Helmut Thielicke on the Hallowing of God’s Name

[48] My friends, doesn’t it strike you as it does me, that in the Lord’s Prayer there is not a single petition that asks God to make me a sanctified, devout, and stoutly believing man, not a single petition that asks him to help me make progress in ‘sanctification’?

In making this observation I am not venturing to say that we may not pray for these things. Nevertheless it is striking that a petition that relates to the growth of the inner man and spiritual progress is simply missing.

Expressed in other words, whereas we would think that the Prayer could say, and quite rightly say: “Lord, lead me to further sanctification of my life,” Jesus turns our attention away from ourselves, even from our pious selves, and concentrates it upon the Father. The prayer is not “May I be hallowed” but “thy name be hallowed.” What does he mean by this?

[49] Quite simply, he means to say that if I want to become a new man, I should not begin with myself, with my good intentions and my moral endeavors. This can only come to nothing, even though it is recommended by the philosophers, the moralists, and other honest people. …

[51] If Jesus does not teach us to pray, “Make me a consecrated, holy person,” but rather teaches us to say, “Hallowed be thy name,” what he is saying is this: “It doesn’t depend at all on your own exertions and your own inner progress; you can never set yourself up as your own goal. Everything depends on your being willing to honor God and let [52] him work in your life, simply to stand still and let him be the ‘holy one’ who will actually have first place in your life, above all men and all things. Then the other will come of itself. …

Again we say, the solution to the problem of our life (the problem of how we can become new men) lies not in ourselves but outside of ourselves, in the fellowship which we have or do not have with God.

from The Prayer that Spans the World

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In Petition of the Self-Sanctification of God’s Name

Deploying theological categories as credible and capable resources for addressing any number of questions that vex our society and/or our subjectivity is an uncertain proposition. In the post-Christian West it’s taken for granted that religious discourse, if not yet altogether meaningless, is certainly in want of a raison d’être. So what is the theologian and pastor to do in times when talk of God, the church, and the gospel are heard as impotent to save? When the fear of the Lord and the obedience of faith constitute neither the beginning of wisdom nor the rule of virtue? When it seems religious discourse itself stands in need of, well, redemption?

When I rehearse questions like these to myself I admittedly feel caught between two lines of response, and I’m not yet sure how to correlate them. Both are on to something, but how to account for their respective contributions? This is my standing question. So without further ado:

SET 1

When words lose their meaning, it is not the words that are at fault, but the people using them.

  • from R. G. Rollefson Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Theology of Paul L. Holmer (Pickwick, 2014), 67.

It is not that…words are mistaken, or that they are — in the glib modern sense — irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in…speakers. There is not enough depth in us for [certain] words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. …[T]he point of traditional doctrinal forms is…, we could say, to create a depth in us.

In the world as it is, the right to be heard speaking about God must be earned.

  • from Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwells, 2000), 40.

SET 2


That prayer [hallowed be thy name] is not, we must note, first and foremost a prayer that the Church itself somehow establish the sanctity of God’s name. Quite the opposite: it is a prayer that God himself hallow his own name. … The prayer of the Church, its trustful cry that in this matter God will take up his own cause and demonstrate his holiness, is thus rooted in the “sanctifying of God’s name by God himself.”

  • from John Webster, Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003), 75-76.

A world enslaved to mistaken, idolatrous, and even murderous theological apprehensions seems to be too great a challenge for such a frail, divided, compromised community as the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is! That is why the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer! We disciples do not accept the hallowing of God’s name as a mission we can make ourselves able to accomplish. We beg for it as a gift we can receive in faith by grace. God’s reputation may be in tatters today among the nations and even among his own people, but God’s reputation is eternally secure among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that is what really matters.

  • from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45.

Ezekiel 36:16-38

Synthesis?

Insofar as my disjunction has set divine and human agency in contrastive terms, Webster and Work have to be right, as a matter of fundamental theological grammar, to accord what I’m calling the redemption of religious discourse to God’s agency. Quoting Barth, Webster is able to speak of “an act [of God] that cannot be ours” (76). This line would seem to leave Williams and Holmer’s thesis without any work left to do. But we know Webster and Work would not endorse an account of competitive, zero-sum agency between God and humanity. So, first, that does leave me wondering what could count as an action of God that’s unmediated by human action. What might Webster cite as an example? Second, I’m wondering whether Williams and Holmer’s claim could be reimported through a back door (so to speak) on the basis of some Thomist-style model of double agency. It seems to me axiomatic that the concrete lives of Christians contribute in some way to the credibility of their claims. Something about having to earn the right to be heard speaking about God (however that’s imagined) rings true. Yet how doesn’t that concession put the onus squarely back on Christians and once again eclipse God’s agency in just the way Webster censures?

In Closing

if the word ‘God’ (with a capital ‘G’) has today become so burdened with inappropriate use, why don’t we simply discard it, and speak in some other way about the holy mystery which the word misnames? After all, it is not on a three-letter word that our hearts, identities and hopes are set. The short answer, I suggest, is that the long, and complex, and conflictual history of humankind’s engagement in the educational process of learning non-idolatrously to worship, learning wholeheartedly and without reserve to give ourselves to the truth, and flourishing, and freedom, to which we have been called, is simply too bound up with the history of the uses and misuses of this little word. However difficult it is to use appropriately, there is no other word which similarly signals that the truth and destiny and healing of the world infinitely outstrip the world’s capacities.

  • from Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence (Ashgate, 2004), 20-21.

The body of Christ is the instrument God has chosen to rescue his reputation in the world.

  • from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45. In context, by “body of Christ” Telford is primarily referring to the Church, but given the drift of his essay it might be permissible to leave it ambiguous (either Church or Christ), or perhaps even take it in a conjunctive totus christus sense.

T. F. Torrance on Subjective Justification

[232-3] It is illuminating to recognize that subjective Justification, as well as objective Justification, has already taken place in Jesus Christ. Not only was the great divine act of righteousness fulfilled in the flesh of Jesus, in His Life and Death, but throughout His Life and Death Jesus stood in our place as our Substitute and Representative who appropriated the divine Act of saving Righteousness for us. He responded to it, yielded to it, accepted it and actively made it His own, for what He was and did in His human nature was not for His own sake but for our sakes. That is true of all that He did. He was the Word of God brought to bear upon man, but He was also man hearing that Word, answering it, trusting it, living by it—by faith. He was the great Believer—vicariously believing in our place and in our name. He was not only the Will of God enacted in our flesh, but He was the will of man united to that divine Will. In becoming one with us He laid hold upon our wayward human will, made it His very own, and bent it back into obedience to, and in oneness with, the holy Will of God. Likewise in Justification, Jesus Christ was not only the embodiment of God’s justifying act but the embodiment of our human appropriation of it. In that unity of the divine and the human, Justification was fulfilled in Christ from both sides, from the side of the justifying God and from the side of justified man—’He was justified in the Spirit’, as St. Paul put it. Justification as objective act of the redeeming God and Justification as subjective actualization of it in our estranged human existence have once and for all taken place—in Jesus.

[235-6] Jesus Christ was not only the fulfillment and embodiment of God’s righteous and holy Act…, but also the embodiment of our act of faith and trust and obedience toward God, He stood in our place, taking our cause upon Him, also as Believer, as the Obedient One who was Himself justified before God as His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased. He offered to God a perfect confidence and trust, a perfect faith and response which we are unable to offer, and He appropriated all God’s blessings which we are unable to appropriate. Through union with Him we share in His faith, in His obedience, in His trust and His appropriation of the Father’s blessing; we share in His justification before God. Therefore when we are justified by faith, this does not mean that it is our faith that justifies us, far from it—it is the faith of Christ alone that justifies us, but we in faith flee from our own acts even of repentance, confession, trust and response, and take refuge in the obedience and faithfulness of Christ—’Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.’ That is what it means to be justified by faith.

from “Justification: Its Radical Nature and Place in Reformed Doctrine and Life,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 13 no 3 (1960).

Kevin Vanhoozer on a shortcoming of analytic theology

…the rationality of arguments is not always a matter of deductive or logical inference. The narrative form of the Fourth Gospel is a kind of courtroom drama where readers are presented with various kinds of evidence or testimony in word and deed. …(John 20:31). To do justice to this kind of biblical discourse, we require both analytic skills and poetic sensibilities: the ability conceptually to elaborate what is said and the ability imaginatively to feel the particular force with which it is said. Even the demons can do analytic theology.

from The Task of Dogmatics, eds. Crisp and Sanders (Zonderan, 2017), 42.

Remembrances of John Webster

Two years ago this month John Wester passed away. A series of appreciations and reflections on his influence were collected by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding’s online theological periodical Sapientia. Respondents included Geoffrey Fulkerson, Joseph Mangina, Tyler Wittman, Justin Stratis, Michael Allen, R. David Nelson, Stephen Holmes, Darren Sarisky, Scott Swain, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Fred Sanders. As you can imagine, just contemplating Webster’s contributions generate rich material. For a sample, let me suggest starting with Fred Sander’s “Making Christology Safe for Christology” to get a taste of Webster’s challenge to an important stream in the contemporary theological scene, and then proceed to the others.

On discerning virtuous and vicious amounts of talking

One step in recognizing a virtue is distinguishing it from vices of excess and deficiency. This is why virtues are sometimes described as “golden means.” They’re goldilocks dispositions — neither too much, nor too little, but just the right amount. So, for example, consider the virtue of hope. Too much hope we call presumption, too little despair. Somewhere between those extremes is a space with a fitting measure of hope.

The same logic regulates how much theologians should have to say and how they say it. We can say too much or too little, and we can say what needs saying either too timidly or brashly. How might we think about where to draw appropriate boundaries? Well let’s register some occurrences where theologians have worried about precisely these sorts of issues.

Against Deficiency

  • David Bentley Hart

… if I may be frank, what I often find wearing is the faltering, apologetic, restrained, and hesitant tone of much modern theology. It is what I quite shamefully and unfairly tend to think of as “the modern Anglican inflection”: the sorrowful diminuendo towards embarrassed silence, by way of prolonged clearings of the throat and the occasional softly whistled tune, as one contemplates changing the subject before anyone is so indiscreet as to venture a firm opinion. I have little patience for the notion that we know so little (on account of the mystery of evil) that we must abandon our efforts to advance the story of Christ as the true story of the world. And I have even less patience for the claim that “we must speak . . . only ‘tentatively, indirectly, metaphorically’,” etc. I cannot, try as I might, make that description of evangelical rhetoric conform in my mind to the practice of Christ, the Apostles, or the martyrs of the Church, nor can I bring myself to think of that practice as in any sense violent, or even excessive in its confidence. And I should hate to think that theology should now become little more than a judicious preparation for Christianity’s ultimate obsolescence, and faith little more than a nostalgia for vanished gods. I simply do not believe that we have always somehow refused to recognize ambiguity or ignored the brokenness of others’ lives or been insufficiently attentive to uncertainty and pluralism if we choose to be forthright and even a bit unrestrained in our rhetoric.

from “Response to James K. A. Smith, Lois Malcolm and Gerard Loughlin,” New Blackfriars 88, no. 1017 (2007): 619.

  • Robert Jenson

As the essays succeed each other, the bishop’s fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith. The confession into which teaching is supposed to lead us begins, after all, “I believe…,” not “I wonder about….” Is it really the chief proper use of dogma and other theology “to keep the essential questions alive,” (p. 92) indefinitely to sustain puzzlement? Should dogmas and other theologoumena serve mostly to remind us of the problems they pretend to resolve? God is indeed a mystery, but between honor for the biblical God’s specific mystery and the kind of endless semi-Socratic dialectic Williams often seems to commend, there is, I would have thought, some considerable difference. No doubt argument and perplexity are permanent in the church’s thinking, and no doubt this is a good and necessary thing; so that stirring up stagnant conviction must indeed be one task of theology. But, e.g., the phrase just cited, “to keep the essential questions alive,” occurs in an exposition of “the doctrine of Incarnation,” (pp. 79-92) and the fathers of Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople themselves certainly thought they were settling certain essential questions, in such fashion that conflict about them should not thereafter legitimately trouble the church. Their answers, of course, posed further and again difficult questions, but to say that this also was a good thing — as I do — is a different point than the one Williams presses — or anyway I think it is. Apophatic thinkers though they were, the fathers of the christological councils — to stay with that instance—did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings. Williams is a notable scholar of theological history, who commands long stretches of the tradition far better than do I, and his knowledge flows easily and rewardingly in this volume; but I cannot but think that his appeals to tradition are sometimes more to what he wishes the Fathers and medievals had been up to than to anything that would have occurred to these teachers themselves. Martin Luther famously maintained against Erasmus that it belongs to the very holiness of the Spirit to deal in assertiones, and at least in some contexts of discourse most of the church’s teachers have been of the same opinion.

from Review of Rowan Williams, On Christian TheologyPro Ecclesia 11, no. 3 (2002), 368.

Against Excess

  • Nicholas Lash

Not all caution is identifiable with pusillanimity.

from His Presence in the World: A Study in Eucharistic Worship and Theology (Pflaum Pr, 1968), 155.

One man’s nerve is another’s naïveté.

From “Newman and A. Firmin,” in John Henry Newman and Modernism, Eds. Jenkins and Kuld (Glock & Lutz, 1990), 67.

To take refuge in silence may…be an evasion of the responsibility to speak. …[Yet, alternatively, b]usily to evade the issues is still evasion.

form Theology on Dover Beach (Reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2005),16. Here Lash reminds us it’s possible to fail to say what needs saying not only by saying too little but also by saying so much we eclipse the point in question.

Where the mystery of God himself is concerned it is paradoxical, but true, that the deeper a man’s faith the more difficult he may find it to speak about God. One of the most disturbing features of much theological and devotional writing is that it seems to have so little sense of the incomprehensibility of God. It seems to find it so easy to rattle on about God; …The man who finds it easy to speak of God, or the ways of God with man, is the man whose mind and heart are not sufficiently open to the mystery to be dazzled and silenced by it.

from Voices of Authority (Reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2005), 105-6.