Category Archives: Theology

Neder: On Teaching & Learning Theology (Part 1)

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), pp. 158.
ISBN: 978-0-8010-9878-9

Adam Neder has written Theology as a Way of Life to provide a theological account of teaching theology so that the teacher’s activity is not out of step with their subject matter. His approach presupposes a Christological anthropology informed by Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer, and is offered as an alternative to another prominent model of Christian education, championed especially by James KA Smith. Smith’s model, considered appreciably by Neder, ‘conceives Christian education as largely a process of socialization in which students are habituated into the Christian life through repetitive practices that lead to virtue’ (5), itself a reaction to the idea that Christian education is often based on the faulty idea that all Christians need as essentially thinking creatures is new information that adds up to a Christian worldview. Against Smith’s contention that ‘we are what we love,’ Neder argues that ‘we are who we are because Jesus is who he is’ (6). That is, Jesus Christ establishes the truth of human identity in his life, death, and resurrection.

Good teachers give their students freedom. They offer students space to make up their own minds, to find their own ways forward. Aware of their fallibility, the limitations of their perspective, and the difference between their knowledge of God and God’s knowledge of himself, good teachers don’t seek to reproduce themselves in students. Of course they want to be persuasive . . . but . . . their goal is not to create loyal soldiers who repeat and defend the master, but to train students to listen to God’s Word, discover their own voices, and respond to Jesus Christ’s  call in their own ways (13).

In the first chapter on ‘Identity’ Neder unpacks several anthropological and pedagogical presuppositions. First, reconciliation with God is an accomplished and objective reality for all humanity; this is our true being in Christ, the essence of who and what we are. Every person is loved, reconciled, and called by God—including all our students. Christian existence, then, is a matter of becoming who we are so that our existence corresponds ever more closely with our essence. This, however, remains a process of becoming as the Spirit grants us grace time and again to entrust ourselves to him. The corollary of this is that to turn away from Christ is to turn away from one’s own true being. Our persistent tendency, however, is to refuse to receive our lives from Christ. ‘We enter into conflict with him and thus into conflict with ourselves’ (30). Neder is arguing for a life of faith, not in place of virtue but as the means by which the Spirit enables our lives to ‘become transparent to the life of Christ’ (29). This is not so much the habituation that enables one to live virtuously (in their own power?), but a cruciform life in faith in which his power is made perfect in our weakness.

Second, since only God can reveal God, we remain always and utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit if our students are to know Christ. Only the Spirit can open their ears, eyes, and hearts to the love of God. And therefore, before and above all else, the theological educator must pray. For Neder, this is the essential pedagogical task of the theological educator.

Our lives are ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3) in order to be received and embraced. That subjective response is how we become (in ourselves) who we already are (in Christ). . . . The summons to discipleship is a summons to live with the grain of one’s identity in Christ rather than against it. As this happens we become images of the image of God. Our existence, the shape of our individual lives, coheres with our essence in him (26; original emphasis).

Conceiving of the human self as a process, as both gift and task, implies that we are not simply ourselves in a straightforward way, nor do we become ourselves all at once. At best we are on the way toward becoming ourselves. At most our existence is in process of becoming aligned with our essence. But this is a constant struggle. . . . To be clear, our identity in Christ is stable and unchanging, but the existential shape of life together with him is not (27-28).

Theology & the University: An Interesting Discussion

The Brisbane Chapter of ANZATS (= Australian & New Zealand Association of Theological Schools) conducted an interesting discussion today that I was able to join by Zoom. The discussion was titled, “Theology and the University: Queen of the Sciences?” Two essays were distributed prior to the discussion, and three papers given during the session on related themes.

The two essays distributed were John Webster’s “Regina Artium: Theology and the Humanities” (from, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason) and Linn Marie Tonstad, “(Un)Wise Theologians: Systematic Theology in the University,” IJST Vol. 22, Number 4 (October 2020).

Webster argues that theology is not merely one discipline amongst the humanities but is in fact the ‘Queen of the (Intellectual) Arts.’ Using especially Bonaventure and also Augustine as his main conversation partners, Webster argues that all created intelligence and all creaturely intellectual work is a ‘gift from above’ (James 1:17), creaturely thought illuminated by the ‘Father of lights.’ This is a theological appraisal of the origin and goal of human intellectual endeavour.

For Bonaventure, theology describes what, according to Holy Scripture, the world is: the temporal passage of created being back to its creator. This history is irreducible to other terms, and so there can be no profane understanding of the arts of the mind, because creatureliness is basic. For Augustine, too, the arts of the mind are not secular, but of divine institution; but they are caught up in wickedness, and discriminating use of them – most of all in the interpretation of the Bible – depends on their being broken away from captivity to vice (187).

But this view of theology is difficult for many to accept:

Talk of divine motion . . . seems to us to threaten rational autonomy and responsibility. . . . God does not move the mind as an archer propels an arrow . . . God moves from within, not simply as a causal force from without. Yet in order to grasp this, we have to detach ourselves from the assumption that the natural life of creatures is secular life (188).

That is, all creaturely existence, including the work of the mind, occurs within the encompassing context of the divine origin and goal of all things. All the intellectual arts from designing and weaving a basket to abstruse philosophy are intended to lead us to God. In our fallen condition, however, this intention is hidden from us. It is the task of theology not merely to inquire about God, but to consider all things relative to God as origin and end.

This is why theology may be called the queen of the arts, though that appellation only makes sense against the background of a now lost understanding of the hierarchy of studies in which theology is the point at which the divine illumination of all things is made an object of contemplation (191).

Linn Marie Tonstad rejects this view as an attempt to justify theology’s place in the university, and indeed as an imposition of power with respect to the other disciplines in the humanities. She is concerned especially, with more aggressive approaches (she names Milbank as an example) which would launch a counter-attack against theology’s despisers whether by telling a better story, undermining the other’s foundational commitments, etc., in order to insist that unless these other disciplines are ordered to theology and so find a means of “participating in God’s self-knowledge . . . they are objectively and demonstrably null and void” (502).

Tonstad argues that theology is subject to the same epistemological and socio-cultural limitations and pressures that assail all the disciplines, and attempts to ‘master’ another is not only wrong-headed but ultimately futile. The university context inevitably shapes the way in which theology is practised:

The university values what is new and ground-breaking; it values the originality ascribed to a single scholar; it values radical programs or critiques of existing structures, discipline-shifting paradigms; . . . The pressure to distinguish oneself within a field offering shrinking rewards becomes ever more intense. . . . Theology, as a result, becomes a practice of self-protection (505-506).

She reasons from 1 Corinthians 1 that appeals to wisdom can be an attempt to mastery, but God chooses the foolish things of the world to bring to nought the things that are. Therefore, theology ought aim at foolishness and unmastery, a non-defensive theology of failure utterly aware of its own contingency and susceptibility to judgement.

Such a non-defensive position does not seek to colonize other disciplines by instructing them in their proper ends or by accusing them of being about nothing. For the text instructs theologians that God sometimes chooses what is nothing for God’s own ends, and it is not the business of the theologian to determine when God is doing just that (511).

I find I agree and disagree with both scholars and perhaps Tonstad’s suggestion that the university context distorts theological inquiry is most apt. She focusses on the economics of the university—neo-liberalism and capitalism are the enemy—though I wonder if the modes of rationality in the modern university are equally or even more problematic. This, too, may be part of her critique, especially when she speaks of the university rewarding the novel and the radical. As one engaged in queer theology—and a tenured professor at Yale—she also benefits from the system she critiques. The same was true, of course, of the late John Webster who enjoyed a celebrated career in prominent institutions in the United Kingdom. Webster’s rigorously theological approach to the question, though, has the merit, of insisting that human intellectual gifts and inquiry are graced, even if, under the conditions of the fall, they do not exhibit or realise the full intent of that grace.

In my view, the true home of theology is not the university but the church, though I suggest that Tonstad would reject this suggestion as well. The Yale theologian rightly warns against the kind of wisdom that seeks mastery or dominance over others, and rightly emphasises the contingency and limits of theological assertion. Her concern that theology be much more self-critical than critical of the other disciplines is not misplaced. My worry, however, comes from what she does not say here. May the Christian have theological confidence at all? Does the fact that we cannot know the truth comprehensively mean that we cannot know it at all? It seems she has problematised theological activity in order to propose a posture appropriate for theology while eroding or denying the possibility of any normative truth claims. While she has rightly intuited the social location of Paul’s ‘Corinthian wisdom,’ it seems she has emptied it of its content, and so of its saving power.

Theology, as faith seeking understanding, has its own particular rationality as Webster insists. Certainly, it may be a critical venture, demanding the utmost exercise of our intellectual gifts. Yet it arises on account of faith and is directed toward the building up and promulgation of faith through the ministry of the church. Separated from this context, theology may be tempted to substitute a mode of rationality and an ethos contrary to its one foundation, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). The task of theology whether academic or ecclesial is not merely “therapy for [theology’s] desire for recognition” (Tonstad, 511), but the knowledge of him “who is made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

‘Prophetic’ Proclamation or Didactic Doctrine?

In 1963 Emil Brunner wrote that, ‘A further consequence that necessarily follows from the basic error of orthodoxy is the overvaluation of doctrine in the life of the church and in the faith of the individual’ (Truth as Encounter, 178)—this from a man who spent his life teaching and writing books on Christian doctrine! Brunner has not had a change of heart whereby he now considers doctrine to be deleterious to the life of faith or the life of the church. To the contrary sound doctrine is greatly desired and necessary. Still, he asserts that doctrine can be ‘overvalued.’

First it is necessary briefly to note the ‘basic error of orthodoxy’ to which Brunner refers. The error is what he calls objectivism, the idea that somehow God’s activity stands complete in and of itself whether or not there is any human response or correspondence to that activity. This view pictures God’s work in impersonal terms and as such departs from what Brunner considers a more biblical portrayal of God as relational and personal. Thus, Brunner views with suspicion concepts of grace, the church, or the sacraments in which the divine activity is institutionalised or rendered automatic or mechanical in its operation. Brunner uses the practice of baptism as an example. Baptism is a work of divine grace in which God is active forgiving sin, cleansing, and regenerating. But it is not an act of God solely, for the human agent is also active having been moved by grace in faith and confession. Any practice of the sacrament that either implicitly or explicitly diminishes or removes the human element so that the requirement of faith is removed ‘destroys’ the character of the sacrament (181-184). Brunner’s view is that God’s grace and truth is always an ‘event’ in which the person is encountered by God in such a way that their personal response is called for and called forth.

With this background we can begin to explore Brunner’s point in the citation above. Brunner insists that the primary commission received by the church is not doctrine but proclamation.

Proclamation, I suppose, must always have a doctrinal content, but it is itself something other than doctrine. It is faith awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address. Genuine proclamation always has a prophetic character – even if we preachers are no prophets; pure doctrine, on the other hand, has a didactic character (178).

As Brunner uses the term, prophetic refers not to foretelling future events or preaching about social issues or condemning various evils—two common misconceptions. Rather it is hortatory address, calling people to respond to God and his promises. It is to be a messenger of the covenant as the Old Testament prophets are sometimes characterised, calling people to faith in God. The prophet confronts the hearer with the reality of God and calls for a decision. Teaching, on the other hand, is didactic, instructional, the communication of information that may or may not have any direct existential claim upon the hearer.

Brunner rejects, therefore, a direct identification of doctrine with ‘the Word of God.’ The Word of God is the event whereby a person is addressed by God through the human word of proclamation in such a way that the response of faith and obedience is aroused. In the modern period especially, Brunner contends, proclamation is more necessary than teaching if the church is to fulfil its missionary commission (198). This is even more the case in the postmodern and post-Christian environment in which we now live.

Once let the relation between the Word of God and doctrine be rightly understood, and there will hardly be room any longer for the view that the single thing which the church could do for the awakening of faith is the conceptual clarification of the Holy Scriptures. Has it, then, not yet been noticed that the most perfect knowledge of Biblical concepts and the entire acceptance of Biblical doctrine is wholly compatible with the completest want of actual faith – and indeed that this is anything but a rare phenomenon? (180)

I am sure that Brunner’s reflection provides crucial guidance for the present task of preaching. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus went about teaching (didaskōn), preaching (kērussōn), and healing. Teaching is certainly necessary for those who are already Christians. But even more now than in Brunner’s day the church in the west exists in a missionary context. We would do well to infuse all our sermons with a kerygmatic element—proclamation, and not simply teaching. Such preaching points to the beauty of Jesus Christ, his sovereignty, grace, promise and redemption, and on this basis, calls people to repentance and faith. Such preaching seeks not merely to inform but to call for an informed decision. That such a decision is actually made is not our work, however, but the work of the Holy Spirit. For this we can and should pray.

More Reflections on COVID-19

This remarkable image from an unknown artist is used in volume 2 of the COVID-19 reflections in Stimulus: A New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice. All three parts of the present issue have now been published, and there are some very good articles among them, including an article by Rev Dr Steve Taylor, Principal, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, New Zealand, reflecting on the image above.

I have read a couple of articles from part one, quite a few from part two, and none yet from part three which was published only yesterday. I look forward to reading some more. Of what I have read so far, I have enjoyed most the articles by

  • Steve Taylor, ‘A Covid Christology’
  • Myk Habets, ‘The Proof is in the Providence’
  • Bill Loader, ‘Corona on the Side of the Road’

There is more to read and I am sure, more gems to find. The editors put out a call for papers in late March or early April and within a couple of weeks received over sixty responses. Instead of producing their normal volume of four essays, they have gone for a bumper approach. After peer review about forty papers were deemed to fall within the parameters and standards of the journal, and they have published them all in the three part-volumes.

If you are interested, my own paper ‘A Gift of Friendship’ is in part three.

 

Reflections on COVID-19 – Stimulus Journal

At the end of March, the editorial team of Stimulus (a New Zealand journal published by Laidlaw College) met and discussed putting together a special edition of Stimulus based around the COVID-19 event. They were aware that the church of God (like all people) had been thrust into something unprecedented and were grappling with what it all means. They wanted to hear the voices of thinking Christians during the time of lock-down. They also wanted them to come from that time and be read while everyone was still facing the challenge.

Their initial call for papers on April 1 resulted in over sixty submissions. Each piece was sent to blind peer review, and over forty contributions fit the journal’s criteria. Given that the usual issue of the journal has only four major essays, the editors were confronted with a happy dilemma. In the end they decided to release this special issue in three ‘volumes,’ the first of which is now published and available here. The next volumes will be released in coming weeks.

Enjoy!

Pierre Maury Sermon ~ The Ultimate Decision

Simon Hattrell’s recent book Election, Barth, and the French Connection (Second edition) contains two lectures and a sermon from Pierre Maury, the French Reformed pastor-theologian whose 1936 lecture in Geneva so influenced Karl Barth’s reconstruction of the doctrine of election. This sermon was preached in Lent 1937, in the Reformed Church of Passy, Paris. Maury gave a series of six talks of which this was one.

Maury begins with John 14:6 and asserts that Jesus is the (only) way, and as such, the only revelation of God. This is something requiring one’s commitment, something people often struggle to give for they continually seek to establish their own way. This they—we!—must cease to do, abandoning our efforts and accepting Jesus Christ himself as our (only) way.

The Christian life, from its beginning to its end, is decision, that is to say, unreserved commitment. . . . For, Jesus Christ wants to be objective in the sense that He claims to be an unreserved commitment of God on our behalf, and on the other hand He demands that we become unreservedly committed to Him. It is this double aspect of His existence that we are now going to examine (53).

To ‘choose’ or to commit to Christ is not analogous to other human choices between a range of options, or the self-commitment of one to an imagined absolute or cause. Jesus Christ himself is the Absolute who demands our unconditional submission in the obedience of faith; that is, a free submission. This commitment, suggests Maury, comes not by means of rational argument concerning the legitimacy of Christian claims. Rather, one is engaged in relational encounter with Jesus the Word, engaged in dialogue, hearing and speaking. One is to ‘hear’ Jesus Christ—his whole life and eternal existence is a ‘word’ addressed to us. Maury recalls an experience related by Pascal in Les Pensées to make his point:

As soon as faith is fixed on this person of past history, it is quite naturally brought to discover in him a personal intention—an interaction has begun. . . . Just as long as, like all the heroes of history, He remains for us an object of reflection, of admiration or curiosity, we do not know Him; He is not Him; he is only that which He wants to be (54).

When God speaks to us in Christ it is not in order to display a truth, but to reveal to us our situation before Him, and the attitude that He adopts before us (55).

As such, Jesus Christ is decisive. He is decisive in the sense that in him all are included and contained. Our existence is, eternally and in eternity, contained, enfolded, enclosed and included in his existence. It seems that for Maury, this is the content of proclamation: a divine decision has been made; humanity is the object of divine love—all of us, and each of us.

Jesus Christ is a decision of God, therefore without any recourse, as far as we are concerned, a decision of someone other than ourselves and of which we are the object; and that is to say, in the second place, that Jesus Christ calls for a decision on our part, a final (permanent) decision. . . . It is from all eternity, in eternity, that between Jesus Christ and us a relationship is established (56).

Again:

Marvelous revelation of an unfathomable mystery! When this child is born in a manger, when this man dies on the cross and rises again the third day, the eve of the Sabbath, it is our whole life that is swept up in this commitment, it is for our whole life that something happens. He is the one by whom—for whom also—we have been created, who is there. He is there, simple and immense, simple as the simplest of the sons of men, immense because the dimensions of His existence contain us all; He is the beginning and the end of our life. In Him everything is enclosed, kept, protected. When He cries out, ‘Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden’ (Matthew 11:28), it is all our destinies that He is calling, because they belong to Him. When He stretches out His arms upon the cross, He says that it is ‘to draw all to Himself’ (John 12:32) because no one has existed without Him and outside of Him. When He rises and is exalted to the right hand of God, it is in order to present to God—eternally, and in eternity—those who—from all eternity, in eternity—have always been, are and will always be His. I have said, I have repeated: all (57).

Jesus Christ is thus decisive in the decision that has been taken by God concerning us, our entire existence. He is decisive, too, because in his incarnation and life we are encountered by the coming and work of God.

The real mystery of the action of Jesus Christ is that ‘he does nothing by himself’ (John 5:19). That which He does for us, and that which He does in coming to us, in giving Himself to us, in choosing us, is what no person can do: it is an act of God! . . . Such is the true relationship that Jesus Christ has with those who believe in Him: a relationship where God Himself legally binds Himself to us (60, 61).

This activity, the activity of his love—his coming to us, giving himself to and for us, and in so doing, choosing us—is election, and it must be understood as the testimony of his love in its most positive sense, and not at all negatively, as a sign of partiality (60).

Not only is Jesus Christ decisive, he is also ultimate. The divine decision concerning us is ultimate, not merely as divine but because it concerns the last—the ultimate—judgement. Yet the Judge is Jesus Christ—he who has come, given himself, and chosen us! In view of all this, Jesus Christ is ultimate also for he demands our decision, an ultimate decision in which we give ourselves wholly and without reserve to him. He comes to us indeed, though in his coming he is always Lord and Master.

We need to insist on the uncompromising nature of the essence of Christian decision. … If we choose Him, it’s because He has chosen us first; if we take Him up, it is because He has seized us. Such is the seriousness of His coming into our life that it dispossesses us completely. He only comes as Master. He is the Lord Jesus. . . . The intolerable, demanding nature of faith is the mark of grace which is ours in faith (64).

Although he does not use the language of ‘irresistible grace’ it is clear that Maury holds such a concept. Jesus Christ seeks us out, confronts us, and in so doing reaches our ‘true centre’ where our destiny is at stake, laying hold of our lives ‘where all possibilities of escape are closed except this one, this obligation to say yes or no, and never ‘perhaps’ . . . ‘If we do not give our consent, it’s because we haven’t been found’ (64).

The decision required of us is the response of faith, rather than correct knowledge or full understanding. The real question confronting us is not intellectual but existential. ‘We have to come to Him with our life, because it is with His life that He has come to us’ (66). To respond to Jesus Christ in faith is to give ourselves to him as he did to us—in complete simplicity, immediately, and without reservation (65).

Maury concludes his sermon by directing his listeners to the only place where they might look for and find Jesus Christ as their ultimate decision: to the Bible. ‘It is through the Bible alone that Jesus Christ is made our contemporary. If Scripture is holy, it is because it offers us the possibility of knowing the ultimate decision of our life with no looking back’ (67).

But one can also, from the beginning to the end of the Bible, hear the living Word of God, hear God speaking of Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, and, having heard Him, one can—no, one must—decide for or against Him. . . . Whoever looks in these pages for Jesus Christ as their Lord, sooner or later, slowly or all of a sudden, will find what they are looking for (67).

That this happens is, in the final analysis, the work of the Holy Spirit, for in every case the human decision is grounded in and enabled by the grace of the divine decision made concerning us.

*****

The sermon is prefaced, in the book, with a record of a brief correspondence between Barth and Maury, and a longer note from Charlotte von Kirschbaum who translated the Frenchman’s sermon in German, translating it three times before she was (somewhat!) happy with it. Hattrell has given us the first translation of the sermon into English. My citations and pagination here are based on the first edition of the volume.

Pierre Maury on ‘Election and Faith’

In 1936 at the International Congress of Calvinist Theology conducted in Geneva to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, French preacher-theologian Pierre Maury presented a paper entitled ‘Election et Foi.’ Karl Barth would later recall that the address had made a profound impression on him, providing the decisive contribution to his own thought on the doctrine of predestination.

Maury’s lecture has been recently translated and published in English thanks to the work of Simon Hattrell, in his edited volume Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. The volume includes testimony from those who knew Maury, including Barth, as well as three lectures by Maury that provide a good insight into his thought concerning election, and a number of additional contemporary essays discussing the doctrine in Barth and Maury’s theology.

Over the next few weeks I will provide a summary of Maury’s lectures in order to make more generally available what he said that so impressed Barth. Of course, better yet would be to buy the book!

The 1936 lecture itself, is quite short. Maury begins by indicating the approach he will take to the doctrine, which initially sounds characteristically Reformed:

We did not give ourselves life nor will we be able to avoid death. We have not chosen to live; we cannot choose to not die. It is therefore not a question here of our choice, the one that we make, but the choice of which we are the object, that which is made (or not made) of us. These are those insurmountable limits, which are imposed on us, which election calls to mind (42).

Since the doctrine of election trumps all our categories of reason and wisdom, we cannot approach it philosophically but only in accordance with faith, led and guided by the Scriptures. Hence the title, ‘Election and Faith.’ Scripture will be the guide of faith and not a teacher of philosophy. “It will lead us in some points to not follow what Calvin heard in it. But that will not be being unfaithful to him; on the contrary, that will be truly Calvinist” (43).

When we begin with Scripture, however, we find that election is christologically ordered. For Maury, the eternal and the incarnate Christ is the origin, ground, and goal of God’s election. This election is entirely free, wholly God’s initiative, and yet at the cross it is shown to have cost God everything.

We will take our stand, therefore, in speaking of predestination, on this solid ground, where the hidden mystery of God becomes the revealed grace which is offered to us. We can truly say that outside of Christ, there is neither election, nor knowledge of election . . . Outside of Christ, we know neither who the God who elects is, nor those He elects, nor how He elects them (43).

Jesus Christ is not merely the point of the knowledge of divine election, but is in himself the election:

So the election is nothing else than the eternal and temporal existence of Jesus Christ, our mediator. For it is in Him, in Him crucified, in Him alone, that God has met us. Because it is in Christ, we know that election is not some unfathomable eternal caprice or whim, a game played out in the infinitely distant idleness of eternity but a concrete reality, our reality. It bears the marks of the historical and real life of Jesus Christ, living, dying, rising for us (46).

Election is, negatively, God taking all our sin and alienation on the cross. This is grace. Here, here alone, but here truly, we see that God is love. Election, therefore, consists in the rejection of Jesus Christ.

Before the cross, too, we understand this paradox: the price of free election. For election does not cost us anything, but God it cost His Son. For God to extend grace, to forgive, is to give everything, to give everything for us who cannot give Him anything. . . . This is the night of the ninth hour. What does this darkness mean? Revelation says: punishment. And the Son believes it: punishment, God’s wrath. The only one who will understand grace in election is the same one who understands that it is fulfilled in Christ dying, smitten by God, deserted by men. The only one who will understand how election is sheer pardon is the one who, before the cross, does not come with arguments or with good works, with religious emotion or objections, but who stands there speechless because they have nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to put forward (47-48).

The human response to this election is to choose, decisively, for or against. At the cross we see ourselves—and so judgement, rejection, and condemnation; and at the cross we see God—and so grace, acceptance, and justification. This is double-predestination, though in Maury’s hands it refers not to two separate classes of people (salvation for some, damnation for the rest), but is applied to each person. The church may and must speak of double-predestination but only in this way. That is, it may preach ‘the word of the cross.’ Indeed apart from the cross, double-predestination is solely an eschatological concept: we cannot sort anyone into these categories.

The elect, in their election, accept everything from the cross: condemnation and grace, judgement and forgiveness, demand and promise, renouncement and life. They accept, that is to say, they no longer have anything, they allow everything to be given to them . . . Predestination is therefore very much double (51, 52).

When asked, upon whom does salvation depend? Maury responds as expected: upon God, of course! Though this answer is known only in faith. Faith is a decisive human act with no opt-out clause. Faith is to risk everything in our reply to this judgement and grace addressed to us. “To accept Jesus Christ, to be chosen by God, means to choose to turn away from ourselves forever. That means to have from now on an absolute Lord . . . ” (50).

To look to the cross is to respond in kind. In choosing Christ we no longer choose ourselves but embrace a vocation to be conformed to Christ. There is a life that is appropriate to the elect: a life of continuing faith lest the believer transform God’s election into their own possession; a life of prayer since all depends on God—and the truest prayer is that which asks for the Holy Spirit; and finally, a life of obedience to the God who has and continues, to call them.

Pierre Maury, "Election et Foi (Election and Faith)" in Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a 'Decisive Impetus' to Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election." Edited by Simon Hattrell, 41-59. Second edition; Eugene: Pickwick, 2019.

Meditation in a Toolshed: Doodling CS Lewis

At some time in the past I have read this little meditation by CS Lewis, probably after reading Kevin Vanhoozer’s meditation on CS Lewis’ meditation (“Meditation in a Postmodern Toolshed”). But having happened upon this fascinating exercise in ‘doodling’ Lewis, I decided to read it again.

The short piece is an argument made almost seventy-five years ago, against the conceit of critical modes of thought as inherently superior to other forms of knowledge. Lewis does not reject criticism, but nor does he allow it to claim its self-appointed role as the arbiter of genuine knowledge. The argument is made using a simple and homely illustration:

I was standing today in a dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences (607).

Lewis reflects on the nature of subjective experiential knowledge and objective observational knowledge. Both forms of knowledge may be legitimate; both have their place. “You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the ‘true’ or ‘valid’ experience?” (608)

The answer to that question cannot be given in advance. Sometimes both the subjective and the objective are required to mutually inform each other. Some things, however, can only be properly assessed from the ‘inside,’ as a participant. “We must take each case on its merits. But we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking” (610). Nonetheless, in Lewis’ estimation, the prejudice against subjectivity must end!

Things have changed markedly in the years since Lewis penned his little reflection for a local newspaper. On the one hand the ‘modern,’ objective critical mindset that Lewis was critiquing has developed into a range of postmodern forms of criticism that sometimes devolve into a kind of elitist ‘critiquiness.’ And the same postmodern ethos champions subjectivity to such a degree that were Lewis writing today, he may well switch his argument to affirm the need for some objective analysis!

Lewis raises important questions for the student studying scripture and theology. Does one gain a better or truer understanding of the ‘subject matter’ of Christian faith (i.e. Jesus Christ; God; etc.) as a participant on the inside, or as an observer on the outside? Or are both perspectives and both approaches necessary? Can one, however, gain a true understanding of the ‘subject matter’ of Christian faith merely from the outside as an objective observer? That is, is a purely critical orientation sufficient?

For much of the Christian tradition the answer has been No. Faith seeking understanding presupposes faith as the beginning point of theological enquiry. That is, theological enquiry is initially (and inherently?) an activity of those on the inside. To banish faith from the classroom in the name of scholarly objectivity is to misunderstand and to hamstring the nature of the inquiry. But once faith is allowed and acknowledged as primary in the epistemological and hermeneutical enterprise, it seeks understanding, engaging the critical faculties in the service of faith.

This holds also for biblical studies. An approach that looks merely at the beam will miss the most fundamental details of the passages being studied. Looking at the beam is useful and instructive, orienting the reader to context, history, and worldview. Looking along the beam engages one as a participant in a wider and broader movement, in which the person studying the text is not simply an objective reader, aloof and at an arm’s length from the world of the text, but, together with the biblical author, is caught up to become an inhabitant of that world—the ‘new world in the Bible’ (Barth). This is the world of God, of God’s work, God’s grace, God’s command, and God’s kingdom.

I hope you enjoy the video, and the talent of the doodler. And I hope that CS Lewis’ little meditation might spark a little meditation of your own.

“Meditation in a Toolshed.”
Originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph on July 17, 1945, Lewis’ short meditation has been reprinted a number of times including in my copy of
Lewis, Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces.
Lesley Walmsley ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 607-610.

New Issue of Crucible

The new issue of Crucible has been published and is available online. The journal has re-focussed recently to become more related to practical theology and ministry. This issue has three major articles which concern issues of the relationship between ecclesiology and culture; intra-church, national and worship practice. To my mind, the article on the missional significance of the Eucharist looks particularly interesting.

Crucible will return with at least one other edition in the coming months and welcome contributions from all thoughtful evangelicals especially regarding their ideas about theology, ministry or mission or combinations of these.

As A New Semester Begins…

I wonder what the apostle Paul might make of the critical study of the Scriptures?

In my mind there is no doubt that this mode of study is a double-edged sword. Critical studies of Scripture have expanded our knowledge of the Bible, its backgrounds and contexts, its grammatical and rhetorical features, its varied interpretive possibilities, and so on, with the result that our understanding of it can now be better supported than perhaps ever before in history.

Yet critical studies of Scripture can so multiply theories of backgrounds and contexts, and ideas concerning interpretive approaches, that the unsuspecting reader is somehow set adrift, rudderless, in a great ocean of interpretive possibilities. In some cases this leads not to the strengthening of Christian faith and witness but to its diminution.

This is a very real risk faced by all seminarians as they commence their theological studies: will their studies build their faith and contribute to a robust life of faithful Christian discipleship, or will their study have a more corrosive effect, undermining their faith and perhaps lead them away from Christ and his church?

The problem has several aspects, notably the unique dynamics of the knowledge of God who is never an ‘object’ under our control. We know God only as God gives himself to be known by us. This knowledge is on God’s own terms, so to speak, and is a knowledge grounded in humble faith. Because of this we must be careful to distinguish between knowledge of Scripture or about Scripture, and knowledge of God; the one does not equate to the other.

It is not unusual for students to be thrilled in the knowledge of and about Scripture that they gain in their studies—truly a ground for rejoicing. But if this knowledge is merely intellectual development without a corresponding and deepening participation in and with God, its effect may be more to ‘puff up than to build up’ (1 Corinthians 8:1). Jesus’ words in John 5:39 are instructive: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me.” We study, therefore, not merely to establish doctrine, explore history, identify life principles, or find ideological support for a cultural—or even ‘Christian’—programme of action. The ultimate aim of the study of Scripture is to bear witness to, and lead us into a faith-relationship with, Jesus Christ.

Second, critical study introduces a ‘distance’ between the biblical text and the interpreter in which the reader ‘stands over’ the text, examining and questioning it, treating it as an artefact or an object of enquiry, weighing and evaluating its features, and assessing its various interpretive possibilities. In this process, the interpreter becomes the master and primary agent with respect to the Scripture. And it becomes possible that the habit of thought that one learns in critical study—this ‘distance’—may turn out to be also a controlling feature of one’s relationship with God. Indeed, sometimes this is the point, as Richard Bauckham (paraphrasing Søren Kierkegaard) has warned:

Biblical scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close, or to ensure that one can continue not to be a Christian by not letting the New Testament come too close (Bauckham, James, 2; see my post on Kierkegaard and Christian Scholarship).

How might seminary students navigate this inherent danger in theological study? Some quite obvious responses come quickly to mind: by maintaining a consistent devotional life of prayer, praise, corporate worship, and Christian service; by applying different and complementary practices with respect to Scripture such as lectio divina, a slow, prayerful and meditative reading of the Bible in which we sit ‘under’ the Scripture, listening and waiting to see what it might speak to us; by retaining a sense of the Bible as Scripture, as holy, as inspired by God, and not merely as ‘text’; and by becoming at least as self-critical of one’s own presuppositions, purposes, and power, as one is of the tradition and others’ interpretations.

I began this post by asking about what Paul might make of critical study. Although I will not presume to answer that question, it arose for me as I reflected on his writings in 1&2 Timothy—although critical scholarship wonders whether in fact Paul is actually the author of these books! In these letters to his protégé Paul (let’s assume) continually exhorts Timothy to the preaching and teaching of sound doctrine, and to resist

A morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions… (1 Timothy 6:4)

Rather, Timothy is to guard

What has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter (“godless philosophical discussions” Jerusalem Bible) and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’—which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith (6:20-21; cf. 2 Timothy 2:16-18).

He is to remember that

The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion (1 Timothy 1:5-6).

He is also to

Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. . . . Refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels (2 Timothy 2:8, 14, 23).

Timothy is reminded that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable . . .” (3:16-17), and he is to “preach the word” for the time will come

When they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (4:2-4).

Even though Paul is writing for a pastoral rather than academic context he has nevertheless quite accurately pinpointed the temptation and danger to which modern theological students are exposed. In formal theological study one will inevitably read and think through many different ‘disputes about words,’ and consider various ‘godless philosophies.’ This is as it should be, though hopefully we will never be enamoured with them. Nevertheless his words help the modern theological student ‘fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Timothy 1:18; 6:12) by reminding us of the goal of theological study, and by positing the gospel of Jesus Christ—as it has been mediated to us in the inspired Scriptures, and by the apostolic witness and tradition—as the canon within which we assess every teaching, and to which we adhere as a treasure that has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

Thus, at the beginning of a new semester, Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel.