Archive for the 'Protestant Theologians' Category

The Centrality of Trinitarian Doctrine

The following may be of interest to some. It can be of little doubt that the language used in the Trinitarian formulas of the 4th century is foreign to that of the New Testament. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is the example par excellence of a development of doctrine. If the doctrine of the Trinity (as we know it) was not part of the explicit teaching of the early Church, why, then, is not this doctrine open for serious debate like many other developments of doctrine?

Emil Brunner, in Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), addresses the question by making a distinction between the proclamation of the early Church (kerygma) and the subsequent theological reflection upon that proclamation. For Brunner, one of the roles of theology is to safeguard the revealed truths contained within the kerygma. Thus the principle of sola scriptura is maintained while allowing for a developement of doctrine, in that the doctrine is derived by reflection upon the earliest witness to the kerygma, the Scriptures.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that not only the word “Trinity”, but even the explicit idea of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness to the faith; it is equally certain and incontestable that the best theological tradition, with one accord, clearly points to the Trinity as its centre. However, there is a third point to be noted, namely, that the re-discovery of the New Testament message at the Reformation did not re-vitalize this particular theological doctrine; the fact is, the Reformers did not alter this fundamental dogma of the ancient Church, but rather, so to speak, “by-passed” it, than made it the subject of their own theological reflection. The statement of Melanchthon, “Mysteria divinitas rectius adoraverimus quam vestigaveriums“, is characteristic of this attitude. Calvin expressed himself in the same way; he regards the doctrine of the Trinity from the following point of view only; namely, that through its conceptions, which differ from those of the Bible, the opponent of the divinity of Christ – who is the enemy of Christian Faith – is forced to throw off his disguise, and to fight in the open, instead of concealing his hostility under a cloak of Christianity.

How are we to explain this strange situation? Here I anticipate the result of the following enquiry, and state it in the form of a thesis: The ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, established by the dogma of the ancient Church, is not a Biblical kerygma, therefore it is not the kerygma of the Church, but it is a theological doctrine which defends the central faith of the Bible and of the Church. Hence it does not belong to the sphere of the Church’s message, but it belongs to the sphere of theology; in this sphere it is the work of the Church to test and examine its message, in the light of the Word of God given to the Church. Certainly in this process of theological reflection the doctrine of the Trinity is central.

Love

There is love and then there is love. In Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), Emil Brunner, helpfully illustrates the keen difference between the love of God for us (Agape) and the love of creatures for the beloved (Eros). This distinction of the different kinds of love is one that is lost in the English language since we have but one word for “love” and it is used in many contexts, both meaningful and shallow. However, understanding the difference between one love and the other can help us to comprehend the truly shocking nature of Biblical revelation as well as the meaning of what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the “supernatural virtue of Christian love”.

Eros is the desire for that which we do not possess, but which we ought to have, or would like to have. Eros is therfore directed towards a particular value; we love something because it has value, because it is worthy to be loved. Thus Eros is that love which is derived from, and evoked by the beloved. It is the movement which aims at the fulfillment of value, the appropriation of value, the completion of value… In all cases, Eros is based upon, motivated by, the beloved, therefore it is perfectly intelligible and transparent.

This, however, is true of all the love with which we are familiar, whether it be the love of which the poets sing, the love which draws a man and woman together, the love which is kindled by the sight of beauty, the love of the fatherland, mother love, the love of friendship – all this is love, which is based upon something which has been “motivated”, which is kindled by its object, and which makes it desire and strive for, or to enjoy and maintain, union with that which it loves. Whether the object is material or non-material, vital or non-vital, concrete or abstract, neutral or personal – it is always something which is known to contain value, something “lovable” which is loved.

The love of God, the Agape of the New Testament, is quite different. It does not seek value, but it creates value or gives value; it does not desire to get but to give; it is not “attracted” by some lovable quality, but it is poured out on those who are worthless and degraded; in the strict sense of the word this Love is “unfathomable”, and “passeth all understanding”. This Divine Love turns to those for whom no one cares, because there is nothing “lovable” about them – people whom we would instinctively shun or even hate. The highest expression of this Agape, therefore, is loving fidelity to the unfaithful, the love of the Holy God for those who desecrate His sanctuary, the love of the Holy Lord for one who is rebellious and disobedient – the sinner. The contrast between Divine and human love also comes out very clearly in its aim. This love (Agape), does not seek to transfer a value from the beloved to the one who loves, it does not seek the fulfilment of value. Here the One who loves does not seek anything for Himself; all He desires is to benefit the one He loves. And the benefit He wants to impart is not “something”, but His very self, for this Love is self-surrender, self-giving to the other, to whom love is directed. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but should have eternal life.” And this indeed took place “while we were yet sinners”, for “while we were yet weak… Christ died for the ungodly… while we were enemies.” This Love is truly unfathomable, unmotivated, incomprehensible; it springs solely from the will of God Himself; that is, from His incomprehensible will to give His very self to us.

Incomprehensible. Think of it. God had no motivation, no compulsion, no reason whatsoever to love us, yet He does. He wills it. We set ourseles against God, yet He loves us. We have been unfaithful to Him since the Garden, yet He loves us. He forgives us our transgressions “seventy times seven”. His love and mercy are, quite literally, boundless. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Salvation history has taught us as much. If God does not hate us by now, He never will, in a manner of speaking. St. Paul tells us:

“For I am sure that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8.38-39, RSV CE).

It is this incomprehensible love that we are to have toward our neighbours and toward our enemies. It is a love without a cause. This is especially seen in the Divine command to love our enemies, love those who hate us, love those who persecute us (Matt 5.38-48). This is a superatural love in all its absurdity. There is no rational reason for this kind of love. We have no reason to love our enemies, yet we are commanded to. If our enemies hate us, we are to love them. If our enemies revile us and slander us and persecute us, we are to love them in return. Thus, Christians are commanded to mimic the Agape love of the Father. We mimic the merciful forgiveness and love that God has shown us by loving our enemies. We have made ourselves enemies of God, yet we are happy to know that God does not love us in the way that we love each other. We are to go and do likewise.

What is Authority?

And I thought I was finished writing for the weekend, but not so fast. Here is some food for thought from the great Protestant theologian, P. T. Forsyth. Writing in The Principle of Authority, Forsyth explains the nature of what he calls “religious authority.” I am sure I am putting this poorly, but by religious Forsyth means that which is the subjective apprehension of the objective truth of faith – God’s work in us. The last line is, of course, the famous quote from Cardinal Newman.

In the last resort, therefore, the only religious authority must be some action of God’s creative self-revelation, and not simply an outside witness to it. For instance, as to Christ’s resurrection, if we had signed, sealed, and indubitable testimony from one of the soldiers at the tomb who saw him emurge, it would have a certain value, of course; but it would not be a religious authority. It would not be equal in that respect to Peter’s or Paul’s, though they did not see Him rise. It would be more historisch and scientific, but less geschichtlich and sacramental than theirs. It would not prove that the Saviour rose in the triumphant power of His finished work over the world of nature as well as of man. It would only prove re-animation; so that He might, perhaps, get over His first failure as Saviour and try again. It would be no part of God’s self-revelation through apostolic souls whom the risen and indwelling Christ taught with regenerative and final power. The soldier would be but a bystander of an event, not an agent of revelation, nor a subject of it. Men are an authority to us, to our conscience, not as they may be able to stand cross-examination by historical and critical research, but as they are made by the power of God, the Christ, Who reveals Himself in His regeneration of their souls. The Apostles are authorities of Christ only in so far as Christ made them so, not as infallible chroniclers but as elect souls. And even these men fade into the rear when they have done their work; and they may crumble and dissolve, like the sacramental bread – so long as they have brought us to direct communion with God, with Christ, as His own voucher, and stirred the evidence of His Spirit’s action and power in our soul’s new life. The best documents are human sacraments. Holy men are the best argument of the Gospel, short of the Gospel itself, short, i.e. of Christ’s real presence with us in the Holy Ghost as our active Saviour. And when men have done their proper work, when they have introduced us personally to God and left us together, it is not fatal if we find flaws in their logic, character, or faith. There is so much spritual truth as that in the Roman principle that defect in the priest does not destroy the effect of his sacrament. Defects in Church, Bible, or apostle, defects in the logic of creed, or inconsistencies of conduct in Christian people, need not destroy the real religious witness they bear on the whole, their sacramental mediation of the Gospel to us. Secure in the God to Whom they led us, we turn at our ease and leisure to examine their flaws with a quiet and kindly mind, knowing that they do not cost us our soul’s life. “A thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

FIRST THINGS Moments of 2008

Moving on from the previous post into the current Year of Our Lord, 2008, here are few of the moments that stood out to me from the pages of FIRST THINGS this past year. Feel free to add any of your own fond memories.

Regarding FT in 2008, there are three things that stand out to me – Joseph Pearce, N. T. Wright, and the death of the Oldline Mainline Protestants here in America.

ft_2008-08First, my dear Joseph Pearce. Back in July I did a post on the shellacking Joseph Pearce took in the pages of the August/September issue of FT. What made this so surprising is FT is a journal that would otherwise be friendly to someone like Pearce. So what did Pearce do to get such sour treatment from a friendly source? It has to do with that all too entangled question of Shakespeare’s religion. I personally don’t think Shakespeare’s religion matters, but there are many (apparently) who do.

In his much publicized book, The Quest for Shakespeare, Pearce clearly wanting to discredit himself right from the start, begins by touting his “Bellocian bellicosity” and distancing himself from the “asses of academe.” Translation: Pearce thinks all those scholars in their ivory towers are arrogant nitwits. Unlike himself, of course.

Robert Miola, professor of English at Loyola College (Maryland), is the culprit behind the aforementioned shellacking. Actually, a careful reading of Miola’s writings in FT regarding the issue of Shakespeare’s religion (see the May 2008 issue of FT) shows that he is somewhat sympathetic to the view that the great Bard of Avon may have been a Catholic (Pearce’s thesis). But if there is one thing Miola can’t stand, it’s arrogant grandstanding by an unproven scholar, such as Pearce, who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. And the way I word it is much nicer than the way Miola does. No kidding. The book review by Miola is really quite stunning – I had my mouth open almost the entire time I was reading it. If you have not read the review, do yourself a favor and read it: Thy Canonized Bones.

And as is the way with peer review journals, Pearce was given the opportunity to defend himself, which he did on the FT blog, On The Square. The rebuttal by Pearce with a response by Miola was included in the latest issue of FT (December 2008). Unfortunately, I can’t link to it since it hasn’t been made public online. However, you can still read Pearce’s rebuttal here.

Second is the “out of nowhere” N. T. Wright / Fr. Neuhaus skirmish that began in April. From what I understand Fr. Neuhaus and N. T. Wright are fairly acquainted with each other and even consider the other to be a friend. So when Neuhaus took to taking cheap shots at Wright in his featured Public Square essay of April 2008, I was taken aback. Now, I say cheap shots, but I am quite sure Fr. Neuhaus doesn’t see it that way. However that may be, I thought the attacks were unfair and so did Wright, understandably.

I call this a skirmish because it didn’t last but for a single follow up exchange in subsequent issue of FT. Thankfully, the whole nasty – and very odd – exchange was quickly dropped, and I can only assume/hope Neuhaus and Wright have since made nice and will continue their good work for the Church, each in their own way.

You can read the original essay by Fr. Neuhaus here: The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop. As much as I say Fr. Neuhuas’ attacks were unfair, he does, not surprisingly, make some good points; but the whole seems to be tainted by the way in which he treats Wright. Wright’s rebuttal and Neuhaus’ response can be found in the June/July 2008 Correspondence section.

And last, but not least, is Joseph Bottum’s lengthy essay entitled The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline – also from the August/September issue of FT. The article generated much discussion with the great majority of the correspondence agreeing with general outline Bottum presents of the death of the Mainline Protestant Churches in America.

You can read this interesting essay by Bottum, here: The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline. The follow up correspondence letters are in the December 2008 issue of FT. As I noted earlier, this issue is not publically available online yet. Give it a couple of months.

So that does it for FT in 2008. I eagerly await the memorable moments that are sure to be in store for 2009.

In the meantime, have a happy Advent!

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

And The Word Became Flesh

From Karl Barth, Credo (Wipf & Stock 2005):

But the object of divine action in the Incarnation is man. God’s free decision is and remains a gracious decision: God becomes man, the Word became Flesh. The Incarnation means no apparent and reserved, but a real and complete descent of God. God actually became what we are, in order to actually exist with us, actually to exist for us, in order, in this becoming and being human, not to do what we do – sin; and to do what we fail to do – God’s, His own, will; and so actually in our place, in our situation and position to be the new man. It is not in His eternal majesty – in which He is and remains hidden from us – but as this new man and therefore as the Word in the flesh, that God’s Son is God’s revelation to us and our reconciliation with God. Just for that reason faith cannot look past His humanity, the cradle of Bethlehem and the Cross of Golgotha in order to see Him in His divinity. Faith in the eternal Word of the Father is faith in Jesus of Nazareth or it is not the Christian faith.

Orthodoxy, Barth Style

karl-barth_with-pipeG. K. Chesterton has his way of defending orthodoxy. Karl Barth has his. Chesterton was a literary fencer, thrusting and parrying his opponent with ease, as he deftly used words to inflict damage on his opponent. In my limited reading of Barth, he seems to much more of a middleweight boxer, theologically jabbing his opponent time and time again, with knockout punches thrown often at precisely the right moments. I greatly enjoy the masterful art of Chesterton’s writing, as readers of this blog know, but I am starting to warm up to the fighting style of the great Swiss theologian from Basel too.

As I stated earlier, Karl Barth – the 20h century Swiss Reformed theologian – was a mighty antidote to Liberal Protestantism that was en vogue at the time. In fact, he is a mighty antidote to liberal Catholicism as well. One of his main opponents seems to have been Paul Tillich, the standard bearer, so to speak, for Liberal Protestantism. Tillich’s theology is based very much on natural knowledge to the almost complete negation of revelation in any meaningful sense. In what I’ve read, Barth was instrumental in causing divine revelation to be taken seriously again in theology; revelation as in God actually became flesh and dwelt among us as Scripture reveals to us. This was otherwise known as a move back to orthodoxy. Here is an excerpt from his 1935 work Credo (Wipf & Stock, 2005):

Care should be taken to avoid regarding this presupposition of the Biblical witness (which after all Dogma does no more than make explicit), as a metaphysic superfluous and alien to Christian faith, and therefore getting rid of or emasculating it. The Theology of modern Protestantism has done that again and again. This modern Protestantism has punished itself with the most varied and disastrous relapses in to just those heathen religious views which the Church fathers of the first centuries rightly and successfully resisted. It can be asserted and proved with the utmost definiteness and accuracy that the great theological-ecclesiastical catastrophe of which the German Protestantism of the moment is the arena, would have been impossible if the three words Filium eius unicum [His only Son] in the properly understood sense of the Nicene trinitarian doctrine had not for more than two hundred years been really lost to the German Church amongst a chaos of reinterpretations designed to make them innocuous. This catastrophe should be a real, final warning to the evangelical Churches, and, especially to the theological faculties of other lands, where so far as trinitarian dogma is concerned, no better ways are being trodden. Christian faith stands or falls once and for all with the fact that God and God alone is its object. If one rejects the Biblical doctrine that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, and indeed God’s only Son, and that therefore the whole revelation of God and all reconciliation between God and man is contained in Him – and if one then, in spite of that, speaks of “faith” in Jesus Christ, then one believes in an intermediate being and then consequently one is really pursuing metaphysics and has already secretly lapsed from the Christian faith into a polytheism which will forthwith mature into further fruits in the setting up of a special God-Father faith and a special Creator faith; and in the assertion of special spiritual revelations. The proclamation of this polytheism can most certainly be a brilliant and a pleasant affair, and can win continuous widespread approbation. But real consolation and real instruction, the Gospel of God and the Law of God, will find a small and ever-diminishing place in this proclamation. The Church of Jesus Christ as the assembly of lost and rescued sinners will come less and less to be built by this proclamation. How could it be otherwise than that error at a crucial point makes it utterly impotent? It is just here that a circumspect Dogmatics will give warning. It will have to ask the whole Church to consider that the ground out of which it has sprung and out of which alone it is able to live, is the admittedly rigid and uncompromising recognition that no one knows the Son, but the Father, and no one knows the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him (Matt. xi. 27).

In the paragraphs immediately preceding the one above, Barth speaks of the neccesity of the revelation of Jesus Christ. We cannot come to a specifically Christian dogmatics through natural knowledge alone, or with natural knowledge at all, as Barth would say. In fact it is only in the light of Christ that the weight of our sin becomes fully realized. Only in the light of Christ’s sacrifice is the great chasm that separates us from God made known. If our sin is not really that bad, as we are want to think, then why did God have to condescend to become man and die for us? And we must recognize that Christ had to die for me because of my sins, not merely for others as the word “us” can mislead us to believe. Only in this light, is our metaphysical situation before God (to steal a phrase from Deitrich von Hildebrand) made known. And the fact that God died for us and for our sins is a matter of revelation, not mere philosophical reasoning. Revelation is indispensable for the Christian.

Engaging Karl Barth

… Or the necessity thereof. For all the Barth fans out there, and this would be mostly the theologically Reformed of mind out there; these are the last two sentences from the forward of Robert McAfee Brown to Karl Barth’s Credo (Wipf & Stock 2005):

The reader has the privilege of disagreeing with Barth. He no longer has the privilege of ignoring him.

Barth is widely considered the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century. I have recently started reading his theology, starting with Dogmatics in Outline, to get an overview of his theology. The dialectical theology he was known for becomes apparent very early while reading the Outline. It seems what he said on the last page is contradicted by what he is saying on this page; that is until you stop and think, then realize that both statements are true. The Christian faith is full of paradox, as G.K. Chesterton loved to point out, so this should come as no surprise. But it always does; to my mind anyway.

Obviously, I am reading Credo now, which is really what he said in the Outline, only written about a decade earlier. I managed to sandwich Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith) in between the Outline and Credo, which means I’m getting a whole lot out of Barth by reading him a second time. Tillich’s theology was a primary target for Barth, and this is becoming quite clear as I read more of Credo. The difference in thought between these two great theologians, and contemporaries, is astounding. I am starting to see why Barth is considered to be so important. Tillich’s theological system is very sound and very persuasive; it is also very unorthodox. It’s amazing to see a great mind like Barth combat liberal protestantism with what has always been considered orthodox Christian teaching. Not that there isn’t room to disagree with Barth, but as McAfee Brown points out, he cannot be ignored. Even the great (usually German) Catholic theologians of this past century dared not ignore Barth.

For now I read, but perhaps later I will have more on Barth’s theology as it is presented to me in Credo.


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