Showing posts from July, 2017

David Bentley Hart on contemporary versus premodern allegorization

"Historians or hermeneuticians frequently assert that what most alienates modern readers from the methods of premodern exegetes is the latter’s passion for allegory. But this is false. If anything, we today are much more culturally predisposed than our forebears to an unremitting allegorization of the tales we tell or books we read, no matter how elaborate or tedious the results. True, we may prefer to discover psychological or social or ­political or sexual narratives 'encoded' in the texts before us, rather than spiritual or metaphysical mysteries; we might find it impossible to believe that a particular reading could be 'inspired' in a more than metaphorical sense; but the principle of the metabolism of the fictions we read into the 'meanings' we can produce is perfectly familiar to us. The same critic who might prissily recoil at the extravagances of a patristic figural reading of the Book of Numbers might feel not the slightest dismay at the transform…

Scripture's precedence is not chronological

Protestants, especially Evangelicals, have a bad habit of defending Scripture's precedence with respect to the present-day church community by reference to its otherness, that is, its status as a text that precedes the community in time and stands over against it as an entity of which it is not the source. This is a bad habit because some members of the church (i.e., the apostles and their co-laborers) did write Scripture—the New Testament in this case—and, moreover, textuality per se does not require ancient provenance. It is a bad habit, further, because it is an unnecessary argument.

Thinking about that bad habit put me in mind of a brief discussion late in my dissertation, discussing John Howard Yoder's theology of Scripture. There I write, "Yoder is right to argue for Scripture’s independence, or externality. This claim entails neither denial of Scripture’s human craftsmanship or ecclesial habitat (which Yoder acknowledges), nor reference to its antiquity or alien cu…

A coda on doubt

I forgot to include one thing in yesterday’s post about doubt. The unqualified affirmation of doubt, combined with the extension or requirement of experiencing it to all, is a problem also on pastoral grounds. Namely, the goodness of the good news depends on the ability to proclaim it without reservation or condition. The gospel announces an unrestricted promise of divine grace and love: “God has come near in Christ Jesus—repent and believe the good news!” The creeping, casual generalization of doubt to all believers and all belief as such has the effect of nullifying the force of this proclamation. For it is not only the unconditional quality of the message but the divine subject of the evangelical predicate that makes the message a matter of glad tidings, an announcement that is much more than a strong suggestion, but rather a word that of itself has the power to change lives, because it has already changed the world.

For example, the gospel does not say “You are forgiven.” It says “…

Against universalizing doubt

"Everyone doubts." "The question isn't whether you doubt, but when." "Faith without doubt is blind." "Doubt is universal."

Such phrases have become commonplaces in Christian discourse today. The context is usually pastoral, personal, or theological: responding to those grappling with doubt, sharing one's own experience with doubt, or reflecting on the nature and significance of doubt within and for Christian faith.

The object of doubt is not always specified, but in general it seems to be the existence of God, or some particular feature of faith's claims (about miracles, say, or the resurrection of Jesus, or an event in salvation history), or simply the whole ensemble of the spiritual world: reality beyond the empirical, life after death, angels and demons and heaven and hell.

The reason for doubt is often, though not always, the perceived difficulty of believing in God in light of some other thing understood to be in tension with fa…

Not one, just he: Barth on the universal promeity of the gospel

"It happened that in the humble obedience of the Son He took our place, He took to Himself our sins and death in order to make an end of them in His death, and that in so doing He did the right, He became the new and righteous man. It also happened that in His resurrection from the dead He was confirmed and recognized and revealed by God the Father as the One who has done and been that for us and all men. As the One who has done that, in whom God Himself has done that, who lives as the doer of that deed, He is our man, we are in Him, our present is His, the history of man is His history, He is the concrete event of the existence and reality of justified man in whom every man can recognize himself and every other man—recognize himself as truly justified. There is not one for whose sin and death He did not die, whose sin and death He did not remove and obliterate on the cross, for whom He did not positively do the right, whose right He has not established. There is not one to whom …

Diarmaid MacCulloch on the Psalter as the secret weapon of the Reformation

"The outbreak of war in 1562 was the culmination of a decade of extraordinary growth in French Protestantism. There may have been two million adherents in around a thousand congregations by 1562, while in the early 1550s there had been only a handful of secret groups; the phenomenon is even more spectacular in scale than the sudden emergence of popular Protestantism in Scotland in the same year that had so astonished John Knox. How had such rapid expansion taken place? Public preaching had not been possible on a significant scale to spread the message in France; there had not been enough ministers, and limited opportunities to gather to listen to sermons. Books played a major part, but the two central texts, the Bible and Calvin's Institutes, were bulky and expensive and could not have had a major circulation in the years of persecution before 1560, while a massive increase in Bible publication came only after 1562. Lesser, more easily concealed pamphlets could be more easily…

Figural christology in Paradise Lost

In the last two books of Paradise Lost, the angel Michael instructs Adam about what is to come. Together it amounts to a poetic summary of the whole biblical narrative, focusing especially on the bookends: the first 11 chapters of Genesis (the immediately subsequent history of Adam and Eve's progeny) and the antitype of Adam, Christ the Son of God incarnate, in whose life and work Adam finally finds consolation for the misery his and Eve's sin will unleash on so many generations of their children.

One of the most striking features of Milton's biblical precis is his depiction of figures from the "primeval history" of Genesis, those chapters between Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden and the calling of Abram. Specifically, his language about Enoch and Noah evokes Christ, not least through its anonymous description: by not naming the person in question, Milton leaves ambiguous just who is in view. The overall literary and theological effect is a brilliant, compe…

John Webster on the perennial nature of the intellect's depravity

"[W]e would be unwise to think of the depravity of the intellect as a peculiarly modern occurrence, a collateral effect of the naturalization of our view of ourselves. It assumes peculiar modern forms, such as the association of the intellect with pure human spontaneity and resistance to the idea that the movement of the mind is moved by God. But these are instances of perennial treachery; if our intellects are depraved, it is not because we are children of Scotus or Descartes or Kant, but because we are children of Adam."

—John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology—Volume II, Virtue and Intellect (T&T Clark, 2016), 147

Ronald Knox on setting free the wings of prayer

"For myself I always think it's not much use trying to fight against this particular kind of distraction, trying to make ourselves feel every single petition in the Our Father every time we say it. No, I think it's meant to be a sort of taking-off-from-the-ground when we want to set free the wings of prayer. And therefore what I would recommend is getting hold of just one idea in a prayer like that, either the first idea that comes along, or the idea that appeals to us most, or the idea that appeals to us most at this particular moment, and hanging on to that all through our recitation of the prayer itself; the words Our Father, for example, are quite enough by themselves to key one up, don't you think? I don't see why we shouldn't just back in that idea, sun ourselves in that idea, of God's fatherhood, and let the rest of the prayer slip past us while we are about it. But with this recitation of the Pater Noster at Mass, I'm afraid it's worse than…

A proposal regarding Christians and the Fourth of July

I first published this in 2012, and often re-publish it as July 4th approaches.

For Christians concerned with issues like nationalism, the violence of the state, and bearing witness to God's peaceable kingdom, one might expect the Fourth of July to be a straightforward call to action. An opportunity to debunk American myths; a day of truth-telling about those who suffer as a consequence of American policies, foreign and domestic; a chance to offer a counter-witness to the civil liturgies covertly clamoring for the allegiance of God's people. And there are compelling, laudable voices doing just that sort of thing today.

On the Fourth, however, I find myself wondering whether there might also be another option available. Not as a replacement of those I've listed above, but rather as another way of "being" on the Fourth that, on the one hand, betrays not an inch on the issues (which, of course, do not disappear for 24 hours), yet on the other hand is able…