Saturday, June 19, 2010

Barth on Scripture and the Legitimate Form of Apostolic Succession

In between my regular diet of T. F. Torrance and books on theology of Scripture, I'm slowly making my way through Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics I.1. Barth is famous for being odd on Scripture, but I find him wonderfully odd. In fact, his oddness makes more 'normal' accounts of Scripture (by which I mean those that start from humanity's need for an infallible source of truth, e.g. Warfield) seem odd. In I.1, his approach to speaking about what Scripture is really took me by a wonderful surprise. Scripture comes in the middle of his introduction of the threefold form of the Word of God, which he briefly introduces in in I.1 in the order of knowing (Church Proclamation, Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ) and will largely expand in the opposite order of being (Jesus Christ, Holy Scripture, Church Proclamation) in I.2 - I'll get through it all eventually.

What I found wonderfully odd in its first appearance in I.1 is that Barth's way of getting to speaking of what Scripture is was in contrast to the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession. He makes a plea that Protestants be careful to reject the Roman doctrine for the right reasons; apostolic succession cannot be fully rejected as such, but only in its peculiar Roman form in which the manner of succession relates to formal office rather than spiritual service. That is, the spiritual service of the Roman pontiff is seen as included within and guaranteed by the possession of the formal office of the bishop of Rome. As wrong as this is, it is right, argues Barth, that we see the present Church as succeeding the apostles. The Church's proclamation of the Gospel, which is what makes the Church what it is, must rest on a basis external to itself; the Church does not contain its own Gospel, but points past itself to an expectation of a future revelation of God in Christ based on the decisive past revelation of God in Christ. This basis of the Church's proclamation in Jesus Christ is passed from Christ to the world by the apostles so that the Church cannot point to itself as the proper validation of its message but must point to the apostles and therefore seek to succeed them as proclaimers of Christ. However, this succession has to take the proper form. In Roman Catholicism, the current successor of Peter in essence replaces Peter so that in pointing to apostolic testimony for the validation of its proclamation, the Church merely points to itself as the apostolic Church. Barth, however, argues that the current Church in its succession of the apostles cannot seek to replace them but must stand always under them. Scripture is what allows us to succeed the apostles in this way.

Now that I've set it up, here is the paragraph that made me happy and I wanted to share:
The apostolic succession of the Church must mean that it is guided by the Canon, that is, by the prophetic and apostolic word as the necessary rule of every word that is valid in the Church. It must mean that the Church enters into the succession of the prophets and apostles in their office of proclamation, and does so in such a way that their proclamation freely and independently precedes, while that of the Church is related to it, is ventured in obedience on the basis of it, is measured by it, and replaces it only as and to the extent that it conforms to it. It must mean that the Church always admits the free power of their proclamation over it. As far as the idea of a living succession is concerned everything depends on the antecessor being regarded as alive and having free power over against the successor. But if, as here, the antecessor has long since died, this can happen only if his proclamation has been fixed in writing and if it is acknowledged that he still has life and free power over the Church to-day in this written word of his. On the written nature of the Canon, on its character as scriptura sacra, hangs his autonomy and independence, and consequently his free power over against the Church and the living nature of the succession.
Love it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hauerwas on Spontaneous Prayer

I've been reading Stanley Hauerwas's recently published memoirs, Hannah's Child. This, I confess, is the first Hauerwas book I've read, but it certainly won't be the last. Throughout the book he goes back and forth between narrating the major events of his life and offering theological reflection on them. I found this short paragraph against spontaneous prayer worth sharing:
I do not trust prayer to spontaneity. Most "spontaneous prayers" turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, "Lord, we just ask you..." Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I pray that God will save us from that "just." (255)
He goes on to explain that, because of his distrust of spontaneous prayer, he writes the prayers he prays before the classes he teaches and offers the following, a prayer he wrote for a class he would be teaching on Columbus Day, as an example:
Dear God, our lives are made possible by the murders of he past - civilization is built on slaughters. Acknowledging our debt to killers frightens and depresses us. We fear judging, so we say, "That's in the past." We fear to judge because in judging we are judged. Help us, however, to learn to say "no," to say, "Sinners though we are, that was and is wrong." May we do so with love. Amen. (256)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Announcement

Check out this announcement for a book called Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Toward Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda, which I'll be contributing a chapter to!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scripture as Spectacles

Scripture, as the spectacles through which we perceive Christ (Calvin), must be attuned to Christ in order to present him clearly, but no matter how strongly we articulate that attuning, be it in terms of inerrancy, infallibility, clarity, or inspiration, it is not a power in Scripture that enables it to present Christ to us but a power in God through Christ in the Spirit. It was the work of the triune God that brought the Scripture into being in the first place and in light of that we must confess its fittingness to be the vessel Christ presents himself to us through, and, moreover, our statements about this fittingness ought not to be vague and abstract but concrete and literary, according to the nature of Scripture as text. Biblically, the chief given category in which to speak of this is inspiration, but we need other terms to clarify what we mean by inspiration. The terms ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ are two of the most common descriptions of Scripture in Protestant theology meant to concretely clarify what we mean when we speak of Scripture’s inspiration. I would argue that the preference for, and in many quarters the demand for confessing, such terms is a product of modernist scientific epistemologies that stress the antimony between certainty and the possibility of error. Such categories are not thus wrong or wholly inappropriate, but it ought to be questioned whether they are the most helpful or important descriptions of Scripture as the spectacles through which we perceive Christ.

I question these terms collectively and individually: collectively because they are both morally neutral. Scriptures fittingness for Christ’s self-presentation might be described more adequately by terms like ‘faithfulness’ and ‘obedience’, terms that recognize the inherently moral-laden character of knowledge, than ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ which fail to bring this reality to view. (‘Infallibility’ may escape this charge if it is seen as the Gospel that seeks the conversion of sinners to repentance and faith which is unable to fail.)

In regard to ‘inerrancy’ in particular, I do not question it because I think factual accuracy has nothing to do with being faithful and obedient in human testimony to Christ, but because a narrow focus on factual accuracy has often had the historical tendency to get people off on rabbit trails in quests to harmonize apparently conflicting accounts in Scripture or other such distractions. Of course being faithful and obedient to Christ must mean that the biblical authors testify in truth and not in falsehood, but the oft repeated notion that if it were proven that Scripture contained even one error we could not trust it is, whether or not such a statement is valid, quite unhelpful in the sense that it beckons us to read Scripture with an eye only to its factual accuracy and not to the Truth that calls us to repentance and faith. This is a subtle distinction and not a radical dichotomy I mean to make. We must trust the factual accuracy of Scripture because its authors were inspired by the Spirit to testify truthfully to Christ, not because its inerrancy is what it means to be inspired. Moreover, in regard to the statement about the Bible not having even one error, I think such language slips into stating the relation between truth and fact as identical where the relation might be a bit more complex than that. I’ve certainly encountered innumerable postmodern approaches to this in which truth and fact have seemingly no relation, and I adamantly resist such a position, but at the same time the fact that Matthew and Mark both have Jesus meeting with his disciples in Galilee after the resurrection while Luke and John have him meeting them in Jerusalem should force us neither to despair of the truth of Scripture nor to seek refuge in some convoluted harmony of the two accounts. There may be an inherent ambiguity and mystery here in the relation of truth and factual accuracy that simply eludes explicit articulation. We must hold firmly to the truth and accuracy of Scripture but in such a way that allows for such tensions and ambiguities. Personally, I am not uncomfortable speaking of some such tensions as errors, as long as we fully understand that in using such language we are consciously using it according to modern definition, that is, we are not foisting our standards on Scripture but simply acknowledging that if such accounts were to be composed within our modern context, we would regard at least one of them as in error. I have found that most conservative Reformed theologians, who as a category are those who tend to stress the inerrancy of Scripture most, are considerably careful in their definition of inerrancy to allow for such tensions and ambiguities, but in practice such care rarely transfers to the ministers whose training includes the reading of such theologians or even to the wider discussions about Scripture in the works of those theologians themselves. I find that when this approach trickles into ministerial contexts, the result is an overemphasis on factual accuracy which tends to produce the fruit of self-assuredness since a factually errorless book in my hands is a tool I can exploit in argumentation, rather than focusing on the Truth of the Gospel which relentlessly calls me to renounce myself in repentance and faith. Speaking of the ‘faithfulness’ and ‘obedience’ of Scripture, on the other hand, addresses not only what Scripture is but what I must be in order to understand it aright.

I question infallibility in particular because, as I said in the beginning, it is not a power in Scripture that makes us see Christ in it but a power in Christ. Spectacles do not make us see. If there is no light or if my eyes are shut, no glasses, no matter how clear, can make me see. It is the light objectively and the openness of my eyes subjectively that allow me to see – spectacles are lenses through which I am helped to see. Accordingly, that we see Christ in Scripture is due to his own divine infallibility that illuminates himself for us and opens our eyes to see him there. Scripture’s faithfulness and obedience to that infallibility allow it to share in it, but we must always recognize that infallibility is never a property which we can ascribe to Scripture in itself but only as it serves the Gospel which gave rise to it and is real independently of it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Torrance mp3s

Jason over at Per Crucem ad Lucem has links to 10 T. F. Torrance lectures plus Q&A from 1981 at Fuller Seminar. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Torrance on the Appropriate Circularity of Christian Thinking

I have again been quite negligent with you, my precious blog. Here is a bit of Torrance just to show I still care. This paragraph (yep, its a single paragraph) captures quite well what I was unable to say well to my friend Andy last night on the phone about why atheists prove that they just don't get it when they reject Christianity on the grounds that they find no evidence for God. Have a read:
Now it may be objected, quite understandably, that by claiming to interpret the resurrection within a framework of thought, of which the resurrection, along with the incarnation, is itself a constitutive determinant, I am operating with an essentially circular procedure. I agree, but reject the implication that this is a vicious circularity artificially intruded into the ground of knowledge. What we are concerned with here is the proper circularity inherent in any coherent system operating with ultimate axioms or beliefs which cannot be derived or justified from any other ground than that which they themselves constitute. It is the case, of course, that the primary axioms of any deductive system are held to be justified if they are included within the consistency of all the axioms and propositions of the system, but, as Kurt Godel has demonstrated, any such consistent formal system must have one or more propositions that are not provable within it but may be proved with reference to a wider and higher system. However, when we are concerned with a conceptual system or a framework of thought which includes among its constitutive axioms one or more ultimates, for which, in the nature of the case, there is no higher and wider system with reference to which they can be proved, then we cannot but operate with a complete circularity of the conceptual system. This must be a proper form of circularity, however, for the system must be one which is internally consistent and which rests upon the grounds posited by the constitutive axioms, without any alien additions, so that the conclusions we reach are found to be anticipated in the basic presuppositions. Such a system, of course, even if entirely consistent with itself, could conceivably be false, and must therefore be open to reasonable doubt: but that means that the system stands or falls with respect to its power as a whole to command our acceptance. And here another important factor must also be taken into account, the capacity of the system to function as a heuristic instrument in opening up new avenues of knowledge which could not otherwise be anticipated, and as an interpretative frame of thought to cope with a wider range of elements not originally in view. Nevertheless, in the last analysis we are thrown back upon the question whether we are prepared to commit ourselves to belief in the ultimates which are constitutive of the system. (Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 14-15)
What adds difficulty to understanding this passage is that Torrance is otherwise a good Barthian and rejects the notion of a comprehensive theological 'system', so how is one to be persuaded by the Christian conceptual system as a whole if the Word of God is impossible to humanly systematize? That difficulty aside, I find this account of the inherent circularity in all conceptual systems built upon axioms having to do with ultimate reality very compelling.

In the paragraphs that follow (I considered including them, but I didn't want to overtax my loyal readership) Torrance draws on logic and physics as conceptual systems that fit the description he has given and then discusses what happens when an ultimate reality is newly recognized but cannot be fitted into the conceptual system in current use. In that context, says Torrance, 'we are faced with a serious dilemma, of rejecting what has thus become disclosed as absurd, or committing ourselves to a radical reconstruction of that conceptual system, indeed a logical reconstruction of the axiomatic premises of that system.' Such a reconstruction has occurred in the last century in the field of physics in its difficult transition from the Newtonian to the Einsteinian conceptual framework. Torrance argues that it was something similar to this which happened as the early Church came to acknowledge the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These were realities that could not be fitted into their current ways of thinking, indeed appeared ridiculous in their current ways of thinking, but because of their inherent persuasive power demanded that the Church revise its entire way of thinking around these new realities as its basic starting point. The new wine needed new wineskins.