Miscellaneous Trinitarian Reflections from Nicholas Lash

  • Christianity’s First Doctrine (logically, not historically)

the doctrine of God’s Trinity is not some further teaching, additional to a teaching which would count as a ‘doctrine of God,’ but simply is the Christian doctrine of God, the Christian account of how the word ‘God’ is to be used.

from Easter In Ordinary (1988), 267, n21; cf. “the doctrine of the Trinity simply is the Christian doctrine of God,” from “Considering the Trinity,” Modern Theology 2, no. 3 (1986): 183.

  • Against Misproportioned Deployments of the Creeds’ Articles 

on the basis of experiential differences, now this, now that aspect of the mystery gets presented as the norm or centre of the whole. It is as if the history of Christianity were a struggle for supremacy between the three articles of its Creed; a struggle tempting the participants to polemicise into opposition mutually indispensable distinctions lying at the very heart of Christian (which is to say Trinitarian) apprehension of the mystery of God.

from Theology for Pilgrims (2008), 37.

Comment: I find this a suggestive gloss on the pendulum swings of theological history. I take Lash to be insinuating some of us are so over-determined theologically by apophaticism that our christologies and pneumatologies are underformed and underfunctioning; others of us are so over-determined by Christology that our patrologies and pneumatologies are comparatively anemic; and others of us are so over-determined by pneumatology that our patrologies and christologies are left idling. For a balanced, non-reactionary doctrine of God, theologians will need a sense of proportion so all three loci have room to make their needed contributions. Which is your temptation? Not only will the theologian need to be mindful of their theological scene’s excesses and deficiencies, but, so as not to over-correct, the theologian will also need to be mindful of their personal excesses and deficiencies.

  • where the Trinity went after theologians lost interest

According to Walter Kasper, ‘The history of modern thought’ is, at one level, ‘a history of the many attempts made to reconstruct the doctrine of the Trinity.’ ‘Admittedly,’ he goes on, ‘the credit for having kept alive the idea of the Trinity belongs less to theology than to philosophy.’ Now that is an interesting suggestion. It is, not surprisingly, German philosophy that Kasper has in mind. …

What, then, of the other side of the story? While the philosophers were attempting to revitalize, after their fashion, the elements of a doctrine which the theologians had discarded as a dead letter, what was it to which the theologians, for their part, devoted their attention? The answer, ironically, seems to be that those theologians who discarded the Christian doctrine of God selected for their subject-matter that most unchristian entity that came to be know as ‘the God of the philosophers.’

from “Considering the Trinity,” Modern Theology 2, no. 3 (1986): 184-5.

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.

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

I’m not sure what to make of the following remarks from Herbert McCabe’s God Matters. They make moves I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. This is of course part of their charm, but also their opaqueness. At the same time they both foreground the seemingly impersonal character of the classical theist account of divine being and in a way broach the question of theological realism.

Consider then the following two passages (others could have been included). The emphases are my own.

Exhibit A

The Christian holds that in so far as the world receives the Spirit, in so far as it lets itself be destroyed and re-born in grace, the distance between God and man disappears. And this means that in the kingdom to which he looks forward when the love of God for mankind is fully revealed, when all are taken up into the divine life, not only will there, of course, be no religion, no sacraments, no cult, no sacred activity set aside from human life, but there will be no God in the sense of what is set above or apart from man. God will simply be the life of mankind.

Then, but only then, we shall be able to blow the dust off all those books written by the atheists and humanists and even some of the curious works written by the God-is-dead theologians, and find that at last they have come true in an odd way. They all thought that talk of God was just a convoluted and misleading way of talking about man; what we will come to see when we come to the kingdom of divine love is that talk about man is then the only clear and luminous way of talking about God. (23-24)

Exhibit B

First of all what God is about is not making but loving — especially loving Jesus. In other words the primal divine activity is not dealing with a dependent, as creativity must be, but an exchange of love with an equal. For love, at least in the sense that Christians came to understand it, is only possible between equals. With the New Testament, then, we make the fundamental move away from the picture of the boss-God, the supreme being in charge of the world. Instead we have the exchange of love in which it is given to men and women to share. We move from seeing God as up there or out there, to seeing an exchange of love between Father and Son — what we call the Holy Spirit — as the life to which mankind is destined. God begins to be seen as a certain kind of exchange between men. God has been ‘decentred’.

The caricature of this position is of course, humanist reductionism: the notion ‘God’ is just a name for human relationships. The essential difference, which turns the whole thing on its head, is that for Christians it is this relationship that defines what a human being is, this is what gives significance to his or her life, and the relationship is not in any obvious sense present. Humanism on the other hand is the canonization of the current world, the ‘obvious’ world (it is in any case the product of bourgeois optimism, the ideology of capitalism in its self-confident phase), while for Christianity the exchange of love is hard to find, it is to be found definitively in one man, Jesus Christ, and in the future for mankind, not (except very oddly and paradoxically) in the present. Human beings are defined, therefore, by the love to be found in Jesus: by the exchange between Jesus and his Father. (174-175) [emphases added]

This is some provocative theology. It’s telling that McCabe does object to the conflation of his position with “humanist reductionism.” He’s aware of how his remarks might be received. My question, though, is, does his disclaimer suffice to ward off the allegation? Is it not possible to fall victim to precisely the error one is trying to oppose?

The nearest I can get to making McCabe’s line of thought more easily digestible is by reading it alongside remarks like the following.

  • Nicholas Lash

What does God look like? The Archangel Raphael, you will remember, suggested: ‘courage and truth and mercy and right action.’ We can now be a little more specific. God looks like the action of the ‘holy spirit’ that God is said to be: like forgiveness and non-violence, solidarity with the victims, the achievement of communion in the one world to which all of us belong. … according to the Christian story of the world, God also looks like a young man, tortured, strung up on a Roman gibbet.

from Holiness, Speech and Silence, (Ashgate, 2004), 44.

  • Irenaeus

“the glory of God is a living man [human being].”

from Against Heresies (bk 4; ch 20; §7).

It’s standard fare in Christian theology to confess that human beings are made in the image of God. Often this doctrine is taken as a point of instruction about humanity, to the effect that humans enjoy a certain intrinsic dignity or set of natural powers. Though this isn’t his way of putting it, I take McCabe to be inquiring into the extent to which this doctrine also works in reverse. To what extent, that is, can humanity’s creation in the image of God, its endowed capacity to reflect divinity, instruct us about God? I think McCabe, Lash, and Irenaeus, in their own ways, are suggesting that attending to humanity–not necessarily on the terms of natural theology–can yield some knowledge of God. I don’t think this is a particularly original or controversial claim. To be sure, McCabe is also careful to add a point of christological determination: he isn’t interested in attending to humanity in some supposed natural state, or as limited by the scope of natural reason. Rather, he’s interested in the humanity of Christ and the human form of life as it stands informed by Christ’s mission and ministry. Not a trivial qualification! Nevertheless, I would still have questions for McCabe when it comes to his suggestion that talk of humanity could somehow provide an adequately evocative resource for all that our talk of God aims to accomplish. If we’re going to grant that reflection on creation can generate knowledge of God, it seems to me a curious decision to limit the scope of creation we would take into consideration. It’s just harder for me to imagine how even talk of glorified humanity could succeed talk of God without remainder.