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What Athens needs from Jerusalem: the theology of facts vs the theology of rhetoric writ large (part II of III)

13 Sep
Click on image for more about this fascinating book of history

Click on image for more about this fascinating book of history

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” — Hebrews 1:1-2a

Part I

In a post made a few months ago, in response to a contemporary Roman Catholic apologist, I made the following general claim:

“I note that the world is very confused about what knowledge is.  Among the elites, there exists an unwarranted trust in many kinds of scientific “knowledge” that are anything but.  On the other hand, their conceptions of what knowledge is are very constrained, anemic, and impersonal.  For example, they might not think that your knowledge of your family’s history is really knowledge if you can’t prove what you know to them (perhaps you even have some tangible evidence but it does not satisfy them).  Nor would they consider your knowledge that you are in a stable marital relationship with a spouse, for example, to be something that you or anyone else can rely upon to any real extent – it is not something that qualifies as knowledge   Further, we should also point out that some knowledge is dangerous – and some things need not and simply should not be doubted.   Truly, while some knowledge can be created through doubt, much also comes through and from persons we trust, present and past – and which often is able to be backed up with good evidence and reasons (when do new methods and principles that seem to “work” trump what we know from persons and their purposes throughout time?)”*

Vilmarbook

This goes hand-in-hand with what I said in part I, namely that knowledge from accounts of the past that have been handed down has, historically, not figured into philosophical reflection.

On the other hand, one notices the emphasis on history in August Friedrich Christian Vilmar’s “The Theology of Facts vs. the Theology of Rhetoric”, a book which ELCA theologian Walter Sundberg, in the intro says “could have been written today”, so contemporary does it sound.

Karl Barth not a fan: Vilmar is an “obscurantist” who makes one think of “the atmosphere of an excited and perhaps rather disturbed pastors’ conference”

Karl Barth not a fan: Vilmar is an “obscurantist” who makes one think of “the atmosphere of an excited and perhaps rather disturbed pastors’ conference”

Writing over a century and a half ago, he says:

“Doctrine as expressive of the deed of redemption is sound only to the degree that it is a true expression of these acts, and belongs to the life of the Church.  Through its doctrine the Church responds to the Lord’s acts, or rather to his questions as to whether it has understood and accepted his proofs of everlasting mercy, woven them into its own life, and consequently preserved the word of his patience.  In and by themselves therefore, dogmatics and ethics are nothing but confessions of the Church, not the results of experiences, to say nothing of the individual’s speculation in the Church.  This point of view, however, was neglected for a century and more.  Influenced by the general confusion of the human spirit which turned from real life toward a spurious life of erudition, the theological disciplines cited above as witnesses of what the Church has lived through and experienced have become ‘sciences’ (p. 59, bold mine)

“the German Reformation is imperfectly described when it is considered an appeal to scripture vs tradition.  It was rather an appeal to history” - Isaac Casaubon, quoted in this book (click image)

“the German Reformation is imperfectly described when it is considered an appeal to scripture vs tradition. It was rather an appeal to history” – Isaac Casaubon, quoted in this book (click image)

More:

A truly Church dogmatic requires that at every point of its exposition it be clearly described as setting forth the experiences of the Church in which the person of the instructor unreservedly participates.  The dogmatician must unequivocally characterize these experiences of the Church as the only source besides Holy Scripture from which one is allowed to draw.  Throughout the exposition the conviction must be asserted that for us, first of all for beginners in theology, nothing else is to be done than to live through, to repeat these experiences, to correct our own thought and knowledge by them, and that it is impermissible to take up merely what is isolated from these experiences as the criteria for our own, while leaving aside or rejecting the rest.  The Church’s experiences are a totality which may not be separated without severest harm to the Christians’ spiritual life.  Aside from these facts laid down in the confessions of the ancient church, each one should learn this from the Augsburg Confession, unparalleled in its unity and totality, and from which I, so to speak, may not delete one line without destroying or at least grotesquely disfiguring the rest.” (p. 69, bold mine)

Vilmar: “…none on earth can live who does not receive what proceeds from theology”

Vilmar: “…none on earth can live who does not receive what proceeds from theology”

Writing about the preaching of young pastors he says:

They must attach themselves directly to the objective fact of the witnesses, that is, they must preach historically.  First of all let them interpret or just tell the simple stories of the Old Testament, and in the simplest fashion.  There is no little glory in properly telling a story of the Old Testament from the pulpit.  In this way beginners learn to do their work, not according to human but divine logic, to think coherently (not in terms of any human philosophy or historiography), to begin to know and live in the facts.” (p. 121)

Former Valparaiso President Robert V. Schnabel: “truth of God is expressed, not primarily in the form of statements and principles, but in historical happenings and persons.”, “Philosophy, Christian Faith, and Lutheran Theology”

Former Valparaiso President Robert V. Schnabel: “truth of God is expressed, not primarily in the form of statements and principles, but in historical happenings and persons.”, “Philosophy, Christian Faith, and Lutheran Theology”

In his introduction, Walter Sundberg provides a nice synopsis of Vilmar’s concern for the objectivity of theology, rooted and revealed in history:

“What Vilmar understands by ‘facts’ and the various synonyms he uses (e.g. ‘reality’, ‘deed’, even ‘something’) is crucial for assessing his entire theological program.  For him revelation is a ‘fact’ ; ‘the true Godhead of the Son and Holy Spirit’ is a ‘fact’; the essence of Christianity is a ‘fact’ ; ‘justification by faith,’ the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls, which is a ‘new experience of salvation,’ is a ‘fact’ ; the Word of God is a ‘reality’ ; in the Sacrament of the Altar ‘God gives something ; the act of faith is determined by the specific ‘something’ to which the believer pledges allegiance.  According to Vilmar ‘Facts’ are divine events that take place in space and time, in the public sphere of human experience, but which transcend human experience.  ‘Facts’ cannot be understood as a projection of the human.  They do not have human beings as their cause.  ‘Human will and thoughts are not facts.’  The central ‘fact’ is the sheer, miraculous revelation of God in Jesus Christ ‘who became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) , who is known through the testimony of believers down through the ages.”  (introduction, p. 11, bold mine)**

“The Theology of Facts vs. the Theology of Rhetoric... could have been written today” -- Walther Sundberg, Luther seminary (ELCA), St. Paul

“The Theology of Facts vs. the Theology of Rhetoric… could have been written today” — Walther Sundberg, Luther seminary (ELCA), St. Paul

And what is the “theology of rhetoric”?  Sundberg describes Vilmar’s view:

Under the banner of ‘science,’ the theologian abandons the sacred calling to be witness and disciple and becomes instead an outside observer and critical investigator who is neutral towards the claims of revelation…. This supposed scientific objectivity disguises a deep-seated subjectivity.  Science applied to religion seeks only that which is determined to be relevant to the human observer…

Vilmar raises an important question for the church, one that arises again and again in the history of modern Christianity.  This is the question of the political tension between confessional identity and the popular will… [the] ‘theology of rhetoric’ …. step[s] in and make[s] appeal to the popular will.  The theology of rhetoric uses tolerance and openness to wear down the opposition and manipulate votes…  It can be clever and flexible in its strategy.  In the mainline church it knows how to get its way.  ‘[The theology of rhetoric’ claims ownership of the Yes and the No, used simultaneously depending on taste, inclination, or need… The rhetor….is concerned with playing a game, where possible and ingenious game.  He never involves his person, but always his words.  His heart never arrives, his tongue is always in motion.’ (9, 10, 22)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hegel: "the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real."  Hegel himself:  “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hegel: “the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real.” Hegel himself: “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”

And we all at the very least tempted here.  Believers are never immune from the temptations posed by the “world we live in”, and the “weight we live with” as a popular Australian megachurch pastor, evidently torn by the issue of homosexual practice, recently put it (see here for a show on this)

Popular megachurch Pastor Brian Houston

Popular megachurch Pastor Brian Houston

That same modern pastor also mentions the “word we live by” – which is where we must remain and which must remain our sole authority and focus… in the whole of life, and in part III of this series as well.

Part III

FIN

Walter Sundberg pic: http://www.luthersem.edu/rethinking/evangelism/speakers.aspx?m=4474; Barth pic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Barth ; Vilmar pic: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/August_Friedrich_Christian_Vilmar_%28IZ_51-1868%29.jpg ; Schanbel pic: http://www.valpolife.com/community/education/3930-former-president-robert-schnabel-passes-away ; Brian Houston pic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Houston_%28pastor%29

* from a past post: Without a doubt: in the end, what we believe about history – what we think is true about history – what we think we can and should confidently determine and even assert is true (and false) about history (perhaps in spite of our very real doubts), does have a significant impact in determining how we think we should live our lives in the here and now.  This is clearly the case regarding our own personal history in this world, i.e. what we know – or think we know (some may be more confident about this than others!) – about from where we originally came (in the case of parents) and have come from (understood as the time from our birth until now) has a momentous impact in how we see ourselves and know ourselves. In like fashion, what we believe about where the universe came from (in the case of its beginning) and has come from (understood as the time from that beginning until now) will impact us, regardless of how aware of this we are or not.

And just as a person may not even begin to question the fact that her parents love (i.e. desire for and action towards her “good” in a way that also exhibits faithfulness, commitment, personal sacrifice, etc.) her unless someone can produce evidence that is, on the face of it, immediately compelling and seemingly damning (i.e. unless they have this she will not even begin to question her personal history), in like fashion, a person may not even begin to question the fact that Christ is risen in the absence of this kind of evidence.  Much of what we are confident is true is never or cannot be proven, and what we know is, quite frankly, what we have yet to be shown is false.

**As some have pointed out, Vilmar’s focus on history seems to fit very well with some of the emphases of the contemporary German Romantic movement.  On the other hand, one can see how such a holistic view might also force the hands of non-Christians, making it necessary for them to give their own comprehensive and holistic account of history: “A long, largely German, tradition of thought looks at history as a total and comprehensible process of events, structures, and processes, for which the philosophy of history can serve as an interpretive tool. This approach, speculative and meta-historical, aims to discern large, embracing patterns and directions in the unfolding of human history, persistent notwithstanding the erratic back-and-forth of particular historical developments.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/history/).  Compare this with the demands of a philosophically-inclined Oxford linguist for more solid honesty from historians as they talk about why they tell the stories they do: “It is up to the historian to make clear at some point what kind of communicational authenticity the historia is presented as having in that particular case, which means explaining how its various components and materials are selected and integrated.  That is a considerable demand…The demand I am voicing is not met by listing ‘sources’ in footnotes: that merely defers the accountability.  It requires the historian to come clean about, for example, what has been taken over unquestioned from earlier historians, what has been subjected to fresh research, what relationships have been reinterpreted through the perspective adopted, what has been ignored because deemed to be irrelevant, and what has been highlighted because it happens to have a bearing on contemporary concerns.  A historian may well protest that such a demand would require extensive expansions or annotations not just to every paragraph, but to every sentence, and perhaps to every other word.  So it might.  But if ‘truth’ is what is being claimed, a proliferation of caveats cluttering the text seems a small price to pay in the service of such a noble cause (Roy Harris, the Linguistics of History, 223, 224).”

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1 Comment

Posted by on September 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

One response to “What Athens needs from Jerusalem: the theology of facts vs the theology of rhetoric writ large (part II of III)

  1. robstroud

    April 21, 2014 at 12:56 am

    Thanks for providing this post to expand on the Rev. Dr. Harrison’s recent mention of this volume in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Lutheran Mission.

     

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