Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Warden (Trollope)

Books 1I was inspired by Stanley Hauerwas to read some Trollope, and this was my first. An easy to read mid-nineteenth century novel (1855), in which the author intrudes into the narrative at a number of places. It is a gentle story of a good and honest clergyman hounded by the press for what they consider to be a moral compromise and an abuse of position. Harding, caretaker of a hostel with twelve elderly men in care, is accused of illegitimately taking the money which should by rights belong to the twelve men in the home. The introductory essay situates the narrative in real events unfolding in England at the time. It highlights the growing power and amoral posture of the newspapers, and details  the response of Rev. Harding to the pressure he experiences.

Hauerwas appreciates Trollope because he develops and portrays the character of Harding, the depth of his honour, his wrestling with moral ambiguity, his decision to choose the highest and the best rather than simply settle for what was permissible or good, even at great cost to himself and his daughter. For Hauerwas, Trollope’s stories illustrate the narrative context and formation of virtue, that is, that virtue is formed in the concrete experience of life and community.

In one scene, the moral activist Mr John Bold who launches the action against Mr Harding, is appealed to by Mr Harding’s elder daughter to drop his case:

‘Pray, pray, for my sake, John, give it up. You know how dearly you love her’ [Harding’s younger daughter]. And she came and knelt before him on the rug. ‘Pray, give it up. You are going to make yourself, and her, and her father miserable: you are going to make us all miserable. And for what? For a dream of justice. You will never make those twelve men happier than they now are’ (50).

The WardenIn this instance, Trollope shows that justice can never be simply the application of an abstract principle, but must be concerned with actual situations and actual people, otherwise it is “a dream of justice” and not actual justice.

We see something of Trollope’s humour, as well as his understanding of morality, in the following description of “Dr Pessimist Anticant” – an allegorical reference to Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish essayist and historian:

[He] had passed a great portion of his early days in Germany; he had studied there with much effect, and had learnt to look with German subtlety into the root of things, and to examine for himself their intrinsic worth and worthlessness. No man ever resolved more bravely than he to accept as good nothing that was evil; to banish from him as evil nothing that was good. ‘Tis a pity that he should not have recognized the fact that in this world no good is unalloyed, and that there is but little evil that has not in it some seed of what is goodly.

Returning from Germany, he had astonished the reading public by the vigour of his thoughts, put forth in the quaintest language. He cannot write English, said the critics. No matter, said the public: we can read what he does write, and that without yawning. And so Dr Pessimist Anticant became popular. Popularity spoilt him for all further real use, as it has done many another…

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of God

God-the-Father-1779-xx-Pompeo-Girolamo-BatoniBarth’s Doctrine of God in Church Dogmatics Volume II/1

McCormack argues that Karl Barth has developed a post-metaphysical—i.e. Christological—doctrine of the divine being in which God assigns his own being to himself, and constitutes himself as triune, in the singular event of divine election. That is, God is who and what he is only in this decision. The result of reading Barth in the way McCormack does is that he can assert (a) that there is no immanent trinity prior to this divine determination of God’s own being; and (b) there is no “eternal Son” as such, that is, no eternal Son who has an existence independent of and prior to the divine determination that the Son’s being would consist in his union with humanity.[1]

McCormack turns to Church Dogmatics II/1 where Barth discusses “The Being of God in Act.” Barth agrees with Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant scholastics that God is actus purus: the living God whose very essence is life. But Barth wants also to go further and insist that God is actus purus et singularis.[2] McCormack interprets this in terms of Barth’s later statement: “No other being exists absolutely in its act. No other being is absolutely its own, conscious, willed and executed decision.”[3] He goes on:

This is why God is actus purus et singularis. The eternal act in which God determines to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ and the act in time in which this eternal act reaches its (provisional) goal are a “singular” act, an act utterly unique in kind. God is what he is in this act—which is not true of anyone or anything besides God.[4]

God is what he is in the eternal act of divine election in which God determined his own being as God for and with us in the covenant of grace. Indeed, God is Jesus Christ in his second mode of being, not simply the “eternal Son.” McCormack argues that Jesus Christ can be both the electing God (i.e. the subject of the decision of election) as well as the consequence of the decision of election because in Barth’s view of the triune God there is but a single subject, whether in the mode of being of Father or of Son. Thus the decision which constitutes the person of Jesus Christ—and also the eternal Son—is also his decision because as the one God he participates in the sole divine subjectivity. McCormack is aware that he is straining the limits of language and logic:

Logically, the “transformation” of a Subject into another mode of being cannot be carried out by a Subject who already is that mode of being; otherwise no “transformation” has taken place at all. In truth, however, Barth’s claim will never be understood where we rest content with playing with the logic of Subject-object relations. What is happening here is quite simply a refinement of Barth’s earlier doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Instability in Barth’s Doctrine

McCormack argues that Barth’s concept of the eternal being of God was altered as a consequence of his mature Christology. Barth, he notes, actualised and historicised the being of Christ, and so also of God. In so doing he preserved the immutability of God while jettisoning divine impassibility and timelessness. (Here McCormack reiterates his contention that Chalcedonian Christology remained in some ways ambiguous in its treatment of Christ’s person, and in other ways is not wholly sufficient for contemporary Christological reflection. See my earlier posts in this series on Chalcedonian Christology and Barth’s Historicised Christology.)

In the next sections of his essay, then, McCormack identifies three aspects of Barth’s doctrine of God in II/1 in which the Swiss theologian still works within the frame of a classical metaphysic to some degree at least, which produces, in McCormack’s view, instability and incoherence in his earlier doctrine. McCormack traces this instability to Barth’s desire to retain God as God, to secure the divine freedom of God from us and for us. Thus, he speaks of God’s “immutable vitality” as something that God possesses in himself above and beyond the “holy mutability” assigned to the attitudes and actions of God in the coming of Jesus.[6] So, too, the power of God, his divine omnipotence, is viewed in II/1 as something prior to and above his work of creation and redemption, etc. God could have been omnipotent in a different form. After his doctrine of election, however, Barth says, “May it not be that it is as the electing God that He is the Almighty, and not vice versa?”[7] McCormack finds great significance in the vice versa of this citation, where the “door is firmly closed against the possibility that election…will be seen as simply one possibility among others available to a God whose omnipotence has been defined in abstraction from what he has actually done in Jesus Christ.[8] Such is the case also with God’s knowledge and will.

There is an instability at the heart of Barth’s treatment of the being of God in Church Dogmatics II/1—an instability which finds its root in the belief that to God’s “essence” there belongs both a necessary element and a contingent element. … To define the “essence” of God in terms of both necessity and contingency, of immutability and mutability, of absoluteness and concreteness is to allow both elements in these pairs to be canceled out by the other. An essence that is contingent, mutable, and concrete is not and cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute—unless God is necessary, immutable, and absolute precisely in his contingency, mutability, and concreteness. Where the two are allowed to fall apart as polar elements, the result can be only incoherence.[9]

The reason for this instability in Barth’s doctrine lies in the fact that Christology does not control his theological ontology. Once Barth has reworked his doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2, these kinds of tensions are, says McCormack, eliminated.

[1] In fact, McCormack quite openly notes that “what I offer in the pages that follow is a reconstruction—what Barth ought to have said, had he followed through, of the ontological implications of his revised doctrine of election with complete consistency.” See McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 211, emphasis added; cf. also pp. 211-213, 215, 234, 237-239.

[2] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/1: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, H. Knight, J. L. M. Haire (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 264.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215. McCormack is citing Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 271, though the emphasis is his.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 218.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 233.

[7] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/2: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., Bromiley, G. W. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 45.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 236.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 237-238, original emphasis.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:13

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:13
No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.

With this verse James transitions from peirasmos as trials to peirasmos as temptations. In fact, many commentators identify the transition by translating the text, “Let no one say when he is tested, ‘I am being tempted by God.’” It is worth noting that James would certainly draw a distinction between God testing his people and God tempting his people. The Old Testament has many accounts of the former, from the test established in the Garden of Eden, to Abraham’s test in Genesis 22, to Israel’s tests in Exodus 16 and Deuteronomy 8, etc. It is certainly the case that one’s faith is regularly tested as we noted in our comments on verses 2-4. It is certainly the case that God will at times test particular individuals, either through the circumstances they face (e.g. Psalm 105:17-19) or by presenting them with a particular challenge (John 6:5-6). Nevertheless James insists that God never tempts his people. The verse begins with an imperative followed by two supporting reasons. James’ command is very simple: whenever one is tempted one must not blame God for it as its source or origin.

Why might someone assign the source of our temptations to God? Perhaps they have a theological perspective in which God is the ultimate cause of all things, even if he uses secondary agents. If we believe God is the source of our trials and temptations, we may be less likely to resist them, and more likely to be double-minded with respect to prayer. Some people may indulge in the temptation, justifying their sinful actions by claiming it is God’s will (cf. Romans 6:1-2). James will have none of this and insists that no one assigns responsibility for temptations to God. Here, there is no place for divine omni-causality.

Instead, James grounds his imperative in a twofold reflection on God’s character. First, God cannot be tempted with evil (ho gar theos apeirastos estin kakōn). The key word, apeirastos is found only here in the New Testament, and may have been coined by James (Vlachos, 43). Several translations have been suggested. It may mean simply that God is not temptable, that his supreme holiness denies any place whatsoever to evil; or it may mean that God is inexperienced and therefore “untouched” (NEB) with respect to evil; or, as Davids (82-83) has suggested recalling the command of Deuteronomy 6:16, God ought not to be tempted by evil people. In the immediate context here, the first possibility is usually chosen by translators and commentators. The second possible meaning requires changing apeirastos to the more commonly used aperatos, while Davids’ suggestion does not do justice to the balanced movement of thought in the verse whereby James’ second rationale (“and he himself tempts no one”—peirazei de autos oudena) issues from the first: God cannot be tempted, and he does not tempt any. Thus God’s supreme holiness precludes his being tempted; evil has no foothold or place in God. Because this is true, neither does his holiness entice others towards evil for this would be utterly alien to his holy nature. Further, we see once more that for James, God is wholly and single-mindedly good (cf. v. 17). God remains the gracious and generous God whose will is to bless his people.

Anna Funder – All That I Am

Anna FunderAll That I Am tells the story of a small group of German resistance workers during the rise of Nazism. The story is narrated by two persons in two different times and locales recalling the events that so energised and then shattered their lives. Driven from Germany after the Nazis seize power, the group find refuge in London and seek to alert both the British public and their own countrymen of the growing threat posed by Hitler and his party. But all is not well in the little group and a devastating event tears them apart with severe implications for all of them.

Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin literary award for this novel in 2012 – deservedly in my estimation. I recall there being some disquiet around the award at the time. Is the book “Australian” enough, seeing it is largely set in London? Is it fictional enough? The second point is interesting. Funder has built her story around real persons, including a friend, Ruth Blatt (1906-2001) who serves as one of the book’s narrators. Ernst Toller (1893-1939), a German playwright is the book’s other voice, while Dora Fabian (1901-1935), activist, writer and journalist is the central figure in the book. Historical drama is probably my favourite genre, though I did not realise until I reached the acknowledgements at the end of book, just how historical it was. It remains, though, a work of fiction filled with intrigue and pathos.

Funder’s characters are believable, heroic and tragic. She manages to capture a sense of the terror and desperation which must have pervaded those living through the times, as well as English accommodation to Nazism in the Baldwin-Chamberlain period. The book is well-written, cleverly structured around the two voices, and ultimately, deeply humane. It draws the reader into the story, and the suspense Funder generates keeps the pages turning. The final pages gather some loose threads and lead to a pleasing resolution of the story.

In recent months I have read two stories by Australian authors written against the backdrop of Nazi Germany (the other was The Book Thief). Both are excellent, both are well-worth reading, both highly recommended.

Now Available on Kindle!

Church as Moral CommunityI have just discovered that this truly exceptional book is now available on Kindle for only $33.89 – what a bargain for such an outstanding work! Buy it here!

Or, if you prefer your books to have that “new book aroma,” you can get it freight-free from Book Depository for only $45.83. Get in while stocks last!

From the back cover:
Before Karl Barth gained global recognition as an acclaimed theologian, he served as pastor of a small congregation in the Swiss village of Safenwil. In this book Michael O’Neil opens a window into the world of Barth-the-pastor as he wrestled with the great themes of the gospel and its proclamation and application in the midst of devastating social upheaval and change. Barth’s theology is pastoral theology; his dogmatics are a Church dogmatics, a theology in service of the life and ministry of God’s people. O’Neil shows that Barth’s early insights into the gospel are every bit as relevant in the early twenty-first century as they were in the early twentieth-century.

Let Barth’s moral vision inspire and challenge you to live for Christ in a challenging world: read the book!

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12 (#2)

Saint_James_the_JustAs we noted in our previous discussion, this verse trades on the concept of God’s promise and its future fulfilment. Christian hope rests on the reality of this promise, and if it be anything less than a sure and steadfast divine commitment, Christian hope, endurance and faithfulness loses its sure foundation. In the face of trials and temptations, Christians cling to their hope on the basis of their trust in the divine promise. The concept of God’s promise is common in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts his audience to faithful endurance on the basis of God’s promise (6:10-15; 8:6; 10:23; 11:11). In Galatians 3 Paul refers to God’s promise nine times and traces it to the promise given to Abraham. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul assures his readers that all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. Behind this emphasis on the divine promise stands a firm conviction in the utter faithfulness of God who will fulfil the promises he has made. In one sense the fulfilment of the promise is wholly dependent upon this faithfulness, and so in hope and trust, we cling to the promise and wait expectantly for God’s act of fulfilment. In another sense, however, the promise is conditional, and it is this aspect that we find developed in James.

One of the aspects of James’ theology that becomes apparent in this verse is a sense of conditionality with respect to the believer’s reception of the divine promise. James does not so much pronounce the blessing as identify what the blessing is (the crown of life) and stipulate the grounds on which it is received (standing firm in trials, loving God). Although James does not use the language of “reward” in this text, the idea is present. Those who fulfil the conditions stipulated will receive the promised blessing. Some might find the idea of “reward” too close to the concept of merit, and so antithetical to genuine Christian faith and spirituality. Luther famously referred to James as less than apostolic, and to his letter as “an epistle of straw” as compared to those other New Testament works which set forth Christ and salvation more clearly (Luther’s Works, 35:362; cf. 395-397). Yet the New Testament often calls believers to consider the blessing which awaits them, and so be encouraged in faithful endurance.

For James, faith and salvation are not the fruit of a simple profession of faith which does not come to expression in the lived experience of the believer. Genuine faith is active and enduring. Faith, in this context at least, consists in faithfulness, and there is no possibility of a separation between faith and praxis, the two belonging together as two aspects of the one reality. This connection between fidelity and blessing was typical of early Christian thinking, according to Scot McKnight, who notes that “James 1:12 is more like Jesus and 2 John and Revelation than like Paul” (111), although Paul also can speak of “faith which works through love” (Galatians 5:6), and of the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Nevertheless, Paul’s more consistent theme is to speak of faith as distinct from works (Romans 3:21-31), or even over against works (cf. Galatians 3:7-14). As a result, some commentators, pastors and Christians seek ways to bring James’ message into alignment with that of Paul. It is an error, however, to assimilate James too quickly to Paul, for such an approach limits and flattens the diverse New Testament witness. It is a far better approach to allow James’ distinctive contribution to stand in all its stern power. James and Paul sing from the same page but sound different notes, James’ harmony complementing Paul’s melody. A better musical analogy would suggest the two authors represent two songs on a single album, each distinct yet part of a larger whole, each contributing in their own voice and style to the overall project. Christian witness, spirituality and life require both voices to sound, both songs to be heard, both compositions to be accepted on their own terms. We will have occasion to discuss the relation between James and Paul at greater length in chapter two. Suffice it here to say that James’ intent is to insist upon the nature of faith as active and enduring, and to insist also that eschatological validation of one’s faith will be predicated upon the kind of life which demonstrated the genuine nature of that faith.

To say all this, however, is not to suggest that James’ spirituality is one of works undertaken in order to earn merit, achieve salvation, and so gain the promised reward. The final phrase of James’ exhortation is crucial: “which [God] has promised to those who love him.” Love for God is the motivation by which we stand firm under trial, refusing to buckle in the face of pressure, stress and affliction. Love for God undergirds the enduring faith which James has portrayed so steadfastly thus far. Those who persevere under trial and stand firm against temptation do so because they love him. By shifting his emphasis to the believer’s love for God, James clearly indicates that the work of faith over the course of one’s life is an expression of this deeper inner motive. Our faithfulness springs from this love which finds its root in his initiating love for us, grounded in the promise of this ever and always generous God, and the gift of salvation by which he has brought us forth (cf. vv. 5, 18). Our faithfulness toward God is but the echo of his greater, prior and all-encompassing faithfulness toward us. But faithfulness it must be.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love.

The Worldly Barth

Barth with pipeBy his mid-forties Barth was beginning his Church Dogmatics, watching the dissolution of the ‘Dialectical Theology’ group and the rise of National Socialism in Germany. In the midst of it all, Busch (220) notes:

Nevertheless, despite everything he always found time to join in playing Mozart string quartets – ‘discreetly in the background as a viola player.’ At the same time he ‘began to see e.g. Goethe in a new light, to read numerous novels (including many excellent examples of more recent English detective stories), to become a bad, but passionate horseman, and so on.’ ‘I cannot remember having lived so purposefully and so enjoyably in the earlier decades of my life – although these were very hard years.’ Indeed, he believed that ‘during these years I became simultaneously both very much more a man of the church and very much more worldly.’

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 2


With respect to theological considerations, open theism has a quite narrowly defined project:

What these theologians are interested in is basically two things: the will of God as it relates to free rational creatures and the question of what God knows and when he knows it. So open theism has to do, above all, with the doctrines of providence and divine foreknowledge. … The basic intuition is that the future is “open” not only for us but also for God. … Open theists hold…that an exhaustive divine foreknowledge is logically incompatible with human freedom.[1]

Again, McCormack is concerned that the open theists’ method compromises their Christology, and so threatens their entire endeavour:

I regard the lack of an adequate Christology—i.e., one which gives comprehensive attention to the problem of the ontological constitution of the Mediator—to be the single biggest defect in open theism; one which threatens to undermine the entire scheme and render its justified protest against classical theism ineffectual.[2]

It is clear from this statement that McCormack is sympathetic to the open theists’ aim but also rejects their approach to the matter. Addressing the work of Clark Pinnock particularly, McCormack finds that he holds a “fairly classical understanding” of the divine attributes. Although God is said to “suffer,” Pinnock evidently means by this, a kind of suffering distinct from the divine being: “What God is, it would seem, is something that is complete in itself, above and prior to any experience by God of suffering and pain.”[3] The Son who becomes incarnate also puts aside the use of any divine attributes which would conflict with his experience of being human. In this form of kenotic Christology, suggests McCormack, Jesus suffers humanly but his suffering as such has no impact on what the Logos is essentially, and so no effect on the divine nature.[4]

McCormack notes that the open theists’ Arminian account of salvation also drives their doctrine of providence: the way God works in conversion is typical of the way God works with human beings generally.[5] God limits his own power in order to provide space for the relative independence of human creatures, and then deals with them by means of persuasion.

Quite clearly, God’s will is a work-in-progress—and on this point, open theism is in agreement with process theology. “God has the power and ability to be (in Harry Boer’s words) an ‘ad hoc’ God, one who responds and adapts to surprises and to the unexpected. God sets goals for creation and redemption and realizes them ad hoc in history. If Plan A fails, God is ready with Plan B.”[6]

The open theists’ commitment to an open future entails a rejection of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, possibly their most controversial claim. The Achilles heel of this position for McCormack is that they confuse “certainty” with “necessity.” He borrows this distinction from William Lane Craig who argues that certainty is a predicate of persons, and so God’s certain knowledge of what will transpire in time does not render those things “necessary,” for they will occur as a function of the natural and historical conditions under which they take place.[7]

In his final assessment of open theism McCormack calls upon them accept wisdom of the church where it has spoken formally concerning the relevant topics. Here, the open theists’ Arminianism is not of concern for the Council of Orange decided that those who held to conditional or unconditional forms of election may be upheld as orthodox.[8] The same cannot be said with respect to their denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge: “The truth is that the doctrine of an exhaustive divine foreknowledge enjoys fairly widespread ecumenical support, having been affirmed by both the Reformed and the Roman Catholics.”[9] In a quite remarkable statement that indicates something of McCormack’s understanding of theological authority, he writes,

Pinnock would, no doubt, dismiss the Westminster Confession as a Presbyterian confession without significance for his church and the churches of his allies. But given the radically divided nature of Protestantism in the West today, it seems to me…the better part of wisdom to grant to the teaching office in Rome relatively binding authority on questions in relation to which no existing Protestant confession has taken a different position.[10]

Thus McCormack faults open theism for the rejection of one element of classical theism which he suggests must certainly be upheld.[11] He remains sympathetic to their rejection of “a putative divine impassibility and timelessness” but suggests that such a case must be built on an entirely different metaphysical platform. In the end, open theism remains wedded to the essentialist presuppositions of classical theism and as a result cannot prosecute their case coherently. McCormack will go on to explore how Karl Barth’s actualistic conception of divine being might more fruitfully be applied to issues of interest to the open theists though without sacrificing either divine foreknowledge or immutability.[12]

[1] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 190.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 201, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 199, original emphasis.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 199.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 203.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 203, citing Pinnock in The Openness of God, 113.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 205.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 207.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209.

[10] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209.

[11] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 210.

[12] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209-210.

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 1


McCormack begins his essay with a brief overview of the relation of God to the world as understood in classical and process theism. Classical theism understands God as a transcendent being complete and perfect in himself and standing over against the world, thus maintaining a very robust Creator-creature distinction. Process theism, by contrast, envisages continuity between the being of God and the being of the world, so that God is deeply affected by everything that happens in the world. God is not simply responsive to the world, but “the being of God grows, develops, changes, evolves through the history of his interactions with the world.”[1] Yet McCormack suggests that which is common to these two views is more important than their differences:

In spite of these rather significant differences, what classical theism and process theism have in common is far more important. What they have in common, in the first place, is the belief that the “order of knowing” runs in the opposite direction to the “order of being.” That is to say, though the being of God is above and prior to the being of all else that exists (and therefore first in the “order of being”), our knowledge of God proceeds from a prior knowledge of some aspect or aspects of creaturely reality (and therefore the knowledge of God follows knowledge of the self or the world in the “order of knowing”). … Thus epistemology controls and determines divine ontology. … Both [classical and process theism] are exercises in metaphysics because both take up a starting point “from below” in some creaturely reality or magnitude and proceed through a process of inferential reasoning to establish the nature of divine reality. And this means…that both claim to know what God is before a consideration of Christology.[2]

Having laid this foundation McCormack goes on to define open theism as a “highly aggressive, missionary movement in theology which seeks to convert the evangelical churches to what it alleges to be a more “biblical” understanding of God.” Open theism has to do with God’s interaction with the world, and has a primary concern to protect human libertarian freedom, and derivatively, provide an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil. God exists in a reciprocal and open relation to the world and is responsive to human activity. The biblical grounding for this view is twofold. First, the open theists operate with a hermeneutic based on 1 John 4:16: “The statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality.”[3]

What is happening here is that a definition of a term devised originally for speaking of love on the plane of human relations is being applied in a rather straightforward fashion to the being of God—without any sense that an illegitimate anthropopathizing of God might be taking place. … the Johannine axiom—and the meaning assigned to it—provides the open theists with (1) a criterion of selectivity for identifying passages in the Old Testament which are supportive of their claims and (2) a hermeneutical key for ordering these passages to other, more problematic passages.[4]

Second, McCormack notes that the open theists’ biblical case is largely build on passages in the Old Testament, and that “virtually the whole of the open theistic understanding of God has been fully elaborated on the basis of the Old Testament before the incarnation comes into view.”[5] He observes that both open theists and classical theists tend to harmonise the various texts of the Old Testament with respect to this issue, reading texts problematic to their view in light of other supposedly “more central” texts. McCormack’s own hermeneutical approach is of interest. He wants to allow Old Testament tensions to stand because (a) Scripture is not the work of a single author but a record of revelation received, and so somewhat ambiguous, especially in the Old Testament, which (b) requires interpretation in the light of Jesus Christ in whom alone God’s ultimate intentions are made known.[6] But the open theists’ treatment of the New Testament is largely predicated on a reading of Jesus’ interactions with others and his death on the cross as illustrative of the nature and being of God. McCormack is concerned, once more, that the open theists have applied their “metaphysic of love” so that Jesus is introduced only to validate a conception of God that has been worked out without reference to him.[7]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 187.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 187-188, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, citing Richard Rice in Pinnock, C., The Openness of God, 16.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, 193.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 191, original emphasis.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 195.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 197.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Barnes, JulianI had to read this book twice because after the first time through, I didn’t have a sense of its ending. Like the main character, I “just didn’t get it.” I had read quickly and missed some clues along the way. Fortunately, it is only a short book – just 150 pages – and easily read.

Awarded the Man Booker prize in 2011 (one impolite reviewer suggested it was awarded to the right author for the wrong book), The Sense of an Ending is the first-person narrative of Tony Webster recounting particular aspects of his life story from the perspective of his latter years. It is a book about memory and history, a reflection on time which “holds us and moulds us” (3), “bounds us and defines us” (60), and “first grounds us and then confounds us” (93). Important questions of memory, identity, responsibility, blame, and relationships are raised by means of a very accessible story about eros and thanatos – love/sex and death – which, we are told early on, is the primary subject matter of all great literature.

I enjoyed the playful way that Barnes has written his book, the way he keeps circling back on key incidents, clarifying, enhancing, correcting – and making us question – our memory. It is not so much a book about memory as an exercise or an immersion in remembering. Fragments of memory arise and the reader is drawn more deeply into the story. The main characters are well developed and believable, and the story has both humour and pathos.  I would like to read it again sometime, just for the pleasure of it.