Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"But Not For Me"

For Epiphany 4C

"He's reading words of hope / But not for me..."

You can almost hear Judy Garland singing in the heartbreak of the moment when Jesus' audience in Nazareth realizes that they're in for the other half of prophecy, the uprooting and destruction rather than the rebuilding and planting. Of course, Judy didn't leave scene, grab Mickey Rooney, and try and throw him off a cliff. (Gershwin women aren't like that.)

There were plenty of perfectly good Israelite widows, when the sky refused to rain for three-and-a-half years. And God sent the prophet to a city in Sidon, on the Mediterranean Sea, to a widow in a foreign land, to show mercy. Of course, that whole "no rain" thing was a curse upon Israel because Ahab raised an altar to Ba`al and worshiped the asherah, so there's a reason for this.

Ahab's son, Jehoram, was a bit better in that respect, demolishing the altar to Ba`al—though he didn't completely fix the liturgical innovations of his ancestor Jeroboam, so the author of the books of the kings still doesn't like him. (Moral: never piss off a liturgist.) And things were still pretty bad in Israel at that time, though not because of any curse. But the prophet heals Naaman of his leprosy—a Syrian in command of the forces of Aram, a foreigner in command of the armies of the enemy! And later that same day, Elisha will curse his own servant, and his whole lineage, with leprosy for seeking to profit from Naaman's cure. But the other lepers in the books of the kings stay lepers. There's no reason for this. It's not a curse, it's not from God, but God doesn't make it go away, either.

God is good to a Lebanese widow, and a Syrian general, and Israel goes begging. Now that inspires some jealousy! The kindness of God for others, "but not for me." But it isn't the prophet's job to be nice to his own people, most of the time. He's not a prophet because the people have been good. God makes a prophet when there's a problem. And the people know there's a problem. That's why they look with such hope toward the prophets that God sends to them.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Epiphany 4C

Getting too cranky. Must sermonize. To that end, the texts for this coming Sunday, the fourth week of Epiphany in the year of Luke. Some sad stuff. The birth of the prophet of the exile; the hope of safety with God; and Jesus telling the people of his hometown that the good news they just heard isn't for them. And, in the middle, Paul reminding the people of Corinth that they may do anything they want—as long as it is love. A group of texts that can only be grounded in the gospel, in spite of the circumstances.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Miracle at Cana: Something from Nothing

I usually think of the miracle at Cana as one of the little ones, "unfit even to be called a miracle"—a kind of parlor trick, even. Water to wine. A casual thing, certainly by comparison with raising the dead. I thought to myself this morning, "how d'ya preach on this?" Fortunately, I didn't have to; I could simply hear it. And what I heard is no small thing. What I heard is, "God makes something from nothing."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Apocalyptic Christological Ethics Through the Dogmatics

"Hope does not lie in a way out, but in a way through." (Robert Frost)

I'm very sympathetic to requests for help refining down the amount of Barth's Church Dogmatics one has to read to get a certain point. It's like being a sherpa for groups looking to climb Everest. I feel like reaching a point where I could do that myself has taken up most of my graduate career!

I recently had such a request from someone looking for advice on Christology and ethics in Barth. Which is fine; I was once asked where to find Barth's doctrine of the Trinity. These are reasonable requests, in any other theologian. But when the thing you're looking for is so basically structural to Barth's work, there are two answers to such a question. The first is that you have to pan out far enough to see the whole thing. And the second is, "what are you really interested in?"

And the answer that came back this time delighted me, because it offered me a chance to show someone the road I wish I had taken. The refinement that came back involved the doctrine of scripture, and apocalyptic. Thank God for Phil Ziegler, pushing people to think in apocalyptic terms about theologians we thought we already knew! These four things still point to a massive chunk of the Dogmatics in their intersections, but they're workable. (I should know; I've been working them!)

There is, as far as I'm concerned, a preferable path for these things through the Dogmatics. It helps fix certain errors of perception I find common in the field. And I'm going to try and walk it for you right now, as much for the help of those who want such a thing as for the correction of those who may know better.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Organization Matters

Picked up a systematic theology volume on the new-books shelf in the library the other day, and thought to myself, "starting with creation, again?" I realize I've gotten used to the in medias res way Barth goes about things, but I think it just sets a bad precedent to start with the doctrine of creation as though it were a primary doctrine.

Sometimes I really hate what modernity did to us. We were compelled to fall back on Medieval scholasticism, but on terms it would never have accepted. The result has been that, in many cases, we don't understand why we do the things we do anymore. In Thomas, creation is first because Thomas follows a thoroughgoing teleological arc. And it is first in this way because Thomas is doing apologetics for his prolegomena. Creation definitely has pride of place in apologetics, and for good reason. In the conflict of worldviews, the leading edge tends to be the proof of the worldview, and for us the worldview is inevitably set by our reading of God as creator and the world as creation. This is why Augustine found it so important to hash out, and rehash, and rehash, etc., the material in Genesis 1-3. One sets the stage for the rest of the worldview in this way. But this is not because creation is a primary doctrine—it is simply because apologetics involves wrapping the core doctrines of the faith in a nice candy coating! The consistency of the worldview is the logic that guides the presentation of the articles of the faith.

In dogmatics, however, we are preaching to the converted, and helping them to understand the kinds of natural and logical sequences that let us make sense of the faith internally. Here we are doing Anselm, not Augustine. It is therefore the internal logic by which the faith itself coheres, and not the external logic of the worldview it produces, which is of the greatest importance. In that effort, creation must resume its place among the secondary doctrines.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Confession and Proclamation

I've been trying for a while to express why I find Barth's Gifford Lectures on the knowledge of God and the service of God according to the Scots Confession, and his Göttingen course on the Reformed Confessions, so necessary to his ethics. And that's basically because they're not essential to his ethics, as we have understood it in the literature so far. And they're not going to figure heavily in my dissertation at this rate, either. The ground has to be laid for them, first. But I can't shake the feeling that they belong, nonetheless.

Yesterday's very brief post (there are advantages to composing on an iPod) was half an attempt to get this bit right, and half an attempt to be succinct about my sense that dogmatics and ethics in Barth are both subordinated to a third thing, the Word of God:
Two things are morally incumbent upon the Christian. We must confess none but God, and we must preach nothing but the gospel. Ethics as a task follows from these. It is the project of living in consistency with them. Dogmatics, or theology, instead pursues them. It is the project of verifying today that what we confess is in fact none other than God, and that what we preach is in fact nothing other than the gospel.

From these, all else follows.
But this is not the normal way we speak of ethics in its relationship to dogmatics, or about ethics simpliciter. We must, as fundamental obligations, confess and preach? What good does that accomplish?

Monday, January 7, 2013

What Must We Do?

I know this will bother my exegete friends, at least some of them, by omission. I'm striving for concision, against myself. Go ahead and push back! Where is the role of Biblical scholarship?

Two things are morally incumbent upon the Christian. We must confess none but God, and we must preach nothing but the gospel. Ethics as a task follows from these. It is the project of living in consistency with them. Dogmatics, or theology, instead pursues them. It is the project of verifying today that what we confess is in fact none other than God, and that what we preach is in fact nothing other than the gospel.

From these, all else follows.