Thursday, April 16, 2015

Athanasius: The First Thing You Must Grasp

I hope you will forgive another post concerning creation and redemption. During Christmas I had opportunity to revisit The Incarnation by Athanasius. As I read, one theme kept reappearing in Athanasius as much as it had in other Patristics that I have read (particularly Irenaeus and the Cappodocians). That is, the centrality of the renewal of creation in early Christian theology. For the great defender of the Nicene faith, the connection between creation and redemption is essential to grasp.
You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning. - The Incarnation, 1.1
From the outset of his short meditation on the redemption won through Christ's incarnation, Athanasius is able to hold together the coherence between creation and salvation. Rather than running from anything physical, Athanasius maintains that physicality is not the problem, but rather a venue of God's glory in redemption. It's a coherence which is surely instructive for us today.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Hermeneutical Reflex: On Speech-Act Theory and Charitable Reading

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read and reflect on Speech-Act theory. For those a little fuzzy on the details, Speech-Act theory arose as a linguistic and philosophical response in the mid-twentieth century to the prevailing idea of the time that language is all about the mere transference of ideas. Speech-Act theory holds that language does more than convey bits of information. Rather, language is a medium by which persons performs actions in relation to another.

Implied within Speech-Acts theory is a wonderful anthropology in which humans are more than machines sending and receiving information. We are creatures who relate to one another, and language is part of that relating. In fact, language does something. We see this in cases such as during a wedding, when the minister declares the man and woman to be husband and wife. That is simply the conveyance of information; the declaration does something – it creates a whole new reality. 
Likewise in declaring a defendant to innocent or guilty, a magistrate is not merely communicating ideas, but doing something with her language. The classic example used by Speech-Act theorists such as J.L. Austin and John R. Searle would be a promise (although it applies to other areas of speech). In making a promise, I am binding myself certain obligations to keep my word. And they would argue, it entails you as the listener to certain duties to take me at my word.

Speech-Acts has been appropriated by several biblical scholars and theologians in the last 30-40 years or so. Some have used the theory to help interpret various illocutionary acts within scripture. Others have used it to develop a theological hermeneutic in which scripture is God’s Speech-Act, his divine discourse through which he speaks. Kevin Vanhoozer traces this to actions of the persons of godhead within the economic Trinity, which makes for interesting reading.

Part of the attraction of the Speech-Acts model for Christians has been the seriousness in which handles the authorial intent of scripture. The theory does not allow you to value you receivers’ interpretation over the text or the author, but appropriately respond to the rights of the author, text, and reader. For Vanhoozer, part of the way language works is that it creates covenants between people. Because language is more about action than representation, “this entails certain rights and responsibilities on the part of authors and readers.” For the reader, one of the obligations binding their reading is that the meaning of a text is not indeterminate or irrelevant, but determined by the conventions of both the author and the text. This means then that as we readers, we have a covenantal discourse duty to read charitably.

This is by no means the main point in terms of the appropriation of Speech-Acts for biblical studies, but vastly important none the less. Speech-Acts theory provides another plank for Christians to operate within an epistemology of hermeneutics. In fact, I am persuaded that to the degree that you apprehend your salvation by grace alone is the degree to which you will operate in epistemic humility. An epistemology that is marked and charged by grace must of necessity take people at their word, exercising a love and imagination that what people say, they will do. This does not rule out disagreeing with people – by no means! Nor does it rule out saying something is wrong. But because we are committed to understanding the intent of the speaker/author (that is, on their own terms), that means we are bound to listen/read people charitably. Or as was recently suggested in an excellent sermon I heard at college, disagreeing charitably with someone means representing them accurately rather than a straw man, such that they would agree with your description of their views.

During my reading I came across a suggestion from Mark Thompson that done well, criticism is an act of service for the reading community. Here are two very brief quotes that were used to make that point:
“ …the first task of the critic is respectfully to discern and accept the actual nature of what he or she is reading…” – Peter Jensen
“…the first hermeneutical reflex…should be charity towards the author.” – Kevin J. Vanhoozer.
The epistemic humility espoused by Speech-Acts theory is not opposed to criticism. That is all part of relating to people in a covenant of discourse.  But to be done well, it must of necessity be done charitably.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cross and Creation

A question I have been pondering over the last few days has been, ‘if you are weak on the doctrine of creation, does that lead to a weakness on the doctrine of the atonement?’ The doctrine of creation has increasingly become a hot button issue amongst evangelicals, and not just in the traditional areas of gender and marriage. Vocation and work, aesthetics, culture, ecological care, questions of continuity and discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation; these issues and more have been recently re-examined in light of a strong doctrine of creation.

What is a strong doctrine of creation? Merely that the doctrine is non-negotiable for the church. It is a creedal belief which is part of the fabric of Christian response to God's revelation. But more than this, a strong doctrine of creation would hold that this world which God said was ‘very good’ was made as a project – with a telos – which it will be brought to in Christ Jesus, through whom and for whom it was made. A strong doctrine of creation is complemented by a vigorous doctrine of new creation, both of which are bound together a doctrine of redemption which holds what God accomplished through his Christ was rescue his world from sin, death, and evil so that it might flourish as it was originally intended to.

I’ve been pondering my original question because I am increasingly getting the impression – from blogs, sermons, and conversations – that the doctrine of creation is seen to be a distraction from the priority of the gospel. On this line of reasoning, issues such as vocation and work, culture, ecology, aesthetics, and so on are also seen as a nuisance; a distraction from the center.

I’m not sure what quite motivates this line of thinking – perhaps it’s a fear that these other issues will mitigate evangelistic zeal, or that a strong creational line of thinking along these issues hasn’t adequately wrestled with the rupture of sin in creation. Suffice it to say that I don’t either of those hold to be true.

Instead I’m concerned with thinking through these issues which arise out of creation because I believe submitting every aspect of my life under Christ warrants it. What we find in scripture is that on the cross the Lord Jesus was atoning for the sins of the world, reconciling to God all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. The re-ordering of creation away from destruction and death towards its divinely ordained end only takes shapes in so far as Jesus makes peace through the blood of his cross.
“The reconciliation of all things to God can be achieved only by him who is at once Christ the creator and a human being who restores the project of creation to its proper destiny by what he does.” -Gunton
God created this world through and for the Son, so that it might be perfected in him, that the created order might under human dominion flourish and offer back to God the praise of our lips and the thanks of our hearts. Instead that order was inverted, as creation offered thanks and praise to itself, and directed itself towards death. On the cross we see the Son overcoming the forces opposed to creation’s flourishing through his cleansing of the pollution which had infiltrated and subverted creation as a result of human sin, that the world might be reconciled to God the Father. It is the resurrection of the crucified Christ which, according to Gunton, “realizes and guarantees that this man is the mediator of the reconciliation of all things.”

The point is this: if you divorce the cross from creation, you are at risk of missing what God was doing in the propitiatory death of his Son. Christian thinking on work or culture is all undertaken in light of this reality, that God made the world good, and having liberated it in Christ, he will bring it to completion in him. And as we live in this now/not yet phase, we look forward to that end, that telos, and live now in its light. For the Word has come in the flesh to renew the face of the earth.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Fullness of Time

Good Friday 2015 marks 1982 years to the day that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. The gap in time between now and then feels particularly large – in the two millennia which proceeded AD33, so much has changed, and so much time has passed. And the crucifixion of Christ is well and truly in the past. In our conception of time, one thing happens after another, when something is past, it is past. The present just is; it is homogeneous and univocal, extending a gulf between the past and the present.

The social imagery of time has not always been thus. During the Middle Ages, time was conceived of either belonging to either eternal or sacred time or the profane or mundane or secular time – saeculum. We would consider the later time normal time. However, mundane time could be punctuated by higher times, reordering the mundane and creating warps. According to Charles Taylor, ‘Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked.’ 

Our social encasing in secular time today has changed this conception. Our experience of time is seen as natural and not a construction. Time for us is a commodity not to be wasted. It is tightly organized and measured, which seems natural to us. For the Greek philosophers, the eternal time was the most real of time. What happened in ordinary time was the embodiment of what take place in higher times, the realm of Ideas as Aristotle called it. What happened in ordinary time was less real than the timeless, destined to exist as a shadow, or as the Stoics had it, to return to the original undifferentiated state after the great conflagration.

It was Augustine of Hippo who launched the sacred and secular into medieval social imagination. Without abandoning eternity, Augustine argued that what happened in ordinary time cannot be less than fully real. It is the realm in which God interacted with humans, placing them in the garden, forming a covenant with them in Palestine, promising them a son who would reign on the throne, raising one  from the dead who had been crucified. The Christian concept of time is different from the world it arose from; higher time is not timeless reality, but gathered time.

In Confessions XI, Augustine examination of lived time conceives of eternity not as Aristotle’s extensionless boundary of time periods, but ‘the gathering together of past into present to project a future. The past, which ‘objectively’ exists no more, is here in my present; it shapes this moment in which I turn to a future, which ‘objectively’ is not yet, but which is here qua project’ (Taylor: 2007).

For Augustine, rising to eternity is rising to participate in God's instant, as all times are present to him. He holds them all in this ‘extended simultaneity. His now contains all time.’ Ordinary time is dispersed time; we become cut off from our present and out of touch with our future. ‘We get lost in our little parcel of time’ says Taylor. But out of our longing for eternity, (for the one for whom we were made and our hearts our restless until they rest in him), we strive to go beyond our parcel, and invest it with eternal significance, which leads to idolizing things.

Eternity does not abolish time, but gathers it into an instant. In this social imaginary, ordinary time was punctuated and organized by the higher times. Ordinary time was not homogeneous, empty, or mutually interchangeable. It was space – instead ordinary time was ordered and coloured by its relation to higher times. It was the higher times of the liturgical calendar, with the remembrance and recapitulation of Christ’s time on earth, which ordered time.

This means that events can be situated in relation to more than one type of time. On this reasoning, this year’s Good Friday could be understood to be closer in time to the Crucifixion on 3 April 33 than 2 April 2015 would be. 

We don’t ordinarily think like this.Our celebration at church this year is more likely to be mnemonic rather than kairotic. But sitting there tomorrow, as we read the Gospel account of Jesus’ death 1982 years ago, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself from pondering.