This week I had the privilege to attend a Pastor’s Conference at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., on “Restoring the Centre: The Place of the Table in the Church.” The conference included theological expositions by Hans Boersma and Alan Torrance, “Praxis” sessions with Andrea Tisher, Joyce Rees and Brian Buhler, and ecumenical engagements with Buhler (evangelical), Fr. Lawrence Farley (Orthodox) and Tim Horman (Charismatic). The most compelling for me were the Praxis sessions, but I took no notes at these and thus will confine myself to a couple of the theological papers. After that I will raise some of the questions that sprung out of the conference as a whole.
Hans Boersma – “Eucharist and Time: Why Participation Means Sacrifice”
- With recollections from The Martyrdom of Polycarp as well as from John, Colossians, and a smattering of theologians, Boersma reflected on his discovery that ”the early church is unanimous about the Eucharist being a sacrifice”–by which we mean not a repeated or “second” sacrifice, but a “participation in the one sacrifice of Christ.”
- With James Dunn he looked at Colossians 1:24–where Paul says his sufferings “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”–and said that our sufferings do not add something to Christ’s suffering, but do play a part in the “bringing to completion” of what is “still outstanding in the sufferings of Christ by which the world was redeemed and transformed.” Boersma made the interesting observation that this perspective (wherein our sufferings find themselves taken up in Christ’s) displaces a shallow “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach to life’s difficulties.
- The way Boersma made sense of this rather mysterious account of participatory suffering was to challenge a univocal understanding of time as a succession of chronological but separate points, substituting for it a sacramental understanding of time wherein past, present and future can be simultaneous to one another in the eternal Word. The same way that, for Melito of Sardis, Passover participated proleptically in the sacrifice of Christ, so our Eucharist participates in its prior accomplishment and its forward vocation.
Alan Torrance – “The Continuing Priesthood of Christ” and “The Sacraments and Proclamation”
- Torrance’s lectures were to some degree crib notes on the writings of James Torrance and Karl Barth — which means that they were good but also that I’d pondered their points before. It was fun to hear Barth presented to an evangelical audience boisterously and lucidly–and with a Scotch accent to boot.
- One of the asides that made me wonder was Torrance’s suggestion in the first lecture that prophets only emerged in Israel because of the failures of the priests and kings. “If you have good kings and priests you don’t need prophets,” he said. I’m not sure about this. I think it trades on only the negative aspect of the prophetic office. Surely the munus triplex has more positive meaning (which is something Barth himself has articulated almost better than anybody).
- Having said that, in the second lecture Torrance gave a very cogent presentation of a Barthian view of revelation in a Trinitarian frame, complete with the point that revelation has not fully occurred until it is successful, which means that it must involve the transformation of eyes and ears and lives. Revelation overcomes not only neutral unknowing but also error, and this is not by the awakening of some “innate spirituality” but by the miracle of Christ’s work of reconciliation.
- Turning to the Eucharist, then, Torrance was apt to explain that the Eucharist prioritizes the indicatives of grace from which the imperatives flow (rather than vice versa). I agreed with his correlating suggestion that the Lord’s Supper serves as an invitation and an enablement (rather than a result of) of the work of reconciliation between persons. To invert this would be the same as what we do in our moralistic preaching; turning grace into law.
Brian Buhler – “Recovering the Table for Evangelical Worship”
- This was an excellent presentation. Buhler made a great point about the “altar call” being “real presence” for non-sacramentalists, and called for a return to the Lord’s Supper as the climactic inviting and re-orientating moment in the church’s life and worship. Paul’s statement about eating in an “unworthy manner” in 1 Corinthians 11 means eating “without recognizing the body of the Lord”, and this meant not the corporeal or sacramental body of Christ, but the gathered body of believers in a social reality continuous with the freedom of the meal itself.
I had two questions arising from Boersma’s session, but re-occurring often. The first of these related to Boersma’s resistance to my suggestion (in the Q&A) that there might be a positive account of the Lord’s Supper prior to baptism (for those in the believer’s baptist tradition). In reply, Boersma simply recommended infant baptism, but I wonder if his presentation of “sacramental time” might serve as a reason to “loosen up” on a strictly sequential understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
My second of these questions had to do with the fact that Boersma’s illustrations regarding suffering with Christ mostly involved suffering at the hands of others. This prompted reflection about another aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice: Might the Meal also serve as a call to suffer with one another through conflict and misunderstanding, leaning into Christ’s provision for reconciliation by faith? Whereas some of the later panelists suggested that interpersonal and ecumenical conflicts ought to be resolved before joining in the Holy Meal, it is my feeling that the Lord’s Table might better be seen as an invitation to–and even an enablement of–such paths of resolution. At the Table–where the presence of Christ slips past our tongues without need of our words–we put our trust in the Prince of Peace and suffer with others toward the peace that is in Christ for us by faith.
One last observation: As always, there was much to say about the “real presence” of Christ at the Table. As far as it functions in church life and mission, the “real presence” rescues us from both despondent depravity and triumphalist self-reliance. But it seems to me that there may also be a sense in which the “real absence” of the enfleshed Christ at the Table (cued to us by his Ascension, and also by the fact that the body and blood are indeed bread and wine) prompts us to trust in the Spirit to be made the embodiment of Christ’s presence on earth and to each other.
The bi-annual Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference is a terrific gathering of pastors and academics to reflect together on a given theological topic. I attended the conference on the doctrine of sanctification in 2011, and there is just something about that combination that makes for good papers and good discussion. The gathering is put on by Rutherford House and hosted at New College, University of Edinburgh.
This year’s Dogmatics Conference focuses on the doctrine of Scripture. If you are in the U.K. or can get yourself to one of its premiere cities in early September, do consider putting in a paper proposal. Here is the call for papers:
CALL FOR PAPERS
Rutherford House invites short paper proposals for the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference to be held 2-5 September 2013, centred on the theme of ‘The Doctrine of Scripture.’
The Dogmatics Conference, established in 1983 and held every other year, attracts reputable scholars from around the world. This year includes: Henri Blocher, Bruce McCormack, Lewis Ayres, and Timothy Ward. It is held in Edinburgh, Scotland, which boasts a long and rich history in literature, art, and theology.
In addition to a significant group of plenary speakers, we have provided space for smaller papers, germane to this year’s theme, of 20-25 minutes each, followed by a 20 minute discussion. These papers are open both to recognised scholars and to postgraduate students.
Proposals for papers should be submitted in an abstract of 500 words or less and sent electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be sure to include all contact information with your proposal. The deadline for submission is 1 June.
Less than a fortnight ago at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.,I was able to attend a reading from Hans Boersma‘s most recent book, published by Oxford University Press, called Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach. The reading given was from chapter three of the book, “Gendered Body,” and was called “Putting on Clothes: Body, Sex & Gender in Gregory of Nyssa.” It included an intro from John Stackhouse, Jr., responses from James Houston and Craig Allen, and a final rejoinder from Boersma.
There were a few interesting nuggets, not the least of which being Boersma’s (admirable) admission that the book he set out to write did not materialize because Gregory of Nyssa did not quite say what Boersma figured (or hoped) he would say. It seems Boersma was set to find Gregory a more solid ally in what he calls the “embrace of time-bound embodiment as sacrament,” only to have the fourth century Cappadocian fit the Neoplatonic mould more than expected.
Turns out that Gregory’s is something of a “theology of ascent,” wherein embodiment (including gender) is penultimate—i.e., a means to an end (that end being virtue). (In his response, it should be noted, retired professor James Houston suggested that Gregory did some subverting of Neoplatonism from within, and Boersma seemed to agree).
The upshot of all this was a very intriguing (if sometimes odd) account of gender and sexuality in Gregory’s work, which includes a (fairly typical) allegorical reading of Song of Songs and a (rather less than typical) reading of Genesis 3 wherein the “tunics of skin” provided to cover Adam and Eve after their sin are not animal skins but the gendered bodies we have come to know today. (Boersma indicated that Gregory had to do some exegetical footwork to get this to work with Genesis 1-2, but left it at that, which I suppose makes for a bit of a teaser).
What stuck out to me most in this lecture was the “penultimacy of gender” in Gregory’s account, as well as the high esteem which he assigned to virginity. (Seriously: at one point he says that “virginity’s praiseworthiness eliminates the need for praise”). The latter has a bit of a gnostic ring to it, of course, but together these impulses in the early church father’s theology do place a sharp question mark on contemporary evangelicalism’s oft-assumed combo of gender essentialism and marriage-primacy. As Boersma put it, Gregory “seems intent on destabilizing gender.” (And here we thought the twenty-first century was being so novel).
Lastly, I really enjoyed Boersma’s recounting of Gregory’s admiration for his sister Macrina. Reflecting on her untimely death Gregory wrote his Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection, wherein he reportedly says she was twice the man he was, and waxes eloquent about her quality. I was rather captivated by the story, so I’m going to have to follow that one up. Which reminds me: we don’t hear enough about the early church “mothers”.
Barth’s Epistle to the Romans 1922
Scheduled Release: May 16, 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury T&T Clark
Publisher’s Description: “This is an introduction to Karl Barth’s ground breaking commentary on St Paul’s letters to the Romans from 1922 which laid the foundation to his later theology. Without any doubt Karl Barth was the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century. It was his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that was gain Barth’s international reputation, long before the massive work of his Church Dogmatics. Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans is a landmark of twentieth-century theological literature and still required reading for students of the history of modern Christian theology. It is also famously provocative and controversial. Its first appearance helped trigger a parting of ways between Protestant liberalism and the theology of crisis. Today, nearly a century later, it continues to generate widespread discussion among theologians, biblical scholars, and philosophers.
“This introduction to the text is the ideal companion to study, offering guidance on the theological and historical context, key themes, reception and influence. Continuum Reader’s Guides are clear, concise and accessible introductions to key texts in literature and philosophy. Each book explores the themes, context, criticism and influence of key works, providing a practical introduction to close reading, guiding students towards a thorough understanding of the text. They provide an essential, up-to-date resource, ideal for undergraduate students.”
The Author: Donald Wood is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and author of Barth’s Theology of Interpretation (Ashgate, 2007).
Why We’re Excited: Those of us who have studied with the theology faculty at the University of Aberdeen know that Don Wood has a keen mind and his analysis frequently cuts right to the heart of whatever subject is under consideration. And even as a Barthian I have for years found Barth’s Romans commentary dizzying and at times impenetrable. Wood ran a student reading group for Barth’s Romans a couple of years ago, which I found incredibly helpful in identifying Barth’s subtle moves and hidden conversation partners. His reader’s guide is sure to prove instructive, and maybe paired with Kenneth Oakes’ new volume on Romans I can finally make some headway into this landmark work in early twentieth-century biblical theology.
Pre-Order: Amazon.com ($24.95 at the time of publication)
I have a new perspective on theological conferences. While once I used to attend in the hopes that Professor So-and-So might approach me, casually mention that he/she has been following my work, and then immediately ask if I wouldn’t mind joining their department (witness the insane, deluded, and pathetic thoughts of the average doctoral student), these days I find that my priorities have changed. As I just about round the end of my first year of teaching doctrine at a busy theological college in the southwest of England, I’ve discovered that conferences present a different sort of opportunity for the non-student theologian: the chance simply to spend time with one’s friends and colleagues.
Now, as far as conferences go, the Society for the Study of Theology (SST) puts on a good’n. Whereas one can easily get lost (or stampeded) in a wave of tweed jackets, dark-rimmed glasses, and aggressively flung homemade business cards at AAR, SST is small enough (around 225) to get to know people on some sort of authentic level. As historical theologian Alan Sell put it in this year’s AGM, somewhere along his 40 years of attending the conference, the group transformed in his mind from being a mere academic society into something more resembling a fellowship - and in my short run as a member, it’s certainly possible to imagine how this might happen. And so, if all goes well, I look forward to one day being the crotchety old theologian at the bar regaling the kids with tales of a young Paul Nimmo’s controversial plenary address way back in ’16 (make it happen, Paul).
This year’s theme was ‘Theology and Education’ – and we were treated to five plenary sessions related to this topic…at varying levels of proximity. Laurie Zoloth, president-elect of the aforementioned AAR, gave a thought-provoking paper which identified the onset of ‘translation anxiety’ as the moment where theology’s ethical task becomes most pressing – translation being an act which uniquely introduces the elements of trust, fidelity, relationality, and justice into theological discourse. SST president (and theological Groucho) George Newlands also gave us a collection of thoughts on the Holy Spirit, inviting us to reflect on the broadness and unpredictably of the Spirit’s work in the world today, particularly in China.
The two papers which hit most directly on the topic of theology and education came from brothers-in-Cambridge-arms David Ford and Mike Higton. Ford’s paper, perhaps provocatively, suggested that one of the more fruitful relationships between theology (more specifically: religious studies) and education might be found right here in the UK, boldly concluding, after a series of observational comments on a few representative institutions, that: ‘the UK alliances of university theology and religious educational institutions offer the best available paradigm for universities and churches in plural societies.’ This of course drew out some interesting discussion in the Q&A, particularly one question regarding the exportability of the UK model absent the presence of an established church (and perhaps the unique history of the English religious situation altogether).
Mike Higton presented us with an audaciously titled yet actually quite measured ‘Theology of the University,’ in which he urged us as theologians to look constructively at the actual phenomenon (as opposed to simply ‘the idea’) of the modern Western research university in order to discern the ways in which this particular kind of institution might facilitate ‘knowledge’ – perhaps even in a Christian sense wherein knowledge is coordinated to its proper end in ‘the God of love.’ Here I particularly appreciated two points: 1) Higton’s reminder that the academy is best conceived as a society of people and not simply a collection of disparate disciplines joined up in the name of some sort of abstract project (e.g., human progress), and 2) the insistence that the university itself is part of larger complex of educational possibilities, that is, ‘universities only make sense as one niche in a massively interconnected learning ecology, rather than as a world unto themselves.’ (and thank God for that)
My favourite plenary paper, however, came from Aberdeen’s own John Swinton, who essentially gave us a precis of his recent book on theology and dementia entitled: ‘On Being a Disciple When You’ve Forgotten Who God Is: Dementia as a Time for Learning.’ Obviously, John is doing some of the more significant work in the area of theology and disability – and this paper was no exception – but what made his contribution so encouraging, I would say, was the way in which it so unashamedly wove the concepts and even discourse of the Christian faith so seamlessly into what might be termed a classic ‘theology and…’ project. It was, in other words, a species of applied theology as theology – and that is surely an approach to interdisciplinary work that I’d like to see more of in the theological academy. The substance of his paper was of course formidable – not least his suggestion that dementia will not properly be understood until it has been described theologically – but I’ll leave my final observation at this: I suspect that John’s paper reminded a good deal of us in attendance that Christian theology has the ‘stuff’ to deal with the more complex matters of life, and, for some reason or another, that was absolutely refreshing.
So that was SST for 2013. I fail to mention, of course, many of the very fine short papers I heard this year – but I suspect my assessment is predictable: the Aberdeen theologians, once again, nailed it.
I’d be interested to hear from any others who were at the conference this year – how was your experience?
If you are in or near the beautiful town of St. Andrews, Scotland in a couple of weeks, there is a free day conference that looks to be a lot of fun:
Views of the Doctrine of the Trinity
30 April, 2013
9.30am – 5.30pm in Parliament Hall, South Street, St Andrews
Paul D. Molnar (St. John’s University) and Stephen Holmes (St. Andrews) will represent the classic doctrine of the Trinity, and Paul S. Fiddes (University of Oxford) and Thomas McCall (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) will propose relational views.
The event is free, but you must e-mail the organizers to register. See more here.