Farewell to WordPress.com

FeaturedFarewell to WordPress.com

Dear Reader,

I am moving to Medium.com and plan to stop blogging here. I don’t post here very often and several of my posts feel like they are past their “best-before” date. In any case, I enjoy using Medium and prefer it to WordPress.

If you still want to read what I write, here are some ways to stay connected:

  1. You can follow me (@BNasmith) on my Medium profile page. This requires a simple sign-in that requires either your e-mail address, Facebook, or Twitter.
  2. You can also follow my main Medium publication, Meta-Theology Quarterly. This also requires a simple sign-in.
  3. If you use RSS (e.g. Feedly) you can add my profile or my Meta-Theology Quarterly publication to your reader.
  4. Finally, you can follow me on Twitter for updates, book quotes, and recommended reading.
Thank you for your interest, see you on the other side.

Ben

 

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Book Review: An Invitation to Christian Analytic Theology, by Thomas McCall

I recently wrote a book review of Thomas McCall’s new analytic theology book. It is available on Dr. David Guretzki’s blog (he received a free copy from IVP and lent it to me so that I could review it). I also posted my review on Medium.com. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to re-post it here. Enjoy!


As an interdisciplinary field, analytic theology faces trouble from the start. Few people posses both the needed theological erudition and general competence in analytic philosophy. Those with one often mistrust those with the other. As such, most philosophers and theologians are non-specialists when it comes to analytic theology. Thomas McCall aims to bring us up to speed with his new book: An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP, 2015).

 McCall defines analytic theology as theology “attuned to and committed to the ‘goals and ambitions’ of analytic philosophy” (21). Analytic theologians do theology in the style of analytic philosophy. This style values conceptual clarity, precise argument, and logical coherence. Analytic writers use metaphor and antitheses with caution. Paradox and mystery are permitted, but never to conceal logical incoherence. 

Some theologians associate analytic theology with Christian analytic philosophy. That field tends to major on prolegomenon, like the existence of God or the rationality of theism. By association, analytic theology seems inseparable from conservative apologetics, natural theology, and a general naiveté of the history of doctrine.

 McCall assures us that this is not the case. The analytic method could just as easily serve liberation theology, Barthian theology, or an analysis of the patristics. The analytic method must be distinguished from the content of typical Christian philosophical work.

McCall practices some analytic theology in his book. He address a variety of theological topics, including perfect being theology, scripture as “revelational control” for theology, D.A. Carson’s compatibilism, the metaphysics ofincarnation Christology, the historical Adam, and evolution vs. creationism. McCall also discusses various challenges facing analytic theologians. These include the broad competencies required to practice analytic theology and the ever present danger of intellectual pride.

All told, this book offers an informative introduction in the analytic style to a variety of questions. I for one value analytic theology. I am thankful for this book and excited to see the field grow. However, I have some concerns that McCall does not address to my satisfaction. I’ll outline these below, along with a way forward based on my reading of Christian analytic philosopher Paul K. Moser.

First, McCall is quick to praise the virtues of the analytic method and slow to warn of its vices. He likens analytic theology to scholasticism without addressing scholasticism’s shortcomings. The analytic method is a worthy servant but a poor master. If analytic theology is “attuned to and committed to the ‘goals and ambitions’ of analytic philosophy,” it would be prudent to question whether those goals and ambitions serve theology well.

Theology as mere truth-seeking about God would face no conflict in a marriage to analytic philosophy. But theology cannot be so reduced. Theology seeks to discern the word of God and articulate it. This word, and its existential freight, is impatient toward mere inquiry for inquiry’s sake. The analytic theologian must remember that their method is a tool and not a telos. The goal of theology is personal and corporate knowledge of God rather than systematic knowledge about God.

Second, McCall only briefly addresses concerns about metaphysics in theology. He notes that analytic theologians are unmoved by Kant’s critique. Paul K. Moser offers a stark contrast in his book Philosophy After Objectivity. Moser warns against waging “losing battles against ontological agnostics” (58). We face an “inescapable human cognitive predicament,” namely, we cannot confirm that our cognitive processes reliably grant us access to conceiving-independent reality without begging the question of their reliability (43). They may in fact deliver knowledge of conceiving-independent reality, but we cannot confirm this. “What is intelligible for us can . . . outstrip what is effectively answerable or testable by us” (57).

Christianity depends on de re encounter with God rather than mere de dicto assertions about God. If metaphysics is beyond our grasp as an experimental subject, what do we gain from it? Although we cannot escape from using metaphysics, we also cannot discern whether we posses the correct metaphysics with certainty. Analytic theologians ought to take this predicament, and the agnostics who raise it, seriously.

Third, McCall very briefly addresses a concern raised by Stephen R. Holmes, who writes, “analytic discussions . . . seem generally to proceed with a remarkable confidence about the success of language in referring to the divine” (32). This concern relates to Moser’s objection to metaphysics. Our theological notions may successfully refer to the realities they address, but we cannot know for certain that they do.

Theology is therefore irreducibly perspectival — namely, from a human perspective. We cannot silence the ontological agnostic until we grant their point. Analytic theology should acknowledge this and proceed with appropriate humility. It should do so without sacrificing its other virtues, such as clarity and coherence.

How do we proceed? Moser warns against the “myth of the definite article” (8). Namely, we must not confuse our preferred notion of X (divinity, for example) with the objective notion of X. We employ our theological notions with various purposes in mind. Having granted to the ontological agnostic that we cannot discern whether our notions are the objective ones, we are free to proceed with a perspectival analytic theology. Our notions serve our purposes, not the purposes of the ontological agnostic.

This approach should allay the concerns of those who fear that analytic theology cannot do justice to the subject matter of theology — the transcendent God. A humble analytic theology, I think, could do theology a great service. It could treat the analytic method as a means rather than an end. It could acknowledge that theology is irreducibly perspectival (at least from the human perspective). Finally, it could admit that our theological notions are relative to our purposes as theologians. As we seek to discern God’s purposes for our theology, and adopt them as our own, we can adapt our notions and systems accordingly. Like the “hermeneutical circle,” analytic theologians may discern God’s purposes with greater clarity as they allow those purposes to govern their inquiry.

What does “Jesus is God” mean?

What does “Jesus is God” mean?

Recently Dale Tuggy offered an argument that Jesus is not God. He means to say that Jesus is not identical to the God of which there is one. His argument is independent of whether you think the one God is the Father or the Trinity.

I think Dale’s argument is a good one (sound and valid, although being self-taught I often forget which is which). Here it is, if you’re curious:

  1. God and Jesus differ.
  2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)
  3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)
  4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).
  5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3,4)
  6. There is only one god.
  7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)
  8. God is a god.
  9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7,8)
Notice that Dale uses capital-G “God” as a name and lowercase-g “god” as a placeholder for the monotheistic deity of which there is one (premise 6). So I’ll restate his final conclusion like this:
Jesus is not identical to the one God of monotheism.

So what and what next?

This sounds like trouble for evangelicals. We typically treat “Jesus is God” like a pseudo-creed for our tradition and want to style ourselves monotheists. I think the way forward is to reflect on what we mean by “Jesus is God” in light of this argument.

Evangelicals are strongly inclined to declare that “Jesus is God”. Why so? Consider this Old Testament passage, Exodus 7:1-2:

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land.”

The role of God here is relative to another party. Moses is like God to Pharaoh. What does this mean? Moses surely isn’t the one God, Yahweh. Yet he is God to Pharaoh.

I think that this passage speaks to the supreme authority of Moses from Pharaoh’s perspective. From Pharaoh’s perspective, Moses is God. Pharaoh has no recourse or appeal to any power above or behind Moses. It does not follow that no power stands above and behind Moses. Nor does it follow that Moses is not himself under authority. Rather, Moses is as good as God to Pharaoh. God has so authorized Moses to mediate his will and word to Pharaoh in a final decisive way that Moses is God to Pharaoh. Pharaoh cannot get behind Moses to God. God has fully authorized Moses to act on God’s behalf toward Pharaoh.

I think the same is true of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is given the name that is above all names (Phil 2:5-9) and all authority in heaven and earth (Matt 28:18-20). He is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15-20) and the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and so on. As such, Jesus is the final authority from a human perspective. The fact that his Father stands behind him, and that Jesus stands between us and the Father, in no way implies that we can appeal to the Father if we enter into a dispute with Jesus. Jesus is God to us. He is our final authority because the one God has so authorized him to act in that capacity toward us. As with Moses and Pharaoh, so with Jesus and the world.

I suspect that those who may bristle at Dale’s argument fear that unless we say “Jesus is God” we cannot take Jesus seriously. If we lose the confession “Jesus is God,” we lose the only name that can save. These fears are unfounded. Jesus is still our final authority, according to the New Testament, even if we distinguish Jesus from the one God–i.e. from the Father or from the Trinity. Jesus is God to us.

Image: Flickr (credit: neilalderney123)

About Meta-Theology Quarterly

About Meta-Theology Quarterly

Welcome to Meta-Theology Quarterly, where I aim to develop a theology of theology and post at least once a quarter.

A brief history of this blog

I started my WordPress.com blog nearly three years ago under a different blog title. I used to write about Christian apologetics, addressing arguments for and against God’s existence and various objections to common Christian beliefs. The blog was largely philosophical back then. My interests and viewpoint have since evolved.

Along the way I chose to talk about theology proper rather than languish in preliminary apologetics. Unfortunately, as a part-time seminary student, I had (and still have) more questions than answers. So although I was reading very provocative and enriching books, I often felt to shy to write for fear of offending other Christians. It can be difficult to bring up problems that I don’t know how to solve, especially when my questions concern widely accepted foundations in my religious community.

Even so, I ought to pose my own critique to my own tradition rather than defending it. If I’ve learned anything in my studies, it is that Christianity is a big place with diverse perspectives. All of those perspectives pose a healthy mutual challenge within the church as we discern together what Christ requires of us each today.

What is meta-theology?

This leads me to my blog’s new name: Meta-Theology Quarterly. Suppose that theology is the task of articulating what God says to the world, and indeed what God says to various individuals in different times and places. Meta-theology articulates how God would have us articulate God’s word to us. It discerns what God says about how God speaks. It is a theology of theology, the study of theological method, an exercise in theological culture building.

Why do theology at the meta-level? I searched for some back-up online and the results were sparse. Even so, I did find some rare discussion of meta-theology worth sharing.

First, in his influential book Nicaea and Its Legacy, Lewis Ayres argues that modern theologians differ from their ancient pro-Nicene counterparts at the level of theological culture. The gulf between ancient thinkers and their modern counterparts is a methodological gulf.

Therefore, if we want to understand the fundamental creeds of the Christian church, we need to read them through the eyes of those who crafted them. We need to appropriate, or at least appreciate, their theology of theology. If the church of ages past is to bless the church today, we need to do meta-theology.

Second, John T. Granrose proposes a distinction between “normative theology” and “meta-theology” in a 1970 paper. Normative theology, he suggests, addresses the nature of God and the role of Jesus, etc. Meta-theology addresses the nature of religious language, precise meaning of certain theological terms, and standards for whether a theological claim is justified.

Granrose thinks that his theology is orthodox whereas his meta-theology is likely non-standard. Indeed, Kai Nielsen complains elsewhere that Christians lack a meta-theology. They may officially share a common orthodoxy, but that orthodoxy is variously interpreted. There are no clear standards, he claims, as to which interpretations are acceptable and which are not. This seems right to me, and seems like another good reason to do some meta-theology.

Third, missiologist Paul G. Hiebert puts meta-theology to work in his vision of a globally diverse Christianity. When Christianity is planted in a new culture, does the new church craft its own theology or import a theology from elsewhere? Hiebert asks, “Do young churches have a right to read and interpret the Scriptures in their own cultural contexts?”

Yes they do. Hiebert argues that global Christianity requires meta-theological unity rather than theological uniformity. The global church needs a meta-theology that guides young churches as they each discern a local theology for themselves. A global church is necessarily a theologically diverse church. Global church unity belongs a the meta-theological level.

So there you have it. Meta-theology can be understood roughly as:

  • a theology of theology
  • theological culture
  • theological method
  • standards against which to measure theologies and theological claims
  • analysis of theological language and notions
  • a tool to unify Christians of different theological persuasions

Why quarterly?

Because it sounds cool (to me) and I’m pretty sure that I can post at least once a quarter. Hopefully I’ll do better.

Also, the blog title makes it sound smarter that it probably is. If you’d like to help me out, I am open to guest posts relevant to meta-theology or otherwise interesting to me. Please get in touch via metatheology.quarterly@gmail.com or hail me on Twitter (@BNasmith).

I am experimenting with Medium.com, so most of my posts here will be re-posted on https://medium.com/meta-theology.

Lastly, the views I share here were my own at the moment when I pressed “Publish”. They are not necessarily mine anymore, or those of any institution with which I am or have been affiliated.

Thanks for visiting!


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How to read the Old Testament as a Christian

How to read the Old Testament as a Christian

Here’s the key — the first line of the Nicene Creed. “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”[1]


Early Christianity was diverse, especially by the second century. Larry Hurtado writes,

In the earliest period, long before imperial coercion could be brought to bear in favor of this or that doctrinal position, there was a ‘free-market’ religious economy in the Christian movement!”[2]

Ideas attracted followings, and what became orthodox Christianity once competed with several alternatives. According to one competing view, we should distinguish the God and Father of Jesus Christ from a lesser God who created the world. Irenaeus argues against this view in his second century book, Against Heresies.[3] He writes,

Their object in this is to show that our Lord announced another Father than the Maker of this universe, whom, as we said before, they impiously declare to have been the fruit of a defect (1.19.1).

Irenaeus wants to prove the opposite — that the Father of Jesus is the Maker of the world, the one attested to in the Old Testament.

He who, by His Word and Spirit, makes, and disposes, and governs all things, and commands all things into existence, — He who formed the world (for the world is of all), — He who fashioned man, — He [who] is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, above whom there is no other God, nor initial principle, nor power, nor pleroma, — He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we shall prove (1.22.1).

I get this same vibe from the first line of the Nicene Creed. The point is not that there is one God but that the one God is the self-same God who created the world. This Nicene tradition is that God created the world — rather than someone else.

Irenaeus points out that “almost all the different sects of heretics admit that there is one God,” yet they prove “themselves ungrateful to Him that created them” (1.22.1). So monotheism per se is not the main issue here. Rather, the question is whether the supreme power is also the creator. Is it beneath the one God to have created the world?


Many attribute this competing view (that a lesser god created the world) to Marcion. But Irenaeus blames someone called Cerdo. Irenaeus summarizes Cerdo as teaching,

the God proclaimed by the law and the prophets was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the former was known, but the latter unknown; while the one also was righteous, but the other benevolent (1.27.1).

By comparison, Marcion

is the only one who has dared openly to mutilate the Scriptures, and unblushingly above all others to inveigh against God (1.27.2).

This means the debate involves parties who used the same scripture. They both read the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible if you prefer. Yes, Marcion cut out large portions of scripture. But others such as Cerdo distinguish the one God from the Creator with their Old Testament in hand. How is this possible? Irenaeus explains with an illustration.

Scripture passages are like precious jewels or gems. Their proper interpretation is like “a beautiful image of a king . . . constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels” (1.8.1). His opponents “rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed” (1.8.1). (Marcion stands out from the crowd in that he actually discards many of the jewels of scripture.) Irenaeus’s task: restore “every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position” (1.9.4).

Gnostic Christianity divided from proto-orthodoxy over how to read the Old Testament. Rejecting Marcion’s rejection of scripture is not enough to steer clear of Gnosticism. One must read the Old Testament looking for the one to whom it testifies. The Nicene Creed asserts that the Creator in the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus. A Christian reading of the Old Testament today begins there.


What about the New Testament? Emil Brunner argues that “our understanding of the Old Testament is . . . decisive for our understanding of the New Testament.”[4] The New Testament alone allows perspectives that the Old Testament rejects. A New-Testament-only Christian has little protection from Gnostic Christianity.

For example, Brunner warns that our constant temptation is to Hellenize the New Testament. After all, the New Testament is a collection of Greek documents. Apart from the Old Testament’s influence, we might worship the God of the philosophers. If we attend to it, however, we learn that “God can be known as the personal God . . . the living God of the Old Testament.”[5] We encounter this living God in moral experience rather than in mere contemplation. We worship in community rather than isolation. The Old Testament makes a tremendous difference here.

Recall that Irenaeus charged Cerdo with setting God’s righteousness against God’s benevolence. Brunner claims, however, that “only in the Old Testament are the holiness and the love of God conceived as one, without either weakening the other.”[6] Indeed, those who neglect the Old Testament could miss this point. They might fail to grasp that God’s love is a holy love, a fire that consumes.

I could say much more, but I hope my point is clear. New Testament Christianity as such is under-determined. The Old Testament is the key to interpret the New. But one need not become a Marcionite to become a Gnostic. The Old Testament is still vulnerable to abuse if we neglect our main lesson. We Christians need to look for the Father of Jesus as the Creator in the Old Testament, and escape the ancient Gnostic trap.


[1] Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325–787): Their History and Theology, Theology and Life Series, v. 21 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 60.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 520.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Collection, ed. Philip Schaff, Catholic Edition (Catholic Way Publishing, 2014), Kindle edition.

[4] Emil Brunner, “The Significance of the Old Testament for Our Faith,” in The Old Testament and Christian Faith: A Theological Discussion, ed. Bernhard W. Anderson (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963), 246.

[5] Ibid., 254.

[6] Ibid., 256.

Image: Flickr (credit: theilr)

Also posted on medium.com.

PT Forsyth on doing theology

Theology simply means thinking in centuries. Religion tells on the present, but theology tells on the religion of the future and the race. Moreover, there are always natures among Christian people who refuse, and properly refuse, to remain satisfied with superficial experiences or current views of their faith. They are bound by the spirit that moves within them – by the kind of temperament God has given them they are bound to penetrate to the heart, to the depths of things. Their work does not immediately pay; and while they grind in their mill the Philistines mock and the libertines jeer. But it would be a great misfortune if the whole of the work of the Church were measured by the standard which is so necessary in the world – the standard of what will immediately pay, or promptly tell.

Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), 144.