This week I am embarking on a long-term reading project: John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is, of course, one of the great texts of the Christian theological tradition, and while in the past I’ve spent a good amount of time on Calvin’s chapters on Scripture, justification and atonement, and Christology, I have to confess that my exposure to the rest of the Institutes has been of the “hunt and peck” variety. So I’m reading the whole work cover-to-cover — four parts published today in two volumes.
I’ll be casually blogging as I go, reading Calvin slowly and under no compulsion to conquer a certain amount each week. I’d love to have some discussion — especially from those familiar with the bigger picture of Calvin’s work and historical context. And if you’d be willing to read the Institutes along with me, there might be a cookie waiting for you at the end. (Legal Disclaimer: There will be no cookies.)
For reference, I’m using the edition edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles, published by The Westminster Press (Louisville, KY) in 1960 and reissued by Westminster John Knox Press in 2006. (An older translation done by Henry Beveridge in the 19th century is widely and more inexpensively available, as it’s in the public domain. In fact, it’s on CCEL. McNeill-Battles is much to be preferred both in terms of quality and readability.)
The Institutes of the Christian Religion was completed in 1559, five years before Calvin’s death at the age of 54. This was the fourth edition of a project that Calvin began more than 20 years earlier, and which he had continued to revise and expand.
We begin with Calvin’s own prefatory matters: the Institutes opens with brief comments to the reader (pp. 3-5), in which he writes of the somewhat surprising success that the book had found in the 23 years since its original publication. It’s that reception that prompted him to treat the subjects contained within in some greater detail. “Although I did not regret the labor spent,” he confesses, “I was never satisfied until the work had been arranged in the order now set forth” (3).
Calvin suggests here that the Institutes in its final form exists for two main purposes. First, it stands against those who have falsely accused him of defecting from the cause fo the Reformation to the papacy. The work is to be a true account of John Calvin’s thought and teachings — and so we should expect it to include key theological principles of the Reformation. But this was not the reason why it was written.
Second, and more significantly then, the work was produced to serve as a tool for the instruction and preparation of “candidates in sacred theology” — which I take to be both those studying for ecclesiastical orders and those studying for letters to teach in the universities — “in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling” (4). Calvin intends the Institutes to be a manual for learning theology, arranged systematically for comprehensiveness and ease of reference. To that end, I think it wise for us to pick it up and read it to learn theology afresh with Calvin today.
Finally, we should remember at every point that Calvin abhorred excessive speculation and did not believe “sacred theology” to be a discipline with autonomy from biblical studies. Calvin sought ever to be a biblical theologian, and his hope for the Institutes is that it will point us to Scripture — to see that what he has said is true, and to understand the work of God still more deeply than any human-made theological treatise can get at. Thus this great work of systematic theology was intended to be read along with Calvin’s many volumes of commentaries on Scripture, and of course foremost with Scripture itself.
This brief preface is followed by an equally brief “Subject Matter of the Present Work” (pp. 6-8), published with the French translation in 1560. Calvin states that Holy Scripture “contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom” (6). The purpose of a theology such as this, then, is to serve as a guide: to point in the right direction and keep the path clear, so that those who are called by the Holy Spirit may not lose their footing. It is the duty of those who have walked the path and learned the landmarks to point them out to those who are coming along. And yet any praise for the helpfulness of the work must be rendered to God.
The subsequent Prefatory Address to King Francis I is a bit longer, so I’ll save it for the next post.
and learn as they write.” (Augustine, Letters cxliii.2)
Outline of the Institutes:
Book I: The Knowledge of God the Creator (18 chapters)
Book II: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel (17 chapters)
Book III: The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow (25 chapters)
Book IV: The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein (20 chapters)
A book review I previously worked toward on this blog has now been published in volume 10 of Ecclesiology. I’m grateful to the journal for allowing me to share it with you below, but by all means get a hold of the entire volume if you can–there’s good stuff in there.
John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) 328 + xv pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-6441-3 (pbk). $36.00. (Emphasis added for blog).
Despite the fact that the twentieth century missiological renovation known as Missio Dei picked up its traction at the 1952 International Missonary Council in Willingen through the work of Karl Hartenstein, because of personal connections and thematic resonances the movement’s initiation is commonly attributed to Karl Barth’s paper at the Brandenburg Mission Conference twenty years earlier, in 1932.
John Flett’s The Witness of God does not dispute this relationship, but argues by way of an historical and theological analysis that from the beginning there was a growing disconnect between them which is overlooked to the detriment of one more than the other. So it is that with a qualified affirmation of Missio Dei and a provocative identification of its shortcomings Flett provides a compelling presentation of the ways that Barth’s theology might yet be delved for its best correctives and most constructive missiological-ecclesiological benefits.
In the Introduction and Chapter 1 The Witness of God begins by sketching the ‘problem’ of Missio Dei and tracing its origins before proceeding in Chapters 2–4 to detail the historical relationship between Barth and the movement. Having established significant discrepancy between them it then works its way forward in Chapters 5–7 by leveraging Barth’s more prominent theological
gains toward a constructive revisitation of Missio Dei to close the book in Chapter 8.
In the first half’s historical analysis Flett weaves conference reflections and personal correspondences together to form a genealogy of Barth’s severance from Missio Dei that is as interesting as it is convincing. In the theological analysis the focus narrows and lands most squarely on natural theology and the issue of a ‘point of contact’ in Chapter 5, the Triune shape of Christian life and mission in Chapter 6, and the integration of salvation and missionary vocation in Chapter 7. This book has hints of repetitiveness but, like Barth’s own work, Flett covers a lot of ground within these spiralling themes and in the process builds up a rather forceful and compelling proposal.
Missio Dei alerts us to the recognition that Christ reveals not just communion but also mission in the Triune life. Flett thinks this point has missiological and ecclesiological power to it, but finds this considerably diminished when God’s being and act are held apart too widely. He suggests that Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity is ‘illustrative of the problem,’ in that his argument for
‘the divinity of the Son and Spirit’ ended up ‘ascribing the economy only epistemological significance’ (p. 19). It might be contested whether this accusation is truer of Augustine or of his legacy, but it does illustrate well the impetus of Flett’s argument:
With an inordinate gap between God’s inner life and external operations we tend to render the latter loosely derivative and secondary, and with the overblown bifurcation of the immanent and economic Trinity the tearing asunder of church and mission is not far behind. We might take missiological insights from the doctrine of God and still fall back on anthropological insights to do the leg work for practical theology.
In Flett’s view, what Barth enables us to do is to let Christ’s revelation of God’s activity so inform our understanding of God’s being that it challenges us to integrate more closely the being and act of the church. Some will be deterred by the shades of actualism here, but these need not detract from the thrust of Flett’s analysis of both Barth and of contemporary missiology and ecclesiology. Those careful to avoid rendering the earthly mission constitutive of God can still benefit from considering the extent to which this mission is fitting for him and thus imperative for us.
Flett suggests that with an anaemic Trinitarian theology we tend to make missions an optional aside or else clamour to fulfil the imperative under our own steam (p. 229). Holding God’s being and act apart, we either put the inner life of the church and the eccentric impulse of mission into competition or we conflate them to the detriment of one or the other. In Flett’s view, faith in a
missional Trinity enables a coherent protest when the vita contemplativa is inordinately exalted over the vita activa or when proclamation becomes a matter merely of ‘propagating those cultural elements’ deemed ‘essential to growth’ (pp. 21, 178).
It might be contested whether one can get much practical traction out of the intricacies of doctrinal arrangement, but the challenges for church practice drawn out in this book do seem apt to hit close to home. One example is when Flett calls into question the frequent delegation of missionary work to para-church organizations, suggesting that this may be symptomatic of one of two forms of ‘monstrosity’ named by Lesslie Newbigin: The ‘unchurchly mission’ or the ‘unmissionary church’ (p. 71). Flett wisely stops short of criticizing para-church trends across the board (after all, such missionary organizations tend to link denominations that might otherwise be divided), but he does give appropriate pause for critical reflection.
Following up on this, one thing that begged for more elaboration in this book was Newbigin’s quarrel with ‘missionary zeal which is forever seeking to win more proselytes but which does not spring from and lead back into a quality of life which seems intrinsically worth having in itself’ (p. 278). Given Barth’s attention to this in The Doctrine of Reconciliation we might have seen further delineation of the relation between the church’s mission and its common life.
In Chapter 5 Flett confronts us with what may have been the most explicit point of departure between Missio Dei and Barth; the issue of natural theology. When Barth famously warned against Emil Brunner’s recommendation of a ‘point of contact’ between the preaching church and the receiving culture, Flett reckons that missiologists were confounded by what they took to be an opposition to mission itself. Barth’s point was that no cultural element could be asked to mediate the gospel, but they heard in this a diminishment if not a denouncement of translation and gospel-communication altogether.
By arguing that there is no ‘point of contact’ but Jesus himself, however, Flett thinks Barth issued a still-relevant warning against the tendency to place a hyphen between some part of culture and the Christian faith and then to make that hyphen a ‘shibboleth of orthodoxy’ (p. 117). In this construal, he argues, the interim between Christ’s ascension and return is understood in terms of Christ’s absence rather than His presence and the crux of the mission becomes the cultural media and not the living Christ (p. 135). The result is more often than not the subtle replacement of witness with propaganda (p. 63).
Flett finds a corrective for this in Barth’s emphasis on the prophetic office of Christ at the end of Church Dogmatics, which he says highlights the Church’s call to be caught up in God’s gracious movement to the world not only as its recipients but inherently as its attentive participants as well (pp. 201–203).
In this book John Flett argues that the church’s mission and its common life are part of one gracious motion of God that goes back to eternity past and continues to eternity future. This is a motion carried out in time primarily but not exclusively by the Son and the Spirit, since they summon and enable our participation in mission by the mercy of God. These are evocative rubrics for ecclesiology today and for that reason The Witness of God makes for a very worthy read.
In the video below, N. T. Wright discusses his new book on Paul’s theology. He strongly asserts that the ministry and death of Jesus Christ have to be understood within the history of Israel and the promises God made to Abraham, Christ himself being the fulfillment of those promises, the righteous Israel that restores humanity and thereby creation in light of the primeval fall. That much I think ought to be noncontroversial. Have a look.
What is wonky about this is the unapologetic plan-B-ness of Wright’s understanding of Abraham, the nation of Israel that comes from him and therefore Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s intentions with that nation. Wright paraphrases “that rabbi who said in I think the 3rd or 4th century” that basically prior to creation God said to himself he’d make Adam and if Adam blew it he’d make Abraham to fix what Adam broke. Now, my point in this post is not to argue counterfactuals about whether Christ would have come even if the fall hadn’t happened but to do deal more generally with the way Wright treats the relation between history and God’s will. Wright reads God’s intentions in linear temporal sequence such that what comes before must be the cause of what comes later. Abraham is understood in light of Adam; God’s promises to Abraham answer to the creational intentions gone awry in Adam. Jesus is then understood in light of Abraham; God’s work in Jesus answers to the promises made to Abraham.
This way of situating the gospel of Jesus Christ has significant merit. It helps restore to the church the Hebraic setting of all the New Testament writings, certainly including Paul. This is a significant gain. But it unhelpfully sets itself against an unnamed (at least in this interview) alternative framing of the gospel, presumably that reflected in Luther’s questions about how God can be found by sinners to be merciful which led to the bedrock Protestant conviction of justification by faith.
T. F. Torrance offers a helpful alternative to this binary opposition of frameworks by understanding all of Israel’s history from Abraham’s call forward as a particular kind of prehistory to Jesus Christ. To state it briefly, Torrance sees the history of God’s covenant with Israel prior to Christ as having the purpose of supplying a cultural matrix of thinking, speaking and religious liturgy that would make Christ’s eventual coming intelligible. This then allows that Christ be understood in light of Israel’s history a la Wright, but also allows, which Wright seems to not, that Israel’s history be understood in light of a necessarily post-resurrection insight into who Christ is in his relation to God and in the outworking of God’s plan of salvation as it relates to all creation. It is worth letting Torrance speak for himself here at length:
If we are to know [God] and speak about him in a way that is appropriate to him, we need to have fitting modes of thought and speech, adequate conceptual forms and structures, and indeed reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him. Let us consider God’s historical relations with the people of Israel in just this light. And let us think of it, for a moment rather anthropomorphically, in this way. In his desire to reveal himself and make himself knowable to mankind, he selected one small race out of the whole mass of humanity, and subjected it to intensive interaction and dialogue with himself in such a way that he might mould and shape his people in the service of his self-revelation. Recall Jeremiah’s analogy of the potter at work with his clay, which is so apt here. He takes a lump of clay, throws it down upon the potter’s wheel, and proceeds to rotate it under the steady pressure of his fingers until it is moulded into the kind of vessel suitable for his purpose. But when the clay proves to be lumpy and recalcitrant he breaks it down and remoulds it in accordance with his design, and he does that again and again until he has formed and fashioned a vessel to his liking which will serve his purpose well. That is how the prophets, and St Paul also, regarded Israel, as clay in the hands of the divine Potter which he subjects to his will, yet not in the mechanical way of a human potter with his impersonal handiwork but in the way in which a father imparts distinctive characteristics to his offspring. Thus God established a special partnership of covenanted kinship with Israel, so that within the intimate structure of family relations he might increasingly imprint himself upon the generations of Israel in such a way that it could become the instrument of his great purpose of revelation.
Far from being restricted to the people of Israel itself, that was a purpose which God had for all mankind, for he took Israel into his hands in this unique way in order to provide the actual means, a whole set of spiritual tools, appropriate forms of understanding, worship and expression, through which apprehension of God could be made accessible to human beings and knowledge of God could take root in the soil of humanity (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 6-7).
Torrance establishes a two-way framing here, framing Christ within Israel’s history and framing Israel’s history within God’s logically prior decision to send Christ. This more dialectical framing upholds everything Wright offers us but without castigating the patristic and Reformation formulations of Christology Wright feels compelled to castigate in order to establish a Hebraic Christological context. The early fathers’ insights about who Christ is within the inner relations of the Godhead are given space to speak to us today, as are the reformers insights about who Christ is within God’s plan and work of salvation for us, all while encouraging the work Wright wants to do of highlighting questions of who Christ is within the history of Israel which is the preoccupation of the New Testament writers.
John Calvin opens the final version of his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, with this sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom wepossess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” This is a profound insight that will work its way through everything else Calvin wants to say. We just can’t remove ourselves from the equation when we talk about God; we can’t make God an object of disinterested academic discussion. To talk about God is to talk about the source and judge of our existence. That means our knowledge (or ignorance) of him is an inescapably personal thing for each of us. Put another way, you learn quite a lot about a person in what they have to say about God. Likewise, a person’s thoughts about themselves reveal quite a bit about their view of God. The two things just cannot be separated.
This leads Calvin, however, to an important but perhaps subtle qualification. The mutuality of God-knowledge and self-knowledge doesn’t mean we can start from either side. Calvin argues for a particular ordering here, moving from God to ourselves: “it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge ofhimself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” The world and even the church, however, often work in the other direction. We are continually encouraged to reflect on our experiences, our personal “God-story”, our feelings about what we are currently going through, our deepest needs and fears, and use such reflection as a foundation from which to see who God is. Theology is replaced with Me-ology.
The problem with this ordering of things is that it fails to recognize our constant temptation to delude ourselves in self-righteousness. When we start with ourselves, we make our perspectives and feelings the measure of righteousness. Calvin puts it this way:
because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us. And because nothing appears within or around that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure—so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption.
This is why The Sopranos is one of my favorite tv shows ever made. We are given a window into the inner self-knowledge of a man (a New Jersey mafia boss) we would rightly identify as evil. The great benefit of this show, apart from the brutal violence and greasy (male)/plastic (female) sexuality the viewer is made to endure, is the shock of awareness that this guy make himself feel good about himself in the same way we all do: a little introspection, self-awareness, and empathy for others are all that are needed to pat himself on the back and say “I’m ok – I’m a good person.” Religion, for which Tony himself has basically no time but most of the other characters indulge in to some degree, serves only to reinforce the feeling of self-satisfaction. The righteousness of God is not seen to be something that overwhelms and calls to repentance and new life. God is in fact obscured behind a blanket of religious self-congratulation, allowing those who give their token observance to claim, as Paulie does somewhat regularly, to be “covered” like the holder of an insurance policy. The viewer is made to wonder “am I as self-deluded as these people?” As long as I seek to understand myself before and apart from knowledge of God as he reveals himself, yes, I am that deluded.
The point of all of this is to say that we ought not to be satisfied with self-knowledge as amounting to righteousness. Even if that self-knowledge is framed in the religious vocabulary of “my identity in Christ”, if the primary object of my reflection remains me rather than Christ, something quite less than Calvin’s integration of God-knowledge and self-knowledge has been reached. For those of us in ministry, that we means we cannot be satisfied if we have merely brought those we minister to think and talk about themselves with some new sense of clarity. Even when our conversations are soaked with references to scripture or when the excessive narcissism is spiritualized by talking of ourselves as “God’s child”, if it all boils down to getting people to feel better and think more about themselves, we haven’t really gotten anywhere. The Christian life is first and foremost about contemplating and loving God. That is what really enables us to know ourselves and at the same time be transformed to reflect God’s righteousness by making us less self-obsessed.
If you’re going to be in southern California in mid-January (or can hop a plane and make it happen) I hope you’ll come to the second annual Los Angeles Theology Conference. It takes place on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena on January 16 and 17 (that’s a Thursday and Friday), with the theme of “Advancing Trinitarian Doctrine.”
Headliners include Lewis Ayres (Durham University), Stephen R. Holmes (St. Andrews), Karen Kilby (Durham), Thomas H. McCall (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Fred Sanders (Biola University). Each of them has recently published an important book on trinitarian theology, and the remainder of the conference will be filled out with other nine papers presented in three parallel sessions, and a concluding panel discussion.
If you live west of the Rockies you’re probably aware that there isn’t much of a scene in constructive, doctrinal theology on the West Coast. The L.A. Theology Conference has set out to change that, and I think it’s safe to say that it is already making a name for itself. As a native of the Pacific Northwest it’s great to see such an event on this side of the country, and I’m even happier to be able to participate this year by presenting a paper.
Here’s the full list of papers (plenaries in bold):
Fred Sanders:“What Trinitarian Theology Is For: Placing the Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian Theology and Life”
Breakout Session 1:
- Samuel Powell (Point Loma Nazarene University): “The Procession of the Spirit and the Image of God in Augustine’s Theology”
Kyle Strobel (Grand Canyon University): “The Beauty of the Triune God: A Retrieval”
Jason S. Sexton (Golden Gate Baptist Seminary and USC): “A Confessing Trinitarian Theology for Today’s Mission”
Breakout Session 2:
- Brannon Ellis (InterVarsity Press) “The Spirit of the Father, of Himself God: A Calvinian Approach to the Question of the Filioque”
Kendall Soulen (Wesley Theological Seminary): “The Name above Every Name: The Eternal Identity of the Second Person of the Trinity and the Covenant of Grace”
Awet Andemicael (Lecturer, Yale University): “The Music of God: Toward an Aesthetic Trinitarian Theology”
Stephen R. Holmes: “Trinitarian Action and Inseparable Action”
Thomas McCall: “Trinity Doctrine, Plain and Simple”
Karen Kilby: “Trinity and Politics: An Apophatic Approach”
Breakout Session 3:
- Robert St. Hilaire (Niagara University): “Imitating the Vision of God: Pierre Rousselot on Thomas Aquinas’s Theological Method and Trinitarian Discourse”
Darren O. Sumner (Fuller Seminary Northwest): “Functional Subordination and Eternity: The Father-Son Relation in Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Theology”
Dale Tuggy (SUNY Fredonia): “How to Be a Monotheistic Trinitarian”
Lewis Ayres: “The Life of God and the Christian Life: Thinking into the Mystery”
Learn more and register for the event at LATheology.com.
It has been two years since I attended the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion, so I’m excited to be there in Baltimore in a couple weeks. As an exercise in looking forward to it, here’s a scan of the AAR program book for a few of the papers and panels I’m looking at:
1:30–3:30 - Expolorations in Theology and the Apocalyptic
- Nathan Kerr, Ry Siggelkow, and Halden Doerge: ”Theses on Kingdom-World-Church”
4:00–6:30 - Karl Barth Society of North America:
- W. Travis McMaken: ”A Barthian Case for Infant Baptism”
- Hanna Reichel: ”Karl Barth and the Heidelberg Catechism”
9:00–11:30 - Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society Group: Re-membering Home:
- Justin Tse: ”Strategies of Reconciliation: Cantonese Evangelical Ministries to First Nations in Vancouver, British Columbia”
9:00–11:30 – Karl Barth Society of North America: “Ronald F. Thiemann in Memoriam”
1:00–3:30 – Bonhoeffer: Theology and Social Analysis Group:
- Nathaniel Lee: ”The New Black Ecclesiology: A Bonhoefferian Examination of the Social Imagination in the Collective Work of J. Kameron Carter and Willie J. Jennings”
1:00–3:30 - Ecclesiological Investigations Group: “The Managerial Turn and the Thinning of Denominational Identity”
1:00–3:30 - Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. Group: “Two Score and Ten Years Later – Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington”
4:00–6:30 - Gospel and Our Culture Network: “The Corinthian Correspondence and Missional Praxis”
- Michael Barram: “Fools for the Sake of Christ”: Missional Hermeneutics and Praxis in the Corinthian Correspondence”
- Andy Rowell: ”The Missional Ecclesiology of First Corinthians 14″
- Dustin Ellington: ”Corinthian Transformation for Mission: Re-Interpreting 2 Corinthians 4″
- Matthew Forrest Lowe: “’Although We Live in the World…’: The Mission of God and the Mission of Empire in 2 Corinthians 10″
- Responding: Richard B. Hays
4:00–6:30 - Reformed Theology and History Group: “Sanctified by the Spirit”
6:30–9:00 - Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic: ”Panel on Theodore Jennings’ Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul”
9:00–11:30 - Christian Systematic Theology Section: “Practices of the Body of Christ”
9:00–11:30 - “Bonhoeffer, Eschatology, and Neuroscience: A Conversation with John de Gruchy about His Book Led into Mystery“
- “Bonhoeffer’s reference in prison to Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation will be placed not only within the wider context of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the promise of new creation but also within the wider context of themes and issues integral to the relationship between science and faith, the God-debate, and Christian humanism.”
9:00–11:30 - Practical Theology Group: “Theories of Change”
12:00–2:30 - Society for Pentecostal Studies Theme: “Thirty-five Years of The Prophetic Imagination: A Conversation with Walter Brueggeman”
3:00–4:30 - Wildcard Session: “One Church—Holy, Catholic and Apocalyptic (Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic)”
- Philip G. Ziegler presiding
- Susan Eastman: ”One Church Apostolic and Apocalyptic?”
- Ry Siggelkow: ”The Transgression of the Integrity of the Church”
- Joseph L. Mangina: ”If It’s a Symbol, to Hell with It: Apocalyptic and Transubstantiation”
- Chris Huebner: ”The Apocalyptic Body of Christ? Reflections on Yoder and Apocalyptic Theology”
3:00–4:30 - Reformed Theology and History Group: “Holy Spirit and Spiritual Practices”
- Timothy Baylor: “The God of Peace: Spiritual Practices and the Work of the Spirit in John Owen and Karl Barth”
3:00–5:00 - Christian Systematic Theology Section and Animals and Religion Group: “Theology Beyond Humanity: A Conversation on David Clough’s On Animals, Volume I: Systematic Theology“
8:00–9:00 - Fortress Press: “Paul and the Faithfulness of God: A Talk by N.T. Wright”
9:00–11:00 - Scottish Universities Reception
9:00–11:30 - Christian Systematic Theology Section: ”Unity in Sacrifice: A Panel on Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity“
9:00–11:30 - North American Religions Section and Afro-American Religious History Group: “Authors Meet Critics: The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Paul Harvey and Edward Blum”
9:00–11:30 - Bonhoeffer: Theology and Social Analysis Group: “Contextualizing Bonhoeffer as Preacher”
- Jacob Phillips: ”The Unceasing: Investigating Bonhoeffer’s 1932 Sermons on Colossians 3:1–4″
- Jean-Pierre Fortin: ”Understanding as Love: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Pastoral Theology”
- Joseph McGarry: ”Christ for Us Now and Here: Preaching the Gospel with Dietrich Bonhoeffer”
9:00–11:30 - Evangelical Studies Group and Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group: “Kierkegaard as a Resource for Evangelical Theology”
- Aaron Edwards: ”Life in Kierkegaard’s Imaginary Rural Parish: Preaching, Correctivity and the Gospel”
1:00–3:30 - Evangelical Studies Group: “A Discussion on the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: Reviewing Ken Collins’s Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration“
1:00–3:30 - Religion and Popular Culture Group and Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group: “Morality and Meaning in the Films of the Coen Brothers”
4:00–6:30 - Religion, Holocaust, and Genocide Group: “Is Forgiveness Possible after Genocide?”
9:00–11:30 - Arts, Literature, and Religion Section: “Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of C.S. Lewis”
That’s just the result of a quick scan for familiar names or interesting topics, but we’re sure there’s more–so tell us what we’re missing. We’d love to hear whether you’ll be there, as well as what papers you are anticipating or presenting, so leave a comment and maybe we’ll see you there!
As you may know, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is a notoriously difficult passage to translate and interpret. Not only the subject matter but even the rendering of the sentences is difficult. Even the effort to add English punctuation to the original Greek hits home the reality that translation involves interpretation. Our theological premises may well guide our decisions about where to put the dashes and commas and periods.
For example: Look at the way verses 33-34a are rendered in the recent English Standard and New International Versions:
ESV of 33-34a
For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.
NIV of 33-34a
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches.
Is this an exhortation for all churches in all times and places? The punctuation in the ESV would lean readers harder in that direction than the NIV. Are there theological and cultural premises guiding either translation in this decision? Will the surrounding verses help us to make sense of this?
Some will suggest that the plain reading of this text is obvious–it prohibits women from speaking in all churches for all time–and that anyone who questions that is simply caving to cultural pressures. Granted we are all encultured readers, however, we are still confronted by the fact that the text of 1 Corinthians itself leads us to question that so called “plain reading”. If in chapter 11 Paul gave instructions which would allow women to prophesy (within norms of decorum that would communicate interdependence and modesty), then it should at least strike us as odd if Paul is now saying, “wait, on second thought, forget it”.
Furthermore, if in chapter 14 Paul is restricting women from prophecy, it would be the first indication that any spiritual gift was labeled for one gender rather than the other. So on the basis of the text alone we are motivated at least to inquire whether the silence asked for in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is for all women in all situations past or future, or whether it might refer to a certain kind of speech in a particular situation.
When we go to the Greek text with these questions–Is there a certain kind of speech being prohibited, and is there a particular reason given?–we find that it does have answers: The women being told to “keep quiet” are the ones asking questions during the sharing of prophecy, and the reason for this is that their speaking, or more specifically their questioning, is “a shame”. The shame here is not the vocal female participation per se. Otherwise chapter 11, which fits the women with head coverings precisely so they can prophesy without shame, would make little sense.
Let’s turn to the passage and see. We begin with a recognition of its proper structure.
As noted above, not all translations agree even about what the sentences are here. In regard to verse 33-34a, I think the ESV’s rendering redundant. We would expect the second mention of ekklesia to be in the singular if indeed this was meant as a combined thought. It makes better sense to read verse 33 as an interjection (as seen in the NIV above), and to recognize verse 34 as a third situational instruction to go with two given in verses 28 and 30.
Now let’s pay closer attention to these three instructions, then, and see if the fuller context bears our reading out. In the Greek and English below, I’ll show each of the three instructions to “keep quiet”, colouring the prohibition bold black, the type of speech or speaker in bold blue, and the further specification of the speaking situation in bold red. They don’t parallel each other in layout, but they do in content. In each case there is an instruction to silence, a type of speaker being instructed, and a specification indicated:
28 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ᾖ διερμηνευτής σιγάτω ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ἑαυτῷ δὲ λαλείτω καὶ τῷ θεῷ
28 but if there be no interpreter let him [the one speaking in tongues] keep quiet in the church and to himself let him speak to God
30 ἐὰν δὲ ἄλλῳ ἀποκαλυφθῇ καθημένῳ ὁ πρῶτος σιγάτω
30 but if [something] be revealed to another that sits by, let the first [one prophesying] keep quiet
34-35 αἱ γυναῖκες ὑμῶν ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις σιγάτωσαν οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτέτραπται αὐταῖς λαλεῖν ἀλλ᾽ ὑποτάσσεσθαι, καθὼς καὶ ὁ νόμος λέγει εἰ δέ τι μαθεῖν θέλουσιν ἐν οἴκῳ τοὺς ἰδίους ἄνδρας ἐπερωτάτωσαν αἰσχρὸν γάρ ἐστιν γυναιξὶν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ λαλεῖν
34-35 the women of you in the churches let them keep quiet for it is not permitted for them to speak but to be in submission as also the law says and if they wish to learn anything let them ask their men at home for it is a shame for women in the church to speak.
Although an interjection disrupts the flow in verse 33, these instructions do belong together. Looking closely at these three instructions to silence, then, we note something important: In the first two cases the people who must σιγάω (“keep quiet” or “remain silent”) are persons who are allowed to speak but who are under certain circumstances to then keep quiet.
Astute readers will notice, however, that I’ve passed over two other possible explanations for the silence in verse 34, both of which would be more far-reaching and less circumstantial. One is that there could be a law or universal mandate regarding the submissive silence of women to which Paul is referring. Some extrapolate this from Genesis 1 or 2, but I simply don’t see it. Besides, we should not overlook the fact that Paul has just explicitly referenced a “law” in verse 21, quoting Isaiah 28′s warning about being a bad listener.
The second explanation I’m passing over is the one that says speaking women are generally just a shame. Is Paul taking on a debatable cultural observation and ascribing to it the impetus of a universal divine command? This is theoretically possible, since Paul accepted some of the cultural norms around honour and disgrace in chapter 11, but it is also not necessarily the case, since Paul rejects many of those norms elsewhere in the letter. Besides, as already mentioned, chapter 11 gives us reason to doubt that Paul thinks women speaking is always and self-evidently a shame.
No, I think it is more sensible to take the clause about making inquiries as a further specification of which women Paul means to keep quiet, and when. The scene is not hard to imagine, given what we know of the context, and the ramifications are not out of step with the full biblical witness. It seems the Corinth women are enjoying a relatively new-found liberty not only to speak in the corporate worship but also to pursue education, and are exhibiting a disruptive over-eagerness to ask questions during the corporate worship gathering Paul is addressing. In Paul’s view the time and the place for that education is the home.
Thus the implication is that the culturally more educated men will begin to empower the women at home, keeping the uninformed questions (along with uninterpreted tongues and uninterrupted prophesying) to a minimum in the corporate worship.
Reading the passage like this does, of course, require some interpretive explanation. But if you’ll return with me to the NIV text for a moment you’ll see that only a minor (and, I think, legitimate) alteration of the English punctuation is needed to have this stand out more clearly in the “plain reading” of the text itself. First, the NIV of verses 33-35:
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Now, with only three changes in the NIV’s punctuation (namely a colon after “churches”, a comma after “as the law says”, and a period after “something”), here’s a modestly but I think meaningfully clarified reading of those same verses:
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches: They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says, if they want to inquire about something. They should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
I have by no means resolved this still thorny passage (although we might be further helped by a clarifying “as such” after the last “speak”), but I must say that when it came time for me to preach this
to for my congregation, it was this rendering I found to be most readable, exegetically viable, and canonically coherent. However, I am sincere when I say I submit it to your scrutiny.