Reading Notes 7/14/2014

I’m nearing the end of Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’, and so far, the most interesting part has been his placing Jesus in the tradition of failed Messiah-kings (Wright cites Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Bar-Kosiba and Herod as examples of failed Messiah-kings, then shows how Jesus is the actual king who inaugurates both the new creation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven). Interesting fleshing out of this idea. A lot of the book is fairly basic Wright themes – if you’ve read his weightier books, then this one will seem pretty repetitive.

I’ve been reading more closely Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and aspects of it are very interesting. As far as a survey of various strands of existentialism throughout history, it’s a great book, but his theology, if you can call it that (it’s more of trading theology for ontology, and ontology of existential psychology) isn’t really worth much. He strikes me as fairly Wittgensteinian in his ‘theology’, which upon close examination, turns out to be more of a semiology than theology. So basically, he goes from theology to ontology, from ontology to psychology, and then from psychology to semiology. A note I found very interesting was his classifying Plato as existentialist, on account of (for Tillich) Plato’s philosophy ultimately showing that man is estranged from his essential essence.

I started going back over some of Brian Greene’s physics books – ‘The Hidden Reality’ and ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’, to learn more about inflationary cosmology. What a fantastic teacher of physics – it took a minute of reading, but he broke down IC in such an easy way that even I was able to grasp the broader principles behind it. His use of analogy and metaphor in place of dense mathematics is brilliant. I tried reading Susskind’s ‘The Theoretical Minimum’, and there was just too much math – for someone as terrible at math as me, that’s basically a non-starter.

Bruggemann’s ‘Old Testament Theology’ is continuing to be a solid, challenging book. I disagree with his methodology, almost in its entirety, but a lot of his conclusions and exegesis is pretty solid. His emphasis on the rhetorical nature of the OT as well as thinking of the OT in solely in the category of ‘witness’ is a very fruitful avenue. His flippant dismissal of Christian interpretations of the OT isn’t as fruitful, though. It’s odd (I mentioned this in an earlier post on this book) that someone so willing to interpret the OT along post-modern/critical lines (which is fine – I’m not one of those anti-PoMo Christians), which is a very foreign category to the OT, simply dismisses Christian interpretations (for example, the OT being a ‘pointer’ or ‘witness’ to Christ) as wrong.

Kenneth Kitchen’s ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ is a tour de force of OT archaeology and interpretation. While the style is as engaging as the nutrition facts on a cereal box, the content is fantastic and the attention to detail is rigourous to a fault – I read through half a dozen pages comparing styles of architecture among ancient near eastern temples, grain prices, slave prices, etc. Great content, terrible style.



Reading Notes 7/6/14

I received N.T. Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’ the other day, and it’s a great book so far. Wright’s popular works are for the most part pretty well-written, but they do tend to require a pretty full engagement with his more academic works to really make sense – i.e., he uses a lot of ideas he’s developed at length in more academic works without unpacking them in his shorter, more popular works, so there is the potential for confusion there.

Read an interesting essay by Edward Feser on the concept of ‘laws of nature’ as understood in the modern sciences – his thesis is that they are a theological formulation designed to replace the Aristotliean concept of ‘law of nature’ which was based on things like immanent essences and substantial forms – pretty interesting.  Read it here (still no hyperlinks, sadly): If you’re itnerested in philosophy of science you’ll enjoy this article.

Any Lovecraft fans read this blog? I have the ‘Necronomicon’, a lovely best-of collection of his works. I prefer his short-medium length stories over his longer works personally. He’s quite adept at crafting an atmosphere of unease – and his use of old-thyme language and names lends a quasi-biblical feel to his stories. Personal favourites would be Innsmouth, Colour Out of Space, Dunwich Horror and most of the other shorter stories.

N.T. Wright on Repentance

‘Repentance’, in a good many texts, was what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end. Though the Greek word metanoia and its cognates, which occur in the gospels with this meaning, are rare in the Septuagint – and when they do occur, they refer, more often than not, to YHWH himself ‘repenting’ – the first-century sense of the word encapsulates a range of meanings expressed in other ways in the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translations. Deuteronomy spoke of Israel ‘returning’ to YHWH with her whole heart; this would be the condition of her forgiveness and of the return from exile. In Deuteronomic terms, this would mean a return to the shema, to the love of YHWH alone with all the heart. The prophets regularly used the term ‘repent’ to denote the turning to YHWH which would result in restoaration, return from exile. Indeed, the word shub and epistrephein, since they mean ‘return’, hint constantly, particularly in Jeremiah, that for Israel to ‘return’ to YHWH with all her heart is the crucial thing that will enable her to ‘return’ to her own land. The whole point of passages like Daniel 9, Ezra 9 or Nehemiah 9 is that these great prayers of repentance – and we must be careful not to confine our thinking simply to occurrences of shub and epistrephein – are prayers precisely designed to bring about the return from exile. (We may note once again that all three books are clearly ‘post-exilic’ in the normal sense, and yet still seeking the real ‘return’.) (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, pp. 248-249)

N.T. Wright on Building for the Kingdom

‘…what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized,and directed by the Spirit, is to build *for* the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord *is not in vain*. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of His creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Surprised by Hope’, p. 208)

Wright and Dogmatics

I commented on a blog yesterday that N.T. Wright is trying to say a lot of what the dogmatic tradition is trying to say – i.e Chalcedon – but using different language. By this I mean that Wright is trying to explain (for example) the relations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Jesus’ self-understanding without using the same grammar. Instead of nature, substance, essence, hypostatic union, etc, Wright is using Jewish grammar – Wisdom, Word, etc, to explain the relations between the Trinity and Jesus’ humanity/divinity.

This is not an arbitrary move. Wright sees the classical grammar not as wrong per se – he’s not one of those ‘damn you and your Pagan Greek philosophy!’ types – but as unnecessary, because had the Church not strayed from (to paraphrase Wright) the secure harbours of Jewish thought, she would have seen that, though different, more subtle and more nuanced, Scripture came with Trinitarian/christological grammar built in, and not had to develop the grammar that it did.

Wright is hardly above criticism in this. He doesn’t seem to want to integrate what he’s saying with the dogmatic tradition – which is just odd. His christology leaves something to be desired. His ideas on election aren’t very fleshed out. A lot of his ideas in general aren’t spelled out with systematic rigour. These are all things he needs to reckon with.

History, Theology, and Methodology

The following post is a guest post from a good friend of mine, David Hemlock, which was originally an answer to a question I asked about the nature of historical method and theological truth, pertaining specifically to N.T. Wright, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. David’s brilliant blog can be found here:

‘The historical is not “the real” (even Ranke probably didn’t go that far (in the U.S. historians “traditionally” translated the German eigentltlich as “actually” though it really means “essentially,” Ranke’s “geshichte wie es eigentilich gewesen/history as it essentially happened” was widely misunderstood as meaning “history as it actually happened”). It is, rather, the result of an attempt of contingent finite human minds to reconstruct the probable (or in some cases today, expedient) past. The same methodology that can illuminate the ancient landscape can artificially circumscribe it as any basic study of the host of so-called authenticity criteria in the New Quest and Third Quest for the historical Jesus should reveal to the careful student.

The 19th century Quest for the historical Jesus came to its final end (before being succeeded by the New Quest and so-called Third Quest) with the observation that its principle historians were like men peering into a deep well who failed to realize that they were in the final analysis seeing their own reflection. Subsequent methodologies -even good ones!- can also function as a hermeneutical circle where whatever gains in resolutions appear in the center of the image produced also carry a probability of distortion especially along the margins.

To get back to Bishop Wright’s approach, while 2nd Temple Judaism is a good check against Roman Catholic and Reformation ideologies never existing before the medieval period, I think it in a less criteriologically “infallible”) position in application to early Christianity. Early Christianity I think of as being as much a corrective to much of 2nd Temple Judaism as also a fulfillment and outgrowth of Judaism, and as well an *addendum* of progressive revelation that can in no wise in every case be crammed into the old wineskins that preceded it. This was the teaching of all the apostolic fathers (i.e. those directly knowing or directly appointed by an apostle or an immediate disciple of an apostle).

For example I would say “yes” to the NPP but “no” to a rejection (of) Chalcedon. I suspect Nestorius himself could have approved on the basis of 2nd Temple Judaism knowing nothing of “divine nature” talk (which also so happens to be New Testament talk). Yet methodologically these are out-workings of the same horizontal/epistemological/rationalist principle, which was earlier described as “historical” as opposed to “dogmatic”, but might just as easily be termed (correct me if I am wrong) “dogmatic” in its own right, for not even second temple Judaism used historical critical method to circumscribe what God might reveal in the present to what was culturally or theologically conceivable to previous generations. To be sure it should not be radically incompatible, but radically new wine is not per se something that I would regard as a theological problem. And to be *really* nit-picky, should historical method on this grounds (2nd Temple Judaism not knowing the method any more than it knew of medieval ontology etc.) be criteriologically/methodologically be excluded from the theological task? (extreme example -sauce for the goose and all that).

If the NT and the apostolic fathers (by which we mean those who directly knew or were appointed by an apostle or their immediate disciple) seem at points XYZ to possess wine that would explode a 2nd Temple Jewish wineskin, on what grounds should we insist the old wineskins are criteriological for spiritual truth if revelation is progressive?

Bishop Wright is a noble proponent of the Renaissance tradition of foundationalist application of historical critical method. But that is not to my mind the same thing as theology. If it was, the wise and intelligent with the proper method is the group with eyes to see. Where is the wise, or the scribe is to be answered with the raise of the scholar’s hand. Scripture and tradition in Orthodoxy, by contrast, is received as light bearing because it flows through the ancient and continuing lineage of the experience of God-bearing persons, as opposed to more foundationalist approaches which ground truth horizontally, e.g. in an Infallible Book (much of Protestantism -Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Donald Bloesch and the like are obvious exceptions), an Infallible Man (Latin Catholicism/officially only since 1870), Infallible (more or less) Historical Method/s etc. Truth is the revelation of the incarnate Christ, the Holy Spirit, experience of God-bearing/illuminated saints rather than methodological application of scientific hermeneutic methodologies whether ancient or modern.

Even within Orthodoxy, with scripture and Tradition at our disposal, truth is living, not methodological, not restricted to any horizontal dimension, and only properly received by a repentant sinner (“open our eyes, Lord, that we might see glorious things from thy Law”). This is *not* to say that the methodological study of historical criticism, hermeneutics, exegesis, etc. are rendered irrelevant; tacitly or explicitly truth of which the Church is a pillar and ground may run congruent with some authoritative method like rabbinical midrash, historical criticism, etc., but never in the sense of truth being reducible to some horizontal reality. Christ is the foundation; Christ is the truth; the Church is the pillar and ground and witness/martyr. Even if a book, an appointed authority, or some presumably infallible method could “speak” infallibly it cannot be heard except by the ears of a repentant sinner, hence the locus of truth is not the “authority” (more of a Latin Catholic/Protestant/contemporary academic preoccupation, I think); Christ Himself is the truth, and the Church as a whole is His body. Apologies for being so lengthy, but the sum of it is that I think of authenticity criteria of any kind, Wright’s included, in the same manner as the ancient Greek tragedies regarded their heroes greatest strength as often paradoxically displaying not only a fatal weakness, but a fatal weakness with potential to actually undo the hero at the end of the day.’