All posts in “Blog”

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall” (Barth in Conversation)

Karl Barth so consistently and passionately proclaimed God’s unmerited grace that it is no surprise he was (and still is) sometimes charged of universalism. This is in spite of his consistent denial of it. But it is perhaps to be expected given the shape of Barth’s work, which strongly emphasized the unconditional grace of God in Christ for all.

In my last post, I shared about Barth’s No! No! No! to the question, “Does hell have a place in the proclamation of the gospel?” This naturally brings up the question of universalism, so it will be fitting to examine another section from the same interview (which comes from the recently published volume, Barth in Conversation). Here Barth explains his unique approach to universalism.

Barth writes:

I have never upheld this theory [universalism] and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgement. We should not presuppose that the judge will put these people, these awful people, on one side, and on the other the good, who will then march white-clad into heaven, while the yawning mouth of hell swallows up the others. We cannot say that because we know that he has overcome hell, but he has the liberty to decide to whom he will give the benefit of this victory over hell. Neither can we say, according to the apokatastasis theory, that all will be saved. We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invitied to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good or bad. 1

While we cannot put too much weigh on every word of Barth’s response (since it comes in an informal, non-dogmatic setting), it is nevertheless a helpfully succinct summary of Barth’s unique answer to the question of universalism. (See this post for another example; also see chapter 5 in my book, where I deal with Barth/universalism at length).

We might derive three points from this:

  1. While Barth denies universalism, the door is not absolutely shut. The possibility remains, because it is a problem that will not be resolved until the resurrection.
  2. At the same time, Barth denies a dualistic vision of the end, in which there will be a great divide of the saved and unsaved in heaven and hell. But this, too, remains a possibility.
  3. Thus, while both dogmatic universalism and dogmatic particularism (the heaven/hell dichotomy) are rejected as definite, presupposed solutions, we may hope and pray for the redemption of all. Ultimately, the question of salvation is God’s question and problem, which will be resolved only in the final consummation of all things. Until then we hope and pray, never shutting the door on anyone or giving up hope.

The question of universalism is often spoken of in hush tones and with great suspicion. The result has been a Church culture that refuses to even entertain a conversation about its possibility. Barth’s approach to the question is extremely helpful. We have been so disabled by the fear of falling into “heresy” that we have lost all hope in the possibility of universal salvation. The very mention of the term, or even the slightest hint towards it, often leads to ex-communication from the evangelical Church (Rob Bell!). But this simply should not be the case. Barth sets an example for how we might honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel with hope for the salvation of all. Are we not at least stimulated by the Scriptures that hint towards this end, such as Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:10-1? The possibility should not escape us completely. As Barth writes above: since the future belongs to God, we are forbidden from solving the problem automatically. Neither dogmatic universalism nor dogmatic particularism can stand, although we hope and pray for the salvation of all without proclaiming it as a presupposed conclusion.

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1967.

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

“Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel?”

Karl Barth’s response to this question has been recorded in the recently translated volume, Barth in Conversationwhich I am currently reading (and will soon be reviewing). It is often stressed, especially in evangelicalism, that we must proclaim the “bad news” of hell before we can properly explain the “good news” of Jesus. But is this how the great theologian from Basel thinks we must preach the gospel?

To this question, Barth offers a fierce Nein! He writes:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside. 2

Whenever we proclaim the gospel—and especially this week, for Holy Week—Barth’s response acts as a timely reminder: we do no proclaim hell, but Christ, who overcame it! Hell is serious only in its defeat. It should never be used as a manipulative tool for scaring people into belief.

In Church Dogmatics II/2, on the doctrine of election, Barth takes up a similar line of reasoning that explains his point a bit more clearly. He writes here about Christ as both the electing God and the one elected man, and therefore as the one rejected man in our place. (For more on Barth’s doctrine of election, see chapter 5 in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English.) Thus, there is only one person whom we can say suffered the fate of hell: God Himself in Christ bearing our rejection on the cross. Barth writes, “[W]e must not minimise the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell—the handing-over of Jesus—and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone” (CD II/2, 496). Barth continues:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him. 3

This further clarifies Barth remark about hell and its exclusion from the gospel proclamation. We do not deny the reality of hell, but we must limit everything we say about its reality under the greater reality of Christ’s descent into hell, and of Christ’s bearing our rejection and judgement. We only know of one person who suffered hell, Jesus Christ, and only in the light of his rejection and election can we understand and proclaim hell as truly overcome. 


So far I have been thoroughly enjoying Barth in ConversationLike I said, I will eventually write a full review of the book, but I also plan to publish a number of shorter pieces from the book. So stay tuned for more insights from the frank conversations in this volume. Buy a copy yourself by clicking here.

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1948-57.
  2. ibid., loc. 1957.
  3. CD II/2, 496.

Theology is the Business of All God’s People (Moltmann)

I am currently working on the next book in my “Plain English Series,” Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. I expect it to be available within a few months. While I was doing some research I came across an illuminating quote I wanted to also share here.

This comes from Moltmann’s methodological book, Experiences in TheologyHere he argues that theology is the business of all God’s people, including both the trained and the untrained, but also of both men and women. It is not a pursuit restricted to specialists in the academy or to the ecclesiastical leadership. In truth, theology is centered around the congregation and is shared in the life of all believers. Moltmann writes:

Theology is the business of all God’s people. It is not just the affair of the theological faculties, and not just the concern of the church’s colleges and seminaries. The faith of the whole body of Christians on earth seeks to know and understand. If it doesn’t, it isn’t Christian faith. This means that the foundation for every theological specialization is the general theology of all believers, which corresponds to the Reformation’s thesis about the universal ‘priesthood of all believers’. All Christians who believe and who think about what they believe are theologians, whether they are young or old, women or men. […]

I should not like to let this universalization of the priesthood and of theology stand in such general terms, and so I would prefer to talk about ‘the shared priesthood’ and therefore about the shared theology of all believers too. On this common ground, not everyone has to do and think the same thing. The fellowship of all believers requires that differentiation of assignments and functions which corresponds to the multicoloured diversity of the Spirit’s gifts, or charismata. Even in the shared theology of all believers there are particular commissions and delegations. Academic theology is one of them. But the community of Christians must be able to identify with its delegations. Otherwise alienations arise which have an oppressive rather than a helpful effect. 1

 

Academic theology is nothing other than the scholarly penetration and illumination by mind and spirit of what Christians in the congregations think when they believe in God and live in the fellowship of Christ. By scholarly I mean that the theology is methodologically verifiable and comprehensible. Good scholarly theology is therefore basically simple, because it is clear. Only cloudy theology is complicated and difficult. Whether it be Athanasius or Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin, Schleiermacher or Barth—the fundamental ideas of every good theological system can be presented on a single page. It is true that Barth needed more than 8,000 pages for his Church Dogmatics, and even then they were still unfinished, so that kindly disposed critics said, ‘surely truth can’t be as long as that’. But as we know, theological praise of the eternally bounteous God is never-ending. So the length of a work does not necessarily detract from the simple truth of what it says. 2

While not everyone will become professors, write theology books, or even study the most challenging theological systems of the Church, every believer is a theologian the moment they begin to think seriously about their faith. This is a helpful insight, especially in the Church today which has often been dumbed-down by reductionistic answers and unchallenging sermons. The need for theological education in the Church (not merely somewhere else in the academy) is great, because average Church members often struggle with difficult theological questions but are seldom given permission to ask them freely in an educational setting. In this regard, the task of academic theology is only as a service to the Church, to help facilitate and encourage the theology of all believers. Highly specialized academic work is necessary, but we should no longer think that this is the only, or even the primary, expression of theology. Theology is the shared task of all believers, not merely the specialists.

(For a list of books written by and on Jürgen Moltmann, see my newly updated list of recommended reading)

Like this article? Share it!

“The Eternal Covenant” by Daniel James Pedersen (a Review)

Book: The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science (Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann) by Daniel James Pedersen [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Walter de Gruyter [PUBLISHERS LINK]

Overview: An excellent and carefully written study, Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant is indispensable for serious scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. The arguments are masterfully constructed and logically presented as the book moves from one point to another before arriving at an impressive conclusion.


I must admit, I am a newcomer to the world of Schleiermacher. My interests in theology have tended to revolve around Karl Barth, but it is also because of Barth that I feel inclined to dive into reading Schleiermacher. So far, I can make no claims of mastering even the smallest aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology, but I have come to thoroughly enjoy him and am beginning to recognize his mountainous significance.

Even though I have only begun to explore the vast literature surrounding the great 19th century theologian, I have no doubt that Daniel James Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant should be counted among some of the best available. It is possible that some of the more nuanced points went over my head, but I found it so masterfully argued that I could not help but to be impressed.

It was certainly a challenging book to read, but in a good way. There are books that are difficult because they are so poorly written, but then there are book that are difficult because they are so precisely articulated and carefully constructed that you can’t help but feel challenged by their depth. This book is undoubtably the latter.

The text reads somewhat like a hike up a mountain. There is a logical procession from step to step, as every chapter draws out important insights taking us one step closer to the peak (to the book’s conclusion). Like a hike up a mountain, the middle chapters were the most challenging, yet they were also quite essential to the whole. Here Pedersen examines at great length the necessary scientific and philosophical contexts so that we might properly grasp what Schleiermacher means by the eternal covenant. This includes fascinating discussions of evolution, Kant, nebulas and the stars, Leibniz and Clarke, miracles, Divine necessity, and Spinoza. But as fascinating (and well articulated) as these sections were, they certainly demand much from the reader. At the time of reading these, it could be easy to think it will not pay off in the end—kind of like how a climber might not see the point of scaling yet another cliff until they see the peak—but once the conclusion is reached, it all becomes clear. It is well worth the effort it takes to get there.

I say all this because it is important to be clear about precisely what sort of book this is. It’s not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the impatient who are unwilling to put in the conceptual work of each step. But neither is Schleiermacher, really. And do you really want to spend your time reading books that never challenge you, that merely support your own presuppositions? It is challenging to read Schleiermacher, as well as Pedersen’s book, but it is also well worth the effort.

Pedersen sets out to clarify what Schleiermacher meant by an “eternal covenant between the living Christian faith, and completely free, independent, scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith.” 1 Pedersen thinks that this eternal covenant has been misunderstood, both its content and its basis, and argues for a new understanding of it.

The conclusion Pedersen arrives at is best appreciated in its own context, by first reading the chapters which proceed it. So I will not spend any time in this review explaining what precisely his conclusion is. Instead, I want to highlight an important insight Pedersen stresses in his book that I think is well worth repeating, especially as it relates to how we should read Schleiermacher.

As a student of Barth’s theology, Schleiermacher was often presented to me in a subjectivist light, but this has been widely debunked by scholars of his theology. Part of the problem is too much of a focus on the controversial introduction of his theological masterpiece, Christian Faith. But as Pedersen notes, “Like a word, the meaning of Schleiermacher’s introduction is its use.” 2 It is the actual material content of Schleiermacher’s theology that should interpret the method, not the reverse. This is extremely important, since interpretive errors have arisen from attempting to read his content in the light of his method, while in fact his method is best understood in the way it is implemented.

In this sense, Pedersen’s book is not only an excellent study on the eternal covenant, but a fantastic example of how to properly read Schleiermacher. There are so many unscholarly opinions about Schleiermacher that circulate in books and in classrooms (I have been party to some of these errors myself!), but Pedersen’s book presents an account that is truly faithful to Schleiermacher’s theology. As such, if we want to learn how to read Schleiermacher by example, then Pedersen sets a very high standard worth following.

Conclusion: While the price and difficulty of this book might lead novices to avoid it, serious scholars of Schleiermacher will do so only at their peril. There is little doubt in my mind that Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant will become indispensable for future scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. A book of such careful attention and articulation can hardly be ignored. And as a novice in the world of Schleiermacher myself, I would also hope that other newcomers would take up the task of learning from Pedersen’s book, even if it demands much patience and diligence. I know I learned a great deal from reading it, and plan to return to it in the future as I continue to read (and eventually write about) Schleiermacher.

Click here to purchase The Eternal Covenant by Daniel James Pedersen

My thanks to Walter de Gruyter and Daniel Pedersen for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. On the Glaubenslehre, 64; quoted in Pedersen, iBooks loc. 17
  2. The Eternal Covenant, iBooks loc. 49

“Embraced: Many Stories, One Destiny” by Mark French Buchanan (a Review)

Book: Embraced: Many Stories, One Destiny: You, Me, and Moltmann by Mark French Buchanan [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Wipf and Stock [PUBLISHERS LINK]

Overview: It’s uncommon for a book to be at once profoundly moving and theologically stimulating, but this is precisely what Buchanan has achieved with Embraced. By using personal stories to explore the profoundly pastoral insights of Moltmann’s theology, this book is a home run.


This is a beautiful book with an innovating premise and a big heart. Buchanan weaves together stories from his life with deep theological insights mined from the works of Jürgen Moltmann. It is rare for a theology book to have this much potential for emotional and spiritual impact, just as it is rare for a spiritual book to have this much theological depth—but this is the great accomplishment of Embraced. 

Buchanan’s stories are full of life and hope, but they also touch on the deep questions of suffering and death. This is theology written from the heart of a pastor. Some of the most moving stories came towards the end of the book, which tended to focus more on loss and grief. I won’t spoil them for those of you who plan to read the book. But I will say this: I rarely tear up from a book, but I did when I read these touching accounts.

Buchanan explains the purpose of the stories he tells:

My stories illustrate the central insights from Moltmann’s theology and narrate what is fundamental to his work; that God dwells in every person as an inward guide, and that God encompasses everyone and everything. The stories illustrate how by dwelling in and encompassing all things, God is drawing all things into his own future.

I am now convinced that every time a hopeful story is told, God is the unseen storyteller, “whispering” his empathy, encouragement, and guidance for life. 1

This is a book that takes seriously the practical and pastoral implications of Moltmann’s work. Through these stories, the reader is inspired to recognize the love and life of God in their own journeys.

This is described well by one of my favorite quotes from Moltmann’s work:

I expect the presence of God in everything I meet and everything I do. 2

This expectation produces in us a Yes to life, a Yes that stands against the apathy that is all too common in modern life. In all things we have the expectation that God is with us. The stories that Buchanan shares, and the theological insights he explores through them, are a refreshing reminder of this expectation and this hope.

Conclusion: I could see this book serving a number of purposes. It would be great for group discussions, and it might even work as a preliminary introduction to Moltmann’s theology. Overall, it was simply an enjoyable book to read, and I highly recommend it.

Click here to buy Embraced by Mark French Buchanan (on Amazon)

My thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

Like this article? Share it!

The Problem with Apologetics (T. F. Torrance)

T. F. Torrance in Plain EnglishWhat follows is an excerpt from my new book, T. F. Torrance in Plain EnglishHere I draw out the implications of one of Torrance’s primary insights: kata physin, which simply means knowledge in accordance with the reality we come to know. This axiom is the subject of chapter two in my book, and this excerpt follows it in what I call a “sidebar,” which directly addresses the problem with apologetics. Sidebars such as this serve to draw out conclusions from major ideas, and they are therefore useful tools I implement in the book for clarifying ideas. Enjoy!

You can purchase T. F. Torrance in Plain English on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords ($9.99 eBook, $16.95 paperback).


Sidebar: Apologetics

(From T. F. Torrance in Plain English)

After discovering that Torrance’s theology engages natural science, many Christians today might wrongly imagine this means Torrance was an apologist. The truth, however, is that Torrance was actually quite critical of the task of apologetics, and this is the direct result of his dedication to the concept of kata physin. 

If true knowledge of God is knowledge in accordance with God’s nature, then apologetics is a false start because it applies a foreign rationality to God’s nature in the attempt to prove that God exists. By taking a foreign rationality and applying it to God, apologetics tries to prove God as if God were not God, as if God were a man or a star in the sky that might be proven through human rationality. Apologetics, therefore, abstracts God into a philosophical construct, which leads me to wonder: even if apologetics could “prove” God exists, which God would it prove? It is highly unlikely it would be the Christian God and Father of Jesus Christ, and so what then is the point of proving an empty, abstract deity, who is ultimately just a logical construction of our best thoughts?

Naturally, then, Torrance’s primary issue with apologetics is that it contradicts the fundamental axiom of his scientific theology, that true knowledge is knowledge in accordance with the nature of what we seek to know. Apologetics begins with what is rational to humans, and not that which is inherent to God’s own rationality as revealed in Jesus Christ. Human rationality must be disciplined by God’s rationality and not the reverse. God is not the object of human control; we are subject to God’s gracious will to reveal Godself. Torrance writes:

Thus the only kind of evidence for God that will satisfy us is one appropriate to divine nature, appropriate to one who is the ground of His own Being and the Source of all other being, to one whose Being is Spirit and whose nature is love… It is this profoundly simple fact, that knowledge of something and the demonstration of its reality must be in accordance with its nature, that lies behind the formation and deployment of the supreme instrument in all scientific knowledge, the appropriate question. (God and Rationality, 53)

For Torrance, apologetics is a false enterprise because it relies on asking the wrong kind of questions. It attempts to prove an abstract deity with a rationality alien to the given knowledge of God from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Where apologetics asks speculatively, “Does God exist?”, theology focuses on Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation, as the only true point of contact between God and humanity. Theology asks, “Who is this God revealed in Jesus Christ?” The difference is drastic. There is no logical bridge from humanity up into the knowledge of God, yet God has established, in Jesus Christ, a point of contact through Whom we know God. Thus, it is only by God that we come to know God. Torrance writes:

I cannot test whether there is a bad smell about by my ear. I cannot verify the presence of a chemical element in some compound by religious experience. Nor can I demonstrate a proposition in astrophysics by some line of reasoning in aesthetics. All that would obviously be irrational, just as irrational as it would be to put God to the test in some sort of way in which we put nature to the test in carrying through a physical experiment or to demand of Him that He disclose His reality to us through a radar telescope. (Ibid., 93)

The core idea behind kata physin is the notion that every reality has its own intrinsic rationality to know it by. Apologetics ignores this fact by applying a humanistic, philosophical, or an abstractly logical rationality onto the being of God, thus essentially subjecting God to the provability of human hands. In this sense, Torrance might heartily agree with Bonhoeffer’s famous remark, “A God who could be proved by us would be an idol” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 11, 260). When we attempt to prove God by a rationality alien to Godself, we ultimately produce a God fashioned after whichever rationality we implement; that is, God becomes an idol. Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed enterprise, since it fails to acknowledge God’s transcendent otherness. Torrance writes:

The transcendent rationality of God, however, is ultimate and as such can be known only out of itself. If God really is God He confronts us with absolute priority. In the nature of the case, He can be known only on the free ground of His own self-subsistent Being and through the shining of His own uncreated Light. The Truth of God cannot be demonstrated from other ground or derive support from lesser truths for He is the ultimate ground and support of them all… Knowledge of the ultimate rationality of God is reached at the point where our human reason becomes enlightened from beyond the limits of created rationality and where an infinite extension of intelligibility beyond ourselves is disclosed… (God and Rationality, 97)

We cannot illuminate God with human insights any more than we could brighten the moon with a flashlight. The doctrine of justification by grace alone should lead us to recognize God’s provability by grace alone. Works of the intellect cannot prove God without falling back into selfjustification. God is known when God’s uncreated light reaches us from beyond our humanity, enlightening our rationality with the divine rationality of God’s self-revelation. God alone proves Godself if God is proven at all, just as God alone reveals Godself if we have any true knowledge of God’s innermost being.

Finally, Torrance writes about the call for repentance as the call for a new kind of rationality. We are called to embrace God’s logic of God’s Self, not a human logic of God reduced down to our own terms. Repentance implies a turning away from our own rationality to embrace God’s inherent rationality. Thus, Torrance writes:

Michael Polanyi reminds us in his Gifford lectures that we cannot convince others by formal arguments, for so long as we argue within their framework, we can never induce them to abandon it… That applies to theological communication as much as scientific controversy, and yet this is precisely the erroneous line taken so often by apologetics, whether by the theologian or the preacher… The only proper road to take at that point is to persuade those operating from the other frame to look away at the realities we seek to indicate, and to persuade them to take, in face of it, the kind of ‘heuristic’ [personal] step forward which we always have to make in any genuine scientific discovery, for only then will they discern and know for themselves what we are speaking about. That is to say, in theological language, we have to bear witness to the divine Truth, and try to get from others a genuinely open hearing, but if they take the heuristic [personal] step which they must if they are really to know, it will involve on their part a self-critical act in reconstruction of their prior understanding, i.e., what the New Testament calls metanoia [repentance]. (Theology in Reconstruction, 27-8)

We should not attempt to make the process easy for unbelievers, in the sense that we have to down-play the biblical call to repentance. Instead, Torrance thinks we must give witness to the truth of the Gospel without dumbing it down by attempting to remove the inherent offense of the good news. Torrance writes:

That is the real difficulty about the Truth of God as it is in Jesus, not a difficulty about language or history in the last resort, but an offense which reaches its climax in the Cross… The last thing we must ever attempt to do is to eliminate the real difficulties that confront us in the nature of the Truth itself, and so try to make it easy for people to believe and understand—in so doing, we make it next to impossible for them… If there were no offense, we would find nothing new in the Scriptures, hear nothing we could not and have not already been able to tell ourselves. That which challenges us, which calls us in question, is the radically new, the element we are unable to assimilate into what we already know, without a logical reconstruction of all our preconceptions and a repentant re-thinking of what we already claim to know. But that is the element in the Scriptures which makes them the means of bringing the Good News—yet in the nature of the case it is Good News, not of some cheap grace that heals the hurts of God’s people too lightly, but of radical and complete reconciliation to God through the Cross of Jesus Christ. That is the only message that really strikes home to the human heart and meets at last the desperate plight of man. (Ibid., 29)

Torrance’s scientific axiom that we know in truth only in accordance with what we seek to know (kata physin) means the rejection of apologetics as a false start. His scientific theology does not fit within the modern Christian “culture war” against science, but it does offer us a helpful way forward that is faithful to the Gospel and its call for repentance. Instead of diluting the Gospel with reductionistic logic, with mere human sensibilities, we must bear witness to God’s own transcendent rationality and call men and women to repent and know God on God’s terms.

(From T. F. Torrance in Plain English, pages 61-66.)

You can purchase T. F. Torrance in Plain English on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords ($9.99 eBook, $16.95 paperback).

Like this article? Share it!

“The Transformative Church” by Patrick Oden – a Review

Book: The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (Emerging Scholars) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Fortress Press [LINK]

Overview: Oden’s book is broken up into two parts. The first addresses Moltmann’s theology as it relates to the Church, and the second engages that theology with contemporary Church movements, such as the Emerging Church. As a study of Moltmann’s thought, this book soars as a careful look at Moltmann’s key interests and by providing a much needed focus on Moltmann’s ecclesiology.


I read this book primarily for its first part, which studies Moltmann, and my review will therefore focus on Oden’s work on Moltmann’s theology. While it should be noted that the second part was indeed fascinating, I am less capable of commenting on its success than I am on the first part.

Oden states the overall goal of the book as follows:

“By putting together the practical expressions of transformative churches and the systematic insights of Jürgen Moltmann, it is my goal to begin to construct a more adequate transformative ecclesiology. More than this, however, I also seek to imbue the transformative church conversations with theological intent, seeing their practices as being much more than church growth techniques, or attributes of a narrowly defined practical theology. By bringing these writers and thinkers into conversation with Moltmann, my goal is to substantiate their practices as being themselves topics of theology. Just as hope became a topic in theology, I assert so also should other practices of the church, because they are first expressions by God to the world. All theology, in such an approach, is practical. We are to be hospitable, for instance, because God is hospitable. We are to welcome strangers, for instance, because God is the welcoming God. Our practices illuminate our expressed theology, incarnating continually Christ’s identity into this world.” 1

There are many publications available that focus on Moltmann’s first two books, Theology of Hope and The Crucified Godbut there has sadly been less of an interest in Moltmann’s profound contribution to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church), which was the focus of his third book, The Church in the Power of the Holy SpiritOden’s study provides a much needed contribution to correct this problem, and shows exceptionally well the importance of Moltmann’s understanding of the Church as an essential aspect of his overall theology. Just as hope and the suffering of God are essential to nearly every work Moltmann wrote, so his understanding of the Church is integral to his whole theology. Oden reveals this in his careful and thoughtful study of Moltmann’s major works.

Oden writes his study with an attention to detail as well as an approachable style, which makes this book a helpful guide to Moltmann’s theology, as well as a fascinating look into a dialogue possible between his work and the different models within the Emerging Church (Oden lists four variations).

In a section directly dealing with Moltmann’s The Church in the Power of the Holy SpiritOden provides a helpful reflection on the political action of the Christian community, particularly as it relates to the call for the Church to care for the oppressed and the weak:

“In light of the cross, political action is always ‘from below,’ which is the only form of action that itself resists becoming oppressive because it stands with the outcasts and rejected. As a messianic people, those in the church do not identify with the powerful or seek symbols of strength and wealth to legitimize their claims for the kingdom, but instead share solidarity with the people who have no power.” 2

“This means that the fellowship with Christ does not simply encourage including the poor in our services or reaching out to them or giving them what we think they require, acting in paternal ways. Rather, this fellowship insists on involving ourselves in true solidarity, seeing them not as objects to fix but as people included in our fellowship, the fellowship of Christ. … Indeed, it might even be said that it is not our choice to include them in our fellowship with Christ but to seek their fellowship so as to be included with Christ who is already with them.” 3

This example shows how well Oden is able to highlight important insights from Moltmann’s theology for the Church today. This was the case for nearly every section he wrote on Moltmann’s thought, in which he carefully and clearly articulates the important points from each of his major books. I enjoyed this book very much, and found these sections to be very insightful for a better understanding of Moltmann.

Conclusion: Oden’s book is well worth reading, not only for the first part which masterfully deals with Moltmann’s theology, but for the whole premise of the book which strives to provide a transformative model for the Church. I’d recommend it both for those interested in how Moltmann’s theology might work in a dialogue of this sort, but also for those searching for a good overview of some of his essential convictions from the perspective of his ecclesiology.

Click here to purchase a copy (Amazon)

My thanks to Fortress Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. Kindle loc., 206
  2. Kindle loc., 1581.
  3. Kindle loc., 1597-9.

“T. F. Torrance in Plain English” – Table of Contents

I am very pleased to announced the release of my new book, the second in my “Plain English Series,” T. F. Torrance in Plain English. 

258 pages, $9.99 eBook and $16.95 paperback.

Buy it now on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords!

This book is also now available on my new store page.

About the book

T. F. Torrance was my first “theological love,” and his work ignited in me a passion for studying theology. He was also my introduction to Karl Barth. For both of these reasons I owe Torrance a tremendous debt.

It was a pleasure to return to Torrance after my study of Barth and to re-examine his many profound contributions which had inspired me so greatly when I first took up an interest in theology. His work inspires me no less today then it did then.

Torrance was arguably Barth’s most important student, since he not only wrote two important books on Barth’s theology (Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology and Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian) but was instrumental in putting the Church Dogmatics into English. He was also likely the most important and influential English-speaking Reformed theologian of the 20th century, with a vast range of interests both scholarly and systematic. His engagement with the natural sciences and the philosophy of science is perhaps his most unique contribution, though there are many more important insights such as his doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and his profound work on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Without a doubt, Torrance is a significant figure for theology today—an individual worth careful attention both for the professional and the amateur alike.

The book is broken up into nine selected “major ideas” from Torrance’s scientific and evangelical theology. Between these major ideas I include various “sidebar” reflections on issues that naturally arise from these major ideas. I have spelled out all these in detail below. The sidebar chapters worked to answer difficult questions, or to draw out the practical implications of Torrance’s theology.

The book is different from my book on Barth in a number of ways. I struggled perhaps most of all with the structure of the book, since Torrance never produced a “systematic theology” though which he might be neatly summarized. His vast number of essays and books contain such wide interests that it was difficult to concisely summarize him. The book does, however, offer a reading of Torrance that I think is beneficial to introduce the subjects which I have found to be the most helpful in my own study. No attempt at a conclusive survey was made, but I hope it succeeds as an introductory study (which ultimately encourages you to read Torrance for yourself).

With all that said I am very pleased with this book, and I hope it is both helpful and inspiring for you to read.

I was honored and humbled by all of the positive feedback I received from Karl Barth in Plain English, and I hope this book is just as helpful.

Outline


Chapter 1: A “scientific” theology, or “theological science”

Sidebar: Non-dualist thought (cosmological and epistemological dualisms explained)

Chapter 2: Knowledge according to nature (kata physin, Torrance’s chief epistemological axiom). (This chapter also includes a reflection of Torrance’s “stratified” model of knowledge.)

Sidebar: The place of experience in theological knowledge

Sidebar: Apologetics (more properly contra-apologetics)

Chapter 3: A “reformulated” (or “new”) natural theology. (Special attention is given to Barth here.)

Chapter 4: One in being and act (homoousion, or the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Sidebar: Triune at-one-ment (addressing Christ’s cry of abandonment on the cross).

Sidebar: Election

Chapter 5: The “ground and grammar” of theology (the Trinity)

Sidebar: The Filioque clause

Chapter 6: The twofold agency (mediation) of Christ (the Godward and humanward acts of Christ)

Sidebar: The Bible as witness

Chapter 7: The vicarious humanity of Christ, or Christ’s saving life (with special attention to the sacraments).

Sidebar: Fallen humanity

Chapter 8: Threefold atonement

Sidebar: Universalism and limited atonement (both rejected as “twin heresies”)

Chapter 9: “With Jesus besides God.” Union and participation (Theosis) as the capstone of Torrance’s theology. (Special attention is given to the ascension.)

Sidebar: The resurrection (its nature).

Conclusion: How to preach the Gospel


Total pages: 258 (about 20,000 more words than Karl Barth in Plain English)

Price: $9.99 for eBook, and $16.95 for paperback

Buy it now on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords!

Like this article? Share it!

“Theology as Hope” by Ryan A. Neal (a Review)

Book: Theology as Hope: On the Ground and Implications of Jürgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope (Princeton Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [LINK]

Overview: Theology as Hope is a carefully written, thoughtful book, which studies Moltmann’s major “Contributions to Systematic Theology” within the light of his theology of hope. For Neal, this is Moltmann’s chief method, “theology as hope.” While he is ultimately critical of the success of Moltmann’s project, he nevertheless provides a fair and helpful reading of his work.


I was impressed by this book. It is a clear overview of Moltmann’s theology from the conviction that his central method is “theology as hope.” while I wouldn’t call it an introductory study, it still gives a nice overview for those who might have a decent grasp already of Moltmann’s thought, but who perhaps have a few questions about precisely what Moltmann means. (Though Bauckham’s work will always be the standard for secondary literature on Moltmann.) Notable is his clarity in dealing with Moltmann’s controversial “social doctrine” of the Trinity. He provides a helpful response to critics of this notion that I thought was very well put together.

Another strength of this book was Neal’s ability to recognized nuances in development in Moltmann’s theology, so that he often made note of the precise areas where Moltmann progressed in his theology, or acted in a self-correcting manner, or when he flatly changed his mind. It is very helpful to read Moltmann within this context, because some of his earlier work is admittedly “one-sided” and it becomes useful to see where and how he corrects some of these tendencies. This is perhaps the greatest value I found in reading the book, as Neal pays careful attention to these details.

One such example is to examine how Moltmann expands from The Crucified God into The Spirit of Life with a more precise understanding of God’s involvement in the cross. Neal writes:

“While the central question of CG [The Coming of God]: ‘what does the cross mean for God?’ was only answered in a discussion of Father and Son… In SpL [The Spirit of Life], however, Moltmann seeks a specific answer in pneumatological terms… In SpL he is exercised by the ‘seldom asked’ question: how does the Spirit relate to the cross?” (185)

Neal notes that Moltmann draws upon his “social understanding of God’s triunity, stressing the three subjects rather than their unity.” (187) Therefore, the Trinitarian dimensions of the cross are more clearly articulated. Whereas previously Moltmann had a limited understanding of the Spirit’s involvement in the crucifixion, now Moltmann expands into a fully Trinitarian interpretation. Neal summarizes this as follows:

“1. The Father… is the ‘rejecting Father.’ First, the Father does not hear the prayer of the Son in Gethsemane, and then on the cross is continually silent as he abandons the Son to death. So, the Father suffers as the one abandoning his Son.

2. The Son… is the abandoned Son. The first part of his plea to the Father (Abba): ‘remove this cup from me’ goes unanswered, while the second half ‘yet, not what I want, but what you want’ is answered according to the Father’s will. So, the Son suffers actively as the one who both ‘through the eternal Spirit offers himself without blemish to God’ and passively as the one abandoned by his Father.

3. The Spirit… is the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit suffers, but does not die and is ‘Jesus’ strength in suffering.’ Thus, the Spirit is the ‘real determining subject of this special relationship of Jesus’ to God, and of God’s to Jesus.’ Accordingly, the Spirit ‘frames the Son’s response: ‘not my will, but thine be done.’ The Spirit also ‘reveals to Jesus the ‘will’ of God.'” (187-8)

The first and second proposals are included in Moltmann’s The Crucified Godbut this third aspect is where Neal sees as a development (and improvement) upon his theology of the cross. I’ll have to go back and re-read the sections he refers to in order to understand all the points here, but it was interesting to see this development spelled out so carefully. There are various other comments Neal makes that are helpful in this same regard, as he expertly traces Moltmann’s development on numerous issues. Perhaps this is just something I have not yet studied for myself as fully, but it struck me as a valuable aspect of the book.

Neal’s conclusion in the book was also interesting to read, though he takes a critical tone on the success of Moltmann’s theology of hope which I’m not quite sure I can follow. In a poor restatement of Neal’s conclusion, it seemed like his conclusion was that Moltmann’s theology of hope fails to be a theology of hope and is more accurately a theology of certainty (especially in Moltmann’s explicit universalism). Thus, he criticizes Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and his Coming of God perhaps the most strongly.

Conclusion: Generally speaking, I enjoyed this book for how carefully and thoroughly Neal wrote, as well as the attention he gave to the development of Moltmann’s thought. I’m not wholly convinced by his conclusion, but I found my understanding was challenged by it. I think this fact is a great sign of a successful book on Moltmann, since he was himself so dedicated to theology as a dialogue, or as he called it “an adventure of ideas” in which his “whole concern has been, and still is, to stimulate other people to discover theology for themselves” (Experiences in Theology, preface).

Click here to purchase Theology as Hope by Ryan A. Neal

My thanks to Pickwick Publications and Wipf & Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

Like this article? Share it!

Jürgen Moltmann on the Rapture and “Left Behind”

 

Jürgen Moltmann discusses the problem of religious escapism, with a particular appeal against the rapture theory, in his book, Ethics of Hope:

Here a religious escapism is coming to the fore especially in the present spread of a vague Gnostic religiosity of redemption. The person who surrenders himself to this religiosity feels at home in ‘the world beyond’ and on earth sees himself merely as a guest. So it is only by the way he is concerned about the fate of life on this earth. His soul is going to heaven, that is the main thing. In the body and on this earth, it was no more than a guest, so the fate of this hostelry really has nothing to do with him. Religious practices lauding an indifference to life are offered under many high-sounding names. […] American pop-apocalyptic offers an especially dramatic escapism. Before the great afflictions at the end of the world, true believers will be ‘raptured’—snatched away to heaven, so that they can then build the new world with Christ at his Second Coming. All unbelievers unfortunately belong to the ‘Left Behind’, the people who are not ‘caught up’ and who will perish in the downfall of the world (‘Left Behind’ is the title of an American book series read by millions). Whether people throw themselves into the pleasures of the present or flee into the next world because they either cannot or will not withstand the threats, they destroy the love for life and put themselves at the service of terror and the annihilation of the world. Today life itself is in acute danger because in one way or the other it is no longer loved but is delivered over to the forces of destruction. 1

When our Earthly/bodily life is not loved, affirmed, and accepted, we either resign ourselves to a religious escapism or numb our senses with hedonistic pleasures. Moltmann’s ethic of hope insists that a truly Christian ethic, based on the bodily resurrection of Christ, says Yes to this life; it must include a love for our life on this Earth as human beings (not as disembodied souls).

A few years ago I wrote a book called 10 Reasons Why the Rapture Must Be Left Behind (free as an eBook). One of the ten reasons I argued against the rapture was that it promotes a kind of gnostic escapism. The rapture plays into the idea that we do not have to take care for this world (the ecological crisis is a result, in part, of this neglect), that we are not responsible for the Earth, and that we do not belong to it—because one day we will escape the Earth for a spiritual world somewhere else, while this world is annihilated.

But this is not the Christian hope. The Christian hope is hope for a new heaven and a new Earth. With Paul we must recognize that the whole creation is groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22). We belong to this Earth. Redemption does not mean an escape from this world, but we hope that together with creation we will be made new. One of my favorite quotes from Moltmann emphasizes this point:

I don’t want to go to heaven. Heaven is there for the angels, and I am a child of the earth. But I expect passionately the world to come: The new heaven and the new earth where justice dwells, where God will wipe away every tear and make all things new. And this expectation makes life in this world for me, here and now, most lovable. 2

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. Ethics of Hope, 52-3
  2. Quoted by the Moltmanniac