Category Archives: Books

Academic Argument

Brian Smith for The Chronicle Review

I was interested to read the chapter on academic argument in Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish.

That is what you have to do to earn your bona fides as an academic: enter an ongoing conversation about a topic deemed to be important—not important in the larger world (although it may be), but important in the academic world—survey the arguments now competing for attention, and put forward an argument of your own that corrects the others or outflanks them (by bringing them together in a ‘higher synthesis’), or reconfigures the field by arguing that your predecessors have asked the wrong questions; you, of course, have the right ones (167).

That is, the process of academic argument is to join a conversation that is underway before we come to it, detailing an intellectual problem and its outstanding issues, the present scholarly approach and arguments with respect to the problem, to set forth one’s own argument to persuade others that your own approach is superior in that it addresses the outstanding issues.

Perhaps more interesting is his claim that academic arguments ‘don’t matter.’ They are strictly ‘academic,’ concerned, that is, with the intellectual points at stake, and as such, not concerned with outcomes, real-world consequences or implications, and so on. Academic argument is neither activism nor formation. It does not seek nor intends to change the world per se but to understand it—pace Karl Marx (176). Academic argument does not seek to move mountains; it seeks rather to move the mind. An academic argument ‘shouldn’t be political, therapeutic, or exhortatory. It can, however, have political, therapeutic, and exhortatory effects, as long as those effects are not aimed at…’ (175).

Also of interest is the idea that not every topic is properly speaking, academic. Fish discusses several examples: holocaust denial, the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to others, and creationism. Fish finds that in each case the academy has decided the topic is something else masquerading as academic: lies and distortions in the case of holocaust denial, or religious dogma pretending to be science in the case of creationism (180). This might be all well and good with respect to the particular matters raised, but it does appear that in contemporary universities, some positions of argument are being deemed out-of-bounds not on the basis of their academic demerit but because loud cultural voices are declaring that such-and-such a topic is illegitimate as a form of enquiry. It may be that argument is still required to determine what may be argued about.

With respect to theological argument, Wolfhart Pannenberg reminds us of the distinction between faith and theology—a distinction all theological students should note:

Individual faith is certainly not tied to this basic argument. We can believe without it. But faith of that kind is not theology. Only arguments count in theology. Theology cannot ignore the question of the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. It cannot ignore the underlying relation that leads to the rise of faith and the statements of the christological confession. Theological argument neither here nor elsewhere makes faith or the Holy Spirit superfluous. Nevertheless, it is also true that appeal to faith and the Holy Spirit is not of itself an argument (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, 287; in subsection on “The Method of Christology”).

Stanley Fish: Winning Arguments (Review)

Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom 
(New York: Harper Collins, 2016) 
ISBN: 978-0-06-222665-5

Stanley Fish, distinguished professor of law in New York and Florida, argues quite simply that “argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we have” (3). The world, he says, is rhetorically constructed; we live in a world “bereft of transcendence” (12) and so absolute truth, certainty, and authority are beyond us. We can hope only for persuasion and must argue for it. Nor is there a world without argument or a language so purified of ulterior motives and hidden or overt agendas or rhetorical devices, so objective and factual that it transcends the need for argument (21). Argument arises on account of and in the context of doubt. If doubt may be introduced into the present consensus, argument ensues. In fact, argument can introduce doubt, if only to create its own momentum. Fish cites as examples the serpent in Genesis 3, or the smoking lobby. Thus when and wherever rhetoric is used to inspire doubt in order to progress its own argument, the only adequate response can be rhetorical—a counter-argument. Yet argument is two-faced and double-sided leading either to the Good—via ‘good persuasion,’ a rational sorting of argument based on answering the question, What’s the best thing to be done?, i.e. the good, the right, the best, the fitting—or to the Bad—via ‘bad persuasion,’ which aims at the sympathy of the audience and at leaving the opponent nothing to say. Its question: How do I win? (46). In the end Fish appeals to Aristotle: the best we can do is take care that rhetoric’s potent appeals are deployed solely in the service of truth. ‘Tether the undeniable power of the ethical and pathetic to a rational purpose…make ethos and pathos subordinate to logos and not the other way around; we can have our rhetoric and not be eaten by it too’ (47).

This is a synopsis of the first chapter of Winning Arguments. In the final chapter Fish continues his argument that there is nothing but argument: we live not in an abstract world of ‘undistorted or purified communication’ (Habermas, Orwell) where universal harmony is the goal and every word is weighed and cleansed, but in the realm of ‘instrumental purposes’ where every conversation is irremediably situated and local, the entire field of discourse ‘saturated with interest’ (200). This claim is problematic for both religious believers and for ‘liberals’ (those committed to the Enlightenment philosophical program inaugurated by Kant). For Fish, these two groups are both committed to a world without argument, the first by appeal to a higher authority to which all should give assent, the second to what Fish labels a ‘thin proceduralism,’ rules of engagement that bracket off interest-laden norms that produce social and political division (201)—what can and cannot be spoken of or assumed, and the formation of a public language of ‘such generality and metaphysical emptiness that to speak it is to commit oneself to almost nothing’ (202). Whereas religion privileges obedience to a higher authority, liberalism privileges the exercise of choice by the free and autonomous individual. The problem with religion is that not all hold the particular beliefs espoused by the religion; the problem for liberalism is the difficulty of securing a polity in which conflict gives way to harmony when the supreme value is the will of the individual.

And yet, although religion and liberalism are locked in an opposition for which there is no resolution, they are alike in one respect—their claim to be universal, albeit in different ways. Liberal universalism is to be achieved by subtraction, by removing or bracketing comprehensive moral dictates not everyone would recognize; religious universalism is inherent in the comprehensive claim of a religion to be bearing a truth everyone, including nonbelievers, should acknowledge. One kind of universalism says, ‘be an independent, rational chooser rather than someone chosen and scripted by deity or a pregiven morality’; the other says, ‘forgo your independence—you really don’t have it anyway—and allow yourself to be absorbed into a structure not made by hands’ (204-205).

Brian Smith for The Chronicle Review

Fish argues that we live in an unredeemed world in which there is no ‘God’s eye view,’ no ‘final meanings of the kind that would stop conflict in its tracks.’ These, simply, are unavailable. In such a world all we have is argument. This is real; it is also ideal: ‘no argument means no assertion, no exploration of alternatives, no movement, no advance in knowledge, no building of community’ (208). This is why the question, Why can’t we all just get along? is illegitimate: ‘a quarrel is evidence of co-existence’ (208).

The wish to escape argument is really the wish to escape language, which is really the wish to escape politics, and is finally the wish to escape mortality—and it won’t matter a whit. For one effect of inhabiting the condition of difference—the condition of being partial, the condition of not being in direct touch with the final unity and full meaning of the universe—is that we long to transcend it; and it is that longing, forever disappointed, that keeps us going (212).

Between the first and last chapters are four chapters dealing with political, domestic, legal, and academic arguments respectively. Each chapter brims with points and illustrations showing how arguments ‘work’ in each of these arena. The most humorous chapter concerns domestic arguments where Fish insists that the only way to ‘win’ in the domestic sphere is if both parties win and so transcend the argument, as it were. This is not to argue for a lack of argument or disagreement, but to show the way in which domestic arguments ‘work.’ The only forward in a domestic argument is to cease from the making of points—establishing whose facts are most correct—and taking up an entirely different mode of interaction altogether, the way of softness, pardon, and forgiveness. Is his point in this chapter at odds with his overall vision and claim? Could such a strategy work in politics or the court room, for example? His answer seems to be No because the context, the participants, and the goals are so different.

Fish writes in a way that is up-to-date, perceptive, at times humorous, and deeply insightful. The purpose of his book is to encourage his readers to engage in argument, passionately, intelligently, aware of the rhetorical and argumentative tactics and strategies at one’s disposal, and using them to advance the quest for that which is good, beneficial and true. He encourages us to become persuasive.

It is likely that many Christians will question his claim that we live in a world bereft of transcendence, that there is no God’s-eye view. Many Christians will rightly point to Jesus Christ as ‘the truth,’ to Scripture as inspired Word of God, and so conclude that Fish is wrong. Such reasoning is too hasty, however. I, too, affirm that Jesus is the Truth with a capital-T, and that Scripture is divinely inspired and authoritative. But our apprehension of this Truth is only ever partial; we see through a glass darkly, and this is the only way in which we can see, this side of eternity.

And so we must argue, intelligently and honestly, and in pursuit of a greater apprehension of the truth. And perhaps more importantly, we must demonstrate the truthfulness of our convictions by living them. The argument of the Christian must always be more than intellectual, more than merely words—though never less! Rather, in a pluralist world the church bears witness to the Truth that lies at the heart of all reality, and does so by the way in which it lives, as Kevin Vanhoozer has so ably stated:

The church’s aim should be to render a faithful interpretation of Scripture.…the reading that gives rise to a way of living that most approximates the life of Jesus himself, the harbinger of the kingdom of God.…The community of believers represents a prophetic counter-culture that challenges the gods and myths of the day with regard to which world and life view best fulfills humanity.…Again, this is not only a matter of correct doctrine but also a matter of faithful biblical performance. The church must be the cultural incarnation of the story of God in Christ (“The World Well Staged? Theology, Culture and Hermeneutics.” In God and Culture, Donald A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Eds) (Carlisle: Paternoster, 27-28).

Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth (Review)

David Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth 
(Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2016). Pp. xiii + 223. 
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5137-9

Last week I reviewed Galli’s recent introductory biography of Karl Barth for evangelicals, and expressed the hope that evangelicals might engage with the Swiss master. This review is for those who have decided that they would like to do this but perhaps are unsure where to begin. Those new to Barth and seeking an understanding of his life and work will find David Guretzki’s new book helpful. Guretzki’s primary aim, restated several times in his text, is to ‘provide a guide—a handbook of sorts—explicitly designed to help new explorers of Karl Barth to get quickly acclimatized to his thought’ (xi). Further, he aims to get his readers reading Barth for themselves and relying less on secondary assessments and commentary (205; cf. 180). Whether he succeeds in these goals remains to be seen, but he has certainly written a text that makes it easier for new readers of Barth to engage directly with his work.

The book is divided into two parts: Getting to Know Karl Barth with five chapters, and Exploring the Church Dogmatics with four more chapters. In the first chapter entitled ‘Why Karl Barth?’ Guretzki gives two reasons in addition, of course, to his reputation and stature which requires anyone who wants to be theologically informed to come to grips with his theology (8). First, says the author, Barth is thoroughly Christ-centred, and second, he is thoroughly biblical (9). As such he is also ‘spiritually valuable’ (14). Guretzki is convinced that Barth’s theology ‘will persist not because he got it all right…but because it so consistently recenters our search for God in God’s own search for us in the person of Jesus Christ whom we follow in life and in death’ (41).

After a brief second chapter which provides a thumbnail sketch of Barth’s life and career, the third chapter addresses a list of seventeen very practical ‘frequently asked questions’ about Barth’s life, theology and work arising from many years of teaching students. The fourth and fifth chapters are the longest in the book, comprising almost 100 pages. Chapter four is an excellent, well-nuanced and judicious ‘Glossary of Concepts and People’ explaining twenty-four entries, which new readers of Barth will find very helpful. Many of the entries are focussed on methodological moves made by Barth (e.g. analogy, correspondence, dialectic, Historie and Geschichte, etc.), although some also explain material concerns. Of the many terms which could have been included, Guretzki has chosen those that he judges are used by Barth in a distinctive way (47). The final chapter of Part One suggests ten readings that novices might engage from Barth’s career prior to his work on the Church Dogmatics. In fact Guretzki laments that ‘so many are unfamiliar with the riches of Barth’s earlier works, many of which are often, in my opinion, far more interesting to read’ (93f.). I imagine that Guretzki has in mind the explosive rhetoric and fertile creativity that marks Barth’s formative theological work. In any case it is refreshing to see new readers being encouraged to ‘explore’ these early works. The chapter concludes with a brief ‘detour’ which accentuates the volume of Barth’s exegetical work outside the Church Dogmatics, and what one might expect from this biblical work.

The four chapters of Part Two serve as an orientation for new readers to the Church Dogmatics. Chapter six is a primer explaining the structures and features of Barth’s magnum opus, while chapter seven is called a ‘User’s Guide’ to the work. Here Guretzki argues that ‘the CD is read aright when used as a theological tool, not necessarily as an artifact to be viewed in and of itself’ (159). Guretzki introduces the reader to the Index, discusses preaching and the Church Dogmatics, and gives tips for starting and leading a Barth Reading Group, or writing a research paper on some aspect of Barth’s theology. The eighth chapter provides a very brief overview of the content of each part volume of the Dogmatics, together with a suggested reading plan for each part volume which is particularly helpful. The reading plan is divided into three categories for those who want to ‘sample’ Barth’s work, ‘study’ Barth’s work, or undertake a more ‘scholarly’ engagement with it. Those who follow the plan as a ‘sampler’ will end up reading about 10% of the Dogmatics, those who ‘study’ about 20%, and those engaging as ‘scholars’ about 33% of the whole work. The final chapter provides some suggested resources for further engagements with Barth scholarship and aids.

This is a very useful book for students and readers new to Barth’s theology. In my estimation Guretzki has succeeded in his task of preparing a guidebook which alerts the newcomer concerning the adventure to be had, things to look for, and pitfalls to avoid. I especially appreciated some of the excellent advice he gave along the way, such as the warning against relying too heavily on a single passage or volume when interpreting some aspect of Barth’s theology. He rightly notes that many errors of interpretation have been made in Barth studies because readers have read only part of what Barth has said on a particular topic, and not weighed what he has said on the same topic in other places (71). And he is clear that reading a guidebook about something is utterly different from experiencing the real thing. Guretzki has not written a book that will make reading Barth himself unnecessary, but a book that will help them read Barth for themselves, and equip them to understand his work more carefully as they do so, whether or not they finally agree with his proposals.

Galli, Karl Barth for Evangelicals (Review)

Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals 
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Pp. xvi + 176. 
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6939-5

Mark Galli entitles his recent book on Karl Barth an ‘introductory biography for evangelicals.’ As a biography it is a faithful though simplified rendering of the broader and deeper story found in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (1976), upon which it draws heavily. With respect to his intended audience, Galli is writing specifically for evangelical Christians, not as a Barth specialist, but as an appreciative student and fellow-traveller.

Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, has written his book to reintroduce Karl Barth to evangelicals for two reasons. First, initial evangelical introductions to Barth’s theology ‘got him wrong’ (6) with the result that a deep distrust developed among (especially North American) evangelicals so that even today his work is often ignored or dismissed by them (2). Nonetheless, the reception of Barth among evangelical theologians is now changing and it is only a matter of time, Galli suggests, before Barthian theology, ‘however chastened and revised, will make its way down into the pulpit and pews of evangelical churches’ (9). Second, and as a corollary to this, Galli believes that Barth’s insights have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism as they consider afresh what it means to proclaim the gospel and to ‘bear the cost of discipleship in these trying times’ (12).

After the introduction and first chapter provide the rationale for the book, Galli devotes nine chapters to a brief recounting of Barth’s remarkable life from his youth to his retirement years, highlighting his ‘conversion’ from nineteenth-century Liberal theology, his Romans commentaries, his participation in the church’s struggle against Nazism, his political activity in a post-war divided Europe, and his ongoing work on the Church Dogmatics. He considers Barth’s attitude toward Russian communism (‘in retrospect Barth does seem naive on this issue’ (103)), and his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (‘it was clearly a case of emotional adultery’ (68)).[1] These chapters are supplemented by a further chapter on Barth as ‘preacher and pastor’ which also considers him as a family man, a person of prayer, and the struggles of his old age (‘he suffered from what we would today call depression’ (133)). This is a useful and very accessible biography for those new to Barth.

After the initial chapters of biography Galli has two chapters devoted to Church Dogmatics though in reality they address not the substance or structure of the work itself, but two theological issues of immediate concern to evangelicals: the question of Barth’s concept of the Word of God, especially as it relates to Scripture, and the question of universal reconciliation. In both cases Galli endeavours to provide a ‘larger understanding’ of Barth’s thought with regard to the issue, and with respect to Scripture concludes that ‘given this larger understanding, I don’t know that traditional evangelical theology has much to argue with’ (112). ‘Barth reminds us that Scripture is not something we preserve and manipulate, let alone protect, but the means by which the Word encounters us, preserves us, and, if you will, “manipulates” us—that is, shapes us into the beings we were created to be’ (115-116). Galli remains unsure as to whether Barth’s theology leads inexorably to universal reconciliation, and suggests that ‘insofar as Barth’s doctrines of election and justification move in the direction of universalism, of course, evangelicals rightly reject his views’ (121). Nevertheless he applauds Barth’s ‘fresh approach’ to long-standing theological conundrums, and ‘speaking personally, Barth has helped me talk about the gospel as unquestionable good news…[he] helps me as a teacher and preacher to proclaim good news that is really good news…with no ifs, ands, or buts. No quid pro quo. No qualifications’ (125-126).

In his final chapter ‘“Liberal” Evangelicalism,’ Galli returns to his rationale for writing the book only this time to argue that ‘today, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a liberal and an evangelical’ (141). In a rhetorical flourish he even suggests that ‘Schleiermacher has been born again in evangelicalism’ (144). Galli is clear that contemporary evangelicalism is not the equivalent of nineteenth-century liberalism, but is concerned at the extent it has assimilated much of its ethos, especially its emphasis on religious experience and Ritschlian moralism. For Galli, Karl Barth’s thorough-going battle against liberalism together with his clarion call to hear afresh the Word of God in Jesus Christ, will serve as a salutary summons to evangelicals. At stake, suggests Galli, is the very identity and mission of the church (145). The book concludes with an annotated bibliography useful for those new to Barth, and an index.

Galli notes that Barth ‘wrote his theology…as an attempt to think about Jesus Christ in the context of the challenges and problems of the day. He wanted to model a way of doing theology—grounded in the Bible—more than to champion a particular theology’ (137). If Galli succeeds in his attempt to reintroduce Barth to a new generation of evangelical Christians, students and pastors he will have rendered the movement a great service. While it is quite certain that evangelicals will continue to dispute with Barth over a range of issues, substantial engagement with his theology will assist them as they in their own way also think about Jesus Christ amidst the challenges and problems of the day. One hopes that this little book gains a wide readership amongst its intended audience.

[1] It is worth noting that Galli only became aware of the extent of the relationship and Barth’s justification of it, shortly after the publication of his book. See his comment and reflection at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html.

On Reading Old Books

I came across this citation from C. S. Lewis; it captures a wonderful piece of wisdom.

Every generation of believers faces the risk of becoming a prisoner to its own myopic vision of the Christian faith, assuming that how it understands and practices faith is always the best. C. S. Lewis cited this problem as a reason for reading old books. “None of us,” he wrote, “can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books,” for modern books (as well as the ideas and practices they convey) only tell us what we already know and thus reinforce our blind spots and prejudices. “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” Of course people from the past did not get everything right. “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” Their successes will teach us; their failures will warn us. “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” (in, Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 18).

Theology as Discipleship 4

In the sixth chapter Johnson argues that the “mind of Christ” and the pattern of Christ’s humble obedience go together. On this basis, then, a Spirit-filled life of humble, self-sacrificial love is a defining mark of a theologian who shares the mind of Christ. The theologian pursues knowledge rightly when they do so for the sake of others, out of a desire to serve them by pointing them to God and sharing his love with them (148). Johnson’s emphasis is on the pursuit of theological knowledge, for our finitude and fallenness mean that we cannot, in and of ourselves, gain the knowledge of God. Rather, this knowledge comes to us only as a gift of grace. Thus the theologian “must proceed under the assumption that we are not free to determine how our discipline operates. Our knowledge of God does not result from an act of our will, as if we can know God simply because we want to do so” (151).

In a certain sense the act of seeking is itself the goal of our work, because this act produces the exact kind of intellectual and moral formation God desires us to have. Put differently: the practice of theology should be ordered around the goal of seeking God rather than finding him precisely because the act of seeking is what forms us to adopt the humble way of life that corresponds to the mind of Christ (152).

Theology, then, is as much a matter of prayer—of communication with God—as it is about gaining new insights and information. That is, “we are theologians who live on our knees before God, with an open Bible in front of us and the voice of the church in our ears” (155). Johnson unpacks this picture of faithful theological work in his final chapter in which he sets forth nine practices of those who practice theology as disciples:

  • They measure their thinking and speaking about God by the person and work of Christ as revealed in Scripture.
  • Their thinking stays within the limits of faith in Jesus Christ; that is, they resist reductionist attempts to remove all mystery, erase all doubt, or answer every doctrinal question in an all-encompassing system.
  • They endeavour to live obediently in the pattern of the incarnate Christ’s obedience to God.
  • They engage in their theological work for the benefit of others.
  • They use their theological work to serve the church and its mission.
  • They pursue both truth and unity.
  • They practice their discipline with confidence while avoiding defensiveness.
  • They utilise the insights of the non-theological disciplines to enrich their own thought.
  • Finally, they pursue their work with joy, for their work is an act of worship that anticipates the worship they will offer to God into eternity.

Theology as Discipleship 3

In chapters four and five Johnson turns his attention to scripture, providing a functional account of biblical authority. Because God elects his witnesses and identifies with their words—as Christ does with his own witnesses in the New Testament—and because God continues to use scripture as a medium of revelation, it is authoritative. Through these words the ancient witness and the contemporary hearers are linked in the one story and activity of the gracious God.

God’s movement of grace in the past, and the biblical authors’ obedient response to it, reverberates here and now as God uses the authors’ past actions to produce our faith and obedience in the present. In this way, Scripture itself ties God’s various saving acts together to form a single story, a unified history of God’s grace and our response to it (93).

Despite this beginning, Johnson’s description of biblical authority quickly passes over to an ontological and christological account. Scripture is inspired by God—breathed out by God as God’s own very speech, and as such is God’s Word in human words. Even more specifically, Jesus Christ is this inspiring God, who thus stands at the centre of scripture and is therefore, the criterion of all biblical interpretation. Theology, therefore, is learning to think in accord with “the mind of Christ,” illuminated by the Spirit and guided by the scripture.

Scripture’s purpose is not to help us fit God into our lives but to see how our lives fit into what God is doing in history through Christ and the Spirit. Rather than trying to insert Scripture into our reality by figuring out how we might apply it to our lives, our task is to reinterpret our lives and the whole of reality in the light of Scripture (106).

An implication of this view is that interpretation of scripture is not a free-floating, ad hoc, or reader-centred enterprise. Christians and theologians alike are to learn to speak of God appropriately by being inducted into communities and practices of interpretation, and participating with the community of faith in the present activity of God. Thus Johnson identifies three key interpretive principles. First is what he calls the Augustinian principle: all true biblical interpretation will lead to deeper love of God and neighbour. That is, interpretation is measured by outcome rather than by content alone. Biblical interpretation is itself oriented toward discipleship. Second is the ecclesial principle: we read and listen with others, including the tradition of the church. Believers continue to give their attention to (a) the message of Christ, (b) that of the apostles, and (c) the present work of the Spirit. In fact, Johnson suggests that interpreters start with the present work of the living Lord and Spirit as an exercise in hearing, following and participating now in the life and work of God. This, he suggests, is theology as discipleship. But both poles of this interpretive scheme are necessary. Unless we give our attention to the message we are in danger of drifting. Yet the present work of the Spirit also opens the possibility of new and surprising interpretations that we might never otherwise have noticed. This leads finally, to the third christological principle which insists on interpreting all scripture in the light of Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation.

Scripture, then, is central to the work and practice of theology. It is the chief creaturely means through which God speaks (110).

Our calling is to help the church think and speak about God correctly so the church can partner with Christ in God’s saving plan for history, and we interpret the biblical text in light of this calling. Our primary goal is not to extract isolated doctrinal truths from the text and then use them as the building blocks of a theological system. Our goal is to help the church interpret Scripture faithfully so that the church can follow Christ as the Spirit leads. This means we interpret each passage in light of how Christ and the Spirit are prompting us to live in relation to God and neighbor right now … We engage in this task knowing the text will be interpreted properly only in light of the living Christ. …Our proper response is to read it with humility, openness and the expectation that God might surprise us (129, original emphasis).

Theology as Discipleship 2

In chapters two and three Johnson develops his understanding of the nature of Christian life as a participation in and partnership with Christ. The practice of theology takes place within the context of, and as an aspect of, one’s discipleship. Johnson narrates the biblical story of God’s saving work in history culminating in Jesus Christ as the true reality that frames our existence. As such, theology begins “from above,” from the narrative depiction of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. All reality and history can be truly understood only with reference to Jesus Christ—and never the reverse. Theology cannot start from below as though to fit the idea of God into a preconceived understanding of reality. God’s eternal will and purpose was to create all things in and for Christ, and to reconcile them by him. In the Holy Spirit believers are united to Christ and so given a share of—a participation in—his eternal life and knowledge of the Father. This knowledge which although partial is true, is the ground of theology. Johnson adopts a clear image to indicate the true though partial nature of our knowledge of God:

Participating in Christ is not the same thing as being Christ. He knows God by nature because he is God by nature; we know God as finite and temporal creatures who have been given a share in Christ’s mind by grace. In this sense, we are much like a passenger who gets picked up by a train halfway through the train’s journey. On the one hand, the passenger truly participates in the train’s journey and has accurate knowledge of both the train and its movement toward its destination. On the other hand, the passenger’s knowledge is “only in part” because she has participated in only part of the journey: the train and its journey long preceded her participation in it, and she has not yet arrived at the destination and has no knowledge of it (58, original emphasis).

Our union with Christ is for the purpose of partnership with Christ in his work. The pattern of this partnership is God’s own being and work; God intends that we live in correspondence with him. Thus God gives commands that, as we obey them, help us to live in likeness to him. And God acts, empowering our own responsive action. Sin is the refusal to live in correspondence to God, choosing to become “like God” in our own way.

In union with Christ believers are made hidden participants in the eternal life of God, and by the Spirit Christ begins to live his life in and through us. Jesus has joined his life to ours, and has incorporated his people into his life, so that his history has become our history. His faithful obedience liberates us to be also faithful and obedient in him, corresponding in our own life to his life. The work of theology is one particular aspect of this overarching partnership. This work involves helping the church use human words to speak appropriately of God. This requires bringing human language about God into conformity with Christ, who is in himself the revelation of God and as such, the criterion of all speech about God. “Our thinking and speaking about God will be true if our words correspond to who Christ is, what he has done and what he continues to do within created history. This means that our primary task as theologians is to bring the meaning of the words we use for God into conformity to Christ” (81).

Theology as Discipleship 1

Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship arose from his work in the classroom in which students sometimes asked concerning the value and relevance of theological study. His response is to “argue that the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God” (12). His argument unfolds over seven chapters, beginning in the first with a historical narrative to explain how Christian theology became separated from Christian faith and the life of the church and discipleship; that is, it became subject to canons of thought and presuppositions alien to its own confession. In the early centuries of Christianity the context of theology was the church, and its practice was related to pastoral and devotional concerns, and faithful life in the world. The presupposed connection between theology and discipleship began slowly to change, however, during the medieval period when the discipline of theology became part of the university curriculum. This change accelerated in the modern era as the role of the university and what counted as academic learning evolved.

Theologians felt pressure to justify their conclusions according to the academic criteria that governed the university. This meant that rather than starting with faith—which might distort their ability to assess evidence rationally—they had to begin with universally accepted premises and employ the methods of critical reason. No longer could they appeal to the authority of the Bible or the church’s tradition to defend their claims (29).

This pressure intensified as modernity progressed, and Johnson notes a further shift that occurred with Schleiermacher, who argued that theologians should “demonstrate that the church’s practices are a ‘necessary element for the development of the human spirit,’” and that they should employ a genuinely deliberative character in their work (30, citing Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 10-11, 97). Theologians must now be scholars in addition to saints, and their work was not simply for the church but for the welfare of the modern state, and so they were accountable not only to the church but also to the university. The best theologians had always engaged other disciplines, seeking to draw them into the intellectual framework of Christian faith. Now the direction of engagement shifted: “Theologians interacted with these same disciplines not in order to reframe them in light of their faith but to secure theology’s place in the academy alongside every other discipline” (31).

Formerly, theologians had pursued theological training in order to acquire knowledge, habits and skills that would shape them into the pattern of Jesus Christ for the sake of their service to the church. … Now, with the discipline of theology housed primarily in the university, the primary goal of theological education was to provide students with the technical skills they needed to perform responsible critical enquiry so that the church’s faith and practice could be brought in line with the standards of critical reason (31-32).

Thus Johnson proposes that theology begin with its own distinctive confession—the lordship of Jesus Christ according to Romans 10:9—and work itself out from there in accordance with its own rationality and in dialogue with other disciplines. In Johnson’s view theology must be both faithful and academic; to require a division between these is to misunderstand the nature and practice of theological inquiry. The remainder of the book is his attempt to view the discipline in this light.

The Gilead Novels (Marilynne Robinson)

I have read Gilead and Home twice now, and I have just finished reading Lila for the first time. I have also listened to the audio versions of Gilead and Home. These are beautifully written novels, gentle, slow, and humane. Robinson’s gift is bringing her characters to life in an easy and unforced manner, letting them grow in depth, colour and texture as the novels proceed. The novels are set in the 1950s, although they recall earlier periods of American history as the stories of the characters’ lives unfold.

Each of the novels centre around the Iowa town of Gilead where Rev. John Ames is pastor of a small Christian congregation. Late in life—and to his utter surprise—Ames marries and fathers a child. Gilead tells something of his story, of Lila, and of Robert, their son. It also introduces the Boughtons who have been lifelong friends of Ames, and still are. Home picks up the Boughton’s story, especially that of Glory, one of the daughters, and of Jack, the wayward and troubled son come home.

Each of the novels unfolds from the inner life of its major character—John Ames, Glory Boughton, and now Lila Ames. Detailed observation and rich dialogue introduce and develop the other characters and provide the drama of the novels. Through the dialogue and reflections we are introduced into the complexity and wonder of human life and relationships. Surprises and intrigue emerge, as does a portrayal of human life and relationship in all its messiness and meanness, glory and hope.

The religious permeates the pages. Robinson brings depths of theological reflection into her work, including her admiration of Calvin and her undying conviction of the supremacy and triumph of divine grace. One of the amusing sentences in Lila has Lila responding to something Ames says:

“That’s Calvin. The way he talks about it, they must still have been doing it in the sixteenth century. Four hundred years ago.”

“I didn’t even know he was dead. Calvin. The way you and Boughton talk about him” (Lila, 131).

It is likely, however, that stricter Calvinists will be less than happy with her universalist tendencies which are present in each volume, but especially so in Lila. Lila fills in the back story of Mrs Ames, and is a very different novel, because Lila’s is a very different voice. Abandoned and stolen as a child, and cared for by a fugitive, Lila grows up isolated and lonely, scared and suspicious, hurting and ready to flee. Lila’s inner reflections run seamlessly between reminiscences of an earlier time, and present thoughts and conditions. Much of the novel is about her learning to live a different life, to relax into a new kind of life completely foreign: to be loved, and to be happy. That she is married is as much a surprise to her as it was to Ames. That she will be a mother is a revelation, and the ground of new anxieties and hopes.

There is much to savour here, not least the beautiful and evocative style Robinson brings to her work. Her vision is of life suffused with grace, utterly permeated with divine providence even in the midst of the sheer ordinariness of everyday existence if only we have eyes to see it. Indeed, the providence is there even when we cannot see it, or can see it only dimly or in hindsight. But there is no easy faith here. Life may be ordinary; it may also be banal, cruel, and tragic. And yet divine grace is all around, tugging and calling gently to any and all. And grace—the divine goodness at the centre of it all—cannot bear to be without that which it loves.