The Difference the Ascension Makes

Two Takes

  1. Nicholas Lash

Luke’s account of the ascension can only be understood if we resist the modern tendency to carve up the paschal mystery into a series of separate ‘events’. The death and glorification of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit constitute one event, the salvation-event. …

What practical difference would it make to our understanding and living of the christian faith if the phrase ‘he ascended into heaven’ were deleted from the creed?

from “Acts,” in Luke, ed. Duncan Macpherson (London: Sheed and Ward, 1971), 115-6.

Though I could be making too much of this, in context I take Lash to be insinuating that it would make no difference. He’s got a worrying habit of collapsing the ascension and resurrection into the crucifixion.

  1. Andrew Purves

The recovery of Ascension Day as a holy day in its own right means the affirmation of the continuing life and ministry of the resurrected Jesus. I dare to suggest that the recovery of Ascension Day as a major Christian festival…could spark profound renewal in the life of a congregation, as it could in the ministry of a pastor. The reason should now be familiar: Jesus is a living, reigning and acting Lord.

from The Resurrection of Ministry (IVP, 2010), 60.

 

Hallowed Be Your Name

In Petition of the Self-Sanctification of God’s Name

Deploying theological categories as credible and capable resources for addressing any number of questions that vex our society and/or our subjectivity is an uncertain proposition. In the post-Christian West it’s taken for granted that religious discourse, if not yet altogether meaningless, is certainly in want of a raison d’être. So what is the theologian and pastor to do in times when talk of God, the church, and the gospel are heard as impotent to save? When the fear of the Lord and the obedience of faith constitute neither the beginning of wisdom nor the rule of virtue? When it seems religious discourse itself stands in need of, well, redemption?

When I rehearse questions like these to myself I admittedly feel caught between two lines of response, and I’m not yet sure how to correlate them. Both are on to something, but how to account for their respective contributions? This is my standing question. So without further ado:

SET 1

When words lose their meaning, it is not the words that are at fault, but the people using them.

  • from R. G. Rollefson Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Theology of Paul L. Holmer (Pickwick, 2014), 67.

It is not that…words are mistaken, or that they are — in the glib modern sense — irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in…speakers. There is not enough depth in us for [certain] words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. …[T]he point of traditional doctrinal forms is…, we could say, to create a depth in us.

In the world as it is, the right to be heard speaking about God must be earned.

  • from Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwells, 2000), 40.

SET 2


That prayer [hallowed be thy name] is not, we must note, first and foremost a prayer that the Church itself somehow establish the sanctity of God’s name. Quite the opposite: it is a prayer that God himself hallow his own name. … The prayer of the Church, its trustful cry that in this matter God will take up his own cause and demonstrate his holiness, is thus rooted in the “sanctifying of God’s name by God himself.”

  • from John Webster, Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003), 75-76.

A world enslaved to mistaken, idolatrous, and even murderous theological apprehensions seems to be too great a challenge for such a frail, divided, compromised community as the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is! That is why the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer! We disciples do not accept the hallowing of God’s name as a mission we can make ourselves able to accomplish. We beg for it as a gift we can receive in faith by grace. God’s reputation may be in tatters today among the nations and even among his own people, but God’s reputation is eternally secure among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that is what really matters.

  • from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45.

Ezekiel 36:16-38

Synthesis?

Insofar as my disjunction has set divine and human agency in contrastive terms, Webster and Work have to be right, as a matter of fundamental theological grammar, to accord what I’m calling the redemption of religious discourse to God’s agency. Quoting Barth, Webster is able to speak of “an act [of God] that cannot be ours” (76). This line would seem to leave Williams and Holmer’s thesis without any work left to do. But we know Webster and Work would not endorse an account of competitive, zero-sum agency between God and humanity. So, first, that does leave me wondering what could count as an action of God that’s unmediated by human action. What might Webster cite as an example? Second, I’m wondering whether Williams and Holmer’s claim could be reimported through a back door (so to speak) on the basis of some Thomist-style model of double agency. It seems to me axiomatic that the concrete lives of Christians contribute in some way to the credibility of their claims. Something about having to earn the right to be heard speaking about God (however that’s imagined) rings true. Yet how doesn’t that concession put the onus squarely back on Christians and once again eclipse God’s agency in just the way Webster censures?

In Closing

if the word ‘God’ (with a capital ‘G’) has today become so burdened with inappropriate use, why don’t we simply discard it, and speak in some other way about the holy mystery which the word misnames? After all, it is not on a three-letter word that our hearts, identities and hopes are set. The short answer, I suggest, is that the long, and complex, and conflictual history of humankind’s engagement in the educational process of learning non-idolatrously to worship, learning wholeheartedly and without reserve to give ourselves to the truth, and flourishing, and freedom, to which we have been called, is simply too bound up with the history of the uses and misuses of this little word. However difficult it is to use appropriately, there is no other word which similarly signals that the truth and destiny and healing of the world infinitely outstrip the world’s capacities.

  • from Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence (Ashgate, 2004), 20-21. Cf. Theology on the Way to Emmaus, 55.

The body of Christ is the instrument God has chosen to rescue his reputation in the world.

  • from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45. In context, by “body of Christ” Telford is primarily referring to the Church, but given the drift of his essay it might be permissible to leave it ambiguous (either Church or Christ), or perhaps even take it in a conjunctive totus christus sense.

On Saying No More Than Enough

On discerning virtuous and vicious amounts of talking

One step in recognizing a virtue is distinguishing it from vices of excess and deficiency. This is why virtues are sometimes described as “golden means.” They’re goldilocks dispositions — neither too much, nor too little, but just the right amount. So, for example, consider the virtue of hope. Too much hope we call presumption, too little despair. Somewhere between those extremes is a space with a fitting measure of hope.

The same logic regulates how much theologians should have to say and how they say it. We can say too much or too little, and we can say what needs saying either too timidly or brashly. How might we think about where to draw appropriate boundaries? Well let’s register some occurrences where theologians have worried about precisely these sorts of issues.

Against Deficiency

  • David Bentley Hart

… if I may be frank, what I often find wearing is the faltering, apologetic, restrained, and hesitant tone of much modern theology. It is what I quite shamefully and unfairly tend to think of as “the modern Anglican inflection”: the sorrowful diminuendo towards embarrassed silence, by way of prolonged clearings of the throat and the occasional softly whistled tune, as one contemplates changing the subject before anyone is so indiscreet as to venture a firm opinion. I have little patience for the notion that we know so little (on account of the mystery of evil) that we must abandon our efforts to advance the story of Christ as the true story of the world. And I have even less patience for the claim that “we must speak . . . only ‘tentatively, indirectly, metaphorically’,” etc. I cannot, try as I might, make that description of evangelical rhetoric conform in my mind to the practice of Christ, the Apostles, or the martyrs of the Church, nor can I bring myself to think of that practice as in any sense violent, or even excessive in its confidence. And I should hate to think that theology should now become little more than a judicious preparation for Christianity’s ultimate obsolescence, and faith little more than a nostalgia for vanished gods. I simply do not believe that we have always somehow refused to recognize ambiguity or ignored the brokenness of others’ lives or been insufficiently attentive to uncertainty and pluralism if we choose to be forthright and even a bit unrestrained in our rhetoric.

from “Response to James K. A. Smith, Lois Malcolm and Gerard Loughlin,” New Blackfriars 88, no. 1017 (2007): 619.

  • Robert Jenson

As the essays succeed each other, the bishop’s fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith. The confession into which teaching is supposed to lead us begins, after all, “I believe…,” not “I wonder about….” Is it really the chief proper use of dogma and other theology “to keep the essential questions alive,” (p. 92) indefinitely to sustain puzzlement? Should dogmas and other theologoumena serve mostly to remind us of the problems they pretend to resolve? God is indeed a mystery, but between honor for the biblical God’s specific mystery and the kind of endless semi-Socratic dialectic Williams often seems to commend, there is, I would have thought, some considerable difference. No doubt argument and perplexity are permanent in the church’s thinking, and no doubt this is a good and necessary thing; so that stirring up stagnant conviction must indeed be one task of theology. But, e.g., the phrase just cited, “to keep the essential questions alive,” occurs in an exposition of “the doctrine of Incarnation,” (pp. 79-92) and the fathers of Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople themselves certainly thought they were settling certain essential questions, in such fashion that conflict about them should not thereafter legitimately trouble the church. Their answers, of course, posed further and again difficult questions, but to say that this also was a good thing — as I do — is a different point than the one Williams presses — or anyway I think it is. Apophatic thinkers though they were, the fathers of the christological councils — to stay with that instance—did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings. Williams is a notable scholar of theological history, who commands long stretches of the tradition far better than do I, and his knowledge flows easily and rewardingly in this volume; but I cannot but think that his appeals to tradition are sometimes more to what he wishes the Fathers and medievals had been up to than to anything that would have occurred to these teachers themselves. Martin Luther famously maintained against Erasmus that it belongs to the very holiness of the Spirit to deal in assertiones, and at least in some contexts of discourse most of the church’s teachers have been of the same opinion.

from Review of Rowan Williams, On Christian TheologyPro Ecclesia 11, no. 3 (2002), 368.

Against Excess

  • Nicholas Lash

Not all caution is identifiable with pusillanimity.

from His Presence in the World: A Study in Eucharistic Worship and Theology (Pflaum Pr, 1968), 155.

One man’s nerve is another’s naïveté.

From “Newman and A. Firmin,” in John Henry Newman and Modernism, Eds. Jenkins and Kuld (Glock & Lutz, 1990), 67.

To take refuge in silence may…be an evasion of the responsibility to speak. …[Yet, alternatively, b]usily to evade the issues is still evasion.

form Theology on Dover Beach (Reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2005),16. Here Lash reminds us it’s possible to fail to say what needs saying not only by saying too little but also by saying so much we eclipse the point in question.

Where the mystery of God himself is concerned it is paradoxical, but true, that the deeper a man’s faith the more difficult he may find it to speak about God. One of the most disturbing features of much theological and devotional writing is that it seems to have so little sense of the incomprehensibility of God. It seems to find it so easy to rattle on about God; …The man who finds it easy to speak of God, or the ways of God with man, is the man whose mind and heart are not sufficiently open to the mystery to be dazzled and silenced by it.

from Voices of Authority (Reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2005), 105-6.

How to Gain an Ear for Accents in Theology (1)

Juxtaposing Comic and Tragic Theological Accents

There are few theologians I admire as much as Nicholas Lash. In fact he’s the subject of a thesis I’m currently writing. That fact in itself, however, is nothing remarkable. What I do find puzzling, though, is the fact that I would also consider John Webster to be one of the few other theologians whose work is comparably masterly. So here’s my rub: in more than a few respects they seem to operate more or less on the bases of antithetical premises. Whereas Lash’s sensibilities tend toward the critical, interrogative, and multidisciplinary, Webster, on the other hand, prefers a constructive, declarative, and monodisciplinary posture. Though I’ve tried to register what light the juxtaposition of these two theologians may bring to view before (e.g., here), I thought I’d like to do so again. If nothing else, I hope this post may at least serve as a modest reminder of the fact that you’re actually still allowed to like (and learn from) those you disagree with.

  1. John Webster

In order to speak about conflict (including the conflict of theological controversy) theology must first speak about peace, because peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states. In order to speak about the peace of creatures, furthermore, theology must first speak about the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility. … Apart from the gospel of peace, conflict and peace are not transparent, self-evident realities, and our knowledge of them is at best half-knowledge. Conflict threatens knowledge of God and of ourselves, and hinders the tranquil operation of reason. Though in conflict we commonly pretend to a sharpened sense of our situation, this is an illusion born of the drastic simplification of the world which comes upon us in the grip of strong passion.

from “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 150.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There is no trace, in the Scriptures, of the banality, the cliché-strewn abstractness, which disfigures so much of our talk of life, and love, and justice. Our mistake, perhaps, is to suppose the brightness of the world to be imaginable without reference to the dark in which it dawns — unlike the psalmist, who writes so well about creation’s flourishing because he feels the garden-world’s fragility: its vulnerability to drought and desert storm.

Without in any way compromising the announcement of God’s sovereign faithfulness, and hence the primacy of life to death, of peacefulness to conflict, daylight over dark, the Scripture interweaves the strands into a single, sometimes quite disturbing tapestry.

from Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 148.

Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

The following are two antithetical(?) proposals. My problem is that I find myself attracted to both of them. Each, I’m persuaded, lays claim to a measure of wisdom; neither can be ignored altogether. But what is the alternative perspective that “sees round them both”? That’s a question that has occupied my attention for quite some time now. I hope to treat it at greater length at some point. For now it will have to do simply to register the dilemma.

A. Nicholas Lash

Theologians would do well to keep in touch with practitioners in other disciplines, whose methodological problems significantly overlap with their own.

from Change in Focus, (Sheed&Ward, 1973), 180.

B. John Webster

… it [is] increasingly difficult for practitioners […] of theology to state with any clarity what is specifically theological about their enquiries. […] they have been pressed to give an account of themselves in terms drawn largely from fields of enquiry other than theology, fields which, according to prevailing criteria of academic propriety more nearly approximate to ideals of rational activity. And so the content and operations of the constituent parts of the theological curriculum are no longer determined by specifically theological considerations, but by neighboring disciplines — disciplines which can exercise that controlling function because their lack of determination by theological conviction accords them much greater prestige in the academy. This process of assimilation means that, for example, the study of scripture, or doctrine, or the history of the church draw their modes of enquiry from Semitics, or the history of religions, or social anthropology, from philosophy, or from general historical studies.

from “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God, (T&T Clark, 2005), 22.