Thursday, October 27, 2011

Doing better on Natural Theology

Sometimes, watching old posts come up in the stats, I'm pleasantly surprised -- other times, I'm disappointed. And one of those times has to do with the topic of natural theology. There's something better to be said about it than I wound up saying the last time I was pressed on the topic.

Here's the thing: much depends on what you mean by "natural theology." If we mean by this, "theology that proceeds to the knowledge of God without the mediation of religion," we have a problem. How, indeed, would theology proceed naturally to the knowledge of a being revealed in contradistinction to the world of nature? And yet if we mean something else by the term "natural theology," there are ways of accepting the venture as a faithful one. So let us consider what natural theology is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On "On the Trinity"

This is the result of an interesting exercise, in which we summarize big theology books in two pages. Ah, the things we do for coursework -- but it's still good practice. And I'm sure it needs correcting!  The quick-and-dirty always does.

Augustine's de Trinitate, written in the early 400's, is clearly intended to emphasize the unity of God. Coming out of the contests of the late 300's, and the aftermath of the production of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, the text has the air of a preemptive dispute. Augustine remains concerned to describe God in ways that rule out the errors of separation and subordination of persons in the godhead. And yet it is not primarily a polemical text, written to counter opponents. In several places, Augustine does engage in refutation of opinions, and at length. However, the book proceeds under the constantly repeated declaration that he writes in order to explain his best understanding, and invites charitable correction while he warns the reader of misunderstandings along the way.

Augustine introduces “Trinity” as a way of referring to the unity of the persons of God — not as a fourth being in relation to three other beings, but as a name for God representing the unity of Father, Son and Spirit. (Robert Jenson's insistence upon the name of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” likewise attempting to express God as the unity of persons, is a modern parallel — though it lacks the singular impact of “Trinity.”) Doctrinally, this is as important a move today as in the wake of the Arian controversies. Augustine moves from a conversation that is principally about three personal beings and their interrelationships — begetting, proceeding, sending — to a conversation about the one God who acts.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Race and Storytelling: Uplift vs. Creation

Race is a mathematical discontinuity. We have drawn a solution-line for our social equations, and we have an approximation for every point along that line -- but when we get to actually solving the equations for the real world, we find that at every point the value we think there should be ... simply isn't there. Instead, we get this vertical line running from positive to negative infinity, with a white line stretching asymptotically upward toward the "good life," and a black line stretching asymptotically downward toward a bad death.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh, goodie: the Evangelicals talk about the doctrine of God

Bobby Grow is weighing in on whether or not the doctrine of the trinity is negotiable for the gospel, among Evangelicals. And there's a whole mess of discussion ahead of him, to which my first reaction is shaking my head. But I love a good argument, and I respect Bobby, so I set out to comment. Only I can't write something that fits neatly in the margin, because I find myself coming at the problem from outside the conversation. Too much to explain. So I'll contribute from here, where I can start to do it justice.

First, let's look at what's really going on here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Turning the Parable on its Ear

Thank God for sarcastic Lutherans. Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber flips the parable of the Prince's Wedding in Matthew 22 on its ear, and beautifully. And having just tried to treat that parable in the set of three a few days back, I find myself to have been insufficiently radical, and insufficiently attentive to context.

You see, put briefly, Nadia points to Jesus as the guest bound hand and foot and ejected from the royal banquet. And this is right! But rather than go her route to getting there (which is certainly good, worth reading, and quite clear about the nature of parables -- but not my style), I will point to Matthew's opening line, which we always mistranslate: "The kingdom of the heavens has been compared to ..." Homoiothe, aorist passive. Quick grammar lesson: Greek verb tenses indicate time and quality. The perfect indicates perfective quality, that an action completed in the past continues to be complete. The imperfect indicates progressive quality, that an action in the past continues beyond the past. But the aorist is aoristos, indefinite, with respect to quality. It simply indicates past action. And so when we say "The kingdom of heaven is compared to" -- much less "is like" -- we really break this sense. For comparison, think of the Sermon on the Mount, in Mt. 5, in which Jesus repeatedly says ekousate hoti errethe, "You have heard that it has been said ..." -- verbs in the aorist active and aorist passive. What comes next? "But I say to you, ..." This simple past-ness is great for contradictions. What if we assume, in every parable like this, that the image is pointedly wrong?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Queer Sort of Candidacy Problem

I haven't been writing about this because I wasn't there. But we're all very clearly still in the fallout of the resolve of this church to ordain LGBTIQ clergy without mandating celibacy. Which somehow has become a fight, from the historically dominant side, about ordaining LGBTIQ folk at all -- as though we'd never done it before! We've had quietly gay pastors for a long time, generations back into our predecessor churches. But these generations of out, proud, and faithful folk today are getting a mixed message, at best.

What happened? (Oh, I don't mean in the big sense -- I'm not qualified to write about that. I just mean last Wednesday.) I've been to quite a few bishop-visitation luncheons here at LSTC, and every year there are some gripes about the candidacy process, and especially placements -- or the lack thereof. And I've heard any number of bishops complain about the model, that they can't just put you where they want to and be done with it. And two years ago, after the rules were changed by the Churchwide Assembly, quite a few of our graduates got shafted simply for being students from the school whose faculty signed their names to arguments in favor of -- I hate the language -- "ordaining practicing homosexuals." Not our language, but certainly the dominant terms of the debate. Some simply got delayed, put on the back burner; some were actually told that this is what was going on; and others simply got raked over the coals of artificial confessional litmus tests that were little more than heresy hunts. "Just give us an excuse." A very good friend of mine got bounced from her process, attributed to a 90 on a school paper, a grade I gave her -- on a paper they had no right to see, let alone use that way, constructive work that was really quite good and a grade that was supposed to reflect that.

That's calmed down, of course -- our straight candidates are much easier to place, now. Not that the system works -- we keep telling students to "trust the process," but at its best, that only ever meant, "don't try to work the system for yourself -- trust us to work the system for you, because we're expected to be manipulating the system to get you placed, but they might smack you down for trying to get your own call." And before 2008-09, maybe that mostly worked (he said generously) -- but with the economic crash and practically nobody retiring, and on top of that the added strain of church-wide synodical conflicts exacerbated by the sexuality resolutions, with congregations leaving, and various synods pushing and pulling in different directions, the church has mostly gone into "putting out fires" mode, and invested heavily in conflict-avoidance. It's like we fought so hard to get the pill swallowed -- and now the body is fighting the medicine, and the doctors are waiting to see what happens. And that seems to be what happened at this bishop-visitation luncheon. The bishops, whose jobs here are always "sell, sell, sell," trying to get candidates to come to their synods, are deep in the numbers game of decline, and the pessimism that goes with it. And with five bishops from conservative synods this time around, it's little surprise that the message wasn't positive. "Wait" -- indefinitely. "Go out and be creative -- figure out how to work while you wait for a call to come through." "Think in terms of dual-vocation -- be a part-time pastor, and a part-time barista."

Now this is general, too -- but the best remarks of all apparently came in response to a question about two of our seniors, out and single, who have been approved, but whose placements are being delayed. (There's a term for that in the process, and I'm missing it, off the top of my head.) The classic "the church moves slowly" line came out. Think how long it took the church to accept women -- and you want calls now? If you want ministry opportunities, you're going to have to get out there and make them -- the "mission developer" answer, basically.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Expanding the Juridical Parable

The last three Sundays, we've had three parables told against the senior priests and councillors of the Judean people from Matthew 21 and 22. Mark only gives us the middle one, and when they're spread out like this in the lectionary, we don't get the full thrust of what Matthew does here. So let's have a look at what is really going on in these texts.

As in Mark, we have the Davidic entry into Jerusalem, followed by Jesus clearing out the Temple courts of the merchant apparatus. Very Maccabean, including the Sukkot references in the procession. And with slightly more awareness of these events in Matthew than in Mark, the Judean authorities are more than slightly bothered by the whole arrangement. And they should be -- this series of events implies (and with a certain justice) that they have become as complicit in the Roman occupation as the Temple apparatus had been in the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, two centuries earlier. And so they come to Jesus the next day and ask, "With what kind of authorization do you do these things, and who gave you that license?" And the implicit answer is that the same eschatological truth present in John's baptism of repentance is present here.

And now come the parables, fleshing out the answer. The core of Matthew's answer remains the same as in Mark: the juridical parable of the vineyard from Isaiah 5. But here it's flanked by two other parables: the simple question about filial obedience, and today's parable about the marriage feast. Let's see how they interact.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reformed and Lutheran Heresiology, and via media

I've been doing a lot of unsuccessful writing lately -- the thoughts are too full of material and not formed enough. It's one of the perils of this half of the term, and my standard pattern for starting any topic. Survey the area, cram in as much information as possible, shake well, let the brain sort it, sift for the patterns that emerge, and chase them down. Build on top of the ones that work.

But with the Kantzer lectures now completed, I've got some extra-curricular thoughts to play with, too. One of the things I like about PTS is that it has both Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger. The trained post-liberal narrative theologian in me leans heavily toward Hunsinger. I have too many arguments with McCormack -- but they're necessary arguments. The man is solid, and solidly different. A post-Arminian Calvinist with good grounding in early Christian thought. A solid diagnostician, but "working the other side of the street" in ways that produce a markedly different system of heresiology from the Lutheran concerns.

And so it's been very interesting to me to hear McCormack articulate a doctrine of God for the Evangelicals. (Overviews of the lectures can be found on the Wheaton Blog.) The whole thing begins and proceeds and ends in heresiology! And it's good diagnosis, even if I wouldn't follow his line to its destination. His critiques are solid, if not exhaustive -- if you want to hold a position somewhere in the vicinity of the arguments, and it's not his, you still have to deal with his critiques. And as a Lutheran, I have to come at the same problems from a different direction, in different terms, even if both of us are working in deeply Barthian veins. Which is to say that I have a lot to learn from him!

But talking about Lutherans and Lutheran positions in this context gets me in trouble, especially since I have a friend who is both Lutheran and one of McCormack's students. It's caused both of us quite a bit of trouble understanding one another. And so I've been looking for a chance to draw out a better explanation of where I'm coming from. You see, McCormack and his students include Lutherans in their readings. Which is great -- I firmly believe that we'd do better with more Reformed thought in our studies. (Which is easy enough to go out and get, in Chicago.) But Bruce's Lutherans just aren't "Lutheran" enough, and why that should be the case is the trouble.