Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster 0567426475, 9780567426475

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Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster
 0567426475, 9780567426475

Table of contents :
List of Abbreviations
1 Theological Theology • Darren Sarisky
2 John • Ivor J. Davidson
3 The Word Answering the Word: Opening the Space of Catholic Biblical Interpretation • Lewis Ayres
4 Divine Sufficiency: Theology in the Presence of God • Ivor J. Davidson
5 The Last Judgement • David Fergusson
6 Proportion and Topography in Ecclesiology: A Working Paper on the Dogmatic Location of the Doctrine of the Church • Tom Greggs
7 How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit • Stanley Hauerwas
8 Some Riffs on Thomas Aquinas’s Deente et Essentia • Robert W. Jenson
9 New – Old – New: Theological Aphorisms • Eberhard Jüngel
10 God’s Hiddenness and Belief in His Power • Wolf Krötke
11 What is the Gospel? • Matthew Levering
12 Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered • Bruce L. McCormack
13 Aristotle’s Saviour • Francesca Murphy
14 Webster and Ebeling on Christian Texts: A Placeholder for a Theological Theology of Language • R. David Nelson
15 What is Truth? McLeod Campbell Revisited • George Newlands
16 The Divine Perfections and the Economy: The Atonement • Ken Oakes
17 A Prolegomenon to an Account of Theological Interpretation of Scripture • Darren Sarisky
18 The Sinlessness of Christ • Katherine Sonderegger
19 Unconditional Love: Creatio Ex Nihilo and the Covenant of Grace • Justin Stratis
20 ‘Exegesis I Know, and Theology I Know, but who are you?’ Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture • Kevin J. Vanhoozer
21 Does Historical Criticism Exist? A Contribution to Debate on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture • Francis Watson
22 The Transcendence of a Pophaticism • A. N. Williams
23 The Fourfold Chord: Theology and the Plurality of the Gospel Witness • Rowan Williams
John Webster – Chronology of Publications

Citation preview





Essays in Honour of John Webster

Edited by R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky and Justin Stratis

Bloomsbury T&T Clark An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc


Bloomsbury T&T Clark An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc Imprint previously known as T&T Clark 50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK

1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA BLOOMSBURY, T&T CLARK and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2015 © R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky and Justin Stratis, 2015 R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky and Justin Stratis have asserted their rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Authors of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the authors. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN:

HB: 978-0-567-42647-5 ePDF: 978-0-567-66495-2 ePub: 978-0-567-66496-9

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. Typeset by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk


To John Webster It is better to illuminate than to merely shine, to pass along to others contemplated truths than to merely contemplate. —Thomas Aquinas ST II-II, Q. 188, Art. 2, s.c.


CONTENTS Acknowledgements List of Abbreviations Contributors THEOLOGICAL THEOLOGY Darren Sarisky

ix x xii


JOHN Ivor J. Davidson


















WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? Matthew Levering

149 vii










219 237

















ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The editors of this collection would like to thank Paul Nimmo, Phil Ziegler, Don Wood and Brannon Ellis for encouragements and recommendations offered during various stages of preparation. Tim Baylor did an outstanding job of copyediting a number of the essays. We are grateful to Anna Turton, Miriam Cantwell and the rest of the team at T&T Clark for their patient and enthusiastic support of the project. We dedicate this volume to our Doktorvater, Professor John Webster, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. He has, indeed, illuminated, for us and so many others, a theological theology, by both passing along and modelling what he has long and arduously contemplated. R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky and Justin Stratis Feast of the Epiphany, 2015

A Note on Translation English quotations in the following essays that refer to German and French sources are translations. Any quotation that references an English translation is from that edition unless otherwise stated.



DRev ERT IJST IKaD Institutes




Anglican Theological Review Andrews University Seminary Studies Biblische Zeitschrift Christian Century Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics. 14 Volumes. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley. London & New York: T&T Clark, 1973ff. Church Quarterly Review Calvin Theological Journal Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works. 16 Volumes. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996ff. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. 2 Volumes. Edited by Norman J. Tanner. London: Sheed & Ward; Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1990. Downside Review Evangelical Review of Theology International Journal of Systematic Theology Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift – Communio John Calvin. Institutes of The Christian Religions. 2 Volumes. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. The Library of Christian Classics, Volumes XX and XXI. General editors John Bailley, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. van Dusen. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960. References to other Editions of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion are mentioned in the text. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Journal of Reformed Theology Journal for the Study of the New Testament Louvain Studies Luther’s Works. American Edition. 55 Volumes. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. St Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955ff. Modern Churchman Modern Theology New Blackfriars Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. In The Church Fathers. Edited by Philip Schaff. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886ff. Nova et Vetera Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophy Pro Ecclesia Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology Southern Baptist Journal of Theology

List of Abbreviations SHRV SJT SNTSMS ST TD TdB Them TJT TZ WA WJO WSA




Scottish Historical Review Scottish Journal of Theology Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965ff. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Theology Digest Tyndale Bulletin Themelios Toronto Journal of Theology Theologische Zeitschrift D. Martin Luthers Werke. 69 Volumes. Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–1993. Works of John Owen. 16 Volumes. Edited by William. H. Goold. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968. Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Edited by Edmund Hill, John E. Rotelle, and Boniface Ramsey. New York: New City Press, 1990ff. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. 26 Volumes. Edited by Perry Miller, John E. Smith, and Harry S. Stout. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1957ff. Zeitschrift für Dialektische Theologie Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche

CONTRIBUTORS Lewis Ayres University

is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham

Ivor J. Davidson is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the University of St Andrews David Fergusson is Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh Tom Greggs is Chair in Historical and Dogmatic Theology at the University of Aberdeen Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School and Chair in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen Robert W. Jenson is formerly Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry and Professor Emeritus of Religion at St Olaf College Eberhard Jüngel is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen Wolf Krötke is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at HumboldtUniversität zu Berlin Matthew Levering is James N. and Mary D. Perry Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary, University of St Mary of the Lake Bruce L. McCormack is Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary Francesca Murphy is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame R. David Nelson George Newlands Ken Oakes xii

is Acquisitions Editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press is Emeritus Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow

is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Notre Dame



Darren Sarisky is Tutor in Doctrine and Ministry at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford and Associate of the Research Institute in Systematic Theology at King’s College London Katherine Sonderegger is William Meade Chair in Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary Justin Stratis is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at Trinity College Bristol Kevin J. Vanhoozer is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Francis Watson is Professor of New Testament at Durham University A. N. Williams is an independent scholar in historical and systematic theology Rowan Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge

Chapter 1 T H E O L O G IC A L T H E O L O G Y Darren Sarisky

I This book is a collection of essays in honour of Professor John Webster, and is presented to him on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. The text takes its title, Theological Theology, from the inaugural lecture that Professor Webster delivered in 1997 when he became the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.1 The themes of the lecture will receive explication below, but for now the thrust of the address may be summarized briefly: Christian theology will be most vigorous and will flourish as a discipline insofar as it simply is itself, displaying sufficient confidence to deploy its own resources, rather than feeling as though it were obliged constantly to borrow materials from other disciplines and to conform to the standards that apply in cognate fields of study. To quote Hans Frei, as he is summarizing his fourth type of Christian theology – a type of theology into which theological theology fits – the idea is that ‘Christianity has its own distinctive language, which is not to be interpreted without residue into other ways of thinking and speaking’.2 John Webster’s theological work has made this formal point forcefully, and has also addressed the material content of theology across a number of important loci. In so doing, Webster has proven himself to be one of the world’s leading systematic theologians, and has offered a great deal of food for thought to the theological guild and to the wider church. In spite of these achievements, in a lecture given in 2014 as he assumed his most recent academic position, a professorship at the University of St Andrews, Webster is forthright in declaring his own conception of the discipline of theology to be in via,

1. The text of the lecture was originally published as John Webster, Theological Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). It has since been republished and is now more readily available as John Webster, ‘Theological Theology’, in Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2005), pp. 11–32. 2. Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology, eds. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 38.



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and he is self-critical, perhaps even more than is fully justified, about a number of aspects of the original inaugural address. The title of this more recent address is ‘Once Again: Theological Theology’,3 rather than ‘Contra Theological Theology’, and the desire for theology to be itself has not abated in the years between these two attempts to articulate just what makes theology genuinely theological. Yet, in revisiting the nature of the subject, Professor Webster takes himself to task in a few ways: for providing an historical outline of theology’s problems that was all too sketchy; for relying too much on analytical tools that treat Christian culture as if it were just another cultural system that might be investigated according to standard anthropological procedures; for giving short shrift to some particular doctrines, such as creation; and most of all for failing to do much constructive theology. The second inaugural address thus does less in the way of standing back from the subject and talking about it, and instead engages more directly in making substantive theological claims. Though there are some material differences, the second iteration of theological theology enacts and develops an agenda that the first sees from a greater distance and announces in outline form. Professor Webster himself continues to consider, and indeed to reconsider, what theology is all about. The authors who have contributed essays to this volume do not all share his (dynamic rather than static) vision of theology, but each appreciates the significant contribution to theology he has made. Each of our contributors offers an essay with a view towards honouring him and expressing gratitude for his work. As such, this book does not consist mainly of scholarly exposition of and reflection upon Webster’s theology, though many of the essays engage his corpus of writings in passing, and some engage him at some length. Instead, these essays are constructive and historical contributions to the discipline of Christian systematic theology, some of which have received inspiration from the agenda of theological theology and remain quite close to it, while others react to aspects of it by offering counter proposals. In one way or another, then, Professor Webster’s work, and his addresses that distil his theological programme, have stimulated the authors whose essays are collected here. A theologian ought to be a witness, not one who seeks to be the object of attention. The theologian should say, ‘Direct your ears to me and your hearts to him’,4 speaking of God and allowing him to fill people’s minds and hearts. Accordingly, these essays focus less on the witness himself than on the one to whom testimony has been given.

II What does it mean, more fully, to do theology in a specifically theological way? Above all else, it means proceeding in a way that is determined, from the very first, 3. John Webster, ‘Once Again: Theological Theology’ (lecture, What is Theological? Day Conference, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, 14 March 2014). 4. Karl Barth, Witness to the Word: A Commentary on John 1 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1986), p. 3.

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by the object of theological study. ‘A theological account of theology describes its nature and functions by invoking language about God, describing the human actions of creating and reading theology in relation to divine agency.’5 The point is not just that theology is the study of God and all things in relation to him; it is not enough simply to stipulate the aim of the discipline in theological terms. More than that, operating theologically entails that the discipline cannot frame an account of its own procedures without direct recourse to theological categories, without relating how its subject matter is studied to the distinctive nature of this utterly unique subject. This requires, first, that theologians grant God priority in their study, rather than allowing a philosophical account of the subjective conditions of the enquirer to determine their method. The problem with a transcendental anthropology is that it grants only the slightest formative role to theology in conceiving of the nature of the human knower, and, among other things, this obscures the way in which theological reason is caught in the dynamics of the fall and regeneration. Taking one’s cue from a theological ontology, by contrast, sets the discussion of theological inquiry into an entirely different register. In this case, who the human inquirer is is spelled out by recourse to a theological anthropology; the proximate objects of study, written texts, are understood as part of the deposit of ecclesial tradition; and the practice of intellectual reflection can be unpacked as an episode in the history of the reconciliation of God and human beings, one in which inquirers together form the company of the saints. What makes the crucial difference is that each of these topics is viewed sub specie divinitatis. This first requirement regarding the priority of ontology should be supplemented by a further, noetic requirement: while God is the object of study, and theological method does not need to be grounded in a theory stripped of reference to him, the incarnation of Jesus Christ supplies the noetic basis for Christian theology. What this means is that the object of theological study is actually a divine-human subject, to whom Scripture bears witness, and to whom the proclamation of the gospel directs the church’s attention. A corollary of this second point is that theology’s status as wissenschaftlich is by no means rejected, but is redefined. Theology ought to be an ‘objective’ form of intellectual endeavour, not in the sense that it qualifies at the bar of universal reason, but because it proceeds in a way that reflects theology’s orientation to its unique subject, the risen Lord who addresses the world and reveals himself to it. By contrast, according to the anthropological ideals that still generally govern intellectual life, what is most important about learning is patient of description in entirely generic categories. Describing intellectual work does not require an

5. John Webster, ‘Reading Theology’, TJT 13 (1997), p. 55. This quotation does not derive from the Oxford address. It comes from Professor Webster’s previous inaugural address, which he gave in 1995 as the Ramsey Armitage Professor of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.


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account of contingent, secondary characteristics. Students can matriculate to a university, and researchers can commence with their inquiries, (supposedly) without any sort of background that forms the questions they ask, or the way in which they seek out answers to those queries. Indeed, whatever particular formation they have received should be left behind at the outset, lest it trammel their pursuit of knowledge. ‘Within that convention lies hidden the notion that what is most basic to responsible selfhood is to be identified, not with the specificities of background, custom, or training, or with the habits of mind and spirit which are acquired from participation in a particular tradition, but with inwardness.’6 The most basic act of inwardness is making representations of the world, summoning it before oneself and making judgements about it. According to this ideal, how the human subject performs this operation, making pictures of the world and evaluating them, does not depend on any prior convictions that the human subject brings to the process, for to grant such priority to the background of cognition would undermine the primacy of the spontaneous judgements rendered on the basis of one’s internal resources. It would assign more weight to tradition as what is at least initially external, what needs to be appropriated in order for thought to proceed successfully. Though inwardness stands as a still powerful ideal in the modern academy, its status as a norm runs counter to some crucial Christian doctrines. For instance, a proper account of knowledge formation should recognize the locatedness of the inquirer in the ecclesial tradition. In his St Andrews address, Professor Webster maintains that theology is a specific science with its own object and procedures, but his critique of the problems associated with general epistemological frameworks is toned down, and assumes a diminished role in establishing the agenda of the lecture. Webster explains that his developing understanding of the implications of the doctrine of creation has prompted him to rethink how to engage with general epistemology. It is not that he is now friendly towards the notion of the universality of reason, though he suggests cautiously that his earlier critique may have been too far-reaching and may have missed something: ‘The shaming of such pretensions [i.e. that a non-theological view of reason has a universal scope] may be undertaken in application of the theology of sin and alien righteousness; but imprudently prosecuted, it may threaten to diminish the importance of created intellect and may reflect malformation or restriction of the theology of creation and regeneration alike.’7 Time will tell how this new emphasis on a doctrine of creation will reshape Webster’s form of engagement with the regnant forms of knowledge production. However these details find resolution, theology should have challenged the basic intellectual arrangement of university life to some extent, and insisted that it has something to say about its own goals and methods, yet it has on the whole not done so with much vigour or effectiveness. It has rather capitulated to the present

6. Webster, Theological Theology, p. 5. 7. Webster, ‘Once Again: Theological Theology’.

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order, and has attempted to justify itself with reference to a set of standards that almost entirely excluded it in principle. The pathos of contemporary Christian theology is that it guaranteed its own decline by playing according to a set of rules with which it should never have concurred. The discipline of theology has often proven too feeble to play a role in shaping its own intellectual environment, and the ideals that marginalize it have shown themselves too strong to withstand the few challenges that have actually been mounted. As a result, theological disciplines have been de-regionalized: they have associated themselves with disciplines that more obviously fulfil the regnant standards, and have taken as their own a set of borrowed evaluative criteria. Thus, to mention a few examples, fields such as Scripture, doctrine and history have come to be governed by procedures that have their home in Semitics, the history of religion and social anthropology. From the point of view of theological theology, the solution to this problem is to encourage theology to believe in itself, and to allow it to become invigorated by utilizing its own doctrinal resources to characterize and guide its work. The various problems that beset God-talk at present should not be seen as cause for theology to retreat. Instead, they ought to prompt theologians to reflect, as Eberhard Jüngel does, on the present as ‘an opportunity for more theological theology, if this phrase be allowed’.8 It is this language that is the inspiration behind the title of Professor Webster’s Oxford address. Much of the thinking oriented towards inwardness runs so deeply in the modern academy that it is seldom even acknowledged that a very definite anthropology of inquiry underlies the intellectual processes of the university. Postmodern theorists have done much recently to expose and hold up to searching criticism the ideals that underlie curricula and research. Their exposé of the workings of power, the political dimension of all knowledge production, and the support of universities for specific agendas rather than others has gone some way to make the reigning ideals seem less than entirely self-evident. A theological approach to theology will note these insights and acknowledge them with gratitude; yet it will seek to ground its critique of the status quo in a specifically theological way. Though this vision of theology has something of a utopian quality to it, it has provoked many to think seriously about the present state of the discipline, and these ideals animate the theological work Professor Webster has done over the course of the past three decades. As is well known, his major early works consist of interpretive analyses and recommendations of two major figures from within the recent Protestant tradition, Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth, the former of whom has an essay in this volume. In Professor Webster’s historical work, one sees an embodiment of just the sort of awed reading of classical texts that he commends to the discipline. Scholarship on these great figures never became an end in itself,

8. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the Word: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 4.


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and he always demonstrated a certain freedom in handling even the commanding figure of Barth. Yet his effort to map out their thinking sprung from a sense that they gave compelling responses to divine revelation and were significant members of the Christian theological tradition, from whom the Church today might learn a great deal. In his own constructive work, which began to come into print in the middle of his career, Webster builds on the insights that he found in his predecessors. To date, his most significant work in systematic theology is Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, which is certainly the most important and broadly discussed theological treatment of the Bible to have been written in recent decades. Professor Webster’s readers eagerly await the culminating work of his academic career, a multi-volume systematic theology. There are signs that this work will reflect new influences, thus putting the lie to the critique that Webster’s work leans too heavily on a narrow set of interlocutors. This work promises to be a systematic theological work of the first order. For more on John Webster’s life and career, see the personal reflection on him by Ivor Davidson included in this volume.

III This book deals with a whole range of questions about the nature of theology and its material content as provoked by the agenda of theological theology. This section summarizes each of the essays. For these summaries, the essays are loosely grouped according to topic, though in the book itself the essays are arranged alphabetically by the last name of their author. As has just been noted, the book also features a personal reflection on John’s life and theology by his St Andrews colleague, Professor Ivor Davidson. Finally, there is a bibliography of John’s major works. There is one essay in this volume about the nature of theological discourse. In it, A. N. Williams questions the value of apophatic theology by asking whether two theologians in the Christian tradition who are often considered major sources of the claim that God cannot be known, actually think along apophatic lines. Williams provides a close reading of certain texts from Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and John of the Cross with a focus on their use of the Bible. In neither case can their biblically rooted theologies be construed as apophatic in a strong sense. Both make extensive use of Scripture’s positive predicates about God; however, many of these predicates are metaphorical, rather than literal, which involves Williams in a discussion of how to understand what metaphors communicate and how they function within divine self-disclosure. The essay closes with the proposal that the category of gift be given greater scope in theologies of Scripture, as thinking of the Bible in these terms would allow Christian theology to avoid the excesses Williams associates with the current vogue for apophatic theology, while also avoiding the equally unattractive option of making naïve and facile knowledge claims about God. Thinking of Scripture as gift carries with it the implication that human subjects receive this testimony and are brought within the scope of divine

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self-disclosure, but not that such disclosure is an exhaustive revelation of God and his nature. There are more essays about Scripture in this book than about any other single doctrinal locus, which is fitting given how substantial John Webster’s contribution to this area of theology has been. Of these five essays, four of them hover around the same more specific topic: what it means to read the Bible theologically. Yet each takes a distinctive tack in the precise way that it addresses the topic. Lewis Ayres offers a view of theological reading that partakes deeply of the spirit of John Webster’s address ‘Theological Theology’, yet Ayres presents his ideas with a different confessional twist. Ayres does not build his view of theological reading by using the resources of literary theory or philosophy but by recourse to theology itself: he centres his account on a Roman Catholic understanding of the ecclesial tradition. In summarizing some of his recent research on patristic exegesis, he notes that the early church not only canonized a set of texts, the church in a sense also canonized a set of reading strategies to be applied to those texts. In a critical dialogue with the young Joseph Ratzinger, he contends that an ecclesial or theological reading today involves bringing to bear similar interpretive techniques upon the Bible. This ecclesial reading is the church’s dogma, and what licenses seeing the Bible and ecclesial dogma as being in strong continuity with one another is the Spirit’s continuing operation within the church. The essay closes by refusing to be simplistic, admitting there is no one single ecclesial reading any more than there is a single, unified historical-critical interpretation of a given biblical text. Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter takes shape around riffs on narrative episodes in Acts and a three-point definition of theological reading. The main points of Vanhoozer’s account have to do with the Bible’s nature, referent and purpose. The texts that constitute the biblical canon all originated in concrete historical circumstances in the past, but theological readers acknowledge the ways in which God continues to speak through these very texts, even in the quite different setting of the modern world. As such, biblical texts ought not to serve as objects of interest in their own right, but should be read in light of their theological subject-matter; when earlier texts are read in the light of later ones, readers gain greater insight into the ultimate referent of those older writings. Interpreters are right to begin a theological reading by ascertaining the sense that the text bore in its original context, but their reading is incomplete until they allow the text to direct their participation in the unfolding drama of salvation. Vanhoozer ends with an irenic conclusion, in which he pleads for biblical scholars and systematic theologians to imagine themselves as working together on theological interpretation, each making their contribution to a shared project that might benefit the church. Darren Sarisky’s essay, which I summarize with a privileged knowledge of its author’s intent, is in one way less ambitious than the contributions of either Ayres or Vanhoozer, in that its goal is not so much actually to offer an account of theological reading as it is to state the requirements for such an account. Sarisky’s essay is a prolegomenon in this sense. The essay engages with a range of contemporary biblical scholars and theologians as it sets out boundary conditions


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for a successful notion of theological reading. He claims that an account of theological reading must take as its point of departure that the function of theological language is to describe reality, and especially the realities involved in reading, that is, the reader and the text. Sarisky argues that neither of these tasks is entirely fulfilled by the contemporary literature. Francis Watson’s chapter does not intend to formulate what theological interpretation is or to recommend how it should operate, but he frames his essay with this debate in the background. The particular feature of this discussion that is pertinent is the contrast it draws between theological reading and historical criticism. Watson asks searching questions about the very idea of seeing these two approaches to the Bible as essentially different modes of interpretation. He argues that the discipline that goes by the name ‘historical criticism’ is neither exclusively devoted to answering historical questions, though that is part of what biblical scholars do, nor is it critical in the sense that historical-critical research always challenges the tenets of traditional Christian belief. Hence, the terminology ‘historical criticism’ itself can be misleading. While the rhetoric used by advocates of theological reading often casts historical criticism as an other, and puts it in a bad light, Watson argues that many of the things that theological readers call for can already be found in this tradition, which does not exist in a clearly demarcated space apart from theological reading. Watson’s essay seeks to blur the boundaries of historical criticism, and to highlight the role theology already plays in relation to biblical interpretation. Rowan Williams’s chapter begins by reflecting on discussions within the early church of the plurality of gospel texts, why they were all needed, and how they might all hang together. The chapter is not, however, a historical analysis of previous debates, but Williams’s own brief attempt to contribute to them by giving an account of why the four gospel texts offer a fitting testimony to the triune God whom Christians worship. In other words, this set of texts is necessary in the sense that there is a deep correlation between their serving as the vehicle of revelation and the character of the God who is revealed by means of their joint witness. Williams walks through Mark, Matthew, Luke and John in order to draw out their distinctive emphases, concluding that they are diverse in many ways, but that they converge upon the person of Christ, who is so generative that the fullness of his identity cannot be reduced to what any one text might say about him. Moreover, the different gospel texts set out a rich vision of the life of discipleship to which the entire ecclesial community is called. They encourage believers to inhabit a range of mental standpoints and to engage in a whole set of practices that are all necessary responses to the way in which Jesus Christ reveals God the Father. Most of this book consists of essays that explore the material content of theology. These essays deal with a broad set of topics, ranging from the doctrine of God to creation, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Many of the essays relate multiple topics together in good systematic fashion, noting how doctrines connect with one another and have ramifications within a wider framework; these chapters defy simplistic attempts at classification.

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Writing in his characteristically gnomic style, Robert Jenson works a set of variations on a theological treatise by Thomas Aquinas, and in the process sets forth, in the scope of a short essay, his own reflections on several major topics: what it means to be a material creature, an angel, and God. The essay is structured around technical terminology regarding what it means to exist and to act, which is drawn from Thomas and reworked by Jenson, but the author’s own proposal revolves around a notion of discourse that is fundamental to the way he conceives of act and being. Material creatures are not self-standing entities; they originate in hearing God’s address, and the course of their existence is a matter of responding to that address. Angels, as immaterial creatures, at their deepest level are commissioned messengers from God and have their being in receiving a commission and carrying out their mandate to communicate. As for God, he is no substance, but rather the discourse that takes place between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The essay aims to establish some continuity with Thomas while at the same time leaving behind anything in his metaphysics that might seem problematic, especially when it comes to articulating how the triune God reveals himself. Ivor Davidson’s chapter is a theology of divine sufficiency together with reflections on the conditions of doing theology in the contemporary world and the implications that a doctrine of divine sufficiency has for theological practice. The author explicates sufficiency by asking an important question: sufficient for what purpose? Divine sufficiency is more than God being the condition of the possibility of the world’s existence, or the precondition of having a certain sort of religious experience. Creaturely reality is in no way the measure or definition of sufficiency. God’s sufficiency is ultimately his capacity to be who he is in himself. This view of sufficiency does not, however, imply that God can only be independent of the world. God is who he is in himself, but he creates and redeems the world from his own fullness. The fully sufficient God gives birth to the church, which witnesses to him, and theologians are included among the company of these ecclesial witnesses. Theologians speak from God, before God, in Christ to the world. Theologians must remember their location in relation to God even as they attempt to speak into a culture that is sometimes hostile or indifferent to theological claims. Justin Stratis offers a brief and focused chapter on the doctrine of creation in which he critiques a version of the doctrine which has a prominent place in the theological tradition but which is not quite as radical or as Christianly specific as it ought to be, and he sketches out another version that avoids both of these difficulties. The whole essay thus focuses on explicating, in a way that is adequate to the Christian gospel, what the meaning of creation ex nihilo is. The view of creation from nothing that Stratis holds up for critical scrutiny is one that emerges from the medieval period and is associated especially with Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, according to whom creation by no means entails that God fashioned the world out of pre-existing materials, though it does imply that God worked on the basis of a model of creation that he had in his mind. Stratis asks whether creating on the basis of such a template really does justice to the claim that God created from nothing. In spite of the nuances that Thomas offers in an effort to hold off the


Theological Theology

force of this question, Stratis turns to Karl Barth for another way of conceptualizing creation. For Barth, creation does not proceed on the basis of a mental model, but for the sake of the covenant, God’s decision to bless human beings in Jesus Christ. In conversation with voices that range from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther to the New Atheists, and with frequent reference to scripture, Wolf Krötke provides a survey of many different aspects of God’s hiddenness. While he responds to those who think that God’s ‘hiddenness’ is ultimately another way for speaking of how he does not exist, Krötke presents his topic as a substantial theme that falls within the scope of Christian theology. One aspect of God’s hiddenness is that he does not make himself straightforwardly manifest and available as if he were an object in this world. Jesus Christ reveals who God is, but understanding the full depth of his identity is impossible without faith. For Luther and those who follow him, the Christian life involves an interplay between fearing the hidden and terrifying God and, on the other hand, fleeing to Jesus Christ for mercy. That God seems sometimes to be absent from the world, and conversely that evil is all too present, has tempted some to attempt a theodicy, but this is essentially wrongheaded because it involves attempting to justify God before the bar of human reason. It is better to develop a theology of creation, according to which creation itself is good, yet human beings have freedom to sin, though they should live within the limits that the created order imposes upon them. Eberhard Jüngel presents a brief meditation on novelty, its relation to its opposite, and the nature of the ultimate novum that breaks through what might otherwise seem to be a permanent dialectical opposition between the old and the new. The essay is set up around this basic contrast between the new and the old. The new has what is old as its adversary, though it eventually transforms itself into its opposite by enduring for a period of time; on the other hand, whatever is established can be overturned or done away with only by the advent of that which is not yet. While Jüngel opens by conducting his discussion in fairly abstract and generic terms – he focuses on the new and old as such – what breaks the world out of this dialectic of opposition is at the same time what gives the essay its theological specificity: Jesus Christ, the new Adam who comes into the world to renew it and to give new life to the Old Adam. But because Jesus comes into the world hidden in the form of the old, appearing as a man, perceiving his nature and mission is not straightforward, nor can the narrative of his making all things new be told without challenging the way one’s audience is accustomed to thinking. Jesus is the truly new in the sense that he overcomes the contrariety of the old and new by bringing them together. This places a challenge before Christians to discern what within the old order might be renewed and what cannot be. Katherine Sonderegger argues that Jesus Christ was tempted to sin and took on the curse of sin for the sake of redemption, but that he never actually sinned and indeed could not have. He was de facto sinless, and there was never even a real possibility that he would sin. She builds her essay upon a dialogue with patristic theologians and Thomas Aquinas, who all support her view, and she also faces up to a number of serious challenges to this position that modern theologians like Karl Barth and others have mounted. Would it be possible for Christ genuinely to

1. Theological Theology


take on our human nature while at the same time being truly unable to sin? Would Jesus not then just seem to be human, while still having only a divine nature whose qualities the person Jesus constantly displays? Barth affirms that Jesus never went so far as to sin, but this is not enough to reassure Sonderegger. In adumbrating a view that she plans to develop more fully elsewhere, she claims in conclusion that Christ was non posse peccare, an affirmation of which she takes Barth and other moderns to stop short. Affirming the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ entails not simply that Christ has two natures – one human and the other divine – but that the two are reconciled with one another, such that it is inconceivable that Christ could have sinned. Matthew Levering contributes an essay that explicates the nature of the Christian gospel in contrast to truncated understandings of it that currently circulate widely. The chapter is a Thomistic response to Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel. Levering draws insights from Thomas Aquinas in order to offer a richer, more highly ramified version of the meaning of the gospel. Both McKnight’s book and the biblical commentaries from Aquinas upon which Levering draws focus on epistles from the apostle Paul, so it is clear that exegesis is crucial for understanding the gospel in all its depth. McKnight is concerned about some reductionist Protestant formulations of the gospel that include soteriological emphases, such as belief and repentance, but that say precious little about Jesus Christ himself, or the sort of ecclesiological implications that the gospel has. For McKnight, the proclamation of the gospel gives rise to a gospel culture that includes sacramental observance and creedal confession. Expanding the scope of ecclesiology slightly, as McKnight does, is not enough for Levering, who wants to insist, with Thomas, more formally and straightforwardly that the church mediates the grace of Jesus Christ. It does so through its bishops, its official and binding dogmatic formulations, its liturgy, etc. Understanding the gospel necessitates this ecclesiology. Kenneth Oakes constructs an account of the atonement that has its backdrop in the perfections of the triune God. While the atonement is clearly a work effected by Jesus Christ, Oakes pushes beyond what is most obviously from a quick reading of the gospel narratives to a depiction of Christ’s atoning work as an overflow of the divine perfections, in which God reveals and communicates himself to his creation. Oakes’s starting point is a brief insistence that thinking about the atonement will get off on the wrong foot unless it is anchored by a doctrine of God in se. Because God’s work in the economy of salvation is rooted in his own antecedent being and perfections, God’s work to save what he has created reveals who he is, rather than constituting him or allowing him to become something he was not prior to this salvific act. The next step in the argument is to sketch out briefly how the divine perfections work in the economy of salvation. Oakes is eager to guard against cramped accounts of the atonement, ones that portray the work as one having only political or psychological implications, as something less than a comprehensive overcoming of sin in creation. In a whole host of ways, the atonement manifests and confers upon creation, in a manner Oakes seeks to specify carefully, the divine perfections.


Theological Theology

Stanley Hauerwas writes an essay in which he gives attention to the Spirit’s role in the economy of salvation and in relation to the church by drawing upon the pneumatology of Gene Rogers. Hauerwas offers a whole host of reasons that his own work has, to this point, not featured the Holy Spirit extensively: biographical reasons, such as his worry about an over-emphasis on the category of experience in pietistic Christianity and his not being a charismatic; theological reasons, for instance a Barth-inspired concern that experience plays too great a role in liberal theology; and philosophical reasons, for instance that experience constitutes nothing apart from its articulation in language. But the work of Rogers has encouraged Hauerwas to speak explicitly of the Spirit in spite of these concerns. With Rogers, Hauerwas claims that the Spirit comes to rest on the Son and allows creatures to be incorporated into the life of God. This claim emerges by means of reflections on a set of narrative episodes in the gospels in which the Spirit interacts with Jesus. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one, so while the Spirit has a distinctive role to play, that work cannot take place entirely apart from that of the Father and the Son. Finally, a pneumatology should not exist on its own; it gives rise to ecclesiology, as the church’s task is to point people to Christ in the power of the Spirit. Tom Greggs’s essay considers the paradigmatically systematic theological question of how ecclesiology should relate to other doctrines in an overall system. Greggs takes John Webster himself as his dialogue partner in the opening part of his chapter, questioning whether Webster is correct that a doctrine of the church ought to have as its foundation the doctrines of the immanent Trinity and divine aseity. What Greggs appreciates about Webster’s preferred vision of the church is that it is truly doctrinal – it does not exaggerate the importance of purely social or cultural modes of giving an account of the church – and that it clearly links ecclesiology with other theological loci. But giving this much scope within eccelesiology to consideration of God’s own life risks saying more about that subject than the biblical text does, and making it difficult ever to transition to addressing in a robust way crucial elements of a full ecclesiology, such as the concrete form of organization that the church should assume. It is better to associate the church most closely with pneumatology, for this is a move that is true to the wisdom of key early creedal affirmations; in addition, within the logic of a theological system, it provides the best resource by means of which to mediate between God himself and the human community that he calls into being and that exists to worship him. David Fergusson’s essay takes on the topic of the last judgement, a subject that in mainstream academic theology has not received a great deal of discussion recently. Fergusson’s treatment traces how the doctrine develops in the Bible and in medieval, Reformation and modern theology, and concludes by synthesizing what he considers the most promising insights that have emerged from about the last century of theological reflection. The essay gains focus at the beginning by cordoning off a set of questions about the last judgement that theology should simply not attempt to answer, for instance speculative queries regarding the timing of the judgement and the precise details of its results. Fergusson offers four main

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contentions: that biblical testimony about the final judgement, which is by no means already systematized within the canon, should be read with a Christological hermeneutic, one that emphasizes that Jesus Christ the judge has the same gracious character that he displays during his earthly life as narrated in the gospels; that thought of the last judgement ought not be associated exclusively with fear, but should prompt Christians to hope that this moment will come to pass, for it represents the culmination of redemption; that the person of Christ, rather than the fate of those whose destinies are not fully specified in advance, should be the focus of the doctrine; and that the judgement should be seen as the time when God will restore creation to its right order. Christian theologians do not approach each topic they address de novo, as if theirs is the first attempt to grapple with the issue; rather, theologians think within a theological tradition, which provides resources that they may use to map out new territory. Even when theologians disagree with their predecessors deeply, dialogue with others who have responded to divine revelation is an essential part of the theological task. Several essays in this volume deal with various modern and ancient theologians whose work can provide a stimulus to theologians today. There is also one essay that steps back and considers, from a theological point of view, precisely what the value of the church’s doctrinal texts is. Bruce McCormack’s chapter is essentially a critique of Karl Barth’s critique of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christology. The primary point at issue is whether, in certain writings, Schleiermacher assumes a stance on the person of Jesus Christ for which considerations external to theology become determinative. At times, Barth charges Schleiermacher with doing just that, and thus engaging in apologetics, though McCormack ventures that Barth sees his own judgement upon Schleiermacher to be simplistic because he discerns certain features of his predecessor’s theological programme which made the overall picture much more complex. At any rate, McCormack himself ultimately wants to push further. He argues that a close reading of Schleiermacher’s Christology shows him not to be an apologist in any strong sense, and not to derive his views from a straightforward analysis of Christian consciousness of Christ. Putting aside these common misconceptions demonstrates that Schleiermacher and Barth are much closer than many Barthians today consider them to be. George Newlands writes an appreciative account of the theology of John McLeod Campbell, giving special focus to his doctrine of the atonement. Campbell was a nineteenth-century Scottish pastor and theologian who is not particularly well known now, but whom Newlands credits with acting as a liberalizing force within the history of Scottish theology. Campbell stood against the standard Calvinist teaching on the atonement that the Westminster Confession puts forward; he developed his own views so as to emphasize the priority of God’s love and the universal scope of salvation, while avoiding portraying Jesus Christ as simply a good example of a life lived in full obedience to God’s will. In Campbell’s teaching Newlands finds examples of salutary general principles: his view of the atonement stood against all forms of elitism, segregation, and


Theological Theology

exclusivism, and he was able to state doctrine in a way that his contemporaries would resonate with it. Francesca Murphy takes up the question of how Thomas Aquinas uses and is influenced by Aristotle in articulating his Christology. Does Thomas’s view of Jesus Christ force him into a procrustean bed by depicting him through a set of philosophical categories that obscure his unique identity as God and man in a single person? Murphy argues that this is not the case: Thomas draws deeply upon Aristotle, but reworks his conceptuality toward new, deeply Christian ends. She explores four ways in which there is a complex, reciprocal relationship between Thomas and Aristotle, the theologian receiving the philosopher’s insights and vocabulary, on the one hand, and, on the other, the philosopher’s language being reformed in order to express a deeper Christian theology of the saviour than would have been possible without elements of his framework. R. David Nelson’s essay explores the issue of the location of theological texts within what John Webster calls the ‘domain of the Word’: that is, the territory of the creaturely economy governed by the communicative presence of the living Christ. After raising some questions pertinent to a general theology of language, Nelson focuses upon written texts by working through some proposals by Webster and Gerhard Ebeling. While Nelson finds common ground between them, specifically insofar as both theologians (as he sees it, correctly) employ spatial metaphors to map out different instantiations of God’s communicative acts, his exposition tilts in favour of Webster’s approach. In particular, he demonstrates that Ebeling constructs his theology of language from the ground up by borrowing most of his basic commitments from philosophical-anthropological conceptions of the potency of words. Nelson shows that this leads to some unusual moves Ebeling makes regarding the placement of ‘proclamation’ within his account of language. Webster provides a more satisfying, promising, and, indeed, theological theology of language by grounding the idea of the Word’s domain in a trinitarian description of God’s self-communication. He concludes by proposing how such a model might be deployed for addressing the range of issues in the theology of language.

IV At the conclusion of a recent autobiographical reflection entitled ‘Discovering Dogmatics’, John Webster writes the following as he steps back to consider just how demanding the theological task is. It is a bracing assessment of what doing constructive theology demands of the theologian: Most of all, I have become aware that the demands of the office, both intellectual and spiritual, are virtually unsupportable. For what must the theologian be? Holy, teachable, repentant, attentive to the confession of the Church, resistant to the temptation to treat it with irony or intellectual patronage, vigilant against the enticement to dissipate mind and spirit by attending to sources of fascination

1. Theological Theology


other than those held out by the Gospel. In short: the operation of theological reason is an exercise in mortification. But mortification is only possible and fruitful if it is generated by the vivifying power of the Spirit of Christ in which the Gospel is announced and its converting power made actual. And it is for this reason that theology must not only begin with but also be accompanied at every moment by prayer for the coming of the Spirit, in whose hands alone lie our minds and speech.9

Conceived of in this way – theologically! – the subject of theology is certainly a demanding task, one that involves the entire self. This Festschrift is offered to John Webster with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for upholding him during all his years of theological work, and with a prayer that the Spirit will continue to work in and through him for the rest of his years as he presses forward to complete the work he has been given to do. All of us who have contributed to this volume, and a much wider audience as well, eagerly await the chance to read the forthcoming fruits of John’s labours. Ad multos annos!

9. John Webster, ‘Discovering Dogmatics’, in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 136.


Chapter 2 JOHN Ivor J. Davidson

Quite a few moons ago, I had occasion to introduce a public lecture by John Webster. In the usual way, I took a quick look at the CV I had been sent to see what he had been up to since the last work of which I had known. As I ended up saying to the folk who gathered that evening, looking at John’s resumé can, in honesty, be a bit depressing: you are confronted with all the themes on which you suspect there is little point in trying to say much ever again. That occasion was way back. Today, the picture is – of course – more challenging still. Twenty-something books, several others on the way; by my arithmetic, well over 100 major articles and book chapters, leaving aside the entries in reference works; a projected five- (at one time a mere three-) volume Systematic Theology as the big task of the next few years. It is, by any standards, a stellar record. As almost anyone likely to pick up this book will know, it challenges because it dazzles. It is not just the range, but the sheer quality across that range – the depth of learning, the precision of thought, the distinctiveness of approach, the elegance of style – that makes John’s work so exceptional. For those who know its author, all of it has been done by probably the most unassuming scholar they have ever met. John is firm in his convictions, no question, and crystal clear in presenting them. He is equally devoid of personal grandeur, and suspicious of quests for scholarly prestige which jeopardize the uniqueness of theology’s vocation. His life’s work has, in truth, been motivated by different ambitions than those that typically hold sway in the realms of academic culture. ‘The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend, and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel and confessed in the praises and testimonies of the communion of saints.’1 Most scholarly prose does not sound like that. For John, the idiom is standard issue, and deeply felt. As he sees it, all theological work occurs in the history of grace, its mandate and possibilities determined solely by the miracle of

1. John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), p. 1.



Theological Theology

divine generosity. As such, theology can only go about its tasks in gratitude and humility, confessing with joy and wonder the God whose immensity meets us as unfathomable love. To those tasks it brings no gifts other than the ones this God gives, redeems, appoints, enables. Only in recognition of the divine abundance, enacted in freedom for our blessing, do we begin to think and speak and act aright. John’s work has the outstanding energy and distinctiveness it does in the clarity with which he discerns the theologian’s governing rule: the God of the gospel, in the perfection that is uniquely his own, is the beginning and end of all things. John was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on 20 June 1955, and brought up in West Yorkshire. Converted in his teens from ‘watery suburban Methodism into a tough version of Calvinistic Christianity’,2 he received his education at Bradford Grammar School, nowadays a distinguished independent co-educational institution, at that time still an all-boys’ direct grammar school, renowned for its academic excellence and a history stretching back to Charles II.3 Specializing in languages and literature, he went up to Clare College, Cambridge as an Open Scholar in 1974. He read English initially, but was glad to switch to Theology at the end of his first year. Gifted student as he was, his experience of literature at Cambridge was disappointing; the course seemed preoccupied with criticism in detachment from fundamental questions of moral practice. Theology was suggested as an alternative, and so it was to be – albeit ‘only because I could not think of anything else I wanted to do’.4 Rumour has it that he had been offered weirder academic options still, but by a kindly providence declined. The change was positive anyhow. A whole new world – strange as it has ever been, endlessly fascinating – opened up. While he flourished academically, gaining First Class Honours and the Burney Prize, John still found himself a little frustrated by the dominant idioms of his environment. Drawn to Systematic Theology, especially of the modern period, he was finding his way in a discipline which had in the 1970s acquired a certain style in much English theology. Rather than treating Christian doctrine as a set of essentially positive confessional claims, determined by scripture, moulded by tradition, Systematics in England (less so in Scotland) was heavily concerned with doctrinal criticism, the analysis of what it might be feasible for faith to say under the conditions of modernity. The approach made the field seem anxious in manner, limited in scope – preoccupied with the problems attaching to belief in general, or with the necessary contemporary reformulation of individual loci at the expense

2. John Webster, ‘Discovering Dogmatics’, in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 129–36, at p. 129. I am much indebted to John’s valuable reflections in that piece on his journey in theological understanding, as it had unfolded by the early 2000s at least. 3. Bradford Grammar School has produced outstanding achievers in most walks of life. It is only right to admit that not all have been as distinguished as John: I went there myself, some years after him. 4. Webster, ‘Discovering Dogmatics’, p. 129.

2. John


of the grandeur and coherence of Christian teaching as a whole. Heavily focused on questions of method, sources and context, the subject appeared to take its cues as much from other fields of enquiry (philosophy above all, but also history, social theory and other disciplines) as from its own territory; dogmatics in particular existed at a discount. There were exceptions, not least the example of Donald MacKinnon, Cambridge’s Norris-Hulse Professor, whose intense presence remained an intriguing force to persistent young minds; MacKinnon in particular refused to discredit the importance of dogmatics in grappling Christianly with philosophy’s toughest questions. On the whole, however, Cambridge offered fairly thin soil on which to cultivate an interest in doctrine as an exciting subject. John embarked on graduate studies at Clare, a Beck exhibitioner. Here he was drawn to a figure whose significance was not yet much appreciated in Englishlanguage theology: Eberhard Jüngel. At the prompting of George Newlands, John set about the business of getting to grips with the exotic world of Jüngel’s theology, with its deep debts to Luther, Heidegger and Barth and its sharp critique of the Western metaphysical tradition. Jüngel was hard work, not just because of his complex and mainly untranslated prose, but for his sheer independence of mind, and for the no-less-demanding philosophical and theological resources with which he engaged. Studying Jüngel meant for John burying himself in an array of major texts, and digging into their ideas in turn – the cultural forces that had shaped them, the currents against which they were reacting. In particular, it pushed him to reflect on the distinctiveness of Christian claims about God: the fundamental inability of Christian theology to proceed from any starting-point other than divine revelation; the hopelessness of idealism’s assumptions that the knower takes priority over the known; the material integrity of Christian confession as established in the economy of God’s works. The sheer particularity of Christological and trinitarian teaching, he came to appreciate, was vital – it is a check upon the dangers of speculation, the only sure basis for the differentiation of God and creatures for creatures’ good. If Christian faith speaks of God, it does so on its own terms. In all this, John was driven to take with increasing seriousness Jüngel’s chief modern inspiration: the grand old man of Basel. Barth’s theology would ultimately affect John far more profoundly than Jüngel’s, and rightly so, but the influence of Jüngel was undoubtedly important in his discovery of Barth, and in the emphases in Barth which most commanded his attention. The result – a brilliant PhD, later reworked as the standard English monograph on Jüngel’s theology5 – marked John out immediately as a scholar of exceptional promise, capable already of remarkably perceptive assessment of material that was far from easy, and finding already some of the bearings with which to plot a path rather different from those that typically followed upon the curricula of his time. John had received first-rate critical training, but for all his reading in Jüngel and Barth he felt inadequately formed in doctrine as a whole, and especially in historical

5. John Webster, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to his Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986; 2nd edn 1991).


Theological Theology

theology – in the confident inhabitation of the tradition in its richness, and in a clear sense of theology’s intellectual activities as, quite properly, a churchly matter, as much a part of ministerial service as preaching, sacraments and pastoral care. After a year’s research fellowship in Sheffield, he was appointed in 1982 to teach Systematics at St John’s College, Durham, where he remained for four years. It was a congenial environment: he was nurtured by kindly colleagues and taught some able students, both at St John’s and in Durham’s Department of Theology. Ordained as deacon in the Church of England in 1983, priest the following year, full-time parish ministry seemed a distinct possibility; he served an assistant curacy in County Durham and as Chaplain at St John’s. Looking back on his teaching as it took shape over these years, John considers he was still struggling to break free of the habits of doctrinal criticism, still needing to discover what it might mean to tackle the big themes in overtly exegetical fashion, and to draw deeply on the church’s historic resources, uninhibited by the restrictive sensibilities of late modernity. His recollections of the challenges of figuring out how to pitch his work no doubt mirror the experience of many academics, and are filtered through his characteristic modesty; it was obvious to anyone experiencing the young John’s teaching or reading his writing (which included popular as well as scholarly material)6 that he was already a gifted communicator. His thinking was invariably a model of clarity, and informed by far more discerning reading than he is nowadays inclined to acknowledge. His love of scripture was clear, albeit the visible role of exegesis in his arguments was certainly less bold than it would later become. In historical interpretation he remained affected more by modern than by classical voices. Inevitably, the way in which he had been formed was reflected in the way he set about his work. But his determination to think in earnest about the office of the theologian – about what responsible theological instruction ought to be – points to his refusal to be satisfied with the conventional, and above all to his desire for a tighter integration of theology’s scholarly activities with the interests of the church. This deep concern for what it might really mean for theology to be ecclesial, service, and for the need to reckon with the spiritual as well as intellectual entailments of that setting for the theologian’s practices and habits, would be an abiding passion. Married with a young son, John moved in 1986 to Canada, where he was to teach at Wycliffe College, Toronto, one of the founding schools in the laternineteenth-century federation of church colleges that had evolved into the Toronto School of Theology. No longer restricted to teaching undergraduates, he had opportunity to pursue Christian doctrine at greater depth, offering more advanced text-based courses to students for whom foundations had already been laid. The ecumenical context of the federation to which Wycliffe belonged also meant that he came into contact with a wider range of traditions and intellectual influences

6. For example, see John Webster, God is Here! Believing in the Incarnation Today (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1983).

2. John


than he had known in Cambridge and Durham; in these engagements he found that theological affinities and differences did not map denominational boundaries in straightforward ways. John was influenced in particular by a Jesuit colleague, George Schner, with whom he came to work closely. Schner, who would die aged only 54 in 2000, was Professor of Religion at Regis College, Toronto, and a stimulating dialogue partner to many from traditions other than his own. A philosophical theologian with interests in Hegel and Schleiermacher, he had been educated at Yale, and had imbibed much from the instincts of his postliberal teachers. Highly suspicious of North American correlationist theologies, especially in their Roman Catholic expressions, he was critical of the supposition that theology was obliged to meet its modern challengers on their own ground, using the supposedly fancier resources of critical philosophy in preference to the logic of Christian doctrine as such. For Schner, it was crucial to recognize just how profoundly the major trajectories of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology had been affected by modern intellectual impulses, and to ask questions about the legacies of these influences for the unexamined instincts of contemporary theological reasoning. Sharing a regular graduate seminar, he and John would inch their way through texts theological and philosophical, pondering genealogies and discussing their implications for theological method in their own time.7 John would continue to treat the concerns of liberal theology with seriousness, but he became increasingly critical of a number of late-modern theology’s native prejudices, which – besides the problems which attached to their readings of history and texts – seemed to offer little with which to edify the church. At the same time, he was, like others, dissatisfied with alternatives which seemed more reactionary than constructive – a tame accommodation rather than a meaningful response to cultural pressures. As he had already been nudged firmly to do by Jüngel and Barth, he kept on thinking about why it was that the really decisive movements in modern Protestant Systematics had unfolded as they had, and pondering the work that doctrine ought to do to set forth a positive account of Christian confession. Should not the classical resources of scripture, tradition and creed, rather than obsession with context and its supposed imperatives, directly determine the shape of what is said?8 John was certainly impressed by many of the instincts of postliberalism. But they had their limitations. These became the more obvious the more he went on wrestling with Barth in particular. Powerful as their insights into modernity’s character had been, the Yale theologians had not paid enough attention, he felt, to Barth’s insistence on the primacy of God and God’s acts. They had placed too much emphasis on theology as a practice of creatures, a form of social and religious

7. Some of Schner’s work can be sampled in the posthumous collection edited by Philip G. Ziegler and Mark Husbands: George P. Schner, Essays Catholic and Critical (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003). 8. A number of the critical issues are explored in Theology after Liberalism: A Reader, eds John Webster and George P. Schner (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000).


Theological Theology

life whose major features might, it seemed, be delineated as much by ethnography as by dogmatics. The postcritical idiom had learned a good deal from Barth, in its suspicions of the general and in its commitment to the plain sense of biblical narrative. But it had not learned enough about Barth’s resolute commitment to God’s essential triune plenitude as the necessary starting-point for all things – including a due account of the integrity of creatures and their actions. Only with something akin to Barth’s sense of the antecedent freedom and abundance of the triune God in himself – God’s capacity to enact, but not realize, himself in the history of his creating, reconciling and perfecting works set forth in Holy Scripture – would theology begin to chart a responsible course. It would refuse modern forms of the illusion that human life might possibly know meaning or freedom as a way of being in merely symbolic relation with God; it would also – crucially – escape a drift into cultural anthropology, where talk of the gospel proceeds largely in the register of social and moral practices. Only a positive dogmatics of God and his aseity would do – and, pace enduring suspicions, that approach would not inhibit, but rather fund, a rich account of moral theology, the life to be lived by created, fallen and reconciled creatures on the way to eschatological perfection. This was, John came to discern, just what had happened in Barth’s own work, which found its moral and political density neither in the isolation of ethics from doctrine nor in the substitution of ethics for doctrine, but precisely in the recognition that human action is taken seriously when it is located in a substantive account of human moral ontology – created, fallen, redeemed, perfected – and so in terms for which Christian doctrine provides rich and indispensable categories. John advanced rapidly to full professorial status at Wycliffe (1993), and became Ramsay Armitage Professor of Systematic Theology in 1995. From 1994 he also undertook adjunct teaching at McMaster Divinity School. He translated and introduced two volumes of Jüngel’s essays,9 opening up a number of key articles to a much wider readership, and edited a stimulating Festschrift for Jüngel’s sixtieth birthday.10 More significantly, he produced a major monograph on Barth’s later ethics.11 A strikingly lucid analysis of the final sections of the Church Dogmatics (IV/4) and of Barth’s posthumously published The Christian Life, the work presented a robust case that the fabric of Barth’s dogmatics is – quite contrary to its glib critics – ethical at its core, for its construals of agency, covenant and reality serve to underwrite a rich account of the human creature’s moral selfhood. John showed how this is worked out in Barth’s depictions of baptism, prayer and creaturely agency as vitally enclosed and governed by the creative, redemptive and 9. John Webster, Eberhard Jüngel: Theological Essays (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989; 2nd edn as Eberhard Jüngel: Theological Essays I (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998); Eberhard Jüngel: Theological Essays II (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 10. John Webster (ed.), The Possibilities of Theology: Studies in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel in his 60th Year (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 11. John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

2. John


sanctifying work of God in Christ, present by the Holy Spirit’s power. In so doing, he demonstrated the inadequacy of readings of Barth which supposed his theology to be uninterested in the world of human history: so far from displacing human action, Barth’s work is in fact deeply concerned with its proper nature and integrity. Rightly envisioned, creaturely freedom is distinct from but never independent of divine action: in God’s teleological ordering of election, in his consecration of human beings to fellowship with himself, and in his acts in Christ in our place, we are in reality constituted as genuine moral subjects. The work offered a seminal treatment of its theme. It would be enriched by later scholarly work on Barth’s ethics, but it remains one of the very best studies available on the ways in which the ethical and sacramental theology of Barth’s last period emerges from some of his most fundamental concerns. John also published a number of other outstanding essays on Barth’s ethics, pushing back into neglected territory in Barth’s lectures from the later 1920s, and looking also at the themes of original sin, hope and freedom in the Church Dogmatics, exploring the ways in which Barth again and again develops the case that divine grace is restorative of fallen human agency to its intended creaturely shape.12 And so began to take form many of the core building blocks of John’s own thinking ever after. While continuing to work on Jüngel and Barth, he increasingly devoted his attention to tracing out specific examples of major areas of Christian doctrine, and their basic relation to moral questions – Christology, anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, the theology of ministry. All this research and writing was achieved in a very busy life. Besides his teaching and supervision of students, John was dutiful husband and fun-loving father to now two boys, and his working life involved a wide range of demands. He undertook various academic administrative roles, including Director of Advanced Degree Studies at Wycliffe and, for a two-year period, Chair of the Toronto School of Theology’s Department of Theology. He continued to be energetic in his service to the church – an honorary assistant in parishes in Ontario, a member of numerous national and diocesan committees and working groups, including the Anglican Church of Canada’s Doctrine and Worship Committee, and the Canadian Lutheran–Anglican Dialogue group. John and his family were happy in Toronto, but with his rapidly rising profile it was inevitable that he would receive attractive overtures. In 1995 he was elected to the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity in the University of Oxford. Among the most prestigious of the Oxford Faculty’s historic chairs, the position had been established with funds bequeathed by the grandmother of Henry VIII, and had been held by some outstanding scholars; it had most recently been occupied by Rowan Williams, prior to his election and consecration as Bishop of Monmouth. John’s appointment was, of course, a thoroughly just recognition of his abilities, 12. A number of these essays appeared in the Toronto Journal of Theology; they would be reissued along with other substantial new material in John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark/Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).


Theological Theology

and brought him into a position of obvious academic significance, teaching and supervising the work of some of the best young minds on the UK theological scene. The chair brought a residentiary canonry of Christ Church; John’s gifts as a preacher continued to find regular deployment in Oxford and well beyond. As in Canada he also engaged in wider ecclesiastical service, serving on the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission and Faith and Order Advisory Group,13 which offered advice to the House of Bishops and the Council for Christian Unity on matters of ecumenical and theological significance. At the same time, Oxford posed challenges. John faced once again the powerful impulses of theological revisionism in the British context, and found himself rubbing shoulders with some who remained distinctly suspicious of what dogmatics in general, and Barth in particular, might have to contribute to the future of the Christian church in an increasingly secular and plural environment. He was working with gifted students and colleagues, but ever more consciously engaged in a style of theology that was cross-grained in its setting, and thus prone to a measure of isolation. The vision of ‘Theological Theology’ which John sought to articulate in his inaugural professorial lecture in 1998 was not to everyone’s taste.14 Unstinting in its critique of modern university theology’s alienation from its proper habits of thought on account of its captivation by wissenschaftlich ideals, John traced the discipline’s academic marginalization as one of the consequences of that process. What was needed was a renewed confidence in the articulation of Christian difference – in theology’s own distinctive culture of faith and practice. That prospect would necessarily entail the parsing of dogmatic claims, and the identification of their weighty consequences for moral and intellectual activity. Such an approach would involve challenge for the university. It would mean the modelling of an alternative kind of intellectual life to the ones generally enacted in the fragmented worlds of the late-modern academy, bedevilled by its false disciplinary absolutisms, its mixed-up anthropologies of enquiry, its bondages to special interests, its incapacity to render an integrated account of what human learning might, at the last, be for. But the quest for a theological theology might also involve radical change for contemporary theology itself. It would mean the need to reconnect with classical roots; to cherish once again, without shame, theology’s necessarily spiritual culture of reading, worship and discipline; to resist the temptation to turn the discipline into something it could not legitimately become. Just so would theology best serve the church and the academy alike. John feels today that the position outlined in that lecture represented an unsatisfactory combination of the reactionary and the defensive, in its own way

13. In 2010 the two groups were replaced by the Faith and Order Commission of the General Synod. 14. John Webster, Theological Theology: An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 28 October, 1997 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), reproduced in Confessing God, pp. 11–31.

2. John


still wanting in a thoroughly positive account of theology’s core concerns. Still, as it were too closely wedded to the influences of Yale, he was even yet not saying enough, he thinks, about Trinity, creation and redemption, still failing to set out sharply enough what it is that creaturely intelligence is doing – anywhere, anytime – when it thinks and speaks about God. The judgement may be a little severe: inter alia, there are obvious limits to what can be achieved in an inaugural lecture; his case had been very far from strident, indeed arguably well-nuanced for its setting, and it remains a stimulating read. But there is no doubt that the vision to which John pointed was provocative, and its characterization needed to be wrought, in its own way, as theologically as possible. He would come to invest yet more heavily in the work which doctrine must explicitly do, and give a larger place to scriptural exegesis in describing the church’s practices. These practices were not to be reduced to the visible patterns and habits of a social polity, somehow charged with the burden of mediating divine presence to the world. They were the witness of an assembly called into being to attest the matchless adequacy of the acts by which God makes himself present in the Word that his gospel announces. To be ecclesial in the right way, and in turn moral in the right way, theology must recognize, he argued, that it is defined not by its practices and contexts, but by the perfection of the God who has elected creatures to fellowship with himself – and so to holiness, and so to discipleship, and so to testimony. Creaturely testimony does not effect God’s presence, or make it real; it simply points to the sufficiency in which God has chosen to draw near to us, agent of his own self-authenticating splendour. These emphases would evolve more strongly through further studies of Barth, and closer and more critical engagements with postliberal ecclesiology and ethics. Firmly established as one of the world’s leading interpreters of Barth, John was able to assemble an outstanding cast of contributors as editors of a Cambridge Companion, published in 2000. The volume offered lucid exposition and assessment of many of the major themes in Barth’s work, bringing out his unavoidable significance for any would-be venture in contemporary constructive theology, and also provided some embryonic ventures of its own in theological reconstruction.15 In the same year John issued what remains the best short introduction to Barth’s thought, a splendidly accessible little book which succeeds in rendering complex matters of substance and interpretative debate so as to encourage students to read Barth for themselves, and to find real nurture in so doing.16 Plenty of other expository work went on as well. Three lectures delivered in Australia yielded a fascinating critical conversation between Barth and ‘postmodernism’ which managed to be far sharper than some forays into related territory, carefully showing the distinctiveness and centrality of Barth’s incarnational Christology for his

15. John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 16. John Webster, Barth (London and New York: Continuum, 2000; 2nd edn 2004; 3rd edn forthcoming 2015).


Theological Theology

version of an ontological grand récit.17 Over these years, John also continued to be intrigued by Jüngel, not least as interpreter of Barth, translating and introducing Jüngel’s magisterial paraphrase of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, God’s Being is in Becoming, whose standard English translation stood in need of revision.18 More important, in the end, would be the production of John’s own serious exercises in constructive dogmatics, which continued to emerge in a remarkably steady stream, mainly in essay form.19 One of the increasing preoccupations of this work – his contributions to ‘the delightful activity in which the church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ’20 – would be the theology of Holy Scripture, its nature and interpretation. While welcoming endeavours in contemporary scholarship to move beyond modernity’s ruinous bifurcation of Systematic Theology and biblical studies, John remained critical of the degree to which scholars had yet thought about the need for a doctrinal treatment of Scripture and the tasks of scriptural interpretation. Hermeneutical and literary theory, the sociology of texts, the practices of textual reception – these were still the dominant notes. The result was that post-critical biblical exegesis, for all its concern to move beyond historicist reductionism, remained in thrall to the instinct to naturalize Scripture and its interpretation, or at any rate preoccupied with the situations of its human recipients. The antidote was a far more explicit focus on divine perfection and presence: on Scripture and its properties as instrument of the saving self-communication of the triune God in all the sufficiency of his being. To give doctrine its proper weight in this matter was, once again, to reorient theology to its location in the sphere of God’s grace, the realm where God’s voice is heard in his Word by his Spirit as God wills it to be so, and where he thus rules in mercy and judgement over his church. When it recognizes things to be so ordered, theology will be delivered from burdens it is not called upon to bear – the impossible work of trying to hear the Word better by means of hermeneutical sophistication – and also from complacency, the reduction of the Word to so much cultural capital. Interpretative actions are, of course, vital, but over against their hyper-inflation as human endeavours stands the living authority of divine speech, adequate for all the self-communicative ends its living Author purposes and effects. The chief realm where his speech is heard is indeed the church, the creature of the Word, but over against the church’s tendencies to domesticate that Word stands the reality that the textual instrument of God’s speech, the canon of Holy Scripture – inspired, sanctified, perspicuous, sufficient for all that God intends – is, or ought to

17. John Webster, ‘Barth and Postmodern Theology: A Fruitful Confrontation?’ in Karl Barth: A Future for Postmodern Theology, eds Geoff Thompson and Christiaan Mostert (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2000), pp. 1–69. 18. John Webster (tr./intr.), Eberhard Jüngel: God’s Being is in Becoming. The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001). 19. Just a few of many fine examples are collected in John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001). 20. Webster, Word and Church, p. 1.

2. John


be, ‘a knife at the church’s heart’.21 This focus on the theology of Scripture and on the essential connection between the nature of Scripture and the doctrine of God would remain a central theme in John’s work in the years ahead. John’s Oxford years saw him make many substantial contributions to the leadership of his discipline, in the UK and much further afield. In 1998, together with Colin Gunton at King’s College London, he launched the International Journal of Systematic Theology. Published by Blackwells, it came to establish itself – remarkably quickly, in hindsight – as one of the leading English-language outlets for academic work in Christian doctrine. John also gave major lectures, conference papers and lecture series in the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere. These events were not infrequently of unforgettable quality for their audiences, leaving a deep impress not just on account of their intellectual content and eloquence but also for the candour of their spiritual appeal – to Scripture, worship, prayer. Memories of John’s Thomas Burns Lectures at the University of Otago, New Zealand, in 1998, on the culture of theology, still linger;22 his Scottish Journal of Theology lectures on Holy Scripture at Aberdeen in 2001 formed the basis of his remarkable monograph, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch;23 the Day-Higginbotham Lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Texas, in 2002 were published as Holiness, a lovely short account of its theme, striking not least for its opening celebration of the beauty of theology as an exercise of ‘holy reason’.24 In 2003, John was enticed to make a move he was not the last to be wise enough to essay: to leave Oxford for a Divinity chair in Scotland. Becoming Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, he continued to work at an outstanding pace. There was Barth still, of course, but hardly just that: Scripture and its interpretation, moral theology, the doctrine of God, Christology, reconciliation, creation, anthropology, ecclesiology eschatology and a good deal else. The writing was pervasively marked by the same deep convictions as to the nature, sources and ends of theology as a discipline, and of the implications of this vision for the theologian’s personal practice and the architecture of his studies.25 During his early Aberdeen years John also undertook the demanding task of editing, with Iain Torrance and Kathryn Tanner, The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (2007), a volume which offered a sophisticated overview of the state of the discipline, with constructive contributions, not mere summaries, of

21. Ibid., p. 46. 22. To date published only, I believe, in the New Zealand journal Stimulus [6/4 (1998) and 7/1 (1999)]. 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 24. London: SCM Press/Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003, later published also in Chinese (Hong Kong: Logos, 2010). 25. Some examples are collected in Confessing God (2005) and in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2012).


Theological Theology

major loci, developments and trajectories of thought. In 2008 he established with Ian McFarland and myself a new monograph series, T. & T. Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, which has helped to issue quite a bit of valuable new constructive and historical doctrinal work, experiencing no shortage whatever of high-quality submissions to date. John also continued to give substantial senior disciplinary service across a wide spectrum of other ventures – as an editor of Ashgate’s Great Theologians and Barth Studies series, on the editorial boards of the Scottish Journal of Theology and its monograph series, and in advisory work for the Journal of Reformed Theology, Ecclesiology and other journals. He became an editorial advisor for Baker Academic’s Studies in Theological Interpretation series, and for Zondervan Academic’s new monograph series, launched in 2012, New Studies in Dogmatics. He also provided peer review and advisory services for a wide range of publishers, for the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and other bodies internationally. Several of the newer publishing developments in which John has busied himself have provided important opportunities for the dissemination of the work of emergent scholars. As in Toronto and Oxford, at Aberdeen he attracted far more talented graduate students than he could readily take, and distinguished himself as an exceptionally dedicated and generous mentor. In this and other ways, he has invariably contributed a great deal – quietly but with vision, energy and discernment – to the shaping of the academic environments he has inhabited. Often such work can be ephemeral in its effects, but John’s has generally lasted well. He played a significant role in shaping his school at Aberdeen, bringing in a series of highly gifted colleagues: the present volume amply evidences their outstanding quality, and testifies also to some of the exceptional graduate work which John and they together nurtured. The strength of Divinity at Aberdeen today – its graduate culture, its research seminars, its profile as a leading centre in Systematics and Theological Ethics, its contributions to the success of the wider university – is legacy of a distinguished tradition, enriched by visionary leadership from several remarkable figures in recent decades. It is also, in part, a testimony to John. John might well have imagined that his move to Aberdeen would be his last professional upheaval. That it was not is, I confess, somewhat my fault. Early in 2013, after some pondering, he was persuaded to consider the possibility of a short move down the east coast of Scotland, to the School of Divinity at St Andrews. The attractions for the Faculty of which I was then Head and Dean were obvious; one colleague, canvassed discreetly about the possibility, reacted just as I had expected: ‘Best theologian on the planet! If there’s any chance at all – hire him!’ He was not far wrong, and we did. John’s abilities spoke entirely for themselves; management and stakeholders took little convincing. The external assessors, significant scholars themselves, were as one: ‘Wow! Lucky, lucky you’, wrote one in private to me afterwards. John joined us in the Chair of Divinity in the summer of 2013. His contributions in St Andrews have been just as anticipated: positive, gracious, utterly collegial. He has added fresh disciplinary leadership while evincing a desire to take a modest place alongside others, to enhance rather than reorder an already thriving environment. In addition to supervising a large cohort of doctoral

2. John


students and running an inspiring graduate seminar, he has willingly taught at undergraduate level, contributed generously to conferences, and played his usual constructive part in various less exciting bits of academic business. That he has come into a place in which his ideas find ready listeners naturally helps: St Andrews is about as obvious a setting as any in the UK in which John should feel valued. As a scholar, teacher and colleague, he is as substantial an asset as one could hope to find. As John discerns, a School of Divinity will flourish, and contribute most successfully to its wider academic setting, when it gets on with what really matters. The concern for concentration is far from isolationist in its instincts, and has much to offer wider academic discourse, as John’s engagements with colleagues across other fields confirm. He will participate in dialogue with visiting philosophers and scientists, and speak enthusiastically of how much he has learned from talking to a colleague in History or Classics. To a degree that is all too rare, his conversations are never gestures in academic competition, nor do they reflect a concern to justify theology’s work to those who consider it mislocated, perhaps untenable, in a university setting. They are exercises of meaningful exchange precisely because they include the clear and gracious depiction of theology’s own claims, confident of their distinctive pertinence for all things, alert also to the potential for theology to go on learning from its critics and enquirers. John has reflected quite a bit on theology’s place in the modern university, and the opportunities and challenges that setting affords.26 His observations are as astute as they are not least because they are birthed in his own experience of life in both church college and secular academy. John knows that there is no utopia: Divinity’s work will be costly, whatever the space it inhabits, but it will also bring great rewards. Divinity also has rather a lot to offer; it ought not to succumb to the temptation to turn inwards, whether in anxiety or complacency, but give glad and open and faithful testimony wherever it is found. Focus is essential, though. As John has been known to quip more than once, better not to press too hard to do ‘theology and . . .’ until one knows enough theology – which inevitably he claims he does not. The lack of pretension is genuine, if beguiling in its simplicity: few practitioners are half so equipped to prosecute conversations across boundaries. It is just that John does not think that theology will add (or itself gain) much in those exchanges unless it knows its own stuff, and pays loving attention to explaining it well. As he sees it, to reckon with the

26. Besides his Oxford inaugural, see, for example, Webster, ‘Regina artium: Theology and the Humanities’, in Theology, University, Humanities. Initium Sapientiae Timor Dei, eds Christopher Craig Brittain and Francesca Aran Murphy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), pp. 39–63, also in Webster, The Domain of the Word, pp. 173–92; Webster, ‘Sub ratione Dei: Zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Universität’, IKaZ 42 (2013), pp. 151–69; Webster, ‘God, Theology, Universities’, in Indicative of Grace – Imperative of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Eberhard Jüngel in his 80th Year, ed. R. David Nelson (London and New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), pp. 241–54.


Theological Theology

gospel is certainly to be interested in all kinds of things, for there is no sphere of reality that is not encompassed by that gospel’s address. But, crucially, obedience to the gospel means that our God-given studiousness as creatures is rendered quite different from mere curiosity, that disorder of intellectual appetite in which we seek to know created realities in detachment from their creator. Baptism spells the demise of curiosity’s reign, the commencement of a new intellectual life in which reason is regenerated and consecrated to its proper deployment: the pursuit of all true knowledge as centred on God. Theology still needs to practise vigilance, all the same: to keep submitting to divine instruction, to keep on hearing how creaturely science is as nothing unless it directs us to the creator from whose bountiful goodness we have so received. This in turn means resistance to mental indolence and restlessness alike, a refusal of the idols of putative intellectual fulfilment in something less than God himself. Theology can attain these ends only in confessed dependence, in prayer and in the Spirit’s power.27 In pursuit of the goal, there is patient, intensive work to do: the exegesis of scripture supremely; the discipline of learning from the vast cloud of witnesses who have pondered on scripture before us. For John, the heroes of such practice are figures like Barth himself, or the ressourcement theologians who discerned that the treasures of the tradition are so often far more precious than the passing fads of our own time. Theology will find the right kind of calmness when it gives itself to that labour, infinitely demanding as it may be. It will also acquire salutary distance from petty distractions: ‘I’m much more interested in thinking about divine perfection than I am in the stupidities of institutional politics!’ Amen to that. The steady-mindedness with which John is able to recognize academic trivia or personal jealousies for what they are, and to rise above them in pursuit of what counts, bears its own testimony. In the work of a Divinity school at its best, the church is engaged in study and thinking, and in sharing the fruit of its study and thought with others. These activities are not optional extras for the Christian community, but vital for the church’s welfare and its service to the world. For John, getting on with the job – calmly, cheerfully, prayerfully – is all-important. Therein lies wisdom, and a lesson to us all. Even where he is held in great affection, John is used to some of his ideas being a bit unfashionable. This appears not to bother him very much. If people think he’s too Barthian, or too Thomist, or too interested in strange characters like the Reformed Orthodox, or too evangelical, or too whatever – so be it. In some, such an attitude might easily reflect conceit, a refusal to hear counter-argument; in John, it’s quite the opposite. He does not pursue independence for its own sake, and has come to be increasingly conscious that theology must resist cultural isolations of the wrong sorts, commending its positum to the world by all the constructive means it can. Within academy and church, John is a gracious

27. John Webster, ‘Curiosity’, in Theology and Human Flourishing: Essays in Honour of Timothy J. Gorringe, eds Mike Higton, Jeremy Law and Christopher Rowland (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), pp. 212–23; also in The Domain of the Word, pp. 193–201.

2. John


contributor, committed to charity and peace as well as to the truth. He listens attentively, respects his interlocutors, will confess when he does not know, will change his mind when others persuade. He is no retreatist scholastic, and remains alert to the dangers of being cast (as he once put it) as ‘a theological Ishmael’ (Gen. 16:12).28 He is just not interested in being popular, or clever, or in gathering a party around him. He is wary of trendy movements, and of claims that his discipline’s future lies in the adoption of simple prescriptions, especially of a correlationist sort. ‘Conversations’ as such are not the be-all-and-end-all, he will insist, and cultural prestige may be purchased at a heavy price; fidelity to the evangel is what matters. This will inevitably mean a refusal of any proposed strategy in which serious dogmatics is less than central, and scepticism towards any diagnosis of contemporary disciplinary vigour where the signs of such life may be limited. With fast-diminishing plausibility, John still claims to have been short-changed by his formation, and to be discovering where to look for all sorts of things. Barth, Calvin and Reformed authors have long been his dominant reference points, but he has steadily worked his way back to patristic and medieval texts – Augustine and Aquinas above all – though plenty of others besides. As a result, his reading of Barth has, for some, become a little too affected by Thomas, perhaps at risk of abstracting the mature Barth’s arguments from their modern intellectual environs, hard by the graveside of classical metaphysics. A different construal might be that John simply sees Barth as at his best when he most appreciates the momentous weight of classical affirmations of divine perfection, and at his weakest when (perhaps) his concerns to explore historical actualism risk an odd rapprochement with modern anthropocentrism, a possible compromise of the vision of God’s essential freedom with which Barth’s dogmatics so brilliantly sets sail. If a theology ends up jeopardizing the essential foundations of creation and reconciliation in the unqualified completeness in which God’s triune life eternally subsists, so much the worse for that theology. Whether the later Barth does so remains decidedly moot; if he does, he deserves critical assessment rather than praise for being on the way to something really clever. John’s views of Barth certainly resist some of the stereotypes of Barth’s fans as well as his critics, and John has tended to make his own points at every turn. His studies in Barth’s lecture cycles of the 1920s have emphasized just how much the thought of the early Barth was shaped by his reading in the Reformed tradition, by his deep commitment to the scripture principle, and by his consequent attendance to biblical exegesis as crucial to the dogmatic task. A great many of the mature Barth’s concerns were in turn formed by these early convictions.29 But whatever the continuity or development, Barth is, for John, no final authority; he is simply at his most exciting when he exemplifies responsible theology at full throttle: taken up with the God who speaks in the Bible, expectantly attentive to the Bible’s text,

28. Webster, Word and Church, p. 6. 29. John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology: Four Studies (London: T&T Clark International, 2005).


Theological Theology

formed (preferably) by the best instincts of the traditions on which the Reformed faith has been wise enough to draw. The freshness with which John goes on engaging Barth can be quite striking.30 He has likely forgotten more about Barth than those who think Barth said the last word on everything have begun to learn; but that does not stop him endlessly reading and thinking, and admitting when he is not sure now (even if he once was) if Barth gets a point right. ‘That’s the Barthian view, I guess’, I once heard a speaker comment in reply to John’s case about something; unsurprisingly when the ‘B-’ adjective is so deployed, the assessment was not meant as a compliment. ‘I’m not interested in whether it’s Barthian or not’, fired back John. ‘The question is: Is it biblical?’ There, as ever, lies his test. In heeding scripture’s instruction, there are – mirabile dictu it seems for some – at times (quite often) far better resources than Barth, great as he is. If the ideas come from the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Cassian, Lombard, Thomas, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Bavinck, T. F. Torrance or wherever matters little to John; there is, as Barth himself pointed out, no past in the church.31 The next best thing to Scripture study is immersion in the vast resources for the understanding of Scripture offered to us by our fellow pilgrims on the way of faith. John’s favoured primary texts are frequently not the ones others look at. ‘What are you reading just now?’, asks a visitor, possibly expecting (very naïvely) some fashionable monograph on ecclesial ethics, or something currently trending on Amazon. ‘Wollebius’, John replies, quite casually, as if we all might be doing so: ‘Stunning!’ ‘Bonaventure’s really good on that, isn’t he?’ he will say. The interests are broad, and not just to do with biblical study: literature, history, philosophy, critical theory, political ethics. ‘I’ve been enjoying Plutarch recently,’ he will comment as you drive along the main street: ‘Great fun!’ None of it is meant to impress in the slightest, far less to be in or out of fashion, or (forfend) to subsume theology’s interests under some other rubric; it’s just John being John, furnishing his mind as he does. He is invariably happy to ask for tips, prone to admit he’s not sure where to look for something; he is equally ready to dispense, low-key as ever, generous suggestions from the considerable fund of his own reading, while probably suggesting he is a bit out of touch with half of it. Academic honours have never greatly interested him. They have of course come his way – distinguished chairs, prestigious invitations internationally, an Aberdeen DD in 2003, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2005. But to John the real rewards are not to be found in these things. To observe him in his element, watch him in animated discussion of a text and its ideas with a group of motivated students and colleagues. The conversation will, at one level, be

30. He will prepare with exceptional thoroughness for a seminar on a text he must have read countless times. 31. The theme is treated in John Webster, ‘ “There is no past in the Church, so there is no past in theology”: Barth and the History of Modern Protestant Theology’, in Conversing with Barth, eds John C. McDowell and Mike Higton (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 14–39, also in Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology, pp. 91–117.

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deadly serious – theology matters more than anything else. There will be insistence that authors are shown due respect, whatever they may be saying; he has little patience with lazy judgements or cheap dismissals of nuanced arguments. The subject-matter is invariably well-chosen, and not necessarily as some expect (a recent St Andrews seminar has been on Ritschl). John is very good at recognizing how to introduce students to major issues and influential currents of thought by choosing really important texts, offering clear and balanced orientation to their aims and interests – then encouraging learners to think for themselves through close and generous reading. There will be a concern that hesitant students are noticed, listened to with courtesy, affirmed as much as possible; insights will be valued whatever their source. At the same time, a typical seminar with John will be quite bereft of stuffiness or po-faced sobriety, on the part of its leader at least. As often as not, it will be punctuated with much impromptu humour and irreverence of the best sort, all conveyed in a Yorkshire persona which cheerfully remains its understated self wherever it travels. With John, cant and bluster are liable to be called for what they are, long-winded or daft arguments met with earthy assessment. ‘That is quite a difficult case to sustain’, a senior scholar gently commented in response to a particularly odd conference paper where John was a sorely tried member of the audience. ‘It’s not difficult at all – it’s blasphemous!’, opined John to those beside him, perhaps not entirely sotto voce – and proposed they adjourn forthwith for a pint. The assessments of arrant nonsense are unlikely to miss the mark. To those who ‘get’ things, or are sincerely trying to do so, John is a very supportive friend indeed. His kindness and consideration for students and colleagues are often exceptional – though never showy. The copious acts of generosity and pastoral care are carried out unobtrusively, sensitively and without fuss, as though they were nothing much, and just what anyone would do. Typically they reflect great thoughtfulness, an attention to matters and people often overlooked. John’s care for his students in particular frequently extends far beyond their formal time with him, with realtime academic counsel, personal support, reference-writing and a good deal more not unusually continuing long after any standard obligations of professorial guidance might reasonably have been exceeded. John is, without doubt, a very modest and – for all his considerable sense of fun – a genuinely private man. But his approach to his calling is more than a matter of personal style: it reflects his understanding of the theologian’s life. Humility is, for him, a spiritual grace. Theology is authorized to be gloriously joyful and bold. It has reason to be frank in rejection of error and exposure of folly. It ought not, however, to be strident, totalizing or oppressive of legitimate difference; it must resist vanity, the temptation to take itself with the wrong kind of seriousness, to foreclose on the infinity of the mystery set forth in the gospel by pretending that its intellectual conventions represent definitive capture of truth or gnostic possession. If dogmatics is attentive listening rather than a work of poiesis, its practice involves ongoing askesis – the enduring need for consecration, repentance and petition, the repudiation of self-importance, a fundamental attitude of contemplation and wonder at the infinity of God’s self-giving. The disposition is


Theological Theology

generally instructive. John’s inaugural lecture in his St Andrews chair took as its theme the great matter of intellectual patience. Carefully resisting the simple alignment of theology with some general account of intellectual virtue, it also beautifully illustrated the unique contribution Divinity may make to the life of the university by its vocation to model, on its own grounds, what it means to be attentive to wisdom’s discipline. John’s work continues to be multi-layered. He goes on pursuing themes to do with the theology and interpretation of Scripture, with major papers on biblical reasoning, Scripture’s properties, and the doctrines of Scripture held by various modern figures (Barth, Torrance, Williams and others). He has been at work for several years – ‘I want it to be right’ – on an eagerly-awaited theological commentary on Ephesians for Brazos’ Theological Commentary on the Bible series. The doctrine of God (shaped not least by Ephesians 1–2) is, of course, everywhere. In September 2007 John delivered the inaugural series of Kantzer lectures at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Illinois, on ‘Perfection and Presence: God with Us, According to the Christian Confession’. They were vintage John: starting with the perfection of God in himself, in the fullness, majesty and freedom of God’s own life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they went on to develop an account of how the perfect God gives life to creatures, sustains them by his presence, and brings them to their completion through his reconciling and redemptive acts.32 The theme of God’s triune perfection continues to be central in John’s work, closely connected with a firm resistance to theologies which he considers variously risk its compromise – mistaken accounts of creaturely participation in God; collapses of the essential Trinity into the economic; the idea that God’s opera ad extra denote ‘real relations’ with creatures (as opposed to the magnificent, free overflow of God’s wholly realized relational life as Father, Son and Spirit); depictions of ecclesial identity or moral agency which render divine presence in the world dependent on the possibilities of creaturely mediation. Against all such, John consistently sets his face, sketching the superiority of the alternative with loving devotion to its biblical and historical foundations and considerable attention to its spiritual and pastoral import. John writes so well on themes such as mortification and vivification, on ethics in the presence of the risen Christ, on the nature of providence, on conscience, obedience, hope, courage, sorrow or fear, precisely because he sees the plenitude of God’s triune sufficiency so clearly – in this glorious reality lies all that is needed for our salvation. The sheer abundance of God’s perfect, loving, holy life in himself, freely enacted in mercy for the blessing of creatures, is, John knows, the best news in all the world – it carries all the hope, all the consolation, and all the fulfilment any of us could ever desire. We may expect that these and related emphases will feature prominently in John’s current writing on the subjects of creation and providence, and above all in his magnum opus, a five-volume Systematic Theology, the first part of which he

32. A published version is in preparation, for submission to Eerdmans.

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hopes to complete within the next couple of years. Along the way, he continues to generate numerous papers of exceptional quality, on the divine perfections, creation, the person and work of Christ, and ecclesiology. A further collection of his essays, God without Measure, is currently in press.33 John sees much of this work as preparatory for the vast (but evangelically necessary) attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the major elements of Christian doctrine in their essential inter-relations. To that end, he also goes on reflecting a good deal on the nature of theology and the theologian’s office, writing and lecturing on the principles, resources and ends of Christian intellectual activity, on the nature of the theological curriculum, and on the relationship of contemplative, ascetic and moral practices in theology’s work. John’s writing – produced by preference in long-hand, and in multiple, highly self-critical drafts – is invariably characterized by immense precision and elegance. He makes intellectual demands of his readers, certainly, in the quality of his arguments, their range of reference and their splendidly unfashionable predilection still for a fair bit of Latin. But his work is also marked by directness, its instinctive grace carefully controlled; the textures are chosen not for display but in transparency to Scripture’s contours, and in furtherance of wonder at the beauty of the realities on which we are being invited to gaze. In that sense John’s prose typifies the ideals it seeks to commend, avoiding intellectual abstraction and selfadornment, aiming unashamedly at delight in God. At its core, his work is directed towards the edification of saints, not the furtherance of an academic game. It is instructive to compare his scholarly writing with his preaching, some examples of which have been published.34 There is less difference than we might think, and quite a bit less than some academic theologians might find comfortable. That of course says something about the calibre of John’s sermons (and about the state of academic theology). But it also points up the extent to which John sees his writing as unashamedly deploying ‘churchly’ rhetoric, with particular modes of argument and appeal, particular norms of persuasion, and particular ends in Christian doxology. Some of us may worry that John does too much – that he pushes himself too hard, that he gives of himself so generously in service to the church that he risks harm to his physical if not his spiritual health. But John knows what his calling is, and how to live it wisely. He does not only work, but loves his garden, the arts, antiques, food and drink; he is great company, and has a pretty finely developed sense of mischief. He has faced personal challenges with great courage, dignity and faith. He and Gloria enjoy an obviously very happy marriage, with deeply shared commitments to the patterns of Christian obedience; great pride is taken in the achievements and love of Tom, Joe and their families. To me, John has been an immensely generous and loyal friend, from whom I have learned more than he may ever know. I congratulate him from the heart for all that he has managed to 33. John Webster, God Without Measure: Essays in Christian Doctrine. Working Papers in Christian Dogmatics (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2015). 34. John Webster, The Grace of Truth (Farmington Hills, MI: Oil Lamp Books, 2011).


Theological Theology

do – as he would insist, by God’s grace alone – and for reaching the milestone that has given us the excuse to celebrate some of it with him, even if the acknowledgement comes a bit later and in more modest form than he deserves. I thank God for him, and pray that there will indeed be plenty more for the blessing of us all – not least the small matter of that Systematics. Ad multos annos.


Tout ce qui demeure cache dans le Nouveau Testament fait encore partie du Nouveau Testament.2 Scripture, and therefore the canon, are a function of Deus dixit, trinitarianly construed as that complex economy of salvation which originates in God’s self-knowledge and has its telos in the reconciliation of all things . . . they are elements in a dynamic and purposive field of relations between the triune God and his creatures.3

Introduction John Webster knows what it is to talk theologically. One of the main delights of John’s work and generous conversation is his deep commitment to what he has 1. This paper condenses and develops two of my Fisher Lectures at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University of Cambridge in 2011. I am grateful for the discussion on that occasion. I am also grateful to those present at the 2013 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference for their discussion of an earlier version – especially Bruce McCormack. Kathryn GreeneMcGreight’s comments on the penultimate version were of immense help. I finished this piece while serving as a Distinguished Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study; I am deeply grateful for the support and hospitality of Brad Gregory, Fr Robert Sullivan, Don Stelluto and my cohort of fellows. 2. Henri De Lubac, Exégèse Médiévale. Les Quatre sens de L’Écriture, vol. 4 (Paris: Aubier, 1964), p. 111. 3. John Webster, ‘The Dogmatic Location of the Canon’, in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 28. John’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) represents a considerable development of themes adumbrated in the earlier essay.



Theological Theology

termed ‘theological theology’.4 While I do not share his ecclesiological desire to protest, I do share his love for a theology that is truly theological. How may a theology be so? Well, one of the most significant moves John makes – and it may be one he learnt originally from Barth (I do not know for certain), but it is one I think best characterized simply as ‘classically Protestant’ – is to argue that Christian thinking is actively undermined by general epistemological prolegomena. Our accounts of how Christian thinking proceeds must be firmly grounded in talk of how the Triune God acts to create, reveal and save. An account of what Scripture is and how it should be read must also, then, begin in Trinitarian reflection – wherever else it also takes us. In this spirit, as a tribute to John’s own work in this area, I will offer here an intentionally Catholic dogmatic sketch of a space within which we can better negotiate a problem that besets Christian theologians from all traditions. How can we best understand the relationship between reading Scripture in the light of our confessions of faith and reading Scripture in the various ways that modern biblical studies holds out before us? I do not know if John will be convinced by my answer, but I look forward, as ever, to his response. One of the most important dimensions of this problem stems from the distinction that any first-year student ought to grasp between readings of Scripture that attempt to describe what a text might have meant to its composer, redactors or first audience, and readings that arose at a particular point in the Christian community’s history, perhaps many centuries after those originating or original contexts. This distinction bites particularly hard with reference to the central nexus of Christian Trinitarian and Christological doctrines, both because modern Biblical Studies has frequently been vocal in the judgement that such later doctrinal formulations cannot be treated as serious readings of Scripture’s literal sense, and because separating the basic formulae of Christian belief from the text of Scripture seems a peculiarly dangerous road to travel if Christianity is to maintain its intellectual coherence. This distinction between (in a slightly problematic shorthand) ‘historical’ and ‘ecclesial’ readings is, obviously enough, of central importance, but it does not constitute the whole of the problem with which I am concerned. It does not because of the sheer plurality of methods that are to be found among modern biblical scholars. Not only are there many conceptions of how one might uncover something important about a text’s original context or contexts, there are many styles of reading that quite consciously eschew a concern with original contexts. I do think, however, that a focus on this central issue can provide us with a point of departure for considering the wider complex of problems. In this chapter I can do no more than hint at the wider significance of my argument: I will focus virtually all my attention on how we should think theologically about the relationship between ‘historical’ and ‘ecclesial’ readings. Further, for the sake of space, I will

4. John Webster, Theological Theology: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 27 October 1997 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

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concern myself only with readings of the New Testament, and only with reading the ‘literal sense’ of those texts.5 I do not think that any way through this problem of how to relate ‘historical’ and ‘ecclesial’ readings can be found by deploying general hermeneutical arguments – arguments, for example, that emphasize textual polysemy. While it is certainly the case that some of these arguments will be more helpful and philosophically persuasive than others, I suggest that, for Christians, the problem needs to be approached theologically, via reflection on what Scripture is in dogmatic terms, on how God uses Scripture, on how particular reading styles follow from or are commensurate with our theological reflections on the nature and purpose of Scripture. The path that I would like to open for us focuses on the character of tradition as interpretation. In order to open this path I will turn to debates about the relationship between Scripture and Tradition that occurred in the period between the late 1950s and late 1960s, a period of immense fruitfulness in Catholic theology. Indeed, I would argue that there has been surprisingly little good theological work on the nature of Tradition since. The basic lines of work pursued before, during and in the five years after the Second Vatican Council still provide us with the best foundation for moving forward.

Rethinking the Problem We cannot, however, begin in the 1950s. Not surprisingly I want, first, to drag us all back to the first few centuries of Christianity in order to make one fairly simple, but enormously important point. That point is this: whether one speaks of the church as gradually evolving and authorizing the canon of Scripture, or as discovering the fact of the canon, the rise of that set of Christian scriptural texts we call the ‘New Testament’ did not only involve the gradual distinction of those texts from others, it involved the rise to prominence of certain hermeneutical assumptions about how to read those texts. In other terms, the Christian community’s acceptance of the canon of Scripture involved it also in accepting that a canonical text was most appropriately interrogated with a particular set of reading practices.6

5. Although there are, I hope, enough hints to see some of the basic principles that would guide my account of how Christians should negotiate the variety of ways of reading the Old Testament that are currently available. 6. For some further discussion of this point see my ‘ “There’s Fire in That Rain”: On Reading the Letter and Reading Allegorically’, MoTh 28 (2012), pp. 616–34; and my, ‘Irenaeus vs the Valentinians: A New Window Onto Patristic Exegetical Origins?’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, forthcoming 2015. The historical thesis adumbrated here will be the subject of my next monograph: As It Is Written: Ancient Literary Criticism, Hellenization and the Rise of Scripture 100–250 CE (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2016).


Theological Theology

Beginning in the late second century (for reasons that need not detain us here) Christian theologians came to insist that the text of Scripture could best be read by means of a close analysis of words, sentences and other textual units, a close analysis that would employ such techniques of analysis as etymology, attention to an author’s customary patterns of speech, the paralleling of passages from different places in the canon, and a host of other techniques that were adapted from traditions of ancient literary criticism. These practices were applied within a common emphasis on the unity of the canon and the fulfilment of Israel’s history and prophecy in Christ. In other words, these reading practices were the context within which reading within the rule of faith – a theme that has justly garnered much recent attention – actually took material form. Some of these practices certainly involved historical interests recognizably similar to those of modern critics, but many did not. One important reading practice that would have significant implications for the future was a willingness to utilize contemporary philosophical resources to explore and fill out hints and ambiguities within the text. These techniques were foundational in the great defining controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Without them we would not, for example, confess the distinction between ‘begotten’ and ‘created’ in the way that we do, or have articulated the principle that because Scripture consistently names three divine agents the persons are irreducible, and we would not have much of the scriptural allusion that permeates the Church’s traditional liturgical texts. Without them discussion of the divine nature and persons would have, at the very least, taken a considerably different form. Indeed, although it may seem at first sight rather strange, the Christian use of these methods also helped to determine how the text could be seen as both revelatory and inherently mysterious. Noting for example, that Scripture identifies three irreducible divine agents, enabled the insistence that those three must be confessed as irreducible, even if the mode of their existence remains mysterious to us. And thus, we may say that the Christian doctrinal and speculative imagination was formed not only by the fact that the Christian community began, as it were, with Christ’s life lived as an act of interpretation, nor only by the fact that the community came to accept a particular body of texts as a ‘New’ testament supplementing the ‘Old’, but also by the fact that the same community adopted and adapted a set of reading practices as the context within which the meaning of the text would be discerned. Noting that the church canonized a particular set of reading methods in the great formational period of its doctrinal confessions enables us, first, to be clear that there are an interrelated family of senses each of which may fairly be termed ‘literal’. What we mean by that term depends (in part, of course) on what practices we think should be brought to bear when reading. The literal sense in the Patristic period is not the sense that the text had for its human authors or first audience (whether or not a given Patristic author thought that this was what they were discovering), but the meanings that are delivered by a particular set of techniques. To make this point is not to say that the ‘literal sense’ is infinitely malleable, nor is it to deny that there will at times be considerable overlap between different ‘literal’

3. The Word Answering the Word


senses (in some cases the church’s traditional readings turn out to be remarkably similar to those that modern historical scholars offer); but it is to indicate that the term requires careful definition and does not refer to just one type of reading.7 In the second place, noting the existence of what we may provocatively term the church’s own methods of literal reading enables us to recognize that when we ask about the relationship between the readings that result from traditional Christian exegesis and readings that bring modern historicist concerns to the text, we need not be trapped into thinking that we are dealing with one set of readings that may be truly described as ‘literal’ and another set that is only deficiently so. We should, rather, ask instead about the relationship between readings developed by the application of the church’s tradition ad litteram reading methods, and readings developed within the culture of modern historical-critical reading. It is to reflecting theologically on this question that I will devote the rest of the chapter.

Scripture as Tradition It is now time to turn from the Patristic period back to our own time and to the debates of the 1950s and 1960s. When one thinks of Catholic writers on Tradition during this period, Yves Congar comes naturally to mind, both for his two volumes jointly entitled Tradition and Traditions and because of the work he contributed to the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum.8 My own focus, however, will be on the less well-known work of the young peritus Joseph Ratzinger. Some of his writings from the period of the Council itself offer paths forward that have been left unexplored, and which are particularly useful for the questions I have placed front and centre. But before starting directly into the

7. I assume that the literal sense is that which results from ascribing to the words, phrases and other textual units the meaning that is commonly given them by reasonably well-educated readers in a reading community. Allow me to offer two comments on this definition. (1) The literal sense is thus necessarily a family of readings, as discerning what is ‘commonly given’ will vary as communities of education vary. (2) One aspect of discerning the character of a ‘literal’ reading is an attention to where a text presents indications that a given term or textual unit should be taken as metaphorical or enigmatic. Where a text does so, its ‘literal’ sense will be that towards which it points beyond its surface. The boundary between ‘literal’ and non-literal readings will remain somewhat unclear, but we should not be overly concerned about this! I am happy to acknowledge my debt to Hans Frei in this definition (even if I disagree strongly with many aspects of his own vision of theological exegesis). 8. Yves Congar, La Tradition et les Traditions, I: Essai Historique & II: Essai Théologique (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1960 and 1963), ET: Congar, Tradition and Traditions: an Historical and a Theological Essay, trans Michael Naseby and Thomas Rainborough (London: Burns & Oates, 1966).


Theological Theology

essays I have in mind, it will be helpful to remind us of the intellectual trajectory within which he wrote – a trajectory that led from the early nineteenth century to the text of Dei Verbum itself. A recurring theme in Catholic theology since the rise of Romanticism had been the attempt to articulate a holistic account of God’s revelatory action using the language of developing personal presence to speak of the one reality from which the various material effects of that revelatory action – such as the texts of Scripture and the church’s Tradition – flowed. This search eventually culminated in the first two chapters of Dei Verbum, and allows me to explore how this text uses reflection stimulated by this intellectual trajectory to frame what in detail is often a fairly dense and ambiguous ‘re-lecture’ of Trent and Vatican I.9 Chapter  1 argues that God’s revealing activity is a history of intrinsically connected events (intrinsice inter se connexis) beginning with creation and culminating in the incarnation, a history intended to draw us into becoming ‘sharers in the divine nature’ (Eph. 2:18 and 2 Pet. 1:4).10 The incarnate Christ ‘completes’ and ‘confirms’ this revelatory activity by the presence and manifestation of his very self (tota suiipsius praesentia ac manifestatione), and by the sending of his Spirit. In the second chapter the same emphases are apparent in an account of the manner in which revelation is handed on: the apostles receive from Christ’s mouth, from his acquaintance with them and from his works (ex ore, conversatione et operibus Christi), and they hand on the gospel through the guidance of the Spirit by preaching and example and behaviour/custom (praedicatione orali, exemplis et instutionibus). This pairing of lists emphasizes the complex set of ways in which Christ teaches and in which the apostles hand on the gospels; both are acts of concrete persons. The apostolic preaching is, however, expressed speciali modo in the inspired books. Once we come to the text’s references to the text of Scripture we see something of a tension: the ‘gospel’ is described as both promulgated by his own lips (proprio ore promulgavit) and as learnt from all of Christ’s presence and activity. The focus on revelation as personal communication surrounds and provides context for direct concern with the text of Scripture, but we do not have a fully worked out system.

9. I take the term from Ratzinger’s own use in his commentary on the preface of Dei Verbum in Herbert Vorgrimler (ed.) Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3, trans. William Glen-Doepel et  al. (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), p.  169: ‘this Constitution is a relecture of the corresponding texts of Vatican I and Trent, thus giving a new rendering of both its essentials and its insufficiencies . . . we might perhaps see the relation of this text to its predecessors as a perfect example of dogmatic development, of the inner relecture of dogma in dogmatic history’. See also Henri De Lubac, La Révélation Divine, 3rd edition (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1983) for a reading of the preface and first chapter that strongly emphasizes ways in which the text introduces personalist and historicist themes. 10. For the text and translation, see DEC, pp. 971f. I have changed the translation at a number of points without precise acknowledgement.

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Tensions in conciliar documents may, however, be read not only as unfortunate ambiguity, but also as providential opportunity. No fully articulated account of Scripture and tradition was available that would have reached consensus, and it is a good principle that councils should not attempt to decide matters that remain the subject of legitimate theological dispute. The tensions that remain in the text of Dei Verbum, however, should certainly be read as bounding and provoking new consideration of these questions. My goal here is to use the young Ratzinger’s personal contribution to the debates around Dei Verbum as a resource for suggesting some paths forward. I want to begin with an essay Ratzinger contributed to the highly significant debate about the Council of Trent’s 1546 decree on Scripture and its interpretation. In this decree the fathers of that council famously declared that this [saving] truth and [moral] discipline are contained in the written books, and in the unwritten traditions (hanc veritatem et disciplinam contieri in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus) which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand . . . .11

For many of those involved in theological renewal and especially ecumenical engagement before the Second Vatican Council, there was much interest in moving beyond the presumption that this decree treated Scripture and Tradition as two distinct sources. In the 1950s and 1960s the writing of the Tübingen theologian Josef Geiselmann was a central point of reference for many who sought such an outcome. Geiselmann argued that the ‘and’ (et) found between ‘written books’ and ‘unwritten traditions’ replaced the language of an earlier draft that had said ‘partly in written books’ and ‘partly in unwritten traditions’ (partim . . . partim). The replacement occurred, Geiselmann argued, in order to dispel the misapprehension that Tradition and Scripture contained different saving truths. The Fathers of Trent chose the simple and more ambiguous et in order to leave open the question of Scripture’s material sufficiency.12 While this hypothesis was broadly endorsed by many (including Congar13), the young Ratzinger dissented on the basis that Geiselmann’s thesis might lead to the assumption that Catholic accounts of

11. For the text see DEC, p. 663. 12. See in particular Josef Geiselmann, ‘Das Konzil von Trient über das Verhältnis der Heiligen Schrift und der nicht geschrieben Traditionen’, in Michael Schmaus, ed., Die mündliche Überlieferung (Munich: Hueber, 1957), pp. 123–206. This argument develops the earlier ‘Das Missverständnis über das Verhältnis von Schrift und Tradition und seine Überwindung in der katholischen Theologie’, Una Sancta 2 (1956), pp.  131–50 [ET: ‘Scripture and Tradition in Catholic Theology’, TD 6 (1958), 73–8]. 13. See, eg., Congar, Tradition, pp. 160–4, here p. 162. Congar largely follows Geiselmann in his discussion of the final decree, see pp. 164–9, despite noting critiques.


Theological Theology

Scriptural sufficiency could ever be equated with Protestant accounts of material sufficiency. Ratzinger’s essay ‘The Question of the Concept of Tradition’ consists of an initial outline discussion of Tradition per se, and then an examination of Trent’s decree.14 In the initial discussion, Ratzinger argues that the key to a better interpretation of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition lies in a better understanding of how both are rooted in God’s act of revealing. The act of revelation, he suggests, goes beyond Scripture in two ways: first, in the direction of God, Scripture being the material witness to the God who transcends all that may be said in human language; second, revelation transcends the written Scripture ‘as a reality that happens . . . in faith’, Scripture itself witnesses to the importance of the Spirit’s action in the reading of Scripture. The heart of the essay’s argument is reached when Ratzinger reflects on the character of Scripture itself as written witness to revelation. Scripture, he argues, is a cumulative reality; the character of the final whole we now term Scripture, and the task that we face as its interpreters, is only grasped when we attend to the character of this accumulation. Most obviously the New Testament witnesses to the understanding of the first generation of Christians that ‘Scripture’ is what we term the ‘Old Testament’. The event of Christ is presented, in part, as a freedom enabling the understanding of Scripture. Thus, in the famous discussion of the veiling of Moses in 2 Corinthians, Paul emphasizes that the Spirit of the Lord provides freedom and the sight of the glory of the Lord, which is itself transforming us, is written on our hearts as the new law (Jer. 31:33). But this freedom is always a freedom in interpretation that removes the veil from the old covenant. In Acts 2, Peter’s use of Joel occurs in the context of the Spirit filling the disciples and enabling them to speak.15 This emphasis within the New Testament Ratzinger takes to have enduring value; the purpose of what

14. Joseph Ratzinger, ‘The Question of the Concept of Tradition: A Provisional Response’, in God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2008), pp. 41–89 (originally published in 1965 in Quaestiones Disputatae 25). For further indications of Ratzinger’s contributions to the discussions at Vatican II see also Jared Wicks, ‘Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as peritus before and during Vatican Council II’, Gregorianum 89 (2008), pp.  233–311. Interestingly, Ratzinger is rather more positive about Geiselmann’s work in his commentary on Dei Verbum, but he reads Geiselmann’s essential contribution as a reinforcing of a view of Trent very much like his own. The relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the text of Dei Verbum ‘should not be understood in terms of a mechanical juxtaposition, but as an organic interpretation’ and thus, ‘the comprehensive theological view of Trent is restored, as compared with the superficial approach of neo-scholastic theology and is even given a deeper dimension, insofar as the idea of revelatio behind it . . . is conceived more personally and less legalistically than in the text of 1546’ (p. 191). Ratzinger’s concern about the ecumenical impact of this shift is noteworthy (pp. 191–2). 15. Ratzinger, ‘Concept of Tradition’, p. 54.

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will become the new Scripture is always ‘opening up the old dispensation into the gracious sphere of the Christ-event’.16 For Christians, Ratzinger argues, there is always a primary concern with the mystery of Christ’s living presence as the location of Scripture and its interpretation.17 The New Testament’s proclamation of the gospel, Ratzinger suggests, always points in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, the text proclaims by interpreting the Old Testament as pointing towards the event of Christ. On the other hand, the text proclaims Christ himself and the Spirit living among us; the text proclaims the living reality of Christ’s body. Ratzinger next argues that the apostles proclaim Christ’s work in a particular manner because they come to recognize that their initial expectations of converting the Jews and hastening the Kingdom were being transformed through the Spirit’s work. In Acts 15, for Ratzinger, we see the culmination of a process begun after Christ’s resurrection. The assembled ‘council’ in Jerusalem listens to Paul and Barnabas recounting what ‘signs and wonders God has done through them among the Gentiles’ (15:12); James’s response is to quote Amos 9’s prophecy of the rebuilt temple inspiring the Gentiles to seek the Lord, and to suggest a strict limitation on those things demanded of Gentile converts. In these events, the prophets are interpreted in the light of Christ’s work in his body, and the bounds of Israel’s expectation are further broken. To proclaim the fulfilment of the prophets now becomes an act of pointing to the living reality of Christ’s body, not simply to the Christ who has risen and ascended. This reinterpretation of the gospel as addressed to all beyond the bounds of Israel is what Ratzinger calls an ‘ecclesial interpretation of the New Testament’, and at this point he offers a summary of four different layers in the material form of revelation. In the first place, there is ‘an Old Testament theology of the Old Testament’; the historian may ascertain layers of interpretation that are constitutive of a developing structure. In the second place, there is ‘a New Testament theology of the Old Testament’ by which phrase Ratzinger refers to the original layers of Christ’s own interpretation of himself in the light of the Old. In third place, there is ‘a New Testament theology of the New Testament’, which is also constituted by layers of commentary and reinterpretation of earlier layers of the gospel, culminating in the ecclesial reinterpretations that we mentioned in the case of Acts 15. In reality, the middle two ‘theologies’ merge into each other, creating a series of layered interpretations revealing growing awareness of the true quality and expansiveness of Christ’s mission.

16. Ibid., pp. 55–6. 17. A little more is explained when Ratzinger gestures toward Ephesians 3 and notes that Christ dwells in our hearts ‘through faith’ and that almost in apposition, Christ and the Spirit reveal the gospel in all its newness through building Jews and Gentiles into the one body. The character of faith in all its newness is grasped through realization that the body has this shape and breaks the boundaries a good Jew should expect (3:4–6, 2:19–22). See ibid., p. 57.


Theological Theology

Lastly, in fourth place, there is ‘an ecclesial theology of the New Testament, which we call dogmatics’.18 Just as the New Testament theology of the Old involves a reading of the Old and yet also radical newness, continuing the internal trajectories of the Old but not in a predictable manner, so the ecclesial theology of the New is the continuation of dynamics and trajectories begun in the New Testament itself, and yet not always in obviously predictable ways. The parallel between the New Testament theology of the Old and this Ecclesial theology of the New is possible for Ratzinger because of his insistence that this ecclesial theology occurs through the Spirit’s work in the body of Christ. That link may be seen here in his further comment that properly speaking only dogma should be identified with this ‘ecclesial theology’.19 All of us can, no doubt, find things to question about this very brief portrait of the whole scriptural corpus, and I am not interested here in defending in detail his particular subdivisions. My interest is, first, in the argument that Scripture’s being constituted by a multilayered process of often surprising self-interpretation in the light of God’s self-disclosure is dogmatically central to its being what it is. In second place, the argument seems (to me) to promise much in its suggestion that the church’s subsequent acts of definition and interpretation are demanded by the very direction and dynamic that Scripture lays out. I will have more to say on this subject shortly. For the moment allow me to make a suggestion at which Ratzinger himself only hints: the argument of this essay suggests that we may conceive of these later ‘ecclesial’ readings of the New Testament as truer, deeper readings of the literal sense, even as we also speak of earlier readings of the literal sense perhaps closer in time to the time when the text was composed or first read.

The Problem of the Literal Sense Returns More detail will need to be added to this statement, but first I want to point to a problem that lurks within Ratzinger’s account and prevents him stating things quite as I have done in the last few sentences. Not surprisingly, given the account we have just seen, Ratzinger is insistent that ‘[T]radition is, of its nature, always interpretation: it exists, not independently, but as explication, as interpretation

18. Ibid., p. 61. 19. Ibid., p.  62. For our purposes I do not need to go through the second half of Ratzinger’s essay in any detail. There he argues that behind the final form of Trent’s discussion of revelation we should see hints of the position advocated by Cardinals Cervini and Seripando, as well as the Jesuit Fr Claude Lejay present as a theological consultor. All three argued for a conception of Scripture and Tradition that saw continuity based on the fact that Tradition is ‘the way the word is made real in Christian living’ and that in this sense Tradition surrounds and is found within Scripture (pp. 79–80). LeJay, in particular, argued for many aspects of the Church’s dogmatic language as part of Tradition, and argued that these were of a wholly different order from mere ceremonial custom which could be changed.

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“according to the Scriptures” ’. A little later we find him conceding the following: ‘[t]rue, [the proclamation of the Church] is not interpretation in the sense of mere exegetical interpretation, but in the spiritual authority of the Lord . . . . Yet it does remain, far more than the Christ-event that founded the Church, interpretation, linked with what has happened and what has been spoken.20 It is easy to understand why this distinction is made: ‘mere exegesis’ is equated with a lack of the newness and surprising quality that is intrinsic to the movement between the various levels of theology within the Scriptures themselves. And yet, that newness and surprising quality itself cannot be entirely predicated of these new developments, because then they would take on the aura of Scripture itself, and thus Ratzinger must insist that there is a stronger element of interpretive continuity here with that which is written. The young Ratzinger here shows himself, perhaps, to be slightly stuck. One important dimension of his problem becomes apparent a few paragraphs later when he writes, it is essential that, just as there is an office of watchman for the Church and for her inspired witness, so also there must be an office of watchman for exegesis, which investigates the literal sense and thus preserves the connection with the sarx of the logos against every kind of Gnosis. In that sense, there is something like an independence of Scripture, as a self-sufficient and in many respects unambiguous criterion vis-à-vis the teaching office of the Church.21

I have no clear idea what he means by speaking of this ‘watchman’, but note how now we see the principle emerging that attention to the ‘literal’ sense may further Scripture’s quasi-independent status. Further down the same page he continues in the same vein, and speaks of one criterion by which tradition is to be judged (the other being the church’s rule of faith): On the other hand, there is the limitation of the littera scripturae, the literal meaning of Scripture as this can be ascertained historically, which as we have said, represents in no way an absolute criterion, but rather a relatively independent criterion within the dual counterpoint of faith and knowledge.

I do not have any problem with the notion of the letter of Scripture as a ‘relatively independent criterion’,22 but I think it worth noting the problems that

20. Ibid., p. 65. 21. Ibid., p. 66. 22. How may the text of Scripture still function as a ‘relatively independent criterion’ when the pluralism of the literal sense is admitted? I would want to offer two points as the foundation of an answer. First, the text of Scripture may so function through the work of the Spirit. Second, through the fact that the words of scripture may well be read in a number of ways, but this does not mean that those words do not exert a particular centripetal force because they are these words and not others.


Theological Theology

follow from further identifying the letter of Scripture with a meaning ‘ascertained historically’ – a phrase I take to point to the meaning as it is established by historical-critical methods. This turning to a historicized ‘literal sense’ is problematic because it pulls the argument in two different directions simultaneously. In the first place, Ratzinger pushes us to look, as it were, forward, seeing his ‘ecclesial theology of the New Testament’ – especially when it is understood as dogma – as a true act of interpretation and a true understanding of Scripture. But, in the second place and, as it were looking backward, historical-critical discernment of Scripture is also presented as this ‘relatively independent’ criterion. The status of the ‘ecclesial reading’ thus becomes somewhat uncertain, and the sort of summary I offered in the final paragraph of this paper’s previous section seems hardly possible. The problem we encounter here should come as no surprise. Many of those to whom Ratzinger looked in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the most fruitful of theologians write similarly about the value of a ‘historical’ literal sense and saw a full Catholic engagement with historical-critical biblical study as an essential part of theological renewal. This desire led to figures such as Congar, De Lubac and Danielou being surprisingly uninterested in exploring how far historical-critical readings presupposed a rather different notion of ‘literal sense’ from that found in earlier periods of Christian thought. Different battles are now ours, and it is, I suggest, only when we have a more nuanced account of the many ways in which we may speak of Scripture’s ‘literal sense’ that we can take full advantage of Ratzinger’s intriguing suggestions. A few more steps are, however, now necessary.

Word and Answer Just three years after this early piece on Tradition, and now writing after the Council, Ratzinger offered a brief discussion of the concept ‘the Fathers of the Church’ that is directly relevant to our investigation.23 Discussion of who is a Father of the Church and the authority that their writings possess are topics discussed in Catholic theology since the fifth century. Since the sixteenth century these questions have, not surprisingly, taken on new polemical significance – although little new has actually been said! For example, the ancient principle that when the Fathers are of one mind their interpretation must be accepted is frequently cited, and eventually made its way into the decrees of both Trent and Vatican I. Catholic historical theologians throughout the modern period were, of course, all too aware of the problems associated with any simple statement of this principle. As with the question of Tradition, the rise of ressourcement theology in

23. Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Die Bedeutung der Väter für die gegenwätige Theologie’, Theologisch Quartalschrift 148 (1968), pp.  257–82; translation in Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Sr Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1987), pp. 133–52.

3. The Word Answering the Word


the twentieth century stimulated a number of different theological rationales for the concept of ‘the Fathers’. Ratzinger’s particular contribution takes forward his earlier discussion of Scripture. At one level, Ratzinger suggests, a dogmatic answer to the question of the place of the Fathers is provided by both Trent and Vatican II: when they agree they constitute an interpretation of the Scriptures with which no one can disagree. Even Vatican II states the ‘necessity’ of taking into account the ‘tradition of the entire Church’ in interpretation, and suggests that the study of liturgy and the Fathers is undertaken because the church is guided by the Spirit to produce appropriate readings of Scripture.24 And yet, as Ratzinger confesses, the text here appears to be naming and not solving a problem: when do they all agree? Ratzinger offers an initial and largely historical definition, arguing that even though theologically the age of ‘the Fathers’ cannot be closed, there are reasons for judging the period between the end of the first century and the rise of Islam an ‘age of the Fathers’ in a special sense. It is in this period that the basic formulae of Christian dogma were established, the basic structures of our liturgical and spiritual life likewise. In addition to these observations, Ratzinger then adds a theological observation: ‘. . . Scripture and the Fathers belong together as do word and answer’.25 The terminology of word and answer again emphasizes the priority of the word, but Ratzinger delivers further definition of the relationship through arguing for the necessity of the response. The word would cease to exist not only in the absence of the speaker but also, in a sense, in the absence of a hearer. This is a word designed to be heard and to be received. And thus, the Word becomes the word it wills to be because there is an ‘answering word’. The word, Scripture, is never exhausted – and thus there must be a constant return to that original spring – and yet the historical form of the word’s reception is the necessary lens through which it must be heard ever after.26 Exactly why this lens is necessary remains unclear in this essay, but much may be gleaned by placing this argument in apposition with that of the earlier piece we considered. The Word speaking in Scripture must find an ‘answering word’, not because any metaphysics of speech demands it, but because this is the manner in which the mystery of God is spoken among us, through the interaction of Word and Spirit, word and answering word. There is a Christological and pneumatological dynamic that guides this process of word and answer – a dynamic that is also ecclesiological insofar as Son and Spirit together draw people into the Body of Christ and slowly upward into their full stature as restored, rational, loving beings attentive to their Creator. The form of the answer that Son and Spirit help us to make to God’s word evolves over time – one which is always at its deepest when the mystery of God is recognized behind all assertion – and is peculiarly apposite for drawing us into recognition of the mixture of darkness and light that characterizes knowing in

24. Dei Verbum sections 6 and 23. 25. Ratzinger, Principles, p. 146. 26. Ibid., p. 148.


Theological Theology

faith, and into the intellectual humility necessary for the renewal of human knowing. Of course, such an observation is always to some extent circular: we extrapolate from the historical form in which the divine speech did occur – but to do so is already to accept the historical dynamic of text and church that historically appeared. But this is perhaps not viciously circular; the form of the Word’s appearing can only be known from its appearing!27 This particular dynamic of Word and answer, it is important to grasp, is one in which the answer is both intrinsic to the sort of proclaimed word with which we must deal, and yet it does not cease to be the case that the answer the Word brings about to itself always involves a certain obedience to the Word originally lived and spoken (as well as to the Word living and inspiring). Both of the two essays I have considered, then, root the character of Tradition as interpretation and the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the very character of the Word’s address to us.28 My development of this vision is only to suggest correlating the dogmatic vision of a Scripture that points beyond itself and a Word that brings about its own answer with the historical reality of a series of literal readings developing as the Church is drawn towards understanding how it must read.

Complexities At the outset of this essay I made clear that I would consider only the relationship between ‘historical’ and ‘ecclesial’ readings of the New Testament; in this last section some of the complexities even in this relationship must be acknowledged if the argument is to be taken further. In the last volume of his Medieval Exegesis, Henri De Lubac asks whether there can be an allegorical reading of the New

27. In a fuller account I would want to set the whole of this discussion in the context of a sacramental account of ‘salvation history’. I attempt some work towards that end in my ‘Theology and the Memory of Tradition’, forthcoming. 28. In a fuller account we should also discuss the extent to which in the period following the council Ratzinger adopts a consciously pneumatological manner of characterizing the Church’s interpretive activity. See, e.g., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3, ed. and trans. Herbert Vorgrimler and William Glen-Doepel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), pp. 189–90: ‘It is important to note the concrete way in which the effects of tradition are described: through it the canon of Scripture is made known and made active, in a constant dialogue of God with men . . . as the converse of the Son with his bride, the Church. . . . In this context we can now finally see the pneumatological character of the idea of tradition. Tradition is ultimately based on the fact that the Christ event cannot be limited to the age of the historical Jesus, but continues in the presence of the Spirit, through which the Lord who “departed” on the cross “has come again” and through which he “reminds” his Church of what had happened, so that it is led, as it remembers, into its inner significance and is able to assimilate and experience it as a present event . . . .’

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Testament. He answers in the negative, on the principle that the New Testament is the allegory of the Old. As an allegory, the New Testament provides the inner spiritual meaning of the Old’s literal text. Thus there is no other Christ that needs to be read behind the words of the New, and nothing that we could technically term an allegory. And yet, more must be said because the ‘fact’ of the New is the mystery of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Because Christ is the Word of God taken flesh, redeeming and joining us to his own person, the central ‘fact’ of the New Testament contains in itself the ‘fruitfulness of the mystery’, and thus it is also ‘the fact of the church, his spouse and his “Body” ’.29 Thus there is much to be discovered of this mystery in the letter of the New Testament: ‘Everything which remains hidden within the New Testament is still part of the New Testament.’ Somewhat gnomically De Lubac then observes: While the historia which made up the ancient Scripture [the Old Testament] guided the reader to an allegoria by prefiguring a reality which was other, ulterior and superior, namely the very mystery of Christ which is the New Testament, the Mystery of Christ [the New Testament] does nothing else but spread forth its own intrinsic dimensions before the eyes of the believer who studies it.30

Like the young Ratzinger, De Lubac offers us descriptions of the ‘literal sense’ that are not entirely consistent – surprisingly often he equates Patristic and Medieval ad litteram reading with modern conceptions of the literal sense as that which is ‘uncovered’ by historical-critical methods. Nevertheless, in passages such as this he gestures half-consciously towards a rather different vision, one that may easily be incorporated into the dogmatic picture I have been attempting to sketch. Through the New Testament conceived as an allegory of the Old, the mystery of Christ slowly leads us into its depths through a gradual reading and re-reading of the text’s literal sense. There is, however, a problem. So far I have contrasted, on the one hand, readings that attempt to ascertain a text’s meaning to its author, redactor or first audiences and those that, on the other hand, developed over time through the church’s history. This contrast has been too simplistic and if we are to understand the negotiations necessary when we attend to Scripture’s literal senses we must think in more complex terms. In the first place, this division hides a good deal of complexity at both poles of my distinction. Historical-critical readings of given passages may well agree on some features, but they will also disagree significantly with each other. We can speak only of a contested field of historical readings, dependent in part of differing hermeneutical presuppositions; we cannot think of a unitary ‘modern’ and ‘historical-critical’ exegesis eventually delivering us with

29. Henri de Lubac, Exégèse Médiévale. Les Quatre Sens de l’Écriture, vol. 4 (Paris: Aubier, 1964), p.  111; an English translation of this section is to be found in Luke O’Neill, The Sources of Revelation (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), here, p. 200. 30. De Lubac, Exégèse Médiévale, 4, p. 111; Sources of Revelation, p. 201.


Theological Theology

certainty one account of what a particular text would have meant to its composer, editors or first hearers!31 At the same time, the Christian will find shot through some of the reading styles that constitute the family of modern styles of biblical reading philosophical and ideological concerns inimical to theological concerns. Some interpreters will, for example, seek to interpret theological statements as largely reflecting the manipulation and exercise of power; others will, more subtly, be so governed by antipathy to readings developed in the history of interpretation that the undermining of those later readings becomes an implicit or even explicit goal. In either case, an interpreter may well have much that is useful to offer the theologian, but engagement with those readings must include engagement with these ideological commitments. There is here, then, a field of readings to be engaged, rather than a field within which we might hope to find one literal (historical) sense against which we might judge our theological speculations with surety, and there is a field that needs to be engaged in awareness of the philosophical presumptions and commitments intrinsic to modern historical study of any form. In the second place, at the other pole, even if we restrict the later ‘ecclesial’ reading of Scripture just to dogma (and I do not think we should) we cannot speak simply of an ecclesial reading of the text, as if there were one reading of each text and book of Scripture. There are certainly clear fixed points. The creeds, and other magisterial documents at the least narrow the bounds of interpretation on some texts, themes and passages, and they clearly sketch the plot of the Scriptures read according to the rule of faith. This tradition gives us the centre of a dogmatic conversation (often by sewing together for us sets of texts, creating hermeneutical webs between different texts) and it sets bounds to that conversation; but conversation it remains. Even where particular magisterial texts set close bounds on the interpretation of particular texts, these statements, by implication shape our readings of many other texts and passages that are not explicitly cited. But, as is the case in doctrinal theology more widely, this ‘by implication’ indicates that there is also, as it were, a series of concentric circles on which we might locate texts and passages more or less immediately governed by dogmatic statements. At the same time, I do not think we have here only to deal with texts directly (or even indirectly) governed by magisterial texts. We must also take note of where the tradition of the church delivers us a history of growth in interpretive subtlety that has developed in concert with the church’s growing dogmatic awareness. I think, for example, of reflection on what it means for Father and Son to be ‘in’ one another, or of reflection on Christ’s agony in the garden. If we have developed a dogmatic conception of Scripture’s literal sense along the sorts of lines I have laid out, it seems to me that the Catholic reader should seek to develop attention to the mysterious process by which Christ draws out through the life of his body the

31. And one topic that would need to be dealt with extensively in a more detailed consideration is how the prioritization of particular methods by Dei Verbum §12 may help this discussion.

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meaning of the word spoken, and thus to handle such interpretive history with loving care and attention. The final layer of complexity to which I wish to point stems from the fact that my two families of readings, the ‘historical-critical’ and the ‘ecclesial’ overlap in significant ways. To name but one (for the sake of time!) many New Testament scholars are now significantly interested in the reception history of texts as a means of understanding the different dimensions of a text’s meaning. This growth of interest and scholarship – whether or not it occurs because of any doctrinal conception of the literal sense – should for the Catholic interpreter offer another point of possible overlap and conversation. The task of exploring the relationship between the theological project of reading Scripture and recent styles of reading that are overtly not concerned with uncovering original senses of a text will have to be left for another occasion. In any case, each of the negotiations that Christian theologians have with modern styles of scriptural exegesis should be rooted in a doctrine of Scripture, in a dogmatically developed view of the Word that speaks and who is then spoken. Historically and theologically, I have suggested, we may recognize that the Spirit’s constituting of Scripture and of the church as resting in that Scripture involved not only the establishment of the canon, but also the establishment of methods for reading, of a textured answering word and of the Christian life as a foundational context for engaging the written text. Scripture in its very nature is then a Word spoken to be answered by the bride, the body filled with the Spirit. We should reinforce this doctrinal vision with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of what it means to speak of the ‘literal sense’ than has been apparent in almost all Catholic discussion over the past half century. Accepting that there is a family of readings that we may term the ‘literal sense’ of Scripture is a position that follows not only on literary-theoretical grounds, but from a theological and historical awareness that Word and Spirit constitute Scripture for us as something subject to a cumulative and gradual interpretation.


Chapter 4 D I V I N E S U F F IC I E N C Y : T H E O L O G Y I N T H E P R E SE N C E O F G O D Ivor J. Davidson

Christian theologians are prone to forget the setting of their work. Supposing it their task to secure a cultural space for themselves, they obsess about circumstances and strategies with which to address them. Correlation or retrenchment? Public dialogue or domestic discussion? Embrace of the latest novelties; lament for a lost world? The binaries are crude, and mask an array of proposals. Still, the pervasive questions, it is assumed, have to do with the intellectual and social situation in which we find ourselves. The particularities of location can, of course, scarcely be ignored: we are where we are, must think hard about its opportunities and challenges. Where we are, however, is not reducible to those conditions. Theology’s primordial setting is not its socio-cultural environment, significant as that must be, but a far more important reality: the sphere of God’s grace, the field of divine generosity announced in the gospel. Whatever else is to be said about context, we have, that Word declares, been brought to think, speak and act in the transformative presence of God himself. Where we are, first and foremost, is in his hands. Let us think about this a little, and its implications for theology’s business: they may be more powerful than we have tended to suppose. Theological work is birthed in the mighty acts of God which bring us into this place, the divine presence. The beginnings lie wholly in God’s initiative – sovereign, majestic, merciful. Execution of his eternal purpose, it is his accomplishments in time and space which change everything. His regenerative summons awakens the dead. Awakening involves katastrophe: wholesale repudiation of the culture of death, costly commitment to the entailments of life. The God who gives life remains – but of course – far too big for us, unmanageable by our minds; to reckon with him is to tremble. The theologian undergoes this God’s presence, is worked upon by him, slain as well as made alive, overturned as well as won by the potency in which his love has dealings with us for our good. But, this God may be known, and known by us. Finite we are, yet are given to know; fallen we remain, yet our fallenness is no match for his mercy. The business of knowing is eschatological, but its ends lie with the God who has set it in motion, and in that there is assurance. Committed to its completion, he is committed to us as we stumble towards the 55


Theological Theology

glory appointed for us, chafing against the askesis of the journey, nowhere near as grateful or changed as we shall be – yet apprised here and now of a great wonder. He is not summoned up by our efforts to speak of him in terms appropriate to our world, or made present by our ability to persuade others of his relevance; he is known as he wills so to be, sovereign effector of his own presence. Forget it as we do, theology’s default setting is not cultural neurosis, but faith in divine prevenience; wherever we are, God is there before us. The primary context for our activity is the world brought into being by ‘the purpose of his will’ (Eph. 1:5). In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and in the presence of the living Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s working, God has confirmed that creation and creatures shall yet be brought to their proper ends in the consummation of his lordly rule over all things. Here is where the theologian is presently placed – between resurrection and eschaton. Here is the true scene: ‘From God, in the sight of God, in Christ we speak’ (2 Cor. 2:17; cf. 12:19). As the argumentative context of the apostolic language can scarcely fail to remind us, those who speak en Christo do not inhabit a safe place, where everyone is friendly. They live among those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3). A hallmark of their environment is ‘affliction’ (thlipsis) (2 Cor. 1:4, 6, 8; 2:4; 4:8, 17; 6:4; 8:2). The costs may be immense (2 Cor. 6:4–10; 11:23–12:10): at times they find themselves ‘overwhelmingly weighed down, beyond capacity’ to cope, may ‘despair of life itself ’ (2 Cor. 1:8). Pressure, perplexity, persecution, attack may be their portion (2 Cor. 4:8–9). They ‘groan’, ‘long’, are ‘burdened’ (2 Cor. 5:2–4); death is at work in them (2 Cor. 4:12). The literal ‘deadly peril’ (2 Cor. 1:10) of apostolic circumstance is not the lot of every Christian speaker – though its reality for some renders the grousing of comfortable Western theologians over the trivia of academic politics a little overdone. But cultural challenges – political, intellectual, social – are nothing strange; and they do not define the possibilities of which Christians talk. Serious as our circumstances may be, they are not the primary determinant of what those called of God are summoned to say – vitally, our discourse about politics, culture and society will be all the sharper when the point is appreciated. In face of the pressures there can (must) be ‘great boldness’ (parrhesia: 2 Cor. 3:12). Such poise is born not of naïve cultural accommodation, but of a hope grounded in a specific reality: the surpassing splendour (2 Cor. 3:8–11) of what God himself has begun and will bring to completion. Only in light of that wonder can there be proper confidence, and ‘abundant comfort’ (2 Cor. 1:5). With this perspective, ‘good courage’ may, in spite of it all, become a habitual thing (2 Cor. 5:6, 8). As a point of some emphasis: ‘We do not lose heart’ (2 Cor. 4:1, 16). This is hardly a matter of natural resilience, an inner capacity for endurance in difficult times. The fundamental conditions of Christian testimony are established not by human adaptation to circumstance but by the dispositions of divine sovereignty – specifically, God’s sovereign desire to bless. The matter to which God’s servants point, and of which – howsoever their credentials are appraised by those around them – they are appointed ‘stewards’ (2 Cor. 3:6–9; 5:18; 6:3–4; 11:23), is kaine ktisis, a work of such comprehensive potency that it has by definition no cause or explanation within the categories of the ‘old’ – broken – world’s possibilities.

4. Divine Sufficiency


In its entirety, this new order – all of it ‘in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17) – comes ‘from God’ (2 Cor. 5:18). So, too, does the capacity of its heralds to function in their as yet alltoo-unredeemed environment, sent forth as they are to declare the reconciliation which must occur because it has occurred. These agents have no adequacy of their own; recipients of mercy (2 Cor. 4:1), their ministry is neither generated nor sustained by their own moral or spiritual inventiveness; it is ‘given’ to them. Ambassadors of a king who bears his own authority, they are instruments of an appeal which God alone can properly issue and to which he alone enables creaturely response: ‘Be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:18–20). How can they possibly be sufficient (hikanoi) for this work: to ‘spread the fragrance of the knowledge’ of God ‘in every place’, to be ‘the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing’ (2 Cor. 2:14–16)? They cannot. ‘We are not sufficient (hikanoi) from ourselves (aph’ heauton) to claim anything (ti) as [coming] from ourselves (ex heauton); but our sufficiency (hikanotes) [comes] from God (ek tou theou)’ (2 Cor. 3:5). As throughout Paul’s reasoning in the context, the force of ek here is not remote, a reference to a distant source or general background; the preposition has (to borrow a phrase) ‘real work to do’, pressing us to reckon with divine donation as active, proximate, perduring reality, ‘directly and presently constitutive’1 of what is the case. Qualification for Christian service has, at every moment, one single possible and actual source: it is God, he alone, who ‘makes us sufficient’ (hikanosen hemas: 2 Cor. 3:6); it is only as those sent ‘from God’ (ek theou: 2 Cor. 2:17) that we can speak. There is ‘transcendent power’ (he hyperbole tes dynameos) at work; it does not come in any way ‘from us’ (ex hemon): it is God’s (2 Cor. 4:7). The basis of ‘confidence’ (pepoiethesis) is exclusive: it is known only ‘through Christ towards God’ (2 Cor. 3:4). As defining idiom for a discussion of how theology might usefully think of its tasks in a world that is tough, such scriptural gloss may appear hopelessly naïve, a relic of piety untutored by the sophistications of criticism. If that is the case, so much the worse, perhaps, for our mutations of classical approaches, which saw markedly less need for theological intelligence to essay improvements upon apostolic discourse, and some danger in the presumption so to do. Conceptual work is, according to the tradition at its best, but précis of that speech, and must remain submissive to its instruction. On that reckoning, a theology which exchanges the currency of Scripture for the coinage of some other mode of argument risks becoming in the end (if it is not from the start) a venture in ingenuity rather than fidelity. However shiny the surface of its wares, they are detached from the only ultimate guarantor of their quality: the particular shape of the testimony to which theology is bound in the wisdom of its only original Author. Theological reasoning may take diverse forms; it has nowhere to go that leaves the expository task behind. Theology as a process that lies on the far side of

1. John Webster, ‘Christ, Church and Reconciliation’, in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh & New York: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 211–30, at pp. 214–15.


Theological Theology

exegesis – analysis or inventio inspired (maybe) by scripture’s raw material but affecting greater cleverness than Scripture’s writers managed to offer – risks severance from the spiritual and moral ends to which Christian confession is committed by the manner God’s self-disclosure has been pleased to take. If we speak in the presence of God, we speak aright when we reiterate the language generated and sanctified as instrument of that presence in its all-transforming effect. The theologian is hardly restricted to the vocabulary of Scripture, as some more radical voices in history have wanted to insist. But, if we would see the dogmatic task in right perspective, we do well to pay heed to the terms of Christian speech proposed in Scripture’s words. So: what is this ‘sufficiency’ of which Paul speaks? What does it mean to have our sufficiency from God, and how might Christian theology consider its calling in light of that reality? One clue will be the proportions of what follows: we shall spend most of our time on the doctrine of God, just a little while on the derivative questions. Some possible dogmatic expansion will be needed, but we’ll try not to wander too far from Paul’s immediate concerns. The treatment will be decidedly inchoate; if the whole thing ends up a bit more than half-way to a homily – well, that may not really, in this volume,2 be such a bad thing.

Sufficient God Primo tractabimus de Deo.3 The immediate temptation is to proceed towards the theme of divine sufficiency as an aspect of God’s capacity to be responsible for the world. On this reckoning, to talk of God’s sufficiency is just to say that he is great enough to be sufficient to account for what is other than himself, or sufficient to be what he must be if he is God. Sufficiency viewed that way is closely tied to ideas of God’s being as ‘necessary’, and possessed of necessary qualities. The argument may be directly cosmological: if God is creator (and, let’s say, sustainer and purposer) of all that is, he necessarily has all the power and resources required so to be. It may be moral, as classically in Kant: God is the transcendent guarantor of the world’s morality, the holy legislator whose existence necessarily underwrites creaturely moral being. It may be ontological: God necessarily possesses ‘great-making’ properties adequate to the role of being different from finite reality; as the one than whom none is greater, the ens perfectissimum, God’s sufficiency is his necessary transcendence of all deficiency. The reasoning is essentially generic, and works in comparative terms: if there is divinity, it is, by definition, free from the limitations of contingent existence. Viewed thus contrastively, sufficiency may even appear (by a certain irony perhaps) a privative affair: deitas lacks creaturely lack. Much more subtly, a genetic-causal approach to sufficiency may be invoked directly on the basis of religious experience, as in Schleiermacher’s doctrine of

2. Webster, ‘Christ, Church and Reconciliation’, p. 211. 3. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1, Q. 2, pr.

4. Divine Sufficiency


God. If ‘all attributes which we ascribe to God are to be taken as denoting not something special in God, but only something special in the manner in which the feeling of absolute dependence is to be related to Him’,4 there will be studied effort to resist a speculative account of divine metaphysics, but any definition of divine sufficiency will be restricted to its capacity to render an explanation of modes of religious self-consciousness. Sufficiency is not formally identified by Schleiermacher as a divine attribute, either in respect of those attributes specifiable on the basis of the general relationship between God and the world or those derived from the consciousness of sin and grace. However, in so far as Schleiermacher fashions his account of God’s attributes specifically as an explicative account of religious experience, his approach is pervaded by a logic of divinity as the necessarily adequate whence of that feeling. Divine causality in Schleiermacher’s terms is a matter of absolute vitality, which in Christian parlance means redemptive love, not abstract force; its effects are located specifically in ecclesial experience of Jesus Christ. Since Schleiermacher’s argument in the Glaubenslehre presses the ability of Christian piety to speak with some confidence of the divine essence as love, it clearly cannot be accused of collapsing Christian dogmatic claims about God into a vision of one whose identity is merely that of an amorphous ‘object to which the feeling of absolute dependence can relate itself ’.5 Still, the material content of divine objectivity remains circumscribed by what Christian faith can say of the effects of divine redemption upon its self-consciousness; in so far as those effects themselves remain theology’s primary focus, divine sufficiency as such recedes, a wonderful yet ultimately mysterious source for what we feel – through the ‘influence’ of Christ6 (an action of dubiously specific constitutive force) – to be the case. Such approaches clearly resonate with very important truths. The biblical axioms abound: God is the source of all that is (Rom. 11:36); God far transcends his creatures in wisdom and knowledge (Job 38–41); God possesses all things and has need of nothing (Ps. 50:10–12; Isa. 40:12–28); God is the transcendent source of all creaturely knowledge of God (Acts 17:24–28; Rom. 1:19–21). In scriptural perspective, however, these aspects of God’s identity are not arrived at by an inversion of obvious creaturely limitations – a quest to describe a being large enough to be God in principle, necessarily other than the world and suitably equipped to account for our experience within it, including our freeing experience of his otherness. The biblical writers do not synthesize the putative attributes of deity in general, as first cause, transcendent horizon or logical conclusion. To talk of sufficiency simply as divine sufficiency for or to be what we suppose or feel the divine must be, even in light of our religious experience, is to walk a line alien to these authors; for them, the sheer difference between the true God and other

4. F. D. E. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 2nd edn, Hugh R. Mackintosh and James S. Stewart (eds) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928), p. 194. 5. Ibid., p. 190. 6. Ibid., p. 69.


Theological Theology

(idolatrous) notions of divinity, projected on the basis of reflexivity, is a matter of continual emphasis. God’s sufficiency, in other words, is simply not reducible to the explanatory or the hypothetical. Construals along those lines are severely restrictive of God’s being to formal or abstract terms; typically preoccupied with the moral or religious utility of divinity for creatures, they end up saying more or less as much about us as they say about God. The attempt to extrapolate a doctrine of God from actual redemptive experience appears much more promising, in that it recognizes the need to talk of God’s saving dealings with creatures, and thus to register specificity rather than postulating the features of deity in genere over against the attributes of creatureliness. If, however, our concern is limited to saying what God’s qualities must be in order to engender a certain set of felt effects upon us, the material content of divine sufficiency is readily diminished once again, for it will simply be a matter of God’s capacity to impress himself upon us in the complex ways we feel he does. His impact may be transformative, no doubt, embracing all the spiritual and moral benefits of life in the new community of those who find it so; but behind it lies one of whose character we speak only in terms of its apparent consequences for us. The substance of a dogmatic claim about God’s sufficiency in himself slides away in a generalized vision of divine love as adequate source of our redemption. Divine sufficiency must be thought of, rather, in much larger and more positive terms: not simply as God’s necessary sufficiency over against or behind contingent reality and what goes on within it, or as ultimate ground of piety’s experience, however momentous, but as his sheer capacity to be the One he is, sufficient in and for himself before ever he is sufficient for any world. This reality is known, as it only can be, in God’s self-identification in the world, his announcement of himself to his creatures as the incomparable God that he is. But what is set forth in that work is indeed his true being, and our ability to speak of God’s life in himself is not restricted to our endeavours to name our creaturely experience or posit for ourselves its (essentially distant) originating source. The divine essence remains irreducibly mysterious for creatures, its light in crucial respects unapproachable, yet God is known as God gives himself, through himself, to be known, effecting the process from first to last as he alone can do. In this, God initiates, enacts and perfects his purpose that, transcendent as he remains, we should yet know him as he genuinely is. In the self-authenticating movement of God towards us, what he gives us to know is that he is – first and foremost – utterly, limitlessly sufficient in himself. The matter is certainly radical. God’s sufficiency, his revealing action declares, is neither realized nor jeopardized by his relations with the world. For God to create and engage with the world is not for him to augment himself in any way, to experiment with some unfulfilled capacity, to actualize that which is otherwise only potential or inchoate in his being. Equally, for God to act on the outside is not for God to lose something, either voluntarily or (per impossibile) under compulsion; God does not require to be scaled down in order to have dealings with others, as it were shedding something of his self-sufficiency in some risky venture of relationship with them, the outcome of which may for him be uncertain. His

4. Divine Sufficiency


movement in creating, sustaining and reconciling is the movement of one whose sufficiency is, quite simply, infinitely adequate for whatever forms that movement takes. It is the sufficiency of sheer plenitude: the incomparable fullness possessed by the God who is limitlessly alive, rich, and complete in himself, and so capable of being and doing, in majestic freedom, whatever he is and does as he discloses himself in worldly history. Just as divine sufficiency is much more than God’s sufficiency to account for the phenomena of creaturely experience, so too it cannot adequately be characterized under the rubric of divine absoluteness or independence. Commonplace as such themes may have been in parts of the tradition, God’s sufficiency is not the sufficiency of mere segregation, but capacity for presence: first to himself, then to his creation. God is infinitely sufficient in himself, but fundamental to his revealed completeness is the reality that his sufficiency includes, and is enacted in, his free movement ad extra. That outward, transitive movement is indeed free: in no sense a reaction to anything external to God, or derivative of any lack internal to him, its motivation lies purely in the repleteness of God’s resources for generosity. In that fullness, however, God is utterly capable of carrying out his loving purpose, utterly capable of being himself also in his outward turn. Effortlessly and immediately present to himself, he is able in turn to make himself present to others: to act in ways that draw them into fellowship with him. Perfect in his self-knowledge and self-understanding, quintessential transparency characterizes his inner life (‘in him there is no darkness at all’: 1 John 1:5); primordially objective to himself, he is uniquely able to be secondarily objective as himself to us – to be, also, the light of the world. In the sufficiency that is incomparably his, he reaches out to bring creatures into being, to overcome their perverse preference for darkness rather than their creator’s light, to grant them such ectypal knowledge as he is pleased to bestow of the infinite archetypal depths of his own completeness. So: God is sufficient in himself; his sufficiency in himself is neither merely antithesis to our insufficiency nor barrier to his outreach towards us; what is set forth in that outreach is really God, in the sufficiency that is uniquely his own. At this point, care is needed. The movement in which God turns ad extra is not less than his commitment of himself in history, his genuine reiteration of his own being within the time and space he has been pleased to establish for creaturely existence in relation to him. It is, however, self-reiteration, not self-constitution, for in acting in his sufficiency towards us God does not evacuate himself into that history. Much late-modern Western theology is pervaded by a fear that classical treatments of God in se betray an unhealthy interest in metaphysics uncorrected by the events of which the gospel speaks, a lingering vision of a being locked up in an eternal world of his own. The anxiety takes diverse forms, some of them all the more compelling for the vital (not merely Hegelian) truth on which the worriers rightly insist: there is no God different from the God who acts in history; historical happenings, and supremely the operations of Christ and the Spirit, are indeed the locus of God’s true presence. Over against the fear that this good news may be compromised stands, however, a concern of at least corresponding seriousness. If essential divinity is simply


Theological Theology

collapsed into the drama of temporal economy, or its immanent structure is rendered somehow as a result of God’s eternal determination to be who he is found to be in time, God’s life as such becomes precariously liable to historical process. However the matter is phrased – God constitutes his hypostatic being, his selfidentity, in dramatic coherence; in determining himself for his history with creatures, God eternally assigns himself his being – God remains, by any such calculus,7 something other than primordially sufficient in himself. His completeness is located only in the history in which he comes to himself in fellowship with temporal creatures, or (much more subtly) in an essential divinity which somehow is ‘given’ its eternal identity – and thus completeness – in logical (albeit not chronological) consequence of an eternal decision to act in time. The history of God’s works ad extra is assuredly real, not epiphenomenal; its occurrence is indeed established by God’s staggering, pre-temporal commitment to live his life with and for us; his electing purpose is indeed his free determination that he will not be God without us. But the historical outworking of that commitment is what it is because behind it lies all the completeness that is essential to the triune being of the electing God in himself. The work of God’s sufficiency in time is the reiteration of the unqualified plenitude that is already his; before ever there is a drama, there is the triune divine actor in his three ways of subsisting, who does not need to commit himself to any worldly process in order to give himself his eternal being, and whose ontology is not reducible to the history of its willed enactment for creatures. The external works of God are, again, his free movement towards us, in all the triune fullness that is eternally his own. If his sufficiency in his own being is much more than the adequacy of ‘independence’, so too his outgoing actions as the essentially sufficient One are not all that there is to his being. His works on the outside effect what they do because they rest upon the anterior perfection of his life in se.8 The narrative of God’s essential sufficiency freely enacted is, tout court, the story of the world’s creation, preservation and reconciliation. Be it noted again: God is sufficient in himself first; it is as such that he acts in freedom to create, preserve and reconcile. We do not work our way back to his sufficiency merely as necessary substrate of these acts: we must think of it as essential aspect of the perfection that is exclusively his in the first place. The fact that God’s opera ad extra are his free movement does not at all, it should be emphasized, suggest that these acts are merely arbitrary – gestures of absolute power, even caprice, bereft of loving purpose

7. I do not of course wish to suggest for a moment that Robert Jenson and Bruce McCormack say remotely the same things, far less become embroiled here in a debate about Barth: merely to note the obvious point that modern Lutheran and Reformed accounts alike may proffer self-consciously revisionist metaphysics, and may do so whatever they choose to make of Hegel. 8. John Webster, ‘ “It was the Will of the Lord to Bruise Him”: Soteriology and the Doctrine of God’, in Ivor J. Davidson and Murray A. Rae (eds), God of Salvation: Soteriology in Theological Perspective (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 15–34.

4. Divine Sufficiency


or genuine bestowal. Creatio ex nihilo epitomizes God’s complete adequacy to be who he is in freedom, the limitless capacity that is his in himself to engage in an ineffable, instantaneous act which gives birth to all other being. But this gift of life to creatures, in adding nothing to God’s own repleteness, also represents in primal form his pure, unconditioned generosity, his ability to dispose himself in ways that for creatures are utterly positive and beneficial.9 God’s work of preserving his creation is his commitment of the resources of his plenitude to the upholding of the contingent reality to which he has so bountifully given existence. His ordering of the world teleologically, according to his ultimate purposes, is neither an impersonal determinism which abolishes creaturely freedom nor an open experimentation whose progress awaits creaturely engagement, but the action of one whose continuous involvement with the world is generative of proper creaturely integrity and fulfilment; God’s sufficiency includes his works of giving creatures their space, time and ends. Supremely, God’s sufficiency in free movement towards us is found in the mercy with which he consecrates himself for fellowship with us, his works of electing and reconciling human creatures for the unfathomable privilege of intimacy with him. This action unfolds temporally in the sequence of God’s covenantal dealings with humans as created, then fallen, his enduring commitment that their selfchosen ruin should not block his desire that they should know relationship with him even so. Such commitment is not suitably characterized as a mere display of insuperable divine force, as though God simply trumps all impertinent opposition to his sovereignty by the omnipotence of his will, leaving the recipients of his mercy passive objects, judicially delivered but relationally inert. It is possible to depict divine saving energy in such putatively violent or nominal terms, no doubt, but the colours are indefensible in Scripture’s light. Rather, God’s commitment of himself is his commitment to bless, and to bless specifically by the restoration of the dignity and status which sin has so despoiled: personal, responsive fellowship with the creator. It is with this end in view – the desire to bring creatures to the highest privilege and fulfilment they can possibly know – that he sets out to be their Saviour; it is to this end that he remains pledged, his Lordship never less than a matter of love. To trace this out, we need an appropriately textured account of the nature of covenantal history as deriving from God’s eternal good pleasure. The external works of God’s sufficiency have as their basis God’s loving decree, his purpose which takes creatures with such seriousness that its end is to grant them knowledge of the abundance of his own life. The course of this history is certainly startling in the lengths to which God is prepared to go on their behalf. It involves his tender, persistent commitment to the patriarchs and Israel; notwithstanding all their unworthiness, failure and disobedience, he maintains his promises to them, upholding his steadfast love through all his people’s wanderings and the righteous

9. See John Webster, ‘ “Love is also a Lover of Life”: Creatio ex nihilo and Creaturely Goodness’, MoTh 29 (2013), pp. 156–71.


Theological Theology

judgements they incur. Ultimately it means something more wondrous still: the presence of God in the person of Israel’s Jesus. What, in the end, does divine sufficiency do to address broken covenant, deserved judgement, the creature’s plight? It becomes incarnate: it weeps, suffers, bleeds, dies. Thus it is that estrangement from divine fellowship is definitively overcome. Such power in weakness declares God’s capacity; it refuses to be domesticated by theologies which suggest God simply revokes certain features of his divinity pro tempore. His sufficiency includes his ability to become, in the person of the incarnate Son, powerless, to exist sub contrario in the darkness of Calvary. As a matter of divine good pleasure, all the fullness (pleroma) of God dwells in him (Col. 1:19); all that fullness is here, we are told – ‘bodily’ (Col. 2:9). It is ingredient to God’s adequacy that he can exist so, in a condescension that entails no restriction of his immensity; his immensity includes his free capacity for nearness – in somatic finitude at its most vulnerable. Crucially, however, God’s sufficiency is not exhausted by this mode of his presence. This, of course, is the essential force of the so-called extra Calvinisticum, whose catholic roots long predate its representations in seventeenthcentury polemics: divinity is not hemmed in by the human form it takes.10 Because the temporal action of the historical subject, Jesus Christ, is grounded in who this subject essentially is, the eternal Son incarnate, it is the enactment in time of an eternal relation that is infinite and unhindered in its abundance. Within the inexhaustible richness of that relation lies the ability of the Father’s only Son to take on flesh, to become a servant, to exist as he does in time and space. Thus it is that he can utter ‘loud cries and tears’ (Heb. 5:7), can say ‘Not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42). Thus it is that he can experience dereliction. Thus it is that he can descend into the grave. Whatever radical truths are so declared about God’s ability to assume creaturely weakness, they in no sense jeopardize the integrity, the infinite depth, of the divine life. Docetism lurks nowhere here, for God’s mightiness to save involves bloodshed, anguish, the horrors of descensus, the silence of the tomb. But – pace facile resolutions of the mystery – even then, even there, the richness of the Son’s divine relation to his Father through the Spirit is what it is: infinitely capable of co-inherent relationship even in the relationlessness of the Incarnate One’s death. Divine sufficiency is at work; divine sufficiency brooks no stasis. Just so, it saves: because ‘in him’ all fullness dwells, ‘through him’ all things are reconciled (Col. 1:19–20). Raised from the dead, the Son is confirmed as the One he is, the universal adequacy of his achievement a matter of divine attestation ‘in power’ (Rom. 1:4); what he has done ephapax in his unique sufficiency to restore relationship for the relationless is sufficient for them all. Ascended into heaven, he sits at God’s right hand, forerunner of an innumerable people, their intercessor and advocate. His Holy Spirit is sent, perfecter of the work willed in election, carried out in reconciliation. As Spirit, God completes his grand design in the same utter

10. See now Andrew M. McGinnis, The Son of God Beyond the Flesh: A Historical and Theological Study of the Extra Calvinisticum (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).

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sufficiency with which he has conceived it in eternity and effected it in time. He makes his covenant creatures into his dwelling place, the community which lives by and in fellowship with his inexhaustible life. Raised with Christ, the recipients of his love are united to him by the Spirit’s action; alongside the eternal Son, led by him, their yet fleshly brother, they approach God as Father; adopted children, they share in the limitless beatitude which he, the Son, eternally knows in the Father’s presence. In tasting that reality already in this world, prolepsis of a future that ‘does not yet appear’, they are brought into the sufficiency of the salvation which will be theirs in fuller abundance in a world to come: ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). And not only they but all creation with them will find ‘the liberty of the glory’ that is theirs (Rom. 8:21), summed up in the One for whom all things were made (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:16, 20). All this is but summary of the gospel of God’s Son, made known in the Spirit’s power; ‘since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other’.11 In this Son, God affords creatures all the knowledge they could possibly need or desire of God in his sufficiency. Fundamental to that wonder is, as Calvin saw, the lavish abundance with which the Son comes to us through the Spirit’s work, ‘our whole salvation and all its parts . . . comprehended’ in him.12 Chief among the excellencies of his arrival is the sufficiency of his Word, for there the Son announces himself as nowhere else, the exclusive ‘exegete’ of the Godness of God (cf. John 1:18). Put otherwise: Holy Scripture is sufficient for all that God the Father intends as he gives himself to be known, through his Spirit, in the arrival of his Son in our midst. To hear Scripture’s voice is to engage in creaturely acts of reception, to which a whole set of – immense – responsibilities attaches; but when creatures hear the Word they do not afford it its revelatory potency: it comes to them with all the communicative adequacy of God’s resolve to reach them through it. Scripture does not await our input in order to become sufficient; it intrudes upon us in the Spirit’s power, a viva vox, commanding our recognition of its already inherent sufficiency as instrument of God’s desire to be present to us here, in this Word by which the risen and ascended Christ speaks to his church. The evangel thus promulgated in Holy Scripture requires that any Christianly specific depiction of divine sufficiency must – no surprise – be trinitarian through and through. The sufficiency of God as he gives himself to be known is his sufficiency as the One who is, essentially and eternally, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Father, God of his eternal sufficiency elects creatures to reconciliation; as Son, God of his eternal sufficiency effects their reconciliation; as Spirit, God of his eternal sufficiency perfects or completes that purpose. God the Father is the principium non de principio13 of the Godhead’s eternal sufficiency, the one who begets but is himself unbegotten; God the Son, eternally begotten of the Father, is the counterpart of the

11. John Calvin, Institutes Vol. 1, Bk. 2, Ch. 16.19, pp. 528. 12. Ibid., p. 527. 13. Aquinas, ST 1a, 33, a. 4.


Theological Theology

Father’s sufficiency, eternally given his life by the Father and eternally turned towards him in love; God the Spirit, eternally breathed by the Father along with the Son, is the bond of the love in which the Father and the Son eternally subsist, and as such the indispensable agent of the sufficiency in which they relate one to the other. Father, Son and Spirit are only what they are in their relations with one another: co-essential, co-eternal and co-equal; their incommunicable personal idiomata – paternity, filiation, spiration – are never detachable from the manner in which the three persons subsist together as the One God. God is never in a state of coming to be; his relations are at every possible moment completely realized. His sufficiency is not achieved, discursively or by temporal process, a product of self-making, nor can it be distinguished from his relations, as though it were predicable of his oneness independently of that oneness’ threefold differentiation. God’s sufficiency is his utter fulfilment specifically in the relations which essentially and eternally are his life. Of all that is predicated of God it must be said: God ‘is great with a greatness by which he is himself this same greatness . . .; for God it is the same thing to be as to be great . . .; he is great with his great self because he is his own greatness’.14 In its irreducibly triune structure, God’s sufficiency in himself is totally unlike the self-absorption of a transcendent monad, for it is the repleteness of the One whose being is an eternally ceaseless dynamic of togetherness, of giving and receiving. God’s presence to himself, his unassailable peace, joy and delight in the relations that are his life, is not the self-satisfaction of an eternal solipsist, but the fulfilment of the God who has his being in constant fellowship, whose serenity, contentment and repose are ever mobile and dynamic. It is as this uniquely Living One, endlessly complete and endlessly abundant in the plenitude of his own life, that he is able of his essential sufficiency to give life to creatures. The triune God is boundlessly fulfilled in the communion of his own being – its pure transparency of fellowship, its fathomless self-understanding, its unqualified oneness of will and desire. Unrestricted in his self-knowledge, he is uniquely able to grant some share in that knowledge to us. In the infinity of his ‘internal glory’, his ‘delight in his own light’ first of all,15 he is infinitely qualified to be, in turn, our Saviour. Theology has of course other ways of glossing many of these points. Divine aseity, understood not as mere absence of derivation or as self-causation but as God’s positive, triune fullness of life in and of himself eternally;16 divine simplicity, understood not so much as the notion that God is without composition or parts, but

14. Augustine, On the Trinity 5.2.11, in WSA, p. 196; cf. also 7.1.1–3, pp. 217–21. 15. Jonathan Edwards, ‘Dissertation I: Concerning the End for Which God Created the World’, in YE, vol. 8, ed. Paul Ramsey, pp. 441–2. 16. John Webster, ‘God’s Aseity’, in Andrew Moore and Michael Scott (eds), Realism and Religion: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 147–62; ‘Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God’s Aseity’, in Bruce L. McCormack (ed.), Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic/Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2008), pp. 107–24.

4. Divine Sufficiency


that he is, in his triunity, utterly singular, the one whose attributes are identical with his essence, and thus uniquely capable of being all that he is at once and essentially;17 above all, divine perfection, understood not as the quality of an abstract ‘perfect being’ but as God’s non-comparative triune plenitude18 – all render very closely related if not wholly synonymous confessions. Next to this cluster of claims, divine sufficiency as such has received relatively little attention in the tradition (there is a notable discussion in Musculus’ Commonplaces),19 but the theme of God’s triune self-sufficiency necessarily pervades the exposition of all of these concepts. It is not possible to talk properly of God’s aseity, simplicity or perfection (or of his singularity, eternity, immutability, immensity or infinity) without talking of his positive, triune completeness in himself – the God who is who he is, utterly replete in the essentially relational charity, goodness, happiness and glory of his own life,20 ‘the One who already has and is in Himself everything which would have to be the object of His creation and causation if He were not He, God’.21

Made Sufficient If the essential setting for our discernment of the triune God’s sufficiency is the gospel in which he meets us, its corollary is the church which his gospel establishes. As he declares himself in his sufficiency, God generates a creaturely assembly. He calls forth a new society, the communion of saints, those whom he has elected and consecrated for fellowship with himself. Gathered around the revelatory selfpresence of God in Christ through the Spirit, this body is no voluntary association, and can claim no social originality of its own; it owes its being and all its ways to God’s initiative in its sovereign effect. God elects, reconciles and calls, the third movement no less a matter of his majestic goodness than the first two, as by his Spirit he makes real in actual human lives and history his will for fellowship.

17. The theme is much misunderstood in contemporary analytic theology; for sharpsighted articulations of the core logic and its biblical bases, see James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011); Stephen J. Duby, ‘Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account’, PhD dissertation, University of St Andrews, 2014. 18. John Webster, ‘God’s Perfect Life’, in Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker (eds), God’s Life in Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006), pp. 143–52; ‘Perfection and Participation’, in Thomas Joseph White (ed.), The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or the Wisdom of God? (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, MA: Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 379–94. 19. Wolfgang Musculus, Common Places of Christian Religion, trans. John Man (London: Reginalde Wolfe, 1563), loc. 43. 20. Richard of St Victor, On the Trinity 3.11–20, in Boyd Taylor Coolman and Dale M. Coulter (eds), Trinity and Creation: A Selection of Works of Hugh, Richard and Adam of St Victor (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press/Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 256–64. 21. Karl Barth, CD II/1, p. 306.


Theological Theology

In this, God is about the work to which he has bound himself: that he should make those who were ‘no people’ his people (1 Pet. 2:10), that he himself should be their God. No native prestige qualified them for his choice, no potential merited his reconciling mercy towards them; no co-ordination of their abilities with his establishes their social reality in the world. He it is who makes them alive, generates and sustains the faith in which they join together to confess his glory; he it is who constitutes, upholds and empowers them as a body. Their status as his people lies exclusively with him, the One who renders them ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession’ (1 Pet. 2:9). Their visibility as such to the world is a consequence of his Spirit’s work; in themselves they remain visible only as a human social entity, of little obvious distinction, the true being of their community ‘hidden under considerable and very powerful appearances to the contrary’.22 The church is gathered by the Spirit’s action, appearing as what it really is only in the gift of his continuing presence as promised and manifested. In all this the church is, however, favoured beyond telling. As a completed act, God the Father has – already – qualified its members, ‘made them sufficient’ (hikanosanti) to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Col. 1:12). He has – already – delivered them from the dominion of darkness, definitively transferred them to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Their status in the world may be weak and obscure, but something else is true: their life is hidden now with Christ in God, destined already for appearance with Christ in glory (Col. 3:3–4). In pledging himself to complete the ergon agathon (Phil. 1:6) on which he has set his heart, God is ‘in’ his people now, personally, by his Holy Spirit, the seal and guarantee of the future which awaits them (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; cf. Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30). In the power of this Spirit they have all the moral dignity as human agents that they could possibly require; far from passive or inert, they are summoned to genuine activity, called to perform a way of life that is, as the proper response of creatures to their creator, their highest end: to live in grateful fellowship with God, to know and attest the sufficiency of his finished work. In Paul’s parlance, they are (surely all, not some) to be ministers of this God’s new covenant, heralds of the new creation which he has begun and will bring to completion. For this task, the God who is infinitely sufficient in himself makes them sufficient; from him, sufficiency comes to them. What does this mean? What it does not mean, I believe – pace a fair bit of fashionable late-modern ecclesiology – is that these agents participate ontologically in God’s sufficiency, sharers in the dynamism of his infinity. If that were so, they would, in effect, be contributors to his life; his sufficiency would be co-constituted by their participation in it. No: once again, God’s life is wholly complete in itself, beyond input from those brought into being at its creative outreach. They receive from God, are given astonishingly proximate relationship to him, but they are, by definition, never what God is. Deployed of God and creatures, ‘sufficiency’ is not a common term; the mode of sufficiency particular to God is his alone,

22. Barth, CD IV/1, p. 657.

4. Divine Sufficiency


not theirs. They do not extend, complete or realize God’s presence to the world; they are not to constitute or body forth divine reality (or make it ‘relevant’ to a sceptical world). The sufficiency which comes to them as God’s servants does not shoulder them with a burden they are not meant to bear. They are ministers of One whose exousia to communicate himself is completely adequate to his own ends. He is pleased to deploy creaturely instruments, certainly; he assigns them a job to do, ‘giving’ them a ministry, ‘entrusting’ them with a message, ‘making his appeal’ through them (2 Cor. 5:18–20). But his capacity awaits no supplement from them, and transcends any need of their availability as its mediators. In that reality lies a genuine liberation of the church from missiological self-importance – the vanity of indispensable activism; the despair of resignation before an impossible task. As wise theologians have ever noted, prepositions matter: ‘to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task’.23 Receiving from God, the servants of God are in Christ. In him, they are with him: crucified and raised with him, united to him, and directed to seek the things that are above, where he is (Col. 3:1). There is no collapsing of the distinction between them and their Redeemer. They are decisively embraced within the all-transforming reality of his achievement, his perfect achievement defines their identity; but they have their own distinctive moral history still, correlative to their difference from him. In and of themselves they remain insufficient (2 Cor. 3:5), not just the same as he is. He is already their life (Col 3:4); en route to their appearance with him in glory they have responsibilities and roles that are genuinely theirs to perform in the power of his Spirit. As a soteriology and a moral theology, this scarcely means the sort of crass extrinsicism which troubles some so much. Divine enabling for service is not simply fictional or nominal, for there is genuine life-bestowing goodness (2 Cor. 3:6), the results of which are true freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), astonishing transformation (2 Cor. 3:18), and propulsion in turn towards the good of others (2 Cor. 4:5). Recipients of life are sent forth to proclaim a life that is indeed given; those brought into light are dispatched as witnesses to that light. The point is simply that their role as emissaries does not derive from some participation in God’s substance: it exists in consequence of their fellowship with his triune life, in which they are beneficiaries of a fullness that is primordially his alone. In Christ by the Spirit, they are before (katenanti) God (2 Cor. 2:17), their relation to the infinity of his sufficiency a matter of wholly asymmetrical dependence, not dissolution of difference. The relation is also, however, one of exquisite privilege: creatures still, they are drawn by the Spirit into genuine intimacy with the Son in his fellowship with the Father. In that, they have as much taste as creatures can ever need of the plenitude of God as he really is. Their task in the world is, in fact, described with arresting simplicity: they are authorized and equipped, fundamentally, to speak (2 Cor. 2:17). Speech here

23. Basil, On the Holy Spirit 2, trans. David Anderson, in St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), p. 16.


Theological Theology

undoubtedly includes a wide range of activities – moral, symbolic, social – but the primacy of the verbal is not to be missed. To bear witness, to be properly ostensive, is to tell not least in words of God and what God has done. Vital as forms of order, ministry and sacrament may be, crucial as the practical acts of reconciliation indubitably are, the work for which God renders his servants sufficient is not collapsible into sets of ecclesial practices, or patterns of moral or ritual behaviour detached from the primary task of setting forth the evangel in spoken language. To suggest otherwise, popular as the habit may be, is to run a severe risk of moralizing the gospel, and of dissolving the church’s identity into phenomena in which the centre of gravity lies in human busyness. Misperceived or distorted, preaching (2 Cor. 4:5) also may of course be turned into a human work of a similarly spurious kind. In scriptural perspective, however, it occupies a very different space, of uniquely determinate power in the communication of ‘the message’ (logos: 2 Cor. 5:19; cf. 2:17) that is the divine good news (2 Cor. 2:12; 4:4). In the ministry of indicating the antecedent perfection that is God’s and his alone, speech bears special significance. The prepositions are again suggestive. To receive sufficiency from God, to go to the world as sent from him, is to have been addressed. The primary disposition of the commissioned is acoustic, not poetic; creatures of the Word, spoken to at the divine initiative alone, they speak not in spontaneity but as those who have, as is said elsewhere, been ‘seized’ (Phil. 3:12). Their debt to the transforming effects of the divine summons does not just belong far back in their experience, the beginning of a journey: it continues, for their life remains, inescapably, the existence of those who at every moment live only by the vivifying and authorizing Word which proceeds from God’s mouth. They speak in Christ: they are defined by him, not he by them; he is ‘himself their witness’,24 and it is with his honour, not their own, that they are concerned (2 Cor. 4:5). They speak before God: there is a clear note of accountability, an indication that their words are divinely audited – in an utterly fundamental sense they are a work of confession, an address to God, aimed at his glorification. ‘True and proper language concerning God will always be a response to God, which . . . thinks and speaks of God exclusively in the second person.’25 Only in that light will these speakers communicate properly with their fellowcreatures – in ‘sincerity’, renouncing ‘cunning’, avoiding ‘peddling’ or ‘tampering with’ God’s Word, giving themselves to the ‘open manifestation of the truth’ (2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). The vision is large, for ‘the truth’ is no small matter: it is God and all things new in him. As Paul sees it, that message is adulterated no less by false motives than by

24. Ambrosiaster, Commentary on 2 Corinthians, 2:17, in Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Romans and 1–2 Corinthians, trans. Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), p. 215. 25. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. Grover Foley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 164.

4. Divine Sufficiency


wrong content, when its would-be teachers ‘play games with the sacred Word of God and change it to serve their own convenience’.26 Concerning such corruptions the warning is plain: self-commendation and self-preferment can never be the aims. Those who are sent are given their message; the ambassadors speak of the interests of their King. They must affect no improvisations upon his mandate, for it admits of no improvement. They simply tell it forth, confident of the extent of his writ, and of the permanence (cf. 2 Cor. 3:11) of the glory that is his. The substance of their communication is determined not by its cultural palatability in this situation or that, but by its universal pertinence: it is a statement of what is in fact the case about the kosmos (2 Cor. 5:19). Once more, though, the assurance of those rendered sufficient deserves to be specified closely. The truth is not set forth when it is turned into a human possession, an instrument of self-advancement or a tool of socio-political power. Just as its matter is not generated by human ingenuity, neither are the results of its manifestation engineered by any cleverness on the part of its communicators, who speak in faith, serene not in their own strength, hopeful only in light of the Spirit’s ability to give life. The truth is never their cultural capital, domesticated and exploitable; they are its ministers (2 Cor. 3:6; 4:1; 5:18) and servants (cf. 2 Cor. 4:5). The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ is apprehended only in consequence of a ‘shining’ which is, from first to last, divine work (2 Cor. 4:6); the only effective power in view is God’s (2 Cor. 4:7). To speak well is certainly to be mindful that human words are governed by the immensity of the theme, that fidelity matters greatly; but it is also to be aware that such words are simply gestures towards divine sufficiency, not attempts to justify, prove or control it. To be equipped for witness is to accept entirely that the distance between our efforts and their theme is overcome purely by grace; with Moses and the prophets, the speaker ‘always stands as an awed spectator, conscious of his own failure’.27 Nevertheless, those who speak from, before and in do so in the expectation that the One to whom they point is himself active and vocal; that his way of announcing himself is unique, self-authenticating, unconvertible, beyond confinement to the demonstrative energies of his witnesses. The possibilities of effective testimony lie with him, by the Spirit’s working, not with any immanent properties of ecclesial acts or priestly agents. The results, in turn, are not mere packages of verbal exactitude, however venerable in lineage or attractive in style, but transformed lives: ‘fleshy’ human epistles, written not by human efforts but by the Spirit of the living God, ‘a letter from Christ delivered by us’ (2 Cor. 3:3; cf. 3:6). The Spirit of Christ is in charge; the outcome in actual human histories is determined by his omnipotent purposes. This is not mere occasionalism, an arcane process by which the Holy Spirit only gets involved in confirming the church’s efforts in odd

26. John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, trans. Thomas A. Smail, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964), p. 36. 27. Barth, CD II/1, p. 221.


Theological Theology

moments of mystical visitation. The Spirit’s continuing presence is a matter of divine promise, and so of expectant petition. In his self-communicating sufficiency, God is Lord of his own results; for the evidence of his present nearness as Lord the church is enjoined to pray.

Theology’s Business Paul’s argument is an account of apostolic ministry, a defence of his own stewardship of the gospel against a few of its many critics. His case belongs in a particular social and political context. It is surely paradigmatic, however, for Christian speech anywhere, and so in turn for the theological task. Theology has at heart no other job than to speak the same way. To talk responsibly in theology is to declare God’s utter sufficiency, not to replace it with some other theme, nor to rebrand its truth in some other form. The theologian is sufficient only in the presence of God’s living adequacy, through the active operations of the God who has made and does make himself known. Theology faces endless pressures, and may pass through many cultural wastelands, not least in its practical need in each generation to identify an operational base in which both church and world can be served with integrity. The vexing problems of ecclesiastical fragmentation, political hostility and cultural marginality are hardly insignificant. Fidelity amidst shifting intellectual and social tides requires a discipleship of mind and heart which will – anytime, anywhere – cost us everything. To be ‘made sufficient’ is to face these issues in sober realism: to be acutely aware of our enduring incapacity of ourselves, the inescapable importance of sola gratia; to recognize that ‘our knowledge of God is always compelled to be a prayer of thanksgiving, penitence and intercession’.28 In this, however, is something vital: when it sees things in right perspective, Christian theology is much less taken up with the inadequacies of creatures than it is with the perfection of God. The God who has announced himself to us is all-sufficient in himself; he is all-sufficient to will, effect and complete his purpose to bless; and he is all-sufficient in turn for all those whom he sends – with a due blend of urgency and calmness – to confess it is so. Confessing is an inherently public business: the work of setting forth the truth openly in a realm where hostility is real and suffering is a given. In the matter of attestation, thoroughly practical, often painful work awaits – if dogmatics is also ethics, Christian theology is never detachable from praxis, politics and all the tasks of cultural engagement. The fragrance of the knowledge of God deserves to be spread ‘in every place’ (2 Cor. 2:14): among the perishing, the blinded, the unbelievers, as well as among those who are being saved (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3–4). It will mean pleading and appeal (2 Cor. 5:20), not always welcome or successful. To follow the apostolic pattern is to recognize that manifestation of the truth is

28. Ibid., p. 223.

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inextricably bound up with moral witness – with testimony that far exceeds formulaic subscription to articles of faith, and is faithful in (even?) more pressing situations than those that may face us in church assemblies or university seminar rooms. This may or may not license claims to pursue such supposedly distinctive – even grandiose – activities as ‘practical’, ‘public’, ‘contextual’, ‘conversational’ or ‘transformational’ theology. It may or may not lend usefulness to the neat differentiation of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ modes of reflection as churchly enterprises. Appealing as they may be, the categories may (ironically) risk driving apart the very things they aspire to integrate, may (alarmingly) downgrade the irreplaceable work of exegesis and dogmatics, may (disastrously) become preoccupied with the characterization of human practices as much as with declaring the comprehensively interruptive claims of God in God’s acts. Still, faithful speech is, most certainly, a good deal more than the work of reflective reason, however careful or rigorous, and a lot more than a cozy chat among the like-minded. It means practical, often tough, stuff; the range is endless, the personal entailments inescapable. But there is this: daunted as it may find itself before the perils and demands of such an array of tasks, Christian theology is overwhelmed first of all before God. It has accordingly, amidst all its weaknesses, the pledge of grace (2 Cor. 12:9). It has in turn a confidence that is true, for it is directed, as Paul’s unique locution puts it, ‘through Christ, towards God’ (2 Cor. 3:4). Whatever else is happening, there is far more on which to ponder than some version of assimilation, co-option or retreat: there is God to know. As the prophets ever found, to hear God’s voice is to be allowed neither capitulation in nor flight from the job of speaking, whatever that requires. But in so far as theology ought in all its ways to be the application of mind and tongue (hands and feet) to the same fundamental business of confessing which Paul describes, it stands under the remarkable promise his picture proposes. Frail as our witness remains, we may and must speak; the Sufficient One suffices for all that he purposes as he sends his people forth, servants of a Word that will not return to him void. To speak from God, before God, in Christ, in the world is indeed a very great matter. It requires commitments of the self to which no other intellectual or practical project makes claim. Our words and deeds are broken, provisional, inadequate, our minds prone to the corruptions of idolatry, our discursive strategies liable to the perils of political abuse. We stand ever in need of repentance, the chastening disciplines of divine renovation. Cultivation of theological virtues cannot be a matter of character-formation just as may apply elsewhere, for theology’s school is eschatological; its pedagogy runs clean against the grain of the anthropologies on which other accounts of moral practice instinctively trade. Theological existence takes place in the unassimilable realm of God’s converting work, an order in which technology of the self is, in a vital sense, repudiated – superseded by a very different, eccentric pattern of enduring dependence on divine grace. Progress in sanctification, on that score, means increasing humility, deference and expectancy in the conviction that we are, in reality, the Lord’s – freed from the


Theological Theology

illusion, as well as the intolerable burdens, of supposing we are or ever can be complete as something else. What it never means is that theology’s practitioners acquire a state of realized proficiency in their activities, or ‘competence’ as possession; they never can approach their calling with anything but empty hands. But felt need means prayer; and prayer means contemplation; and contemplation means – notwithstanding the patent inadequacy of our response – great wonder, deep joy, and all possible fulfilment. When theology keeps in mind that the only context which ultimately matters is the one established by this God, it will neither despair nor be complacent. As John Webster’s work has reminded us with exceptional power and beauty, it will operate with something like the right combination of assurance, modesty and delight.

Chapter 5 T H E L A ST J U D G E M E N T David Fergusson

The essential task of Christian dogmatics, whether in postmodernity, modernity or premodernity, is one of patient, respectful attentiveness to the biblical testimony, allowing itself to be shaped by the hope which is there expressed, and quietly letting that hope disturb, shatter and re-make human thought and action.1 Throughout his writings, John Webster has reminded us of the need to articulate the teachings of the church in ways that are responsible in our present context, yet without enslavement to the intellectual fashions which characterize that context. The last judgement seems a most unpromising locus for consideration today, a quaint item of mythology that evokes embarrassment or some nervous humour. In preparing a recent lecture on the topic, I was met by predictable responses of surprise and bewilderment on the part of colleagues.2 Their reaction reveals how the traditional four last things – resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell – have fallen out of theological fashion. Christoph Schwöbel has noted that despite the twentieth-century insistence upon the eschatological character of theological speech, very little attention had been devoted to the specifics of the last things.3 The focus has shifted from the eschata to the eschaton considered as the ultimate reality. Indeed the strange reticence in many modern theologians about the life to come, in particular the possibility of personal fulfilment, has attracted some criticism. Robert Jenson, for example, claims that the fundamental narrative shape of Jewish and Christian faith is disrupted if we cannot speak of a future ending, in

1. John Webster, ‘Eschatology, Anthropology and Postmodernity’, IJST 2.1 (2000), p. 14. 2. This essay is based on a lecture delivered to an ecumenical conference of Dutch theologians at Emden. I am grateful to colleagues for comments on that occasion and especially to Marcel Sarot for his insightful response to the paper. 3. Christoph Schwöbel, ‘Last Things First? The Century of Eschatology in Retrospect’, The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology, eds. David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), p. 226.



Theological Theology

both senses of ‘end’ – the completion of a sequence and the fulfilment of a purpose. The Christian life seeks closure, Jenson insists, and only in God can closure be found.4 Nevertheless, recent literature in both Bible and theology does reveal continued interest in the theme of the last judgement – perhaps more than we might suspect – and even some ecumenical convergence of approach. And it is a theme that belongs to Scripture and the creeds and which occupies a significant place in the fabric of traditional Christian belief. In what follows, I shall argue towards the following points. First, the disparate and mythological scriptural materials need to be organized around a central and controlling theme. Second, the excessive fear and gloom surrounding popular portrayals of the last judgement from the middle ages need to be overcome. The last judgement should be viewed as a bright rather than a dark mystery. Third, the focus of a theology of the last judgement should be on the person and work of the judge, namely Jesus Christ. This will ensure that the end is the completion of a work already determined in his cross and resurrection. Fourth, the last judgement is an element of the restoration of God’s good creation. As such, it is an integral feature of Christian faith and hope.

Scriptural Origins The theology of the last judgement can draw upon significant if disparate scriptural resources, and perhaps even more upon the traditions of medieval art. The notion of a final and decisive judgement at the end of history has its roots in Hebrew traditions about the coming of God to execute justice for the righteous and the wicked. This governs both the life of individuals but also the corporate existence of Israel and the other nations (e.g. Ps. 1:5–6; Ps. 96:13). ‘The day of the Lord’ is a recurrent expression amongst the prophets, usually referring to a time of punishment for Judah, Israel and the other nations (e.g. Obad. 15; Amos 5:18– 20; Zeph. 1:14–18). Other similar expressions (‘on that day’, ‘the days are coming when’, ‘then’) include the same reference to a single and definitive exercise of God’s judgement. A few passages, perhaps of later origin, suggest an act of judgement and redemption beyond this world (Job 19:25–27; Isa. 26:19; Eze. 37:1–14); in some cases, writers look to a final act of separation in which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished (e.g. Isa. 66:24; Dan. 12:1–3). In the intertestamental literature, an eschatological day of judgement becomes more pronounced (Wis. 3:18; 2 Es. 14:34–35). This provided a set of resources that were adapted by the New Testament writers. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks of the coming judgement, particularly in the apocalyptic sayings of Mark 13 and parallels. The term ‘day of judgement’ is more characteristic of Matthew (10:15; 11:22; 12:36) and is given imaginative force

4. Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 336.

5. The Last Judgement


by the parable of the sheep and goats (25:31–46). While the notion of judgement is also present in the Fourth Gospel, there is a stronger emphasis upon Jesus himself as judge and the sense that judgement is already taking place with his appearance. ‘Now is the judgement of this world’ (John 12:31). A future day of judgement is frequently cited elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Pet. 2:9; 1 John 4:17; Acts 17:31) while Paul refers to this as ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:8). The agents of judgement can include God, Christ and even occasionally the saints (1 Cor. 6:2). A condition of receiving a happy verdict appears to be conditional upon one’s practice (Gal. 5:16–21), this leaving a subsequent challenge as to how it is to be squared with the strong Pauline account of grace. This is especially acute in Revelation 20:11–15 where the accent is on a final separation that is determined by one’s own deeds. ‘And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books’ (Rev. 20:12). One possible hint of a resolution of the tension between judgement and grace is at 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 where judgement has a purgative quality; God’s judgement saves us from our sins, as if through burning these. One does not need to affirm a doctrine of purgatory to read the text in this way. While most passages appear to suggest a final comprehensive act of judgement that embraces all history – Augustine would later imagine how this is possible for the divine mind – other New Testament passages point instead towards a judgement on each individual immediately upon death (e.g. Luke 16:19–31; Heb. 9:27). This timetable clash generates some theological puzzles. Can there be judgement for each of us at death, ahead of a final judgement at the end of time? Or are these continuous in some way? If my eternal destiny is already settled at death, does this make the last judgement redundant? And can there be justice or fulfilment for any one individual, apart from the nexus of relationships in which she or he is involved across space and time with other people and the wider created order? Further eschatological problems are not far away, including those that involve the notion of an intermediate state or soul sleep.

The Medieval Vision However we resolve the problems set by the plurality of scriptural references to the last judgement, it is clear that many of these passages exercised a strong hold upon the Christian imagination, particularly through the middle ages. A few examples must suffice here. The thirteenth-century poem, the Dies Irae, became a sequence during the liturgy of the dead and is still heard at the performance of many requiem masses (e.g. Mozart and Verdi). It has been described as the ‘most representative, the most culturally influential, and hence the most famous poem of the Latin middle ages’.5 The poem’s stress is upon divine wrath, this being intended to awaken fear, trembling and penitence amongst those who recite or hear it.

5. Quote by Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God (London: SCM, 1996), p. 236.


Theological Theology Dies iræ! Dies illa Solvet sæclum in favilla: Teste David cum Sibylla!

The day of wrath, that day Will dissolve the world in ashes As foretold by David and the sibyl!

Much of the imagery of the Dies Irae is drawn from Vulgate passages such as Zephaniah 1:15–16, Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats, and the open book of Revelation 20:11–15. This collation of scriptural resources concentrates on individual judgement, the exposure of one’s life in its totality, and the threat of eternal perdition. It continues to haunt the Western mind, despite its being withdrawn from the post-Vatican II liturgy for the burial of the dead, in favour of more positive and hopeful themes. The graphic portrayal of the last judgement in the middle ages is also evident in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Although his Summa Theologiae remained incomplete and without an eschatological conclusion, the later supplement, based on his earlier commentary on Lombard, together with material from the Summa Contra Gentiles, give us a clear impression of how he understood the matter. A great conflagration will occur with the cessation of solar and planetary movements. All will be consumed by the fire before being raised to judgement (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10). The most likely location for a general judgement will be in the valley of Josaphat by Mount Olivet – the site of the ascension. The risen dead will finally be separated into the blessed and the damned (apart from those who remain in limbo), their resurrected bodies accentuating the bliss or misery of their final condition. Much of this follows the interpretation of Scripture in Augustine’s City of God, Book 20. For Augustine and Aquinas, the tension between an immediate judgement at death and a final judgement at the end of history is resolved with the notion of a double judgement. Our eternal destiny is fixed at death and remains unalterable. This is held in conjunction with the view that a time of purgation may be required between our death and post-mortem bliss. But since the effects of our lives continue beyond the time of our dying, it is necessary for there to be a final judgement. This confirms the earlier judgement while also providing a fuller ordering of all that we have done. The first judgement determines our souls, while the final judgement determines us as resurrected bodies. But the verdicts are essentially the same; we are either saved or damned, and for identical reasons. Hence there are not so much two separate judgements but a double judgement that is continuous and consistent in every aspect. Aquinas posits a real continuity between this world and the age of the resurrection. Our bodies that rise are the same in nature with all their essential parts. We are risen as if at the height of our youth, since this represents the fullest realization of our creaturely potential. He appears to identify this with the age of Christ when crucified.6 In a glorified and embodied state, we enjoy the vision of God. By contrast, the resurrection of the damned merely intensifies their misery by inflicting sensible pains upon a body that cannot dissolve. Unlike Aquinas,

6. Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, p. 88.

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Augustine dwells at some length upon the condition of the damned, comparing their state to captives who suffer intense bodily torture while yet continuing to survive. ‘But in the life hereafter the soul and the body will be connected in such a way that just as the bond that links them will not be unloosed by any passage of time, however long, so it will not be able to be broken by any pain.’7 Although some variations on the theme of the last judgement are evident, this medieval vision is found in much of the artwork adorning churches. For largely illiterate populations, it was their primary access to the teaching of the church. Most famous is the later Renaissance work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1541. The nudity and other graphic details reveal this to be a very human painting, characteristic of the Renaissance. Even the angels appear as purified humans, rather than other-worldly visitors. Its distinctive features are now widely celebrated by tourist guides. The Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, objected so much to the profanity of the images in the chapel that Michelangelo depicted him as an ugly Minos, judge of the underworld, with donkey ears and a snake biting his genitalia. On complaining to his employer, da Cesena was told that the Pope’s authority did not extend to hell. While reflecting the medieval vision of the last judgement, Michelangelo’s work is also classical in its portrayal of Greco-Roman conceptions of Hades and the ferryman, Charon, at the Styx. This may reflect the influence of Dante, whose work Michelangelo was believed to have studied extensively. Moreover, its overriding conception is circular rather than the more traditional layered depiction of heaven, earth and hell, as in the orderly ranks of Giotto’s Last Judgment (1306) in the Arena Chapel in Padua. At the centre of the fresco in the Sistine Chapel is the figure of Christ, giving rise to discussions about whether this image reflects the new cosmology of Copernicus. What is most striking about Christ as judge is his apparent serenity. His raised hand could be interpreted as either offering a blessing or a rejection. There are not two faces of wrath and mercy, but a single yet ambivalent disposition. One line of interpretation suggests that this too derives from Dante. The final outcome of our lives is the result of choices that we have already made. So the role of Christ as judge is merely to confirm and expose what has been determined by our individual responses to the love of God. The horror of the damned is in part the result of their being awakened to the truth about the lives they have led. Christ, as the embodiment of divine love and beauty, produces either attraction or repulsion amongst the living. But judgement is less the sudden intervention of God and more the inevitable outcome of what we have become. He is not the terrible judge, for there is no act of judgement. There is only the terrible drama of human choice. The Christ is the focus of the whole movement of the Chapel. He is the fundamental encounter with the reality of the sacred, the impossible paradox of the God-man, the desire and the terror, the beauty

7. Augustine, City of God, Book 21, Chapter 3. Citation from David Knowles’ translation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 966.


Theological Theology

and the horror, the terrible contradictions that define humans in their response to it.8

The Reformation With its focus on a Christ, now young, muscular and beautiful, Michelangelo’s fresco points beyond the medieval tradition even while participating in it. Attention is devoted less to the Scriptural record about the specific details of the last judgement, and more to the figure of the judge himself. In a very different way, the Reformation also provided this shift of focus with its concentration on the character of the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead. The last judgement is an important theme particularly for Luther, although this is sometimes noticed more by his biographers than his theological commentators.9 According to Althaus, Luther’s attention to the Last Day is accentuated by his tendency to think of an intermediate state of soul sleep from which we arise.10 For each of us, this appears to happen immediately after death, just as if we had fallen asleep for only a moment. ‘A thousand years will seem as though you have slept a half an hour. As we do not know how long we are sleeping if we do not hear the clock striking during the night, so in death a thousand years will pass away still more rapidly. Before we shall be able to look around, we shall be beautiful angels.’11 But it happens for us all together, as we are awakened at the Last Day. So unlike the double judgement of Augustine and Aquinas, there is a stronger accent on the final judgement in Luther. In other respects, Luther’s writings also represent a break with the medieval tradition. No longer an event for each individual, the last judgement heralds the renewal of God’s creation. It is a corporate and cosmic event in which the kingdom of God arrives in all its fullness. For Luther, the resurrection of the dead is the final

8. John W. Dixon, The Christ of Michelangelo: An Essay on Carnal Spirituality (University of South Florida: Scholars Press, 1994), p. 75. 9. See Johann Heinz, ‘The “Summer That Will Never End”: Luther’s Longing for the “Dear Last Day” In His Sermon on Luke 21 (1531)’, AUSS 23.2 (1985), pp. 181–6. 10. Paul Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), pp. 414–17. But against this interpretation, the consistency of Luther on this matter is questioned by Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.  325–9. For further exploration of the divergence amongst the early Reformers on the intermediate state see Gergely Juhasz, ‘Resurrection or Immortality of the Soul?: A Dilemma of Reformation Exegesis’, Reformation 14 (2009), pp. 1–47. 11. From a sermon on Matthew 9, preached on 10 November 1532, the 24th Sunday after Trinity. See WA 36, p. 349. The translation is borrowed from Paul Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, p. 416, note 52.

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triumph of the gospel over the law of death; in this regard, his eschatology is not an appendix but a controlling theme of his theology. The hope of resurrection circumscribes our fear of death with a greater hope. So he inverts Psalm 90. We say in the midst of life we are surrounded by death, but God says, no, in the midst of death we are surrounded by life.12 For this reason, the Last Day is to be welcomed and longed for by Christians everywhere. It is the end of our tribulation and the commencement of God’s new creation. So Luther could write to his wife of that ‘dear last day’ (lieber jüngster Tag), a beloved day for which he longed, rather than the end he had feared in former times.13 Whether this eschatological orientation of Luther’s theology was maintained in subsequent Reformation theology is doubtful. Calvin appears to have a more traditional approach which recalls much of the earlier medieval tradition. His insistence upon the immortality of the soul together with his early denial of soul sleep seems to place him closer to Aquinas than to Luther in key respects. While affirming the doctrine of the resurrection of the body in accordance with Scripture, Calvin also claims that the part of the self which bears the mark of the divine is immaterial and immortal, i.e. the soul. Why else would Christ have said to the dying thief, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43)? For Calvin, the soul attains its final destiny at death even though it awaits the resurrection of the body and the last judgement. Yet whether these add much to what has already been settled is less clear. The significance of the last day seems here diminished, a problem that is repeated by the Westminster Confession (1647) with its juxtaposition of immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body, in a manner that seems to conflate different anthropological and eschatological trajectories. Calvin himself appears content to sit with a kind of double judgement, with disembodied souls at rest awaiting a fuller glory that is promised them. But, unlike Luther, the day of resurrection seems to lack something of its momentous significance, despite Calvin’s language of suspense. There remains an unresolved tension here. Meanwhile, since Scripture everywhere bids us wait in expectation for Christ’s coming, and defers until then the crown of glory, let us be content with the limits divinely set for us: namely, that the souls of the pious, having ended the toil of their warfare, enter into blessed rest, where in glad expectation they await the enjoyment of promised glory, and so all things are held in suspense until Christ the Redeemer appear.14

12. See Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, p. 332. 13. WA 9: 175. See also Winfried Vogel, ‘The Eschatological Theology of Martin Luther: Part I Luther’s Basic Concepts’ AUSS 24:3 (1986), pp.  249–63. Vogel notes that the connotations of a fresh beginning in ‘jüngster Tag’ are not readily captured in English (p. 261). 14. John Calvin, Institutes, Vol. 2, Bk. 3, Ch. 25.6, p. 998.


Theological Theology

The Modern Era When we move from the Reformation to the modern era, we encounter less discussion of the last judgement and some uncertainty on how this is to be handled. The causes of this are not difficult to identify, although each requires some qualification. The shift of emphasis amongst Enlightenment thinkers to the providential action of God in this world led to a loss of focus on eschatological matters. Yet even amongst more theologically moderate writers of the eighteenth century, the hope of heaven and the fear of hell remain important for our ethical motivation. This is inflected in Kant’s critical philosophy with his three postulates of practical reason, one of which is the hope of the Summum Bonum, a condition of life after death in which God ensures the coincidence of virtue with happiness. The morally regulative force of a final judgement is also stressed in his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. The prospect of having the details of one’s life spread out before a judge is a useful image to maintain; its power to awaken conscience and to sustain our best efforts impressed Kant, as did the punitive force of hell. Similarly, Wittgenstein could cite the importance of the last judgement as providing a picture that organizes our lives. Believing in the last judgement, he argued, is not an empirical claim about what will happen when and where. ‘Here believing obviously plays much more this role: suppose we said that a certain picture might play the role of constantly admonishing me, or I always think of it. Here, an enormous difference would be between those people for whom the picture is constantly in the foreground, and the others who just didn’t use it at all.’15 A second difficulty is presented by the rise of biblical criticism which looks to the different Sitze im Leben and genres of the biblical texts, no longer seeking to harmonize these in a single narrative of the last judgement as Augustine and Aquinas had sought to do with their pre-critical hermeneutics. The resultant loss of confidence in a detailed eschatological story perhaps reflected some embarrassment with the naïve apocalyptic pictures of Scripture, prompting either their neglect or strategies of demythologization. Yet, as we noted earlier, this gave rise to an eschatological reaction in twentieth-century theology with attempts to re-appropriate the reserve and hope that characterized Christian faith from the outset. A third concern surrounded the doctrine of hell which was so closely bound to standard treatments of the last judgement. From about the seventeenth century, the idea of hell as everlasting torment became problematized with a steady decline in belief evident. Alternative scenarios of purgatory, annihilation, universalism and post-mortem evangelism have all been proposed in recent times, each of these registering in different quarters a fundamental anxiety around the prospect of divinely-sanctioned unending torture for the damned. How could God will or tolerate such an outcome for so many, or indeed even one single person? Yet,

15. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), p. 56.

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despite these anxieties around the prospect of damnation, some leading theologians continued to affirm and welcome its prospect. Jonathan Edwards could even write of the beauty of hell in God’s universe, while his sermon on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ remains a compelling read in its exhortation to repentance. In the nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement, despite its insistence upon purgatory and prayers for the dead, continued to present a stark choice between heaven and hell. Edward Pusey’s 1839 sermon on The Day of Judgement emphasises the importance of contemplating our time of judgement to combat moral and spiritual laxity. Be this then ever before us; be our first thought, morning by morning to think of the resurrection, be our last night by night, the sleep of death, after which cometh the judgement . . . remember the parching flame, the never-dying worm, the everlasting fire, the gnashing of teeth, ‘the smoke of torment’ which goeth up for ever and ever; and where they have no rest day nor night. Set heaven and hell before your eyes, so you may escape hell and by God’s mercy attain heaven.16

John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, a poem written in 1865 and set to music by Elgar, dramatizes the moment of death and the encounter with Christ. ‘The soul asks “Shall I see My dearest Master, when I reach His throne?” and the Angel replies “Yes for one moment thou shalt see thy God . . . One moment, but thou knowest not, my child, What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too.’17 Commenting on this passage, Hebblethwaite notes how little room there is for a general judgement, a general resurrection or even the resurrection of the body. The focus is almost entirely on the encounter of the individual soul with Christ, its judge.18 Nevertheless, despite the maintenance of traditional ideas of judgement and hell by figures in both Protestant and Catholic theology, the doctrine of eternal punishment has undergone radical revision in many of the theologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in favour of views that are more patient of universalist interpretation. This may amount to the most significant paradigm change in theology since the time of the Reformation. As a shift that cuts across confessional boundaries, it has never been the subject of ecclesiastical division; there is support for universalism in most places (e.g., Barth, Moltmann, Rahner and von Balthasar). The earlier notion of an apokatastasis, once a marginal dogmatic tradition in Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, has now become more mainstream. Yet the absence of major ecclesiastical controversy may also have led to a failure to appreciate the shift in perspective that has taken place. Recent Catholic theology, in particular, stresses not so much a final separation, but the last

16. Edward Pusey, The Day of Judgement (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1839), p. 29. 17. John Henry Newman, Dream of Gerontius (Edinburgh: Constable, 1910), p. 46. 18. Brian Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1984), p. 119.


Theological Theology

judgement as a pedagogical process whereby the person is brought to an understanding of his or her life through an encounter with the love of God. The element of human freedom is stronger here than in Barth or Moltmann, but the emphasis falls upon divine love as pedagogical rather than retributive, so that there is a much more muted sense of the prospect of eternal damnation than we can find in medieval traditions. ‘Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation. Anyone who is with him has entered the space of deliverance and salvation. Perdition is not imposed by him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ.’19 The affirmation of an apokatastasis, however, does not in itself negate the theme of judgement. In most theologies, it persists but is now transposed into a different key. A central insight is the identification of the crucified and risen Jesus with the judge of the world. He does not adopt a different persona from the Christ of the gospels, but continues to enact God’s grace and mercy to sinners. His identity as judge is no different from his mission as saviour of the world. This provides a christological hermeneutic by which to interpret those passages in the New Testament which advert to a last judgement. Seen in this light, the last judgement cannot compromise in any way the justification of the ungodly, a judgement that has already been announced. The last judgement is the day of Christ; his judging of the living and the dead should not be viewed apart from the forgiveness of sins and our justification by grace.20 So this final act is one of grace which includes but transcends the demands of justice. Its scope is inclusive and its mercy is unlimited. The justification of the sinner is rescued from a lazy acceptance by the display of God’s faithfulness. This has already been accomplished so that the same Christ, crucified and risen, will be our judge on the last day. For this reason, Karl Barth commends the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the Creed. Question 52: What comfort is it to thee that ‘Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead’? Answer: That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven . . . .21 19. Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), p. 205. See also Zachary Hayes, Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1989), pp. 178–89; and Gerald O’Collins, God’s Other Peoples: Salvation for All (Oxford University Press, 2008). 20. See Eberhard Jüngel, ‘The Last Judgement as an Act of Grace’, LS 15 (1990), pp. 389–405. 21. Barth comments, ‘A different note is struck here. Jesus Christ’s return to judge the quick and the dead is tidings of joy. “With head erect”, the Christian, the Church may and ought to confront the future. For He that comes is the same who previously offered Himself to the judgement of God. It is His return we are looking for. Would it had been vouchsafed to Michael Angelo and the other artists to see and hear this.’ Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM, 1949), p. 134.

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If we take our bearings from the verdict already announced in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, then his coming again can do no more or less than complete what has already been disclosed. There is not so much a double judgement as an outworking and fulfilment of a judgement already delivered which reaches out to our own death and towards the end of the world. So what we say about death and the end of the world is set in the light of Christ. This requires both the revealing of the truth about ourselves and the world, but also our acceptance by a reconciling love. And it is difficult to see how or why this love would be withheld or withdrawn from anyone, given its intention and rootedness in the life of God. Eberhard Jüngel has pointed to the therapeutic content of the hope of the last judgement. Our judge is Christ who has already been judged in our place. His return must therefore be viewed as the completion of what is already known and held in faith. As an accomplishment of what is anticipated, it represents a fulfilment of our deepest trust and commitment. The tension between the already of Christian existence and the not yet of eternal life is finally resolved in the resurrection of the dead. So our judgement cannot be seen apart from the glorious hope of resurrection. In the end, we do not face a frightening apocalyptic catastrophe; the dominant note of fear in so much of the Christian tradition should be replaced by that of hope in the resurrection. Instead, we are awakened to new life by the God of Jesus. To this extent, the parables of divine grace and generosity are our best index and analogue to the coming reign of God. This judgement must give justice to the victims and establish a right order – in this respect, it includes elements of vindication and retribution – but these are directed to the prospect of a kingdom of peace. In the end, the work of God is restorationist rather than merely retributive. Jüngel also points out that the judge is not blindfolded. The judge sees us clearly but comes to make peace with us and amongst us. This offers several corrective possibilities in relation to traditional notions of the last judgement. Each has a therapeutic quality. First, we are released from judging ourselves. The judicial office is taken from us and transferred to Christ. We no longer have to judge ourselves or others. This is God’s prerogative alone. Secondly, the passing of judgement to the saviour of the world means the healing of our wounds as our sins are simultaneously revealed and forgiven. We no longer require to suppress the past or to harbour bitter memories; all this can finally be resolved but only by a gracious God. Finally, the last judgement is not only about the exposure of our misdeeds. It also includes a recognition of those actions that were the triumph of God’s grace within us. Not everything that is disclosed is painful. Perhaps more than we imagine, we accomplish some good works that also require acknowledgement. ‘[T]he last judgement can praise what has really been done well as a good work with a clarity which is beyond our human judgement. The judge, before whom all our deeds will be revealed, acknowledges our good works.’22 This notion has been strengthened by recent work stressing the essentially restorative rather than exclusively retributive nature of God’s justice in Scripture.

22. Eberhard Jüngel, ‘The Last Judgement’, p. 402.


Theological Theology

The accent falls not on ‘paying back’ or ‘punishing’ but on ‘putting right’ what has gone wrong. Thiselton, for example, notes that while the Hebrew for judgement (mishpat) is generally rendered by the Greek krima or krisis in the LXX, the verb ‘to judge’ (shaphat) is often translated by the Greek dikaiosyne.23 It is a restoration of relationships that are disordered and broken rather than mere retribution. If this is how God justifies the ungodly in Christ, then we cannot think of the last judgement except in terms of a completion of this restorative action. Divine judgement and salvation are thus neither conjoined nor separated; these belong together within a single act of covenant faithfulness to God’s one purpose. The Hebrew, as opposed to Graeco-Roman concepts of justice, is corporate and restorative; it aims at the healing of broken relationships that are spiritual, ethical and social in their different dimensions. Even while punitive and penitential elements are included in this notion of justice, its fundamental aim is towards restoration. Justice is not a private attribute that we might possess on our own; it is corporate and relational in its scope. Hence the establishment of such justice requires a general judgement and reordering of the world by God. Divine judgement is not only reactive but is proactive in its intention. There is a surplus of grace that does more than equalize the consequences of our deeds.24 God’s last judgement is already anticipated within the Christian life, particularly in the indelible sign of baptism. ‘To be baptized is to accept God’s verdict of guilty, and so to be brought past the great assize and the final judgement of the last day into the life of the Age to Come.’25 In this way, God’s acceptance of us now already has an eschatological dimension by virtue of its binding and irrevocable status. Does this imply final acceptance only for people of faith? This seems unlikely since our faith is not the cause of God’s loving us. If divine justice is restorative then we might expect people who have found faith difficult or impossible to be included in God’s final act of restoration, alongside those whose lives have been oppressed by sickness, violence and poverty.26 Why bother with a last judgement? Part of the answer must lie in the need for completion. The story of Israel and the Church has the character of promise. We still await its fulfilment, even if its outcome has already been determined. Faith is always closely accompanied by hope. Robert Jenson has remarked that ‘it is a chief disaster of the modern church, at least in its “mainline,” that we think we can separate them, that we can believe in Christ without robust eschatological

23. A. C. Thiselton, Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 167. 24. See Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 47. 25. Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1958), p. 341. See Thiselton, Life After Death, p. 175. 26. Thiselton makes the telling point that unbelief itself may be the result of forms of oppression or deprivation. Life After Death, p. 182.

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expectation.’27 Part of the embarrassment may be around apocalyptic expectation and naïve attempts to piece together a pre-eschatological sequence from the scattered texts of Daniel and Revelation. But if we see these as images of a single event in which everything finds its fulfilment in God, then we can maintain the vision of a last judgement and allow it to rest in its proper place within the Christian imagination. What then are we to imagine? At least two features of the biblical accounts are fundamental. One is the sense of everything being put right and properly ordered. This requires judgement, but it is a judgement that takes place within the covenant faithfulness of God. Judgement has as its goal the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth (Col. 1:20). A reconciliation that is final and complete will require our forgiving and being forgiven by others. But, as Miroslav Volf has argued, it will require even more than this. ‘Reconciliation will not have taken place until one has moved towards one’s former enemies and embraced them as belonging to the same communion of love.’28 Without this reaching out to the other, we cannot participate in God’s kingdom. Yet this will require justice for the victim, if such reconciliation is not to be experienced as a further episode of oppression. So it is that the eschatological community brings us together not only with our own loved ones but with countless others from every tribe and language and nation. When Karl Barth was asked whether we shall meet our loved ones again, he replied ‘not only our loved ones’.29 Closely related to this is a second feature of the new creation – its sociality. We are furnished with images of a final gathering, whether this is a new polis, a feast, or the herding of a flock. The last judgement is not a private encounter, one-on-one with God. It is our being drawn together into a new community that is transformed in its relationship to God and thus in relation to each other. For this reason, it cannot determine me apart from others; it is something for all of us together.

Conclusion What we mean by a last judgement is a divine work of completion that is anticipated in hope. As such, it belongs to the essence of faith in Christ. This is confirmed by much of the New Testament evidence. Nevertheless, we do not have the conceptual resources or knowledge to predict what this will be like, when it will take place, or what precise outcomes will follow. To this extent, it proceeds in many ways as a

27. Robert Jenson, ‘The Great Transformation’, in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds.), The Last Things: Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 35. 28. Miroslav Volf, ‘The Final Reconciliation: Reflections on a Social Dimension of the Eschatological Transition’, in James Buckley and L. Gregory Jones (eds.), Theology and Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 102. 29. Ibid., p. 89.


Theological Theology

negative theology that excludes speculation about the ultimate future by providing symbolic pointers to a completion of our lives and that of the world. Death does not have the last word; we are not overcome by evil; injustices do not remain concealed; sin and guilt do not prevail.30 The history of our theological traditions has been beset with images of fear surrounding the last judgement. These need to be replaced by more hopeful notes through a focus on Christ as our judge. Luther’s theology of the ‘dear last day’ already points the way. From this hermeneutical centre, much of the scriptural material needs to be reorganized and even demythologized. Such a theology will be more patient of a final apokatastasis than an irrevocable separation, though here again it can only gesture towards God’s promised future rather than attempt a dogmatic definition of final outcomes.

30. Christopher Morse approaches eschatology through a series of disbeliefs. The final eschatological disbelief – ‘That the One whose love has begun so good a work among us here and now will fail to bring it to fulfilment at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 1:6) – requires a symbolic expression of the age to come, although this is best understood in terms of what it negates. Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 344.


I One of the most significant contributions that Professor John Webster has made to the field of ecclesiology within contemporary theology is to remind systematicians of the primacy of dogmatic content in accounts of the church over ecclesiological descriptions focused on social scientific description, ecclesial human reality, church polity, function, governance and/or modelling.1 Against prevailing trends in attending to the empirical in ecclesiological discussion, Webster’s voice has been something of a voice crying in the wilderness for a dogmatic account of the church. This is evident in his chapter in Pete Ward’s recent edited collection Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography,2 in which Webster’s chapter stands as a challenge to the rest of the content of this volume – a prophetic warning against the conviction that the real is ‘socio-historical’ in theological discussion.3 Not unaware of the 1. In mind here are the sorts of approaches that one sees in everything from the likes of Avery Dulles, SJ, Models of the Church: A Critical Assessment of the Church in All its Aspects (Dublin: Gill & Macmillian, 1976); to John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church: Spirituality, Creativity, and the Future of the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000); to Nicholas M. Healy, Church, World, and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); to the Eerdmans’ series ‘Studies in Ecclesiology and Ethnography’. 2. John Webster, ‘ “In the Society of God”: Some Principles of Ecclesiology’, in Pete Ward (ed.), Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), pp. 200–22. 3. Webster, ‘In the Society of God’, p. 202. For a response to this from the perspective of practical theology, see Christopher Brittain, ‘Why Ecclesiology Cannot Live by Doctrine Alone: A reply to John Webster’s “In the Society of God” ’, Ecclesial Practices 1 (2014), pp. 5–30.



Theological Theology

danger of falling into dogmatic idealism, Webster’s essay fiercely rejects the position in ecclesiological discussion that ‘the church is the people of God because certain events occur within a group of human beings – a causal order at which even the most frankly intrinsicist theology of grace might be dismayed’.4 More acutely, however, Webster locates this propensity not only external to the dogmatic enterprise which has led away from dogmatic theology and towards the empirical and historical, but also within certain decisions in dogmatic organisation through appeals to elements of the Christian faith such as the incarnation or grace in a way which is ‘often rather randomly chosen, abstractly conceived, and without much sense of their systematic linkages’.5 In this, he sees the underlying problem resting in assumptions concerning the res of Christian theology, which leads to the following mistaken principle: ‘since the object of Christian theology is the economy of God’s works as creator and reconciler of humankind, then theology should naturally direct its attention to the temporal and social as the sphere of God’s presence and activity’.6 Helpfully, against this, Webster reminds the ecclesiologist: The temporal economy, including the social reality of the church in time, has its being not in se but by virtue of God who alone is in se. Time and society are derivative realities, and that derivation is not simply a matter of their origination; it is a permanent mark of their historical condition.7

This determines that ecclesiology must understand the church as a creaturely reality which stands under the metaphysics of grace. Thus, for Webster, to speak of a doctrine of the church means that one must first speak of the doctrine of God, on which for him ecclesiology hangs:8 to speak of the sort of social history that the church is is to speak of its origin in God’s goodness. Thus, Webster sees the doctrine of the church as deriving from trinitarian deduction. Seeing credo in ecclesiam as succeeding credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem . . . et in Jesum Christum . . . credo in Spiritum Sanctum, he argues that ecclesiology has its place in the ‘flow of Christian doctrine from teaching about God to teaching about everything else in God’.9 In what follows, there is a masterful account, therefore, of the inner life of God who is ‘alive with self-moved life’10 before moving on to the (indeed any) discussion of divine operations in relation to the church per se. Here, Webster differentiates his position from that of social Trinitarians, about whom Webster is rightly nervous in that they use ‘relation’ to pass too quickly and easily between God and the church without adequately accounting for the gracious act of God in creating the church or the differentiation 4. Webster, ‘In the Society of God’, p. 202. 5. Ibid. 6. Ibid., pp. 202–3. 7. Ibid., p. 203. 8. Ibid., p. 204. 9. Ibid., p. 205. 10. Ibid., p. 206.

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of the life of the church from God’s own life.11 Only once this ground has been cleared does Webster go on to describe the ‘Trinitarian deduction of the church’ in any detail, tracing how particular works of God might be appropriated to particular Trinitarian persons. There are (inevitably) three moves: (1) ‘The church has being because of the eternal will of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who “destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5).’12 (2) ‘The church has its being because of the person and work of the eternal Son.’13 (3) ‘The church is and acts by virtue of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.’14 Each of these discussions emphasizes the inner divine life of a particular person of the Trinity before accounting for their role in the economy, and before moving to consider ecclesiology specifically. Having established this, Webster subsequently addresses the socio-historical phenomena that characterize the church as the society which exists in God’s society. The first emphasis here is on the creatureliness of the church and its current condition as those in whom ‘the motion of God and the motion of creatures are not inversely but directly proportional’.15 In this, Webster seeks to draw attention in ecclesiology away from simple empirical study and towards the nature and economy of God; away from notions of human self-realization of the church towards understanding the church as signs of the triune being and working; and from concerns with the phenomenological to a recognition that the temporal forms of the church are ‘not unconditionally transparent’.16 Only now will Webster hazard statements about the church’s fundamental form (‘the primary structures of its creaturely, social-historical existence’).17 In this, Webster lists the three examples (from what would be a larger set) of: assembly (a ‘human act of assembly [which] follows, signifies, and mediates a divine act of gathering’);18 hearing the proclamation of the Word of God;19 and order (as a ‘ruled society, [of] common life under “law” ’).20 Webster sees all of this as essential for those who wish to engage in study of the church in whatever manner: without remembering this account of divine agency in the church, ‘an ethnography [one could add any other social science here] of the

11. Ibid. Here he cites Gunton’s concept of the church echoing the relations of the Trinity. See Colin Gunton, ‘The Church on Earth: The Roots of Community’, in Colin Gunton and Daniel Hardy (eds), On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), pp. 48–80. 12. Webster, ‘In the Society of God’, p. 207. 13. Ibid., p. 208. 14. Ibid., p. 213. This is the shortest of all of the sections. 15. Ibid., p. 214. 16. Ibid., p. 215. 17. Ibid., p. 216. 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid., pp. 218–19. 20. Ibid., p. 219.


Theological Theology

church does not attain its object, misperceiving the motion to which its attention is to be directed, and so inhibited in understanding the creaturely movements of the communion of saints’.21 Thus, there exists a hierarchy between modes of ecclesiological investigation: the first (and higher) mode is dogmatic, in offering a Trinitarian account of the church; the second relates to the phenomena of the church. This hierarchy has to be respected so as to resist treating the church as any other society – creating a ‘naturalized ecclesiology’ in which the true object of theology is in the background or covered over.22 Dogmatic ecclesiology’s purpose is in part, therefore, to ‘resist this by keeping alive the distinction between and due order of uncreated and created being; by indicating that the phenomena of the church are not irreducible but significative; and by introducing into each ecclesiological description and passage of ecclesiological argument direct language about God, Christ, and the Spirit’.23

II In a sense, the points made in this chapter are made in order to attend with due proportion to ecclesiology and with a sense of the locus of this particular doctrine in relation to more foundational doctrines. The argument is made so that ecclesiological discussion does not become independent as a locus from the doctrine of God, and so that ecclesiology does not in its potential independence become disproportionate to the need for speech about God’s superabundant grace and agency in creating and sustaining the church in its continuing spatio-historical existence. These are background concerns which Webster raises elsewhere in his discussions of ecclesiology. In an essay on episcopacy and church formation, he writes, for example: ‘An evangelical ecclesiology will . . . have a particular concern to emphasize the asymmetry of divine and human action.’24 Elsewhere, he cites approvingly Barth’s railing ‘against the over-inflation of ecclesiology and ethics into quasi-independent themes’.25 In these independent accounts of the church’s life,26 there is too great an emphasis on the practices of the church and too little on the sheer free gracious act of God. Again, here, Webster has a concern for the proper order, speaking of the church in the light of the reconciliation and advocating that ek tou theou in 2 Cor. 5.18 requires us ‘to invest a great deal of theological energy in the depiction of the person and work of the reconciling God. Most of all, what will be required will be a rich description of divine aseity as it is

21. Ibid., p. 221. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid. 24. John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 196. 25. Ibid., p. 213. 26. Webster lists many examples; see ibid., p. 212n 2.

6. Proportion and Topography in Ecclesiology


manifest in the work of redemption.’27 Quoting Schillebeeckx, what is needed is ‘a bit of negative theology, church theology in a minor key’;28 and this for Webster is best found in the passivity of the church as a community whose core activity is hearing the Word of reconciliation.29 But is divine aseity (traced through the doctrine of reconciliation) that which is required ‘most of all’ from an account of the church? In emphasizing God’s life in itself and apart from creatures, is there potentially a danger of dogmatic disproportion? Even divine aseity is something that we cannot know apart from the economy of God. While attention should be directed to the order of being, it is precisely that – an order. And beyond recognizing that creatio ex nihilo means that all of God’s ways with the world are gracious and without necessity, should we not (as scripture seems to) attend ourselves to God’s presence with His creatures in spatio-history – the conditions by which He has determined that we should know Him? Aside from establishing the graciousness of God’s operations in the world (a point that should never be forgotten or retreat from the foreground), there are few moments in Scripture where there is direct attendance to the inner life of God. Instead, the accounts of the being of God that we have are those of God’s ways with the world, rather than God’s life in se. Even those which seem most directly to give an account of theology proper are simultaneously accounts of God’s relation to the world. If we consider theophanies in the Old Testament, this is clear. The God who reveals Himself to Moses as ‘I am who I am’ is also the God who makes Himself known as the ‘the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exod. 3:15). He is the God who promises to be with people, and has seen their plight and will deliver them. Similarly, when Moses comes as close to seeing God as any human has, when the Lord passes before Him, what is proclaimed by God is thus: The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exod. 34:6–7)

27. Ibid., p. 215. 28. E. Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God (New York: Crossroads, 1990), p. xix. See also Webster, Word and Church, p. 214. 29. Webster, Word and Church, p. 228. Thus, Webster prefers ecclesiologies which centre on the Word.


Theological Theology

Similarly, when Isaiah sees the Lord in Isaiah 6, it is in the context of the calling of a prophet to speak to the people. Even ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ is the context of: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deut. 6:4–5, emphasis added).30 Or else, descriptions of God in the Psalms are in the context of prayer, praise and worship of the people. Description of God (even in recalling the differentiation of order of being and order of knowing) always involves simultaneously recognizing God’s freedom from the creature in His own life and God’s relationship to the creature through the community of the God’s people: the basis for the latter (in the order of being) is the gracious nature that the former indicates; the purpose of the former (in the knowing) is the recognition of the gracious of God’s acts in creation in the latter. Yes; it is true that ecclesiology is different from the study of any other human society or organization because it is founded on God’s promise ‘I shall be your God’; but the immediate accompanying statement with that is, ‘And you shall be my people’ (2 Cor. 6:16b). These two moments belong together, and both require appropriate attention. As St Augustine puts it: ‘anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour has not succeeded in understanding them’.31 Attendance to this ‘double love’, in which true love and enjoyment of neighbour is love and enjoyment of God,32 is at the heart of ecclesiological investigation. To trace every dogmatic locus back to God’s inner life in pre-temporal eternity not only runs the risk of spending time discussing God outside of His revelation and economy, seeking to move behind it; but it also opens the possibility of a dominance of speech about God resting behind God’s economy of salvation. Speaking of God’s inner life (‘most of all’ of divine aseity) does not do justice to God’s gracious choosing and willing to be God in this particular way with His people: aseity’s purpose in theological speech is to indicate the gracious action of God who remains the same God even if there were no salvation. Without this dual manoeuvre, it will lead to the doctrine of the immanent life of God (important in the order of knowing primarily to establish the graciousness of God’s acts in the world) being somewhat disproportionately present in discussions of other loci. The purpose of the doctrine of God’s immanent life in the order of knowing is to emphasize the very graciousness of God’s actions in the world: divine aseity fulfils the role of offering the relief against which all discussions of God’s ways with the world can be built and shaped. In one sense, its role is as a warning: a necessary warning, but a

30. Furthermore, Jesus introduces to this immediately the idea of loving one’s neighbour as oneself. 31. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. by Roger P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 27 (I.86). Emphasis added. 32. Ibid., p. 25 (I.79).

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warning nonetheless. Once it has been established that the church is an act of God’s immeasurable and free grace rather than a community formed by human agency, the question is then what is it that can be said about the community formed by divine agency. In discussing divine aseity in ecclesiology, one establishes the foundational principle of the non-necessity of creation in order to be reminded of the divine gracious creation of the church external to the human society. Having sounded the warning and protected ecclesiology from an over-emphasis on human agency, it is then necessary to describe the form of community God creates in the body of His church. Just as Barth stated later in his life about his early theology that there was a need to learn to say ‘yes’ in the same way in which he had once said ‘no’,33 ecclesiology (having received its warning – its ‘no’) must learn to say an appropriate ‘yes’ following from this admonitory ‘no’.

III The need to sound this warning is not an insignificant one. Not only should theology always be reminded that it stands before the immeasurable vastness of God’s plenitude, but ecclesiology also (and especially) must be aware in speaking of human community of the dangers of reducing speech about God and God’s ways with the world with speech about humanity and society without recourse to divine action. Even in some of the greatest theologians, the capacity to ‘forget God’ when speaking about the church can be seen. Often concerned with the cultural conditions in which the church lives, numerous theologians have been insufficient in their account of the church in relation to the act and activity of God. Let us take, for example, John Owen. While Owen does address in passing the church as ‘catholic and mystical’, the unfolding of his ecclesiology certainly focuses on the secondary consideration of the church ‘visible’ and organized in ‘a particular church or congregation’.34 In the context of his time, the concern that Owen expresses in his ecclesiology is that of individual freedom, autonomy, and the voluntary expression of the will to be a member of the church. For him in a context of seventeenth century dissent, the focus is on the ‘formal cause’ of the church which rests in voluntary acts of obedience to the church; that the ‘supreme efficient cause’ of all human wills is Jesus Christ is discussed in passing. The church exists ‘by mutual confederation or solemn agreement’ to fulfil in obedience the duties Christ has prescribed.35 In a highly individualized account of the nature of the church, Owen asserts:

33. See Karl Barth, God, Grace and Gospel, Scottish Journal of Theology Occasional Papers 8 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), pp. 32–7. 34. John Owen, WJO, vol. 16, p. 3. 35. Ibid., p. 25.


Theological Theology But if a church be such a society as is intrusted in itself with sundry powers and privileges depending on sundry duties prescribed unto it; if it constitute new relations between persons that neither naturally nor morally were before so related, as doth marriage between husband and wife; if it require new mutual duties and give new mutual rights among themselves, not required of either as unto their matter or as unto their manner before, – it is vain to imagine that this state can arise from or have any other formal cause but the joint consent and virtual confederation of those concerned unto these ends: for there is none of them can have any other foundation; they are all of them resolved into the wills of men, brining themselves under an obligation unto them by their voluntary consent.36

It is thus evident that a functionalist focus on the form of the human society of the church is not a recent development. Its roots are not simply non-theological accounts of the church, but rest in theological accounts of the freedom of the Christian in formation of particular assemblies by means of ‘voluntary consent’. Indeed, such an emphasis on individualism brought together by human will may well arise from the Reformation itself. Often in polemic with Roman Catholic accounts of the nature and function of the church, its worship and its offices, Protestant accounts too frequently focused either on the freedom of the individual,37 or on the particular form of the church’s polity, governance and sacraments.38 Part of the problem here is that ecclesiology was not until the fifteenth century a distinctive and separate locus in systematic presentation of Christian doctrine.39 When ecclesiology does become a significant doctrinal locus, it is immediately preceding and then in the context of the Reformation: the Reformers introduce it often in polemical description of their position in contrast to that of Rome, and Roman Catholic theology responds by establishing a mode of ecclesiology which exists in contrast to that of the Protestant churches and in response to them. There

36. Ibid., p. 26. Emphasis added. 37. We see this, for example, in Luther’s ‘The Freedom of the Christian’, in LW 31, pp. 327–78, with its emphasis on inwardness, justification by faith, and the priesthood of all believers. Similarly, in Calvin’s Institutes, discussion of the individual’s appropriation of salvation precedes that of the church: Book 3 on the reception of the grace of Christ precedes Book 4’s material on the church. 38. Compare for example, in Calvin’s Institutes Book 4, the amount of description of the ontology of the church (chapter 1) with that of form, function, polity and sacraments (chapters 2–20, often in polemical mode). 39. Leo Dullaart, Kirche und Ekklesiologie (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1975), pp.  190–7, albeit clearly theologians before this time had much to say individually about the church, but there is no distinctive or scholastic ‘Doctrine of the Church’. See also Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 21–2.

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is not, therefore, a dogmatic inheritance of the topography of ecclesiology such that order and proportion might govern dogmatic discussions of the church. What can result is a treatment of the church independent of other dogmatic loci, leading to functionalist descriptions of the life and order of the church, rather than dogmatic accounts of the church within the economy of God. It is possible to see, therefore, that treating ecclesiology as an independent locus runs the danger of disproportion in a dogmatic account of the church; the ‘no’ sounded by Webster is a wise one. But the question then arises as to how to say the ‘yes’. Where there have been attempts at not treating the doctrine independently, however, dangers remain in being disproportionate in the other direction – a negative disproportionality. Here, we might identify two trends which both sublate direct ecclesiological speech, and which by virtue of that almost free ecclesiology once more from its dogmatic connections. The first trend in attempting to ensure that ecclesiology is appropriately proportionate, but ultimately determining that it becomes disproportionate, is the dogmatic manoeuvre of making the doctrine of the church a subset or a consequence of the doctrine of God’s work of salvation in Christ. This is the approach which discusses grace and justification in Christ, the benefits of Christ in the appropriation of His grace by faith, and then the consequent discussion of the church. This order gives the doctrine of individual salvation priority over the doctrine of the life of the church. We see this in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and this approach is largely normative for Reformed Dogmatics that follow from him.40 As Pannenberg puts it; ‘Right up to 19th and 20th century the account of individual appropriation of salvation usually preceded discussion of the concept of the church.’41 Schleiermacher might be seen as indicative of this in differentiating Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiology on this principle: ‘the antithesis between Protestantism and Catholicism may be provisionally conceived thus: the former makes the individual’s relation to the Church dependent on his relation to Christ, while the latter contrariwise makes the individual’s relation to Christ dependent on his relation to the Church.’42 However, in this account, ecclesiology is given little concrete content. The church exists to hear the Word and receive the sacraments in order to foster faith. Thus, Calvin: ‘in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he [God] deposited this treasure in the church. . . [H]e instituted sacraments, which we who have experienced them feel to be highly useful aids to foster and strengthen faith.’43 But in this instance, is there not disproportion? What actually is said about the church? Why does God choose

40. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 23. Wollebius and Amesius do not follow this order, but discuss the theme of the church before that of the individual’s appropriation of salvation. 41. Ibid., p. 24. 42. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928), p. 103 (see also paragraph 24). 43. Calvin, Institutes, Vol. 2, Bk. 4, Ch. 1.1 (pp. 1011–12).


Theological Theology

this particular form to be the locus of the preaching of His Word and the ministrations of His grace? Why create a spatio-historical community? And what is that community’s nature? Is the church simply the gathered individuals in one location for the sake of efficiency of communication with no direct responsibility or relationship to one another, other than being placed in one geographical location at one point in history? Furthermore, it is not clear on the basis of the creed or the Scriptures that functional Christology should be the doctrine under which (or as a consequence of) ecclesiology should exist. Christ did not found the church. Locating ecclesiology within functional Christology may well collapse the particular acts and moments of the Heilsgeschichte singularly into the narrative of God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ. The church’s creation follows from the gift of the Spirit and is located following the description of the sovereignty of the Spirit in the creed. This final point about the order of the narrative of God’s saving work in the persons of the incarnate Son and the life-giving Spirit might also lie as the problematic point for the second trend in ecclesiology, which leads to its negatively disproportionate presentation in dogmatics. This trend is the mode of accounting for the doctrine of the church following an account of the divine life as Trinity. In this account, while the doctrine of the church is related to that of the doctrine of the divine life, the church becomes almost a separate article that follows from the divine life. There are three resultant possibilities here: (1) either there is a (crude) modelling of the church after the life of God as can be seen in certain social Trinitarian accounts of the church;44 or, (2) in the opposite direction, there is an account of divine agency in reference to the invisible church which can become overly separated from the church’s concrete empirical form; or, (3) the doctrine of the church is quashed by the doctrine of the divine life, such that the vast oceanic magnitude of the latter swallows up accounts of the miniscule droplet of the created ekklesia. In short, there is either too close an association of the divine life with the life of the church, or too great a disconnect from the divine life in its immanent aseity from the life of the church and the work of God in this historical form in its spatio-historical existence and its particular polity. Furthermore, such a reading may well rest on a misreading of the creed that makes the church a separate fourth article preceded by the belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.45 However, the church should be understood to be a separate fourth article, but to exist under the third. There is no in preceding ecclesiam, as there is preceding the divine persons. This is clear in the Latin rendering of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed:

44. We see this in Gunton’s ‘echo’; see above, p. 91 n. 11. 45. This seems to be how Webster reads the creed. He speaks of ‘the creedal sequence in which credo in ecclesiam succeeds credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem . . . et in Jesum Christum . . . credo in Spiritum Sanctum’. The concern I am expressing here rests with the ‘in’ preceding ecclesiam which seems to indicate that it is a separate (and fourth) article of the creed.

6. Proportion and Topography in Ecclesiology Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per prophetas.

Who, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified: Who has spoken through the Prophets.

Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.

And one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come. Amen.


Here, there is a clear differentiation between belief in the Holy Spirit, and the church which exists underneath the third article and not independent of it.46 Similar to the way in which the account of salvation and judgement follow from the second article, so follows the church and its activity from the third article. The point is also clear even in the truncated Apostle’s creed: Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. Amen

This is a point that Calvin makes very strongly at the start of his discussion of the church. Although he points to variance in the early church over the preposition, he nevertheless asserts: ‘There is no good reason why many insert the preposition “in”.’ Instead, it is important to be reminded that we simply believe the church (and not in the church). For him, the reason for this distinction is clear: ‘We testify that we believe in God because our mind reposes in him as truthful, and our trust rests in him.’47 There are not four articles of the creed, therefore, but three. As Congar puts it: In the West . . . the preposition eis or in has usually been omitted before ecclesiam and this fact has often been accorded a religious or theological significance . . . When the great Scholastic theologians, then, came to consider the formula 46. This is a distinction between Eastern and Western versions of the creed. Western versions, including Western Greek texts, follow Augustine in stating that only the Triune God is the object of religious faith in the highest sense. 47. Calvin, Institutes, Vol. 2, Bk. 4, Ch. 1.2 (p. 1013); emphasis in original.


Theological Theology

‘Credo in Spiritum Sanctum . . . et in unam . . . Ecclesiam’ in the NicenoConstantinopolitan Creed, they provided the following commentary: I believe in the Holy Spirit, not only in himself, but as the one who makes the Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic.48

The church is in the creed a mission of the Holy Spirit who is in Himself God and who acts in the economy of salvation to create the church. Ecclesiology is certainly not an independent locus: we are only God’s people because God has willed to be our God; this order is primary. But the deduction of the church on the basis of the creed and of Scripture seems most appropriate on the basis not of strictly Trinitarian logic most immediately, but of pneumatological logic most immediately.49 Clearly, the life of the Spirit follows from God’s life as Trinity, but moving from God’s life in itself to the economy of salvation, pneumatology should be the mediating doctrine (the efficient cause) of ecclesiology. The doctrine of the church is not independent of other dogmatic loci, nor can it immediately be deduced from the divine life as Trinity in se, but must be articulated appropriately through the divine life of the Spirit as the divine person who is most immediately operative in creation and with creation in the time between the ascension of Christ and His return. The res of ecclesiology should be in ‘The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life’; and the res of pneumatology in God’s triune life. Proportionate space must be given for this move. And as a result of it, through the Spirit’s life and work in the church and the believer, an account of the direct proportionality of created motion and divine motion might be accounted for. In other words, space might be afforded for both a description of divine agency and its connection to the human empirical spatio-historical nature and form of the church.

IV Having a sense in dogmatics of a hierarchy of res (a tracing of efficient causality) through which one might have to trace more immediate economically orientated doctrines (such as the doctrine of the church) through the doctrine of appropriations to doctrines of functional personhood (economic pneumatology) to ontological personhood (pneumatology per se) to God’s inner life (immanent trinity) might determine that the topographical location of individual dogmas affords them both a degree of integrity and a sense of their interconnection to the whole nexus of God’s being and God’s ways with the world. Certainly, ecclesiology requires this mediated hierarchy, but it also requires discussion which is appropriate to its own subject in its own right – the life and being of the

48. Yves Congar, I believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 2 (New York: Crossroad, 2013), p. 5. 49. While I recognize the principle of opera ad extra sunt indivisa, in speaking in this way I am utilizing the doctrine of appropriations.

6. Proportion and Topography in Ecclesiology


church. Tracing the doctrine of the church through the life and activity of the Spirit of God might allow in this mode of dogmatic ordering, furthermore, for a more appropriate sense of proportion in theological speech and prevent binarised choices between attending to the spatio-historical human community or the being of God as gracious source of that community in his acts. Speech about the Holy Spirit of God in ecclesiology may be a way to emphasize the asymmetry of divine and human action, but to realize their inter-connection in the life of the church which the Spirit creates, guides and will perfect. As Webster states, ‘It is clearly important that this emphasis on the priority of divine action over the church as an act of human association should not be allowed to eclipse the “visibility” of the church.’50 Or in Christoph Schwöbel’s words: ‘the way in which the Church is constituted by divine action determines the character and scope of human action in the Church’.51 It is impossible to disconnect the two, and integral for the dogmatic ecclesiologist to describe the relationship between divine action and the community constituted by it, and to offer critical reflection to the church in its current form under this rubric. While asymmetry determines that there will always be a need to ‘maximize’ speech about God’s action, this should relativize but not underplay speech about the human forms of community created by God’s act.52 Furthermore, attention to the relationship between these two realities (the efficient cause of the act of the Spirit in creating the derivative creaturely reality of the church) should be a priority. Thus, the foundational approach of Webster in his ecclesiology should be trumpeted: [T]here emerge two fundamental principles for an evangelical ecclesiology. First, there can be no doctrine of God without a doctrine of the church, for according to the Christian confession God is the one who manifests who he is in the economy of his saving work in which he assembles a people for himself. Second, there can be no doctrine of the church which is not wholly referred to the doctrine of God, in whose being and action alone the church has its being and action.53

But how are these two principles, these two view moments, dogmatically best to be related? What is the content of καὶ in 2 Cor. 6:16: Ἐνοικήσω ἐν αὐτοῖς καὶ ἐνπεριπατήσω, καὶ ἔσομαι αὐτῶν Θεός, καὶ αὐτοὶ ἔσονταί μου λαός. Certainly, there should be attention first to the action and agency of God in creating the church before any account of the church’s form, activity or habits;54 but how is it that we are to connect those two moments? What of God’s action can we say should shape the particular spatio-historical (critical) description of the community of the church?

50. Webster, Word and Church, p. 196. 51. Christoph Schwöbel, ‘The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers’, in Gunton and Hardy (eds), On Being the Church, p. 122. 52. Webster, Word and Church, p. 198. 53. Ibid., p. 195. 54. Ibid., p. 228.


Theological Theology

Emphasis on Trinitarian approaches, christological accounts, or a mix of economic Christology and pneumatology (as has traditionally been the case) tends to lead to disproportion in the doctrine of appropriations if one is to follow the reading of the creed offered above.55 The Spirit’s work can be somewhat ‘short-changed’.56 Furthermore, these approaches can tend to offer accounts of the church in which there is a sense of exclusion of the empirical, spatio-historical church in place of the dogmatic account of God, or else can introduce competitive sensitivities to the two. The Spirit is the person of God, however, who works within the creaturely to bring it to its creaturely perfection. As Origen’s student, Didymus the Blind, puts it: all human progress in truth comes from ‘that divine and magnificent Spirit, the author, leader and promoter of the Church’.57 There is in the work of the Spirit an account that can be offered of what Webster describes as direct proportionality between the motion of God and the motion of the creature: ‘the more God moves the creature, the more the creature moves itself ’.58 The Spirit works within the creature to perfect the creature’s creatureliness: in this way the Spirit works from outwith the believer within the believer. Here, it is worth pausing for a moment. As the one who works in the creature and perfects the creature (outwith itself) an account of the activity of the Spirit in the life of the church will always require recognition of the difference between God as creator and redeemer and the church as creation being redeemed; but as the one who works in the creature and perfects the creature, there is also a need to speak of the creaturely form which is created and is being redeemed as creature by God the Holy Spirit. Speech of God’s person and work as Holy Spirit involves recognition first of all of the Spirit’s divinity: the Holy Spirit is ‘the Lord and giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Who, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified’; the creed makes this clear. Here, we need to be careful always to remember that the Spirit is not the Spirit of the community, and should not be confused with a given culture or form of community.59 The Spirit is, after all, the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of God, and He should not be confused with the community but is Lord of, Creator of and Judge over the church. But, second, the Spirit is at work upon and within the church, creating it. As Luther succinctly puts it: ‘Proprium opus spiritus sancti est, quod

55. We should bear in mind here Webster’s early warning: ‘To tie the Spirit too closely to the person and work of Christ is to underestimate that differentiation within the one divine life and thus to encourage the slow drift into modalism which is so common in western Trinitarian theology.’ Webster, ‘The Identity of the Holy Spirit: A Problem in Trinitarian Theology,’ Them 9.1 (September 1983), p. 6. 56. We potentially see this in Webster’s own account in Word and Church which focuses on Son and Spirit (with more said about the former), and in his ‘In the Society of God’ in which the Spirit receives perhaps only one page of direct discussion. 57. Didymus, Enarr. in Ep. 2 S. Petri, pp. 3, 5 (PG 39, 1774). 58. Webster, ‘In the Society of God’, p. 214. 59. See Hans Küng, The Church (London: Burns and Oates, 1968), pp. 173–86.

6. Proportion and Topography in Ecclesiology


ecclesiam facit.’60 The Spirit that rested on Christ has come now (in a different way) to rest on the church in order that the church might make present the completed work of the ascended Christ in the world today. As the one who blows wherever He wills (as the ruah of God),61 the presence of the Spirit is not seen in and of itself (as Son in His earthly life is)62 but in those who are moved by the Spirit’s movement. The concrete form of the life of the Spirit in His works ad extra is the life of the church He creates. We perceive this as the work of the Spirit when it accords to the description of the Spirit’s life and work – when its form is one moved by the Spirit in a manner which Scripture suggests. It is necessary, therefore, in speaking of the activity of the Spirit to do justice at once to both the Spirit’s sovereign freedom and the Spirit’s presence in the community of the church. Before moving to sketch what fundamental forms such a movement of the Spirit might have been revealed in Scripture to take in the life of the church, it is necessary to address in a little further detail the fact there is imagery in Scripture relating the church to Christ. Why should the dominant perspective of ecclesiology be from that of pneumatology and not that of Christology? The point here is that beyond the objective work of God in Christ, there is a further work of God in relating this completed act, which took place once and for all at a particular moment in history, to the present spatio-temporal conditions of the world. God does not only in His grace make Himself responsible for our salvation, but offers us the gift of enabling us to receive the salvation He offers through the work of the Holy Spirit.63 As Barth advocates, the Holy Spirit is the special element in the revelation of God’s saving acts who provides for the creature the subjective aspect of the event of revelation. In this way, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God Himself to the creature in a way which does not reduce God’s divinity. The Spirit effects a relation with the creature in order to grant the creature new life, and is the freedom of God to be present to the creature, enabling the possibility of humanity being open to revelation such that the presence of God comes not only from above but also from within the human.64 It is by an event of the Spirit that this work of salvation which comes from Christ (the word and salvation of God) is enabled to penetrate spatio-historical contemporaneity in the institution of the church in advance of the parousia.65 Webster puts the relationship between Son and Spirit in the work of salvation thus: in consequence of the Son’s perfect work of reconciliation, the Spirit animates and preserves a human social world in which the old order of sin and death has

60. Luther, Katechismuspredigten (1523) (WA 11), p. 53. 61. See John 4. 62. Even if only in incarnate form (that is in relation to the economy). 63. For more on the economic dynamics of Spirit and Son, see my Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity, esp. chapters 4 and 7. 64. Karl Barth, CD I/1, pp. 449–51. 65. Congar, I believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. I, p. 80.


Theological Theology

been set aside and the life of the children of God is unleashed. Through the Spirit it comes about that there exists a temporal, cultural, bodily reality in fulfillment of the divine appointment: ‘You shall be my people.’66

Proportion in ecclesiology determines that due account is given to the Spirit’s life, being and work, as the one under whose sovereignty it is most appropriate to discuss the life, being and work of the church. This is not to the exclusion of functional Christology, but with due attention to appropriate dogmatic topography and proportion. The reason for this location is to enable a suitable description of the forms that we might deduce from Scripture that the Spirit would create in animating and preserving the human community of the church. First of all, the community of the church, if it attends to the dogmatic observation that the church exists by the gracious act of God the Holy Spirit, will be a community of epiclesis. The being and the form of the church will be found in the constant prayer: ‘Come Holy Spirit’. This prayer is a reminder of the created nature of the church as an act of God’s free generosity. In epiclesis, there is a recognition that this community in space and time is not simply a coming together of human wills, but is a fulfilment of God’s purpose and an act of God’s salvation in bringing together in this particular time and this particular place and this particular form the people of God. This is not to over-emphasize the charismatic at the expense of the institutional, but to realize the miracle of God’s grace that people are freed to be communities that witness to His salvation. In this, a balance is to be struck between an over-emphasis on form which confuses the church with God’s objective work of salvation or His Kingdom, and an under-emphasis on form which relies only on God’s external operation. The prayer of epiclesis is that the Spirit comes to and within the community. This community is always contingent in its contemporary spatio-historical form, but this does not reduce its significance or importance: it is precisely in the contingency of its contemporary spatio-historical form that God the Holy Spirit works, because in this the eternal work of God is made present in the conditions God has created that humans may receive His salvation. Human history and human patterns are not unimportant because they are the way God chooses to work in the delay of Christ’s parousia: it is the locus in which the Word of God is heard and then proclaimed. In this way, they are gifts of the patience of God. This is a form which is not yet perfected (and should not, therefore, confuse the Kingdom with itself by over-emphasizing the institution), but which is being perfected by the activity of the Holy Spirit from without inside the community itself (and should, therefore, attend with all reverence to its form as the place where the Holy Spirit of God is asked to dwell). As a community of epiclesis, the community should seek to bear the marks of the Spirit who is known and seen as wind in the movement He effects in creation. These marks are the fruit the community bears by which it will be judged: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). In these marks are the polity of the people of God, 66. Webster, ‘In the Society of God’, p. 213.

6. Proportion and Topography in Ecclesiology


and can the Spirit’s presence be seen. These are yet to be fulfilled, but as the one who is given as the guarantee of our salvation, the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of communities and humans in perfecting them in creation. Second, as the one who is perfecting creation, the Spirit is one through whom there is an internal two-fold order in the community that the Spirit alone can establish. The Spirit works within the creature in time, bringing the creature to redemption. In this activity of redemption, the sinfulness of individualism and egoism is overcome as the Spirit opens the believer to God and other humans. In this moving beyond the ego (the opening of the heart turned in on itself), the community of the church is not only an incidental extra, but is essential for redemption. As the locus of the gathered worship, the church is the place where the dynamic of being opened up for God (in worship) and for others (in the body of believers with whom we worship) is simultaneously present. The coming of the Spirit (epiclesis) is to open the believer to God’s activity of redemption in opening the believer to God and to God’s creation. In that sense, we should say with Cyprian, ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’. This opening towards God and towards others is a gracious gift, and not one that fallen humanity can perform alone but only as it is enabled to be the creature it was always intended to be by God’s redeeming grace. We see the Spirit at work in creation, therefore, in those communities which are most actively simultaneously ordered towards God and each other in complete openness and in a sense of the complete inextractable nature of those two directed orientations. This situation demands the contingent contemporaneity of a given community in a specific place at a particular time: it demands a gathering (an ekklesia) in which the deposit of salvation might be given for its completion when we know even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). A third dynamic extends this visible presence of the Spirit in orientating the human beyond their ego despite the inevitability of this in their sin. In reordering the individual to the community in which there is worship of God and fraternity with fellow members, the Spirit does not displace individual egoism with collective ecclesial egoism. A mark of the Spirit’s presence in the community of the church is that the whole church is orientated simultaneously on God and the world outside of its walls. There is an external ordering of the church which replicates ecclesially what the church fulfils internally for the individual. The gathered community does not gather simply for itself, but for the sake of the world to whom and for whom it is a sign. In the account of Pentecost recorded in Acts, Luke directs us to the reality that the coming of the Spirit led the community out: the Spirit radically reordered the community from its inward facing direction to facing the world around it in proclamation of the gospel in the many tongues of those present. In this way, the presence of the Spirit in the church creates a community which is focused on mission and witness. In Pannenberg’s words: ‘The church . . . is nothing apart from its function as an eschatological community and therefore as an anticipatory sign of God’s coming rule and its salvation for all humanity.’67 The church is orientated

67. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 32.


Theological Theology

beyond its own communal bounds to its future with God and to the world in which it dwells. This is a work of the Spirit who gathers to send, and the more orientated simultaneously on God in worship and on the community that surround the church in service any given church is, the more present the Spirit can be known to be within the community. A pneumatological locus for the doctrine of the church should help to prevent falling into the traps of either describing only human society or only the life of God. In the church, both are present as in the church the Spirit is at work in the here and now, the time between the times, redeeming and perfecting as the reality of God’s completed work of salvation is fulfilled in the contingent contemporaneity of human existence. This is God’s work; but it is God’s work on and within His creatures. In this, we cannot speak of the one who is our God without speaking of the people whom He has chosen; both must be spoken of together with due proportion and with the correct sensitivity to dogmatic topography. Congar’s words seem particularly apt in thinking about the work of God in animating and preserving the church: ‘The Spirit, who is both one and transcendent, is able to penetrate all things without violating or doing violence to them.’68 Both this transcendence and the integrity of that which the Spirit penetrates must be held together in discussing the church, and any successful ecclesiology will seek proportion in that – a proportion which will be helped by locating the doctrine of the church under the doctrine of the Holy Spirit of God.

68. Congar, I believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 2, p. 17.

Chapter 7 H OW T O B E C AU G H T B Y T H E H O LY S P I R I T Stanley Hauerwas

Why I Allegedly Have No Account of the Holy Spirit I am often criticized, or at least questions are raised, about what appears to be the absence of the Holy Spirit in my work. Even Sam Wells, a sympathetic interpreter of my work, suggests that I need to clarify some of the more doctrinal features of my position by developing an account of the role of the Holy Spirit. Wells explains that one needs ‘the Holy Spirit if one is to hold together the twin notions that on the one hand redemption has been achieved, while on the other hand the Church imitates and continues the work of Christ, hoping thereby to be transformed into his likeness’.1 Wells suggests that to focus on the Holy Spirit not only would make clear how the Holy Spirit makes Christ present in the church, but would also help me better understand how God works outside the church. I am quite sympathetic with Wells’ suggestion that I need to clarify the more doctrinal features of my work and, in particular, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Yet it has been one of my long held convictions that it is unwise to isolate doctrines from the narratives that make doctrines make sense in the first place. Put differently, I think it very important to show the work that doctrines are designed to do, that is, to be guides for telling the story that is Christianity.2 I certainly do not mean for 1. Samuel Wells, Transforming Fate Into Destiny: The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1998), p. 98. 2. For an account of doctrine that reflects how I think about the role doctrine should play in the life of the church see Gerard Loughlin, ‘The Basis and Authority of Scripture’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp.  41–64. Loughlin rightly argues that all Christian doctrines ‘hang together’ because all doctrines are about one thing – the charity of the triune God. Accordingly he argues that doctrine is best ‘construed as ecclesial grammar’ that is dependent on that which it rules, namely, the telling of the story that is the gospel. Therefore doctrine is always secondary to the performance of the gospel. He argues that ‘doctrine rests upon nothing other than the church’s telling of Christ’s story, upon the enacted reading, the non-identical repetition, of Christ’s charitable practices, heeding the command to “follow”, to do as he does, in short, upon the ecclesial tradition of discipleship’ (p. 55).



Theological Theology

this way of understanding the role of doctrine to excuse what some may think amounts to my avoidance of a proper role of doctrine. In fact I think doctrines are extremely important. The very fact that doctrine is hewn from bitter controversy and tested through time is sufficient reason to make it a focus of theology. I should like to think I am in good company with this way of understanding the role of doctrine. John Webster, for example, argues that dogmatics is a complementary but subordinate task to exegesis. According to Webster, ‘dogmatics seeks simply to produce a set of flexible accounts of the essential content of the gospel as it is found in Holy Scripture, with the aim of informing, guiding and correcting the Church’s reading’.3 I think it not accidental that Webster’s clear statement of the task of doctrine is but one aspect of his account of holiness and, in particular, the holiness of theology. It may seem odd to suggest that theology, given its current character, participates in God’s holiness, but I think Webster is right to suggest that the work of the Holy Spirit to create a holy fellowship must include the work of theology itself.4 This way of understanding the role of doctrine, however, has made me a bit defensive about my alleged failure to account for the work of the Holy Spirit. I have assumed my clear commitment to a Trinitarian orthodoxy was sufficient evidence that I have not intentionally ignored the role of the Holy Spirit. It may be true, however, that my work has been so Christ-centred I may have given the impression that the Holy Spirit is an afterthought. I confess that until I read Gene Rogers’s book on the Holy Spirit I was unsure how best to say what the Spirit does. I think Rogers’s work is important because he provides such an instructive response to Robert Jenson’s question concerning the role of the Spirit in modern theology, that is, that you cannot help but ‘wonder where the Spirit went’.5 There are, no doubt, many reasons for the absence of appeals to the Holy Spirit in modern theology, but I suspect one of the reasons may be that any account of the work of the Spirit entails a doctrinal reading of Scripture that most theologians, and I include myself in that group, are not sure how to pull off.6 By drawing on what Rogers has done in his book, After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology From

3. John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 3–4. 4. Ibid., pp. 25–7. 5. Robert Jenson, ‘You Wonder Where the Spirit Went’, PE 2 (1993), pp. 296–304. 6. Geoffrey Wainwright has an exemplary account of why Scripture and doctrine cannot be separated for any adequate account of the Holy Spirit in his ‘The Holy Spirit’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, pp.  273–96. Wainwright observes that pneumatology has been a neglected doctrine in Western Christianity not only in the present but also in the Middle Ages and the Reformation. He suggests that reflection on the Holy Spirit in the Middle Ages and the Reformation was absorbed under the heading of ‘grace’ only later to be lost entirely given Socinian and deistic accounts of the Godhead. He observes that the loss of the Spirit in Western theology, at least from an Eastern Christianity point of view, may be due to the filioque clause in the creed that seems to suggest that the Spirit processes from the Father and the Son and not from the Father alone (p. 289).

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


Resources Outside the Modern West, I hope to show that Rogers has provided us with a constructive and illuminating doctrinal reading of the work of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.7 Before turning to Rogers, however, I need to clarify why I may have been hesitant to make direct appeals to the Holy Spirit in my work. I suspect there are biographical reasons for my reluctance to claim the Holy Spirit as a warrant for particular theological positions I have taken. I was once asked by a colleague from the faculty of theology at the University of Notre Dame whether I had experienced the new birth that only comes from the Holy Spirit. My colleague was a member of the Catholic charismatic movement which had begun in the 1960s at Notre Dame. My colleague, a very conservative Catholic, wanted to tell me what the Holy Spirit had recently done in her life. With the best intentions she wanted others and, at the time, me to experience the Spirit that had become so important in her own life. I responded, no doubt insensitively, that she had to understand that I was raised an evangelical Methodist which meant by the time I was twelve I had enough ‘experience’ to last me a lifetime.8 I assured her that I did not want to have an experience of salvation – even one that allegedly was the work of the Spirit. I explained that I had not only learned to distrust the staying power of such experiences, but I also thought the need ‘to be born again’ undercut the significance of baptism. Generalized appeals to the Holy Spirit, I observed, could result in an attenuated understanding of the relation of the Holy Spirit and the church. It was a point I assumed would not be lost on a Roman Catholic. I am aware that my worries about appeals to the Holy Spirit may seem odd given the Pentecostal revivals that have swept across the world over the last century. I have no doubt that in 1906 something quite remarkable began in a modest building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.9 I think it to be quite significant that the Holy Spirit seems to have a particular relation to people who possess little. I have no reason to question the validity of the development associated with the growth of Pentecostalism. I do worry about the tendency of some to associate the gift of

7. Eugene Rogers, After The Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources Outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005). 8. I would love to know how the Methodist emphasis on holiness was transmuted into the need to have an experience of the Holy Spirit. ‘To have an experience of the Holy Spirit’ is not incompatible with an account of holiness, but neither is it an equivalent particularly when the former underwrites an individualism that is incompatible with, as Webster argues, the work of the Spirit to call into existence a commonwealth of God’s people (Webster, Holiness, pp. 26–7). 9. Grant Wacker rightly reminds us that there were ‘beginnings’ prior to Azusa Street, but just to the extent Azusa Street represents a kind of institutionalization of the Pentecostal movement it rightly is seen as quite significant. See Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 1–10.


Theological Theology

the Spirit with particular behaviours such as speaking in tongues, but in general I see no reason not to be grateful for this work of the Spirit. I am not, however, a ‘charismatic’. I have no doubt that for some to become a Christian may involve an experience of ecstasy. Yet I do not think such an experience is necessary for someone to be a Christian. An emphasis on such experience I fear can be a way to try to catch rather than be caught by the Holy Spirit. I use the language of being ‘caught’ by the Holy Spirit to suggest [a suggestion I think justified by the role the Spirit plays particularly in the Book of Acts] that we usually know we are being guided by the Spirit when the plans for our lives have been revealed (normally retrospectively) to be little more than the outworking of our pretentious presumption that it is finally ‘up to us’. In Acts, under the guidance of the Spirit, Paul usually has to do what he does because he has been rejected and has no other alternative. Paul, however, seems never to have lost confidence that he was doing the work of the Holy Spirit. I am quite hesitant to make that claim about my life or my work. I am not trying to be humble. My reluctance to suggest what I have to say may be inspired by the Holy Spirit is but an expression of the ambiguous role theologians play in the life of the church in our day. I seldom reference the work of the Holy Spirit in my work because I do not want to give the impression that the Holy Spirit is on my side. That does not mean I think the Holy Spirit does not have a side, I am just unsure I get to claim that side as my side. I am happy to have discovered that this is something I share with the great John M. Perkins. The work Perkins has done in Mendenhall, Mississippi, as well as his theological understanding of that work, makes far more credible his identification of the Holy Spirit with his work than I could justify about mine. Yet in an essay on Perkins, Lowell Noble observes that Perkins rarely says much about the Holy Spirit. When asked why he seldom references the Holy Spirit, Perkins observed that he feels that too many people too casually say the Holy Spirit said this or told them to do that when there is not enough substance in their lives to justify identification with the Spirit. Further, Perkins said he did not want the Holy Spirit blamed for his mistakes. At what he describes as ‘an opportune moment’, Noble pressed Perkins to articulate how the Holy Spirit worked in his life only to have Perkins ‘retreat’ by providing ‘a rather lofty theological treatise on the Holy Spirit and the trinity’.10 Though I am not sure it is a retreat, I want to engage in the same kind of ‘lofty theological’ considerations as Perkins by drawing on the work of Eugene Rogers. I am, after all, a follower of Barth. My response to my colleague at Notre Dame was one I should like to think was informed by Barth. I learned from Barth that God is God which makes impossible the presumption, a presumption often justified by appeals to the work of the Holy Spirit, that God is ever ready and available to meet my self-projected needs.11 10. Lowell Noble, ‘The Four Ministries of the Holy Spirit’, in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, eds Peter Slade, Charles Marsh, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2013), p. 203. 11. For what I can only characterize as Barth’s rather ‘cold’ account of the Holy Spirit see CD 1/1, pp. 513–60.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


Moreover, as I reminded my colleague, I am a Methodist. I come out of the belly of the beast that bears the name pietism. Accordingly I found Barth’s critical attitude toward Protestant pietism liberating. I learned from Barth I did not need to have an experience of God to be a Christian.12 Barth helped me see how appeal to the Holy Spirit to ground theological claims by those identified with pietism was the breeding ground for liberal Protestant theology.13 Given the stress on the significance of Scripture by theologians associated with pietism, to suggest that there is a connection between pietism and Protestant liberalism may seem counter intuitive. As a movement pietism is assumed to be theologically conservative. But appeals to the Holy Spirit as the source of an individual’s ‘experience’ of God structurally can underwrite the presumption that theological claims are first and foremost about us and not God.14 There is an odd reversal associated with the emphasis on experience as the work of the Holy Spirit that makes God’s holiness to be but a mode of God’s otherness and transcendence. God is so ‘other’ than us we only know who God is by experiencing the difference between God and us. The problem with that alternative is, as John Webster observes, God’s difference or distance from us does not constitute God’s holiness. Rather, as Webster puts it, ‘God is holy precisely as the one who in majesty and freedom and sovereign power bends down to us in mercy. God is the Holy One. But he is the Holy One “in your midst”, as Hosea put it (Hos. 11:9).’15 Protestant liberal theology often stressed God’s transcendence as the basis for affirming God’s holiness as mediated by the Spirit, but as a result God’s work as the Spirit to create a new heaven and earth was lost. There are, of course, quite sophisticated and substantive forms of Protestant liberal theology that are to be rightly respected. But too often I fear the authority given to our subjectivity in the name of the Holy Spirit by Protestant liberals resulted in an attenuated account of the gospel. I have thought this to be a particular problem in mainline Protestant churches just to the degree the members of these churches represent a social class of well educated people who too often presume they get to make up their minds about what kind of god they choose to worship or not worship. My concern about the use of the Holy Spirit to legitimate a particular ‘experience’ was shaped as much by philosophical as theological concerns. Appeals to experience, even the experience of the Holy Spirit, often seemed to suggest that the experience was prior to how the experience was linguistically expressed. These are

12. Eberhard Busch provides an illuminating account of Barth’s relation to Pietism in his Karl Barth and the Pietists (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2004). 13. Rogers makes a similar point in After the Spirit, pp. 5–6. 14. In his great book, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Thomas Howard provides an insightful account of the role of pietism for shaping as well as reflecting modern humanistic assumption in the formation of the University of Halle (pp. 93–7). 15. Webster, Holiness, p. 45.


Theological Theology

philosophically complex matters that involve fundamental questions about our being as language users. Suffice it to say that under the influence of Wittgenstein, and in particular his arguments about private language, I could not be anything but suspicious of appeals to some experience that could not be linguistically expressed. These are some of the worries that made me quite reticent to appeal to the Holy Spirit in my work. It was not because I do not believe in the Holy Spirit. Rather I was trying to work in a manner such that what I had to say was unintelligible if God is not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I sometimes think, though it seems quite odd, that we forget when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit we are talking about God. Talk about God, moreover, is quite different than how, for example, we talk about the church. There is an essential connection between our affirmation of the Holy Spirit and the church, but they are not of the same status. I think it is extremely significant that in the third article of the Nicene Creed as well as the Apostle’s Creed we confess we ‘believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’, as a correlative to our belief in the Holy Spirit. The grammar of the creeds means we first and foremost believe in the Holy Spirit and because of the work of that Spirit we also believe in the existence of the church.16 Rowan Williams points out that the Greek of the Nicene Creed does not say that we believe in the church, but ‘that we believe the Church’.17 Williams suggests that means that the church which tells us to believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not to have the same status as what we say we believe when we affirm our belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But, Williams argues, because we believe that the Holy Spirit vivifies the church, we can trust the church when we are told by the church to believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe as Christians that the Holy Spirit makes us believers in the Holy Spirit through the witness of the church. The Holy Spirit is, therefore, at once the subject and the object of our faith. That is why the Holy Spirit is rightly understood to be the animating principle of the central practices that make the church the church. In other words, it is the Spirit that makes preaching, baptism, and Eucharist more than just another way of communication, of initiation, or of sharing a meal. Williams recognizes that to be asked to believe the church may seem to ask more than most of us are willing to do given the church is often less than faithful. Yet it is exactly because the Spirit does not abandon the church when she is unfaithful that it is possible to trust the church when the church tells us to believe in the Holy Spirit. We can trust the church because it is the sort of community that

16. I owe this way of putting the matter to Stephen Pickard. See his Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press, 2012), p. 24. Claude Welch makes a similar point observing that, ‘Faith in the proper sense can have only God as its object, and we can really speak of faith in the church not “in itself ” but only in relation to God in Jesus Christ’ (The Reality of the Church [New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1958], p. 42). 17. Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 105.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


it is. It is a community of active peacemaking and peacekeeping in which no one exists in isolation or grows up in isolation. That does not mean, according to Williams, that the church is a community in which our individuality is submerged in the collective. Our differences remain but that is the way we learn of our dependency on one another as the outworking of the gift of the Holy Spirit. For it is the work of the Holy Spirit to help us recognize the unique gift of the other as crucial for a common life that makes the recognition of a common good possible.18 These last observations by Williams make clear why the appeal to the Holy Spirit to legitimate someone’s self-understanding of their experience is antithetical to the work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is a communal work. The Holy Spirit works to help us find one another so that we will not suffer the fears and anxieties that fuel the violence derived from our being alone. To be so located is to discover that God invites us to share his very life found in Jesus of Nazareth. For it turns out the principal work of the Holy Spirit, as I think is clear from the role the Spirit plays in Scripture, is to point to Jesus. I should like to think that is what I have tried to do in all that I have written, that is, to point to Jesus. To point to Jesus, however, means you cannot forget that Jesus can be known only through the connections the Spirit makes possible. Thus my claim: ‘No Israel, no Jesus. No Church, no Jesus.’ This formula is meant to remind us that the God we worship as Christians is a God who wills to be present to his creation in a startling and particular fashion. In his remarkable book, The Reality of the Church, Claude Welch observed that though the Holy Spirit is free to remain transcendent over all forms of life, from Scripture it is clear that the Holy Spirit is even more determinatively free ‘to bind himself to the concrete, to use precisely the fragile vessels, the workaday pots of our historical forms. God does not choose to redeem history apart from history, nor create new community apart from human community. The Spirit works in and by means of flesh and time and human togetherness.’19 Thus we affirm that the Spirit ‘has spoken through the prophets’. Welch imaginatively but with great care suggests that the work of the Spirit in the creation and sustaining of the church is commensurate with the relation of Christ’s humanity and divinity. Just as the Holy Spirit made it possible that our humanity could become the home of the Son, by analogy the Spirit makes himself known in the church. Welch notes this does not mean that we can equate the being of God in the church with God’s being in Christ. We cannot say, as I am tempted to say, that the church is the extension of the Incarnation. Yet if there were no church then Christians would not know what they say when they say ‘God’. I am aware, however, that to suggest that the primary role of the Holy Spirit is to point to Jesus may seem to some a far too limited account. I hope to show that is not the case by following how Gene Rogers helps us see how the work of the Holy Spirit can be understood if we attend to the interactions of the Spirit and Jesus found in the Scripture. Drawing on the Eastern tradition’s understanding of

18. Ibid., p. 106. 19. Welch, The Reality of the Church, pp. 75–6.


Theological Theology

the Holy Spirit, Rogers provides a robust account of the Spirit’s work, which I think has been implicit in the way I have tried to do Christian theology. Better put, I should like to think that Rogers’ account of the work the Holy Spirit provides the theological resources I have needed for the arguments I have tried to make about the nature of the Christian moral life.

Gene Rogers On What the Spirit Does? Rogers begins After the Spirit by asking, ‘Is There Nothing the Spirit Can Do That the Son Can’t Do Better?’20 This question, a question that serves as the title of the first chapter of his book, sets the problematic for the rest of the book. Rogers explains why he takes the question to be so important by observing that though we live in a time that has enjoyed a revival of trinitarian theology, a revival inspired by Karl Barth, that revival has seemed to slight the role of the Holy Spirit. The question of where the Spirit has gone, a question as noted above had been first posed by Robert Jenson, is one that Jenson and Rogers both assume is to be directed at Barth. Rogers and Jenson direct the question concerning the absence of the Spirit to Barth because if anyone should have an account of the Spirit it should be Barth. They know it seems strange to ask about the role of the Spirit in Barth’s theology because Barth provides extensive discussion of the Holy Spirit. In fact they acknowledge that Barth places great emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit for making us capable of responding to the Father through the Son. Yet Rogers worries that Barth’s Christology threatens to eclipse ‘the illumination of the Spirit with the material objectivity of the Son’.21 As a result, the Holy Spirit in Barth’s theology appears surprisingly as an impersonal power with no gift to give as a person of the Trinity to the Father or the Son. Rogers is acutely aware that to ask the question about the distinctive work of the Spirit risks betraying the fundamental unity that is at the heart of the church’s confession that our God is three in one. For example the widespread presumption that creation is the work of the Father, Redemption is the work of Jesus, and Sanctification or Transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit fails to do justice to the unity of the Godhead. Against such a view of the Trinity, Rogers rightly insists that ‘the acts of the Trinity toward the world are indivisible, the only time one could distinguish the Spirit from the Son would be when the narratives give glimpses of their intratrinitarian interaction’.22 According to Rogers this trinitarian rule means the identity of the Spirit can never be found apart from the Son, but the identity of the Spirit can be distinctly

20. Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit, pp. 19–32. 21. Ibid., p. 20. 22. Ibid., p. 7.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


described through her interactions with Jesus made manifest in the narratives of Scripture.23 These narratives are crucial for the display of the Holy Spirit as a person. They are so, and Rogers credits the emphasis on narrative to the influence of Hans Frei, because to characterize a person means we must tell a story about them. The appeal to narrative for displaying the work of the Spirit only makes explicit, Rogers argues, what has always been at the heart of Christian reflection on the Trinity. For example Rogers calls attention to Gregory of Nazianzus’s observation that ‘Christ is born; the Spirit is His Forerunner. He is baptized, the Spirit bears witness. He is tempted; the Spirit leads Him up. He works miracles; the Spirit accompanies them. He ascends; the Spirit takes his place’ as an exemplification of the storied character of the Spirit.24 Gregory of Nazianzus, according to Rogers, rightly sees that the Spirit has a history analogous to the life of Christ. Metaphysical claims are surely being made about the persons of the Trinity by Gregory and Basil, but those claims are in service to how the persons of the Trinity each manifest a narrative identity through their love of one another.25 In particular, Rogers calls attention to the peculiar work of the Spirit in those stories that suggest that the Spirit has a penchant for the body. Rogers puts it this way: ‘The Spirit is a person with an affinity for material things. The Spirit characteristically befriends the body.’26 Rogers is, however, careful to emphasize that to so understand the work of the Spirit does not mean that the Spirit acts in a manner that the Father and Son cannot. The Spirit is not distinguishable from the Father and the Son because the Trinity’s activity in the world is of one piece. But the Spirit does what the Trinity does in a particular way by incorporating the particular – a particular present in the gathering of the community, in baptism and Eucharist, through which those gathered are made participants in the life of the Trinity. Just as the Spirit comes to rest on the body of Jesus so the Spirit comes to rest on us.27 Rogers, therefore, seeks to recover the work of the Spirit as crucial for expressing how we become ‘participants in the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4), or in the language of the East, how we are deified.28 Rogers thereby answers the question whether there is anything the Spirit can do that the Son cannot do better with a resounding ‘yes’. What the Spirit does that the

23. Rogers uses the feminine pronoun for the Spirit which seems somehow ‘right’. I had previously quoted Welch who had used the masculine ‘his’ without comment. I did not call attention to Welch’s use of the masculine because the crucial issue is how the use of either the masculine or the feminine pronoun rightly suggests that the Holy Spirit is, like the Father and the Son, a person. 24. Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 56. 25. For an anticipation of Rogers’ understanding of these matters see Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1982). 26. Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 60. 27. Ibid., pp. 60–1. 28. Ibid., p. 9.


Theological Theology

Son does not do is come to rest on the Son. But by coming to rest on the Son, the Son is made available to us. The character of the rest the Spirit makes possible has the character of the time given in the Sabbath. Sabbath time is the time of perfect activity, a time of prayer and contemplation, made possible by the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit rests on the body of the Son and by so doing manifests the love that constitutes the relation of the Father and the Son. That relation is itself the expression of the Oneness of God. What is crucial, therefore, for rightly understanding the relation between the persons of the Trinity is the recognition that they do not need the gifts they give one another, but the gifts they give to one another constitute their unity. In support of this way of understanding the unique work of the Spirit Rogers quotes Basil of Caesarea who maintained that: The Father’s work is in no way imperfect, since He accomplishes all in all, nor is the Son’s work deficient if it is not completed by the Spirit. The Father creates through His will alone and does not need the Son, yet chooses to work through the Son. Likewise the Son works as the Father’s likeness, and needs no other co-operation, but he chooses to have his work completed through the Spirit.29

That Rogers quotes Basil is but an indication that his reading of Scripture is determined by Nicaea. At Nicaea the subordination of the Son and the Spirit inherent in Arius’s emphasis on the uniqueness and transcendence of the Father was decisively rejected.30 The correlative view of the Arians that there was a time

29. Ibid., p. 71. Rogers is, of course, quoting from St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Press, 2011). Though both sides at Nicaea, and there were obviously more than two, are often criticized for logic chopping, I think Basil rightly defends paying close attention to the words we use. He observes, ‘it is not for the slothful in piety to listen attentively to theological words and to try to search for the meaning hidden in each phrase and in each syllable; rather, this belongs to those who know the goal of our calling: it is offered to us to become like God as much as human nature allows. Likeness to God, however, cannot be had without knowledge, and knowledge comes from teaching. Speech, though, is the beginning of teaching, and the parts of speech are syllables and words. So, the investigation of syllables does not fall outside the goal of our calling’ (p. 29). 30. I still find J. N. D. Kelly’s account of the controversies that resulted in Nicaea to be exemplary for the clarity he brings to the debates about terminology surrounding such words as ousia and hypostasis. For example, Kelly suggests that Basil’s analogical use of these terms to negotiate the relation of the universal and particular meant that the essence of Godhead is ‘determined by its appropriate particularizing characteristic, or identifying peculiarity, just as each individual man represents the universal “man” determined by certain characteristics which mark him off from other men’ (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960], p. 265). Kelly’s way of putting these fundamental moves made by Basil I think makes clear that Rogers’s calling attention to the role of narrative for the display of the work of the persons of the Trinity is a constructive elaboration of the fundamental insights of Nicaea.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


when the Son ‘was not’ was rightly seen by Athanasius and the Cappadocians as threatening to make the salvation wrought by Christ unintelligible. For what was at stake at Nicaea was not just a question of metaphysics, though certainly metaphysical issues were unavoidable, but how the transformation of the lives of Christians was to be read in the light of Scripture. These are the ‘givens’ Rogers brings to his readings of the New Testament. Rogers offers readings of what he describes as ‘iconic New Testament scenes’, that is, the Annunciation, Baptism, Transfiguration and the Resurrection to display how the Spirit comes to rest on the body. He begins with the Resurrection because he takes Romans 8:11 to be a central trinitarian text. Paul writes, ‘If the Spirit of the One who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in your mortal bodies, you too shall rise from the dead.’ This text, which Jenson calls ‘the most remarkable Trinitarian passage in the New Testament’, makes clear that the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus is the same Spirit through which we are made participants in the Trinity.31 Drawing on Hilary of Poitiers, Rogers argues that what Paul’s affirmation in Romans 8:11 suggests is that the Spirit of the Raiser and the Spirit of the Raised are the same Spirit which means their relation is internal because they are in essential communion with one another. It is the Spirit that manifests the union constituted by the love between the persons of the Trinity that makes possible our inclusion in such a love. Rogers quotes Hilary’s claim that ‘though the Spirit of Christ is in us, yet His Spirit is also in us Who raised Christ from the dead, and He Who raised Christ from the dead shall quicken our mortal bodies also on account of His Spirit that dwelleth in us’.32 These are not abstract claims about how the resurrection in theory includes the human into the life of the Trinity, but a statement about how, through baptism, we are raised by the Spirit with Christ. Rogers asks why Jesus, who was without sin, had to be baptized. Was it just a charade? He argues that the baptism of Jesus can only make sense as an intertrinitarian event in which the Spirit bears witness to the love between the Father and the Son. What the Spirit adds to the expression and reception of that love is to include ‘witnesses to the love between the Father and the Son among the disciples and among other human beings’.33 In short, the Spirit is present at Jesus’ baptism to bear witness to the reality that the love between the Father and the Son can be shared. It is a love, moreover, that is quite particular, witnessing as it does to the solidarity of the Son with human beings even unto death.34 It is not accidental that water plays an essential role in the work of the Spirit. There is no life without water and the Spirit is life itself. That the Spirit is life itself has tempted some in the Christian tradition to identify the animation of the world with the Spirit in a manner that makes unclear the relation of the Spirit to the

31. 32. 33. 34.

Rogers, After the Spirit, pp. 76–7. Ibid., p. 82. Ibid., p. 137. Ibid., p. 141.


Theological Theology

Father and the Son in the Trinity. But the Spirit that hovers over the waters at creation is the same Spirit that animates the waters of Mary’s womb. It is the same Spirit that alights on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan at his baptism. It is the Spirit that rules over nature even to kindling a fire in the water. The Spirit rests on all that is, making possible through sacrament and storytelling a recognition that we live in a world alive with God’s purposes. The Holy Spirit comes to rest on the water and by so doing makes nature a character in the story of God’s good care of the world, which includes us, determinately exemplified in the stories found in Scripture.35 Rogers develops this theme by directing attention to the fact, a fact easily overlooked, that in the Gospel of Luke at the Transfiguration Jesus was engaged in prayer. That Jesus prays to the Father is one Person of the Trinity praying to another. The suggestion that it must be the humanity of Jesus that prays is rejected by Rogers on the grounds that there is no other ‘person’ in Jesus than the Word. Accordingly the human nature of Jesus is the human nature of the Word. That such is the case means that Jesus’s prayers cannot be attributed to his humanity abstracted from his divinity. Rather, what we see as Jesus prays is that prayer is determinative of God’s inner life. That prayer is constitutive of the Trinity means when we pray as human beings we are caught up in the triune activity itself. Thus we ask the Spirit to ‘pray for us’ and with that prayer we are transfigured by the Spirit by being transformed into beings that did not know how to pray but now do so.36 To pray is to be glorified by being made a liturgical being. We have been created by God to glorify God. Human beings, however, are creatures who have been given the gift to glorify God intentionally. That our chief end is to glorify God means, according to Rogers, that we are ‘a glorifying being, a thanks-giving being, a being that not only receives, but receives also the permission to give back and again’.37 The Spirit is the link between the earthly offering of praise and the eternal liturgy of the Trinity making us through baptism assume the priestly role through which the world is seen as sacrament. Rogers has, I think, quite successfully managed to avoid separating the Spirit from the Son while nonetheless maintaining their distinctive tasks towards one another and the Father by focusing on those scriptural passages in which the Son and the Spirit interact. He acknowledges, however, that Pentecost seems to make that way of proceeding problematic because Pentecost is not part of the life of Jesus. Yet Rogers argues that though the Ascension seems unrelated to Pentecost they belong together. By going to his death and going to the Father, according to Rogers, Jesus humbles himself and awaits the Spirit who will make him a gift for the renewed life of his mortal body (Rom. 8:11) and for his churchly body after his ascension.38

35. 36. 37. 38.

Ibid., p. 151. Ibid., p. 174. Ibid., p. 178. Ibid., p. 201.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


At Pentecost, just as the Spirit came to ‘rest’ on God’s becoming this human being named Jesus, so the Spirit comes to rest on those gathered in Jerusalem so that all humanity might be incorporated into God’s unending act of being God. ‘The Spirit who comes on the Sabbath of Sabbaths is the Spirit therefore who sanctifies time and gives diverse human beings a history.’39 For Rogers, the relation of the Spirit and Jesus is finally about God’s befriending of time begun by the Spirit’s impregnation of Mary. That time continues to be storied by Jesus submitting to the guidance of the Spirit at his baptism, by the Spirit calling him to begin his ministry, by the Spirit driving him into the wilderness, by his willingly undergoing death, and who finally witnesses the Spirit give his gift to the Gentiles.40 I hope I have said enough to at least suggest what a rich, imaginative and constructive account of the work of the Holy Spirit Rogers has developed. If, as I argued above, the God we worship as Christians has willed to be known through the calling of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, Rogers has helped us see how that God makes those realities living realities through the work of the Spirit. The name of the agency the Holy Spirit enables is ‘church’. Put as strongly as I can, the very existence of the church is necessary for all that is to be storied. That is the fundamental presumption behind my claim that the first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world. A strong claim to be sure, but one I hope to show is justified once the relation between the work of the Spirit and the existence of the church are understood to be inseparable.

On Being the Church In his book, The Reality of the Church, Claude Welch observes how the profusion of images of the church in the New Testament reference, to be sure in quite different ways, the person and work of Christ as well as the Father and the Spirit. According to Welch this means that Christ, the Holy Spirit and the church belong together. ‘There is no gospel of Jesus Christ which does not include the church, and certainly no notion of a church which does not center in Christ.’41 Welch develops this claim by suggesting that the historical particularity of the church is analogous to the historical character of Christ. Just as God humbles himself to be incarnate in this man, Jesus, so God does not scorn meeting us in the history in which we find ourselves.42

39. Ibid., p. 204. 40. Ibid., p. 205. I have not done justice throughout to Rogers’s theme of how the Spirit uses Jesus’s ‘failure’ to redeem Israel to take God’s promise to the Gentiles. 41. Welch, The Reality of the Church, pp. 26–7. 42. Ibid., p. 64.


Theological Theology

In his fine book, Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Stephen Pickard makes a similar point about the mutual involvement of the Son and the Spirit for the constitution of the church.43 Pickard, by way of commenting on Barth’s understanding of the relation of Christ and the church, notes that the church’s relation to Christ is analogous to the way the humanity of Christ is enfolded within his divinity. While we may not, as I suggested above, believe in the church in the same way we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Pickard rightly argues that ‘when we believe in the Triune God, we simultaneously bear witness to our believing that we are of the ecclesia of God, in the ecclesia of God and for the ecclesia of God. The church is no longer at a distance but participates in our believing in God.’44 Welch, as I suggested above, makes a similar move by arguing that just as the unity of God and man in Christ is constituted by the movement of God towards man and of man towards God, so there is a unity whereby the church is at once an immanent-historical community and yet the people of God. Just as Christ in his person is one, so the church is one in being both a social form of humanity and the creation of the Spirit. The church’s social reality is formed by the common direction of love of God and man, but it is such ‘just as God works in its life, as its love for God becomes a oneness with God in his love for man, and as God gives himself through it in love. That is, like the humanity of Christ which cannot be spoken of independently of the incarnation, the church has no existence as immanent historical community independent of God calling it and sustaining it in being.’45 Welch and Pickard are obviously making strong claims about the ontological reality of the church as the work of Spirit. They insist, however, that this emphasis in no way denies the human reality of the church. Welch, for example, maintains that the church’s subjection to sociological analysis is not a fact to be deplored but celebrated. The human character of the church is not an accidental or unfortunate aspect of her being, but rather ‘is but a reflection of the nature of the church as a humanly concrete body of responding people’.46 In a very similar vein Pickard draws on the classical christological heresies to suggest that, by analogy, the docetic

43. Stephen Pickard, Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press, 2012), p. 18. 44. Ibid., p. 25. 45. Welch, The Reality of the Church, p. 121. 46. Ibid., p. 61. This was, of course, Jim Gustafson’s argument developed in his book, Treasures in Earthen Vessels: The Church as a Human Community (New York: Harper and Row, 1961). Gustafson references the second chapter of Welch’s book as compatible with his argument but it is not clear to me that Gustafson shared Welch’s understanding of the relation between the Holy Spirit and the church.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


denial of Jesus’ full humanity finds ecclesial expression in the attempt to deny the human form of the church.47 Pickard attributes this mistake to an inadequate monistic understanding of God that cannot help but result in a Christology that denies Christ’s full humanity. Docetism is but the correlative of a monarchist understanding of God. These doctrinal mistakes have ecclesial implications, as too often a Christology that denies Christ’s full humanity results in a disjunctive understanding of the relationship between church and world. Docetism invites a sectarian understanding of the church that legitimates a Manichean dualism between church and world. Such a dualism fails to account for creation as the Trinity’s good work with the result that the calling into existence of the church by the Holy Spirit fails to acknowledge the continuity between our sociality and the formation of our bodies into the body of Christ.48 Pickard argues the opposite christological heresy to Docetism, namely the Ebionite denial of Jesus’s full divinity, also has disastrous implications for the church. Rather than making the church more than it can be as the Docetist does, the Ebionite denial of Jesus’ full divinity often produces an account of the church in which the church effectively disappears into the world. Just as the Manichean expression is correlative to a docetic Christology, Pickard suggests that a Pelagian emphasis on our ability to effect our own salvation is the natural expression of the failure to acknowledge the full deity of Jesus and the Spirit. A Pelagian ethic, according to Pickard, is an expression of anxiety about the status of the church – an anxiety born out of the loss of the belief that the church participates in the reality of the Godhead by the Spirit. As a result, the church becomes enslaved in the attempt to secure her status by ‘trying harder’. From such a perspective the reform of the church is undertaken with great zeal but with the presumption that reform is ‘up to us’ because we cannot trust the work of the Holy Spirit.49 Pickard and Welch are not suggesting that there is a strict causal relation between these christological heresies and the way in which the Spirit’s work is understood in relation to the church and the world. But there is surely something right about the interconnections that they suggest may exist between doctrine and ecclesial practice. It is, moreover, a two-way street. For as Yoder helps us see, a

47. Pickard, Seeking the Church, pp. 63–5. Nicholas Healy worries that much of modern ecclesiology may make this mistake. He suggests that quite sophisticated systematic and theoretical accounts of the church have been developed that focus on how to think the right things about the church, but too often those depictions of the church fail to deal with the ‘living, rather messy, confused and confusing body that the church actually is’. Church, World, and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 3. 48. Pickard, Seeking the Church, pp. 65–6. 49. Ibid., pp. 73–7.


Theological Theology

‘seeing’ that owes much to the work of Ernst Troeltsch, the positioning of the church in the world may have christological implications that make what is said to be believed by Christians about Christ and the Holy Spirit unintelligible.50 So Pickard and Welch help us see how a failure to give an account of the distinctive yet interrelated work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father’s mission can lead to a misunderstanding of the church, as well as the work she has been called into the world to perform. Given Pickard’s account of the relation of these heresies to ecclesiology I am, of course, acutely aware that my emphasis on the necessity of the church to be the church in order to make the world the world can be read as my doing the impossible. That is, I may seem to commit two antithetical heresies at the same time. My stress on the necessity of the church to be the church in opposition to the world can sound far too Manichean, suggesting as it might that the world is evil and the church is not. Yet my emphasis on the church’s responsibility to be an alternative to the world through discipleship can be understood as a Pelagian desire to force God’s hand. I should like to think I have avoided those unhappy alternatives, but I do not think at this late date an appeal to the Spirit is sufficient to defeat those who would like to read me as Manichean or Pelagian. But, I hope that I have been caught out by the Spirit. Under the influence of Yoder I have taken a stance about the church that I think can only make sense if the Spirit is the agent who comes to rest on the body we call the church. But in an odd way I suspect that is the way it is supposed to work, namely, that the Spirit is quite good at catching us unaware. The Spirit is, as Pentecostals remind us, no tame Spirit. Rather the Spirit is full of unanticipated surprises. One of those surprises, at least for me, I find unaccountable is my judgement that the church must matter for how we think about the lives we should live as disciples of Jesus. This is no ideal church, but it is the church we know. It is the church that seems incapable of making up its mind to be a welfare agency at best or one of the last hedges we have against loneliness. Welfare agencies and a hedge against loneliness are not bad things, but they are not the first order business of the church. The first order business of the church is to be a people who under the guidance of the Spirit point the world to Jesus Christ. Stephen Pickard ends his book with reflections on the current state of the church in what were once presumed to be Christian cultures. It is no secret that the church has rapidly lost its standing in those cultures leading, at least according to Pickard, to two equally disastrous strategies. One alternative Pickard characterizes as the ‘fast-asleep church’, which he associates with churches that continue to rely on the general presumption that religion is a ‘good thing’ so nothing about the church needs to change. The other strategy he characterizes as the ‘frenetic church’, which he describes as the attempt to force new life into a dying church by meeting

50. For my suggestions about Yoder’s development of Troeltsch’s insight, see the ‘Foreword’ to John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), pp. viii–ix.

7. How to be Caught by the Holy Spirit


consumer demand. He doubts either response to the loss of the church’s status will be successful. Each in its own way fails to rely on the Holy Spirit.51 Pickard proposes an alternative understanding he calls the slow church. We are a culture of speed, but Pickard, drawing on the example of monasticism, argues that the work of the Spirit is work for the long haul. It is the work of Holy Saturday in which patience and perseverance are made possible and required. Pickard refuses any suggestion that a slow church is a church that no longer has passion for justice and change, only that the change sought is not that of solutions that do not last. Rather it is the kind of church that makes possible companionship in a world based on isolation. The Spirit rests on our bodies making us capable of friendship.52 I call attention to Pickard’s account of what it would mean for the church to be a slow church, because I am confident that it is pointing the church to where the Spirit is leading us.53 I am also confident that the last sentence denoting confidence in where the Spirit is leading is the first time I have ever written a sentence with that grammar. I could not have written that sentence if I had not been forced to say what I think needs to be said about the work of the Holy Spirit. I can only pray that what I have said will be made true by the Spirit. To be possessed by the Holy Spirit is surely a frightening prospect. The temptation to domesticate the Spirit is almost irresistible. I cannot pretend to have done justice to the Holy Spirit in what I have written. I am, for example, hesitant to pray as Newman did when he asked: Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine: so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from You. None of it will be mine. It will be You who shines through me upon others. O let me thus praise You, in the way which You love best, by shining on all those around me. Give light to them as well as to me; light them with me, through me. Teach me to sow forth Your praise, Your truth, Your will. Make me preach You without preaching – not by

51. Pickard, Seeking the Church, pp. 216–17. 52. Pickard engages the work of Peter Dula who has criticized me for needing the world to be overly dark that the church might be viewed favourably. Pickard thinks Dula rightly challenges my call for the church to be a community just to the extent such a community can be too conformist and suppress otherness. I have no reason to deny companionship may be a better way to describe what the church should be about than community, but what I take to be crucial is exemplification, not whether one chooses between the words community or companionship. 53. For my account of what being slow might entail see Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2008). The relation of nonviolence and what it means to be a slow church is, I hope, an obvious topic that needs exploration.


Theological Theology

words, but by example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do – by my visible resemblance to your Saints, and the evident fullness of the love which my heart bears to You.54

I can pray that something I have said or written may have such a ‘catching force’, but if it has, I pray it is not me. Indeed I pray, with the Holy Spirit, that it is the Spirit’s work.

54. I am indebted to Carole Baker for the gift of this prayer.

Chapter 8 S OM E R I F F S O N T HOM A S A Q U I NA S’ S D E E N T E ET E S S E N T IA Robert W. Jenson

When long ago in college I first encountered Thomas’s doctrine that the question ‘X is what?’ – the question about X’s essentia – is one question and ‘Is there an X?’ – the question about X’s esse – is a distinct other question, that with a creature the answer to the first does not provide an answer to the second, nor the second to the first, but that with God they do,1 I thought ‘That has to be right!’ It was one of the moments that turned me on to philosophy – or theology, as I now hold such propositions in fact to be. The following piece is intended as a continuation of that long-ago delight with this teaching, via the opusculum wherein Thomas himself first expounded it. I will not properly exegete Thomas’s sometimes difficult text; I will neither support an existing reading nor propose a new one. I have not the requisite comprehensive knowledge of Thomas thought – a fact of which I have often been reminded by hearing friends who do.2 Only in one way will I violate that ascesis, in order to create room for what I can and will attempt: for I do deplore one currently reappearing mode of Thomas-exegesis. There is again abroad a sort of Thomas-fundamentalism, a way of invoking Thomas which supposes that if we had the right grasp of Thomas all theological problems could be adjudicated. But this can only be said of the theology of the one man who simply is the Word of God, and not of the theology even of Paul or John3 1. That this provision is according to Thomas not available to us short of the beatific vision, is another matter. We can know that God’s essence is identical with his being, without knowing what the essence is, that an ontological proof works without in this life being able to perform it – or as saints granted beatific vision needing any proofs. Such knowledge for this age is, according to Thomas, jointly provided by nature and revelation. 2. Among whom I will especially name the established Bruce Marshall, of the next scholarly generation after mine, and Adam Eitel, just finishing his doctorate. 3. Even the apostles provide samples of what right theology looks like, not necessarily replicable or not to be challenged theologoumena. To this see the prolegomena of my Systematic Theology (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3–60.



Theological Theology

or Augustine or Thomas or Luther or. . . . To such Thomists what I am about to do will surely seem a desecration. What I will offer is riffs on some positions of the opusculum. Indeed, even that term is perhaps too strong: a true jazz riff depends upon immediate grasp of a possible harmonic structure of the theme. But not having come up with a better label, I will ask readers to permit a broader use. I will ‘take off ’ from Thomas, thereby in fact honouring him in the way a working theologian best honours a great predecessor.4

The Title For years I have without checking misremembered the title of our opusculum as De esse [instead of ente] et essential. I suppose this was a bit of subliminal riffing: using a verb infinitive for the first term and a noun for the second, sets up Thomas’s tantalizing posit that will be my culminating interest, that God’s essentia, the object of the question ‘God is what?’, is esse tantrum, ‘only the act of his being’. In a festschrift for a colleague who among his other attainments is a Barth expert, I will even press so far as momentarily to wonder what difference there might finally be between saying that God is esse tantrum and saying that he is sheer Ereignes, ‘event’. There is some justification for my unbeknownst riffing. When in our opusculum Thomas comes to the distinctive being of God – which is the telos of the work – and that of certain creatures closer to God than others, he speaks of esse rather than of ens. Thus when Thomas’s student (perhaps), Giles of Rome, harked back to key aspects of the matter, esse was indeed the word in his title.5 And I gather that in the manuscript tradition the title with esse does appear, along with yet others, so that we cannot be quite sure what was Thomas’s own title.

Creatures Thomas first explores – with rigorous and for modern readers perhaps exasperating patience – the essentia of ‘composite’, put-together, material things, the beings, entes, we are most commonly aware of. And for the moment leaving out angels and human souls,6 who are said to be immaterial and nevertheless creatures and therefore – as we will see – must be somehow composite, and to the first of which we will return at a decisive juncture, we can also say that the beings in question are the creatures as distinct from the Creator.

4. Even modifying with ‘great’, my calling Thomas a ‘predecessor’ is hybristic – but this particular sort of hybris is the fate of those who at all dare to work at theology. 5. Theoramata de esse et essentia angelorum. 6. Which latter I will leave out altogether. It involves too many arguable complications.

8. Some Riffs on Thomas Aquinas’s De ente et essentia


A material creature may be said to be composite from several aspects, but the composition that concerns us is that of its forma, its intelligible ‘shape’, and its matter.7 According to Thomas, the essentia, the ‘whatness’, of a material creature is neither its form by itself nor its materiality, but precisely the form of some matter – the ‘of ’ is the composition. In itself that is simply one good reading of Aristotle. The riffing question is: How can this doctrine function theologically? Why might a Christian theologian adopt/adapt Aristotle’s famous ‘hylomorphism’8 and this construal of it? My riff: one might adapt it as a theory enabling one to deal with time, which is our one ineluctable metaphysical experience.9 For also in Aristotle a temporal being’s matter is the timely whence of its form, and its form is the whither of its matter. Which – I suggest – is why Aristotle does not posit hylomorphism in his First Mover; for Aristotle, time is temporal beings’ great metaphysical handicap, whereas for Scripture and Thomas it is the scene of the Creator’s fellowship with us.10 Thus Thomas recruits Aristotle to say something that Aristotle would have regarded as nonsense – thereby himself doing some riffing. Aristotle’s own model – not metaphor – for temporal beings’ movement through time is the biological growth of plants and animals: hidden in the acorn is the potential of over time and with favourable attendant effective causes, becoming an oak. This is penultimately the greatness of temporal living things: we do indeed have a telos. But ultimately the sensibility is tragic, in the precise meaning of Athens’ dramatic liturgies11: when the oak is once there, it has no further future than to be matter for some other form, for Chronos finally eats his children. Such sensibility is paradigmatically displayed by the ending of the Iliad: ‘So that is how they made a funeral for Hector Tamer-of-Horses’; after which there is no further comment. Obviously this model will not do for Christian theology. Nor does Thomas accept it: led by the doctrine of creation, he breaks the closed hylomorphic circle by making the actual being, the esse, of a creature a gift to it from outside, from God who is Being himself, thus adducing another composition. Probably this is a sufficient revision. I will nevertheless take Thomas’s posit that being is a divine gift as a stimulus to further reflection. There are gods and then there are gods. If there is anything we can say for sure about the particular God whose history with us the Bible tells – and who is after all the God Thomas is talking about – it is that he is personal. And persons as persons do not move others by causing effects

7. There is considerable puzzlement among the scholars about the status of this ‘matter’, which fortunately we again do not need to go into. 8. ‘matter/form-ism’. 9. Not always of ineluctible reflection. 10. Whatever doubts one might have about other sides of Thomas’s construal of time. 11. For that is what the great tragedies are.


Theological Theology

in them12 but by addressing them. Therefore the externality of God’s gift of esse must be – I suggest – that of an address that falls on the hearer and solicits reply.13 Would Thomas accept this riff on his teaching? I don’t know. If we carry on with my riff, then the inner whence and whither of a composite creature will be that of the partner in a conversation with God, in and by which it is granted its being: the whence, the ‘matter’, will be the hearing of God’s address, the whither, the ‘form’, the responding to it, and the unity of both, the essentia, will be faith. This of course supposes that all humans somehow hear God speak. And it further entails that when faith is lacking the human essence is distorted.14 that for humans faith is not an option among alternatives – which in my amateur judgement is Thomas’s own opinion.

Angels In his analysis of sheerly immaterial creatures, ‘intelligences’ – whom he identifies with the biblical angels15 – Thomas works out the centre of his metaphysics. For Aristotle, the form of a hylomorphic entity itself grants and sustains the entity’s existence, insofar that is, as for the moment it has any; thus according to Aristotle such beings have only the one ontological ‘composition’, of form and matter. As we have noted, Thomas instead posits two compositions in the case of a material creature: of form and matter to make its essentia and of essentia and gifted esse to make the actual thing, the ens. That is part of what anciently intrigued me. But what of angels – and souls, that we are skipping – who are generally supposed to be immaterial? If they were not nevertheless composite, they would be metaphysically equivalent to God. Since this is ruled out, some composition must be supposed. Thomas’ move is to say that of the two creaturely compositions,

12. If the mutual attempt to do the latter, described for once and all in the Knechtscht und Herrschaft passage in Hegel’s Phaenomenologie des Geistes, could succeed, it would depersonalize both partners. 13. In theologically – and scientifically – sophisticated and careful Genesis 1: ‘God said . . . and it was so.’ In what way this works with most animals, plants, rocks, etc. is a question outside the bounds of this essay. Here it must suffice to note that in Genesis all creatures are responses to a commanding word, but that in all cases except ‘the Adam’ this word solicits no answering word – I have called humans ‘the praying animal’. As for what language God speaks, he is the omnicompetent translator – whence his Word in Scripture is not, unlike the Koran, in an untranslatable holy language. 14. How that is possible and what the result looks like have divided the theological spirits for centuries. 15. The reader who comes upon this discussion unprepared may perhaps be taken somewhat aback by the identification. Its possibility, which I here exploit, is itself matter for a paper.

8. Some Riffs on Thomas Aquinas’s De ente et essentia


one, of essentia and esse, remains and suffices. This is in my judgement right, within his conceptual structure. How would this angelic sort of composition accept our previous mode of riffing? A first point: angels lack an internal whence and whither, thus they relate to time differently than do material creatures. Lacking matter, an angel has no past other than its essentia itself, as it is potential to its esse. How that works obviously depends on what the essence, the whatness, of such a creature may be. And I will take my cues from the Bible’s talk of angels. The Bible’s talk of ‘angels’ is complex, especially with regard to its historical background. But there is one thing we can with safety say about their ‘whatness’, their essentia or quidditas: what they are is messengers from God. They are not in the same sense messengers as the Word that comes to prophets, or such Old Testament figures as ‘the Angel of the Lord’ who speaks for God in the first person; they are creatures and therefore have no such trinitarian mode of being,16 Gabriel comes to Mary as a messenger of her pregnancy, not as the agent of it. Since – following Thomas – they lack matter to individuate them, the distinction of a messenger from the messaging will not apply to them. My riff: they are messengers whose beginning is nothing other than the coming of the message they are entrusted with and whose telos is nothing other than its delivery. How then do at least some angels have continuing identities? I suggest: solely from God’s repeated recommission. When God has an errand for Gabriel, his commission begins, ‘Gabriel, go to . . .’ and just and only thereby there is the same Gabriel who was sent by that name on a previous occasion.

God We come to the telos of the work and of my interest in it. God, says Thomas, is characterized by simplicitas,17 there is in him no ontological composition. His essence is esse tantrum and vice versa. Or, for once picking up from the Summa and elsewhere, he is actus purus, pure actuality. In medieval jargon, ‘act’ is a state of something’s actually being what it was potentially. But, at least to modern sensibility, Thomas’ revisionary talk of an esse that with us is gifted, over and above what a creature is, and then of a divine esse that is esse tantrum, puts pressure on the notion of act in the direction of an action in the modern sense, a pressure to which I propose to yield. It seems to me that Thomas’ doctrine of the divine esse will for us moderns teeter between the notion of a state and that of what we think of as an event. My most unlikely proposed riff is to run for a moment with one side of that seeming.

16. Except of course for the one creature who simply is a person of God. 17. Any readers who have some acquaintance with my writing will know of my problem with the Western doctrine of divine simplicity. Here it will suffice to say that it does not extend to the precise use of this term in the specific present context.


Theological Theology

For how can we name the simplicitas of an esse that is not the being of anything but itself? If not with the word that in modern jargon has acquired a distinct appropriate resonance, event? With God, to be is to happen, ‘to’ nothing but the happening itself; to happen as the act ‘of ’ nothing but the act itself. Or if we can think of other ways, as I cannot, what even so is to prevent our contemplating this one? I do not venture this riff to suggest that Thomas and Barth espouse the same teaching. Only to suggest that they both lead us into the same mystery – not, of course that either they or we comprehend that mystery. And thereby to segue to my last and final riff: How are we to deliniate that mystery? What are we saying when we say that God’s essence is being only? We might be saying that even this proposition, that in God his essentia is esse tantrum, is finally meaningless on account of the ‘is’, which after all does seem to introduce a complexity.18 In that case we cannot carry on with my riffing – or any other. If on the other hand we think we should speak of speaking and hearing in God, or of whence and whither in him, while honouring divine simplicitas, we will have to invoke his triunity in a way that Thomas does not here do.19 God speaks in himself, and hears in himself, he utters20 and responds in himself, to be precisely the one God by the perfection of these relations. He is the talkative God; with him there is no ‘silence of eternity’. ‘Discourse’ is one of his names. To continue, I will recruit a teaching from Thomas’ other writing: a triune person or hypostasis is a ‘subsistent relation’, a relation that is not merely essential to its term, but that just is its own sole term. We can hardly form any picture of such an entity – if ‘entity’ is the right word – but we can form the concept.21 The Father is the first Speaker, whose speaking has no other agent than itself, and who just as such must have a Word that is his perfect Expression. And just because that Expression is perfect, it must itself Speak And because the term of this relation is nothing other than the Speaking itself, it is a second Speaker with and for the Father. And because. . . . But you see how one could carry on indefinitely, thereby mimicking the eternal simplicity of the triune God. But is not such a distinction of Father and Son likely simply to collapse into indifference? We may respond that it will not since discourse is the very home of freedom, so that the relation of Father and Son is a free relation for both. But now have we not introduced a gift of freedom to the relation that is the essentia, excluded in the case of God? Not if the freedom that is given the Father and the Son is itself one and the same God as they, if the Spirit is by proceeding from the Father by the Son. And with that last display of orthodoxy, I will leave off, leaving readers to get such profit as they may from my riffing, even if only from rejecting it.

18. From which the logic of analogy will not rescue us. 19. This is not to say that Thomas does not here have God’s triunity in mind; certainly he always presupposes it. I do not know how one would further settle the matter. 20. Thomas could not, I fear, tolerate this. 21. Anschauung and Begriff. And so what if that’s Hegelian?

Chapter 9 N EW  O L D  N EW : T H E O L O G IC A L A P HO R I SM S 1 Eberhard Jüngel

1 The New2 has many foes. The names of these opponents are, typically, pleasing to the ear: the familiar, the natural, the reliable, the permanent. Life experience and tradition also belong to the list of the enemies of the New. In many cultures, the elderly are the epitome of authority. And, moreover, in apocalyptic literature it is an expression of utmost respect when God is referred to succinctly as ‘the Ancient’. He has always been, and will endure for evermore. By contrast, the New seems different and strange, and in extreme cases is indeed wholly other and altogether exotic. And yet, in time every new thing loses its otherness and strangeness. It domesticates itself, as it were, and becomes increasingly familiar and, eventually, obvious. In due course the newborn child grows up; she becomes older and older and, by doing so, gains life experience. And, if all goes well, the one who was once a newborn dies as Job – ‘old and full of days’ (Job 42:17). The New, so described, is willing to compromise with its foes, and can even become its own opponent. Indeed, from out of the New the Old emerges. Yet we can also conceive the New as the uncompromising alternative to the Old. When the present time becomes boring in a deadly sort of way, the New can appear as a long-awaited sunrise following a deep and painful night; a sunrise that promises us a new, fresh future in the morning ahead. Hence, according to an Old Testament tradition, God brings renewal and salvation in the event of the sunrise. By consequence, in the bleak hours before the dawn, the otherwise trivial statement that ‘the night is far gone, the day is near’ (Rom. 13:12) becomes extremely comforting. 1. Originally published as Eberhard Jüngel, ‘Neu-Alt-Neu: Theologische Aphorismen’, in Erfahrungen mit der Erfahrung: Unterwegs bemerkt (Stuttgart: RADIUS-Verlag, 2008), pp. 21–7. Translated with permission from the author by R. David Nelson. 2. [Translator’s Note: In the original text, Jüngel alternates between, on the one hand, the nouns das Neue and das Alte, and, on the other, the qualifiers neu and alt. The logic behind these distinctions is made clear in the essay. For the reader’s sake the noun forms are capitalized (viz., ‘the New’ and ‘the Old’) throughout the text of this translation.]



Theological Theology

Moreover, the uninterrupted continuation of the Old can be intolerably tormenting. It was not only the persistent complaints of the elderly, but also the fear of the weariness of old age that led the Greeks to opine that ‘those who the gods love die young’. Ennui is by no means only a sign of the present times! The medieval monks were frequently afflicted by a paralysing lack of enthusiasm, excessive sadness, and spiritual depression and listlessness, against the anguish of which only the renewal of the spiritual life was remedy. And the writers of ancient apocalyptic literature understood the world in its entirety as an actuality that had long since ‘lost its youth’ (2 Esd. 2:10). Indeed, in apocalyptic literature, the world is depicted as hurtling toward obsoleteness and disrepair and thus totally out of step with the new eon. Precisely so, the words of Qoheleth ring true: ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Eccl. 1:9). The Old is passing away; it perpetually recedes. In the words of the young Berliner: ‘There is nothing. Not now. But then . . .’ Natural, familiar, reliable, permanent, life experience; but also boring, deteriorating, becoming obsolete – the latter dark words that cast deep shadows upon our understanding of the Old. Such qualities of the Old, in all their variety, are among the many enemies of the New.

2 The Old, on the other hand, has only one opponent. It must constantly defend itself against the New, and against the New alone. For if the New comes, the Old must yield, otherwise the Old would simply integrate the coming New into itself. That, of course, is not beyond the realm of possibilities. For example, one must not fail to appreciate the extent to which the New is integrated into the succession of the Old in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. And there are, of course, old stories that become new again when they are retold – as in the tragic love story composed by Heinrich Heine: A young man loves a maiden, Who chose another instead . . . It is a time-worn story, And yet it is ever new; And when it happens to someone, It breaks his heart in two.3 Yet if the Old does not remain new, if, on the contrary, it resists the New, if it will not or even cannot integrate the coming New, then it finds in the New, as it were, a bitter enemy and challenges this foe ‘to the last battle’. This signifies a revolution. The New and the Old are pitted against each other in fierce skirmish. Hegel

3. Heinrich Heine, ‘Lyrical Interlude’, in Songs of Love & Grief, trans. Walter W. Arndt (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. 31.

9. New – Old – New: Theological Aphorisms


eloquently describes this revolution as follows: ‘Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined’ and is ‘dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world’. The dissolution of the previous world ‘is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change. The gradual crumbling that left unaltered the face of the whole is cut short by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world.’4 Hegel was not alone in explicitly welcoming the revolutionary arrival of the New and its clash with the Old. Yet that which presents itself too quickly as a novelty is not, by any means, always pleasant. There are events of the New which are actually ‘nothing but the start of that terror we can just manage to bear’.5 Thus when Rilke’s angels – and every one of them an angelus novus – enter into reality, the continuity of the world is interrupted in an elementary way. The Bible also calls the Angel of the Lord a power, who, in the first instance, unleashes terrors from on high. When he comes to the people of God, he mitigates his overpowering presence by declaring ‘Fear not!’ Even the angel Gabriel announces to the shepherds the coming of the Christ child as the elementary interruption of the Old: ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:10b–12, NRSV).

3 With the Christmas story, of course, there emerges an entirely new dialectic of Old and New in the form of a newborn baby, the Christ child in the crib. Each day, however, humanity, as it were, comes to the world anew whenever a baby emerges from the womb. Such everyday nativities become old very quickly. On the other hand, the truly New, which came to the world in the birth of Jesus Christ, is hidden and is thus in no way familiar or self-evident. And this is the truth of the truly New: that God desires to take fellowship with godless humanity and, precisely by doing so, to renew the life of the Old Adam from the ground up. But we cannot see that new, at least not yet! This word full of great joy for all to hear – that today our saviour is born – was hidden so deeply in the worldly novelty of the birth of the Christ child that it had to be proclaimed in a special way. Insofar as the truly New comes to the world hidden beneath its opposite, insofar as it comes to us in the word and is only effectively revealed in that word, insofar as it does not need to appeal to any worldly powers in order to accomplish its salvific purposes – just so it distinguishes itself from all of the news of this world

4. Georg W. F. Hegel, ‘Preface’, in Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Arnold. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 6–7. 5. Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘The First Elegy’, in The Duino Elegies, trans. Louis Hammer and Sharon Ann Jaeger (Old Chatham, NY: Sachem Press, 1991), p. 21.


Theological Theology

that is governed by the language of propaganda, as words of propaganda are, all too often, followed by acts of violence. However, the truly New was, with another nod to Goethe, already present in the beginning in the creative word. And as long as the New is present only in the creative power of the word, it remains new and in no way becomes obsolete. Indeed, precisely in that it can in no way become obsolete, it is the truly New. It inspires astonishment, and never ceases to lead from one wonder to another. The angel Gabriel also aroused such astonishment. The news that the almighty creator intends to send the power of salvation to the world in the form of a human life that will end in a violent death – that is truly New and altogether astonishing. And that this message is meant for all people, such that the ancient polarizations long used to divide humanity, viz. between master and slave, or, for an entirely different example, Jew and Greek, are brought to an end, and old enmities are turned, perhaps not into friendships, but at least into relationships of mutual respect – that is truly New and altogether astonishing. And in this case, astonishment simply means to be awakened by the New. Heraclitus argues that ‘for those who are awake there is a single, common universe’.6 Those who trust in the God who has come to the world – believers – are thus those who are awake. They inhabit a common world in which everyone participates in the anxieties and needs of neighbour and stranger alike, and, in which, by consequence, each person is able all the more to rejoice with others. For one who is unable to greatly rejoice with neighbour and stranger is also unable to show genuine compassion to the other when worse comes to worst. At best, such a person will display only empty compassion. And, moreover, one’s moral appeal to false compassion toward the other serves only the moralistic self-justification of the Old Adam. Moralism of this sort will grow old quickly. But when the truly New comes, it requires those of us who hear it to distinguish between, on one hand, that which still lies ahead of us in the future, and, on the other, that which is, in fact, hopelessly obsolete and thus receding further into the past actuality of the Old. Furthermore, in light of the truly New, one can discover the potential for renewal even in the old world. In the event of God’s advent, believers face the challenge of drawing penetrating distinctions between that which has the potential for renewal and that which does not. Precisely so, Christian faith is an eminently critical faith. For believers know that God is the one who, in his word, definitively distinguishes between, on one hand, that which is possible, and, on the other, that which is impossible and therefore not to be. Possibilities that emerge from the advent of this distinguishing word are so much more than mere self-repetitions of actuality, which only succeed in bringing the actual to further despair. And such despair has only one chance to be overturned, and it is located in the ontological potency of the New: the possibilities that come to us from the future. Kierkegaard formulates it this way: ‘When one swoons people shout for

6. Heraclitus, ‘Fragment [89]’, in Fragments, trans. Thomas M. Robinson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 55.

9. New – Old – New: Theological Aphorisms


water, Eau-de-Cologne, Hoffman’s Drops; but when one is about to despair the cry is, Procure me possibility, Procure possibility! Possibility is the only saving remedy . . .’7 The truly New and the experience of astonishment cannot be extrapolated from the Old, but rather come to us in the form of alien possibilities. In order to perceive and grasp such possibilities, one must possess the judgement that comes to those who are awake, and that judgement involves the high art of making distinctions. The mastery of this art is the key to life! We must learn the art of distinguishing between, on one hand, that which is truly New and able to renew us, and, on the other, that which is more or less Old. And, moreover, we must distinguish, with the aid of the New as a litmus, within the Old between that which is hopelessly obsolete and that which still has its heyday awaiting it in the future. To be sure, the one who is able to make such distinctions has life more abundantly. Herrn Kollegen Webster, demselben mehr als eine Möglichkeit wünschend, grüβt dankbar. —E.J.

7. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), p. 59.


Chapter 10 G O D’ S H I D D E N N E S S A N D B E L I E F I N H I S P OW E R Wolf Krötke

God’s Invisibility and the Question of His Power1 ‘Invisibility is ruining us’, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend Helmut Rößler on 18 October 1931. This ‘madness of being constantly thrown back to the invisible God himself – no one can stand that anymore’.2 Bonhoeffer made these remarks as a student pastor at the Technical University in Berlin and as ‘assistant city pastor’ (Stadtvikar) in a working class area of Berlin in light of his experiences with twentieth century people’s disinterest in faith. His complaint concerned the ‘great dying out of Christianity’ that seems ‘to be there’. Implied in this complaint is the desire for it to become obvious to people that God is there, and in such a way that they will not be able to miss him. This is a desire that everyone who believes in God knows all too well – especially those whose vocation it is to preach. The question ‘Where is God?’, a question which insists upon some kind of obvious presence in the world, has innumerably many forms. It has embedded itself in our memory in the form of the cries from the Nazi death camps. It imposes itself in light of the many innocent victims of man-made wars and the catastrophes of our time. We encounter it in the meaninglessness of life that is experienced by many, many individuals. It produces doubt in the existence of God and leads to crises of faith even in the church. It causes people to lose their faith in God and to live as atheists. We might say that, essentially, nearly all questions which afflict faith in God and the lives of believers have to do with this problem of God’s invisibility, that is, his hiddenness from our eyes. However, this problem is not put to us from outside the Christian faith, nor is it a problem which only appears intermittently in the course of church history. Rather, it has been rooted in the heart of this faith from the beginning.

1. Translated with permission from the author by Justin Stratis. 2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Letter to Helmut Rößler, Berlin-Grunewald, October 18, 1931’, in Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work: 1931–1932, eds Victoria J. Barnett, Mark S. Brocker and Michael B. Lukens, DBW 11 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), p. 55.



Theological Theology

We can begin to clarify matters with a simple, or rather particularly religioushistorical, consideration. The God of the Bible who is at issue here is an extramundane God. His way of being God is distinct from every material that we can see or grasp. In our human language, the best we can do is to use the metaphor of ‘spirit’. Biblically speaking, ‘spirit’ is a happening, an event: ruach – a dynamic power that is in no way bound to nature or history but blows where it wills. Hence, belief in the one, extramundane God, grounded as it is in Israel’s experience of God, we might say ‘de-divinises’ the world. Hence, the religious notion of a symbiosis between the divine and the forces of the cosmos, that is, polytheistic ‘cosmotheism’, including practices designed to influence the gods, terminates with Israel’s experience of God. On the soil of this experience of God emerges, therefore, belief in the Creator of the world, the God who creates the world and humanity as a purely mundane, independent other. Nature can now no longer be understood as an emanation from or part of the divine. Human beings are not ‘puppets’ of the gods, akin to the characters in Homer’s epic poems. By faith in God the Creator, human beings can be understood as ‘the first freedmen of Creation’ (Johann Gottfried Herder), who therefore can have a genuine history with God, that is, a covenant history. We cannot overestimate the significance of this understanding of creation in world history. Amongst many distortions and pains, it laid the foundation stone for the emerging autonomous world of modernity on the soil of Christianity. Theologically – that is, considered in the light of a reflective perspective on biblical faith – this monotheism has also created the problem of God’s hiddenness. As the prohibition of images demonstrates (Exod. 20:4–6), the reality of God cannot be visibly disclosed. The gods who are visible in cultic images are regarded as nongods, that is, as ‘idols’. Every attempt to locate God’s reality in the sphere of the visible and demonstrable falls under the suspicion of making God into an idol. Any god who is located in the midst of worldly relations, in the same way as those relations, is in the biblical sense only a part of the world. It is therefore impossible to grasp or catch sight of God as an ‘objective fact’ in the world and in history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was assuredly aware of this when he formulated his lament about God’s invisibility. ‘A god who could be proved by us would be an idol’, he wrote with his friend Franz Hildebrandt in their ‘Draft for a Lutheran Catechism’ in 1932.3 More well-known is the phrase from his Habilitation: ‘There is no God who “is there” [Einen Gott, den, “es gibt,” gibt es nicht].’4 ‘Whatever is there’ means fact and objects. This applies to us human beings in our bodily constitution. We can be seen and handled. By contrast, God is in no way an object that we can see and have at our disposal. Bonhoeffer never doubted that God always remains a mystery to us, that he can only be verified in his invisible reality. ‘God lives in 3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Hildebrandt, ‘Draft for a Catechism: As you Believe, So you Receive’, in DBW 11, p. 260. 4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr., trans. H. Martin Rumscheidt, DBW 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), p. 115.

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mystery. To us, God’s very being is mystery,’ he commented in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:7–10, given in London in 1934.5 ‘All the thoughts that we can ever think about God should never be for the purpose of solving this mystery, making God easily understandable and no longer mysterious for everyone.’6 To be sure, by making this claim, Bonhoeffer is not responding to the lamenting question he posed to his friend Helmut Rößler in 1931. That question reduces the experience of God’s hiddenness in history and our lives to such an extent that it becomes an unbearable mystery for us. Of course, such questions as his from 1931 in no way demand that God himself has to become visible to us as some kind of constituent of the world. In truth, that would be an absurd expectation. If that were the case, that is, if the eternal God were to invade our earthly world with the weight of his divinity and clarity, then he would no longer remain above this world. Yet the fact that God’s invisible ruach-reality, his powerful Creator-Spirit, is able visibly to affect the world for the sake of his creatures is already implicit in the intention of this question. It flows from the fact that God’s power, which the Christian confession understands as omnipotence, demonstrates itself as the outworking of his Spirit for the sake of his creatures in creation, despite the obvious misery in the world. In light of the lament psalms, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and the cry of Jesus on the cross – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34), it is surely not presumptuous to speak of a hidden, invisible God. It is a question which God himself provokes in those who, in the midst of their life, in the midst of our history, he has met by his Spirit, so that they might believe in him. We cannot deal with the experience of God’s hiddenness in some other way, such that we can gain an understanding of how God uses his power. The Christian faith cannot attain such an understanding anywhere other than in the midst of what happens in our time, the time in which God encounters us, for it is in the life and death of Jesus Christ that God exercises his power.

God’s Wise Exercise of Power in Jesus Christ At first glance, the New Testament asserts – insofar as it speaks of Jesus Christ – precisely the opposite of God’s hiddenness. It witnesses to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. And yet, revelation is the opposite of concealment. Revelation is the disclosure of something hidden – a point that is already evident in the Latin word revelare, which means to remove the velum, that is, the covering or veil. This is also the basic meaning of the Greek word apokalypsis – the kalymma, the covering, or blanket, is removed. If we speak of God’s revelation in the sense of this word, then revelation would imply that the hiddenness and invisibility of God is disclosed and, consequently, that God is visible. 5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:7-10. London, Trinity Sunday, May 27, 1934’, in London: 1933–1935, ed. Keith Clements, trans. Isabel Best, DBW 13 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), p. 362. 6. Ibid.


Theological Theology

Even if John 1:14 says that we saw God’s ‘clarity’ (as I translate doxa) in the incarnation of the Word, or if 1 John 1:1 speaks of ‘looking upon’ and ‘touching’ the life which is eternal (referring to Jesus Christ), this does not abolish the claim that no one has ever seen God nor can see him (John 1:18; cf. 1 Tim. 6:16). The vision of God remains for us an eschatological, final perspective (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7). Even if there are tendencies in the Johannine literature to understand Jesus Christ as the one who makes God’s glory visible, or even if Colossians 2:9 speaks of the fullness of the Godhead ‘dwelling bodily’ in Christ, this is surely grounded in the assurance precipitated by the experience of resurrection, when the invisible eschaton united itself with this visible man and thus is already an event in our midst. Thus, the appearances of the resurrected Christ emphasize that Christ, who is in the light of God’s doxa, is not to be separated from the earthly man Jesus, as was maintained by the so-called early Christian ‘enthusiasts’. Instead, these appearances make witnessing to God’s invisible presence in Jesus’s earthly life and death the task of Christianity. This presence does not mean, however, that those who were with Jesus in his lifetime had in some sense come to apprehend God in him. The fact that God, in his doxa and therefore in his eternal power, united himself with this man cannot be demonstrated in a worldly manner. It can only be believed. Faith is the only way by which we can assure ourselves of an invisible, non-demonstrable (in a worldly sense) reality (cf. Heb. 11:1). Awakened by people who proclaimed the coming of God’s glory in our world, this faith also implies an agreement with the fact that, precisely where God has united himself in the most intimate way with a man, there he remains invisible and hidden to us. This means that God does not, as it were, overrun the man Jesus with the fullness of his deity, but that he values him as an earthly man and brings him honour. Christological dogma has maintained this by the confession of Jesus Christ’s true humanity. There, where God unites himself to this man, he simultaneously gives freedom to his earthly humanity. We could also say that God in his invisible presence likewise takes a step towards this man in his basic earthly existence so that space emerges for his human-earthly existence. God’s hiddenness is thus not a lack of his presence in this man, it is an expression of his fundamental wisdom that he involves himself in the world of us human beings. By faith in Jesus Christ, it has paradigmatic significance for every relation wherein God meets humanity. This is highlighted by the internal meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The late Jewish expectation was of the resurrection of the dead to a final event of judgement, not the return of a dead man in this world. When the dead are raised, it is the end of time, and humanity is judged by God. The end of time, which only this one encounters in resurrection, nevertheless grants all other people a new earthly time of peace with God. The judgement of the sinful world consists in the fact that God creates humanity’s time, space and opportunity to be reconciled with himself (see 2 Cor. 5:19f.). Regarding ourselves, to this divine revelation pertains the dimension of his worldly hiddenness, a hiddenness which we are able to understand in the mirror of Jesus Christ as the expression of his wise use of power vis-à-vis the human world. God reserves himself in terms of giving immediate proof of his doxa just as he has reserved himself with respect to Jesus. He does this

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so that there is space and time for us as free partners of God to live a life as reconciled people. With this clear intention, the wisdom of the revealing God nevertheless places a burden on us – a burden laid on us by God. His hiddenness does not prevent the oppressive, painful experiences about which we have been speaking from the outset. God’s careful ‘reservation [of himself]’ implies also that everything which testifies against him – the sin, the misery, even the death which pertains to the limits of earthly existence – are still there. It implies that the enmity with God that leads to enmity with humanity can always celebrate further triumphs. God’s hiddenness therefore creates the objections against him that, in the modern era, with its ecstasies of evil, have ground so many people down to hold the conviction that there is no God for us. That which lies at the heart of the Christian faith, namely, an expression of God’s clarity in affirming and liberating human beings, becomes the occasion for humanity’s hubris in seeking the salvation of the world by more wisely religious or thoroughly atheistic means.

The Absolutely Hidden God 1. Martin Luther’s Understanding of the Deus absconditus In the Lutheran tradition, there is a significant strand concerning the hidden God that to this day impacts theological discourse on the problem of God’s hiddenness. According to this view, we do not look first to the divinity of God, and then to God’s revelation, if necessary, to understand and qualify God’s power. The fount of this stream of thought is located in Luther’s reflections on the hidden God in his polemical essay against Erasmus of Rotterdam, De Servo Arbitrio. According to Luther, the recognition of God’s divinity in his majesty and glory (doxa) requires that we attribute omnipotence to him in the sense of his omnicausality. A God who is not omnicausal and omnipotent, in his view, does not deserve to be called ‘God’. Such a God would be a Deus ridiculus, a ridiculous God.7 Thus, God is only truthfully called God insofar as we recognize that, in his power and supremacy, he affects everything that happens in the world. This means, however, that he causes both good and evil, as his power is never idle. He drives the heels of the godly as well as the godless. He elects and rejects, as many biblical texts demonstrate, with a caprice that is impenetrable to us. He creates life, and he destroys life, just as he wills. One cannot therefore have faith in him, that is, put one’s trust in him. One cannot even preach him. Ultimately, he becomes for us, properly speaking, the devil, who throws us into doubt, angst and distress. Such a God cannot be a god who brings clarity to our lives. One can only flee before him. This flight, then, is the point of Luther’s description of the omnicausality of the Deus absconditus. In light of our inevitably fearful experiences of the hidden God, 7. Martin Luther, ‘The Bondage of the Will, 1526’ in LW 33, p.  191. See also WA 18, pp. 685–724.


Theological Theology

we ought to flee to the God who is revealed in Christ, the one who alone is able to be our God, in whom we can place our trust, and who can be preached. Indeed, included in the revealed God is the dimension of his hiddenness. Luther describes it similarly to our attempts above, in that he, above all, has God’s worldly powerlessness in the cross of Jesus Christ in mind. For us, this is a gracious, salvific hiddenness in the midst of a contrary, omnicausal almightiness. This cross makes it possible for us to trust God in view of how he uses his power. For God encounters us here, as he conceals his absolute, omnicausal hiddenness ‘in the life and death of the man Jesus and in preaching concerning him’. So Eberhard Jüngel has urged in his still very instructive use of the Socratic phrase ‘Quae supra nos nihil ad nos’ (that which is above us, does not concern us).8 By faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered for us, we can lay to rest the terrible hiddenness of the omnicausal, impenetrable God above us. It does not concern us, for we trust in God, whose precise hiddenness in the life and death of Jesus Christ frees us to live in correspondence with the reconciling power of the revealed God. Unfortunately, with his insight that, by faith in Jesus Christ, the absolutely hidden God does not concern us, Luther did not enquire further concerning whether the act and essence of the hidden God in Christ is not also significant for understanding his effectiveness in creation and history. Such a broadening of thought would have necessarily raised the matter of whether Christ should appear as a kind of exception in the divine life that does not fundamentally concern God himself (the Deus ipse). Yet, in the Christian, biblical understanding, God is indeed even the Father who creates and sustains the world. He is also the Holy Spirit, through whom God is present to human beings. The trinitarian understanding of God therefore makes it unavoidable to explain the extent to which what happened in Christ also impacts, in the peace of the triune God, the Creator and the Spirit. Thus his dealings with the world express the whole spectrum. Luther has not so much maintained trinitarian thought, but rather remained in a polarized existential experience of a virtually devilish and salvific hiddenness of God. In order to uphold God’s inscrutable majesty and the hopelessness of sinful man, he has brought together that double hiddenness with his doctrine of law and gospel. The experience of the absolutely hidden God, which pertains to our existence under the law, is also the presupposition of faith in the graciously hidden God. Without experiencing our mortal hopelessness before God, we would not even be able to receive the salvific hiddenness of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. ‘God cannot be God,’ he thus dared to say in a 1530 sermon, ‘unless he must first become a devil, and we cannot enter heaven unless we first go to hell. We cannot be God’s children unless we are first the devil’s children. . . . I must grant divinity to the devil for a brief time and attribute devil-ness to our God. Yet this is not yet the end of all things. This means that, ultimately, his goodness and truth preside over

8. See Eberhard Jüngel, ‘Quae supra nos nihil ad nos: Eine Kurzformel der Lehre vom verborgenen Gott – im Anschluß an Luther interpretiert,’ in Entsprechungen. Gott – Wahrheit – Mensch: Theologische Erörterungen (Tübingen: Chr. Kaiser, 1980), p. 239.

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us (Ps. 117:2).’9 We may very well ask: why does God’s goodness and truth not occupy the first position for those who believe in Jesus Christ, if we understand God’s hiddenness? Luther explained the import of the absolutely hidden God firmly in the context of the time in which he lived, that is, the middle ages since late medieval nominalism. Without the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty, the world could neither be understood nor explained. Today, the situation is different. Therefore, we must ask, against the backdrop of the contemporary church and contemporary theology, whether God’s hiddenness should be understood as an absolute hiddenness that drives people to despair. 2. Problematic Actualisations It is without question that the wisely gracious God can be unbearably obscured in our experience. Yet Luther’s view that there is a ‘must’ for God, that God must become for us a ‘devil’, needs to be scrutinized. For God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, there is no such ‘must’ according to my understanding of the biblical witnesses. Yet it is precisely this idea that has been maintained again and again in German church and theological history. In 2014 we were reminded that, for eighty years, the Barmen Declaration has opposed an actualization of the view that God is hidden, a view which threatened to destroy the church in its substance. The so-called ‘German Christians’, via an appeal to Luther, understood the Nazi Regime as a ‘revelation of creation’ [Schöpfungsoffenbarung] in which the hidden God encounters us in the ‘holy binding force of nationhood’ as well as in the ‘originality and ruthlessness’ of the ‘will for self-preservation’ of the German people. Only if the Germans participate combatively could the revelation of the gospel meet them and ‘God’s miracle child’, namely, the belief ‘that God’s love is present amongst us’ could be awakened.10 By contrast, the Barmen Declaration asserted that there is exclusively ‘one Word of God’, namely, Jesus Christ, and refused to recognize ‘yet other events and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation’.11 The denial that such ‘events and powers, personalities and truths’ can be ‘sources of proclamation’ has nevertheless failed to prevent people from seeking after divine revelation and power beyond the revelation of Christ – even after the absurd claims of the ‘German Christians’ had been abandoned. Martin Luther’s insistence on the necessity of experiencing the 9. ‘Got kan nicht Got sein,’ Luther dared to say in a sermon from 1530, ‘Er mus zuvor ein Teufel werden, und wir konnen nicht gen Himmel komen, wir mussen vorhin ynn die helle faren, konnen nicht Gottes kinder werden, wir werden zuvor des Teufels kinder. [. . .] Ich mus dem Teuffel ein stündlein die Gottheit gönnen, und unsern Gott die Teuffelheit zuschreiben lassen. Es ist aber noch nicht aller tage abent. Es heisst doch zuletzt: seine güte und trew walter uber uns.’ [Luther, ‘Der 117. Psalm ausgelegt, 1530’, in WA 31/1, pp. 223–57; here p. 249, lns. 25–7; and p. 250, lns 35–7.] 10. So Emanuel Hirsch, ‘Der Offenbarungsglaube’, Hammer und Nagel: Theologische Lehrscrhiften 2 (1934), p. 38. 11. The Barmen Declaration (of 1934), Art. 1.


Theological Theology

absolutely hidden God would itself cause the members of the ‘Confessing Church’, which the Barmen Declaration founded, to understand the existential claim on humanity by God’s reign in history and existence as the presupposition of man’s receptivity for faith in Christ. A solely christocentric understanding of divine power leads, theologically, to a monistic determinism and, practically, to a belittling ‘of God’. The latter course of thought was at the heart of Gerhard Ebeling’s basic objection to the father of the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth.12 More recently, Walter Dietrich and Christian Link, surprisingly from the Reformed side, have followed this line of argument. In their two-volume work on the ‘dark sides of God’ in the Bible,13 they argue that the ‘texts of terror’ and the divinely legitimated use of force in massacres, genocides, excessive vengeance et cetera, has to be acknowledged. In so doing, they aim to avoid the danger of conceptualizing a cleaned-up image of God in theology and the church, and of proclaiming a harmless ‘cuddly God’. Those biblical texts involving terror, violence and war would, by contrast, highlight the absolute inaccessibility of God and dissuade people from fashioning for themselves some ultimately self-invented image of God under the pretext of an appeal to God’s love. Today, such claims are bolstered by the view, found even outside the church, that faith has declined in European, secular societies due to the liberalization of the portrayal of God in the churches, a portrayal which no longer takes into account God’s power. At the same time, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 have awakened the so-called ‘New Atheists’, whose argument against ‘religion’, among other things, is that the unprovability (theologically: hiddenness) of God or the gods is a source of violence against adherents of other religions or ideological convictions. Because religious people cannot win others to their faith by means of argument, they turn to murder and violence in order to spread themselves in the world. ‘Stupidity, combined with . . . pride’ that motivates violence – such is the essence of religion, according to Christopher Hitchens.14 Moreover, issue is taken particularly with the monotheistic religions, as such faiths prescribe belief in only one otherworldly God, negate all other gods, and are inherently intolerant and violent.15 Richard Dawkins has appealed to those biblical stories which Dietrich and Link claim highlight the behaviour of the untouchable and unaccountable God in order to demonstrate the violence-inducing potential of the Christian

12. See Gerhard Ebeling, ‘Karl Barths Ringen mit Luther’, in Lutherstudien, vol. III, Begriffsuntersuchungen – Textinterpretationen – Wirkungsgeschichtliches (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1985), pp. 428–573. 13. Walter Dietrich and Christian Link, Die dunkeln Seiten Gottes, vol. 1, Willkür und Gewalt, 2nd edition (Neukirch: Neukirchen, 1997); Walter Dietrich and Christian Link, Die dunkeln Seiten Gottes, vol. 2, Allmacht und Ohnmacht (Neukirch: Neukirchen, 2000). 14. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (London: Atlantic, 2008), p. 11. 15. See Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism, trans. Robert Savage (Stanford, MO: Stanford University Press, 2010).

10. God’s Hiddenness and Belief in His Power


faith. The God of the Bible is a ‘psychotic delinquent’,16 a ‘monster’,17 and a ‘cruel ogre’,18 from which every moral, thinking person can only turn away. In its own way, this wild polemic against the God of the Bible is actually an atheistic adoption of Luther’s understanding of the Deus absconditus as ‘devil’. It seems esoteric to turn this into a positive (i.e., as the condition of the emergence of real faith) in a situation wherein there is massive indifference to God [Gottesvergessenheit] (as there was in East Germany, but also in other European countries). One cannot seriously encourage people who are already so far removed from faith in God that they no longer know the meaning of the term ‘God’ to perceive a ‘monster’ in their lives. Here, then, is the primary task of the church: to become acquainted with God as he meets us in the centre of the biblical witnesses. I am convinced that we cannot accomplish this task by appealing to those biblical stories that involve violence. Such stories will accomplish nothing other than fortifying atheism. Yet this would only be a pragmatic, missional point. Theologically and spiritually, however, it is critical that the biblical witness cuts the legs out from under these stories from within. They crumble under the weight of the newer experience of God, as the totality of the biblical witness demonstrates. What they attribute to God no longer has any future and can no longer be the paradigm of God’s dealings with our world. ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old! I am about to do a new thing,’ God says in Isaiah 43:18–19. The future can only be that which in the past was a promise for Israel, yet can be and has become a promise for the entire human race: God’s covenant with Israel and with all of humanity, which the Christian faith sees as being fulfilled in God’s wisely considered reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ.

God’s Hiddenness and Questions of ‘Theodicy’ We cannot leave the path of perspectives and problems on which the experience of God’s hiddenness leads us without highlighting the most important question which, since Leibniz, has been discussed using the term ‘theodicy’. For itself and as such, the so-called ‘theodicy question’ is actually theologically wrong-headed. This is so because, by asking it, we human beings must justify God with rational arguments, that is, we must justify why God created a world full of undeserved suffering and misery, despite the fact that he has revealed himself to be a God of righteousness and love. A reversal in which God’s justification of us becomes our justification of God is a project that cannot legitimately be founded on biblical faith in God.

16. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), p. 38. 17. Ibid., p. 46. 18. Ibid., p. 250.


Theological Theology

Yet, embedded in this wrong-headed question of theodicy, the unavoidable problems of undeserved and incomprehensible suffering are still present. They do not disappear when we understand God’s wisdom as a symbol of his hiddenness. Reflection on God’s hiddenness can at best call attention to certain relations or boundary conditions that can prevent us from being overwhelmed by such suffering and find words which can bring order to the feelings raging within us. In somewhat programmatic fashion, I offer three such relations. 1. Creation as a Good Location for Human Existence The fact that the God who has intentionally revealed himself in Jesus Christ is also the creator of the world can be regarded as the consensus of New Testament belief. Hence we too are permitted to understand the activity of the Creator structurally, and in the same way his still-hidden direct use of power in nature, history and individual life, by noting how he used his power in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he is powerful here, so is he powerful in his lordship over nature and history. As Creator, he acts in such a way that he establishes the autonomy of creation and the freedom of human beings in the earthly, creaturely world. The world is supposed to have its own natural order, and human beings are not to be God’s puppets, but form an actual history and have actual responsibility. Accordingly, it is a blessing that creation is given an actual powerfulness and stability of its own – a fact that is occasion for praise to God the Creator. The idea that God governs the world as a Deus ex machina in an unbroken chain of miracles can only unsettle us and bring fear into our lives. The place that God has prepared for us, in the first instance, is a place that is dependable for us, and for this we can be thankful every day. By faith in the hidden presence and power of the Creator, understanding this creation as simply a vale of tears becomes impossible. The knowledge that it is a good place for us comes in the midst of the experience of suffering and in the routine of daily life – indeed, again and again in forgottenness. By faith in the invisibly present, empowering Creator God, this goodness stands before our eyes in many daily signs of blessing. A distorted view of God’s wise, empowering power results only if it is perceived as a mirror image of the evil that seizes and possesses creation.

2. The Essence of Freedom and the Fault of its Abuse The freedom with which God has empowered the human world is not freedom for all possibilities and certainly not freedom for enmity between God and humanity. The God who created the world and remains present to it does not will the evil that gives space to this enmity between God and humanity. According to his revelation, he rejected this. In all his acts, he has oriented himself against the power of destruction that implants itself in his creation by means of his creatures. Thus, the freedom of human beings stands under his express command to choose the good of acknowledging God and turn against evil. From the creation mandate to

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cultivate and preserve the earth to the responsibility for a human world of shalom, human freedom is to be understood as freedom for cooperation with God. By contrast, the choice for and act of doing evil is an abuse of freedom that God does not will. The misery and suffering which has to follow from this abuse as people turn against others in hatred and violence as well as damage and destroy the natural world, is clearly a misery and suffering that is caused by human beings and not by God. They are to blame, not God. The guilty cannot exonerate themselves by arguing that God could have fit them in a straitjacket to prevent them from doing evil. Even the suffering of the victim cannot ultimately support this request. For that would mean that God would have to negate the freedom for which he created both the victims and the perpetrators. It would be tantamount to the abolition of humanity. Lament before God and prayers that God would override the evildoer’s desire to destroy by the power of his Spirit come in an immeasurable variety, yet only as a final word before the silence. Nevertheless, we have to be aware that the God who sympathized with the suffering of his creatures on the cross of Jesus Christ lends his voice only to the victims who can no longer speak for themselves. He therefore makes a claim of those of us who are living: he rescues us from the hopeless silencing and gives us the task of using our lives to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak for their dignity. Yet not only that. He encourages us, despite all the triumphs of evil, to ensure by our words and deeds that the ocean of humanity’s destructive rage is dried up from our earth. 3. Living Within the Limits of Creation The suffering caused by human beings is not the only way that the life of God’s creatures in this world can be turned into pain. It is not only always natural disasters that claim innocent victims. Our finite life in space and time also causes suffering that cannot be traced solely to human guilt. As bodily and spiritual beings, we are vulnerable and sustain injury. Our lifetime has a measure, and we must die. The goodness of our world – a world which God in his wise power called into existence, and which he maintains and stands with in solidarity – is not the goodness of a problem-free paradise. Our existence does indeed include an element of suffering, but also an ability to suffer that is not due simply to evil. The ‘light side’ of creation, as Barth put it, has a counterpart: the ‘shadow side’.19 In accord with the creation mandate, we can and should do everything humanly possible to make use of the possibilities of creation, in wise and sensitive interactions with one another, so that the ‘light side’ maintains the priority and that the ‘shadow side’ is occupied with its ‘shadow of death’ and not evil. The demand for the elimination of creation’s limits, however, is in its own way a source of violence against nature and an attack on our humanity. To be a creature means being able to accept our limitations in suffering. As difficult as it is, the

19. See Barth, CD III/1, pp. 370–5.


Theological Theology

distinction between the struggle against suffering and the acceptance of suffering is evident today in modern medicine’s urgent concern for a dignified death. For their part, however, all three boundary conditions that must be considered whenever the question of God’s power is raised in light of the suffering of his creatures stand under a condition. It is this: God’s wise sovereignty over the world is not the perfection of the world. Because of this, we should not expect absolute interventions. The intercessory prayers that Christians offer to God demonstrate this. In them, we make requests of God, as we observe his sovereignty in a world that is relatively for the benefit of his creatures. Our permission to pray such prayers allows us to hope that, through Jesus Christ, God takes such prayerful requests under consideration, in his wisdom, adjusting, correcting, and fulfilling them in his secret ways. We do not know how many misfortunes we have already avoided by God’s ways, nor how he daily concerns himself with such things by the power of his Creator-Spirit which can be available to his creation. Indeed, by praying, our participation in God’s hidden, wise sovereignty in the world is anchored and becomes a reason for optimism among us, even when our prayers turn to lament. Faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ as the one who, without doubt, grounds in Christianity the assurance of the hidden God’s wise sovereignty in the world, is, however, not exhausted in this assurance. For faith by nature has in view the greater horizon of the perfection of our world in the kingdom of God. Christianity will always present God’s hiddenness in this world, a hiddenness which is to the world’s benefit, in the context of this greater horizon. This means that it is accompanied by the hope that this worldly time represents for us only a step on the way of God’s history with us. Should this hope die, then the experience of God’s hiddenness is in danger of sinking into resignation. If it is in communication with the living Jesus Christ, then it will be supported and inspired by the assurance that this world finds its gracious fulfilment in God’s final act of revelation and our vision of the same. Hence, we must no longer trouble ourselves by trying to recognize our faith in the hidden God of our salvation through ‘the clouded mirror’ of this world. Then we shall know him, even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12).

Chapter 11 W HAT I S T H E G O SP E L ? 1 Matthew Levering

Yves Congar, who so deeply influenced the documents of the Second Vatican Council, observed that for patristic and medieval theologians ‘the Gospel is Jesus Christ. The Gospel is present when Christ is present and actively communicating his life.’2 Similarly, prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger remarked that ‘Jesus himself, the entirety of his acting, teaching, living, rising and remaining with us is the “gospel” ’.3 It is this ‘entirety of his acting, teaching, living, rising and remaining with us’ that is made present in the Eucharistic liturgy (scriptural word and sacrament). Since‘Christ is present and actively communicating his life’, we can say with Paul, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). It may seem, however, that if the gospel is Jesus Christ, then the Church is not now truly needed for the mediation of the gospel. Faith in Jesus, as known in Scripture, would seem to suffice. This chapter – dedicated with admiration and gratitude to an illustrious contemporary witness to the gospel – begins by surveying Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, which from a Protestant perspective shows the need for a ‘gospel culture’ inclusive of sacraments and creedal confession.4

1. The following is a revised version of Chapter 4, ‘Gospel’, from Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), pp.  113–38. Published here with permission from Baker Publishing Group. 2. Yves M.-J. Congar, O.P., Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and Theological Essay, trans. Michael Naseby and Thomas Rainborough (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 272. 3. Joseph Ratzinger, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism: Sidelights on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997), p. 51. 4. See Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). As he acknowledges, McKnight is heavily indebted to a similar discussion found in N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 39–62.



Theological Theology

Focusing on 1 Corinthians 15:1–5, McKnight examines ways in which the ‘gospel’ involves more than simply the call to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. In McKnight’s view, the early Church possessed an exemplary ‘gospel culture’, as manifested by its creeds and by its practices of baptism and the Eucharist. The early Church’s ‘gospel culture’, however, was inseparable from bishops who understood themselves to be successors of the apostles and to be guided by the Holy Spirit in ecumenical Councils. Against various Christian heresies and schismatic movements, they enumerated the canonical books of Scripture and defined doctrines about God the Trinity, Christ, Mary and so forth. Although McKnight values the early Church’s ‘gospel culture’, it does not seem that this culture plays an explicit role in his exegesis of ‘gospel’.5 At issue, then, is the relationship between Scripture and the Church’s liturgical/dogmatic tradition with respect to the understanding and transmission of the gospel. To draw this out more fully, I compare McKnight’s approach with the interpretation of Paul’s use of ‘gospel’ offered by Thomas Aquinas in his commentaries on Romans and Galatians.6 As we will see, Aquinas’s theology of 5. Arguing that 1 Corinthians 15:1–4 provides a summary of the ‘gospel’ or ‘most basic Christian message’ (1), and that later arguments between Christians (from Nicea onward) often have failed to appreciate the shared core message, Ted A. Campbell proposes that Christians today need to recognize ‘a common Christian gospel in a broad ecumenical framework’ (2): see Campbell, The Gospel in Christian Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Against views that argue that a unified Christian message was the invention of Constantine or of Nicea, Campbell’s goal is to ‘demonstrate critical points of unity or commensurability between traditions without denying well justified claims of differences and diversity in ancient as well as modern Christian traditions’ (ibid., 3; cf. pp.  117–21). James D. G. Dunn makes a similar charge: ‘How does Paul’s gospel speak to the Christian ecumenical scene today? For Christians today are all in one degree or another in a position similar to that of Peter and the other Jewish Christians. They say to fellow believers, in effect, “We cannot sit at the same table as you; there are certain things we cannot do with you, because you do not recognise traditions and rituals which we hold as central to our own identity as Christians”. And in effect they make their traditions and distinctive beliefs as important as the gospel itself, as important as belief in Christ, as important as being in Christ. They deny Paul to his face: they affirm by their actions that a person is not justified by faith alone, but must also observe certain works of tradition’ (Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011], p. 164). 6. These two commentaries contain the central elements of Aquinas’s theology of the Pauline ‘gospel’, a topic that his other Pauline commentaries treat much more briefly. Aquinas’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, unfortunately, is missing his discussion of 1 Corinthians 7:15–10:33 (this portion of text was filled in by an excerpt from the commentary of Peter of Tarantaise). As a result, we do not have Aquinas’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:12–18, where Paul describes the right of preachers of the gospel to earn their living by means of this preaching and where Paul states that ‘if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Cor 9:16).

11. What is the Gospel?


the ‘gospel’ largely corresponds to the major emphases identified by McKnight, especially the emphasis that the gospel is Jesus Christ and that the gospel has to do with the whole of the history of salvation (rather than being simply about justification, as in Luther’s law/gospel polarity). Aquinas, however, exhibits more clearly why ‘gospel’ should be understood not by means of Scripture alone but from within the ‘gospel culture’ that includes, for example, the church’s dogmatic affirmation of the Son’s full divinity at the Council of Nicea. Aquinas also highlights the ways in which the proclamation of the gospel unites Israel and the church (prophets and apostles), so that the gospel cannot be separated from the community’s mediation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Since Aquinas holds that the gospel unites believers in a church, he makes clear that no individual preaching of the gospel suffices without the confirmation of the church. The gospel is present in the world not solely through Scripture, but through Scripture as liturgically mediated – canonized, interpreted, and enacted – by Christ’s mystical body the church.

Scot McKnight on the Gospel McKnight’s book takes as its starting point the fact that for many Protestant evangelicals, the ‘gospel’ describes God’s offer of salvation that we accept by repenting of sin and confessing Jesus as Lord. On this view, the gospel consists simply in justification by faith. McKnight affirms that hearing the gospel requires us to be born again by faith, and he contrasts this with sacramental Christian traditions that, he thinks, take for granted church membership and thereby obscure the need for personal conversion in order to be a member of the church. But he warns that evangelical Protestant traditions, concerned not to make the gospel into a message of works-righteousness, have had trouble translating the call to faith into a path of robust discipleship. The problem, he argues, is that a focus on salvation (that is to say, simply on decision for Christ) has replaced the necessary focus on the gospel. To prepare us for his understanding of the ‘gospel’, McKnight briefly explores the ‘Story of Israel/the Bible’ in relation to the ‘Story of Jesus’.7 The story of Israel begins with the creation of the world as the cosmic temple, with Adam and Eve as the image of God, and then moves to their rebellion and their banishment from Eden, the choosing of Abraham, the choosing of the people of Israel, their law and eventually their kings, and finally God’s sending of his Son to accomplish what no mere human could do by redeeming us from sin and ruling the world (thereby fulfilling the vocation of Adam and of Israel) as its King, Messiah, and Lord. Jesus Christ establishes the kingdom of God; Jesus’s Church is to bear witness to his victory and ‘to embody the kingdom as the people of God’.8 The Second Coming of

7. McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, p. 34. 8. Ibid., p. 36.


Theological Theology

Jesus Christ will consummate God’s kingdom on earth through the establishment, not of a garden, but of a city: the ‘new Jerusalem’. In McKnight’s view, the ‘gospel’ is not this full story, but it only makes sense within the full story, since the story of Jesus belongs to the story of Israel. Jesus resolves the problem of personal sin but also, and more fundamentally, the problem of Israel’s history and of human history. As Israel’s King and Messiah, Jesus saves humans precisely by bringing Israel’s history to its fulfilment, even though the full consummation awaits his Second Coming. McKnight considers that the place in the New Testament that comes closest to offering a definition of the ‘gospel’ is 1 Corinthians 15. The key passage comes in 1 Corinthians 15:1–5: Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.

McKnight considers that this passage offers us a roadmap to a ‘gospel culture’. Why so? In answer, he provides eight points of commentary on the passage. First, ‘gospel’ here is a dynamic reality: Paul and the Corinthians are intimately connected by the gospel, so much so that when Paul says ‘I preached’ a literal translation might be ‘I gospelled’. The gospel that Paul ‘gospels’ to the Corinthians works upon them: it is by this gospel that ‘you are saved’. Second, the gospel is what Paul ‘received’ and what the Corinthians ‘received’. This gospel is traditional, then; it is not a mere personal teaching of Paul. Third, the content of the gospel is that Christ died, was buried, was raised and appeared. The gospel or good news particularly announces these events. As McKnight says, ‘To gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God.’9 Fourth, the gospel resolves or brings to fulfilment the Story of Israel.10 In this regard McKnight points to Paul’s repetition of the phrase ‘in accordance with the scriptures’. Paul’s letters are filled with citations of and allusions to Israel’s Scriptures. This means that the gospel does not come from nowhere or merely offer a set of ideas. Rather, the gospel has a back-story that is told in Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel proclaims the fulfilment of God’s covenantal promises to Israel. We can only understand the content of the gospel – the four key events that happened to Jesus – in light of his identity as Israel’s Messiah and Lord. Fifth, the gospel saves. Paul does not provide a systematic explanation of how Jesus’s death reconciles us to God, but the gospel includes the reality that Jesus’

9. Ibid., p. 50. 10. See also Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 48–9.

11. What is the Gospel?


death overcomes ‘our sins’. The story of Jesus cannot be told without recognition of sin as blocking us from God, and of Jesus’s death as overcoming the impediment caused by sin. McKnight adds that Jesus identified fully with the human condition, died as our representative or substitute (standing in our place and receiving our punishment, including not only physical death but also spiritual death), and thereby reconciled us to God by bringing about the forgiveness of sins and leading us into God’s presence.11 Like many theologians, McKnight holds that appreciating what Jesus did for us on the cross requires a variety of approaches; no one theory of the cross’s saving power will suffice. Citing Galatians 4:4–6 and 1 Corinthians 6:11, he observes that we should read ‘Christ died for our sins’ with a variety of realities in view, including the sending of the Holy Spirit, our adoption as sons, and our justification and sanctification. Sixth, although Paul mentions four events that happened to Jesus, the gospel has to do with Jesus’s whole life, and also has to do with his Second Coming and the full consummation of the kingdom of God. The key point here is that the gospel is not solely about Jesus’ redemptive death on the cross. Even the burial of Jesus is significant, because it shows that Jesus truly died and because it opens the possibility of Jesus’s presence among the dead. Jesus’s resurrection is crucial for ‘God’s eschatological irruption into space and time’ and for the new creation and final consummation of the entire creation.12 The final two points highlight Jesus’s kingship and kingdom. The seventh point is that the centre of the gospel is Jesus, the Messiah, Lord and Son. He is the anointed King of Israel. He has conquered sin and death. The eighth point is that the gospel’s goal is the complete glorification of God through his Son in the new creation, when everything will be subjected to God as it should have been from the beginning. McKnight goes on to sum up his thesis about the meaning of ‘the gospel’ in Paul, and he emphasizes three elements: salvific power, Jesus Christ as Messiah and Son, and the fulfilment of Israel’s story (beginning at creation and being fully consummated only at the Second Coming of Jesus). As McKnight puts it, ‘the gospel for the apostle Paul is the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament’.13 As an example of a ‘gospel culture’, McKnight points to the early Christians, with their ‘rule of faith’ and creedal confessions such as the NicenoConstantinopolitan Creed. Quoting Ignatius of Antioch’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ, he shows that this confession of faith closely reflects 1 Corinthians 15

11. In my view, substitution theories (as distinct from theories of satisfaction) go too far insofar as they imagine God pouring out his wrath upon Jesus. See my Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), chapter 2. As James Dunn points out,‘Paul never allowed room for any idea of Jesus’s death propitiating an angry God’ (‘The Gospel According to St. Paul’, p. 142). 12. McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, p. 54. 13. Ibid., p. 61.


Theological Theology

and Romans 1. He finds the same thing in the rule of faith articulated by Irenaeus of Lyons, in Tertullian’s presentation of the rule of faith in Against Praxeas, and in the questions asked of baptismal candidates in Hippolytus’s The Apostolic Tradition. Turning to the Nicene Creed, McKnight highlights the clause that parallels 1 Corinthians 15: ‘For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’ Although McKnight is critical of important aspects of the early church, he considers the earliest theologians and creeds to be generally effective in their ‘gospeling’.14 He also notes that baptism and the Eucharist (and the liturgical year) are central ways in which the Church shares in ‘the Story of Israel coming to completion in the saving Story of Jesus’.15 In McKnight’s view, the blame for the shift from a ‘gospel culture’ to a ‘salvation culture’ (focused on the individual plan of salvation) goes in part to Augustine and in part to the Reformation.16 He praises the Reformation for many things, including a valuable focus on the need for personal salvation. Even so, he considers that an unfortunate corollary of the Reformation was a shift to a ‘salvation culture’. The Augsburg Confession of 1530, for example, is organized not according to the order of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit that one finds in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, but rather according to an order determined by what McKnight describes as ‘sections on salvation and justification by faith’.17 The Geneva Confession exhibits a similar emphasis, as does John Wesley’s account of his Aldersgate experience. The result has been a widespread ‘salvation culture’ that understands the gospel as consisting in repentance and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for us. McKnight concludes, ‘True gospeling that conforms to the apostolic gospel leads directly to who Jesus is.’18 The question, then, is whether such gospelling ultimately needs the church. Due to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church as the eschatological Israel, ‘true gospelling’ is much more than the spreading of the gospel by individual evangelists.

Thomas Aquinas on Paul’s Gospel – Romans Writing to a largely Protestant audience, McKnight remarks, ‘If we have any Protestant bones in our body, we want to know what they [the apostles] gospeled

14. Ibid., p. 69. 15. Ibid., p. 158. 16. Ibid., p. 70. 17. Ibid., p. 71. See also the more positive reading of the early Protestant confessions’ relationship to the gospel in Campbell, The Gospel in Christian Traditions, pp. 58–63. 18. McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, p. 127.

11. What is the Gospel?


and how they gospeled, and we want our gospeling to be rooted in and conformed to their gospeling.’19 But how is it that we come to know what the apostles ‘gospeled and how they gospeled’?20 Historical research has a place; so does individual reading of Scripture. But more is involved, as shown by Jesus’s formation of his community of disciples headed by the Twelve, and by his charge to them to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19) in the Eucharist. Connecting with the ‘gospelling’ of the apostles requires hearing the conciliar and creedal testimony of the church that, as Joseph Ratzinger says, ‘listens to the word of God in common in the sacred liturgy’. We will see how this attentive listening strengthens Aquinas’s exegesis of the Pauline ‘gospel’. In his letter to the Romans, Paul mentions the word ‘gospel’ (either in its noun or verb form, εu᾽αγγέλιον or εu᾽αγγελίζειν) numerous times, including verses 1:1, 1:3, 1:9, 1:15, 1:16, 2:16, 10:15, 10:16, 11:28, 15:16, 15:19, 15:20, and 16:25. Of these, the most important references come in Romans 1:1–3. In this passage, Paul begins by proclaiming himself to be ‘a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:1–3). Aquinas treats separately each of the first three phrases: ‘a servant of Jesus Christ’, ‘called to be an apostle’ and ‘set apart for the gospel of God’. It is the last phrase that is significant for our study. What does Aquinas make of Paul’s claim to be ‘set apart for the gospel of God’? Aquinas first observes that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. So far, so good; we can all understand that the message of salvation is ‘good news’. But Aquinas takes this further by inquiring into what, in fact, constitutes the human good. What is ultimately the good for which humans were created? The gospel is good news, says Aquinas, because ‘it announces the news of man’s union with God, which is man’s good: “It is good for me to cleave to God” (Ps. 73:28).’21 What the gospel communicates or reveals is nothing less than the union of humans with God. Aquinas then adds a further wrinkle: this union of humans with God, the union that makes the gospel ‘good news’, is threefold. First, the gospel reveals the union of God and man in Jesus Christ. Here Aquinas links Romans 1:1 with John 1:1, on the ground that it is the same gospel (in both Paul and John) that teaches that ‘the Word became flesh’. In a primary sense, therefore, the gospel or good news is the Incarnation. Second, the gospel reveals the union of God and human beings that comes about by adoptive sonship. Here Aquinas links Romans 1:1 with Psalm 82:6, ‘I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.” ’ In the Gospel of John, after quoting Psalm 82:6, Jesus argues that the meaning of this verse is that those

19. Ibid., p. 115. 20. This question animates Joseph Ratzinger’s Foreword to his Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. xi–xxiv. 21. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, trans. Fabian Larcher, O.P., ed. Jeremy Holmes and John Mortensen (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), no. 23, p. 9.


Theological Theology

to whom the word of God comes are ‘gods’ (John 10:34–35). Aquinas draws the conclusion that the gospel is not only about Jesus Christ but also about his body, the church, because God sends his Son into the world in order to adopt sons (and daughters) in the Son. The third union is an extension of the first two. The gospel is not only about our adoptive sonship in our earthly life, but also about the consummation of our adoptive sonship in eternal life. The gospel reveals the lordship of Jesus Christ, and therefore the gospel is intrinsically eschatological. In this regard Aquinas again links Romans 1:1 with the Gospel of John, this time with John 17:3, ‘And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ Aquinas also quotes Isaiah 52:7, which Paul quotes in Romans 10:15, ‘And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” ’ Aquinas’s citation of Isaiah 52:7 evokes the remainder of Isaiah’s profoundly eschatological verse, which continues as follows: ‘who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” ’ The full accomplishment of God’s reign is what the gospel has in view. Having commented in this fashion on ‘gospel’, Aquinas expands his lens in order to comment on ‘gospel of God’ (still with respect to the phrase ‘set apart for the gospel of God’). The good news ‘of man’s union with God’ does not come from human beings. Rather, God reveals the gospel, and so Paul calls it ‘the gospel of God’. As a scriptural text in support of the view that the gospel is divine revelation, Aquinas employs Isaiah 21:10: ‘What I have heard from the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, I announce to you.’ This verse completes an oracle in which the prophet receives the message, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods he has shattered to the ground’ (Isa. 21:9). The prophet delivers this message to Israel, which he describes as ‘my threshed and winnowed one’ (Isa. 21:10). Thus the context of the Isaianic passage quoted by Aquinas indicates that the gospel is eschatological good news of God’s victory in Christ, proclaimed to God’s ‘threshed and winnowed’ people. Aquinas’s point here is that the gospel comes from the living God of Israel, who brings about our union with God. Aquinas next turns to Romans 1:2, where Paul states that this gospel was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh’. The gospel, Aquinas reiterates, announces good things (our union with God) and does so by the authority of God. Aquinas interprets Romans 1:2 as being Paul’s way of further explaining the authority that the gospel possesses. The gospel has authority, first, because it was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures’. Here Aquinas quotes Isaiah 48:5, ‘I declared them to you from old, before they came to pass I announced them to you.’22 Isaiah 48 is especially relevant for the authority of the gospel. In this part of Isaiah’s prophecy, God calls upon Israel to recognize that just as in the past he declared what he

22. Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, no. 26, p. 10.

11. What is the Gospel?


would do and then accomplished his promises, so now he will announce to Israel ‘new things, hidden things which you have not known’ (Isa. 48:6). These ‘new things’ will bring about Israel’s salvation and ‘everlasting joy’ (Isa. 51:11), through the work of the suffering servant.23 For Aquinas, prophecies such as Isaiah 48:5 give an authoritative ‘antiquity’ to the gospel. The gospel did not simply spring up with the proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead. Rather, God had prepared a people for the gospel over the course of centuries. As Aquinas notes, pagan opponents of the gospel derided it as something new.24 Antiquity, however, is not the only evidence of the gospel’s authority that Aquinas finds in Paul’s statement that the gospel was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures’ (Rom. 1:2). Aquinas also emphasizes that God made and fulfilled this promise. The gospel therefore has authority also because of its ‘firmitas’, its reliability as rooted in God’s faithful promises.25 We know that the gospel is true because the gospel’s author is God, and God does not lie. We know this not solely as a logical proposition about God’s nature, but because of what God has done to show his faithfulness. In this respect Aquinas quotes Acts 13:32–33, which comes from a speech that Paul gave at Antioch of Pisidia. In his speech (Acts  13:16–41), Paul begins by inviting the Israelites and the Gentile God-fearers to recall that God chose the patriarchs of Israel, led the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, raised up David to be king and promised a Davidic Messiah. Paul then proclaims that this Messiah is Jesus, who died on a cross, was raised from the dead and appeared to many. The passage that Aquinas quotes is central to Paul’s narrative of what McKnight terms the fulfilment of Israel’s Story in Jesus’s Story: ‘We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus’ (Acts 13:32–33). The ‘firmitas’ or reliability of the gospel is shown by God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his promises to Israel.26 The first two reasons for the gospel’s authority show the gospel’s foundation in God’s relationship to his people Israel. In the same vein, Aquinas gives a third reason, again based on Paul’s statement that the gospel was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures’. Namely, the gospel’s authority derives not only from the God who promised, but also from the prophets who, inspired by God, mediated this promise. Aquinas describes this as the ‘dignity’ of the gospel’s ‘ministers or witnesses’.27 These divinely dignified ‘ministers or witnesses’ are the

23. For the connection of the suffering servant with Jesus, see ST III, q. 46, a. 5, obj. 2; III, q. 47, a. 3. 24. See Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2nd edn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003). 25. Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, no. 26, p. 10. 26. See Richard B. Hays, ‘Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection’, in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 216–38. 27. Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, no. 26, p. 10.


Theological Theology

prophets to whom God gave some knowledge of the gospel. The antiquity of the gospel was shown by the fact that God ‘promised beforehand’ the reliability of the gospel by the fact that God promised. The fact that God promised ‘through his prophets’ indicates how we come to hear the gospel. God gives the prophets the ‘dignity’ of being ‘ministers or witnesses’ of revelation.28 Of course, there were also prophets whose prophecies were inspired by demons (supposed gods) such as Baal, and who were thereby ‘prophets of demons’.29 The example that Aquinas gives comes from 1 Kings 18, where Elijah confronts and conquers the ‘four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table’ (1 Kgs. 18:19). By contrast to these false prophets, true prophets received ‘dignity’ from God because God granted them the honour of working through them. To underscore the extraordinary dignity granted to the true prophets, Aquinas cites Amos 3:7, which in the Vulgate reads: ‘The Lord will not make a word [non faciet Dominus Deus verbum] without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.’ With respect to the true prophets’ ‘dignity’, Aquinas also cites Peter’s speech at Caesarea, as recorded in Acts 10. In this speech, Peter first describes the words and deeds of Jesus and his crucifixion, resurrection and appearances to the disciples. In the verse quoted by Aquinas, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah promised by the prophets: ‘To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’ (Acts 10:43). By reference to Joel 2:28, ‘It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy’, Aquinas adds that all true prophets are such because the Holy Spirit inspires them. Aquinas refers to this verse in order to show that the source of prophetic dignity is the Holy Spirit. Given Peter’s quotation of this verse at Pentecost (Acts 2:17), we might also see here an appreciation of the unity of the testimony of Israel’s prophets with the Spirit-filled testimony of the apostles. According to Aquinas, there is a fourth way that Paul’s statement in Romans 1:2 commends the gospel’s authority. This fourth way consists in the fact that the prophets wrote down divine revelation ‘in the holy scriptures’. God’s promises, Aquinas observes, ‘were not merely spoken but recorded in writing’.30 God

28. As Corinne Patton remarks, Aquinas ‘posits a distinct type of inspiration and prophecy by which the biblical authors wrote, not shared by later interpreters. He does not address the inspiration of biblical authors apart from the question of prophetic knowledge, indicating that biblical authorship is a form of prophetic revelation. Prophetic knowledge of a revealed truth results from the inspiration of the prophet, an action of sanctifying grace that elevates the mind to receive the revealed truth’ (Patton, ‘Canon and Tradition: The Limits of the Old Testament in Scholastic Discussion’, in Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs, ed. Christopher Seitz and Kathryn Greene-McCreight [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999], pp. 75–95, at 88). 29. Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, no. 26, p. 10. 30. Ibid., no. 26, p. 11.

11. What is the Gospel?


commands that this be done, as Aquinas notes by reference to Habakkuk 2:2, ‘And the Lord answered me, “Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it.” ’ Indebted to Augustine, Aquinas connects this fourth aspect of the gospel’s authority with the historical time period in which the prophets began to write down their revelations.31 God caused his words to the prophets to be written down at the time during which Rome began to emerge. The link between Rome and God’s prophecies became apparent at the coming of Jesus Christ, who was born under Roman rule and died at their hands. But more importantly, the connection between the Roman empire and God’s prophecies to Israel has to do with God’s intention to draw together Jews and Gentiles in the kingdom of God. Speaking to fellow Jews who did not believe him to be the Messiah, Jesus says in the verse that Aquinas quotes here, ‘You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me’ (John 5:39). The fact that the prophets wrote down God’s promises ‘in the holy scriptures’ enabled the Gentiles, too, to search the Scriptures and to respond to Paul’s evangelizing mission. The gospel, then, has authority because of its antiquity and reliability, and also because of the dignity of its prophets and the fact that under divine inspiration they wrote down the revelations they received for the sake of the holiness of future generations. Aquinas next argues that the gospel has authority because of its content. Its content is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Aquinas devotes significant attention to how Paul frames this content in Romans 1:3: ‘the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh’. For Aquinas, Romans 1:3 shows that the gospel is primarily the good news about the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. This way of reading Romans 1 further exhibits Aquinas’s commitment to reading Paul’s gospel in the context of the church’s creeds. The eternal begetting, says Aquinas, ‘had been previously hidden’.32 In this regard Aquinas quotes the proverb in which the sage bemoans his lack of wisdom about God: ‘Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!’ (Prov. 30:4). Taking the phrase ‘his son’s name’ as an anticipation of trinitarian doctrine, Aquinas suggests that Solomon seeks wisdom about God, including about the Son, but lacks this wisdom. Only the gospel fully reveals the Son of the Father. Thus, Aquinas notes that in the Gospel of Matthew, the Father testifies to the Son at Jesus’s baptism: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17).33 Does this mean that the gospel is contained only in the New Testament, because only the New Testament contains the gospel’s content, God’s Son Jesus Christ?

31. See Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1984), Bk. XVIII.27, p. 794. 32. Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, no. 29, p. 11. 33. See also Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 335–45.


Theological Theology

Aquinas argues that on the contrary, the whole of Scripture reveals divine wisdom, and the Son is ‘the Word and wisdom begotten’.34 In this regard he quotes Moses’ exhortation to the people of Israel, ‘Keep them [the laws of the Torah] and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” ’ (Deut. 4:6). The Torah reveals God’s wisdom, and the gospel reveals the fullness of God’s wisdom. This wisdom is found in the Son, who is ‘to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:24. It is this Christ, the wisdom of God, who is the content of the gospel. Aquinas thinks that the phrase ‘the gospel concerning his Son’ (Rom. 1:3) signals the full divinity of the Son by means of the word ‘his’. This might seem a real stretch. Indeed, Aquinas recognizes that there are various ways to understand what ‘Son’ means in this context: one could think of Christ as God’s adopted Son, or one could think of the ‘Son’ as the name that the Father assumes while on earth, or one could think of the Son as an exalted creature. But the Gospel of John, he observes, rules out such construals of God’s Son. It seems to Aquinas that Paul’s formulation, ‘his Son’, also rules out the denial of the full divinity of the Son, even if less evidently than does the Gospel of John. This interpretation of the phrase ‘his Son’ comes from Hilary of Poitiers, whom Aquinas cites here in defence of the view that the Son could not be ‘his Son’ unless he were ‘his very own and natural’ Son.35 The Son of God (‘his Son’) can only be such if he fully shares his Father’s nature. Before turning from the topic of the gospel’s content (the Son Jesus Christ), Aquinas raises a further question about why Paul mentions descent from David rather than descent from Abraham, to whom the promises were originally given. In Aquinas’s view, the emphasis on David reflects the gospel’s purpose with regard to the forgiveness of sin, because David (unlike Abraham) was a notable sinner. It also reflects Christ’s Kingship, something important to emphasize especially to the Romans, who imagined that they ruled the world. Lastly, Aquinas notes that Paul’s proclamation of the gospel in Romans 1:2–3 excludes the central Manichean errors: their view that the God of the Old Testament differs from the Father, their view that the Scriptures of Israel are wicked, and their view that Christ’s body was an illusion. In sum, from Paul’s proclamation of ‘the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:1–3), Aquinas draws the following three main conclusions about the ‘gospel’. First, the gospel is about Jesus, who is the eternal Son, the Messiah of Israel, and the King of Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is fully the Son of God and he is, at the same time, also fully human, of the royal family of David. Second, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and indeed the fulfilment of the entirety of Israel’s scriptures. The gospel’s authority is confirmed by its antiquity and ‘firmitas’, as well

34. Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, no. 29, p. 11. 35. Ibid., no. 33, p. 12.

11. What is the Gospel?


as by the dignity that God gave to Israel’s prophets and by their inspired writings. Third, the gospel is good news because it is about our deification. The gospel proclaims the union of God and man in Jesus Christ, and it proclaims that in Jesus Christ we receive the forgiveness of sins and adoption as sons of God through the Holy Spirit, with the goal of attaining to eternal life in God. In Romans 1:9, Paul tells the Romans that he continually has them in prayer, as part of his ongoing service to God ‘in the gospel of his Son’. Aquinas comments that the phrase ‘the gospel of his Son’ is appropriate because the gospel is about Jesus Christ, was preached by Jesus Christ (see Luke 4:18) and was commanded by Jesus Christ to be preached by his apostles (see Mark 16:15).36 When Paul twice mentions the gospel in Romans 1:15–16—‘I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel’ – Aquinas emphasizes our reception of the gospel. We should be eager to hear this good news. Nonetheless, in Aquinas’s interpretation of Paul, how we receive God’s Word depends ultimately upon God’s grace, God’s calling.37 When in Romans 2:16 Paul says ‘according to my gospel’, Aquinas comments that Paul is describing his preaching of the gospel, and ‘the preacher’s industry achieves something’.38 Aquinas returns to his emphasis on God’s grace in commenting on Romans 10:16, ‘But they have not all heeded the gospel.’ Citing Jesus’s words in John 6:45, Aquinas states that ‘the outwardly spoken word of the preacher is not sufficient to cause faith, unless a man’s heart is attracted inwardly by the power of God speaking’.39 Yet this fact does not absolve from sin those who reject the gospel, because they do so by their free will. Aquinas adds that it is God’s grace that moves Paul to preach the gospel. Likewise, when Paul speaks of ‘the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 15:15–16), Aquinas observes that the operation of God’s grace configures Paul to the ‘service of the Gospel of God’.40 The gospel that Paul preaches was first preached by Jesus Christ, and we are moved to accept it by his Holy Spirit.41

Aquinas on Paul’s ‘Gospel’ in Galatians I now turn to Aquinas’s commentary on Galatians. This letter is particularly important because Paul accuses the Galatians of abandoning the gospel, and Paul insists that the gospel that he preaches is without qualification the gospel of God:

36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41.

Ibid., no. 79, p. 29. See ibid., nos. 95–96, p. 34. Ibid., no. 223, p. 77. Ibid., no. 842, p. 288. See ibid., no. 1167, p. 403. See ibid., no. 1223, p. 422.


Theological Theology

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. . . . For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:6–9, 11–12).

How does Aquinas treat the issues that Paul raises here about the gospel? First, Aquinas argues that the ‘different gospel’ to which the Galatians are turning is the Torah. The Torah (or Old Law) is indeed good news, but the things that it explicitly proclaims have to do primarily with this world rather than with eternal life in intimate union with God. The goods of eternal life make the goods of this world look miniscule in comparison. For this reason, Aquinas states that the Old Law ‘is not completely perfect as is the gospel, because it does not announce the perfect and loftiest goods, but small and slight ones. But the New Law is perfectly and in the full sense a gospel, i.e., a good message, because it announces the greatest goods, namely, heavenly, spiritual, and eternal’.42 The gospel that Paul preaches is this perfect gospel, because it proclaims eternal goods in Christ Jesus. It might seem, however, that if the Galatians’ turning to certain practices of the Torah constituted an adherence to a ‘different gospel’, then the New Testament diverges from the Old Testament, with the result that those who believe in the gospel can discard the scriptures of Israel. Aquinas responds that ‘it is another gospel according to the tradition of the deceivers’.43 Those who are deceiving the Galatians have destroyed the promise/fulfilment dynamic that unites the two testaments in the one gospel of Jesus Christ. By retaining the practices of the Torah as though Christ had not fulfilled them, those who are deceiving the Galatians have instituted the Torah as a separate gospel, a separate good news. By contrast, says Aquinas, for Paul there is one gospel that differs in the goods that are promised but that does not differ at the deeper level of the realities that are proclaimed. The goods that are promised to Israel (land, peace, King, Temple, and so forth) are figures of greater goods that are fully revealed in Christ Jesus and in the promises that he makes regarding the kingdom of God. Aquinas explains, ‘Therefore it is another gospel if you consider the outward appearances; but as to the things that are contained and exist within, it is not another gospel.’44

42. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, trans. F. R. Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1966), ch. 1, lect. 2, p. 12. 43. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 2, p. 12. 44. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 2, p. 12.

11. What is the Gospel?


Commenting on Galatians 1:8, ‘even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed’, Aquinas adds to his portrait of the kind of teaching that the gospel is. The gospel, he notes, was delivered to us directly by God himself; in this regard he quotes John 1:18, Hebrews 1:2 and Hebrews 2:3. The gospel has divine authority because it was preached by the Son Jesus Christ. No angel or human can preach a different gospel because ‘God’s teaching would be against him’.45 For this reason, Paul in Galatians 1:8 is not simply asserting the superiority of his gospel as if it were a human teaching that depended on his own authority. How can we know what exactly constitutes ‘a gospel contrary to that which we [Paul] preached to you’ (Gal. 1:8)? Aquinas states that Paul’s meaning is that we should not teach anything ‘completely alien [omnino alienum]’ to the gospel, that is, anything that does not serve the gospel’s ‘teaching and faith in Christ’ or that cannot be found (either explicitly or implicitly) in the gospel.46 What alien teachings does Aquinas have in view? He does not say directly, but instead he quotes 1 Thessalonians 3:10, where Paul says that he is ‘praying earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith’. Whatever is ‘lacking’ in the gospel but truly fosters the gospel can be supplied by preachers. Discussing Paul’s statement that ‘the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel’ (Gal. 1:11), Aquinas inquires into what it means for the gospel not to be ‘man’s gospel’. Certainly the key point is that the source of the gospel is God. For a gospel not to be ‘man’s gospel’ also means that it is ‘not according to human nature out of tune with the divine rule or divine revelation [secundum humanam naturam discordantem a regula seu revelatione divina]’.47 The gospel is at odds with sinful human nature, which is filled with discord and contention rather than with the peace and reconciliation that characterize the gospel. In this regard Aquinas quotes 1 Corinthians 3:3, ‘For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving like ordinary men?’ Not only, then, does Paul’s rejection of the view that his gospel is ‘man’s gospel’ mean that the source of his gospel is God, but also it means that Paul’s gospel teaches us to live in a new way rather than by following the sinful desires of fallen human nature. Paul goes on to say that his authority to preach the gospel, and his understanding of the gospel, came solely ‘through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 1:12). While recognizing that Paul is claiming something unique to his own experience, Aquinas notes the ways in which Paul’s claim teaches us about the gospel itself. Namely, Paul’s statement that ‘I did not receive it [the gospel] from man, nor was I taught it’ (Gal. 1:12) should be interpreted in a manner that extends its application to all preachers of the gospel. Paul’s authority to preach the gospel comes from God

45. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 2, p. 15. 46. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 2, p. 16. 47. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 3, p. 19.


Theological Theology

rather than ‘purely’ from man.48 This is true for all vocations to preach the gospel. At the same time, Aquinas attends to the unique aspect of Paul’s vocation, the fact that Paul received his understanding of the gospel ‘through a revelation of Jesus Christ’. Jesus, says Aquinas, ‘showed him everything clearly’.49 In support of the uniqueness of Paul’s reception of the gospel, Aquinas refers to 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul describes being ‘caught up into Paradise’ (2 Cor. 12:3) and hearing ‘things that cannot be told, which man may not utter’ (2 Cor. 12:4). Aquinas also quotes Isaiah 50:4–5, where the prophet states that ‘[t]he Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught. . . . The Lord God has opened my ear.’ The prophet Isaiah, then, stands as a precedent for Paul’s reception of divine revelation, and Paul has mystical experiences that surpass even Isaiah’s. Aquinas thinks that Paul’s ‘conversion was perfect with respect to his understanding, because he was so instructed by Christ that there was no need to be instructed by the apostles’.50 In Galatians 2:2, Paul recalls that after preaching the gospel for some years, he went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus and ‘laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain’. Does Paul here leave open the possibility that his gospel could have been in error or that he could have been in need of human confirmation? Citing Galatians 1:8, Aquinas denies that Paul is leaving open such possibilities in Galatians 2:2. Instead, he argues that because Paul ‘had not lived with Christ or been taught by the apostles’, Paul had to be especially careful to demonstrate the unity of his gospel ‘with that of the other apostles’.51 In Aquinas’s view, Paul never entertained doubt about ‘the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:5), which ‘teaches that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision profits anything, but faith’.52 Rather, Paul sought to show his unity with the leading apostles in order to reassure those to whom he had proclaimed the gospel, since some of those who had believed Paul’s teaching now required reassurance that they need not practice the rites of the Torah. Paul even had to defend ‘the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:14) against Peter, who had been eating ‘with the Gentiles’ until the ‘circumcision party’ intimidated him (Gal. 2:12). Aquinas’s theology of the gospel thus includes the aspect of justification by faith.53 Aquinas treats the gospel again in his comments on Galatians 3:8 and 4:13, but these comments are too brief to add anything to our study and we can pass over them. How then might we sum up the contributions made by Aquinas’s treatment of the gospel in Galatians 1–2? Three contributions stand out. First, Aquinas reflects carefully on the relation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Torah. The

48. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 3, p. 19. 49. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 3, p. 19. 50. Ibid., ch. 1, lect. 4, p. 26. 51. Ibid., ch. 2, lect. 1, p. 35. 52. Ibid., p. 39. 53. See also Bruce Marshall, ‘Beatus vir: Aquinas, Romans 4, and the Role of “Reckoning” in Justification’, in Reading Romans with St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 216–37.

11. What is the Gospel?


gospel of Jesus Christ is not a ‘different gospel’ from what is found in the Torah, even though the two promise different goods. This gospel requires the response of faith. Second, the gospel belongs not to Paul or to any human authority, but rather is delivered directly by God through his Son Jesus Christ. It is neither ‘Paul’s gospel’ nor ‘man’s gospel’. In this regard Aquinas’s reflections on why the gospel is opposed to the jealousy and strife of sinful human nature are particularly insightful. Third, even a unique personal revelation of the gospel, as Paul received from Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, does not do away with the need to receive confirmation from the whole Church. The Church has a necessary role in the true proclamation of the gospel.

Conclusion Recall the eight points that McKnight makes about 1 Corinthians 15:1–5: ‘gospel’ is a dynamic reality; the gospel must be received; the basic content of the gospel is that Christ died, was buried, rose from the dead and appeared to chosen witnesses; the gospel brings to fulfilment the story of Israel; the gospel saves us from our sins; the gospel involves all that happened to Jesus and also includes his Second Coming and the final consummation of the kingdom of God; the gospel’s centre is Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and the gospel’s goal is the glorification of God through his Son in the new creation. Especially once we recognize that Christ’s fulfilment of the story of Israel inaugurates his eschatological church, and that the naming of Christ as ‘Son of God’ cannot be separated from this church’s actual historical order and teachings, McKnight’s eight points fit well with what Aquinas says about Paul’s use of ‘gospel’ in Romans 1 and Galatians 1–2. Commenting on these passages from Paul, Aquinas focuses on Jesus Christ as the centre of the gospel, the gospel as the fulfilment of Israel’s story, God’s commissioning of preachers of his gospel and the gospel’s goal of our deification, rooted in the union of God and man in Jesus Christ. Aquinas shows that although the scriptures of Israel and the New Testament promise different good things, they are not two gospels. Rather, there is one gospel whose unity is apparent in the fulfilment of God’s promises accomplished in and through the Messiah and his eschatological community. What does this understanding of the gospel mean for what McKnight calls a ‘gospel culture’ in the church? Certainly the key element is the placement of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, at the heart of the church’s mission. For this reason, Aquinas’s exegetical references to the patristic church’s teachings on the full divinity and full humanity of the Son are not eisegetical excurses. Second, a ‘gospel culture’ attends to the whole story of Israel/church, from creation through the patriarchs and prophets, who show the ‘antiquity’ of God’s work, the wisdom by which he accomplishes his plan and the ‘dignity’ of participating in this saving economy. Third, the gospel is received from God and proclaimed first by the incarnate Son of God. The divine authority, reliability and inspired written form of the gospel are what give Paul his assurance that the content of his gospel cannot be


Theological Theology

false. Fourth, a ‘gospel culture’ attends both to the forgiveness of sins and to our adoption as sons in the Son, all the way to our full sharing in the divine life in the everlasting kingdom of God. Fifth, Aquinas’s point about Paul’s seeking confirmation from the Church suggests that the proper locus of a ‘gospel culture’ is indeed the church, with its liturgical and evangelizing mission to be the Body of Christ. None of this takes away from justification by faith, but rather, as McKnight emphasizes, it puts justification by faith in its proper gospel context. In short, at the centre of a ‘gospel culture’ stands Jesus Christ, who is Messiah, Son of God, and King. The gospel unites us in Christ’s eschatological kingdom, which has been inaugurated but not yet consummated. Confessing the gospel in the context of our eucharistic ‘remembering’ of Jesus, we share by the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ self-offering to the Father. Even now, therefore, we bear witness (however imperfectly) to the truth that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish’ (Eph. 5:25–27).54

54. An expanded edition of this essay, written for John Webster’s festschrift out of appreciation for his manifold important contributions to the proclamation of the gospel, has now appeared as chapter 4 of my Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel Through Church and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014).

Chapter 12 B A RT H’ S C R I T IQ U E O F S C H L E I E R M AC H E R R E C O N SI D E R E D 1 Bruce L. McCormack

By the summer semester of 1933, Karl Barth’s popularity was at its pre-war zenith. The number of students coming to hear him was consistently very high; a school of ‘Barthians’ was forming amongst them, which gave Barth reason to worry. It is very likely that it was to the ‘Barthians’ that Barth addressed the following memorable words in the lectures which became his chapter on Schleiermacher in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. We have to do [here] with a hero, the like of which is but seldom bestowed upon theology. Anyone who has never noticed anything of the splendor this figure radiated and still does – I am almost tempted to say, who has never succumbed to it – may honorably pass on to other and possibly better ways, but let him never raise so much as a finger against Schleiermacher. Anyone who has never loved here, may not hate here either. H[einrich] Scholz wrote with perfect truth of the Doctrine of Faith: ‘Schleiermacher did not succeed in everything; but his achievement as a whole is so great, that the only threat to it would be a corresponding counter-achievement, not a cavilling criticism of detail.’ This counter-achievement, and indeed the man who could not only criticize Schleiermacher but measure himself against him, have not yet appeared.2

Barth did not dare as yet to believe that he would be the man who could one day measure his own achievement by the high standards set by Schleiermacher. He had only just completed the first part-volume of his Prolegomena, Church Dogmatics I/1. He might have hoped to become that person but he was wise enough to realize that his time had not yet come. But his real point in this context was that anyone 1. A Lecture Given at the University of Notre Dame, October 8, 2010. 2. Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Brian Cozens and John Bowden with a new introduction by Colin Gunton (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 413.



Theological Theology

who had not passed through the school of Schleiermacher as he had, anyone who lacked the love needed for close engagement with the mountain of material left behind by the ‘Church Father of the nineteenth century’3 and was not in a position to love again and again, had not earned the right to criticize Schleiermacher. Barth was right to worry that those who attached themselves to his theology might come to Schleiermacher already armed with his critique and looking only for a few select passages to prove it. It’s certainly a common enough practice amongst ‘Barthians’ today. Still Barth deserves at least some of the blame for this unfortunate practice. His critique of Schleiermacher was too fundamental, too complete, too final (in spite of himself). And the self-doubt which was registered around the edges of Barth’s interpretation could easily be dismissed by readers as simply an exercise in ‘good manners’. What I would like to do in this essay is to reconsider Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher. I do so as one who learned to love Schleiermacher only after having first loved Barth and who has found it quite natural since to love both – again and again. But loving both also means that neither can be immune to criticism.

The Relative Importance of Apologetics: Barth’s Interpretation as Self-subversion Karl Barth understood Friedrich Schleiermacher, most fundamentally, as an apologetical theologian. ‘Apologetics,’ he said, ‘is an attempt to show by means of thought and speech that the determining principles of philosophy and of historical and natural research at some given point in time certainly do not preclude, even if they do not directly require, the tenets of theology, which are founded upon revelation and upon faith respectively. A bold apologetics proves to a particular generation the intellectual necessity of the theological principles taken from the Bible or from church dogma or from both; a more cautious apologetics proves at least their intellectual possibility.’4 Whether Schleiermacher was a bold or a cautious apologete is a question which, Barth believed, could not be given a final, definitive answer.5 But an apologetical theologian, regardless of which answer is given to this question! But if an apologist, then not a Christian theologian – or, at least, not a Christian theologian so long as Schleiermacher was engaged in apologetics: ‘in so far as he is an apologist, he must . . . take his point of departure (standpoint) above Christianity

3. Christoph Lülmann, Schleiermacher, der Kirchenvater des 19. Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1907); cited with approval by Barth in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, p. 411. 4. Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 425–6 (emphases mine). 5. Ibid., p. 430.

12. Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered


(in the logical sense of the word) in the general concept of the community of pious people or believers. As an apologist, he is not a Christian theologian but a moral philosopher and philosopher of religion. . . . The time will come for him to return completely to his subject and speak as a Christian theologian. Then he will no longer speak on religion, but ex officio out of religion.’6 In Barth’s view, the whole of the Introduction is an exercise in apologetics. As such, it reflects the very same intention which earlier had governed the Speeches.‘Paragraphs 1–31 of the Doctrine of Faith are written in precisely the same sense as the theological work of his youth, the Speeches on Religion.’7 In both, the standpoint from which Schleiermacher speaks is a standpoint outside the ‘phenomenon of religion’.8 Indeed, ‘Anyone who seeks to negotiate between faith and a cultural awareness which at first is assumed to be unbelieving, and then bring about a lasting covenant between them must, at all events while he is doing this, take up a position which is in principle beyond that of both parties; a superior position, from which he can understand both parties and be a just advocate of both. He must, even if he himself belongs to one side, at least carry a white flag in his hand when approaching the other side for a parley; he cannot at that moment be engaged as a combatant. To put it unmetaphorically: as long as he is an apologist, the theologian must renounce his theological function.’9 So in Barth’s view, Schleiermacher has a superior vantage point from which he is able to survey the contents of both Christian faith and the surrounding culture: ‘the apologist is a complete master of Christianity, in a position, as it were, to look into it from above just as much as modern cultural awareness is; able to elicit its nature and assess its value’. In sum: ‘Schleiermacher did not speak as a responsible servant of Christianity but, like a true virtuoso, as a free master of it.’10 This is, to say the very least, a strong reading. One is even tempted to say, it is forced. For Barth had to depart from Schleiermacher himself, from what was actually said in the Introduction, in order to make these comprehensive claims. For what Barth says here, he says about apologetics generally; he speaks of what he thinks must be true of all apologetic efforts regardless of the content of the ‘theological principles’ which the apologist brings with him to the parley. And so, it comes as only a small surprise that Barth quite clearly also had serious misgivings about his own claims – and, as a consequence, the apologetic reading could not be carried out with anything like consistency. Among the indications that Barth was less than sure of his own reading, consider the following. First, he begins his presentation with a stout defence of the thesis that Schleiermacher is rightly regarded as a Christian theologian in the first instance, and not a philosopher. Schleiermacher’s desire to achieve an

6. Ibid. 7. Ibid., p. 427. 8. Ibid., p. 428. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid., p. 430.


Theological Theology

apologetic mediation between Christian faith and an incredulous surrounding culture, it turns out, is not the ‘primary motif ’.11 It is, to be sure, the ‘first motif ’12 that one encounters if one begins with the Speeches and comes directly from a reading of them to the Introduction to the Glaubenslehre. But apologetics is not Schleiermacher’s primary motivation, in Barth’s view. What, then, was primary for Schleiermacher? What Schleiermacher ‘wanted’ becomes most evident, according to Barth, ‘in his maturity, in the two works on ethics and in the sermons, particularly those of his old age.’13 What he wanted was ‘to draw men [and women] into the movement of [cultural/spiritual] formation, the exaltation of life, which at bottom is the religious, the Christian movement’.14 Barth explains further: ‘I venture to assert that Schleiermacher’s entire philosophy of religion, and therefore his entire doctrine of the essence of religion and of Christianity, the things we first speak of when his name is mentioned, was something secondary, auxiliary to the consolidation of this true concern of his, the ethical one.’15 Barth notes, in a critical remark directed against Emil Brunner’s interpretation of Schleiermacher as a mystic, that the life to which Schleiermacher subordinates doctrine is not ‘a life playing itself out in the inwardness of the soul, a life which takes pleasure in itself and is essentially passive, a mystical introspection’.16 One might draw such a conclusion, Barth says, if one had reference only to the Speeches and the Introduction. But, we must not overlook the remarkable paragraph  9 in the Introduction to the Doctrine of Faith where Christianity is suddenly described – contrary to all expectations the reader acquires from the previous paragraphs – as a teleological religion, one, that is, which is determined in the direction of activity, in which the consciousness of God is entirely related to the sum-total of the states of activity in the idea of the Kingdom of God. After the apologetic beginning of the Introduction such a description of Christianity as the highest religion ought to have been impossible: the feeling of absolute dependence, which had been the definition of religion in this beginning, could only have found its fulfillment in the aesthetic, i.e. passive type of religion.17

11. Ibid., p. 426. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid., p. 429. 14. Ibid., p. 422. It should be noted that I revised the translation here. Bildung can mean simply ‘education’. But in this context, it means much more than that. It has to do with the shaping of personhood. 15. Ibid (lightly revised). 16. Ibid. 17. Ibid. It should be noted that the English translation has ‘a theological religion’ where Barth has ‘a teleological religion’. I have made the necessary correction. See Barth, Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert (Zürich: TVZ, 1981), p. 389.

12. Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered


But, of course, Schleiermacher did define the essence of the Christian religion in terms of teleology; he did make active work for the Kingdom to be the quintessence of the Christian’s life in this world. So here is my question, the question I want to put to Barth: how can work which is only made possible by the impact of Christ’s redemptive influence upon the church and upon the individual as a member of the church be essential to Christian existence and yet, at the same time, be something which can be renounced or even only just set aside temporarily for the sake of carrying a white flag? And how can there be a standpoint ‘above’ this work – if the work itself presupposes, as all spontaneous activity in which the God-consciousness is joined to sensible states of consciousness must presuppose, a moment of receptivity, a moment in which the redemptive influence of Christ takes captive the person who is caught up in the movement of the Kingdom unleashed by Christ’s redemptive work in this world? Surely a standpoint ‘above’ such activity could be achieved only by means of a decision which is not controlled by Christ’s redemptive influence. Surely, if Barth is right in arguing for an ‘ethical interpretation’18 of Schleiermacher’s leading motivations over against Brunner’s mystical reading, then his interpretation of Schleiermacher’s apologetic programe has to be called into question. For Schleiermacher’s Christian ethics, at the very least, is about the constitution of the human as an ethical subject, something which does not happen apart from the experience of redemption. So is Schleiermacher really writing ‘on religion’ – rather than ‘out of religion’ – in the whole of paragraphs 1–31? Or does he, perhaps, effect the shift from speaking as a moral philosopher to speaking as a Christian theologian already in Section 9 (at the very latest)? A second indication that Barth had misgivings: he tells us that Schleiermacher ‘did at least see the danger of a theology which is essentially apologetic in its approach – its impending metamorphosis into a philosophy; and if there one thing he fought almost desperately against as an academic theologian, it was this danger. He also saw what the offense was wherewith he had to present philosophy, or at least the philosophy of his own time, if he wanted to be a theologian, and he did dare to offend it in this way. It is the problem of Christology which is here at stake.’19 So at the very least, we must acknowledge that Barth opened the door to the possibility that Schleiermacher’s Christology might call into question the reading of him as an apologetical theologian. It might have done so, I say. But then Barth continues: ‘It can be asked whether what he wanted to say about the relation of God and man could possibly be said also in the form of Christology. And it can, moreover, be asked whether Christology can possibly serve as the form for what Schleiermacher wanted to say. The Christology is the great disturbing element in Schleiermacher’s doctrine of faith; not a very effective disturbance, perhaps, but a disturbance all the same.’20 But is Schleiermacher’s Christology merely the form of

18. Ibid., p. 423. 19. Ibid., p. 417. 20. Ibid., pp. 417–18.


Theological Theology

what he really wanted to say? Does Barth really believe this? Did he perhaps have doubts about what he was saying here? On the face of it, it would seem clear that he does not. When Barth comes to treat Schleiermacher’s Christology directly in the fifth and final section of this essay, he concludes that Schleiermacher thoroughly relativized the difference between Christ and the Christian. Where this occurs, he added, it is also impossible to establish an adequate distinction between the second and third persons of the Trinity. Therefore, what Schleiermacher really wanted to say is best illustrated with a circle, not an ellipse with two foci. I will return to the question of Christology by way of an evaluation of Barth’s critique in a moment. For now, I only wish to ask: did he really believe what he is saying? Did he really believe that the difference between Christ and the Christian is only relative in Schleiermacher? Did he really not see that Schleiermacher was well able, on the basis of his own understanding of God, to find in Christ a reduplication of divine life in the very heart of human life? That Christ is God incarnate precisely in His spontaneous activity? And, on the other side: did he really not see that Schleiermacher made the relation of the disciples ‘at first-hand’ to Christ to consist in a reduplication of the human relation to God? I would like to think that, on some level at least, Barth was having a bit of fun. I would like to think that he could not have believed what he was saying; that he wanted his students to think further with Schleiermacher – so that they too might find themselves in a position to love again and again. And that he wanted them to think beyond Schleiermacher – to ask themselves what a pneumatocentric theology which does preserve the two foci in the ellipse in their integrity might look like. In favour of this reading is the fact that Barth’s own love for Schleiermacher remained undiminished even while registering what appears to be the most damning criticism. That, at least, is a puzzle that merits further reflection. Certainly, by the end of his life, when he penned his‘Postscript’ on Schleiermacher, Barth surely must have asked himself on occasion whether he too had been guilty of replacing the ellipse with a circle, whether he too – with the radical christocentrism of the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics – had not collapsed the two foci into a single centre. And if so, perhaps his question in the ‘Postscript’ with regard to a pneumatocentric theology is meant as a counter-balance, and (once again!) as a recognition that Schleiermacher’s starting-point in theology had a validity equal to that of his own most cherished starting-point. But even if I am wrong, even if Barth did not wish to plant seeds for the dissolution of his reading of Schleiermacher, there are two points at which his critique very obviously fails. So he would certainly have been better off if he had intended a bit of self-subversion.

A Critique of Barth’s Critique I want to suggest that the whole of Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher stands or falls, at the end of the day, with his interpretation of Schleiermacher’s Christology.

12. Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered


If he is wrong there, then he is wrong almost everywhere. And even the things he gets right have been placed in the wrong light. Barth’s interpretation of Schleiermacher’s Christology reaches its peak at the point at which he presents us with a stark either/or. But first he sets the stage with a preliminary reflection. If Schleiermacher understood Jesus Christ to be God incarnate then He would have been identified with the Whence of our feeling of absolute dependence. But it is axiomatic for Schleiermacher that are we absolutely dependent on God alone. Vis-à-vis all the things and persons we encounter in this world, we are relatively free and relatively dependent. And so, Barth agues, given that we cannot be absolutely dependent upon anything found within the ‘system of nature’, we could not possibly be absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ – insofar as He is a historically identifiable human being – an ‘objective quantity’ in Barth’s words.21 The either/or follows directly from this line of reflection. Either we abstract speculatively from the historical individuality of Jesus – and what we call dependence upon Christ is actually just dependence upon the God who gives Himself to us in the feeling of absolute dependence itself (which renders Jesus of Nazareth superfluous). Or we grant him his historical individuality and think of him in this individuality as a temporal point of reference for pious feeling. This, however, directly implies that He is part of this world, i.e. that he is of the quintessence of all that in relation to which we have relative freedom, and upon which, therefore, we are only relatively dependent. This is to deny the only thing which, according to Schleiermacher’s way of thinking, could be His Godhead. . . . Schleiermacher does not opt for the first, but for the second of these possibilities. He renounced the idea of a purely speculative Christology, but precisely in doing so, according to the premises of his conception of religion, he was bound to renounce the idea of the Deity of Christ or, to put it differently, to understand the Deity of Christ as the incomparable climax and decisive stimulator within the total life of humanity.22

What Barth’s interpretation amounts to is this: Schleiemacher understands Christ strictly in terms of our own consciousness of redemption. He has but one methodological strategy in the construction of his Christology and that is to reason back from our consciousness of redemption to Christ – a move from effects to their cause. And that means too that the difference between Christ and ourselves has been relativized. The difference is a merely quantitative one, rather than a qualitative one. The feeling of absolute dependence is more effective in Him than it is in us but the difference is one of degree. And so Christ cannot be God incarnate. So what are we to say in response to all of this? My own view is that Schleiermacher’s Christology ‘lives’ at the intersection of two lines of reflection, not one; a vertical line and a horizontal line. On the vertical line, Christ is the ‘second

21. Ibid., p. 453. 22. Ibid., pp. 453–4.


Theological Theology

Adam’ – the One in whom God acts to bring about the completion of creation. On the second line, He is the Redeemer, the One to whom we can trace back our consciousness of redemption as its source. Of these two lines, it is the vertical rather than the horizontal that is the more fundamental, the more significant. Christ can be and is the Redeemer only because He is first (logically speaking) the ‘second Adam’. The decisive point about the vertical line is this. Jesus Christ was, for Schleiermacher, the man in whom God-consciousness was perfectly potent. What this means is that the man Jesus constantly and in an unbroken fashion joined His God-consciousness to all the stimuli which came to Him from without (His sensible life, in other words), so that the former constantly dominated the latter rather than the other way around. Barth certainly knew this much, but he drew the wrong conclusion. Jesus could only have this perfectly potent God-consciousness because of the presence in Him of a ‘living receptivity’23 which constantly placed itself at the disposal of the divine causality which was effective in and through Him. Indeed, His living receptivity to the divine causality was itself the product of that causality – which is what made Him to be the ‘second Adam’. But look at what has been achieved when we have only said this much. Because Jesus is perfectly receptive to the divine causality at work in and through Him, He is perfectly active in relation to all that comes to Him from without. He relates to what stands ‘outside’ of Himself in precisely the same way that God relates to the world – viz. as a perfectly actualized being in whom there is no unrealized potentiality, as One who is not affected, who is untouched, by all that transpires in the world around Him. Jesus is thus, for Schleiermacher, the perfect replication in human form of what God is. And He is this because God is so completely active in and through Him that it can finally be said that everything done by Jesus is done by God. As Schleiermacher puts it, ‘the existence of God in the Redeemer is posited as the innermost fundamental power within Him, from which every activity proceeds and which holds everything together; everything human (in Him) forms only the organism for this fundamental power’24 Not since Cyril of Alexandria had a theologian so completely instrumentalized the human ‘nature’ of Christ.25 Barth knows full well that Schleiermacher’s God cannot stand in a relation of reciprocity to the world; if it were so, then we could not be absolutely dependent

23. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1976), §94.2, p. 387. 24. Ibid. §96.3, p. 397. 25. According to John McGuckin, ‘The human nature is . . . not conceived [by Cyril] as an independently acting dynamic (a distinct human person who self-activates) but as the manner of action of an independent and omnipotent power – that of the Logos; and to the Logos alone can be attributed the authorship of, and responsibility for, all its actions. This last principle is the flagship of Cyril’s whole argument. There can be only one creative subject, one personal reality, in the incarnate Lord; and that subject is the divine Logos who has made a human nature his own.’ See McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), p. 186.

12. Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered


upon Him. Affected by His relation to the world, God’s being would have been made somehow continuous with the being of the world – which would mean that we could only be relatively free and relatively dependent in relation to Him as well. Barth knows this. What he fails to see, however, is that the same thing is true of Jesus that is true of God. Jesus does not stand in a relation of reciprocity to the world around Him. His perfectly potent God-consciousness dominates all sensible stimuli that come His way. Even His ‘compassion’ is an expression of the divine love which seeks to unite self with other26 rather than a reaction to stimuli which come to Him from without. The bottom line is this: a human being who concretely ‘incarnates’ the ‘pure activity’27 that God is must differ from us qualitatively and not merely quantitatively. Of Him alone must we speak of a ‘veritable existence of God in Him’.28 But now notice, too, that this fundamental power at work in the man Jesus is not something directly intuitable to those who stood in closest fellowship with Him. This does not mean that the historical individuality of Jesus is of no consequence for Christology; there could be no Christology if the pure activity that God is had not been embodied in the concreteness of an individual existence. But the power at work in Him is hidden. It was not given to direct observation. Certainly, Jesus’s disciples were caught up in the power of Jesus’s perfectly potent God-consciousness. They experienced the power of His being even though they could not directly discern the source of it in His living receptivity to the divine causality. And, as a consequence of this experience, they related to the spontaneous activity which flowed from Jesus’s perfectly potent God-consciousness in the posture of receptivity – precisely as they did to the Whence of their feeling of absolute dependence (which is yet another confirmation of Schleiermacher’s belief in the deity of Jesus Christ). Barth’s worry, then, that believers could not, on Schleiermacherian soil, be dependent upon an objective magnitude like Jesus in the same way that they were dependent upon God without destroying the feeling of absolute dependence was completely misplaced. What believers are absolutely dependent upon is the divine causality at work in and through the historical magnitude we call ‘Jesus’, not the objective magnitude as such. To be dependent upon Him is to be absolutely dependent upon God. Barth’s either/or, it has to be said, presents us with a false set of alternatives. It is not the case that Schleiermacher would have had to resort to a speculative Christology in order to secure Christ’s Deity. If anything, his Christology is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that it seeks to find in God for the conditions of the possibility of a Redeemer like the one borne witness to in John’s Gospel especially (which Schleiermacher took to be the earliest and most reliable gospel). Nor is it the case that the relation of Christ to Christians is merely relative. Something new happened in Him – which was not given in our ‘original’ relation to God or made

26. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §165.1, p. 726. 27. Ibid., §94.2, p. 387. 28. Ibid., §94, introductory proposition, p. 385.


Theological Theology

known in ‘original revelation’. What is ‘original’ in God was, in any case, the intention to redeem. Creation exists, for Him, for the sake of redemption. And Christ alone can be the Redeemer, because He alone is the second Adam, the one in whom the creation of the human was completed. Schleiermacher did not operate with a master-concept (‘Gesamtleben’) whose content was already given in the original relation of men and women to God in order then, and on that basis, to be able to explain the connection of believers to Christ; he operated instead with an understanding of human ‘nature’ as a history which finds its telos in the concrete existence of the man Jesus.29 But then it also follows that Schleiermacher was not doing Christology on the basis of an apologetic programme. He was not interpreting the Christ event through the lens of a ‘higher standpoint’. On the contrary: Christology is the key to the whole of Schleiermacher’s dogmatic theology; the lynch-pin which holds together all of its parts. Not a mere ‘disturbance’ then, in a doctrine of faith which could almost have gotten along nicely without it! The only remaining question is: was Schleiermacher really doing apologetics in his Introduction? Barth conceded more than he realized in making the material treated in section 9 of the Introduction a first ‘disturbance’ in what was otherwise an apologetic programme that comprehends the whole of the Introduction. My own view is this: it is right to say that Schleiermacher stood ‘outside’ the Christian faith in (I would say) sections 1–10. But it is altogether wrong to say that he stood ‘outside’ in the precise sense which Barth ascribed to him, that of carrying a white flag, that of shelving his Christian convictions in order to be able to mediate between contending groups. This is rather the kind of ‘outside’ that any believing Christian must adopt who, while never surrendering for an instant her own dogmatic convictions, does moral philosophy or philosophy of religion. Moreover, Schleiermacher adopts this ‘outside’ point of view only in order to set the table for a definition of the ‘essence of Christianity’ which comes in section 11. Interestingly, it is only here – at the point at which Schleiermacher speaks of a peculiar essence of Christianity which can only be known to be ‘true’ by those who believe – that he first introduces the word ‘apologetics’. And he does so with this caveat: it is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth really is the peculiar essence of Christianity, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to feel compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not. . . . We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon

29. Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, p. 450.

12. Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered


inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any other form than this.’30

At the very least, Barth ought to have learned from this passage that Schleiermacher was most certainly not engaged in the sort of ‘bold’ apologetic which seeks to demonstrate the intellectual necessity of holding to Christian beliefs. But he might also have learned that even the ascription of a ‘cautious’ apologetic to Schleiermacher has much to be said against it – not least of which is the fact that apologetics is treated here as an ‘in-house’ Christian activity. There is much more that could be said about Barth’s critique. I have not touched (for example) upon the problem created by Barth’s anthropological reduction of Schleiermacher’s dogmatics, based upon the conviction that Schleiermacher claimed to know nothing of God.31 That charge too can be called into question when seen in the light of Schleiermacher’s treatment of the attributes of wisdom and love in sections 166–169. What we have considered to this point will, however, have to suffice.

Conclusion The real tragedy of Barth’s critique is that it serves to conceal from us just how much Barth owes to Schleiermacher. A close comparison of the two would not only show formal agreement (e.g. that they were both theological realists without laying a basis for their realism in a natural theology) but also material similarities and overlap as well. Both are ‘supralapsarians’ who believe that creation exists for the sake of redemption. Both are ‘mediating theologians’ in the sense of using material dogmatic principles to aid them in reconstructing, for example, the Christian doctrine of creation (once the traditional use of Gen. 1–3 as a source of history had been rendered impossible by advances in the natural sciences). Both believe that the divine government of the world is (in Schleiermacher’s words) directed towards a single goal and understand that goal in terms of establishing the Kingdom of God. Both reject the idea of omnicausality as traditionally conceived – and, with that, both demand a wholesale re-ordering of the classical conception of divine providence. Both understand the ‘fall’ as in some way ‘necessary’ to the achievement of God’s redemptive purposes. Both believe that a

30. Schleiermacher, Gl. §11.5, pp. 59–60. 31. Early and late, Barth based his case for his anthropological reduction of Schleiermacher on the latter’s doctrine of the ‘three forms’ of dogmatic statements – and his statement in the Sendschreiben that dogmatics might one day have to content itself with statements of the first form (i.e. the poetic). See Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 441–3. Cf. Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/1924, ed. Dietrich Ritschl, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 205–7.


Theological Theology

relation to the world is made ‘essential’ to God by the eternal activity in which He has His own being. Both understand redemption as already effective in its accomplishment by and in Jesus Christ, so that the Spirit’s work is geared towards empowering the church’s mission (its activities) rather than in making effective a work of Christ which would otherwise have remained ineffective (as the older Protestant orthodoxy had it). One could continue to expand on this list through further inquiry into the material content of other doctrines. But it is also interesting to compare the external shape of their careers. Both launched their careers with a romantic work – the Speeches and the second commentary on Romans. Both turned very quickly to the post-romantic task of constructing Christian doctrines, of doing church dogmatics. In truth, I believe I am right to say that Barth was never closer to Schleiermacher materially than in his Göttingen Dogmatics, when he said of the doctrine of the Trinity ‘Das Problem der Trinitätslehre ist die Erkenntnis der unerschöpflichen Lebendigkeit oder der unaufhebbaren Subjektivität Gottes in seiner Offenbarung’32 (‘the problem with which the doctrine of the Trinity deals is the knowledge of the inexhaustible living-ness or the un-sublateable subjectivity of God in His revelation’), or when he said that God triumphs over the antithesis of God and the human in the person of Christ precisely by remaining other than the human in their union and, thereby, remaining ‘above’ that antithesis.33 In the first of these two remarkable formulations, we find the Hegelian language of sublation (Aufhebung) turned on its head in order to defend a point of view that Schleiermacher would have liked very much – the otherness of God precisely in His Self-revelation. The christological claim makes the exact same point. The Logos triumphed over the antithesis between God and the human by remaining other precisely in His union with human nature.34 Later, after Church Dogmatics II/2, Barth would move further away from Schleiermacher and would begin to draw closer to Hegel. Even then, of course, he was doing what a great number of mediating theologians did before him – he was mediating also between Schleiermacher and Hegel! In any event, if one wished to know what a Christian theology which found its basis in the Third

32. Karl Barth, ‘Unterricht in der christlichen Religion’, Erster Band: Prolegomena, 1924, ed. by Hannelotte Reiffen (Zürich: TVZ, 1985), p. 120. 33. Karl Barth, ‘Unterricht in der christlichen Religion’, Dritter Band: Die Lehre von der Versohnung / Die Lehre von der Erlösung, 1925/1926, ed. Hinrich Stoevesandt (Zürich, TVZ, 2003), p.44: ‘Der Sohn Gottes, der Logos is the Gott-mensch. Er ist über dem Gegensatz. In ihm ist seine Überwindung begründet, geschehen ein für allemal, durch seine Einigung mit der Menschennatur’ (‘He is above the antithesis. In Him, its conquest is grounded, once and for all, through His union with human nature’). 34. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that this Christology would have to be judged as wholly adequate when measured by the New Testament witness. Barth himself went on to elaborate a quite different Christology in CD IV/1ff. I am only saying that Barth’s concern is this early Christology is very nearly the same as the concern as that which animated Schleiermacher’s Christology.

12. Barth’s Critique of Schleiermacher Reconsidered


Article might look like (a programmatic suggestion made by Barth in his 1968 ‘Postscript’), my own response would be: it would look something like the Göttingen Dogmatics! And what of us? What about today? To those of us who are inclined to think it is important to know Karl Barth, I would say: yes, it is important to know Karl Barth. But it is also important to know what Barth knew. And if you are going to know what Barth knew, then you must begin, as he did, with Schleiermacher. Those who condemn Schleiermacher out of hand do not carry in themselves the spirit of Karl Barth. And what they offer on the level of dogmatic theology is but the outward shell of Barth’s teaching, a formalization which has little or no life. May God save us all from ever becoming ‘Barthians’ in this sense!


Chapter 13 A R I ST O T L E’ S S AV IO U R Francesca Murphy

In this essay, I discuss Thomas’s use of Aristotle in his Christology. I make four contentions. First, that Thomas’s Christology requires him to dismantle Aristotle’s meaning, even when he cites it. Second, that he baptizes Aristotle, making him benefit from christological doctrine. Thirdly, and conversely, that Thomas sometimes Aristotelianizes the Saviour. Fourthly, I claim that, nonetheless, Thomas uses Aristotle’s approach to deepen the Christian theology of the Saviour. Because Christological doctrine took precedence over Aristotle in Thomas’s mind he was able to use Aristotle to develop Christology. Thomas’s perspective is ‘hyperAristotelian’, not in the sense of extreme subservience to Aristotle, but of a hyperbolic freedom to reinterpret him, deploying a Christian imperialism which commandeers Aristotle’s goodies for the New Law.

Overview of Thomas’s Christology Thomas divides the treatment of the Saviour into two, ‘the mystery of the Incarnation’ (Qq. 1–26) and the ‘things Our Saviour did and Suffered’ (Qq. 27–59). The first article discusses whether the Incarnation of God is an impossible ‘square circle’, and thus, whether Jesus is really divine.1 His answer is that, although divine nature seems repugnant to Incarnation, and nothing about human nature calls for it, ‘the very nature of God is goodness’ and ‘goodness implies self-communication’. Thomas conceives the Incarnation as the revelation of God. Sometimes when describing episodes like Christ’s baptism, Thomas seems to make him do things for show, as if Christ were putting on an act for our benefit. For Thomas, the Incarnation is an illustration or manifestation: ‘the Son of God took on human nature so that in it he might be seen by men’.2

1. John Hick,‘Jesus and the World Religions’, in John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), p. 178. 2. ST III, Q. 4, Art. 4, ad.



Theological Theology

The second article asks about Christ’s work. Diverse theologians had promoted one or other of Christ’s works, some Patristics like Gregory of Nyssa highlighting the devilward aspect, Anselm advancing the satisfaction of God’s justice in the Cur Deus Homo, Abelard in his Romans commentary teaching exemplarism, the Easterners preaching deification. Thomas gives a many-faceted survey of Christ’s works, neither excluding any of his predecessors’ theories nor singling out one alone. Following upon Anselm’s narrowing of the register of soteriology to satisfaction and Abelard’s abridgement of Christ’s work to exemplification, Thomas ‘restored . . . the multiplicity of complementary aspects of tradition about the meaning of Christ’s passion’.3 Thomas recovered the many-sidedness of the Patristic heritage by figuring a solution to the problem which had led each soteriology to focus on one single christological work. This complex solution is, I will argue, a consequence of Thomas’s imbibing of Aristotle. Thomas turns the water of Greek philosophy into the wine of Christian theology.4 Aristotle would have had stringent objections to a disruption to his beloved, circularly rotating heavenly bodies. Aristotle calls Anaxagoras’ reduction of aether, the fabric of the heavens, to mere ‘fire’ ‘scandalous’, that is, impious. The ‘circle’, he claims ‘is a perfect thing’, with metaphysical and therefore physical priority over all motion.5 And yet, such a disruptive miracle is reported at the Passion: ‘There was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour; and the sun was darkened’ (Luke 23.44–45: Thomas’s ‘sed contra’). The objection to Christ’s ‘work[ing] miracles concerning the heavenly bodies’ is that it runs counter to the square teaching of the De Caelo that the supralunary heavens are incorruptible and unchangeable. Thomas’s answer is that God has priority over circular motion: Christ’s miracles demonstrate his divinity, and it was God who established the pure rotation of the heavens. So Christ’s miracle does no violence to the heavenly bodies: as creatures it is their nature to be changeable by their Creator, just as it is the nature of lower bodies to be moved by the heavens.6 When one has to budge, Aristotelian principles give way to the doctrine of Creation, and the Christian God. But, still, after hospitably receiving him into his Christian, created universe, Thomas has offered him an ‘Aristotelian’ principle to make him feel at home. He does not do so out of adherence to Ptolemaic astronomy, the evidence for which, he says, is observational, not demonstrative.7 Thomas glosses Aristotle’s statement 3. Louis Bouyer, The Eternal Son: A Theology of the Word of God and Christology, trans. Sister Simone Inkel, S.L. and John F. Laughlin (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1978), p. 358. 4. Laurence K. Shook, Etienne Gilson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984), p.  349. Gilson was drawing on a phrase from Thomas’s Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius. 5. Aristotle, De Caelo, 1. 269a, 270b. 6. ST III, Q. 44, Art. 2, ad. 1. 7. Martin Grabmann, Thomas Aquinas: His Personality and Thought, trans. Virgil Michel, New York: Longmans, Green & Co, 1928, p. 35, citing In II. De Coelo et mundo, Lect 17 and ST I, Q. 32, Art. 1, ad. 2.

13. Aristotle’s Saviour


in the Metaphysics that, ‘all men by nature desire to know’ by claiming that ‘it is desirable for each thing to be united to its source, since it is in this that the perfection of each thing consists. This is also the reason why circular motion is the most perfect motion, as is proved in Book VIII of the Physics, because its terminus is united to its starting point. . . . it is only by means of his intellect that man is united to the separate substances, which are the source of the human intellect . . . the ultimate happiness of man consists in this union. Therefore man naturally desires to know.’8 The outage of celestial rotation by the eclipse impacts on a real symbol in his own theology, the circulatio of the created intellect, from and to God. Thomas is recasting Aristotelianism, and defining ‘Christian Peripateticism’.9 Because Thomas’s Christology is driven by the Chalcedonian definition of Christ as two natures in one person, he draws on Aristotle who spoke about nature and form. Seeking to determine whether ‘the union of the Incarnate Word was wrought in one nature’, Thomas gives Aristotle’s definition of nature as ‘the factor which initiates movement and rest within a thing as its own and not from another’. The answer to the question is no, ‘because each nature, divine and human, has its own specific perfection’.10 This belongs to his defence of the Incarnation as nonmythical: the foremost objection to Incarnation is that God is eternal, and so eternally disincarnate. Thomas responds that, the Incarnation did not alter the divine nature: rather, it ‘took place by. . . . a creature becoming united to him . . . for a creature to change is altogether appropriate, since mutability marks its very nature’.11 Thomas needs a crystal hard definition of nature, to activate the Chalcedonian principle that the two natures are united in the Person. Nature will mean the ‘form’ of humanity or divinity, its eidos. Asking whether Christ’s ‘birth is of the nature or of the person’, Thomas states that, ‘the terminus of generation and of every nativity is the form . . ., nature designates something as a form: wherefore nativity is said to be the road to nature, as the Philosopher states (Phys. ii): for the purpose of nature is terminated in the form or nature of the species’.12 Aristotle’s ontology is an aetiology: beings incite wonder so far as they are causes. For Aristotle, the form or nature of a thing can be equated to the final cause at work within it, the good at which it aims. The imperative that the Saviour work as the cause of salvation is operative in much Thomas says about his person. He argues that Christ’s ‘soul was filled with the gift of grace’13 from the moment of conception and that this ‘grace could not increase’, because it had reached its goal in the vision of God.14 No development can accrue to Christ’s knowledge of God.

8. Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book I, Lesson 1.4. 9. Grabmann, Thomas, p. 10. 10. ST III, Q. 2, Art. 1, ad. 11. ST III, Q. 1, Art. 1, ad. 1. 12. ST III, Q. 35, Art. 1, ad. Another example of Thomas’s use of Aristotle on ‘nature’ is in Q. 2, Art. 12, ad. 13. ST III, Q. 2, Art. 12, ad. 14. ST III, Q. 7, Art. 12, ad.


Theological Theology

Christ’s prayer to the Father is not a movement of the mind towards God (passing from potential to act), not a change, but a state of contemplative activity (Aristotle’s idea of the perfection of ‘movement’ as pure activity, like the heavens).15 As cause and principle of grace to human beings, or as exemplar of prayer, Thomas’s Christ must entertain these states in pure activity. Thomas observes that, ‘The mystery of the Incarnation is not to be looked upon as an ascent, as it were, of a man already existing and mounting up to the dignity of the Union . . . Rather it is to be considered as a descent, by reason of the perfect Word of God, taking unto Himself the imperfection of our nature; . . . John 6.38: I came down from heaven.’16 This Christology unites Johannine first principles to Aristotelian explanations. Thomas argues that Jesus had free will ‘in the first instant of his conception’ on the ground that ‘spiritual perfection befitted the human nature which Christ assumed, and he attained it, not progressively, but had it at once from the outset. However, ultimate perfection is not in potentiality or disposition, but in activity. Hence the De Anima says that operation is second actuality. So . . . Christ in the first instant of his conception had that operation of soul which can be had in an instant. And such is activity of mind and will, in which lies the exercise of freewill. For the activity of mind and will is completed . . . in an instant, much more than that of bodily sight, inasmuch as understanding, willing and feeling are not motions which may be described as acts of one not yet complete, which reaches its perfection successively, but as acts of an already perfected being, as Aristotle remarks.’ The conception of intellect in the De Anima as separable from the body comes into play in Thomas’s definition of human nature. Having asserted that the ‘foetal’ Christ had by virtue of ‘infused knowledge’ full use of his reason without recourse to sense or images (like angels and beatified souls),17 Thomas adds that, ‘activity of sense would have been possible in him in the first instant of conception, particularly as regards the sense of touch, which, according to Aristotle, an infant can exercise in the womb even before it has received the rational soul. Since Christ in the first instant of his conception had a rational soul, his body being already fashioned and organised, with all the more reason could he in the same instant have the sense of touch.’18 Thomas’s is recalled by the De Anima to picture Jesus’ bodily contact with his mother’s womb. He is tracking Aristotle on embryonic development: the picture he conjures to sight is the foetal Jesus blindly touching the walls of the womb. And yet, this Christ was never ‘embryonic’ in our sense, let alone Aristotle’s, since Thomas considers it ‘unbecoming that He should take to himself a body as yet unformed’.19 Thomas’s Christ is conceived with a fully formed miniature body.20 15. ST III, Q. 21, Art. 3, ad. 3. 16. ST III, Q. 33, Art. 3, ad. 3. See also, Q. 34, Art. 1, ad. 1. 17. ST III, Q. 11, Art. 1, ad. 2. 18. ST III, Q. 34, Art. 1, ad. 3. 19. ST III, Q. 33, Art. 1. 20. Jean-Pierre Torrell, Le Christ en ses mystères. La vie et l’oeuvre de Jésus selon saint Thomas d’Aquin, vol. I (Paris: Mame-Desclée, 1999), p. 125.

13. Aristotle’s Saviour


It is Thomas the Aristotelian who speaks of the heavenly, infused and experiential knowledge available to Christ from the moment of conception, and his use of free will in the womb. The Patristic authors who inspire so much of his Christology never told us this much about Christ’s consciousness. Thomas may seem most pre-modern when he reflects on Christ’s beatific, infused and experiential knowledge, but in fact he is displaying an un-Patristic fascination with how Christ’s divine-human mind worked. As Bouyer puts it, ‘the transfer of emphasis is undeniable: from the objective event to its subjectivity in the consciousness of Christ. Such a view is in accord with the importance we have seen Saint Thomas place first on the sanctifying grace attached to Christ’s humanity . . . and above all, on the considerable development to be made on the three kinds of knowledge in Christ. A . . . mutation of perspective between the objectivity of the Fathers and modern subjectivity would be nowhere more evident during the Middle Ages’: Thomas’s christological ‘method is a transition between the primarily objective, ontological approach to these questions in antiquity and what will be the modern approach, much more subjective and principally psychological’.21 Thomas’s adaption of Aristotle’s epistemology and phenomenological psychology leads him to imagine Christ as the God-man consciously incarnate. If Thomas’s vocation was to weld together the biblicism and the Aristotelian naturalism of his age,22 this stimulated a new Christology, in which Christ’s divine-human consciousness achieves importance alongside the objective reality of his divine and human natures. This focus is perhaps not at its best when Thomas addresses Christ’s ‘embryonic’ consciousness.23 Still, like Thomas’s compatriots, Giotto and Fra Angelico, with their frescos depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the Tertia Pars presents the ‘faces’ of the Incarnate Christ. In the Gothic age, the human face ‘gleams everywhere through the barred windows of the objective world’ of antiquity.24 A new focus on Christ’s consciousness leads Thomas to present his outward ‘look’, since, for Aristotle, the virtues exist in their concrete, practical and visible exercise. Thomas states that, ‘Aristotle remarked that a virtuous man loves his life the more when he knows it is a good life, and yet he will risk it on account of the good of virtue. In like manner, Christ laid down the life that was so dear to him because of the good of charity.’25 Thomas’s Christ is the exemplar of the virtues, and as such merits human salvation. His interest in Christ’s consciousness is soteriological.

21. Bouyer, Eternal Son, pp. 361–3. 22. Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991), pp. 22–30, 63, 117–18, 144. 23. Bouyer, Eternal Son, p. 356. 24. Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953, 1981), p. 23. 25. ST III, Q. 46, Art. 6.


Theological Theology

The Two-Part Treatise: ‘Incarnation’ and ‘Christology’ and its Uniqueness Qqs 1–26 tackle the ‘Incarnation’ and Qqs 27–59 present the ‘Acta’, the ‘Christology’. For Aristotle, the science of physics deals with sensible substance, and metaphysics as contrasted to physics deals with supersensible substance.26 Thomas’s first treatise tackles the ‘metaphysics’ of the Incarnation and his second, Christological treatise examines the ‘physics’ of the Life of Christ (as it were). The second treatise is effectively a ‘Life of Christ’.27 Biblical historians have taught us that the Romans, too, wrote Bioi, which were extroverted and focused on the actions of the public figure:28 Thomas’s treatise is a Bios, like Tacitus’s Agricola or the gospels. Unlike Thomas’s biblical commentaries, Thomas’s treatise proceeds sequentially through the gospel story, submitting to the historical logic of Christ’s life. Moreover, opening Jesus’s public ministry at his Baptism, not the Wedding at Cana, the historical order Thomas follows is that of the Synoptics, not of John: John’s narrative is rarely alluded to in this treatise.29 A striking difference from modern treatments of the life of Jesus is that Thomas says nothing about the content of Jesus’s preaching.30 Modern theologians want to let us know who Jesus was from what he said: their procedure is inductive, backward from the words to the speaker. Thomas’ method, conversely, is deductive. Jesus Christ gives form to his whole life, as it were, from within, and thus shapes the inquiry ‘from front to back’, from head to foot. A simple way of showing what happens in these thirty-three Questions is to lay them out: Q. 27 The Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin Q. 28 Of the Virginity of the Mother of God Q. 29 Of the Espousals of the Mother of God Q. 30 Of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin

⎫ ⎪ ⎬ MOTHER ⎪ ⎭

Q. 31 Bodily Matter in our Saviour’s Conception Q. 32 The Activating Principle in Christ’s Conception Q. 33 The Mode and Order of Christ’s Conception Q. 34 The Perfection of the Child Conceived Q. 35 Of Christ’s Nativity Q. 36 Manifestation of the New Born Christ Q. 37 Of Christ’s Circumcision and other Legal Observances

⎫ ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎬ CHILDHOOD ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎭

26. So Giovanni Reale comments on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Γ.3 1005a27–b11 in The Concept of First Philosophy and the Unity of the Metaphysics of Aristotle, trans. John Catan (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press), p. 127. See also Aristotle, Physics 3.2.194b and 3.7.198a. 27. Torrell, Le Christ en ses mystères, vol. I, p. 151. 28. Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann, 2nd edn, 2004). 29. Torrell, Le Christ en ses mystères, vol. I, p. 152. 30. Bouyer, Eternal Son, p. 358.

13. Aristotle’s Saviour


Q. 38 Baptism of John Q. 40 Christ’s Manner of Life Q. 41 Christ’s Temptation Q. 42 Christ’s Teaching Q. 43 The Miracles Worked by Christ in General Q. 44 Of Christ’s Miracles in Specifics Q. 45 Christ’s Transfiguration

⎫ ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎬ LIFE ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎭

Q. 46 Christ’s Passion Q. 47 The Efficient Cause of Christ’s Passion Q. 48 The Efficacy of Christ’s Passion Q. 49 The Results of Christ’s Passion Q. 50 The Death of Christ Q. 51 Christ’s Burial Q. 52 Christ’s Descent into Hell

⎫ ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎬ PASSION ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎭

Q. 53 The Resurrection of Christ Q. 54 Qualities of the Risen Lord Q. 55 Manifestation of the Resurrection Q. 56 Of the Causality of Christ’s Resurrection Q. 57 Of the Ascension of Christ Q. 58 Of Christ’s Sitting at the Right Hand of the Father Q. 59 Of Christ’s Judiciary Power

⎫ ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ RESURRECTION ⎬ OF THE LORD ⎪ ⎪ ⎪ ⎭

The Thomist philosopher David Braine originally pointed out to me that Thomas Aquinas is the first theologian before modern times to present a life of Jesus Christ within the structure of his theology: ‘none of the Patristics, none of his contemporaries, and not even the Reformers’ do that, he asserted. No theologian before Thomas, and none for several centuries after, set a sequentially ordered life of Christ in the midst of his systematic theology. David Braine took this thought from Louis Bouyer, who wrote that the ‘questions from 27 to 59 are devoted to a theological meditation about the development of the existence of Jesus during His life on earth. It is impossible to find anything comparable to this among either ancient or modern writers. . . . No synthesis of this kind, considering so many essential facts in such a balanced way, has ever been seriously attempted, much less realized.’31 The uniqueness of Thomas’s achievement is not sufficiently remarked. More than sixty years ago, Marie-Dominique Chenu urged Thomas’s readers to notice this meditation on Scripture,32 and yet, as Jean-Pierre Torrell says, these thirtythree questions ‘on the Christ of the Gospels . . . remain as little known’ as ever: ‘this

31. Louis Bouyer, Eternal Son, pp. 355 and 363. 32. Marie-Dominique Chenu, Toward Understanding Saint Thomas, trans. Albert M. Landry and Dominic Hughes (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co, 1963 [French 1950]), pp. 253–9.


Theological Theology

negligence leaves the implicit impression that Thomas is only interested in the metaphysical or logical problems raised by the hypostatic union, whereas in reality, like any good theologian, he always has his eye on what he can learn from the Word of God transmitted in the Church’.33 It is well known that ‘Thomas had a capacity for historical criticism’, spotting that Proclus, not Aristotle, composed the Liber de causis. We know the Summa Theologiae ‘succeeds in linking history and system’. Thomas spanned the two ‘extremes’ of his time, ‘fighting a battle against the absolutizing of Aristotle . . . and against the exclusiveness of a supernaturalistic Biblicism’ by making Aristotle and Bible the twin poles of his theology. It is seen that Thomas ‘justified his worldliness’, his Aristotelianism, ‘by the theology of creation and by the strictly “theological” theology of the Incarnation.’34 But it is illappreciated that Thomas applied his ‘worldly Biblicism’ to his doctrine of the Incarnation, and made the historical drama of the life of Christ an Incarnational soteriology. This is due in part to our sense of Thomas aligning those contrary things, the Bible and Aristotle. We think he purchased from Aristotle a lively sense of what ‘episteme’ consists in: that is, the ‘necessary, which cannot be other than it is’. ‘Demonstration’, to which Thomas was, in practice, more committed than Aristotle, ‘bears essentially on the necessary’: this ‘exemplary means of scientific knowledge’ presents ‘the internal necessity which determines the being of things’.35 Such ‘scientific knowledge’ bears on the universal. We think, on the other hand, with Aristotle, of history as referring to contingent singulars. So when Bernard Lonergan classified two kinds of thinker, the one ‘classicist, conservative, traditional’, the other ‘modern, liberal, perhaps historicist’, we readily conceive Thomas as a classicist.36 But there it is, smack in the middle of the Tertia Pars, thirty-three detailed questions ‘consider[ing] what things the Incarnate Son did or suffered in the human nature united to Him’.37 Readers may also have been deterred by the opening questions. Setting out like a Victorian biographer with Jesus’s forebears, Thomas denies that ‘the Blessed Virgin was Sanctified before Animation’. He thus rejects what later became the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. ‘If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal saviour of all.’38 This may have discouraged Thomists from promoting the treatise. The sense of causation at work in the sanctification of Jesus’s Mother is Aristotelian in its sequencing. Thomas was under no cultural compulsion to follow Aristotle here: Bonaventure and Duns Scotus both draw on Hippocrates and Galen instead, and are thus able to recognize

33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38.

Torrell, Le Christ en ses mystères, vol. I, p. 10. Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas, pp. 57, 101, 129, 132. Alfred Gomez-Muller, Chemins d’Aristote (Paris: Éditions du Félin, 1991), p. 35. Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection (London: D.L.T., 1974), p. 2. ST III, Q. 27, Pr. ST III, Q. 27, Art. 2, ad. 2.

13. Aristotle’s Saviour


that the soul is animated at conception, whereas Thomas elects to entangle himself with Aristotle’s opinion that male foetae are animated forty days after conception, and females seventy.39 One may be disheartened by the biological assumptions which attend the discussion of the Mother of Jesus (Qq. 27–30) and his childhood (Qq. 31–34). However much one might wish to recall Aristotle from Limbo for council, no-one would requisition him as her gynaecologist. Thomas denies that, ‘the Blessed Virgin played any active part in Christ’s conception’, on the Aristotelian grounds that, ‘in generation there are two distinct operations, that of the agent and that of the patient. . . . the entire active part is on the male side, and the passive part on the female side.’40 He defends the principle of the Virgin birth of Christ with the Aristotelian argument that the male provides the ‘active agent’, the semen, while the female provides only the ‘blood’, the soil in which the seed grows.41 The Holy Spirit substitutes for the action of the human male, and all else follows the course of nature. This seems to be one of the cases where Aristotle’s rationality was informed by his sense of status: it is because the female is an ‘inferior form of the male’ that all she supplies in generation is the menstrual fluid, the material basis for the embryo.42 If Aristotle’s idea of nature is rightly ‘anthropomorphic’,43 this anthropomorphism includes male and female: defending the tripartite division of nature into the contraries of form and privation and matter, he urges that ‘the form cannot desire itself, for it is not defective; nor can the contrary desire it, for contraries are mutually destructive. . . . what desires the form is matter, as the female desires the male and the ugly the beautiful.’44 It is not only ‘apriorism’ which directs Aristotle here, but also the ascription of status relations to nature. Although the errors about the heavens and fixed stars made a laughing stock of the Aristotelian Curia at the time of Galileo, there is an enduring artistic appeal in Aristotle’s cosmology, and in its equation of quantities to qualities.45 That equation retains its aesthetic validity.46 But Christian aesthetics really differs from the status-bound social aesthetic which dominated the Mediterranean world until the gospel authors noticed that there is

39. In his discussion of the conception of the Virgin Mary, Torrell says that at this point Thomas’s Aristotelianism ‘does him a disservice’: Le Christ en ses mystères, vol. I, pp. 44–9 (p. 49, n. 23). 40. ST III, Q. 31, Art. 4. 41. ST III, Q. 31, Art. 5. 42. Richard J. Hankinson,‘Philosophy of Science’, in Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 137. 43. Étienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution, trans. John Lyon (London: Sheed and Ward, 1984), p. 4. 44. Aristotle Physics, Bk I.9.192a 45. Hankinson, ‘Philosophy of Science’, pp. 135–6 and 137. 46. Étienne Gilson, Painting and Reality, The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1955 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), pp. 269–75.


Theological Theology

tragedy not only in the fall of great personages, but in the tears of a fisherman.47 The two sides of Aristotle’s pagan mind are connected: what makes circular motion and the supreme virtue of contemplation perfect is their self-sufficiency. Selfsufficiency hardly seems a Christian aesthetic or moral value. For all these reasons, few Thomists have defended this treatise, and still less the Aristotelian inspiration of its anchorage in historicity.

How the ‘Life of Christ’ is Aristotelian 1. Aristotle’s Historical Method Aristotle’s effort to preserve what is best in ancient tradition made his treatises valuable for one who was writing a uniquely biographical soteriology. Having eliminated Plato’s ‘good’ as the source of the virtues, the Nichomachean Ethics relies on what ‘is thought’ or ‘is said’ about the virtues and vices. Where Aristotle argues for embedded forms in nature in his Physics and Metaphysics, the Nichomachean Ethics assumes that a moral tradition animates ethical decision-making. If one’s best bet for becoming virtuous is to have been well educated, one’s parents had better have a pedagogical know-how. The backward process is not infinite. The source of the tradition is Homer: with his concern for ‘honour on a grand scale’, Aristotle’s ‘proud man’ seems to have strolled, slowly, out of the Iliad.48 Aristotle reconstructs the virtues of heroic society for late classical Athens. As a traditionalist, he does not think the past was invariably preferable to the present: he prefers the New Comedy to the Old Comedy of Aristophanes, because Menander’s jokes are carried by ‘innuendo’ rather than by vulgarity.49 On the other hand, Aristotle’s unWhiggish reverence for the ancients is exhibited when he calls on all human experience ‘from our distant ancestors even to our own day’ in defence of the eternity, inalterability and ‘divine’ quality of the heavens.50 Aristotle declared in his Poetics that ‘poetry is . . . more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean as to what such and such a kind will probably or necessarily say or do – which is the aim of poetry . . .; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him.’ When we assert that Aristotle assisted his thirteenth-century interlocutor in utilizing tradition, we do not refer to Aristotle’s observation of the ephemeral status of historical journalism. We mean Aristotle’s employment of tradition-based rationality. Aristotle indicates that a form can sometimes be

47. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946, 1974), pp. 41–8. 48. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 4.3.1123a–1125a. 49. Ibid., 4.8.1128a. 50. Aristotle, De Caelo, I.4.270b.

13. Aristotle’s Saviour


elicited from historical matter. The Poetics gives little histories of Tragedy and of Comedy, noting how both ‘began in improvisations’, Tragedy ‘with the authors of the Dithyramb’, Comedy with ‘phallic songs’. Describing how the tragic chorus was reduced by Aeschylus (and the role of dialogue proportionately enhanced) and Sophocles introduced a third actor, Aristotle comments, ‘It was . . . only after a long series of changes that the movement of Tragedy stopped on its attaining to its natural form.’51 Aristotle pictures the development of Tragedy as having an entelechy, like a natural form, and achieving it with Sophocles’s plays. This is how he uses his philosophical predecessors. The De Caelo, Physics and Metaphysics describe earlier philosophers. Aristotle likes to find consensus, such as the agreement of ‘all who have anything to say about nature’ on ‘the existence of motion’ and of ‘all’ or ‘most’ that the principles by which it is produced are ‘contraries’.52 Criticizing Parmenides’ notion that Being is One and motionless would be like ‘refuting a merely contentious argument’; Democritus’s materialistic mechanism is subjected to sarcastic rebuttal.53 But Aristotle seldom cites authors solely to mock them: Democritus is put down in the Physics for assigning motion to the material cause alone, but praised in the Parts of Animals for having approached to his own discovery, of being as form: the Democritean ‘atoms . . . were at least stable forms . . . belonging to the things. Things are not as Democritus thought they were. . . . Yet the assertion that there are knowable forms in things was . . . a step in the right direction.’54 Magnaminity about his predecessors distinguishes Aristotle from Plato. In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates discusses the virtues with fellow Athenians, confusing the ordinary chaps and confuting the Sophists. The exercise of dialectic to achieve philosophical truth had grown more complex by the time Aristotle attended the Academy: informal dialogues had turned into logical arguments. In the Topics, Aristotle will claim that, ‘the material of dialectic remains common convictions and common usage, not . . . self-evident truths’.55 Where the Sophist is an important rhetorical and dialectic device in Plato’s best known books, like the Republic, Aristotle only refers to these rotters in passing, and does not engage them in debate. Platonic dialectic is not mediatory: either Plato is right or the Sophist is. Aristotle’s use of his predecessors seldom has the look of posing such a radical ‘either/or’. There is a sleight of hand here: the claims made for intellect in the De Anima are as radical as anything Plato asserts. Aristotle makes an artful use of the history of philosophy, marginalizing dead-end developments. He is concerned not only with giving an empirical record of the history of philosophy, but also with shaping a canon running down to his own thought. The history of philosophy is presented as an Aristotelian entelechy. ‘Just as in 51. Aristotle, Poetics, I.9.1451a–1451b and I.9.149a15. 52. Ibid., 8.1.250b and 1.5.188a–188b. 53. Ibid., 1.2.187b and 2.4.196a–196b. 54. Marjorie Grene, A Portrait of Aristotle (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), p. 84. 55. Gwilym E. L. Owen, ‘The Platonism of Aristotle’, in Articles on Aristotle: 1 Science, pp. 29–30.


Theological Theology

the poetic realm tragedy had swiftly developed into its full and mature form,’ von Balthasar notes, ‘so Aristotle was conscious that philosophy was approaching its consummation in him.’56 In the first three books of the Metaphysics Aristotle situates his philosophy within a tradition. Aristotle speaks of the ‘earliest philosophers’, spurred by wonder and the desire to know: beginning ‘to philosophize, they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little’. The first philosophers, the Ionians, were naturalists. When, finally, ‘one man said . . . reason was present, as in animals, so through nature, as the cause of order and all arrangement, he seemed like a sober man in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors’. Anaxagoras and Hermotimus of Clazomenae ‘stated that there is a principle of things which is at the same time the cause of beauty, and that sort of cause from which things acquire movement’. They had seen the efficient cause. Aristotle leads us from the Ionian materialists through Hesiod to the ‘Italian school’, the Pythagoreans: he affirms that ‘from the wise men who have now sat in council with us’ we have garnered that there is one principle, albeit a physical one.57 Then he tells us about Plato. Aristotle criticises the short-falls of both sides of the dialectic which he has skilfully educed from this history: on the one hand, the materialism of the naturalists, on the other, the idealism of Plato. In Book B, Aristotle will set out 14 ‘aporias’, metaphysical pickles which inhibit the advance of the science of metaphysics. The ‘aporias’, he says, ‘are concerned with matters about which some thinkers expressed different beliefs’.58 Each aporia shows how convincing arguments may be set for and against metaphysical positions, such as whether substance exists, and if so, is it material (the Ionians) or supersensible (the Platonists), or whether only singulars exist or universals too. Aristotle uses these ‘aporias’ to allow his own ‘realism’, his teaching about form as ‘the being of beings’ and the four causes, to emerge as their solution: ‘Aristotle does not reject the results of one current by embracing the other, but he accepts the requirements recognized by both opposed positions, correcting their errors, partiality, and exaggerations, reaching in this way a fecund positive synthesis to which each of them contributes. The theory of the four causes – material, efficient, final, and formal – truly represents the unification of the results collected from the thought prior to the Stagirite concerning the ultimate explanation of the real.’59 Aristotle explains the winding path of philosophy by noting that it is both difficult and easy to gain ‘speculative knowledge of truth’: this is shown ‘in the fact that, while no one can attain an adequate knowledge of it, all men together do not fail, because each one is able to say something true about nature. And while each one individually contributes nothing or very little to the truth, still as a result of the

56. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. IV, The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, ed. John Riches, trans. Brian McNeil (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), pp. 220–1. 57. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.5.987a1–5. 58. Aristotle, Metaphysics B1995a25–27. 59. Reale, The Concept of First Philosophy, pp. 95, 36–7.

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combined efforts of all a great amount of truth becomes known.’ Thomas comments that, ‘while the amount of truth that one man can discover or contribute to the knowledge of truth by his own study and talents is small compared with a complete knowledge of truth, nevertheless what is known by the “combined efforts” of all, i.e. what is discovered and collected into one whole, becomes quite extensive. This can be seen in the case of the particular arts, which have developed in a marvellous manner as a result of the studies and talents of different men.’ Aristotle observes that ‘we should be grateful not merely to those with whose views we agree but also to those who until now have only spoken in a superficial way’. He gives as an example that the first inventor of music paved the way for the musician who gave us ‘a great part of our music’. Thomas adds that: ‘The same thing must be said of those philosophers who made statements of universal scope about the truth of things; for we accept from certain of our predecessors whatever views about the truth of things we think are true and disregard the rest.’ Leo XIII designated Thomas as the doctor who ‘collected together’ his predecessors.60 Thomas seems to regard the growth of tradition as a process of refinement in which errors are filtered out. As he sees it, we are ‘assisted indirectly’ by our predecessors ‘who were wrong’ insofar as they give later writers ‘the occasion for exercising their mental powers, so that by diligent discussion the truth might be seen more clearly’.61 ‘Inclusiveness’ is a tacit pay off from the effort to see the truth. In commenting on Aristotle’s writings, Thomas learned as much about traditionbased rationality as he had done from the practitioners of his own Christian tradition. It is a misconception to think of Thomas’s Christology as drawing, on the one hand, from the logical, essentialist philosophy of Aristotle, and on the other from the historically based Christian Bible. Thomas was not drawing an unhistorical thought into a historical one, but using an author who has reflected on the use of the history of philosophy in philosophy. The treatise on Christology is a fat one, and the reason for its girth is the length at which Thomas quotes his predecessors, especially in the answers to the objections. He cites literally minded authors, like Jerome or Chrysostom, in defence of the historicity of events in which the gospels appear to contradict one another.62 Once the historicity of the events is grounded, he cites a variety of commentaries, some allegorical and others literal. There was nothing new in the citation of tradition by a medieval author: but for Bede, Anselm and Bonaventure, ‘tradition’ largely meant Augustine. What is novel in Thomas is the tacit intention to include the whole mosaic of tradition, in due place, within a synoptic presentation of Christ’s life. Thomas creates a canon within which disparate soteriological positions, like satisfaction, exemplarism, deification and the defeat of the devil can co-exist because none is exclusively absolutized.

60. Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, no. 17. 61. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book II, Ch. 1, Lesson 1, pp. 275 and 287–8. 62. For example ST III, Q. 28, Art. 3, on whether ‘Christ’s Mother remained a Virgin after his Birth’ or Q. 31, Art. 3 on whether the Evangelists got the genealogy of Jesus down accurately.


Theological Theology

This was necessary in Christian soteriology, because the gospels espouse a tangled mass of metaphorical, symbolic and propositional explanations of atonement, producing various aporias which left ‘the tradition’ in a pickle. Christ had to do many different things in order to achieve the single goal of restoring the human race. Explaining how the means for achieving this end are set up requires a story with many episodes, guided by a single entelechy. 2: Sequence of Causes In the Metaphysics Aristotle states, ‘The causes are expressed in four ways. Of these we say that one cause is the Entity and what-is-Being (for the question “why” is ultimately reduced to the logos, and the primary “why” is cause and principle), another the matter and substrate, a third that from which motion takes its source, and a fourth the cause corresponding to this, the purpose and the good (for this is the end of all generation and change).’63 In the Physics Aristotle claims that, ‘The causes fall into four familiar divisions.’ The efficient cause is what brings this particular nature about, the source of its movement or becoming. The father is the efficient cause of the child. The material cause is the matter, that ‘from which’ a particular nature is made, the bronze of the statue. The formal cause is ‘the form or the archetype, i.e. the statement of the essence’. The final cause is the end or goal, that ‘for the sake of which’ the object is made or the action performed.64 Aristotle’s primary illustration for the deliberation which utilizes these causes is nature functioning as a craftsman, and vice-versa, the craftsman as a conscious version of nature. A secondary illustration is the doctor, using means to achieve the end of healing. A less common illustration is the statesman, strategizing for the good of the city.65 Thomas pictures God as strategically crafting human salvation. Matter conditions but does incite motion: the materials of the wall are not built by their weight or position, he argues, but rather, ‘though the wall does not come to be without these, it is not due to these, except as its material cause: it comes to be for the sake of sheltering and guarding certain things’. If a craftsman wants to make a house, it is necessary for him to use bricks and mortar: ‘the product cannot come to be without things which have a necessary nature, but it is not due to these (except as its material): it comes to be for an end. . . . Necessity is in the matter, while “that for the sake of which” is in the definition.’ The material cause necessitates ‘hypothetically’, on the supposition that the artisan wants to produce this object in particular.66 When Thomas asks whether the Incarnation was necessary for salvation, he is picturing the particular historical circumstances of Christ’s life as its material cause. He does not cite Aristotle, but uses his idea of material necessity. With his ‘infinite power’ the divine artisan is not dictated to by his materials: God

63. 64. 65. 66.

Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.2.983a.7. Aristotle, Physics, 2.3.194b–195a. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 6.5.1140b. Aristotle, Physics, 2.9.200a.

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could have achieved salvation with a different set of historical events. But, since the life of the saviour is how God selected to mould salvation, it was ‘better and more congruous’ that these means were taken. The Incarnation was ‘necessary’ for salvation in the sense that the best material means were deployed.67 The efficient cause is the least well defined by Aristotle, because he makes less use of it: ‘In the Aristotelian vision of the world, a true efficient cause of the universe is lacking. Plato, on this point, goes beyond Aristotle with his “αιτια της μειξεως” in the Philebus and with his conception of the Demiurge . . . in the Timaeus.’68 Aristotle often collapses the material and efficient cause into the formal and final cause because they are means rather than ends, and his cosmos strives towards ends, rather than being powered by origins. He claims, ‘where a series has a completion, all the preceding steps are for the sake of that. . . . as in intelligent action, so in nature. . . . Each step in the series is for the sake of the next.’69 But what is acting here is not an efficient cause, but the formal cause, in modern terms, the ‘genetic code embodied in the DNA’ or ‘blueprint’ which is ‘organizing . . . would otherwise . . . be inert matter’ and which ‘must in a sense be already there’.70 What a thing ‘necessarily and unchangeably and definitely is, is its form’ and is motivated by its formal cause.71 Gilson comments that, ‘It is necessary never to forget the great image of Greek philosophy: matter desires form as the female desires the male, and, one can say, reciprocally.’72 But there is less ‘reciprocity’ between ‘matter’ and ‘form’ in the first philosophy of Aristotle than in Christian theology: ‘The God of St. Thomas and Dante is a God who loves, the God of Aristotle does not refuse to be loved; the love that made the heavens and the stars in Aristotle is the love of the heavens and the stars for God; but the love that moves them in St. Thomas and Dante is the love of God for the world; between these two motive causes there is all the difference between an efficient cause . . . and a final cause’.73 In Thomas’s conception of biblical history, ‘all the apparitions of the Old Testament are ordered to that apparition in which the Son of God appeared in the flesh’.74 This is efficient causality. Each step in Christ’s incarnate life garners one of

67. ST III, Q. 1, Art. 2, ad. 68. Reale, Concept, p. 24. 69. Aristotle, Physics, 2.8.199a. 70. Hankinson, ‘Philosophy of Science’, p. 123. 71. Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics: A Study in the Greek Background of Mediaeval Thought (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1963), p. 185. 72. Étienne Gilson, Matières et formes: poétiques particulières des arts majeurs (Paris: J. Vrin, 1964), p. 37. 73. Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. Alfred H. C. Downes, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1936), p. 75. 74. ST III, Q. 30, Art. 3, ad.


Theological Theology

the means towards salvation: each of the means of salvation is a link in a chain of efficient causes. Christ is circumcised so as to be under the law,75 baptized by John to ‘Christify’ Christian baptism,76 and is crucified, ‘the Old Law reach[ing] its consummation in Jesus’ death’: ‘he fulfilled by his suffering all the precepts of the Old Law’.77 The ‘efficient’ cause of the passion, what made it happen, was Christ’s intention to justify humanity by offering this death to the Father as a sacrifice for sin. The ‘formal cause’ in this soteriology is the person of Christ as the model ‘form’ of humanity. A human nature in a state of completeness or formal fulfilment is one which is fully endowed with grace. As the highest principles and causes of Aristotle’s metaphysics, the formal causes are universal and perfect, so in Thomas’s soteriology: Christ has grace perfectly from conception because ‘the soul of Christ was invested with grace in such a way as to make him a kind of universal principle of grace for men’.78 There is a temporal lacuna between the perfection of the formal principle, in itself, and its taking the shape in which it is the formal archetype of beatified human nature. Beatified human nature, nature enjoying the vision of God, will occur in the resurrected bodies of the saints. Hence, it is the resurrection which is ‘the first instance and the model of the good effects produced’ in the saints; his glorified body ‘was the model and cause of our own resurrection. And since the saints will have glorious bodies . . . how much more glorious was Christ’s risen body. A cause is greater than its effect and the model greater that is produced as a copy.’79 Thomas treats this ‘causation acting at an historical distance’ in relation to Christ’s resurrection, and also in the episode which foreshadows it, the Transfiguration. The way ahead, after Christ had foretold the Passion to the disciples was to be ‘rough and difficult’, so he used the Transfiguration to give them an advance glimpse of ‘the end’ of the drama: it was thus fitting for his actual physical body to be changed, on Mount Tabor, because ‘Christ underwent the Passion in order to obtain glory not only for his soul, which he had from the first moment of his conception, but also for his body. . . . To which glory he leads those who follow in the footsteps of his Passion. And so it was fitting for him to manifest his glorious splendour (which is to be transfigured), according to which he will configure those who belong to him.’80 ‘Just as the splendour of Christ’s body represented the future splendour his body, so the splendour of his clothes signified the future splendour of the saints’.81 The Transfiguration is a single, miraculous episode in Christ’s life, because at all other times he prevented the glory in his soul from cascading into his body: this ‘was a divine dispensation, that . . . he might

75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81.

ST III, Q. 37, Art. 1. ST III, Q. 39, Art. 2, ad. 1 and Art. 5. ST III, Q. 47, Art. 2, ad. 1. ST III, Q. 7, Art. 10, ad. ST III, Q. 53, Art. 1, ad. 3 and Art. 2, ad. ST III, Q. 45, Art. 1. ST III, Q. 45, Art. 2, ad. 3.

13. Aristotle’s Saviour


fulfil the mysteries of our redemption in a passible body’. Thomas’s Christ retracts or withholds the splendour in his soul from shining through his body in order to enable his body to suffer vulnerability. The ‘refulgence, which appeared in Christ’s body was miraculous’, because, departing briefly from the ‘divine dispensation’, he used his ‘power to let the glory of his soul flow into his body’.82 The Transfiguration is a miracle because it is not an eschatological flash-forward to Christ’s glorious body, but an alteration of his historical shape. One would think that Thomas has difficulty putting together an Aristotelian model of formal causality, in which the frame is that of growth or making, and the biblical one, with its historical and eschatological scheme. Aristotle does use ‘time’ language on occasion, since ‘every movement (e.g. that of building) takes time and is for the sake of an end, and is complete when it has made what it aims at. It is complete . . . only in the whole time or at that final moment.’ It takes time for a person to become virtuous: ‘human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue . . . But we must add “in a complete life”. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.’83 The production of a form goes through imperfect stages, in which the material conditions release their potential, preparing for the flowering of the fruit. But Aristotle does not think that time as such contributes to this process. Anticipating the third law of thermodynamics, Aristotle sees the ‘embrace’ of time as a ‘destructive’ element.84 As Thomas says, Aristotle ‘proves this by our customary way of speaking. For we are accustomed to say that a long time weakens and corrupts . . . time does not make a thing good, that is, perfect and whole, but rather weakened and corrupted’. Time is the ‘cause of corruption rather than of generation’, that is, not something productive in itself, because ‘time is the number of motion’, the measure of how long motion has taken from a ‘before’ to an ‘after’, ‘and mutation in itself is destructive and corruptive’: the value or ‘perfection’ of motion comes from ‘the intention of the agent which moves a thing to a determined end. Therefore corruption can be attributed to mutation and time; but generation and existence is attributed to the agent and generator.’85 Neither Thomas’s ‘Bios’, nor any of the ancient Bioi, draw on a sense of time as causally productive in itself. Thomas’s Christ begins to preach at thirty not because he had taken until then to reflect on his mission but because it is a ‘perfect age’, not too young, which would encourage arrogance.86 It was not fitting for the Incarnation to occur either at the beginning of human history, when it would be too early for

82. ST III, Q. 45, Art. 2, ad. 83. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 10.4.1174a and 1.7.1098a. 84. Theodor M. Christidis, ‘Chance, Necessity and the Role of Time in Aristotle’s Physics’, in Aristotle and Contemporary Science Vol. II, eds. Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou, Jagdish Hattiangadi and Daniel M. Johnson (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), pp. 77–8. 85. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics Book IV, Lecture 20, p. 604 and Lecture 22, p. 621. 86. ST III, Q. 39, Art. 3, ad. and ad. 3.


Theological Theology

the doctor to set to work, or at the very end, when it would be too late for it to function as ‘the efficient cause of human fulfilment’ for ‘all’.87 Aristotle states that we measure time from ‘before’ a motion begins to when it ‘ends’: for him, the creative constraint is not time itself but plot. As Aristotle says in his definition of tragedy as a ‘whole that is complete in itself ’, ‘a whole is that which has beginning, middle and end’.88 The production of form is conceived here not as a matter of chronological time taken as causally purposive or progressive, but of ‘three acts’. For Aristotle, material and efficient causes, like the plant’s ‘sending its roots down (not up) for nourishment’, and its growth of ‘leaves’, as ‘shelter’,89 are produced ‘for the sake of the fruit’. The formal cause is the fruit itself; the final cause, end or aim, is the act of fruition. The production of each part is a purposive means to the ‘whole’ or substantial form. Aristotle’s Parts of Animals criticises Anaxagoras for saying humans are more intelligent than the other animals because we have hands: rather, we have human hands because we are more intelligent.90 It sounds odd to ascribe intentions to nature, but that is how things are: ‘The notion of a teleology without consciousness and immanent in nature remains mysterious to us. Aristotle does not think this should be a reason to deny its existence.’91 ‘Every art . . . and . . . every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good’,92 he observes. In willing the human good, Christ must will a variety of means which emerge at the beginning, middle and end of his human life. Thomas’s Christology includes a ‘Bios’ because his soteriology requires Christ to unleash his causality at given stages in its plot. He is all set to deify at the start of his life, he publically exemplifies the virtues in the middle, and ransoms us from the devil at the end. 3: Pedagogical Aesthetics Like all authors of lives of Jesus Christ, Thomas pictures Christ as someone like himself. Like the Dominican Thomas, his Christ is a preacher. Thomas had defended the novel idea of ‘preaching monks’ against the strictures of William of St Amour, in his Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem, and later, against Gerard of Abbeville, in De perfectione vitae spiritualis. His apologia recurs in his ‘Bios’. The objection is posed that Jesus should not have been gregarious, citing the philosopher’s dictum that the solitary man is ‘either a beast’, if he is uncivilized, ‘or a god’, if his solitariness is devoted to contemplation.93 Jesus’s ‘associating with men’

87. ST III, Q. 1, Art. 5; Q. 1, Art. 6, ad., citing John, ‘Of his fullness we have all received.’ 88. Aristotle, Poetics 1450b.7.21. 89. Aristotle, Physics 2.8.199a. 90. Hankinson, ‘Philosophy of Science,’ pp. 128–9. 91. Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, pp. 10–11. 92. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1.1.1094a 93. Torrell points out that the word Thomas uses for Christ’s ‘associating’ with men is conversatio, which, in the Vulgate, recalls John 1.14, ‘The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us’: Le Christ en ses mystères, vol. I, p. 211.

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makes sense, Thomas answers, because he came to manifest truth, so ‘it was fitting that he should . . . preach in public’. Jesus answers to the figure of a Dominican: ‘the active life according to which a man, by preaching and teaching, gives to others the fruits of his contemplation, is more perfect than the life by which a man contemplates alone, because such a life presupposes an abundance of contemplation. . . . therefore, Christ chose such a life’.94 Preaching is an aim of the Incarnation: Christ’s voluntary poverty ‘was in keeping with the office of preaching for which purpose he said he came . . . in order that the preachers of the word of God might devote all their time to preaching, they must be entirely free from worldly concerns: which is impossible for those who are wealthy’.95 In Matthew, Luke and John, Christ has an extensive ministry of preaching, or teaching. Thomas was born to teach. In hand with Albert the Great in 1259, he established the regulation that all Dominican provinces set up a school of liberal arts.‘Teaching’ was for him ‘one of the highest manifestations of the life of the mind, for the reason that in teaching the vita contemplative and the vita activa are joined’. He gave ‘his best energies and the longest period of his life . . . to a textbook for beginners’, the Summa Theologiae.96 This is where Thomas’ character and calling dovetails with that of Aristotle. Aristotle has thought about how education works. It is the tutor of Alexander speaking when we learn that the young can be taught mathematics, but not politics, since political science requires experience of human affairs.97 The mark of wisdom is the ability to teach, he claims, and the purpose of human existence is ‘understanding and learning’.98 Jonathan Barnes has argued that Aristotle’s theory of syllogistic demonstration (in the Posterior Analytic, the set piece of Aristotle’s ‘classicism’), which is strangely absent from his actual practice, ‘was never meant to guide or formalise scientific research: it is concerned exclusively with the teaching of facts already won: it offers a formal model of how teachers should present and impart knowledge’. Etymologically, Barnes notes, the verb ‘to demonstrate’ [apodeiknunai] means to show, manifest, publish or reveal. So in deploying the term, the Stagirite gave ‘technical precision’ to a term closely linked to ‘the imparting and publishing of knowledge’. Thus, ‘in constructing his notion of a demonstrative science, Aristotle was not telling the scientist how to conduct his research; he was giving the pedagogue advice on the most efficient and economic method of bettering his charges. The theory of demonstration offers a formal account of how an achieved body of knowledge should be presented and taught.’99 Thomas follows this advice more literally than the Stagirite did himself.

94. ST III, Q. 40, Art. 1, Obj. 1, and ad. 1 and ad. 2. 95. ST III, Q. 40, Art. 4, ad. 96. Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas, pp. 89–94. 97. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1.3.1095a; 6.8.1142a. 98. Aristotle, cited in Jonathan Barnes, ‘Aristotle’s Theory of Demonstration’, In Articles On Aristotle: 1 Science, eds. Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield and Richard Sorabji (London: Duckworth, 1975), p. 80, and Aristotle Metaphysics 1.2.982a12–4. 99. Barnes, ‘Aristotle’s Theory’, pp. 77–8 and 85.


Theological Theology

Why bring the whole life of Christ together in thirty-three questions? Because this scholastic ‘Bios’ publishes the total gestalt of the life of Christ. It shows and teaches the meaning of the life of Christ by depicting it in a way that can be taken in by the mind’s eye. Given the animus which Abelard’s manward soteriology had aroused, the extent to which Thomas utilizes the idea of Christ’s work as setting an example is remarkable. Thomas ascribes this intention to Christ at least twenty-three times. Christ’s austerity, his baptism by John, and his crucifixion (which teaches us not to fear ‘any kind of death’, since it is the ‘most horrible’ way to die) are undergone for the sake of giving a concrete example of how to live, practising what he preached.100 Thomas also uses the metaphysically freighted notion of Christ as ‘exemplar’. Here the notion of the teacher coincides with that of the craftsman. Aristotle remarks, ‘the masterworkers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers, because they know the causes of the things that are done (. . . manual workers are like . . . lifeless things which . . . act without knowing what they do)’.101 Nature as ‘master-worker’ aims at final causes or goods. All entities are called ‘beings’ by analogy to the formal principle of being, which causes them. But, having extradited Plato’s Forms, Aristotle has no Designer of nature. Thomas comments that, ‘even though this argument does away with the separate exemplars posited by Plato, it still does not do away with the fact that God’s knowledge is the exemplar of all things. For since things in the physical world are naturally inclined to induce their likeness in things which are generated, this inclination must be traced back to some directing principle which ordains each thing to its end.’102 For Thomas, Christ is the ‘directing principle’ or exemplar. Thomas’s Christ is a teacher because he is the artisan of nature. The ‘eternal law’, Thomas states, ‘is compared to the order of human reason as art to artefact. Hence, to say that sin and vice are contrary to the order of human reason and eternal law, amounts to one and the same thing.’103 It was ‘most congruous’ that the Son (rather than Father or Holy Ghost) assume human nature because ‘the Word, God’s eternal conception, is the exemplar for all creation’. The Word is the ‘craftsman’ of nature. ‘The craftsman repairs his own work when it has been damaged on the same mental model he used in making it.’ The special good of human beings is knowing their Creator: ‘Man therefore reaches his perfection in wisdom, proper to him as an intelligent being, through a participation in the Word of God, even as a pupil makes progress by receiving the teacher’s word.’104

100. 101. 102. 103. 104.

ST III, Q. 40, Art. 2, ad. 1; Q. 38, Art. 1; Q. 46, Art. 4, ad. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1. Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book I, Ch. 9, Lecture 5, 233. ST I–II, Q. 71, Art. 2, ad. 4. ST III, Q. 3, Art. 8, ad.

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Conclusion In sum, then, Thomas does four things with Aristotle in his Christology: 1. Sometimes he strips out and discards Aristotle’s original, historical meaning by redefinition. This discarding is inevitable, unless Thomas were to reduce his Christology to what looked reasonable to the best of philosophers. 2. Therefore, Thomas Christianizes or baptizes Aristotle. 3. Aristotle also affects Thomas’s Christology by imposing constraints on it: he Aristotelianizes the Saviour. 4. Finally, to the extent that Thomas uses Aristotle to outdo Aristotle in the literal acceptation of his premises he becomes strikingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, modern.


Chapter 14 W E B S T E R A N D E B E L I N G O N C H R I ST IA N T E X T S : A P L AC E HO L D E R F O R A T H E O L O G IC A L T H E O L O G Y O F L A N G UAG E R. David Nelson

In several important essays, our jubilarian has made a formidable and (we believe) spot-on exhortation that a Christian theology worthy of the name must, in fact, be theological.1 At the heart of Professor Webster’s programme of theological theology is an insistence upon the priority of revealed theology over any alternative theological trajectories that begin, as it were, from below. The Christian confession that God speaks, Webster asserts, demands that we conceive that, within the divine economy – that is, within, as he otherwise puts it, the domain of the Word of 1. The most straightforward and comprehensive statement along these lines is John Webster, ‘Theological Theology’, in Confessing God: Essays In Christian Dogmatics II (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), pp.  11–32. While the motif of theological theology recurs throughout Webster’s essays and published lectures appearing since the turn of the millennium, we direct the reader especially to Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 8–30; ‘On the Theology of the Intellectual Life’, in Christ across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013); and ‘Principles of Systematic Theology’, in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), pp. 133–49. It is interesting to compare Webster’s comments in ‘Theological Theology’, which he originally delivered upon the occasion of the commencement of his tenure as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, to two other of his inaugural addresses: ‘Reading Theology’, TJT 13/1 (1997), pp. 53–63, the revised edition of his Inaugural Lecture as Ramsay Armitage Professor of Systematic Theology, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, delivered in 1995; and the as-yet unpublished ‘Once Again: Theological Theology’, his inaugural address upon assuming the position of Chair of Divinity at the University of St Andrews (2013). While the key insights are largely common across the three essays, the architecture and deployment of concepts differ from text to text to text, in some instances strikingly so. The task of fully discharging such comparison between the three lectures awaits the revision and publication of the St Andrews lecture.



Theological Theology

God – ‘finite being and acts (including textual and intellectual acts) are willed, governed and directed by God, who is their prime and final cause’.2 And, moreover, ‘as God acts to reconcile and perfect, God addresses creaturely intelligence, summoning creatures to knowledge, trust, love and praise, and not merely making a blank determination concerning them’.3 Truly theological thinking and speaking is just that – theological – precisely because it is enlivened by the very God who refuses to communicate himself to and in the world apart from acts of creaturely intelligence. I am grateful to John for drawing attention to the importance of these matters. He first piqued my interest in a theological vision of theology while a literary mentor during my seminary days, and his works on this topic remain among a handful of texts that I revisit regularly in order to sharpen my wits and to remind myself of the tasks, commitments and postures that mark the vocation of Christian theology. John’s patient, wise and always encouraging supervision of my doctoral work on Eberhard Jüngel involved his own concerted effort to bear witness to a theological theology in the presence of an impressionable and, on more than one occasion, bewildered pupil. My own ongoing allegiance to a theological theology is by no means the byproduct of mimicry – though I could certainly find less worthy examples to imitate! Rather, I have grown increasingly convinced that John is correct, at least on the whole, regarding his vision for theology, even if such a vision is hardly fashionable or even attractive in a Christian intellectual climate dominated by various agendas and theological –isms. I do worry, though, that more direct attention needs to be devoted to the problem of the location(s) of the language of faith within the domain of the Word. John has certainly expended quite a bit of energy sorting through the various issues encapsulated by this problem. However, most of the texts in which this parsing takes place, such as those we have already mentioned, are occasional pieces, and, as such, are neither comprehensive nor necessarily systematic. Of course, an essay in a collection such as this is, too, hardly the place to address the task in any substantial manner. Given the time restraints and the nature of the assignment, we can only pick up the scent and follow the trail a tad. We thus set out with the modest goal of surveying a subtheme of the broader topic of theological language – namely, the function of texts within the domain of the Word – and will conclude by mapping a route for a further course of analysis. Our companions along this brief segment of a much longer path are Webster and Gerhard Ebeling, theologians who, to be sure, are not normally brought into common conversations. Yet, as we shall demonstrate, both have much to say concerning the theme at hand.

I Now, the leitmotif of the language of faith is an evergreen problem in Christian theology, rooted in biblical claims linking God’s mighty deeds of creating, 2. Webster, ‘The Domain of the Word’, in The Domain of the Word, p. 7. 3. Ibid., p. 8.

14. Webster and Ebeling on Christian Texts


sustaining and reconciling the world to his communicative agency, often by invoking the idea of the Word of God. The Deuteronomist structures the plot of the history of ancient Israel and Judaism up to the Babylonian captivity according to, among a few other dramatic features, the appearances and pronouncements of God’s appointed mouthpieces – e.g. Moses (Deut. 1:3), Joshua (e.g. Josh. 1:1–9, 4:1–7, 6:1–7), Samuel (1 Sam. 3:11–21), Nathan (2 Sam. chs. 7 and 12), and the prophets to Israel, Judah, and the nations. The Psalmist rejoices in the clarity of God’s self-communication in both the book of nature and the Book of the Law (e.g. Ps. 19), and Qoheleth warns against the risky business of using vain and superfluous religious words in the presence of God (Eccl. 5:1–7). The Apostle Paul certainly understood that the message of the Christian gospel is irreducibly linguistic in character – a ‘word of the cross’, delivered in the medium of preaching (1 Cor. 1:12; cf. 1:23) and addressed in oral form to its hearers (i.e. Rom. 10:14–17). The author of 2 Peter categorizes Paul’s letters alongside ‘the rest of the Scriptures’, and warns his own readers that all such documents – the texts identified and categorized as scriptural – can be twisted to justify false teachings, even to the peril of the false teachers (2 Pet. 3:15–16)! Because of the prominence of the theme of language in Scripture, it is little wonder that it has been such an enduring topic of interest in the history of the development of Christian theology. A number of early Christian theologians appealed to the Greek idea of λόγος, especially in its biblical and ancient philosophical usages, for the formation of Christology, seeing in this flexible concept the potential to encapsulate the linguistic and discursive aspects of the Christian message while acknowledging, at the same time, the incarnation of divine wisdom and imagination in the flesh of Jesus Christ.4 In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine proposes that Christian doctrine and education are best conceived with the help of a theological semiotics that identifies the words of a language as signposts pointing beyond themselves to things signified, inevitably, and together with the entire creation as a nexus of signa, to the eternal God.5 Aquinas was certainly aware of several of the hallmark problems of theological language; for instance (and of much consequence for subsequent western theology) the dilemma of the divine names.6 Luther, too, had much to say concerning such matters. Indeed, his assertion that ‘in Christ all words acquire new significations’7

4. On the importance and flexibility of the concept of λόγος in early Christian theology (as well as in contemporaneous pagan and Jewish thought), see the fine study by Mark Edwards, Image, Word and God in the Early Christian Centuries, Ashgate Studies in Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity, eds. Mark Edwards and Lewis Ayres (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). 5. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. WSA vol. 1/11 (New York: New City Press, 1996). 6. ST I, q. 13. 7. My translation of Luther, ‘Disputation de divinitate ed humanitate Christi, 1540’, WA 39.2, p. 95.


Theological Theology

and the distinction he posits between preaching and theological books8 have contributed, among many of his other claims, to the dubious legacy of his thought in Protestantism. While we might extend our catalogue with citations from other distinct periods from the history of theology, the foregoing should suffice as a chronicle of a few of the key problems concerning the language of faith that have long vexed Christian theologians. The canon of Christian scripture bequeathed, rather than answered, its own questions. The Deuteronomistic narrative unfolds with the assumption that divine and human language intersect in the proclamations of the prophets,9 a feature that is not uncommon elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern literature. But more is granted in these texts than explained concerning the nature of language, specifically in regard to the suitability or capacity of human language to mediate (if such is indeed the best concept for it!) divine communication. The relation and, as it has often been put, tension between the books of nature and scripture has a lengthy history of treatments in the Christian tradition.10 Turning to New Testament problems, we are compelled to ask, in light of even this slender sampling of texts: what is preaching (for that matter, what forms of communication should not be identified as preaching), and why do the authors of several New Testament documents esteem preaching as the essential mode of gospel communication? Does preaching instantiate some latent capacity of human language, whether proper to language itself or granted to language in or by revelation, such that human words can participate in God’s own self-communication? How does preaching as communication of the gospel relate to texts, first to the texts of Christian scripture, and then, to varying degrees, to the texts of the Christian literary tradition, including to sermons that happen to have been preserved in written form? Moving now to additional questions illustrated by our brief examples taken from the Christian literary tradition: What is the nature of teaching – doctrine, and what is the role played by human language, in both its oral and written modes of communication, in the propagating of Christian theological instruction? Do words indeed always function, as Augustine insisted, as signs when employed for evangelical or theological speech? Or are there events of Christian communication

8. See, for examples, Luther, Operationes in Psalmos, WA 5, p. 537; and idem., Lectures on Genesis Chapters 21–25, LW 4, p. 140. 9. On the role of the prophets in the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible, see the excellent recent collection of studies: Mark J. Boda and Lissa M. Wray Beal, eds., Prophets, Prophecy, and Ancient Israelite Historiography (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013). 10. Worth reading on the history of the idea of the book of nature in light of evolving postures concerning scripture and general epistemology are the two collections edited by Klaas van Berkel and Arjo Vanderjagt, The Book of Nature in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 16 (Leuven; Dudley, MA: Peeters Press, 2005); and idem., The Book of Nature in Early Modern and Modern History, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 17 (Leuven; Dudley, MA: Peeters Press, 2006).

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for the theological explanation of which the sign function of language is hermeneutically barren? To what extent do Thomas’s proposals concerning naming and attribution, or Luther’s notion of a change in signification occurring in the coming of Christ, help or hinder the theologian’s efforts to sort out the relation of proportionality between divine and human words? Perhaps most significantly of all, what are the implications of the New Testament’s Christological identification of the Word of God, the insight that animated the λόγος theologies of the early Apologists and that has continued thereafter to (rightly!) intrude upon theological descriptions of the interrelation of God language and meaning? We rehearse such questions not simply in order to put on exhibit a few of the many worms that pop out of the can before grabbing one to dissect, but rather to stress that we are dealing here with a cluster of issues that are intricately entwined, difficult to untangle. There is thus a danger, as with any such matter, of caving to the temptation to examine one or two subthemes in abstraction from others, and, concomitantly, of losing sight of the whole. Our selection of Webster and Ebeling as interlocutors in the following survey of a particular subtheme – texts as instantiations of the language of faith – is due directly to the fact that both theologians attempt to strike the delicate balance between attention to details and alertness to the fact that the details are situated in much larger theological contexts.

II As we have already mentioned, Webster makes a distinct contribution to the contemporary study of the broad problem of the language of faith by proposing that we imagine various clusters of God’s communicative activities in the economy as regions (our word, following the imagery of the territorial metaphor) within, as he describes it, the domain of the Word.11 Briefly: Webster’s foundational commitment appears to be that ‘the divine economy is revelatory; as God deals savingly so he deals communicatively with rebellious and bewildered creatures.’12 In the first instance, this communicative action involves ‘the ministry of the prophets and apostles whose human words he fashions into the temple from which he himself utters his Word’13 – that is, the canon of Christian scripture. For Webster, though, scripture is but one region, albeit located centrally and paramount in terms of authority, among others within the Word’s domain. The sanctified creaturely acts of speaking and hearing (i.e. preaching),14 and of reading, writing (commenting), and reading again (i.e. the church’s exegetical traditions; tacitly, books),15 also reside,

11. We direct the reader to the entirety of Webster’s assay of this theme in ‘The Domain of the Word’, in The Domain of the Word, pp. 3–31. 12. Ibid., p. 19. 13. Ibid. 14. See ibid., pp. 25–6. 15. See ibid., pp. 22–4.


Theological Theology

perhaps suburbanly, in the domain of God’s communicative acts. This is a delicate but highly significant move, for it allows Webster to make good theological sense of the church’s sermonic and textual (specifically, commentary) traditions by categorizing these alongside other occurrences of divine self-communication within the economy, most notably the inspiration, composition and canonization of Christian scripture, but without in doing so usurping scripture’s unique and preeminent seat of authority for the Christian and for the church.16 Webster provides an additional parsing of such concerns in ‘Theological Theology’, though the context of his analysis here results in a somewhat different veneer. Of chief interest for our purposes is his diagnosis that ‘the history of the genres of theological writing is still largely unexplored in any systematic way; yet the importance of such a study for interpreting the situation of theology in modernity can scarcely be over-emphasized’.17 Immediately subsequent to this remark, Webster unfurls a brief précis of the overlooked task of systematically exploring the history of the literary genres of theology; the entire paragraph itself occurring about midway through one of the overarching trajectories of the lecture: a requiem of sorts for the Bildung model of university (especially theological) schooling, which, he observes, was more or less displaced with the materialization of the ‘wissenschaftlich university of modernity’.18 While the mood of the entire course of this analysis is rather gloomy, the end for which it serves as a means is retrieval; namely, the recovery of, as the title indicates, a theological vision of Christian theology, which draws from the ethos of the Bildung approach to pedagogy, especially in regard to the ordering of texts for the purpose of theological formation. For Webster, theological theology entails, among other corrective postures and practices, a revival of the concentric arrangement of texts according to correlative authority that marked the pre-modern university and was mirrored in broader political, cultural and intellectual conditions: ‘at the centre lay Scripture, around which other texts, secular or sacred, were ranged as nearer or

16. We may leave aside the question of whether Webster has done adequate justice to the location or role of Jesus Christ within the domain of the Word. Perhaps surprisingly, in the essay he does not itemize Christ, the Word of God, among the instantiations of God’s communicative action within the economy, remarking instead only on the missio Christi and the domain of the Word (Webster, ‘The Domain of the Word’, p.  7), the unsuitability of the Chalcedonian model of the two natures of Christ for the task of sorting out the nature(s) of scripture (pp. 13–7), and, with a nod to Matthew Levering, the relation of Christ’s teaching office and Christian preaching (p.  25; citing Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), pp.  139–40). Our hunch is that the absence of a trajectory of robust Christological reflection is due to spatial restraints and the occasions of the essay’s composition. 17. Webster, ‘Theological Theology’, p. 20. 18. Ibid., p. 15. On the Bildung and Wissenschaft conceptions of university education, see the entirety of his discussion on pp. 14–22.

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more distant commentary, paraphrase, or extension’.19 We do well to note that this imagery is strikingly similar to the territorial analogy encapsulated by the domain metaphor. Interestingly, though, the immediate force of the imagery is directed not towards the deployment of various modes of God’s communicative actions within the economy, but rather towards a description of the settlement of texts within the earlier of the two hegemonic models of education that have marked the western intellectual tradition. And, to reiterate, the spirit that animates Webster’s reading of this arrangement within the narrative of the paradigm shift from Bildung to Wissenschaft is retrieval, or recovery; not an interest in the past for its own sake, but a consideration of a sadly faded pattern of theological teaching and texts in the expectation that it may still have much to offer. Interestingly, while in the comment cited above Webster observes the deficiency of attention given to the question of the ‘history of the genres of theological writing’, his commendations towards a remedy are far more theological than historical in scope and orientation. Indeed, while the matter is somewhat tangential to the larger purposes of the lecture, Webster’s theological sketch of this literary problem amounts to a hermeneutical proposal for describing the relation between, in his parlance, on one hand, those ‘biblical, creedal and doxological texts’ that ‘shape . . . Christian worlds of meaning’, and, on the other, ‘theology’s literary forms and intellectual architecture, its rhetoric and its modes of argument’20 – the relation, that is, of the centre of the concentric territorial arrangement of theological texts as described above, to other regions located further and further afield. For Webster, ingredient to an analysis of the genres and functions of theological literature is some theological account of this relation between, as it were, the primary texts of canon (at the very centre), creed, and liturgy (in the suburbs), and secondary texts (in the sticks, though still within the domain!) – a variety of, as Webster puts it, commentaries upon, and paraphrases and extensions of Scripture and, on occasion, those other primary texts in the inner region. Our way of unpacking and restructuring the problem here puts Webster’s own solution on display, though this is only tacit in the flow of the lecture’s argument. Namely, by employing the metaphor of distance – ‘proximity’ – to depict the relation between the primary and secondary deposits of Christian literature, he, in effect, inevitably points to a via analogia; specifically to an analogy of language, according to which the written text of Scripture relates to those other texts inclined towards it (Scripture) under the force of Scripture’s own gravity, neither by equivocation nor univocation, but by a similarity that must be conceived in light of an even greater dissimilarity between them. Webster himself might balk at the suggestion that he has followed the way of analogy here. However, it seems clear, upon my reading at least, that at the very heart of his proposal is a series of proportionalities described according to spatial language such that the description preserves relational identity and difference. That is the essence of analogy. Webster’s

19. Ibid., p. 15. 20. Ibid., p. 20. Emphasis added.


Theological Theology

is an analogy of language, precisely insofar as the proportionalities are drawn between communicative events; most broadly, between (a) God’s self-revelation and (b) all of the events and structures of human language that correspond and, dare we say, participate in God’s self-revelation; and, more narrowly and in the vicinity of our chief topic, between (a) the canon of Christian Scripture as the primary textual locus of God’s communicative agency and (b) those other texts in the Christian literary tradition that function as commentaries upon, and paraphrases and/or extensions of Scripture – e.g. creeds, liturgies and exegetical works (the latter a broad category that includes confessions, commentaries, theological texts, and all pertinent subgenres).21

III Of course, the task of drafting a comprehensive theological theology of language would require additional tinkering with these proportionalities. While such a task is far beyond the scope of the present exercise, we are compelled to follow one trajectory towards this end for at least part of the way. Ebeling makes for a fascinating companion during this portion of our journey, for, as we shall see, his theological instincts, core commitments, and literary style differ considerably from those which mark Webster’s thought and writings. However, what Ebeling, in the end, offers towards a theological theology of theological texts is surprisingly similar to Webster’s analogical construction – and yet, we will show, with one significant hitch. 1. A background check is necessary in order to highlight the gist of Ebeling’s contribution.22 One of the themes of striking recurrence in his works is the persistent energy he devotes to determining how an account of language might come to the aid of scholars working in the various theological disciplines. While the origins of this commitment are debatable, it is beyond dispute that the earliest period of his career during which time Ebeling turned his full attention to the problem of language occurred in the brief lifespan of the new, or

21. Space does not permit us to exposit an additional important – though yet condensed and occasional – passage in Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 123–35. While the broad thrust of his argument is consonant with his earlier (in ‘Theological Theology’) and later (in ‘The Domain of the Word’) comments on a theological theology of texts, the situation of the passage compels Webster to make different and, indeed, interesting conceptual moves. 22. The comments in this subhead consist of a revised version of R. David Nelson, The Interruptive Word: Eberhard Jüngel on the Sacramental Structure of God’s Relation to the World, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology 24, eds John Webster, Ian A. McFarland and Ivor Davidson (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), pp.  89–94. Used with permission from T&T Clark.

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second quest for the historical Jesus, when he teamed up with Marburg New Testament scholar Ernst Fuchs to spearhead what is known in the literature as the ‘New Hermeneutic’ – shorthand for an impulse among a group of protestant theologians working in the 1950s and 1960s that consisted, basically, of the use of philosophical hermeneutics to address the century-old putative problem of the relation of Jesus of Nazareth to the Christ of faith. Ebeling’s most significant work on the intersection of language and theology comes from this period, so it behoves us to expand just a bit on the New Hermeneutic, its origins and legacy. In 1953, Ernst Käsemann presented an important and, as it would turn out, highly influential paper entitled, ‘Das Problem des historischen Jesus’,23 in the course of which he roundly criticizes his erstwhile teacher Rudolf Bultmann for allegedly abandoning entirely the quest to discover the Jesus of history. The essay is generally acknowledged as the inaugurating document of the second quest.24 In the course of his analysis, Käsemann concedes Bultmann’s proposal that the New Testament consists of a mixture of myth and history, and that, by consequence, the gospels confront both historian and theologian with the problem of a distorted depiction of the man Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, he urges that the gospels ‘clearly point to the contingency with which the saving event is tied to a particular person, place, and time’.25 The resulting tension, then, is that ‘the exalted Lord has almost entirely swallowed up the image of the earthly Lord, and yet the community [of the church] maintains the identity of the exalted Lord with the earthly’.26 Moreover, he proposes that, ‘the solution to this problem cannot . . . be approached with any hope of success along the line of supposed historical bruta facta but only along the line of the connection and tension between the preaching of Jesus and that of his community’.27 That is, the logically necessary continuity and discontinuity between the proclaimed Christ and Jesus’s own proclamation demands that faith take an active interest in the question of the historical Jesus, while bearing in mind the caveat that the brute facts of history cannot in any final sense be used to establish the claims of faith. In the decade and a half following the presentation of Käsemann’s paper, a number of theologians and New Testament scholars took it upon themselves to address this putative problem of continuity and discontinuity. Ebeling, the theologian, and Fuchs, the New Testament exegete, worked together on a common approach, the central claim of which was the assertion that the proportionality

23. Käsemann, ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’, in Essays on New Testament Themes, trans. William J. Montague (London: SCM Press, 1964), pp. 15–47. 24. On Käsemann’s contribution to the second quest, see Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Baruch Spinoza to Brevard Childs, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 249–70. 25. Ibid., p. 253. 26. Käsemann, ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’, p. 46. 27. Ibid. Emphasis added.


Theological Theology

between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the kerygma can be established through a hermeneutical decision concerning the natures of divine and human language.28 While sharing Käsemann’s hesitations concerning Bultmann’s approach to myth and history, Ebeling and Fuchs move the discussion into an altogether different direction by suggesting that Bultmann has also insufficiently described the relation between being and language, insofar as he prioritizes the former over the latter. Bultmann, that is, is accused of situating being as the ground of language. Consequently, Ebeling and Fuchs charge that, for Bultmann, any act of interpretation of any word – divine or human – is to go, as it were, behind the word in order to discover being. This, they point out, is, in short, the basis of demythologization: the New Testament conceals the authentic Jesus and his message behind a veil of images and words; the goal of interpretation is to attempt to penetrate the veil in order to find Jesus and his enduring word. Bultmann, of course, famously states that the resurrected Christ is newly discoverable only in the Christian proclamation of the Easter kerygma. Ebeling and Fuchs incisively demonstrate that, because Bultmann prioritizes being over language, his resurrected Christ lies, for all practical purposes, impenetrably beyond the preached word. Ebeling and Fuchs, in dialogue with trends in philosophical hermeneutics that emerged in the wake of Heidegger’s later writings on language, counter Bultmann by rearranging the calculus. Language, they assert, is constitutive of being. Language is itself ontic; being is linguistic. While this may seem to be only a slight adjustment, for Ebeling and Fuchs it is crucial for biblical interpretation. Robinson clarifies the insight by summarizing a literary debate between Bultmann and Fuchs that took place soon after the second quest had commenced: The nub of Bultmann’s opposition to the new quest of the historical Jesus is formulated in his two rhetorical questions: ‘Does Jesus’ eschatological consciousness mediate an eschatological self-understanding to the one who perceives it as a historical phenomenon? . . . Does Jesus’ claim of authority, perceived as a historical phenomenon, reach beyond the time of his earthly activity?’ These rhetorical questions, anticipating a negative answer, are posed in terms of the method of the original quest (for the historical Jesus), so that the historical Jesus and the proclaimed kerygma are incommensurable. But when (Bultmann’s) questions are heard in terms of the language event of the new hermeneutic, they are subject to a positive answer. Fuchs and Ebeling would argue that Jesus’ word – not just the Easter kerygma – happens as a recurring word today and thus mediates an eschatological self-understanding to him who hears it; that Jesus’ claim of authority, heard as the word of love, reaches beyond

28. On the following see the penetrating analysis of James M. Robinson in Language, Hermeneutic, and History: Theology after Barth and Bultmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2008), pp. 103–37.

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the time of his earthly activity to speak to us today . . . Fuchs and Ebeling would say that the word-event inaugurated by Jesus’ word happens today in the church’s proclamation.29

According to Robinson’s unpacking of this cluster of issues, Fuchs and Ebeling had the wherewithal to apprehend the fact that, inevitably, Bultmann shared with the biographers of the first quest for the historical Jesus the methodological presupposition ‘that the historical Jesus and the proclaimed kerygma are incommensurable’. For the historical critics who wrote the ‘Lives of Jesus’ during the first quest, this presupposition directly gives way to the shared thesis – more or less the linchpin of nineteenth-century New Testament scholarship – that the proclamation of Christ in the church is an obstacle that the interpreter must overcome in order to make headway towards historical inquiry into the man Jesus of Nazareth. For Bultmann, however, since Christ is experienced in proclamation and not otherwise, the study of the Jesus of history is superfluous for faith. Moreover, Bultmann lacks confidence in the historian’s capacity to discover the Jesus of history through scientific historical research. Hence, as Robinson puts it, Bultmann ‘anticipat(es) a negative answer’ to his rhetorical questions. Ebeling and Fuchs challenge Bultmann’s supposition, tacitly rejecting the architecture of the first quest at the same time,30 and assert contra all parties that the category of word-event can be employed to establish the proportionality between Jesus of Nazareth and the church’s proclamation of the Christ of faith. Jesus’ ongoing eschatological self-presentation occurs in ‘the word-event inaugurated by Jesus’ word [that] happens today in the church’s proclamation’. Both the past proclamation of the man Jesus of Nazareth (‘inaugurated by Jesus’ word’) and the present proclamation of Christ in the church (‘happens today in the church’s proclamation’) are brought together under the category of word-event. As Fuchs explains elsewhere, ‘Jesus’ proclamation shows us that he understood himself as the one who “brought into language” the call of God in the final hour’.31 This ‘bringing-to-language’ occurred chiefly in Jesus’s parables,32 which were events 29. Robinson, Language, Hermeneutic, and History, p. 123. Emphasis added. The cited quotations are from Bultmann, Das Verhältnis der urchristlichen Christusbotschaft zum historischen Jesus (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1960), p. 17. Bultmann’s essay is available in an English edition as ‘The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’, in The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, pp. 15–42. The reader should note that the latter edition differs slightly from Robinson’s translation citation. See Bultmann, ‘The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’, p. 30. 30. Which is why the second quest was originally the “new quest.” It was never intended as a recapitulation of the first quest, but rather an entirely new trajectory of historical inquiry into the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, with the linguisticality of being, rather than historicity, as its key commitment. 31. Fuchs, ‘The Essence of the “Language-event” and Christology’, in Studies of the Historical Jesus, trans. Andrew Scobie (London: SCM Press, 1964), p. 219. 32. Ibid., pp. 220–2.


Theological Theology

of addressing speech in which Jesus ‘summon(ed) [his hearers] to decision’33 concerning authentic existence before God. Jesus’s death by crucifixion brought an end to his teaching ministry, and thus necessarily also to the mode of his eschatological presence that occurred chiefly in his public proclamation. But the resurrection proved that ‘he is not to be swallowed up in death, but is to remain present as the word of God’.34 Christian proclamation of the resurrected Jesus thus brings-to-speech Jesus’s eschatological being to hearers of every age. The proclamation of the Christ of the Christian gospel, like the parabolic proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, is a word-event in the occurrence of which God, in his very being, draws near to the hearer in such a way that he or she is confronted with the possibility of new and authentic human existence. 2. While his commitment to the New Hermeneutic programme for the problem of the theology of language remained central to his thought throughout his career, Ebeling drew his attention to working out the details mainly in a series of texts produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, culminating with the monograph Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language in 1968.35 For our purposes here, Ebeling’s remarks in the essay ‘Historical and Dogmatic Theology’, the second chapter of the book Theology and Proclamation (1962),36 are worth a brief exposition, for they demonstrate his employment of the idea of word-event to tie together scripture, proclamation and theological texts. We have already encountered the scripture-proclamation dynamic in our survey of the New Hermeneutic contribution to the second quest. To reiterate, for Ebeling (and also for Fuchs), because language is constitutive of being, the idea of word-event is suitable for intertwining the New Testament and the subsequent proclamation of it, as it helps us to conceive of Jesus’ own preaching and the church’s preaching of Jesus as occurrences of language in the events of which the hearer is brought out of himself or herself and into an encounter with God as God really is. What, though, about the written words of the church that result from theological labour? In our essay, Ebeling begins to address this question by first asserting that the proper task of theology is to provide words that help the church express the being and works of God. A theologian, he writes: no matter how learned he [or she] may be, is of no use unless he [or she] is certain of what he [or she] is saying. As such, dogmatic theology brings out

33. Ibid., p. 220. 34. Ibid., p. 215. 35. Gerhard Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language, trans. R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973). Also worth mentioning are the essays translated and collected in Ebeling, Word and Faith, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963). 36. Ebeling, ‘Historical and Dogmatic Theology’, in Theology and Proclamation: A Discussion with Rudolf Bultmann, trans. John Riches (London: Collins, 1966).

14. Webster and Ebeling on Christian Texts


very well the relation of theology to speech about God. One cannot speak about God in a disinterested, objective and neutral way. If one does, then, in effect, one is no longer speaking about God . . . Theology ceases to be theology if it is no longer concerned to bring God to expression, and so make the claim to speak the truth in the sense of the simply necessary.37

Like Webster, Ebeling has at least tacitly distinguished between genuine and disingenuous modes of theology, stressing that theology no longer remains theological whenever it gets distracted from its chief responsibility to ‘speak . . . about God’. But the camel’s nose is the little phrase ‘bring God to (i.e. “into”) expression’ in the final sentence, for it alerts us to the fact that he conceives theology as, somehow, behaving similarly to proclamation – proclamation, that is, described according to the agenda of the New Hermeneutic. Ebeling’s identification of the task of theology as speaking about God is, taken on its own, rather benign, and might even otherwise suggest that theology is animated by language’s essential and ordinary significatory capacity. But ‘bringing to expression’ is a shibboleth of the second quest, which Ebeling, we are convinced, deliberatly invokes here in order to ascribe to theological language an extraordinary proclamatory capacity. For precisely this reason, later in the essay he insists upon the ‘proximity of dogmatic theology to the event of proclamation’.38 It is a move somewhat similar to that which we have already seen in Webster’s concept of the domain of the word: the metaphor of distance employed to make sense of the various categories of theological language. But here Ebeling specifically places proclamation together with theology in a relation of approximation. What he has in mind by ‘proclamation’ becomes transparent at the end of a trajectory of thought in which he hones in on a specific mode of theology, namely, what he calls ‘exposition’, the theological reading of the biblical text performed and recorded in order to support the church’s preaching. He writes: The text [of scripture] is not there for its own sake, but for the sake of the wordevent which is the origin and also the future of the text [RDN: origin, according to the agenda of the New Hermeneutic, is here the proclaimed word-event to which the text witnesses: the preaching of Jesus and the apostle; future = the ongoing proclamation of the text in the church that opens the hearer to receive the word]. [He goes on] Word-event is the exposition-event which is carried out by the word. For this reason the text exists for the benefit of the exposition-event which is the origin and future of the text. For the Word which once happened and which has been recorded in the form of a text as an event which has occurred, must with the help of the text again become word, and so come into being as the expounding word.39

37. Ibid., p. 24. 38. Ibid., p. 26. 39. Ibid., p. 28.


Theological Theology

This fascinating passage demonstrates the chasm between Webster and Ebeling. According to Webster, Scripture is a unique and authoritatively preeminent occurrence of God’s communicative presence in the economy; better, a history of God’s inspiring and providentially guiding human speakers and human words for the sake of his self-communication, such that the history in toto might properly be called an event of his word.40 For Ebeling, the text of Scripture exists on the basis of past proclamation (the preaching of Jesus and the apostles) and for the sake of future proclamation (the ongoing preaching of the gospel). But between the past and future preaching for which the text exists, the text must be exposited so that, he writes, ‘the Word which once happened . . . must, with the help of the text, again become word’. Moreover, past exposition of the text – i.e. written and transmitted commentary on Scripture, aids the ongoing exposition that is necessary for proclamation. It is hardly surprising to discover that Ebeling arranges the other texts of dogmatic theological literature within this, we might put it, domain of proclamation (i.e. it is not the territory of God’s self-communication per se at the centre of Ebeling’s analogy of distance, but specifically God’s self-communication as proclamation – events of the addressing word, primarily, but, as is clear, not exclusively occurring as oral exchange). Like Scripture, Ebeling suggests, theological texts are never interesting for their own sakes, but for the sake of the word-events which they serve to communicate. What is more, caught up in the linguistic structure of God’s relation to the world, theological texts themselves participate in ‘bringing God’s Word to expression’.41 While Ebeling elsewhere favourably cites Luther’s distinction between preaching and theological books,42 in the present essay he appears willing to concede that books and other texts can behave as proclamation, at least insofar as they bring the word into human linguistic expression. In short, for the Ebeling of Theology and Proclamation, the category of proclamation determines how all instances of human language – even the words of theological texts – relate proportionally to the always-coming word of God. 3. Our brief exposition of these passages from Ebeling’s essay, undertaken in light of the background of his work in the programme of the New Hermeneutic, reveals, first of all, that we are dealing here with a thoroughgoing analogy of language. Like Webster, Ebeling’s solution to the problem of the language of faith is to bring

40. This is the force of the argument in Webster, ‘The Domain of the Word’, pp. 5–17. 41. Ebeling, ‘Historical and Dogmatic Theology’, p. 31. 42. See Ebeling, ‘Word of God and Hermeneutics’, in Word and Faith, pp. 312–13, n 1. Says Luther: ‘it is not at all the manner of the New Testament to write books of Christian doctrine, but there should everywhere, without books, be good, learned, spiritually-minded, diligent preachers to draw the living word from the ancient scriptures and constantly bring it to life before the people, as the apostles did . . . That books had to be written, however, is at once a great failure and a weakness of spirit that was enforced by necessity and not by the manner of the New Testament.’ The citation is a translation of WA 10.1.1, p. 628.

14. Webster and Ebeling on Christian Texts


the divine Word and human words into a relation of approximation. Proximity, rather than identity or independency, allows both Webster and Ebeling to give due attention to both the similarities and differences between God’s word and the words of our language. In regard to the tasks of theology and especially to theological texts, the upshot of both programmes is to affirm the uniqueness of events of theological language vis-à-vis other instantiations of human speech, but without thereby collapsing the distinction between theology and the Word of God. However, ultimately and unlike Webster, Ebeling reconstructs the array of proportionalities, as it were, from the ground up, and, by consequence, we are left with a theology of language that is, upon final analysis, hardly theological. Ebeling, that is, appears to concede far too much to modern philosophical hermeneutics – especially to the work of Heidegger, in effect employing the then (mid-century) fashionable insistence upon the ontological entailments of the linguistic situation of humanity in order to explain the addressing character of the Word of God among his creatures. In the end, Ebeling’s analogy of language is quite Kantian, insofar as a worldly proportion (human language – i.e. the addressing word-event, occurring between the speaker and hearer, as the ground of human being) is situated as a proportion (that is, it reflects, by way of analogy) to the proportion between God and the world (divine language – i.e. the addressing Word of God, occurring in proclamation, as the ground of justified human being): hearer:speaker=world:God.43 Nowhere is this trajectory more transparent than in Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language, during the course of which Ebeling charges that the putative ontological groundwork of human addressing language is foundation for a theology of the addressing word of God.44 While, to some extent, theological discourse must read backwards analogically from the economy to the being, acts and decrees of the triune God in his immanent being, our contention is that Ebeling gives too much away by starting with a (tendentious!) anthropological account of language. Additionally and perhaps more significantly, in Ebeling’s analogy of language, the category of proclamation ventriloquizes the doctrine of Scripture and, a step further out, the account of other theological texts. We grant with Ebeling the point that theological texts can and must address readers, otherwise they are left inert and become, ultimately, deadly boring. But Ebeling’s category of proclamation, yoked as it is to the agenda of the New Hermeneutic, seems hardly fit to the task of elaborating the address function of theological language. And at just this point the real problems with Ebeling’s programme – and, at the same time, the genuine possibilities offered by Webster’s! – reveal themselves in the form of a glaring

43. For Kant’s construction of an analogical description of God and the world from below, see Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science: With Selections from the Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Gary Hatfield (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 108–9. 44. See the entire argument of Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language.


Theological Theology

omission. What Ebeling is attempting to accomplish with the rather unwieldy tool of a then sexy hermeneutical agenda is probably best addressed with the help of a robust pneumatology.45 The extent to which this exemplifies the pneumatological deficit that marks the Lutheran tradition is a matter for another time. Here we may simply observe that a dogmatic commentary on the person and work of the Holy Spirit features prominently in Webster’s account of the theology of language,46 and this allows him, in turn, to orient the problem of language ‘from above’ and in terms of the church’s trinitarian confession. Contra Ebeling, when proclamation is seen in precisely this light, it does not become overburdened with an esteem for which it is inadequate.

IV As a placeholder, this essay is intended as a provisional beginning without (yet) an end. It is provisional, however, only in the sense that a fuller account of the language of faith would require further elaboration of the insights of Webster vis-à-vis Ebeling. Indeed, we are convinced that, on the whole, Webster’s metaphor of the domain of the Word situated within a theological vision of theology offers the promise of a way forward towards establishing at least one legitimate option for addressing these issues at the heart of the Christian faith. But more work needs to be done to convincingly map the various regions of the Word’s domain. Some of these regions would correspond to the groupings of questions outlined in the first full section, above – e.g. the linguistic character of God’s mighty deeds, the prophetic role of Christ and the human acts of prophecy and preaching, the concept of signs and the problem of signification, the suitability and flexibility of the Johannine λόγος doctrine for the description of the relation between the Word that is Christ and the Christian confession, etc. Additionally, the entailments of trinitarian and pneumatological dogma for the analogy of language deserve extensive treatment. And it would be interesting to tackle a theology of human language – Ebeling’s driving concern – from above rather than from below, grounding the unique characteristics of human language in an account of God’s communicative being, rather than the other way round. If nothing else, this essay has succeeded in raising such questions in light of Webster’s territorial analogy as a plausible skeleton key in the hopes of setting the groundwork for additional considerations.

45. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit does receive (albeit scant) attention in a later unit of Theology and Proclamation (in the chapter ‘Towards an Ecclesiology’, pp. 101–3). But in the essay at hand and other pertinent texts, the Spirit’s role is nowhere fully elaborated. 46. See especially, once again, the entirety of Webster, ‘The Domain of the Word’; and, on the important topic of inspiration, Webster, Holy Scripture, pp. 30–9.

Chapter 15 W HAT I S T RU T H ? M C L E O D C A M P B E L L R EV I SI T E D George Newlands

It is a pleasure to contribute to this collection of essays in honour of John Webster. John has made a very substantial contribution to systematic theology in a remarkably short time. After introducing Eberhard Jüngel to the English speaking theological world in a number of penetrating studies, he has developed a series of distinguished studies in constructive theology, laying out his own original perspectives. I first got to know John as an undergraduate, and our friendship developed as we reflected together on his graduate project on Jüngel, with whom I had studied in Zurich. Since then I have watched the unfolding of his theological vision with growing admiration. My choice of subject for this essay is intended to reflect both his move to work in Scotland, and the demanding nature of the search for truth in theology.

I John McLeod Campbell is one of these figures in the history of theology whose work has been much praised, often if not exclusively by his Scots compatriots, but who is much less widely read. His major work The Nature of the Atonement1 was described by Robert S. Franks as ‘the most systematic and masterly book on the work of Christ, produced by a British theologian in the nineteenth century’,2 and by Vernon F. Storr as ‘certainly the most important English contribution to dogmatic theology made in the first sixty years of the nineteenth

1. John McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement: And its Relation to Remission of Sins and Eternal Life, 6th edn (London: James Clarke and Co., 1959). All references in this essay are to this edition. The second and later editions of the text include introductions by various individuals and appended notes by Campbell. 2. Robert S. Franks, History of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918), p. 392.



Theological Theology

century’.3 But his work was difficult to read, he founded no school of followers and it is hard to find detailed dependence upon him in later writers. It will, however, be suggested that Campbell had a significant influence in the theology of the English speaking world, and that there may still be something to be learned from his central concerns. Factual questions about Campbell’s life remain unanswered. Many of his papers were destroyed accidentally in a fire at his old home and for some reason there are no Kirk Session minutes at Rhu for the important years 1829–31. But though the story has more gaps than appear at first sight, there is a considerable amount of material available. Apart from Campbell’s own published works, there are the letters and reflections, edited by his son Donald, in the fascinating volume of Reminiscences,4 and the two volumes of Memorials.5 The heresy trials in Presbytery and Assembly are well documented,6 and there are contemporary reviews of The Nature of the Atonement.7 Campbell ’s death resulted in assessments of his work, as did the centenary of his death in 1972. Some of those produced upon his death were critical (e.g. those by Robert W. Dale, Robert Campbell Moberly and Andrew M. Fairbairn), others curtly dismissive (Alexander B. Bruce) and others still impressed (the Caird brothers (John and Edward), John Campbell Shairp and John Tulloch). These various reactions are repeated in the twentieth century. Among the more critical were those by Edward C. Essex, George S. Hendry and John MacLeod; among the more sympathetic: David S. Cairns, Hugh Ross Mackintosh, the Baillie brothers (Donald and John) and Edgar P. Dickie. There are also recent academic studies, by Eugene G. Bewkes,8

3. Vernon F. Storr, Development of English Theology in the Nineteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1913) p. 477. See also Otto Pfleiderer, The Development of Theology in Germany since Kant: And Its Progress in Britain since 1825 (London: S. Sonnenschein & Co., 1890). 4. John McLeod Campbell, Reminiscences and Reflections, Referring to His Early Ministry in the Parish of Row, 1825–31, ed. Donald Campbell (London: Macmillan and Co., 1873). 5. John McLeod Campbell, Memorials of John McLeod Campbell, Being Selections from His Correspondence, 2 vols., ed. Donald Campbell (London: Macmillan and Co., 1871). 6. Church of Scotland, The whole proceedings in the case of the Rev. John M’Leod Campbell, late minister of Row: before the Presbytery of Dumbarton, the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr, and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, including, besides all the documents, the speeches in the different church courts (Greenock: R.B Lusk, 1831). See also Robert H. Story, Memoir of the Rev. Robert Story . . . Including Passages of Scottish Religious and Ecclesiastical History During the Second Quarter of the Present Century (Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1862). 7. Campbell himself notes several of these in The Nature of the Atonement, p. 374. 8. Eugene Garrett Bewkes, Legacy of a Christian Mind: John McLeod Campbell, Eminent Contributor to Theological Thought (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1937).

15. What is Truth? McLeod Campbell Revisited


Michael Jinkins,9 George M. Tuttle,10 Leanne Van Dyk11 and, additionally, a number of unpublished theses.12 Judged by accepted standards of achievement, Campbell’s career was something of a flop. He was to be neither a successful academic nor a leading churchman. Born in Argyllshire in 1800, a son of the manse, he was educated in arts and divinity at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, became the parish minister of Rhu in 1825, and was deposed from the ministry in 1831 by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for holding unsound doctrines, particularly the doctrine of universal atonement. He spent most of his life looking after a small, unattached congregation in Glasgow, publishing as the fruit of long reflection, The Nature of the Atonement in 1856. He retired to the country in 1868 for health reasons and died four years later. Behind this brief account lies a figure of some complexity. He was not a man to surround himself in mystery. But he had a quality of reserve, of caution in making sweeping pronouncements or taking up entrenched positions, which was to grow over the years. Perhaps in part the fruit of the bitter experience of rejection, this facility was an important aid to critical reflection. It might be hoped that with the young Campbell at least, there should be no problems of interpretation. But even here the characterizations are interestingly various. Some saw him as an Evangelical from the West Highlands, stressing the assurance of salvation and the cruciality of the death of Christ with a naive and almost indecent enthusiasm. Here the phrase attributed to one of his tutors and picked up in the influential sketch by Tulloch, that there was some fear that he might become ‘too high’, i.e. too evangelical, has probably played a role. He spoke of his message as ‘the truth of God’ in controversy, albeit with important qualifications, and he was critical of ‘an easy liberalism of opinion’ in theology. Others have noted that his father was a Moderate, who brought up his son on Samuel Clark and Butler. This young man was not a typical member of the Highland Host. He might never have gone to Rhu at all, but have served in the more ample pastures later enjoyed by his friend Edward Caird, but for his scruples over the ecclesiastical tests then in force at Oxford. But Campbell can scarcely be accounted a classical Moderate in the style of William Robertson or Alexander Carlisle, still less in the manner of the urbane Hugh Blair of St Giles, whose work was translated by the youthful Schleiermacher. It is sometimes said that Campbell was a radical and also that he was a liberal. He was

9. Michael Jinkins, Love Is of the Essence: An Introduction to the Theology of John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1993). See also Jinkins, A Comparative Study in the Theology of Atonement in Jonathan Edwards and John McLeod Campbell (San Francisco: Mellen Press, 1993). 10. George M. Tuttle, John McLeod Campbell on Christian Atonement: So Rich a Soil (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1986). 11. Leanne Van Dyk, The Desire of Divine Love: John McLeod Campbell on Christian Atonement (New York: Peter Lang, 1995). 12. Donald Leonard Faris, University of Edinburgh, 1967; George M. Tuttle, Victoria University, Toronto, 1961; Douglas A. Shanks, Glasgow, 1958; R. Hind, Lancaster, 1972.


Theological Theology

neither radical nor liberal in his opinions in comparison with the intellectual climate of Georgian Edinburgh. To the Moderate party in the Assembly of 1831, Campbell seemed both perverse and reactionary, and there were good reasons why they should unite with the Evangelicals to be rid of him. To challenge the role of the Westminster Confession was to break the conventions upon which true order and liberty, civil and ecclesiastical alike depended, and to do it in the name of revelation was reactionary in the extreme. Campbell was anything but a cardboard figure. As he was to explain later in his essay, ‘Reasons for not joining a party’,13 Campbell decided as a young man to join neither of the two main parties in the church, and he hated what he took to be the falsehood of extremes. This desire for balance was to produce the many qualifications in his literary style of which the critics were to complain. In the first instance it was to leave him defenceless between the party machines. A brief word about the Evangelicals. There had long been a pietist tradition in Scotland, associated particularly with the name of the Aberdeen scholar Henry Scougal, working through meetings rather than publications. These circles reacted coolly to the preaching of Wesley, but more favourably to his friend Whitefield and then to the Haldane brothers. By 1805 there was a distinct and self-conscious movement, often anti-intellectual, but in time the characteristic notes of individualism, inwardness, seriousness, piety and missionary zeal could be augmented by constructive engagement with contemporary philosophy. After coaching at home by his father, Campbell entered Glasgow University at the age of eleven and spent six years in the Arts Faculty, studying mainly philosophy under George Jardine – an able teacher who had been taught by Thomas Reid. Proceeding to the Divinity Faculty he was a pupil of Stevenson McGill, a theologian who taught all the loci of traditional Reformed dogmatics within a framework of Ramist logic, and including long sections on natural theology (McGill has sometimes been described as a typical Moderate theologian, though his appointment was ensured by evangelical sponsors).14

13. Campbell, Reminiscence and Reflections, pp. 181–7. The standard general history is still John H. S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960). For Scottish history in general, I am greatly indebted to the late Professor Alexander Campbell Cheyne. 14. On federal theology and Campbell, see James B. Torrance, ‘The contribution of McLeod Campbell to Scottish Theology’, SJT 26/3 (1973), pp. 295–311. See also Hugh Watt, ‘Proc’, SCHS 6 (1938), pp. 147ff.; and Donald J. Bruggink, The Theology of Thomas Boston, 1676–1732, PhD Diss., University of Edinburgh, 1956. For continental influences on the Scottish theological scene, see Andrew L. Drummond, The Kirk and the Continent (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1956); and W. Caird Taylor,‘Scottish Students at Heidelberg’, SHRV 6.1 (1908), p. 8. On the Moderates, see Ian D. L Clark, ‘From Protest to Reaction: The Moderate Regime in the Church of Scotland, 1752–1805’, in Scotland in the Age of Improvement, eds Nicholas T. Phillipson and Rosalind Mitchison (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960), pp. 200–25.

15. What is Truth? McLeod Campbell Revisited


Campbell received a thorough grounding in philosophy and theology. His letters, however, indicate that he did not always agree with his teachers. In Edinburgh he pursued further study, notably with Sir William Hamilton in philosophy. The works of Hume and, to a lesser extent, Kant were familiar to him: Hume partly through Dr George Campbell’s critique; Kant as interpreted from a perspective of Common Sense philosophy by Hamilton. One common characteristic of the school of Reid and Hamilton appears to have been encouragement to look askance at claims to the final resolution of particular issues. There was something to be said for the old Wolffian metaphysics, derived from Leibnitz; something to be gained from Hume and from Kant. Nothing was exhaustively settled, but neither was anything finally ruled out. In particular, concern with religion, and with the Christian tradition, was not by new developments in philosophy. This had the advantage of encouraging awareness of complexity, of openness. It had the major disadvantage of never exposing students to the full severity of the problems, particularly problems for talk of God, which the Enlightenment, and the work of Locke, Hume and Kant in particular, had disclosed. In the work of Thomas Reid, there were elements of a philosophical realism which might be particularly fruitful within the more generally idealist framework of nineteenth-century theology. Philosophy is done not by deduction from universal laws of thought, nor from empirical observation of the natural world and the behaviour of other men, but from a careful observation of the self-consciousness. The observation of consciousness establishes principles which are independent of experience. In the field of ethics, these principles are self-evident intuitions. In religion, self-consciousness is the source of knowledge. Such knowledge has a certitude derived neither from naïve rationalism nor from naïve empiricism, and though indebted to Hume, for its critique of traditional metaphysics in Reid’s sophisticated analysis of ‘the principles of Common Sense’, ‘every operation of the sense, in its very nature, implies judgement or belief as well as apprehension’. The faculty of judgement or self-consciousness, rather than Locke’s ideas or Hume’s ‘impressions’ is observed to be the central element in the process of knowing, and skepticism is unnecessary.

On Jardine, and on the whole background of Scottish Education in the nineteenth century, see George Elder Davie, The Democratic Intellect (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1961). See also Henry M. B. Reid, The Divinity Professors of the University of Glasgow,1640–1903 (Glasgow: Maclehose, Jackson and Co., 1923); and, for the details of his lectures, see Scottish Universities Commission, Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Commissioners for Visiting the Universities and Colleges in Scotland, 1826 and 1827, vo1. 11 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing Co., 1837), pp. 5–57. In addition, see Selwyn Alfred Grave, The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press,1973); Sydney Ahlstrom, ‘Scottish Philosophy and American Theology’, in Church History 24.3 (September 1955), pp. 257–72; David Fergusson, Scottish Philosophical Theology, 1700–2000 (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2007); and Davie, The Democratic Intellect, pp. 275–6.


Theological Theology

Campbell’s immediate concern upon leaving university was not the foundations of philosophical theology but the work of pastoral ministry in Rhu. Of his theological opinions before Rhu we know little. In the early years we find a distaste for external evidence. We also find a concentration on internal evidences for Christianity (paralleled independently, of course, in Erskine, Coleridge and others), and on Christology, later echoed in his stress on the atonement as seen in its own light, which may indicate the influence of Hume, mediated through Reid. The same concern was to lead to an emphasis on the conscience and consciousness as the means of apprehending that which is most real, a turn towards Kant, perhaps, through the somewhat clouded vision of Sir William Hamilton. It is always hazardous to trace precise influences in the transmission of ideas. At any rate, Campbell at twenty-five was enough of a philosopher to be able to follow his arguments wherever they might lead. In the field of devotional literature he mentions especially the reading of Henry Martyn, David Brainerd and Henry Dorney.15 In Rhu, Campbell was struck by the fact that his people felt that they were not good enough to be granted salvation, and that they could be saved only by a stricter observance of the law. This was the continuing legacy of the old federal theology in a time when the intellectual foundations of a federalist view of the universe had long been shattered and, in more liberal circles at least, largely forgotten. As a corrective to this guilt-laden and anxiety-creating theology, Campbell developed in his preaching a doctrine of assurance, which was a kind of affirmation of spiritual freedom. It was not necessary to keep the law in order to be saved. This was not an expression of antinomianism but a stress on the priority of grace. Christ has already died for the salvation of all men, and through his salvation alone is it even possible to keep the law. This doctrine of assurance sounded decidedly unpromising to Moderate ears. But Campbell was concerned not with an undue emphasis on the conversion experience but with divine initiative in salvation.16 The second main aspect of his thought, represented in the sermons of this period, is related to the first. Christ died for all men. This did not mean that Christ’s death de facto had saved all already (though this would have been a preferable position to the prevailing emphasis). But it meant that Christ did not die only for the elect, the recipients of some previous decision of predestination. It is true that theories of double predestination were less prominent in nineteenth-century Scots preaching than is often imagined. But it is one thing to refer to a mystery of which one can say little or nothing, or even ignore it. It is quite another thing flatly to

15. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 1, p. 269. 16. See Campbell, Memorials, vol. 2, p. 98: ‘No one has, or could have, worked more than I have done with “Assurance of Faith”. But I am satisfied that there is an unhealthy occupation with conversion, which hinders the development of the life of Christ in us, in truth, in the time of our conversion. it is not “that we are converted” but “that we apprehend Christ”, which is our peace.’

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deny its truth. The Rhu sermons stress the priority of the gospel over the law, the character and the mind of Christ. ‘It is not by the law you will be judged, but by the gospel.’17 ‘It is the character, the moral character of Christ’s agony that made it the foundation of that God had built upon it.’18 ‘It pleased Christ to be bruised, This was the mind of Christ.’19 ‘To direct your thoughts into the love of God has been the object for which God, who is love, was manifested in the flesh. To direct your thoughts into the love of God has been the object, too, of all these sufferings to which he submitted, sufferings, to which we have no key, unless we see that God is love.’20 As he put it in a letter of 1829 to his Father, ‘Christ is the way to the Father, because in Him the Father is revealed so that we can enjoy his character.’21 Campbell has been criticized for being of a dogmatic frame of mind, and for identifying his own theories with the truth of God – neither the first nor the last theologian to do so! In recognizing a certain immaturity here one can see at the same time his intellectual courage. To respect mystery is not to shelter behind mystification. It was Campbell’s misfortune that Rhu had recently become a fashionable holiday resort. News of the lochside heresies soon spread, particularly to the east. Opinions were taken. Campbell was tried for heresy, first before the Presbytery and the General Assembly. In Presbytery some highly disreputable characters from the surrounding district were persuaded by neighbouring ministers to testify against Campbell. The Moderator helpfully associated Campbell’s doctrine with a rise in the incidence of lunacy around Glasgow. Two divinity students assisted with their erudition. No attention was paid to the numerous petitions sent in support of Campbell from Rhu,22 and his friend Story was formally threatened with prosecution for supporting him. In the Assembly one detects an impatience for deposition rather than admonition. ‘He cannot preach this doctrine and remain a minister of the Church of Scotland. Let him go to England and preach it, and we may bid him God speed.’23 The principal charge in the Assembly trial was that Campbell held and taught doctrines already condemned by the Act of Assembly of 1720, which had resolved the Marrow controversy.24 Campbell’s objections to Federal Theology were

17. Campbell, Sermons and Lectures: Taken in Short-Hand, vol. 1 (Greenock: R.B. Lusk, 1832), p. 180. 18. Ibid., p. 307. 19. Ibid., p. 70. See also pp. 65ff. 20. Ibid., p. 35. 21. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 1, p. 65. 22. One was from William Cunningham, who later became a famous conservative theologian and Principal of New College. 23. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 2, p. 35. 24. Church of Scotland Church Law Society, ‘V. Sess. 9, May 20, 1720’, in Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1638–1842 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing & Publishing Co., 1843), pp. 534–6.


Theological Theology

substantially the same as those for which Thomas Boston and his friends had been condemned a hundred years before. Campbell’s defence was to attack. To the Synod he said of the Westminster Confession, ‘There is an awful falling off in the Confession we now have’,25 and reiterated the themes of his sermons. ‘The secret of God’s character is revealed in the work of redemption. Christ came not to change his Father, but to declare his Father’s name.’26 In the Assembly he attempted to show that the Westminster Confession contained doctrinal errors which rendered it unsuitable as the subordinate standard of the faith of the church. It is a measure of his lack of political experience that he expected to succeed. He succeeded, but only in illustrating the doctrine of the unripe time. Campbell was deposed from the ministry, and he was never reinstated. The result was to make Campbell, together with his friend A. J. Scott who was deposed by the same Assembly, more convinced than ever of the importance of his main convictions. In the difficult and lonely thirty years between the excitement of the trial and the appearance of his work on the atonement, Campbell concentrated on working out in detail what he did and did not wish to argue. On the published sermons of this period, Principal J. C. Shairp, an undergraduate at Oxford in 1845, commented that, ‘Though they came from a different quarter of the doctrinal heavens, and had no magic in their language, as Newman’s have, yet they seemed as full of spirituality, and that perhaps more simple and direct.’27 The focus on the love of God remains striking: ‘They who spiritually discern that it was through the Eternal Spirit that Christ offered himself, cannot but see in God a loving Father’ (on Heb. 9:14).28 ‘Christ’s love is not to be considered as mere sorrow for what we are, but as a yearning desire to deliver us from our evil condition’ (on 2 Cor. 5:21).29 This was a time of a certain amount of travel and a considerable correspondence, which greatly increased after 1856.

II We come to The Nature of the Atonement. It appears from his letters that about three years were spent on the text itself. The primary subject is the nature of the atonement. But, as Campbell was at pains to underline in the introduction, the atonement was to be seen together with the incarnation, and the whole was

25. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 1, p. 85. 26. Church of Scotland, The whole proceedings in the case of the Rev. John M’Leod Campbell, p. 165. 27. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 1, p. 339. See also William Angus Knight, Principal Shairp and his Friends (London: J. Murray, 1888); John McLeod Campbell, Fragments of Truth: Expositions of Passages of Scripture (Edinburgh: Edmonson and Douglas, 1861). 28. Campbell, Fragments, p. 179. 29. Ibid., p. 244.

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intimately related to the doctrine of God. Looking at the New Testament, he observed that both Paul and John see the love of God not in the incarnation simply, but in the incarnation as developed in the atonement. The atonement is to be seen as the action of God the loving Father. His divine forgiveness itself creates the ground of reconciliation between God and men. Human response to God’s love is of course necessary, but the initiative remains with God. Though God’s love is prior to his justice, it is nowhere in conflict with justice, for it is the justice of love. This makes reconciliation an immensely costly process. God forgives and shows his forgiveness in atonement. There is then no question of appeasing divine wrath by means of a sacrifice of penal substitution. The forgiveness that is perfect justice, the love that abhors evil, works through Jesus’s perfect repentance for the evil of the world, as he suffers, a man among men, and at the same time the son of his father. An atonement to make God gracious would be impossible. On the contrary, the scriptures represent the love of God as the cause, and the atonement as the effect. It is not then simply in the death of Jesus, but in his life that the atonement is worked out.30 Calvinist orthodoxy had concentrated on Christ’s sufferings as punishment, leading up to death as the judicial penalty for mortal sin. ‘But my surprise is . . . that these sufferings being contemplated as an atonement for sin, the holiness and love seen taking the form of suffering should not be recognised as the atoning elements; the very essence and adequacy of the sacrifice for sin presented to our faith.’31 God participates in unloving humanity while still loving. Campbell focuses attention on the biblical conceit of fatherhood, qualified by other biblical imagery, to fill in the highly ambiguous concept of love. While stressing God’s initiative, he does not hesitate to employ what he considers to be the best elements in human love in his theological construction. ‘Living the life of love he must needs care for all humanity even as for himself; so being affected by the evil of the life of self, and enmity in humanity according to his own consciousness of the life of love, and at once condemning that life of self, desiring its destruction and feeling himself by love devoted to the work of delivering man from it at whatever cost to himself.’32 Wherever there is sin, estrangement from God, God’s reaction is to suffer in his own nature. ‘The full revelation of God is not that the divine love has been content thus to suffer, but that the suffering is the suffering of divine love suffering from our sins, suffering according to its own nature; a suffering, therefore, in relation to which the sufferer could say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” ’33 ‘That oneness of mind with the Father which towards man took the form of condemnation of sin, would in the Son’s dealing with the Father in relation to our sins, take the form of a perfect confession of our sins. This confession as to its own nature

30. 31. 32. 33.

See Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, p. 53. Ibid., p. 116. Ibid., p. 127. Ibid., p. 134.


Theological Theology

must have been a perfect Amen in the humanity to the judgement of God on the sin of man.’34 Jesus was able to make a confession of our sins, while remaining sinless, because of ‘a confidence connected with his own consciousness that in humanity he abode in his Father’s love and in the light of his countenance’.35 In his ministry of identification and intercession, ‘the outcoming of the life of sonship’,36 in the intensity of the agony in Gethsemane the cost of reconciliation is spelled out.37 In truth, we are to judge that, as was the love which, in the strength of love to God and man was able to drink that cup, so also was the bitterness of that cup. For the measure as well as the nature of Christ’s sufferings is that of the divine love which experienced them.38 Contemplation of this drama through participation in the spirit of Christ brings about in us ‘a movement of our inner being’, an ‘ascending upwards to the mind of God’.39 Campbell returns to the imagery of the family: ‘If we refuse to be in Christ the brothers of men, we cannot be in Christ the sons of God.’40 Response in faith brings the peace of God, ‘philosophy has/been called a homesickness . . . The knowledge that in God we live and move and have our being is the conscious peace of home to spirits when we know God as revealed in Christ.’41

III How are we to evaluate Campbell’s theology? It is clear what Campbell believed the nature of the atonement did not consist in. The Federal theology enshrined in the Westminster Confession of faith had considerable merits of objectivity and logical consistency. These merits were gained at the cost of a drastic narrowing of the scope and depth of the gospel of the New Testament witness. If Federal theology was too narrow, it was quickly objected that Campbell’s was too wide, and charges of exemplarist reduction and even straight deism were brought against him. The strength of Campbell’s central thesis lies in the integral relations between incarnation and atonement, and in a wider horizon between the doctrines of God and of Christ, which it exhibits. Campbell’s was in principle a highly comprehensive soteriology, which attempted to draw into relationship all that could be said of

34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41.

Ibid., p. 135. Ibid., p. 175. Ibid., p. 248. See ibid., pp. 256–7. Ibid., p. 264. Ibid., p. 335. Ibid., p. 371. Ibid., p. 410.

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human experience and all that could be thought of the nature of God in himself. The carefully qualified paragraphs no doubt reflect an anxiety to cover all the detailed objections brought against him. For him Christ has much more than the force of a moral example only.42 But on the other hand ‘an arbitrary act cannot reveal character’.43 He examines the teaching of Luther, especially on the humanity of Christ, and attempts to be scrupulously fair to Jonathan Edwards. Atonement is moral and spiritual.44 There is no demand for suffering as suffering,45 but suffering is itself the revelation of what God feels on the presence of evil. Likewise self-sacrifice is not in itself the essence of God’s love, even though self-sacrifice was what the human situation required of Jesus.46 Understanding Christ’s humanity we are led to understand his divinity,47 as we respond to God in our inner being through the Holy Spirit.48 There is here a kind of ontology of the person of God in Christ, complemented by a careful theological anthropology in which reason and revelation,49 and humanity and divinity50 are related through a focus on the area of conscience.51 Though the imbalance of Calvinism leads Campbell to a corrective concentration on the life of Jesus, he still says much on his death,52 his resurrection53 and the work of the Spirit.54 The grounds for understanding are internal rather than external; the atonement is to be seen in its own light. The book’s shortcomings lie in its failure to give equal attention to the many important issues which it covers, rather than a failure to notice the dimensions of the problem. Any theologian who concentrates on the humanity of Jesus, and on the example of his life lived as a man among men, is likely to be accused in the first instance of exemplarist reductionism. This, it was objected by an early reviewer, was a typical idealist theory of moral example. Nothing of metaphysical significance had actually taken place in the death of Christ. There is no change in the ontological structures of the universe. As people contemplate the moral struggle in Christ, identifying with sin yet sinless, so they turn from their wickedness to God. But such a theory is the worst of all possible worlds. It is most unclear how Christ could repent for the sins of others. Every man must do his own repenting. Even if

42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54.

See ibid., pp. 26–7 and 330–1. Ibid., p. 64. See ibid., p. 293. See ibid., p. 292. Ibid., p. 399. See ibid., p. 377. Ibid., p. 384. Ibid., p. 375. Ibid., p. 377. Ibid., pp. 311–2. See also pp. 7–26. Ibid., pp. 297–8. Ibid., pp. 173–4. Ibid., pp. 102–3.


Theological Theology

such repentance were in principle possible, how could this be transferred for the salvation of others? If Christ was sinless then he was not completely identified with men and could not save them; if he was himself sinful then he was equally incapacitated. When the gaps in the argument were exposed, the entire structure of Campbell’s theory collapsed. In later editions, Campbell replied to his critics. The main point he makes is that the action of Jesus is at the same time the action of God the Father. It is the identification of the Father with sin and suffering, in life and in death that makes possible the sinless solidarity with sin and the benefits of salvation for all men. Campbell’s explanations did not always satisfy his critics. A particularly perceptive analysis was made by Robert Campbell Moberly,55 some of whose criticisms were developed by John Macquarrie.56 After an appreciative summary of the book, Moberly comments that it has been more successful in his account of the relation of Christ to God than in his account of the relation of men to Christ: ‘He always seems to stop short of that conception of our identification with Christ which is at once the higher, the more comprehensive, the more scriptural in conception.’57 Campbell speaks of the Son’s dealing with the Father in relation to our sins, in a way which seems at variance with Christ being the very manifestation of humanity in perfect accord with deity. He speaks of this dealing as a perfect confession of our sins. But Christ not only confessed the Father but he was perfect. ‘He confessed the sin of humanity by being the very manifestation of humanity in its ideal reality of penitential holiness, before the Father.’58 Christ, for Moberly, is not just an individual man, but the embodiment of humanity itself, not primarily a man, but Man. Moberly finds great weakness in Campbell’s explanation of the cry of dereliction. To maintain that Christ never felt the suffering of himself being forsaken appears to miss completely a central aspect of the crucifixion. His exposition wholly lacks any reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and to the role of the Church and the Sacraments. ‘Had he been born and bred within the range of all that (as it were) instinctive conception and consciousness, in relation to sacramental communion, which characterises the best and deepest tradition of the Catholic Church; Had it been to him Christ’s own method for the personal identification, in Spirit, of his mystical body the Church, and of all her members, with the atoning sacrifice of Calvary; he could hardly, in expounding the rationale

55. Robert Campbell Moberly, Atonement and Personality (London: J. Murray, 1907), pp. 396–7. See also John McLeod Campbell, Christ the Bread of Life (London: Macmillan, 1869); and Campbell, Thoughts on Revelation (London: Macmillan, 1874). 56. J. Macquarrie, Thinking about God (London: SCM Press, 1975), pp. 167–78. 57. Moberly, Atonement and Personality, p. 403. 58. Ibid., p. 405.

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of atonement, have ignored so completely the relevance of all this side of Christian experience.’59 It might be suggested in Campbell’s defence that there is a sense in which Christ’s consciousness of sonship within humanity, as he represents humanity precisely as a particular man, and not as universal human nature, is the sacrament of God for the world. Though by no stretch of imagination a ‘secular Christian’, he was concerned to see the church as the servant of God in the world. For him the Calvinist theology of limited atonement and double predestination, ecclesiola in ecclesia, was the antithesis of Christian freedom. Moberly’s critique, however, was important. Campbell would have agreed that Christ confessed the sin of humanity by being the very manifestation of humanity. He assumed that moral perfection and perfectly obedient sonship implied unity of being. But he neglected to spell this out, having abandoned traditional metaphysics along with external evidences. As we have seen, for Campbell the main ground of the union between Christ and us is our relation to God as Creator and redeemer, as, rather, Son and Spirit. But Federal theology made great play with creation, the divine decrees and a scholastic doctrine of God, and so Campbell concentrated on Christology. It has been suggested that, for Campbell, the centre is Gethsemane rather than Calvary. His opponents had concentrated on Christ’s death, and so Campbell, though he spoke of death and resurrection, concentrated on the life of Christ. Preoccupation with one area, in opposition to the emphases of his opponents, was to raise quite new sets of problems. How could Christ’s repentance avail for others? Was Christ or was he not personally involved in sin? Without a more explicitly metaphysical framework, and without a more fully articulated discussion of the doctrine of God, explanations would be incomplete. It is perhaps desirable to recall here that, for Campbell, the basic reality is spiritual reality. Spiritual reality, experienced by faith, would be the basic element of any such metaphysical framework. It may be thought indeed that this emphasis led him to say too little about Christ’s physical sufferings, just as, like his contemporaries, he says nothing of the physical horrors of social conditions in Glasgow, and of the need for drastic social change.

VI I turn to Campbell’s influence on the theology of the following decades. This was largely indirect but pervasive, and its continuing presence is itself a significant part of Campbell’s impact on theology. It was not just his writing, but the writing which he influenced which became standard material for theological teaching for a long time to come. Campbell’s writings after 1856 shed little new light on his work on the atonement, and must be left out of this account. In Christ the Bread of Life there is a fine treatment of sacramental theology, centred upon meditation upon the mind

59. Ibid., p. 409.


Theological Theology

of Christ, a theme which we encountered in the early sermons. Participating in the mind of Christ, our life ascends to him in worship, a worship in which there is a continual living presentation of Christ to the Father.60 In Thoughts on Revelation, Reminiscences and in his letters, there are discussions of controversies surrounding previous questions, faith and doubt, modern religious controversy, Essays and Reviews and the controversies surrounding Mansel, Darwin and Huxley. Though he attempts always to be open to new possibilities, and can deplore both the bibliolatry of the conservative and the ‘self-congratulations of a blind orthodoxy’, a phenomenon he knew only too well, his main interest remained with the issues of his earlier years. As he said with perfect accuracy in a letter to Maurice in 1862, ‘I know little of historical criticism.’61 But his comments on the relations between faith and reason, on the nature of faith, and his insistence that true faith, which is the opposite of ‘the faith which is a blind submission to authority’,62 must enlarge rather than diminish our capacity for respecting opinions which differ from our own. Campbell’s emphasis on the centrality of divine love was anticipated in the work of his friend Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, and indeed in the writings of Boston and his circle a hundred years before. Campbell read Erskine’s Internal Evidence,63 first in 1826, at a time when he was coming to similar conclusions independently. They first met in 1828, and from then until Erskine’s death in 1870 remained close friends.64 Both Campbell and Erskine became friends of Frederick Denison Maurice, and some, including Vaughan and Otto Pfleiderer, saw Campbell as the decisive influence on Maurice. ‘The religious profundity of the Scotchmen admirably supplemented the thought of the Englishmen, which is characterized more by a practical breadth than religious and speculative depth. It is to them that Maurice’s theology owes its best features.’65 But Maurice had already done his seminal thinking before he met Campbell, and it would be more accurate to see their relationship as one of mutual appreciation.66 For both, doctrine and practical concerns were intimately related. As Storr said of The Nature of the Atonement, ‘it helped to emphasise the growing need of doctrinal restatement, and enforced the lesson that dogma divorced from experience is a mere empty husk’.67

60. Campbell, Christ the Bread of Life, p. 130. 61. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 2, p. 43. 62. Campbell, Thoughts on Revelation, p. 22. 63. Thomas Erskine, Remarks on the Internal Evidence for the Truth of Revealed Religion (Andover: M. Newman, 1826). 64. Campbell, Reminiscences and Reflections, p. 16. See also Story, Memoir of the Rev. Robert Story, p. 152. 65. Pfleiderer, The Development of Theology in Germany since Kant, p. 323. 66. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 1, p. 254. 67. Storr, Development of English Theology in the Nineteenth Century, p. 428.

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Apart from Maurice and Erskine, the significant figures for Campbell’s influence in his lifetime are his friends in the Glasgow area, the Caird brothers, Norman MacLeod, Bishop Alexander Ewing and Robert H. Story. The Caird Brothers had known Campbell since their student days. Edward’s father-in-law, Dr Wylie, had been one of the handful of men to speak up for Campbell on the Assembly of 1831. They frequently discussed philosophy and especially Hegel. The eloquent chapter on the Death of Jesus in Edward Caird’s Gifford Lectures, on ‘The Evolution of Religion’ – human love contending with human hate and overcoming it by its deeper strength and self-consistency,68 is almost certainly the fruit of Caird’s relationship with Campbell within a system in a quite different idiom. We find a pupil of Caird writing as late as 1939 words that might have come straight from The Nature of the Atonement: ‘If God is love. It is only among people animated by mutual love that understanding of him can be advanced’;69 though Frederick A. Iremonger was right in regarding Caird’s impact on Temple as greater in the realm of social philosophy than in philosophical theology. More obvious, because more strictly theological, is the indebtedness of John Caird’s Gifford Lectures, The Fundamental Ideas of Christianity70 to Campbell’s theology. The stress on the sufferings of Christ and the identification with sin through a life of sonship in the chapter on ‘elements of a true theory of atonement’ (lecture 18) are particularly relevant here. Edward Caird as Master of Balliol and John as Principal of Glasgow University had an impact on student generations greater than we might suppose from the obscurity into which their writings have fallen. Much was written about Campbell and theology under his inspiration by Norman Macleod, John James Lias, Joseph H. Leckie, David S. Cairns, James Denney and Hugh Ross Mackintosh. In Scotland his influence was to have practical as well as theoretical consequences. On the one hand the case led to a liberalization of attitudes in the church. Burleigh summed it up like this: ‘MacLeod Campbell lived long enough to see and rejoice in what may be called a liberalizing of Scottish theology without abandonment of its evangelical warmth.’71 On the other hand, Campbell’s stand that the will of the Assembly was not to be identified with the will of God offered a precedent for later scholars like Robertson Smith and Marcus Dods. This was a time of much graduate study in Germany, reflection in Scotland and export of the ideas to America, and the Empire, arguably the most brilliant period of modern Scots theology. While we cannot attribute this burst of activity entirely to Campbell’s influence, as far as dogmatics was concerned, his was the stone that cracked the ice.

68. Campbell, Memorials, vol. 2, 190. 69. Church of England Commission on Christian Doctrine, Doctrine in the Church of England (London: S.P.C.K., 1938), p. 23. 70. John Caird, The Fundamental Ideas of Christianity: The Gifford Lectures 1892–3 and 1895–6, 2 vols (Glasgow: J. MacLehose, 1899). 71. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland, p. 333.


Theological Theology

Campbell’s work did not lend itself to scholastic repetition. Nor were the theologians content to follow any particular master. Campbell’s work was paralleled by that of Maurice in England, Bushnell in America, and by such theologians as Dorner, Ritschl, Rothe, Sartorius and Thomasius in Germany, all of whom were concerned with the reappraisal of the old Christologies. The Nature of the Atonement made its own particular and distinctive impact. One of the few pieces of Christology in English comparable in quality to Campbell’s work is Donald M. Baillie’s God Was in Christ.72 For Baillie, the manhood of the particular man Jesus is of central importance, spelled out in an investigation of the problem of the historical Jesus. There is constant stress on the Fatherhood and the Love of God, and on Jesus’s spiritual struggle as involving the conflict of the love of the Father against evil.73

V What is the significance of Campbell’s work for contemporary theology? It goes without saying that we cannot jump into the same river twice, that we are hardly likely to face the future best by turning to the past, that it is notoriously difficult in any case to assess the present. ‘The trouble is, however, that if we put off the attempt to understand ourselves until such time as our understanding can be really complete and impartial, the time will have gone by when it can be of any practical benefit to us.’74 In a centenary essay John McIntyre characterized Campbell as a prophet of patience.75 Christ creates the possibility of a fresh start in an alienated society, identifying himself with mankind, without being absorbed in its predicament and so rendered powerless. Campbell, especially in his reflection on Christ at Gethsemane, was often quoted in his lectures, too, by Donald MacKinnon. Living as a man among men, with the elements of alienation in him, yet also a source of hope for man as made in the image of God, Campbell’s emphasis on the universal character of salvation points to the opposition of the gospel to all sorts of elitism, segregation and exclusivism. Patience with doubt is coupled with stress on the gospel as good news.

72. Donald M. Baillie, God Was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1948). 73. For discussion of this tradition, see John H. Hick, Rev. of E. L. Mascall, Words and Images: A Study in Theological Discourse, SJT 11.1 (1958), pp.  83–6; John Baillie, ‘Some Comments on Professor Hick’s Article on the Christology of D.M. Baillie’, SJT 11.3 (1958) pp, 265–70; L. Hodgson, CQR 1948, 250f; M. Wiles, CQR, 1963, 58f; R. Gill, Theology, 1968, 3l6f. 74. John Baillie, Roots of Religion in the Human Soul (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926), p. 2. 75. John McIntyre, Prophet of Penitence (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1972).

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This is a model of the task of restatement of doctrine in terms which our contemporaries can understand. Many years ago I attempted to sketch a development along similar lines,76 a theme taken forward in the work of my Glasgow successor Werner Jeanrond.77 Campbell never tired of reiterating that, if we cannot be brothers of men we cannot become sons of God. His great pastoral concern continued to be the welfare of his congregation. Well aware that the lives of many of his people were hungry and short, he was always concerned to regard God’s love as something which did not cease at the point of human death.78 Perhaps we may learn from him that the more difficult and controversial theological topics are not always the ones to be avoided. It can probably be agreed that the more tightly argued points in Campbell’s trial were almost all on the side of his opponents. But as often in theological controversy, the end does not always justify the means. What is truth? Respect for the otherness of the other was not a keynote of the saga of John McLeod Campbell.

76. George Newlands, Theology of the Love of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981). 77. Werner Jeanrond, A Theology of Love (London and New York: T&T Clark Continuum, 2010). 78. See, for instance, Campbell’s comments on the death of his first child in 1841, in Memorials, vol. 1, pp. 136–7.


Chapter 16 T H E D I V I N E P E R F E C T IO N S A N D T H E E C O N OM Y : T H E A T O N E M E N T Ken Oakes

John Webster’s work both encourages and performs kerygmatic description of the length and breadth of Christian doctrine. In addition to his commanding accounts of Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth, John has written a host of incisive, careful and joyous accounts of Scripture; the church as creature of the Word; theological anthropology, hope and eschatology; divine, ecclesial and personal holiness; the divine perfections; the task, nature and place of Scripture and reason within theology; and the relationship between dogmatics and ethics. This attention given across various doctrines is an attempt to follow the length and breadth of the economy in which the free, loving and perfect triune God creates, saves and redeems his creatures. While John might speak of the theological task as divinely commanded and permitted to consider the whole scope of God’s ways and works within the economy, it is also easy to intimate in John’s work his marvel and delight in the work and being of the triune God both in himself and on behalf of his creatures. Among the many theological truths and orientations which John has passed to his students in their various projects, surely it is this reminder that the ‘object’ to which theology attends is endlessly fascinating and worthy of spiritual and intellectual devotion. For the ‘object’ of theology is the perfect, loving and self-communicative God who creates, saves and redeems his good creation. In line with some of the lessons I have learned from John both as his student and from his writings, the following is a brief consideration of the formal and material relationship between the doctrine of God, and in particular the divine perfections, and the atonement.

The Terms To speak of the divine perfections is an attempt to speak about the antecedent fullness and majesty of the God of Jesus Christ, the God of Israel. Along with the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the divine perfections is a reminder 237


Theological Theology

that the God who has covenanted with Israel and become incarnate in Christ enjoys an infinite and determinate relationality, eventfulness and peace in and of himself. To speak of the divine perfection is to say that the one triune God is rich, abundant and radiant in and of himself, the pure coincidence of unity and multiplicity, simplicity and plentitude. In his covenant with Israel and in Jesus Christ this God reveals and imparts his perfections to his creatures, sanctifying and glorifying them for his good work in the world. A doctrine of the perfections, then, is a necessary yet ancillary doctrine which perpetually gestures towards the infinite, loving and free Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one God who has wholly and freely given himself over to his creatures in covenant fellowship. A Christian account of the divine perfections does not refer to any deity or creator in general but to the one triune God of Scripture. Nor is it a matter of imaging the attributes of a perfect being or what logical necessities might follow from the concept of a creator. Its raison d’être is that it aids in the identification of God as this singular and unique God, as the triune God of Israel who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The Protestant Scholastics, following a venerable practice, often followed de nominibus dei with their doctrines of the divine attributes. The implication within this practice is that the divine perfections are primarily nominative and thus doxological, and only then descriptive. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the Holy One, the Eternal One, the Infinite One, and as such he is holy, eternal and infinite.1 In each instance the subject provides and rules the predicate. The subject is the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, and the predicate is who this God has revealed himself to be with and amongst his creation. To speak of the economy is to speak of the places of all creaturely places and the history of all creaturely histories. It indicates the divinely originated and ubiquitous background in which all creatures, civilizations and individuals live, move and have their being. It is the bright theatre of the divine glory and grace and the long and conflicted tale of humanity’s dealings with fellow humanity. The economy is both the history of divine revelation and fellowship and of human sin and violence. This divine grace and human rebellion will always have their specific and contextual forms, but the economy nevertheless has an irreducible movement and form: from creation, to the election of Israel for the nations, to Jesus Christ, to the church’s time of expectant waiting, and to the final glorification of all of God’s creatures. An account of the relationship between the divine perfections and the economy is an admittedly abstract way of speaking about the history of the triune God with and for his creatures. That such an account can be both abstract and salutary will hopefully be made clear in what follows.

1. Such a move can be found within Franz Anton Staudenmaier’s different treatments of the doctrine of God. For a representative selection, see his Die Christliche Dogmatik, vol. 1 (reprint: Frankfurt/Main: Minerva, 1967; Freiburg: Herder, 1844), §§50–53, pp. 246–56.

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The Divine Perfections and the Economy Several presuppositions guide this account of the divine perfections and the economy. The first is that the fullness and nature of the divine perfections of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are only found in the whole of God’s work ad extra. The identity, richness and liveliness of God’s being and activity are illuminated and refined in the whole of his works: from creation from nothing; his covenant with Israel and wider providential care; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the guidance and consolation of his church and all his saints; to the final healing and glorification of his creation. The plentitude and character of the divine perfections can only be grasped and praised through consideration of the whole of the economy. The second presupposition is that in each episode within the divine economy the free and loving triune God remains and reveals himself as he truly is. God’s work ad extra reveals and presupposes the self-originating and majestic life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in and a se. In his self-giving and self-revealing in the economy the triune God gives himself over to his creatures to be known as he truly, fully and eternally is in and of himself. The third presupposition is that description of the divine perfections forms part of the good news of the gospel. That the God who is with us and for us in Jesus Christ is perfect, replete and infinitely alive in and a se undergirds and strengthens the church’s confession that in Jesus Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. In Jesus Christ the majestic and perfect God is revealed and determined to be intrinsically and wholly for us. Traditionally theologians have divided the divine attributes into metaphysical/ natural and moral; incommunicable and communicable; inactive and active; by essence and operation; sufficient and efficient; and absolute and relative. Theologians should experience some unease when neatly categorizing or dividing the perfections in these ways, and the reasons for this unease have been well rehearsed and are worth discussing.2 One must be careful, for instance, not to imply that the ‘metaphysical’ attributes, such as infinity, simplicity, immutability and unity, are more fundamental or determinative of who God is than his ‘relative’ attributes, such as love, righteousness or holiness. If anything, it is the ‘relative’ attributes which ensure that Christian speech regarding divine unity, immutability, eternity and omnipotence remains Christian.3 Equally, the notion of divine simplicity, while it must be handled with the utmost care, helps to ensure that each

2. A succinct characterization of these problems can be found in Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2011), §50, pp. 194–200. 3. While problematically stated, the sentiment behind the following claim by Louis Berkhof is nonetheless laudable: ‘The moral attributes of God are generally regarded as the most glorious of the divine perfections. Not that one attribute of God is in itself more perfect and glorious than the others, but relatively to man the moral perfections of God shine with a splendor all their own.’ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (fourth and rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 70.


Theological Theology

perfection is present only with the others, as each involves the whole being of God, and that the perfections are identical with God’s essence rather than mere accidents. Thus, it is not merely the ‘relative’ or ‘active’ attributes which are manifested and exercised in the economy while the metaphysical attributes remain inoperative and silent. Instead, the entire plenitudinous life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is present and at work.4 The metaphysical attributes are also sometimes taken as being more apparent or as inherent to the concept of a God, a creator or the absolute as such, and thus susceptible to philosophical analysis. While reflections on the concept of God or the absolute can be of some apologetic or material service within theology, preventing this service from becoming usurpation requires that this talk be rigorously subordinated to the life and activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as revealed within Scripture. As for the distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes, the initial question is, which attributes would not be incommunicable?5 Would not the infinite, generative and eternal divine love, holiness and freedom be just as ‘incommunicable’ as the divine simplicity, unity, or omnipresence? Resolutions to this question have distinguished between the attributes which would be weakly analogous to their divine analogatum as opposed to those which have no possible creaturely analogue. While cognizant of the problems, even this solution could be contested, especially when the incommunicable divine perfections are not taken as sheer negations of the finite, but as positive, roomy and active in nature. In this case all of the absolute or metaphysic attributes could find their finite, participated and dependent analogues within creatures. Such a solution could be found in the venerable claim that effects resemble their causes. Far better, however, is the claim of the Fathers of Vatican I that the infinitely blessed God, by his supreme goodness and omnipotence, brought forth creatures in order to bestow his perfections upon them. While ostensibly closer to the history of God’s way and works within the world, equally problematic is the division of divine attributes according to different aspects of the economy. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for instance, arranged his doctrine of divine attributes according to religious self-consciousness,6 according to sin7 and according to redemption.8 Schleiermacher can arrange the divine

4. This is perhaps one of the best insights of Hermann Cremer’s Die christliche Lehre von den Eigenschaften Gottes (reprint: ed. Helmut Burkhardt, Basel/Giessen: Brunner Verlag 1983; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 1897). 5. The Reformed Orthodox were also well aware of this problem. See Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, vol. 3, The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 223–6. 6. These are eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, unity, infinity, simplicity; Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §§50–56, pp. 194–232. 7. Holiness, justice (mercy); Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §§79–85, pp. 325–54. 8. Love and wisdom; Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §§164–169, pp. 723–37.

16. The Divine Perfections and the Economy


attributes in this way without endangering the simplicity of the divine essence inasmuch as these perfections are modulations of religious consciousness according to the diverse activity of the divine causality. Here again, however, it should be stressed that in their unified work the whole life and activity of Father, Son and Spirit is present and active, such that each of the perfections involves and implicates the others in the unity of the divine essence. While ultimately doubtful, Schleiermacher’s account of the divine attributes is still laudable in its attempt to take into account the whole of divine economy and to describe and condition the attributes accordingly. It is this reliance upon the entire economy for characterizing the divine being and activity, rather than simply upon God as first or primal cause, which is to be encouraged. Closer still to the proposal being advanced here are Robert Jenson’s arguments concerning the identity of God. In an earlier account of the divine attributes, Jenson argues that subject-attribute statements regarding God can be judged true or false depending on their relationship to the gospel’s pivotal claim, that ‘Jesus Christ is risen’.9 In this way the divine attributes as expressed in statements such as ‘God is . . .’ are forms of the gospel’s proclamation regarding the resurrection of Jesus. When describing the divine attributes presupposed in the statement that ‘Jesus is risen’, Jenson handles attributes for the predicate ‘risen’ (temporal infinity, faithfulness and omnipresence) and attributes for the subject ‘Jesus’ (omnipotence, morality and goodness). Such an account is compelling for its simple and forceful kergymatic character in which statements regarding the divine perfections become ways of proclaiming the good news of God in Jesus Christ. A similar procedure is present in Jenson’s Systematic Theology. Although some of the material from his earlier account reappears here, Jenson offers no independent doctrine of God’s attributes. After admitting that such an omission is purposeful, he notes that ‘the predicates we rightly attribute to God are simply all those that speaking the gospel may from time to time require’.10 That identification of the God of the gospel – ‘whoever raised Jesus from the dead’ – includes Israel’s description of God as ‘one who rescued Israel from Egypt’11 as well as the Spirit who brings the future means that the scope of the economy is well represented in Jenson’s account of the identity and thus attributes of God. The difference between Jenson’s creative and ambitious doctrine of the divine identity as constituted by the ‘dramatic coherence’ of Father, Jesus Christ and Spirit in the story of Israel and the church and the proposal being advanced here is slight but substantial and its focal point lies in an account of the antecedent divine perfections. In a programmatic statement, Jenson argues that ‘Either God’s identity would then be determined extrinsically by creatures or it would at some depth be

9. Robert Jenson, ‘The Attributes of God’, in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), pp. 181–91. 10. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 223. 11. Ibid., p. 44.


Theological Theology

after all immune to the gospel events. But the God of Exodus and Resurrection is above all free and sovereign, and if his identity is determined in his relation with others, just so those others cannot be merely extrinsic to him.’12 First, to Jenson’s claim that God is ‘above all free and sovereign’, one could add that the God of Israel and Jesus Christ is also ‘above all loving and perfect’ (Matt. 5:28; Sam. 22:31/ Ps. 18:30; Deut. 32:4; Jas. 1:17). Second, to the alternatives posed between God being ‘determined extrinsically by creatures’ or ‘after all immune’ to the events and works of God in the Scriptural narrative, one could reply that God can certainly be identified ‘by’ and ‘with’ his actions in Scripture, but that he is as one who is both ‘present and perfect’ (to use John’s lovely couplet). Ingredient within this perfection, within the fullness and glory of the divine opera ad intra, is God’s intrinsic determination to be for creation who God already is in himself. Such a God is neither ‘immune’ from the long history of the gospel, nor is such a God identifiable outside of this history. In other words, the infinite and perfect God is identifiable ‘with’ and ‘by’ his history with Israel and the church in such as way that he remains and reveals who he is from all eternity. What can and should be retained from Jenson’s account is the thoroughly kergymatic nature of the divine perfections. In the gospel we hear and learn that the God of Jesus Christ, who is perfect and has life in and of himself, is freely and lovingly with us and for us. When speaking of communion with Jesus Christ, the Protestant divine John Owen notes, ‘not any of the properties of God whatever can be known, savingly and to consolation, but only in him; and so, consequently, all the wisdom of the knowledge of God is hid in him alone, and from him to be obtained’.13 Once known in Jesus Christ, the divine perfections become perfections manifested and exercised for our salvation and consolation such that ‘if, in the righteousness, goodness, the love, the mercy, the all-sufficiency of God, there be any thing that will do us good, the Lord Jesus is fully interested with the dispensing of it on our behalf ’.14 In addition to being exercised for us and on our behalf, in Jesus Christ the divine perfections become gifts to and within us. The bestowing of these perfections is part of God’s declaration and offer of fellowship to that which is not God. Here we can again turn to Owen, ‘In the covenant, God becomes our God, and we are his people; and thereby his attributes are ours also’,15 or to the famous lines from Luther’s ‘Preface to Latin Writings’: And whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven. Then I ran through Scripture, as I could from memory,

12. 13. 14. 15.

Ibid., p. 75. John Owen, WJO, vol. 2, pp. 90–1. Ibid., p. 93. Ibid.

16. The Divine Perfections and the Economy


and I found an analogy in other terms, too, such as the work of God, i.e., what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.16

To speak of the wisdom, power, salvation, and glory of God is also to speak of God’s work within us, of making us wise, strong, saved and glorified in turn. Ingredient within such a hermeneutic is the presupposition that the divine perfections may be shared and given ever afresh to creatures inasmuch as they are antecedently, eternally and eminently present in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That being stated, it seems apropos to consider the divine perfections and the atonement.

The Atonement As with any doctrinal locus, an account of God’s atoning work in Christ will only be as convincing and rich as its operative doctrine of God. Equally, inasmuch as God’s perfections are displayed and revealed in the economy, the doctrine of the atonement in turn conditions Christian speech about God, his life and his perfections. There is a mutual conditioning here: the doctrine of the atonement is at its fullest and most kergymatic when it presupposes that the reconciling God is the perfect, infinite and loving triune God, and the identity of this God is at its most Christian when it is conditioned by the doctrine of reconciliation. One of the reasons for explicitly relating the doctrine of the divine perfections and the atonement is the sense that an elaborate and extended Christology, even when its Trinitarian presuppositions are given their full due, will not be sufficient for overcoming various problems within modern doctrines of reconciliation. These problems could loosely be characterized as reductions, misplacements and curtailments of the doctrine of reconciliation. The primary reductions of the doctrine of reconciliation tend to be psychological, political, sociological or ethical in nature. Naturally, a healthy doctrine of reconciliation will include spiritual, social and ethical import, and yet none of these by themselves, or even all together, can allow for a sufficient description of God’s work in Jesus Christ. The primary misplacements of the doctrine of reconciliation have been its location within an agonistic or developmental doctrine of God. In such accounts the triune God becomes the recipient or benefactor of reconciliation rather than its agent. Other forms of misplacement include the atonement being set within wider processes of knowledge, history or the resolution of conflict such that it becomes an instantiation of a perennial reality rather than a history between this God and

16. Martin Luther, ‘Preface to Latin Writings [1545]’, in LW 34, pp.  327–8 (336–7). A similar logic could appear at times when the Reformed divines categorized the divine attributes as immanent, operative and applicatory.


Theological Theology

his creatures. Finally, the primary curtailment of doctrines of the atonement has been the isolation of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ from God’s history with his covenant people Israel.17 The doctrine of the divine perfections is but one element, and yet a particularly significant one, in avoiding these degenerations. Doctrines of the atonement are descriptive elucidations upon the confession that ‘God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself ’ (2 Cor. 5:19). The witness of Scripture to this event is clear and bold, and yet its implications are irreducibly polyphonic, dramatic in character and rooted in God’s history with Israel. That the atonement is narrated in such varying forms does not constitute a problem to be solved, but remains a sign of the inexhaustible richness of God’s being and work in Jesus Christ, an impetus for praise and thanksgiving, an indication of the extent and nature of human sin and misery, and a reminder that the church must follow but can never master Scripture. The God who was reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ is the triune God who is Father, Son and Spirit. The specific relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ display and presuppose the inner and eternal trinitarian taxis. The triune God himself is present and at work in Jesus Christ, remaining who he is from all eternity and giving himself over to be known as he truly is. Jesus Christ is the unique and unsubstitutable Son of the Father, sent by the Father to announce and enact his love and rule. Everything which Jesus Christ has and is, he has and is from the Father. In him there is the perfect expression of the fullness, power and wisdom of the Father such that whoever sees and knows Jesus Christ also sees and knows the Father. Jesus Christ is also the one who was conceived, empowered and driven in his ministry by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who rests upon, anoints and glorifies the Son and who testifies to the Son’s words and deeds. The Holy Spirit, as the vinculum amoris, seals, blesses and celebrates the mutual abiding and indwelling of the Father and the Son. Within the drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ there is displayed and confirmed who God is in and of himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reconciling God who is Father, Son and Spirit is the one God of Israel. Modern Protestant dogmatics has struggled to maintain that the triune God who reconciles the world to himself in Jesus Christ is fully and truly the God of Israel. In this way Schleiermacher simply blurted out what remained a secret background for a great deal of modern and contemporary Protestant theology: the Old Testament can have no impact upon doctrine.18 Yet the Father of Jesus Christ is also Israel’s Father (Isa. 63). This God freely elects himself a people (Deut. 7) such that they may know that God is a gracious God and know what this God desires of them. He remains steadfast in his faithfulness and promises to them and offers

17. Christoph Schwöbel, ‘Das Christusbekenntnis im Kontext des jüdisch-christlichen Dialogs’, in Gott in Beziehung: Studien zur Dogmatik (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), pp. 293–319. 18. Cf. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §27, pp. 112–18; §132, pp. 608–11.

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them instruction and commandments of life. He detests wickedness, makes provision for the forgiveness and removal of sin, provides for and protects his people (Isa. 51), and expresses his preferential care for the poor, the widowed and the stranger. The God who judges the living and dead is not above descending and dwelling among his people (Exod. 40:34f.). In the future his people will become sons of the living God (Hos. 1:10) and his peace and glory will be known throughout the nations (Isa. 66). God’s action in Jesus Christ is a new, gracious and free event beyond creation and beyond the election of Israel. The God who institutes a new covenant such that Gentiles are now included is none other than the God who instituted his covenant with Israel. While this is a new, astonishing, free and majestic work, the one at work is the same. The doctrine of the atonement does not signal any alteration of God’s identity, such as from a God of wrath, judgement and retribution to a God of love, mercy and forgiveness. God’s act in Jesus Christ is a free and loving selfexpression of who God already was, is, and will be in and of himself. To say this is to say that such work is not alien to God’s inner being and life, but God’s inner being and life are revealed to be ready, willing and able to perform the good work which he has already accomplished. In Jesus Christ there is revealed to be one God of Jew and Gentile alike and one eternal, unconditional covenant of grace in which all are commissioned to faith and obedience and in which both gospel and law are spoken. Perfect and sufficient in and of himself, the atonement is exercised by God for the sake of his lost creatures. Having no lack, need or darkness, the reconciliation of humanity to God comes to humanity as full and unmerited grace. The promise and gift of reconciliation can be such a replete and exorbitant gift inasmuch as its giver stands beyond limitation, anxiety, defect or struggle for identity. The gift of atonement comes to creatures whose primary identity before their Creator is as lost creatures. The forms of this lostness are manifold and ubiquitous but are one in being that which God does not desire for his creatures. The atonement, then, is not directed towards humanity’s finitude, vulnerability or mortality. The work of the atonement is instead directed towards humanity’s corporate life of sinfulness and all its rage, violence, absurdity, greed, sloth and narcissism. The perfections of God are exercised and revealed throughout the economy. In the context of the atonement in particular, we see that the God who has life in and of himself can freely give his life away so as to bestow new life upon others. We see that the unity of the one, undivided God is not only singleness of essence, purpose and glory, but is such that it can suffer and overcome death. We see that the divine omnipotence not only means God’s unhindered execution of his loving and holy will but includes suffering the powerlessness and vulnerability of everyday life. We see that the immutability of God is his determination to be and remain himself such that becoming flesh and dying entails no alteration of his essential character. We see that the wisdom of God, often explained in terms of the relative perfection of the world’s arrangement or providence, includes a staggering and extravagant foolishness, blessing those who cursed him and giving himself to those who rejected him. We see that the infinite divine beatitude and satisfaction


Theological Theology

seeks to bestow and impart this blessedness upon others. Finally, we see that the divine majesty and glory, often taken as the sum of the divine perfections, includes the well-being and glorification of God’s creatures. In his work of reconciliation, God’s perfections remain his own, remain operative, and remain steadfastly exercised on behalf of his creatures, despite their own corrupt machinations and desires. In sum, the atonement stands as the pluriform and glorious work of the one, perfect, triune God of Israel, who in the exercise of his saving work towards humanity freely reveals and remains utterly himself.

Concluding Remarks The above remarks are merely a gesture towards what a fuller Scriptural and dogmatic account of the divine perfections within the economy, and in particular the atonement, might be. They are anticipated by a great deal of what I learned from John and the sheer grandeur of the intellectual and spiritual vision which animates him. It seems fitting, then, to close with a paragraph which expresses some of the above elements with much more clarity and style: The repleteness of the God’s life includes within itself, as an integral aspects of its perfection, a turn to that which is not God. In this turn there occurs a movement in which the fellowship of the immanent life of God creates a further object of love. This turn is free, self-caused, wholly spontaneous, original to the divine being; its necessity is purely the necessity of God’s own self-determination to be in fellowship with that which is other than himself. As such, it is not a turn which completes or extends the divine life; it is a turning out of fullness, not out of lack. More simply; it is gift, love. This turning or act of live is the work of the triune God as the world’s creator, reconciler, and consummator. It takes historical form in the simply yet staggeringly complex work of God’s majesty in the entire scope of the economy, as God brings creaturely reality into being, redeems it and ensures that it will arrive at its perfection.19

19. John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2005), p. 198.

Chapter 17 A P R O L E G OM E N O N T O A N A C C O U N T O F T H E O L O G IC A L I N T E R P R E TAT IO N O F S C R I P T U R E Darren Sarisky

Introduction The question of what theological exegesis is is a pressing issue at present – indeed several of the essays in this collection grapple with it. One way to specify the question is to re-articulate it in this way: what is the force of the modifier ‘theological’ in the phrase ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’? What work does theology perform in relation to interpretation of the Bible? Theological discourse must have some real efficacy in relation to interpretation in order for the language of ‘theological reading’ to have any meaning. The answer to the question of what theology does in relation to interpretation depends, in large part, on what theology is in the first place. John Webster’s inaugural address Theological Theology1 prompts its readers to consider precisely what theology is by forcefully presenting a particular view of the subject. For Webster, theology aims for knowledge of God by attending to his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In the lecture, Webster also explores what methods of inquiry are appropriate in light of this goal, what the implications of this are for theology’s institutional setting, and what could hamper theology’s pursuit of this goal, namely, capitulating to the demand that theological discourse be grounded in a general epistemology. This essay takes its cue from Theological Theology in a couple of ways. First, it asks a question that is formally similar to the query of what makes theology theological. The inquiry here is: what does it mean for interpretation of Scripture to be theological, or, more precisely, what is required in such an account? Second, this essay approaches the issue by thinking about theology’s relation to both biblical interpretation and history with the question of the nature of theology at least in the background and sometimes in the foreground.

1. John Webster, Theological Theology: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).



Theological Theology

This essay is not a full account of the nature of theological interpretation of the Bible.2 It is, rather, a prolegomenon to such an account, one that states boundary conditions for it, or, to make the point differently, one that spells out criteria for assessing the success of a fully developed account. In its most compressed form, the basic claim is that exegesis of Scripture is theological when reading is responsive to a specifically theological description of the realities that are necessarily involved in reading, that is, the Bible itself and its reader. This understanding of theological reading presupposes that theological discourse has a certain function: it is a necessary ingredient in any adequate description of the reality of the reader and the biblical text. The idea is not that theological language is all that is necessary to say who the reader is and what the text is; what is crucial is that those things cannot be described comprehensively without the deployment of theological categories. In accounts of theological reading that exist in the contemporary discussion, a couple of patterns manifest themselves. First, it is often the case that theological categories function in a different, and indeed reduced, capacity; or if they do describe reality, it often happens that the reader is left out of the account. Second, while the text of the Bible is much more often subject to some sort of specifically theological analysis, it is surprising how difficult it actually is to give a theological account of the Bible, one that brings together theological and comparatively immanent categories, the latter of which express the text’s contingent origin and subsequent career. An account of theological reading would need to address both of these issues.

The Role of Theology in Relation to the Bible I The Function of Theological Discourse (1) It will prove illuminating to sketch a miniature typology of positions on the relationship between the discipline of theology and biblical interpretation as a way forward.3 First, theology might be largely passive insofar as it does not play an integral role in any exegetical argument. If a biblical passage is theologically substantive, a proper reading of such a text explicates that theology, but theology is not necessary in order for that description to take place. Interest in theological issues can stimulate the reader to ask theological questions of the text. And a modest level of empathy with the text will facilitate grasping its subject matter, but this does not require that a reader needs to assent to the text’s claims. Theology is

2. This essay is part of a larger book project, the aim of which is to lay out the sort of account for which this chapter calls. 3. For a related discussion, see Hans Frei’s typology of five different views of the relationship between theology and philosophy and the implications of the first three positions for an approach to Scripture: Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology, ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 56–69.

17. An Account of Theological Interpretation of Scripture


essentially passive in the sense that it is what receives interpretive description, just as when a passive verb is employed, the subject receives the action of the verb. Old Testament scholar James Barr provides an example of this first way of relating theology and the Bible in the inaugural lecture that he gave upon his assumption of the Oriel chair at the University of Oxford. In the lecture, which aims to set out what, in a telling phrase, Barr calls an ‘inner philosophy . . . of modern biblical study’,4 he distinguishes two ways that theology can be used in this context. Theology in the first sense refers to statements of personal faith: for instance a believer’s affirmation that ‘God is love’ or that one should confess that God is love. Theology can, however, take a more straightforwardly descriptive form, one that is a direct report on the textual data of the Bible. Theology in sense two includes any statement of the following form: whoever wrote the words of 1 John 4:8 thought that God is love. In this second sense, theology does not speak forthrightly of God, but is essentially concerned with the subjectivity of a human being, that is, with what the author of a biblical text thought, or what he tried to express as he wrote. Having made this distinction, Barr contends that theological commitment (theology in the first sense) is not necessary accurately to elucidate the content of theological texts (theology in the second sense).5 Successfully describing a text’s theology can be done by those with or without a faith commitment, since the critical interpretations that a reader offers – the reasons why a text is being read in a certain way – do not include any reference one way or another to what the reader affirms. What should one make of this view, which allows scope for theology to be expounded but insists that it not determine or even shape exposition? Insofar as he goes, it is hard to disagree with Barr on his main point. To see that this is the case, all that is necessary is to state the negation of his core thesis. To deny the basic claim regarding passivity would mean asserting this: biblical text x means y because I, its interpreter, think z. It is hard to imagine any sensible theologian affirming precisely that. However a reader’s presuppositions may exert influence, who would be so bold as to offer their own thoughts as premises in exegetical arguments, in reasoning about how to construe written texts? What Barr says is clear and compelling on the narrow points he seeks to secure. There is room to disagree with Barr, however, if he means to suggest that the role for theology to which he objects is the only one it might have. This first way of configuring the relationship between theology and the Bible is not the only possibility worth considering. While one’s own theological beliefs should not operate by establishing what texts mean, might

4. James Barr, Does Biblical Study Belong to Theology? An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 26 May 1977 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. 4. For an expansion on the themes of this lecture, see the chapter on ‘The spiritual and intellectual basis of modern biblical research’ in James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 105–26. 5. Barr, Does Biblical Study Belong to Theology?, p. 8.


Theological Theology

there be a way in which theological beliefs on certain topics generate a whole different aim for interpretation and, correspondingly, a different set of reading strategies whose purpose is to fulfil that theologically generated aim? What if theology played a comparatively active role in reading, this time not by making its presence felt in an obvious way, as a stated premise in an argument, but instead much deeper down, as part of a framework that structures the overall practice of reading? Or are there binding considerations that rule out anything like this in principle and relegate theology to passivity? Following through on these suggestions would fundamentally alter the character of the relationship between theology and Scripture. It would hardly be felicitous to call this alternative view an inner philosophy of biblical interpretation; at least its primary categories would not be generic ones. It would be more apt, rather, to designate such an option as something like a theology of scriptural interpretation. These issues recur in what follows. At any rate, the first point in this typology is now in place. (2) For the second two points of the typology, theological discourse becomes more active in relation to biblical interpretation. Theological discourse here has not gone ‘on holiday’,6 nor is it ‘like an engine idling’,7 as opposed to when it is doing work. The hallmark of the second position is to disown objectivity as a goal and to stress the reader’s location within an ecclesial community. The particularities of the reader’s identity become relevant because this view relates discrete acts of interpretation, or actual exegetical judgements about how to construe passages of Scripture, to the ongoing life of the Christian community. There is not a detailed set of rules that prescribe in advance how the life of the community ought to relate to reading, but rather a dogged insistence that the two belong together, as well as a sense of optimism that the actual interactions that take place within the community are, in fact, salutary ones. To state the matter more formally: ‘Given the ends toward which Christians interpret their scripture, Christian interpretation of scripture needs to involve a complex interaction in which Christian convictions, practices, and concerns are brought to bear on scriptural interpretation in ways that both shape that interpretation and are shaped by it.’8 That convictions, practices and beliefs both shape reading and are shaped by it is a summary of Stephen Fowl’s programme of reading. What is the value of setting up this dialectic between interpretive reflection and the life of the community? It is not that a reader thereby gains a firmer purchase on the historical meaning of the text. While an objective report of the text’s meaning to its first readers is the desideratum of the first position, Fowl’s view does not strive for this. These two approaches are obviously

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen = Philosophical Investigations, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, 4th edn (Chichester: WileyBlackwell, 2009), p. 23e. 7. Ibid., p. 56e. 8. Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture:A Model for Theological Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

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on a collision course, but this second view does not amount to the simple negation of Barr’s position, because the aim of reading is different in this case: here reading proceeds for the sake of formation, and because the process of formation has already begun. Relating theology and biblical interpretation in this way, so as to define a specifically Christian style of reading blocks any appeal to a general hermeneutic as a means to ground a specifically Christian approach in an encompassing theory of textuality, readers and readerly activity that purports to be a universal epistemic criterion. Thus, theological exegesis is not a version of some other form of interpretation that serves as its model or standard. Freed from this constraint, theological reading can bring the process of interpretation into relation with various aspects of ecclesial life, thus securing the link between reading and formation. An example of the interplay between practices and interpretation will serve to illustrate this view. Fowl commends to present-day Christian readers the example set by the apostles in the book of Acts: their practice of befriending Gentiles allowed them to discern the work of the Spirit within a community from which they had presumed God to be permanently absent. This practice-driven judgement, that God actually was present among the Gentiles in the power of the Spirit, catalysed a whole new reading of the Old Testament’s portrayal of non-Jewish people. The practice of befriending Gentiles thus made possible a revolution in reading, one that did not take the original intent of the authors of the Old Testament texts as its guiding criterion.9 Refusing to make scholarly objectivity an ultimate value may seem to be a high cost for this approach to pay. But the driving motivation behind this decision is to keep the Christian practice of interpretation from being forced into a mould into which it was never meant to fit. Something more than the Old Testament read according to its original sense was needed to authorize the Jews to reach out to and include the Gentiles within their community. And if this additional necessary element is actually trammelled by the search for historical intention, perhaps that suggests that intention should be less than ultimate. There is, to be sure, virtue in this position, which constitutes the second locus of the typology. Because Fowl declines to set up a system of regulative principles to govern how readerly judgements and practices should relate, and contents himself with surveying a range of cases that display close interconnections between the two, he ends up laying out his position by doing quite a bit of biblical interpretation. This expository style forestalls the objection that hermeneutical reflection is always endless talking about biblical interpretation to the exclusion to ever doing any. And yet, a survey of the exegesis raises the question of whether Fowl has succeeded on his own terms. Does he strike a fitting balance between the two poles that he intends to interrelate? It seems that the lion’s share of the work is performed by church practices, not by the text being read. It is not hard to see how that is the case

9. Ibid., pp. 97–127. There is a similar, and indeed even greater, stress on church practices in Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture:Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993); Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006).


Theological Theology

with the example above from the book of Acts. The practice of befriending Gentiles spurs a new reading of a text that, prima facie, seems to consign the Gentiles to perpetual exclusion. There is little reciprocal pressure from the text here or in the other examples that constitute Fowl’s position. Lack of dialectical reciprocity gives cause for concern. Yet the deeper and more important issue for the purpose of this essay has to do with the operative understanding of the nature and task of theology. If the nature of theology is to provide an understanding of God and of all things in relation to God, then theology might perform a fundamentally different task than it does here. For position two, as for position one, relating theology and biblical interpretation means making a judgement about whether specific interpretive arguments should admit and incorporate the reader’s identity as a member of a religious community. The first position determines that such concerns are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the task at hand. Readers may confess Christian beliefs or not, and they may perform certain practices or not. Neither of these things are operative within an exegesis that seeks the text’s historical sense, so this whole category of concerns can be bracketed out of consideration. The second position deems it necessary to bring together what the first position holds apart; for position two, this is necessary not to grasp meaning qua historical intention, but for the sake of securing the text’s role within the process of Christian discipleship. A whole different way for theology to be active in relation to interpretation would be for it to provide a dense characterization of the nature of the subject and object involved in reading, that is, the reader and the biblical text. At least in his influential early work, Fowl has a theological perspective on how the text functions, or how it is used in the church, but not on what the text actually is.10 (3) This brings the discussion to the third point in the typology. Theology is, once again, active in the interpretive process, but in a new way this time. Here theology is not, in the first instance, related to specific interpretive decisions about how to handle certain texts, though this may be the case as a corollary; its primary role is to provide a theological depiction of what is involved in reading, with the text itself being the most obvious place to begin. Theology does not just say whose text Scripture is, or how it functions, but what the text is.11 This reflects a different vision of theology. To draw upon Thomas Aquinas, ‘Now, sacred doctrine deals with all things in terms of God, either because they are God himself or because

10. There is more about the nature of Scripture in Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Scripture’, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 345–61. 11. The single most powerful statement of a functional view is David H. Kelsey, Proving Doctrine:The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology (Harrisburg, PA : Trinity Press International, 1999).

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they are related to him as their origin and end.’12 Relating theology and biblical interpretation, on this view, means orienting the approach to interpretation around a theological ontology, that is, a description of the nature of things that employs theological categories to do descriptive work. In this context, ontology need not mean a grand theory of being as such, or what it means to exist, one that some theologians worry might capture God and squeeze him into human categories. More modestly, theological ontology is in play whenever descriptions of what things are employ, rather than suspend, theological language. For instance, the French Roman Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion uses the notion of sign as a way to construe the scriptural text in his account of theological reading. The text is a signum pointing to Jesus Christ, a set of written words that directs attention to the Word made flesh: because Jesus is the verbum Dei, taking the text as a pointer to the incarnate Word is a genuinely theological ontology. To utilize Marion’s memorable image, the coming of Jesus Christ left traces on the text in the same way that a nuclear blast leaves burns and shadows on a wall.13 The text is by no means identical with the event, which is itself the focus of ultimate concern, nor does it even, by itself, permit a reader to encounter the event, yet it does provide indicators that gesture towards it. If the text is a sign, and indeed a sign directing its reader towards the Logos, then it follows that reading ought to take a certain course as opposed to others. Taking the text as this sort of sign implies that a literary reading is not adequate, for ‘literature dispenses with having recourse to an event in order to find its referent in that event’.14 Literary readings dispense with considering the event, but a theological reading should relate sign and referent to one another. More specifically: ‘The theologian must go beyond the text to the Word, interpreting it from the point of view of the Word.’15 How does this occur? Marion’s account takes a traditionally Roman Catholic turn at this point, for he makes the divine disclosure at the Eucharist hermeneutically crucial. While the text alone does not suffice in order to access the Word, the privileged disclosure of the Word occurs at the Eucharist, which confers an anticipatory understanding of the referent (the Word) upon readers, in light of which the text of Scripture can then be re-read.16 If all of this recalls Luke 24 and the disciples’ epiphany there, followed as it was by a new ability to discern signs of Jesus in the Old Testament, that is exactly as it should be.17 Christian worship

12. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Questions on God, eds Brian Leftow and Brian Davies, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 13. 13. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being: Hors-Texte (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 145. 14. Ibid., p. 146. 15. Ibid., p. 149. 16. Ibid., pp. 149–52. 17. Ibid. In this connection, see Marion’s theologically sensitive reading of Luke’s Gospel: Jean-Luc Marion, ‘ “They Recognized Him; and He Became Invisible to Them” ’, MoTh 18 (2002), pp. 145–52.


Theological Theology

services are weekly replays of the disciples’ experience on the road to Emmaus. A reader’s anticipatory understanding of the Word does not change what the text means; however, it does factor into how certain texts should be read as signs. While there are specifically Protestant questions that are well worth raising about the centrality of the Eucharist here, what is more important for the purpose of this introductory chapter is to focus on a different issue. There is tremendous promise in thinking in terms of theological ontology and indeed of doing so in relation to the text specifically. The problem is that Marion’s account has an artificially narrow focus on the text itself. To state the point more fully and more accurately: keying an account of reading to the text alone, and not making explicit reference to the other element involved in the practice of reading – namely, the reader – is to offer something incomplete. Reading is, after all, a matter of a reader encountering and making sense of a text: both subject and object are involved, and a theological notion of reading will not succeed without due consideration of both that which is read and the one who reads. As David Tracy notes: ‘Any act of interpretation involves at least three realities: some phenomenon to be interpreted, someone interpreting that phenomenon, and some interaction between these first two realities.’18 The point of my critique is not to say that Marion is operating with an implicitly secular notion of the reader, which has troubling implications for his account of reading. It is clear enough that Marion is operating with a theological anthropology of the reading subject, because he discusses the transformation of readers during the worship service as they partake of the Eucharist and read Scripture. The critical issue is that the theological anthropology remains implicit. For a full account of theological reading, it is necessary for the role of the reader to rise to the surface and receive the same close attention that the text receives. The reader’s place ought to be thematized in the same way the text was treated formally as a sign. Because this approach concentrates on and interrelates multiple theological topics, it results in an account of theological exegesis that is systematic. That is, it draws together into a coherent whole a theological notion of the text of Scripture, a theological notion of the reader, and the implications that these construals have for the practice of reading. Systematic theology is often taken to refer straightforwardly to a text in which theologians give an orderly and fairly comprehensive summary of Christian doctrine locus by locus. But it is misleading to think that this genre-based view of systematic theology is the only possible way, or even the most historically influential way, to understand how theology can be systematic. In a different manner, theology is systematic whenever it manifests an impetus towards coherence and traces out links between different topics. Systematic theological writing, according to this second understanding of systematicity, exists whenever the treatment of one locus indicates, at least in some measure, how it is informed by other loci or how it will itself determine the shape of others.19 18. David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 10. 19. I owe this distinction to A. N. Williams, The Architecture of Theology: Structure, System, and Ratio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 1–4.

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‘Theology that is in this sense systematic may be likened to a jigsaw puzzle: even if one does not have all the pieces, the shape of any one of them reflects its orientation towards others as part of a larger pattern.’20 That theology ought to be systematic in at least this less obvious sense follows from the notion of theology that stands behind the third position in the typology above. If all things apart from God can be seen in light of God, then they must relate to one another too, at least insofar as they share a common relation to God. And if all created things are related in this way, then, in principle, it should be possible to indicate some of the ways in which they connect. Thus, the question in focus is a systematic query. There is special value in offering to the current broader discussion of theological reading a systematic account of theological exegesis. The reason is that it is not only Marion’s account of theological reading that highlights the text to the neglect of the reader. There is a much wider pattern of accounts drawing attention to something theologically distinctive about the text as the main identifying mark of theological reading as such.21 Especially because of this trend, a systematic account which emphasizes the place of the reader is needed. If one construes the reader and the text of Scripture both in theological terms, what are the implications for 20. Ibid., p. 1. 21. T. F. Torrance’s depth exegesis programme centres on three notes about the text of the Bible: Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), pp. 37–48. What Alvin Plantinga calls ‘Traditional Biblical Commentary’, as opposed to ‘Historical Biblical Criticism’, is defined according to three notes about the text: Alvin Plantinga, ‘Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship’, in Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, ed. Michael C. Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp.  270–3. In Eleonore Stump’s differentiation between a medieval drama based on a harmonization of the gospel accounts and Raymond Brown’s historical-critical commentary on John, a great deal turns on whether the biblical accounts are assumed to be true or false: Eleonore Stump, ‘Visits to the Sepulcher and Biblical Exegesis’, ibid., p. 255. Basically the same pattern obtains within some major Jewish accounts. All four of James Kugel’s assumptions that distinguish ancient interpreters from modern ones are observations about how the text of Scripture is viewed: James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2008), pp. 14–16 and 31–2. Likewise, Jon Levenson’s contrast between religious and historical reading corresponds to two different contexts in which the text can be read, that is, the literary context of a canon or the historical context from which the documents emerged: Jon D. Levenson, ‘The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism’, in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p. xiv and passim. In almost all of these cases, however, distinctive views of the reader lurk below the surface. For an account that is fully alert to the importance of different views of the reader, see Ernst Troeltsch, ‘On the Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,’ in Religion in History (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), pp. 20–1. Troeltsch understands clearly that it makes a momentous difference to position the human subject either simply in a network of natural causes and effects or within the economy of salvation.


Theological Theology

reading that follow? What does the aim of reading become? And what reading strategies become fitting in light of that goal? The systematic nature of this account stands out especially clearly at two junctures: when the twofold ontology shapes the norm for interpretation, and when particular reading strategies take their cue from and fulfil that aim. As a way of taking a first step in indicating what is necessary in an account of theological reading, this section has set forth a typology of three positions on how theology and biblical interpretation relate to one another. The first two positions are similar in that they approach doctrine as a framework of beliefs that may or may not bear upon the formation of interpretive judgements about specific biblical texts. Whether theology, together with characteristic practices, is relevant to what a reader makes of a given biblical text is an important question, but there remains a far more important question that neither of the first two positions addresses adequately. That is, how is the nature of biblical interpretation itself to be viewed? What is the text of Scripture? Who is the reader? And how do the two interact in the process of reading? Only the third position brings these issues into sharp focus by orienting itself around the ontology of the reader and the text. Theological interpretation of Scripture should take its cue from a specifically theological ontology of both text and reader. Against a Dualistic View of Doctrine and History In the previous section, I argued that theological exegesis is a view of reading that is built upon a theological construal of the reader of Scripture and of the text being read, and I put a special stress on the reader’s role in order to counter contemporary neglect of the topic. This section brings the text into the foreground with a view towards guarding against a misinterpretation of what a theological view of the text entails. This is the crucial caveat: advocating a perspective on the Bible that sees it in relation to God should not entail denying, even implicitly, that it is nevertheless an ancient text. To establish a zero-sum game between a theological view of the Bible and the reality of its historical origin invokes a problematic dualism between doctrine and history. What a theological view of Scripture should imply is that precisely as a text that originated and was first read many centuries ago, the Bible still today says something of God for those who read it with the eyes of faith. The goal of one major new series of theological commentaries is for its commentators to engage with the Bible as Scripture, which is to say ‘not as individual intellectual artifacts from the past, but as part of a collection of redacted works that are, in their totality, the normative witness to the faith of the whole Christian community’.22 Or, as another theological commentary series has it, to read the text according to a theological conception of it, as Scripture, is to read it as conveying the powerful sense of God’s merciful presence that calls Christians to repentance and praise,

22. Brian Daley, ‘The Acts and Christian Confession: Finding the Start of the Dogmatic Tradition’, PE 16 (2007), p. 19.

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and to read it as a text that calls the church forward in the life of discipleship.23 It is easy enough to state the bare principle that an ancient text or collection of texts, when read qua Scripture, can function in this way. But to be genuinely committed to this view requires that one operate according to this guiding insight when one engages with Scripture. That is no easy task. The way that some of the new theological commentary series are framed is not dualistic per se, but it does risk establishing a dualistic view of doctrine and history. This is especially true for the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Within the Brazos series, postbiblical doctrinal language, and especially the trinitarian theological framework set out in the fourth century at Nicaea, exercises a certain sort of hermeneutical utility for each of the commentaries. According to the general editor’s charter in the series preface, ‘This series of biblical commentaries was born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures. The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition . . . provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture.’24 Precisely how doctrine will function in this way is not specified in detail; the author of each commentary has the freedom to test out different methods in order to fulfil this goal. Authors can employ various reading strategies, including typology and allegory, as they use doctrine to guide reading. In this sense, the volumes that constitute the series are each ‘experiments in postcritical doctrinal interpretation’.25 The series preface thus grants individual commentators considerable latitude in how they implement the guiding principle that ecclesial doctrine clarifies rather than obscures the biblical text. These experimental commentaries certainly vary in many ways,26 a fact that makes it difficult to form a simple, undifferentiated judgement of the series as a whole. Regardless of the form that each of these experiments takes, for commentators even to begin to fulfil the stated goal of the series, they will have to shake themselves free from an idea that is well established among modern commentators on the Bible, namely, that postbiblical doctrine necessarily warps attempts to interpret the text, and so commentators should set these concepts to the side as they go about their work.27 The ethos of the preface thus marginalizes an imperative that is firmly

23. William C. Placher and Amy Plantinga Pauw, ‘Series Introduction’, in Mark, ed. William C. Placher, Belief: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. ix. 24. Rusty Reno, ‘Series Preface’, in Acts, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005), pp. xiii–xiv. Emphasis added. 25. Ibid., p. xvi. 26. For instance, the first volume to be published in the series presents a history of the reception of ideas and figures mentioned in the book of Acts. See Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005). For critical discussion, see Rowe and Hays, ‘What Is a Theological Commentary?’, PE 16 (2007), pp. 26–32; Brian Daley, ‘The Acts and Christian Confession’, ibid., pp. 18–25. 27. Reno, ‘Series Preface’, p. xii.


Theological Theology

engrained in the entire modern historical-critical tradition of biblical study: as much as possible, interpreters should limit themselves to interpretive categories that are contemporaneous with the text on which they are commenting.28 This raises the question of how the Brazos series is positioning itself in relation to historical criticism overall. Is what makes the series distinctive, and theological, that it spurns and rejects historical criticism in principle?29 Commentators defer to the Christian doctrinal tradition, rather than being fundamentally suspicious of it as an expository tool, and this creates some distance between the atmosphere of the series preface and the rhetoric typically associated with historical-critical practice. But this is not all. There is also something of a disjunction instituted between skill in lexical analysis and knowledge of the historical backdrop of the biblical documents and, on the other hand, an understanding of the Christian doctrinal tradition, for the series editor writes that commentators were selected not ‘because of their historical and philological expertise’, but instead ‘because of their knowledge and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition’.30 The overall stance sustained in the preface towards historical study seems to be that it is optional – some commentators may employ it31 – not necessary or sufficient for a theological reading; further, those who do elect to employ it must do so carefully, without committing themselves to the presupposition that the postbiblical doctrinal tradition is discontinuous with Scripture itself. The danger for the Brazos series, in articulating what makes it distinctive as a set of commentaries, is not simply that it fails in setting up a collegial relationship between systematic theologians and biblical scholars, but that it projects a dualistic vision of the relationship between doctrine and history. To be clear, what the preface does is to envision the interpretive endeavour in risky terms; it does not doom to failure all those who attempt to fulfil its mandate. Attempting to implement this agenda means authors could fail to see the text of the Bible in a theological light because they come to operate with a polarity between history and doctrine. But each volume must be judged on a case-by-case basis.32

28. Ibid. 29. Reno’s statement connects with a longer history of debate over historical criticism. Cf. Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method (St Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1977); Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutics of Consent (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977). 30. Reno, ‘Series Preface’, p. xiv. 31. Ibid., p. xvi. 32. Though the series preface makes some dangerous claims, some of the commentators writing for Brazos navigate these issues well, producing commentaries that are both informed by historical research and guided by the doctrinal tradition. See, for instance, Joseph L. Mangina, Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010).

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One of the first volumes to be published in the Brazos series is particularly disappointing in its failure to establish an intimate link between historical analysis and doctrine. That this problem is on such clear display in this volume makes it especially instructive regarding the role of history in a theological reading of the Bible. It demonstrates the nature of the problem especially clearly by being a missed opportunity in this regard, and so it offers itself up as an example of that upon which the current discussion must improve. The commentary that manifests these characteristics is Stanley Hauerwas’s Matthew. Despite its problems, this volume on the Gospel of Matthew has met with some commercial success, and, as is the case for all of Hauerwas’s work, it is readable, even gripping at times, and it rightly presents the life of Christian discipleship as one that puts serious demands on those who would follow Jesus Christ and join the community of his followers. The overall goal of this commentary is to depict Jesus Christ as the divine Lord and to inscribe the community of his followers into the story that begins with and centres on him.33 In the introduction to his commentary, Hauerwas explains the form that his work takes: ‘As the reader will discover, I believe Matthew wrote to make us disciples of Christ. I have tried to show the “how” of that project in how I have written, that is, by retelling the story Matthew tells.’34 As Hauerwas narrates the story of Matthew, he is only very rarely in dialogue with historical-critical commentators. He repeatedly and forcefully makes the point that an understanding of who Jesus is requires the transformation of the human subject: coming to grips with the identity of Jesus requires divesting oneself of certain patterns of thought and action.35 This is important because Hauerwas seems to fear that entering into a more sustained dialogue with historians would not simply be unhelpful; in his view, it would actually undermine the whole purpose of his work, for the picture of Jesus that emerges from historical-critical work depends on the acquisition and dispassionate interpretation of historical information, not on the moral transformation that his commentary presupposes and seeks to effect in its readers.36 It is also fortunate that other theological commentaries series, even ones in which it is theologians who serve as commentators, orient themselves differently towards historical study and discuss historical criticism in a more positive tone. The Belief series, published by Westminster John Knox Press, presents historical-critical reading as, in rough terms, necessary, but not sufficient, as the first step towards a theological reading that is useful for the church today, though not as constitutive of or identical with a theological exegesis that brings the church forward in the life of discipleship. See Placher and Pauw, ‘Series Introduction’, p. ix. Placher’s own volume on Mark does fairly well on this count. 33. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 18. 34. Ibid., p. 19. 35. Ibid., pp. 127–8 and 247–9. 36. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp.  72–4. In his introduction to the commentary, Hauerwas confesses that he has little interest in the world behind the text: Hauerwas, Matthew, pp. 20–1.


Theological Theology

For the sake of advancing a theological view of Jesus, with all its attendant demands, Hauerwas judges historical criticism to be an impediment, and historical-critical interlocutors are conspicuous by their absence from the commentary. Matthew’s Gospel is to be understood less against the backdrop of its history of origin than by means of the circumstantia litterarum, the way the words of the text run, that is, their forming a coherent literary whole, and how the ecclesial community applies reading strategies to the biblical text in order to understand their sense.37 Given this overall orientation, it is not surprising that readers of Hauerwas’s Matthew find in it some doctrinal reflection, and a special concern with Jesus. The doctrinal material in the commentary appears in two different modes: first, concise but unambiguous affirmations of a high Christology, together with more developed discussions of the sort of community that must exist in order to recognize and (what is the same on Hauerwas’s account) follow Jesus as Lord. For example, when commenting on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in Matthew 16, Hauerwas concentrates on the sort of transformation of Peter’s perspective that his discernment of Jesus’ divine identity requires, and on how Peter serves as an icon for the moral formation that present-day members of the church must undergo.38 Peter presumes that Jesus’s exalted messianic status exempts him from suffering – an assumption that meets with a stern rebuke from Jesus himself (Matt. 16:23). Only as Peter’s view of what it means to be messiah is transformed, such that it does not entail rule in a standard worldly sense, but includes suffering at the hands of those who exercise this rule, does he really come to understand what it means for Jesus to be the messiah. This change in outlook is signalled by his reception of a new name, Peter, as he is known to later church history, in lieu of his former name, Simon.39 Peter ultimately loses his life in the course of following the crucified Son of God, and those who follow Jesus today must be willing to take up their cross as they follow him.40 This is Hauerwas’s way of allowing the biblical text to absorb the world:41 he casts a vision of the lordship of Jesus that vitiates the world’s understanding of how status operates, and he calls for the ecclesial community to conform its life to the model of Peter. Yet the commentary usually passes quickly by historical questions over which the standard historical-critical commentaries pause, while the historical matters it does treat are handled in a desultory manner. Such historical matters include dealing with semantic questions, issues connected with historicity, and the analysis of genre. Consider how Hauerwas handles these matters in Matthew 16, referred to above, and more broadly in the commentary. Sustained lexical analysis is exceedingly rare. Jesus’ statement to Peter that he is the rock on which the church

37. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 25. 38. Ibid., pp. 149–53. 39. Ibid., p. 150. 40. Ibid., pp. 152–3. 41. See George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 25th anniversary ed (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp. 99–110.

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will be built (Matt. 16:18) does not prompt Hauerwas to face head-on the question of whether this biblical text provides warrant for an incipient view of the papacy and Peter’s occupation of that office. Joseph Mangina provides a modest defence of Hauerwas’s handling of the very words of Matthew, noting that he sometimes exploits linguistic detail to good effect, such as when the author explains the importance of a character being specifically termed a ‘Canaanite’ when readers might have expected the blander term ‘Gentile’ instead.42 But this is truly an exception that proves the rule: individual words or phrases from Matthew are seldom singled out for close attention regarding their meaning. In addition, Hauerwas’s symbolic construal of characters from the Gospel depends only very tenuously on the historical particularity of the people being referred to in the gospel. For instance, at the outset of chapter 16, the Sadducees and the Pharisees together simply ‘represent the religious establishment.’43 This reading does not presuppose that these communities did not exist; however, their representative function, the way in which they stand for the religious status quo in the present, is not linked closely to a historically specific description of the Sadducees or Pharisees. What Hauerwas is doing is something like what Hans Frei calls figural reading, though figural interpretation is both a literary and historical procedure, in that it extends a detailed and historically-rooted understanding of biblical characters, weaving that into a common narrative that extends into the present.44 In Hauerwas’s hands, how the Sadducees and Pharisees function as symbols of vice depends only indirectly upon how they are identified as historical figures within the gospel.45 Finally, Hauerwas evinces no more care when inquiring into the genre of Matthew’s Gospel. He sees the genre as apocalyptic, due to its subject matter being Jesus Christ.46 Apocalyptic is a category that scholars more often apply to Mark’s Gospel, which of course also focuses on the person of Jesus. How the specific literary shaping of Matthew, and not simply its subject matter, factors into the determination of the text’s genre is a question that Hauerwas fails to pursue in any depth.47 Overall, readers of the commentary certainly find some doctrine, and they can even locate a few historical judgements, albeit usually ones that are not rigorously 42. Joseph L. Mangina, ‘Hidden from the Wise, Revealed to Infants: Stanley Hauerwas’s Commentary on Matthew’, PE 17 (2008), p. 17; Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 144. 43. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 146. 44. Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 2–3. 45. Cf. the worry about spiritualization in Markus Bockmuehl, ‘Ruminative Overlay: Matthew’s Hauerwas’, PE 17 (2008), p. 23. 46. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 24. 47. There are many other ways in which Hauerwas’s treatment of historical matters is inadequate. For a litany of additional issues, and a passionate overall indictment of Hauerwas’s commentary, see Bockmuehl, ‘Ruminative Overlay: Matthew’s Hauerwas’, PE 17 (2008), pp. 20–8; Luke Timothy Johnson, ‘Matthew or Stanley? Pick One’, PE 17 (2008), pp. 29–34.


Theological Theology

argued and are rightly challenged, but the general pattern is that doctrine is not organically linked to a close, historically-informed reading of the text. Because of Hauerwas’s concerns about the enterprise of historical research, he does not tie his doctrinal and moral thinking tightly to historical analysis of the text. Thus, his doctrinal reading of the text proceeds on other grounds, which he wants to identify as ecclesial, and rightly so in two very broad senses: in that the doctrinal view of Jesus that he proffers fits with the Nicene tradition, and in that many of the Christian practices that he recommends are crucial to various ecclesial traditions. The root problem, however, is a dualism of history and doctrine: the text of Matthew’s Gospel, which emerged from early Christian communities and was first read by them, is not itself the point of departure for theological reflection. To be sure, Hauerwas wants to stress that Matthew speaks directly into the present: it was ‘written for us’.48 It is, nevertheless, an ancient text about which this claim is being made. It is usually not the case that concrete features of the text trigger theological or moral thought that follows the line of the text, or that Hauerwas deploys those categories as a way to pursue a sequential reading of the text. Something like this difficulty is suggested by the genre label that Hauerwas himself uses to describe the sort of commentary he has written: he describes it as a ‘ruminative overlay’.49 If his ruminations on the text emerged from it, it would not be so fully apt to describe them as laid upon or draped over it. The disconnect between doctrine, which ought to serve as an expository device, and the historical text itself is so great that it becomes dubious even to call Hauerwas’s Matthew a commentary, or at least a successful cursive reading of the biblical text. For a written text to fall into the genre of commentary, it must meet all of the following three criteria, each of which builds upon the previous one; they thus become increasingly more demanding and are less clearly met by Hauerwas’s work.50

48. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 18. 49. Ibid. 50. Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 80–5. The discussion above focuses exclusively on unpacking what it means to be a commentary in a narrow sense, that is, in the sense of a running gloss on a text that is recognized as canonical or scriptural. See John B. Henderson, Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 62. In a broader sense, it is possible to think of all writing as commentarial in that it draws upon and transforms previous written texts by utilizing a stock of similar lexical forms. Many scriptural texts themselves are consciously and unconsciously drawing on previous scriptural passages to develop new points. In an even broader and more attenuated sense, it might be possible to consider all human activity as commentary in that it presupposes and makes reference, either explicitly or implicitly, to previous activity. But these broader and blurrier senses are not the ones that are important for the sake of the discussion above. An illuminating discussion of these more capacious senses can be found in Hendergo, Scripture pp. 62–5; Griffiths, Religious Reading, pp. 80–1.

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First, there must be within a commentary obvious signs of the presence of another work in the form of direct quotation, paraphrase, summary, or some combination of these. In this sense, a commentary is a ‘metawork’, a work about another and with evidence of that other within itself.51 Hauerwas’s text aims to be essentially a retelling of Matthew’s narrative of Jesus.52 Though it does not proceed very systematically, the text does achieve this goal; thus, it meets the first criteria. The commentary does not proceed verse-by-verse, nor does it employ a regular practice of quoting verbatim and in its entirety the section of Matthew that is in focus. The interpretive coverage jumps around quite a bit, but as the commentary proceeds, taking in a chapter at a time, it provides a loose summary in Hauerwas’s own voice of the main elements of Matthew’s narrative. Episodes to which direct reference is being made appear in parenthesis. Matthew’s story is retold, albeit haphazardly. Second, within a commentary, these signs of the presence of the metawork must outweigh other features in either number or significance. They must be the controlling feature of the text, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Given the way Hauerwas proceeds, via a loose reiteration of a narrative, it would not be a straightforward procedure to tally up the signs of Matthew’s Gospel in a quantitative fashion. Do the signs dominate in significance? Does the summary of Matthew direct Hauerwas’s presentation sufficiently that it can be said to drive the agenda of the book? Here the verdict is mixed, as there are many other things going on within the text. Hauerwas’s own theological preoccupations sometimes obtrude into the text where they seem only tangentially related to Matthew’s focal concern. The doctrinal discussion and the applicative concern do not arise out of the verbal message of the text as clearly as they ought in order for Matthew unambiguously to qualify as a commentary. For this reason, Luke Timothy Johnson can mordantly entitle his review essay on Hauerwas’s Matthew: ‘Matthew or Stanley? Pick One’. Thus, it is questionable whether the work meets the second standard for commentaries. Third, the work upon which comment is being made must not only supplant other agendas that the commentator might have, but it must also provide the commentary itself with its structure, content and order. Hauerwas himself admits that his exposition does not meet this criterion and has a rather freewheeling character, though he attempts to turn this into a virtue. ‘Indeed, readers may find at times that they are not sure where I am in the text, but I hope that will make their reading more interesting.’53 The explication of Matthew often has a homiletical feel in that it fastens on to particular parts of the text, while giving less attention to others, and so does not follow the text’s original flow, because the author has distinctive hortatory concerns and wants to bring pertinent aspects of the text to bear on contemporary problems. Hauerwas selects and recombines units of the

51. Griffiths, Religious Reading, p. 81. 52. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 19. 53. Ibid.


Theological Theology

original in response to his own agenda.54 Because the text does not clearly fulfil the second or third criteria, it does not fit squarely into the genre of commentary. The commentary genre, whatever shape it takes, imposes a basic requirement that must be met, but is unfortunately not met by Hauerwas: ‘A commentary must first be nothing more than an aid to understanding the language of the Bible, a simple tool that serves the text.’55 Something else is needed. Hauerwas’s volume underscores an important lesson in what theological interpretation entails. This lesson emerges from the following twofold observation. On the one hand, readers of this book find reference to texts that originate from an ancient context and that are to receive explicatory comment. The Brazos series does not treat biblical texts as simply ancient artefacts; something more is required for them to serve as the sacred text of the Christian community: the series proposes to read the Bible as the normative witness to Christian faith. Even as that normative witness, however, biblical texts derive from a past historical context. Readers also find at least some historical investigation of these written documents, though this is not always done carefully or rigorously. On the other hand, readers see conceptual and doctrinal material that is brought into some relation with the scriptural text, though this takes markedly different forms in the different volumes of the series. The problem that afflicts Hauerwas’s experiment in theological commentary is that it does not establish an organic connection between the historical text and the doctrinal material that he brings to bear upon it. Theological reading must do this in order to be successful. The Brazos series aims to demonstrate that theology clarifies rather than obscures, that the later theological tradition draws out, expounds and makes explicit what is implicit or inchoate in scriptural texts, and thereby it states in a compelling way what the goal of all theological commentary should be. But in practice, for Hauerwas at least, theology enters so as to disrupt the expository flow, rather than facilitating or enabling it, so the commentary must be judged a disappointment, one dedicated to a worthy goal it fails to fulfil. Theological exegesis must move beyond Hauerwas’s dualism of doctrine and history, a violent imposition of doctrine onto texts, whereby theology does not expound and follow the flow of the text, but rather functions independently, as if it has an agenda of its own apart from being responsive to the text as an interpretive device. Theological commentaries ought not follow the example of Hauerwas, who – against his best intentions – does not treat the Bible as Scripture, as texts that are themselves witnesses to the transcendent reality of God. In Matthew, there is discussion of God and his work to create and save creatures, but that does not emerge from the biblical texts as integral units. Yet surely the entire point of theological commentary should be to establish

54. See Griffiths, Religious Reading, p. 84. 55. Karlfried Froehlich, ‘Bibelkommentare—Zur Krise einer Gattung’, ZThK 84 (1987), p. 491. On the nature of commentaries, see also René Kieffer, ‘Wass heisst das, einen Text Zu kommentieren?’, BZ 20 (1976), pp.  212–16; Bernhard W. Anderson, ‘The Problem and Promise of Commentary’, Interpretation 36 (1982), pp. 341–55.

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precisely this: a way of relating to the Bible that treats the text as a sign or testimony to the divine. Theological reading requires construing history differently than modernity often does, as an independent domain of pure nature which stands on its own in isolation from any transcendent reality, which exists ‘above’ nature, and is cut off from it.56 What is needed for an account of theological reading is a way to break out of this dualism. Shaking off a dualism between history and doctrine requires ‘a delicate balance between the commentator’s philological and historical and critical awareness and his or her understanding of, and commitment to, the tradition of faith in which the text is recognized as part of God’s saving work’.57

Conclusion By way of summary: if theology’s task is to offer a description of reality, it follows that theology’s task in relation to biblical interpretation is to describe the text and the one who reads it. The existing literature on this issue often falls short in one of two ways when judged against this principle as a core requirement of an account of theological reading. It either elides the reader from the account, or, when theological categories are brought to bear on the biblical text, they marginalize comparatively immanent categories, rather than managing to integrate successfully with them. Theologians and biblical scholars today often ask what theological interpretation is, and they deserve an answer that does not evince either of these two problems. Whether John Webster will concur with my conclusion, he will have to decide. But whatever value lies in this essay, I am sure it derives ultimately from John Webster’s influence on my thinking.

56. The dualistic tendencies of modern culture are described, in various ways, by the following: Louis K. Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Henri de Lubac, Surnaturel: Études Historiques, 2nd edn, Théologie (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1991); Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983). 57. Daley, ‘Acts and Christian Confession’, p. 25.


Chapter 18 T H E S I N L E S SN E S S O F C H R I ST Katherine Sonderegger

I want to reflect here upon two Scripture passages that have become loci classici for the debate over the sinlessness of Christ: Hebrews 4:15b and 2 Corinthians 5:21. They run: ‘he was tempted in every way as we are, but without sin’; and, ‘he became sin for us who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God’. Now, as is plain, we have brought together for us in these texts temptation, and the sin that follows in its wake, and sinlessness, giving rise to righteousness in sinners. It seems plain to me, again, that Holy Scripture testifies to us of a Redeemer who ‘becomes sin’ or, more radically, bears a ‘curse’ propter nos, for us, for our sake, yet remains himself sinless. As is the way with our Holy Book, two things seem juxtaposed – even, thrown together – without any seeming need to comment, correct or explain just how these things can be. This much is plain, it seems to me. But the rest – hardly so!1 Consider the traditional position on this doctrine. It has been assumed since the Fathers – strongly in St Augustine – that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth endorsed and explained the perfect sinlessness of Christ. Like the good angels, confirmed in their good will, Jesus was unable to sin: unlike our first parents who could both sin and obey (posse peccare et posse non peccare), Jesus was born in perfect flesh that knew no Fall. Like the saints, he was unable to sin – non posse peccare.2 The doctrine of Christ’s impeccability appears to teach that

1. John Webster honoured me with an invitation to address his graduate students at their annual end-of-the-year seminar and conference in 2009. This chapter is a lightly edited version of that address. In that conference John exhibited all the traits that have made him the premier dogmatic theologian of his generation: an enduring love of the ‘beautiful science’; a ready openness to the thought of others; a generosity of mind and spirit; a remarkable mastery over the sources of systematic theology; a living and cheerful faith in the Lord Christ. All of us who have been taught by John, in person or by book, stand in his debt. 2. For these terms, and the Doctrine of the Will elaborated by them, see Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, trans. James F. Shaw (Washington, DC: Henry Regnery Co., 1961), chapters 104–109, pp. 122–7.



Theological Theology

the creedal affirmation, that the Son is born of the Virgin Mary ex Spiritu Sancti, entails that Christ has made a fresh break with the human past, with its sin, rebellion and wayward desires. Into that world of destruction and self-deception, of lying and disobedience, Christ enters as the Novum, the utterly new and perfect and royal servant. He is the eschatos Adam, the radical New Creation who lives to God. We see this pattern in Athanasius’s famous and foundational treatise, On the Incarnation, where Christ is set forth as the Medicine of Immortality, the Teacher who corrects the errors of a sinful age, the Obedient One who overcomes the spiralling lawlessness of the world, the true and perfect Imago Dei who refashions the lost and corrupt sinners in his own consummate perfection and image.3 Thomas Aquinas sums up this tradition in his own idiom, developing a remarkable and utterly unmodern Christology of Divine-human perfection.4 Thomas’s Christology rests on the conformity of the doctrine of redemption to creation. Always the Creator relates to the world in perfect freedom: there is no constraint on God from the world and its creatures; rather the cosmos is dependent wholly and utterly on him. In scholastic idiom, this entails that the world alone has no ‘real relation’ to God; but God has instead ‘ideal’ or ‘notional’ relation to the world he has made.5 Such Lordship over creation is mirrored in the Incarnation itself, Thomas tells us. There is no prior merit or power in Christ’s humanity that makes possible or worthy the Son’s assumption of that flesh. Rather, the hypostatic union is an act of sheer grace, the utmost example of God’s gracious favour towards his elect. In that particular grace, the grace of the hypostatic union, the Word creates through the Spirit the flesh he will assume: it is holy flesh, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Several graces overflow from that union into the human life of Christ. Christ’s soul remains in perfect mastery over his body. Like the sanctified in eternal life, Christ is not weighed down or shorn in two by the drives of the flesh, but his body is rather the perfect instrument of his will, which cleaves to God wholly. His human intellect is illuminated by the Divine Light at all times; even as viator Christ enjoys the beatific vision of God. He is omniscient, having infused into his human intellect both general and specific knowledge of all things. He is perfectly obedient, his human will being sustained and guided and confirmed by the grace of union at all times. His whole life, as pilgrim in this earthly city, merits eternal life, for he too, as does every creature, owes to God his life, his obedience and his gratitude. In his flawless answer to the Divine command, Christ fulfils the Law and is the eternal source of merit, the superabundance that a sinless life alone could receive. Even his body, Thomas muses, must be perfect, integrated,

3. St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. Penelope Lawson (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998). 4. Below I summarize the Christology developed in Thomas Aquinas, ST III, Q. 1–15. 5. ST I, Q. 13, Art. 7, ad.

18. The Sinlessness of Christ


whole. Every grace and blessing and perfection that can be attributed to the human person, Christ must enjoy. Parallel to Scotus’s principle that for Mary the maximal honour must be always assumed, Thomas teaches that Christ must in his humanity bear every dignity, honour and perfection that a creature, born directly of the Holy Spirit, and assumed by the Word of God, could bear. Thus a Christology of shimmering beauty and virtue and alien distance emerges from scholastic meditation upon the grace of the Incarnation. Now of course such a remarkable and purified Christology will lead theology into strange territory. Like any medieval commentator, Thomas knows perfectly well that Scripture seems to speak otherwise about the humanity of Christ. Like us, Thomas knows that the gospels speak of Christ’s fleshly weakness, his hunger and thirst, his grief and weeping over Lazarus, his weariness and longing for solitude, and, more shockingly, his professed ignorance over the Day of the Parousia. Thomas shared with the ancient tradition a worry over the Temptation in the Wilderness, and even more, over the Agony in Gethsemane. And to these worries could only be added as the great crisis over any doctrine of Christ’s perfect humanity the scandal of his tormented, suffering via crucis and death. It was common to the Patristic era to handle these ‘hard texts’ with a maxim born of the long, tortured Arian and Nestorian controversies: One of the Trinity, it was said, suffered in the flesh. The suffering of the Incarnate Word was to be attributed to the human nature of the Lord, not his divinity. Now this rubric warded off a danger feared by all sides, that the Passion of Christ would threaten the utter purity, serenity and changelessness of the Godhead: the Son of David, the human nature, died, tormented on the cross; the Son of God, the Divine Nature, remained purely impassible and immutable.6 But one generation’s solution is often the next’s dilemma. The unity of Christ’s person is under threat here; even the ancient church felt the danger of volatilizing Christ into separate elements, each going their own way in the economy of salvation. So worrisome is this threat of dissolution that as Nicene and Chalcedonian a theologian as Karl Barth will produce some rather shocking theses about the suffering and obedience of the Divine Son in order to ward it off. (We will hear some more about that in a bit.) Add to this threat to Christ’s unified person the maxim of his sinlessness, and more trouble stands in the wings. How is it, the medievals asked, that Christ, who is utterly sinless, without unruly passions or desires, totally enveloped in the grace of his own Person, and joyfully obedient unto death: how can such a One undergo the ignorance, agony, temptation and terror that the gospels so brazenly attribute to him? It did not help them to affirm that Christ’s humanity, not his deity suffered; they knew all that. And they affirmed with the ancient church that in this suffering was the redemption of the world. But it was indeed that very maxim – that One of the Trinity suffered

6. For this manner of reading the gospel record, see for example ‘The Tome of Leo’ in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. E. R. Hardy (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 359–70, esp. sections 4–5, pp. 364–8.


Theological Theology

in the flesh7 – that caused all the worry. How could sinless humanity bear and suffer such sorrow? Now Thomas gives us a completely systematic answer that all the same must strike us as very odd indeed. He argues that the Deity of the Son must allow the humanity to suffer all these things in order that the redemption of the world may be achieved. There is, he speculates, a ‘lifting of the veil’, a breaking of the gracious shield that infuses and protects Christ’s humanity so that the worldly sufferings of the flesh – the ignorance, fear and agony – may be assumed and borne by the Man of Sorrows. The humanity of Christ, that is, is permitted to be drawn near to sinful flesh in that way so that the deliverance of the world may be completed.8 (A similar move permits the sanctified host to show signs of corruption, mould and decay.) Now, this answer has some near-by counterparts in the exegesis of the Fathers, indeed in those gospel texts themselves. The high priestly prayers in the gospels, after the return of the Twelve, and at the raising of Lazarus in John, appear to present a Jesus who prays not for himself but for those around him, the disciples and the crowds. These are representative prayers, priestly intercessions, done for the instruction, healing and comfort of those Christ came to save. Thomas, it seems to me, generalizes just such a high priestly reading of the gospels. The sinless flesh of Christ had on its own account no need, nor indeed capacity, for the pathos we sinners undergo as our daily lot. Yet the flesh of the Son of God is not ordinary flesh by any means. It bears a unique property: it is propter nos, for us. It is representative flesh in a unique fashion.9 Thomas does not mean, I think, that Christ has no individuality, no particularity or concreteness – though I believe he has less enthusiasm for these qualities than many of us moderns. He means rather, I think, that Christ’s human and perfect flesh exists entirely for one end: the flesh that Jesus will give is for the sins of the world. In just this way is he the eschatos Adam, the last Adam, the final human person. In his humanity he catches up the whole human race, his flesh recapitulating and restoring, delivering and healing, the lost and disobedient creature. It is this substitutionary and vicarious office that Christ bears which makes it necessary to his redeeming work that Christ suffer in the flesh. The Logos permits fleshly temptation, agony and ignorance in order that the satisfying, mediating death of the Son of David can be offered for the sins of the world. This is not, then, a performance, a false rehearsal or exhibition in order to hide his Deity, or fool the satan, or appear mortal to those mortals around him. It is not an imitation or pretence at all. I think that critics who accuse the premoderns of such views undervalue this vicarious dimension of Christ’s humanity. According to Thomas, the Son permits his flesh to suffer not because the script

7. See, for example, Cyril’s Third Letter to Nestorius, in John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), pp. 266–75; especially thesis 12, p. 275. 8. ST III, Q. 15, Art. 5, ad.; ST III, Q. 47, Art. 1, ad. 2, 3. 9. ST III, Q. 1, Art. 2, 3; ST III, Q. 8, Art. 3, 6.

18. The Sinlessness of Christ


now demands frailty and sorrow, but rather because the flesh now carries out its first and only mission – to be for us to the very end, death even on a cross. In the Apostle Paul’s words: he became sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God. Well, yes, we may joyfully say. This does answer to the systematic need for an account of the fleshly suffering of the Son of God. But can this high doctrine of Christ’s sinless perfection actually ward off the lingering suspicion we moderns must have that such a Christ is not truly human, perfectus homo, but rather a God in human-like livery, striding across the earth. Is this not, despite all protestations and subtlety, a form of docetism as ancient and as dangerous as the one the Evangelist John warns us of? Does not the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability – a doctrine of the ‘strong’ sort that makes sin impossible for Christ – does it not make Christ so alien to us that it is only by habit and tradition that we call such a life human? What human being is omniscient? What one enjoys the beatific vision constantly and always – even in torment and death? What one feels no uncertainty about God’s will or presence or direction? What human being feels no stirring or conflict of passions, dread of suffering, discouragement and doubt? Do we really mean that such a One is not only human, but the human being, the true Adam? We seem in fact to have a doctrine that preserves the creed at the price of corroding the very end of the church’s confession – that Christ dwelt among us, taking upon him our nature, and becoming one of us. And not just that! How can we read the gospels this way without reducing them to a wretched and anti-climactic play-acting? Think now of our other Scriptural text: ‘he was tempted in all ways as we are, but without sin’. And even more, think of the gospel events this text seems to presuppose: the Temptations in the Wilderness and, above all, the Agony in the Garden. As all the world knows, it is said that the narrative of the gospels – their integrity and identity as temporal stories – is inseparable from the truth they convey. It is in this way, in this ‘naturalistic’ or to put this in a more worrisome way, this ‘history-like character’ of these events that bear and constitute their meaning.10 To abstract from this genre, or to explain them in other terms and forms, or to find their meaning outside of their simple telling – all this, it is said, undermines and empties the very truth these stories aim to convey. Now, we need not affirm this entire programme – the socalled ‘narrative school’ – to see that something very much like this is involved in the Temptation narratives of the gospels. Can it truly be the same event, the same story of tribulation that the Synoptics tell, to say that Jesus enters into the wilderness and is shown all the kingdoms of this world, hungers and thirsts day upon day, is offered bread from heaven and angelic protection even from the Temple heights,

10. This way of characterizing the gospels stems from the work of Hans Frei, esp. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), and is analysed insightfully by Mike Higton in Christ, Providence & History: Hans W Frei’s Public Theology (London and New York: T&T Clark Continuum, 2004), especially chapters 4 and 5, and Appendix 5.


Theological Theology

and all this in the very words of Scripture itself – can it be this very event if the Son of Man could never fall prey to them, and if the flesh, vulnerable for this hour, could never hand itself over to the disobedience, the pride and self-promotion that the Tempter sets before him? How much more, then, do we worry about the Agony in the Garden! Just how are we to understand Jesus’s cry, wrung out in agony and bloody sweat, in that night of betrayal while all around his disciples give way to sleep and sorrow? Can we say that a perfectly sinless One, an obedient Servant without blemish, an omniscient, holy, and blessed Son can truly enter into this final temptation? Even should his flesh be allowed the fear connatural to our kind and lot – could such permissive anguish truly constitute the agony Scripture lays out before us? Could the cries of dereliction, extracted from a tortured prisoner, belong, in all their pathos and terror, to the Sinless One who goes to Golgotha amid the full grace of the beatific vision and the certain knowledge of his deliverance and blessing? Does such sinlessness in fact win for us the victory? Many modern Christians would simply say, No. For Liberation Theologians, Christ’s suffering with the sufferers of this world is the lynchpin on which the whole of Christology turns. For Moltmann, it is the agony of the Son of God – indeed the agony even of the Logos himself – that alone brings the injustice and poverty and cruelty of the world into the presence and blessing and compassion of God.11 How many martyrs terrified before their death cling to their resolve and bare courage by the silent presence of Christ, the tortured One? How many patients are borne up in their pain and fear by the confession that Christ too knew the cruel frailty and agony of the flesh? How many of us who must face temptation daily and who stand before the final journey of death step into these hard paths knowing that Christ has trod them before and goes along this lonely way with us? Even a theologian as traditional and in many ways as medieval as John Calvin found Christ’s agony on the cross so vivid, so excruciating that it could be accounted only as his descent into hell, there on the cursed tree.12 All these theologians affirm in varying ways Christ’s agony in the flesh, his temptations and frailties and sorrows; affirm them as central to the gospel and central to any humanity that would be consubstantial with ours. We might say that the modern temper rejects the medieval and patristic explanation for Christ’s human limitation and suffering as too domesticating of Christ’s passion and too foreign to our inmost conviction about the human to belong in any present-day Christology. There is a cumulative effect here of gospel genre, modern day suffering and wrong, and the primacy of solidarity and compassion in humane virtues to render Thomas’s account of Christ’s humanity implausible and more, incredible. Such coherentist objections to

11. Jürgen Moltmann’s justly famous saying at the opening of The Crucified God stands for the whole: ‘A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then’ (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 1. 12. John Calvin, Institutes, Vol. 1, Bk. 2, Ch. 16: 10–12, pp. 515–20.

18. The Sinlessness of Christ


Christ’s perfect humanity might, in the end, make the pre-modern convictions about Christology otiose for our day. But some theologians go further. For Karl Barth and the Scottish theologian Edward Irving, the modern temper in Christology could only be fully satisfied by rejecting the very premise on which early Christologies are built: the utter and perfect sinlessness of Christ.13 For these theologians, Christ’s humanity can belong to us, and more, can be our help and deliverance only if the flesh Christ assumes is our own – the sinful flesh of the fallen Adam. Jesus Christ is the Redeemer not of the healthy but of the sick, not of the righteous but of the disobedient and lost. He is the Physician of those who suffer under the sickness unto death. Only One who has entered into that flesh, taken on that waywardness and rebellion, that corruption and misery can be our Saviour. He must know our condition, they say, not from the outside, as the Novum, but from the inside, the fellow sufferer and soldier in this besieged city of ours. (By way of an aside: this pattern of assuming the world’s misery from solidarity within it seems to me to fit Kathryn Tanner’s Christology as well; but I do not include her explicitly as I am unsure about her view of Christ’s impeccability.14) Now Irving seemed to consider Christ’s deity something of a healing remedy for the sickness of the flesh he assumes. Irving appeared to hold that in each step of Christ’s pilgrimage, the holiness of his Deity accompanied and cleansed the turmoil of the sinful flesh such that each moment of the Incarnation was an element in the world’s redemption. We are saved by little and by little, each wayward suffering cured as it faces the healing presence of God in the ministry of Jesus. Now, all this is of course far too boldly said for Irving’s careful sermons and speeches. He hardly presented his views to a welcoming audience! Indeed his doctrine of Christ’s peccability cost him his preaching orders, and scandalized his contemporaries. So it might be better to say that Irving upholds the sinlessness of Christ; but in a wholly novel and weaker form. Christ does not sin because the sin that is in his flesh is met, cured, and hallowed by the victory that is his Godhead. Barth is much bolder.15 He too affirms that the Son assumes the fallen flesh of sinners; he too affirms that Christ battles the wayward flesh in the ‘whole course of his obedience’. But for Barth, the anthropological dualism that lingers behind Irving’s Christology – the suspicion that sin clings only to ‘fleshiness’, like an old wound – is no longer possible. Barth affirms a strong unity of the human person, an integrated whole of soul and body, such that sin dwells within, occupies and infects the whole person. Christ is not sinner in some region of his person; he is rather the ‘great penitent of the Bible’. He enters into the baptism of John not only

13. Edward Irving, ‘The Temptation’, Lectures I–V, in The Collected Writings of Edward Irving, vol. 2 (London: Alexander Strahan & Co., 1864), pp. 191–250. See also Barth CD, IV.1, §59.1, pp. 157–210. 14. Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), especially Chapter  1; Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), especially Chapter 6, and, in particular, pp. 252–8. 15. Here I am summarizing Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation in CD IV/1, §59.


Theological Theology

in solidarity with us – propter nos, that is – but plainly as the One who stands in need of it. His struggles in the Wilderness are frank admissions of the powerful temptations Jesus faced, Barth says; and even when Scripture is chary of saying so directly, the marks of his prolonged struggle with sin are plainly to be seen at every turn. Barth is even willing to say, in a remarkable passage that stands out starkly even against many striking passages of the kind, that in the Garden of Gethsemane the ‘world stood tottering’ waiting for the decision of the Son of Man: Would he obey and receive this cup, or would he at last – at the very last! – give way to sin and live for self alone?16 Barth is that daring! Not only has Christ assumed sinful flesh, not only does he wrestle with it in the course of his pilgrimage, undergoing suffering and struggle and ignorance and passion; not only this, but he can both obey and disobey, not simply in small matters but in the greatest of them all. Posse peccare: even at the moment of our redemption! Now it is certainly true that Barth affirms Christ’s perfect obedience. Christ does not in fact disobey; he in fact is sinless before the Law and commandment of God. It is in fact the history of this Lord as Servant that he walks the way of suffering obedience even to his death as the guilty, condemned sinner we all truly are. That is the ‘gracious exchange’; our reconciliation with the Holy and Loving God. That is the price of our deliverance, Barth says – that One should in his own history be the fulfilment of the Covenant, the perfect enactor of God with us. This is very powerful testimony to the Gospel indeed. But should we in fact agree with the modern temper, with Irving and especially with Barth, in this way? Should we assume this new maxim of our day, that Christ could have sinned – indeed as a child of Adam bore sin in his flesh – but in fact did not disobey? Is this indeed the full and proper form of Christ’s solidarity and presence with us? I will not develop my own position fully on this here – not too much can be said in a single essay, after all! But I want to propose here that the pre-modern doctrine of Christ’s perfect sinlessness far surpasses our modern doctrines of Christ’s saving work and indeed his saving Person. For it cannot be, I believe, that our salvation hangs in the balance, either in the Lord God’s electing will for salvation, or in the Incarnate Word’s mission to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself. It is the great cry of the Reformation that our stronghold and refuge is the promise made full and sure in Christ; he is our surety. That surety reflects the direct and unsurpassed strength of the union of natures in the Incarnate Word, the relation so strong it is titled by the Triune principle itself,

16. See Barth’s remarkable reading of the Lukan account in the long excursus in CD IV/1, §59.2, ‘The Judge Judged in our Place’, pp. 259–73, esp. 264–5: ‘But now there is a stumbling, although only for a – repeated – moment: a moment in which there is a pause and trembling not only on earth and in time, not only in the soul of Jesus which is “sorrowful even unto death” but in a sense in heaven, in the bosom of God Himself, in the relationship between the Father and the Son; a moment in which the question is raised of another possibility than that which will in fact be realised relentlessly and by divine necessity in view of all that has gone before.’

18. The Sinlessness of Christ


‘personal’ and ‘hypostatic’. On pain of rupturing that union, I would say, the humanity born of Mary and the Spirit must be fully and wholly and perfectly reconciled to God. It is not simply compatibilism – or non-competitiveness, as it is often termed – that causes me to shy away from the mere possibility of fallibilism and sin. No, it is much stronger than that. Christ cannot sin because the bare possibility of it – posse peccare – is the possibility, ex hypothesi, of the human nature of Christ going its own way, seeking its own end, joining in the rebellion against God. The personal unity of such a Christ can only mirror the obedience of Adam and Eve: it is good, we might say, as far as it goes. But we do not seek an amalgam of this sort in Christology! What can break apart is fragile, whether riven apart in the end or no. But our salvation, the world’s deliverance rests on the perfect, full and uninterrupted union of the Logos with human flesh. For this reason Christ is born of Mary, cradled in a manger in David’s city, ushered into the world of exile and political statecraft and slaughter, led into the way of discipline and hardship, healing and teaching, sorrow and prayer, all to the end that this Incarnate Word may lay down his life for his friends. It is the Lord God who is Subject of all these trials, the One who in the days of his flesh, came to sinners and scoffers and enemies, God, perfectly and fully with us. Such an Incarnate One, the radical Novum of a life begun by the Holy Spirit, can only be a human life as God’s very own dwelling: a perfect and new and last Adam. Christ, I would say, must be fully and in just this way, truly, exquisitely human. Far from being shielded by his sinlessness, he is the more vulnerable, the more passible and alive as he is the perfect embodiment of the very Son of God.17 For it is perfect love, perfect humility and openness that is the fullness of humanity, the true virtue of Jesus Christ. His Temptation in the Wilderness, his Agony in the Garden, his Passion on the cross outside the city wall: in all these he exemplifies the perfect vulnerability and frailty that only perfect, sinless love can bear. It is of course true, I say, that Christ could never sin in the midst of all these passions; he could never draw back; never desert or disobey; never serve himself alone. But unlike us, he could actually experience and receive and undergo these torments of the earthly life perfectly, completely openly, completely sensible of the pain they cause – to him and to the world. He suffers, as Cyril well said so long ago, impassibly18: not less, but so much more as the One who sees and meets sin as it is, and conquers it as the One betrayed and conquered in a brutal and lonely death. Through this death, Christ’s risen and exalted life begins. As he is in Eastertide, so he is through his whole life – the Beloved of God, the sinless bearer of the sins of the world.

17. So too does Thomas argue in ST Part III, q. 46, a. 6, responsio. 18. Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Scholia on the Incarnation,’ in McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, pp. 294–335, especially pp. 332–3.


Chapter 19 U N C O N D I T IO NA L L OV E : C R E AT I O E X N I H I LO A N D T H E C OV E NA N T O F G R AC E Justin Stratis

The doctrine of creation ‘from nothing’ invites us to contemplate perhaps the most counterintuitive scenario possible, that of our own non-existence. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, it attempts to put into human language and conceptuality that which is simply incomparable to anything known in experience: ‘While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point preeminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of his creation, when previously it had no existence.’1 How, then, are we to think of this doctrine, and what is its place in a theological system shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ? Admitting the epistemological obstacles to a fully analytic account of creatio ex nihilo, this brief essay aims to highlight as specifically as possible wherein the mystery of this teaching lies. In particular, I will suggest that the concept of the ‘covenant’ helps us to grasp the proper order adhering between creation ‘from nothing’ and the concept of grace as it is specifically defined by the eternal election of Jesus Christ. We will arrive at this destination by means of, first, an extremely skeletal account of the development of the doctrine in terms of its motives, aims and the questions it raised in the minds of Christian thinkers, and second, a short engagement with one attempt by a modern theologian to challenge this history by drawing out an alternative set of implications. Against this background, it will be argued that the introduction of the concept of the covenant, conceived in light of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election, provides the necessary frame in which creation ‘from nothing’ finds its true evangelical meaning.

1. Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’ in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus, eds Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), p. 370 (II.x.4).



Theological Theology

Aims and Questions As Ian McFarland has demonstrated, the Christian doctrine of creation from nothing did not arise until the late second century, with the writings of Theophilus of Antioch representing one of the first attempts to reason theologically through the unique relationship between God and matter.2 The presenting issue, of course, was the contrast between the prevalent ancient cosmogony, which held that ‘creation’ involved the forming of pre-existing material, and the Christian insistence that God possessed absolute sovereignty over the world. For Theophilus, matter’s coexistence with God would imply that it is the material cause of God’s creative will, thereby making an aspect of God’s identity contingent upon it. Thus, he asked: ‘But how is it great, if God made the universe out of pre-existing material? For a human craftsman, too, when he obtains material from someone, makes from it whatever he wishes. But the power of God is made manifest in this: that he makes whatever he wishes out of what does not exist.’3 The motive for positing this teaching was not merely a concern to interpret properly, say, the opening chapters of Genesis. Rather, what was at stake was preserving the kind of relationship that obtains between God and the world as it is described in Scripture. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, then, is originally a product of theological reasoning which aims qualitatively to describe a state of affairs from the vantage point of Scripture’s praise of God’s sovereignty. This becomes all the more evident as later thinkers put the doctrine into ever-widening theological contexts.4 In his Confessions, Augustine famously located one of the more misleading aspects of the concept ‘creation’ in the implication that it describes an event possessing a beginning, middle and end. By contrast, Augustine insists that creation must be understood as a product of the divine will, which necessarily possesses the same eternity as the divine substance, since ‘God’s will belongs to his very substance’.5 Consequently, one cannot say that God created the world at a particular time, since ‘creation’ narrates the expression of God’s eternal will to found the very mode of created existence, namely, time itself. Indeed, Augustine explains, ‘You created all times and you exist before all times. Nor was there any time when time did not exist. There was therefore no time when you had not made something, because you made time itself.’6 In other words, the act of creation does

2. Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2014), pp. 1–2. 3. Quoted in ibid., p. 2. 4. John Webster offers a constructive comment: ‘Christian teaching about the creation of the world out of nothing is . . . a distributed doctrine, cropping up throughout theology’s treatment of the economy with varying degrees of explicitness.’ Webster, ‘ “Love is Also a Lover of Life”: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Creaturely Goodness’, MoTh 29 (2013), pp. 156–7. 5. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 228. 6. Ibid., p. 230.

19. Unconditional Love


not exist as first in a series of events that make up the history of the world; the divine will to create is eternal, and hence the kind of event we indicate when we say ‘creation’ is an event which is wholly distinct from all other events.7 It is, in short, a divine act, and therefore, without faith, it is as inaccessible to us as the divine essence itself. While it is true, as David Kelsey points out, that the distinction between seeing ‘creation’ as shorthand for a qualitative relation between God and the world, and seeing creation as an historical ‘event’, was not always clearly maintained in the tradition,8 nevertheless, it is clear, again, that the motive for even speaking of creation as a divine act in this particular way (ex nihilo) was to defend not a particular story about the world’s beginning, but crucially a specific doctrine of God. For Augustine and those who followed his lead, God’s sovereignty, which for them was very clearly asserted in the Bible, must be interpreted absolutely, and therefore any hint of creation’s independence from God, or God’s dependence on creation, must be ruled out. Creatio ex nihilo ensured this relation, and it was for this reason that it was formulated. Yet the modifier ‘from nothing’ carries its own set of ambiguities as well. St Anselm, in his Monologion, offers the classic exposition. According to Anselm, the danger in the phrase ‘from nothing’ issues from the nonsensical implication that the ‘material’ out of which God created the world was itself non-existent: ‘nothing either does or does not signify something. But if nothing is something, then what is made out of nothing is made from something. If, on the other hand, nothing is not something, then nothing comes to be out of nothing – since the thought that something should come out of what just does not exist is quite unintelligible. Nothing, as they say, will come of nothing.’9 Anselm therefore interprets the phrase ‘from nothing’ to mean that creation exists for no other reason than the will of God, or, more faithfully to Anselm’s argument, in correspondence with the idea of creation as it exists eternally in the divine mind and is actualized by the Word.10 Anselm’s reasoning surely removes a logical obstacle to maintaining the idea of creation from nothing, but it also introduces a new element that raises a host of

7. Webster makes the point well: ‘[C]reation concerns an absolute “beginning”, the summoning into being of what is not, and in the nature of the case such a summons cannot be an object of experience.’ Webster, ‘Creatio Ex Nihilo’, p. 158. 8. David Kelsey, ‘The Doctrine of Creation from Nothing’, in Evolution and Creation, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1985), p. 181. 9. Anselm of Canterbury, ‘Monologion’, in The Major Works, eds Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 20. 10. ‘The following then is clear: before all things exists, the manner, features and fact of their future existence already existed, in the reasoning of the supreme nature.’ Ibid., p. 23. See also Thomas: ‘When anything is said to be made from nothing, this preposition from (ex) does not signify the material cause, but only order . . . . we affirm the order by stating the relation between what is now and its previous non-existence.’ St Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a, Q. 45, Art. 1, ad. 3.


Theological Theology

questions. In highlighting that the origin of creation lies in the divine will as an actualization of the divine mind, it would seem that Anselm has granted a quasieternal relationship between God and creation on the intellectual plane of God’s thoughts. To be sure, this does not mean that God depends on the world, since God’s thoughts are God’s own and emerge from no other place than the divine substance. Yet, if creation is actualized from the template of the divine mind, then it would seem that creation bears in some sense an eternal relation to God. In other words, before even the founding of time, there seems to have been a condition on the basis of which time would be founded, namely, the idea of creation in God’s mind. This can appear problematic, and so Thomas Aquinas attempts to offer some solace. As Thomas points out, God’s knowledge of ‘things other than himself ’ occurs in God’s act of knowing his own eternal divine substance, specifically God’s knowledge of himself as the effective cause of all non-divine substances that exist.11 Hence, the external effects of God’s power (namely, created things) must, in a certain sense, ‘pre-exist in God’.12 To make sense of this requires an account of the divine will, and so Thomas considers the question of whether God is obliged to create simply as a consequence of eternally knowing himself as the efficient cause of the as-yet-non-existent universe. Thomas of course believes that the will of God is eternal, and so he is faced with an apparent dilemma: either God necessarily wills creation in correspondence with his eternal knowledge of the same, thereby imperilling creation’s radical contingency, or God at some ‘time’ decides to create, thereby exposing himself as mutable and less than actus purus. Thomas’s solution is unsurprisingly deft: God does indeed will creation necessarily, yet not absolutely, but by supposition, that is, given the fact that creation actually does exist. As he explains: ‘since the goodness of God is perfect, and can exist without other things inasmuch as no perfection can accrue to Him from them, it follows that His willing things apart from Himself is not absolutely necessary. Yet it can be necessary by supposition, for supposing that He wills a thing, then He is unable not to will it, as His will cannot change.’13 By such reasoning, Thomas accepts the notion that creation does in fact have a kind of necessary existence in the divine mind, yet not as the actually existing creation, or as it exists in itself, but only in the form of an idea, that is, as it exists in the knower (i.e., God).14

11. ‘Now if anything is perfectly known, it follows of necessity that its power is perfectly known. But the power of anything can be perfectly known only by knowing to what its power extends. Since therefore the divine power extends to other things by the very fact that it is the first effective cause of all things . . ., God must necessarily know things other than Himself. And this appears still more plainly if we add that the very existence of the first efficient cause – viz., God – is His own act of understanding.’ ST, 1a, Q. 14, Art. 5. 12. Ibid. 13. ST 1a, Q. 19, Art. 3. 14. ST 1a, Q. 19, Art. 3, ad. 6.

19. Unconditional Love


If creation is eternally existent – necessary – in the divine mind in a manner appropriate to purely intellectual knowledge, then Thomas is free to entertain, at least logically, the possibility that creation always existed. What prevents him from doing so is a commitment to his understanding of the truths of revelation: ‘By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist[.]’15 While critics may regard this as a failure to grapple properly with the implications of a Christian doctrine of creation,16 nevertheless, we notice in Aquinas’s admission an implicit reaffirmation of the original motive for the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. For him, it appears that the import of the claim for theological reasoning lies not in its logical connection to a world-founding event, but in the insight that the doctrine gives into the kind of relation adhering between God and the world. The question we must explore, then, is the extent to which the belief which gave rise to this theologoumenon – God’s absolute sovereignty over the world – is justly served by the prevalent Thomistic idea that creation exists eternally ‘by supposition’ in the divine mind, to be actualized by the divine will. Furthermore, we must ask whether the God–world relation implied by this model corresponds to the history of God and creatures as narrated in Scripture.

Preserving the Radical Nature of ‘From Nothing’ It is obvious that Aquinas maintains a strict distinction between God and creation, even in admitting the intellectual necessity of creation in the divine mind – such is not a concern here. We may even admit the rationality of Aquinas’s argument that God eternally wills creation into existence not absolutely (i.e. as a consequence of God’s nature), but only ‘by supposition’. What matters, instead, is whether the relation between God and the world begins and is therefore circumscribed by the divine self-contemplation, as well as whether the doctrine of creation ex nihilo points us to this particular reality. To the point: are Anselm and Aquinas right to see in the phrase ‘from nothing’ a positive implied in the negative – to see in ex nihilo not just ‘not from anything’ but ‘not from anything but the idea of creation as it exists in the divine mind’? In a recent monograph, Mark Ian Thomas Robson has argued against the notion that God creates on the template of an idea of creation as it exists in God’s mind.17 For Robson, this claim imperils the veracity of God’s knowledge of nondivine particulars, both actual and possible, as well as introduces the suggestion

15. ST 1a, Q. 46, Art. 2. 16. For example, see Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 20–1. John Hughes offers a helpful rejoinder to Bulgakov’s criticisms in ‘Creatio ex Nihilo and the Divine Ideas in Aquinas: How Fair is Bulgakov’s Critique?’, MoTh 29 (2013): pp. 124–37. 17. Mark Ian Thomas Robson, Ontology and Providence in Creation: Taking Ex Nihilo Seriously (London: Continuum, 2008).


Theological Theology

that, in order to create, God must appeal to a pre-existing model (among other possible models). By contrast, he argues, taking ex nihilo ‘seriously’ means admitting that God does not create out of any preexisting resource, even if that resource is merely the idea of creation as it obtains in the self-existence of the divine substance itself. As Robson puts it, ‘We do not need platonic forms or possible worlds jostling for existence before the divine cognition; we do not need models and exemplars making our ontology into a slum. It is enough to have God and His glorious capacity to create.’18 Robson is well-aware, of course, that completely rejecting the concept of the divine ideas requires a reorientation of divine ontology and the God–world relation. Such a course he therefore pursues, proposing in the end a new account of providence in the vein of certain aspects of process philosophy (taking to heart especially the work of Peirce and Hartshorne). Yet perhaps the heart of his proposal lies in the claim that indeterminacy is a logical consequence of creation’s origin from nothing. Indeed, he argues, if creation really is from nothing, then: ‘Nothing determinate precedes its existence. God did not actualize a possible world and so did not have before Him a set of possible candidates for existence.’19 Nevertheless, the world is not without rationality, for God creates according to ‘certain general plans and ideas’ which correspond to ‘aspects of the divine nature’, such as rationality and love.20 In other words, God’s decision to create the world is his decision to transpose certain modes of his divine life into the goals and ends of finite creatures. How these goals and ends ‘play out’ in created existence, however, is profoundly contingent, so much so that even God must be ignorant of the particulars prior to the event of creation.21 Creation, therefore, is a risky venture: ‘As soon as God decided to explore the indeterminate depths of His own creativity and make something out of nothing, He risked the utter perfection of the universe.’22 As utterly free and unconditioned, therefore, God’s decision to create is simply beyond rationalization. The best we can say, according to Robson, is that God creates ‘out of love; out of a desire for freshness and newness; out of pure generosity; out of sheer exuberance’.23

18. Ibid., p. 93. Robson is using ‘capacity’ here in a technical sense as a replacement for the concept of divine ideas: ‘. . .when Adam was created we might say God exercised His capacity to create rational beings. God has always had this capacity. It was always within his ability to create creatures capable of rational thought, but that in no way implies that created rational beings were already there.’ Ibid., p. 101. 19. Ibid., p. 179. 20. Ibid., pp. 179–80. 21. ‘[A]lthough God knows rationality and love before creation since they are part of His nature, He could not know what the finite concomitants would be like. The reason behind this is simple – God only knows these as unlimited and infinite. He does not know them as limited and finite.’ Ibid., p. 180. 22. Ibid., p. 182. 23. Ibid.

19. Unconditional Love


There is much to commend in Robson’s proposal. In particular, he demonstrates a bold willingness to follow the radically gratuitous nature of creation as far as logically possible – something which is rather more ambiguous in the accounts of Anselm and Aquinas. Moreover, we agree with him that imagining all possibilities as existing eternally in the gaze of God’s self-contemplation seems to diminish the radicalness of the Christian doctrine of creation. Indeed, to say that God creates ‘from nothing’ seems to highlight in some way the inscrutability of creation’s origin. It is perhaps the doctrinal equivalent of being rendered speechless at God’s interrogation of Job: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ (Job 38:4). Like Job, we cannot argue with God, because at the creation of the world, we were not there – or, more crushingly, because we were nowhere. To attempt to pinpoint in the workings of the divine mind what the text of Job teaches is properly unsearchable seems to take us further from the shock of ex nihilo rather than deeper into it. Nevertheless, Robson’s argument suffers in that it risks turning creation ex nihilo into a kind of metaphysical principle or perhaps a Christian solution to a perennial philosophical problem. If creation ex nihilo is to be understood as Christian teaching, it cannot function as the cornerstone of an ontological system, even if that system is a Christian one. Rather, creation ex nihilo must be an interpretation of Scripture and therefore point to what is revealed concretely therein. In arguing against possible worlds semantics vis-à-vis the Christian doctrine of creation, Robson’s intuitions seem to me to be entirely appropriate. In his own words, his aim is to ‘keep the wonder, even perhaps the magic, of God’s creation alive’.24 Yet in arguing for the radically inscrutable nature of creation ex nihilo, Robson offers very little theological rationale to anchor these intuitions regarding the kind of rationality, or ‘order’, that the world has. While he does mention that God creates in correspondence with his nature, this nature is left unexplored and therefore ambiguously related to the world. Because of this, it becomes all the more difficult to imagine how a description of the shape envisioned by God for the world that he creates could be justified – even in general terms.25 There is, however, more available to us in Scripture, wherein we are told that ‘all things hold together’ not merely by an abstract providence, but specifically in Jesus Christ, the one through whom and for whom ‘all things have been created’ (Col. 1:16–17).

A Christological-Covenantal Reorientation The idea that Christ is the ratio of creation is of course an ancient teaching. Yet when creation ex nihilo is treated, it is rarely related explicitly to the person of Jesus Christ as this ratio. More typically, the Son is presented as the means by

24. Robson, Ontology and Providence, p. 205. 25. Robson does mention Jesus Christ very briefly, but only in terms of his redeeming work, understood as an expression of God’s ‘exuberant generosity’. Ibid., p. 206.


Theological Theology

which God created, thereby focusing on the ‘by him’ of Colossians 1:16, while passing too quickly over the ‘in him’ of the previous verse. Even Athanasius, whose de Incarnatione is so powerfully explicit in drawing connections between the coherence of the Word’s work in creation and redemption, seems to pause frustratingly at the Rubicon.26 Francis Turretin gestures in a more constructive direction when he writes: ‘God created all things by a word, not after the manner of an instrument and ministerial cause, but efficiently and principally by the personal Word, the eternal Son of God, the same in essence with the Father; who, therefore, with the Father and the Holy Spirit constituted the one sole total cause of creation.’27 Yet even here, the humanity of Christ does not feature. This is perhaps a consequence of the polemical background of Christian teaching on creation (e.g., controversies with so-called ‘gnosticism’, Greek cosmologies, etc.), nevertheless, exegetically speaking, the Bible seems to go further. Significantly, it was Karl Barth who, by way of a stunning re-imagining of the doctrine of election, reasoned through the role of Christ’s humanity in creation with particular force. In Church Dogmatics III/1, Barth draws attention to an absolutely crucial concept for the right understanding of creation, and that is covenant. By speaking of covenant, Barth puts creation in a particular context and thus founds it on an actual, biblically-narrated divine decision: the election of Jesus Christ ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4). Hence, ‘[D]ivine creation is a work that has a completely determinate character . . . God’s act of creation carries with it God’s Yes to that which He creates.’28 As a result, Barth insists, ‘We have to realise that any loosening or obscuring of the bond between creation and covenant necessarily entails a threat to this statement [that creation is benefit], and that it collapses altogether if this bond is dissolved.’29 In other words, Barth understood Scripture to teach that creation is fundamentally an instance of divine blessing. Certainly, a good is given to the creature insofar as God grants it existence, yet the blessing of the creature is not exhausted in existence (though this is of course ‘good’30). As the ‘Alpha and Omega’, that is, the determinative context of creation in its historical

26. ‘It is . . . proper for us to begin the treatment of this subject by speaking of the creation of the universe, and of God its Artificer, that so it may be duly perceived that the renewal of creation has been the work of the selfsame Word that made it at the beginning. For it will appear not inconsonant for the Father to have wrought its salvation in him by whose means he made it.’ Athanasius, ‘On the Incarnation of the Word’, in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward Rochie Hardy (Louisville, KY: WJK, 1954), p. 56. 27. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), p. 435. 28. Karl Barth, CD, III/1, p. 330. Revised translation, retaining Barth’s emphasis. 29. Ibid., p. 332. 30. See Thomas: ‘For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good. . . . Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists.’ ST 1a, Q. 20, Art. 2.

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reality, Jesus Christ is the key which unlocks the secret of creation’s shape and purpose. As Robert Jenson comments, ‘In his eternal decree’ – which, for Barth, is God’s decision to elect both himself and humanity for eternal fellowship in Jesus Christ – ‘God decides to love the creature and make covenant with him; therefore He decides to create him.’31 Consequently, as Barth famously puts it, creation ought to be understood as the ‘external basis’ of the covenant, and the covenant as the ‘internal basis’ of creation. Expressed another way: the Bible speaks of no covenant which does not necessitate a creation, nor does it speak of a creation which does not serve the needs and ends of the covenant. While creation and covenant are inseparable, it is clear that the basis for creation lies in the covenant and not vice versa. As Barth states in CD II/2, ‘The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ.’32 Accordingly, the centre of Barth’s famous (and somewhat grumpy) critique of the decretum absolutum is the fact that Scripture does not permit speculation beyond God’s decision to unite himself with humanity in Jesus Christ. Moreover, all that we know of God without this decision must therefore itself be given in this decision, and this means that, for Barth, it is simply not permissible to imagine a decision or a decision-making God beyond the election of Jesus Christ. What, then, does this have to do with creation ex nihilo? Well, if Barth’s account of the covenant is biblically faithful, it means that both elements of the phrase – ‘creation’ and ‘from nothing’ – can be interpreted with more specificity. First, ‘creation’ is now concretely identified as the sphere in which the primal decision of God for the sake of humanity’s blessing becomes real. It is not simply a ‘state of affairs’ which God has inscrutably chosen to actualize;33 it is rather the concomitant of a very specific divine choice to be a certain type of God in a fixed relation with a certain type of creature. Creation thus has a very specific shape, and this shape is owed to the establishment of a covenant by God in Jesus Christ, vere Deus et vere homo. Second, the phrase ‘from nothing’, which the tradition has already noted presents opportunities for misinterpretation, may now be seen properly against the backdrop of the covenant and thus direct our gaze to a more specific aspect of the divine mystery. Anselm, we recall, interpreted ‘from nothing’ to mean something like the following: creation issues from nothing other than God and his will to realize his thoughts of a world external to himself. This led Aquinas and others to see in the phrase a reference to ‘order’, rather than a statement about the

31. Robert W. Jenson, Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1963), p. 24. Emphasis added. 32. Karl Barth, CD II/2, p. 94. Emphasis added. 33. See Alvin Plantinga: ‘What [God] did was to perform actions of a certain sort— creating the heavens and the earth, for example—which resulted in the actuality of certain states of affairs. God actualizes states of affairs.’ God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), p. 39.


Theological Theology

origin of the world – first nothing, then something.34 The mystery of ‘from nothing’ therefore lies in why God decided to create in the first place, given that creation adds nothing to God’s perfection. When the covenant is in view, however, we realize that the question ‘why did God create the world?’ has an answer: the world was created to be the partner of the covenant. In this scheme, the mystery is more correctly located. The unanswerable question now becomes: why did God choose to establish a self-involving covenant with the man Jesus Christ? – and concerning this question, neither Scripture nor theological reason permits us to speculate. As Barth argues, the search for the ground of election terminates in the love of God, which is of course God’s essence itself. Beyond this love, there is no ‘greater depth in God’ to explore, such that to enquire further can only be lust for ‘nothingness, or rather the depth of Satan’.35 Consequently, the inscrutability of creation’s origin shares the same mystery as that of the reality of grace.36 Creation’s origin is ‘from nothing’ in the same sense as God’s gracious election is ‘from nothing’; it is, in the terminology of Dordt, unconditional. Creatio ex nihilo is therefore doctrinally subordinate to electio ex nihilo. Like the founding of the covenant in election, there is nothing available to help us make sense of the mechanics of creation’s origin other than the unsearchable God who elected to enter into an utterly gratuitous relationship with humanity. And like the miracle of grace, creatio ex nihilo demands our obedient thanksgiving and praise: ‘In . . . admiration, reverence and love of God, the divine pedagogy about creation reaches its term.’37

Conclusion Eberhard Jüngel once commented ‘that God is love is the reason that anything exists at all, rather than nothingness’.38 In this essay, I have tried to show that the mystery of creatio ex nihilo is properly located in the covenant established between God and man in the election of Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world – a covenant which emerges from the unsearchable depths of the divine essence as

34. Turretin, for instance, straightforwardly interprets ex nihilo with the gloss ‘post nihilum’. Institutes, p. 432. Compare with Thomas, ST 1a, Q. 45, Art. 1, ad. 3. 35. Barth, CD II/2, p. 25. 36. See Kathryn Tanner: ‘A single divine intent to give us the grace of God’s own life underlies the whole of what happens to and for us, from our beginning in creation to our end in salvation; this intent is entirely gracious in that it has its basis in nothing but God’s free love for us. The proper starting point for considering our created nature is therefore grace.’ Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 116. 37. Webster, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo’, p. 159. 38. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 223.

19. Unconditional Love


love. Insofar as creation is a consequence of this gracious divine decision, we are bound to admit no condition, template or model as its basis other than the covenant itself. Such an account, I suggest, not only coheres with the instruction of Holy Scripture concerning the christological origins of creation, but also fits with the motives of the early theologians who first employed the conceptuality of creatio ex nihilo. Indeed, even the early disputes with Greek/gnostic cosmologies must be seen as subordinate to the threat such worldviews posed not to something as abstract as a rival ‘Christian metaphysics’, but rather to the believer’s hope of salvation – for if God’s work of creation were to be circumscribed by anything other than God himself (e.g., pre-existing matter), then his will for creation would be similarly less-than-sovereign. By contrast, the assurance of salvation depends upon seeing the entirety of non-divine reality as fundamentally obedient to God’s gracious summons to existence – even in its rebellion.39 In the course of the argument just rehearsed, one might perceive a polemic against earlier, medieval models of creation in favour of a more Protestant, perhaps Reformed, account. While I have not intended to draw lines quite so sharply, nevertheless a brief word of explanation regarding method may be in order. To my mind, accounts of creation from nothing which rely on the divine ideas naturally direct one to conceive of the God–world relation in terms of causation (in the Aristotelian sense, preferably). In other words, they lead us to imagine a causal relation between the kind of being that God has (i.e., perfect being, or actus purus) and the kind of being that creatures have (i.e., being tending by grace towards a perfection which God has by nature). There is nothing inherently problematic about this perspective, yet it remains theologically truncated insofar as it seems to prescribe the kind of relation that God should have with creatures, simply on account of the divine benevolence (whether explained in terms of the Trinity or otherwise). What the covenant adds to this is the notion that God chooses the terms of his relationship with creation, and does so in a concrete way in the person of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the doctrine of creation from nothing instructs us on two levels: first, it enables us to remain within the boundaries of revelation, even as we attempt to contemplate a possibility which is necessarily beyond our ken, namely, our non-existence. And second, it makes the crucial connection between the very specific grace revealed in Jesus Christ and the shape of creaturely ends. What I have suggested, therefore, is not meant as a rejection of the tradition as a series of missteps concerning creatio ex nihilo, but rather the critical reception of an inheritance which has served and must continue to serve the church’s struggle for the preeminence of the material content of Christian truth. For modelling this disposition to me personally, I am grateful especially to John Webster.

39. On this point, viz. Theophilus, see McFarland, From Nothing, p. 2.


Chapter 20 ‘E X E G E SI S I K N OW , A N D T H E O L O G Y I K N OW , BU T W HO A R E YOU ? ’ A C T S 1 9 A N D T H E T H E O L O G IC A L I N T E R P R E TAT IO N O F S C R I P T U R E Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Introduction: Lost in Wonder, Love, and . . . Theological Interpretation For years I have subscribed to the following pet theory: every significant interest and development in both the academy and society eventually shows up in the way people interpret the Bible. Time and time again new evidence has further confirmed my intuition. Feminist interpretation is a prominent case in point, but to that one could add structuralism, existentialism, deconstruction and so forth. The problem with this trend is that it means developments in philosophy, culture and general hermeneutic are what drive biblical interpretation. There is one recent phenomenon, however, that may prove to be a conspicuous exception to the usual rule. It is the theological interpretation of Scripture: ‘the return of biblical scholars to the theological reading of the Scriptures, and the return of systematic theologians to sustained engagement with the scriptural texts – in a phrase, the return of both to theological readings of the Bible – is the most significant theological development in the last two decades’.1 How ought we to explain this striking, even anomalous development? It does indeed appear to be an exception to the rule, for clearly this new interest in theology does not simply reflect a broader intellectual or social trend; on the contrary, it is the New Atheists that are getting the media buzz. If theological interpretation of Scripture is not simply a reflection of broader changes in the academy and society, then could it be a work of the Holy Spirit, perhaps a harbinger of reformation and revival?2 Or, despite surface appearances, is theological 1. Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 14 (emphasis his). 2. Theologies of retrieval pose a similar question to the extent that ressourcement itself is something of a general trend. Whether retrieval owes more to a general cultural trend (e.g., the postmodern critique of modern forms of rationality) than a particular theological



Theological Theology

interpretation actually a symptom of some more widespread, albeit subterranean, ideology or practice? Before we can make much progress in discerning its origins, however, we must first determine what it is. If pressed to offer a definition, I would say that theological interpretation of Scripture (henceforth TIS) is biblical interpretation that is ‘lost in wonder, love, and praise’ (Reformed theologians too can sing hymns by Charles Wesley). Wonder, because the subject matter of Scripture is God’s glorious plan and perfection; love, because we want to respond with our whole being, giving ourselves over to the obedience of this word; praise, because good theology always tends towards doxology. Some will no doubt discount my definition, noting that TIS is nothing special, but only one more symptom of the postmodern emphasis on the right of interpretive communities to read texts in light of corporate interests. To be sure, some proponents of TIS (e.g., Stephen Fowl) do speak in such terms, though they would still insist on the distinctiveness of TIS on the grounds that cultivating the love of God is not like any other interpretive interest. While reading with interpretive interests is now commonplace in the academy, the church’s particular interpretive interest is not.3 If TIS were simply a product of the latest social or intellectual fashion, I would be the first to throw it out of my interpretive wardrobe and return to wearing my grammatical-historical Oxford shirts. However, I do not believe that what we are witnessing is simply hermeneutical monkey-see, monkey-do. Not everyone is convinced. A number of biblical exegetes lead the skeptical pack. Markus Bockmuehl describes himself as a sympathetic observer of developments who nevertheless has some sharp critical questions. Specifically, he wants to know: ‘What it is that makes an interpretation theological, and what makes it either a good or a bad theological interpretation?’4 Is it about the text or the interpreter? ‘What role does history, and historical criticism, play?’5 These are good questions. There are more to come. Don Carson rightly notes the amorphous nature and theologically disparate character of what passes for TIS, largely due to the various people who claim the label. He considers six propositions about it, in each case responding with a ‘Yes, operation is an interesting question, but beyond the scope of the present discussion. See John Webster, ‘Theologies of Retrieval’, in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University. Press, 2007), pp. 583–99. 3. For general overviews of TIS, see Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008); Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009); J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). 4. Markus Bockmuehl, ‘Bible versus Theology: Is “Theological Interpretation” the Answer?’, NV 9 (2011), p. 36. 5. Ibid., p. 46.

20. Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture


but . . .’ He concludes his survey by saying that he is ‘inclined to think that what is most valuable in TIS . . . is not new; what is new in TIS varies from ambiguous to mistaken, depending in part on the theological location of the interpreter’6 – to which I want to say, ‘Yes, but . . .’ For example, while much in TIS may not be new, it is nevertheless worth recovering, and its main emphasis – on reading Scripture as God’s living word for the church’s edification – is often put on the back burner by the prevailing approaches to biblical exegesis in the academy. On the theological side of the ledger, Mark Bowald believes that exegetes need to recover an appreciation for the extent to which Scripture is distinct from other books: ‘First, the primary author of Scripture is continuously present to the reader whereas authors of other books cannot be and, second, this author is God.’7 Stephen Wellum nevertheless observes that ‘within TIS [theological interpretation of Scripture] there is still a great divide over the most fundamental question: What is the nature of Scripture?’8 John Webster makes a similar point. In his view, TIS is not simply a matter of looking for a particular kind of content in the Bible (that could then be topically arranged), or of speaking to a particular audience (church rather than scholars), or even of using a particular exegetical method. Rather, it is interpretation characterized by a theological description of the origin, nature and purpose of the biblical texts, the living and acting word of God (Heb. 4:12), as well as their reception.9 It is important to acknowledge TIS as a proposal that concerns not only biblical texts but also their readers, original and contemporary. Perhaps the most important factor behind the present confusion over TIS is its association with a variety of theological assumptions and interpretive practices. No one person has a monopoly on how a term or phrase can be used, of course. I can only make plain my own use of the term: TIS is an attempt to think theologically about the nature of the biblical text, as well as the processes and purposes of its interpretation, and interpreters. It is about reading the Bible as the word of God for the people of God. In what follows I seek to build on Webster’s recommendation to think of TIS as proceeding from a grasp of the nature and purpose of Scripture, its ‘ontology’ and ‘teleology’, respectively. I shall associate the author with ontology (the world behind the text), the question of the text’s relation to contemporary readers with teleology (the world in front of the text), and the

6. Don Carson, ‘Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But. . .’ in Michael Allen, ed., Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2011) p. 207. 7. Mark Bowald, ‘The Character of Theological Interpretation’, IJST 12 (2010), p. 168. TIS ‘means simply interpreting the text of the Bible as Scripture, the “word of God” ’ (Dale B. Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008], p. 21). 8. Stephen Wellum, ‘Editorial: Reflecting upon the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” ’ SBJT 14.2 (2010), p. 3. 9. John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), p. 30.


Theological Theology

text’s sense and reference (the world within the text) with what we may term its intratextual ‘cosmology’. Luke’s so-called ‘Ephesus chronicles’, in particular three curious episodes in Acts  18 and 19, provide the framework for my discussion. It is an apt passage: premodern and modern commentators alike have had trouble knowing what to make of these texts, and the events they recount, all of which have to do in one way or another with recognizing a complete, unabbreviated and spiritually potent Christianity. Yet these three episodes address our very problem, namely, the challenge of identifying the marks that make biblical interpretation distinctly theological. My goal, then, is to comment on the broader approach of TIS by offering a theological interpretation of a particular passage that itself indirectly comments on TIS. I therefore hope to display TIS in practice while simultaneously trying to describe it.

Sons of Sceva and sons of Hermes: is there a ‘magic’ in this method? (1) Sons of Sceva: Exegetical Notes The account of the Sons of Sceva in Acts 19:11–20 may seem a strange, indeed bizarre place to begin. Martin Dibelius judges this ‘a story which serves to entertain and fosters no religious or personal interest whatsoever’.10 It was, however, a strategic episode in Paul’s third missionary journey – indeed, Paul’s time in Ephesus was perhaps the climax of his entire missionary endeavour. God was doing extraordinary miracles through Paul to confirm his gospel. People were taking handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul had touched – what one commentator calls the ‘Apostle’s laundry’, probably part of his work gear – and using them to heal the sick and exorcise evil spirits. Verses 13–17 recount the spectacular failure of Jewish exorcists – the seven sons of Sceva – who tried to imitate Paul and use the name of Jesus to cast out an evil spirit. Instead of fleeing the man, the evil spirit sent the sons of Sceva scampering, naked and wounded. Verses 18–20 then recount how a number of believers in Ephesus admitted to once practising similar magic arts and voluntarily burning their expensive magic books in public. The passage concludes in verses 20: ‘So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.’11 How does one ‘apply’ a passage like this? The NIV Application Commentary suggests a bridging context, namely, ministry to people influenced by magic and the occult: ‘In Ephesians Paul’s ministry addresses the bondage to magic of the people living there.’12 One wonders, however, how one might preach this passage to 10. Martin Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), p. 19. 11. Luke uses the same Greek term [ischuo] for the ‘prevailing’ of the word of the Lord as he does for the evil spirit’s ‘overpowering’ the sons of Sceva. 12. Ajith Fernando, The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), p. 520.

20. Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture


people who no longer believe in magic. Despite the patent cultural distance of the world of the text from the world of present interpreters, I believe it does contain something for us to ponder. One need not read allegorically to discover that what is ultimately at stake in the story is the lust for power, and this strikes closer to home. (2) Sons of Hermes: The Science of Interpretation Ancient Ephesus was a centre of power: magical, political, and religious. Of course, the Ephesians are not the only ones who would like to have a measure of control over the ‘powers and principalities’ that influence every aspect of our lives. Control is the operative term: ‘What characterizes magic is the attempt through various sorts of rituals and words of power to manipulate some deity or supernatural power into doing the will of the supplicant.’13 The ‘method’ of magic involved complicated rituals, especially the reciting of secret words and names that had power. Jewish priests in particular were thought to know secret names, perhaps because of their association with the unpronounceable name of Yahweh. As Michel Foucault has reminded us, knowledge and power make a formidable pairing: power-knowledge.14 I wonder: how different are the sons of Hermes (among which I include myself) from the sons of Sceva? We too have sophisticated procedures for exorcis. . . – I mean exegeting textual meaning. We too invoke powerful names: Schleiermacher, Osborne, Thiselton, Hirsch! We too are tempted to exercise control over recalcitrant texts, only what we adjure to come forth is not an evil spirit but the spirit – well, at least the intention – of Samuel, John and Paul himself. Is it only a coincidence that Schleiermacher, the high priest of hermeneutical power-knowledge, spoke of gaining access to what was in the author’s mind as divination?15 A critic might here object: no, hermeneutics is a science, the science of interpretation, complete with objective procedures that help to eliminate guesswork. If anyone resembles the sons of Sceva, surely it is the proponent of TIS, especially when she invokes the triune name of God as a quasi-magical formula that resolves interpretive disagreement? If anything in biblical hermeneutics resembles magic, surely it is the alchemy of allegory, by which texts are made to mean something other than they say? We will return to TIS in due course. For the moment, let me explore further the possibility that there might be something ‘magical’ about the historical-critical method. Michael Legaspi argues that secular study of the Bible in the university resulted in what he announces in his book’s title: The Death of Scripture and the Rise of

13. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 577. 14. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972– 1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980). 15. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism: And Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 23.


Theological Theology

Biblical Studies.16 It is a subtle thesis. Enlightenment thinkers created a postconfessional hermeneutics that used critical tools to ‘manage’ or control the biblical text that had previously (i.e., before modern critical techniques) given risen to interpretive disagreement, and eventually the wars of religion. Legaspi contends that critical methodology spelled the end of Holy Scripture: saints and scholars ‘are actually engaged with different Bibles: a scriptural Bible and an academic Bible’.17 Legaspi’s understated obituary is unsettling: ‘Scripture died a quiet death in Western Christendom some time in the sixteenth century.’18 Scripture dies because biblical critics were interested only in the meaning the separate texts had before they became Scripture: ‘On this view, modern biblical scholarship is not really about the Bible. . . but about the history of the materials that later constituted the Bible.’19 What Legaspi calls the death of Scripture resembles what Hans Frei calls the ‘great reversal’ in hermeneutics: ‘Instead of looking through the Bible in order to understand the truth about the world, eighteenth-century scholars looked directly at the text, endeavoring to find new, ever more satisfactory frames of cultural and historical reference by which to understand the meaning of the text.’20 When Scripture died, the text became an inert object: ‘Texts, like dead men and women, have no rights, no aims, no interests.’21 The academy has thus become an operating theatre in which students learn surgically to dissect texts, and hermeneutics as a scientific technique with which to perform textual autopsies. This, too, is magicpower-knowledge. Webster comments on this situation: ‘Modern Evangelicals have sometimes been bedazzled by the range and sophistication of historical procedures at their disposal, and busied themselves to master them in the hope of outbidding their opponents. But historical studies are the servant of exegesis, not its master.’22

I-It or I-Thou? On the Ontology of the Biblical Text The death of Scripture entailed the eclipse not only of biblical narrative but also of divine address. It was also in the eighteenth century that Schleiermacher, the 16. Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). 17. Ibid., p. viii. 18. Ibid., p. 3. 19. Ibid., p. 25. 20. Ibid., p. 26. See Frei: ‘all across the theological spectrum the great reversal had taken place; interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story’ (The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974], p. 130). 21. Robert Morgan and John Barton, Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 3. 22. Webster, ‘Jesus Christ’, in Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 60.

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father of modern hermeneutics, proposed reading the Bible like any other book. Biblical interpreters have no need of special principles; it suffices to intuit the (human) author’s intentions by attending to the grammar of his text, in order to come to understand the author better than the author understood himself – surely a manifesto for thinking of hermeneutics as a form of mastery (the gall!). This suspicion is only strengthened when we see that Schleiermacher conceived hermeneutics as a disciplined way to resolve misunderstandings, that is, to remain in control as it were of the interpretive process. What is a text? To go wrong here is to go wrong everywhere. There are many ways to describe texts and many things one can do with texts. Minimally, however, I would hope that Christian exegetes and theologians could agree on two things: first, that Christian readers may seek more, not less, than textual understanding, and second, that would-be interpreters must read, respect, and interact with the Bible for what it is. There is no more urgent question for biblical interpretation than the ontological question: What is the biblical text? My provisional answer: it is discourse fixed by writing, where discourse is what someone says to someone about something, in some way, at some time, and for some purpose. I take it that both exegetes and theologians can agree at least on this: what we are after as interpreters is the discourse in the text.23 What ultimately distinguishes theological interpretation from other approaches to biblical interpretation is the question of whose discourse it is. As a theologian who strives, above all else, to be biblical, I consider myself the exegete’s best friend, and approach every biblical commentary with the expectation of having my theological understanding either nourished or challenged. This hope is often disappointed, sometimes crushed, but at other times fulfilled beyond expectation. What I resist, however, is the suggestion that the exegetical commentator is ‘more biblical’ than the systematic theologian. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the text, I have more: catechized in the eighth grade, of the people of Evangelical, of the tribe of Calvin, a hermeneut of hermeneuts; as to meaning, an intentionalist; as to zeal, a preacher of the church; as to determinacy under the word, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I count as loss – for the sake of TIS. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of hearing the voice of God. The serious point is this: the biblical text is not an inert object on which critics operate but the medium of divine discourse before which interpreters should lie prostrate. We must be careful not to enter into an I-It relation with the biblical text, as if we were knowing subjects standing over a hapless object. The Bible is not like other objects that yield up their treasures to scientific inquiry. It was Gadamer’s Truth and Method that called attention to the limits of method. Gadamer thought that one was more likely to achieve truth in interpretation by entering into a 23. See further my ‘The Apostolic Discourse and its Developments’, in Markus Bockmuehl and Alan Torrance, eds, Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: Studies in the New Testament’s Normativity for Christian Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 191–207.


Theological Theology

dialogue with the text, a process less like the application of scientific method and more like the logic of question and answer. This comes closer to doing justice to the Bible as the ‘living and active’ word of God, provided we remember that, like Job, we are ultimately in no position to question God.24 I am less interested in tying my colours to the latest philosophical mast than I am in catching my interpretive sails in the wind of the Holy Spirit. I want to think theologically, which means I want to inquire what things are in relation to God. Hence my thesis: the Bible is human discourse fixed by writing that serves as the medium for divine discourse. And it is not as if God appropriated (or adopted) human discourse after the fact.25 Rather, it is from the start divinely elected, commissioned and sanctified human discourse. The Bible has a natural history, to be sure, but this natural history alone does not explain it. The Bible is genuinely and fully human and historical, but not merely human and historical; it is rather sign and seal of God’s eschatological breaking into the world. In engaging Scripture, then, we are not dealing with an object like other objects. The discourse of the Bible is ultimately divine discourse: God speaks today by means of what the prophets and the apostles said in the past. We are now in a better position to see how far the Cartesian subject-object dichotomy falls short as a description of biblical interpretation. According to Martin Buber, the I-It relationship objectifies, analyses, categorizes and otherwise seeks to gain mastery over the domain of the word. In contrast, the I-Thou relationship places interpreters in a position to be personally addressed.26 Strictly speaking, a text is neither a personal agent (a Thou), nor an inert object (an It). Volf views texts as social relations, a means of interpersonal

24. Bradley McLean, a scholar trained in historical methods of interpretation for which he is grateful, believes that it is a mistake to see scholars as sovereign knowing subjects and texts as detached objects of inquiry: ‘What difference would it make to the discipline of biblical studies,’ he asks, ‘if scholars were to disavow their “subjecthood”?’ (Biblical Interpretation & Philosophical Hermeneutics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012], p. vii). He also makes a telling point: ‘the historicization of biblical authors has brought with it the unexpected discovery that even the consciousness of biblical scholars in the present is historically conditioned. Though often ignored, this discovery has actually subverted the possibility of objective, scholarly knowledge of the Bible’ (p. 3). 25. See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 26. Gadamer, too, sees ‘an ontological gap between I-Thou and I-It hermeneutics’ (Steven Kepnes, ‘Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics’, in Maurice Friedman, ed., Martin Buber and the Human Sciences [Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1996], p. 178). In Gadamer’s view, what speaks to the interpreter view is the subject matter of the text, mediated through the historical tradition. He is quite explicit on this point: ‘a text does not speak to us in the same way as does a Thou’ (Truth and Method 2nd rev. edn [New York: Continuum, 2002], p. 377). Cf. Steven Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992).

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interaction.27 My own view is that a text is a medium of communicative action, the means by which a person extends herself towards others by initiating or responds to what we might term, with a nod to Volf, ‘covenants of discourse’. It is not the biblical text that speaks but God who speaks by way of the discourse of the prophets and apostles. Yet the Bible is more than a regional instance of a general phenomenon. The canon delimits and sanctifies just these biblical texts as authorized servants of divine discourse. God is the holy Author, communicatively present and active, in our biblical midst, the eternal Thou addressing every ‘I’ that comes into the world. Like the sons of Sceva, the sons of Hermes lack the power to master the word of God. We can neither conjure nor adjure its meaning. We are not the masters of the word but rather subjects in its domain. The right posture when addressed by God is not standing over but understanding, a posture that requires both humiliation and mortification. It is one thing to confess the Bible as God’s word, quite another to interpret it in such a way that its being God’s word makes an interpretive difference. Vern Poythress wonders whether and to what extent the grammatical-historical method effectively displaces God from the exegetical process.28 Can we by following rulebased procedures for studying language and historical circumstances find out the word of God? Everything depends on whether the divine and human intentions and illocutions coincide or go their separate ways. If they coincide, then it is grammatical-historical business as usual. Divine authorship makes a difference to the Bible’s authority, but not to its interpretation. If, on the other hand, they go their separate ways, we may then need to employ a second hermeneutic in addition to the first, for ‘the question is no longer what Isaiah or Matthew or Paul were trying to say to their contemporaries, but what God is saying to us now through the words they wrote’.29 How then should we approach biblical interpretation in light of the ontology of the text as a medium of divine discourse? Does God’s communicative presence and activity – his personal address and claim on our lives – make a concrete difference in the way we interpret the text? Does doing justice to divine authorship require something other than, or in addition to, the grammatical historical method? The questions come thick and fast, and we shall return to them. For now, let me return to the sons of Sceva and draw a moral for the sons of Hermes. Calvin and the Fathers agree: ‘the name [of Jesus] has no power unless it is spoken by faith’.30 Neither magic nor method can conjure up the voice of God from the

27. Volf, Captive to the Word, p. 28. 28. Poythress, ‘The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation,’ JETS 50 (2007) 87–103. 29. Merold Westphal, ‘The Philosophical/Theological View’, in Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell, eds, Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p. 85. 30. John Chrysostom, Homilies and the Acts of the Apostles, p. 41.


Theological Theology

Scriptures. What N. T. Wright says about the exorcist’s magical rituals applies equally well to the exegete’s methodical procedures: it is impossible ‘to gain that power without paying the price of humble submission to the God whose power it is’.31 We turn now to explore the ripple effect of divine authorship on the other elements of discourse. In particular, we shall see that what the discourse is about depends on whose discourse it is.

The 12 Disciples: ‘We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’ (1) Exegetical Notes: A New Chapter in Redemptive History? Paul’s encounter with John the Baptist’s disciples (Acts  19:1–7) provides an intriguing opportunity to further explore TIS. Though Luke calls them ‘disciples’, they appear to know only John’s baptism. Paul poses the relevant, and pointed, question: ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ Making sense of their answer has baffled even the most persistent exegete: ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’ (Acts 19:2). Upon hearing this, Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus, lays hands on them, and the Spirit whom they profess not to know then comes upon them ‘and they began . . . prophesying’ (Acts 19:6). Käsemann thinks the disciples represent an immature form of Christianity.32 They are not Paul’s opponents, but neither are they fully Christians. Their indeterminate status has something to do with their not having advanced beyond John the Baptist. As Jesus said, ‘one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he [John the Baptist]’ (Luke 7:28). The twelve disciples are somehow deficient in what they know, particularly as concerns the Holy Spirit. It is a difficult passage, so much so that one fifth-century scribe saw fit to change their response to ‘We have not heard that anyone has received the Holy Spirit’, in which case they are saying only that they have not heard that the Spirit is present in a new way after Pentecost. Other commentators wonder if what is in view is not knowledge as much as experience of the Spirit (or both). Calvin thinks the disciples were Christians, and that their baptism consisted of receiving additional spiritual gifts, not the grace of regeneration. The basic premise in what follows is that these disciples represent biblical interpreters who have nevertheless missed something of theological importance – but what? Could it be what modern biblical exegetes also miss? Webster thinks so: ‘The fruits of the immense labors of evangelical [biblical] scholars are by no means negligible; but in and of themselves they do not constitute a hearing of the Word, though they may offer much needed preparation for such a hearing.’33 Precisely! Clarifying what the human authors meant in their historical setting is a 31. Acts for Everyone. Part Two (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 118. 32. ‘The Disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus’, Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1964), pp. 136–48. 33. Webster, ‘Jesus Christ’, p. 61.

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crucial preparing of the way – hence the parallel with the disciples of John the Baptist – but it is not yet fully Christian proclamation. TIS means attending not only to the doctrinal content of the Bible but also to the divine discourse. Here we encounter a peculiar problem: if meaning is a function of context, what kind of, and how large a context frames the divine discourse? To be sure, the discourse remains historically situated, because it is genuinely (though not merely) human. Nevertheless, we must broaden our understanding of history to include not only the world behind, of, and in front of the text, but also the world ‘above’ the text – ‘heaven’, the dwelling place of God – if we are to do justice to the ‘to whom’ of divine discourse. TIS situates both the Bible and its interpretation in the triune economy of communication, that is, in the context of divine revelation and redemption. TIS is particularly attentive to the redemptive-historical context – of authors, texts and readers alike. (2) ‘We have not even heard that there is a Fourth Act’ The disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John needed to deepen their understanding of their historical context. They needed to know where they were in the scheme of redemptive-history. They knew about the first three acts of the drama of redemption (viz., Creation, election of Israel, and Jesus respectively) but they were apparently ignorant of Jesus’ resurrection or his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. To not know that the Spirit is now present is to not know where one is in the drama of redemption. The disciples were one Act behind. They had not heard of the new stage in redemptive history, a Fourth Act, inaugurated by the risen Christ’s sending of the Spirit. Interpreters of the Bible need to ensure that they do not find themselves in a similar position, caught up in the wrong drama and thus unable fully to participate in the action. Krister Stendahl’s celebrated distinction between ‘what it meant’ and ‘what it means’ has no bearing here: for we, here, following Christ in the twenty-first century are in the same situation, redemptive-historically speaking, as these Ephesian disciples. We, too, are living after the Spirit had been given, between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. TIS is less about applying the text to our situation than it is of inserting our situation into the drama of redemption attested in Scripture. Christians should not be interpreting the Bible according to the ‘exegesis’ of John the Baptist, as though the Holy Spirit had not been given, or as if we are not the addressees of the text, caught up in the very same flow of redemptive history that Scripture recounts. Grammatical-historical exegesis prepares the way, but it must be completed by an acknowledgement that we are not dealing with a story in the distant past, but with a world-of-the-text, and a redemptive-historical context, that are also our own. (3) ‘We have not even heard that there is an extended literal sense’ To this point I have argued that the Bible is a medium for God’s own discourse and that it is not confined to the distant historical past but a living and active feature of


Theological Theology

our redemptive-historical present. How might this understanding affect what for a number of biblical scholars is probably their bottom line, namely, doing justice to the literal sense of Scripture in its original historical context? Nothing I have said thus far subverts this important concern. I too want to preserve the integrity of what is said. I do not even want to say that the New Testament authors change the sense of Old Testament texts when they use them to refer to Christ. Nevertheless, the advent of Christ and the Holy Spirit does change something. The challenge is to say what that something is. The way forward, I submit, is to remember that we are dealing with discourse: what someone says, to someone, about something. A sentence’s semantic content – sentence rather than speaker meaning – will always underdetermine reference to the extent that we are unsure whose discourse it is. Hence the real point at issue in so-called ‘spiritual’ interpretation – the mystery of Jesus Christ – involves not only the verbal sense of the text but also some indication of who is speaking (i.e., the author), about what (i.e., the referent), and to whom (i.e., the intended audience). TIS aims to recover the plain sense of the author. It also insists that inspired human authors sometimes say more than they can know. The authors of the Old Testament are not always cognizant of the ultimate referent of their discourse, as we read in 1 Pet. 1:10–12: ‘the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating . . . It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you.’ When Paul says ‘the Rock was Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:4), he is not changing what the human author of Numbers said; he is rather specifying what that author was (perhaps unknowingly) talking about. This explains ‘how a text can “deepen” in meaning [i.e., reference] without departing from its inherent [i.e., literal] sense’.34 Everything follows from the conviction that it is ultimately the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures, communicating the same sense (i.e., semantic content) but a different referent, which is to say, a surer grasp of the ultimate subject matter of the Scriptures. It is not, therefore, that the original sense changes (it does not), but rather that the original referent receives greater specification as redemptive-history progresses. The human locutions and their semantic content do not change, but the divine illocutions and their referents (the ‘about what’) do. There is nothing allegorical about such ‘figural’ (i.e., the extended literal) reading. We continue to need grammatical-historical exegesis to help us determine the literal sense. The divine discourse does not go against the literal sense, nor does it add another sense; it rather extends the literal sense towards a new referent or new aspect of an old referent. The original historical context helps us get a fix on the literal sense of the

34. Darrell L. Bock, ‘Single Meaning, Multiple Contexts and Referents’, in Bock, Peter Enns and Walter Kaiser, eds, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), p. 125.

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human authors, while the redemptive-historical context helps us to extend the literal sense in order better to grasp what the divine author is speaking about. (4) ‘We have not even heard of a canonical context’ How do we know what the divine author is talking about? Context helps us to locate the discourse in space and time, and so helps us get a fix on what the communicative agents were doing with their words. Consider now, if you will, the great challenge that confronts the interpreter who seeks to employ the second hermeneutic, the one oriented to the divine intention. What is God’s context? Obviously, no historical context contains the actions of the Almighty. In an important sense, God does not have a ‘context’ (i.e., there is nothing bigger than God in which to situate him), though it may be legitimate to say that God is his own context. In light of what framework, then, can we possibly hope to make sense of the divine discourse? At one extreme is the position that God fully accommodates himself to the words of the inspired human authors. On this view, the human authorial intention completely coincides with God’s intention, with no divine remainder. Poythress objects: ‘The scholar who focuses wholly on original meaning fails to grasp that part of the original meaning is the implication that the original meaning proclaims its own mystery, insufficiency, and anticipatory character.’35 Robert Louis Wilken represents the other extreme: ‘the task of interpretation is never exhausted by a historical account. The text belongs to a world that is not defined solely by its historical referent. . . . Context needs to be understood to embrace the Church, its liturgy, its way of life, its practices and institutions, its ideas and beliefs.’36 This is a capacious understanding of context, though one wonders if even this is large enough to encompass the divine communicative intention. The ‘extra’ of divine discourse – what God is doing with his human authors’ words in addition to what they were doing – best comes to light when we read each text of the Bible not only in the context of redemptive history but also in light of the canonical whole. Old and New Testaments together make up a unified divine discourse. The canon is the textual counterpart of redemptive-history. It is only when we read the plain sense of the human authors in canonical context that we discern the divinely intended ‘plain canonical sense’, together with its ‘plain canonical referent’: Jesus Christ.

Apollos: ‘the way of God more accurately’ Neither of my first two case studies painted a particularly flattering picture of the biblical scholar. This one does. The episode of Apollos receiving further instruction

35. Poythress, ‘The Presence of God’, p. 98. 36. Robert Louis Wilken, ‘In Defense of Allegory’, MoTh 14.2 (1998), pp. 201, 209.


Theological Theology

from Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:24–28 represents to my mind what is perhaps the best biblical example of how exegetes and systematic theologians can fruitfully interrelate. (1) Exegetical Notes: Going Deeper Apollos is ‘one of those fascinating characters in early Christianity who we wish we could get to know better’.37 What we do know is tantalizing. Luke describes Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, as ‘an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures’ (Acts 18:24), clearly a man with ‘exegetical skill’.38 We are further told that he was ‘fervent in spirit’ and ‘taught accurately [akribos] the things concerning Jesus’ even though he too, like the twelve disciples we have just considered, knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). Given Apollos’s textual competence, spiritual fervour, and accurate teaching of Jesus, why was there any need for further instruction? Why did Priscilla and Aquila have to take him aside to explain ‘the way of God more accurately [akribesteron]’ (Acts  18:26)? Ernst Haenchen thinks Luke has contradicted himself: if Apollos taught accurately, he required no further instruction; if he required further instruction, he did not teach accurately.39 Luke Timothy Johnson believes that the overall purpose of the passage is to demonstrate ‘how the Gentile mission emerged in continuity with the Jewish church in Jerusalem’, and suggests that, on this scenario, Apollos is ‘a helpful but secondary participant in the messianic movement’.40 If being ‘competent in the Scriptures’ meant using them christologically, to prove Jesus was the Messiah41 – which is what the church asked him to do in deploying him to Achaia (Acts  18:27–28) – then what exactly did Priscilla and Aquila add to make Apollos’s teaching concerning Jesus ‘more accurate’? Did they nuance, correct or supplement his stock of knowledge? Any answer must remain speculative to some degree, as should Jaroslav Pelikan’s suggestion that the incident shows how important Luke thought it was for the church to have

37. N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone. Part Two, Chapters 13–28 (London and Louisville, KY: SPCK and Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 107. 38. Richard I. Pervo, Acts. Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009), p. 459. 39. Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971) p. 555. 40. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 335. See also Käsemann’s suggestion that the overall context of the passage concerns the reception of representatives of fringe movements into the ‘one holy catholic’ church (‘The Disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus’, Essays on New Testament Themes [London: SCM, 1964], pp. 136–48). 41. Haenchen observes that Apollos had the gift of the Spirit ‘by which the hidden Christian meaning of the Old Testament is uncovered’ (Acts, p. 550).

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correct doctrine: ‘Such seriousness about doctrine may be seen as underlying the priorities in the normative description of the primitive community of believers after Pentecost: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine [didache]” (Acts 2:42).’42 (2) TIS as Advanced Grammar: Ontology and the Travail of Exegesis We cannot say with certainty what Apollos lacked. He had been ‘instructed [katechemenos] in the way of the Lord . . . though he knew only the baptism of John’ (Acts 18:25). It is likely that Apollos, like the disciples we examined previously, had not heard about the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The challenge for any explanation of what Apollos needed to learn is to make good on the contrast between ‘accurately’ and ‘more accurately’. I have two suggestions for how one might view the teaching of Priscilla and Aquila as going ‘deeper’. These two ways also recall us to the relationship of biblical studies and systematic theology. While I do not claim that the following interpretation is historically accurate, I think it fits the canonical text and the redemptive-historical context. My first suggestion, surprisingly enough, has to do with grammar. Like exegetes, theologians want to clarify the grammar of the text, though they do so on a deeper level. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote: ‘Essence is expressed by grammar. . . . Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar).’43 Implied in what we say about things is what we think these things are. Our grammatical analysis of biblical discourse is theologically incomplete until we have spelled out its ontological implications. Anything else ultimately results in an abbreviated interpretation. Apollos taught accurately ‘the story of Jesus’,44 but he did not fully understand what it was about (i.e., its ontological and soteriological significance). Historians cannot simply describe what Jesus said and did, for example, without assuming something about his nature and identity. Is it possible that Priscilla and Aquila gave Apollos a crash course in ‘advanced grammar’ (i.e., the ontology of the risen Christ)? (3) TIS and Priscilla and Aquila’s Thicker Description The second possibility is that Priscilla and Aquila told Apollos about all the things we have discussed thus far: that the Bible is the living address of God, that ‘method’ takes us only so far and that faith takes us further, and that we are in a new stage of redemptive history marked by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Here too we must acknowledge a degree of uncertainty, yet of this I am

42. Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005), p. 202. 43. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 3rd edn (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 116. 44. F. F. Bruce’s translation of τὰ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ (The Acts of the Apostles [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951], p. 351).


Theological Theology

sure: whatever they told Apollos enabled him to give a ‘thicker’ description of the Bible’s meaning. In the Interpreter’s House there are many floors, and there is definitely a place for the lexical, grammatical and historical work of biblical scholars. However, to limit biblical interpretation to the world behind the text, or to the semantic surface of the text, yields interpretations that are too thin, theologically speaking, because they limit ‘history’ to the past (rather than viewing redemptive-history as the context of present readers) and ‘grammar’ to the syntactical (rather than the ontological). Interpretations are likewise too thin if they attend only to the original context. For, if the canon is a divine work, we need to relate parts of the divine discourse to the whole. It is not a matter of choosing to do one thing rather than the other, but of recognizing how they are related. We can give an accurate description of what the human authors said by attending to the original context, but we give ‘more accurate’ (because thicker) description of what God is saying in Scripture by reading it in canonical context. Paul Ricoeur spoke of a hermeneutical arc that proceeds from pre-understanding to a transformed understanding via what he called the ‘detour’ of criticism. There are myriad critical approaches (e.g., source, form, redaction, etc.) that provide explanations of this or that aspect of the text. In Ricoeur’s hermeneutical scheme, ‘explanation develops understanding’ and ‘understanding . . . envelopes explanation’.45 If we substitute ‘exegesis’ and ‘theology’ for ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation’, we get an interesting variation of Ricoeur’s formula: biblical studies is the necessary passage (I will not say ‘detour’!) in the journey towards theological understanding, yet to stop short of theological understanding is to succumb to short-circuited exegesis.

Conclusion: One Vocation in Two Ventures At least one part of my pet theory holds true: the confusion that characterizes textual interpretation in general has seeped into biblical interpretation as well. Students today are at the mercy of competing methods, philosophies, cultural forces and politics – denominational and otherwise. Emotions run high over how rightly to construe, and handle, God’s word. In the sixth century, Christians literally fought to the death over whether Christ has one nature or two.46 The church today does not need more internecine conflict, especially over Nicaea and the rightness of reading the Bible with trinitarian presuppositions. Nor should the seminary be

45. ‘Explanation and Understanding’, in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of his Work (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 165. 46. See Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

20. Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture


host to rivalries between biblical studies and systematic theology. The seminary is a place to form people to handle God’s word historically, literarily and theologically, not a place where intelligent armies clash by night. (1) The Vocation of the Interpreter: Towards a Definition of TIS Each of the three sections above has focused on the distinct characteristics that make TIS an exception to Vanhoozer’s rule about developments in the academy and society showing up in the way we interpret the Bible. Ontology: other approaches to text do not focus on divine authorship. Cosmology: other interpretive approaches do not read in canonical and redemptive-historical context. Teleology: other interpretive approaches do not have as their end participation in the drama of redemption or living to God in communion with others. And, though other interpretative approaches, like Ricoeur’s, seek greater ontological clarification as to what their texts are about, no other approach focuses on what God is doing in Christ through the Spirit to renew creation. TIS is interpretation oriented to rightly understanding, receiving and responding to the divine discourse in the biblical work. TIS resembles interpretation in general only to the extent that it, too, is interested in the worlds behind, in, and in front of the text. However, what distinguishes TIS from other interpretive approaches is the eschatological reality of God’s word and the ‘strange new world’ beneath, beside and above the text that is its object. The vocation of the theological interpreter of Scripture is to bear true witness in everything that she says and does to everything that God is saying and doing in and through the biblical text. Understanding God’s word is the hope and glory of TIS, and it involves coming to know not only the words but also the thing – or rather, the divine person – these words are ultimately about. As we have seen, this is a multi-level endeavour that requires the collaboration rather than competition of biblical scholars and systematic theologians. (2) An Interdisciplinary Partnership in the Gospel TIS means examining not only what the text says but also what it talks about. Exegesis requires the linguistic, literary and historical sensibilities and skills that are part and parcel of grammatical-historical understanding. Theology adds to these a broader historical context (i.e., a unified redemptive history), a broader literary context (i.e., a unified canon), and a grammar of a higher order, namely, the ability conceptually to elaborate the ontology implicit in biblical discourse. We need exegesis and theology alike in order to appreciate the length, width, height and depth of the divine discourse spoken through the prophets and apostles.


Theological Theology

Both biblical studies and systematic theology contribute to TIS as witnesses, in various ways and on different levels, to the meaning of the human/divine biblical discourse. Is the relationship one-sided: is it all about exegetes giving to the theologians? No, it is a mutually edifying relationship: ‘Exegesis is served by dogmatics, whose task is to look for systematic connections between the constituent parts of the Christian gospel, and to attempt their orderly and well-propositioned exposition.’47 The Ephesus Chronicles suggest that the relationship between Paul (through his proxies Priscilla and Aquila) and Apollos represents a possible model for the relationship between biblical studies and systematic theology. Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, is impressed by Priscilla and Aquila’s willingness to help Apollos excel as a teacher of Scripture even more. This is a picture of a cooperative rather than competitive relationship. Paul planted, and Apollos watered (1 Cor. 3:6). Applying this to the relationship of biblical studies and systematics, we might say this: where exegetes plough the historical background, prepare the textual ground and plant, theological interpreters provide streams of living water, and theologians reap the harvest for the church today. Biblical scholars are by training primarily inclined to listen for the voice of human authors in historical context. The theologian’s primary task is to understand the text, its subject matter, and the community of its interpreters in light of the divine discourse, interpreted in redemptive-historical and canonical context. To read theologically is to view authors, texts, subject matter, and readers alike in relation to God and their respective roles in the drama of redemption. Biblical scholars explore and exposit the length and width, systematic theologians the breadth and depth (so to speak) of God’s word written. The church needs both disciplines working together in gospel partnership. Both biblical scholars and systematic theologians are witnesses to the word of God, joined at the hip of exegesis itself.

47. Webster, ‘Jesus Christ’, p. 61.

Chapter 21 D O E S H I ST O R IC A L C R I T IC I SM E X I ST ? A C O N T R I BU T IO N T O D E BAT E O N T H E T H E O L O G IC A L I N T E R P R E TAT IO N O F S C R I P T U R E Francis Watson

A widely-felt demand for a ‘theological interpretation of scripture’ is a sign of hope in today’s theological landscape. It is not enough – it is rightly said – for Scripture to be subject to various explanatory procedures supposed to constitute the practice of ‘interpretation’. Over and above these procedures, we must be attentive to the fundamental orientation of interpretative practice, the goal towards which it is directed; and that orientation or goal might be, or should be, a theological one. In engaging with the texts, a theological interpretation of Scripture would at the same time participate in the endeavour of Christians to speak in an orderly and reasoned way about God, and about humanity and the world in the light of God. It is not my purpose here to describe how a theological interpretation of Scripture would proceed. Suffice it to say that recent work in this area (I include my own) is characterized (1) by a set of core concerns – with Scripture as privileged testimony to the being and action of the triune God, with its canonical form and ecclesial context, and, in reflexive mode, with hermeneutical insights that enable a reshaping of interpretative priorities; but also (2) by considerable diversity in the ways these core concerns come to expression. My concern here is with none of these issues as such, but with the relationship between theological interpretation and the ‘mainstream’ interpretative practice of accredited biblical scholars, employed by academic institutions to engage in teaching and research. It is fair to say that this relationship is fraught with antagonisms and tensions – in some cases no doubt necessary and fruitful ones. Of the unnecessary and unfruitful ways in which debate is often conducted, I shall focus on one in particular. It is widely assumed that the biblical scholarship characteristic of the modern era may properly be labelled ‘historical criticism’. One may welcome the dominance of historical-critical scholarship or one may deplore it, but few seem to doubt it. In spite of this consensus, my aim here is to detach the label ‘historical criticism’ from the ongoing reality of interpretative practice. I shall argue not only that this label is misleading and limiting but also that it systematically distorts the reality it 307


Theological Theology

claims to represent. ‘Historical criticism’ is to be understood not as a neutral characterization of modern interpretative practice but as a rhetorical figure mobilized for transparent ideological ends. All references here to historical criticism or historical-critical scholarship are therefore to the rhetorical figure or signifier, not to the variegated reality of interpretative practice itself. If that is the case, then the tense relationship between theological interpretation of Scripture and historical-critical scholarship appears in a new perspective. Rather than accepting a marginal status on the fringes of mainstream biblical scholarship, theological interpreters should contest the definition of the ‘mainstream’ that places them there. Theological concerns are evident in much of what counts as normal interpretative practice, weaving themselves into the texture of whatever is said about issues of text and translation, competing exegetical options, broader contextual factors, circumstances of composition and the like. The element that the theological interpreter rightly wishes to highlight is already there in biblical exegesis per se: implicit rather than explicit, perhaps, sometimes poorly articulated, but by no means simply absent. Insofar as ‘historical criticism’ insists on that absence, it speaks not for the discipline as actually practised but for a vacuous secularizing ideology

Historical-Criticism as Novum Biblical scholarship is almost as old as the Christian Bible itself. When, in the third century CE, Origen assembles the various Greek translations of Hebrew Scripture in parallel columns, along with the Hebrew text itself, this is obviously a work of scholarship.1 That is also the case in the following century when Eusebius of Caesarea develops his remarkable set of ‘canons’ for the study of gospel parallels.2 Origen’s Hexapla and Eusebius’s canons are ‘scholarly’ in the sense that they require specialized knowledge and technical competence beyond the scope of most church

1. Extensive if fragmentary evidence about the Hexapla is gathered in Frederick Field, Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt, sive Veterum Interpretum Graecorum in totum Vetus Testamentum Fragmenta (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875). Work on an updated edition is under way, under the auspices of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies. The Hexapla highlights the fact that the biblical text is not simply a given but must be established before it can be interpreted. 2. Along with Eusebius’s explanatory ‘Letter to Carpianus’, the ten ‘canons’ are most conveniently available in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), pp. 84–9, in conjunction with this edition of the texts themselves. Designed for incorporation into four-gospel codices, this system of enumeration and classification resembles a modern synopsis in enabling close reading of gospel parallels and attention to an individual gospel’s distinct characteristics.

21. Does Historical Criticism Exist?


leaders or members of the laity. They are not, however, ‘purely academic’ in the pejorative sense, exercises in pedantry and obfuscation wholly irrelevant to the concerns of ordinary readers. They reflect the conviction that certain texts are so significant that no effort should be spared in establishing what they actually say and how they relate to one another – precisely so as to foster good and responsible reading practices. At the end of the fourth century, Augustine devotes much of the second book of his great hermeneutical treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, to the various scholarly procedures relevant to biblical interpretation.3 According to Augustine, the ideal interpreter should study the biblical texts in their original languages.4 Manuscripts and translations should be subjected to careful text-critical scrutiny, in order to recover a text corresponding as closely as possible to the original.5 The interpreter should draw on the resources of history, logic and other non-theological sciences.6 If there is a danger that purely scholarly issues might become an end in themselves, Augustine seems unaware of it. For him, the true end or telos of biblical interpretation is to further the love of God and the neighbour, and that is also the end or telos of human life itself.7 Precisely because biblical interpretation is so important, a wide range of intellectual resources must be brought to bear on it. Elsewhere, in his De Consensu Evangelistarum, Augustine twice turns his attention to the question of the relationship between the synoptic gospels.8 Ignoring the age-old tradition that the Gospel of Mark is based on the preaching of Peter, Augustine claims that it is an abridgment of Matthew and possibly also dependent

3. For modern editions and secondary literature to 1994, see Lewis Ayres, ‘Bibliography of De doctrina christiana’, in Duane W. H. Arnold and Pamela Bright (eds), De doctrina christiana: A Classic of Western Culture (Notre Dame, IN and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), pp.  247–60. Among the many English translations are: NPNF II (1st series), repr. (Grand Rapids; MI: Eerdmans, 1993), pp.  515–621, with a helpful outline (pp. 535–6) and extensive indices; and Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. Roger P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). 4. De doct. ii.11.16–12.18. 5. Ibid., ii.13.19–15.22. 6. Ibid., ii.25.38–42.63. 7. Ibid., i.36.40: ‘Quisquis igitur Scripturas divinas vel quamlibet earum partem intellexisse sibi videtur, ita ut eo intellectu non aedificet istam geminam caritatem Dei et proximi, nondum intellexit.’ Augustine’s formulation of this hermeneutical principle is derived from Matthew 21:35–40. 8. De cons. i.2.3–4; iv.10.11 (CSEL 43, ed. Francis Weihrich, Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1904; English trans. in NPNF VI [1st series], repr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 65–236).


Theological Theology

on Luke.9 If he is wrong about this, as he probably is, it is not because he is premodern. On the contrary, his solution to the synoptic problem was taken up – with insufficient acknowledgment – by J. J. Griesbach, an archetypal representative of Enlightenment biblical scholarship, and it has its defenders to this day.10 Still more widely discussed is the churchly tradition that Augustine rejects Mark’s dependence on Peter, first attested by Papias as preserved in Eusebius.11 While the scholarship of the modern era engages with such matters in a different idiom to Augustine’s and with a different set of priorities, the pre-modern genealogy of many interpretative issues should not be overlooked. Yet, we are often told, our biblical scholarship is not just different from the scholarship known to Augustine, as it obviously is, but fundamentally different. Our scholarship is modern, theirs was pre-modern. Our scholarship is critical, theirs was precritical. Our scholarship is oriented primarily towards historical reconstruction, theirs towards the confirmation of dogma. Our scholarship is nonconfessional and feels at home in the secularity of the modern university; their scholarship (such as it was) finds its natural habitat within the church and its various competing orthodoxies. In a word: we practise something we call historical criticism, whereas they did not. Historical criticism is also known as historicalcritical scholarship or the historical-critical method, but the slightly varying terminology is concerned to make the same point, which is that our biblical scholarship is fundamentally different to what preceded it.12 Fundamentally different, and also fundamentally superior? The signifier ‘historical criticism’ is usually accompanied by a claim to superiority, but it need not be. Historical criticism is invoked almost as often by its opponents as by its

9. That Augustine can envisage possible source-critical theories is evident from (1) the claim that the later evangelist was not ignorant of the earlier one (De cons. i.2.4); (2) the reference to Mark as breviator of Matthew (i.2.4); (3) the substitution of a Matthew–Mark link for the traditional Peter–Mark one (i.2.4); (4) the decision that Mark’s relationship to both Matthew and Luke is, on empirical grounds, ‘more probable’ than the theory of a relationship to Matthew alone (iv.10.11). These points are played down or passed over by Hank J. de Jonge, who denies all source-critical interests to Augustine (‘Augustine on the Interrelations of the Gospels’, The Four Gospels (FS Frans Neirynck), vol. 3, ed. Frans Van Segbroeck (Louvain: Louvain University Press/Peeters, 1992), pp. 2409–17). 10. Johann J. Griesbach, Commentatio qua Marci Evangelium totum e Matthaei et Lucae commentariis decerptum esse monstratur (1789–90, 1794), repr. in J. J. Griesbach: Synoptic and Text-Critical Studies 1776–1976, Bernard Orchard and Thomas R. W. Longstaff (eds), SNTSMS (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 74–135. 11. See Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, English trans. (London: SCM Press, 2000). 12. Thus, in Werner G. Kümmel’s The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems (English trans. London: SCM, 1973), the investigation (Erforschung) of the New Testament’s problems only gets seriously underway in the German universities of the late eighteenth century – inspired, allegedly, by the radical anti-Christianity of English Deism.

21. Does Historical Criticism Exist?


defenders. Its opponents may announce the demise of the historical-critical method or the superiority of pre-critical exegesis, but they agree with its defenders (1) that ‘historical criticism’ is an appropriate label for the normal biblical scholarship of the modern era, and (2) that this biblical scholarship operates on a quite different basis to earlier modes of biblical interpretation.13 The evaluation is contested, but the appropriateness of the signifier to the phenomenon signified is not. In that limited sense, ‘historical criticism’ is neutral. It simply affixes a label to a phenomenon and leaves open the question whether one will be for it or against it. In a more important sense, however, the signifier is far from neutral. It serves an ideological role; it functions as a polemical device. As a claim about the nature of modern biblical scholarship, ‘historical criticism’ is a declaration of war against modes of interpretation ascribed to ‘the church’, and it actively solicits the negative reaction it often engenders. Historical criticism is anti-dogmatic in tenor, and it is therefore anti-ecclesial insofar as the church remains the natural habitat of inherited dogma. Within a church context, historical criticism – once again, the signifier not the reality – is a favoured weapon of modernizers or modernists in their struggles with conservatives or traditionalists.14 It is an assertion of modernity, of accommodation with secularity, of participation in a world come of age which has outgrown confessional certainties.15

13. Hans Frei has been especially influential in this regard; see his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT and Yale, MI: Yale University Press, 1974). 14. This is especially clear in the work of James Barr, one of historical-criticism’s foremost ideologues. Thus Barr allows his welcoming of literary approaches to biblical texts to be qualified by anxiety lest these should ‘have a reactionary effect towards the whole structure of historical biblical criticism’, pandering to ‘the prejudices of all those who out of religious motives are hostile to historical criticism’ (The Bible in the Modern World (London: SCM Press, 1973), p. 65). ‘Such a study is in some danger of having a reactionary effect and glossing over what has been accomplished by the historical-critical study of the Bible’ (p. 73; compare John Barton, ‘People of the Book? The Authority of the Bible in Christianity’, (London: SPCK, 1988), pp.  67–8). For Barr, ‘historical criticism’ consists both in modern views about the composition and referentiality of biblical books and in the offence this creates within the church’s ‘conservative wing’ (The Bible in the Modern World, p.  2). Asserting and defending it is an essentially political act. 15. Thus Heikki Räisänen can conclude his book, Beyond New Testament Theology (London: SCM Press, 1990), with a challenge: ‘Will [biblical scholars] remain guardians of cherished confessional traditions, anxious to provide modern man with whatever normative guidance they still manage to squeeze out of the sacred texts? . . .’ (p. 141). While Räisänen concedes that theological engagement with the New Testament ‘may be a legitimate part of self-consciously ecclesial theology’, he insists that ‘those of us who work in a broader academic context should abandon such an enterprise’ (p. xviii; italics in original). It is necessary to insist on this distinction because, again and again, when ‘historical study of the Bible is pursued’ (as it should be), ‘a normative element has intruded itself into the historical work’ (p. 30).


Theological Theology

For example, it may be said that modern historical-critical scholarship has shown that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity has no true exegetical basis within the biblical texts. The qualifiers ‘modern’ and ‘historical-critical’ are essential to the rhetoric of such a claim. Without them, it would lose its aura of irrefutability. The claim itself is largely false. If one studies the writings of the great patristic architects of the doctrine of the Trinity (as most historical-critical scholars do not), one may well be impressed by the range and depth of the exegetical basis that is found in the Scriptures of both Testaments. At the very least this is an issue worth discussing.16 Yet to invoke ‘historical-critical scholarship’ is to foreclose any such discussion. It is to claim that the issue has already been settled once and for all, and that there is no point in reopening it; any who seek to do so are obscurantists nostalgic for the haven of unquestioned tradition. One detects here the unacknowledged influence of a certain Protestant appeal to sola scriptura, which operates on the tendentious assumption that the church is the place where the church’s own scripture is systematically misunderstood. As a signifier, then, historical criticism is typically employed for polemical and ideological ends.17 It can be applied to particular issues such as the doctrine of the trinity, but it can also identify the entire horizon within which scholarly biblical interpretation is supposed to take place. Modern historical-critical scholarship is characterized, it is said, by a concern to restore the biblical texts to their original historical contexts, interpreting them within the social world shared by the original author and readers. In this view, the exegete is regarded solely as a historian. The ideological function of historical criticism is less obvious here, but it is present nonetheless in the construal of the ‘original historical context’ as fundamentally different from our present-day context, and in the marginalizing of questions of ongoing theological significance. Here and elsewhere, the signifier ‘historical criticism’ is at variance with the ongoing practice of biblical interpretation. In reality, this signifier proves to be a reductive and inaccurate description of the multifarious interpretative practice it

16. See my articles on Johannine and Pauline foundations for this doctrine: Francis Watson, ‘Trinity and Community: A Reading of John 17’, IJST 1 (1999), pp. 168–84; idem. ‘The Triune Divine Identity: Reflections on Pauline God-Language, in Disagreement with J. D. G. Dunn’, JSNT 80 (2000), pp. 99–124. 17. While in some contemporary renditions the term ‘historical’ may drop out of use, the polemical point is, if anything, heightened. In his ‘Manifesto for Biblical Studies’, Roland Boer writes: ‘What we need to maintain . . . as a necessary element in biblical criticism is a suspicion of its [the Bible’s] use and appropriation by the church, along with a continuing suspicion of the theological tendencies of the texts themselves and the act of biblical interpretation’ (Secularism and Biblical Studies, ed. Roland Boer (London: Equinox, 2010), p.  30). Here the term ‘criticism’ is glossed as generalized suspicion of church, text and interpreters, whereas ‘historical’ has disappeared – perhaps because actual history might undermine or complexify the claim that ‘[t]he Bible and its use must be held accountable for its myriad justifications of oppression and exploitation, past and present’ (p. 38).

21. Does Historical Criticism Exist?


claims to represent. The practice deviates from the ideology in its attitude both towards history and towards criticism. I shall consider each of these in turn.

Rethinking History and Exegesis A certain construal of history and its role in biblical interpretation is fundamental for historical criticism. Indeed, this expression is synonymous with the claim that we should adopt a historical approach to the biblical texts. Theoretical reflection on what it might mean to adopt a historical approach is conspicuously absent, however. When one does engage in such reflection, major discrepancies immediately come to light – of which I shall here identify three. 1. Like literary critics, art historians and musicologists, biblical exegetes are concerned with the interpretation of texts. Their interpretations are likely to be historically informed, in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent, but that does not make the interpreter a historian without remainder. The explanation lies in a certain duality within the phenomenon of the text. On the one hand, all texts retain their rootedness in a specific original context. A text has to come from somewhere. On the other hand, all texts possess an internal structure or logic that can be studied in relative abstraction from their historical circumstances of origin. Insofar as he or she is concerned with the immanent workings of the text, the exegete is not acting as a historian but precisely as an exegete. The exegete is a historian only on a part-time basis.18 2. Historical criticism claims that interpretation of a text within its historical circumstances of origin serves to distance or alienate that text from the presentday reader.19 In the actual practice of biblical interpretation, however, historical 18. Compare the statement of this point by John Barton: ‘A great deal of their [biblical scholars’] time is not spent in reconstructing history . . . and to call biblical criticism the historical-critical method skews our awareness of this . . . A great good would be served by reverting to the older term “biblical criticism” ’ (The Nature of Biblical Criticism, Louisville, KY and London: WJK Press, 2007, p.  53). Unfortunately Barton’s minimalistic biblical criticism is limited to (1) ‘attention to semantics’, (2) ‘awareness of genre’, and (3) ‘bracketing out of questions of truth’ (p. 58). 19. It is with just this point that Karl Barth announced his arrival on the theological scene, in the Preface to the first edition of his Römerbrief (dated August 1918): ‘Paulus hat als Sohn seiner Zeit zu seinen Zeitgenossen geredet. Aber viel wichtiger als diese Wahrheit ist die andere, dass er als Prophet und Apostel des Gottesreiches zu allen Menschen aller Zeiten redet. Die Unterschiede von einst und jetzt, dort und hier, wollen beachtet sein. Aber der Zweck der Beachtung kann nur die Erkenntnis sein, dass diese Unterschiede im Wesen der Dinge keine Bedeutung haben. Die historisch-kritische Methode der Bibelforschung hat ihr Recht . . .’ (Der Römerbrief, Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1922, p. V). Barth supposes that, when the historical-critical method produces a Paul who speaks to his own contemporaries, its focus on differences will tend to obstruct access to the voice of the prophet and apostle who speaks to all.


Theological Theology

contextualization may have the opposite effect, bringing an apparently alien text close to us by disclosing a situation that our own experience of the world enables us to recognize and understand. The past is not purely different from the present, for in the historical sphere difference or distance always coexists with a proximity stemming from a shared humanity. Biblical interpretation operates within a dialectic of distance and proximity. Where ‘historical criticism’ is invoked to absolutize distance, the reality of interpretative practice is distorted. In an effective piece of historical contextualization, the text becomes vividly and poignantly alive. 3. According to historical criticism and its ideologues, a historical approach to biblical interpretation is worked out by way of a limited agenda of issues. In addressing certain questions about provenance, original purpose, social context and so on, one works through the protocols of that agenda. But that is to imagine that a historical context is simply given in advance, that it is a purely natural entity rather than an interpretative construct. In reality, a text can have as many historical contexts as it has interpreters.20 A historical context may be defined broadly or narrowly, it may or may not incorporate other related texts or artefacts, it may be oriented towards political or social or literary or religious factors. Even where questions of provenance prove unanswerable, as they often do, other modes of historical contextualization will still be available. A historically informed interpretation might also take in the subsequent contexts impacted or created by the text in question; it is arbitrary to restrict context to what precedes the text. The claim that a historical approach represents the sole path of interpretative virtue overlooks the constructed nature of all historical knowledge.21

20. As Murray Rae notes, ‘historians always sift and organize the data according to their own belief-laden conceptions of what is going on’ – conceptions shaped in part by shifting research fashions in their own and related fields (History and Hermeneutics, London and New York: T&T Clark, 2005, p. 91). 21. A symptom of this misunderstanding may be seen in the frequency with which the historically-critical attach the words ‘purely’ or ‘strictly’ to their demand that biblical interpretation should be ‘historical’ in orientation. According to William Wrede, it should by now (i.e. in the year 1897) be obvious that ‘New Testament theology must be considered and practised as a purely historical discipline’ (‘The Tasks and Methods of “New Testament Theology” ’, English trans. in Robert Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology, Studies in Biblical Theology (London: SCM Press, 1973), pp. 68–116, esp. p. 69; italics added, as in the citations that follow). This purity is constituted negatively by the fact that ‘New Testament theology has its goal simply in itself, and is totally indifferent to all dogma and systematic theology’ (p.  69). Corresponding to ‘the purely historical view of the discipline’ is the researcher’s ‘pure disinterested concern for knowledge, which accepts every compelling result’ (p. 70). History is for Wrede the privileged site of this purity, the transparent medium through which reality manifests itself, compellingly and with no active intervention from the recipient.

21. Does Historical Criticism Exist?


Historical criticism is a misnomer. Modern biblical interpretation is historically informed, but it is not exclusively historical in orientation. Even if it were, there are many different ways in which a historical orientation might be worked out in practice. And there is no reason to suppose that assigning a text to a historical context will distance it from the present. The opposite is more likely to be the case: history can serve to bring a distant past close again. If some of that closeness is illusory, the element of illusion is inseparable from normal historiographical practice.

The Radical as Norm Historical criticism is characterized both as exclusively historical and as critical. The term ‘criticism’ originates in the discipline now known as ‘textual criticism’, which seeks to recover the original text from the diverse manuscript evidence, purging it of its later corruptions. Criticism here is essentially restorative. In the nineteenth century a bifurcation occurs between a ‘higher’ and a ‘lower’ criticism, as it is recognized that secondary elements exist even in the oldest text-forms available to us. Thus, among the newly differentiated pentateuchal documents, the Priestly source is deemed to be secondary in relation to the Yahwistic and Elohistic ones. These secondary elements are investigated by ‘higher criticism’, and the higher/lower terminology reflects not the relative value of the respective procedures but the greater or lesser age of the materials with which they are concerned. Higher criticism is simply an extension of the traditional textcritical concern for the recovery of texts in their original form. In its nineteenthcentury usage, then, the compound adjective ‘historical-critical’ denotes an orientation both towards an original historical context and towards textual restoration. More recently, ordinary English usage of the term ‘critical’ has supplanted the specific reference to textual restoration. ‘Critical scholarship’ is scholarship that is critical of received opinion about the biblical texts and their significance. Everything must now be tested, and much must be rejected. A willingness to reject comes to be valued as a hallmark of this new critical spirit. The most critical are those who reject the most. Thus it is that the origins of historical-critical scholarship are ascribed to freethinking figures such as Hermann Samuel Reimarus, an eighteenth-century Hamburg schoolmaster who has been viewed ever since Schweitzer as the founder of the so-called ‘quest of the historical Jesus’. For historical criticism, figures such as Reimarus, Strauss and indeed Schweitzer himself serve as benchmarks, inspiring examples of what it is to be purely historical and fearlessly critical. For our purposes, the case of Reimarus is a particularly interesting one. Reimarus owes his twentieth-century reputation entirely to Albert Schweitzer, who not only places him at the beginning of his history of life-of-Jesus research but even incorporates him into his original German title (Von Reimarus zu


Theological Theology

Wrede).22 Three main factors have influenced the star role assigned to Reimarus; none of them has much to do with historical reality. First, Reimarus was German. In the embarrassingly bombastic opening paragraphs of his work, Schweitzer views the life-of-Jesus project as a unique expression of the German spirit.23 The project therefore requires a German founder. Second, Reimarus argues that Jesus saw himself as a militant son-of-David-type Messiah, in line with the alleged Jewish expectations of the time. He can therefore serve as the inspired forerunner of Schweitzer’s own definitive solution to the mystery of Jesus’ life, which he too finds in Jewish eschatology.24 Third, Reimarus is highly critical of Christian doctrine. It is no matter that he merely rehashes older Socinian arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity and deistic arguments against Jesus’ resurrection; for Schweitzer it is enough that Reimarus was above all critical. As reconstructed by Schweitzer, Reimarus can therefore exemplify in his own person the essence of the historical-critical project. His is an ideological role. The ideology conceals a quite different history. Schweitzer’s work is concerned not just with ‘the historical Jesus’ but, more precisely, with ‘the life of Jesus’. His reference is to a distinct literary genre, that of the life of Christ, based on a harmony or co-ordination of the gospel narratives. If the co-ordination is correctly carried out, it was assumed, the result is the life-history of Christ. Thus in 1699 Jean Leclerc

22. Albert Schweitzer, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1906); idem., Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 1913; English trans., The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (London: A. & C. Black, 1910). The work has three different titles because by 1913 Schweitzer could no longer conclude his story with Wrede, and because of the English translator’s inspired creation of the ‘quest’ metaphor. On this see my article,‘Eschatology and the Twentieth Century: On the Reception of Schweitzer in English’, in Eschatologie/Eschatology : The Sixth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium: Eschatology in Old Testament, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, eds Hans-Joachim Eckstein, Chrisi Landmesser and Hermann Lichtenberger (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2011), pp. 331–47; pp. 331–2. 23. ‘Wenn einst unsere Kultur als etwas Angeschlossenes vor der Zukunft liegt, steht die deutsche Theologie als ein grösstes und einzigartiges Ereignis in dem Geistesleben unserer Zeit da. Das lebendige Nebeneinander und Ineinander von philosophischem Denken, kritischem Empfinden, historischer Anschauung und religiösem Fühlen, ohne welches keine tiefe Theologie möglich ist, findet sich so nur in dem deutschen Gemüt. Und die grösste Tat der deutschen Theologie ist die Erforschung des Lebens Jesu. Was sie hier geschaffen, ist für das religiöse Denken der Zukunft grundlegend und verbindlich.’ (Schweitzer, Geschichte, p. 1). 24. To cite now the English translation: ‘Reimarus was the first, after eighteen centuries of misconception, to know what eschatology really was. Then theology lost sight of it again, and it was not until a lapse of more than a hundred years that it came in view of eschatology once more, now in its true form’ (Schweitzer, Quest, p.  23). After a century and more of forgetfulness (not to mention those eighteen previous centuries of misconception), theology rediscovers Reimarus’s alleged insight above all in the person of Schweitzer himself.

21. Does Historical Criticism Exist?


published his Harmonia Evangelica, cui subjecta est Historia Christi ex Quatuor Evangeliis concinnata – an Evangelical Harmony, to which is attached the History of Christ assembled out of the four gospels. A similar concern with literary coordination as a means to historical reconstruction is evident in the harmony of Bernard Lamy, published in the same year.25 This harmonizer’s intention is not just to reconcile narratives per se, but to reconstruct ‘the life of Jesus Christ our Lord, that is, the evangelical history of what he did and what he taught’.26 In the four gospels, we find that the contents (membra) of this history have been ‘torn apart and scattered’, so that ‘it is only possible to reassemble it from them if they are gathered together and restored to a single form, each in its own proper time and place’.27 For Lamy, the harmonist’s primary concern is with the vera series actuum et sermonum Domini, the ‘true sequence of the Lord’s deeds and words’, which may differ very significantly from the sequence found in individual gospels.28 This concern with the life of Jesus persists into the early twentieth century. It determines much of the Leben-Jesu-Forschung surveyed by Schweitzer, who himself shares the late nineteenth-century consensus that the ‘true sequence’ is most faithfully preserved by Mark. This tradition of critical scholarship has deep roots in the misnamed ‘precritical’ era; Reimarus’s sensational deistic gospel criticism is at best a minor contributory factor. This point is intended not to enhance the standing of life-of-Jesus research, but to indicate how the aura of radical chic to which it sometimes lays claim – from Reimarus to the ‘Jesus Seminar’ – has been manufactured. Iconoclastic assault on cherished beliefs is not a constitutive element in modern biblical interpretation. When it happens, it is precisely biblical scholars who are at the forefront of attempts to limit the damage: thus Reimarus’s anti-Christian tale of a misguided Jesus and his fraudulent disciples was demolished with ease by Johann Salomo Semler, perhaps the leading biblical scholar of his age.29 In other cases, the damage is illusory and the work in question marks a real contribution, modest or even illuminating, to the ongoing attempt to understand how we are and are not addressed in the biblical texts. Does historical criticism exist as anything other than a rhetorical figure, useful for ideological purposes? Naturally, the distinction between the rhetoric and the reality of interpretative practice cannot always be sharply drawn. Some scholarly work may conform, more or less, to the protocols of ‘historical criticism’. As a characterization of the field as a whole, however, ‘historical criticism’ is entirely

25. Bernard Lamy, Commentarius in Concordiam Evangelicam et Apparatus Chronologicus et Geographicus cum Praefatione in qua demonstratur veritas Evangelii – a commentary on the Evangelical Concord, with chronological and geographical apparatus and a preface in which the truth of the gospel is demonstrated. Hereafter Praefatio. 26. Ibid., p. i. 27. Ibid. 28. Ibid., p. vi. 29. J. S. Semler, Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungennanten insbesondere vom Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger (Halle: Verlag des Erziehungsinstituts, 1779).


Theological Theology

misleading. We should stop using this expression, speaking instead simply of ‘biblical interpretation’ and ‘biblical scholarship’. Words such as ‘modern’, ‘historical’ and ‘critical’ will still be usefully employed, as appropriate. But ‘historical criticism’ itself should be consigned to the lexicon of defunct terminology. It will not be missed. How would this loosening of the ties between ‘historical criticism’ and standard interpretative practice affect the project of interpreting scripture theologically? It would certainly not imply that the concern for theological interpretation is already adequately addressed in the interpretative status quo. That is plainly not the case. What it does imply is that theological interpretation need not and should not locate itself on the margins of biblical scholarship, or allow itself to be banished there by others. Historically and materially, it has every right to lay claim to the mainstream and to avail itself of the scholarly resources and disciplines to be found there. As Augustine rightly argued, an interpretation seeking to promote the love of God and neighbour has much to gain from the mildly secular disciplines lying at its disposal.30

30. It is a privilege to contribute to this volume in honour of my former Aberdeen colleague John Webster, whose challenging reframing of the doctrine of scripture and its interpretative implications I first encountered when he delivered the Scottish Journal of Theology lectures in Aberdeen in May 2001 – subsequently published as Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). John’s work derives intellectual energy and passion from the conviction that theology is a discipline sui generis that must not allow its boundaries to be dissolved in the interests of co-operation with historical or literary studies or with the social sciences. That I would myself prefer a more fluid and interactive relationship – as implied in the present argument – has much to do with different disciplinary formations, and is not to deny the considerable heuristic value of a more rigorous approach.

Chapter 22 T H E T R A N S C E N D E N C E O F A P O P HAT IC I SM A. N. Williams

One perennial feature of Christian theology – one might say, perennial temptation – is the complex of ideas known as ‘apophaticism’ (or the via negativa, if one prefers Latin). Here is a curious paradox: Christianity, a ‘religion of the book’, and a religion at whose heart lies the contention that God is Father, Spirit and Word, is – on some accounts – deeply invested in the idea that God cannot be known or described in words. This position is often cloaked in the costume of philosophical sophistication: apophaticism, it seems, is the position of the subtle and thoughtful, cataphaticism seemingly for the credulous. Some of the greatest Christian theologians and spiritual writers are seconded to the apophatic cause, reinforcing the notion that apophaticism is the province of the intellectually and spiritually advanced. Does the Christian tradition really land so heavily on the side of apophaticism, though? To answer this question, we first need more precision about what is to be understood by the latter. ‘Apophaticism’ may designate two related, yet distinct positions. First, it can signify the claim that God cannot be known at all, and hence cannot be named or described at all; call this ‘radical apophaticism’. Second, it may signify the notion that God can only be known and described in negative predicates: we can say what God is not, but these negations do not leave us with any more knowledge than that God is unlike anything else we can name or describe. Call this second position ‘moderate apophaticism’. A third category might be added (perhaps ‘lukewarm apophaticism’), which merely denotes a certain dissatisfaction with the adequacy of words to denote God, but this position can be incorporated as easily as a qualification of cataphaticism as its opposite, so we shall leave it aside for the moment. While apophaticism in any form provides a valuable caution against the temptation to glib satisfaction with human discourse about God, both moderate and radical apophaticism require a lot of explaining if they are to be reconciled with any Christian theology that insists on the primacy of the Bible, an obvious point, but one which is nevertheless often overlooked. The difficulty lies not only in the fact that canonical Scripture attests to God, but that it is on the account of orthodox theology inspired by God. The phrase ‘the Word of God’, as applied to the Bible, can be interpreted as both an objective and a subjective genitive: the word 319


Theological Theology

spoken about God and the word spoken or inspired by God. Of course, there is a long history of debate over what it means, exactly, for the Bible to be God’s word, or inspired, but if we bracket those questions for the present purposes, we still must acknowledge that scripture, if in any sense inspired by God, must be taken as truth-bearing, and as such, conveys content that is true and fitting for theology to absorb and render, and as such, content that cannot be set aside, whose value can never be minimised. Whence, then, the notion that one cannot speak of God at all, or only in negative predicates, despite the Bible’s plethora of positive predicates, images and names for God? One might answer that there is so long a theological tradition of asserting such, and by so many great luminaries of the Christian past that it cannot lightly be set aside, any more than the Bible itself can be. This response is problematic in the first instance because it sets Scripture and tradition against each other, asking that we choose between the sacred page, with its (naïve?) cataphaticism, and the tradition, with its (savant?) aphophaticism. For some, it would perhaps be easy enough to ignore tradition, on the grounds of some form of sola scriptura principle. The latter, however, proves harder to defend than has sometimes been acknowledged,1 and scripture isolated from tradition can furnish only an uncertain or sketchy base for the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ in their orthodox forms. We can however additionally question the starting assumption: what if the theological tradition is not in fact so wholly on the side of apophaticism? Space obviously prohibits my surveying the whole tradition to investigate this point here. I propose instead to examine two examples of figures who are generally read as firmly on the side of apophaticism, to show that the conventional wisdom about them is eminently questionable: the Pseudo-Denys, who could be taken as representing the philosophical/theological tradition, and Juan de la Cruz, who could be taken as representing the mystical-theological or spiritual tradition. Although these labels are themselves highly questionable,2 they point, however crudely, to the fact that we are dealing with figures of rather different style and temper, who have been treated by the standard histories as belonging to different strands of the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, both have been read as markedly apophatic and both, I would argue, as such have been misread, given the deep and rich way in which both engage with Scripture, especially its figurative language. The examination of Denys and Juan will form the prelude to a discussion of the nature of scriptural tropes and their capacity to render theological claims. Finally, I will propose the category ‘gift’ as a helpful lens through which to view Scripture, one which allows us both to make sense of Scripture’s transformative power and to transcend the polarities of ‘apophaticism’ and ‘cataphaticism’.

1. See A. N. Williams, ‘Tradition’, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 364–5. 2. I query the adequacy of such labels for Juan in ‘The Doctrine of God in San Juan de la Cruz’, MoTh (forthcoming, 2014).

22. The Transcendence of Apophaticism


The Pseudo-Denys Some of the interpretation of Denys as relentlessly apophatic seems to stem from oeuvre selectivity (or, one might say, oeuvre blindness): one can make a lot of apophatic hay out of The Mystical Theology and assert Denys as the arch-exponent of apophaticism as long as one treats this work in isolation. If we look to the oeuvre as a whole, which includes The Divine Names, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and the letters, one gets a markedly different impression of the temper of Denys’s theology.3 Here I will focus on The Divine Names, but the two hierarchies also provide ample urging towards a broader interpretation. The first chapter of The Divine Names contains plenty of statements which, if taken out of context, suit an apophatic interpretation, but all of these transfigure once they are set in context, not only of the immediately surrounding prose, but the treatise’s overarching logic. I shall focus on its first chapter, where Denys establishes the essential parameters within which he will work. Denys dismisses the idea that the truth would be set down in human words, even the plausible ones of human reasoning. The aim is to reach a union superior to anything available in the realm of discourse or intellect. The hidden divine nature transcends being and what is beyond being is beyond speech, even beyond mind (I.1, 585B–588A). Corporeal nature cannot grasp the incorporeal; God is inscrutable, beyond the reach of all our processes of reasoning. No words are adequate to the good, no intuition and no name (I.1, 588B). Thus far, it would seem the task of theology is doomed – and along with it, of course, preaching, catechesis and any form of prayer other than wordless and imageless contemplation. It would be an odd position from which to begin a treatise on the divine names, but the treatise’s future is safe, because every one of these stark statements is heavily qualified. For a start, Denys points out that he is following a scriptural principle (from 1 Cor 2.4) when he says we should not rely on human logic; the inadequacy of the latter is not only maintained in scripture, but points back to it, for it is this human inadequacy that stipulates we rely on what has been given by the Spirit. It is the power of the Spirit that grants us the union beyond any attainable by human discourse or intellect. The point, then, is not that

3. A more nuanced option is to see the Mystical Theology as ‘an apophatic corrective to the exuberant excess of the Divine Names’ [Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, ‘Introduction’ to Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 3]. Such a determination presupposes, first, that the criterion of what is enough by way of affirmation should be determined by the Mystical Theology, and second (seemingly self-evidently), that the Divine Names stands in need of a corrective; both are unwarranted assumptions. A little later on the same page, Davies and Turner speak of the ‘dialectical pulsation between affirmations and negations that characterises the enterprise of Christian negative theology as a whole’, so that ‘negation is not free-standing, but secures the theological character of affirmative speech patterns’. This claim presents a markedly different perspective, one which privileges cataphaticism.


Theological Theology

words, discourse or logic are somehow unworthy of divine nature, but that if you want to attain to something beyond yourself, you must get your notions of it from the source, from that which lies beyond. You cannot set out from anywhere but where you are, and yet this point cannot secure your arrival at what is greater than yourself. The dilemma’s solution must lie in something that is here, yet comes from beyond: the word uttered by God, given in human speech, that is, scripture: we are drawn to the divine splendour by the light of sacred scripture (I.1, 588A). What is here serves as the vehicle to what is there. The fundamental problem laid out in the first chapters of The Divine Names, the incommensurability of human intellect to divine nature, is not merely stated, but answered. Although divine nature is ‘gathered up by no discourse, no intuition, no name’ only this nature could give ‘an authoritative account of what it really is’ (I.1, 588B). Two points follow from this position. First, the denial is not what first appears, the in-principle refusal of the notion that concepts or language could be in any way satisfactory in denoting or describing divine nature; the problem lies not with words or concepts themselves, but with concepts originating from within the unaided human mind. Second, to deny the adequacy of scriptural words and concepts is to deny the reality and efficacy of divine self-communication. Radical apophaticism must eventually come to rest on a few highly problematic assumptions: either God does not will that form of relationality that can only be possible given self-disclosure; or divine nature is incapable of self-disclosure to another; or divine nature does not know itself. The second two propositions impugn divine omnipotence, while the first impugns divine goodness and renders any recognizably Christian notion of salvation impossible. One factor that suggests the implausibility of this last idea is the vision presented in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy: the whole point of the elaborate structure Denys describes there is divine self-communication. In that instance, this self-communication occurs via the sacraments and the ministers of the church, but it is nevertheless God’s gracious self-impartation, the purpose of which is to work sanctification, and indeed, union with the Trinity. One could perhaps argue that the selfcommunication detailed in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is of grace, rather than knowledge – that is, of something non-verbal and non-conceptual. The fullness of relationality that is given in grace however extends the relation that begins in knowledge, or, to borrow Augustine’s more elegant formulation, one cannot love what one does not know. Moreover, the sacramental system described in the Hierarchy presupposes liturgy, itself spun of words and incorporating the scriptural word within itself, as well as catechesis (catechumens are one of the orders of the laity in the hierarchy). Knowledge of God is basic to Christian life as far as Denys is concerned and it is this knowledge which Denys insists comes via scripture. This position is articulated explicitly in The Divine Names. Denys acknowledges that God is hidden and transcendent, incomprehensible, unsearchable and inscrutable (the last two predicates lifted straight from Rom 11.33). Nevertheless, he acknowledges equally that ‘the Good is not absolutely incommunicable’. Of its generosity, it draws sanctified minds to contemplation and participation. When the Scriptures tell us that divine contemplation of God is impossible, this is a mark

22. The Transcendence of Apophaticism


of divine benevolence (I.2, 588C–D). Why would this be a mark of benevolence? Presumably because chasing after knowledge of God unaided could only be an exercise in futility, like a toddler’s chasing a butterfly that can always flutter higher than her grasp. Scripture therefore tells us God is inscrutable so that we will know we cannot attain to knowledge of God on our own. This information is already a great boon, keeping us from the futility of not venturing towards an ‘impossibly daring sight of God’, one beyond what is ‘duly granted’ us (I.2, 589A). We are not, however, left bereft, but rather ‘raised firmly and unswervingly upward in the direction of the ray that enlightens’ us, a passage in holiness (I.2, 589A). Scripture thus declares our epistemological predicament, not so as to discourage us in our journey towards knowledge and love of God, but so as to spare us futile forms of striving, and the God whom Scripture proclaims to be unknowable is the very same who grants us enlightenment, notably through the sacred page. The point is that this enlightenment can only come from the divine side, because of the inscrutability of divine nature. God is both transcendent and benevolent, hence the gracious self-impartation of Scripture, a self-impartation needed because of transcendence and granted because of benevolence. This pattern, of negation of knowledge of God countered by the affirmation of Scripture, continues. We are on the one hand to honour the inexpressible with ‘wise silence’, yet on the other hand, with the ‘enlightening beams of the sacred scriptures’ we may offer songs of praise, a praise which ‘resounds for that generous Source of all holy enlightenment, a Source which has told us about itself in the holy words of Scripture’ (I.3, 589B). The invitation to relation and communion from this Source is not only a one-off or in-principle offer of ‘come hither’; it is a call to renewal, indeed repentance: ‘to those who fall away it is the voice calling “Come back!” and it is the power which raises them up again’ (I.3, 589B). The Inscrutable, therefore, is the God of Israel, who rails against an unruly people and tirelessly woos; the God who speaks through John Baptist, crying ‘Repent!’; the Word who tells the story of the Prodigal, the story that might better be known as ‘the parable of the ever-loving father’. What the opening pages of The Divine Names evoke is exceptionally rich, and I have not begun to point to all the ways in which, with astonishing density and concision, they establish a methodological framework for the treatise as a whole. However, to elaborate on the framework here would mean no attention could be given to the interstices, and it is to those, the flesh and sinew of The Divine Names, that I now turn. Despite the repeated caveats regarding divine transcendence, which Denys repeats in I.5 (593A), despite his insistence that the union of the deified mind with God occurs at the point of the cessation of all intelligent activity (I.5, 593B–C), and despite his insistence that divine nature is praised most appropriately through denials (I.5, 593C), the rest of the treatise is devoted to a detailed examination of various names of God derived from scripture. What accounts for the apparent contradiction? The trajectory of reasoning does a neat pirouette in two adjacent sentences. The first articulates a long list of predicates and states that divine being is at a total remove from ‘every condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, unity, limit, infinity, totality of existence’ (I.5, 593C). The


Theological Theology

tiniest of verbal cues in the next sentence signals the new departure: ‘And yet’. ‘And yet’, Denys continues, ‘since it is the underpinning of goodness and by merely being these is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence you must turn to all creation’ (I.5, 593D). With this single sentence, Denys justifies the remainder – and by far the greater portion – of the treatise. It is an ecstatic outpouring, grounded in the creature’s ardour for the creator: ‘All things long for it’ (I.5, 593D), and because of this longing, theologians praise it by every name (I.6, 596A), their task being the extension of the particular form of longing proper to the rational creature, which is by way of knowledge (I.5, 593D). Although the notion of all things longing for the creator could be read as lifted straight from the rhetoric of Neo-Platonism, the majority of what Denys has to say about God is not traceable to the thought of Plato or any of his followers, but directly to the Bible. Denys pours out long strings of these names, titles and predicates, drawing from across the Old and New Testaments. They range from the abstract (truth, salvation, righteousness), to titles specific to the Jewish tradition (Holy of Holies, King of Kings), to the tangible (fire, dew, rock), all of these being mingled with predicates commentators routinely label Platonic (beautiful, mind).4 These are scriptural not only in the sense that it is possible to pinpoint where in Scripture all of them may be found, but also in that Denys specifically labels them as scriptural (I.8, 597A). It is problematic, therefore, to claim as Denys Turner does that the Pseudo-Denys’s employment of these names entails the use of ‘literal falsehoods’, inasmuch as they are metaphors.5 Turner’s position not only begs questions about what it means for anything to be ‘metaphorical’ or ‘literal’, but he also neglects to acknowledge that labelling these usages as falsehoods fails to take account of their canonical status. Denys uses these titles because they are scriptural and therefore in some sense given by God; to call them falsehoods necessarily reflects on the goodness of their Giver. Granted, God is not a rock in the sense that a lump of granite is a rock, but that does not mean that calling God a rock is a falsehood. When we call God ‘wise’ we must do so with some qualification (God’s wisdom is not merely a souped-up version of such wisdom as I possess, for example), but the need for this qualification does not make it false to predicate wisdom of God. Just so, it is not false to call God ‘a rock’, even though we take the word to be used in Scripture with some implicit qualification (not a rock in the sense of a lump of matter). If Denys were any kind of committed apophaticist, it would be impossible for him to draw on Scripture with his gay abandon, scattering embarrassingly physical and mundane biblically-derived tropes through his prose. Denys shall have the final word: ‘No lover of truth which is above all truth will seek to praise it as word or power or mind or life or being. No. It is at a total remove from every condition, movement, life or imagination, conjecture,

4. All these examples are taken from I.6, 596A–C, but one can find comparable titles elsewhere in The Divine Names. 5. Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 40 and 373.

22. The Transcendence of Apophaticism


name, discourse. . . . And yet, since it is the underpinning of goodness, and merely by being there is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence, you must turn to creation. It is there at the centre of everything and everything has it for a destiny’ (I.5, 593D).

Juan de la Cruz Turning to another supposed arch-exponent of apophaticism, we will face more counters to the notion that a strong emphasis on divine transcendence correlates to a supposedly apophatic method. Juan de la Cruz is, like Denys, often assumed to advocate a strong apophaticism and, as with Denys, we will see that the conventional wisdom is misleading. Juan is associated above all with the notion of the dark night of the soul. This is commonly, and erroneously, often supposed to equate to some form of depression.6 Even when it is not being identified with an emotional state, however, it is generally taken as connoting a conviction of severe limitation of knowledge of God or the possibility of speech about God, so before we examine the relation between Juan’s supposed apophaticism and his use of Scripture, we might start by clarifying what Juan says about the dark night. The noche oscura is in Juan’s spiritual theology not a state of mental disorder or distress, but a stage of spiritual development, a necessary step in the process of spiritual purification. The telos of the spiritual life is for Juan, as for most of the Christian tradition (until, perhaps, quite recently), union with God. What especially characterizes Juan’s theology is the insistence that this union can only come about after detachment from ties to all that is not God, the purification of love. It is the process of detachment from these which Juan calls ‘the dark night of the soul’. It is a dark night, not because it springs from, or brings in its wake, despair, nor because it is a state of awareness that one cannot know God, but because attachments to creatures are a form of darkness and it is not until the soul is attached to God alone that it becomes capable of enlightenment by ‘God’s pure and simple light’ (Ascent I.4.1, and I.4.3).7 Darkness for Juan is not so much a state where the soul feels abandoned by God, as one in which the soul has turned from God: ‘because of the darkening of the intellect, the will becomes weak and the memory dull and disordered in its proper orientation’ (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, hereafter Ascent, I.8.2). In this state of heedlessness, the intellect cannot receive the illumination of divine grace and the will is incapable of embracing God within itself in pure love

6. Turner’s chapter on Juan in The Darkness of God is entitled ‘John of the Cross: the Dark Nights and Depression’ and Turner claims that Juan’s accounts of the dark nights of the soul are ‘uncannily similar’ to a description of the experience of depression (1995: 2002). 7. The standard English translation, from which I cite here, is The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (rev. ed.) (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991).


Theological Theology

(Ascent I.8.2). The dark night is the process by which the soul is purged from these distracting attachments; as such, Juan implies it is not necessarily pleasant, but it is nevertheless a stage of spiritual growth, a step towards greater intimacy with God: ‘it is not until the soul goes into the night of the senses to vanquish appetites that it will go out into greater freedom, to the enjoyment of union with the Beloved’ (Ascent I.15.2). In offering guidance on this vanquishing of the appetites, Juan appeals to Scripture. He offers the cautionary tale of Solomon, whose failure to deny his desires gradually blinded him, darkening his intellect until finally even the powerful light of God’s wisdom was extinguished within him, with the consequence that in his old age, he abandoned God (Ascent I.8.6). The positive example is Christ: to conquer the appetites, one must cultivate a habitual desire to imitate Christ in all one’s deeds, bringing one’s life into conformity with his. To do this, one must study his life in order to know how to imitate him and to behave as he would (Ascent I.13.3). Here is a confirmation of what Juan stated at the beginning of Ascent: ‘in discussing the dark night I will not rely on experience or human science . . . my help . . . will be sacred scripture’ (Prol. 2). Not surprisingly then, Juan’s understanding of progress towards God, and of the dark night in particular, is broadly and deeply grounded in Scripture. Exactly how broadly is clear from the scriptural index to the Collected Works: Juan’s quotations and allusions cover most of the books of the Vulgate canon. Given that the sanjuanist corpus is itself not very large (it fits into a single medium-sized volume), the extent to his scriptural reference is impressive. More significant than simply the range of biblical books cited, however, is the fluency with which Juan moves amongst Scriptural texts and passages. The ends to which he puts Scripture, the sense he draws from it, would not meet the modern biblical scholar’s hermeneutic requirements, the purported uncovering of the meaning the texts would have had in their original setting, but because Juan does not share the modern biblical critic’s concern for fidelity to historical context, he weaves verses, images and passages from different parts of the Bible, creating a fabric almost wholly scriptural yet also distinctively his own. His assumption that this procedure is acceptable rests on the unstated premise of a divine origin for all the books of the sacred ‘library’: there is thus no incongruity, from his perspective, in juxtaposing passages from books originating from different times and contexts. Let us consider two examples, both of which illustrate how Juan uses these techniques to advance his theology of the dark night, both from Book II of Ascent. In Chapter 6, Juan discusses the effects of the theological virtues in relation to the dark night. The parable of the friend who goes to ask his neighbour for bread to feed an unexpected guest in the middle of the night (Luke 11.5–8) is recounted, and given an allegorical reading: the three loaves that are requested are the three theological virtues; the time of asking, midnight, signifies that the soul must ask for the virtues ‘by a darkness in its faculties regarding all things and must perfect itself in these virtues by means of this night’ (II.6.5). While Jesus’ own explanation of this passage makes nothing of the fact that specifically three loaves were requested, and the time of day seems to signify no more than the inconvenient

22. The Transcendence of Apophaticism


nature of the request, his gloss certainly deals with spiritual gifts: at the end of the story there follows immediately the counsel ‘ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find’ (Luke 11.9 NRSV). The second part of this section of Ascent is taken up with an interpretation of Isaiah 6, concerning the