Getting going again

Well, that was a long gap.

The main practical reason? Unbelievable quantities of work. Becoming Head of Department, preparing for an internal pilot Research Assessment Exercise, organising the 2006 Society for the Study of Theology conference. and trying to finish the SCM Study Guide to Christian Doctrine. Amongst other things.

This has meshed, however, with some deeper reasons. I tend to find that my attitude to what I’m doing, theology-wise, goes in cycles – and since October or November last year I’ve been experiencing a loss of confidence: one of those times when I’m sustained only by various habits, practical commitments, and deadlines – rather than by any strong sense that what I’m doing makes sense or is worthwhile. (It’s not depression, not even mildly: the last few months have also been amongst the most cheerful of my life, I think.) I’ll talk about some particular aspects of that in some separate posts, particularly as they affect the kind of stuff I have been doing (or not doing recently) on the blog.

John, the voice in the wilderness

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ

ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου
φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ
ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ

ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:2-4

In what sense is John the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’? In what sense is he YHWH’s messenger? At first sight, the connection between John and the prophecy appears to have been made with uncritical literalism by early followers of John and then of Jesus – followers who found a verse about one proclaiming in the wilderness, and grabbed it to speak about this Jordan-based preacher, and who had to change the syntax of the verse from Isaiah in the process (to attach ‘wilderness’ to the ‘voice’ rather than to the ‘making straight’).

I suspect, however that this is a secondary, accidental and in its way playful connection dependent upon a deeper connection that had already been found: John’s ministry of repentance was, I suspect, a ministry that self-consciously performed a preparation for the coming of YHWH as already understood in ways shaped by verses like these from Isaiah. John prepares for the coming of the Lord – and when the Lord comes in ways unexpected even by John, John’s ministry of repentance does not cease to be a preparation for it.

“Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”: Proclaiming a washing, a purification, a rite of passage, a way through the Jordan, a return to the true Israel – for or into the forgiveness of sins: into a renewed Israel, an Israel whose sins have been taken away, an Israel made straight, levelled for the coming King. If John proclaims (consciously? despite himself?) Jesus, he does so only by proclaiming the renewal of Israel.

Back from AAR

I’m back from AAR, and from a Scriptural Reasoning pre-meeting. Jetlag and babylag are still holding me under, and I have a ferocious week or so ahead in order to get my timetable back under control – but I have a backlog of posts to make some time soon.

Abducting John III

Just one quick post to finish this line of thought off for now. There is a dialectic between interpreting John and registering John’s resistance to interpretation – you might say, a dialectic between theological interpretation and historical-critical interpretation. And this dialectic can be seen as a way of paying homage to the two sides of the idea that John’s true identity is ‘hid with Christ in God’ – the theological interpretation witnessing to the ‘in Christ with God’ side, the historical-critical to the ‘hid’.

I think I want to say slightly more than that, though. On the one hand, I can say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God only because I trust that the God who addresses the world (and John) in Christ has no ‘interests’ – that this God is not bending John to some personal need, and distorting him in the process. It is only in relation to such a God that there is any freedom, any true identity – only such a God can tell us who we are without distortion. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God because I know that the Christians who say this certainly do have interests, in fact are never free of interests, and are quite capable of bending John to some personal need.

To the dialectic of interpretation and registering resistance, then, I want to add a third element: such a hermeneutical trajectory can only be pursued with integrity in the context of interpreters, interpreting communities, that are pursuing the purification of their interests – that are pursuing holiness. It can only be pursued with integrity by individuals and communities that are discovering their true identities, hid with Christ in God.

When we’re talking about John the Baptist, that point may sound somewhat abstract – or, worse, like a bit of rather demonstrative breast-beating. If we start thinking about the topic that’s been (not very far) in the background through this discussion: interpretation of the Hebrew Bible – well; I think the point becomes rather more urgent and important. To read the Hebrew Bible as Old Testament – that seems to me to involve a dialectic between theological interpretation, and registering the resistance of the text to theological interpretation (by means of historical criticism, certainly, but also I think by reading alongside Jewish readers) – and can only be done with integrity by individuals and community in pursuit of holiness – and that must include especially holiness in dealings with the people of this book.

Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ve quite convinced myself with all this – but it will do for now.

Abducting John II

Paternity leave is over, so it’s back to the abduction of John. The story so far:

  • As an indirect way of thinking about how Christians, including Mark, have used and abused the Hebrew Bible, I’m looking at how they have adopted or abducted John the Baptist;
  • I’ve suggested that the independent, pre-abduction identity of John (or at least the fact that he had such an identity) is still dimly visible through the cracks of the Gospel text;
  • I’ve suggested that to take Mark’s Gospel seriously is to take seriously the claim that John’s identity as fore-runner, as messenger of Christ, is his real identity, his true identity – perhaps despite his own intentions and self-perceptions;
  • I’ve suggested that part of the answer is that John did in fact make way for Christ (my ‘John as theotokos’ point – his ministry provided the matrix for the birth of Jesus’ ministry), and that it makes sense to claim that he did so because he was obedient to God;
  • but I’ve left hanging the question about how John himself might have treated the claim that he was nothing more or less than Jesus’ forerunner.

I’m going down this route because it seems to me that asking about the Gospel’s use of a person raises questions of supersessionism (abduction) even more sharply than asking about the Gospel’s use of a text. Of course, in the process, I am myself using John – but I think I can live with the irony.

The next point that struck me as I thought about this was a potential theological get-out-of-jail free card – quickly followed by the realisation that the card was not actually going to solve my problems.

  1. To say that John’s true identity is given in his relation to Christ is no more than I would want to say about Mark, or about myself: our identities are ‘hid with Christ in God’. I too am being abducted, and my truth is not in myself but in Christ. This is the get-out-of-jail free card: ‘Yes, there is supersessionism here, but only because we’re all, in a sense, superceded.
  2. If we play this card, we declare that the abduction of John does not consist in the claim that I (or Mark) possess John’s truth just as we possess our own – but that none of us possess our own truth. For all of us our ‘truth’ will be found only in relation to Christ.
  3. The dangerous point comes if we go on to claim that, as it were, Mark and I know the one who possesses our truth in a way that John the Baptist may not have done. And some claim at least that strong does seem to be implied if we go along with Mark’s willingness to depict John as forerunner – i.e., to depict who John is in relation to Christ. The Gospel does not say of John, ‘Who he is is a mystery hid with Christ in God’, it says, ‘This is who he is.’

With this in mind, I find myself being drawn towards a kind of answer that has attracted me in other contexts. Perhaps we are simply left with a tension between the Christologically-grounded desire to say, ‘This is what John means; this is simply who he really was’ and the countervailing desire to say, ‘No, that does not exhaust who John was: we can still glimpse John’s unassimilated identity through the gaps in our theological construction’. Perhaps, that is, we are simply left with a tension between interpreting John theologically and registering John’s resistance to this theological interpertation. And perhaps, as a Christian interpreter, I have to abide with this tension not because I give up on the claim that John’s identity too is truly hid with Christ in God, but because I have to step back from converting that claim into the further claim that his identity is therefore given into my possession.

Hmmm. I still don’t think this is enough – but I only dimly perceive where to go next. To put it gnomically: I think more needs to be said about the kind of ‘abduction’ we’re talking about – more about the nature of the God who is doing the abducting, and the reasons why this abduction cannot (must not) be understood as a form of violence.

To be continued…


Apologies for the long gap. I’m on paternity leave at the moment, Tom having joined the family last week – and the week before that having been disrupted by preparations for his arrival. More soon…

More construction

A quick clarification of the end of the last post.

I suggested that ‘identification of the meanings of the Bible’ might itself be a case of different communities with different ‘interests’ picking out different ‘objects’. I did not mean, however, that every differing interpretative claim – I claim that ‘Son of God’ should be read against such-and-such a Hebrew background, you claim that it should be read against a Hellenistic background – was simply to be traced to differing community interests. Debate about differing interpretations would then always be disguised (ideological) debate about our differing communities (conflicting) interests – the Bible no more than a proxy battleground for our real animosities.

Rather, I was thinking the rather vaguer (though no more original) thought that there is no one obvious thing that ‘interpretation’ means. Different communities with different interests play different kinds of games that I, abstracting in my study late at night, might decide to call ‘interpretation of the Bible’ – but those games might be as different as the games played by different investigators in my little story. The ‘Hebrew’ versus ‘Hellenistic’ debate about ‘Son of God’ is a debate within one of those games – and it is no easy matter to say how it relates to the games played with similar texts by those embroiled in fourth century Christological debates.

I’m forcibly struck by the banality of this observation (and the realisation that the only reason for the previous post was that I liked my silly little story :-)) except for the niggling suspicion that it is a lesson I have not yet learnt. On the one hand, I find it frighteningly easy to proceed as if ‘interpretation’ were one thing – and there were only more and less successful attempts at it. On the other hand, I still manage to proceed as if hermeneutics – i.e., the discussion of what sort of thing interpretation is and how it works – is a nice abstract discipline, rather than one that must feed on historical and social-anthropological attention to the widely differing constructions of materials, nature, origin and end of interpretive activities in differing communities. (Oh, and I should of course never have adopted this deeply misleading ‘community’ terminology in the first place – as if you could define and count the somehow discrete groups involved in interpretative activities.)

Oh dear. I’m having one of those ‘turning to ashes’ evenings: ideas that seemed to have something in them before I tried writing them down seem dull and clumsy when I’ve actually typed them. I’m hovering between the delete key and the publish button…

Constructing the object

I’ve been thinking about the ‘construction of the object’ – i.e., the way that different communities with different interests will not only interpret an object in different ways, but may be said to have different objects – to have something different in mind when they refer to supposedly the same object. I don’t think that acknowledging this is immediately and necessarily a step into a malign postmodernist relativism; I think one can make sense of it even within a naively realist view of the world.

If I were, say, a police investigator working on a case, ‘The Bible’ might mean ‘This specific Gideon’s Bible with the torn leaf and the blood-stain’ – and there would quite possibly be no interesting relationship between that object and other books with similar words in.

If I were the forensic expert on the case, interested in how this book was used to batter the victim, ‘The Bible’ would most significantly be a member of the class of objects of this size, weight, shape, hardness and flexibility.

If I were the investigator, after a significant development in the case, trying to break the code that I now realise was used by the murderer and his accomplices, I might be interested in Bibles of exactly this edition, with exactly this pagination, on which a cypher has been developed – and no others. Nothing else would count as ‘The Bible’.

And so on.

By ‘construction of the object’, I simply mean this process by which the interests of the investigator pick out certain features of certain objects, as members of certain classes. Of course, I do perhaps go further than my little police story warrants when I claim that no ‘construction of the object’ is independent of interests – but I don’t think I necessarily step out of the sam naively realist world in doing so. There is, after all, a story to be told as to why Christians are able to say ‘Bible’ and mean a whole family of texts in different languages, with somewhat differing tables of contents – while Muslims properly mean only texts in Arabic when they say ‘Quran’. To say, ‘No, what “Bible” really means is…’ is always a statement made by some person or group that uses the word in particular contexts for particular purposes.

And, of course, you’re now meant to make a further step and think not just that identification of what is meant by ‘Bible’ might work in this way, but that identification of the meanings of the Bible will work this way – perhaps even more so.

Abducting John

ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:4

Questions about providence and supercessionism – about what is implied about the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures when Mark says that the coming of Jesus took place ‘as it was written’ – can, I think, be clarified by thinking about John the Baptist.

I don’t think we should lose sight completely of the independent reality of John. It is at least possible to ask whether John is rightly – fairly – interpreted in the Gospel. Perhaps, to some observer of John’s ministry who was not one of Jesus’ disciples (and perhaps to John himself) it would have seemed an odd claim to make to call him the fore-runner, the announcer, the evangelist of Christ. Perhaps it could reasonably have been said that this was not really what was going on, or that it was only one strand of what was going on – and an ambivalent, debatable, soon-questioned strand at that. We can find traces in the Gospels themselves which might lead us to such a conclusion. From such a perspective, the Gospel of Mark’s use of John might appear as abuse – as a violent mis-reading of John, the abduction of John.

To take Mark’s Gospel seriously, however, is to take seriously the claim that John’s identity as fore-runner, as messenger of Christ, is his real identity, his true identity: that even if it was to some extent despite himself, and even if it was with demurrals and qualifications, John did prepare the way for Christ and so made way for the King.

Reading this text with a critical eye, I have to ask what it means to say of John that, even if it was for him and his explicit intenions an accidental or half-hearted matter, even if it was an ‘ambivalent, debatable, soon-questioned strand’ of his ministry, so overwhelming and so central is the truth for which he did in fact make way that his pointing to it is his truth – that whatever else we might have been able to say about him is cast into the shadow by this.

Part of the answer must surely lie in the claim that he “did in fact make way” for Jesus. I don’t think we should downplay this. I’d like to draw upon some classic ecclesical reflection on Mary to put this strongly: I think we could consider John as, to an extent, Theotokos, God-bearer: his ministry provided the matrix for the birth of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ humanity was shaped by this context, and – perhaps – shaped decisively. And I think I’d want to claim that, from the little we know of John’s ministry, it makes sense to say that he was able to play this role because of a fundamental ‘be it unto me according to thy word’ – a fundamental obedience or openness to God that characterised his ministry.

Yet I think we can say all this, about John’s obedience, and about John as Theotokos, without denying any of our critical suspicions about how John himself might have treated the claim that he was nothing more or less than Jesus’ forerunner.

…to be continued.

Postliberalism? Generous/critical/radical orthodoxy?

The new edition of The Modern Theologians is out. (Well done Rachel!) And there’s a great new article in it by Jim Fodor on ‘postliberalism’, which (amongst other things) provides the best description of postliberalism I’ve ever seen. I recognise myself here very strongly:

  1. Postliberal theology represents a postcritical ‘journey to regain an inheritance’ (i.e., a retrieval and redeployment of premodern sources in characteristically ‘unmodern’ ways to meet today’s challenges).
  2. It self-consciously engages and reflects upon theology’s tasks in relation to its ecclesial settings (borrowing but also adapting previously unavailable conceptual tools from the social sciences, especially in their descriptive aspects…).
  3. It deploys narrative as a key category … Concretely embodying scripture in ecclesially appropriate ways stands in contrast to theologies which attempt to ‘lift’ from the text certain teachings or moral truths in a manner that leaves the Bible behind…)
  4. It emphasizes the peculiar grammar of Christian faith, concentrating on its scriptural logic and the regulative role of doctrine…
  5. It allocates to theology a primarily corrective rather than constitutive function. Theology’s aim is to repair, correct and sustain rather than constitute Christian language-games…
  6. It exhibits a distinctively Protestant flavour that is yet open to Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox inflections…
  7. It espouses a non-essentialist approach to religions … Affirming and attending to the material specifics and irreducible differences among religions … helps check, on the one hand, proclivities towards supercessionism … and encourages, on the other, genuine interchange and mutual understanding…
  8. It adopts a non-foundational epistemological posture…
  9. It sees its primary task as descriptive rather than apologetic

I guess I’m an Anglican-inflected postliberal, on this description. Even though I wasn’t a liberal to begin with, and by some definitions turn out to be one now. But what else could you call it?

I quite like Frei’s term, ‘generous orthodoxy’ (see 1984a on my Frei bibliography) – but that doesn’t quite capture it, and in any case seems rather a self-aggrandizing name to apply to oneself. (Frei coined it to describe his teacher, Robert L. Calhoun.) And it has since become identified with Brian D. McClaren, about whom I know next to nothing.

I really want a name that manages to combine:

  1. generous orthodoxy – which I tend to identify with Frei’s pragmatic, descriptive Barthianism;
  2. critical orthodoxy – i.e., something with a bit more anger to it, and a stronger awareness of ‘texts of terror’ and the need for orthodoxy’s self-repair; and even a touch of
  3. radical-ish orthodoxy. – i.e., whilst I can’t go all the way with Milbank, Pickstock and co., I do want something with rather more philosophy/metaphysics to it, and with a decent dash of Aquinas.

Any suggestions?