Monday, 10 October 2016

Discerning God’s Presence in World Events

How do we know what things in the world are the direct result of divine action? Or, to put it differently, (how) can we say that event x was God’s doing but event y was not? It’s not an easy sort of question to answer. In the days when I used to do some serious thinking and writing, I thought one way of addressing the matter was to talk about intensities of divine presence in events (see my Providence Made Flesh, pp. 229–232, and the final section of my hard-to-locate article, ‘Divine Presence as a Framework for God’s Providence’, Epworth Review 36:3 (2009), online edition). I still see no reason why something like this can’t prove helpful. Let me explain.

Even though he appears to criticise my stance on this issue in a review of Providence Made Flesh (see Evangelical Quarterly 82:3 (2010), pp. 286–288), Ian McFarland has since argued that God’s glorification of the creature entails God ‘returning’ to the creature through an intensification of the divine presence. He explains, ‘I am no nearer to a person sitting next to me before than after we are introduced, but the fact of acquaintance profoundly changes the quality of that nearness. Similarly, there is (because there can be) no augmentation of God’s proximity to creation in glory, but there is an increase in intimacy.’ (Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 178). In his review of my book, McFarland seems to believe that I was equating intensification of divine presence with an increase in divine presence, which I was not. Regardless, McFarland’s language of intensification suggests some mileage in the idea. But the task is to transfer the language of intensification from eschatological glorification to current events.

Some help comes from Vernon White’s Purpose and Providence, which, let me say, is the best book on providence I’ve read in quite a few years. White uses the idea of figural interpretation (‘the possibilities of seeing a patterned family resemblance between events, even though there is no visible causal relationship between them’, p. 7) to contend that divine meaning in events can be detected when it is interpreted in light of the Christ event. Naturally, such divine meaning cannot be stated absolutely; but, White argues, some events relate more clearly to the Christ event than others, and this gives us a basis for locating the place and significance of any given event within the purposes of God (see Purpose and Providence, p. 123).

It seems to me that there can be a happy marriage between my (and McFarland’s) talk of the intensification of divine presence and White’s use of figural interpretation if we can say that genuine meaning and purpose are found in those events that approximate not to the Christ event simpliciter, but to the eschatological rule of the crucified but exalted Christ; that is, to how far events are present instantiations of the age of come as brought about by the intensification of divine presence in those events. Is this plausible?

Saturday, 8 October 2016

My Review of Vernon White’s Purpose and Providence

My review of Vernon White’s Purpose and Providence: Taking Soundings in Western Thought, Literature and Theology has now been published in Regent’s Reviews 8:1 (2016). Here’s my concluding paragraph:

Purpose and Providence is an engaging read and White’s prose is elegant. He is not content simply to engage with theological ideas as such but dedicates a chapter to excavating layers of the transcendent from the writings of Thomas Hardy and Julian Barnes; a chapter to tracing the development of the doctrine of providence in Christian thought, from Augustine through to Barth, via Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and even Friedrich Schleiermacher and G.W.F. Hegel; and still another chapter to more recent accounts of divine action, including those of the science and religion dialogue and Kevin Vanhoozer’s model of divine communicative action (of which White appears highly appreciative). White is fair to his interlocutors and modest in what his own proposals might achieve or contribute to wider discussions. As with any monograph, there are points in the details that could be perceived as weaknesses. For example, the idea of figural interpretation is such an important element of Purpose and Providence that I cannot help but wonder if White should explain it in more detail than he does. His ideas are shown to resonate with Scripture, but arguably some actual exegesis of specific biblical passages might have been useful as well (though I accept such exegetical reflections would probably have interrupted White’s overall thesis). And some, including me, might find that White’s account of God’s radical otherness bears too much conceptual weight; if pushed too hard, surely such radical otherness essentially transmutes into an unconstrained omnipotence—a recurring vulnerability in discussions of divine providence. But against these things, I can only emphasise that Purpose and Providence is pregnant with possibilities and so essential reading for anyone with an academic interest in the doctrine of providence.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Greg Boyd’s Forthcoming Magnum Opus

Years ago, I grew slightly excited to hear that Greg Boyd—he of open theism fame—was writing The Myth of the Blueprint, ostensibly a lengthy volume showing how so-called classical theism is the product of a wrong reading of Scripture. And we’re still waiting for it. But Boyd is releasing two books (three books?) next year, one of which seems to be The Myth of the Blueprint in an expanded, retitled form. Here is a press release from Fortress Press:

Fortress Press is thrilled to announce the upcoming publication of two provocative titles by Rev. Dr. Gregory A. Boyd. The first, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, is a massive, two-volume, 1400-page text, to be released on April 1, 2017. Boyd’s much-anticipated tome will challenge contemporary scholarship and is sure to be debated in academia and the church for years to come. The second book, tentatively titled, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, will be published on August 1, 2017. A trade book, Cross Vision, will make Boyd’s provocative arguments available to a general readership.

Boyd, the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul and the author of best-selling books, Letters from a Skeptic and God at War, has been working on Crucifixion of the Warrior God for over a decade. “This is my life’s work,” Boyd said, “the culmination of my thoughts on the nature of God, Jesus, and the Bible. I can’t wait to engage with readers on these, the topics most essential to the Christian faith.”

Will Bergkamp, publisher at Fortress Press, expressed enthusiasm for the project: “Greg Boyd is a preeminent pastor-theologian, and he’s a great fit for us at Fortress Press. We’re especially excited that we can bring his ideas to both academic and popular audiences.” Bergkamp also noted that The Crucifixion of the Warrior God has the same comprehensive and robust argumentation as N. T. Wright’s bestselling Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a 2013 Fortress title.

As if I haven’t got enough to read already!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Karl Barth on ‘I-hymns’ [2]

In my previous post, we saw that Barth (in Church Dogmatics I/2) objected to so-called ‘I-hymns’ on the basis of a perceived separation of the Holy Spirit from Christ. The result of this is effectively a turn from the objectivity of Christian faith as revealed in Jesus Christ by the Spirit to the subjectivity of the Christian’s own faith or relationship with God in Christ. On Barth’s account here, the ‘spiritual songs’ of Ephesians 5:19 have ‘given way to religious poetry.’ (CD I/2, p. 254)

However, in Church Dogmatics IV/1 (1953; ET 1956), Barth issues a retraction of sorts—or perhaps an intensification of his critique. First of all, Barth not only affirms that Jesus Christ stands in relation to the Christian community and to the world more generally, but in relation to the individual Christian, too: ‘from all eternity God has thought of me, elected me, acted for me in Him [Jesus], called me to Himself in Him as His Word.’ (CD IV/1, p. 753) Barth is not saying that the ‘I’ is the only person that matters, but that God in Christ truly relates to the ‘I’ in all his or her particularity: Jesus is my Mediator, my Saviour, my Lord. Thus Jesus is pro me—‘for me’. But this is no abstract pro me but the pro me that has to be seen in relation to the pro nobis (‘for us’) and the propter nos homines (‘for us humans’). As far as I understand Barth here, Jesus is pro me as the particular person, Terry, who is constituted by his relations within the Christian community (pro nobis) and humanity more generally (propter nos homines). So Christ not only died for humanity but—in a very real sense—just for Terry. (And for you in all your glorious particularity, I hasten to add.)

So how does this apparently quite extreme Christian(ised) individualism affect the Church’s hymnody? Barth notes that his earlier critique of ‘I-hymns’ (in CD I/2) can only be a relative criticism; there are too many ‘I-Psalms’ in Scripture to suggest otherwise. Moreover, the pro me needs to be genuine lest Christian belief degenerate into an abstract theory rather than a powerful witness to God’s action in Christ. But Barth goes further than this; he goes to great lengths to emphasise that Christ stands in relation to each individual Christian as though he or she were the sole representative of Christian faith in the world. In fact, my ‘as though’ might be misleading:

Each individual as such . . . stands in the place of many, of all, uniting and representing in himself as this man the whole race, and in himself as this Christian the community. In his existence as an individual he is not a particle or a sample or a specimen. He is the one who is and has and does and signifies the whole and everything. He is the one who is responsible for all and everything. . . . In all the work of God, in what God does and says as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, he is not merely envisaged in general, or together with others. . . . What God does is all of it done just for him, just for thee and me. What God wills is all expected just of him, just of thee and me. (CD IV/1, p. 756)

This is not the easiest passage to understand, at least not for me. The thrust of the passage seems to be that, for Barth, Christ’s relation to each individual Christian demonstrates that God is not only pro me, but that God, by virtue of being pro me, is also pro nobis and propter nos homines as well. And this seems to be Barth’s unpacking of the word Credo, ‘I believe’, which is in the first person singular to express the genuine unity of those who confess it as members of the Church. All this seems to point to a radical understanding of humanity that moves beyond mere individualism and simple communitarianism towards something more (shall we say) mystical. And this is what I think is the genius of Barth’s critique here in CD IV/1: the Church’s so-called ‘I-hymns’ don’t go far enough! In Barth’s own words, ‘Is there any I-hymn which can express this strongly enough? Is not the confession of faith itself necessarily the strongest I-hymn of all?’ (CD IV/1, p. 756) If my reading of Barth here is correct, then I suggest that few current ‘I-hymns’ can express this radical conception of humanity because the Western Church is either mired in a thoroughgoing individualism that posits the Church merely as individuals with a common interest, or is earnestly seeking some kind of socialist utopia that may or may not have Christian elements. But neither angle takes humanity seriously enough.

Given all this, Barth maintains that while I-hymns have a place in the Church’s hymnody, they can only have that place inasmuch as they testify to Christ. The pro me cannot be abstracted and systematised; nor can the relationship between God and the individual be ‘the basis and measure of all things.’ (CD IV/1, p. 757) Here, Barth seems to be saying that in the process of singing genuinely Christ-oriented ‘I-hymns’, Christ himself moves intentionally from being the object of the pro me to being the subject of the pro me. Barth concludes:

It will be acknowledged that Christian faith is an “existential” happening, that it is from first to last I-faith, which can and should be sung in I-hymns. But there will take place the necessary “de-mythologisation” of the “I” which Paul carried through in Gal. 220: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (CD IV/1, p. 757)

* * * * *

The danger I see in many of the songs we sing in our local churches is that either they focus on our relationship with God (rather than on God and what God has done), or they are an opportunity to emote—or, to put it more pejoratively, an opportunity to burble like a baby. But do we not see both of these things in the psalms? I confess I’d like Barth to have explained his comment about ‘I-Psalms’ a little more.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Karl Barth on ‘I-hymns’ [1]

In light of my recent post critiquing worship as self-expression, I thought I’d dedicate a couple of posts to Karl Barth’s analysis of so-called ‘I-hymns’. In Church Dogmatics I/2 (1938; ET 1956), Barth speaks of how Jesus Christ is humanity’s possibility of receiving revelation; that the receipt of revelation is itself revelation; that the content of this revelation is Christ himself; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes known this revelation to humanity. The important thing here is that the Spirit can do this because the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The two cannot be separated, even though they can and must be distinguished. This is what the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed seeks to preserve.

But what happens when Christ and the Spirit are separated? For Barth, the danger is that the Spirit is not seen specifically as the Spirit of Christ and so any knowledge claimed to have been revealed by the Spirit is not necessarily shaped or filled by Christ. Barth sees this as the foundational flaw in much of the hymnody of post-Reformation traditions. At the start of the Reformation period, Martin Luther essentially took his hymns directly from Scripture and from the medieval Church. Barth writes,

Luther’s hymns are completely lacking in all lyrical quality, i.e., in all emphasis upon the emotion of the subject. The one who speaks in them is neither giving to himself all kinds of accusatory, heartening, instructive and hortatory advice, nor is he constraining others with the challenge or invitation or demand to lay this or that upon their hearts. What these hymns contain is adoration and solid communication, confession of faith, confession of sins, proclamation. (CD I/2, p. 253)

But by the end of the sixteenth century, there had been a subtle change in the lyrical content of church hymns:

In place of the drama of creation, reconciliation and redemption, which is the work of the triune God, another drama is staged. We hear a monologue of the soul, or a duologue between the soul and God, or even at this early date of one soul with another. (CD I/2, pp. 253–54)

Barth appreciates that the hymn-writers of this period had good intentions; but ‘in what or in whom are we really believing?’ (CD I/2, p. 254) This, I believe, is the crucial point, and I hope I am not mishandling Barth when I rephrase his question as ‘What or who is this song about?’ (I have to say that I ask this question about a lot of the songs we sing in our local churches at the moment . . .) By the eighteenth century, ‘confession and proclamation have now really given way to religious poetry’ (CD I/2, p. 254), with the effect that true confession of Christ could be removed from any of the hymns from this period without serious repercussions.

So how does this happen? Barth provides a useful breakdown of the process:

  • a ‘spiritual song’ (ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς; Eph. 5:19) is a song in which the Word of God is preached and heard;
  • a sub-theme in the song becomes interesting;
  • this sub-theme then becomes independent from the main theme;
  • the now-independent sub-theme proves to be more interesting than the main theme;
  • the sub-theme becomes the main theme; and
  • the new main theme shapes our understanding of the old main theme (CD I/2, p. 256).

And all this because Christ and the Spirit have been separated!

I have to admit that I’m still trying to wrap my head around what Barth’s saying here; I’m not a Barth scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I dare say that my lack of familiarity with the output of the hymn-writers Barth mentions (e.g., Gerhard Tersteegan and Christian Fürchtegott Gellert—though chances are I might have sung their hymns unknowingly) hinders me from truly appreciating his criticism. That said, if Barth’s point is that the songs we sing in church are all the poorer because we are focussing on us and our (or my) relationship with God, then that is a point I can affirm—though to what extent do modern worship songs and choruses really separate the Spirit from Christ?

Barth also discusses ‘I-hymns’ in Church Dogmatics IV/1, but I’ll leave that for my next post.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Richard A. Muller’s Forthcoming Book on Providence

How exciting! I’ve just discovered that Richard Muller has a book on providence coming out at the beginning of 2017. (I could have done with this in 2007, but anyway . . .)

Rather than cut ’n’ pasting blurb from the publisher’s website as I normally do for these sorts of things, I thought I’d show you how technologically adept I am by using Microsoft’s Snipping Tool instead. Hopefully it will work out fine. If it doesn’t, I’ll revert to my old ways.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A New Biography of Søren Kierkegaard

Imagine my surprise this morning when I received through the post, quite unexpectedly, a new biography of Søren Kierkegaard and a jute bag adorned with the Danish philosopher’s face!

I can only assume that I have been sent the biography (though perhaps not the jute bag) to review, and so review it I shall in due course. In the meantime, here are some of the details about the biography (not the jute bag) from the accompanying press release:

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016

Søren Kierkegaard lived an extraordinary life. His story is filled with romance and betrayal, family curses against God and acts of grace toward others, humor, drama, quiet observations, and riot-inducing polemics. He died in the midst of his fierce “attack upon Christendom”: alone, misunderstood, and infamous.

[. . .]

The Danish philosopher, theologian, social critic, and writer is now widely recognized as one of the world’s most profound writers and thinkers. His influence on philosophy, literature, and on secular and religious life and thought is incalculable. He is known, amongst other things, as “the father of existentialism” and as the man who introduced the ideas of anxiety and the leap of faith to the modern imagination.

[. . .]

His attack on Christianized nationalism helped inspire the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer to resist the Nazis. He has inspired novelists such as Mann and Kafka and poets like Eliot and Auden.

Yet one is hard pressed to find a biography that explains simply what Kierkegaard’s life was like or gives a straightforward overview of his books . . . until now.

Kierkegaard: A Single Life highlights the interesting and controversial aspects of Kierkegaard’s life, telling a story that few today know, and provides brief, straightforward overviews of his key works.

The biography is endorsed by a number of significant names, including Rowan and Jane Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, and William T. Cavanaugh.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Who Acts in Worship? A Brief Critique of Worship as Self-expression

What are we doing when we worship? If anything, we are responding to what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. Our triune God is active in the sacraments, in the Word, and even—yes, I’ll say this, somewhat guardedly—even in our singing if it proves to be a place of genuine encounter between God and Christians. True worship is a participation in the life of the triune God, where the Holy Spirit leads us to the Father through Jesus (cf. Eph. 2:18). Our liturgies, however structured, however informal, are God’s action: it is God who acts in the sacraments and God who acts in the Word. I don’t believe that participants in liturgy are passive recipients as such; while we contribute nothing to God’s action, we still actively respond (by the Spirit) to God’s gracious calling. But the emphasis of worship is on God—not on us, but on God.

James K. A. Smith builds on this train of thought. The primary actor in worship is the triune God; if it is not, then the primary actor is me, and worship becomes little more than self-expression where I declare how devoted I am to God. The important thing here, Smith notes, is that worship must be sincere and novel: ‘If I worship in order to show God how much I love him, I might start to feel hypocritical if I just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.’ (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), p. 75). Thus anything that approximates to ‘traditional’ worship is regarded as poor or inauthentic or even as ‘works righteousness’ that tries ‘to “earn” God’s favor’ (p. 76). The problem here, as Smith recognises, is that ‘the worship-as-expression paradigm makes us the primary actors in worship [and] breeds its own kind of bottom-up valorization of human striving that slides closer to works righteousness’ (p. 77, emphasis original).

But if worship is not about me expressing my love and commitment for God, what is it? Smith continues,

Instead of the bottom-up emphasis on worship as our expression of devotion and praise, historic Christian worship is rooted in the conviction that God is the primary actor or agent in the worship encounter. Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. (p. 77, emphasis original).

Is it possible that the common but implicit identification of worship with singing fosters an understanding of worship as self-expression? If so, is it time to place less emphasis on the songs, even the hymnody, and focus instead on the psalmody? Or will even this lead to self-expressionism?

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Experiences and Psychology Behind My Academic Study of Providence

Warning: navel-gazing ahead!

Of all the theological topics that could possibly be studied, why have I chosen to focus on the doctrine of providence? Questions about divine predetermination and God’s providence have always interested me, at least since I came to faith in my early teens. And so I suppose it was only natural that I gravitated towards essay questions on election, determinism, and the like when I studied theology as a university undergraduate—and the advantage of studying at King’s College London under Colin Gunton et al. was that I was introduced to Karl Barth’s distinctive take on election almost immediately. But the wider question remains: Why have these sorts of questions always interested me? It’s a truism to say that no theology is developed within a vacuum; context is important and influential. And it’s difficult to analyse steps taken or attitudes that date back almost thirty years. But in my attempt here to do just this, I have detected a possible pattern that could explain why the doctrine of providence continues to intrigue me.

Fundamentally, providence is about God’s provision—and provision has been a big issue for me. While my tween- and teenage years weren’t especially harrowing, I did have a parent who often ignored the harsher realities of life. Our kitchen drawers were stuffed with unpaid bills; we prized fifty pence pieces for the electricity, gas, and even television metres; and we lived continuously with the threat of bailiffs, who occasionally came and removed things from our council house. And I very often missed school on Monday mornings because I had to wait for Mum to get her unemployment benefit so we could buy some breakfast. The usual weekly pattern was for Mum to use at least half her benefit to repay neighbours the money that we had borrowed from them the previous week—a cycle that lead us to borrow again from them later in the same week. By the time I reached eighteen and began to study my A Levels (I didn’t move straight from secondary school to further education), my circumstances had changed so I could make a point of providing for myself—though, regrettably, such self-provision occasionally included my manipulation of others to provide for me. These days, my state of affairs has vastly improved, and I am far from any situation that would render me or my family hungry, homeless, or impoverished. Given the economic climate, who knows what will happen in even a year or two? But for now, my life is far more comfortable than it was back in the eighties and nineties.

That said, I still fear situations where I detect a lack of provision for me. Well, ‘fear’ is probably too strong a word, but I am often apprehensive of social situations where I am not in control or a major contributor to what is expected to happen. So, for example, for typical church bring ’n’ share lunches, I tend to bring my own sandwiches because I can’t guarantee that the food on offer will be free from tomatoes (*shudder*) and/or mayonnaise (*double shudder*). And I feel the need to bring my own drinks because I drink neither tea nor coffee, and, as a diabetic, I shouldn’t drink fruit juice. Now all this might make me seem overly fussy or even precious, but a relatively high level of self-provision in these sorts of social situations is very important for me; in general, I don’t feel I can rely on other people to supply exactly what I believe I need; and, rightly or wrongly, I am connecting my present idiosyncrasies to my predominantly teenage experiences.

Now why am I indulging in such public self-absorption? Believe me, I haven’t listed as many details as I could—you should thank me for sparing you from these! But I can’t help but wonder if my interest in matters of predestination and providence are intertwined with my perceived need to provide for myself. If my behaviour has been and continues to be shaped by an assumption that I have to provide for myself because I can’t rely on anyone else, then the doctrine of providence, with its emphasis on God’s provision for humanity, is certainly going to be of interest. Does God provide everything? Does God provide some things but expect me to provide other things? Does God provide nothing other than, say, resources for me to provide for myself? These questions are not disconnected from my experience, it seems, and I think it’s telling that my research has attended more to God’s self-provision for the world in Jesus Christ than in God’s specific provision for individuals à la John Calvin. Moreover, there are matters addressed by the doctrine of providence that also resonate with my experiences and psychology. I struggle with a perception that if someone else is good at something, then I cannot be any good at that same thing—it’s a kind of zero-sum game. If someone publishes an essay on providence espousing a view I disagree with, then it is me who is obviously holding the wrong view and not the other person. And my published research on providence has often focussed on issues pertaining to the supposed zero-sum relation between God and creation, where God and creatures are seen in competition. Thus a link between my research interests, my experiences, and my psychology is highly probable—and I would go so far as to say that other scholars’ research interests are rooted far more in their experiences and psychologies than is commonly articulated.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

inScripturations #11: 1 Samuel 11:2a

(There’s some good raw material in 1 Samuel, though I suspect I’m a little late to the party with this one . . .)