Author Archive

Pannenberg – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part III)

07/30/2011

There is much to discuss in the final two chapters of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Volume 1.  Both chapters involve Pannenberg’s account of the Trinitarian identity of the Christian God including the various attributes of God.  In view of the large amount of material needing to be discussed here, I decided to discuss one section I found most interesting; Pannenberg’s position regarding the place of the doctrine of the Trinity within the dogmatic structure.

After a nicely organized historical account of the dogmatic ordering concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, Pannenberg argues that the ordering is determined by a particular view of the unity and distinction within Godself.  As discussed earlier in the chapter, Pannenberg shows that the early Christian Church struggled to develop the unification between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without losing their distinction.  The doctrine of the Trinity became less emphasized in 17th and 18th century Protestant theology because theologians of this time period struggled to account for the coherence between the unity and differentiation of God’s being as testified in the biblical witness.  Even Protestant dogmaticians who were sympathetic with the idea of the prominent role of the Trinity still believed “that the OT justifies a prior presentation of God as the Supreme Being (Exod. 3:14) and also of his attributes” (281).  Beginning from the Hebrew Bible’s conception of this One Ultimate God encouraged theologians to view the Trinity as a later addition rather than the essential starting point for Christian dogmatics.  It becomes clear (and Pannenberg even admits this) that the construction of the doctrine of God is difficult for any dogmatician given the tension between God’s Triune identity as unified yet distinct.  The most interesting observation Pannenberg makes is when he states that the decision whether to treat the unity or distinction of God first will ultimately be determined by one’s view of metaphysical knowledge.  If the theologian believes that God’s unity can be postulated through the sheer extension of human reason, then unity is necessarily treated first and the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit are discussed later since on this view such beliefs arise only through revelation.  Moreover, the statements concerning God’s triunity can only be seen as important if the discussion of God’s unity is not deemed as satisfactory in order to offer a full account of His identity.  Unless the concept of God’s triunity is seen as indispensable, “the Trinitarian statements must seem to be a more or less superfluous and external addition to the doctrine of the one God” (283).

Pannenberg finally divulges his own commitments when he proposes that even the statements about God’s unity are made possible only through revelation: “It is true that Christian talk of Father, Son, and Spirit, and especially Jesus’ addressing of God as Father, must always presuppose a prior understanding of God. This is not, however, the understanding of philosophical theology but that of religion and in particular it is the understanding of the God who revealed himself to Israel as the one God” (299, emphasis added).  All of this is to say that Pannenberg concludes by agreeing with Karl Barth’s ordering of dogmatics and Barth’s recovery of the essential role of the doctrine of the Trinity.  But unlike Barth, Pannenberg prefers to construct the doctrine of the Trinity not from some “formal concept of revelation as self-revelation” but rather through “historical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit” (296).  In Barth’s Trinitarian account of revelation, there is “a subject of revelation, an object, and revelation itself, all of which are one and the same” (296, emphasis added).  Therefore, since Barth sees the subject of revelation as singular, plurality plays no role in terms of the “persons in the one God but only for different modes of being in the one divine subjectivity” (296).  In short, Pannenberg praises Barth’s understanding that God’s unity can not be discussed apart from God’s Triunity, but ultimately Barth “subordinated his doctrine of the Trinity to a pretrinitarian concept of the unity of God and his subjectivity in revelation” thus not allowing Barth to “see what is the function of the doctrine of the essence and attributes of God for the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, that it is only with the question of the essence and attributes of the Trinitarian God that the unity of this God becomes a theme, and we are thus enabled to avoid the confusions which inevitably arise when we try to derive the trinity from the person of the Father or the unity of the divine substance” (299 – phew!).  I would be very interested if anyone had any insights concerning Pannenberg’s criticisms of Barth’s Trinitarian theology along with his own preference for a “historical” account of Trinitarian theology.

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Jüngel – God as the Mystery of the World (Part III)

07/05/2011

The fourth and fifth sections of Eberhard Jüngel’s God as the Mystery of the World are nothing short of extraordinary.  How does one possibly attempt to summarize almost two hundred pages of brilliantly and meticulously charted argumentation that outlines the positive mystery of the Triune God?  Well, here is my best shot.

In a sense, Jüngel encapsulates his project with this simple sentence: “If God is one who justifies mankind, then that is already a statement about who or what God is” (231).  All speech about God is made possible by and directly flows from the doctrine of justification.  With this affirmation, Jüngel stands in opposition to much of Christian tradition, which confesses that God is ultimately ineffable and incomprehensible.  While Jüngel highlights the various distinctions between theologians such as Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, Aquinas, and John of Damascus, all of these Church fathers maintained a form of apophatic theology.  One gets the impression that despite Jüngel’s charity and even-handedness when discussing and critiquing apophaticism, he seems rather baffled that the tradition could miss the central truth that belief in justification is already a positive statement about God’s identity.  God justifies humanity through the crucified Christ.  Still, the belief that God’s identity can truly be known is not presumptuous.  In order for humanity to speak about the God revealed in Christ, God must already have revealed Himself in history.  Speech about this God who is historically revealed in the crucified Christ then requires thought about God.  But how is this thought possible?  Here Jüngel offers a Barthian theological orientation.  The possibility for humanity to think about God comes exclusively through the continual event of God’s self-revelation.  Despite these confident affirmations, Jüngel states the goal of theology is to “prevent the misuse” of the word God.  The ever-present problem of theology is how true speech about God can occur while still maintaining true speech about God.  Thus, the pertinent question necessarily becomes this: how can one speak about God?

The path to answer this question is quite laborious yet rewarding. Jüngel, despite his Heideggerian prose, feels like an analytic philosopher at times through his scrupulous and dense writing.  As already mentioned, Jüngel disagrees with the apophatic impulse that God is ultimately ineffable and incomprehensible.  But in agreement with these negative thinkers, God is still a mystery.  The question becomes how exactly this mystery is defined.  Jüngel maintains that God is a positive mystery because this mysterious God “wants to be grasped” (250).  But even in God’s desire to be grasped by creatures, God “can not be resolved, uncovered or exposed” since God always reveals Himself precisely as mystery (251). Jüngel retains the mystery of God, but does not travel down the same path as the Enlightenment in allowing this mystery to lead to the concession that God can’t be known.  Moving forward a bit, the only way that God as a positive mystery can be communicated is through analogy.  God cannot be expressed through equivocal speech (ambiguous) since He can be differentiated from creatures yet God also cannot be expressed through univocal speech (unambiguous) since He is differentiated from creatures.  This leads one forward to the use of analogy.  One thing is certain for Jüngel: analogy is essential for any possible “responsible” speech about God because this is the only means by which correspondence occurs between human speech and the reality of God.  So where is this analogy properly located?  In the Gospel.  The Gospel is the human word, which corresponds to the positive divine mystery through the context of an analogia fidei.  The correspondence is located in the person and work of Jesus Christ: “…the mystery of the God who identifies with the man Jesus is the increase of similarity and nearness between God and man which is more than mere identity and which reveals the concrete difference between God and man in its surpassing mere identical being” (288).  In Jesus Christ, the mysterious God radically displays His desire to be known by His creatures as the One who justifies humanity.

The last part of the book offers a christocentric grounding for a Trinitarian exposition of revelation.  God reveals His identity through the crucified Christ as the One who lavishly loves humanity.  The being of God is love.  Because of this reality, the very task of theology is “to think God as love” (315).  Only in safeguarding the reality of God’s being as love will theology “do justice to the being of God which remains so distinctive from the event of human love that ‘God’ does not become a superfluous word” (315).  This love is not a tautology but an event, which unfolds not only in Godself but also between God and humanity.  The statement God is love (1 John 4:8) finds it’s meaning in the person and work of Jesus Christ as true man and true Son of God.  To be clear, God is still mysterious since He remains invisible outside of Jesus Christ.  God’s invisibility maintains His identity as mystery.  But the mystery of God’s invisibility never negates the truth embraced by faith that God has intimately revealed His identity in the justification of humanity through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Since I have already taken up quite a bit of space, I would like to highlight one aspect of Jüngel’s book, which left quite the impression.  In his treatment of analogy, Jüngel makes the provocative claim that the debate between the analogia entis (AE) and the analogia fidei (AF) is not about the Creator/creature distinction.  This is often how the debate is framed and it is an irresponsible misrepresentation of both positions.  Both AE and AF maintain the Creator/creature distinction.  The question becomes how God’s revelation is known or how speech about God is possible once the notion of distinction is already on the table.  Does humanity come to know God and build the bridge (so to speak) in the midst of the distinction from the side of humanity (through an analogy of being) or is correspondence made possible only through the continual and exclusive self-initiation of God?  I don’t know how this understanding of the common ground between AE and AF existing in the Creator/creature distinction is received.  In my experience, most speak about the AE as collapsing the distinction when the analogy of being is upheld while AF always maintains strict separation.  In Jüngel’s formulation, AF offers a radical “identity” between God and humanity in the man Jesus.  I would be interested to hear thoughts or insights regarding the framing of the debate between the AE and the AF in this way.

Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part II)

06/16/2011

Let’s face it: Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is quite foreign for the first-time reader, especially for one who studied philosophy and ethics as an undergraduate.  As Adam noted last week, the first sentence of the book overturns the traditional ethical paradigm by disregarding the concern with the possible prior to the actual.  By the time the reader turns to the second page, Bonhoeffer has already asserted that one can only ask the ethical question by coming to terms with the actual; this would be the ultimate reality located in God Himself as the world’s Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.

The latter half of Bonhoeffer’s magnum opus contains a plethora of life-altering statements and insights into the reality of God and how this defines humanity.  As such, I am unable to offer any type of satisfactory account of this work in one short blog post.  I decided, therefore, to probe a bit deeper into this work beyond offering a description of Ethics.

One might be tempted to read Bonhoeffer’s radical ethical reorientation and assume that these thoughts were simply occasional.  I am not trying to argue that Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics can be taken out of his historical context.  But I also want to suggest that his ethics are not detached from his broader theological commitments.  In short, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics stems directly from his christology and soteriology.  It is only because of Bonhoeffer’s views concerning Jesus Christ and salvation that he can proceed to offer his particular ethical framework.

Let me explain.  As I made my way through Ethics, I found this one particular line to be rather intriguing.  After dismissing the possibility of humanity possessing the ability to discern absolute good or absolute evil, Bonhoeffer boldly declares that such inability “throws the freedom of those who act responsibly into the sharpest relief: it is freedom from servitude even to an ‘absolute good'” (222).  In short, it is the freedom of the Christian that makes such absolutes unnecessary.  This very freedom from absolute standards of good and evil is dependent upon Bonhoeffer’s belief that “human beings cannot justify themselves by doing good since it is God alone who does the good.  The power of the divine guidance of history leaves human beings dependent upon God’s grace” (227).  Since humanity can do nothing to save itself, all are redeemed by the unmitigated grace of God.  The notion that one must (and can) possess absolute certainty that they are carrying out an absolute good action against an absolute evil negates any commitment to sola gratia.  Therefore, the Christian reality of freedom thrusts one upon a level of ambiguity when discerning the ethical task, for only in God’s action is there certainty of good.

At this point, it is necessary to discuss Bonhoeffer’s christology.  Bonhoeffer’s entire posture toward the theological task is one of complete humility, dependence, and ultimately freedom.  He writes over and over again that there is nothing inherent in humanity that is valuable, worthy, or good.  God did not choose to love humanity in Christ because humanity possessed intrinsic worth.  Rather, humanity is valuable because God took the “No” of judgment upon Himself in Jesus Christ.  By doing so, God reconciled us to the world.  As a side note: I found it fascinating that Bonhoeffer puts the love of God before His judgment.  If the undeserved “Yes” did not precede the justified “No”, there would be no incarnation and no reconciliation through the Son.  In this way, Bonhoeffer presents the best that the Reformers had to offer.   To repeat what I’ve said thus far: the belief that humanity is justified solely by God’s grace offers genuine freedom for the Christian from the bondage of ethical absolutes.  But such freedom brings ambiguity.  So how is the Christian to proceed?  Well, the only way to discern the ethical is through the concrete historical standard found within the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, Jesus Christ not only makes the doctrine of sola gratia possible, but He also provides the very possibility for discerning good and evil within the world.  One must start with the actual reality found within Jesus Christ in order to find any hope for ethical decisions in life.  But there is one small caveat: such christocentrism still doesn’t provide certainty.  Humility always remains for Bonhoeffer since the Christian makes all ethical decisions through a risk of faith.  This is the only way that one can ensure their dependence upon the grace of God.