Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2 Corinthian 5:19


The following is an exchange between myself and an esteemed colleague in response to my emphasis in The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright in Critical Dialogue, wherein I identify 2 Corinthians 5:19 as my hermeneutical framework for situations discussions on the relationship between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith. The discussion can be accessed here: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/confessing-christ/Hz6CUgkfeec/bHPAyGrEBgAJ.  Information about  my book can be accessed here http://wipfandstock.com/the-historical-jesus-and-the-christ-of-faith.html and here https://www.amazon.com/Historical-Jesus-Christ-Faith-Critical/dp/1532603282/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1489520883&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AGeorge+Demetrion
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George, how is your suggestion that we start at 2 Cor 5 and go back different than what Wright has done?  I thought that he was taking Second Temple Judaism as the pre history to Jesus’s death and resurrection to understand the incarnation, so that the incarnation was not rooted in the Christ of faith but in the Old Testament. I think your question of depending too much on history is valid but I think Wright is close on history. Help me here if you get this post.  Herb

Herb, you raise an important point in inferring that my hermeneutical reliance on 2 Corinthians 5:19 (God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself) is synonymous with Wright's depiction of Jesus in which, through living out his messianic calling, he was enacting what Paul describes.  On that, there are a few things to consider:

·  On Wright's interpretation that's what Jesus of Nazareth viewed as the ultimate outcome of his path to Jerusalem in which his nearer term objective was to usher in the Jeremiah's new covenant as the true king of the Jews.  While different from other messianic claims within Second Temple Judaism, taken on its own terms, it is part of the micro-history of that era, and as such, can be completely explained within its historical context through the third person perspective of the modern historian 2000 years later.  Recall the brief quote that Wright offers, which we I recently highlighted, in which, I argue, there is nothing intrinsically transcendent about it, as it can be read as pure historical description, even as it is a critical part of the story of revelation that finds its apotheosis in the prologue of John:

“[Jesus] would carry out Israel’s task: and, having pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might not drink it. In his crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves.”

·  There are many descriptions about how the Jesus of history became viewed as the Christ of faith through the interpretation of the church in the struggle for meaning as Christianity spread during the first few centuries of the common era. Gabe traces this in his insightful analysis of Edward Schilibeeckx's, Jesus: An Experiment in  Christology.  This story of how the Jesus of history became the Christ of faith is a staple narrative of the Jesus Seminar, which clearly marks Borg's understanding. This trajectory of how the church increasingly clarified its understanding of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God and the Second Person of the Trinity is an essential part of the story in understanding how God, himself became revealed in Christ as "the express image of his person" (Heb 1:3). Yet left at that level we are still dealing, in principle, with pure historical third person description and not revelation.

·  My selection of 2 Corinthians 5:19 is to place the emphasis where Paul places it, on the revelation of Christ, in which the proclaimer (of the Kingdom of God) became the proclaimed.  I include an extended discussion of this in footnote # 33, pp. 33-40 of my book, to which I refer you. Keeping the entirety of the New Testament in mind, the Pauline passage allows full scope for all that Wright contends--that Jesus viewed himself as the Jewish messiah, who viewed the impact of his actions as having ultimate worldwide implications (as pervasive in the description of the Servant in Second Isaiah) while having its immediate impact in bringing ancient Jewish history to its covenental fulfillment--while allowing full scope to the highest Christological claims within the NT as found in John 1:1-18 and 17, Colossians 1:15-20 and in the carious high priest depictions in Hebrews. When these texts are taken into consideration, the most exalted claims about Christ can be integrated with pre-resurrection depictions in the Synoptics that provide an incarnational vision of Christ that has become universal in scope both through the impetus of the church through the centuries, as well as through the indelible work of revelation, itself. 


·  The 2 Cor 5:19 passage is meant to give scope to both of these dimensions, in which history and revelation play their roles. This is not radically dissimilar to Wright, but I place more emphasis on the starting point of revelation, where he places considerably more emphasis on history than do I.  I suggest that a fourth quest for the historical Jesus could start here, which would allow historians, theologians, and biblical scholars to take a more fluid approach on the relationship between history and faith in deepening our knowledge of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the vision of the incarnate Christ within the context of its Trinitarian enfolding.  Such is obviously ongoing work which builds a great deal on what has already been accomplished.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

N. T. Wright's View on Penal Substitution

I recently posted the following on the Confessing Christ Listserv. Click here to access the archive page  http://confessingchrist.net/Discussion/tabid/92/Default.aspx
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Greetings once again, colleagues.  It is good to see that at least Janet and Herb are receiving CC messages through email. I assume others are; however, I am not among them and had to retrieve their responses through the archives. I am including my email into the To box in the hope that that will reactivate my receiving CC messages again. Obviously, there are some technological problems here which impede effective communication.

Herb writes: "I don’t have Wright’s book, could you summarize Wright’s position on the climax of the covenant and reformed thinking on atonement?  So we can begin a discussion.  I also wonder where the Incarnation relates? "Herb

I will attempt to do so by posting a very cogent evangelical review of Wright's view of Penal Substitution. (https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2007/04/24/dont-tell-me-nt-wright-denies-penal-substitution/).

The author, Trevin Wax, makes a number of keen observations in his very balanced discussion of Wright's view of the atonement. Among other things, he discusses the importance of keeping both the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth and Reformed theology in mind. Wright argues that Jesus of Nazareth envisioned his messianic call as ushering in the climax of the OT covenant in the restoration of Israel to its redemptive calling in healing the world to its right relationship with God calling. This he contrasts with the emphasis on individual salvation stemming from the atonement theology of the Reformed tradition based on such key NT passages as Romans 3:21-26, esp. vs 24-25, in which the history of Jesus of Nazareth, as the scholarship on the "New Paul" identifies, gets very little play. The result is that little attention is placed on the broader dimensions on God's work in restoring the world that comes through in the more comprehensive view of salvation that includes the personal, but extends to the healing of the nations and to the creation, itself, as envisioned by Paul in Romans 8:18-25.


I discuss this in footnote #16 in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright in Critical Dialogue:


Wright acknowledges an atonement theology “embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition,” though not one that focused, in its initial meaning, on the matter of individual sin and salvation. Rather, he views the sacrificial death of Christ, as first and foremost, an atonement for the sins of Israel, that “had now been dealt with,” in which, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the time of national forgiveness had arrived. Meaning of Jesus, 102, 103. Especially, in his more popular work, Wright does not deny the relevance of the atonement for personal salvation, but seeks to situate its individual significance in the broader narrative of Israel’s story as the climax of the covenant. Simply Christian, 108. Critics of the “new Paul” literature express profound concerns about the limitations they perceive Wright places on the importance of individual salvation through the sacrificial blood of the risen savior. In addition to Piper, Future of Justification, see Johnson, “What’s Wrong with Wright.” In my view, in situating the atonement theology of Jesus of Nazareth in and for the sins of Israel, Wright provides an important bridge between the consciousness of Jesus and the theology of the mature Paul found in Romans 3:21–25, when Romans 8:19–25 and 9–11 are factored in. While such a position is invariably theoretical, through the corpus of his work, Wright has amassed a substantial case in support of it.

Stated otherwise, the Jesus of history may not have had the entirety of NT theology in mind in his earthly calling, but there was a sufficient bridge between his role in enacting the climax of the covenant through his sacrifice and the understanding of atonement theology that has emerged throughout the history of the great orthodox theological and doxological tradition through which God took the impetus in Christ (both as the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith) to reconcile the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). No doubt, there's a good deal of mystery here, but much revelation, as well.

I will conclude with a couple of passages from Wax's essay, "Don't Tell Me N.T. Wright Denies 'Penal Substitution.'"

Regarding substitutionary atonement, Wright offers this plea:
“I am often puzzled and distressed when people question whether I really believe in the substitutionary meaning of Jesus’ death. I would simply say: read my published sermons; read chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God; ask yourself, not whether I go through the hoops of all the words that your tradition has told you we should say, but whether I represent fairly what scripture, and Jesus himself, said about the meaning of his death. That is my only aim.”

N.T. Wright complains that some evangelical presentations of the gospel uproot the message of Jesus from its historical context and transform it into simply an individual’s spiritual experience with God.
“So many popular presentations are far too abstract. They take the whole event out of its context in history, in the story of God and his people, and imagine it simply as a nonhistorical transaction between God and Jesus into which we can somehow be slotted. But the New Testament always insists on seeing the cross as what it was – a horrible and bitter event within history; and it insists that we understand its significance within, not outside, that context.”
The wedding of historical research and theological reflection has broadened Wright’s view of the gospel to include, not only individual salvation in the afterlife, but the present implications that the announcement of Jesus’ lordship have in our world. He claims the Scripture teaches both the personal nature of salvation and the cosmic implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here Wax provides a very apt summary of Wright's view of the atonement:

Perhaps the best understanding of Wright’s view of the atonement is found in his contribution to the New Dictionary of Theology. History and theology come together at the cross. After several pages of historical research regarding Jesus’ life and ministry, Wright states:
“[Jesus] would carry out Israel’s task: and, having pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might not drink it. In his crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves.”
Again placing Jesus’ death in historical context and the overarching biblical narrative, Wright adds: “As the story of the exodus is the story of how God redeemed Israel, so the story of the cross is the story of how God redeemed the world through Israel in person, in Jesus, the Messiah.”
In my view, history is important, but only so in a penultimate sense in a manner that needs to be grasped within the context of revelation, itself, rather than the reverse.  This is one of my major arguments in The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright in Critical Dialogue.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on the 19th century Evangelist/Theologian Charles G. Finney

I posted this several years ago on the Confessing Christ listserv as part of an extended debate on the orthodoxy of Charles G. Finney's moral government theology.
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I first encountered Finney when I was taking an advanced history course on the U.S. antebellum reform era and the prof, a Christian, recommended Finney. I was also attending an assembly of God church at the time in the full flush of a born again experience in 1972. Finney became the topic for my MA thesis where I focused on his revivals of religion. It was exhilarating studying Finney during the week then going home to the on fire Assembly of God church on the weekends and gaining an experiential sense of the quest for the presence of the spirit of God and a vision of "Victory in Jesus," a core staple of Finney's theology and of the AA church.  Finney never denied the reality of sin, but his best reasoned logic would not allow him to adopt any notion of physical depravity, though he was keen on identifying moral depravity as a voluntary embrace of sin which he tended to identify as specific acts like drinking coffee as well as owning slaves rather than any intrinsic state of mind or spirit.

 At that time I had little understanding of Reformed theology, though I was a good Bible reader in which the Epistle to the Romans was my favored text--a text that Finney spent much time on, also.  For Finney, the theology of Victory in Christ served as a pathway for the embrace of holiness as a lifelong quest with the most serious existential intent.  He did know the difference between justification and sanctification and often returned to the former in his preaching in his objective of being God's agent (aka, attorney) in encouraging potential converts to turn to Christ or what he termed "backsliders" to return home.  On this his preaching could be both incredibly tender as well pointed in its judgmental power in which he took the wrath as well as the love of God with radical seriousness.

 Finney cannot be understood outside the potency of his 1821 conversion experience which served as the touchstone of the remainder of his spiritual life.  For the first 10 years of his post-conversion experience he concentrated on revival preaching from Boston in upper New York State, NYC, and to the pulpits of New England where he was allowed.  This period of his life was marked by a great deal of controversy, which might also be viewed as his most vitriolic period in which he was taking no prisoners.  His caricature of old school religious coldness was one of his chief targets in a period in which one of his key texts, Lectures of Revivals of Religion were published (1835). 

 It is to this text and to this period of his life that most critiques turn to and they miss out or downplay the subtle changes that he underwent from around 1840 through the rest of this life.  His move to Oberlin and his shared ministry with Asa Mahan at the newly formed college was one pivotal factor.  Another, coming from the influence of Mahan, was a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit, which drew for him a very clear distinction  between the spirit of God and human ability.  While he recognized the centrality of both justification and sanctification he clearly emphasized the later as well as the theoretical capacity to obey the will of God as far as we knew it (and for him, that's all that was asked), however much our native ability may have bneen marrred by the consequences of sin. (I'm not necessarily defending this position, but any subtle analysis of Finney's theology needs to be sifted with a knowledge of some of the precise ways he defined this.  The final point I'll major here is that he and his arch rival Charles Hodge carried on a series of very extensive point-counter point debates and it is those debates in particular that need to be carefully sifted through before making a reasoned judgment on Finney's theology and the significance of his broader influence in 19th century U.S. and English Protestant circles.

 I do not consider myself a Finneyite, though there have been periods of my life where his work has been influential in my life in which given both his influence and large body of work merit close examination in which a balanced perspective could emerge through a binocular  affirmational/admonitional reading.

 Two final points;

  1. When I read devotional writers or theologians I try to get a sense of some of the ways that God may have been working in their lives (obviously an imperfect science) and then sifting that person's work and my relation to it accordingly in which i am implicitly asking, what is driving me to consider this person's work at this time.  Thus, at one period of my life I was highly influenced by Walter Brueggemann; in more recent times, JI Packer has had much influence in my life.  Our theological interpretations are invariably affected by such inclinations.
  2. If one takes seriously the distinction Fackre makes between Scripture as the primary source of faith and theology as a primary resource, the one could make a plausible argument that there is an unfathomable gap between the two in which theology, while valuable is always secondary to a canonical approach to Scripture read through the lenses of common and critical sense, through the third litmus test in the hierarchy of values, the context.  on this reading I would place both Reformed theology and Finney's systematic theology as an important secondary concern and sift both works first and foremost through the monocular lens of Scripture as a serious heuristic worthy of much effort, however ultimately impossible that is to do since context is invariably part of the interpretive process.  At the least this could lead to a "post-critical interpretation" in the sense that the text has its own authorial integrity whatever reader-response bias we place on it,.  Through this approach, one shapes one's theology accordingly, drawing on all the resources that one can, yet, if the hierarch of values does hold (and I realize that for Gabe this schema is a heuristic) then that does suggest turning to the Bible first and foremost for understanding and direction, however much we ,may draw on other resources for amplification.

I've linked one pro-Finney review of BB Warfield's assessment of Finney's theology http://www.angelfire.com/il/horton/nicely[1].htm



Sunday, April 24, 2016

In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective A Review



Much appreciation to Al Scopino, Jr, an American religious historian,for his review of In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center. (GD).  The review can also be accessed here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00TUJLCAY/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1
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Focusing on the fractured state of current American Protestantism, George Demetrion’s study, In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective, provides an antidote for greater cohesiveness. The author’s message is directed to both moderate conservatives and post-liberal believers. Demetrion insists that a centrist position must maintain the tradition of orthodoxy. In this, Demetrion builds on the centrist theology of Gabriel Fackre, whose work he explores in depth in Chapter 5. And while this position appears at first reading to be contradictory, Demetrion assists readers in navigating through theological complexities via the works of theologians whose writings provide hope, intellectual verve, and creative imagination as means to avoiding polarization and mistrust.

Analyzing the works of conservative theologians J.I. Packer, Donald Bloesch, and Richard Lints, as well as post-liberal scholars Walter Brueggemann, Gary Dorrien and Douglas J. Hall, Demetrion locates theological openings and nuances in accord with Biblical principles to provide the grounding for his argument. All, in different ways, provide guideposts for future progress. Going beyond the fundamentalist-modernist divide that was set in history with the Scopes Trial of 1925, Demetrion has called on both conservative and liberal thinkers to seek higher, common ground by reaching consensus on shared religious principles. Unlike conservative spokespersons of the past, Demetrion’s orthodox models have championed reason, employed current knowledge, challenged Biblical literalism, exercised imagination in their analyses, promoted ecumenicalism, acknowledged the contributions of women, and advocated the Kingdom of God on earth. All of these qualities, Demetrion contends, would revitalize the Protestant center and provide space for meaningful dialogue, greater understanding, and fruitful cooperation. For post- liberals who have spiraled into the nether regions of relativism and for conservatives who have built fortresses to stem the tide of intellectual curiosity, Demetrion has reopened a bridge that has long been closed.

While the book offers high expectations for clergy and laity alike, several components must be considered. First, the work is designed for moderate post-liberals and conservatives and it is they who would reap the benefits of an energized vital center through free and open exchange. Yet, how this new thinking is to reach and impact the greater laity and those religiously disaffected is more problematic. Second, while the author refers to the angst of mainline Protestantism’s supposed marginality, it should be noted that despite staggering membership losses, the mainline continues to retain cultural currency in greater American society. Third, for a vast number of Americans who have become comfortable without any religious identity, to impose or suggest any theological prerequisites, such as the primacy of the Bible and the focal point of Jesus Christ, would more than likely engender a chilly reception. In this all-too-real possibility, Barth’s call to embrace “the strange new world of the Bible” might simply fail to resonate within a population uncomfortable with absolutes, especially religious absolutes. One recalls Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger reminding clergy in the 1950s that what preachers proclaimed on Sunday held little impact on the daily activities of parishioners on Monday or the days that followed.

Demetrion has provided much to challenge and encourage clergy and laity in closing the Protestant divide. For too long, conservatives and liberals have turned inward for sustenance. Perhaps it is time for American Protestants to turn outward and embrace those on the other side of the religious spectrum. In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center complements Douglas Jacobsoen’s and William Vance Trollinger’s Re-Forming the Center: American Protestantism, 1900 to the Present (1998), which challenged the thesis of two opposing Protestant camps. Demetrion has moved the debate further along by examining the theological commonalities and perplexities of Protestantism and is required reading for theological students, particularly those devoted to greater inter-faith understanding and ecumenical efforts.

A. J. Scopino, Jr.

Central Connecticut State University

Monday, April 11, 2016

Reflections on Stanley Grenz's Post-modern, Post-Foundational Postconservative Theology



 This reflection was also a post that I placed on the discussion board for a recent course on 19th and 20th century theology.  The commentary was influenced by a reading of Grenz's important, accessible book, Envisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (IVP, 1997).  The comments below highlight concerns I have with the polarities in Grenz's theology.  Though I do not do so here, I also find much to admire in Grenz;'s work. The critique stands as a point in time in my reflection on his theological stance.
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There are substantial differences between Schleiermacher’s receptivity to an ineffable religious prompting, in which Christian doctrine served, as best, as a metaphorical resource in tapping into the “inward sensibility” of faith, and the strong pietistic accents underlying Stanley Grenz’s embrace of a generously orthodox, specifically Christian doctrinal theology. Therefore, D. A. Carson’s charge against Grenz of resuscitating the methodology of Schleiermacher is a most exaggerated one, given that the latter’s identification of being a “pietist of a higher order” entailed a move beyond classical Christian orthodox doctrine.  In contrast, Grenz sought to reinterpret (rather than reconstruct) orthodox doctrine in light of what he viewed as the challenges of defending a strong faith stance in the midst of a postmodern culture, which he sharply distinguished from the Enlightenment premises that underlay the early modern Western world view.
In his quest to (a) sift Christian doctrine through a strong pietistic prism, in his effort to (b) explore the dynamics of the Christian faith tradition within the cultural context of what he viewed as the postmodern era, and in his (c) highlighting of the communal aspects of faith, Grenz has made a major contribution to contemporary evangelical discourse—a contribution reinforced by his desire—not always successful—to stimulate constructive dialogue between traditional and postconservative evangelical theologians.  I am empathetic to these aspirations.
What I question is the great divide that suffuses Grenz’s work between his characterization of traditional evangelical theologians as dogmatic rationalists operating from out-of-dated foundationalist and modernist-based epistemological and social assumptions, which he contrasts to Spirit-focused postconservatives operating out of a more complex non-foundationalist and postmodern epistemological and social prisms, which he obviously favors.  I think this polarity is wrong-headed on several accounts.
·         First, it works against the irenic spirit out of which Grenz seeks to expand the boundaries of fruitful Christian community.

·         Second, the modern/postmodern contrast is exaggerated in that both contemporary modernists and postmodernists have moved beyond the exaggerated simplifications of the 18th-century Enlightenment focus of an almost worship-like embrace of rationalism, science, belief in unending human progress, and an utter repudiation of religion as inherently anathema to the human spirit.  Some intellectuals have identified an intermediary zone that they refer to as “late modernity”—a more chastened form of modernity—that takes into account the complexities of the contemporary period while maintaining a strong focus on reason, critical thought, technology, secularization, pluralism, and a complex, socially embedded individual identity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_modernity and https://sossociology.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/theories-of-late-modernity/.

·         Third and closely related, the complexities of contemporary evangelical thought require a more discerning assessment than one based on the simplistic polarity between foundational and non-foundationalist epistemological assumptions.  Through more mediating modes of knowing, such insights gleaned from critical realism, critical rationalism, and modest (or weak) foundationalism need to be brought into the discussion. Such epistemological resources can highlight the concept of truth as a regulative ideal to mediate the polar concepts underlying discussions of culture and knowledge construction that give shape to key aspects of Grenz’ s theological assumptions.

·         Fourth, I am not aware of a single traditional evangelical scholar who does not also view the spiritual condition of his or her walk with Christ as absolutely central to his or her theological integrity and core Christian identity), nor who is not aware that his or her theological stance is ultimately grounded in faith.

·         Fifth, the contemporary evangelical community is a big tent that can draw in the wide diversity of gifts across the dogmatic-pietistic landscape. I am reluctant to privilege the pietistic impetus over those who concentrate on what they view as right doctrine in the quest to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, strength, and soul.  Moreover, I want to stress more than does Grenz the universal claims of the faith once for all delivered to the saints, however limited may be our knowledge that ground such faith.

I am sure that Grenz would have been aware of all of these concerns.  Nonetheless, in the heat of his own battles, particularly with traditionalist, cognitivist-oriented evangelicals like D. A. Carson, David Wells, and J. P. Moreland, he did not always follow his more discerning irenic impulses.  A more thoughtful dialogue between traditional and postconservative evangelicals would make a most important contribution to the wider evangelical and broader Protestant faith communities in working through the relationship between faith and culture. This would require an attenuation of the modern/postmodern great divide toward one more in line with a late modern sensibility. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Liberationist Theology: Affirmations and Admonitions


(The following was also a post written for a recent course on 19th and 20th century theology, based largely on the excellent text by Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in contemporary Western Theology).


Distinctive biblical and theological themes are highlighted in different eras and historical contexts. In his reaction to a century’s worth of liberalism, Barth stressed dogmatics and, especially in his early era, dismissed apologetics as invariably tinged with natural theology.  In his one-sided emphasis, again, especially in his earlier career, Barth’s theology exhibited certain unbalances, arguably due to a necessary move to rectify the previous liberal overemphasis on human experience.  A broader theological dialectic would emerge through the collective work of the community of theologians influenced by Barth, while also more attuned to the culture (e.g., Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Bultmann, and Niebuhr).

 Moltmann’s twin emphasis on eschatological hope and the suffering, most vulnerable God can be viewed in a similar way when one sifts his theology through the unimaginable destruction unleashed during World War II and its aftermath and the various liberationists themes emerging out of the 1960s.  Certain themes were highlighted (eschatological hope, the social Trinity, panentheism, and the vision of the crucified God), while other themes (the enduring impact of sin on the human condition, the wrath of God, the doctrine of hell, and the unequivocal sovereignty of God) got less play in Moltmann’s work. The hope is that a more comprehensive vision would emerge among those influenced by Moltmann.  A book edited by Sung Wook Chung, Jurgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology, is one hopeful sign http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00X6DS2L2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1.

 It is similarly  so with liberationst theology in its important emphases on social justice, the humanization of the poor, collective or social sin, and righteousness defined as liberation from all modes of oppression stemming from colonialization, capitalism, racism, sexism, and the internalization of the oppressor voice (“false consciousness”) within the personal and collective psyche of the oppressed.  All of these are themes that have substantial biblical warrant, though in its totality, liberationist theology is a new key that has emerged in the era of the breakdown of colonial oppression, as reflected in two iconic-like texts: Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008UX35WY/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1 and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed http://www.amazon.com/Pedagogy-Oppressed-30th-Anniversary-Edition/dp/0826412769.

 With its emphasis on “praxis,” “preferential treatment of the poor,” its overarching Marxist economic presuppositions, its this-worldly emphasis, its focus on the deleterious impact of oppressive “social structures and customs” (p. 511), and its wide-scale rejection of many themes inherent in classical orthodox Christianity, Olson is surely right in referring to liberationist theology as “a paradigm shift in theology” (p. 509).  There is, in liberationist theology, a  clear emphasis on social ethics and a relative diminution of doctrine, which is not to deny shifts within liberationist theology, itself (beyond my current awareness) that could strike a more concordant note in sifting its very important ethical foci through more orthodox doctrinal lenses.

 As currently practiced, there is a great deal of merit in Olson’s observation that in the liberationist mode, “the essence of Christianity is not doctrine but ethics” (p. 546).  With that noted, I argue that; (a) liberationist theology has brought out important biblical and theological strands that can be discerned within the Christian corpus that are highly salient to our current global reality which, in their totality, have been marginalized; (b) that there may be ongoing work among advocates, themselves (and there certainly needs to be) in working toward a more sophisticated relationship between ethics and a generous and faithful orthodox doctrine; (c) that it would do the universal church well to affirm much of what the liberationist theologians affirm, while issuing discerning admonitions in areas where that may be warranted.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Preliminary Perspectives on Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope.


The following commentary was a discussion post from a recent online course on 19th and 20th century theology.  It is based on Roger Olson's extensive discussion of Moltmann in his recently published, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (pp. 452-476).  Since then I have read Moltmann's Theology of Hope and have begun to re-read his more recent, The Coming of God, as well as the extensive commentaries on Moltmann's eschatological vision by Richard Bauckham. The result of this more recent re-reading may result in some revision of the following commentary which I will let stand here as a provisional statement.
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This week’s reading on Jurgen Moltmann helped to deepen my appreciation for the significance of his future-oriented emphasis on hope.  It also raised recurring aspects of his eschatological theology of hope that I continue to find perplexing.

Through Olson’s discussion, I gained a deeper understanding of the biographical significance of Moltmann’s theology of hope, rooted in the hopelessness and despair he experienced as a German prisoner of war for two years after WWII.  It was not only his personal experience, but the press of broader historical events rooted in the evil and destruction that permeated Europe during the 1930s and 40s, in which Moltmann found, through his conversion to Christianity, a more enduring reality—an alternative vision in the kingdom of God of what the world will become when God draws the future of his kingdom within the moving trajectory of human and broader creational history. This tension between the then current personal and historical reality he encountered in the mid-1940s and the indwelling vision of God coming to humankind in the form of the crucified Christ stimulated a profound sense of hope within Moltmann that he initially fleshed out through the insights of the atheist utopian visionary Ernst Block that he sought to Christianize.

Central for Moltmann was not so much the indwelling of God in any immediate personal or historical encounter, but God’s perpetual coming in leading creation to its destined future dwelling place, in which, in one of Moltmann’s most oft cited biblical passages, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).  Based on this perspective, “From first to last [for Moltmann] …Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and also revolutionizing and transforming the present.  The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day” (Moltmann, cited in Olson, pp. 450-51).

While I am appreciative of his theology of hope, I have problems with Moltmann’s overarching emphasis on eschatology for a variety of reasons, one of the chief being his failure to grapple sufficiently with the deep-rooted; arguably, unfathomable tension between the already and not yet, as reflected in a great deal of orthodox Christianity  across a wide theological stream.  This is troubling and draws out, at least in me, a sense of unreality at the heart of his future-oriented vision.  Is not God present to us now, in a real and vital sense, however ineffably so—providing us with a real presence that guides us through the veil of tears in the here and now—however much the “earnest” of the eschatological hope holds promises of a better day to come?  Think, too, of the question the apostles posed to the risen Lord: [When] “will you restore the kingdom to Israel”?  Recall the response:  “It is not for you to know the times or seasons….But you will receive power on high” to do the work I am calling you now to do (Acts 1:6-8).

It is the relative lack of this tension between the already given fruits of Christ’s first coming (including the living power of the resurrection and ascension) and the future oriented hope when God brings in the entire creation into his full glorious presence that I am most troubled by the eschatological aspect of Moltmann’s very fruitful theology. 

Through Olson’s discussion I have gained a clearer appreciation for the biographical role in shaping his vison.   As Olson cites Moltmann:  “I probably owe this hope,” my hope for my own very survival in every sense, “for it is what saved me from despairing and giving up.”  With that hope I set “a new ‘personal goal’ of studying theology, so that I might understand the power of hope to which I owe my life” (Olson p. 453).

Well done, thou good and faithful servant, but what about those of us with a different set of personal trajectories, set within a different historical experience?  In short, how universal is the theology of hope or Moltmann’s broader eschatological vision for our personal and collective early 21st century U. S. and Western context?  How central is it as the all-important prism of any creative and vital theological work?

By way of concluding, I appreciate Moltmann’s role in bringing eschatology back into prominence where it had gone through considerable declension in much of late 19th and early 20th century theological perspectives.  This was a major contribution through which Moltmann brought considerable credibility toward the restoration of the orthodox great tradition to Protestant mainline denomination, a work in progress, to be sure.  One author has also noted that in his eschatological focus—so very different than that of the author of The Late Great Planet Earth—Moltmann has made a major connection with Pentecostal theology (Castelo, “Reclaiming the Future,” in Chung, ed., Jurgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology, pp. 209-210). This, too, is a great contribution, as is his broader eschatological passion, in which Moltmann links his eschatology of the time when God will become all-in-all to his Trinitarian vision, not only of the crucified Christ, but of the crucified God, in which the crucifixion becomes an eternal presence in the heart of God, even in the glorious fulfillment promised, when human and creational history become one with their eternal destiny.

All of this is very fruitful, well beyond what can be explored here.  This makes even more pressing the need to work through the perplexities and problems that I do find in his eschatological vision.  Is there gold here in Moltmann evocative vision for a more fruitful evangelical theology?  I think there is. 


Inquiring minds want to know how much and how his insights can be fruitfully appropriated.