Skip to content

Review: Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews

July 1, 2015

Christology, Hermeneutics, and HebrewsChristology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation. Edited by Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier. T&T Clark, 2012. HB, $130.00, PB $34.95, 288 pp.

A newer entry into the increasingly popular spate of essay collections on the theological interpretation of Scripture, Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews draws upon more than a dozen theologians and biblical scholars to trace the history of the interpretation of Hebrews and the letter’s significance to the task of Christian theological reflection. As a theologian I find projects like this especially exciting in that they tend to side-step formal questions that often preoccupy scholars in the guild of biblical studies (such as authorship), and instead jump straight into the epistle’s theological content. On the other hand, the collection is attentive to questions of method (i.e. the nature and tasks of theological hermeneutics) in a way that such reflection often neglects.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is fundamentally christological in nature, from the Son’s identification as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3), to statements about his being made “lower than the angels for a little while” (2:9), his being “tempted in all ways like us, except without sin” (4:15), his having “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8), his high priestly work of atonement on our behalf, his being “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8), and more.

The volume collects 13 essays which attend primarily to a series of snapshots from the history of the letter’s interpretation – from Irenaeus and the church fathers to Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers, and other figures leading up to the place of Hebrews in modern systematic theology. The middle word in the title, hermeneutics, is key here: the focus is on how Hebrews has been used in theological reflection over the centuries, and also on the nature of ‘theological interpretation’ and the place it should have in the field of Christian biblical studies (which, methodologically speaking, remains oriented toward the sometimes anti-theological orientation of historical criticism).

Co-editor John C. Laansma opens things with a survey of the field of scholarship on Hebrews, and three essays conclude the volume – Harold W. Attridge and Donald A. Hagner providing responses to the project from the perspective of biblical scholarship, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight offering a theologian’s response. Other contributors include: Frances M. Young, D. Jeffrey Bingham (on Irenaeus), Charles Kannengiesser (John Chrysostom), Daniel Keating (Thomas Aquinas), Mickey L. Mattox (Martin Luther), R. Michael Allen (John Calvin), Kelly M. Kapic (John Owen), Bruce L. McCormack (Karl Barth), and Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood. (Laansma and Treier, of Wheaton College, did editing duties as well.)

I will comment briefly on several of the individual essays, and conclude with some overall thoughts on the volume.

~ ~

Frances Young’s essay is a reprint from a classic 1969 publication, contrasting Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical impulses with regard to the use of Hebrews in the commentaries and homilies of Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrus (as well as a little bit from Theodore of Mopsuestia). The brief chapter is teeming with insight, displaying why Professor Young is among the best in her field. Cyril’s Christology, for example, struggles with the limits of an instrumentalist construal of the relationship between the divine Logos and the flesh he assumed: though he affirms that the assumed humanity has a soul and a mind, “he has not fully grasped the implications of the condemnation of Apollinarius and still moves in the same general pattern of thought” (p. 36).

On the other hand, Antiochenes such as Chrysostom emphasize Jesus’ authentic experience of the human condition “to such an extent that he is obliged to separate the Logos from it; this is the only way he knows of safeguarding both the reality of Christ’s human involvement, and the divine nature of the Logos” (p. 41) – which hardly allows for the Logos to be incarnate at all. In both cases, these christological positions shape the ways in which Alexandrian and Antiochene thinkers exegete the themes of Hebrews.

Daniel Keating focuses on what he identifies as Thomas Aquinas’ “two-nature exegesis,” i.e. framing the many and provocative christological claims of the epistle by the ancient doctrine of one person in two natures. In other words, Thomas unapologetically takes the Definition of Chalcedon as a hermeneutical guide for Scripture (p. 85). (Take note here – this is a contested idea that will resurface among other contributors.) Under the master interpretive theme of grace in Christ, Thomas interprets the Bible’s statements about Christ according to either Christ’s human nature, divine nature, or both – all while studiously avoiding the heretical extremes of both Nestorianism (an excessive stress on the natures’ distinction) and Monophysitism (an excessive stress on their unification).

For example: Hebrews states (to God the Father, regarding his Son), “You have set him over the works of your hands,” and Thomas concludes that this must refer to Christ insofar as he is human – since as God he is already over all things, and does not need to be exalted by his Father (p. 86). Christ’s office of priesthood, on the other hand, applies in different ways both to his humanity and his divinity: as human he makes proper satisfaction for the sins of human beings, and yet his priesthood is truly (and universally, and permanently) effective precisely because he is also God.

Keating shows that Thomas’ Commentary on Hebrews is a masterful deployment of the strategy of reduplication (reading the biblical text’s statements about Christ ‘according to’ one nature or the other) in the scholastic era. In short, ecclesial tradition is regarded as the proper means for interpreting Scripture (and, presumably, not vice versa): “Aquinas has allowed the clarity of Chalcedonian Christology to illuminate the text of Hebrews by drawing out the implications of the ‘Son’ being both divine and human and by showing how the two natures in Christ contribute (in distinct ways) to his high priestly role” (p. 95).

Bruce L. McCormack’s essay on the exordium (Heb. 1:1-4) seeks to extend Karl Barth’s theological interpretation of John’s Prologue to the Christology of Hebrews. What is the identity of the “Son” through whom God has definitively spoken, whom God has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe (1:2)? In his reading of John, Barth had concluded that the Logos is meant to be a “placeholder” pointing ahead to Jesus Christ (and having no identity apart from the God-human union in the Incarnation – a sort of reversal of the doctrine of anhypostasis). Though Barth wrote no extended exegesis of Hebrews, McCormack argues with good reason that Barth would give the same reading here: the referent indicated by the “Son” is Jesus (finally named in 2:9), and their identity is a red thread throughout Hebrews (p. 169).

This much will be familiar to those who follow McCormack’s work. His more notable claim in this essay is that dogmatics ought not say anything of God that is not clearly authorized by the text at hand. The question of the identity of the Son in the exordium illustrates this. The text creates a tension (e.g. between a Son who is the “exact representation of God’s being” and yet who must also be “appointed heir of all things” – as if they were not already his by virtue of his deity) which the theologian endeavors to resolve. In this case, McCormack insists that theologians refrain from speculating about the identity of a “Son” in ways abstracted from the relation of Jesus to God the Father in time, as narrated by Scripture. Simply because the author of Hebrews begins with the “Son” before identifying him as “Jesus” does not license speculation about a Logos asarkos. And later doctrinal considerations (such as the Son’s eternal relation to the Father in the immanent Trinity) are out of bounds for making sense of such passages, since the biblical authors offer the exegete no assurances that such a “Son” is anything more than a construct imposed upon the text.

McCormack would claim, then, that the content of the creeds derive from a careful reading of the whole witness of Scripture. But this relationship between Scripture and tradition cannot be reversed; while the creeds show how the Bible has been interpreted by the church, it should not be read back into the text in order to try and mitigate difficult passages.

Finally, Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood set about cataloguing the manner in which Hebrews is used (particularly, the relative paucity of its use) in systematic theologies of the modern period, with brief glances at Charles Hodge, Augustus Hopkins Strong, John Miley, Franz (Francis) Pieper, Louis Berkhof, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Geoffrey Wainwright, Carl F. H. Henry, Thomas Finger, Thomas C. Oden, J. Rodman Williams, Stanley J. Grenz, Wayne A. Grudem, Millard J. Erickson, James William McClendon, Jr., Donald G. Bloesch, and Robert W. Jenson. The reader will immediately note how the names selected give this piece a parochial air: with the odd exception of Jenson they are all “evangelical” writers, and the explanation for this – Barth gets his own essay elsewhere in this volume, and other modern systematicians who are not American evangelicals tend to make less frequent references to Scripture (p. 174) – is unsatisfying.

Treier and Atwood proceed concisely to summarize the multitude of doctrinal themes on which Hebrews may be found to speak, and finally arrive at an account of theological exegesis that can only be called an apology for proof-texting. They suggest that this is simply the responsibility of theologians to “show their work’ (p. 195), but it would seem that McCormack’s charge that too often we read our theologies a-contextually into the biblical text is on display here. It is difficult to see how they propose to avoid historical-critical transgressions great and small by appealing to statements within Scripture in this sort of isolated fashion. Thus a remark from Attridge (said in regard to this essay’s survey of modern evangelical systematic theologies) seem no less apropos for Treier and Atwood’s own account of proof-texting: “The reverence for Scripture that supposedly undergirds such cherry-picking approaches in fact seems to cloak a disdain for really listening to what the words of the sacred text are saying” (p. 209).

~ ~

The final three essays of the book, and especially Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s critical entry, demonstrate what a peculiar collection this is. Each is oriented backward toward the preceding essays, with some summarizing (Attridge’s essay for a stretch reads somewhat like a standard book review) and a modicum of open-ended, critical engagement – much as one would see in response papers given at the end of a conference panel session. Greene-McCreight wraps up the conversation with a critique that almost undermines the whole project: rather than salient strategies for moving forward in the task of theological exegesis (particularly as it relates to responsible work in historical criticism) some of what is suggested here, she rightly observes, are symptoms of the very crisis the authors mean to address.

Without “fuller suggestions for a way forward” in theological exegesis, Greene-McCreight concludes, a ‘selective history of interpretation’ offers little of value (p. 225). If anything, that is where this volume comes up short: in the absence of any sort of unified program (or at least some shared definitions) the project as a whole may not be able to ascend beyond the level of a collection of interesting historical footnotes. (Did you know that John Owen wrote a 4-volume, 4,000-page work on Hebrews?)

There are pressing questions with which Greene-McCreight leaves us – both the reader and the volume’s editors. What is it that we mean by ‘theological interpretation,’ and what is it that we hope this will secure, which we do not possess without it? Can we read the biblical texts theologically – even as persons of faith who find that God speaks and makes claims upon us in the biblical text – without ceasing to be critical? Should we read traditional doctrine back into Scripture (per Thomas), or refuse this move as a transgression of sola Scriptura (per McCormack)? And what does it mean for our reading of the text to be critically responsible (e.g. reading Matthew for what Matthew means) and yet also governed by the regula fidei?

The challenge in reading Scripture at its intersection with systematic theology is to affirm the historical and the critical without privileging the text’s first-century witness over its contemporary witness. That God has spoken ought not blind us to the reality that God still is speaking. Of course these two, the historical-critical and the theological, are not in competition with one another, at least not where the Scriptures are confessed to be the working of the Holy Spirit – and so to be “living and active” words. If the Spirit continues to inspire the text in our hearing, then by faith the responsible Christian exegete can pray only that she may have ears to hear.

Thanks to Bloomsbury / T&T Clark for providing a review copy.

Barth On Christology’s ‘Identity Problem’

June 25, 2015
Karl Barth and the Incarnation (Book)

The published revision of my dissertation is out now from Bloomsbury / T&T Clark, and I mean to remedy my lack of shameless online promotion between now and the spring 2016 release of the paperback edition.  Karl Barth and the Incarnation puts Barth’s Christology in conversation with that of the classical, Chalcedonian tradition.

This begins with a diagnosis of what I call the identity problem, a basic difficulty that is implicit within the tradition at a number of points.  In short: under the conditions of classical Christology it is difficult (and, I argue, finally impossible) to affirm that Jesus Christ, the divine-human one, is identical with the eternal, divine Son of God — that these grammatical subjects are, in the words of the Definition of Chalcedon, “one and the same.”  The identity of Jesus and the Logos requires such extensive qualification that theologians ancient and modern who adhere to the metaphysics of the classical tradition must finally affirm that Jesus Christ is not technically who the Son is, but what the Son does ad extra within the economy of salvation.

Barth did not describe this problem in the way that I have, but it is a central focus in his Christology.  The identity problem is intricately tied to the content of God’s eternal act of electing, to the doctrine of the Logos asarkos, and to the church’s very confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

Below is a bit from the early pages of the introduction, where I outline in broad strokes the work to be done.  (You can read the entire intro on Google Books.)

~ ~

By examining Barth’s doctrine of the person of Christ in its relation to the history of Christology, this work seeks to identify not only the content of Barth’s Christology but its enduring significance for Christian theology. Our study will move along two lines of inquiry. One is a thematic description of Barth’s mature Christology (the Christology of the Church Dogmatics, with an emphasis on Volume IV) and an analysis of its implications. More broadly, the second line considers the relation that this Christology has to that of the classical tradition – by which I mean the Christology of the ecumenical councils and the continental Reformation. I will argue that Barth selectively appropriated the classical doctrine of the incarnation, making use of its concepts and terminology where he felt they suited his convictions about the identity of Jesus Christ as narrated in Holy Scripture. But, insofar as Barth makes use of these ideas, he does so critically – holding them to the fire of the Word’s continuing testimony to the humanity of God.

Further, it will become clear that Barth has explicit, theological reasons for this method of critically receptive inquiry. The result is a Christology that is both constructively modern and classically orthodox in character.

At the center of both lines of inquiry is the question: How are the eternal Word of God and the divine-human Jesus Christ related? What does it mean for His person that one of the Trinity assumed a human nature and lived a human life? This has presented theologians in the church’s history with numerous, sometimes seemingly insurmountable conceptual difficulties – particularly where they have sought to maintain the identity of Jesus Christ with and as the divine Son of God, and have read the Synoptic gospels through a Johannine-Pauline lens. My suggestion is that Barth’s Christology enables theologians to engage such issues in a deeply satisfying way, reconciling the manifold witnesses of Scripture precisely at points where the answers of the tradition are lacking.

The topic at hand – the history and dogmatic implications of the doctrine of the incarnation – is far-reaching and could lead us in any number of directions, and engage the thought of any number of important figures. It is therefore prudent to establish our own boundaries for exposition and reflection. Our study unfolds in three basic stages. These concern:

(1) unresolved issues that persist in traditional attempts to describe the incarnation (Chapter 1);

(2) Barth’s own approach and its critical engagement with traditional ‘Logos Christology’ (Chapters 2 and 3); and

(3) the way in which Barth’s proposal might finally be judged as consonant with Christian orthodoxy, while also moving beyond its impasses (Chapters 4 and 5).

First, I will offer my own critical account of the history of the doctrine of the incarnation in the patristic and early medieval period, in an attempt to demonstrate that the answers provided by the orthodox tradition to a number of basic christological questions are not without problems. Chalcedon simply has not settled the doctrine of Christ’s person for all time.1 The most fundamental question here pertains to the relationship between God the Son and the God-human, Jesus Christ, or between the Logos and the human nature that He assumed in and for His redemptive mission. Can Christ and the Word be identified as a single subject (one and the same ‘person’) if their respective ontological constitutions are different – i.e. one eternal, divine in essence, and simple, and the other temporal, both divine and human, and therefore complex?

This issue I call the ‘identity problem.’ I then extend and further illustrate this problem through an historical and conceptual examination of three related facets of Christology: the doctrines of divine immutability, kenosis, and impassibility. The history of these questions, and the variety of attempts to give satisfying answers, shows the need for christological reflection that remains active and imaginative.

Read the full introduction …

1. Contra F. W. A. Korff, who argued that the Council of 451 says all that should be said about the mystery of Christ’s person. See G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, pp. 85-97.

Live Stream The Karl Barth Conference!

June 19, 2015

For those (like us) not fortunate enough to make the trek to Princeton Theological Seminary for this week’s annual Karl Barth Conference — on the theme “Karl Barth & the Gospels” — well, you’re in luck: the Seminary live-streams much of the conference.

In fact, it will reportedly do the same for plenary sessions of the Karl Barth Pastors Conference to follow — on the theme “Karl Barth & the Mission of the Church”.

Starting Sunday, June 21, tune your browser to:

The conference’s plenary sessions begin with Jürgen Moltmann’s opening lecture at Miller Chapel — titled “Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace” (update: a recording can be found here).

The rest of the two conferences run from June 22-26, 2015, and the plenary sessions are scheduled as follows (all times Eastern Standard):

Monday June 22
8:45am – Eric Gregory: “‘The Gospel within the commandment’: Karl Barth on the Parable of the Good Samaritan”
11am – Willie Jennings: “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler”
2:15pm – Paul Dafydd Jones: “The Riddle of Gethsemane”
7pm – Karlfried Froehlich: “Karl Barth and the Isenheim Altarpiece”

Tuesday June 23
8:45am – Bruce L. McCormack: “The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology”
10:30am – Beverly Gaventa: “Reading Karl Barth’s Reading of the Road to Emmaus”
2:15pm – Richard Bauckham: “Karl Barth’s Interpretation of the Prologue to John’s Gospel”

Wednesday June 24
8:45am – Daniel L. Migliore: “Barth, Balthasar, and the Parable of the Lost Son”
7pm – Will Willimon: “How Karl Barth Taught Me to Preach”

Thursday June 25
7:30pm – Willie Jennings: “What Barth taught me about Faith, Hope, and Love”

Friday June 26
11am – Debbie Blue: “No one is Not Religious: Witnessing to What is Beyond Belief (Barth’s ever relevant (ir)reverence)”

These are just the plenary sessions. The full conference schedules are here and here (PDFs).

Christianity’s Decline? What the Pew Research Doesn’t Actually Tell Us

May 18, 2015
Praying in Empty Church --- Image by © Corbis

The big news in American religion last week was the release of the new study on the nation’s changing religious landscape from Pew Research. As a student of religion perhaps the most remarkable thing to see these past several days is not to much the contents of the report itself (based on surveys that show the change in self-identified religious affiliation from 2007 to 2014) but the variety of interpretations to it.

Some headlines are ready to call Christianity’s time-of-death, while others observe that this is merely the latest data speaking to trends that began a generation ago (i.e. the decline of membership in the mainline denominations).  Others point gleefully to the fact that now evangelicalism is also declining (as a share of the total population), disrupting the narrative that the shifting landscape is entirely explainable by conservatives fleeing “liberal” denominations for the more conservative.  And evangelicals look at the same data and declare their own victory: they are declining less than everyone else, and in terms of total membership numbers are actually still growing (somewhere between zero and 5 million in seven years, accounting for the poll’s margin of error).

Quite a bit has been lost in the analysis, and it’s because we aren’t reading Pew critically enough.  Let me point out three observations as I see them.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape(1) First, the story told by the phone survey of more than 35,000 adults is not that Christianity is in rapid decline.  I think this is the most important and most overlooked aspect of this story. The survey asked respondents the specific Christian denomination with which they self-identify (in other words, it’s not based on any church’s membership records).  There is a sharp increasing in the “Nones,” those reporting no affiliation (from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent just seven years later).

This is, of course, not to say that these men and women do not regard themselves as Christians (though definitions of just what that means will vary, for some being more theological and for others more sociological).  It only says that they are not connected with any denomination or worshiping body, nor do they regard themselves as part of a specific religious tradition even if they don’t go to church.

There is no choice of “Christian – Other,” or “Christian – Unaffiliated,” then. The survey is not about religious belief or practice so much as it is about institutional affiliation. Men and women who have no such ties fall into the “Nones.”

From the report:

The unaffiliated are generally less religiously observant than people who identify with a religion. But not all religious “nones” are nonbelievers. In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people. Forthcoming reports will describe the Religious Landscape Study’s findings about the religious beliefs and practices of “nones” and other groups.

The total of all Christian bodies has fallen from 78.4 percent of the U.S. population to 70.6 percent in just seven years, and that’s startlingly rapid. But respondents were not asked if they identify as “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” … or “None.” This 70.6 percent is simply the aggregate total of all the individual denominations listed.

What the report indicates, in other words, is not a decline in Christianity but a deinstitutionalizing of Christians.  Many of these certainly would not self-identify as Christian at all – but that’s not what the survey asked.  Presumably, many of them would regard themselves as believers who have no institutional home.  My conclusion, then, is that more Christians than ever before are living an autonomous faith.

What are we to do with that fact, as churches?  That’s a separate (and very important) question.  But thinking through that problem begins with recognizing that many of the “Nones” are not nonbelievers, but disenfranchised.

~ ~

(2) The news isn’t good for the so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations (that’s us in the larger Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and American Baptist bodies), and that’s nothing new. These groups have been losing members for decades, helping to fuel the explosion of North American evangelicalism for a generation. Evangelicalism, as defined by Pew (more on that below), is still strong.

By and large, the “mainline” churches are the bodies that debated women in ministry in the 1970s and went the inclusive route, and they are the churches that have been debating gay ordination and marriage issues for over a decade — and again, are largely going the inclusive route. Some cynically theorize that this is an attempt to retain members — to make the mainline churches more inclusive, and thereby stem the loss of progressive Americans — and some conservatives will point to data from groups such as the Pew Forum as evidence that this strategy has backfired. These denominations continue to suffer membership loss because their actions have brought about a conservative egress, and in many cases whole denominational splits.

Church CongregationIt should be said that on the ground the people advocating for these changes in polity and practice are not seeking to “liberalize” their churches but (I hope in most all cases) rather to be faithful to the gospel as they understand it. I, for one, am much more interested in my own church’s fidelity to Jesus Christ than in its ability to retain numbers, and I worry about evangelicalism’s common preoccupation with the latter — as if its fidelity to Christ was measured by a populist appeal.

(It’s also worth noting here what one television commenter suggested, though I don’t have data at hand to support the claim: evangelical Christians on average have more kids than their “progressive” counterparts in the mainline, suggesting that at least a portion of the difference in membership would be accounted for by average family size. Kids, however, were not among the respondents to this survey — so this theory would depend upon more evangelical kids staying with their faith into adulthood. It might take more than seven years to be able to measure that well. All in all, I’m not sure that is something the data bears out.)

~ ~

(3) Finally, (and I’ll be blunt here): “Evangelicalism” is not a thing. When Pew uses the term is doesn’t mean what theologians and every-day practicing Christians probably mean, and as a sociological category it is almost entirely worthless.

When we speak of “evangelical Christianity” we tend to think of things like an emphasis on Scripture, an emphasis on conversion (being “born again”) and piety, less formal institutional practices (including worship), etc. For the Pew survey, these characteristics are largely irrelevant (though researchers might say otherwise). Instead, “evangelical” is a pseudo-historical designation that differentiates bodies within the same broad tradition based on which one is older (the “mainline” being the one that had smaller groups break away from it).

This appendix lists all the denominations and bodies that are categorized as “evangelical” or as “mainline.” (Take a moment and look it over.) It’s not necessarily intuitive as to why a given body makes one list rather than the other, and it has nothing to do with anything like theological beliefs or religious practices. As I understand it, the “mainline” denominations are taken to be those who were historically first in this country, and (at least until recent years) the largest; the “evangelical” denominations are those who broke off from the larger denomination at some point. (The Pew Forum states that they classify these based on things such as the use of “born again” language, which is demographically squishy at best. Is there a Christian in the world who would read John 3 and not lay some measure of claim to that language?)

BaptistsSo the Presbyterian Church (USA) is “mainline,” and the Presbyterian Church in America is “evangelical.” The American Baptist Churches USA is mainline, but of course the Southern Baptist Convention is evangelical (and now vastly larger). The Disciples of Christ (a Restorationist group) is mainline; but the Church of Christ (also Restorationist) is evangelical.

How about the Society of Friends (Quakers)? They broke away from the Church of England before immigrating to the United States — so here, they are mainline. (Friends also have an evangelical break-off from a subsequent split.)

The distinctions are largely arbitrary — theological, practically, and even historically speaking. In many cases, the classification may come down to whether a church split happened on the east side of the Atlantic Ocean or the west.

Consider the differences between my own PC(USA) and the PCA: the mainline denomination ordains women, and tends to take a more progressive stance on social matters and on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Otherwise in their history, their governance, and their core convictions the two bodies are the same — and perhaps I can even venture to say that they have much more in common than not (we are all still “Presbyterians,” after all).

Are my PCA brothers and sisters any more “evangelical” by any coherent definition of that term? In both practice and belief, they have more in common with the mainline Presbyterian body than with, say, the Southern Baptists.

As we would expect, many respondents gave a vague self-identification (e.g. “I know I’m a Methodist, but I don’t know what denomination”) which required Pew to sort them based on other factors. This includes race, as well as whether a respondent self-identifies with the language of being “born again.”

In other words, if you don’t know whether you are a mainline Baptist or an evangelical Baptist, but you like the sound of being “born again,” you are marked down as evangelical. Overall, 38 percent of Protestants offered a vague denominational identity and had to be sorted in this way.

The Religious Landscape Study includes a question asking Christians: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” In response to this question, half of Christians (35% of all U.S. adults) say yes, they do consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians.

The results of this question demonstrate my point: only 83 percent of those that Pew would call “evangelical” based on their denominational preference said “Yes” — while a not insignificant 27 percent of “mainline” Protestants also said “Yes,” they describe themselves as “born again” or “evangelical.”

The definition of evangelicalism has always been fuzzy, and so it’s no surprise that Pew had to come up with some creative methodology — one that does not fit roughly 20 percent of Protestants in this country — in order to make their macro-level categories work.

The categorization of survey respondents into “mainline” or “evangelical” bodies is therefore somewhat haphazard, and historically (and practically) dubious. What this means is that the Pew report is useful for some things — tracking affiliation with specific denominations, for example — but it does not show the larger trends that mainliners, evangelicals, and atheists think it does. It’s useful for seeing the population shift from this version of Methodism to that, or away from institutionalized Christianity altogether. It’s helpful for seeing geographical and ethnic distribution. But it simply does not reveal anything useful about the decline or strength of “mainline” and “evangelical” Christianity.

The Karl Barth Timeline

May 5, 2015

Karl BarthThe following timeline was originally published in 2011 at my (now closed) blog Via Crucis, and only long after closing the doors on that site did I realize that this hopefully still useful bit of data wasn’t publicly available any more. So I reproduce it again here, in the hopes that you might find it useful.

The timeline includes publication dates for Barth’s major works, as well as significant biographical milestones.

Barth’s birth (Basel, Switzerland) 1886
Barth enters parish ministry in Safenwil 1911
Barth marries Nelly Hoffman 1913
Barth’s break with Protestant liberalism 1914-16
Romans (I) 1919
Barth leaves the parish for Göttingen 1921
Romans (II) 1922 1933
Instruction in the Christian Religion
(The Göttingen Dogmatics)
1924 1991 (Vol. I)
Barth leaves Göttingen for Münster 1925
The Word of God and the Word of Man 1924 1928
Christian Dogmatics: Vol. I (Münster) 1927 N/A
Commentary on Philippians 1928 1962
Barth leaves Münster for Bonn 1930
Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum 1931 1960
Church Dogmatics I/1 1932 1936
Theological Existence Today 1933 1933
The Barmen Declaration 1934
Nein! (Pamphlet war with Emil Brunner) 1934 1946
Barth leaves Bonn for Basel 1935
Church Dogmatics I/2 1938 1956
Church Dogmatics II/1 1940 1957
Church Dogmatics II/2 1942 1957
Church Dogmatics III/1 1945 1958
Protestant Theology In the 19th Century 1947 1959
Dogmatics in Outline 1947 1949
Church Dogmatics III/2 1948 1960
Church Dogmatics III/3 1950 1960
Church Dogmatics III/4 1951 1961
Church Dogmatics IV/1 1953 1956
Church Dogmatics IV/2 1955 1958
The Humanity of God 1956 1960
Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 1959 1961
Church Dogmatics IV/3.2 1959 1961
Barth retires from teaching 1962
Barth’s trip to America
(lectures in Chicago, Princeton)
Evangelical Theology 1962 1963
Church Dogmatics IV/4 (Fragments) 1967 1969
Barth’s death (Basel, Switzerland) 1968

N/A = Not yet in English

Titles are given in English, of course, even where the volume hasn’t been translated yet. The 1924 dogmatics from Barth’s lectures in Göttingen were published as Unterricht in der christlichen Religion, and the 1927 Münster dogmatics — which Barth famously regarded as a false start (see the Preface to CD I/1) was published as Die christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf.

Also note that Barth’s Dogmatics originated as course lectures, and were in development and presented to students in the years leading up to the publication.

Any corrections or important additions are most welcome.

Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 2

February 11, 2015

Yesterday I looked at Chapter 1 of Jason Radcliff’s recently published dissertation, Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition. I noted that while the Protestant reformers departed from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches by seeing the authority of the fathers as fallible and secondary to scripture, they nonetheless saw themselves as more faithful to the early fathers than medieval Catholicism. Later Protestantism, however, left the fathers behind in two directions: rejection by the liberals and indifferent ignorance by fundamentalist evangelicals. This situation, along with the postmodern shift of the 20th century, set the stage for a “rediscovery” of the fathers among evangelicals in the last couple generations.

Radcliff sees this rediscovery, treated in Chapter 2, taking three main forms. First is conversion to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Radcliff tells the stories of John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Thomas Howard’s conversion from evangelicalism to Episcopalianism and then Roman Catholicism, and Peter Gilquist’s leadership of a group conversion of evangelicals working in Campus Crusade for Christ to the Antiochene Orthodox Church. In each case there was a sense that evangelicalism is, in Howard’s words, “not enough.” Radcliff offers this criticism on these conversions:

The desire to appropriate classical Christianity into the contemporary church is commendable; however, to feel the need to convert to another denomination because “evangelical is not enough” is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, conforming to an external notion of ecclesiology and commitment to external definitions of Christianity. The evangelicals who convert often conclude that appropriation of classical Christianity necessarily entails conforming to the practice of the early church, much of which may have had more to do with culture than solely theological commitment. Thus, they consider it impossible to retrieve the life and work of the The Fathers within their own Protestant traditions. This is ultimately a convoluting of the distinction between faith and order and it contains elements of legalism. (37-38)

I think Radcliff might have included those who have converted from non-liturgical evangelical churches to Anglicanism or other mainline liturgical churches under this same heading. I have several friends who have done so for the same reasons (“evangelical is not enough”) and are, I think, open to the same criticism.

Another form evangelical “rediscovery” of the fathers has taken is that of the emergent/emerging church movement. Radcliff takes a look at the writings of several leading figures of this movement, including Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Shane Claiborne and Scott McKnight (who has recently converted to Anglicanism, btw), and concludes that while the movement has certain commendable common themes, it has no real center of gravity. It is a fairly subjective and personality driven hodgepodge that features some fairly idiosyncratic appropriations of various patristic themes and practices. He notes that most of its leading figures come from evangelical mega-churches who “want to move far away from seeker-sensitive and mega-church models towards, seemingly, any other model” (43). The idiosyncratic nature of the movement often finds its leaders badly misunderstanding patristic theology (Radcliff finds help from D. A. Carson in making this point). Radcliff does end on a balanced note in his treatment of the emergent/emerging movement:

While Emergents often misread the classical Christian tradition owing to their eclecticism and subjectivism, their genius is in the application of The Fathers. Emergents want to retrieve helpful elements (albeit as they see it) [note: Radcliff is a poet and he doesn’t know it] and directly apply them to church life today. Herein, they are at the forefront of a return to The Fathers and their example will, no doubt, continue to lead many towards further retrieval of classical Christianity. Ultimately, however, they are unfair to The Fathers themselves on account of their tendentiousness. (p. 45)

Finally, Radcliff treats the theological retrieval programs of Robert Webber’s ancient-future Christianity and Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy. He sees these strains as helpful and close to what Torrance sought to do, but falling short because they tended to view the fathers through basically Augustinian lenses. Radcliff is on ground heavily contested by the recent work of historians like Lewis Ayers and theologians like Stephen Holmes, both of whom have launched an attack on the idea that there is any intelligible theological divide between east and west in the Nicene and post-Nicene period. Much of Torrance’s treatment of patristic theology and the “Augustinian tradition” or even “Latin heresy” that he claims prevailed in the west is called into question by this recent discussion. So far Radcliff hasn’t waded into that water – we’ll see what the future chapters hold. With that criticism over Augustinian vs. Greek lenses suspended, we can see Webber’s and Oden’s projects as helpful allies of Torrance’s in an evangelical retrieval of patristic theology.

In my church world, I see most people continuing the willful ignorance of the fathers, while some convert to liturgical churches. The emerging/emergent thing continues kind of, but I’m not sure how much actual engagement with the early fathers goes on in it (I’m friendly to it, but exist mostly outside of it so I don’t know that much about what goes on over there). Academically, I’m favorable to Radcliff’s presentation of Torrance as a resource for helpfully appropriating the fathers, but I’m not sure how helpful he is, given his dense writing style, for helping evangelical churches like mine to get back in touch with the patristic tradition.

That leaves me with a pressing question: how do pastors like me, working in seeker-sensitive mega-churches, get our people more in touch with the riches of the early church (and the Reformation for that matter)? I fully agree with Radcliff that conversion to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy ought not to be necessary (and I’d add liturgical mainline denominations – I love those churches, I just think evangelicals can discover the fathers without going anywhere), but the crises of many evangelicals’ faiths argue otherwise. So what do we do? Offer Sunday school classes on the fathers and reformers? Weave their thinking into our sermons more? Weave the ancient creeds into our worship? I think all of that would help, but I also agree with Radcliff that a more central Christological and Trinitarian focus needs to stand behind it all. I’m still wondering how to make that happen though. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 1

February 10, 2015

IMG_0170-0As I prepare for a final editorial pass through my own dissertation on T. F. Torrance’s doctrine of scripture and theological hermeneutics prior to sending it for publication, I’m reading through a few recent books on Torrance. First up is Jason Radcliff’s Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition.

I’ve read through the first two chapters at this point, which together serve as an extended “state of the question” section, taking up about a quarter, quite a bit for contextualizing considerations. But its totally worth it. These chapters deal with an issue running through a lot of conversations I have with other young pastors and seminarians coming out of evangelical churches – how did we lose touch with the early church and what do we do about now? Radcliff offers an insightful historical account of the problem and lays out a helpful taxonomy of contemporary responses. I’ll deal with the historical background in today’s post and the contemporary responses tomorrow.

Chapter 1 tells us how we got here by analyzing how various traditions have understood the consensus patrum, that is, the theological consensus of the early church fathers. Radcliff offers a fairly standard account of the differences between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and early Protestant postures toward the fathers. He helpfully points out that while Luther and Calvin drew a sharper line between the authority of scripture and that of the fathers, they nonetheless saw the Reformation as more faithful to the teaching of the fathers than the medieval Roman Catholic church. This is a needed corrective to the kind of thing I keep hearing at my church and even from seminarians (before they take my church history class) about how Catholicism taught scripture and tradition while the Reformation was about scripture alone, as if the reformers rejected or intentionally ignored the fathers. No, the fathers were a major resource for Luther and Calvin et al, second only to scripture. The Reformers stood in the humanist tradition of ad fontes, returning to the classical sources of ancient society, and thus sought to approach the supreme authority of the scriptures through the secondary authority of patristic tradition, willing to disagree with a given father’s interpretation if needed on the basis of scripture, but generally deferring to the patristic consensus over later accretions.

The problem of the reformers and their immediate successors (Radcliff examines Turretin as an example) was that they saw the patristic period as a “golden age” of the church, seeing the fathers as early advocates of Reformation theology, but were unable to establish an objective program for appropriating these early sources. The result is that Protestant theology has wandered away from the fathers in two directions. Protestant liberalism, on the one hand, has seen the development of doctrine as progressive in such a way that the distant past is basically irrelevant to the truth of the present which is free to move on and leave the past behind. Liberalism has thus willfully departed from the fathers. Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism, on the other hand, have willfully ignored the fathers out of fear that attending to them with too much interest or loyalty would compromise the doctrinal sin qua non of evangelical theology, sola scriptura. This situation, as it evolved for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, set the stage for a dramatic “rediscovery” of the fathers in the last generation or so of evangelicals. Radcliff wants to situate his study of Torrance’s theology within this recent return to favor of patristic theology among evangelicals. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at chapter 2, which lays out a few different ways evangelicals have returned to the fathers.

For now, what do you think of this situation? How have we evangelical Protestants lost Luther and Calvin’s love and respect for the early fathers? (Hint: it might be related to the reason we don’t really interact with Luther or Calvin any more.) How do we reincorporate these riches back into our churches? Are liturgy and eucharistic theology the keys, as Peter Leithart and others have suggested, or can us low-church evangelicals keep our contemporary worship and integrate our patristic and Reformation heritage in other ways? What are your thoughts?

Shored Fragments

Theology in the Far Country

Resident Theology

Theology in the Far Country

Storied Theology

Theology in the Far Country


Theology in the Far Country

The Fire and the Rose

Theology in the Far Country

Inhabitatio Dei

Jealous is the night when the Morning comes

Faith and Theology

Theology in the Far Country

Die Evangelischen Theologen

Theology in the Far Country


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 98 other followers

%d bloggers like this: