Tuesday, 17 May 2016

There's No Theology Without Prayer

It’s about fifteen years since I first read Helmut Thielicke’s masterful work “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians” (first English publication was 1962). I have read it at least biannually ever since: it usually takes an afternoon to get through, followed by a week or two for recovery and application! His wisdom is at once simple and profound; his manner simultaneously pastoral and commanding. Thielicke was a churchly theologian who knew the power and responsibility of theological study. It is not something to be undertaken lightly — for it trains those who are called to serve the people of God; nor should it be worn too heavily — for its speech about God is contingent.

This time in reading it I have been struck by Thielicke’s remarks about prayer as the proper context for theological study. It’s not a new idea, and is certainly something we pursue at St Mellitus College. But there’s a freshness in the way Thielicke expresses himself:

“Faith must mean more to us than a mere commodity stored in the tin cans of reflection or bottled in the lecture notebook, whence at any time it my be reproduced by the brain."

His objection, which I share, is to the static and archival trap of some kinds of theolgical study, where what was once the lively focus of our Christian faith and life becomes confined by our concepts, entrapped by our langauge, and thus deadened. Such theology comes about because it ceases to happen in the second person address of the prayerful Christian, but solely takes the form of third person observations about God. God becomes the object of our theologizing, rather than, as Karl Barth would have it, the proper Subjective ground of our thinking and speaking — the basis on which we theologize. For the latter to be true the spiritual life — in particular, the prayer life — of the theologian is all important. As Thielicke puts it here, “essentially dogmatic theology is theology which is prayed. The prayer-connection between individuals and God is the substance of the relationship which encourages  theologians to speak truly of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and not of someone else, for such is the essence of theology. Theologians speak of God, the true and living God, as we are permitted and enabled to do so. But first, Thielicke would say, we must speak to God.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Truth and Unity with Karl Barth

I am enjoying reading Barth’s letters from the final years of his life - Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981) - and came across another gem recently. This one concerns the heart of the ecumanical project, and in particular the possibility of closer ties between Reformed Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. In a written reply to The Institute of the Sacred Heart of Mary, Belgium, in 1962 Barth thanked the sisters there for their initial contact with him, and their feedback on his own theological work. He then comments on their corrspondence - they must have said something about the importance of loving one another - and he writes,

'You are right to tell me that much of the route to the unity of the church is laid when we come together again in love. Being the friend of many Roman Catholic theologians, I add that I am happy to affirm that in truth as well we have come closer on both sides than could ever have been imagined fifty years ago. One thing is certain: the more both your theology and ours concentrate on the person and work of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, our sovereign Lord and only Savior, the more we shall find ourselves already united in spite of some important differences. Do you not also think the day will one day come when we shall no longer speak of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians but simply of Evangelical Christians forming one body and one people? Veni Creator Spiritus.'

What I find striking here is Barth’s willingness, in the face of so many other stark disagreements he had with the Roman Catholic Church, to give light to the possibility of unity in the truth. He does not advocate turning a blind eye to the truth, or overlooking differences in pursuit of some false unity. Instead, the answer to the disunity of the Church is a more intense focus on Jesus Christ. In His light we stand as equally reprobate and wrong, but equally loved. It is an important lesson, particularly in Churches such as the Church of England where the future unity has appeared to be compromised by the quesiton of truth in relation to sexuality and identity, to such an extent that the only way forward seems to be a split or a profound compromise. Barth advocated a better way: careful, deep, and sustained attention to Jesus. This means no shorthand statements ("Jesus is inclusive”) and no oversimplified rhetoric (“the bible clealry states…”), but a more thorough, prayerful, and humble reckoning with God in the mystery of the incarnation. This will always be challenging and surprising; it will be the only way to keep us together in an honest and truthfilled way, too.

Friday, 27 November 2015

'...but the greatest of these is charity.' Hunsinger and the Barth-Revisionists

If in some mind-bending moment in the life of the Church of England, I was put in charge of all training for all clergy and lay-ministers, everywhere, I would require that trainee ministers take classes in how to read. I don’t mean remedial English. I mean hermeneutics at its most basic level: how to read and inhabit someone’s argument, thought processes, ideas, and perspective — even, or especially, when you don’t agree with their final verdict. I have sometimes wondered about setting a debate as a final assignment, in which students must opt to argue for a position they cannot stand! The idea is not to increase piety for piety’s sake (though a bit more piety may not always be a bad thing), but rather to increase our ability to dialogue and disagree well, by which I mean in an informed and intelligent way. The latest wrangling in the C of E about sexuality will require exactly this sort of thing (and, so far, it seems to me there has been little attempt to really inhabit and understand the arguments of both sides - though the shared conversations might begin to help). Furthermore, it would be mandatory that, unless time has been taken to really understand and inhabit someone else’s point of view and the reaosns for which they have adopted it, freedom to comment upon the quality of their argument or fidelity of their persepctive be suspended. Hermeneutically speaking, this is known as charitable reading. It is not so much a disposition, but a discipline. It does not withold the need to critique, but makes a virtue of proper understanding beforehand.

This is the proposal George Hunsinger makes in his new book on Barth-interpretation, Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermenutical Proposal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015). From begining to end this book is a critique of the revisionist school of thought, most associated with Hunsinger’s Princeton colleague Bruce McCormack. Essentially the Revisionists accuse Barth of inconsistency and incoherence, and make quite interesting (!) claims about divine ontology in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Most significant amongst these claims is the idea that it was the divine decision to be God pro nobis, God’s self-eleciton, that gave rise to God’s ontological ordering of God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In response, Traditionalists like Hunsinger argue that Barth sees the eternal tri-unity of God as giving rise to God’s decision to be God for us in election. Hunsinger’s argument is that the Revisionists’ position is methodologically weak because it 'fails to honour the principle of charity’ (xvi). This is not as simple as saying they haven’t read Barth properly. Bruce McCormack, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones (the principal revisionists referenced here) are significant theologians of high standing in their own rights, and all have published weighty volumes in support of the revisionist position. Hunsinger’s problem is that none of these scholars has responded adequately to the Traditionalist scholars - Hunsinger, Paul Molnar, Joseph Mangina - who offer an alternative reading of Barth and have published equally weighty tomes defending and articulating their position.

Hunsinger tries in this volume to overcome the impasse between the two schools of thought by offering a kind of mediating principle in the notion of ‘charity’. In a discipline such as systematic theology, which involves the reading and exegeting of texts, to determine which is the most charitable reading we must ask which is most faithful both to the text and also to what the author of the text was trying to do. It means avoiding the levelling of critiques such as inconsistency unless absolutely necessary. Hunsinger’s point is that in the case of Karl Barth the revisionist critique is unnecessary, and that without much effort a more coherent and more traditionally trinitarian Barth can be discerned within the same texts as those the revisionist cite as indicative of their own position.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Brief Admonishment from the Old Man of Basel

In 1961 Karl Barth wrote a letter to one of his theological students, whom he had recently supported in a grant application for funding to study in Edinburgh, to chastise him about his general outlook on life and his attitude to theological study in particular. It’s a short letter in the collection Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), and is anonymised for the sake of the student in question. The most pertinent section of the letter - the bit I’d like all of my students to read (!) - is as follows:
‘Before one can say (or meaningfully ask) anything, one must first listen, and before one can write anything, one must first do proper reading. If you cannot or will not learn this, you had better keep your fingers out of not merely academic theology but theology in general.'
The discipines of listening and thinking, reading and seeking to understand, are significant not only for young academics but anyone holding a pastoral office in the Church. They are the basis of sensible, coherent, and intellignet output (speaking and writing). Of course, reading and thinking takes time; listening and questioning is a discipline. The busy life of ministry does not always allow for them. And yet, it seems right and proper that those whose duty and joy is the proclamation of the gospel should be those who have listened-in on the conversations of the theologians on the tradition; who have sought to understand the deeper meaning of the scriptures and the creeds in order to feed the sheep they are called to shepherd. To neglect to do so is to jeapordise the general theological task of ministry by removing it from its foundations in the gospel. 

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Humble Confidence: The Appropriate Theological Attitude

I've just got round to reading January's International Journal of Systematic Theology (IJST). I really look forward to it coming in the post: it is the universal problem of research-students-who-are-within a-few-months-of-submission that we become so engrossed in the topic at hand (in my case Karl Barth) that other things pass us by. So, IJST affords me the opportunity to lift my head from the Barthian-pit and read a few other things and have those bits of my mind that remember what it was like to read freely in any area of systematics re-enlivened (avoiding the Barth essays within the journal...for now). Normally I skip over the editorials and head for the articles, but last night I read Steve Holmes' editorial for the January edition. In it Holmes, senior lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Andrews University, considers with what attitude the discipline of theology must engage with other academic disciplines. He outlines two, before settling on the third.