Friday, August 27, 2010

From emphatic to reductionist

Justin Taylor quotes Fred Sanders on evangelicalism:

We have a lot to say about God’s revelation, but we emphasize the business end of it, where God’s voice is heard normatively: the Bible.
We know that everything Jesus did has power for salvation in it, but we emphasize the one event that is literally crucial: the cross.
We know that God is at work on his people through the full journey of their lives, from the earliest glimmers of awareness to the ups and downs of the spiritual life, but we emphasize the hinge of all spiritual experience: conversion.
We know there are countless benefits that flow from being joined to Christ, but we emphasize the big one: heaven
The whole post is great, and captures what is for me one of the biggest problems with evangelicalism today.  Go read it, please.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

God revealing and revealed

I've been brushing up on my Patristics over the last couple of weeks, with the help of John Behr's books on the formation of Christian Theology.  It's been really useful stuff.  One of the things that has been driven home to me is that the foundational question of Christian Theology is 'does Jesus Christ reveal God?'  Of course, it's possible that I'm reading things through this lens because I think that this is the central question to be asked and answered today; still, Behr does indicate that this is at the heart of discussions in the first four centuries of the Church as well.  Indeed, he structures his discussion of the Fathers' doctrine around the gospel question 'who do you say I am?' - with each theologian giving subtly different answers.

An interesting contrast drawn by Behr is between Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons.  Both are generally considered to be orthodox, which makes the comparison all the more interesting - we are not dealing with wild heresies, but with a discussion within the Great Church.  Behr argues that for Justin, who never quite escapes his Platonist past, it is a presuppositional truth that God is utterly transcendent, and therefore not capable of being seen.  He understands Christ as a second God, a visible God.  He is not at this point heading into ditheism; he believes in, although he doesn't particularly develop, the oneness of the Father and the Son.  But he does apply titles to Christ which would later drop out of use - he calls him an apostle and an angel.  It wouldn't be too hard to show Scriptural support for both titles, but in Justin's theology they show the place of the Son: he bridges the gap between the Father and the creation, as a messenger.  This enables Justin to see significant continuity between the Son and creation, and to claim all truth - even when uttered by pagan philosophers - as the Word of God.  "[F]or Justin, the revelation of God in the Incarnate Word is the last, even if the most important, in a series of discrete revelations" (Behr).  Moreover, for Justin the Word reveals the Word - God the Father, in his incomprehensible transcendence, remains essentially unknown.

For Irenaeus, on the other hand, there is no division between the Father and the Son; although distinct, they are absolutely united.  The Son reveals the Father - "the Father is the invisible of the Son, the Son is the visible of the Father" (Against Heresies).  The Son is not conceived of as a bridge (which in the end leads nowhere), but as the manifestation of the Father himself.  The continuity between the Son and creation which creeps in to Justin is absent; God is revealed only in Christ, the incarnate Word, and not elsewhere.  Where for Justin, the Son/Word as intermediary between God and creation can be seen throughout creation and only supremely in Christ, for Irenaeus the Son is seen in Christ alone.  The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ are the revelation of God.  Prior revelation, to the patriarchs and through the Scriptures, is to be understood as related prophetically to the incarnate Word.  There is no room here for any logos asarkos.

It is interesting that the debates about Christology that developed long after Justin and Irenaeus were safely home would revolve initially around whether Christ really is God and therefore able to reveal God, and then around whether this happens in real humanity.  It is all about whether God can be known, and how he can be known.  The answer the orthodox arrived at in the fourth century is that God can be known, but only in his Son, who as true God truly reveals God, and further that the Son can only be seen as incarnate, crucified, and risen, as a true human being.  That, for me, is the crux of all Christian theology: is God seen in Christ, and him crucified?  Is he seen there truly?  Is he seen there alone?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Faith School Menace?

This was the title of a documentary which I watched last night on the subject of faith schools, presented by Professor Richard Dawkins.  Now, I am not hugely excited about faith schools, but I am interested in Prof. Dawkins.  I find him to be representative of a widespread cultural trend which disturbs me, for reasons which will become clear.  For that reason, and not because I particularly feel the need to defend faith schools, I wanted to pass some comment on the documentary.

Firstly, a few relatively trivial things that I think Prof. Dawkins got wrong.  In talking about the rise of faith schools, he seemed to neglect the fact that historically most schools have had some basis in or affiliation to religious teaching, thus making it appear as if a new wave of fundamentalism were sweeping the nation.  I'm really not sure that's true.  Moreover, I think Prof. Dawkins has seriously overestimated how much the average CofE school is actually affected by its links to the Church.  I doubt there is much indoctrination going on in most of these schools.  (Let's face it, you'd struggle to get yourself indoctrinated in the average Anglican Church, let alone the schools).  Neither is there selection along religious lines to the extent that seemed to be implied by the programme.  And in taking us to Belfast as an example of the divisiveness of faith schools, Prof. Dawkins rather failed to take into account the sheer complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, which has at least as much to do with a legacy of colonialism as it does with religion.

That last point was unfortunate, because for me this was where the argument of the documentary had the potential to be most powerful and most interesting.  It does seem to me that educating children in groups defined by religion is likely to be bad for social cohesion.  By playing the NI card, Prof. Dawkins actually put a red herring into play - it is unlikely that SS Mary and John School just down the road from me is going to turn into a hotbed of sectarian violence.  But there is a possibility (not with SSMJ, which as far as I can see has a pretty open admissions policy) that schools which select children according to religion will end up shutting those children off from other views of the world.  This would be a bad thing.  Of course, a faith-based school could still teach about other worldviews, but if there are no families represented who hold those worldviews they will always seem 'other' and alien.  At this point I think there is a real discussion to be had.  A balance has to be struck between the right of parents to bring up their children (which includes the right to decide how they are educated), and the need of society for people who understand a range of worldviews.  It is a problem which stems from the fact that we in the West no longer agree about what the world is like and what life is about - not just in details, but in fundamentals.  It will be difficult, I think, to reconcile the wishes of parents and the needs of society.  I wish Prof. Dawkins had spent longer discussing this point.

The reason he did not do so became clear toward the end of the programme: Prof. Dawkins thinks there is no great difficulty.  In fact, the situation is simple.  Take the faith out of education, and the problem evaporates.

Let me just pick up a few issues that I have with this position.  The first is that the position adopted by Prof. Dawkins assumes that there is some value-neutral and worldview-neutral way of educating children.  I don't see how this could be done, neither do I think it would be desirable if it could be done.  To educate children to adopt a stand-offish approach to every possible view of the world is to educate them to be isolated and probably unpleasant individualists.  Moreover, the position collapses in on itself at the point where the question is asked: would a value-free education be a good thing?

That exposes the bigger issue, which is that Prof. Dawkins seems to believe that his own worldview is not culturally conditioned, has no fundamental presuppositions, and consists purely of uninterpreted facts.  Just writing the sentence should make it clear that this cannot be so.  I would love it if Prof. Dawkins could see that his own view of the world is one amongst many, and that it is not so self-evidently superior to all the others as he thinks it is.  Of course, he thinks his worldview is right - true in the most absolute sense.  We all do, otherwise we wouldn't hold the views that we do.  But part of being one amongst many human beings in many cultures is to accept that others strongly disagree.

The deepest problem, I think, emerged when Prof. Dawkins began to talk about the advice he had given to his young daughter.  I've heard him mention this before, and it is obviously important to him.  He essentially urges her to ask questions about the world, not to take anyone's word for it, and to keep an open mind.  I applaud all of these things.  But he frames this discussion in terms of four sources of knowledge: evidence, tradition, authority, and revelation.  Apart from completely misunderstanding what is meant by 'revelation' (he takes it to mean a subjective feeling), Prof. Dawkins gets into serious trouble when he argues that you should only ever believe something on the basis of evidence.  At one level, this is the simple paradox: what evidence is there that believing things only on evidence will get me to the truth?  At another level, there is the assumption that the natural sciences are essentially the only source of knowledge, another unprovable assertion.  This gets you into all sorts of difficulty.  For example, I must believe many things on authority; I don't have time to test all my beliefs!  The point is, is this a trustworthy authority or not?  There was an interesting point in the documentary when Prof. Dawkins decried the fact that faith was being allowed to over-ride the "facts of science and history".  To put science to one side for the moment, one wonders what facts of history are being spoken of.  Most of what we know about history derives from other people's accounts of it.  I'm not sure how, on Prof. Dawkins' advice, we could claim to know any facts about history at all.

Perhaps the biggest thing I would love Prof. Dawkins and those who agree with him to understand is that Christians (I cannot speak for other religions, and anyway I am not interested in a defence of religion in the abstract, except in the sense that everyone ought to be free to believe and practice as they see fit) really think that they are talking precisely about the facts of history when they talk about their faith.  Our faith in Jesus isn't a vague metaphysical thing; it is founded in what we think happened in history, a history to which we have access only through written accounts (which is simply to say, a history like any other).  Let's argue about history, by all means.  Let's talk as two people with different worldviews, different interpretations of the available evidence - I would even go so far as to say different faiths.  And by all means let's have the discussion about faith schools - we might be surprised about how much we agree on the subject.  But let's have no more about this supposedly neutral worldview based purely on facts; there is no such thing, and therefore no such thing can be taught.

Edit:  Chris has a useful take on the documentary from a slightly different perspective which you should read.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Questions (and answers?)

I've been mulling over the relationship between the Church and the world when it comes to questions and answers.  I think I see two models which dominate our thinking.

In the first model, the world is thought of as having questions, whilst the Church has answers.  The job of the Church, then, is to supply the answers to the questions the world is asking.  This assumes a few things.  Firstly, it assumes that the world is asking questions, and indeed not just any questions but the right questions.  Secondly, it assumes that the Church is in a position of superiority vis a vis the world, as the possessor of answers.  Thirdly, it assumes that the world, when seeking answers to its questions, is likely to come to the Church, or at least that the world will be willing to listen to the answers the Church provides.  I think this model may have been useful, at some point in the past, when the big questions being asked in the world were in fact largely shaped by the Church, and therefore the Church genuinely was seen as the place to go for answers.  I'm not at all sure it is very useful today.

In the second model, the world is thought of as having answers, while the Church has questions.  The job of the Church on this model is to question the assumptions of the world, and attempt to make the world think more deeply about the genuineness of its answers.  This model is probably more useful to us today, and underlies a lot of our apologetic strategy.  Note, however, that this still puts the Church into a position of definite superiority; our questions come from a place of security and power.

I've been wondering what an ecclesiology that is deeply shaped by the cross looks like.  I wonder whether in this instance it means not taking a position of authority.  I've been wondering whether the role of the Church in the world might be to ask questions of God and of itself, and to be asked questions by God, so that the Church is able to stand in solidarity with a confused world and encourage the world to ask the questions it hardly dares to ask for fear of a lack of answers.

I wonder whether we in the Church could be a community of comforted questioners, and the comforted questioned.  Might we not be able to say to the world: we too have questions and doubts, we too would like to ask God a thing or two, we too are confused and baffled by existence and terrified by non-existence, but we are comforted in the face of our questions and our fears by Jesus Christ, who asks the question with us - "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  And then we might be able to say to the world: like you, we find our very existence thrown in doubt, we are forced to question whether anything means anything, and indeed we find ourselves standing under the great question of whether our being can possibly be justified, but we are comforted in these questions by Jesus Christ, who asks us a bigger question which leads us to hope - "who do you say I am?"

Anyway, I was just wondering what that might be like.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Unbelief in Eden

We see two-stage unbelief in Eden.

First, Adam and Eve do not believe that God intends to be good to them, and therefore they suspect that his commands are actually restrictive rather than liberating.  The result of this first stage of unbelief is disobedience, and it is inexcusable.  They should have known from the fact of their creation that God is good, always good.

Second, Adam and Eve do not believe that God will sustain them and all his creation in the face of their sin, and therefore they doubt whether he will show them mercy.  The result of this second stage of unbelief is hiding from God, and this too is inexcusable.  They should have known from the fact of their creation that God is committed to upholding his creatures in the face of the chaos and darkness that threatens them.

I sometimes wonder whether we could truly talk of fallen human beings if there were not this second stage; might they not have been just stumbling human beings, recovered by grace?

Corresponding to this, 1 John 2 counters both stages of unbelief in the Christian:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
 Believe that God is good and don't sin; if you sin, believe that God is good and don't hide!

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Simul iustus et peccator (2)

Oh dear, this is getting more obscure in my mind instead of clearer.  Nevertheless, I heroically press on with what is likely to be a series of questions rather than answers...

To push the dialectic theme a bit further, and perhaps to locate it at a deeper and more important place:  What is the relationship between the righteousness of Christ and the righteous acts of the Christian?

Again, one could envisage a straightforward relationship, perhaps even a relationship of identity.  I don't think Scripture allows us to tread that path.  Christ's righteousness is once-for-all, and is now in heaven.  He doesn't require our participation (in this sense) to complete who he is and what he has done.  Jesus' righteousness and the Christian's righteous deeds cannot be identified in a straightforward manner at all.

I think I prefer to say - because I think this is what comes across in the Pauline writings especially - that the righteous deeds of the Christian are an answer (temporal, partial, inadequate, but nevertheless real) to the righteousness of Christ which is extended to the believer.  Christ's righteousness (which is also my righteousness by faith) is one thing; my righteous acts are another thing, which relate to the former as a witness.  To put it another way, an absolute monarch could make an absolute proclamation; if his subjects say 'yes' to it, it adds nothing to the proclamation, but merely shows their approval, their belief in the rightness of the proclamation.  Does that make sense?

So I think there is a heavenly/earthly dialectic going on here.  My righteousness is Christ, who is in heaven; my reply to that righteousness is righteous deeds.

But has anything really changed in me?

The answer is yes, but I won't write about it until Monday at least.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Simul iustus et peccator (1)

The relationship between righteousness and sinfulness in the Christian life has always been a big theological issue.  More than that, it is a big existential issue for any Christian with any self-awareness at all.  Particularly, it is an issue where our self-awareness and our gospel-awareness apparently come into conflict, or at least into such sharp tension that resolution seems beyond us.  To state the problem simply, the gospel tells me I am righteous, but I find myself to be sinful.  What am I to do with these apparently irreconcilable insights?  I want to explore that in a few posts (I've not yet decided how many).  For those with a smattering of Latin, or some knowledge of classic Protestant Orthodoxy, my answer will already be apparent, although I may want to develop it in a way that differs somewhat from the Orthodox statement.

Let me put down some foundations.  It seems to me that there are two basic ways of approaching this problem, two ways of relating the Christian's righteousness and his or her sinfulness.

On the one hand, there are constructions in which these two things are placed on one plane.  At its most crude, this is expressed as a sort of sliding scale.  You experience a mix of righteousness and sinfulness because you are a mix of righteousness and sinfulness.  You are partly righteous, partly sinful.  Righteousness and sinfulness are, on this model, considered to be basically the same sort of thing, albeit the same sort of thing in an opposite configuration.  Now, I would guess this view is hardly ever expressed in such a crude way as this, but I think we can detect it lying behind the traditional Roman Catholic approach, for example.  On this view, baptism is the beginning of righteousness, the first infusion of righteousness into me as a subject.  Throughout my Christian life, I should expect that my righteousness increases (with the concurrent decrease in my sinfulness) as I make use of the means of grace, especially of course the sacraments.  Of course, should I neglect the means of grace, or entertain temptation in some way, I can expect the scale to slide the other way.  This view has the benefit of being straightforward, making sense of our experience, and being practical, giving us instructions in dealing with our relative sinfulness.

Before any Roman Catholics jump on me for presenting their theology in such a crude, and frankly shabby, fashion - I know it isn't quite like that.  But that is the tendency I see at the heart of it.  Am I wrong?

The other basic approach is to say that there is some sort of dialectical approach to righteousness/sinfulness, something which places them on different planes, or at least which makes their relationship much more complex than a sliding scale.  On this side we have to place all Protestant answers, which have typically stated that the Christian is in some way both righteous and sinful at one and the same time (simul iustus et peccator) without implying that righteousness and sinfulness can be considered as present in different relative measures in the Christian.  The classic Reformed position, which sees the Christian as totally righteous with the imputed righteousness of Christ, and yet in themselves sinful, is a good example of this.

The two approaches - the straightforward and the dialectical - can be related in one system, and indeed probably must be.  So, for example, the Reformed see a sliding scale in the Christian's worked out or experienced righteousness/sinfulness, whilst holding an ultimately dialectical view; the Roman Catholic sees the righteousness of Christ lying behind the sacraments in a way which cannot be made to slot into the straightforward view.  Nevertheless, the two positions are basically different in their approach.

There is of course the Wesleyan view, which to my mind is just confused as to which position it holds.  Probably it ultimately comes down on the dialectical side.  As a historical note, you could argue that Lutheranism is characterised by a more pure dialectical approach, whereas the Reformed tend towards a mixed view.  More on that later, perhaps.

Now, it is my position that we must adopt the dialectical view: the Christian is both righteous and sinful, at one and the same time, but not in such a way that we can relate righteousness and sinfulness on a simple sliding scale.  Righteousness is not the opposite of sinfulness in the Christian life, or at least not in the way that this sliding scale involves.

Well, that was all pretty obscure wasn't it?  Might make more sense tomorrow, but I confess I'm thinking this stuff through as I type!