Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli - Series Index

After over 13,000 words, I have finally finished my series responding to Mark Galli’s review of Love Wins by Rob Bell. The review raises a lot of very important issues that I hope evangelicals will continue to discuss and evaluate. These include the meaning of revelation and its relation to Scripture and doctrine, the interpretation of biblical texts regarding salvation and the eschatological hope of God’s reign, the saving event of Christ’s death and resurrection and its relation to human sin and freedom, and the tradition of evangelicalism and its relation to liberalism. On these and other points, I hope this series will be of some modest service for the ongoing task of speaking and thinking honestly and appropriately about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Universalism
Part 3: Atonement
Part 4: Evangelicalism, Liberalism, and Mission
Part 5: Conclusion

Friday, March 18, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 5

Read: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4

Having analyzed the details of Mark Galli’s review of Rob Bell, it’s time to step back and assess the big picture. First things first, it cannot be emphasized enough that Galli’s review is without question the best review I have yet seen. In fact, it is precisely because it is so good that I have felt compelled to respond to it. Most of the blogosphere has been dominated by superficial engagements that have already ruled out the possibility of a universal hope for salvation prior to any actual historical, exegetical, or theological inquiry. What distinguishes Galli’s review is the far greater knowledge that he brings to the table. Unfortunately, in the case of Bultmann, for example, it still remained on a fairly superficial level. This series of posts has been an attempt to probe the matters raised by Galli in a more thorough and critical manner. The goal has never been to criticize Galli himself; rather, my intention has been to engage in a critical conversation with his review for the purpose of facilitating an ongoing dialogue that needs to take place within evangelicalism today.

In this concluding post I want to review the ground that I have covered and pick up bits and pieces along the way that I either overlooked or held off discussing until now. I will treat these under the headings of the previous sections of this review: (1) universalism, (2) the cross and atonement, and (3) liberalism, evangelicalism, and orthodoxy.

I. Universalism: Love and Justice

Near the conclusion of his review, Galli writes the following:
Most Christians grasp that to demythologize one doctrine is to make the others less coherent. They recognize that a Christianity that teaches about "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross" (H. Richard Niebuhr's classic summary of liberalism) does not reflect the thickness of biblical revelation nor lived reality. And they see that when all is said and done, there is no painful contradiction between the love and justice of God. That in the end, not only does love win, but justice, too.
First, to get on my academic soapbox for a moment, if Niebuhr’s famous quote is the definition of liberalism, then Bultmann is most definitely not a liberal. Neither is Schleiermacher for that matter. Demythologizing has nothing whatsoever to do with the neutering of the gospel and the watering down of the faith. These kinds of statements completely misconstrue the theologians of the past, effectively denying their significance for the future. For our sakes, they deserve better. (Soapbox over.)

What I am more interested in is the final statement about love and justice. He speaks of there being no “painful” contradiction between the two, such that both love and justice win in the end. This, unfortunately, does not go far enough. If liberalism is defined as love without justice, then (Galli’s) evangelicalism is love and justice. But neither of these are adequate. Theology properly recognizes that if God is love and if God is just, then Christian faith must speak of love as justice and justice as love. The problem with so much of the traditional literature about love and justice is that it treats these as reified objects that compete with each other. “Love wins” is taken to mean that “justice loses.” Galli wants to say that both win, but what does he mean by this? He says that there is no painful contradiction, but does he still not have some kind of contradiction? It’s not painful because love and justice are being applied to two sets of people—those who are saved, and those who are not. By splitting up humanity in this way—either through double predestination or through allowing human beings to decide for themselves—he allows love and justice to counter each other, but in a painless way.

The problem is that love and justice are not “things” that exist “out there.” To say that “love wins” or that “justice wins” are simply two ways of saying the same thing: God wins. But it’s precisely because love and justice are defined by God’s being and act that we cannot separate them. God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ is the event of love and justice. God is just precisely in submitting to death on a cross, and God is love precisely in carrying out this act of divine justice on behalf of all humanity. This is what Galli seems to have missed altogether. He seems to think that universal salvation requires a God who does not judge. But that is entirely untrue. It is the judgment carried out in Jesus Christ that makes universal salvation both possible and actual. If Jesus does indeed stand in our place, as Galli clearly wants to say, then there is absolutely no reason why the judgment of sin on the cross cannot be—and perhaps even should be—understood as being effective for all people. Love wins at the same time that justice wins, because love and justice—being two aspects of the same christological event—are finally identical.

II. The Cross: Substitution and Ontology

I want to return to the problem of substitution. I think there are some serious theological issues that are simply not on the radar for people like Galli. Perhaps the most crucial one is the question of ontology. In my discussion of substitutionary atonement, I briefly raised the question: what does substitution mean?  Is it an ontological connection between Jesus and the rest of humanity? This is, I think, a question that needs to be addressed.

The “orthodox” position is based, by and large, on an ancient ontology. The ancient church of the early ecumenical councils presupposed a substance ontology in which divinity and humanity were essences that had certain properties and could be treated like substantial objects. In the case of God, the divine nature was ascribed certain properties presupposed by classical Greek philosophy (e.g., uncreated, immortal, impassible, etc.). In the case of humanity, the human nature was understood to be something in which all individuals participated. It had an opposite set of properties (e.g., created, mortal, passible, etc.). We have to remember that when the church was figuring out what to say about the two natures of Christ, they were presupposing this Greek ontology. Their understanding of salvation was a deification in which the human nature came to participate in certain properties of the divine nature (e.g., immortality and impassibility). The Chalcedonian Formula was constructed to ensure (a) that the two natures qua natures remained absolutely separate due to the metaphysical antithesis between divine impassibility and human passibility, and (b) that the two natures qua person were in unity, in order to preserve the eschatological possibility of a future deification in which humanity came to participate in divinity. These were the concerns of the church at that time, and they cannot be understood apart from the ontology that they presupposed.

Within such an ontology, the language of Christ as substitute makes a lot of sense. In the incarnation, the Son assumes a human nature or essence in which all other human beings necessarily participate. There is a common ontological essence that unites every particular person. By and large, it is this abstract philosophical essence that is presupposed when speaking of substitution. But the question is: are we obliged to adopt this ontology simply because it was so important to the church in the past? Is this ontology itself essential to the gospel? Can we think of Christ being “in our place” in a new way today? Can we think about Christ in a postmetaphysical manner that dispenses with substance ontology altogether? These are the kinds of questions that Galli entirely overlooks. By identifying substitution as the biblical position without giving any attention to ontology, he gives the impression that Greek metaphysics is itself the biblical position; conversely, he implies that to think differently about substitution (i.e., to rethink our relation to theological ontology) is intrinsically a liberal move that is no longer faithful to Scripture.

This is a crucial issue. I think evangelicals need to spend a great deal of time critically examining to what extent they have baptized and deified a past philosophical ontology. Unlike Roman Catholics who are quite explicit about their baptism of Greek philosophy, evangelicals have no such commitments. We need to strictly differentiate between the gospel and all philosophical conceptualities. While theology is necessarily always appropriating philosophical concepts for the sake of bearing witness to the gospel, those concepts are always dispensable. The subject-matter of Christian faith is infinitely translatable from one conceptuality to another. If we do not make this distinction, we run the risk of idolatrously deifying a philosophy as itself the gospel and so making the message of Jesus Christ a sacrificium intellectus.

III. Towards a Missionary Orthoheterodoxy

What is orthodoxy? What is heterodoxy? Are we really so sure that we know what these words mean? Evangelicals have traditionally avoided rigid doctrinal formulations out of a pietist concern for an authentic faith that responds obediently to the message of the gospel. For this reason, evangelical organizations have generally had very limited statements of faith. They tend to be limited to (1) the affirmation of the triune nature of God, (2) confidence in the authority of Scripture, and (3) belief in the divinity and saving significance of Christ. Beyond these fairly general statements, most evangelicals are unwilling to lay down a specific doctrinal law to which one must assent. This is an impulse that stems from the Reformers themselves.

It is for this reason that I am deeply concerned about the rush to define orthodoxy in a way that restricts the circle of evangelicalism. In many cases, this results in ironically having to exclude some of our evangelical ancestors in the faith from evangelicalism. But what really concerns me is the missiological problem that I raised in the previous post. The attempt to nail down what orthodoxy means according to specific doctrinal formulations inevitably requires that the mission of the church be one of mere diffusion. It identifies the gospel with a particular cultural form, i.e., with a particular conceptuality rooted in certain cultural, historical, political, and philosophical presuppositions. The gospel is then turned into a worldview, one that is universally valid in advance and in the abstract. I firmly believe that Christian faith must distinguish itself from every worldview in as strong a manner as possible. The result of confusing the gospel with a worldview is always some form of legalism. An ethical worldview results in an ethical legalism that makes conformity to a universal moral code the measure of faithful obedience to God. A doctrinal worldview results in a doctrinal legalism that makes intellectual conformity to a universal dogmatic code the measure of “right belief.” Either way, the gospel has been distorted. The good news of God’s love becomes the old news of a past culture or a static system of belief.

In the end, I want to propose an orthoheterodoxy. By this I mean we need to be able to “think differently” (hetero-doxy), but in the “right” way (ortho-doxy). Orthoheterodoxy captures what I referred to in my earlier post as the relation between indigenization and pilgrimization. The gospel must continually become indigenized within specific historical contexts. It is this ongoing process of indigenization that constitutes the diverse history of the church community. Despite the infinite variety of cultural forms—and here just think about the amazing array of contexts into which the gospel has been culturally and linguistically translated—there remains a singular message of divine judgment against sin and divine grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. This message, captured in the kerygma of the cross and resurrection, is what we must proclaim again and again, and in ever new ways. This gospel cannot be constrained to one particular form; it must not be frozen in one time and place. If we believe that the Word is living and active, and if we believe that Christ is truly present with us in the Spirit, then we must confess the freedom of the gospel to indigenize itself in new contexts and to radically transform them in light of a hope that is far greater and more glorious than anything we can imagine. To “think differently” means to think from one context to another, from past to present, from one situation to the next. But we must engage in this work of missionary translation responsibly, always allowing the kerygmatic message of God’s grace in Christ to be our critical norm. It is this norm that illuminates our reading of Scripture (clarifying which passages are to be privileged over others) and funds the infinite diversity of the Christian community. In holding rightly to this norm, we must also think freely and differently. That is the task of evangelical Christianity today.

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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 3

Read: Part 1, Part 2

2. The Cross. Mark Galli turns from the problem of universalism to the doctrine of atonement. This is a very complicated and important issue, and he is right to emphasize its importance. I cannot defend Bell here, but I can assess the arguments that Galli uses to criticize Bell’s understanding of the cross. The first two paragraphs read:
Bell asks questions of other doctrines that are even more problematic. Take his understanding of Jesus' death. Like many contemporaries, Bell notes the many biblical metaphors that describe what Christ's death accomplishes—a ransom, a reconciliation, an acquittal, a sacrifice, and so forth. He's most taken with the idea that in the resurrection, "the powers of death and destruction have been defeated" and that this "inaugurates a movement to … renew, restore, and reconcile all things." But he is vague about how this happens. While clearly favoring the one metaphor—defeat of death—he says the point is not to "narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. … The point, then as it is now, is Jesus." 
Yes, what happened on the cross is richer than any one metaphor can comprehend. Yes, the point is Jesus. But when Bell suggests that Jesus (and similarly, the whole New Testament) doesn't say "how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him"—well, it's hard to know what he's talking about. What is Romans 3-8 if not an explanation of such? Does the fact that there are a variety of ways of understanding that "mechanism" mean that some of the explanations aren't fuller and more inclusive? In fact, as we've argued in the pages of the magazine, there are strong reasons for substitutionary atonement being the controlling biblical metaphor, and the other metaphors only make sense in light of it.
Here we have an issue of the history of doctrine and biblical interpretation. Galli is perfectly within his rights to argue that Paul’s letters favor substitutionary atonement as the “controlling metaphor.” But it is quite problematic to suggest that Bell simply hasn’t been reading his Bible carefully enough. Just because one chooses to elevate certain passages in Paul does not mean it is self-evident that substitutionary atonement is the correct position. The ancient church was dominated by the view of Christ’s death as the “defeat of death,” as a cosmic victory over the powers of evil—the very view Galli cites Bell as advocating. Moreover, the Greek church has always been dominated by an emphasis on the incarnation as the atoning event, in which the assumption of flesh is already the act of deification that the cross and resurrection then complete. We see this especially in the writings of Cyril of Alexandria, for example. The Greek fathers made the Gospel of John their controlling text, where it is not the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross that is atoning, but rather the person of Christ himself as the Word made flesh. The cross is his glorification, not a debt-paying sacrifice. It is because of these conflicting metaphors about atonement that the church never gave a conciliar statement about the atoning work of Christ. There is no dogma of the atonement. Instead, as Robert Jenson puts it, we are left with “an inherited heap of proposals.”

My point here is that Galli is expecting Bell to provide something that the church has never felt capable of deciding one way or the other in the past: viz. an explanation of the “mechanism” by which atonement is achieved. Despite his conviction that Rom. 3-8 provides this mechanism, it is by no means self-evident to a large number—perhaps the majority—of Christians throughout history. Moreover, Bell’s emphasis on the “defeat of death,” if Galli has cited that accurately, is itself just such a mechanism! That is the classical theory of Christus Victor. Perhaps Bell is vague in his description of it, or perhaps he does not remain inconsistent with that insight. That may be the case, though we should remember that this is a pastoral text, not an academic monograph. Nevertheless, Christus Victor, whatever its problems, is a theory of the atonement. One gets the impression from Galli that only substitutionary atonement can lay claim to being a true theory of the atonement, while everything else serves as merely a multifaceted metaphorical buttress.

Galli cites Mark Dever to support his case. This is an interesting move. Dever isn’t exactly a scholar of the atonement, and it shows. The article contains no serious theological reflection on the atonement. Instead, it lists some of the main arguments against substitutionary atonement—to which, by the way, he never actually responds—then proceeds simply to cite a long list of passages from the NT that have substitutionary overtones or implications. He then notes a couple opposing arguments against the use of these texts and makes some brief replies. The article concludes by then arguing that substitution is “the center and focus of the Bible’s witness.” In other words, the “argument” that Galli claims has been provided in the pages of CT comes down to little more than a list of proof-texts that have substitution language in them. There is no serious reflection on hermeneutical presuppositions or on the actual dogmatic content of the atonement.

(As a side note, Dever doesn’t even defend substitution adequately when he attempts to do so. He mentions the case of the railroad tracks, in which the Father is portrayed as shifting the train to run over his son so as to spare the rest of humanity. It’s a compelling image that seeks to portray substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse. Dever’s response is that this image is “inadequate because it does not include the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean? How would the Spirit change the picture? No, the correct response is that the analogy presupposes a false view of the Trinity as three independent subjects. The atonement is always wrongly conceived where the Father and the Son are viewed as two subjects on analogy with two human beings. In such a view, the cross will always be abusive. Instead, we have to see that the Father and the Son are a single divine subject. It is one and the same God who sends and who suffers and dies. This was Thomas Aquinas’s correction to the Anselmian tradition, and it is the kind of dogmatic reflection on the cross that Dever conspicuously fails to provide. But without such reflection, we never get beyond who has the longer list of proof-texts.)

Finally, the term “substitutionary atonement” itself is remarkably ambiguous. One could quite justifiably respond to Galli with Galli’s own criticism of Bell: “he is vague about how this happens.” What kind of substitution? Is substitution being conflated here with satisfaction? Those two terms are not coextensive. Here is a bit from George Hunsinger on Anselm:
Anselm’s critics are incorrect if they associate the view of “penal substitution” with Anselm. While penal substitution became a predominant idea in post-Reformation Protestant theology, two things need to be remembered, namely, that penal views of the atonement are not necessarily substitutionary, while, in turn, substitutionary views are not necessarily penal. In one respect Anselm represents the first option; Athanasius represents the second. ... Anselm’s view of the atonement thus involved penal elements without being substitutionary. By contrast, for Athanasius, who was following a Greek patristic tradition, Christ’s death was substitutionary but not penal. (The Eucharist and Ecumenism, 295-97)
Dever is not sensitive to these concerns, and essentially lumps substitution, sacrifice, and satisfaction together. The lack of careful distinctions and the lack of attention to historical accuracy plague his essay, and so also Galli’s assessment of Bell.

But that’s not the only reason why substitution is ambiguous in this review. How exactly is Christ functioning as a substitute? Are we speaking about the humanity of Christ as ontologically united with all humanity? That is certainly a classical way of construing it. But then what is the basis for the ontological unity—is it some human essence shared by all, is it an ontological conception of divine imputation? Or is the substitutionary aspect achieved by the mediating power of the Spirit? Or is it some kind of cultic event, as in ancient Israel when the priest laid hands on the sacrifice and so identified the animal as the representative for the people? Substitution can itself be understood in a number of ways that conflict with each other. But let’s probe the matter even further. Is substitution effective apart from our response of faith? Does the atoning work on the cross achieve the actuality of reconciliation or merely its possibility?

See, the ironic thing is that substitutionary atonement actually provides the single best argument for universalism! If, as Paul says, all humanity stands under the wrath of God, and if Christ is our representative who takes on the sins of the world, then it follows that his substitutionary death is the liberation of all humanity from their sin and guilt. Galli cites Romans 3-8, which is doubly ironic because Rom. 5 is one of the most universalistic passages in all of Scripture and it operates on precisely the logic of substitution that Galli is commending (cf. my series on “Paul Among the Evangelicals”)! Christ stands in the place of Adam: “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). Traditionally, evangelicals (i.e., those who reject the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement) will back up and say that Jesus only makes reconciliation a possibility. But not only does this conflict with many of the NT statements, especially in Romans; it also weakens the logic of substitution. What kind of substitute is Jesus if we have to actually complete the substitutionary bond ourselves? Does Jesus completely stand in our place or does he not? Too often the evangelical position seems to say that Jesus is only potentially our substitute; to finish the job, we have to assist him, in which case we have to save ourselves. At the end of the day, there are only two (theo)logically satisfactory options: either limited atonement or universalism. And of those two, only one makes the best overall sense of the biblical witness. (And it’s not the first.)

I’m tempted to stop, but there’s still much more about Galli’s review that warrants our attention, especially since we haven’t quite reached the part that supports his identification of Bell as a liberal. Reading on, we discover that Bell describes Jesus as “the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.” Galli pounces on this. He calls it “the classic exemplar model of atonement,” which is “a standard of liberal Protestantism.” Here we have to stop and reflect for a moment. Why is Galli so quick to label this as a particular theory of the atonement, when he overlooked the fact that three paragraphs earlier he had cited a passage from Bell that describes the Christus Victor theory? Galli did not mention that Bell stands in a long and ancient line of biblical interpretation regarding the “defeat of death,” and yet he immediately lumps Bell in with Protestant liberalism the moment we encounter the notion of Jesus as exemplar. Even if that turns out to be an accurate description of Bell, it is not a charitable assessment. It comes across as if Galli means to suppress Bell’s connection with the ancient church in order to emphasize his liberal heritage. This becomes more apparent in the third section of the review, which I will address tomorrow.

As if recognizing that he might be reading too much into Bell, Galli steps back a bit: “Again, Bell says Christ's death and resurrection have cosmic, universal effects, but it was never clear to this reviewer how or why they have these effects. To be fair, he says he doesn't reject substitutionary atonement outright. But in this book, he apparently thinks it unimportant or uninteresting.” We encounter the same problems noted above. Why is Bell required to explain “how or why” Christ’s death has these effects? Simply mentioning substitution does not provide an explanation. The only way to really do so is to write a systematic theology, or at least a dogmatic inquiry into the atonement. But that isn’t the purpose of this book. If Galli wants a systematic treatment, he’ll have to look elsewhere (or wait for my book coming out in a few years from Wipf & Stock).

Would it be great if Bell could have provided such a text? Of course! But then we would be expecting him to act as an academic theologian, and not as the pastor that he is. I am uncomfortable with Galli’s review at this point because it seems that there is a double standard. Dever, and many others, are able to “pass the evangelical test” with hardly any theological reflection whatsoever, mostly just a list of verses. And yet when Bell proposes to look at things differently, he is asked to provide logical, systematic explanations—quite beyond what Dever or Galli offer regarding substitutionary atonement. Now, to be fair, many others have indeed provided systematic accounts of substitutionary atonement, but still others have provided systematic accounts of other theories and ways of interpreting the cross.

These factors lead me to the uneasy conclusion that there seems to be some kind of doctrinal legalism at work here. If a theologian espouses substitutionary atonement (even just using the term will suffice), then that person is evangelical. But if another person seems to make substitutionary atonement marginal (even by simply remaining silent or elevating other ideas), then that person has to be scrutinized and is quite probably outside the circle of evangelicalism. Am I off-base here? Is this an accurate reading of Galli? I’m quite willing to be proved wrong, because I think Galli has the very best of intentions. He’s certainly been the most reasonable voice amidst a cacophony of accusations against Bell. But I remain deeply unsettled by this review, precisely because it seems to make one’s explicit defense of substitutionary atonement (though how it is to be understood remains unclear) the mark of one’s evangelical identity. I realize there is anxiety today about just what “evangelical” even means, and perhaps this is an effort to provide some kind of definition. But there are numerous—one might even say, disastrous—problems that attend such a move. For the sake of the future of evangelicalism, I hope we do not feel the need to do what the early church never could, viz. declare one theory of the atonement to be the “orthodox” position.

Finally, this section of the review ends by transitioning to the problem of liberalism more fully. The real basis for Galli’s claim seems to be that Bell finds the sacrificial metaphor for the cross “culturally irrelevant.” We no longer live in a culture that practices animal sacrifice and blood offerings. To continue to think in such terms about the cross results in missing the point of the story altogether. As Galli cites him, Bell then interprets the death and resurrection of Christ in a more symbolic way: “For Bell, the Cross is ‘a symbol of an elemental reality, one we all experience,’ and the Resurrection is not a new concept, but ‘something that has always been true. It’s how the world works.’ He’s referring to that pattern of death and rebirth.” If this is really how Bell conceives of the cross, then I too would have some concerns, but my focus is just on the review itself. What I find interesting is that Dever’s article, the one cited above, also mentions the irrelevance argument. The source there is the book by Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (InterVarsity, 2000). Here are two professors from Fuller Seminary and Fresno Pacific Seminary—both evangelical institutions. Are they liberals for questioning the relevance of the sacrificial logic for theology and proclamation today? Even if sacrificial imagery is central to the NT, does that require us to keep that same imagery in our explanations of the cross for today? Is revelation being defined by and confined to a specific set of textual metaphors? What does this mean for our doctrine of revelation? What biblical hermeneutic are we operating with when we interpret these passages? And how might a doctrine of mission influence the way we look at this problem?

These are some of the questions to which I will return in tomorrow’s post, when I take up the liberal/evangelical divide directly.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 2

Read: Part 1

1. Universalism. Galli rightly acknowledges that there are passages in the NT which lean in a universalistic direction. He also acknowledges that Bell does not use the word “universalist” and nowhere clearly identifies himself with that position, though he does say, “it’s hard for me to believe that Bell doesn’t espouse universalism.” The problem here is that Galli does not seem to be as conversant in the history of this idea as he ought to be. In response to Bell’s “arresting” (Galli’s word) question, “Will God get what he wants?” Galli goes on to say:
It's rhetorically compelling, but he misleads at points. He says this theme has a "long tradition" and "an untold number" of devout Christians have believed it. Well, only a tiny minority of Christians have espoused it in 20 centuries. The church has consistently rejected it because the arguments for it have never been compelling. Bell doesn't wrestle with counter-arguments, other than to suggest that to believe in eternal judgment is to believe that history is tragic and that God doesn't get his way. But of course, proponents of eternal judgment think no such things.
Galli is certainly correct to say that proponents of eternal judgment (hereafter EJ, though I will have occasion later to criticize the choice of this terminology by Galli) have theologically robust ways to respond to Bell’s universalist-leaning questions. But this paragraph, and the rest of the section, misses the target for several reasons.

First, the paragraph sidesteps the arresting question by Bell. It’s understandable why Galli would move to discuss universalism and its standing within the tradition. But that’s not the immediate point of Bell’s question. Bell is asking about the nature of God. I don’t know how Bell develops the question, but I can think of some ways. For instance, a bone of contention within American evangelicalism is whether individual human freedom decides whether one is finally “saved” or not. The Reformed position has traditionally upheld divine sovereignty over against human freedom, hence the positing of a double predestination in eternity as the theological explanation for belief and unbelief in time. The evangelical position associated with the likes of Charles Finney rejected the Reformed doctrine of election because it wasn’t “useful” in facilitating conversions. Election went the other direction; the human person was the one who “elected” God. The problem then is that faith becomes a work. Jesus only accomplishes part of our reconciliation, and we have to supply the other half.

We have here the classic monergism-synergism debate, the well-known tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom. I cannot say where Bell himself falls on this debate, but I can say that his question is the right one. He is gesturing (and perhaps the book makes this more explicit) toward the claim that the sovereign power of God has to be united with the loving will of God. The two must not be placed at odds with each other, or else we have God against God. This leads to the uncomfortable but logical conclusion: according to the EJ position, either God wants to save all but cannot, or God does not want to save all and can. The former is the view of most American evangelicals (i.e., non-Reformed); the latter is the Reformed position. The problem is that each results in a view of God that more and more people today find irreconcilable with the biblical witness. The former is powerless against the human will; the latter hardly seems to be the God of love attested in Scripture (i.e., love and justice compete with each other). Bell’s question remains the right one: if God desires all to be saved, as we find proclaimed in the Bible, then does it really make theological sense to say that God cannot accomplish God’s own will? The majority position among evangelicals today seems to be the “argument from freedom,” viz. that God’s love compels God to give us the freedom to reject God. But this quickly unravels. If God knows what is best for us, then is it really loving for God to “respect our freedom” by letting us damn ourselves to hell for all eternity? Is this not the mere projection of a modern notion of respect for individual autonomy onto the being of God? It seems to me that Bell is attempting to move beyond this stale binary opposition between divine sovereignty (divine justice without love) and human freedom (divine love without power). Whether Bell’s attempt is successful or not is another question, but it seems that Galli has missed an opportunity to explore the issue in a more nuanced way than is often the case.

Second, to say that universal salvation (hereafter US) is a “minority” position is true, but surely something is not true just because it is in the majority! I’ll certainly grant that “majority rules” is generally how orthodoxy was decided in the past, but that does not oblige us to imitate our ancestors in the faith. Here and elsewhere, Galli comes close to espousing what I criticized in my response to Colson, viz. a doctrinal legalism that defines one’s “orthodoxy” (a word to be assessed later) based on whether one affirms a set of dogmatic statements held by others in the past. That kind of thinking leads almost inevitably to the conviction that Scripture plus Tradition constitutes the norm for Christian faith and practice. But that is a decidedly un-Protestant way of thinking. I do not think this is Galli’s position, or that he intends to go down this path—though I honestly cannot say, not knowing him personally—but this is the danger that I perceive in some of his statements scattered throughout the review. I will return to this point at the end of the series.

To be sure, Christians have to have some faith in the church of the past, since without the church there would be no canon and no creeds. Galli could quite justifiably respond that though Scripture alone is normative, we are dependent in some way upon the general contours of those who have gone before us. And we depend especially upon those thinkers and leaders in the church who have defended the truth of the gospel against error. Without that, we lose the ability to make distinctions between truth and false, between what accords with the gospel and what does not. But the question is to what extent are we free to critically assess the past. Can we make the judgment today that past judgments by church leaders and councils were, in fact, themselves in error? Surely the Reformers felt free to do so. Just because the rejection of US is the majority report in church history, does this make EJ the only correct view? Do we have the freedom to look afresh at the biblical text and discover a new word for us today, even if that word breaks with the majority? It would be a strange kind of evangelicalism that declared an unequivocal “no” to that question.

Third, it’s not only the questionable doctrinal limitations that Galli seems to place on Christian faith; it is the apparent lack of awareness about those who have actually espoused universalistic views in the past. As the new book, “All Shall Be Well,” edited by Gregory MacDonald/Robin Parry (of The Evangelical Universalist fame), demonstrates rather nicely, the position of Christian universalism does indeed have a long pedigree in the church. I’ll grant that Origen and Gregory of Nyssa do not a “long tradition” make, but neither are they insignificant. Nor are they the only ones, by any means. There are many within the Eastern church that espoused universalist views. And even if most of the proponents of US appear in the modern era, it would be a great injustice to these major theological voices to imply that they are all liberals. Galli does not actually make that connection, but based on where he goes in the rest of the review, that is certainly the strong implication. More on that point later.

Fourth, Galli goes on to argue that the refusal of Scripture to decide one way or the other regarding US and EJ “should give us pause.” I am deeply sympathetic with this view. It is the one that holds someone like Hans Urs von Balthasar back from outright affirmation of US. And yet it strikes me that Galli has not entirely heeded his own advice. For nowhere in the review do we hear of the need to refrain from advocating EJ. He rejects a “barbless universalism” that “risk[s] sentimentalizing the gospel,” but then proceeds to advocate “warning [people] of the eternal rewards and consequences of following Jesus.” If both tendencies are present in Scripture—the universalizing and the particularizing, so to speak—then it stands to reason that there ought to be caution on both sides. Here I would say that no church should make either US or EJ part of its doctrinal statement, since both positions find support in Scripture. To declare either as the “orthodox” position that ought to be held by all is to be unfaithful to the complexity of the scriptural witness. Galli, it seems, is quite willing to espouse EJ, but this is no better in the end than any outright universalism. 

Here is a modest suggestion. Proponents of both US and EJ need to acknowledge that there is textual support for each side in the Bible. This means, especially, that proponents of EJ need to stop pretending that they have a monopoly on the meaning of the biblical text, just because their position is the majority report. Both sides need to acknowledge that, beginning with either the US or EJ texts, one can offer cogent explanations for the other set of texts. Neither side has a self-evidently knock-down argument in their favor. Galli gestures towards one by appealing to Jesus, which is a common EJ tactic. But this is theologically fruitless. For starters, that is precisely the argument that Unitarians and other non-Trinitarians used in the past, because Jesus makes a strong differentiation between himself and the Father. Moreover, Jesus offers no soteriology, no doctrine of the atonement. The appeal to Matthew 25—which is done so often and usually in a very irresponsible manner, and Galli is to be praised for not mentioning the passage—is empty of any force. One cannot take its parabolic description of a separation between sheep and goats literally without also taking literally Jesus’ words about what divides the two groups: doing good works, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The result is—horror of horrors!—precisely the kind of works-righteousness that the NT largely condemns, not to mention the Protestant Reformers and their descendants. Finally, the appeal to Jesus just doesn’t work because the gospel accounts on their own do not make the Christian faith. Christianity is inconceivable apart from the Pauline epistles, which are also the earliest texts we have. 

The attempt to make the words of Jesus (as narrated in the gospels) the norm is, in the end, historically and hermeneutically naive. We have to think canonically and theologically. The mere fact that Jesus is recorded as speaking of hell or Gehenna is by no means a knock-down argument. Galli’s question—“If universal salvation is true, why does Jesus not showcase it?”—is thus a bit silly. We could turn this around quite easily. For example, if the doctrine of the Trinity is true, why does Jesus not showcase it? Or, if the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is true (as Galli claims), then why does Jesus not showcase it? Galli quickly appeals to Romans to justify his belief in that doctrine, but why is he able to use Jesus against Bell on EJ while appealing to Paul for the atonement? Why can’t Bell appeal to Paul for US, since it is the Pauline witness that is decisive here? Galli is guilty of what might be called “shifting the goalposts.” He isn’t playing by the same rules. Bell is being asked to justify his position based on what Jesus says, when Galli allows himself more biblical liberty. While this appears to be intellectually disingenuous, I don’t think Galli has any dishonest intentions. It seems to be more of a blindspot.

Back to my modest proposal. Let’s decide to acknowledge that people on both sides have valid and biblically-based reasons for holding to their position. That much is the necessary first step to a generous and honest conversation about this crucially important topic. Then, I wish to suggest, let’s acknowledge that individual theologians—since they do not speak for the church, but seek instead to think critically and reflectively about the church’s faith in Jesus Christ—are free to explore a theology that adopts either US or EJ. Let’s allow for both without impugning the evangelical faith of the other. That’s not to say each side cannot demand exegetical rigor and theological sophistication from the other. (On that point, I actually think advocates of EJ have much to learn from advocates of US!) It only means that EJ proponents need to recognize that there are good evangelical reasons for holding to US—as Gregory MacDonald, among others, has demonstrated. The problem with Galli’s review, which I will explore in more detail later, is that he identifies Bell as a “liberal.” There’s a lot of baggage that goes with that word. Often it functions in evangelical circles as code for “here is someone who may have good intentions, but he is outside the circle.” Galli is much better than that. He does not succumb to the temptation of writing Bell off simply because he leans in a universalist direction. For that reason alone, Galli deserves our thanks. The basis for the identification of Bell as a liberal only then becomes clear in his discussion of the cross and the atonement in the next section, to which I now turn.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 1

Let me be clear: despite appearances, I am not trying to pick on Christianity Today. They often do a fine job of walking that moderate evangelical line. And I am a huge supporter of Books & Culture. But it just so happens that they have published some pieces recently that have hit a nerve and warrant responses. Last month it was Chuck Colson, this month it is the review of Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, by senior managing editor, Mark Galli.

First, a disclaimer: I have not read Bell’s book. My response to Galli is thus not a response to his portrayal of the book. Others who have actually read the text may offer their own responses to his presentation of Bell’s claims. For my purposes here, I will simply trust that he has represented Bell fairly and accurately.

Galli’s review is an attempt to avoid the empty rhetoric and hasty judgments that so characterized the recent online firestorm (e.g., “Farewell Rob Bell”). In this task, he is largely successful. Galli begins by embracing Bell’s concern to stress the cosmic scope of the gospel and the fact that Jesus cannot be confined to our safe religious boxes. As Galli puts it, “This stuff will preach.” But fairly quickly Galli changes his tune. He compliments Bell for being a “master” of asking questions that challenge “traditional doctrines.” But it’s a somewhat backhanded compliment; the implication—which later becomes explicit—is that Bell can challenge orthodoxy, but leaves one without a substantial or satisfactory alternative. This is essentially Galli’s thesis. Bell asks good questions, but doesn’t provide (the right) answers.

Whether this is accurate cannot be evaluated here for reasons stated above. What I wish to address is the way Galli goes on to locate Bell in the tradition of Protestant liberalism over against orthodox evangelicalism. It is this overly simplistic binary that I will interrogate, along with some related issues. I will follow the order of Galli’s review, beginning with (a) the question of universalism, moving to (b) the cross and the atonement, and concluding with (c) the liberal/evangelical divide.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue

The annual Karl Barth Conference is taking place again this summer at Princeton Theological Seminary. This year the topic is very exciting: “Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue.” The conference is co-sponsored by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and the Thomistic Institute of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies. You can sign up to receive news and updates. You can also follow the conference on Facebook and Twitter. (Show them some love and sign up today, if you haven’t already!)

For those who have been keeping score, there have been two major Catholic-Protestant conferences in the past several years that have helped lead up to this conference. The first was the 2007 Providence College Symposium on “Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering,” at which Bruce McCormack and Robert Jenson offered Protestant and post-Barthian perspectives in favor of divine passibility. The proceedings from that conference were published in 2009. The second was the 2008 conference on “The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Anti-Christ or the Wisdom of God?” Bruce McCormack and John Webster represented Barth’s position at that event. Those proceedings were very recently published in December of 2010.

All of that leads up to the conference event coming up this summer. Whereas the previous conferences were stacked in favor of the Catholic position, with a minority Barthian representation, this upcoming conference is being structured as a point-counterpoint dialogue. There are five areas or doctrines under discussion, each with a Protestant and Catholic scholar speaking:
Divine Being: Robert Jenson • Richard Schenk 
Trinity: Guy Mansini, OSB • Bruce McCormack 
Christology: Keith Johnson • Thomas Joseph White, OP 
Grace and Justification: Amy Marga • Joseph Wawrykow 
Divine and Human Action: Holly Taylor Coolman • John Bowlin
Registration for the conference is $125. There is also a special $60 rate for graduate students, though there are only 30 spots available—so claim them soon! Lodging and meals are optional, but they are also available: $65/night for lodging, and $70 for all meals.

For more information, contact It should be an excellent conference with important implications not only for Barth and Aquinas studies, but also for future ecumenical conversations.