Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Primacy of Narrative Theology

In The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, William Placher briefly makes the case for the primacy of narrative theology:
Of course, the Bible contains more than stories--hymns, sermons, theological essays, laments, laws, and prophecies...It is a complex collection of books, and no one category can do it justice.  Nevertheless the category of "story" or "narrative" does seem to have a certain priority: it seems more important to say, of each of the other biblical genres, that they derive part of their meaning from their relation to an overarching story than the other way round.
The Triune God, p. 46

It seems a fair point.  All the action on the stage involves a script, and the both the little stories and big story have narrators who are telling the story (all of which means that narrative theology must go hand in hand with speech acts).

Narrative theology only has real primacy if and when the "Narrator" with a capital "N" is telling the story and speaking within it.  Or, in other words, you can't really have narrative theology without the Canon, Inspiration, and Inerrancy all being woven indelibly into the story.

Besides which the devil has his own version of narrative theology (Gen. 3; Matthew 4:1-11), with an alternative script, plot line, principal actors and closing scenes.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Theological comedy

Not many theological books raise a chuckle, some can barely manage a snort, although I do remember laughing out loud whilst reading N T Wright's Who was Jesus? whilst sat on a train at Gloucester station.  Down through the years, perusing book after book, the gags have been few and far between.

Until yesterday, when this, from William Placher, raised a smile...
After I had written a first draft, though, I realized to my surprise how often I had cited Hans Urs von Balthasar at key junctures.  I do not know what it means for a pragmatic, midwestern American Presbyterian to be so influenced by a Catholic who said he drew his most important insights from a woman mystic who claimed to have received the stigmata, but there it is.
William Placher, The Triune God, p. x

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Bonfire of Reformed Identities

Nothing if not provocative, Peter Leithart has a post on 'The End of Protestantism' that is more than a little subversive.  With apologies to David Wells this is The Courage to be Protestant Reformed Catholic instead.

Posts about who gets to define what Reformed means are like buses.  You wait ages for one and then come come along at the same time.

Kevin De Young's post widens what it means to be Reformed to include a larger subset of Calvinistic evangelicals, whilst on the other hand Peter Leithart's extends the boundaries of what it means to be and act as a Reformed Christian in a Romeward direction (but without endorsing the obvious Roman bits of theology and practise).

You can also read Scott Clark's response to Leithart here

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Holy Spirit, the Father and the Hypostatic Union

One of the refreshing things about reading long dead writers is that, bizarrely, they can help you to look at familiar things with fresh eyes.

Take the following observation by Augustine on the Trinity.  In context he is launching out on his discussion of whether 'sending' (the missions of the Son and Spirit) implies inferiority.

He has this telling remark about the status of the Spirit:
The Holy Spirit too, therefore, is said to have been sent because of these bodily forms [a dove, fire] which sprang into being in time in order to signify him and show him in a manner suited to human senses.
But he is not said to be less than the Father as the Son is on account of his servant form.  That form was attached in inseparable union to his person, whereas these other physical manifestations appeared for a time in order to show what had to be shown and then afterward ceased to be.
De Trinitate, Book II:3:1 (emphasis added)

All of which chimes with what we see and read in the gospels.  No forgiveness for those who commit blasphemy against the Spirit, whereas there will be for those who speak against the Son of Man.

The Son's 'sending' is tied to the union of his Godhead to his perfect humanity, and therefore to his estate of humiliation.  But the nature of the outward manifestation of the Spirit's presence did not involve his union with created things, 'he did not join them to himself and his person to be held in an everlasting union' (De Trin. Book II:2:6).

For Augustine there it is clear that we will not understand how Scripture presents the Son of God unless we realise the distinctiveness of the Son's redemptive mission and his relationship to the Father.  Thus the Son is spoken of:

1.  In the form of God
2.  In the form of a servant

Beautifully outlined and elaborated in Book 1:4.

Even so Augustine adds a third interpretative rule to include texts that speak of the Son:

3.  As from the Father

What happens when we fail to follow this rule?

Augustine divides interpreters into those who are culpable in treating the Son as less than the Father ontologically (think Aians), and those who 'are no so learned or so well versed in these matters, and try to measure these texts by the form-of-a-servant rule' and find that 'it is very upsetting when they fail to make proper sense of them'.  He goes on:
To avoid this, we should apply this other rule, which tells us not that the Son is less than the Father, but that he is from the Father.  This does not imply any dearth of equality, but only his birth in eternity. (De Trin. Book 2:1:3)
Ah, so you end up having to confess the eternal generation of the Son to make sense of certain texts (e.g. John 5:26).  How very Niceno-Constantinopolitan of him.  Or as Father Ted would say, 'that would be an ecumenical matter'.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The tangled question of theophanies

Augustine is regarded as a kind of a bogey man by some for his movement away from identifying Old Testament theophanies as manifestations of the incarnate Christ, breaking an interpretative tradition that extended from Justin Martyr on.

Augustine was hardly unaware of this tradition (De Trin. Book II:2:8):
Take some words spoken by God in one of the prophets: Heaven and earth do I fill (Jer. 23:24); if they are ascribed to the Son--and it is he, so a number of authors prefer to think, who spoke to and through the prophets...
There is even a prophecy of Isaiah in which Christ himself is to be understood as saying about his future coming, And now the Lord, and his Spirit, has sent me (Is 48:16)
Why then the departure from this tradition?

Is it as crude as the accusation made by the late Colin Gunton that an 'anti-incarnational platonism is to be found in Augustine's treatment of the Old Testament theophanies'?

Gunton was sharply critical of Augustine on this point.  The breach with the tradition was emblematic of a deeper theological fissure opening up between the relationship of the creature and the Creator, a widening that has serious implications for taking Augustine as a reliable theological guide on the trinity at all:
In place of the tradition, going back to Irenaeus, of the Father relating to the world by means of the Son and Spirit, we are in danger of supposing an unknown God working through angels.  Augustine's shying away from the involvement of God with the material order should be contrasted with the more concrete modes of speech of both Irenaeus and Tertullian.
'Augustine, the Trinity and the Theological Crisis of the West' in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. 34-35

But for Augustine 'divinity cannot be seen by human sight in any way whatever' (De Trin. Book I:2:11), and therefore he was sensitive to the view that invisibility was predicated only of the Father, and not of the Son.  The invisibility of the Son, connected as it is with his essential divine nature, is something that Augustine was zealous to safeguard.  In fact there may be some evidence that this theological lacuna, namely that of the invisible Father and visible Son, stemmed not only from the tradition but also, and perhaps more pertinently so, from the Manichaeism that Augustine had escaped from.

Furthermore, Augustine wanted to do justice to the primacy of the biblical language of 'sending' and 'sent' being tied to the historical reality of the incarnation, and not to previous manifestations and theophanies.

On other matters, such as whether and how we can identify particular persons with particular theophanies (after all, aren't the outward signs at Sinai also evident at Pentecost?  Could not the Spirit have therefore manifested his presence at the giving of the Law?), Augustine was prepared to be agnostic if the evidence was not persuasive enough.

Sorting out what the great bishop and doctor of grace called 'this tangled question' of the persons manifested in the Old Testament theophanies is something that I will defer to later posts.  It would be a great help to find out whether Augustine paid any attention to the ghost of Plato looking over his shoulder as he wrote, and, as ever, it is best to assess him based on his own words as he unfolds his case.

Then Face to Face

In De Trinitate Augustine interprets the handing over over the kingdom to the Father as not only the culmination of the mediatorial reign of the Son of Man but as resulting in the eternal blessedness of the saints: seeing God face to face.

For Augustine, the reality of the Son of Man in the judgement, a visible glory seen by the righteous and the wicked, it is surpassed by the glory that will exclusively be beheld by those who inherit the kingdom:
This contemplation is promised us as the end of all activities and the eternal perfection of all joys
It is of this contemplation that I understand the text, When he hands over the kingdom to God and the Father (1 Cor 15:24), that is, when the man Christ Jesus, mediator of God and men (1 Tim 2:5), now reigning for the just who live by faith (Heb 2:4), brings them to the contemplation of God and the Father.
Contemplation in fact is the reward of faith, a reward for which hearts are cleansed through faith...
For the fullness of our happiness, beyond which there is nothing else, is this: to enjoy God the three in whose image we were made.
De Trinitate, Book 1:3:17-18

The Trinity: Mysteries and Mistakes

As well as suggesting that there should be different types of books to help all sorts of people to understand the truth, Augustine, it comes as now surprise, had lots of wise things to say about the search for the truth in faith's quest to understand the trinity.

Unless some sense of the sheer infinitude of the reality before us dwarfs our attempts to gain comprehension of the truth we haven't even begun to understand anything about God or ourselves:
People who seek God, and stretch their minds as far as human weakness is able toward an understanding of the trinity, must surely experience the strain of trying to fix their gaze on light inaccessible (1 Tim. 6:16), and on the difficulties presented by the holy scriptures in their multifarious diversity of form, which are designed, so it seems to me, to wear Adam down and let Christ's glorious grace shine through.
So they should find it easy, once they do shake off all uncertainty on a point and reach a definite conclusion, to excuse those who make mistakes in the exploration of deep a mystery.
But there are two things which are very hard to tolerate in the mistakes people make:
presumption, before the truth is clear
defense of the false presumption when it has become so.
No two vices could be more of a hindrance to discovering the truth or handling the divine and holy books.
De Trinitate, Book II:1