Archive for June, 2020

Barth“In the relationship of man to God’s work and word there may exist not only an unhealthy undernourishment but an equally unhealthy overeating.  A man perhaps comes from a family and environment in which theology was not only the Alpha and Omega (as the case should be) but also the substitute, which it should not be, for all the other letters of his alphabet.  Or, as a novice, he has devoted himself to theology with the incomparable exclusiveness of a first love; and now he lives not only as a theologian in everything, but even entirely as a theologian alone, to the elimination of everything else.  He has no basic interest in the newspapers, novels, art, history, sport; and so he reveals that basically he has no interest in any man.  He is interested only in his theological work and in his theological concern.  Who is not acquainted with this situation? Not only are there students and professors of theology who go beyond their calling, but also preachers who live their whole life hermetically sealed off within their congregations.  They associate with other men only in an hypertheological way.  A dangerous business!…In this way a person can, in fact, destroy himself as a theologian.  The reason for this is not merely the great probability that such a person will fail in carrying out his experiment and will then inadvertently and without admitting it succumb once again, and perhaps quite thoroughly, to the syndrome of the two kingdoms [dualism, sacred/secular divide] and all its corollaries.  The major reason is that, like all hypertrophy, theological overemphasis demonstrably leads all too easily to satiety, in this case to what was called in the ancient monastic language the mortal sin of taedium spirituale, the spiritual boredom, from which only a small step is needed to arrive at skepticism.  Concentrated theological work is a good thing, or even the best thing, but exclusive theological existence is not a good thing.  Such existence, in which a man actually plays the deadly role of a God unconcerned about his creation, must sooner or later inevitably lead to doubt, in fact to radical doubt.” (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, pp. 115-16)

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Protests“The oppression of human beings is a humiliation of God…Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern.  It is not only a relationship between human and human, it is an act involving God, a divine need…Justice is as much a necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation…The prophets’ preoccupation with justice and righteousness has its roots in the powerful awareness of injustice.  That justice is a good thing, a fine goal, even a supreme ideal, is commonly accepted.  Moralists of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue.  The distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression, in their comprehension of social, political, and religious evils.  They were not concerned with the definition, but with the predicament, of justice, with the fact that those called upon to apply it defied it…Justice is scarce, injustice exceedingly common.  The concern for justice is delegated to the judges, as if it were a matter for professionals or specialists.  But to do justice is what God demands of every person: it is the supreme commandment, and one that cannot be fulfilled vicariously…The logic of justice may seem impersonal, yet the concern for justice is an act of love…God rules the world by justice and compassion, or love.  These two ways are not divergent, but rather complementary, for it is out of compassion that justice is administered.” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets)

In the Talmud it is written: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Self-destructive impatience with slow progress and despair over the possibility of genuine, lasting transformation are both flawed responses to the seemingly intractable presence of injustice in the world.  They are real temptations for us today, given the pervasive racial injustices so long entrenched in the United States.  Psalms 9 and 10 (originally a single psalm) are perhaps the pre-eminent protests in the Psalter for the implementation of social justice and against the oppressive presence of the wicked and powerful.  Here lament is interspersed with raw, outraged and yet confident cries for God to “rise up” and do something about the injustices that rage on unchecked in the world and that consume and devastate the vulnerable and marginalized.

It is undeniable that much more than prayer is needed right now–and quite often, mostly something else than just prayer alone.  Yet impassioned, expectant prayer is still critical and as Christians we must not forget, minimize or neglect its role in our lives and in God’s unfolding purposes in history.  God is a real actor on the world’s stage and His agency is not simply a dim reflection of our actions in history.  In Psalms 9-10, the people of God protest and insist that God arise and intervene to do that which we cannot, even as we strive to do what we can and should and must. God’s action in the world does not rule out our action, and often works precisely through our actions.  But there is always more to the story than what we aspire to do or are able to accomplish.  The prayer-less state of so many Christians and churches today testifies to our forgetfulness of this truth, to our underestimation of the sheer potential and power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead after the injustice of his suffering.

Moreover, prayer can form us to be a faithful, just people who can be sustained upon the hard, demanding course of advocating for and engaging in transformative change in the world and in our communities.  Apart from God’s help and support, all too often the early passions and enthusiasms of activism and advocacy can turn into cynicism, despair, exhaustion, manipulation, hatred, or sheer complacency with the status quo.  Too many seemingly successful revolutionaries have become the next tyrants and oppressors in the world’s annals.  We pray ceaselessly so that we can engage and work and labor tirelessly and enduringly for the long haul.  The coming of the kingdom into this present evil age is a marathon, not a sprint.  The people of God need to be trained to become people who are able to be just and to act justly–and this does not come naturally or easily or quickly to any of us.  We cannot bequeath to the world what we ourselves do not have; society will not be influenced in directions that we do not ourselves embody.  The tragic lack of our formation as a people and the superficiality of our discipleship in large swaths of the church that seasons like these reveal is terrifying and problematic.  Being a people who learn to take the language of the cry for social justice in Psalms 9-10 upon our own lips, to make it our own and to have its (theo-) logic shape our lives is one important way–though not the only one–to begin to experience such formation, so that we might be available for and useful to what God desires to do, rather than just another part of the problem.

Please join us for a meditation on Psalms 9-10 and a time of silence and prayer this Thursday, June 11th at 7pm (Eastern).  Here is the Zoom link:



“Rise up, O Lord–O God, lift up your hand.  Do not forget the afflicted.  Why has the wicked despised God.  Why does he say to himself, ‘He won’t call me to account’?  But you do see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand.  The victims commit themselves to you, for you have been the helper of the fatherless.  Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.  Call their wickedness to account until you find none.  The Lord is king forever and ever; the wicked nations will perish from the earth.  O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted. You will strengthen their heart. You will incline your ear and listen, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that human beings who are of the earth may strike terror no more.” (Psalm 10:12-18)

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Oliver O’Donovan writes this incredible overview on the interpretation of Scripture under a sub-heading entitled “Receiving the Testimony”:

O'Donovan“The prayer for the disclosure of God’s purposes is answered by the Spirit-filled community of witness ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).  A community is constituted by a communication.  The communication of any specific thing, whether food, care, or human affection, is founded on a communication of meaning, the shared intelligence of the reality.  In this great chain of communication all who believe are empowered to participate.  It is the founding ‘work’ of love to receive the communication and to share it with one another.

We participate by receiving the communication.  Attending to what is said is our first concrete moral undertaking, the material form in which we exercise responsibility for self-disposal.  ‘Take care how you hear!’ warned Christ (Mark 4:24).  Hearing admits us, for good or ill, to a community of thought.  The thought may be false, the community destructive; that is the danger of hearing, the reason for taking care.  But discernment is possible…

As we pay attention to the report, so we take note not only of its content but also its form: its strong claims and modest silences, its logical progressions and its fault lines, its authorizing references and unsupported ventures.  The form of the report is no mere envelope for the content; it is the dynamic structure that interprets it.  By it we judge the report’s coherence with reality.  To the task of hearing carefully we bring a distinctive practice, a kind of ‘hearing’ which is not quickly taken captive to the clamor of voices.  This is the reading of texts.  In reading we set ourselves at a judicious distance from the immediate, we consider reports from another place and time, ‘examining the texts each day to see if these things were so’ (Acts 17:11).  Mere textuality is of itself, of course, no guarantee of considered reflection…The distinctive strength of textual communication…is its power to cover distance, to open up historical and local views not accessible to immediate exchange.  Literary communication thrives on distance, for writing postpones the encounter with truth, allowing it the time to take place when the conditions are ready: ‘What was written in former times was written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15:4).  It is for this reason that the spread of literacy has been the most important and indispensable step of enlightenment, central to the spread of the Gospel, to be mentioned first in any account of Christian works in civilization.

In the very acts of writing and reading certain claims to authority are made and conceded…Is not the whole enterprise of serious reading a prolonged search for a ‘first text,’ a ‘classic’ that can measure all texts? And here we come face to face with the logic of a canonical text.  Theology cannot discard that logic…In the Scriptures the church holds the written testimony of prophets and apostles attesting the work and words of God.  The church owns the unique authority attaching to the innermost circles of testimony, the writings of the generation that ‘looked upon and touched with our hands the word of life’ (1 John 1:1).  Divine act and self-testimony come first, Scripture follows; there can be no inversion of that order.  Yet if we would hear the divine act and self-testimony at all, it must be through the writers whose unique role it is to tell them…What is at stake is nothing less than the catholicity of the church…for the condition of being acknowledged is to acknowledge…Bishop to bishop, church to church, servant of God to servant of God, the greetings of those who read the same apostolic texts confirm the intercommunicating structure of the apostolic churches.  So the multiplying cells of the Christian community establish themselves as one holy, catholic, and apostolic church by shared reading.

It was no luxury for the early churches, this literary connection with the apostles; it is no luxury for us that we should hear words addressed by the apostles to the earliest communities and should enter into their communications.  It is the condition of our own relation to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the work of God in him.  The canonical Scripture draws its authority from the central, normative strand in history, the coming of the Christ.  The privileged book witnesses to privileged events…Reading of Scripture proceeds on the basis that this text has been received, with all its remoteness and all its nearness, with its immediate appeal and its strange distance, that it has been received from a source that cannot be ignored, and that it cannot simply be taken up in any way and from any point of view that happens to strike us, but must be read interrogatively by a community that looks to it for its identity.  In the church’s worship the lectern is at the center.  No act is so fundamental to its catholic identity as reading.  This is not to devalue preaching, singing, prayer, let alone sacramental act, all of which find their authorization through reading…

These remarks on reading embrace in principle everything that needs to be said about interpretation.  There is, to be sure, good reading and bad, careful reading and careless, and we must distinguish them…We soon fall back into a stereotyped division between the Protestant ‘reader’ and the Catholic ‘interpreter,’ the one suspected of idiosyncrasy, the other of authoritarianism.  Whatever special roles and ministries the church may develop for interpretation—the pulpit, the academic commentary, theological reflection, the magisterium—the heart of the matter is that all readers are interpreters and interpretation is necessary for reading.  Good interpretation never struggles against the text, reading, as the fashion is, ‘against the grain,’ deconstructing the textual surface and showing it up as a confidence trick.  Good interpretation never tries to bargain with the text, forging a compromise between what it says and what we would like to hear from it.  It never supplements the text, overlaying it with independent reflections that head off on their own devices, never invokes a higher wisdom to cover the text’s nakedness.  Interpretation is the cheerful acceptance of the text’s offer of more than lies on its surface, its invitation to come inside, to attune ourselves to its resonances and its dynamics, its suggestions and its logic…At which point the excitement of discovery may lead us to make a bad mistake: we imagine we have wrung this historical information out of reluctant text, and forget that everything we have learned was simply what the text showed us.  No ‘method’ of ours—none, at any rate, that can be trusted—has not been shaped by the text itself, its points of connection and transition, its juxtapositions, its haltings and hesitations, its ambiguities, its strands of consistent and confident narrative.  The text has disclosed itself and its background.  If we suppose we have defeated it in battle like some Goliath, we shall, no doubt, triumphantly cut off its head.  We shall then be fools twice over: first in conceiving that our cunning overcame the text when the text overcame our naïve simplicity, second in not allowing the text to overcome our second simplicity, which is the pride we take in analysis to the neglect of a synthetic understanding of the text as a whole.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 132-36)

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