November 24, 2008

F. LeRon Shults, Reforming the Doctrine of God

In Reforming the Doctrine of God, LeRon Shults takes a sustained look at theology proper, but he does it with an important contemporary twist. Shults asserts that theology must be done as a "messy reciprocity between our ideas about God and everything else" (12). That is, theology is (inevitably) conditioned by our understanding of the world, just as it conditions that same understanding. It is with this basic insight in mind that he sets out to reform the doctrine of God.

Why reform? The reason, as laid out in the first part of the book, is because too much of theology has been inextricably linked with outmoded philosophical categories that see God as immaterial substance, single subject, and first cause. These categories, he asserts, lead to problems with our thinking about God that are created more by the categories than by the reality they seek to illuminate. In the second part of the book, Shults looks at a number of "late modern" trends that can prove as resources to reinvigorate our thinking about God by overcoming some of the philosophical barriers of modern thinking. Specifically, he looks at divine infinity, the trinity, and eschatological ontology as three important streams of thought that are reshaping how we think of God.

In this review, I'm not going to try to expound either of these parts in detail, for a couple of reasons. First, and probably most important, philosophical theology is not my own specialty, and I fear any summary I give would only distort his points, rather than illuminating them. Second, he draws on a broad range of streams of modern and late modern thought in his critiques and constructions, and a concise summary would not do them justice, especially if you aren't already familiar with his subjects. But, a few comments will hopefully give at least some insight in to where he is going.

Shults demonstrates, successfully, I think, that some of the classic dilemmas in theology, such as how God works in the world or how divine sovereignty and human freedom are compatible, are at least in part caused by assumptions and categories that are foreign to the Bible. His second point, worked out in part two, is that many late modern thinkers have begun to rethink some of these basic assumptions and have collectively reclaimed some important ways of thinking about God that have been too often lost or diminished in modern theological thinking. And in each chapter he surveys a number of important thinkers from a variety of perspectives, such as Karl Barth, J├╝rgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and John Zizioulas, to show the sources and contours of these important developments. The three streams that are recovered focus on God's infinity (God is more than just "extensively" greater than creatures but is genuinely "other"), trinity (God is not a single substance or mind but is dynamic relationality in himself), and futurity (God relates to time not only as its originator but as its upholder and as its future hope and consummation). All of this is helped by what he calls a "turn to relationality" in philosophy, with a movement away from a more substance-based view of reality to the acknowledgment as relationship or relationality as basic to the constitution of what it means to be person.

It is in part three that the the real "reforming" takes place, as Shults seeks to rebuild the doctrine of God through a critical appropriation of many of the late modern trajectories into a constructive exposition of theology. He looks at God's knowing, acting, and being through the themes of omniscient faithfulness, omnipotent love, and omnipresent hope. As with the first two parts, I won't try to recreate the flow of his argument. Instead, I want to note that he takes head on three of the thorny (and fascinating) issues that confront theology, the "antinomies" of divine foreknowledge, divine predestination, and divine timelessness. In each case, he surveys the state of the discussion and proposes a way forward that liberates the discussion from the classic categories that create the problems in the first place. In each case, I found his proposals to be insightful and liberating while remaining true to the core biblical insights that provide the foundation for the discussions. Just these three discussions are easily worth the price of the book, but I think the book's greatest value is that the "solutions" to these three problems point toward a richer and more dynamic doctrine of God.

I read the whole third part of this book with growing appreciation and excitement, and I look forward to delving in to Shults's other books and seeing how his vision plays out across the various ares of theology. But I know that the groundwork laid here is deeply valuable. It certainly struck a chord with me both in its freshness and its faithfulness. I look forward to rereading these final chapters again as I reflect on who God is and how we think of him. This book is highly recommended, though it certainly contains a lot of technical language. It is at times a rather difficult read, but it will repay a careful reading. For anyone who is interested in contemporary evangelical theology, this book is essential reading, and is a profound example of a vibrant and delightful investigation and appreciation of who God is.

November 16, 2008

Allan Coppedge, The God Who Is Triune

In The God Who Is Triune, subtitled Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God, Coppedge undertakes a systematic exposition of the doctrine of God. The key to the book, though, as its title makes clear, is that Coppedge draws on the triunity of God as the key for his reconstruction. The book opens with two chapters laying out the New Testament evidence, larger biblical "frame," and early theological developments toward understanding God as triune, making a case that understanding God as three in one and one in three, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is essential to understanding who God is. He then goes on to construct a fuller doctrine of God, covering the classic themes of God's attributes, creation, and providence, but he does it all after laying the trinitarian groundwork and in light of these fundamental insights. This makes Coppedge's book a valuable contribution to the field.

Coppedge's material on the Trinity is very well done, and I think he lays out very clearly and helpfully the essentials necessary for constrcting a theology of the Trinity. He shows much sympathy toward an Eastern approach to the Trinity that starts more from God's threeness and goes on to assert God's unity, though he also shows sympathies toward the more Western, Augistinian approach of starting from God's unity. Overall, though, this Eastern trend helps give the trinitarian drama to his whole presentation, as it keeps the vibrant interrelational life of God center stage as moves on to discuss God's being and attributes and God's relation to creation.

One of the defining insights of the book is that a Trinitiarian starting point means that when one moves to discussing God, the traditional four categories of attributes are still discussed--personal, moral, relative, and absolute--but they are approached in a different order. Coppedge begins with God's personal attributes (discussing attributes such as God's social nature, life, heart, moral capacity, freedom, creativity, and responsibility) and moral attributes. Only then does he move on to God's relative and absolute attributes. This means that God's sociality, will, freedom, and righteousness come before and exercise a controling role over attributes such as omnipotence. The result of this is that a picture of a vibrant, alive, relating God comes to the fore. This doesn't lessen God's glory or holiness, or diminish God's transcendence, but it means that who God is isn't lost in discussions of what God is capable of. Instead of focusing on God's being in himself, with a focus on God's unity as the omnipotent and omnipresent being above and beyond the universe one meets God as Father, Son, and Spirit, forever relating as living, loving, active beings who come to meet us in holiness and invite us to enter into their trine life. That, to me, is the refreshing aspect of this book. The Doctrine of God doesn't become abstract philosophical discussions about categories of being, though it does contain that, but it focuses instead on God as he makes himself known in a personal way. The focus is thereby supremely on God as made known in Jesus Christ, who becomes the key for our understanding of who God is.

I found Coppedge's expositon of the entire doctrine of God based on a trinitarian starting point to be supremely helpful. It helps to illumine all of theology by adding a relational element to God's very existence. It also points Coppedge (a Weslyan) toward an understanding of providence and freedom that entails God inviting human persons to enter into genuine relations with God and each other in true freedom. In short, I think it is one of the most helpful defenses I have read of a Weslyan (that is, essentially an Arminian) understanding of providence and free will, drawing as it does on God's very nature as the ground for its theological reasoning.

I highly recommend this book as a great resource on the doctrine of the Trinity, but more than that, I think it is essential reading for an example of how Trinity matters to all of Christian life and thought, instead of being a mere appendix to the doctrine of God to set it apart from other non-Christian expositions of theism. Not only did I benefit from it, but I enjoyed reading it. And further more, I was drawn closer to God through it, by being reminded that God isn't an amorphous being up there but is instead chooses to be known as Father, Son, and Spirit: in short, God lets us know who he is, and that's a lot more intimate than focusing on what or that God is.

November 13, 2008

Obama on things spiritual

CT has published the full transcript from an interview with Barak Obama from 2004 by Cathleen Falsani, then religion correspondent from the Chicago Sun-Times. In the interview Obama talks about his background, his journey to faith, the role faith plays in his politics and vice versa, and the role faith plays in his life.

Here are a few nuggets, though I encourage you to read the whole piece:

"I think there is this tendency that I don't think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them."

[I would have to say right-on to this. I think it ins important that religion not be excluded from the public sphere, and we should be allowed to talk about how our religion motivates our choices and values. But at the same time, religious motivation is not enough. In the area of public discourse and public policy, I think it is essential that arguments be framed in ways that appeal to the public good and be arguable on those grounds. Otherwise, real substantive dialogue about the policies is too easily undercut by ideological posturing.]

What is sin?

Being out of alignment with my values.

[hmm . . .]

I recommend giving the piece a read. It shows, as does so much of Obama's speech and writing, a keen mind and a thoughtful engagement with complex issues. I would definitely take some issue theologically with some of the points he makes, but his candid discussion about faith is certainly laudable.

November 12, 2008

Glorifying God

One of the areas of tension that I see in envangelical theology today has to do with the place and role of God's glory in our understanding of God and creation. There are streams of thought, mostly reformed in orientation, that assert God's glory is God's chief purpose in end in all that he does, while there are other streams of thought that speak more freely of God's love and God's orientation toward the other. I admit that even trying to divide the camps like this is an inadequate characture, but hopefully it gives us a place to start.

I'm currently reading Alan Coppedge, The God Who Is Triune, and he has a great perspective on this, which I will quote here:

But is gloryfing God a creation purpose or a result of creation? If gloryfing God is God's own purpose, it would seem to be a self-centered purpose rather than a self-giving purpose. Does God have some innate need to be glorified and constantly have others' attention? Alternatively, if glorifying God is a natural result of God's purpose in creation, its role changes. If glory is a result of what God has done, it leads others to God's purpose for them, and it is therefore an other-oriented factor rather than a self-centered one. From the nature of the triune, self-giving God, it seems that God's glory as a result of creation is preferable. If this is the case, then God does need to be glorified, but as a result of what he has done, not as a chief end in itself. Our shift in perspective comes with a move from seeing God primarily as sovereign King to understanding him as the tripersonal God. (272–73)

November 10, 2008

Pearl of Wisdom from Michael Bird

Michael Bird, over at Euangelion, has a brilliant little pearl about homosexuality and the church. He writes, "Everybody is invited to my church and come as you are: gays, prostitutes, ex-cons, even people who vote Republican! But no-one is allowed to stay as you are, and if you have to do business with God in the area of sexuality, well, so be it." Simple yet profound. I hope the church aspires to this simple truth.

Dating the Gospel of Mark

Mark Goodacre, over at NT Gateway Blog, has been doing a very informative series about dating the NT documents. In one noteworthy piece, he discusses the dating of Mark, which he sets as post-70. One of the key elements in the discussion, of course, and the reason for 70 as the benchmark date, is the catastrophic and seismic changes in Jerusalem and Judaism with the destruction of the temple in that year. So of course, one looks to the text for evidence of this event. The much debated passage is Mark 13:1-2 ("not one stone will be left on another"). The more "progressive" or critical stance on the passage is often that this shows evidence of knowledge of the temple's fate, dating the document after 70. The usual "conservative" rejoinder is that this assertion of a post-70 date is dismissing the idea of predictive prophecy out of hand, and thus is imposing assumptions onto the dating of the text. All relatively simple, so far. But Goodacre makes a very insightful argument concerning the "literary function" of the prediction. If, as seems to be the case, Mark recounts the event to in a sense demonstrate Jesus' authority, this assumes that his readers will "get it," that is, they will recognize that Jesus was intimating that the Temple would soon be destroyed, and that this shows his authority because it in fact was destroyed. If the temple was still standing, the predictive reference would have no literary value and would demonstrate nothing about Jesus' power or knowledge, but would be just another prediction. Now, I concede that this argument is not a open-and-shut one, for there are clearly evidences in both testaments such "predictions" that can and should be argued to have been unfulfilled at the time of the document's writing, such as prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled. But at the same time, looking at literary function can influence the dating of a Gospel, for instance, without necessarily taking a hard-and-fast position of whether the predictor did in fact make the prophetic prediction. Thus, in this case, the argument could be made that Mark knew the Temple was destroyed, and thus used Jesus' prediction to that effect to point toward Jesus' authority. This does not inherently carry with it a judgment as to whether Jesus in fact made the prediction in question.

Some things to ponder . . .

November 04, 2008

My haul from AAR

I had a great time at AAR in Chicago. I attended a few sessions, and spent a good bit of time networking and browsing the display floor. Here are the books I ended up buying or otherwise acquiring:

A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight
Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by Stephen Webb
The Lazarus Effect by Ben Witherington III and Ann Witherington
Aspects of the Atonement by I. Howard Marshall
The Divine Authenticity of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan
An Intro. to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture by Daniel Trier
The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight
The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer
Dictionary of Paul and his Letters

A few thoughts about the exhibition hall part of AAR. This is the first year that AAR and SBL have been separated (and I am very disappointed about this fact; it certainly changes the experience, and is detrimental to the whole experience, I think), and it was noticeable on the exhibition floor. Pretty much all of the vendors talked about how it was quite slow this year. I didn't see a lot of people actually buying many books. The economy certainly could be a factor in this, but who knows. I was also disappointed that, since SBL is not part of this show, Eerdmans, for example, brought basically no books on the "biblical" side of their list, only the more theological things. Which was quite disappointing to me. But on the other side, IVP and Baker both brought the full array of titles, and the biblical areas were barely touched (except by me, as you can see above). Another thing worth commenting on is discounts and tax. A lot of vendors, IVP and Baker among them (again, note what I bought above!) discount their titles 50% at the show, which is a nice discount. Many other vendors discount between 40% (Eerdmans, for instance) and 20%. But the fact that the show was in Chicago took away some of this discount, since tax is 10.25%! Ouch. So most titles ended up being about 10% to 20% cheaper than their respective prices on Amazon (or more for publishers that don't discount as much on Amazon, such as Wipf and Stock/Pickwick, meaning I saved almost $10 on the Witherington book). I think in the end I saved about $40 or $45 on the books I bought. So I'm quite pleased, and have lots to read over the winter. And, as I remembered from my last trip to AAR/SBL in 2005, it was a theology-book-lover's dream. More about the actual conference later, but there's the books.