer was answered: Augustine and Hippo were taken out of this world.

One of his last writing projects was the Retractationes, a book which went back through all of his previous books and corrected any errors or misunderstandings. One of his last letters was to the bishops and ministers of his region, advising them to stay at their posts even in times of danger and invasion, because the people of the besieged cities needed the ministry of the Christian pastors.

At some point in his illness, a man came to Augustine to be healed. Augustine rather sardonically answered that if he could heal anybody, he would have healed himself first of all and gotten up from the deathbed he was on. But the man replied that “he had had a vision and that in his dream these words had been addressed to him: ‘Go to the bishop Augustine that he may lay his hand upon him, and he shall be whole.'” Augustine consented, prayed for the man and laid his hands on him, “and immediately God caused the sick man to depart from him healed.”

As the end approached, Augustine had a strong desire to be alone with God and to focus his attention on grieving over his sins.

He commanded that the shortest penitential Psalms of David should be copied for him, and during the days of his sickness as he lay in bed he would look at these sheets as they hung upon the wall and read them; and he wept freely and constantly. And that his attention might not be interrupted by anyone, about ten days before he departed from the body he asked of us who were present that no one should come in to him, except only at the hours in which the physicians came to examine him or when nourishment was brought to him. This, accordingly, was observed and done, and he had all that time free for prayer.

Caesarius of Arles

Today (August 27) is the day Ceasarius, Bishop of Arles, died in the year 542. He is most important because of things he didn’t write.

Caesarius never wanted to be original, and he wasn’t. He was a conservator and transmitter of the Christian tradition as he received it. He had been a monk at Lerins in the decades just after Vincent of Lerins made his famous statement that “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally.”

In particular, Caesarius would not be insulted to learn that his position in the history of Christianity is as a propagator of the influence of Augustine. Caesarius chaired the Council of Orange, which denounced semi-pelagianism on one side and deterministic predestination to evil on the other side. Caesarius evidently operated with a deeply thought-out concept of God’s grace, which enabled him to affirm salvation sola gratia like a radical Augustinian, and preach 250 sermons that emphasized the need for rigorous moral progress in the Christian life. (I don’t think his treatise De Gratia has been translated into English.) He also authored a strict rule of monastic life, but that has been superseded by the far more influential Rule of Benedict.

Caesarius is a case study in what happens to a theologian for whom conservation is the main goal. There are two classics of the Christian tradition that are transmitted through him: first is the Athanasian Creed, and second is the prayer called Te Deum. Both of these are first found in the writings of Caesarius. They must be older than him, because he reports them as already being influential, but they are first preserved by him, and we have no older occurrences.

The Athanasian Creed, as you can tell by the title, is traditionally associated with the fourth-century father Athanasius, though it obviously can’t have been authored by him –whoever wrote that creed had read a lot more Augustine (born 354) than Athanasius (died 373) could have. The Te Deum, on the other hand, is traditionally connected to Augustine. In fact, the legend is that he and Ambrose of Milan composed it extemporaneously on the occasion of Augustine’s baptism. But that legend probably dates from centuries after the fact, and the Te Deum itself first appears in Caesarius.

Not only didn’t Caesarius write the two most important things in his body of work: Even the people who supposedly wrote them didn’t write them! Again, I don’t think Caesarius would have minded any of this. He didn’t have a historical-critical bone in his body, even by comparison to his contemporaries. And he was trying to transmit the great Christian tradition, not the work of anybody in particular.

So you can’t really commemorate Caesarius of Arles today without commemorating the great Christian tradition, of which he was a conduit. Which means he succeeded in his life’s work.

Karl Bahrdt, Worst Theologian Ever

Today (August 25) is the birthday of Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1741-1792), a theologian so bad that it is hard to find anything good to say about him. (He liked tolerance. There, I said one good thing about him.) He was, says one encyclopedia, “a caricature of the vulgar rationalism of the eighteenth century.”

A Lutheran preacher’s kid, Bahrdt started studying theology in 1757 in Leipzig, at age sixteen. He became famous for “pranks,” one of which included using Faust’s magic symbols to try to summon demons. Um, that’s what the history books say. These shenanigans led somebody to appoint him as a lecturer on the Bible by age 20. And he kept climbing the academic ladder: a doctorate from Erlangen, a post at Erfurt, a move to Giessen. He had mistresses, saw prostitutes, fathered and abandoned numerous illegitimate children, left his wife, and had creditors always at his heels.

Then in his thirties the books started pouring out: In 1773 he published something called “The Latest Revelation of God, in Letters and Stories.” It was a version of the New Testament, with updated language and modern ideas. Here’s part of Matthew 4:

Jesus traveled through all of Galilee and preached publicly in the synagogue the comforting news of the new religion, into which God invited all of humanity with the promise of eternal life; on doing so, he (in order to acquire the trust of the people) healed all kinds of illnesses and burdens; which in turn spread his name throughout all Syria, so that soon people began to bring all kinds of people afflicted by painful evils, even the ecstatic, the sleepwalkers, the paralytic.

–and a footnote explains that since the Jews believed that when people behaved oddly they had a spirit possessing their organs, “Christ too treated them so.”

When Goethe read it, he wrote a little spoof in which Dr. Bahrdt looks at a Bible and says “Here’s how I would have talked, if I were Christ!”

In 1775, somebody thought this sterling character should be in charge of a boy’s school in Switzerland. Bahrdt brought out a second edition of his New Testament, and it brought him under direct scrutiny of the Imperial Council. By this time, people were finally beginning to suspect he might not be a believer.

By 1778, he was asked for a confession of faith, and what he came up with included precious little beyond lines like “I cannot understand the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ in the way Athanasius explained it” and “I am, as far as my faith is concerned, bound by no man’s authority, but I have the right to test all things.”

By 1780 he was committed to propagating a rationalistic moral system that would replace Christianity. 1787’s System of Moral Religion is bluntly anti-supernatural, and 1790’s Catechism of Natural Religion sounds uncannily contemporary:

Q: What is religion?

A: By religion, we mean not just knowledge of God, but also the way of thinking and the way of acting that is in accordance with this knowledge.

Q: Then who is God?

A: God is a being that is completely unknown to us. I think of a primal origin of all things, or the universe, and of a being who I can also thank for my existence; and this I call God.

Q: How do you know that there is such a being?

A: I do not know; I only believe it.

Q: What is the difference between knowing and believing?

A: We only actually know what we are aware of through our senses.

And so on.

Starting in 1784 and continuing until his death, Bahrdt published a series of “explanations of the plans and purposes of Jesus,” subtitled “in letters to truth-seeking readers.” Running to 3,000 pages, this series is Bahrdt’s contribution to the life-of-Jesus movement. With these, which Albert Schweitzer described as one of “the earliest imaginative lives of Jesus,” Bahrdt reached a new low.

His basic idea, according to Schweitzer’s report, is that there was a secret society, a sort of Essene version of the Freemasons, which used Jesus to spread its work. These Freemasons had been meeting in their lodges and scheming about how to get the Jewish people as a whole to give up their nationalism and their barbaric religious views, and accept a pure, spiritual, masonic form of worship. When the secret members of the Essene Order took young Jesus aside and taught him about Plato and Socrates, Jesus wept. He was so moved by the story of the death of Socrates that he wanted to die like that, too.

This is all in pretty bad taste, but to make matters worse, Bahrdt takes hundreds of pages of fully-scripted dialogue to relate these events. And he has a whole army of invented characters to move the story along (Haram, Shimah, Avel, Limmah, etc.). These guys, highly-placed secret brothers, help Jesus attain the rank of First Degree, and then they follow him around, helping stage-manage the various miracles that Jesus fakes. Of course they fake his death and resurrection, put together a light show to impress Paul, and get the new religion off to a good start.

In 1788 the Prussian minister of religion told all the theology professors that it was time to play nice and stop making fun of Jesus. He issued an Edict on Religion to that effect. Most people would see the words “edict” and “Prussian” in one title and know it’s time to play safe. Bahrdt, to the contrary, published a satire of the edict. That landed him in jail for a year, and he spent the time writing “smutty stories and his autobiography, a mixture of falsehood, hypocrisy, and impudent self-abasement.”

He lived for another couple of years after his release from prison, and died from either mercury poisoning or venereal disease.

And today’s his birthday!

Bultmann and Tillich: Same Birthday, Same Problem

Two of the most influential academic theologians of the twentieth century share today, August 20, as their birthday: Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). What an odd coincidence. I wonder if they ever celebrated it together.

Both men were prolific, and their theological projects were very different: Tillich was above all a theologian of culture, seeking to interpret the symbols with which people address the object of their ultimate concern; Bultmann earned his formidable reputation as a Bible scholar with a command of the history of religions and a facility with all available critical methods.

Both men were cross-disciplinary in ironic ways: Tillich was actually a kind of continental philosopher who believed himself to be a theologian (his Systematic Theology is in fact a systematic Christian ontology, in which Schelling’s concept of being is determinative for every part); while Bultmann was actually a systematic theologian with a definite, Heidegerrian account of saving faith to proclaim, though he thought he was a historical neutestamentlicher doing objectively descriptive work.

There is one meaningful place where their work overlaps: In the absence of Jesus and the presence of Christ. Both of them taught that the actual man Jesus Christ was an artifact of bygone history, with nothing to offer to faith. But they also taught, or I should say they primarily taught, that the whole point of Christianity was an existential encounter with the spiritual presence of Christ in the here and now.

Bultmann and Tillich taught this in different ways, but for essentially the same reasons. Tillich’s account is more striking. He wanted to avoid direct contact between faith and history, to protect saving faith from the dangers of history. One of his close co-workers, Langdon Gilkey, reported that Tillich frequently remarked to his classes: “I do not wish the telephone in my office to ring and to hear from some New Testament colleague: ‘Paulus, our research has now finally removed the object of your ultimate concern; we cannot find your Jesus anywhere.'” Tillich wanted a gospel that could survive the non-existence of the historical Jesus, or even the discovery of his still-dead bones. So he taught that the Christ, which he described as “the New Being,” appears to us principally not in Jesus himself, but in the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ.

Even if Jesus were a fictional character in an imaginary story called the gospel of Mark, he could bring about salvation, according to Tillich. “Suppose,” said Tillich in 1966, “the bearer of the Spirit had another name than Jesus and did not come from Nazareth, and the New Testament picture of Jesus is essentially a creation of Mark…then Mark was the bearer of the Spirit through whom God has created the Church.”

Bultmann’s account is more complex, but it comes to the same thing. The Christ who saves is the Christ who is preached to you: “”Christ (insofar as he affects us) is the kerygma, because he is the Christ only as the Christ pro me, and as such he encounters me only in the kerygma.” In an insightful analysis of what Bultmann meant by this kind of statement, James Kay has helpfully distinguished among three referents of the term “Jesus Christ:” For Bultmann, the first meaning of “Jesus Christ” (JC1) is a mythic persona described in the New Testament using available gnostic-redeemer categories: a Son of God who descends to save, a Messiah, a God-Man, etc. But the second meaning of “Jesus Christ” (JC2) is the historical figure, a man whose career at a particular time and place the New Testament narrates.

Indeed, the New Testament wants to say that JC1 really is JC2, and there are all kinds of interesting demythologizings and remythologizings to do there. Bultmann’s thought here is very subtle and easily misunderstood, but pursuing it would be a digression. Essentially he thought the New Testament was right to express its faith using mythological categories like JC1, but that we moderns would be wrong perpetuate those outworn mythologies. The most important thing, though, is JC3, the contemporary proclamation of the message about salvation through Jesus. When you hear JC3, you have it all, as you are called out by the wholly other into a field of existential decision: saved.

Is there no necessary connection between JC3 and JC2? No, Bultmann said. There really was a JC2 back in the day, but to look behind the word of JC3 for something like a JC2 who still matters today would be to try to keep knowing Christ “according to the flesh” rather than “according to the Spirit.”

Another question, then: When JC2 died and was buried, did he rise from the dead? What rose from the dead and is present today, said Bultmann, is JC3. So he could say “Jesus Christ rose from the dead,” but he could say it in a way that would be utterly untroubled by the discovery of the bones of the still-dead JC2.

For evangelicals who glory in the fact that Christ is alive and present to us now, it is shocking to see Bultmann and Tillich take that truth and run off in a false direction with it. Their astonishing over-emphasis on a purely spiritual “Christ present to me now” is exposed as the blunder it is when you reflect on the relationship between the present Christ and the historical Christ. Anybody with a solid grasp of the real resurrection and ascension can affirm that the historical Jesus is the same person as the present Jesus. The cavalier dismissal of the historical Jesus (Never existed! Invented by Mark! Still in his grave! Irrelevant for saving faith!) cannot be countenanced.

It is tempting to call the Boys of August 20 a couple of liberals. As a term of abuse or as a warning label, that makes some sense. But as a historically descriptive term, “liberal” is not the right label. Both Bultmann and Tillich were intentionally setting themselves against the classic liberal theology of the late nineteenth century. Liberalism had worked out a different solution to this problem. The great liberals tried to take the historical Jesus (JC2) and stretch his influence all the way down to our time by celebrating the greatness of his personality and exploring the historical forces he had set loose in the world. Jesus is present now, they said in a thousand erudite ways, in roughly the same way other great men of the past are still present. A thinker like Adolf von Harnack could start his book on The Essence of Christianity by saying, “mankind cannot be too often reminded that there was once a man of the name of Socrates. That is true; but still more important is it to remind mankind again and again that a man of the name of Jesus Christ once stood in their midst.”

That groaning sound you hear is JC2 being stretched two millennia to become JC3, still with no real resurrection and ascension in between.

Thus classic liberalism, against which there were many justified reactions: the smart fundamentalism of men like James Orr and J. Gresham Machen, and the neo-orthodoxy of men like Bultmann and Tillich. They all knew classic liberalism was not the same thing as biblical Christianity, and they all sought to overcome it with something that was more in line with the message of Scripture. Tillich and Bultmann, with their neo-orthodox account of the presence of Christ, staked out a position that was better than the view of classic liberalism.

That’s the best thing I can say about their position, even on their birthday.

Happy Birthday, Cyrus Scofield

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield was born this day (August 19) in 1843, and died in 1921. A confederate veteran, Scofield had a shameful life (alcoholism, prison for forgery, divorce, etc.) before his conversion and call to pastoral ministry.

His fame is linked to his 1909 Reference Bible, the resource that put the first draft of dispensational premillenialism in the hands of a wide audience. But if you take the Scofield Bible to be primarily a textbook of a theological system called dispensationalism, I think you miss the reasons it was a best-seller.

And it was a best-seller. It was published by Oxford Press and took off like wildfire. The Scofield Bible had many features to commend it to Bible students: the brief introductions and outlines of each book of the Bible; the paragraphs and section headers throughout the text; the full index; the non-technical explanations of key words; and the judicious selection of cross-references. The explanatory notes themselves were not frequent by later standards (a few per page), but they tended to be concise, paragraph-length explanations of topics.

Of course those notes communicated dispensationalism, but most of the people who were passionate about their Scofields would not have said so. To them it was just Bible truth that they could see for themselves once Scofield’s notes made it plain. That may have been naive of them, but anybody who takes a superior point of view to these Bible readers really ought to try to do justice to their self-understanding. The kind of person who will follow the line of argument laid out in Scofield notes, through a web of cross-references, is a real Bible moth. They’ve never heard of J.N. Darby, and they’re offended if you claim they have. They’ve only heard of Scofield because he put his name on the Bible resource they’ve found most helpful. You can say that dispensationalism changed over the years, and certainly some of Scofield’s views were moderated and modified by his students. But most lay dispensationalists never cared about a system for its own sake, and were always by nature open to being better instructed by further study. For most of the Bible moths who love it so, dispensationalism is an excuse to study the Bible.

If, as Marshall McLuhan taught, the medium is the message, then you can tell a lot about any movement by the medium of its main documents. Ignore the actual theology for a moment and just look at the medium that conveys it: Calvinists make confessions and catechisms; Catholics have papal encyclicals and canon law; Methodists have a hymnal and a set of standard sermons; Anglicans have a Book of Common Prayer. In each case, there is a fit between the genius of the group and the document or deposit that enshrines that genius. Dispensationalists have study Bibles and timeline diagrams. A Scofield note and a Larkin chart are the logical carriers of the theology.

Scofield had legal training, but no formal theological training, and that may have been what enabled him to produce a study Bible that found a ready audience. He knew how to communicate without jargon, partly because he had never learned the jargon. Don’t get me wrong; theological training is good for leaders. But Scofield’s genius really lay in the fact that he was a Bible moth who had enough of a head start to produce a helpful tool for the next generation of Bible moths.

Scofield was an influence on the founding generation of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in a number of ways. He had been one of the co-laborers of Dwight Moody, so his path crossed that of R. A. Torrey repeatedly. He spoke at Biola on several occasions. Scofield’s correspondence Bible course (the precursor of his study Bible) was part of Biola’s curriculum from the earliest days, and made it into a special section of the 1912 course catalog. And in 1913, when the cornerstone of the original Bible Institute building was dedicated at the corner of Sixth and Hope streets in downtown Los Angeles, one of the things that was deposited into the time capsule, as a symbol of what the school stood for, was a Scofield Reference Bible.