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The Bible as Story

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

We must have some sense of the whole in order to grasp how it opens.  Countless readers have thought that if they simply pored over the first three chapters long enough they would be able to make sense of what is told therein.  To read later details back into the beginning is thought of as a violation of the interpretive process. But such an assumption goes against a basic principle we all employ when we read any book. To understand the first chapter or two of any literary work requires one to size up the shape and scope of the whole.

And it is exactly this sort of preunderstanding that informs all theological interpretations of Adam and Eve. Religious readers know where the story is heading before they have glossed even one word. Reading early Jewish and Christian interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve is like eavesdropping on a circle of friends who have rewound Saving Private Ryan and are watching it opening scene a second time.  Their memories of the film’s ending well up again and again to inform, and even overwhelm, the terse beginning.

From biblical scholar Gary Anderson’s The Genesis of Perfection, 2001 (in this outstanding book Anderson traces how Genesis 1-3 was retold by Jews and Christians in commentaries, midrash, theology and art in the first few centuries of the Common Era – I only hope that his latest book is as good).

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Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key—Index

February 27, 2010 4 comments

As I mentioned in the first part of the synopsis, my goal in these posts is both to summarize Kathryn Tanner’s new book, Christ the Key, and to engage certain key theses in detail.   In my synopses I tried to explicate the central argument of each chapter (rather than simply mention each important one).  In my final three posts I will connect what I have summarized to other thinkers and/or her earlier works.  Here’s a list of the posts I have planned. I’ll fill in the links as they get written:

  1. Synopsis, Part 1
  2. Synopsis, Part 2
  3. The obedience of Jesus
  4. Status of creation
  5. Trinity and Politics

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis – Part 2

February 25, 2010 9 comments

Chapter 4: Trinitarian life

In her longest chapter, Tanner reflects upon the Trinity using the following principle:  “Because he is the Word, Jesus Christ displays in his human life the relationships that the Word has to the other members of the Trinity” (140). She argues for a general two-fold movement in the economy: 1) The Word and Spirit are sent out by the Father for our benefit; they descend into the world of sin and death.  2) having accomplished their mission, they ascend to the Father with us.    Within this movement, the Son and Spirit are interdependent.  The Son sends the Spirit to us.  Yet, the Spirit prepares the way for the incarnation, dwells in and guides Jesus, and is the transformative power at the Eucharist.  This interdependence is seen with us as well:  “The Son brings the Spirit to us as a power of new life; the Spirit conforms us to the shape or pattern of the Son” (161).  Tanner then moves from this analysis to the inner life of God: the Son and Spirit are interdependent in their emergence from the Father.  “The Son is responsible simply for giving shape to the Spirit as it emerges from the Father…the Spirit is the love or power of the Father by which the Son is drawn out of the Father to be the perfect manifestation of all that the Father is” (192-193).  Other arguments in the chapter are important (i.e. her reading of Jesus’ obedience; our entrance into the Trinitarian relations through the Son; sacraments; our mission in Christ) but the economic and imminent interdependence of Word and Spirit is most central.

Chapter 5: Politics

Tanner argues strongly against various political readings of the Trinity.  First, monotheism does not necessarily lead to authoritarian politics (see her The Politics of God). Second, trinitarian thinking does not necessarily lead to egalitarian politics.  Finally, appeals to the Trinity for structuring human communities (Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna) do not take the radical difference between God and us seriously enough (see Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, p.82f for this argument in brief).  They also often appeal to images (perfect reciprocity) which are not exhibited in the economy (where two are sent and one is not) and can emphasize the communion of persons to an extent that verges on tri-theism.  What we have here is the project of one’s politics onto the Trinity.  Tanner counters that we are to be incorporated into the Trinity rather than model it.  We enter into the divine life in the place of the Son.  United to the Son, we are to relate to the Father and Spirit as Jesus did.  In terms of politics, we are to relate to others as Jesus related to others: “Jesus’ way of life toward other people as we share in it is the trinitarian form of human social life” (237). At various points in the chapter she also engages questions of Trinity and gender.

 Chapter 6: Death and Sacrifice

This chapter is Tanner’s theology of the cross.  Here she develops her critique of atonement theologies of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitution made very briefly in Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity p. 29.  In the earlier work her appeal to feminist and womanist theologies is quite jarring.  Here she gives this appeal greater context and defends it more thoroughly.  The center of ch. 6 is an argument for an incarnational model of the atonement. Salvation comes primarily through the very assumption of our humanity by the Word of God.  In virtue of the Word’s union with the humanity of Jesus, humanity is renewed.  Thus, she argues that the primary meaning of “atonement” is “at-one-ment,” undercutting various legal or contractual models for the cross (256).  The meaning of the cross is found within the overall meaning of incarnation.  The Word assumes fallen humanity and “if the powers of the Word are to reach humanity suffering under the forces of sin and death,” the incarnation will include at-one-ment on the cross (257).  We are saved by the union of the Word with the humanity of Jesus which reworks humanity over the process of his life, including his death on the cross.

Chapter 7: The Working of the Spirit

In the final chapter Tanner contrasts two understandings of the working of the Spirit in modern Christianity: 1) the Spirit works immediately, directly, and exceptionally, often in the interior depths of the human person, and ensuring infallible certainty of religious insight; 2) the Spirit works gradually, through fallible human beings, without final resolution, and within the messy processes of ordinary life.  Although she does highlight certain benefits of the first view (it can be subversive to entrenched, oppressive authorities), she argues strongly for the second.  She builds upon her view of a “non-constrastive” divine/human relation in God and Creation : “there is no reason to think that God is working more the less we are” (280; 296). God works within our finitude and within contextual, fallible truths; divine agency does not remove the finite character of our acts.  This also has a progressive political potential: it would “loosen up” religious authority by bringing greater flexibility and openness to change (291 – the first view may be prophetic but is entirely inflexible). Consistent with the entire book, the Spirit works within us to reshape, reform, and empower our whole existence, not to override it in moments of miraculous revelation.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis—Part 1

February 23, 2010 8 comments

Kathryn Tanner is one of the best theologians in the world today and her newest book, Christ the Key, develops her previous thought in new and interesting directions.  In her previous books she argued for the radical transcendence of God as constitutive for coherent Christian discourse (God and Creation in Christian Theology, 1988), the progressive political potential of an affirmation of divine transcendence (God and Politics, 1992), the implications of post-modern cultural theory for theology (Theories of Culture, 1997), a brief systematic theology for the whole of the Christian faith which centers of the meaning of Jesus Christ for us (Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 2001), and a model of non-competitive relations and unconditional giving (Economies of Grace, 2005).  Christ the Key has connections to each of her previous works but is explicitly the sequel to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity.  Both have the same fundamental vision: “God’s wants to gives us the fullness of God’s own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ” (Christ the Key, vii).

Christ the Key developed out of her Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2007 (reported on with great detail by a few bloggers at Princeton—1, 2, 3). It will also be the subject of a panel discussion at the Midwest AAR this March.  In this post I am simply going to provide a basic summary of her key arguments in the first half of the book (chapters 1-3).  This will be followed by another post covering the second half as well as a few posts that will engage some of her most important and/or provocative points in dialogue with other thinkers.  (note: given the length of this intro and the need for a synopsis, this post will be longer than usual)

Chapter 1: Human Nature

The first three chapters all engage the question of the relationship between God and creation (and, in particular, humanity).  Chapter 1 focuses on the question of what it means to say that humanity is created in the image of God.  As with each chapter, Christ is the Key.  Tanner argues that the only “proper” image of God is the second person of the Trinity.  We primarily image God through participation in or attachment to the divine image by the power of the Holy Spirit; the greater our unity with second person of the Trinity, the greater we image God (the humanity of Jesus, with the hypostatic union, being the perfect instance of this).   Tanner distinguishes throughout the chapter between “strong” and “weak” imaging.  The “strong” sense is participation in the divine image already mentioned (although, as finite, we can never be this image; we are to be in the image of God).  However, we also image God in a weak sense as creation.  The main way Tanner explores this is through the inherent openness and “expandability” of our existence.   We have unique capacity to be shaped by others; our nature is “underdetermined,” open to vast diversity of relations, cultures, language, etc. We are like “soft wax that a vast variety of seals might indent to their image” (44).  We image God in this openness: “Humans imitate God’s incomprehensibility by having a nature that is also in a sense unlimited, unbounded by a clearly delimited nature” (53).  This openness and “essential malleability” is the natural ground for our ability to receive and be shaped by the divine image in Christ.

 Chapter 2: Grace (part one)

In Chapter 2 Tanner builds upon her account of the imago Dei in terms of nature and grace.  Human beings need grace to become images of God, not because of sin, but because of our very nature as creatures. Tanner begins with the affirmation that God’s intention in creating us is that we would enjoy the good of God’s own life by participating, through grace, in the divine image.  Accordingly, she boldly claims: “Because we have been created to have such a close relationship with the very goodness of God, with a nature that requires attachment to God to be what it is supposed to be, grace is necessary to complete out nature, to add to it what it requires for its excellent operations and well-being.  Receiving God’s grace become a requirement for simply being a human being fully alive and flourishing” (60). The presence of the Word and Spirit is “an ingredient of our very constitution” and necessary for us to function excellently.  God’s Word and Spirit, present in us at creation, is necessary for our capacities of thinking and willing to be used well. Tanner then develops an account of sin as the loss of the divine presence, of our total depravity without this presence, our proper humility before God regardless of sin, and the priority of justification over sanctification.

Chapter 3: Grace (part two)

In chapter 3 Tanner places her proposal in the context of Catholic nature-grace debates.  She acknowledges that she seems to jeopardize both the integrity of human nature and the gratuity of grace since grace is necessary for our ordinary operations.  She argues, however, that unless Catholics revert back to a total separation of “nature” and “supernature” (making grace extrinsic to our natural existence), Catholics are unable to maintain gratuity and integrity.  In order to bring together nature and grace, Catholic theology generally appeals to some sort of “natural desire”; however, any sort of desire, on Tanner’s reading, endangers gratuity.  The problem here is that Catholic theology starts with the idea of “integrity” as self-containment and then tries to fit grace in as unexacted yet still desirable.  Instead, she argues that we have no “natural” desire for God: “desire for God results from the presence of God that forms an essential ingredient of our constitution as the prerequisite of human well-being” (126).  What assures gratuity is the very difference between the divine and human – divine gifts are by definition unexacted.  The integrity of our nature does not require self-containment but rather openness; and this openness and adherence to God for our own well being is a sign of dignity rather than diminishment:  It is “natural” for us to have grace.

My next post will continue with chapters 4-7: Trinitarian Life, Politics, Death and Sacrifice, and the Working of the Spirit.

Manna is a Hermeneutic

February 21, 2010 15 comments

In the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, God gives manna to the Israelites who, upon seeing the frost-like substance covering the ground, ask “what is this?” (Ex. 16:15) This question, transliterated “man hu” becomes the name for this sustaining substance.  Its very name is the question that gives rise to hermeneutics; it is the question that hermeneutics asks.

Odo Marquard has a pithy essay titled “The Question, To What Question is Hermeneutics the Answer?” in Farewell to Matters of Principle: Philosophical Studies.  In this piece Marquard poses hermeneutics both as questioning and as the interpretive movement which attempts to answer questions. He offers several “questions” as the provocations of hermeneutics.  These include 1) finitude 2) derivativeness and 3) transitoriness.  Manna, a substance that turns the action of questioning into a noun (and a relationship), adroitly illuminates these hermeneutical provocations.  For the sake of brevity, let me say that Marquard poses hermeneutics as the human attempt to deal with our contingency.

Manna has everything to do with contingency.  It emphasizes our finitude: the Israelites receive it from the graciousness of God’s divine plenitude in their situation of lack, need, and hunger.  It shows us our derivativeness: the Israelites might have liked to return to the fleshpots of their former masters where—ironically and retrospectively—they felt more in control of their lives than during their desert sojourn, but they had to interpret their existence as a nation based on what appeared within their horizon of experience.  It emphasizes our transitoriness: the Israelites could gather up the manna only for one day (except before the Sabbath day), any surplus kept to the following day would become rotten and wormy.  And such it the fate of interpretation: (meta)narratives that become so self-satisfied with their universality and Truth that they forget to renew themselves daily in their own context will become rotten and wormy.

Hermeneutics will always be an attempt to place ourselves in a bearable relationship to our own contingency.  Manna, as a hermeneutic, shows us that our contingency is very real, it cannot be reduced or overcome, but our contingency exists in a dynamic relationship with God’s grace.

There is perhaps one more aspect of manna that commends it as a hermeneutic: it is placed in the ark of the covenant with the Law.  The Law and the stuff of interpretation, placed “before the LORD in safekeeping for your descendants.” (Ex. 16:33)  A constant sign unto the generations that as we remember that we have the presence of the LORD—as the Law, the Word, the Bread of Life –we must always ask, “man hu, what is this?”

The historical Jesus: Meier and Sobrino revisited

February 21, 2010 3 comments

In June 1988, at a conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America on the “Sources of Theology,” biblical scholar John Meier critiqued liberation theologian Jon Sobrino for his inadequate treatment of the historical Jesus (he also considered Juan Luis Segundo, but I’ll focus on Sobrino here). In short, Meier contended that Sobrino has not demonstrated the historical veracity of the claims that he makes about the historical Jesus. The problem with this criticism is that it depends on a fundamental equivocation. Is the “historical Jesus” equivalent to that construct of probable facts about Jesus which any reasonable community of scholars, regardless of confession, would hold to be true in light of the evidence (i.e., the historico-critical Jesus of Meier’s A Marginal Jew)?  Or is the “historical Jesus” the Word incarnate in a particular historical context in the past (first century Palestine) and sacramentally mediated in the liberating praxis of the church in analogous contexts in the present (e.g., late twentieth century El Salvador) (i.e., the historico-theologal Jesus of Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator)? 

Both ways of seeking the historical Jesus risk sacrificing Jesus’ reality–that is, who he actually was and what he actually did: Meier by restricting his gaze to the demonstrably probable, Sobrino by pursuing a theological interpretation which is not pinned down on every point by demonstrable probability.  Sobrino, it should be noted, does cite historico-critical scholarship in defense of many claims.  Moreover, there is room to question the objectivity of any historical report–especially if it is about a religious figure such as Jesus–even if there are scholarly arguments, such as Meier’s, in place.

But the point I want to make here–and it is in some ways a point against Meier and in favor of Sobrino–is that reason has no absolute dominion over history.  What is most true historically is not necessarily what will convince a neutrally disposed committee of experts.  I don’t doubt that Meier’s meticulous work is of great value.  Certainly it is!  I do claim, however, that Sobrino’s reflection on the historical Jesus engages reality in a way which may be unavailable to those concerned primarily with academic consensus.  Understanding Jesus, for Sobrino, implies discipleship in history.  This, it seems to me, has more to do with who Jesus actually was than does any text which one might produce as a disinterested observer.

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The New Yoder

February 18, 2010 10 comments

Somehow, embarrassingly, I’m only just realizing that the last sixth months have seen two new collections of essays on the work of John Howard Yoder: Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder (eds. Anthony Siegrist and Jeremy Bergen) and The New Yoder (eds. Peter Dula and Chris Huebner). Most of the essays will already be familiar to those who follow this literature, unfortunately, but it is extremely good news that the work of interpretation and application is being continued in public. Hopefully these collections will continue to prove that Yoder’s work has more than in-house Mennonite significance—see especially Nekeisha Alexis-Baker‘s essay on Yoder and womanist theologies, Peter Blum’s essays on Yoder and Derrida and Foucault, and Dan Barber‘s essay on Yoder and secularity. Also, given how protective Mennonites have tended to be of Yoder, their one famous theologian, it’s good to see that serious critique is apparently now openly underway.

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