Friday, September 05, 2014

On being a contemporary of Christ, or, why dialectical theology matters


“If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief

“How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief

“Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till I stand with nothing before me but the enigma of the matter; till the document seems hardly to exist as a document; till I have almost forgotten that I am not its author; till I know the author so well that I allow him to speak in my name and am even able to speak in his name myself.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief


A friend and colleague whom I respect has made a public break with apocalyptic theology, for reasons that are apparently based on his own personal experience. I appreciate these posts not because I agree with them—they articulate a position that I find deeply flawed, though I will not go into all the reasons here—but because they make explicit a matter that cuts to the heart of Christian identity and theology. They force the reader to make a decision, and in that sense they contribute to the clarification and understanding of the Christian faith.

While it is highly dubious whether what is under consideration is justifiably called “apocalyptic theology”—there is little clarity about what is actually being rejected, since it is variously identified as apocalyptic theology, critical theory, and Marxism, but ostensibly it is some kind of theology that sees itself in alliance with the revolutionary views of Jacob Taubes and Slavoj Žižek, among others—the position being rejected is fairly clear: it is a theological position that interprets the Christian kerygma in light of the prophetic-apocalyptic context of Second Temple Judaism and seeks to make this eschatological kerygma the norm for an emancipatory mode of faithful Christian existence today. In short, it is a position that bases contemporary theopolitics on the eschatological message of the early Christian community. The rejection of this position comes to expression most forcefully in the following line: “I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.” The quotes above already indicate that I place myself in sharp opposition to this view, but I want to explain how and why I arrive at that position.

Theological history is often cyclical. Positions once thought dead often return in new forms, sometimes with new virulence. One of the major pendulum-swinging issues throughout the history of theology is the question of the relative nearness or distance between Jesus and the present-day community of faith. The primitive Christian community was an apocalyptic community defined by the expectation of the imminent advent of the glorified Christ. They were conscious of the eschatological nearness of Christ, and thus of themselves as the eschatological community. When this advent did not occur as expected, the exigencies of the apocalypse gave way to the needs of being an established part of the world. We see the seeds of this transition already in Ephesians and Colossians, and it becomes further entrenched by the time we reach 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and the Johannine epistles. Christianity left apocalyptic behind and became the (small-c) catholic church. From this point on, we see an ongoing dialectic between nearness and distance—a distance demanded by the delay of the parousia and a nearness demanded by the experience of Easter faith.

Throughout the ancient and medieval church (i.e., early and late catholicism), there was distance  in that they no longer shared the eschatological consciousness of the early community. The “apostolic” period of the church was left behind, with all its apocalyptic-pentecostal trappings. The Christian community was no longer defined by an imminent expectation that relativized their worldly existence. They were instead defined by doctrinal and liturgical boundaries—by ways of thinking and doing that they zealously guarded—which differentiated their community from other communities in the world, with which they now had to compete. At the same time the nearness of the catholic community with Jesus now consisted in a set of orthodox beliefs and orthoprax actions (doctrines and practices) that were supposed to guarantee the continuity between Jesus and the present-day church. The central belief was thus the apostolic succession of ecclesial authority, and the central practice was the mystical-sacramental communion with Christ in the eucharist.

Having stayed more or less the same for centuries, things began to change dramatically with the Reformation. While the reformers did not abandon the doctrinal mode of nearness, they did abandon the liturgical mode, replacing sacramental mediation with personal faith. The doctrinal nearness came under scrutiny in the Enlightenment. Modernity saw the rise of historical consciousness, that is, the awareness that everything is situated within a historical context, shaped by causal forces that we both influence and are influenced by. The result of this consciousness was the awareness of the massive cultural-historical distance between ourselves and the first century, a distance that no amount of doctrinal control could overcome. The so-called liberal theology of the nineteenth century—the kind descended especially from Schleiermacher and Hegel—abandoned the attempt to bridge this gap through the repristination of traditional doctrine and instead embraced their historical situation as the unavoidable context for theological thinking.

But of course these theologians could not abandon all continuity/nearness between Jesus and their own time; they simply relocated it. They primarily did so via sociological and psychological means. Schleiermacher did so through his concept of Gefühl, a “feeling of absolute dependence” prior to both knowing and doing. Albrecht Ritschl did so through his more social conception of the kingdom as a spiritual family joined through kinship bonds with Jesus and each other. Wilhelm Herrmann appealed to faith’s communion with the inner life of Jesus. These forms of nearness allowed them to maintain continuity in the midst of what was otherwise a vast chasm between the original community and themselves. The chasm became especially pronounced with the (re)discovery of apocalyptic in the work of Johannes Weiss, which nullified Ritschl’s attempt at finding nearness to Jesus via his sociohistorical conception of the kingdom. If it hadn’t already, liberal theologians eventually made peace with the fact that whatever nearness they could muster with the original apostolic community, it was a highly attenuated nearness nested within an unbridgeable gap that fundamentally divided the modern church from the original eschatological community. The dialectic of nearness and distance became weighted severely on the side of distance.

But coming to peace with this divide meant simultaneously coming to peace with the world—coming to peace with the given cultural and political context as the presupposition for being a Christian in contemporary society. The extreme distance from the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus coincided with an extreme nearness to the kingdoms proclaimed in the present. In the 1870s, this meant that German church leaders were writing tracts calling for Germany to catch up with the rest of Europe in the colonization of Africa and Asia. In 1914, this meant that German theologians and missiologists signed manifestos in support of Germany’s position in the Great War as the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In 1933, this meant that the German Christian Faith Movement arose to give religious support to the Nazi movement, and that German theologians at Erlangen wrote articles in support of the Aryan Paragraph. I will come back to this, but we have to understand this large political context when we look at the rise of apocalyptic theology.

The work of Weiss and Albert Schweitzer rediscovered apocalyptic in a strictly historical sense. Their work, as brilliant as it was, associated the concept of apocalyptic with belief in the imminent parousia, and since this expectation was shattered by the progress of history, it was assumed that apocalyptic, along with NT eschatology in general, was defunct. The concepts of eschatology and apocalyptic were used synonymously by Weiss. It was the genius of Karl Barth to differentiate between these two notions. In the second edition of Der Römerbrief, he declared: “Christianity that is not completely and utterly eschatology has completely and utterly nothing to do with Christ.” This axiom announced the start of a new theological paradigm, a new understanding of the nearness-distance dialectic. On the one hand, Barth rejected the mythical apocalyptic thought analyzed by Weiss and Schweitzer. In a 1916 sermon he denies that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom has anything to do with “a pallid apocalyptic miracle-message,” and in the Römerbrief he dismisses what he calls “enthusiastic-apocalyptic illusions.” In this sense he (and Bultmann, more famously later) affirmed the historical distance between the mythical world-picture of the early church and the world-picture of the contemporary Christian. On the other hand, Barth recovered a genuine nearness to Jesus and the apostles through a creative recovery and reconstruction of NT eschatology, understood now by means of a time-eternity dialectic whereby the eschaton lies on a vertical, rather than horizontal, axis. The eschaton does not lie ahead in the chronological future but rather comes to us from above in the theological future, which is always inbreaking into the present moment. Barth would abandon this paradigm for one that accomplished the same ends by different (i.e., protological) means, while Bultmann remained faithful to it, in his own unique way, until the end. (I do not have space here to defend the thesis that this eschatological theology is a true form of apocalyptic theology, but I have done so elsewhere already and will do so again.)

At the heart of dialectical theology is therefore a deep existential sense of the immediate presence of Christ, of the contemporaneity of the present moment with Christ himself. As the opening epigraphs document, this allowed Barth to make some astounding claims. He could go so far as to say that “a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.” Past and present fuse into a single horizon in the moment of faith—that is, in the moment where the eschatological reality of Christ confronts and disrupts the individual. It would be, however, the height of ignorance and misunderstanding to assume that claims such as these evince a gnostic disregard for history or a tragic failure of responsibility. On the contrary, they display a genuinely courageous responsibility for history that was all too rare at the time.

I would like to illustrate the nature of this responsibility by recounting the story of Bultmann’s stand against the Erlangen school over the Aryan Paragraph. (I discuss this episode in my recent article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation, “Kerygma and Community: A Response to R. W. L. Moberly’s Revisiting of Bultmann,” as well as in my forthcoming monograph with Fortress, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology.) I tell this particular story because it is remarkably relevant to the present situation. The Erlangen school, led by Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, defended the Aryan Paragraph on the grounds that the NT rejection of distinctions within the church based on race only applied in the context of a missionary church, a community shaped by the eschatological demand to proclaim the gospel before the advent of Christ. But times are very different today, they argued, and instead of a missionary church we live in the context of a national church (Volkskirche). Our responsibility to this historical situation means that the question of race is back on the table. In other words, Elert and Althaus are saying: We are not the apostles and Germany is not the Roman Empire. They certainly don’t say, “much as we might all wish otherwise”—which is the key, morally significant difference between the two situations—but the similarity between them is undeniable and telling.

Bultmann’s response to this argument is worth quoting in full and demands careful attention:

The fact is that the New Testament knows not a single word requiring the binding of the ecclesiastical office to a certain ethnicity. The Erlangen report says, however, that the New Testament only draws this conclusion for a missionary church. Where a missionary church has become a national church, there the issue of ethnicity must be required for the ecclesiastical office. If this thesis is meant to be taken as a basic principle, then it is to be absolutely rejected. When compared to the nation [Volk] as a worldly-historical entity whose dimensions are constituted by biological factors, the church is always a missionary church. It never becomes a piece of the world, but rather always maintains its transcendent, eschatological dimension. The preaching of the gospel always rings out to the nation, never from the nation.

Notice that Bultmann appeals to the eschatological nature of the church—to the eschatological contemporaneity of the Christian with Christ—as the basis for his opposition to the Erlangen school. The nearness to early Christian apocalyptic is the basis for a critical distance from present sociopolitical institutions and structures. The contemporaneity with Christ prevents one from becoming overly comfortable with the world.

By dismissing this contemporaneity, and by making the progress of world history the normative starting-point for thinking about Christian responsibility today, the position articulated in the posts mentioned at the start of this piece end up repristinating the logic of liberal theology, all claims about a transcendent order of justice notwithstanding. Indeed, despite the talk in the most recent post about the “perfect eschatological society,” there is a conspicuous absence of any language about new creation. The “eschatological society” is merely the infinite perfection (via eminentiae) of the old creation. We have here the political version of natural theology as the projection of the ideal human person upon the being of God. It is clear that when we read about an “eschatology adapted to the capacities of human nature,” we are dealing with an eschatology that has nothing to do with the New Testament and, as Bultmann would say, “is to be absolutely rejected.”

Over against this position, dialectical theology—which for me just is apocalyptic theology—recovers the apocalyptic-eschatological consciousness of the apostles within the conditions and context of modernity. To be a contemporary of Christ, for Barth and Bultmann, means relating to the world dialectically: while I exist within a specific historical situation, I am simultaneously “deworldlized” (Bultmann), so that I see the world eschatologically. I come to see our problems as the problems of Paul and Jesus, so that their answers become my own. Australia (or the United States or Germany) is indeed the Roman Empire, and I, in the moment of faith, stand with Paul, with Christ himself, in the expectation of God’s imminent inbreaking—if no longer in the course of world history, at least now in the course of my existence.

Insofar as my sociopolitical action corresponds to and follows from this expectation, it is genuinely Christian action, which fulfills its responsibility to history precisely by seeing this history in an entirely new way. For the one who exists eschatologically, history is not primarily the linear progression of world events but rather the sphere in which Christ exercises his reign through the word of the gospel. Fidelity to Christ does not, therefore, entail fidelity to the social institutions derived from or related to what Christians have done throughout history; it can only entail fidelity to the gospel that, as Bultmann would say, always rings out to these institutions, never from these institutions.

11 comments:

Andrew Esqueda said...

Hey David, just trying to make sense of everything here. Are you making a distinction between eschatology and apocalyptic in the sense that eschatology is to be understood vertically and theologically whereas apocalyptic is to be understood as chronological and horizontal? Is that how we make sense of the time-eternity dialectic by which the eschaton is continuously meeting us in our present existence, and the apocalyptic is our understanding of institutions, church, politics, etc, and their continual renewal toward the Kinfdom of God?

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Andrew, for raising that question. It's something I've written on elsewhere, so I didn't explain it here, but the distinction I draw here between eschatology and apocalyptic (in favor of eschatology) is based on the understanding of apocalyptic that Barth and Bultmann inherited from Schweitzer and Weiss. I do not think that this understanding of apocalyptic is exhaustive of the concept, something implied by the fact that I go on to identify dialectical theology as genuinely apocalyptic. I left that issue unresolved in this post, which invites misunderstanding, for which I apologize. It's a very complicated subject.

Phil Sumpter said...

This was very helpful, thank you. It's posts like these that help me as I continue to wrestle to understand the work of Brevard Childs, and Old Testament scholar deeply indebted to Barth (and respectifuly if critical of Bultmann). You talk of the "time-eternity" dialectic as Christ's reign coming in "vertically" into the present is particularly interesting as this kind of dialectic seems quite constitutive for much of Childs' OT exegesis; see esp. his commentary on Isaiah. He factors these kinds of considerations into redaction criticism. But that's also where an interesting difference seems to appear - you seem to ground your/dialectical theology's approach in the kerygma of the first century church only. Childs - if I've understood both of you right - sees this dialectic as constitutive throughout the entire canonical scripture (including in the later catholic epistles, which you denigrate in good Bultmannian style).

That, in turn, indicates to me a difference on another issue, one that seems to touch on your rejection of Ben's approach, namely the relation between this worldly institutions and eschatological reality. You seem to want to hold a thorough distiction - the two are utterly different. I don't get that in Barth or Childs and even this morning I read something by Ehrard Gebeling that does not imply that either. Here's the Ebeling quote, which is about the distinction and yet interrelation between "Religion" and "das Evangelium": "Religion ist jedoch die Lebensbedingung des Glaubens. Für die Existenz des heutigen Christentums zwischen Religion und Religionslosigkeit ist die Tatsache von schwerwiegender Bedeutung, dass das Evangelium ohne Religion nicht verkündbar ist. [...] Das Evangelium kann gar nicht anders laut werden als in einer Spannung zur Religion. Das Evangelium hat jedoch in der christlichen Religion seine Spuren hinterlassen und hier den Weg der Brefreiung wie zum rechten Gebrauch von der Welt so auch zum rechten Gebrauch von Religion gewiesen. Deshalb ist zwar nicht das Christentum ohne weiteres als die wahre Religion zu bezeichnen. Wohl aber kann man sagen: Die im Sinne des Evangeliums in Brauch genommene christliche Religion ist die zur Wahrheit gebrachte Religion" (1979; emphasis mine).

The point for me - as this is quite decisive in my disagreement with you in our aborted dialogue over systematic theology and exegesis - is that there is a material, this worldly imprint left over by the act of revelation. It leaves its "immanent footprint" in our world. Barth talked about revelation in very "material" terms - it is not an idea but the actual covenant relationship between God and his son, and he talks of that contant (Sache) leaving an "imprint" on the actual material form and content of proclamation (like a crater left behind by a meteorite). For Gebeling, this mark is left in the "religion" itself. For Childs, this impact is evident in the total witness of the Biblical canon in its plain/spiritual sense, from Genesis to Revelation (at the least - with aprocryphal books being a gray area). I see these kinds of considerations in Ben's later comments (http://www.faith-theology.com/2014/09/politics-society-and-institutions.html).

Phil Sumpter said...


So I would not be so keen to affirm your claim that the world we are living in today is not distinguishable from the Roman empire. This became clearer to me since living, working, and researching in the Middle East. I have become so much more grateful for "Christendom," that phenomenon wrongly hated by so many Protestants. The gospel - and at least the Barth/Ebeling quotes would seems to affirm this - does in fact make real and lasting changes in this world, changes which can be pointed to and be claimed to objectively point beyond themselves to the kingdom of god (I'm thinking here too of Barth's metaphor of relflector lights and natural theology made in his American lectures in the '60s when answering a question about natural theology).

Incidentally, this distinction would also explain why I am far more open to Pabst/Milbank in their exchange with Ralston concerning Christendom/Islam. It seems to me that Ralston's approach is funded by the kind of absolute distinction between kingdom of God and worldly form which you seem to be affirming here.

I've not read enough Bultmann to know what he'd say about this but I'd suspect he'd go along with your radical distinction (I'm uncomfortable with his language of "Entweltichung", but perhaps I have not understood it enough). That is where I would part company with him.

Anyway, all this motivates me to get into your PhD more (congratulations on the Fortress Press contract).

Phil Sumpter said...

[Oh, and please do bear with my spelling mistakes - I either have to write rapidly or not at all].

Phil Sumpter said...

[And now my final qualificatory statement: when I talk about "absolute distinction" in my second to last paragraph, I am not denying an "absolute qualitative difference" (Barth), I am saying that it intersects with our reality in such a ways as to leave a visible and lasting imprint].

David W. Congdon said...

Phil,

Thank you for this very thoughtful and informative comment. I am especially thankful for this very interesting Ebeling quote. Is this from Dogmatik III?

Now, as to your critical question, let me clear up some confusion. First, as you seem to acknowledge in your final comment, the fact that revelation leaves an imprint on the world, as Barth and Ebeling both say, does not mean there is no sharp, absolute distinction between the eschatological and the historical, the divine and the worldly. Indeed, the very place where Barth talks about the crater left behind by revelation is where he also makes the sharpest possible differentiation between time and eternity.

But if you grant that, then it seems to me the critical force of your earlier statements evaporates entirely, for I nowhere deny that revelation may leave behind craters in history, nor do I oppose institutions as such. What I explicitly oppose instead is "coming to peace with the world," "becoming overly comfortable with the world," the loss of the "critical distance from present sociopolitical institutions and structures." Everywhere in my post I oppose the conflation between revelation and history, but nowhere do I deny the necessity of historical institutions, the "craters" where revelation makes its social impact.

Moreover, it is crucial that we not conflate these craters and institutions with the nation-state or the institution of the church (defined by a tradition of doctrines and practices)! This is perhaps where I would want to demur most from your comments. The great error of Christendom has been to assume that when and where revelation makes contact with history, we can assume it does so primarily (for some, exclusively) in the small-c "catholic church." I absolutely deny this, and so does Barth. The craters of revelation may and do occur in historical sites that have nothing to do with established religion. That is not to reject religion as such, only to reject the identification of "true religion" with the institutions and practices that traditionally claim the name.

One final clarification. I nowhere deny that we are in a different historical situation than the first-century community. I do not think that we are actually in the Roman Empire, or that our sociopolitical context is "not distinguishable," as you say, from Rome. What I am saying is rather than, within the vision of faith, we see the world with the same dialectical-eschatological perspective that the apostles saw the world in their time. Our context becomes their context in a theological sense. Within that perspective, we see our neighbors as people judged and forgiven in Christ, and we see the wider social world as a world crucified and resurrected in Christ. That is what it means to think apocalyptically/eschatologically.

Phil Sumpter said...

If only I could really set aside time to follow up these dialogues! They’re so valuable.

First, concerning the source of the quote: I’m afraid I can’t say, other than that the date given is 1979. I got it from one of the Oberstufen Kursbücher that my wife uses to teach evangelische Religion. I’m reading through it as I finally want to understand what she does for a living. For some reason, not of the texts tells us where they come from. Perhaps it’s in the teacher’s manual … I’ll get back to you.

I can see my confusing terminology: I say there is no complete distinction between witness and subject matter and then affirm the absolute otherness of the kingdom of God in relation to created reality. I’m actually still struggling to find the conceptuality to describe what it is I feel is going on. Perhaps it is best if I just ask you some questions to help me understand where you are coming from:

We agree that there are “craters” and yet we also agree that one cannot identify anything earthly (i.e. the craters) with the kingdom of God—let’s say the traditional creeds of the church or various ecclesial practices. Would you agree that those places where a crater has in fact been left are more capable of pointing beyond themselves to the kingdom of God than those places which haven’t had such an impact? For example, that Christian Scripture and those places in which Christians have genuinely lived out their faith become better “transparencies” to the kingdom of God than the Quran and a purely consumerist culture? When Barth in your quote above talks about the Scripture dissolving before him so that he stands before its subject matter, it is still Christian Scripture that dissolves that the subject matter is its subject matter. In other words, to know God one must go to the craters in order to hope to meet him there (even if he has turn up in person in order to fill the crater again).

That is how I understand Ebling’s quote above: although the “Gospel” is distinct from “religion,” and although -- in a sense--Christian religion is a worldy phenomenon like any other, the Gospel first can only “appear” within a religion and secondly it has in fact appeared in the Christian religion. Not only that, it has done such in such a ways as to have left an indelible mark (“Spuren). How do you feel about his statement that Christianity is the particular religion that has been “brought to the truth”? Is it as equally valid a revelation as Islam or Judaism or Hinduism for example?

Finally, and this is where I want to push with all of this: would you affirm that not only does revelation leave behind a crater, but that it leaves behind craters that have a “special shape,” in other words, that there is a morphological fit between the crater and its “content/subject matter”? In other words, the reality itself has a specific form and that this form leaves a formal trace in the places it “touches down” and draws us into it?

I ask because Childs talks about there being a “morphological fit” between Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament witness to Christ, and he grounds this similarity not in the interpretive practices of the early church but in the ontological reality of God himself, to whom both Testaments witness (or by whom both Testaments have been impacted).

For me, these kinds of considerations have quite significant implications for theological hermeneutics, which in turn influences the terms in which we are to expect God to continually (actualistically) reveal himself to us.

David W. Congdon said...

Phil,

Fantastic comment. Lots to digest here. I'll try to do justice to the questions.

1. Are those places where a crater has been left more capable of pointing beyond themselves to the kingdom of God than others places? In a word, no. Not because such craters do not point beyond themselves, but because they do not have the capacity in themselves to do so. The notion of capacity is here the crucial issue, and it is over this very notion that I locate the divide between Barth and Bultmann's dialectical theology (DT) and what I would call the postliberalism of Frei and Childs (something that Bruce McCormack observes himself in Orthodox and Modern). In essence, what postliberalism (and please don't get hung up on the word; it's for convenience only) lacks is the actualism of DT, which means that a creaturely medium or magnitude only bears witness to the kingdom of God when and where God makes it so by an inbreaking act of grace. This grace is always and again an event and never becomes the property of the creature, whether this is a practice of the church (e.g., the "sacraments"), the biblical texts, the human person (e.g, sanctification or virtue), or, normatively, the person of Jesus himself ("flesh and blood has not revealed this to you"). The capacity to point beyond itself is something that has to be given anew by God in each moment. Its "transparency" is always "in becoming" and never its own property.

2. I am cautiously open to Ebeling's statement (I didn't find it in Dogmatik III), but I read his statement as something one can affirm only from within the perspective of faith. It is not a self-evident or generally accessible given that Christianity is the true religion, or religion brought to the truth. In other words, it is a true claim only within the actualistic moment of God's self-disclosure. The same holds true for the examples noted above (Christ, scripture, practices, etc.).

3. What I've said already holds true for your third question. Yes, there is a morphological fit, but again, we can only recognize it as such by faith. And the reason for this is that we can only recognize the crater when we first recognize the "content/subject matter" (die Sache). The two recognitions occur simultaneously. To have our eyes opened by faith is to have the requisition vision to see the craters of revelation in the world.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi David,

It’s really not conducive to good conversation for me to be taking so long to respond like this. I apologize for that (again). I’m trying to switch on my computer as little as possible for now in order to get on with my other tasks.

I think for now I’ll just say that we seem to be agreed, especially concerning your point 3, which I totally agree with (I found your succinct formulation here helpful). But I also agree with your other two points. My issue is not whether Christianity is self-evidentially true nor whether the “craters” can intrinsically witness beyond themselves without the aid of the Holy Spirit (this is what I was getting at in our other conversation about the Spirit “infusing” Scripture). My concern is that there are indeed phenomena without our space-time reality that have been decisively shaped by the incoming of the kingdom of God and that the shape or form they take is not accidentally related to that kingdom but created by it—regardless how mysterious that may often appear to be and regardless of the epistemologically conditions that have to be filled in order for us to perceive it. I’m thinking of texts like Psalm 19: The heavens declare the glory of God … but we can’t hear it. Or that statement in Samuel in which David was said to having nothing about him that would indicate his specialness for the task God was electing him for, but then at the same time he was described as being beautiful.

It’s just that some of your comments do sound more radical than they are perhaps intended to be, such as your negative answer to my question as to whether genuine craters are more capable of witnessing to God than others. That was an unlucky formulation on my part … Yes, they are not able to witness by themselves without the Spririt, but yet … if there is a morphological fit, then it can’t be that the relation between witness and reality is entirely accidental …. . Of course God could witness to himself by means of a talking donkey, but as a rule he doesn’t (it is hardly his modus operandi). Surely the Bible witnesses to Christ far better thanMein Kampf, even if God is needed in order for the Bible to actually be efficacious … (would you not agree with that?).

I guess I’m trying to hold two things together and determine the nature of their interrelation: the truth that God is the condition for the possibility of our knowledge of him and the truth that he makes himself known through specific media, media to which—I would add—he binds himself covenantally (such as Scripture). In other words, the nature of the relation between witness and reality and the implications that has for our understanding of the witness itself (after all, my area is Biblical studies, so I have to deal with the witness on a regular basis).

Incidentally, I really would like to clarify that Childs did have an actualist understanding of revelation and that McCormack’s lumping him together with Hans Frei, for example, is completely wrong. Childs distanced himself from Frei a number of times. McCormack’s characterization, however, is a common misunderstanding—Childs has been misunderstood at least as much as Bultmann! I highly recommend reading his >Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testament< (http://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Theology-Theological-Reflection-Christian-ebook/dp/B00APJRP54/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1412191772&sr=8-1&keywords=childs+biblical+theology) in order to see how he approaches these issues (maybe you can tell McCormack that …).

David W. Congdon said...

Phil,

First, McCormack only refers to Frei. I am associating Childs with Frei, and I know you disagree with that, though I have yet to be convinced. Not saying I think you're wrong, only that I haven't been able to put in the time to investigate the issue fully.

I think we're mostly in agreement here. But I do want to be extremely cautious about the issue of morphological fit. Let me put it this way: the only fit that truly matters, as I see it, is the "fit" of the Sache or content. What connects a creaturely reality to the word of God is whether the creature genuinely points us to the object of faith, that is, whether the object of its witness is indeed the self-revealing God.

The form that this creaturely witness may take is historically accidental, even though certain forms are more appropriate or "fitting" than others by virtue of the need to communicate actual theological content. So scriptural texts are more suitable as a vehicle of divine communication than a donkey or a dead dog (to use Barth's famous example). But I don't want to invest the natural preference for certain forms over others with any kind of special meaning.

Christians are people of the Book just like those of other faiths for reasons that can be adequately analyzed in terms of evolutionary science, anthropology, political history, etc. There is nothing genuinely unique about the forms that we believe God has taken up to bear witness to Godself. The fact that these forms are indeed a vehicle of revelation does not mean we can or should see this as indication of some special divine election of these forms, as if the media themselves are taken up into revelation as internal to the content. I must demur if that is the implication.

On the contrary: the kerygmatic content, the message of the faith, happens to confront us in certain ways rather than others. The ways in which this occurs are historically accidental, but in the perspective of faith we can see the providence of God.