Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Starting Point for Theology

Where should we start in our theologies? My answer is different from much of theology- historic, past and contemporary theology. Much of past theology starts with general "God" and/or knowledge of this God, which often led to many different conclusion, something we should find odd considering their starting points were the same. Schleiermacher, appropriately titled the "Father of Modern (Liberal) Theology," was, as is popular among liberal (as well as emergent) theology, began with the knowledge of self. This led him to develop a very bad theology of "feeling." Barth saw that he got it wrong, leading men like Feuerbach to reject Christianity altogether and yet keep the religious "feeling" around as if it were something naturalistic, and determined that theology's starting point must be revelation. And while he tries to keep his theology of revelation trinitarian, and while there is much truth and much to be gleaned and still being a good effort, I think he is still missing the point. Again, post-liberals get it wrong as well when they begin with Christ. Ontologically, Christ cannot come before the Trinity. The Trinity is ontologically more fundamental to God. And that is why I think we need to start with the Trinity in our theology, especially our systematic theology.

The Trinity is who God is. Times have changed, so starting with a general "God" or knowledge of "God" like men like Calvin and Aquinas did in their systematic theologies just does not do anymore. We have to be specific. We are, then, talking about the Christian God, and the Christian God is the Trinity. We cannot start with Jesus and expect to get where we are supposed to Go. If we start with Jesus, we will end up with conclusions about what the Trinity is like. This makes about as much sense as starting with a cake and, after eating it, describing what the flour used to make the cake is like. Perhaps that was a bad analogy, but what I'm trying to say is that the Trinity is ontologically primary. To start with Jesus will end up giving you false conclusions about what the Trinity is or what the persons of the Trinity are like or what their missions/functions in the world are. We don't start with Jesus and move to the economic Trinity. We start with the economic Trinity and move to Jesus. We cannot understand Jesus' work without the Father's work or the Spirit's work in salvation. A wonderful (or terrible) example of the wrong conclusions one will gather is found in post-liberal theologian Kathryn Tanner's brief systematic theology, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. As the title suggests, she begins with Jesus and finishes with the Trinity (not literally finishes with the Trinity; she literally finishes with eschatology, but understanding Jesus comes before the Trinity in the title and the text). (To read my full review of Tanner's book, click here.)

My final point is that the Trinity is what gives us our understanding of God as relational. God is ontologically relational. Our epistemology must then start with the Trinity, because the only way we could ever know God is that he be relational. This necessitates us looking to the Trinity, and not just a general deity, like the theologians like Calvin or Aquinas. (Of course here I recognize that when these men spoke of "knowledge of 'God'" they meant the Christian God, however today we must make the distinction, otherwise we might end up like Tillich, where God is not really God but rather is more of some sense of divine being, that is existence, while refraining from being an existent.) So then, if we want to know how we can know anything about God, our epistemology is then forced to begin with an eternally relational being, and we know that being to be the Trinity, since we do and can know things about God.

In conclusion, I want to note that I don't think that I am some revolutionary who thinks everyone does (or at least starts) theology wrong. I am not. I don't know of anyone who has started a systematic text with the Trinity itself, but still I am not presumptuous to think that I am the first to think of or do it. However, I know that as a Christian, there is almost always a right way and a wrong way of doing things (or at the very least a bad way, good way, better way, and best way), and I think starting with the Trinity is the right/best way.

Hopefully this made sense. I mostly typed this all out to get all of my thoughts together about the subject. Maybe it made some of you think, and maybe it made some of you think I am an idiot. Ha! Either way, I hope it was edifying and glorifying.

Thanks for reading.

Review of Kathryn Tanner's Systematic Theology

*This is my review of Kathryn Tanner's book Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, and was written as a paper for my contemporary theology class. So, yes, there is a reason it was written like this.

            The book that was chosen for review was Kathryn Tanner’s work Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, which is what she describes as a brief systematic theology. (And brief is an accurate description.) She stated that the purpose of writing this book is because of the situation all Christians find themselves in. That is, to “figure out for him or herself what Christianity is all about” (p. xiii). This is what she describes the task of systematic theology as being: an effort to figure out what one believes. Systematic theology, she says, offers a vision of the whole, and brings together all the different elements of Christian involvement into a unity around some organized center or centers. She says that she is offering this systematic text as an “an essential demand of everyday living” instead of a “bleak and dry academic exercise” (p. xiii). However, she recognizes that figuring out what Christianity is all about, that is, systematic theology does in fact require intellectual effort. This, she says, is a challenge that should be taken up by all Christians throughout the course of their everyday lives, however, academic theologians have their own contributions to make on the basis of their advanced skill and training, and this book is a demonstration of this. Tanner claims that as an academic theologian, she has at her disposal a broader than average knowledge of theology, of the different Christian Traditions, as well as books and information by and for these particular academics and elites. Although the vast amount of information to cover may seem to be daunting, she also believes it can be freeing. To weave together and construct a theology from the whole provides direction, and direction is essentially the ultimate purpose of systematic theology as a discipline for Tanner. Tanner also noted that this contribution to systematic theology is quite brief. She made clear that this was only a “kernel of [her] own attempt” at a systematic text. She intends to develop the systematic theology she sketches here in a much larger book or books (p. xviii). This is why much is left unaddressed. But what is addressed, I will discuss later in this paper.
            Tanner did not make it perfectly clear who her audience is. It seemed in the beginning of the introduction that she was writing more towards an audience of less educated, lay people. However, upon reading the text myself, I have concluded that this is very probably not the case. It seems that, perhaps, she is writing to the educated, yet not the elite. Perhaps she is writing to undergraduate and graduate students, but certainly not to any educated professional theologians. This alone makes much sense, but Tanner does not make this clear anywhere in the work that I could find.
            The text is divided into four main parts or chapters. These chapters are as follows: 1) Jesus, 2) The Theological Structure of Things, 3) The Shape of Human Life, and 4) The End. In other words, the text is divided into Christology, a type of Theology, Anthropology, and Eschatology, respectively.
The Argument
            Being a systematic text, Tanner does not have just one overarching argument guiding each chapter or section, but she does have a clear focus; that focus is that Jesus is the center of each and every aspect of Christian theology and what he means for life in the world. In the first chapter she reworks different strands of the early church’s accounts of Christ to address “modern concerns with human agency and freedom and modern emphases on conflict and process in human history” (p. 1). In the second chapter she situates this reworked Christology and the implications it has on how we should then live “within the broadest cosmo-theological frame” (p. 1). In the third chapter she discusses the ethical and socio-political implications (viz., Christian action) of the theological structure she develops in chapter two. And in the final chapter she discusses the end of things in Christ.
            In the first section, developing her Christology, she follows closely to Athanasius when she argues that if the Word is God of the universe and he has united himself with the whole, then it should be no surprise that he became human (incarnation). The effect of this perfect union is perfect humanity in God. In the second section, she argues that God is to be understood as a divine gift-giver. This is argued in Trinitarian terms, that creation is a sort of overflow of giving to the other members of the Trinity (especially the second person), and as creation God desires to give to us. In the third section, Tanner argues that how we live is based upon understanding God as the gift-giver. She argues that as God is overflowing in his gifts toward us, we should overflow in gift giving and goods distributing to others as well. Finally, in the last section, she argues that though our efforts (section 3) come to nothing, there is still purpose in doing them; namely, we imitate Christ by living in God and leading a life that reflects Christ’s.
Judgment of the Argument
            In regards to the argument, the book is divided very well and I commend Tanner for that. Each argument is wholly contingent upon the previous argument, except of course the first, and the transitions are very logical. So, is the argument coherent, misinformed, or illogical? I doubt that the argument is any of those very much. The argument is quite coherent and flows very beautifully from one section to the next. Tanner was extraordinarily well informed, citing numerous church fathers and classic and contemporary theologians in both the Catholic and Protestant Traditions (hardly going a page without at least mentioning Barth). Was her argument illogical? I should not say so. It was great to see an argument that flowed so naturally. That is not to say that one cannot disagree with many of her conclusion, as I certainly do, but where the premises inevitably led is where she followed. I will elaborate. Her first argument began Christologically. She argued if the Second Person of the Trinity were to become assume humanity, then humanity would be, in this incarnation, perfected in its relations with God, if not immediately then at least in the eschaton. What then followed was the question of who God is. She determined that God, as Trinity, is the ultimate, divine gift-giver. Creation, specifically humanity, as a sort of overflow of giving within the Trinity and having been perfected in its relationship to God by the Word’s assumption of flesh is now on the receiving end of God’s perfect gift giving. God’s gift giving, though, is utterly unconditional. It is not just unconditional in its distribution to creatures, but is unconditional in and of its giving. This is to say, God is not only irrespective of whom he bestows gifts upon (because the gifts he gives are really himself, and the “himself” he gave assumed humanity and so is given to humanity), but he expects nothing in return and is really sacrificing nothing in giving us the gifts, as well. He expects nothing in return from us because God is perfectly complete in himself. God as Trinity gives himself as gift to humanity, which leads to how we should live as those who have received from God and are now in Christ. She argues that we are to be images of Christ, as the image of God, who is the unconditional gift giver. The unconditional aspect was intriguing. Because God did not sacrifice in giving, Tanner argues, we then should not live lives of self-sacrifice. She says in one part, “such suffering is not self-sacrificial in Christ’s life and therefore neither should it be in ours” (p. 76). Such unconditionality means for us that we should not suffer for others’ sakes, because God did not really suffer or sacrifice in giving to us. This is problematic but I will return to it later. Following this, though, brings in the subject of eschatology. The fact that the universe is heading towards destruction is faced, and the question of why our actions matter if everything will eventually go to ruin anyway. How does this eschatology, a world without a future, stimulate any action for the better in this life? Her answer is that by living in God, we have eternal life now, and so “complacency is ruled out not by a transcendent future but by a transcendent present- by present life in God as the source of goods that the world one lives in fails to match” (p. 120).
            Obviously these arguments flow, but do they work? Here we have to ask, “Really?” Does a present reality of knowing that we, as well as the rest of humanity, have eternal life presently actually motivate us to change this one? It seems highly doubtful. In fact, it seems like it is even doubtful to her. What if changing or acting in this life required suffering? Then we need not change or act, because our actions and giving should be unconditional and “non-competitive” (p. 2)- even to us, so that nothing is taken from us. The problem that I have found with any notion of universal salvation, as will be discussed later, is that it causes Christian action, or “gift giving” to use Tanner’s language, to cease. Tanner saw this problem, albeit in a different way, and still knew she had to answer it. The problem is, I am not convinced that her answer is sufficient. It almost seems like her answer to the question, “Why do we still act or give if the world has no future?” is just, “We act and give because we know God is going to save us all.” But this really does not make any sense if held up to evaluation. Or if it does, I am having a hard time seeing it.
            Are there more problems raised than solved? She probably answered all of the questions that she originally raised, but I do think she raised some more problems as well, and I think that this is a product of answering the right questions in the wrong way. For example, she began her work with a chapter on Jesus. This only seems like the right move if, like Barth, Jesus is the answer to the problem of revelation. However, this is not what she is answering. What I am trying to convey here is that she moved from a person of the Trinity, to the Trinity, back to what a person of the Trinity means for us in light of the Trinity, to how we should then live in light of what a person of the Trinity means for us in light of the Trinity. She should have begun with the Trinity and then moved to Jesus. The Trinity ontologically precedes Jesus, so why put Jesus first? I think this is the root of her problems to come, especially the universalism she dabbles with, the eschatology she puts forward, as well as the way in which a Christian lives. Had she started with the Trinity, she might not have arrived at an understanding of God as primarily a gift giver, because I am not convinced that, ontologically, God is necessarily a gift giver. If then she arrived at a different understanding of God, the rest of the book would have been entirely different.
            This book is intriguing. It is thought provoking. But it has many problems, the least of which is that it is much too short. What Tanner developed in only a sentence should have been dealt with in several pages. For such a Christocentric theology, only thirty-five pages were given to the section on Christ. Like I said previously, Tanner’s argument flows quite naturally, but her conclusions are faulty, mostly because her starting point was, I think, wrong. I enjoyed reading it; but is it so valuable that I would recommend it? I doubt that I would.
            What in my experience affirms or contradicts what this author says? I mentioned it previously, but here I will expand on it. Her understanding of the incarnation, no doubt caused by her starting with Jesus instead of the Trinity, is that the Word assumed humanity, and in such perfected the relationship between God and humanity. She says, “By assuming human nature in all its embodied connectedness and embeddedness in its physical surroundings, the Word in Christ joins the human as well as the natural world with God” (p. 38). Here she is only dipping her toes in the pool of universalism, but only a few pages later she dives right in. She says, “Christ can so draw everyone (once again) not so much because the humanity assumed in Christ is common to both Christ and us, but because the second Person of the Trinity is the one who assumes it. The universal range of the incarnation’s effects follows form the universal range of all the son’s workings… What the Son did in the life that Jesus led was for the sake of all of us” (p. 54). Her reasons for universalism are stated thus, “This unconditionality of God’s giving implies the universal distribution of God’s gifts… Because it has no pre-conditions, God’s giving as creator is universal in scope; everything that is benefits” (p. 88). In my own experience, it seems that it is universalism that kills Christianity through its implications. I think Tanner even recognized that. This, I believe, is why Tanner was forced to ask the question about why we should even continue to work, act, or give. Unfortunately, I also do not think she answered the question well. Her answer seemed like a “we do it because we do it” kind of answer. This universalism also led her to the conclusion that our lives as Christians should not be a life of self-sacrifice because Christ’s ultimately was not a sacrifice. What then happens to missions and evangelism? We can see this play out clearly in some of the more liberal mainline denominations, who have adopted a more Inclusivist understanding of salvation. One such denomination supports fewer than 225 missionaries, despite having over 2 million members. These are the real-life effects of such a theology, and they are in contradistinction to the commands of Jesus to spread the Gospel to every nation.
            Something else that bothered me was her section on the Trinity (pp. 38-41). She used the phrase “three modes or forms of presentation” as a description for the Trinity. I tend to be uncomfortable when someone uses the term “mode” or “form” to describe the persons of the Trinity. It screams Modalism to me, and that is something I like to keep away from. It is irritating for someone to use terms obviously associated with a heresy in discussion of something as paramount as the Trinity, even when conveying an orthodox definition.
            The final problem I found within the text was the final section on eschatology. The entire chapter was difficult to read simply because it is difficult to get a grip on what Tanner is actually saying here. This was the only portion of the book where I became frustrated trying to understand Tanner’s position. All of the other sections had been well articulated and clearly laid out, but that was not the case with this chapter. In it she argued that the universe is coming to ruin, which according to modern science and plain observation is true. Almost all Christian eschatologies accept that. However, her eschatology assumes that the world will almost stay that way. This is integral to her argument. She wants to interpret what Christian action means in light of a world where action will end up being meaningless or come to nothing. Her argument (over)simplified goes as follows: in Christ we [humanity] have been given eternal life, which we have as a gift from God, however it is still unrealized, and since we have eternal life, even though the world is coming to ruin and so our actions come to nothing, we give and act so that we can reflect God. But she is still faced with the problems that everyone is saved (so what is the point?) and the actions still come to nothing despite whether we have eternal life.
            So what would I propose to make the argument better? First, I would fix the starting point, moving it from Jesus to the Trinity. In this way, the whole argument of the book would likely change, but even so I would still change these next things too. Second, I would have her reconsider and rewrite the entire chapter on eschatology. It needs revisiting very badly, though it is where her argument now logically leads. Third, I would have her expand on those many sentences, which felt like they should have been a few pages rather than a few words. Fourth, I would expand on the incarnation. If a theology is going to be heavily Christocentric, the chapter on Christ is going to need to be the biggest and most important part of the argument. Fifth, I would require at least some exegesis to strengthen my claims. There was a profound and complete lack of exegesis throughout the entire book; I would hope that as a Christian systematic theology that there would be at least some reliance on Scripture (as it is, I saw only one reference to scripture within the first 70 or so pages). To present God as gift giver, texts need to be given to support such an idea. This is a book that had the potential to be quite good, but I think it fell short, especially in the areas I just listed. If these were fixed, I would like to revisit the book again.

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