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Postmodernity has left us with the risky uncertainty of knowing and doing the good. It also leaves us with the global risks of political violence and terrorism, economic globalization and financial crisis, and environmental destruction and global climate change. How should Christians respond to these problems?
It is a tour de force, condensing a magisterial vision into four chapters, which together amount to a battle cry or call to arms for those unsatisfied with the dominant literary, historical, and sociological approaches to biblical interpretation, but unsure of where to turn. In his view, contemporary theologians are so eager to regain a seat at the table of academic and cultural respectability that they willingly substitute functionally secular concepts and arguments for their native language.
If the world judges appeals to the Bible or trinitarian doctrine as moribund, irrelevant, or akin to alchemy, so be it. For instance:. Scripture has its being in the prevenient will of the Trinity. It is what it is and says what it says because God desires it so. The meaning of their human words, far from being exhausted in their original intention, has its origin and fulfillment in the eternal Word of God who became flesh; what they mean, in briefest scope, is Christ: they mean him , the One born of Mary and nailed to a cross, and whatever he means to say through them concerning himself and his body.
Exegesis, therefore, is an essentially spiritual act. Just as bibliology follows from theology proper, hermeneutics follows from bibliology. One cannot know how to read the Bible without first knowing what it is. For Scripture is unlike any other book: it is sui generis. For the saints to read Holy Scripture well, then, they need the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The name of that school, as we have seen, is church, the community gathered around the Word, assembled before the lectern beneath which stands the pulpit. Furthermore, in Reformed vein, the church is fundamentally passive. Its being lies wholly beyond itself; all that it is, has, and does is both eccentric and ostensive, sourced without and directing all that look to it elsewhere, to God.
It is a living reference, and God in Christ is its singular referent. It has no natural visibility, only spiritual visibility.
It is a polity unlike any other, yet this is invisible to the naked eye. What is the church? It is the community called into being by the risen Christ, which in his Spirit hearkens to the word of God addressed to it. It is a creature of grace, receiving with astonishment and gratitude the good news that slays and makes alive again. His late forays into moral theology, for example, are some of the richest reflections on the virtues offered in recent decades.
That is probably the thinnest area in his thought, and probably on purpose. If modern theology has been seduced by other disciplines, political theory has usually been first among them. Webster only rarely ventured that way, overcorrecting the tendency by remaining in his sphere of interest almost exclusively. In the same short editorial in which he calls theology contemplative, he notes as well that it is apostolic.
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One answer comes in a late essay on mercy. What it has to say about both the mercies of God and creaturely mercy retains Christian specificity only in the closest proximity to this name and to the sphere of reality which this name indicates, and, further, only in such proximity can theology be genuinely helpful and interesting to its neighbors in the human community. The temptation to avoid mention of this name arises.
His response is worth quoting in full:. If theology is truly authorized by its object and so truly a joyful exercise, it will face affliction simply by saying what it has to say—whether about mercy or about anything else—without adopting either a concessive or a defensive posture. It will give itself to the task of seeking to attend to the gospel and to speak about what it has heard.
This is what we have heard, the theologian says, this is the good which has been given to us and which we seek to commend. What the church says to itself and what the church says to its neighbors outside the church will be the same thing; in both contexts, theology has to describe the gospel well, and to persuade by description. In terms of its speech before the world, therefore, theology simply speaks the gospel and leaves the gospel to look after itself.
Theology shares the condition of all Christian speech in time, namely that it cannot expect perfect assent and often generates reproach, because it must so often cut across prevailing discursive norms. Like Wisdom at the opening of Proverbs f. Yet, again like Wisdom, its place is not only in the temple precincts but in the streets and markets, at the top of the city walls and in the entrance of the city gates.
Theology cries aloud the name of Jesus, to the church and to the world.
What comes of it, God knows. The gospel, as its faithful servant here reminds us, will look after itself. Last Name. The essay is exceptional in its attentiveness to his major moves and his more subtle nuances — though, as you are right to suggest, all of us still have yet to reckon fully with his late work on the virtues.
But for John these simply cannot be closed off from another another; it was never the case that he left one of these behind in order to turn to something new. When he opened a new book he always left the others open on his desk, as well — because in humility he never lost sight of what he could learn from them despite his clear-headed disagreements. He added new insights, new emphases, and new forms to his work. It was only his interests that shifted, and with them his reading list, as he endeavored to learn here and there from the best that the tradition has to offer.
The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology
Thank you again. Next On Dogmatic Virtue. Featured Theology and Practice. For a Christian it is enough to believe that the cause of created things, whether in heaven or on earth, visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the creator who is the one true God, and that there is nothing that is not either himself or from him, and that he is a Trinity… —St.
Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love The chief aim of sacred doctrine is to teach the knowledge of God, not only as he is in himself, but also as he is the beginning of things and their last end… —St.
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Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica God is. This is the simple statement which we have to develop and explain… In so doing we confront the hardest and at the same time the most extensive task of church dogmatics… —Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics When John Webster passed away suddenly a little over two years ago, much of the world failed to notice. It is almost as if the subject is more than an academic discipline; almost as if it is alive… In what follows I would like to introduce the theology of John Webster to those who have not yet had the pleasure.
Trinity and Creation Although Webster devoted himself to a number of major doctrinal topics, the one overriding locus was the doctrine of God, or theology proper. As Webster writes: Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold object.
Chapter 2. The Truth about God: The Decalogue as Condition for Truthful Speech
Christ and Salvation Christology is the heart of modern theology. As Webster writes: Far from abstracting from the history of the economy, theological talk of relations of origin [within the triune Godhead] is a way of articulating the infinite depth within the being of God, that ocean whose tide is the missions of the Son and Spirit by which lost creatures are redeemed and perfected. Scripture and Church Too often modern theology, especially Protestant theology, imagines the ascension of Christ as entailing his absence.
Antonia H. It undoubtedly also implies that our understanding of human nature and morality is rightly oriented and contextualized only in the light of the gospel.
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Eerdmans, , Ch. Crisp Rea, Ed. We are not so much called to love humanity in general as to love specific persons at specific times. An essential point to make here, however, is that concerns about the epistemology of sin provide reason only to correct certain abuses and misuses of natural law theory, not to avoid or discard it. After all, St. Augustine and John Calvin, cf. Benjamin W. Farley Baker Books, ,.
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Once again, I grant that it is not always clearly articulated by Barth himself. Yet what I have in mind is nevertheless a theological insight and tension that is present throughout his mature writings. To see what it is, let us re-consider the ontology of humanity Barth offers and the manner in which it challenges the sort of natural law theory he rejects.
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Barth has been accused by some more traditionally Reformed theologians of flattening out the diversity of the covenants in Scripture, and his dictum that covenant is the basis of creation might seem to lend credence to that idea: he uses the singular, after all, in speaking of covenant.
Yet while Barth clearly insists on the gracious concordance of the divine covenants—because, after all, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever—he also recognizes more and less subtle differences among developments of the fundamental covenant. The logic of creation, reconciliation and redemption are not one and the same; there is for the suggestion that the Catholic magisterium has come to appreciate its force as well.
Hittinger offers some hope of a meeting of the minds between Barth and Veritatis Splendor, and J. Parker, W. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J. Haire Edinburgh: T. That is not to say that one aeon replaces another, but rather that they build on one another in ways that cannot simply be predicted or inferred from the logic of the previous aeon. For instance, Barth indicates that resurrection sets aside not nature itself, but the violation of nature—hence the continuity between it and creation.
Formally, Barth affirms a logic to the structure of human existence that is the same throughout time: we are, as we were created by the Triune God to be, creatures whose existence is always co- existence, primarily in relationship with God but secondarily with others in the creation as well. We have our existence from outside ourselves, and as a result the task of our freedom is always to live well in the life we are given. The Word of God is obviously not only…an indicative but as such an imperative, because it is the Word of His grace. Rather for that very reason grace remains independent of nature, just because nature could not exercise any independent causality over against grace.
But it is by a Word that it takes its origin in God. It is in the hearing of this Word that it lives… Its being takes its course as it accepts the claim of this Word. It is, as it is called, and it continues to be, as it allows itself to be called. It is thus called historically and not statically. It is not enclosed within the circle of its intrinsic possibilities, but opened towards that other and new reality of God its Creator which has broken through to it in His Word, and in that Word as His promise has come to dwell within it. Man is, as he hears this Word. He is, as he is awakened by this Word.
To put the point another way, traditional natural law theory has gone astray even before it could get to the problem of sin by having focused on trying to live up to Adam to the exclusion of living into Christ, as if the humanity and goodness of the latter were simply a repristinization of that of former, as if natural law were always a matter of being rightly related to the past, and not to the future.
It is probably safe to say that for a variety of complex reasons, including his insistence that the gospel is always in the law, Barth does flatten out the story of salvation history he tells more than some would like. Still, Barth resists homogenizing salvation history and rendering it devoid of significant development—indeed, he accuses any who would do so of an inappropriate eschatology.
Thus, he writes that The work of reconciliation…is a fundamentally new work as compared with the work of creation because it consists in the opening up of this depth or perspective for creation, the vision of the resurrection of the body, eternal life and the new heaven and the new earth. The possession of this perspective does not belong of necessity to the essence and conception of creation as such. But it is to be noted that the fact that it does actually possess this perspective emerges in the work of 63 Christ and Adam, He does not only make the sick whole, but gives him a share in the hope of everlasting life.
In retrospect, we may well ask: What would the first work or its restoration be without the second? Yet creation, like the co- humanity given in Adam and Eve, is not an end but a beginning. Because it, and therefore we, are teleologically directed, its being is eschatologically open and in being redeemed it is not simply restored but called to new and even more beautiful ways of being in relationship. Poetic justice, we might say, is far from logical necessity.
When he speaks of Christian ethics as historically contingent, I take him to have in mind the idea that it is aeon- relative. While other examples are possible, and will be mentioned momentarily, consider once again his discussion of the Sabbath. God, Barth notes, rests on the final day of the week of creation, and thus it is fitting that the Jews celebrate their day of rest on Saturday.
Notably, however, Christians follow the commandment to rest in a rather different manner, signified above all by the fact that we rest at the beginning of the week—before we even begin to work! Barth offers an eschatological explanation for the dynamic at work in this divine command, beginning with the fact that the members of the Trinity accomplish and then rest from their work in non-identical ways. The Father, Barth suggests, is the one who rests at the beginning, and does so with a view to Christ, to whom he hands over the work. In being well pleased with creation, then, God was not ignorant of the fall, but rather was pleased with the perfection foreseen in the work of the Son and Spirit.
It is the calling to this which is the telos of justification and sanctification. Examples of the divine command changing in relation to the aeons could easily be multiplied. And it can no longer be a terrible disgrace in our time to be unmarried. The laws God offers are fit to us and indeed constitute us; as God restores, builds on, and consummates the covenant inaugurated at the beginning of time, he recreates us as well.
Reality is always morally instructive, and morality in the broad sense of properly loving relationships is always the nature and purpose of reality. Christ is our moral model because we have in his humanity true human nature. Rather, he believes that because God has graciously and creatively decided that we have true humanity only as we participate in Christ, the only way to avoid having a fundamentally disoriented picture of humanity is to look to Christ. But on the other hand, I think it is often right to try to redeem abused theological terms. Theologically adequate doctrines of natural law must think seriously about how they construe the relation between creation, redemption, and consummation.
I take it that for Aquinas the latter would always be a matter of super-nature. Thus, while a Thomist might find a good deal to sympathize with in Barth, as I read him, the distinction between nature and supernature might remain a bone of contention. Barth therefore suggests that theological ethics is based not only in the teleologies we already have but in that which we are to have, and have proleptically in Christ. He is right, I believe, to associate divine command and natural law theory, but it would be helpful to hear more about how the two are related, and how applied moral norms are related to either.
Again, the possibility that the morality we are to live by is an interim ethic appropriate for this aeon, but not for all time, seems quite significant, but it is hard to spell out just how. For instance, the Barthian approach described above raises questions for the a-historical manner in which many ethicists ply their trade—if Barth is right to think that creation has the eschatological openness he suggests it has, and if he is right to think that our normativity has its basis not merely in creation but also and most definitively in redemption and consummation, then attempts to refer ethical discourse to goods explicable without reference to the full Christian narrative are both theologically and ontologically misguided.
Perhaps most significantly, approaching natural law in the Barthian manner described above will influence how one thinks about the 79 I first began thinking about the themes in this paper after reading Louis E. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, , the latter, however, shows no particular interest in the category of natural law. An eschatological natural law theory can be properly sensitive to Christian soteriology, able to understand the history of salvation as properly pertaining to the natural law rather than some sort of addendum to it.
At the same time, however, because history matters to both our identities and the economy of our morality itself, significant change does happen in and because of Christ. Various goods— including singleness, forgiveness, and the inter-national people of God called the church—are no longer marginal possibilities but brought to the fore. Such a change of emphasis is quite significant, and without destroying the continuity of the salvation story pushes toward new ways of being human that may be further developed in and after the resurrection.
For instance, his idea that humanity is held in Christ can appear to suggest that we are not yet fully human. Does Barth want to say that sinners are human but imperfect, that we fail to live up to our full humanity, or that we will in fact only be human when we are fully in Christ? I hope, however, that others will find it as helpfully stimulating and provocative as I have. References Aquinas, Thomas.