Tag Archives: Paul Holmer

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. Cf. Theology on the Way to Emmaus, 55.

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.
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Some Varieties of Failures of Agency

A. Paul Holmer on Weakness of Will (or lack of desire)

… when I can no longer decide between opposing options, or when I completely lack wants and wishes, then much of daily life loses its challenge, and I begin to think there is little sense left. The philosopher Aristotle noted long ago that many persons suffer from a weakness of the will.

But a tragedy is in the making when a person does not learn what every person finally must learn: that is, some powerful and persistent wants. For unlike the animals whose wants are given with their very birth and nature, persons have to spend time learning what their proper wants are. And if one does not want what is essential and needful – for example, to be morally sound, to be intelligent and informed rather than stupid, or even to be healthy rather than sick – then a good part of being a person is missing. [29]

If a person is always restless and anxious, there can be no resoluteness of will. With little or no will, there is nothing clear or definitive about such a person. Sometimes it is hard to know whether the lack of volition comes first and the restless anxiety follows, or the reverse. However, we need not decide such questions in order to say that surely the two go together. A sign of being weak-willed is to shift from one thing to another. Having a will for this, then for that, in endless succession, is really to have no conclusiveness and no character at all. Such a mode of life spells chaos after a while. Soon one does not know what will satisfy, and a lifetime can be spent in meaningless pursuits. … Something like this happens to us when we spend ourselves in preoccupation with pleasure. [86-87]

from Making Christian Sense (The Westminster Press, 1984).

B. Oliver O’Donovan on Indecision

The peculiar moral weakness we call “indecision” is not a weakness of love; it cannot be countered by a relentless ratcheting up of the affections. It is a weakness in discerning and hearing a call to act, a weakness in observing a practical possibility given in the shape of the moment, and that is a weakness of hope, for hope discerns in the light of God’s promise what is given to us to do. Where love attends to the “today” that has come to be out of the past, the “today” of the world around us, hope attends to the “today” that has not yet come to be, but opens out in front of us, the “today” of opportunity. Hope presides over the venture of action and focuses deliberation on its possibility.

from “Sanctification and Ethics,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, edited by Kelly Kapic, (IVP Academic, 2014), 159.

C. Daniel A. Westberg on Inaction

1. Distraction from purpose

[There are] cases where there is a lack of harmony between the judgments of our practical reasoning and the actual things that we do. … [For instance,] we may simply not “feel like” doing something. The laundry is postponed in favor of reading a magazine; we omit the exercise that we had decided to do; we eat more at dinner than we had originally planned; we curtail or omit our prayer time. We do not get around to writing the letter that we had planned, and we find that we had spent unplanned time on video games, or internet surfing or a number of other things not wrong in themselves but that in reference to our plans and prior decisions amount to a deflection from our aims. This is part of the human condition, of course, and part of the material for our reflection that “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” [145]

2.  Imprudence

If you do not carry out in action your brilliant insights and decisions, you lack the virtue of prudence. … Your good intentions, your “to-do lists” and plans for the future, are all very good (and may exhibit a certain insight, practicality and wisdom), but if they are not translated into actions, there is no true virtue of practical wisdom in action/actuality. [162]

3. Lack of initiative

Aristotle included in his understanding of courage the kind of person with noble ambition, capable of major achievements worthy of respect and honor. … [In Thomas’ treatment] this is the virtue of our great heroes and saints, those like Francis Xavier and Ignatius, John Wesley and the missionaries Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson, those who achieved something on a grand scale and inspired many others. … The characteristic of this virtue that makes it part of fortitude is that it has to do with achieving something good and of value on a large scale, and therefore involves challenge and difficulty. It is the ability to pursue a vision successfully in spite of hardship and discouragement that gives Thomistic magnificence, better understood as enterprise or initiative, its place and character as a virtue. [205-6]

from Renewing Moral Theology (IVP Academic, 2015).

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.

Commentary:

This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

Richard Rollefson on Paul Holmer on Knowing God

Although God is not an object, it does not follow that the language of faith is not a referring one. Again, because words do not refer by themselves, individuals have to learn to use the language of faith referringly. But the referring use of this expression means the qualification of our own character in such a way that we have a place for God in it; this is the inwardness that Kierkegaard speaks of, and, therefore, to know God, as Holmer puts it, “requires that we become Godly.” In this sense, the logically and Christianly proper referring use of the concept Godwhat it means to know God—is that we refer our lives to God. As Holmer writes: “This is what we mean by getting to know God—namely, that those who know him are those who worship him in spirit and truth.”

from Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Theology of Paul L. Holmer (Pickwick, 2014): 111-112.

Paul Holmer on theology and happiness

Theology celebrates that range of issues that are often thought to be very deep. But when you get on the happiness issue, it turns out that the problems of life and the problems of theology start to get the same shape and form. And these problems are solved only when they disappear—and answers are arrived at only when there are no longer questions—when, as it were, our lives are the accounts that have settled them. That is why so many theological problems do not long stay on paper—they call for a religious life, a working strategy, a new way of seeing things and taking them one by one.

from “About Happiness and the Concept, ‘Happiness’,” in Thinking the Faith with Passion, (Wipf&Stock, 2012)

[emphasis added]