“To understand the miraculous act of this becoming, we must reach back to what we have acknowledged [earlier], that it is to be understood as an act of the Word who is the Lord. As from its own side the humanity has no capacity, power or worthiness by which it appears suited to become the humanity of the Word, there is likewise no becoming which as such can be the becoming of the Word. His becoming is not an event which in any sense befalls Him, in which in any sense He is determined from without by something else. If it includes in itself His suffering, His veiling and humiliation unto death — and it does include this in itself — even so, as suffering it is His will and work. It is not composed of action and reaction. It is action even in the suffering of reaction, the act of majesty even as veiling. He did not become humbled, but He humbled himself.“ ~Karl Barth, “The Mystery of Revelation” CD 1.2, 160.
The church that we attend has a lot of stained glass. Wrapping around the sanctuary are beautiful stained glassed panes. If you start in the corner at the front of the sanctuary and walk around counter-clock-wise, you can follow the life of Christ, one pane at a time. Where we sit every Sunday (yes we are those people who sit in the same pew every week), the stained glass pane directly behind us is of Jesus hanging on the cross. Every week we sit under the same pane, with Jesus hanging over our shoulder. When my two year old gets antsy as two year-olds are wont to do, she likes to turn around and fold herself over the back of the pew. One day, as she was trying to pull herself back up after folding too far over, she stopped.
“What’s that?” She asked, pointing at the stained glass.
“That’s a picture made of glass,” I replied.
“No, who’s that?” She pointed directly at Jesus.
“Why?” Ah yes, the inevitable why. In as simple a way possible, I tried to explain that that was a picture of Jesus saving the world. The two year-old stopped, for a minute, tipped her head to one side, and then matter-of-factly said, “Jesus is a superhero!”
Now, every Sunday she points to the stained glass behind our pew. “That’s Jesus!” She tells everyone. And of course, my four year-old, not wanting to be left out, makes a point of telling her sister that Jesus is not just in the stained-glass windows, but more importantly, he’s in the Bible.
In our church service there is intentionality in how we worship. The entire liturgy is designed to draw upon all our human senses. We watch a cross being carried in during the processional. We hear the Word proclaimed. We respond to the Gospel reading by singing “Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” In unison we affirm the life and work of Christ as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. When the pastor preaches on an aspect of the life of Christ, he draws our attention to the stained-glass panel, so that we not only listen, but also visually contemplate the significance of Jesus’ actions.
In a recent article at Hermeneutics, Megan Hill argues that physical images, be it drawings or figurines, of Jesus does not belong in our Christmas décor. She appeals to the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…You shall not bow down to them or serve them….”
Yes, physical images can lead to idolatry, especially if we cast Jesus in our own image and then proclaim that he must only look that way. But guess what? Verbal constructs can lead to idolatry as well, especially if we translate the words of Jesus and then proclaim that Jesus must have used King James’ English! The creation of physical images does not have to necessarily lead to the worship of said images, just as the translation of the Scriptures does not necessarily lead to the worship of said Bible.
Hill suggests that it because Jesus is fully divine, that we should not and cannot create images of him: “Though fully human, his humanity cannot be separated from his divine person, which means visual images of Jesus are, in fact, attempting to picture God.”
I want to suggest that the opposite is also true: Jesus’ humanity cannot be separated from his divine person (hence, not only his bodily resurrection, but also his bodily ascension into heaven), which means that visual images are, in fact, attempting to understand the reality of Jesus’ humanity.
If Jesus is just a vague, unphysical concept in our head, he becomes an abstraction. When his humanity takes a back seat to his divinity, he becomes more like a demi-god rather than the second Person of the Trinity who took on the flesh and blood reality of the human experience. In becoming an abstraction, we forget or water down the significance of the event of revelation, namely, that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And the Word taking on flesh was not a temporary thing. After his death and resurrection Jesus did not abandon his flesh, but in the ascension he bodily returned to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.
What well-done images and portraits of Jesus do is what the Bible does just in a different medium: they tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, who was, in the words of Karl Barth, “the object and theatre of the acts of God.” The images of Jesus, be they stained glass windows in a church, a figurine of baby Jesus in a nativity scene, or an actor portraying Jesus in film, tell us the story visually. When paired with the oral tradition of hearing and telling, physical images of Jesus help us to not only tell the story, but also to respond to the story.
When we go to church each Sunday, my four year-old can “read” the Bible in the pew (recognizing letters but not understanding how the letters go together to tell the story of this Jesus who saved and is saving the world) and confess her belief in Jesus as she recites the Apostles’ Creed. My two year-old may not be able to read and may not be able to say the Creed, but she can point to the stained glass panel of Jesus hanging on the cross and confess her belief in Jesus: “That’s Jesus!”
There has been a fascinating discussion going on in the blogosphere this month about reading Barth. It started with Janice Rees talking about her own personal resistance movement where she was deliberately choosing to not read Karl Barth:
“…my commitment to not reading Barth arose because of my concerns regarding the institution of Barthian scholarship and my understanding of identity for theologians on the margins. By not reading Barth I was, and have been, engaging in what I believe is a form of resistance; a small gesture that I could manage as I tried to find a voice and place beyond tokenism. There are several ways in which I have understood this to be resistance.”
Peter Kline wrote about his choice to no longer read Karl Barth and his personal therapy of choosing to not go to Princeton for a PhD program:
“The previous summer I had been invited to contribute to an online blog conference on Barth that would take place in October. The conversation that unfolded in response to my essay was painful for me. People I thought were my friends at Princeton treated me with a callousness and condescension that I found disgusting. But I realized that this was nothing new really, that I had been around this toxicity for years but hadn’t had the distance to see it. This is what talking about Barth sounded and felt like, a pious pissing contest. These are the kinds of conversations Barth’s discourse generates, and I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of them, even if I was good at them. After that essay, I decided not to write on Barth anymore, beyond what was required of me as a grad student. What I decided to walk away from was a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.”
Kait Dugan wrote about her reasons for reading Barth:
“I wish there was space within the theological academy for women to critically engage and appropriate Barth in ways that brought him into desperately needed conversation with other critical theologies. And I’m not talking about the token engagement that can pass in certain projects. I’m interested in profound and rigorous bilateral dialogue between Barth and other critical theologians in order to create something new.  The most ironic part of all of this is when I realize just how “radical” Barth is on certain issues and the lines of continuity that can be drawn between him and other theologians who most within confessional boundaries might typically render “not serious” or “unorthodox.”  To my surprise, when I read Barth, I see him as an incredible support and ally for many basic theological concerns within theologies of race, gender, and sexuality.”
Today, David Congdon has weighed in on the conversation:
“But it is has become fashionable to stop reading Barth for other, far less compelling, reasons. In the first of two recent statements on the matter, we discover that “not reading Barth” is not really a rejection of Barth himself so much as a rejection of “the institution of Barthian scholarship,” “a means to resist the production and control of ‘serious scholarship’” in favor of contextual theology, a rejection of “the way in which ‘Barth’ is invoked as the magic word for ‘orthodoxy,’” a way of resisting “institutional powers,” since “Barthian scholarship seems a power unto itself.” These are all different ways of saying the same thing: “not reading Barth” = resisting the oppressive institutional powers of church and academy. We hear more of the same in the second, more personal, statement, in which “not reading Barth” = the rejection of “a pious pissing contest” and “a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.” Of course, by the end, we learn that the author has exchanged one culture for another, that of critical theory, which “is every bit as much an industry as the former with unspoken but obvious clubs and entrance requirements.””
And my thesis supervisor made this observation on Facebook this afternoon:
“Telling people why we may have stopped reading Barth (which is, of course, perfectly a legitimate choice) is one thing, but telling others why we may have stopped reading Barth with the strong implication that their readers should ALSO stop reading Barth sounds a little bit too much like a form of censorship for my comfort.”
As an MA student doing my thesis on Karl Barth, I have been reading the ongoing conversation carefully and prayerfully. I don’t have anything profound to add to the conversation, but what follows are a few of the ideas that are floating around my Barth-addled brain.
- I have been edified and challenged by Barth. It was an invitation to a Barth reading group in Caronport when we had just newly moved here, that allowed me to meet people and be intellectually challenged. I would later take a seminar class on Barth that, though it was one of the most challenging classes of my seminary career, was the most rewarding. I have learned that Barth is best read in the context of the church. He was writing to edify the church, not to edify the academy. If a person reads Barth merely as an academic exercise, then they are doing a grave injustice to the writing and spirit of Barth’s scholarship.
- While Barth is a profoundly important voice for Christian theology, he is not the only voice, nor the final voice.
- You don’t need to like Barth to appreciate Barth’s contribution to theology. Confession: I really, really dislike reading Augustine. If I have a choice between reading Augustine and anything else, I will choose anything else (including the dreadful Twilight series). But, I also know that it is important for me to read Augustine as he has (for good or for evil or both) profoundly influenced western Christian thought.
- Peter’s observation of Barthian scholarship being a “pious pissing contest” is spot on. As I read for my thesis I have begun to be able to tell just from the introduction of a book which Barthian “camp” the author identifies with. Too often I have found otherwise intelligent scholars failing to understand, listen to, or fairly represent the arguments from a scholar from the opposite camp simply because they are from the “wrong side.”
- Given the way that Barthian academy works, I am learning (very quickly) that I am not smart enough to be a Barth scholar. As I read “provocative” and “creative” interpretations and interactions with Barth, I find myself asking: “are we reading the same text?!” “is all this academic twisting and interpreting being fair to the spirit and purpose of Barth’s writings?” and “are the “innovative” readings of Barth merely a means for the scholar to get name recognition?”
- Criticizing Barth for not anticipating the conversations or the postmodern assumptions in Christian theology that developed after his time is at best a cheap-shot, and at worst, unethical and sloppy scholarship.
- While it is true that in classes and at conferences, I am usually the only or one of only a few women in attendance I have not experienced any problems being a woman who studies Barth. This is probably due in large part to the fact that I am just a mere student and not a scholar trying to contribute to the academy.
I may never end up in the hallowed halls of the Barthian academy (very probable). I may get to the end of my thesis and not want to read Barth for a very long time (highly probable). I may discover that Barth is not the best dialogue partner for my theological journey (very possible). Or I may discover that Barth is the coolest of all the cool theologians and that my life’s dream is to become a Barthian scholar (unlikely, but who knows?)
Whatever the case, Barth offers all of us, whether we are student or teacher, pastor or teacher, some very wise counsel: the work and call of the theologian is a gift of grace. “To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace.” While some may say that this idea lends itself to a sort of arrogance, as if the theologian has been endowed, Barth is quick to point out that this gift of grace is a mystery, for “if anyone supposed he could understand himself as such a receiver of grace, he would do better to bid theology farewell.” With this comes the need for humility. All of our theological presuppositions are grounded, not in the logical consistency of a theologian’s argument, but in the “reality of God’s self-communication to us in Jesus Christ.” As such, theological statements, be they from Barth or any other theologian past or present, “are true only in so far as they direct us away from themselves to the one Truth in God” and that Truth is Jesus.
When I was approached about participating in the Book Blog Tour for Timothy Michael Law’s new book, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible, I was beyond excited. I have, in the past, lamented how in all my years of theological training I have never once had a class on the Septuagint. I can count on one hand the number of times the Septuagint was mentioned in New Testament classes (usually in relation to how the NT author quoted the Old Testament), and I don’t think the Septuagint was ever brought up in an Old Testament class. Given this gap, I was hoping that this new book would help fill the gap. I can say with confidence, that this book definitely begins to fill said gap. Timothy Michael Law notes in his introduction that he was wanting to make the Septuagint more accessible. And he does.
Now, it’s important to note that I’m coming at this book as a seminary student, an aspiring theologian, and a person involved in church ministry. As such, the questions that I bring to this book include:
- Would this book work as a textbook for college students? Would this book work as a textbook for seminary students?
- Would this book have helped my studies as a student?
- What are the theological implications of the NT authors quoting the Septuagint, especially when it differs from the Hebrew text?
- Would this book be helpful for teaching lay people in the church about the history of Scripture?
Now onto my look at chapters 11 and 12!
In chapter eleven, TML begins by talking about the Septuagint influenced the transmission of Scripture into other languages. For example, the Latin Scripture were produced, not from the Hebrew text, but from the Greek. It is also from the Septuagint that the earliest Coptic, Armenian, Gothic and Arabic translations were produced. TML goes so far as to say, “Had there been no Septuagint, and had early Jewish converts remained in a Semitic world, the church may never have moved outside of its Palestinian birthplace.” (129)
He then looks at Philo and Josephus’ use and explanations of the origins of the Septuagint. For Philo, it was important to justify the text and he set out to demonstrate how it was divinely inspired. Josephus, on the other hand, is not so interested in justifying the divine inspiration of the Septuagint, so much as just reporting how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be translated into Greek.
By the 4th century, we find Eusebius arguing that “God providentially guided a translation into Greek so that when the Savior of the world did appear the nations would recognize him. This was the time when God spoke Greek.” (131) TML writes that by the 4th century, “the idea that the Septuagint was the inspired word of God was already so deeply rooted in the church that it allowed these writers to speak of it as the preparation for the gospel and as the superior, indeed, the only, word of God for the church.” (132)
TML then asks one of the questions that I myself was bringing to the text: “In what ways did [the Septuagint] contribute to the theological and exegetical formation of the early centuries of Christianity?” (132) He notes that the Latin and Greek Fathers were not concerned with how accurately the Greek translated the Hebrew, and that “presumably most Christians would have viewed the Hebrew Bible as strictly Jewish scripture, but the Septuagint was the treasure of the church.” (133) He explores examples of typological exegesis that were common because the Septuagint’s translations of key words like “Lord,” and “Anointed” made it easy for readers to see foreshadowing references to Christ.
As well, the Septuagint became extremely important theologically as the early church struggled against heresies. Over and over, it was the Septuagint and not the Hebrew texts that the Church Fathers would return to over and over again to craft a coherent defense of the faith.
TML concludes the chapter by noting that it wasn’t just theology that was profoundly influenced by the Greek text. Indeed, the Septuagint played a role in also developing preaching, liturgy and Christian piety (aka spiritual formation). Ultimately, “Most Christians would have heard the Septuagint taught and would have been shaped by it without knowing anything about its relationship to the Hebrew.” (139)
In chapter twelve, TML looks at Origen and his influence on biblical scholarship in the early church. He argues that Origen’s “textual scholarship inadvertently hastened the end of the Septuagint’s prominence in the church.” (141) Origen’s study of Scripture was extensive. He was continually learning about exegetical methods, not only from Christian scholars in Alexandria, but also from Jewish and Greek (secular) scholars. It was this deep passion for exegesis that led Origen to compile the Hexapla: “a six-columned Bible in which he placed six different biblical texts in parallel columns.” (143) This project made the differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts stand how. But how would Origen explain the differences? “When the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were at odds with one another, there were two possible explanations: copyists introduced genuine errors in the transmission of the manuscripts, or Providence introduced the divergences for the church’s edification.” (144) TML is quick to note that Origen had great respect for the Septuagint and that “Origen’s aim was never to dislodge the Septuagint from the lecterns of the churches in favor of the Hebrew Bible.” (145)
So how did this massive exegetical work by Origen hasten the demise of the Septuagint’s prominence in the church? By accident!
“If Origen included the Hebrew Bible in the first column of his Hexapla, didn’t that imply it was worth studying? The fifth column, in which he had created a hybrid text composed of the church’s Septuagint with additional readings from other Greek Jewish versions, may have begun as a scholarly tool for exegesis, apologetics, and textual analysis. But the new fifth column text was soon copied with the signs [that noted divergences from the Hebrew] removed and was dispersed widely. It moved out from a scholarly and professional realm, where caveats could have helped to prevent its misuse, and into the church. Unintentionally, Origen’s work contaminated the stream of biblical transmission: from the fourth century almost all Septuagint manuscripts had been influenced by the so-called Origenic, or Hexaplaric, version.” (145)
And this contamination was not gradual. Instead “it exploded on to the map and changed the course of the Septuagint’s history thereafter.” TML concludes the chapter by noting: “A new spirit was unleashed, and if scholars had not noticed before the divergent nature of the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible they would soon find it impossible to ignore. The final days of the Septuagint in the West had begun.” (150)
So would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Reading this book has begun to fill in some of the gaps of my theological education. If I was teaching a course, how would I use this book? If I was teaching a class on the Patristic Fathers, either at the college or seminary level, this would definitely be on the syllabus as a required reading. If I was teaching a survey NT or OT class, I wouldn’t necessarily assign this book, but would instead create a lecture or two on the Septuagint based on the material in this book. At a church level, I think it would be fantastic to do a small group study on the history of Scripture and use this book as one of the materials to be read over the course of a season (with 13 chapters plus a postscript, this book is ideally laid out for a fall (Sept-Dec) or spring (Jan-Apr) weekly study group).
My only real complaint is that once again a publisher has decided that a book aimed at a general audience needs endnotes. Publishers, please stop doing this! A general audience will not be put off by a few footnotes, and footnotes actually make the book easier to read.
You can follow the rest of the Book Blog Tour on When God Spoke Greek here.
In light of the explosion of discussion and responses to Rachel Held Evans’ article at CNN on why millennials are leaving the church, I thought I would re-post my discussion from last year on millennials and their relationship to the church. Enjoy!
I have a love/hate relationship with the Disney princesses. On the one hand, Belle was my absolute favourite princess when I was young, and she still is. On the other, as I have gotten older and now have daughters of my own, I struggle with the message that the Disney princesses give, especially how they are marketed (it irks me to no end that the Mulan princess doll is done up in froof when that was the part that she hated the most and was one of the reasons she ran off to fight in her father’s stead).
And yet, I wonder if comparing and contrasting two Disney princesses would help me to make sense of a trend in north American Evangelicalism. MSNBC has a story about how the gay marriage issue is driving away an entire generation of Christians. And while the story does cite Matthew Anderson as an example of one young Christian who doesn’t think so, the majority of the article seems to lean towards Rachel Held Evans’ thesis. Denny Burk has weighed in on his, and it has of course made the rounds on the Twitter feed.
I don’t really want to talk about the gay-marriage debate, but rather, I want to speak to the larger issue behind it: the post-modern 21st century generation of evangelical Christians who are disenfranchised with the older generations of the Church in general.
My question is this: what kind of princess is this young evangelical generation? Is it Ariel or Merida?
The message of The Little Mermaid is disobey your parents because at the end there will be a rainbow and a handsome prince, and a father who will apologize because you were right and he was wrong. Reckless and head-strong is okay because it’s all about you and no one else and your parents will see that in the end and you will live happily ever after.
The message of Brave, on the other hand, is there are consequences to your head-strong opinions, and in the end your mom was actually right and knew what she was talking about. She may not have expressed it in the best of ways, but it’s not entirely her fault that you didn’t get it. Reconciliation is needed: Merida needed to repair the tear in the family that she had created; and the Queen needed to see that Merida had gifts and strengths and that she didn’t need to be “managed” and nagged at 24/7.
The Evangelical church in North America is young, very young, in the grand scheme of 2,000 years of Christianity. And yet on many issues the 21st-century Evangelical Church think that she knows what is best and that is okay to turn her back on the “old fogeys” of both the Evangelical tradition and the larger Church because they are absolutely wrong and she is absolutely right.
I don’t know what the cause of this is. Maybe it’s the rugged individualistic worldview of the North American culture. Maybe it’s what happens with each generation of Christians but in the age of social media it has become amplified and expanded. Maybe it’s because North America is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation and it is encouraging the Church to become post-Christian as well. I don’t know.
I guess what it comes down to is this: I wish there was a little more humility; a little more listening. I get the disenfranchisement of the young people in the church today, I really do. I am of that generation. I think the difference is that I didn’t grow up in the Church, so I didn’t have my rebel moment. I came into the Church at the age of 16 with my eyes somewhat open to what I was choosing. It was (through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit) my choice to respond to the gracious gift of Jesus; it wasn’t forced on me (“you have to be a Christian because that is what this family does”). Add to that, I have spent a lot of time reading Church history, listening to the elders who have gone before, and sitting under their wisdom. It has changed me. It has softened me. It has made me (somewhat) more patient with the foibles and frustrations of a Church that is made up of imperfect humans.
I am listening to the stories and concerns of this generation of evangelicals, but I can’t help but wonder, “Are you listening just as equally to the stories of your elders and of those who disagree with you? Are you willing to do your part in reconciliation or are you expecting the older generation to unilaterally cave to your way of thinking? What happens in 50 years, when the new younger generation of Evangelicals become disenfranchised and alienated from your ideas, experiences and politics?”
Jessica DeCou is working on a book on Karl Barth’s trip to the United States in 1962. She has launched a Kickstarter project to help fund her travel expenses to several library archives.
“A Fantastic Affair”: Karl Barth in America, 1962 (a.k.a. “KBUSA” – under advance contract with Fortress Press, ISBN: 978-1-4514-6553-2) provides the first detailed chronicle of Barth’s sole visit to the U.S. in 1962. Barth arrived at a tumultuous moment in American history and found himself embroiled in some of the nation’s fiercest conflicts: touring prisons and inner city neighborhoods and meeting with communist groups, State and Defense Department staff, civil rights activists, business leaders, and White House officials – just to name a few. The book, therefore, will not only shed light on Barth’s later life and work, but also provide a snapshot of American culture in the early ‘60s – from the highest levels of government to the tourist cultures built along with and alongside the developing Interstate Highway System; from Seminary campuses to high security prisons; from Napa Valley to East Harlem.
Of course, completing this project requires extensive travel to various institutions around the country where relevant archives are housed. Research funding in the humanities can be difficult to come by these days, but I will not let that stop me!! I’m turning to Kickstarter in the hope that, with your help, my research can continue unabated in order to meet my publication deadline (Summer 2014).
There are gifts for those who contribute to the project (yay for gifts!). You can pledge your support for this project here.
Deliver us, Lord, from every evil
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy, Lord,
keep us free from sin,
and protect us from all anxiety
as we wait in joyful hope
for the coming of our Saviour,
Let your Kingdom come, Lord, in me.
I pray the protection of Christ to clothe me,
Christ to enfold me,
to surround me and guard me
this day and every day,
surrounding me and my companions,
enfolding me and every friend.
~Aidan of Lindisfarne (7th century) — As found in Celtic Daily Prayer, pg 159-160.
The yellow sickly-sweet smell of jaundice, iodine and antiseptic.
The flurry of nurses, doctors, and diagnostic tests.
The haze of pain meds, sedatives and general anesthetic.
An ambulance ride from the local hospital to the big city hospital for a specialized procedure, and then back to the local hospital for surgery.
It wasn’t the plan for the week, but one trip to the emergency room changed everything.
The four walls of the hospital room were giant white walls that blocked out the world. Cut off from family. Cut off from life.
The dark shadows of fear and sickness and despair crept from the corners and overwhelmed the room.
God was an abstraction, blocked out by those impenetrable hospital walls.
There was no praying.
There was no worship.
There was no seeing or feeling anything beyond those four white walls.
I was alone. And my faith was failing me.
And then, that mild Saturday evening, day three of my seven day sentence, the pastor arrived. She was quiet and sweet and kind-hearted, just as she was every Sunday at church. She came and she listened. She chatted. She told stories. The dark shadows began to recede back into the corners, held at bay, even just for a little while.
Can I pray with you? She said. And then she pulled out a present: a string of Anglican prayer beads.
Prayer beads to give rhythm and structure to my prayer instead of flailing words lost and uncertain.
Prayer beads to help me pray the prayers not of my own creation, but the prayers of generations of faithful Christians. I could be carried on the strength of their prayers instead of trying to rely on the weakness of my own.
My God, my God why have you forsaken me. Christ’s prayer would become my prayer.
Prayer beads that, even if I couldn’t say any words, I could physically cling to the cross at the end of the circle of beads. I could hang on to the cross of Christ that for 18 years had been transforming my life.
And so, starting at the cross at the bottom of the circle of beads, I prayed.
O Lord make speed to save me. O Lord make haste to help me. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden…
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…
Around and around the circle I went for hours, the rhythm pushing back the shadows until dawn broke and the summer sunshine would rise and wash over the white walls.
And then came surgery day. After being wheeled back into my room, in pain and groggy, I reached for those brown beads, and held onto them tightly as the sedatives worked on my weary body, calling me to sleep.
And that little circle of beads allowed my soul to rest in the knowledge that those four white walls did not have the power to hold out the Almighty One. There, in the very midst of pain and sickness and suffering, was the One who Suffered. There, in the midst of the doctors’ training, and the nurses’ gentle hands, was the Healer. There, in quiet and stillness of the white walls, was the assurance of Resurrection and Glory.
And that lost week that wasn’t planned turned out to not be such a loss after all.
Welcome to the second post in the series on postliberal ecclesiology. The first post can be found here.
One of the main charges leveled against postliberalism is that, at a philosophical level, it is inherently antirealist. That is, it has been suggested that the cultural-linguistic approach needs no external referent. Part of this is because Lindbeck is reacting against the cognitive-propositionalist approach that “stresses the ways in which church doctrines function as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities.” Lindbeck does not deny that cognitive aspects of doctrine can be important, but he argues that they are not the primary purpose of doctrine. The criticism is that, in making doctrine to be rules rather than first-order propositional truth claims, postliberalism is antirealist.
Alister McGrath, for example, argues that Lindbeck “seems to suggest that conceiving theology as the grammar of the Christian language entails the abandonment of any talk about God as an independent reality…” Jeffrey Hensley, on the other hand, argues that Lindbeck is “metaphysically neutral” and therefore it is possible for postliberals to be realists. He suggests that Lindbeck makes a distinction between meaning and existence, and that it is meaning that is “conceptually relative.” Thus, what Lindbeck is doing is not necessarily offering an antirealist metaphysic, but is instead “simply pointing out that the frameworks through which we view the world deeply influences the way in which we understand its nature and existence.” Stanley Hauerwas, in interacting with the works of Hans Frei, likewise argues that postliberalism is not antirealist because it is impossible to isolate the biblical narratives from reality, just as it impossible to consider statements of “truth and falsity [apart] from the context of their utterance.”
This becomes important in the discussion of the role of the Church, because it too does not have an external referent. It is antirealist in that it does not need a propositional reality, and the community ultimately fails to “be accountable to something beyond itself.” In other words, if the community determines doctrine, what determines the community? For evangelicals, cognitive-propositionalists and postconservatives, that external referent is Scripture. The problem, as identified by critics of postliberalism, is that by making the community the final authority, doctrine becomes relativized or dependant on the whims of the community. Vanhoozer suggests that this postliberal emphasis of the community being the final authority has been picked up in evangelical churches, resulting in churches that have adopted cultural practices “that owe more to managerial, therapeutic, consumerist, and entertainment cultures…” Ultimately, by making the community the centre, it increases the likelihood of deformed practices and corrupted traditions. In this way, the cultural-linguistic approach is closer to the experiential-expressive approach. Where the classic liberal position of the experiential-expressive grounds truth in the ‘common human experience’, the postliberal approach grounds truth in the ‘common community experience.’
 Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 2.
 Ibid., 21.
 Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 211–212; Jeffrey Hensley, “Are Postliberals Necessarily Antirealists? Reexamining the Metaphysics of Lindbeck’s Postliberal Theology” in Phillips and Okholm, Nature of Confession, 73–74.
 Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticisms (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 29.
 Jeffrey Hensley, “Are Postliberals Necessarily Antirealists? Reexamining the Metaphysics of Lindbeck’s Postliberal Theology” in Phillips and Okholm, Nature of Confession, 76.
 Ibid, 76.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church As God’s New Language,” in Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1988), 59.
 Fackre, 129.
 Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 26.
 Ibid., 22.
Welcome to the first post in a series on postliberalism and Ecclesiology.
What is Postliberalism?
Postliberalism is a twentieth-century theology founded on the narrative theology of Hans Frei, and George Lindbeck’s theory of doctrine. It attempts to offer a corrective to the relativistic bent of liberalism by affirming the importance of Scripture in the life of Christianity, bringing liberal theology in closer relationship to more conservative strands of Protestantism (such as evangelicalism). Meaning and truth are “determined by the intratextual subject matter of Scripture.” Becoming an adherent of a religion is a process similar to learning a language or learning to adopt a new culture.
In postliberalism, the authority resides in the community, and in how the community uses and interprets Scripture to formulate doctrine. While there is much to be appreciated in adopting a postliberal ecclesiology, the placement of authority within the Church, rather than in Scripture, can become a stumbling block for conservative Protestants. I would suggest that the benefits of postliberal ecclesiology can be adopted by evangelicals, so long as the authority remains with Scripture rather than the community.
In approaching this topic, a few limitations need to be addressed. First, while George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine was foundational for postliberalism, Lindbeck was not a systematic theologian. Added to this, while there is much commonality between his work and the work of fellow Yale professor, Hans Frei, Frei died shortly after the publication of Lindbeck’s book, which means that, while scholars pair the two together as the founders of postliberalism, there was in actuality “a lack of substantive methodological followup.”
Second, there seems to be disagreement about who is actually a postliberal scholar. Postliberalism is also known as “Yale Theology” but this does not necessarily mean that students of Frei and Lindbeck are necessarily postliberals. As George Hunsinger has noted, there seems to be a randomness to who is considered postliberal and who is not. Indeed, scholars like Stanley Hauerwas are considered postliberal even though he did not belong to the Yale tradition. As well, the “Yale Theology” is significantly less “Yale-y” given that the major scholars associated with current postliberal thought are working at schools other than Yale. As William Placher notes, “Yale itself is no longer clearly a centre of postliberal theology.” Also, there is a question as to how postliberal Lindbeck actually was, with Hunsinger suggesting instead that Frei was postliberal, while Lindbeck was more precisely ‘neoliberal.’
Recognizing that there is debate about what constitutes postliberal theology, I am assuming a standard broad understanding of postliberalism and its major contributors as found in most dictionaries on 20th century theology. For the purpose of this series, the focus will be primarily on two of Lindbeck’s writings: The Nature of Doctrine, and his essay “The Church,” as well as the various interactions and critiques that have been offered by scholars.
Lindbeck proposes an alternative to what he sees as the two dominant ways of understanding doctrine. In contrast to the cognitive-propositional approach, and the experiential-expressive approach, Lindbeck offers the cultural-linguistic approach. This approach is influenced by modern cultural anthropology, as well as the theory of language as presented by Ludwig Wittengenstein.
In a cognitive-propositional approach, the truth of a doctrine is found in concrete propositions grounded in reality, while in the experiential-expressive model the truth is found in a common human experience or feeling. In the cultural-linguistic model, truth resides in the community. To become a Christian is to learn and adopt the language and practices of the Christian community. It is not enough to know the ‘facts’ about Christianity, for there are many non-Christians who know what Christianity is. Instead, it is about learning the language and grammar of the Christian faith. More specifically, “to become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”
Scripture plays a key role here, as it is the framework within which Christians experience and affirm the faith. And while the surrounding culture will influence the life of a Christian, ultimately “what is important is that Christians allow their cultural conditions and highly diverse affections to be molded by the set of biblical stories that stretches from creation to the eschaton and culminates in Jesus’ passion and resurrection.” In the cultural-linguistic model, Scripture “absorbs the universe” and provides the interpretative framework by which Christians understand all reality.
And yet, despite the heavy emphasis on the role of Scripture in formulating doctrine and shaping the community, one of the main critiques of the cultural-linguistic model, and postliberalism in general, is that ultimately, it is the community that has the final authority without being answerable to anything else. Salvation is found in the community. The community teaches the language that characterizes the Christian faith, and the community interprets the Scriptures to define the doctrines of the community. Thus, within postliberalism the answer to the question, “how is Scripture authoritative?” is “according to socialization in the community’s conventions, which are subject to revision with continuing community engagement.”
 George Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 44.
 Paul DeHart, The Trial of Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006), xiii.
 Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” 42.
 William Placher, “Postliberal Theology,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the 20th Century, ed. David Ford (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 354.
 Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” 44.
 e.g., Alister McGrath, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995); Placher, “Postliberal Theology.”
 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
 George Lindbeck, “The Church,” in Keeping the Faith: Essays to Mark the Centenary of Lex Mundi, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).
 Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 20.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 103. For an in-depth philosophical analysis of Lindbeck’s use of “absorb the universe,” see Bruce Marshall, “Absorbing the World: Christianity and The Universe of Truths,” in Theology and Dialogue: Essays in Conversation with George Lindbeck (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 69-102.
 Gabriel Fackre, “Narrative: Evangelical, Postliberal, Ecumenical” in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 129.