To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 2

creationOn to some thoughts in response to the idea that the created order may in fact be eternal (never “having come to be”) and yet be metaphysically contingent.

First (and my thanks to Alan Rhoda for helping clarify this point for me), there are different types of modality, and thus different types of modal contingency. While some philosophers conflate “logical” and “metaphysical” contingency, this is arguably a mistake. Logical modality is constrained only by internal consistency, whereas metaphysical modality is also constrained by what exists. Metaphysical possibility, arguably, doesn’t follow from logical consistency.

Second, and more to my Orthodox friends, consider Athanasius’ debate with Arius. When the Church anathematizes one who says of the Son “there was a time when he was not,” is this not said in recognition of a fundamental distinction between divine being as uncreated and thus without beginning (i.e., there was not a time when he was not) and human being as created and thus having begun (i.e., there was a time when created things were not)? Does not Orthodoxy assume in the logic by which it condemned Arius a fundamental difference between uncreated and created being with respect to “having not come into being” and “having come into being”?

Third, as all know, Plato himself, and then Neo-Platonism with Plotinus (the philosophical context of early Christianity) held the world to be (a) eternal and (b) ontologically dependent upon the God. But the Church objected to this understanding of things in refining its understanding of CEN. But what’s the point of positing CEN if it’s construed as compatible with the eternity of a world that is ontologically dependent upon God? Pagan Neo-Platonists granted that much themselves. So what were Christians objecting to in rejecting this pagan view and positing CEN as an alternative? It doesn’t seem to me that positing CEN in terms of an eternal world which is dependent upon God is adding anything unique by way of critique or modification of pagan Neo-Platonism. But this is a problem since we know Christians believed that in arguing CEN they were offering a view of creation contradictory to that of Neo-Platonism.

Fourth, supposing that the world has always existed (a) implies an infinitely temporal past, for creation itself is irreducibly temporal, and more concerning, an eternal material order would (for Christians) (b) remain subject to, and grounded in, God-given teleology. This would (c) land Orthodoxy in the same mess as Process theists, namely, supposing that the present state of creation is preceded by a temporally infinite teleological failure, having tended naturally forever toward fulfillment in God without having reached its goal. If protology entails eschatology, a protology that posits an everlasting history of teleological becoming that has failed to reach its end is fatal to Christian hope.

Fifth, does anyone know the present status of the authority of the Condemnations of 1210-1277? Not that Protestants or Orthodox are subject to them, and it seems they lack final Papal endorsement, but it would be interesting to know what other Christian believers make of the arguments. Medieval theologians debated the eternity of the world, among other things. In the 13th century, in an attempt to fix a distinction between Aristotle and Christian faith regarding the implications of CEN for the nature of creation, the Catholic church (via the University of Paris and certain local ecclesiastical powers) condemned certain propositions relative to Aristotle’s influence upon Christian theology, including the claim that “that the world is eternal.”

Brief comments, I know; and without full arguments for each claim along the way. But I hoped a shorter statement would help me crystallize the issues, and the questions, for myself.

To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 1

infinite_stairwell_span02I believe in creatio ex nihilo (CEN), or creation out of nothing. I’ve always taken this to mean the created order ‘began to be’. I don’t get into debates over the temporal semantics of such a unique beginning (for example, in what sense can we talk about God “before” creation?), but I do understand “being created” as entailing “having begun to exist.” I also equate “being created” with “being a subject of temporal becoming.” But there are certain implications to supposing creation is eternal that present problems. So let me grope around here and try to make some sense of my questions.

Recently the distinction between kinds of “contingency” came up in a conversation with Bill Vallicella. He had posted on this distinction in reply to Fr Aidan’s request. I asked a few questions. Bill responded.

Bill makes a distinction between two kinds of contingency:

  • Modal Contingency. Something is modally contingent if it might not have existed and/or it might fail to exist. (I take it this is equivalent to metaphysical or ontological contingency).
  • Dependent Contingency. Something is dependently contingent if it depends for its existence upon something else.

These are meaningful categories under which to contemplate the nature of things. My questions engage a further step Bill made regarding the relationship between modal necessity/contingency and dependent contingency/non-contingency. Hopefully the quadrants below will clarify my issues.


Whatever exists, then, is either modally contingent or modally necessary AND either dependently contingent or dependently non-contingent (or not dependently contingent; if you’re a professional philosopher trained in logical notation, forgive me if I get the negation in the wrong place).

An example of a Quad 3 reality would be (carefully said) “God” who exists necessarily and depends upon nothing for his existence. An example of a Quad 4 reality would (in my view) be all non-divine realities (the world and all that is in it) as created. Quad 1 arguably is empty since (I’m assuming here) nothing can exist necessarily which also depends for its existence as such upon something outside itself.

Now we come to my first difficulty—Quad 2, that is, things that are modally/ontologically contingent (they might fail to exist) but their existence, though contingent, depends upon nothing whatsoever. Their existence is a “brute fact.” Nothing ‘explains’ or ‘accounts for’ their existing. Bill finds this a meaningful concept. I don’t.

My second difficulty has to do with the temporal nature and implications of modally contingent realities. For the sake of argument, let’s limit this to Quad 4. Is it intrinsic to such realities that they “begin to exist”? Bill and, as I’m discovering, every modern Orthodox person I ask about this curiously hold that Quad 4 realities needn’t be thought of as having a beginning. Being “created” doesn’t entail “beginning to exist.” Entities may be modally/ontologically contingent (i.e., they may not have existed at all and may fail to exist), and they may depend upon God for their existence, but they have always existed and always will exist. Their modal contingency requires only that it be true that they “may” not have existed or they may cease to exist, not that it be the case that they “began to exist.” Thus the “out of nothing” in CEN (on this view) merely describes a “dependency” relationship. It says nothing about whether creation is eternal or whether it “began” to be.

I’ll just leave the descriptions there for now and come back with a follow-up post to share some thoughts on why it seems to me we should think of non-divine, created being as (among other things) “having a beginning.”

What is the Bible?—Part 4


Two summers ago I offered a three-part series outlining some of our thoughts on the nature and authority of the Bible. This week Dwayne shared some interesting comments that I’d like to work into a Part 4 in answer to the series’ question: What is the Bible? First, let me clip a couple of lines from our earlier points 1 through 6, which we remain committed to, and end by trying to describe our sense of a new point No. 7.

From our earlier Parts 1-3:

(1) Israel and its history as a suitable context for Incarnation.
“Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of our understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop a unique sense of identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficient to inform and shape that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation…The construction of a suitable context for this formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.”

(2) Scripture as inspired.
“We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.”

“What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way.”

(3) Functional inerrancy.
First, “we suggest that Scripture ought to be a sufficiently truthful source for Christ’s first-century self-understanding as executor of God’s promises to Israel and the redemption of the world” and then also “its truth should be sufficient to inform and facilitate human transformation into Christlikeness. In a word, it must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this.”

“Scripture is ‘functionally inerrant’ where its function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness.”

“In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with. To want something more or other than that tends to idolatry.”

(4) Canonization of history.
“In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the sufficiently truthful context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.”

“We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts alone) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history: a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions sufficient for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.”

(5) Christ-centered reading.
“For Paul, there simply is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ. This usefulness is for teaching, rebuking and correcting relevant to development of Christlike character and the doing of good works. Thus, the OT can be trusted when read Christologically to shape godly character and to empower the doing of good. That’s its purpose. Uses outside of this narrow purpose, whatever they are, are not explicitly embraced by Paul’s belief in the purpose of Scripture.”

“But traditional ‘inerrantists’ implicate the truth of any biblical claim in the truth of every other claim, so that if any link in the chain proves false, the purpose of Scripture fails utterly. We view the relationship not as links in a chain, one after the other and so on, but as bodies orbiting a center, and that center is the risen Christ. Christ exercises a gravitational pull, so to speak, over all of Israel’s traditions and texts which revolve in their orbit around Christ, sometimes approaching theological truth better than at other times. So where inerrantists typically see the truth of any one text…as implicated in the truth of every other text…we suggest viewing the truth of all texts as relative to Christ, so that Christ becomes the determiner of the relevancy of Scripture as a whole, the same way the Sun is the central force that determines the course and trajectories of those bodies that rotate around it. To what extent is the course trajectory of a planetary body ‘accurate’? To the extent that it maintains its course relative to the Sun, not relative to the orbits of other planetary bodies.”

(6) Sensus Communis.
A “communal reading” of Scripture — at least on the essentials. To be sure, there’s certainly a sense one could give to the notion of sola scriptura which is compatible with what we’ve already said in points 1-5. The Scriptures relay that sufficiently truthful historical-social-religious context necessary for the Incarnate One’s self-understanding and vocation. [The] incarnation, we argued, was the primary point of creation and election of Israel. Naturally, it is to the Scriptures (and not to the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism or the Quran) that Christians look to understand those events which ground their self-understanding, their religious inspiration and worship, their ethical core, and their missional/vocational calling.”

“What’s typically meant [by sola scriptura] is not only that the Scriptures are the authoritative source of doctrine and theology for the Church (there’s agreement there) but that the individual believer is the final arbiter in determining doctrine and belief for him/herself, a kind of creedal sola fidelis (the ‘believer alone’).”

“I…want to suggest that something is amiss with the sola fidelis reading. The Church after all is Christ’s “body,” a “community,” a “communion” of faith and identity formation. Only that community as a community can decide who they are, what they believe, and what they exist for.”

mind the gap

With that review in mind, I’d like to add a seventh principle:

(7) Scripture as communal meaning-making.
I’m not sure where I ran into the term “meaning-making” first or if it generated on its own in my head before meeting up with it elsewhere. One runs into the phrase everywhere nowadays. In psychology it describes the process by which we make sense of (either by giving meaning to or deriving meaning from) the events and relationships of our lives. Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) developed his logotherapy around the conviction that our drive to establish meaning and significance for our lives is fundamental to human being and that meaning can be established in the most horrific of circumstances. Development psychologists employ the term “meaning-making” to describe roughly the same process. Robert Kegan focuses on meaning-making in his book The Evolving Self (1982) and ends up equating ‘human being’ with this it unique meaning-making capacity. Theologians integrate this capacity into theological anthropology as well (James Loder and Marilyn McCord Adams come to mind). I love the phrase meaning-making. It’s entirely descriptive of human experience, isn’t pejorative, and doesn’t presume any specific philosophy or theology. It simply offers up empirically what we know to be fundamental and undeniable about human experience.

What’s involved in ‘meaning-making’ has been the subject of cross-disciplinary studies for decades. We’ve touched here and there in our blog upon what we think is essential to it:

  • Identity formation
  • Value assessment-integration of experiences and relationships
  • Irreducibly teleological disposition for aesthetic value
  • The Void as a necessary context for human becoming
  • The Face that cannot die (basically Loder and SK)

At issue is how our primordial meaning-making drive is understood as a dispositional aptitude or capacity for the experience of aesthetic satisfaction grounded in our God-given identity revealed in the gospel.

How this applies to our understanding what the Bible is and how its authority functions is what we’d like to explore here. It comes down to the narrative structure of meaning-making. We know enough about the brain to know that we process meaning by narrating stories to ourselves (and to others socially). So many have seized upon the narrative nature of personal and social existence, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to our understanding of the Bible and its function within faith. We’d like to suggest that in order to better understand Scripture, we remind ourselves that social identity and vocation emerge and are maintained through shared stories that reflect and maintain a tradition of meaning-making. This may seem an innocuous thesis, but it undermines certain cherished approaches to the Bible.

So what has the narrative structure of meaning-making to do with the Bible? It makes Scripture completely understandable and appropriate as we have it (i.e., in the diversity of its perspectives, its textual history and traditions of interpreting and editing itself, etc.). Where many want immediately to go is to the truth question(s) because they’re sure the trustworthiness of any part of the Bible (e.g., John 3:16) depends upon the truth of every other textual claim. So it starts:

  • Is this text true? Did it happen this way?
  • Did Luke get the date of this census right?
  • Did Paul falsely conflate OT texts in 1Cor. 10?
  • Did the gospel writers confuse some of the events of the Passion Week?
  • Was there really an innumerable host of Hebrews who walked across the Red Sea to wander 40 years in the Sinai?
  • Are these Hebrews the source of a widespread military conquest and settlement of the Israel?
  • Will it hold up in debate against someone picking apart the textual history?
  • What will Bart Ehrman say?

Well, does the Bible behave in our hands and history like it was intended to be an inerrant book of recipes for decision making, church leadership, staffing church ministries, adjudicating moral dilemmas, political activism, raising children, and perfectly lining up historical events? Do Christians who all appeal to the Bible as final authority in fact share the same biblically derived conclusions on all these questions? No. Does anyone see a problem here? If this is how we’re to understand the Bible, then I think the Bible loses the debate as a book judged in recipe terms.

But if the Bible is a record of Israel’s (and by example, all humanity’s) struggle for meaning-making that finds its end in Christ’s power to transform individuals, then that changes the terms of the conversation. What we’re suggesting here, together with our previous points, is that the entire Bible is the very human story of an emerging community’s search for meaning. It’s meaning-making all the way. Some might immediately agree and wonder what’s new here. But others have placed their faith in a book  because they believe its exceptional constitution provides them perfect recipes for decisions, dilemmas, and doctrines. Where human social movements are all characterized by an ongoing struggle to make meaning, and this struggle can be reflected in their history (editing, correcting, reinterpreting, all in light of a certain mixture of ignorance and insight), many believe the Bible to be an exception to this. How so? Because inspiration, it is though, exempts the biblical authors from all the error in an being as meaning-making.

What we’re suggesting is that the Bible not be exempted from the messy, human business of hit-and-miss meaning-making, that rather than being an inerrant exception to humanity’s struggle to find meaning, the Bible be viewed as the example par excellence, a kind of template, of that struggle and its final redemption. Is there anything inerrant? Yes, Christ the Incarnate One. He is where Israel’s varied and messy meaning-making journey ends. Is there nothing unique about Israel’s Scripture? Certainly there is, namely, that it ends as explicitly as it does in Christ, the Incarnate One. It’s not different from other meaning-making journeys that have been documented in that it’s exempted by the magic of inspiration from all human error such that truths, and only truths, about God and the world can be pick up off the surface of any text like finely polished sea shells lying on the surface. On the contrary, it’s different from other meaning-making journeys in that God adopts this history, this people, this journey of meaning-making, as the sacred space in which he prepares an adequate context for incarnation. So there’s a covenant, but it’s not a book. It’s a history of God’s commitment to Israel’s entire journey, a commitment to engage Israel for a unique purpose that involves God and Israel in a unique way. But it doesn’t exempt Israel’s narrative of her own journey from all manner of error in understanding God or in interpreting her experience. Whatever Israel is—and she’s a mixed bag—her Scriptures are. Israel is her Scriptures.

Perhaps viewing the Bible as Israel’s history of meaning-making is entailed in other core commitments we’ve mentioned in this series. Still, it’s worth pointing out. Scripture isn’t just a Polaroid snap-shot of a mixed journey of meaning-making. In that case the ‘picture’ is something fundamentally other than what’s photographed. No, we’re saying Scripture is that journey. We’re also saying that it couldn’t really be otherwise, not if Israel is redeemed, kept by God’s grace through faith and doubt, of Israel’s search for meaning, through getting it right and getting it wrong, and being kept by grace to welcome the Incarnation. How do we know God’s grace kept Israel if her records aren’t absolutely inerrant? We know because the Son was incarnate! He came! (There’s a William Walker over at Missio Alliance, who is ringing the same bell we are.) Apart from Christ, the Old Testament isn’t Scripture, since Christ is the end of the law for all who believe. Christ was what Israel was called to and where God was always guiding Israel as along. Could Christ perhaps also redeem the Bible as well? That is, could Christ be ‘the meaning’ that makes/interprets Israel’s varied history of meaning-making (as opposed to simply ratifying and confirming all that went before)? That’s what we’re suggesting; not that Christ is the ‘end’ (telos) that does away with the need for the Bible, but that he is the truth and meaning in light of which we read it.

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper shall we sink.

I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike men are far more sparse.

The norms of theological judgment

donovanpaintingI recently mentioned having not read a Protestant theologian for several years now. James Loder comes to mind as the only brief exception. I finally decided to pick up Protestants again and chose Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson as my re-entry point. Wow.

I’m ashamed to confess having put off Jenson this long. He’s been on my shelf for, God forgive me, years. I’ve read works by others about Jenson. But when it comes to getting into Jenson himself, well, I just kept deferring to other things—Maximus, Bulgakov, Hart, Desmond, (and Fr. Aidan!). So here I am in Vol. 1 of Jenson’s SysTheo (The Triune God). I’ll get around to a response when I recover, if I recover. However, I sense a “response” to Jenson would reduce me to just taking inventory of what’s left of my own beliefs after Jenson got through with me and whatever reasons I have for holding on to what I hold on to.

Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, has taught for decades (various schools), is author of more than twenty books, and has edited that many more at least. I believe it was Jenson who wrote of David Bentley Hart that “Hart will never use one phrase when twenty will do.” Those who know Hart will agree. Jenson, on the other hand, is frustratingly terse and efficient. Frustrating because you want more of him, not because you need more of him to grasp his point. There’s no need to ramble on. Just insight after insight. I disagree (I think) with some of his key thoughts, but he argues them so well I find myself sometimes wishing they were true.

In the second chapter (“The Norms of Theological Judgment”) of his SysTheo’s first volume, he gets into the question of the canon and its authority, as well as dogma, tradition, and the question of magisterium. I’m an Evangelical, but I’ve suspected sola scriptura of being woefully inadequate for years, and describe my own evolving position here (sensus communis, about which, I don’t mind saying, I felt much better after reading Jenson’s thoughts). I liked much of what Jenson says in this second chapter and would like to reproduce a few it its paragraphs for your consideration:

It is the mission of the church to speak the gospel, to the world in the proclamation and to God in appeal and adoration. Theology is the hermeneutic of this work. Theology must therefore have norms by which to make the judgment, “This is/is not the gospel.”

…[the church] would have to make arrangements for carrying the self-identity so constituted into a future of her own, for perpetuating the apostolic tradition; that is, she would have to deliberate institutions that would be constitutive of her life…Catholic theology is tempted to take these developments as unproblematic, Protestant theology to take them as illegitimate. Both temptations must be resisted, since the “early catholic” developments are plainly very problematic over against the life of the apostolic period, and yet are just as plainly necessary to there now being any church at all.

…We will first and most lengthily consider the canon of Scripture. That we so proceed does not reflect the foundational order of the church’s norms; without antecedent ministry and creed, there would not have been this book, and without the continuous liturgy of the church, there would have been no occasion for creed or ministry. Rather, our order reflects ecumenical consensus that once a canon of Scripture is in place, it has authority also over against any particular dogmatic proposal, magisterial responsum, or apparently mandatory liturgical order, if our perplexity becomes so extreme as to need such authority. That is, canonical Scripture is—in the language of the Reformation—the norma normans non normata, the norm with no norm over it, although other norms establish it in this position and, as we will see, are necessary to its function in it.

…It was the historical and already conflicted church that gathered and winnowed documentary relics of apostolic proclamation. The canon of Scripture, that is, a list of writings together with the instruction, “Take all these writings and non other as standard documents of the apostolic witness,” is thus a dogmatic decision of the church. If we will allow no final authority to churchly dogma, or to the organs by which the church can enunciate dogma, there can be no canon of Scripture. The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,” is an oxymoron.

…Scripture as canon is the norma non normata of gospel-speaking and not directly of faith in the gospel or of theology about the gospel. The object and so criterion of faith is not Scripture as a collection of writings but God in his living word of the gospel. And theology uses Scripture as a norm of the proclamation and prayer theology serves, that is, as a norm of something other than itself; thus Scripture becomes theology’s own norm only mediately.


Scripture indeed becomes faith’s normative object in its liturgical use or when the reading or study of Scripture otherwise becomes living proclamation or adoration. When Scripture appears in such power, its authority is that of proclamation and sacrament and prayer generally: it is the authority of God’s own presence in his word, to create and nurture faith

…But when Scripture appears in this immediate authority, it is removed from the sorts of mundane analysis theology must execute to use Scripture in making its judgments. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between Scripture’s authority as living word of God and its authority as a norm in the church’s theological effort to speak that living word.

…There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. Theology is thinking what to say to be saying the gospel. Like every intellectual enterprise, this demands its own appropriate practices of thought. Since the gospel is whatever the apostles said to say “Jesus is risen,” apostolic reflective activity also—however profoundly or superficially done—must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

Thus it is not that Paul thought through the gospel better than, say, Irenaeus; the matter is in fact debatable. And having named Paul, we have named one of the few New Testament writers who, so far as the documents show, could compete in precision and profundity with many saints and thinkers who have come after. The New Testament witnesses are not necessarily the deepest or most critical or creative speakers of the gospel; they are the ones we must suppose did not simply do something else. That some of the New Testament writers were also genial thinkers is a bonus.

…If now we ask who is to defend a biblical text against its churchly interpreters—perhaps by pointing out facts about it—the final answer is that the Spirit must do so. But at the lower level maintained in these prolegomena, the needed insight is that there is no one to defend the text against the association of its interpreters except the community of those same interpreters, that is, the church as church over against the church as a certain number of conjoined persons. All texts finally need an interpreter that is no particular interpreter or even all particular interpreters added or averaged together, that is to say, all texts need a true community as interpreter; in the church, Scripture has just such a defender.

But if the church as community is to defend the text against the interpreting of the church’s associated members, the church must have a voice with which to speak for herself to her own members. Biblical authority—and mutais mutandis ritual and dogmatic authority—are therefore not possible apart from a voice for the church as community speaking to the church as association, that is, in the church’s own language, apart from a teaching office, a magisterium. To affirm this, we need not yet commit ourselves about a mandated or appropriate location of teaching authority.

The single entity of the church-community, to which appeal is here made, is both synchronic and diachronic in its unicity, but it is the latter than is now our concern. Through the teaching office, the church speaks as one diachronically communal reality and is guarded in this unity precisely by so speaking; therefore the teaching office must itself be essentially characterized by diachronic unity. In the church’s traditional language, this is called “succession”: those are to teach who make one community with former teachers.

There is an obvious problem here. It is the teaching office that speaks dogma, that speaks theologically for the church to its own members. Every proposal of dogma, like every proposal of theology generally, must be tested against Scripture and existing dogma. But we now see that it is, again, the teaching office by which Scripture and dogmatic texts can assert themselves. Here is a circle that obviously could set the teaching office adrift to define the gospel as whatever pleases its momentary holders. Sensitivity to this threat has notoriously made Protestantism uneasy with the posit of an authoritative magisterium. Yet now we see that a teaching office is necessary if Scripture or dogma are themselves to exercise authority.

We have again arrived at a limit of prolegomenal description. The magisterium can be the necessary enunciator of the gospel’s diachronic identity rather than a threat to it, can be the defense of Scripture and existing dogma rather than a danger to them, only if the circularity of the magisterium’s role marks the freedom of a charism, if the teaching office is an instrument of God the Spirit.

An atheist’s frustrated poetry


One atheist’s frustrated poetry

Twas Yahweh made the universe and all
And made it he in days that numbered seven;
Then watched as it so quickly fell from grace,
And closed became the gate between Earth and Heaven.
Created he the flowers, starts, and moon,
The human eye, the brain, and good things all;
The Liver Fluke, the tape worm and the plague,
Such things as those were good before the Fall.
Those sharpened fangs, and venom, and claws and germs,
Originally, entirely benign
Until the magic apple once was bit
And all things underwent a kind of redesign.
Cause harmful things could never be divine, could they?
Twas all our fault and that’s the bottom line.
Our fate was sealed when Yahweh chose to place
Within the magic garden fruit that would
When eaten by the creature he designed
Impart knowledge of evil and of good.
So Adam said to Eve, “Hey, listen love,
“He warned of death if we eat from that tree.
“But I don’t know what ‘death’ is love, do you?”
“I’m every bit as ignorant as thee,” said she. “So don’t ask me.”
The serpent tempted Eve one fateful day,
And she believed the Serpent’s wicked lies.
It turns out women made from peoples’ ribs,
Are not inherently, especially, wise.
And ate she of the tree and cursed the world.
She gave the fruit to Adam and he ate too.
Soon came upon them understanding thus,
“You’re naked!”
“Goodness me, and so are you!”
It’s interesting knowledge this is true,
But is that all the fruit was meant to do?
You’d think they’d come to a sudden realization
Of the right and wrong of every situation,
An instant, fruit-based, moral education
To pass on to the human population;
A fascinating ethical revelation
Invulnerable to that interpretation.
Sounds like all they got was titillation,
Just inexplicable humiliation,
And the start of religion’s nudity fixation;
The inauguration of a prudish denunciation
Of the instrumentation of procreation,
As well as being the first step on the journey to damnation;
Because along comes Yahweh asking about the fruit
Knowing full well that eaten it had been,
Surprised, he acted like he didn’t know,
But being omniscient surely he’d foreseen.
“And death alone,” declared the Lord of Life,
“Was punishment befitting such a crime”
For using one’s free will
To choose to not just worship
and obey him all the time.
Having thus decided upon death
For doing anything against his will,
How fortunate it was that he designed
Some handy livestock for us then to kill.
For centuries henceforth ordered he
That man should slaughter bird, and goat, and sheep and cow,
But later had his own son put to death,
So we don’t have to slaughter livestock now.
But getting back to Adam, Eve and Snake,
Let’s contemplate the price he made them pay.
To woman he gave childbirth’s risks and pains,
To man, the need to work hard every day.
Before all this there was no work to do
And childbirth was just a piece of cake;
All day they’d rest and babies just slid out.
If only Eve had not believed the Snake!
But being as he is the Lord of all,
The sole designer of the world we see;
Surely he could have come up with a price other than death
Or so it seems to me.
“Seeing as I am,” Lord Yahweh might have said,
“The Lord of every detail here created,
“I get to choose the consequence of sin
“The punishment and all results related.”
And certainly he could have simply said
That “You alone can make up for your sin:
“By only righteous works can you be saved
“If I’m to open heaven and let you in.
“Although you’re sinful now,
“If you decide that you’ll be good
“Instead of being mean,
“If you’ll help the needy, feed the poor,
“By acts of righteousness you’ll be made clean.”
This makes Christians angry,
And they say “Hey can’t! He can’t!”
Yes of course he could! He makes the moral laws!
So why not make salvation doable
Though acts of good?
If people were convinced of all their guilt
And genuinely wanted to repent,
That would quickly make this world a better place
Improving peoples’ lives wherever they went.
Instead we’re told the only way to God
Is to hear a silly story and believe.
Believe a silly story based around death
That only bronze-aged [sadists] could conceive:
He sacrificed himself unto himself
To pay himself the price that he demanded,
For any violation by a human
Of strict adherence to his perfect standard.
Believe—it’s such a useless thing to do,
But that’s the thing that’s closest to God’s heart?
As long as some believe then God’s content
To watch the rest of his creation fall apart.
Believe this ancient story
Of a man who walked on water, raised folk from the dead,
Magically made wine from H2O,
And had a crowd miraculously fed.
A story rife with borrowed ancient myths,
A group of Twelve, a few nights in a tomb,
Magic healings and stars that did portend
His exit from his virgin mother’s womb.
Yes, all of this and more you must accept,
That’s the system Yahweh did conceive.
No, not of all the good that you might do,
It’s all for nothing if you don’t believe.
If you’re an awful, evil pedophile
Raping and abusing kids all night;
Or maybe you’re a racist piece of trash
Who likes to murder those who are not white;
Perhaps you rob old ladies, blow up cars,
Or wipe out entire countries; that’s alright.
If you’ll suspend your disbelief in God and beg to Christ
You’re perfect in his sight.
While all those ordinary decent folk
Who just cannot believe and never could
Will roast in hell by rational thought betrayed,
The evidence against these baseless claims
Were just too good.
So, don’t think too much. Don’t let a doubt creep in.
Don’t ever think the whole thing is less than true!
The Devil’s at the door
And wicked lies that sound like truth he saith unto you:
“Snakes don’t talk, and neither donkeys too!
“A man inside a fish would surely die,
“A wall that fell on 27,000 men would surely be prohibitively high.”
Says Lucifer, “Don’t you care that Jesus’ life
“Was written by men he’d never met?
When written several decades past his death
Exaggerations [are] surely what you get.
“You don’t believe,” says Satan, “Do you friend?
“The grave opened and poured out their dead?
“And walked they around the streets greeting old friends,
“But no one wrote down anything they said?
“Believe you that the risen Christ ascended
“When finished with the task that he’d been sent?
“Ascended physically and traveled skyward?
“You never stopped to think of where he went?”
“Just given what we know in modern times
“About gas and pressure in our atmosphere
“And what’s beyond our planet,
“Can’t you see just why unto the rest of us it’s clear
“His body became worm food here?”
But heed not Satan, believe thou not his lies,
Over him the victory has been won by Yahweh
Through his favorite payment, death.
By crucifying and killing his own son.
He could have made up rules that harmed no one,
But yet another ritualistic, sacrificial,
Bloody, violent, painful death
Seemed much more fun.

Stompin out the Devil


Stompin out the Devil? Naw. I give him no attention,
I focus on Creator, Divinity apprehension
The Enemy is forgotten long ago like a old pastime
Things begin again, not worried bout the last time…
The Devil had me in a choke hold, He broke that.
No weapon formed against me, He wrote that.
Sin was a dragon to me, He smote that.
Had a sleeping giant deep in my soul, He woke that.
Love is the mission, and I even love the Enemy.
When it comes to Creation, the fool is still kin to me, cause…
We all come from the same Source, Same Life
One forgiveness, cause we all go through the same strife.
Some people may think that I’m going to hell
Cause I believe that Satan may be saved as well.
If that’s you, then pray for me a sinner….
Cause I believe God can turn any loser to a winner.

(Dwayne Polk)

From Nothing—Part 3

660f29b8f3989c777e347c34a1279b10Here’s the final portion of McFarland’s Intro. It’s an insightful and informed book. Not an easy read. I hope to share a few of his statements on divine transcendence. Some of his thoughts resonated with me. Some seemed a bit much. I’d like to finish the book and think through it before coming to any conclusions. For now, I hope this final portion of his Intro gives you a better picture of where he’s going.

While the whole of this book is my answer to this challenge [see Part 2 for the challenge], two preliminary observations, one logical and the other exegetical, will help to frame that answer. The logic point is fairly straightforward. Within process metaphysics, God’s ability to interact with the world is conditional on a fundamental metaphysical continuity between God and all that is not God. Only if God and the world operate on the same metaphysical plane is it possible for God to engage the world both directly and without compulsion. According to process thinkers, if God is transcendent in the way implied by creation ex nihilo, other entities lose the autonomy required if their actions are to avoid being subsumed without remainder into God’s activity. This line of reasoning reflects the fact that as much as process thought breaks with Plato’s privileging of Being over Becoming, it fully shares the Platonist conviction that the two represent exhaustive and mutually exclusive alternatives. Therefore, in order to secure the possibility of God’s direct and non-coercive engagement with the realm of becoming, process thinkers must render God subject to its laws. The metaphysical framework that defines becoming as the measure of all reality is primary, and God too is bound by it structures—even if God relates to them from a position of vastly greater knowledge and power than other entities and is, correspondingly, able to engage them with unspeakable range and intensity.

A crucial implication of this postulate of metaphysical continuity is that God is not finally sovereign over creation. It was in opposition to this conclusion (promoted in the second century on different grounds by Platonists and gnostics alike) that Theophilus and Irenaeus insisted on creation from nothing. For these theologians the claim that the ontological autonomy of matter marked a fundamental limit on God’s sovereignty was inconsistent with Christian confidence in God’s power to save, and they posited creatio ex nihilo as a means of affirming that no reality was ultimately capable of thwarting God’s will. In so doing, then implicitly rejected the either/or of Platonist metaphysics by refusing to make God’s ability to engage directly with the world of change conditional on God’s inclusion within it. The upshot was a God conceived neither in opposition to nor as an example of becoming, but as its sole, direct, and immediate source. Because (in the world of a latter theologian) “all things are distant from God not by place, but by nature,” God’s engagement with the world is neither impeded by nor subject to the metaphysics of becoming.

Early promoters of creation from nothing like Theophilus and Irenaeus were far from being either comprehensive or even altogether consistent in addressing the issue raised by the doctrine. Nevertheless, insofar as their theologies point to God’s transcendence of the Platonic contrast between Being and Becoming, it is precisely the metaphysical discontinuity between Creator and creature (a discontinuity marked for both Theophilus and Irenaeus by the fact that God does not depend on existing materials in order to create) that becomes for them the basis for God’s ability to interact directly with creatures. It follows that the realm of becoming is not an inescapable feature of reality in the face of which God and the rest of us do the best we can, but a gift that is the proper mode rather than a more-or-less recalcitrant medium for creaturely flourishing.

To be sure, the identification of creation as a gift does not by itself answer the charge of divine arbitrariness: since it is part of the definition of a gift (in contrast to a wage or reward) that the giver is under no obligation to make it, it is certainly possible for the gift of creation to be arbitrary. God’s creating the world would, on this reading, be analogous to my giving fifty dollars to a person chosen at random from a crowd. Indeed, some recent theorists have suggested that a genuine gift must be arbitrary. According to this line of argument, genuine gift giving can be distinguished from economies of exchange (in which “gifts” either function as payment for benefits received or impose an obligation of return) only when every motive has been eliminated—when the gift is not only anonymous but also made in complete ignorance of and disregard for the condition of the recipient. Otherwise the given will always be suspected of a self-interest that vitiates the purity of the gift. Interpreting creation as a gift in this sense would imply a divine indifference to creatures that is both unworthy of worship and incapable of inspiring it.

Whatever one makes of this account as a general theory of gift giving, it has serious implications for the doctrine of creation since Christian convictions about the freedom of God’s creative work that underlie the interpretation of creation as a gift seem to render the act of creation inherently arbitrary. After all, if it is true that God creates from nothing, then God’s desire to share the benefits of existence cannot be conditional either on any prior merits of the gift’s recipients (since apart from God’s gift of existence there is no recipient to which such merit might be ascribed) or on future benefits they might return (since in a world where everything is created by God, any possible return made by creatures will itself be rooted entirely and immediately in God’s own action). Therefore, insofar as the gift of created existence is, by virtue of its complete dependence on the will of giver, utterly unconditioned, it might well seem to be the epitome of arbitrariness.

One might counter that this case for divine arbitrariness is logically misplaced since it is based on an anthropomorphic model of choosing from a range of options external to the Creator (e.g., deciding to paint with oils rather than acrylics, or to construct a table instead of a chair). Such a picture arguably fails to reckon with the full implications of the claim that God creates from nothing, which implies that in creating the world, God is not confronted by any reality, real or notional, in relation to which God may be said to “choose.” Even if this point is conceded, however, it is still possible to view the charge of divine arbitrariness as meaningful insofar as the essential goodness of creaturely existence is in doubt. How do we know that in creation, God is seeking the benefit of creatures? This question can only be answered by attending to the character of Divinity, showing that kind of creator this God is. An adequate defense against the charge that creation from nothing implies an arbitrary or tyrannical God will therefore need to combine analysis of the doctrine’s logic with an exposition of the identity of the God who is its subject. Thus, in much the same way that it is possible in the human sphere to deflect the charge that a person is arbitrary by appeal to the character that underlies and shapes her actions, so, too, with God.

Since Christians view Scripture as the definitive witness to God’s identity, the claim that one can affirm creation from nothing while denying divine arbitrariness needs to be made on exegetical grounds. At first glance the prospects for success might seem limited, given both the lack of explicit biblical witness to the idea of creation from nothing and the undeniable presence of biblical passages seeming to suggest that God is arbitrary (see, perhaps most famously, Rom. 9:15-21; cf. Exod. 33:19). Of course, theology is not reducible to proof-texting, and a doctrine’s orthodoxy does not hang on its being taught explicitly in the Bible. The fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is not spelled out in the Bible has no prevented the overwhelming majority of Christians for the last 1,500 years from viewing it as a thoroughly “biblical” concept. Likewise, the propriety with which the church teaches both creation from nothing and the fundamental graciousness of God’s works in which the confession of Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior bears on the question of God’s relationship to the world. Nevertheless, the importance of such systematic considerations does not obviate the need for careful attention to the meaning of particular biblical passages, especially a text as decisive for framing any putative biblical understanding of creation as the first chapter of Genesis.

In undertaking such interpretation, however, it is important to insist that the proper content of the Christian doctrine of creation cannot be decided on the basis of a narrow focus on the Hebrew of Gen. 1:1. Even if this unusual construction were less ambiguous than millennia of competing interpretations suggest, for Christians who work with a two-Testament canon, its doctrinal significance cannot be assessed apart from texts like the first chapter of John, which gives its own account of “the beginning” with a grammar that (at least with respect to the opening prepositional phrase) is utterly unambiguous: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).


For John, the authority of the Jewish Scripture is clear, yet relative: on the one hand, they bear witness to Jesus (5:39); on the other, it is Jesus who unlocks their true meaning (see, e.g., 2:17). Consequently, John’s “In the beginning…” does not merely echo Genesis 1 (in the way that elements of Genesis 1 may echo earlier Near Eastern creation myths like the Enuma Elish), but interprets it—a pattern repeated in various places throughout the Gospel. Such interpretive elaboration of Old Testament is found throughout the New Testament and seems to be rooted in the conviction that Jesus is not only witnessed to by the law and the prophets (Acts 28:23; Rom. 3:21), but also provides an indispensable reference point for fully grasping their meaning. Given this conviction, it follows that if John 1 is acceptable as canonical Scripture, its testimony about how the world came to be must be taken into account when developing a Christian doctrine of creation.

What exactly does John 1 say about God’s creating? The first thing to note is that the “beginning” in John 1:1 does not refer to the time “when God began to create” (which does not come into view until v. 3), but to the logically prior conditions that form the context of God’s creative work. In describing these conditions, the evangelist makes no mention of any formless waste, water, or swirling deep alongside God; even darkness comes into play only after “all things” have already come into existence. Yet there is one entity mentioned in addition to God: the Word (Logos in Greek). This Word is identified as that which was “with God” in the beginning (v. 1b)—a point evidently significant enough for the evangelist that it is repeated in verse 2. And sandwiched between this repeated claim is a further specification that upsets a straightforward interpretation of the Word and God as two distinct realities: “the Word was God” (v. 1c). No more than any other New Testament text does John contain the later doctrinal language of creation from nothing, but thanks to this final clause, the upshot of the Gospel’s opening verse is that the sole precondition and only context for creation is God.

And yet it remains a crucial feature of John’s first verses that although God is the sole presupposition of creation, the God who creates is not solitary, since the Word who is God is also with God. In this way, at the same time that John 1 stands as the most explicit biblical statement of the unconditional character of God’s creating work, it also signal that creation from nothing is not merely a claim about God’s relation to the world, but also a statement about God’s own identity. This latter point is crucial to addressing the charge that creation from nothing implies a domineering, tyrannical God: In light of John’s Gospel, the claim that God creates from nothing means that God creates through the same Word (1:3) who, because of God’s love for the world, “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14) “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Following the lead of John, creation from nothing should not be understood in isolation, as an abstract claim about divine power, but as part of a broader story of God’s ongoing commitment to the life of all that is not God.

So it is that where the doctrine of creation is concerned, evaluating what God does is inseparable from knowing who God is—knowledge that for Christians is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Christians cannot talk about creation apart from Christology, and this Christological matrix, in turn, shapes whatever formal theological claims are made about God’s nature and attributes. So, for example, in speaking of divine omnipotence, it will be important not to leap to abstract considerations of possible limits (logical, metaphysical, or moral, for example) on God’s power. These sorts of questions obviously cannot be ignored, but Christians find a more plausible starting point for reflection on what it might mean to say that God is omnipotent in a passage like John 10:29, where Jesus says, “My Father is greater than all by virtue of what he has given me, and no one can snatch out of the Father’s hand.” While the Greek text of this passage is not without problems, two things are clear: first (and in line with both Theophilus’s and Irenaeus’s defense of creation from nothing), there is no power capable of defeating God’s will to save; and second, the indefeasibility of God’s power is somehow bound up with the relationship between the Father and the Son. Clearly if omnipotence is understood in this way, the chief concerns of process thought regarding divine totalitarianism seem at the very least rhetorically misplaced. It remains, of course, to show both how these two aspects of the verse are related (How does God’s power depend on God’s identity?), and how their relation helps to address the charge that an omnipotent God is necessarily arbitrary (What difference does it make that God’s power depends on God’s identity?). That will be the task of the rest of this book.