Friday, April 29, 2011

The Blessing of an Unbounded God.

Yes, I know I've done this to death, but more on election and Rob Bell.

For Rob Bell, God is only law.  He's bound to the law.  What law?  The law of love.  The law of love makes it impossible for God to do anything else.  He must love, this is the law of his nature.  He cannot transcend that law and be something else.  Because of this, humans are also bound to this law.  When are they bound to it?  Forever and ever.  This law of love never ends.  It goes beyond the grave and demands their fulfillment, even in hell.  

Now this has a couple of interesting implications which Bell doesn't seem to understand.  First, if the law of love goes on and continues to demand a response from people in hell, it also means it demands a response from people in heaven as well.  If that's the case, we never get relief from the law.  It goes on and on, it's infinite.  For this reason, the law of doing (in this case, the response to God's love) is never finish.  When I've done all I can to fulfill the law in a day, then I get up the next day and have to do it all over again.  If I stop doing the law, then everything I've done prior to this is meaningless.  For all my former compliance, now I'm a law breaker.  If this remains a possibility in heaven, I will always be under the threat of entering hell if I cease to fulfill the law of corresponding to and responding to God's love.  

Though it never apparently occurs to Bell that this is an implication of his position, Origen, the early Church theologian thinks that that's exactly what's going to happen.  Humans will still be free in heaven and so eventually they'll fall all over again.  Then, the whole cycle of Incarnation, ransom and redemption will start up again, just to be repeated an infinite number of times.  Therefore "love wins" means "law wins."

Luther's God (who is the Bible's God!) is not bounded by the law.  The law is holy and is God's will, but God is not subject to it.  Neither does it exhaust his reality.  This makes God very frightening to human beings.  As I noted yesterday, this makes God identical with the power of fate that we can never really explain away.  In fact, humans make up the idea that God is bounded by the law in order to protect themselves against God who chooses- hence all world religions!  The first person to do this was Adam in the Garden of Eden.  He said "you put this woman here with me."  Then the woman said "you put this serpent here to tempt us!"  If God is subject to the law, then don't they have a point?  Of course, God did not make their choices for them and therefore he is not the author of evil.  And, yes, they are guilty of breaking the law by their own volition, no one man-handled them into doing it.  But wouldn't God also be guilty of being an accessory after the fact?  After all, he put the tree there and he didn't stop the serpent from tempting them, did he?  Beyond that, he now through his work as creator continued to propagate the human race in such a way that original sin is passed on to all.  I am guilty of Adam sin even before I am born!!  How unfair!  I am fated to be guilty!

But Adam and Eve aren't right, because God is God and God chooses to be what will be.  He's unbounded by the law (even the law of fairness!) and he chooses to have mercy on whom he will have mercy.  In fact, "I am that I am" is better translated "I will be, whom I will be."  If God the creator puts the tree in the Garden, then that's what he does.  And if for some unknown reason lets the serpent tempt Adam and Eve, that's what he does.  Therefore, God isn't bound by the law.  Any law!  Self-justifying human are always wrong before his bar of justice.  It doesn't matter what they do or what excuses they have.  Indicting God for being God, that is a God who chooses, simply proves we are sinful.  What it proves is that we want to be the ones who choose and therefore want to be God.  Furthermore, it shows that the law ultimately cannot be a protection for us against a God who transcends the law.

But the fact that God is unbounded by the law is ultimately the thing that saves us also.  Unlike Rob Bell's God, who is love, and who infinitely demands love from his creature, the Biblical God transcends the law as the gospel.  In God's own mercy and love, he enters into the law in the person of Jesus and crushes it.  Indeed, if God were only law, this electing love would be as unfair as the fact that we are subject to original sin!  Because of this, the condemning effect of the law is ended through God's merciful fulfillment of it on our behalf.  Indeed, instead of demanding an "infinite response of love" Jesus tells us that he has come to "bring us rest" from the demand of response.  He bring the vita passiva of faith.  He conquerors the power of fate also, by making known and enacting God's electing will of mercy "pro me."  Therefore, God's transcendence of the law ceases to create the terror of my inability to protect myself against God, but in fact becomes my very salvation.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Paulson is the Cure for Rob Bell.

More good observations from Paulson.

Paulson talked about the apologetic project of modern theology regarding the love of God. The modern emphasis on God's love is an apologetic strategy. It's goal is to make us see God as something attractive so that we will use our free will to accept him. This never works, because of course, God in reality isn't attractive to sinful humans. Read Exodus 20 or Isaiah 6. Fear and terror at God's omnicasuality is the first reaction of sinful human beings to God. The fact that we live under his almighty power and are sinful makes us incapable of accepting God. We see the fatedness of reality around us and it seems unfair to us. It does not accord well with a God who is nothing but a ball of love and therefore we cease to believe in God in order to protect ourselves from his omnipotence.

I personally think that this is the best response to Rob Bell's Love Wins clap-trap. The problem with modern theology is that it works with a God that is pure love. What is meant by love is a God who is affirming and fulfills our needs. It is also means that God is always fair by our standards. But according to human standards, God simply isn't fair. God is identical in a strange sense with what the ancients called fate, as Elert rightly emphasizes. There's no getting around it. When we look at how human goods are distributed in our world, it seems unfair. Why should I have had a better life than a child growing up in Pakistan? Why should I not have suffered horribly like others? Most of all, why should I have been brought up in a Christian family, whereas some Aztec somewhere wasn't able to hear the gospel?

Bell's approach is a continuation of the old Vatican II and Arminian approach. It says: Well, God is of course not unfair and so he will give everyone the opportunity to use their free will and get the same stuff in the end. But this doesn't make a bit of sense. If that's really the case, why not let free will determine our fake from the beginning in the form of Karma? Why not say with Origen (whom Bell I believe actually invokes), that everyone had it equal in the beginning, and then fell into unequal fates determined by free will?

The problem with Bell's approach is that it must ultimately think of God's love as an abstract quality. When the world doesn't reflect that quality (much like saying a desert is wet), then it cannot be something real. Hence, the apologetic argument that it would be real if humans just used their free will. It's not God's fault that humans don't use their free-will. But then, doesn't this bring us back to the law? How indeed can the law be gracious? In the end, if we are really self-determining the way Bell says, then we are God and not God. If we follow him, it's only a matter of time before we do away with God. He ultimately will get in the way of our autonomy and our self-justification with his word of law and gospel.

In fact, the Bible says something very different than Bell, namely, that we are the clay and he is the potter and so God doesn't need to justify himself before us, rather we before him. Our situatedness in creation and God's ability to choose this (his electing will) is simply part of his being God and us being creatures.

God's real love isn't a general love that let's everyone have a fair shot to use their free will. That's just more law and the law isn't love. God's real love is the electing love of Jesus Christ. When we say that God is love (as he most certainly is!) we do not mean it as an abstract quality that can be falsified by seeing its effects or non-effects. Rather, it is a person and an action. God's love is Jesus Christ. God's love is an electing love that chooses to be him and only him. It is also the electing love that sends to me, in my particularity, a preacher to elect me. Freed by his love, I do not need to sit around and ask the question "Why did God send me a preacher and not another?" On the one hand, as a creature, I recognize that that is God's business as God. On the other hand, I listen to God's own commission to preach that same Word to "every living creature." By preaching that Word, I dispel God's terrible power of fate in wrath, hiddenness, and law, and establish his gracious, electing will "pro te." This alone establishes a loving God, and not a lot of clap-trap about free will and an imaginary second chance in Hell.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Paulson's Talk at Ft. Wayne: Election and Other Issues.

I just returned from Paulson's talk at Ft. Wayne.  It was very good.  It of course wasn't as novel for me as it might have been for other people present.  Having attended Luther Seminary and having eaten, breathed, and slept Forde, Paulson, Elert, Bayer, and Bondage of the Will itself for many years, nothing he said was very shocking.  

His main subject of discussion was election, the hidden God, and preaching.  He began by noting that modern theology did not start with Descartes (as many claim) but rather with Leibniz and that ever since then it has turned the entire theological enterprise upside down (probably a not so muted dig at Paul Hinlicky).  Contrary to Luther's claim, that the subject of theology is God the justifier and humans the justified, modern theology is about justifying God in himself, i.e. theodicy or apologetics of one kind or another.  God in himself does not need to be justified, rather feared.  The Bible tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.  Both medieval and modern theologians want it to be otherwise.  They want God to be attractive enough for us to believe in him.  But this always leads to Atheism, since this works from the perspective of human autonomy and goodness.  A God who has to justify himself over against this bar must eventually be pushed out of the picture by the fact that from the perspective of sinful humans God can never appear good or just.  Ultimately though, God is justified, but never in himself (he doesn't need to be!  he's God!).  Rather he is justified in his words.  When the electing God elects to send the preacher, the preacher first instills the fear of the hidden God and then gives faith through proclamation of the gospel.  By believing the word of law and gospel, the Christian justifies God in his Word by saying that it is true.

Now if you were Paulson's student or if you've read his books, this is all very familiar.  What I found interesting is how foreign all of this seemed to the Ft. Wayne crowd.  I knew the moment that he started talking about hardening Pharaoh's heart that they were getting nervous.  Then Dean Wenthe got up and asked him "So how then do we avoid Calvinism?"  and I thought "wow, I knew this was coming!"  Paulson gave a very good explanation that the difference between Luther and Calvin on election is where it's located.  For Luther, the preached Word is where it happens and therefore you can be certain of election because being in contact with the Word you are present precisely where God elects.  For Calvin, it happens off in eternity and so the preached Word is unreliable.  Therefore we need to look into God's hidden being to figure out whether the temporal signs of election you experience in yourself mark off the effect of God's eternal decision.  

Walther has a similar quotation about how for Calvinists election happens before the Word, for Arminians it happens after the Word, and for Lutherans it happens in the Word.  Returning to Paulson, I'm not certain that this entirely satisfied them.  There seemed to be a lot of semi-passionate discussion afterwards in the hall while I was waiting for him to sign my books.  I don't think they disagreed.  It was just how he said it that bothered them.

A couple of observations about the culture clash.

I do think that Paulson as Forde before himself would emphasize the omnicausality of God in a way that LCMS theologians would not technically disagree with, but probably would mute.  Much of this goes back to the cultural environment.  Both Paulson and the LCMS folks are products of the election controversy.  But, they approach the issue with different emphases for a number of reasons.

LCMS folks are German Lutherans and not Norwegian Lutherans.  The Norwegian Lutherans were always the only game in town, with the exception of Pietists, whom they disliked.  This persisted in the cultural environment of the upper Mid-West.  Other than John Piper, I can't think of any major pockets of Calvinism in Minnesota.  The need for Paulson (and for Forde before him) therefore was always to emphases election over against Pietist claims of free will.  There really wasn't another ditch to fall into.  For German Lutheran, used to confessional wars with the Reformed in Germany as well as Pietists, things were different.  The goal was always to emphasize election, but simultaneously emphasize the universality of grace against the Calvinists.  In that most of the LCMS folks settled in the lower Mid-West, the threat of Reformed folks continued to be more acute than it was for the Norwegians.  

This being said, I think Paulson's point is quite valid regarding how election works.  I also think that it helpfully explains how and why Lutherans make the seemingly contradictory claim that God's grace is universal (and sincere!), but election is particular.  Luther said that the only point of doing theology was to explain what we are doing when we preach law and gospel.  If that's the case, then considering the question of election from the perspective of the preached Word will give one this paradoxical answer.  When the preacher preaches he says "I forgive you in the name of Jesus."  He says it to everyone- there's no "except for you Earl" or something.  Rather, it's universal.  This is the reason why it's important to speak of universal and objective justification.  If this wasn't God's universal verdict, then the preacher's general absolution would make no sense.  We would start giving out the conditional absolution in the manner of the Pietists: "I forgive you all in the name of Jesus, only if you have faith."  And that would be another work "do this and be saved" and not the gospel "all is accomplished."

The second point is that whereas the preacher's Word is always all encompassing and general, the act of preaching is finite and particular.  The preacher is preaching to you and not the Aztecs.  So, God chooses you in particular and for whatever reason some other folks don't get a preacher.  This doesn't mean though that we should conclude that God wishes them ill.  He has after all told us to preach to them as well, even if we are not there with them at the moment.  In the same manner, there's no Word from God about the gospel being for some and not others.  Nevertheless, the preacher is absolutely necessary.  This is why Jonah didn't want to preacher to Ninevah.  He knew that if he preached to them, then God would elect them.  

Hence, the Calvinist claim that the particularity of election necessitates double predestination is false.  It would if we tried to ask the question from the God's eye perspective and thought of the accident of who has a preacher or doesn't, or who is hardened by the preached Word and who isn't as somehow be transparent to God's eternal decision.  But if we consider it from the perspective of the Word, both the universality of grace and particularity of election make total sense.  

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Christian Seders?

I was on facebook the other day and a number of people were arguing about the question of whether there could be Christian seders.  I don't think that this is a burning question of our times, but hey, this is my blog, so I thought I could give a couple of my thoughts on the subject.

Question: Is it morally or spiritually wrong for Christian to have seders?  Answer: No, but it's weird for a number of reasons.

I've actually participated in seders with Jewish friends back in Oregon and I don't think it's wrong to do so.  As I see it, it's like a Danish friend coming to a 4th of July celebration when in the US.  For the Jews, like Americans, Passover is 4th of July.  So, just as we have a national history and a story of liberation, so do the Jews.  The fact of the new testament doesn't do away with Jewish identity or national history, any more than it does away with let's say, Russian, or German or Indian history and national pride.  So if Jewish Christian want to celebrate Passover as a time of remembering national pride and liberation, the way American do for 4th of July, that's fine.  Just as long as they don't think that it is some sort of alternative means of salvation or something which they must obey as a fulfillment of the law.

This bring us to the second point.  Of course part of the difference is that these events and the meal points ahead to Christ and the institution of the new testament in the form of Lord's Supper as well.  Here's where it gets weird for Gentile Christians.  

Two points:

Having seders for Gentiles Christian on their own (if not invited by Jewish friends, as in my case) doesn't make any sense.  My ancestors were Swiss/Swabian German immigrants in southern Russia who later settled in North Dakota.  As I recall, Swabia, Switzerland, Russia, and North Dakota are nowhere close to Egypt or Israel.  So, why would I celebrate the national liberation of a people I have nothing to do with?  It would be like the Japanese celebrating 4th of July!

Secondly, Gentile Christians don't need to celebrate seders because they have Christ and his supper: "Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed, so let us keep the feast."  The Passover Lamb was the shadow, and Christ the reality.  So, as the author of Hebrew puts it: What's the point of going back to the shadow, when you've got the reality?  Answer: None.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nominalism, Realism, and Paradox: A Dialogue with Dr. Mark Mattes- Part 2.

Here's part two.  In this line of discussion we debate the importance of the question of the analogy of being and the univocity of being for Lutheran theology.  I propose that both options are a form of the theology of glory.  Both also assume an ontology of legalism, which the gospel overcomes.

Mark Mattes: "This discussion with you is helping me to put my cards down on the table.  I’m hoping for any feedback you might have to offer.  Milbank in Theology and Social Theory has his famous either/or: either Catholic (Thomistic) analogy or Nihilsm.  Radical Orthodoxy, Richard M. Weaver, Gillespie (The Theological Origins of Modernity), and right wing Catholics (you’d know them better than me) situate Luther as a thorough-going Nominalist.  And from Nominalism springs the modern world, and from the modern world springs Nihilism.  So, for Troeltsch, Luther was all too medieval, but for these folks, Luther is the bane of contemporary nihilism.  If I understand Milbank and these others, what I hear them saying is that realism grounds human nature in the fulfillment of its telos.  The human is self-actualized by doing those virtues appropriate its nature and ultimately grace fulfills nature by allowing the creature to be deified and thus one with its creator.  The analogy of being—a greater dissimilarity in the midst of such great similarity—configures  our participation in such universals that move us forward towards our self-fulfillment.  By contrast, Nominalism claims that universals are only names we impose upon reality, breaking down the analogy of being.  Hence, ultimately the movement of the viator is evaluated only by arbitrary standards imposed by God and not especially intrinsic to the creature’s nature.  Even worse, God is defined from a univocity of being between the infinite and the finite, which, in this way of thinking makes God into a kind of glorified, finite personality, not truly being itself.  Hence, the divine-human relationship is that of humans conforming his will to God’s, even though it is ambiguous whether or not God’s will is actually good.  Is this true that apart from Thomistic realism that all leads to Nihilism?  It seems to me “Catholic analogy” fails to understand that coram deo we are wholly passive—what do you have that you haven’t received.  Likewise, it seems to me that Luther is far more eclectic as you point out and for which I want to say that he fits comfortably neither into Realism nor Nominalism.  More to the point, either catholic analogy or nihilism is a false dilemma.  For one thing Luther affirms that humans have a final or ultimate end (using Aristotle’s four-fold causality), and that this end is grounded in human nature.  Though here, I want to go with Forde’s language and say that grace primarily liberates nature (from incurvation) rather than elevates nature.  (Though it is true, Luther says in the Genesis commentary that we were originally created to be placed on earth for a time, and then we would be transferred to an immortal life—a kind of elevation, I suppose.)  Our telos is not in self-actualization coram deo but in faith which allows God to be God for us." 

 Jack Kilcrease: "I'm quite familiar with this line of reasoning and especially the work of Milbank, who I ultimately do not agree with but have profited by reading.  In many respects I think that the "Univocity of being" vs. "the analogy of being" offer two unappealing alternatives for Lutherans.  I don't think either really works with our theology, because both work from the assumption that created being stands on a scale with uncreated being (as wide as said scale may be!).  Both also assumes an account of God's being and creatures which is fundamentally rooted in legalism.  In the case of the analogy of being, God as superessential becomes the object of longing and correspondence.  Desire and activity are infinite and therefore are met the infinity of God's law and his nature as a desirable object.  God can only be interacted with on the basis of the striving of the law.  Also, there is a strangely covert Gnostic dimension to this as well (strange, insofar as Milbank claims that his project is anti-Gnostic).  If created being is an analogy for uncreated being, then when God made the world he simply made a worse version of himself.  This has two implications.  First, again, this works in the legal scheme because the act wasn't purely gratuitous, it was to make desirable objects that could become more desirable as they conformed to his reality.  Two, it has the ring of the Gnostic system's conflation of creation and the fall.  Being a worse version of God makes being a creature a reality fallen away from the perfection of the Godhead.  Hence the whole exitus-reditus scheme, wherein much like the redeemed in the Gnostic system, the creature fulfills his true nature as divine by ascending into the hidden divine life.  Of course, this happens by participation via grace, and not by a self-realization of one's hidden divine identity.  But I see little daylight between the two positions.

 The univocity of being also preserves the legalistic scheme because it calls for more self-justification and then ultimately the supreme act of self-justification, nihilism.  If God and I have the same quality of being and God is a big person, then we are in competition with one another.  He is a greater person trying to dominate my smaller personhood (hence Scotist's claim that ethics are rational because of the creature's rational will for self-preservation informed it that God could punishment them if they didn't do what he said!).  I suspect that there is much truth in the claims of Milbank and other that this is ontology of violence.  The reason why it is though is not because it is a deviation from Realism (which is equally legalistic), but because works from the assumption that God is my competitor and therefore that the divine-human relationship is fundamentally one of a superior person demanding obedience from a lesser one.  If anything leads to nihilism, it is the legalism present here.  Jungel I think was right to say that when Descartes used God to secure the self it was only a matter of time before Atheism resulted.  A God of this nature is one whom I must assert my autonomy against as an oppressor.  Eventually I must eliminate him completely.  That's why Richard Dawkins says he's doing what he's doing- because it's "liberating."  Atheism is just another form of self-justification.  It's not a very effective one either, since as Bayer notes, it means that you now have to justify yourself before yourself based on your autonomy.  Hence, postmodernism cannot even bear having a real "self" since even this concept becomes something which one must justify themselves against.

 In a word, I would argue (much as you did) that the problem is legalism, the hidden God, and self-justification evoked by both realities.  Both assume that God's being in relationship to human persons is fundamentally based on law and not on gospel.  This means that nihilism will ultimately result from either position, because both positions create a situation wherein the human creature must engage in a perpetual act of self-justification.  In either case, both will eventually wish to eliminate their oppressor to forego the burden of future self-justification." 

 Mark Mattes: "Nihilism is not a result of Luther but of the human self-deification that Humanism has attempted to affirm.  It coalesces with the modern attempt to make faith a private matter.  At some level, nihilism is a result of our dealing with a hidden God, and can be fueled by the retrieval of ancient Greek Epicureanism and atomism which was done in the High Enlightenment.  So, to give up Catholic analogy (as a process of deification) is not to open the floodgates of nihilism but to create space for grace.  After all, there is no analogy between death and life—they are opposite.  Nature is liberated to be as God intends man’s final end to be.  Hence, in creation we deal not such much with universals per se, but we definitely deal with God masked in all things—addressing us as law and gospel." "Though it is true, Luther says in the Genesis commentary that we were originally created to be placed on earth for a time, and then we would be transferred to an immortal life—a kind of elevation, I suppose.  Now—what do you think?  Am I totally off?  There is no doubt that Luther is deeply influenced by Nominalism—in numerous ways, not least of all aspects of his view of God, as you mention.  (See also Heiko Oberman’s “Luther and the Via Modern: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough.”)  But there are other aspects that tend to balance that out and even better, put him on a different trajectory.  I don’t think, for instance, that the Finns are wrong to affirm “union with Christ” as an ontic-real presence.  Instead, they are wrong to think that this presence, what the Lutheran Scholastics called the mystical union, would be grounded on something other than a verbum externum.  And, if anywhere, I think that you are right in claiming that Luther’s uniqueness is in fides ex auditu—not relying on any internal measure by which to evaluate our state as in either sin or grace, but instead an external evaluation and/or pardon."

 Jack Kilcrease: "I'm totally with you.  I would consider the use of the language of telos good if used for earthly things.  Though you are correct that Luther does use that language in a sense in the Genesis commentary, he doesn't in my reading think that heavenly existence (in the manner of Aquinas and the earlier tradition in general) as something that Adam and Eve could have moved toward with their actions.  Telos is always tied up with activity and not with receptivity. 

Bayer's use of the vita passiva has made me think that Lutheran should think about the divine-human relationship less in terms of a concept of being.  In fact, as Bayer also states, talking in terms of a comprehension description of being is an act of the theology of glory.  Knowing the whole (the wholeness of being) effectively makes one divine.  Rather, Luther theology should, I think, talk more in terms of the activity-passivity of created and uncreated being.  God, I would say, should be ontologically described as agent and giver, whereas created being is fundamentally receptive and derivatively active.  Activity and receptive are opposites, they do not possess an analogy.  I think this works with the doctrine of the Trinity well also.  The doctrine of the Trinity says that God is an eternal event of self-donation and giving.  Creation makes sense as his act of giving.  Incarnation then follows also.  God's fundamental reality is an eternal event of giving.  God gives and he gives again.  Therefore, humans enter into the legal relationship only when they become bad receivers, i.e., pretending that they are givers of the good and not receivers.  They fall away from giving and receiving and therefore demand comes in and says "correspond to the true relationship which you having fallen away from."  They are unable to because any action they take to correspond to the original relationship of passive receiving is self-justification through activity and therefore logically not the vita passiva.  

 From this perspective, the legal ontology of either "univocity" or "analogy" is reflective of the projection of the relationship of self-justification onto the fundamental ontic structures of reality.  It in effect does represent something real (the legal relationship of demand and condemnation under the God of law, hiddenness and wrath), but one that has only resulted from the entry of sin into the divine-human relationship.  In a sense, both "univocity" and "analogy" accurately represent something about human "nomological" (Elert) existence.  As sinners, we do not correspond to an ideal which is reflective of God (the loss of the imago dei).  We are also responsible to a person (God), whom our self-justifying will is intrinsically in competition with under the law.  Of course though, these concepts do not properly express the ontological basis of reality, God's giving and our receiving.  When the gospel comes to restore and fulfill all things, then these things cease to be true.  We do not aspire to an ideal by our self-justifying activity, since the effective Word of the gospel gives the ideal via the hearing of faith.  We are not in competition with a demanding and dominating infinite person, because the law has become a lex vacua." 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nominalism, Realism, and Paradox: A Dialogue with Dr. Mark Mattes- Part 1.

Dr. Mark Mattes is an ELCA theologian whom I had occasion to get to know a bit while writing my dissertation on Forde.  Though I do not agree with him on every subject, I appreciate him as a prophetic voice over against the present revolt against orthodox Lutheranism in ELCA.  Recently we have an e-mail dialogue over the question of ontology in the interpretation of Luther.  He suggested I post part of it on my blog.  I have edited into the form of a dialogue.  This is part 1, I will be posting part 2 in the next few days.

Mark Mattes: Have you done much thinking about Luther’s use of paradox in theology?  Siegbert Becker in “Foolishness of God” does a good job describing Luther’s use of paradox but is quite poor with giving a rationale for its use or indicating any antecedent resources that Luther might have used.  I’m aware of your study of Luther in his theological context—does Luther’s use of paradox come across as novel, from your perspective?  I’ve spent some years actually thinking about Luther in relation to Nominalism and Realism and for what it’s worth, I’ve come to the conclusion that Luther doesn’t fit tidily into either camp.  My reading of the Finns suggests that they would prefer a Luther with affinity to Realism but I think the role that the analogy of being plays in Thomism is eclipsed by larva dei for Luther.  Luther clearly rejects a Nominalist approach to grace, i.e., facere quod in se est, and I think Bielfeldt has a good point that Luther’s view would contest a continuous Porphyrian tree, a commensurability between philosophy and theology, as we might infer from Nominalism.  Any thoughts? 

Jack Kilcrease: "I'm inclined to agree that reading Luther as a straight Norminalist or Moderni has its limitations.  This can be seen in the systematic application of this reading by the progenitors of 20th century Catholic Luther scholarship (Grisar, Denifle).  In fact, my readings in later medieval scholasticism and Protestant scholasticism have convinced me that people in the late Middle Ages and early modern period tended to be eclectic in their appropriation of earlier scholastic traditions.  Richard Muller's book on Arminius suggest this.  My own reading of Gerhard suggests this as well.  Gerhard rejects the analogy of being in favor of the Occamist "no proportion between created and created being" stance.  He then accepts Francis Junius' distinction between the archetypal and enctypal theology, which is rooted in Scotism, but then posits Thomas' view of the logical, but not substantial distinction between the divine attributes (contra the Occamist radical simplicity, wherein attributes are distinguish from one another merely in name).

Luther in many ways seems to me an Occamist.  Ubiquity, hidden-reveal God, etc.  I agree that Walther Kolher that much of his debate with Zwingli can also be chalked up to his having a different understanding of faith and reason rooted in Occamism over against Zwingli's training in the via Antiqua via Thomas Wyttenbach.  On the other hand, the interesting thing about the hidden-revealed God is that it is not quite the distinction between God's potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata (interestingly enough, I recently found a passage in the Genesis commentary where Luther directly identifies the two concepts, though he is not quite right about this).  In other words, although Luther says that "God has left himself free" outside his "binding" to the Word and the sacrament, he doesn't seem to mean that God's is somehow an undirected and arbitrary will in himself.  Rather, he thinks that God has a nature (holiness and love) which he acts out of, similar to Realism.  There is no Occamist radical simplicity wherein the divine nature and will are simply collapsed into one another.  Rather, God's nature is something real and determinative of his will.  The problem is that we can't see what that nature is or how it reconciles the duality of God's temporal activity of law and gospel.  That nature will only be truly revealed in light of glory.  

Regarding paradox, ever since I read Brian Gerrish piece on the hiddenness of God in Luther, I've rethought a lot about the paradoxical nature of the disclosure of God in hiddenness.  Gerrish pointed out what always bothered me, namely, that Luther says that God is hidden everywhere, but then he's also hidden in revelation.  So this provokes the question: when does revelation ever happen?  What I've come to argue (and I use this in my Christology book), is that the paradox can be understood in terms of auditory vs. visual revelation.  The earlier tradition considered all revelation and knowledge in general a form of vision.  Aristotle of course understands our apprehension of any object as a form of intellectual vision that imprints itself on us.  Hence all theology is analogical reflection on God.  Luther by contrast understands the event of revelation as one where God is present, hidden, yet makes himself known in an auditory fashion.  This makes a lot of sense if you read the Bible.  I actually have a part of my book where I go through the Gospel narrative and show how every step of the way the dissonance between vision and hearing gets greater and greater.  On the cross, we of course hear that Jesus is the Son of God (from Pilate's sign and the Centurion's confession), but we see quite the opposite.  This concept of revelation I think sets Luther apart from Realism.  It is closer to Nominalism with its emphasis on divine self-commitment and communication as the basis of the divine-human relationship.  Nevertheless, the paradox and the sacramentality of the divine presence in the Word is in many ways totally unprecedented according to my reading of the earlier tradition (which is obviously incomplete!)."    

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Early Rabbinic Interpretation of the Bible According to James Kugel

As most of your are aware, I generally listen to a book on tape while running in the morning. My current book on tape is James Kugel's How to Read the Bible. Kugel is a conservative Jew who teaches at Harvard. The book therefore deals with the contrast mainly between Rabbinic (and some patristic) readings of the Old Testament, and the modern liberal, critical view. Kugel is honest enough to point out that if one seems more plausible than the other, it is because different assumptions are present in the interpreter. Amen! Kugel though, definitely believes in critical scholarship and I'm certain at the end of the book we'll get some sort of fact/value split speech about how we can pretend the ancient interpreters were right, when we actually know they weren't. Yeah! A couple of interesting point come from the comparing and contrasting the the two models. 1. The historical-critical method always comes off as special pleading when (ironically!) critically examined. First, Kugel is clear that many of the reading of the ancient interpreters (for example, thinking the serpent in Eden is Satan, thinking of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as the Fall, etc.) go back as far as we can trace interpretation. So, why are we supposed to believe that people ever understood them differently? Oh, but they did! Even if we have no record of it! The second follows from the first. Although the traditional interpretation goes back as far as we can go, the real meaning of the story is always different than the traditional interpretation. Why? Because the original story existed in an imaginary social situation and had a function in that social situation that, although it can't be verified, most certainly falsifies the traditional reading of the text. Again, how are we supposed to have access to this original social setting or take this reading serious? I suspect the answer is A. It bucks against traditional piety, which is a self-authenticating good. If religious traditionalists protest, it's because they're emotional and backward. B. It tends to be Materialistic in it's metaphysical presuppositions, which as modern people we know is intrinsically more rational! Any harmonizing reading assumes that God is the author, so it can't be right. 2. One good thing that Kugel points out is how the ancient interpreters (Rabbinic ones in particular, but some Christians as well) tried to overcome the bad behavior of the Patriarchs. In this case, I think he has a point. The Patriarchs are quite rotten in their personal behavior. But why pretend otherwise? The issue is actually about law and gospel. The Rabbis worked from the rather strange assumption that God elected the Patriarchs (just like he elects anyone) because they were good people. There was a debate among the Rabbis about who exactly merited election for Israel. Was it Abraham or another Patriarch or was it the moral purity of the exodus generation (this last one is especially amusing)? Of course, read in light of the gospel, we can be quite honest about the Patriarchs and how bad they were. After all, so are we! But for the sake of Jesus, "Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness!" Interestingly enough, if you read the Genesis commentary, Luther is rather similar to the Rabbis. He tries to rationalize almost everything that the Patriarchs did. But we need not be dishonest about how bad they were, anymore than we should be about ourselves. Freedom of the gospel is the freedom to admit that we're wrong.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Is There Any Point in Reading Modern or Non-Lutheran Theologians?

I was recently involved in an online discussion regarding the question of whether or not there is any point in reading certain less than orthodox Lutheran theologians (in particular Gerhard Forde, Steve Paulson, and Mark Mattes). We could probably add others (Werner Elert came up in a big way). I think the consensus seemed to be no. What I discerned to be the major concern is the following (and I am open to correction if I got this wrong): The Seminex folks got too interested in modern theologians. This led to their liberalism and the Seminex crisis. We have Lutheran theologians who say pretty much everything right (Luther, Chemnitz, Walther, Pieper, etc.), so what's the point in reading someone who has it right only 80% of the time (actually one participant seemed to suggest it was more like 2% of the time, but the point remains).

In response, I don't really think that having an interest in modern theologians necessarily led to Seminex in and of itself. After all, Robert Preus and David Scaer (to just name a few) were/are deeply conversant with modern theology. Scaer even has a few nice things to say about Barth. So, I don't really think the two go together automatically. Personally, I think there is probably a more sociological explanation for why Seminex happened (this is not to be addressed here, but in a future post). I would also suggest that there some very good reasons to read people like Forde or Elert, as well as non-Lutheran theologians of various sorts. These are the following:

1. No Theologian is Perfect: Theology is always "theology of the way" as the Lutheran scholastics used to put it. In reading any theologian, no matter how orthodox, one must always be discerning. Gerhard thinks that a good argument against Catholicism is that several popes were wizards. Walther didn't like the Irish and makes some negative statements about them in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. You might say: this isn't substantial, just an issue with folk beliefs of the day. Yes, but there also several substantial problems I would point to. The Lutheran scholastics mostly did reject Luther's and the FC's view of predestination, thereby making faith a work. As wonderful a text as the Proper Distinction is, there are still many Pietistic elements in it. Walther in my view is way, way too concerned about our personal discernment and introspection. Luther calculated the end of the world like he was some sort of Jehovah's Witness (he said we had 50 years to go!). Again, this doesn't mean that either are not valuable, it just means that they must be read with discernment like all theology.

2. Pastors, Laypeople, and Theologians Need Theological Dialogue Partners: Luther described the last stage of the threefold practice of theology as Tentatio=suffering or temptation. He meant two things by this. First, suffering in the sense of being persecuted by the world and the Devil. This would drive one back to Christ and the Spirit through prayer (the first stage Oratio). Secondly, he said that theologians need to be tested by attack from others. He said he became a good theologian by entering into discussion with and being attack by the faculties of Paris and Leuven. How else will we respond to modern challenges if we don't read the other side? As a Lutheran theologian, the best thing I did for myself in graduate school was to make a point to read all the way through Aquinas' Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles, as well as all the volumes of Barth's Church Dogmatics. Why? Because Aquinas is the top Catholic theologian and Barth is the top Reformed theologian. How else could I learn to give the maximally correct response as a Lutheran theologian to the Reformed and Catholic traditions without reading them? Also, how else was I supposed to know that I was right about Lutheranism? Perhaps there is a challenge to Luther that I can't overcome! Reading the opposition confirms me all the more in my Lutheranism. Lastly, theology needs to engage with modern thought forms and challenges. This is one of the reason why I find the Erlangen theologian interesting and very much worth reading. Their attempt was to deal with modern thought-forms and challenges in a Lutheran manner. Now, many of their approaches were wrong and represented compromises with modern thought-forms (Thomasius on Kenosis, von Hofmann on atonement, the general abandonment of a high view of Scripture, etc- if my book ever comes out, bear in mind that I spend much time in chapters 4-5 attacking both of these fellows), but it at least tried to engage modern challenges. This is, I believe an important task and can be practiced in a more orthodox manner than they did. The intention was right, many of the methods were wrong!

3. Valuable Insights are to Be Gained from Different Thinkers: Certain theologians are good for different things. Gerhard is good for typological reading of Scripture and for discussion of the prolegomena to the dogmatics. He's also good for the doctrine of the divine essence and attributes. He's not very good for insights into the hidden and revealed God. Forde and Elert are good for understanding hidden and revealed God (for Elert, the first 100 pages of The Structure of Lutheranism, as well as his Glaubens Lehre are great on this subject!- I used Forde's book on Bondage of the Will for my Luther class. It is an excellent text), they are not that good on the third use of the law or on the doctrine of Scripture. Forde is good on a lot of things, but not wonderful on atonement to the least. Bayer is good on the orders of creation, the hidden and revealed God, but again, is very vague about the prolegomena to dogmatics, etc. The point is that theologians of all stripes have all sort of different strengths and weaknesses. One just needs to read them with discernment in light of the Scriptures and the Confessions. Again, the fact that one needs to do this does not denigrates their insights. Neither are there any theologians out there who one can be absolved from error.

4. Reading Certain Theologians Gives Us the Right to be Critical of Them: It's very hard to criticize a theologians with much credibility without having read them. I realize that I'm hypocritical on this point, since I've not read Rob Bell (actually I found out I'm going to have to do so, since I've been asked to teach an adult education class on his errors!). Nevertheless, for example, when I read people on the internet being critical of a theologian and it's clear that they haven't read them, it make me take their criticisms less seriously. Also, actually reading a theologian makes your criticisms more nuanced. For example, a person could say: "Forde is an Antinomian because he doesn't have a third use of the law!" Well, he doesn't- that's true and it's problematic as well. But a number of things have to be taken into consideration like: what concept of the third use is he rejecting? Is it really the one that FC teaches? Does Forde actually think the law has no role in the Christian's life? I address all of these questions in my article for CTQ on the subject which is supposed to be coming out this month (maybe!) and I find the answer is much more complicated. Ultimately I conclude that Forde isn't Antinomian per se, but that doesn't place him beyond criticism (you'll have the read the full article). The point is that yelling "Antinomian" when a more nuanced reading is necessary doesn't help the state of theological discourse. Reading theologians we don't like helps us fairly criticize them. If we don't like a person theologically, it doesn't mean they are guilt of every theological crime. Neither does thinking that some idea sounds like some other idea make it the same idea. We have to read people on a case-by-case basis in terms of their overall theological system.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is Lex Aeterna back in Town?

More from Paulson.

Couple of nice features of Paulson contra Forde.  Paulson is know for being a Forde disciple par excellence and therefore I think it's important to recognize that he is his own man theologically.  Mostly the structure of Forde's interpretation of the dialectic of hidden and revealed in Luther remains, though Forde was right about all that.  There are some interesting deviations from Forde later.

First, Paulson definitely does accept substitutionary atonement.  Much like Elert, he is able to coordinate Christ's death for sinners with their own death with Christ very well.  Forde reduced everything to existential change in the sinner through the existential gesture of the cross which leads to death-and-resurrection in faith.  One could argue, I think, that someone like Melanchthon and other Reformed folks basically reduce things to Christ dying for us, and then make our death in Baptism with Christ a metaphor for moral improvement.  

Secondly, Paulson accept lex aeterna or eternal law.  Forde rejected this because he said that Luther stated (as he does) that the law ceases to accuse and demand once we are in heaven and the law is fulfilled.  This is true, but it doesn't mean that the law isn't the eternal content of God's will.  Again, Forde existentializes law to mean something that really corresponds to an experience which will at some point cease.  Hence law cannot be eternal because the experience which law corresponds to is not eternal.

Paulson follows Luther and puts it well: "Of course the law is eternal.  It is either eternally before the sinner [i.e., in hell] or it is eternally behind the redeemed in Christ, for whom the law has been fulfilled."  

In other words, Paulson is able to accept the law is a real thing within God's eternal will, while at the same time recognizing that the law ceases as a threat and demand when it has been fulfilled.  Hence, the Fordian over-existentializing tendency is overcome beautifully, while accepting the better aspects of the insight.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Steven Paulson's Interpretation of Idolatry in Romans 1.

The Paulson book is very interesting.  His method is to try to follow Melanchthon's use of the Loci method in Loci Commmunes 1521.  Melanchthon wrote a work to be a theology text-book on the chief topics one might want to know about in order to understanding theology.  He ordered these topics on the basis of the Epistle to the Romans.  Paulson wants to follow this order and much of Melancthon's argument as a road into the Lutheran tradition.  By following Melanchthon's loci ordered on Romans, he thereby also enters into a discussion of Romans.  As he comments, Romans is in a sense Paul's introduction to the Old Testament.  Thereby, Paulson enters into a discussion of the whole of Scripture.

The interpretation of idolatry in Romans 1 is particularly interesting to me.  Paulson observes that Luther states that prior to the Fall humans would have properly received and heard God in all things.  He notes that Luther talks about "eating" God in bread when we have a regular meal.  The unbelieving fool, comments Luther, eats the bread but does not realize that he eats God "in the bread."  

This is not intended as pantheism or something, but rather to acknowledge that God is present to all creatures in his sustaining power.  Luther's worldview was in many ways hyper-sacramental.  God frees his creatures by his Word to see his goodness to them in all things.  We can observe this in particular in Luther's description of Adam and Eve sacramental worship prior to the Fall in the Genesis commentary.  Sin destroys our ability to hear God properly through his creatures, and therefore we cannot clearly hear God testify to his grace.  Here's where idolatry comes in.

Paulson notes that Paul states that the Gentiles make "images" for themselves of the gods.  There are several implications for this.  First, it should be noted that the problem with idolatry is not that humans find God in physical objects.  This is a problem that the Reformed have, but not Luther.  God in fact wants to be found in physical objects (Incarnation, sacraments, etc.).  In fact, in that an idol as an image of a God who is not present, it is a sign that the person who makes the idols does not acknowledge God's already present reality to his creatures. 

Instead, the problem with the idol is that is a image.  As an image, it is not a Word from God by which he testified to his hidden reality in creatures.  Hence, as an image it serves either two purposes.  First, it can be used to manipulate God.  For the idolator, God is not sacramentally present in the image, but rather God is reduced to the image so that he can be manipulated.  As a finite subject among others, God is made manageable and controllable by our works in relation to the image.  Secondly, the image can become an image of a distant God.  As distant, God needs a mediating image to help creatures see want he is and become like him.  They now become active in trying to be like God through imitating the image.  Hence, they deify themselves by their works.  

This is why Israel didn't need a image of God.  He was present in the Temple, so why have an image?  If God is present and gracious, why make an image of a distant God?  Also, note the similarity between the glory which the 70 elders in Exodus saw on Mt. Sinai and the golden calf.  They need a surrogate now that Moses is gone and God is far away. Later, they are afraid when Moses is present with the real glory of God on his face, as they were when God actually spoke to them from the cloud on Sinai.

Both functions of an idol are essentially tied up with human self-justification.  First, making God small and controllable is important for those who practice works righteousness.  Keeping God distant is also important.  Making God distant means we can move towards him with our good works and becomes like the image of him.  Also, if we recognize the "wrath of God revealed from heaven above" through the mediums of creation, this will be unbearable to us.  It will destroy us and all our self-justification projects.  Conversely, the presence of God as gracious through the fruits of the garden made it impossible for Adam and Eve to try control God.  God who is present and gracious is equally unbearable for those who wish to engage in self-justification.  The God present "pro me" can't be bought off or controlled because he already unilaterally redeems and blesses.  

Think also of the rejection of Jesus.  Again, Jesus testified with his Word that he was God present and gracious.  Hearing is essentially passive.  Jesus doesn't seem like God (weakness and bad company- i.e. he is not an image to be imitated) so we must trust his Word that he is who he says he is.  His Word makes many angry becomes it takes away their power to control with good works.  By killing God himself, they reveal their idolatry.  

Bottom line: You need to trust in a Word that discloses a presence (faith).  You can only imitate an image (works).