Just Arrived: Sarah Coakley on the Trinity

ImageI am a few days away from getting on a plane to go and spend some time watching elephants. The crucial question, as always, is what books to take along for the ride. One theology book is allowed. The following introductory words to Sarah Coakley’s long awaited God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) place it high up on the list of possible options. I quote them here as an appetizer, to encourage you to purchase the first installment in what looks likely to be a major series of works in systematic theology (projected volumes include the titles Knowing Darkly, Punish and Heal, Flesh and Blood). Those titles suggest that Coakley’s approach to the task of systematic theology will be distinctive. I certainly know of no other work in that field that starts like this:

For this is a book about God, and more specifically about the Christian God. It is written for those who puzzle about how one might set about coming into relation with such a God in the first place; and who wonder how – without sacrificing either intellectual integrity or critical acumen – one might discover this baffling, alluring, and sometimes painful encounter to require thematizing in trinitarian terms: ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’. Further (and this may seem odd to the contemporary reader), this book is written in the fundamental conviction that no cogent answer to the contemporary Christian question of the trinitarian God can be given without charting the necessary and intrinsic entanglement of human sexuality and spirituality in such a quest: the questions of right contemplation of God, right speech about God, and right ordering of desire all hang together. They emerge in primary interaction with Scripture, become intensified and contested in early Christian tradition, and are purified in the crucible of prayer. Thus the problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the very questions that seem least to do with it, questions which press on the contemporary Christian churches with such devastating and often destructive force: questions of sexual justice, questions of the meaning and stability of gender roles, questions of the final theological significance of sexual desire. (pp.1–2)

Getting Barth Wrong: The Refusal of Human Agency

A number of people have devoted significant amounts of energy to show that Barth's commitment to the priority of divine action does not entail a concomitant refusal to attribute significance to human agency (John Webster's work on Barth's ethics comes immediately to mind). But today I came across John Flett's account of mission theologians who did read Barth in this way and who denied him any relevance for a theology of mission as a result (in his excellent book The Witness of God).  Here is the most extreme version of the misreading:

'Barth is consumed, even obsessed, by the desire to suppress the least tendency to minimize or relativize God's activity, and to establish with relentless completeness that human activity or participation is totally non-existent in the whole story of salvation.'

Hendrik Kraemer, Religion and the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 192.

Theological Papers on the Proposed Preamble of the Uniting Church

As some readers of this blog will know, at last year's UCA Assembly, substantial consideration was given to a proposed Preamble to the Church's constitution. The motion passed at Assembly and has now been sent for consideration by the Synods / Presbyteries etc. There are some fairly clear theological issues involved in the proposed wording, although the way in which those issues are understood and handled is much more difficult and complex.

Anyway, there are four papers discussing the theological issues that have been made available here.

Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth

This is the title of a recent little book by John Franke who teaches at the Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. As someone who has argued for a similar construal of the nature of biblical interpretation, I was interested to read Franke's theological defense of notions of plurality. The book is easy to read, and Franke is a good theologian. I guess, however, that it is written to help those whose own cultural or ecclesial location already tilts them in the directions that he lays out. My own experience in speaking about interpretative pluralism among Baptists in the UK suggested that for many people, there needs to be a much more extensive and rigorous demonstration of why many of the inherited and assumed epistemological models are problematic. (Incidentally, it is his concern to do this kind of ground clearing work that makes Douglas Campbell's book on Justification Theory in Paul 200 pages longer than it might have been – and all the better for it). Franke's book therefore provides a starting point – but the questions raised here require deeper levels of engagement with the tradition, the traditional views of truth, and with the contemporary implications for ecclesial life, biblical interpretation and theological method than we find here.

Here is an excerpt from Franke's conclusion:

'Plurality in the Christian community is not a problem to be overcome but is instead the very intention and blessing of God who invites all people to participate in the liberating and reconciling ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. the plurality of the church constitutes the manifold witness to the plurality of truth lived out in the eternal life of God, made known in the revelation of the Word of God, and exemplified in the pages of Scripture. We cannot bear this witness alone. we were never intensed to do so. we need each other. It cannot be otherwise.'

John R. Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, Living Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009. pp.136-137)

One might compare this view with that expressed in the quotation from Timothy Ward in his book on Scripture and God which I mention here. Mark Thompson also has a lengthy review of the book in which he argues for the kind of direct, unmediated form of divine revelation that Ward also endorses.

Bonhoeffer Blog Conference

Halden announces the first ever Blog Conference to engage with the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He writes:

I am happy to announce the First Annual Bonhoeffer Blog Conference.  The topic for this conference will be: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology.  The aim of this conference is to foster sustained reflections on Bonhoeffer’s last major theological work, Ethics and
to explore its implications within contemporary theological, ecclesial,
and political contexts.  While some spots are already filled (which
will be announced later), there is plenty of room for submissions and
proposals.  Any submission related to this general focus would be open
to consideration.  Creative approaches to the work of Bonhoeffer is

I anticipate that this conference will take place in early November,
2008.  Submissions can be emailed to me at
halden-at-wipfandstock-dot-com.  Also, if you wish to promote this
event on your own blogs, that would be appreciated.

It looks like an important event.  If it persuades a few more people to read the Ethics over the summer, then that will be no small gain.

Your First Day on Earth

One more thing about yesterday’s sermon.  Instead of taking the ‘waking / watchfulness’ texts and relating them to the usual idea of ‘live today as if it were your last’, we were encouraged to think about waking to each day ‘as if it were your first’.  That idea, combined with the exegesis of the ‘left behind’ motif in Matt. 24.40-41 mentioned in the previous post, just brought back to mind the following quotation from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead:

‘I feel sometimes as if I were a child
who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will
never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.  I know
all this is mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only
lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can’t believe
that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we
will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the
great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole
world to us.  In eternity, this world will be Troy, I believe, and all
that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they
sing in the streets.  Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this
one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.’ (p.65)