Readings in the Doctrine of God

Works like the following, I’d submit, would make for a fascinating course on the doctrine of God in contemporary theology.

Required Reading

I. Classical Theism: David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (Yale UnivPr, 2014)

II. Questioning Divine Realism: Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God (1980)

III. Questioning Divine Simplicity: Paul Hinlicky, Divine Simplicity (Baker, 2016)

IV. Questioning Divine Eternity: Ed. Dempsey, Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Eerdmans, 2011)

V. Questioning Divine Impassibility: Eds. Keating and White, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Eerdmans, 2009)

VI. Questioning Divine Hiddenness: Joshua Miller, Hanging by a Promise: The Hidden God in the Theology of Oswald Bayer (Pickwick, 2015)

VII. Questioning Divine Action & Providence: Maurice Wiles, God’s Action in the World (1986)

Suggested Further Reading

  • Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge UnivPr, 2013)
  • James Dolezal, God without Parts (Pickwick, 2011)
  • Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (1982)
  • Eberhard Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World (Eerdmans, 1983)
  • Frank Kirkpatrick, The Mystery and Agency of God: Divine Being and Action in the World (Fortress, 2014)
  • Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 (Fortress, 2015)
  • T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 2nd Ed (T&T Clark, 2016)
  • William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (WJKP, 2007)

In Defense of a Hymn

Or, when was the vice of worldliness dropped from our vocabulary?

There is a hymn that I’ve witnessed a number of times now, and for the same reason each time, get short shrift among theological compatriots of mine. This is something of an unhappy occurrence for me. The hymn is one I grew up with. Moreover, it’s a hymn that I think harbors more Christian wisdom than we might at first glance appreciate — which is why I’ve taken to writing in its defense. I don’t think it’s as easy a target as its detractors let on. The criticism leveled against it strikes me as unfair: mainly because it situates the hymn in the wrong conversation, making the hymn say more than it means, all the while there’s another context of intelligibility in which its point would be perfectly germane and edifying. If only we would contextualize its counsel here and not there, our misgivings would be dispelled. As I see it, to object to this hymn for the reason I keep hearing is to fail in imagination, and so too in sympathy for the hymn’s speaker.

The hymn in question here is Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. You can revisit its lyrics here and sample a country rendition of it here.

The supposedly objectionable portion of this hymn is the latter half of its refrain. The speaker tells the troubled soul that if they would look to Jesus, then “the things of earth will grow strangely dim / in the light of His glory and grace.” What’s worrying to some is the notion that the light of Christ has the effect of dimming the things of earth. It’s feared that the hymn is subtly condoning ecclesial retreat from society. Why, they ask, would Christ’s glory eclipse the glitter of the world and its genuine goods rather than bring them into sharper focus? After all, doesn’t Matthew 25 teach that service to Christ is to be identified with care for the world? Wasn’t it an achievement of Vatican II’s spirit of aggiornamento to exhort, in Gaudium et Spes, that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age…these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”? Is it not patently clear that Christianity values solidarity over solitude, this-worldliness over other-worldliness, activism over quietism? Is it not the gospel message that Christ is saving the world rather than saving us from it?

To all of these questions I’d respond that they raise valid points. There will be conversations where their insights are decisive. Nevertheless, they don’t tell the whole story, nor do they apply in every contingency. It is still the case that “the world” is not a univocal theological category. If we’d survey scripture, we’d discover that its senses and uses are multiple, and it’s connotations ambiguous.

Let’s compare just two of its value-laden senses, one affirmative and another negative. First we might think of the world as God’s creation and possession. Consider the following:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. [Gen. 1:31]

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. [Ps 24:1]

From this vantage, our hymn will certainly seem a mystery. Why would we ever want to lose sight of the things of earth when our world is a gift God means for us to enjoy and to garden? On these terms, the relevant precedent for engagement with the world just might be set by Jeremiah’s instruction to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jer 29:4-7]

In the city’s welfare is your welfare. It’s not to be denied, here’s an image that captures one scriptural impulse on the theme of nature and grace. This theme of course has various permutations to which this world-affirming thread in scripture might speak, e.g., questions over the conventional binaries of church and state, Christ and culture, theology and philosophy, divine and human action, the analogies of being and faith, the value of the environment and the material world, etc. (I hope it’s clearer that more could be broached on the basis of this line of inquiry than the recovery of a single hymn.)

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, I should introduce a second biblical evaluation of the world. In the more pronounced apocalyptic sensibilities of this conception, the world is neither a benevolent nor innocent habitation. It is instead a source of temptation. Consider the following:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. [James 4:4]

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. [1 John 2:15-16]

At this point it’s probably clearer now which sense of “the world” our hymn is taking for granted. It’s “the world” that church tradition has long deemed one of the three, along with the flesh and the devil, perennial tempters of the faithful. Maybe it’s less objectionable that this world be obstructed from view? In any case, we might well ask, is our welfare still to be found in the welfare of this Babylon too? Revelation’s answer, at least, is a resounding no!

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, … He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, … Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, … for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. [Rev. 18:1-5]

Come out of Babylon, my people! Given the directness of this message it would be difficult to deny that scripture also harbors a separatist impulse as clear as any other. (Knowing when to invoke either Revelation’s or Jeremiah’s Babylon takes more than a little tact, cultural literacy, and sensitivity to the Spirit.)

For my purposes here, I’m willing to leave it an open question whether we can or need to resolve the tension between these two incongruous senses of the world — though it will be noted that the sense of world we foreground in our imaginations will have its share of repercussions. Mainly all I’m trying to accomplish with this post is the recovery of a context of intelligibility in which our disparaged hymn might once again be heard as profitable instruction — lest we needlessly self-impoverish the range of our piety. I think there is such a context. And it has scriptural precedent. If we fail to see it, the problem lies, I’d suggest, not in the hymn’s theology, but in the standing limits to our lives. If only we could expand the reach of our imaginations and the breadth of our sympathies, we’d begin to find room enough for our estranged hymn.

Heinrich Müller on Little Sins

You only combat the great sins and do not want to be called a murderer, thief, or adulterer, so that you have no shame before the world. Meanwhile, little sins, which you do not observe, put your flesh to the test. You love the company of people, follow the example of their elegant, costly clothing, share with them a friendly joke about this or that thing, thereby being wounded in your heart, though you are not aware of the wounds. Your former zeal for Christianity decays gradually, dies away within you, until finally it happens that you die an eternal death from the wounds. See then how many great calamities arise more from little sins than from great ones. You consider great sins to be sins and avoid them, but you do not consider little sins to be sins and do not give them proper attention. I advise you to consider no sin little. However little they may appear, they offend God, wound your conscience, and become a root for many great sins.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 214.

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

I’m not sure what to make of the following remarks from Herbert McCabe’s God Matters. They make moves I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. This is of course part of their charm, but also their opaqueness. At the same time they both foreground the seemingly impersonal character of the classical theist account of divine being and in a way broach the question of theological realism.

Consider then the following two passages (others could have been included). The emphases are my own.

Exhibit A

The Christian holds that in so far as the world receives the Spirit, in so far as it lets itself be destroyed and re-born in grace, the distance between God and man disappears. And this means that in the kingdom to which he looks forward when the love of God for mankind is fully revealed, when all are taken up into the divine life, not only will there, of course, be no religion, no sacraments, no cult, no sacred activity set aside from human life, but there will be no God in the sense of what is set above or apart from man. God will simply be the life of mankind.

Then, but only then, we shall be able to blow the dust off all those books written by the atheists and humanists and even some of the curious works written by the God-is-dead theologians, and find that at last they have come true in an odd way. They all thought that talk of God was just a convoluted and misleading way of talking about man; what we will come to see when we come to the kingdom of divine love is that talk about man is then the only clear and luminous way of talking about God. (23-24)

Exhibit B

First of all what God is about is not making but loving — especially loving Jesus. In other words the primal divine activity is not dealing with a dependent, as creativity must be, but an exchange of love with an equal. For love, at least in the sense that Christians came to understand it, is only possible between equals. With the New Testament, then, we make the fundamental move away from the picture of the boss-God, the supreme being in charge of the world. Instead we have the exchange of love in which it is given to men and women to share. We move from seeing God as up there or out there, to seeing an exchange of love between Father and Son — what we call the Holy Spirit — as the life to which mankind is destined. God begins to be seen as a certain kind of exchange between men. God has been ‘decentred’.

The caricature of this position is of course, humanist reductionism: the notion ‘God’ is just a name for human relationships. The essential difference, which turns the whole thing on its head, is that for Christians it is this relationship that defines what a human being is, this is what gives significance to his or her life, and the relationship is not in any obvious sense present. Humanism on the other hand is the canonization of the current world, the ‘obvious’ world (it is in any case the product of bourgeois optimism, the ideology of capitalism in its self-confident phase), while for Christianity the exchange of love is hard to find, it is to be found definitively in one man, Jesus Christ, and in the future for mankind, not (except very oddly and paradoxically) in the present. Human beings are defined, therefore, by the love to be found in Jesus: by the exchange between Jesus and his Father. (174-175) [emphases added]

This is some provocative theology. It’s telling that McCabe does object to the conflation of his position with “humanist reductionism.” He’s aware of how his remarks might be received. My question, though, is, does his disclaimer suffice to ward off the allegation? Is it not possible to fall victim to precisely the error one is trying to oppose?

The nearest I can get to making McCabe’s line of thought more easily digestible is by reading it alongside remarks like the following.

  • Nicholas Lash

What does God look like? The Archangel Raphael, you will remember, suggested: ‘courage and truth and mercy and right action.’ We can now be a little more specific. God looks like the action of the ‘holy spirit’ that God is said to be: like forgiveness and non-violence, solidarity with the victims, the achievement of communion in the one world to which all of us belong. … according to the Christian story of the world, God also looks like a young man, tortured, strung up on a Roman gibbet.

from Holiness, Speech and Silence, (Ashgate, 2004), 44.

  • Irenaeus

“the glory of God is a living man [human being].”

from Against Heresies (bk 4; ch 20; §7).

It’s standard fare in Christian theology to confess that human beings are made in the image of God. Often this doctrine is taken as a point of instruction about humanity, to the effect that humans enjoy a certain intrinsic dignity or set of natural powers. Though this isn’t his way of putting it, I take McCabe to be inquiring into the extent to which this doctrine also works in reverse. To what extent, that is, can humanity’s creation in the image of God, its endowed capacity to reflect divinity, instruct us about God? I think McCabe, Lash, and Irenaeus, in their own ways, are suggesting that attending to humanity–not necessarily on the terms of natural theology–can yield some knowledge of God. I don’t think this is a particularly original or controversial claim. To be sure, McCabe is also careful to add a point of christological determination: he isn’t interested in attending to humanity in some supposed natural state, or as limited by the scope of natural reason. Rather, he’s interested in the humanity of Christ and the human form of life as it stands informed by Christ’s mission and ministry. Not a trivial qualification! Nevertheless, I would still have questions for McCabe when it comes to his suggestion that talk of humanity could somehow provide an adequately evocative resource for all that our talk of God aims to accomplish. If we’re going to grant that reflection on creation can generate knowledge of God, it seems to me a curious decision to limit the scope of creation we would take into consideration. It’s just harder for me to imagine how even talk of glorified humanity could succeed talk of God without remainder.

Heinrich Müller (1631-1675) on Bearing Crosses

Are you tested in the oven of misfortune? It is no achievement to be pious when all is going well. A Christian is known in the midst of crosses. Anyone can be a helmsman in good wind and still weather. It is especially in bad weather that you see what a sailor knows how to do. Good gold stands up to a fire. Tell me, then, how do you fare in the time of testing?

If you have lost your possessions, do you think that you have a better treasure in heaven that no one can take away? Can you say with Job: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

You are tormented by sickness. Do you complain about your pain? Do you also believe that the inner man is gaining much when the outer man is wasting away (2 Cor 4:16)?

You are put to flight. Is your mind still joyful? Do you realize that you are still on your way home to your home?

If death approaches, are you frightened or do you say with Paul: “Christ is my life, death is my gain” (Phil 1:21)?

In a word, whoever accepts crosses willingly is good, whoever bears them patiently is better, and whoever values crosses and thanks God for them is the best Christian.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 210-211.