Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's concerns drove ancient christological controversies?

We are reading about classical Christology this week in the course I'm TA'ing for this Fall. In addition to revisitng the views and arguments, I've also been asking what concerns were driving these debates? What fueled them? What made the debate a live issue and not just an academic reflection? There are at least three that come to mind.

(1) A hermeneutical concern propelled the debate. Throughout the extant documents, there is much discussion concerning the figure of Christ in Scripture. Apollinaris repeatedly argues for the unity of Christ on the basis of his singularity as a character in the Bible. Leo the Great distinguishes between the acts of Christ that issue from his divinity and those befitting his humanity. Such hermeneutical concerns make sense, since the identity of Jesus Christ is encountered in texts that require interpretation.

(2) A devotional concern fueld the debate. This is especially evident during the Nestorian controversy. Not only did Marian piety occasion the debate when he was asked the phrase "God-bearer" in reference to Mary, but the theological basis of the worship of Christ played an important role in Cyril's argumentation. If Christ is divided into two persons, one divine and the other human, then we are idolaters when worshipping him in his humanity. Such a devotional concern makes sense, since the identity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate raises questions about whether and in what sense he can be worshipped. So Christian devotion to Christ necessarily requires Christological clarification.

(3) A soteriological concern drove the debate. This was the dominant concern throughout its many stages. Gregory's famous "what is not assumed is not healed" formula reveals this concern, as does Cyril's argument that Christ can only overcome death if the incarnate Logos himself impassibly suffers. Christological reflection is not independent speculation into the ontological constitution of Jesus Christ, but a necessary inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of Christian redemption.

Any thought?
What other concerns drove the debate?
Are these concerns viable?
Can Christological reflection proceed without sharing these concerns?
If so, how does that change the conversation?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Purpose of Knowledge

I just finished my last qualifying exam (click here to read it at my writing page) in time to begin a new semester at PTS. With a new semester starts I often get in the mood to ask about the purpose of study. Why grow in knowledge? What is its purpose? I have a lot of pat answers, but few satisfy me.

Then I came across this little verse near the beginning of Paul's letter to the Philippians:
"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God." (Philippians 1:9-11)

According to Paul, the purpose of knowledge is discernment. Knowledge is not an end in itself. There is no direct line between knowledge and the glory of God, though we often act like there is. Rather, we glorify God by bearing the fruit of righteousness, a.k.a., living holy lives. But living a holy life includes making good and right choices. And in order to make good and right choices, one needs discernment: the skill of making complex judgments. We store up knowledge and deep insight in order to have maximal resources at our disposal when choices are thrust upon us.

What does this look like? Well, it at least implies that study is not necessarily immediately applicable. Perhaps a story or a concept or a model will not produce a virtue or a program or a sermon. However, if one grows in knowledge she will have more to draw on when a touch choice is put before. At a bed side, in a board room, or on a platform, one may be pressed to make a decision without the time to read and reflect. It is for such times that knowledge has been stored up so that we may be able to discern.

Any thoughts?
Do you see the connection between knowledge and discernment?
Would you think through this connection differently?
How has your pursuit of knowledge increased your discernment?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Does the Structure Matter in Theology?

I just took a qualifying exam in systematic theology yesterday. You can click here to read the whole thing posted at The Writing of John Drury. In my first essay, I try to show why structure matters in theology by drawing on the work of Schleiermacher and Barth. I've been thinking about some objections one my raise to caring about structure. I hear these sorts of objections regularly. I thought it would be worth replying to a few of them here at drulogion, since I often bring up issues concerning the order of presentation in theology.

One could argue that consideration of structure is merely aesthetic. Now there is nothing wrong with aesthetics, but if structure is merely aesthetic then it would not matter materially. This sort of criticism could be especially leveled against Schleiermacher, for he makes explicit reference to aesthetic concerns in his Letters to Dr. Lucke on the Glaubenslehre. However, the impression that any ordering would result in the same material exposition is a false one. As we have seen in the case of Schleiermacher, the differences in the doctrine of God between Part I and Part II indicate that structure has material consequences. Since structural decisions set certain limits on what can and cannot be said, then such conditions are more than merely aesthetic; they are materially significant.

One could also argue that structural decisions are ultimately arbitrary. What really matters is one's material exposition of doctrine, and not how such expositions are organized. If organization still manages to condition the material, perhaps structure could be viewed as pernicious and systematic presentations of doctrine should be abandoned. Barth raised this very issue with reference to the motto methodus est arbitraria. What he means by this statement is not that one is free to organize one's thoughts according one's fancy, but rather that material doctrinal decisions are ultimately more important than the formal shape of dogmatics. This qualification, however, does not undermine the claim that structure matters. Rather, the primacy of one's material commitments should guide one's formal structure so that other material commitments are made possible by it rather than obstructed or obscured.

Finally, one could argue that a focus on structure ignores context. All this talk of systematic structure betrays an "ivory tower" approach to theology that is detached from the ecclesial and sociopolitical realities of one's time and place. Now it is certainly true that a sole consideration of structure might lead one to ignore context. However, such a disconnect between context and structural concerns is not necessary. First of all, one could attend to contextual factors without incorporating them structurally. This may be particularly advisable if one's work is spread over many years in which context inevitably changes. Secondly, one could find structural ways of incorporating context. Tillich's method of correlation would be one obvious instance of such an incorporation. Finally, there may in fact be contextual factors that give rise to structural decisions. Schleiermacher's architectonic draws heavily on his understanding of religious experience under the conditions of modernity. So, the theological significance of context does not undermine the fact that structure matters.

Any thoughts?
Does structure matter?
Are these adequate replies to the objections raised?
What other objections could be raised against the concern for structure?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (IV): from unity-for-mission to unity-as-mission

During a break-out session at a recent ecumenical gathering, the group leader asked each of us to share how we became interested and involved in ecumenical dialogue. One rather astute participant shared that the purpose of church unity is to advance the church's mission. The disunity of the churches is for many a stumbling block to Christian faith. The move to greater visible unity among Christians can be seen as the removal of this barrier. So unity is for the sake of mission.

There is a long historical precedent behind this perspective. The contemporary ecumenical movement has its roots in the missionary experience. Although it is on the right track in its effort to unite ecumenism and evangelism, this unity-for-mission perspective does not go far enough. Note that I am not criticizing the adequacy of this perspective as an initial personal motivation for engaging in ecumenical dialogue. Rather, I am asking whether the relationship between intra-Christian unity and extra-Christian mission this perspective proffers is adequate.

So, what's wrong with the unity-for-mission formula? The unity-for-mission formula places an interval between ecclesial existence and missionary enterprise. The formula instructs us to "get our own house in order" first, then we can turn to our public mission in the world. This attitude assumes that mission is something the churches do after or beyond being the church. Such an interval is inappropriate because the church is missionary by her very nature. The church's being is in her act of mission. The interval does not recognize this and so leads to negative implications for both unity and mission. On the one hand, unity becomes instrumental to some other action, rather than a part of that action. Such an instrumental approach to ecumenical dialogue easily leads to abandoning the task when it does not bear immediate fruit. On the other hand, mission becomes propaganda, since the convert is being colonized into an already existing church culture, rather than being called to share in the church's missionary existence.

So, if the unity-for-mission formula is inadequate, what is the alternative? How can we properly relate unity and mission? The alternative formula I would suggest is unity-as-mission. This is not meant as a reduction of the church's missionary act to her internal unification. Rather, the process of unity itself is seen as a form of the church's missionary existence. The church is missionary by her very nature, which means concretely that she participates in God's reconciliation of the world to himself, announcing the message of reconciliation in Christ and practicing the ministry of reconciliation (cf. II Cor. 5:18-19). This missionary existence includes the reconciliation of humans to each other, both within the church and outside of it. Acts of Christian unity are parables of God's reconciling work and as such participate in God's mission. Therefore, movements toward Christian unity not only instrumentally serve mission but also inherently participate in mission.

Any thoughts?
How do you understand the relationship between unity and mission?
Whatever its relation to unity, is mission a good motivation for ecumenical dialogue?
Are my criticisms of the unity-for-mission formula warranted?
Is the unity-as-mission formula an adequate alternative?
What other alternatives might better express the relationship between unity and mission?