Tagged: theology

If You Had Been There

Eden snake mural

Once upon a time –not quite “in the beginning,” but not too long after– a snake had a question. He sauntered up and posed it quite politely, and if you’d been there you’d have agreed that both his posture and his manners were impeccable.

He found the Mother of All Mankind minding her own beeswax in the middle of the arboretum, and he leaned his lanky limbs against the trunk of a tree, cocked his head a little to one side, and mused, “Excuse me, I was just wondering. Just a clarifying question here; just a little follow-up, just out of curiosity, just playing devil’s advocate for the sake of argument; I’m jusssst asssssssking.”

What Snakey was wondering was, “What did God really say? What were his words, and what do we think those words were worth? And when this God guy said, ‘Don’t eat this one fruit,’ how exactly did he say it? Did he act like he really meant it? I mean, what was his body language? Did he leave any, y’know, wiggle room?”

The Mother of Mankind –M.O.M., “Mom” for short—mumbled something about the fruit being poison. Old Snakey snickered, spit, and hissed out, “Excuse me, it’s just, I suspect he’s saving the best stuff for himself. I mean, just in general does this God character, whatshisname, seem like the sort of guy who’s got your best interests in mind? Because all I know is that this fruit is a world of fruity goodness, woman. You’ve heard of  awesome sauce: this is it. It’s like anti-poison. It’s the original eye-opener. One bite of it and you stay bit by it, baby. Trust me, eat it and you’ll get godlike superpowers; eat it for a performance-enhancing brain boost; eat it and bang! you’re an omnicompetent multitasker; will you eat it; eat it; eat it.”

As she listened, Mom found herself already staring hard at the tree, and it had long since begun to seem good, true, and beautiful to her. If you’d been there you’d have agreed. Ask Adam: he was there, and he agreed. In fact, for a while he claimed eating it had been his idea to begin with, but later on his story changed. Together they took the bait, gobbled it down, and in licking their lips they signed up for Team Snake.

Years later, in marriage counseling, Adam and Eve would look back on that furtive picnic as the last thing they really did together. They stayed married, of course, but it seemed like a lie, just keeping up appearances for the sake of the kids. Somebody had to raise Cain, and Eve was glad to point out that that was one thing Adam was good at.

They set up house together in a gated community way out east of Eden, but life was hard now, things were thorny, and something had obviously come between them. They both had long commutes in opposite directions, and traffic was always slow going both ways, which (as Adam regularly pointed out, rather too loudly) didn’t even make sense because people were a new idea back then.

Regrets? They had a few. “Maybe we bit off more than we could chew,” offered Eve.

“Maybe we had too many pets,” admitted Adam.

“Hey, whatever happened to that snake?” wondered Eve. “What got into him, anyway? Punk acted like he owned the place.”

They never really broke up, but they definitely grew apart. Everything grew apart now, because it seemed like in this new world they’d made, everything that rises must diverge.

Mainly they grew apart from God and tried to give the impression that they’d never really been that close to begin with. They tried having him over to the house a few times, but things were awkward. He didn’t really have what you’d call the gift of small talk.

But even though they couldn’t hang out with him anymore, they had to admit he had saved the day for them again and again. He was the one who had stepped in instantly to stop them from falling any further back on Crash Day. He was the one who took care of everything: new clothes, relocation costs, real estate, a job placement program. He was like a Father to them, not to mention a dietitian, personal shopper, travel agent, labor coach, legal counsel, child care provider, social services coordinator, and more. Food, clothes, and money were always showing up that nobody could account for. One of their nicknames for him was “The Fixer.”

But another nickname was “Old Thunderbear,” and another was “He Who Shouts and Promises,” and another was “Judgey Judge.” They had lots of nicknames for him, because Adam had a real knack for making up names. In fact, they had so many nicknames for him that they ended up forgetting his real name.

“Yeah, the Big Guy,” Adam said, looking out the bay window to see what the kids were up to in the far corner of the backyard. “Can’t live with him, can’t live without him,” he laughed. Eve laughed too, but it was the very death of mirth.

(What is this? An unusable bit of rough draft from a creative writing project that went another direction. Don’t expect any more of it any time soon, but I wanted to put it somewhere. Happy New Year, people of Earth!)

Doctrine or Problem: Wainwright on the Trinity in the New Testament

wainwright trinity new testamentIn 1962, Arthur W. Wainwright published The Trinity in the New Testament, a helpful one-volume treatment of a vast subject. Wipf & Stock keeps it in print, and no wonder: Wainwright handled the material so well that only a few pages in it seems dated –though it’s more than fifty years old, and there has been much change in some of the sub-fields it reports on. If it doesn’t quite cover everything a reader could hope for, it nevertheless lives up to the promise of its clear title. These 270 pages deliver.

Here are some scattered notes from a reading of the first fourteen pages, where Wainwright sets up his approach. (I hope to post more notes from later sections in subsequent blog posts.)

The Problem of the Trinity

On the question whether the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the Bible, Wainwright answers with a qualified no: what can be found in the New Testament is an awareness on the part of some of its authors that they are facing “the problem of the Trinity.” The problem, briefly and binitarianly, is that God is one yet Jesus is God and so is the Father. Add the Spirit to the mix and you have the set of data that demands explanation. “But whether the problem is binitarian or trinitarian in form, the crucial issue is the relationship of Father to Son, because the problem would not have been of practical importance if there had been no Incarnation. If the Word had not been made flesh, there would have been no stumbling-block for Jewish monotheism.” (p. 3)

Some New Testament authors show that they have seen the problem and are indicating an answer; here is where Wainwright distinguishes between problem and doctrine. “A statement of doctrine is an answer to a doctrinal problem.” (p. 4) What Wainwright will demonstrate in the book is that the New Testament surfaces the problem but doesn’t formulate the answer.

In terms of the contents of the New Testament, this strikes me as good common sense, and pretty obvious: there aren’t chapters about the Trinity in the New Testament, there aren’t extended passages where an author grapples with the issues and presents a solution. Think of how Paul hammers away at the implications of Israel’s election in Romans 9-11, or how Hebrews reasons through the logic of the New Covenant, or how Acts reports on the apostles coming to terms with the implications of Gentile inclusion, and so on. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity laid out on the table and being made a matter of doctrinal reasoning and formulation. Wainwright admits that “the problem of the Trinity was in the minds of certain New Testament writers, and that they made an attempt to answer it. None of their writings, however, was written specifically to deal with it,” and, he goes on tellingly: “most of the signs that a writer had tackled the problem are incidental.” (p. 4)

So is the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament or not? “In so far as a doctrine is an answer, however fragmentary, to a problem, there is a doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament. In so far as it is a formal statement of a position, there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament.” (p. 4)

Wainwright deftly handles the preliminary question of what counts as a doctrine of the Trinity. If it means the word Trinity, then he pushes that off to the second century, in authors like Theophilus (trias) and Tertullian (trinitas). If it means the philosophical method of handling the truth claims, then he pushes that off until perhaps Clement and Origen. If it means the set of technical terms that grow up around these basic moves (person, essence, etc), then he admits this is a more extended conversation with semantic shifts occurring in all the usages.

The decision to say “the problem of the Trinity” is in the Bible is in part a rhetorical decision, a judgement about the artfully ordered presentation of the truth and the result it will have for the audience. Any presentation of the truth will raise certain questions and tend to suppress others. One of the questions Wainwright’s “problem” terminology raises is whether the New Testament knows that there is a challenge of consistency, or even a paradox, to be dealt with in monotheistic worship of Jesus. Emil Brunner notoriously drew a sharp line between the “simple testimony” of the apostles and the “mysterium logicum” of the One and the Three, posed by later trinitarian theology which “lies outside the message of the Bible.” Wainwright says many sensible things about this “kerygma vs. reflection” framing, admitting its partial validity but also (strikingly, it seems to me, for a book written midcentury) indicating that the distinction has only limited applicability. Here is how Wainwright draws the boundary:

While… the words ‘paradox’ and ‘antinomy’ do not occur in the New Testament, there is in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel a clear awareness of the paradox of the relationship between Father and Son. The man who wrote ‘The Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ knew that his statement contained a paradox. (p. 8)


Unlucky Argument for Pauline Authorship of Hebrews

bullinger number coverE.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) was a quirky Bible teacher. I would caution anybody against a steady diet of his books, but as long as you’re getting most of your nutrition elsewhere, a little dash of Bullinger can be a piquant spice. You can count on wild uncle Ethelbert (that’s what the E. stands for) to come up with something that the responsible guild of biblical studies wasn’t going to suggest. Things about stars and constellations. About word order. About revelation. About prophecy (Bullinger championed a kind of dispensationalism that made the rest of the dispensationalists back off and say “don’t get weird about this stuff, man”). About structure. About numbers and numerology.

On Number in Scripture he wrote a whole book, and I can say this about it: Most modern exegetes are so nervous about biblical numerology that they refuse to acknowledge it even where the biblical authors are explicitly directing attention to it (with a few exceptions like Austin Farrer and Peter Leithart). Bullinger goes the other direction, seeing numerological significance in places where it cannot be.

He’s good enough with ancient languages and manuscript evidence to avoid the most egregious errors that evangelical numerologists tend to make (like counting word occurrences in English, or building arguments on chapter and verse numbers).  But it’s probably inevitable that, wanting so badly for the numbers to do their gematria dance, Bullinger would follow his program to laughable extremes sooner or later, and one place that stands out is his argument that Paul wrote Hebrews because the numbers work out so nicely:

The New Testament contains 27 separate books (3 x 3 x 3 or 3 cubed).

Of these 27 books, 21 (3 x 7) are Epistles.

Of the 21 Epistles of the NT, 14 (2 x 7) are by Paul, and seven by other writers.

In this lies an argument for the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Without it the Epistles of Paul are only thirteen in number, with it they are 14 (2 x 7).

And thirteen, of course, is unlucky not just because thirteen apostles would be bad, but because Genesis:

It occurs first in Gen. 13:4, where we read `Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and the thirteenth year they REBELLED.’ Hence every occurrence of the number thirteen, and likewise of every multiple of it, stamps that with which it stands in connection with rebellion, apostasy, defection, corruption, disintegration, revolution, or some kindred idea.

QED, am I right? It’s hard to tell when Bullinger is being serious and when he is being playful about these proofs. That is one (1 X 1) of the problems with his program.

Wordsworth in the West

wordsworth in vacant or in pensive moodWilliam Wordsworth perfected a certain type of nature poetry, a particularly spiritual sort of nature lyric. He celebrated the movements of the infinite Spirit making itself known to humanity through the forms of nature as contemplated by poet-prophets who were the universe’s appointed spokesmen. Nature herself elected certain sensitive souls, forming them throughout early life to be receptive to her revelations in later life.  As he recounts in The Prelude, Nature populated his young imagination with the forms of giant cliffs and dark forebodings, of dancing daffodils and of entire hillsides humming as aeolian harps, so that in his poetic maturity he could be shown greater revelations: the vision atop Mount Snowdon, “the perfect image of a mighty Mind… that is exalted by an underpresence.” Nature was trying to tell him something, and his job as a poet was to relay that message to us.

In the 1920s, Aldous Huxley wrote a short essay attempting to deflate Wordsworth’s poetry by identifying it as not universal, but narrowly local:

In the neighborhood of latitude fifty north, and for the last hundred years or thereabouts, it has been an axiom that Nature is divine and morally uplifting. For good Wordsworthians — and most serious-minded people are now Wordsworthians, either by direct inspiration or at second hand — a walk in the country is the equivalent of going to church, a tour through Westmorland is as good as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. To commune with the fields and waters, the woodlands and the hills, is to commune, according to our modern and northern ideas, with the visible manifestations of the “Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe.”

Wordsworth, says Huxley, misunderstood himself. He was not telling us what universal nature says about itself; he was telling us what the Lake District says. At best he was speaking for a territorial spirit, a particularly nice one; but certainly not for universal spirit. Not God but a British sprite or nymph.

In Huxley’s view, if you hand the microphone to nature at another latitude, you’d hear a different testimony:

The Wordsworthian who exports this pantheistic worship of Nature to the tropics is liable to have his religious convictions somewhat rudely disturbed. Nature, under a vertical sun, and nourished by the equatorial rains, is not at all like that chaste, mild deity who presides over the Gemüthlichkeit, the prettiness, the cozy sublimities of the Lake District.

For Wordsworth, Nature had her terrors, but in global context the terrors of the English countryside are merely cute. “The worst that Wordsworth’s goddess ever did to him was to make him hear ‘Low breathings’ … and ‘sounds Of undistinguishable motion.'” And scary as that might be to a kid in the country, the mature Wordsworth still “seems to have imagined that this was the worst Nature could do.”

But “a few weeks in Malaya or Borneo would have undeceived him,” says Huxley.

The sparse inhabitants of the equatorial forest are all believers in devils. When one has visited, in even the most superficial manner, the places where they live, it is difficult not to share their faith. The jungle is marvelous, fantastic, beautiful; but it is also terrifying, it is also profoundly sinister. There is something in … the character of great forests … which is foreign, appalling, fundamentally and utterly inimical to intruding man. The life of those vast masses of swarming vegetation is alien to the human spirit and hostile to it.

Huxley’s essay is stimulating to read, and even though it soon becomes evident that his arch dismissiveness is part of a strategy to to conceal the fact that he is out of his depth in criticizing Wordsworth, he does score some points. For one thing, Huxley is able to critique the Lake Poet from a New World perspective:

It is a pity that he never traveled beyond the boundaries of Europe. A voyage through the tropics would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism. A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity. Nor would he have felt so certain, in the damp and stifling darkness, among the leeches and the malevolently tangled rattans, of the divinely anglican character of that fundamental unity.

There are many things happening in Wordsworth’s poetry, but one of them, as Huxley rightly notes,  is a kind of natural theology. He believes nature is showing him something about what is beyond nature, and on that basis he makes certain statements about God –though it took Wordsworth decades to learn distinctions between the mandatory pantheistic mood of his poetic idiom and the trinitarian commitments that worked as a corrrective against it.

In light of Huxley’s “you’ve never even seen a rainforest” criticism, I have two questions about Wordsworth’s natural theology. The first is regional, the second is doctrinal.

The regional question is this: If we grant that Wordsworth is (receptively) sensitive to and (productively) articulate about his natural environment, then it may well be that the poet is prophet of the spirit of nature. But perhaps he is only prophet of the spirit of nature as it is available in one region. If all this is true (a chain of ifs, admittedly), then perhaps other poets in other regions can also speak the truth of their microclimates and localities. Instead of just saying “I’ve seen the tropics, and the people there believe in devils,” Huxley could seek out nature poetry from tropical regions, and see if in fact they are constructing a rougher, less humane natural theology.

As part of an ongoing project of understanding California theologically (see the website and the recent book), I am especially interested in what has been said by nature poets of the American west. If we have had our California Wordsworth yet, it would probably be Robinson Jeffers, whose rock-and-hawk, surf-and-sky Inhumanism claimed to give voice to the opinion of the California coastline. Indeed, the natural theology of Jeffers was (as perhaps Huxley would have predicted) considerably darker than anything Wordsworth ever dreamed of. Wordsworth was haunted by cliff forms that chased him; Jeffers imagines mountains splitting humans open to see what’s inside these noisy mites. If Wordsworth in the tropics would produce a natural theology of devils, our Wordsworth of the west coast produced a natural theology whose gods are at best indifferent to human destiny and at worst are in a hurry to shrug off the parasitic vermin that is man.

The doctrinal question that occurs to me is this: Wordsworth operates poetically at enough of a distance from orthodox Christianity that while he speaks of Nature making things known about supernature, he never speaks of “general revelation” or of God revealing himself through nature. Everything depends on ambiguity on this point; the Platonizing, pantheistic mist is essential to Wordsworth’s achievement as an oracle. But what if we can turn to Wordsworth as a spokesman, not for what God says about himself but for what nature says about God? What if we can hear in a nature poet –chastened, relativized by localism, and filtered for the way his or her own personality necessarily colors the poetry– not the voice of God but the voice of non-human creation, saying something about God? If nature makes messages known through poets, those messages are not binding, canonical, or authoritative. But they do come from an older source with privileged access to things humans can’t know without help.

“English Bible” did not mean “Dumbed Down”

inductive bible study coverEarlier this year I noted the premiere of a new journal, the Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies.  The second issue is out now, and among the essays published there I especially enjoyed the autobiographical piece by David Bauer entitled, “My Journey with Inductive Bible Study.”

Bauer was one of my first Bible professors at Asbury Seminary (and the journal’s editor, Fred Long, was actually the T.A. in that class on Matthew’s gospel in 1991). Years later, I’m still using and teaching a lot of the techniques he taught under the heading of “English Bible,” a form of close reading that occupies an interesting position between the academy and serious lay Bible study. It goes by different names in different traditions: “Bible Exposition,” “inductive Bible study,” etc.  Bauer taught directly from Matthew, with support from Robert Traina’s book Methodical Bible Study. I admit I struggled with the tone of Traina’s book, and only warmed up to it very gradually. Fortunately, Bauer has brought out a new volume, Inductive Bible Study, co-authored with Traina and effectively replacing it in a way that will commend it to the next generation.

If this is beginning to sound like a mash note to former teachers, it’s because that’s what Bauer’s “My Journey” essay is, also. Tracing a little of the lineage that came down to him, Bauer relays a report from Ralph Thompson about Howard Tillman Kuist’s teaching of English Bible at Winona Lake School of Theology: “at the end of one day of instruction, the students were so overwhelmed by the power of the message of Jeremiah that all of them were unable to move from their seats for a half hour after the class ended.”

Friends, that is some serious Bible teaching!

Bauer gives his own testimony to Traina’s teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary. He says of his first class with Traina, “Every aspect of the course—both inside and outside the classroom—was meticulously planned, one might say almost choreographed. And yet the class felt free and fresh.” He also admits –something I never heard him admit when he was using the book in his courses– that it wasn’t love at first sight for him and the Traina book:

as an undergraduate I had found Methodical Bible Study to be a bit dry and pedantic. My enthusiasm was also somewhat dampened by the fact that the inductive Bible study classes Dr. Traina taught were named “English Bible” courses; I wanted to work seriously with the original languages.

But after actually internalizing the inductive method, with its diagramming, relationship-naming, and attention to structure, Bauer became a lifelong advocate of its potential. In fact, he says, “it became clear to me the very first day that “English Bible” did not mean “dumbed down.”

It seems to me that for most people Inductive Bible study, under whatever name, still gives off a whiff of amateurism, a suggestion of down-market or sub-academic engagement with Scripture. On the one hand, I would gladly embrace the stigma of spreading Biblical investigation to a broad audience of serious Christians, of propagating rigor without demanding expertise. If this be stigma, I aspire to be stigmatic. On the other hand, with practitioners like Dr. Bauer involved in it, it can hardly be called non-academic. It helps to know that Bauer is one of the most well-read professors I ever took a class with, and that when he turns to English Bible it is with full knowledge of the other approaches available in the methodological toolkit of Biblical Studies as practiced in the modern academy. But it also helps that Bauer has given some attention to tracing the pedigree of the movement, and it goes back to academic royalty of no mean rank:

Part of my sense of calling to inductive Bible study has been to help make the inductive approach known within the academic biblical guild. I hope that my dissertation and my other academic publications have assisted in the accomplishment of this goal. People often, and perhaps even typically, associate inductive Bible study with non-specialist lay reading of the Bible. They fail to realize that inductive Bible study emerged from the work of William Rainey Harper, a Yale Professor of Old Testament and the founding president of the University of Chicago and his associate and student Wilbert Webster White, a Yale-trained Semitist and Old Testament scholar, and the founder of a significant theological seminary, The Biblical Seminary in New York. Nor do they realize that inductive Bible study has been taught at such prestigious institutions as Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, and Fuller  Theological Seminary. Inductive Bible study continues to have a significant contribution to make to the academy. And generations of students, both from Asbury and elsewhere, testify it its value in professional ministry, pointing to its importance in seminary curricula.


Progress and Regress on the Trinity: The Book

ScreenHunter_201 Oct. 27 10.43Zondervan has published select proceedings of the 2014 Los Angeles Theology Conference in a volume bearing the same title as the conference: Advancing Trinitarian Theology, edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders.

Slipping into advertising mode, I was going to say “Get the book, don’t wait for the movie!” But then I remembered that the movie’s actually been out for a long time: we made full video of all five plenary addresses available online not long after the January 2014 conference. So I suppose I should say “Don’t settle for the movie, get the book!”

The motif of this collection of essays is that progress in trinitarian theology is not always what it appears to be. For the better part of the past century, theologians have been declaring that a revolution has taken place, or ought to be taking place, in the doctrine of the Trinity. Western views were out, Eastern views were in –and another thing that was in was the very assumption that the East-West distinction was important. The unity of God was subordinated to a thick account of the three persons; contemplation of God’s being was subordinated to excitement about practical and political results; divine simplicity and the inseparability of trinitarian action were shouted down. In book after book, theologians assured readers that we were making progress of an especially revolutionary sort.

But in recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more objections to some of the conventional wisdom of the “Trinitarian Theology Project” (as we call it in the introduction). In various ways, a counter-revolutionary movement has begun to establish itself. Both the revolution and the counter-revolution are diffuse, so the conflict between them ( I wrote about some of the recent skirmishes here) is seldom a clean fight with clearly-aligned teams. So Advancing Trinitarian Theology is not a partisan book in that regard. But it is a sustained effort to point out the way forward for real progress in the task of articulating the classic doctrine of the Trinity, sometimes by trading recent orthodoxies for older ones, and sometimes by striking out along new lines not well developed by ancient or modern interlocutors.

Here is the table of contents:

IN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND LIFE . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Fred Sanders

Thomas H. McCall

DOGMATIC REFLECTIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
Stephen R. Holmes

APPROACH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Karen Kilby

MYSTERY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
Lewis Ayres

R. Kendall Soulen

Darren O. Sumner

TRINITARIAN AESTHETICS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
Kyle C. Strobel

FOR TODAY’S MISSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171
Jason S. Sexton

So Advancing Trinitarian Theology is neither a thesis-driven argument nor a loose collection of essays. It captures an important moment in the contemporary conversation on this central doctrine, and would work well as an introduction to contemporary trinitarianism.

This is volume 2 in the series called “Proceedings of the Los Angeles Theology Conference,” in which the volumes all bear the sub-title “Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.” Here’s how the system works: We plan a big conference for January of every year, with five headliner speakers and nine other contributions selected from a call for papers. Before the year is over, the book of proceedings is published. At least that’s how it has worked twice in a row now, thanks to Katya Covrett and the team at Zondervan, and support from our host institutions, Biola and Fuller.

The upcoming conference is called Locating Atonement, featuring Michael Horton, Matthew Levering, Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, and Eleonore Stump. It will be at Biola University on January 15 and 16, and registration is open now. In 2016 we’ll do the doctrine of Scripture (details and speakers to be announced at this year’s conference), and in 2017 we’ll turn our attention to the very idea of Dogmatics.


Irrelevance & Relevance of the Trinity to the Christian Life

Eilers Strobel cover detailI was excited when Kyle Strobel and Kent Eilers invited me to write the Trinity chapter in their book Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life (Bloomsbury / T&T Clark, 2014), and I’m more excited now that the book is in print.  I described the whole book briefly in a recent post, and in this post I want to share a little of the chapter I wrote for the project.

The book begins with five chapters on the nature and the works of God, which is a revolutionary way to begin an account of the Christian life. The reader’s attention is immediately directed not to the ups and downs or ins and outs of spiritual experience, but to the God who is the source, means, and goal of the Christian life. These chapters amount to 60 pages out of about 250! So a chapter on the Trinity doesn’t exactly stick out, but is in good company with other chapters on God.

Still, I try to highlight how wonderfully odd it is to start a doctrine of the Christian life with sustained attention to the Trinity. Under a subhead that I hope was my own composition and not the editors’, the chapter addresses “the glorious irrelevance of the immanent Trinity.” There I argue that

A description of the triune God that intends to highlight how it is aligned with the doctrine of the Christian life must resist the distorting influence of rushing towards relevance. It must devote its attention to the revelation of God’s identity first, without asking in advance which elements of that description might later prove informative or helpful for the doctrine of the Christian life. Many recent theological projects have erred at this point, describing the immanent Trinity in a way that underwrites practical concerns and goals, attending selectively to only those elements of trinitarianism that are judged to be relevant for soteriology or spirituality…. In much modern theology, the doctrine of the Trinity has suffered from being too relevant, or too immediately relevant. (22)

But of course what I’m doing with those objections is clearing the ground for a proper approach to why the Trinity matters for the theology of the Christian life:

All the long lines of the life in Christ reach up towards the life of God in himself. All the trajectories of soteriology are launched toward something greater than soteriology. Indeed, without the doctrine of eternal generation, soteriology stops short of saying what it wants to be able to say. The task of soteriology is only half done when it describes what we are saved from, and even when it specifies the agent of salvation. Soteriology finds its real footing when it announces what end we are saved to; and that goal or direction of salvation has never been better stated than in the doctrine of trinitarian adoption. The character of the relationship that grace brings us into, at great cost to God the Father, is the filial character, the dependent relationship of a sonship which is not simply a created relationship but is our created participation in his uncreated filiality.

It’s a twelve-page chapter, so I’m sure you can imagine I have more to say about all of that. But I was delighted to see that the editors wrote a substantive summary of the chapter in their introduction. Here is how they put it:

Chapter 1, ‘The triune God’, situates the doctrine of the Christian life against the backdrop of God’s own life. More specifically, it shows how theological reflection on the eternal generation of the Son and the spiration of the Spirit illuminates the origins from which God’s saving action arises and the destination towards which redeemed human existence is set. Far from a conceptual abstraction, the doctrine of trinitarian processions gives the Christian life its ‘distinctive character’ as trinitarian adoption. Indeed, it is into this gloriously complete life between the Father, Son and Spirit that the Christian is adopted. Regarding the Son, his eternal begetting from the Father stands behind his temporal sending to save, and his eternal filial relation to the Father is the life secured by our union with Christ. Likewise, regarding the Spirit, the eternal breathing forth of the Spirit (spiration) stands behind his application of Christ’s finished work. That is, when the Spirit takes residence in the hearts of believers ‘his eternal relationship with the Father and the Son begins to take place among us’. Indeed, through the enlightening and enlivening movement o the Spirit, Christians receive the Sonship of the Son (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

Thus, at the very outset of the theology of the Christian life, the doctrine of the Trinity is permitted to illumine Christian existence simultaneously ‘from above’ and ‘from below’. From ‘below’, the doctrine of the Trinity sheds light ‘upward’ from the temporal missions of the Son and the Spirit to show their telos in the completeness of God’s own life. That is to say, it illumines the ultimate end of the redemption and rescue they accomplish. From ‘above’, the doctrine of the Trinity shed light ‘downward’ onto the works of the Son and Spirit illumining their origination in the eternal fellowship of the Godhead. One ready consequence is simply this: by indicating the eternal backdrop of the Christian life, its origin is thus shown to precede felt experience. Avoiding focus on felt experience goes some way towards protecting the doctrine of the Christian life from being swamped in preoccupation with the self or the benefits of liberation from sin.

I couldn’t have said it –and didn’t say it– better myself, and I’m grateful to Kent and Kyle for seeing so clearly how the pieces fit together. Really, the whole volume is a marvel of editorial acumen, bringing together a set of very different theologians and letting them be themselves, but ending up with a book that works together so forcefully toward a common end.

Theology and California: The Book

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I’m pleased to announce the publication of a strange, new book: Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Ashgate, 2014), edited by Jason Sexton and me. It’s available in hardcover for your libraries, softcover with a gorgeous cover photo, and e-book for portability.

As Kevin Vanhoozer asks back-handedly on the back cover, “Theology is faith seeking understanding –yes, but of California?”

Yes, of California. This book of essays is the result of several years of collaboration in a project called Theological Engagement with California Culture, which Jason and I dreamed up around 2010 and have been pursuing ever since, in a series of small interdisciplinary workshops and conferences where we’ve been joined by a host of interesting scholars. TECC’s work is ongoing: we’re hosting two more sets of papers at this November’s ETS & AAR meetings in San Diego, where –spoiler alert and I kid you not– Richard Mouw will introduce Gerhardus Vos as a California poet.

And with the publication of this Ashgate volume, we’ll be doing some book release events at places like Biola University, Cal State Fullerton, Vroman’s Books in Pasadena, and Green Apple Books in San Francisco. That last event, by the way, features a conversation with eminent California historian Kevin Starr.

This is something relatively new under the warm California sun, and may take a while to figure out, so here’s a taste of it. Consider this table of contents with a representative quotation from each of the chapters.  And consider buying the book, or recommending it to your library.

1 The Enigma of California: Reflections on a Theological Subject (Richard J. Mouw)

We can generalize here on the images we applied to California cuisine: innovation and eclecticism. California means innovative drawing together from diverse sources, perhaps even suggesting some sort of stable locatedness from which to draw. This produces much that is good –there is much to thank God for in what we have received from Silicon Valley and various other things the California imagination and industry has given to the world. But the resulting way of life can sometimes become a surface thing, lacking depth, an absence of rootedness.

2 California, Localized Theology, and Theological Localism (Fred Sanders)

“California Studies” is now, as they say, a thing. It has classes, courses of study, academic conferences, a journal, and in the inevitable logic of academia, it will no doubt have majors and graduate degrees before long. In this interdisciplinary conversation, theologians have not been prominent so far. As a result, the conversation has lacked a depth and seriousness which theological categories could provide.

3 Can Theology Engage with California’s Culture? (Jason S. Sexton)

A theological reckoning with California identifies a culture that uniquely creates “myth” and re-creates this same vision for others. And what kind of theology can engage with this culture? The kind that doesn’t let the siren calling myths have the final say, confronting them by the coherence of the indicative nature of Christian witness (Acts 1:8), and expressing good news in various evangelistic ways, especially in meaningful localized forms of service for the common good.

4 The Significance of the California Missions in Californian Theology and Culture (Allen Yeh)

The California missions provide an argument for the state’s cohesion… Frs Serra and Lasuen did not distinguish between north and south in their minds as they set up the missions –to them, it was all one piece of land. As such, Fr Serra, Fr Lasuen, and the other Franciscans can be viewed as establishing California by uniting the 21 missions in the same way that the Founding Fathers can be viewed as establishing the US by uniting the original 13 colonies. Perhaps this can be a good historical rethink of California and the British colonies framing the founding of our nation –it was not just a one-directional sweep from East to West, but rather Spain landed on the West, Britain on the East, and they met just over the Sierras.

5 “I Have Adonis DNA”: Californian Entertainment, Celebrity Culture, and Evangelicalism (Monica Ganas)

From its love affair with spectacle and broadcasting to its emphasis on eternal youth, celebrity, and most importantly, human perfection, the culture has provided heady material for an ad hoc belief system I have called, for lack of a better word, California-ism. Among other things, this belief system allows for the propagation of man-made forms of transcendence, especially in and around Hollywood, based on the imperial idea that people and their manufactured systems can be their own gods.

6 In Pursuit of the Consumer Crown or the Crucified Crown? (Matthew S. Farlow)

 Is the model of the megachurch driven towards the empowerment of the individual and their consumeristic mindset? Or does it promote and embody a Christ-centered reality that seeks to participate in Christ so as to elevate the “other” as opposed to commodifying them? This chapter suggests that the theological underpinnings of the church are dramatic in that they require participation as opposed to observation.

7 From the Beach Boys to Surfer’s Chapel: A Theology of California Surf Culture (Robert S. Covolo)

In contrast to a facile romanticism or, conversely, a nihilistic fatalism, the biblical narrative views the sea through a complex lens as both a vehicle of judgment and grace –a foreboding and providential realm. Emulating the Bible’s complex understanding of the sea, surfers speak of the sea as both terrible and beautiful –a means of both revelation and judgment: “You are simultaneously propelled by the wave and pursued by it. The best position is the worst; the greatest power is closest to the curl. Apotheosis and annihilation are separate by the narrowest margins.”

8 Silicon Valley and the Spirit of Innovation: How California’s Entrepreneurial Ethos Bears Witness to Spiritual Reality (Bruce Baker)

My thesis is that by viewing the entrepreneurial ethos of Silicon Valley through a biblical lens, we shall gain insights into the business climate which has produced such remarkable entrepreneurial success. Through this study I hope to offer fresh insight into the social, cultural, and moral conditions which have contributed to the ethos of Silicon Valley, and I hope also to gain wisdom capable of contributing to the cultivation of productive and soul-enriching work in modern society in general.

9 Drive-By Evangelism, the Growth in Gang Violence and Community Development (Paul Louis Metzger)

Churches from across the city and the region must come together in solidarity to address the problem of social fragmentation and what it entails for gang violence. It will not do to engage in drive-by evangelism, where affluent churches in well-to-do sections of town, the suburbs or outlying areas engage in charity events and quick-fix solutions and make inner city ministries victims of their charity or worse.

10 Is There a Theology of California? (Fred Sanders)

As for an application of such a higher provincialism, or localization, of theology to the subject of California, that task is perhaps best thought of as somewhere between “A Theology of California” and “Theology from California.” Those two phrases would encapsulate the two main emphases of such a project. The former, “Theology of California,” indicates bringing theological reflection to bear on this entity which is California, to offer a theological account of its existence and character. The latter, “Theology from California,” indicates that we’re doing theological reflection about the usual subjects (for example, God, creation, providence, humanity, sin, redemption, church, eschatology, and others) in this particular location, intentionally cultivating resources that are Californian.

 11 Is There a Theology of California? A Sociologist’s Response (Richard Flory)

In the end, I think one way to think about California and theology is not to focus on the unique or unusual characteristics of California, or theology of/from here, or to argue for some sort of California theological exceptionalism. Rather, perhaps one goal might be to create a prophetic role within and for the theology that results from this project that is rooted in the experiences and realities of California that then might serve as a model for thinking about theology more broadly. As my USC colleague Manuel Pastor likes to say, “California is America, only sooner.” Thus perhaps a theology of/from California(s) can make a contribution to theological discourse that, while rooted in the California experience, transcends that experience.

 12 Is There a Theology of California? An Historian’s Response (Richard Pointer)

 Reading some of the other chapters in this book makes it clear that the TECC Project wants to pursue what might be labeled a “Theology for California.” By that I mean work that will be of direct service to the church and Christian activity in California. Crafting such a theology or theologies will naturally fall primarily to the theologians. But they will do well to keep inviting the sociologists, historians, and other students of the Golden State to the table.


Where to go to Church

It recently came to light that the inimitable Billy Graham said that if he could do it all over again, he would be “an evangelical Anglican.” Such a sentiment immediately caught the attention of evangelical Anglicans everywhere: we could have both J.I. Packer and Billy Graham playing on our team? Then it sunk in: if he could do it all over again he would be an Anglican. Graham, enjoying his twilight years, does not appear to be contemplating a “conversion” to Anglicanism. Nonetheless, he sees something in Anglicanism that makes him think that it holds promise and Anglicans everywhere think he’s right.

Graham, it seems, would never do something simply out of aesthetic or sentimental reasons. He probably never read C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers or Michael Green and thought, “Whatever church they are in I need to be in too.” He probably never spent an amazing evening in Yorkminster, Salisbury Cathedral or London’s Westminster and thought, “This place is so beautiful that I need to be what these people are.” No, a guess (and it is only a guess) is that Graham would have been an Anglican for theological reasons – nothing more and nothing less. Graham is a man of integrity and conviction, morally and theologically. Though he endured his share of naysayers over the years who questioned the wisdom in partnering with Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists (for example) to reach the unsaved and unchurched, Graham never faltered in his theological rationale for doing so. His vision and evangelistic approach are not based merely on expediency but are born out of conviction. Graham’s theological roots run deep.

So why desire to be an Anglican? Why choose to worship alongside folks whose main reasons for being Anglican might be merely aesthetic (“I love the liturgy”), nostalgic (“I studied in Oxford for a semester and just fell in love with Anglicanism”) or a result of Anglo-philia (“England is Narnia so I have to be an Anglican”). In common experience, especially with evangelical Anglicanism, there are many reasons for becoming/being an Anglican, some of which are overtly theological but some are not. Some are jaded and/or disheartened evangelicals who are looking for something with more “substance” and “meaning” (whatever that might mean). Some are simply tired of contemporary worship styles and would prefer something with a little more history, a little more organ and a little less guitar. Some like the solemnity, others like the structure. In my experience, however, few come to Anglicanism because they have read and studied the Book of Common Prayer and the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion” and thought, “I think that the theology expressed in these foundational Anglican texts is spot on in agreement with the Scriptures, so I have to be an Anglican.” Few would probably confess that they have read the Scriptures and been convinced that a sacramental theology is clearly taught therein so much so that they must be become an Anglican because it teaches the same. This does not make these folks bad or unthoughtful Anglicans but it does describe, more often than not, the reality in Anglican circles. (Perhaps this is true in other churches and denominations as well.)

Now, there are many criteria used when selecting a church: location, relevant ministries, pastoral leadership, overt and not-so-overt socio-economic factors, presence of friends, etc. There is likely no need to create a hierarchy of greater and lesser goods when reflecting on these criteria for they all play different roles depending on who is doing the looking. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that the most important criteria when looking for a church home is theology; that is, does this church teach, in one’s opinion (and in the opinion of others) what is taught in the Scriptures. If not, then why attend there? If so, then the searcher can fall back on other, secondary criteria to make his/her decision. Such a view is not pompous wishful thinking, the ramblings of a theologian who always protects his turf so as to promote theology’s historical position as the “queen of the sciences.” Rather, this seems to be good sense.

Where one attends church affects the whole of one’s life; or, at least it should. Church attendance is not simply a decision to inhabit a particular piece of real estate for ninety minutes on a Sunday morning but its implications reverberate in one’s life throughout the week. The words of the sermon should not cease to be heard once the preacher says “Amen” but they should rattle around in the hearer’s mind, heart and conscience for the next seven days if not longer. The notes and texts of beautiful hymnody and psalmody should not fade into the ether once the keys are no longer struck and the voices no longer sing but they should constitute the soundtrack of our lives day in and day out. Communion with the saints (both living and departed) does not need to end once we walk out the church door but should continue daily as we pray for others and gather in fellowship with other believers. Church life is the warp and woof of the Christian life so where one attends should not be decided lightly or only pragmatically.

Billy Graham does not attend an Anglican church and he is not an Anglican even if he could do it all over again. Certainly, however, Graham attends a particular church and that church was most likely chosen by Graham, first and foremost, for its theological positions and, secondarily, for all of the other great benefits that it could offer Graham. In this regard, theology should take pride of place as the “queen of the sciences” for where one attends church is a theological decision above all else.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014), Theological Outflanker

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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.