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Theological Confessions Revisited

Way back when, Ben Myers posted a meme, about getting theologically “out of the closet” by confessing their idiosyncratic and/or slightly impolite theological beliefs. Here’s the thing about “theological confessions”: they tend to change pretty substantially the more one reads and studies. Or at least mine do. Its not as though fundamental convictions tend to change readily, rather it our sensibilities, tastes, nuances, and emphases that tend to be fluid.

Indeed, when I look over my old list, I am quite embarrassed about a few of them. So, here is a new list of my confessions, which I imagine I will be quite embarrassed about in a year or so:

I confess: I think Karl Barth is the most important theologian of the modern age. No question.

I confess: Sometimes the word “Sola” is necessary for faithful theology and discipleship.

I confess: I think Rowan Williams is the best theologian writing today.

I confess: I think that John Howard Yoder has more to teach us about how to do theology, and the nature of Christology, and ecumenical theology than anyone else in recent theological history.

I confess: I think that Robert Jenson, John Webster, and Bruce McCormack are the best readers of Barth writing today.

I confess: I think that Herbert McCabe was perhaps the smartest modern Catholic theologian.

I confess: I think most attempts to redefine apatheia in recent theology are misguided and misleading.

I confess: I think that the Johannine literature of the New Testament may be the most subversive sector of biblical literature vis a vis modern sensibilities.

I confess: I think the fashionable attempts to contend that “Constantinianism” was not a real thing is just wishful thinking shrouded in silly notions of good ecumenical manners.

I confess: I think that the fashionable attempts to narrate the history of Christian theology as if “Hellenic” influences were not a deeply problematic thing are naive, misguided, and only sustainable on the basis of a lack of critical engagement with the actual historical sources.

31 Comments

  1. Kevin Davis wrote:

    I confess: I think that Herbert McCabe was perhaps the smartest modern Catholic theologian.

    von Balthasar?!!

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Danny wrote:

    Who do you think the best non-native English speaking contemporary European theologian is and the best non-native English speaking interpreter of Barth is? I mention this because the other day I was talking about the status of Webster (as one of the best English speaking theologians) in the English speaking world and a German person next to me who knows Webster quite well (and raved about how nice of a guy he is) commented that she did not understand how German interpreters of Barth seem to be excluded from such discussions (even though they have access to all of his works and either knew him or know people who knew him).

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  3. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Nice. However, I’m interested in hearing you flesh this one out: “I confess: I think most attempts to redefine apatheia in recent theology are misguided and misleading.”

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Kevin, by “smartest” I did not mean most creative, most knowledgeable, or most significant. McCabe I take to have a level of critical analysis, logical precision, and wit that sets him apart.

    Danny, I’d say Eberhard Jungel for the besy contemporary European reader of Barth. I’m not sure I could say about non-Western readers of Barth, though they are gaining more and more notoriety. I’m just not well-read enough to know which of them are “most significant.”

    Ry, I’m thinking there of projects like David Bentley Hart’s…but that would take more fleshing out than I can do here.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  5. Bobby Grow wrote:

    From Halden’s old list:

    I confess: Whenever I hear the world “sola” I throw up a little bit. In my mouth.

    from the new:

    I confess: Sometimes the word “Sola” is necessary for faithful theology and discipleship.

    How does it taste ;-)?

    That is a drastic change, indeed; and I agree with you. I’m curious though, does this include sola scriptura, or do you still like prima, better?

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I still think that “Sola Scriptura” is misleading in some key ways, at least in the way its definition has been formalized. I do think though that Scirpture exerts a critical function over against the church in the process of “traditioning” and forms of traditioning that strive to give Scripture this role are more faithful.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Agreed! Thanks.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  8. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    So, when you speak of “attempts to redefine apatheia in recent theology” you’re thinking primarily of recent defenders of impassibility against the likes of Moltmann, Jüngel, et al.?

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    That’s right.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    Let’s be honest here: the “Hellenization” declension narratives are actually far more “fashionable” :)

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Maybe ten years ago. Not so much any longer. At least from what I read in contemporary theology coming off the presses today.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I know that you tend toward a passible God, but I wonder how you would assess von Balthasar on this score.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Oh, it all depends on what you mean by “passible” — I certainly don’t agree with many of Moltmann’s formulations. Actually, I find Balthasar to very nearly express my own perspectives on the issue. For Balthasar, God is not “impassible”, rather God suffers in Christ, but this suffering does not alter or define the being of God. For Balthasar the “sinful distance” of sin and suffering is “transposed” into the “holy distance” between the Trinitarian persons in their eternally “dramatic” communion.

    In other words, God really does “experience” everything we see in Jesus, including suffering and death — Balthasar actually went further than Moltmann in describing the death of Christ as the “death of God” rather than merely “death in God” — however these experiences are enfolded within the eternal drama of the Triune relationships such that sin and suffering to not introduce a “rupture” into the being of God. Or rather, that the “rupture” itself is dynamically the transcended by the infinitely greater “distance” that exists between the Father and Son in their mutual self-distinction from one another in the Triune life of love.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    I’m usually about 10 years behind when it comes to theology, so perhaps that explains it. Either that or 1000 years behind.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    You wish. : )

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    Yes… yes I do. Freaking crisis of 1300. The crisis of 1300 is my Constantinianism. I’m kidding. I don’t think either one of them is real.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, but they are. It would certainly be easier if they weren’t though!

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    Real yes, but it is their status as founding events in various theological narratives that is somewhat more dubious in my mind. Actually I guess my issue is with any theological project that sees a particular historical event other than the Incarnation as as foundational as some see the crisis of late antiquity and others the late middle ages.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    And as others see the crisis of modernity as foundational, I suppose?

    Cough…[Milbank]…cough.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    The “Crisis of 1300″ is Milbank’s crisis. It is the founding of the modern according to a very crude and likely unfair portrayal of “Radical Orthodoxy.” I’m trying to be even-handed here :)

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Ahh, I guess I never heard that catch-phrase. Well, kudos to you there.

    But, I would say that most people’s dismissals of “declension narratives” be they of Modernity, Hellenization, or Constantinianism tend to be based on very crude and likely unfair portrayals thereof that reflect very little critical reflection on the historical sources and the substantive exponents of the views under critique, opting instead for sensationalistic and sweeping dismissals of straw men.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  22. Hill wrote:

    I realized after doing some research that it isn’t a phrase in circulation. Milbank only uses it in one essay, but some friends of mine and I latched on to it as a way to situate a hypothetical locus of “when it all went wrong” historically according to “Radical Orthodoxy.” Again, I’m a Milbank sympathzier, hence the scare quotes.

    As to what you said about declension narratives, they themselves are often characterized by the same features you ascribe to those who would facilely dismiss them. The declension narrative is the original revisionism and reaction. Again, I’m a sympathizer of this style. My point is just that in a fallen world, we will find declension narratives as long as we look for them. What I take issue with is those declension narratives which aspire to be “the” declension narrative. There is really only one declension narrative, and that is the narrative of sin and death. I just feel like some of these things approach the point of saying: “Well… clearly the worst thing that ever happened was the fall, but man… the conversion of Constantine/Nominalism/the Formal Distinction… that’s got to be a close second.” I just find them ultimately historically implausible given what I see the shape of salvation history to be. It’s not that I disagree with what many declension narratives have to say, it’s that many of their more zealous advocates try to situate themselves as THE historical hermeneutic for understanding…. pretty much everything. I have been one of these people often and will likely continue to be at times.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    I don’t find anything to disagree with in your second paragraph, though the issue of “the shape of salvation history” is something that probable merits more explicit discussion in these kinds of analyses. That is probably where the real lines of distinction lie, at least between good and careful theologians like Yoder and Milbank — who interestingly never engaged one another’s thought in any way whatsoever. A curious point.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  24. Orien wrote:

    It seems that in the oscillating popularity between the Catholic and Protestant versions of the “where it all went wrong” historicism, there is a basic rejection, conscious or otherwise, of a real failure of human personality that is historically rooted not in any particular manifestation of that failure (of which there are many), but in a real historical fall chronicled in Genesis 3. Perhaps Zizek, the lovable though not adorable Pauline-materialist, understands this better than most in modern theology (even if he doesn’t believe it is true). You have to love an atheist who claims to be more orthodox than John Milbank.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  25. andrew wrote:

    it is on the basis of a real, ‘critical’ engagement with historical sources that any account of ‘hellenization’ seems untenable. lewis ayes, michel barnes, and rowan greer have done well to unveil that harnackian myth.

    but, again, i’m just a know-nothing undergrad student… consider it a confession of my own. ;)

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 5:01 am | Permalink
  26. Orien wrote:

    It is interesting that it is mainly theologians who find Harnack so unimpressive, while historians (at least in my experience) find him to be quite on track.

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  27. Brendan Case wrote:

    I’m also very curious to hear more about your discussion of apatheia–I’m reading D. B. Hart’s The Beauty of the Inifinite, and have been fascinated by his emphasis on the term. He insists that any theology that speaks of God’s determining his being in creation (consider, perhaps, D.W. Congdon’s dicussion of Barth’s insistence on the “humanity of God”) will inevitably result in a discourse of totality, a mechanisitic, interlocking structure of necessary causality. Can this theology speak in any meaningful way of God gratuitously extending the inifinite love and joy of the Trinity to secondary creatures who are themselves able to respond freely and joyfully? I wonder if apatheia might not preserve the true distance between God and man, filling it with beauty and wonder and freely-given love. How do you account for the freedom of God and man?

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  28. Orien wrote:

    I’ll admit that Harnack is an extremist, but he isn’t stupid

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  29. andrew wrote:

    orien:
    i never called out harnack for being stupid. however, in dealing with the whole field of patristic history and theology, harnack’s legacy has hung heavily over any investigations for nearly a century. recent work has gone to great lengths to demonstrate the just how exaggerated the divide between ‘hellenized christianity’ and its ‘purely jewish theological’ roots.

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  30. Orien wrote:

    Andy, you just have to believe that because of your tendencies toward Greek Orthodoxy ;)

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  31. andrew wrote:

    perhaps you’re right. i can own up to that.
    i will say, however, that ayers’ work, and barnes’ especially, have done much to clear the way for a better understanding of the development of patristic theology and history and its own awareness of its jewish theological heritage.

    furthermore, any late-medieval and renaissance thinking can hardly be thought of as ‘hellenistic’.

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

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