Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 4

Read: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

3. Liberalism vs. Evangelicalism. We arrive finally at the major section of the review, wherein Galli presents his strongest criticisms of Bell. The thesis of this section is that Bell stands within the tradition of Protestant liberalism. And even though “liberalism is a tradition that has enriched the church in many ways,” and even though “many liberal themes have found their way into evangelical life,” Galli’s conclusion is that Bell has gone too far. He has stepped beyond the bounds of evangelicalism. In contrast to Bell, Galli believes that “orthodoxy will show again that it has the truer and thicker grasp of the Bible and of life.” Bell, by implication, is thus heterodox, despite the fact that he raises many good questions that “we would be foolish to ignore.”

What I want to interrogate in this part of my review is the criteria by which Galli distinguishes between liberal and evangelical, and the way he then expounds on this distinction. He begins the section with the following paragraphs, which clearly and succinctly articulate the problem:
That Jesus is divine is crucial for Bell. And he does a wonderful job of challenging the skepticism of those who find the incarnation impossible to believe. And he has no intellectual concerns about the reality of Christ's bodily resurrection. 
But it's here that we run up against Bell's hermeneutic, that is, the principle by which he decides if a biblical teaching is relevant. Why, for example, is blood atonement a time-bound explanation of the Cross, but the divinity of Christ is a deep mystery we shouldn't shun? Why are Paul's statements about the universality of salvation taken literally, but his teaching on substitutionary atonement as mere creative writing? 
If there is a criterion driving these distinctions, it seems to be based on what Bell thinks contemporary people can swallow. I couldn't see any other criteria at play. Given the complete lack of quotes from any other writer or tradition, one is led to the unfortunate conclusion that what makes one extraordinary biblical claim a time-bound metaphor and another literal truth is that Bell says so.
This is a serious charge, and it may very well be true. But can we look at the question of relevance in a different way? Is there a way to provide a hermeneutic that will accomplish Bell’s purposes while remaining firmly evangelical? That is what I hope to argue in this part of my essay. To begin, I first want to point out an issue in Galli’s second paragraph above. He asks why blood atonement is time-bound while Christ’s divinity is not. There are at least two ways of answering this. The first is that the divinity of Christ was the first and most basic of all the church’s conciliar decisions; without some form of its affirmation, one can hardly call oneself a Christian at all. By contrast, there has been no dogma of the atonement, no position that the ecumenical church decided was the right position to hold.

The second reason brings us to the hermeneutical problem. There are many different ways in which the NT speaks about the cross-event: ransom, reconciliation, substitution, judgment, etc. The point is simply that the cross is saving in some sense; it is the event of our reconciliation with God, however that is to be conceived. Similarly, the NT uses many different expressions for Jesus: Son of God, Son of Man, Lord, Messiah, Lamb of God, Logos, etc. The point here is that this man Jesus is in some kind of intimate relationship with the one he calls “Father,” so intimate, in fact, that our relation to Jesus constitutes our relation to God. Are we obliged to make one of the titles used for Jesus the controlling one in our understanding of him? Moreover, these titles have their origin in a particular cultural-historical context. “Son of Man,” for example, has its origins in the apocalyptic texts of Second Temple Judaism, appearing in 1 Enoch and Daniel 7. The use of “Lord” and “Son of God” in the NT had political connotations—as many scholars, such as Richard Horsley, have pointed out—since they involved denying these titles of honor to Caesar and others. Other contexts for other titles could be mentioned as well.

I bring this up only to point out that the metaphors and ideas used in the Bible have a particular historical provenance. While it is important to know the context in which they arose, our use of them today does not depend upon replicating the original cultural conceptualities and presuppositions. We can speak of Jesus as God’s Son without having to adopt the notions of Second Temple Judaism. In order to capture the political overtones of the NT imagery, it may be appropriate to use different titles altogether, such as when Martin Niemöller said that “God is my Führer.” In that context, the word “Führer” carried the scandalous and subversive implications that “Lord” would have in the time of the early church. Can we not do something similar with the atonement imagery in the Bible? Are we required to speak and think as if we are first-century Jewish-Christians? Is the task of understanding the message of the NT simply a matter of replicating an ancient historical context? Is it merely what Mark Alan Bowald calls “hermeneutical archaeology”? When it comes to the cross, are we finished with the task of interpretation when we’ve uncovered the cultural context and cultic logic of the biblical writers? Or—to take a far worse approach—are we simply supposed to repeat the words of the Bible without any critical historical and theological reflection? Does our evangelical identity depend upon the avoidance of hermeneutics? Are we supposed to assume that every biblical text coheres with every other because of some divine superintention of the Bible to say exactly what it says? Is this what an evangelical has to mean by the word “revelation”?

I raise these questions because Galli’s review seems to present us with two options: either one is an evangelical who simply repeats what is generally viewed as orthodox or what we read on the surface of the text, or one is a liberal who engages in a hermeneutical dialogue with the text in order to critically assess how to communicate the message of Scripture in a new time and place. I’m not saying that these are the two options Galli intends to present us with, only that his review gives the impression that we have to make such a decision. If that is the case, then I want to argue that the most evangelical decision is to become a liberal—at least in the sense that to be a faithful evangelical ought to mean the freedom to think hermeneutically and theologically about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I will assess Galli’s discussion in this section in three parts: (1) first, I will analyze his presentation of certain Protestant “liberal” thinkers and the definition he provides of liberalism, then (2) I will examine his main definition of liberalism as making Christianity relevant for today and how an evangelical hermeneutic might offer a better way forward than Galli’s alternative, and finally (3) I will conclude by analyzing the problem of the particularity and exotic nature of Jesus Christ.

A. The Problem of Liberalism. Galli says that Bell “correctly notes in the preface that many have taught what he teaches or hints at in the book.” Now, I’m guessing Bell was referring to people like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, since his book is dealing with questions associated with universal salvation and the scope of God’s saving love. But Galli makes a rather interesting (and, arguably, uncharitable) move:
Names that come immediately to mind include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. Schleiermacher was keen on mining our innate religious sensibilities (the things we've intuited are true) to ground Christian faith. Ritschl celebrated the kingdom ethics of Jesus. Bultmann argued that first-century metaphors and worldviews should be abandoned. Tillich wrote of faith as accepting our acceptance. All these themes run through Bell's book, sometimes in compelling ways.
While it’s almost certainly true that some of these themes are running through Bell’s book, I highly doubt this is what Bell had in mind when writing that sentence! Galli has creatively turned Bell’s words into an opportunity to discuss the problem of liberalism. But before I address the hermeneutical problem that Galli highlights, I want to examine his presentation of these “liberal” thinkers and question the definition of liberalism.

What do we mean by the term “liberal”? The term is fraught with historical baggage. My interest in this conversation is due to the fact that my own research is focused on the theology of Rudolf Bultmann. I wish to recover him—as crazy as this may sound—for an evangelical audience. I think he is wrongly classified as a liberal, or at least this label cannot be used in a univocal sense for Bultmann as it is used for Tillich, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and others. Let me explain. Bultmann’s theology can only be adequately understood as the rejection of 19th-century German liberal theology. From about 1922 until the end of his life, he stood with Karl Barth in opposing the central tenets of liberal theology, as it was understood in their context. Throughout his works, he stands resolutely opposed to the likes of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Troeltsch. We can define liberal theology here as the attempt to speak about God on the basis of certain historical or psychological “givens”; that is, grounding our God-talk on personal experience, historical research, religious piety, etc. What Barth initiated, and what Bultmann joined, is referred to as dialectical theology. By this, they mean that knowledge of God can only be given by God in the event of God’s self-revelation by grace and for faith. It is an event of God’s self-disclosure. There are no givens within the world by which we can reach some knowledge of God or meet God half-way (i.e., no apologetics, no rational proofs, no natural theology). Barthians often claim that Bultmann turned away from his early agreement with Barth toward a kind of existentialist natural theology, but this is a gross misunderstanding of Bultmann. The program of demythologizing is an extension of dialectical theology into the question of the relation between gospel and culture (to which I will return below). I will clear all this up in my forthcoming dissertation, though others like Christophe Chalamet have already made the essential defense. In any case, when Galli goes on to say that “Bultmann reinterpreted the New Testament as existential philosophy,” one can only repeat the famous response of Barth: Nein!

Bultmann’s stated purpose in his program of demythologizing was never to make the gospel more palatable for modern ears, but rather to discover and hear anew the true scandal of the gospel: the disruptive word of God’s judgment upon our sin and God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ. In 1952, Bultmann states that demythologizing “exposes the real scandal that the Bible presents to us moderns just as to all other human beings” (New Testament and Mythology, 102). And in 1953, Bultmann writes:
The purpose of demythologizing is not to make religion more acceptable to modern man by trimming the traditional biblical texts, but to make clearer to modern man what the Christian faith is. He must be confronted with the issue of decision, be provoked to decision by the fact that the stumbling-block to faith, the skandalon, is peculiarly disturbing to man in general, not only to modern man. (Kerygma and Myth 2:182-83)
Finally, in his 1958 Jesus Christ and Mythology, we read:
Christian preaching, in so far as it is preaching of the Word of God by God’s command and in His name, does not offer a doctrine which can be accepted either by reason or by a sacrificium intellectus. Christian preaching is kerygma, that is, a proclamation addressed not to the theoretical reason, but to the hearer as a self. In this manner Paul commends himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:2). Demythologizing will make clear this function of preaching as a personal message, and in doing so it will eliminate a false stumbling-block and bring into sharp focus the real stumbling-block, the word of the cross. (36)
Numerous critics of Bultmann over the years have argued that he was unfaithful to his own stated intentions. That is a possible line of critique that one is free to explore. I happen to think it is still wrong, in the end, but it’s at least an intellectually responsible position to take. What is not responsible is a mischaracterization of Bultmann work that ignores or obscures his intention. We can disagree with Bultmann, but he at least deserves to be treated fairly and accurately.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Galli of failing to anticipate my dissertation or of not being an expert in Bultmann’s theology. That would, of course, be entirely unfair to him. He is only repeating a general view of Bultmann that has been in wide circulation for many decades now. But that doesn’t make his statements any less wrong. They need to be corrected, because they perpetuate a false picture and do a great injustice to one of the great thinkers of the modern era. (I would also want to defend Schleiermacher and Tillich from misunderstanding, but their classification as liberal thinkers is much more apropos.) Does this mean Bultmann is somehow an “orthodox” and “evangelical” theologian? No, that would be overstating my case. But then again, those terms are not tidy and easily defined either. In fact, it is remarkable how similar the theological methodology of contemporary American evangelicalism is to the old German liberalism. Is it not the case that evangelicals largely emphasize personal experience and religious piety? And when someone like Josh McDowell and other apologists use historical data to establish the rationality of faith, is this not essentially the same kind of move that liberals employed when they tried to make historical data about Jesus the basis for faith?

The connections between liberalism and evangelicalism are far deeper and more intertwined than most ever realize. Both movements grew out of a common European reaction against Protestant orthodoxy and Enlightenment rationalism; the connection between pietism and liberalism is crucial. In fact, the one element of Bultmann’s theology that makes him the most liberal is precisely what also makes him the most evangelical! And that is his emphasis on the personal decision of faith as the basis for one’s saving relation to God. Bultmann rejects the liberal notion of experience (Erlebnis) or feeling (Gefühl) as the ground for one’s relation with God, but he maintains the emphasis on a personal decision. And this is perhaps what distinguishes evangelicalism above all else—the need to personally respond to God’s grace. What unites Bultmann, evangelicalism, and liberalism is the stress on individual freedom and the responsibility of the individual to respond to God in faith and obedience. The more recent turn towards a doctrinally-defined definition of evangelicalism is, in many respects, a betrayal of the originating insights of evangelical faith. It was the pietist opposition to the notion that faith is determined by one’s dogmatic commitments that spawned what we now know as evangelicalism.

I therefore want to strongly problematize the entire distinction between “evangelical” and “liberal.” I have written at length in the past about the possibility of providing a universal definition of evangelicalism. What I stated there bears repeating at some length:
While I support the attempt to specify as carefully as possible this particular group of people, I remain unconvinced that any definition will ever actually suffice. The basic problem is that even the most seemingly straightforward terms—such as “orthodox” and “biblicist”—remain irreducibly complex and diverse. These terms resist any singular meaning, and they are certainly not self-evident. There are very few evangelicals who actually agree on what these terms mean. [John] Stackhouse recognizes as much when he says that one has to abide by his definitions of these terms for the overall definition to work. But that just underscores the problem. The attempt to formulate a universal definition which will result in “accurate” polling data (as if that were even possible) requires that someone assume the role of evangelical magisterium. Someone has to determine what these words actually mean in order to specify who is in and who is out. 
But it is my conviction that evangelicalism, at its heart, resists precisely this kind of magisterial power. If it is anything, evangelicalism is the rejection of any singular form or tradition in favor of a concrete, personal, and anti-institutional faith. I suggest defining evangelicalism not as a type or movement but rather as an attitude, as a particular disposition. Evangelicalism is not a substance whose attributes can be examined; it is rather an actualistic mode of being which resists any definitional foreclosure and instead bursts open our concepts, pluralizing and multiplying the dimensions of Christian faith—though always under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This helps to explain why evangelicalism is marked by transdenominationalism, and why talking about “evangelical Catholics” is a problematic use of the word. 
Certainly, there are many self-proclaimed evangelicals who seek to pin down a very narrow definition of evangelicalism in order to apply the label to themselves and to very few others, if any. But I contend that this kind of semantic violence is what constitutes fundamentalism—the redefinition of terms to validate one’s own ideas over against the ideas of others. That’s not to say that people like Stackhouse are fundamentalists. By no means! Rather, it is to suggest that the attempt to locate a universally applicable definition of what is “essentially” or “truly” evangelical is itself an anti-evangelical project. ... Any pursuit of a universally fixed meaning is an act of exclusionary violence which runs counter to the truest impulses of the evangelical spirit. ... 
Evangelicalism is thus, in a very real sense, anarchic in nature: it resists attempts to universally fix or define what is truly Christian. Instead, it remains radically open to redefinition and recontextualization. Its missional character flows from the fact that no institution or tradition or culture can possibly be the sole bearer of the truth. In its best forms, therefore, evangelicalism is simply the openness of the church to the radical interruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is truly “evangelical,” I want to say, is precisely this liberal freedom of the gospel to transcend particular cultural, institutional, political, and even religious forms that attempt to fix and stabilize God’s Word in a permanent, universal, and secure modality. Evangelicalism is the refusal to allow God’s revelation to be objectified and petrified within a single dogmatic formulation or cultural-historical expression. In other words, evangelicalism is intrinsically missional, in the sense that it recognizes the cross-cultural freedom of God’s message of grace that continually bursts open the limits we try to impose upon it. The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be contained in a safe and secure form. It transcends our attempts to pin it down. In this sense, 19th-century German liberalism wasn’t liberal enough—by which I want to say, it wasn’t evangelical enough!

All of this leads us to the problem of hermeneutics and the question of a missional hermeneutic.

B. The Problem of Hermeneutics. I have been reflecting recently on this topic, and I cannot replicate all of my thoughts here; it would take far too long to explain. So I will simply throw out a few nuggets that I hope will get the conversation started.

The recognition that everything is historical is the origin of the hermeneutical problem. Once every text is seen to be historically conditioned, it becomes clear that the ideas expressed in a particular document are shaped by the presuppositions of a specific time and place. Bultmann calls this cultural-historical framework or paradigm of thought a Weltbild or “world-picture.” A Weltbild is the set of implicit general presuppositions about how to understand the world within which one lives. Every cultural artifact is shaped by a particular Weltbild. There is no ahistorical concept, no ahistorical text or object. Every idea, every judgment, every debate is situated within a nexus of social, cultural, and historical relations. That doesn’t mean every idea or event is reducible to these contextual factors; it only means that they are inseparable from them.

The task of hermeneutics is then to translate from one cultural Weltbild to another, from the cultural-historical context of the text to the cultural-historical context of the reader. This task of translation does not mean that we can violently impose our contemporary thinking upon the text and thus make it say whatever we want. Rather it requires that we differentiate between the subject-matter (die Sache) of the text and the “world-picture” within which this subject-matter comes to expression in the text. In biblical terms, this is the distinction between gospel and culture, between the kerygmatic word of revelation and the historically-situated witness of the prophets and apostles. All of this presupposes a distinction between revelation and the text of the Bible. I take such a distinction for granted for numerous reasons that cannot be elaborated upon here. Without such a distinction, though, we end up with what Tom Greggs calls “biblio-idolatry.” The Bible as religious object becomes God’s Word, when the Bible is instead the authoritative witness to the Word of God that is Jesus Christ.

So far, all of this may seem rather liberal and non-evangelical—and based on certain definitions of evangelicalism, that would be true. What I want to suggest is that we need to rethink the problem of hermeneutics as a problem of mission. Because this is something I am working to develop in much greater detail, I will only hint at the general contours of this position. Missiologists like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have stressed the nature of Christian mission as translation. Walls speaks of missionary translation by analogy with the translating movement of God into human flesh in Jesus. The incarnation is the paradigmatic form of mission-as-translation, in which God translates God’s own self into the cultural-historical form of first-century Palestine. Sanneh rejects what he calls a “mission of diffusion,” wherein the gospel is bound up with a particular cultural form, such that the spread of the gospel involves the spread of a particular culture. This also goes by the name of Constantinianism or cultural imperialism. By contrast, Sanneh holds up the notion of a “mission of translation,” where a distinction is made between gospel and culture so as to facilitate the freedom of the cross-cultural mission of God. Walls provides two principles to conceptualize this mission of translation: the principle of indigenization and the principle of pilgrimization. The first emphasizes the fact that the gospel indigenizes itself in each cultural context, freely entering into and embracing what we might call the Weltbild of a particular situation. The second emphasizes the fact that the gospel disrupts and transforms this situation in light of the eschatological vision of God’s kingdom. The gospel does not just leave us as we are. Finally, I want to lift up John Flett’s thesis that the confusion of gospel and culture turns the Christian message into propaganda.

The conversation over universalism (among many other issues) has stalled because one side says, “Look, this is what the Bible says!” or “This is what the authors meant!” And that may be well and true. But does this mean we are bound to repeat what the texts say or what the first-century historical context believed? Is the task of understanding limited to mere repetition, copying from past to present with no translation? If so, then I’m afraid any distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism is lost entirely. God’s revelation is then something static, fixed, revealed; it is not a living word that interrupts us here and now and conscripts us as missionaries for a new time and place. The other side responds by saying: Look, some of the ideas and concepts are rooted in cultural presuppositions that we no longer share, nor are they necessary components of the gospel message itself. We need to think together about how to understand and communicate the gospel in a new world. Otherwise we are left with a mission of mere diffusion and absorption. And this does not accord with what we see in Jesus Christ, or what we see occur in the translation movement from Jews to Gentiles in the story of Acts. Are there mythological notions within the biblical text? Yes, there are. The task of interpretation, as Bultmann stated in 1941, is not to eliminate myth but rather to interpret it. If we fail to do so, we turn revelation into propaganda. We transform the transcendent Word of God into a finite and culturally-confined word of human beings. The problem with both liberalism and evangelicalism—at least as they are presented by Galli—is that both are forms of propaganda, in the sense that both tie down the gospel to a specific cultural form and thus define mission as the universal diffusion of this form.

I want to make two claims here. First, I would (and will, in my dissertation) argue that Bultmann’s program of demythologizing is a missionary hermeneutic that encompasses the two aspects of indigenization and pilgrimization. It is faithful to the missionary impulse of the gospel. That is not a claim that I can explore or develop here, but it needs to be said in order to demonstrate the problems with classifying Bultmann and other hermeneutical thinkers as “liberal” in a facile manner. Second, and more relevant to Galli’s review, I would suggest that Bell is fumbling towards precisely such a missionary hermeneutic, even if he has failed to articulate it. I say this realizing that I don’t know Bell’s actual intentions. It is merely my attempt to provide an alternative narrative to the one that Galli has provided. Instead of distinguishing between evangelical and liberal, I want to suggest distinguishing between missionary and non-missionary. That, I believe, is a far more productive and helpful distinction.

Is there any evidence that Bell is thinking along these lines? Absolutely. In his earlier work, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, he uses the analogy of painting for the task of Christian faith and mission. He writes the following near the beginning:
Here’s what often happens: Somebody comes along who has a fresh perspective on the Christian faith. People are inspired. A movement starts. Faith that was stale and dying is now alive. But then the pioneer of the movement – the painter – dies and the followers stop exploring. They mistakenly assume that their leader’s words were the last ones on the subject, and they freeze their leader’s words. They forget that as that innovator was doing his or her part to move things along, that person was merely taking part in the discussion that will go on forever. And so in their commitment to what so-and-so said and did, they end up freezing the faith. 
What gets lost is the truth that whoever painted that version was just like us, searching for God and experiencing God and trying to get a handle on what the Christian faith looks like. And then a new generation comes along living in a new day and a new world, and they have to keep the tradition going or the previous paintings are going to end up in the basement. 
The tradition then is painting, not making copies of the same painting over and over. The challenge of the art is to take what was great about the previous paintings and incorporate that into new paintings. 
And in the process, make something beautiful – for today. 
For many Christians, the current paintings are enough. The churches, the books, the language, the methods, the beliefs – there is nothing wrong with it. It works for them and meets their needs, and they gladly invite others to join them in it. I thank God for that. I celebrate those who have had their lives transformed in these settings. 
But this book is for those who need a fresh take on Jesus and what it means to live the kind of life he teaches us to live. I’m part of a community, a movement of people who have been living, exploring, discussing, sharing, and experiencing new understandings of Christian faith.
My claim is that this “movement of people” goes by the name of evangelicalism. If someone wants to call this “liberal,” so be it, but it’s only the liberalism that is intrinsic to evangelical faith. It is the truly liberal freedom of the gospel that is “always reforming” (semper reformanda). An evangelicalism that is content with “making copies of the same painting over and over” is a stale, frozen, dead evangelicalism. It can hardly lay claim to being part of the same movement associated with the likes of Wesley, Finney, Edwards, Blanchard, and others—much less the original Reformers.

I’m not suggesting that Bell is free from criticism. By no means. I would certainly want to question certain ideas and presuppositions. He does not seem to have adequately engaged in the hermeneutical reflection that I think is necessary. He speaks above of taking “what was great about the previous paintings” and incorporating them into new ones. I would want to clarify that and speak of newly translating the gospel kerygma that is never captured in any painting, but rather remains an eschatological message to which our finite paintings seek to bear faithful, if fallible, witness. But the general thrust of Bell’s idea remains sound—and soundly missional and evangelical. For an accessible articulation of some of these themes, I recommend John Franke’s Manifold Witness.

C. The Problem of Particularity. Returning now to Galli’s review. He says that liberalism is guilty of two errors: (a) it undermines the particularity of the gospel, and (b) it undermines the exotic nature of Christian belief that makes Jesus so interesting. Let’s take these in order. First, the particularity of the gospel must not be conflated with the cultural-historical forms in which this gospel comes to expression. This means that the gospel authorizes new translations, new paintings, in the here and now. But here’s the point: it is precisely the particularity of the gospel that makes such translation possible. It is only when we turn the gospel into a universal worldview—in which one cultural context seeks to absorb and nullify all other contexts—that we lose the particularity, and thus the translatability, of the gospel message. Bultmann is the theologian of particularity par excellence! In fact, what’s ironic about using Bultmann as an example is that he was adamant in the opposition to universalism because of his strict emphasis on particularity. Bultmann opposed Barth’s universal scope of election because it did not take the particular decision of faith seriously enough, in his mind. So again, Bultmann is a witness for evangelicalism!

What I find very problematic about Galli’s review are statements like the following: “[liberals] believe it is no longer reasonable to hold to one or (usually) more core teachings of the New Testament”; “what novelist John Updike ... said about the Resurrection applies to all the central teachings of the New Testament”; “for liberals, the sensibilities of the age trump biblical revelation.” I want to ask Galli, what are these “teachings” of the NT? Galli gives the impression that the Bible presents us with fully-formulated doctrines that we either affirm or deny, as if faith is merely a matter of rational assent. (Faith as assensus, by the way, was a notion that the Reformers vigorously rejected in favor of faith as fiducia or “heartfelt trust.”) But the Bible nowhere gives us doctrine. It gives us contextual witnesses to a disruptive truth of God’s judgment of sin and God’s gracious reconciling love, both made actual and concrete in Jesus of Nazareth in the power of the Holy Spirit. The church rightly felt compelled to conceptualize issues like the relation between Jesus and YHWH and between divinity and humanity. These are crucial issues that have to be assessed again and again. But to say that the Bible “teaches” substitutionary atonement is incredibly misleading, if not simply false. The Bible doesn’t teach the Trinity, nor does it teach the divinity of Christ. These doctrines are “answers” that the church provided in response to the “questions” presented in the text. But the text itself does not give us the answer. Does that mean these doctrines are simply dispensable? No, because the question is there in the text and it compels us to give a faithful and responsible answer. But these answers have to be negotiated anew in every new time and place. The Bible, in other words, does not give us a “Christian worldview.” If there is anything that has misled evangelicalism in recent history, it is thinking in terms of worldviews. Few things could be more at odds with Christian faith.

Second, what about the “exotic” and “interesting” aspect of Christianity? Here I confess confusion. Does Galli really believe that orthodoxy is superior “because it is culturally exotic”? Does he think it is a mark of true faith when Christianity is a sacrificium intellectus? I wonder what he thinks about cross-cultural mission. Does he believe that missionaries to the Global South are supposed to impose Western religious forms? They would certainly be exotic! But is that faithful to the gospel? Is he emphasizing the exotic character for us because Christianity is often too domesticated? If so, does he really think that imposing an old Protestant orthodoxy is really disruptive to North American culture? Isn’t the deeply practical and concrete message that Bell is trying to emphasize actually quite a bit more exotic to a way of life that is so consumeristic and bourgeois?

It’s hard for me to see what Galli could mean by exotic other than a sacrifice of the intellect, the blind adoption of a set of doctrinal commitments for the simple reason that it appears alien and absurd. But is Galli then confusing the alien character of the gospel with the alien intellectual worldview of a particular time in the church’s life? Is he not confusing faith with an uncritical anti-intellectualism? Sure, the various parts of orthodoxy “work together and hold together in a way that makes sense,” but just because something is internally coherent, does that make it true? Does internal coherence plus intellectual bizarreness really equal Christian faith? A lot of systems are internally coherent but false to the subject-matter they claim to explicate. Could this not be the case for Protestant orthodoxy? Are we bound to either uncritically accept a system of beliefs and thus be counted as evangelical, or critically assess our faith and thus be labeled liberal? Are those the only two options? Is there not a way beyond this binary opposition?

I realize that Galli is trying to say that orthodoxy offers a more intellectually compelling narrative, because it doesn’t conform to what we naturally think ought to be the case; it appears as something novel and strange, something that makes sense according to a logic that is disorienting and yet persuasive. That’s Galli’s intention, and I get that. But as compelling as this may sound, Galli is on very dangerous territory. When the scandal of the gospel is being defined by how it contradicts our intellectual instincts, one is still defining the gospel according to a contemporary standard—albeit in a negative way, rather than the positive way for which he criticizes liberalism. This is a problem we see in metaphysics. Defining God as either omniscient or immortal are both forms of metaphysical thinking, because God is being defined according to the human person: the first is positive (we have limited knowledge; God has perfect knowledge); the second is negative (we are mortal; God is immortal). Both are two sides of the same problematic coin. Put differently, Galli’s version of orthodox evangelicalism is just the mirror image of liberalism. Neither properly grasps the missionary hermeneutic that distinguishes between gospel and culture. Liberalism collapses the gospel into a modern cultural form, evangelicalism into a premodern cultural form. Both need to be demythologized.

I have sought to problematize the definitions of “liberal” and “evangelical.” These terms have a wide range of meanings, and they are often used arbitrarily or uncritically. If evangelicalism hopes to have a future, I firmly believe it will need to move beyond these static terms that often replace the hard work of historical scholarship, theological reflection, and charitable dialogue. Their use tends to involve overly simplistic distinctions where a much more nuanced and complex relationship actually exists. I offer my missiological analysis as one way to rethink the relation between gospel and culture in a manner that brings the so-called “evangelical” and “liberal” insights together. I hope this is only the start of a much longer (and never-ending) conversation.

14 comments:

Christopher said...

"Christian preaching is kerygma, that is, a proclamation addressed not to the theoretical reason, but to the hearer as a self."

David, thanks for your posts. I read Galli's piece and then saw yours and made my way through them this morning.

A question for you: the quotation of Bultmann above seems incoherent to me...what is it to be a self if not to be a reasoning self? Certainly we could add other things to the definition of self, but it seems that reasoning is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

This is the point where I constantly pound my head against the wall with dialectical theologians. Can you recommend a paper or book that deals specifically with this point? And preferably something shorter than the Church Dogmatics...

Best,
cs

David W. Congdon said...

Bultmann does not mean that to be a self is irrational or does not involve reason. Far be it! He means that revelation is not a doctrinal proposition, it's not a set of theoretical statements or a dogmatic system. Revelation is a message that requires us to respond with an act of will. Of course, it engages the mind, but it's not a theory to which one assents. Bultmann follows Luther here in understanding faith not as assensus but as fiducia, as faithful trust in God. It is an act of the will. Put differently, faith is inseparable from love.

Does that help? I can point you to passages if you want.

Bruce Hamill said...

Brilliant work! Especially for someone who presumably has another life. Thanks for this series.

Christopher said...

Thanks. That's helpful. Still, I can't help thinking that revelation does in fact consist of doctrinal propositions to which one assents as well as fiducia to that message which comes in various forms (many of which are propositional). For example, it's important that one trust in the proposition "Jesus is LORD" as opposed to trusting in the proposition "Jesus is NOT LORD" (the problems of language not withstanding).

After all, we're talking about the dangers of binaries here, and it seems Bultmann has one of his own: viz. that theoretical reason has no role to play, when perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, "it's not everything."

As I understand it, dialectical theologians are trying to secure revelation as a purely divine act...to wall off any human role in apprehending (possessing) knowledge of God. But it seems to me that if we say this we may as well say a piece of cheese is a self. It seems far better to me to say that God addresses us as selves in ways that human selves can understand and assent to or reject. I'm not saying that God couldn't animate and save a piece of cheese (or a human born without a brain), I'm merely suggesting it's not normative.

Anyway, if you could point me to some brief summaries or synopses of the major issues/concerns involved in dialectical theology, I would be grateful.

Thanks David,
c

David W. Congdon said...

Hey Chris,

I understand your concern, but you needn't worry. That description of dialectical theology isn't quite right. Yes, the emphasis is on God's self-revealing action as primary. But -- and here is where Bultmann actually is much more helpful than Barth -- it is equally stressed that this revelation can only be received and acknowledged and obeyed by a human being. The emphasis on faith as an act of the will is a way of saying that only a human being can respond to revelation.

Now as for the propositional bit, let me clarify. "Jesus is Lord" or "God is creator" or other such propositions are not in themselves revelation, but rather they are the conceptual clarification of revelation. That is because revelation is not a revelation ABOUT Jesus or ABOUT God, but rather it is the revelation OF Jesus, OF God. It is the very person and reality of Christ who confronts us, and in that confrontation, we do indeed come to learn that Jesus is Lord, that God is the creator and redeemer of all things. But those are consequences of revelation, not revelation per se.

David W. Congdon said...

Also, if such propositions were themselves revelation, it would also violate the missionary character of the Christian faith. Those propositions are culturally and historically situated within a context that makes sense of the word "Lord." Even today, in our 21st century American context, such a statement is a bit strained in its meaning. But consider the problem of proclaiming such a statement to a tribe or people group that had no such context at all. To impose such a statement as itself revelation would be cultural imperialism, or a mission of diffusion. It's not enough simply to translate the language; one has to translate the subject-matter into a new conceptuality. That is the cross-cultural task of mission. The point is to confront the existential stumbling-block of Jesus, not to confront the intellectual stumbling-block of a statement about Jesus.

Christopher said...

Thanks, that's very helpful. Your distinction reminds me of Sanneh's book on translating the message.

Still, I worry about the austerity of the dialectical theologian's understanding of things (if I've understood them). Such theology seems to be beholden to an all-or-nothing understanding of revelation. It seems to hold that since language and concepts of God can never be 100% equated with God, that therefore God can never---in any sense---be a possession of human understanding.

Is that an unfair characterization? If so, what is proper? If not, why the austerity?

Thanks for your patience! cs

David W. Congdon said...

"It seems to hold that since language and concepts of God can never be 100% equated with God, that therefore God can never---in any sense---be a possession of human understanding."

But of course God can never be a possession of human understanding! That would be idolatry! That is a perfect characterization of dialectical theology. The whole point is emphasize that God never becomes a human possession of any kind, precisely because we're speaking about God. God is not an object over which we have control or which is simply given to us as a secure possession. No, God must instead continually give Godself anew to us in every new moment. Faith has to be born anew in every moment. That's the central insight of dialectical theology.

Christopher said...

Hmm. I suppose this is where I'm stuck. What dialectical theology calls idolatry, I call properly human knowledge.

The way I think of things, it would not be the possessing of such knowledge that constituted idolatry, but rather the misuse of such knowledge (worshiping the created rather than the creator).

The Bible seems pretty clear that we know things about God (that we possess knowledge of God by virtue of being humans in the created world, as well as by special revelation), not merely that we are given knowledge of God by God at each new moment.

Then again, in a sense, all things are from God, so it would also be proper (with some qualifications) to say that God gives Godself to everyone at all times.

I guess my quibble is concerned with the manner in which God gives and allows us to retain knowledge of Himself. I would say that God does so through all of our human capacities, such that we can possess enough knowledge of God to have confidence and certainty about who God is, without ever fully "possessing" God in any idolatrous way.

In short, I think the humility the dialectical theologian is looking for can be achieved without the epistemological austerity.

How I would ever begin to articulate these sentiments coherently is another matter! =)

Thanks for your time David. Blessings.
cs

David W. Congdon said...

The issue we're dealing with here is the relation between act and being. Bonhoeffer has a good analysis of this in his book Act and Being if you're interested in seeing what someone who is both appreciative and critical of Barth/Bultmann has to say on the matter. See pp. 103-6 especially for the problem that you're raising.

Here's what I would say. Can we have any confidence or security in our faith? Yes. But this security is only a security in God; it does not become a security in ourselves. Think of it this way. The main point of contention between Catholics and Protestants is over whether justification makes a change in our own individual being such that we ourselves "are" indeed righteous. Protestants, and here the dialectical theologians are radically Protestant, say that this justification is always "extra nos" (outside ourselves) in God. We do not "become" justified in ourselves; but we are indeed justified insofar as we exist "outside ourselves" in Jesus Christ. The security of our being lies not in ourselves but in the God to whom we relate.

This soteriological problem is itself the epistemological problem. For the dialectical theologians, epistemology follows or conforms to soteriology. Just as we are not justified "in ourselves" but only "outside ourselves," so too our knowledge of God is not something we have "in ourselves" as a possession but always remains "outside ourselves" in God. We know God only as we relate to God here and now, i.e., only as God relates to us in each new moment. As Paul says somewhere, it's not that we "know" but that we are "known by God."

Christopher said...

Thank you very much. This has been tremendously fruitful for me. One wonders if the dialectical epistemic move is necessary to remain protestant....

I will most definitely check out Bonhoeffer on these points.

I really appreciate your time and thoughtfulness!!

Cheers!

David W. Congdon said...

The passage is Gal. 4:9: "you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God."

David W. Congdon said...

Chris, if you do check out "Act and Being," start on p. 81 (Part B). He begins that chapter discussing the dialectical (what he also calls the transcendental) position of theology, and provides a criticism of it. While I think there are ways of responding to this critique, he demonstrates a fairly good grasp of the position. Though it's important to remember that this is a very early work of his and he also doesn't have the later Barth and Bultmann available to him to nuance his account.

LKT said...

Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful analysis. I read the review and at that part simply thought, "Hm. That doesn't feel right," but had nothing deeper to say than that. My rather cheap shot analysis was that his thesis is "Orthodoxy wins." I appreciate your more thoughtful and informed approach better! But how do you have time to write all this?