Theology stuff

Well, I was this close (imagine thumb and forefinger held up really close together) to dropping Modern Christology and opting for something like Homiletics. 150 pages of Schleiermacher just about did my head in and I was seriously thinking of finding something less burdensome. So, last Monday morning I happened to bump into the lecturer and told him what I was thinking of doing. He told me that I wouldn’t ‘get’ Schleiermacher until the end of the course and not to worry about it. To cut a long story short, he persuaded me to stick with it (and not be a dropout like the other 15 out of 35 who did quit). If I’m being honest, I probably didn’t need much persuasion. And now I’m quite glad I stayed.

I’ve just about finished a couple of Bultmann readings and very challenging they are too. One of them was his lecture on ‘Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation as Task’. This is basically saying the the ‘myth’ thought-world of the New Testament is no longer something modern society can deal with effectively and so it is necessary to strip out the ‘mythical’ aspects of what we read in scripture and look for the bits that we can still directly relate to. It’s not that these aspects are irrelevant, rather we just don’t ‘get them’ with our rational thought processes and so we should dispense with them. So a lot of the ‘magic stuff’ disappears – demon possession, virgin births, miracles, etc. We ‘accept’ them in faith, but only because others before us did and now they are no longer necessary for our faith.

I just happen to be reading Moltmann at the moment as well and coincidentally got to a chapter on much the same thing. The virgin birth, for example, is really of no interest to us and should be irrelevant to our faith. It’s a gynaecological issue, not a ‘make or break’ basis for our faith. Its import comes through the projection, backwards, of what the ‘origins’ of the Messiah might be expected to be (based on cultural myth and past prophecy). In essence – Jesus is the Messiah so He must have had a virgin birth.

As I say, quite challenging stuff and it really forces you to strip away the layers of your own faith and see whether what’s left will withstand scrutiny.

I do wonder though if things aren’t changing again. Bultmann’s lecture was written in 1941. I think that, since then, society has become less ‘rational’ in thought-world. I think there is more of a search for the spiritual and that what was once dismissed as myth (as in just a made-up story) is now becoming more acceptable as myth (a way of expressing a spiritual truth that is beyond our ability to properly describe). Post-modernism is, I think, rediscovering a sense of the ‘greater’. Theologians (and more pointedly, those who put it into direct application, in the pulpit) perhaps need to (re)discover an appropriate language that connects with that spiritual searching.

20 responses to “Theology stuff”

  1. instant thought… the gynae issue is of relevance when you consider the theology of sin. Augustine (I think) was one of those proponents of ‘original sin’ and it is passed on down through the gene pool. The ‘virgin birth’ seems to be God’s way around that problem. Then again … you may have an argument against that !

  2. Thanks for that thought David. Yes, that’s quite a valid observation. I’m not sure I’m a fully signed-up Augustinian though. I like the concept of sin=disordered desire, but I’m not convinced it gets passed on ‘through the genes’ as it were. Perhaps, to be a little mischievous, it’s not God’s way round the problem, rather, it’s our way round the problem. And, to steal a thought from Bultmann & Moltmann, why does it need to be a problem? Moltmann points out that only 2 of the 4 gospels writers are in any way concerned about Jesus’ birth, so why should we put such an emphasis on it?

  3. You could also argue that one of the Gospels has no parables in it. An argument fromwhat is excluded isn’t always a strong one. I think the emphasis is based on Paul’s assertion that Christ was like us in all ways except sin, and there had to be some explanation of that for it to enter into the Creeds.

  4. Fair point. I would say that there was more than enough evidence from Jesus’ life to validate the observation that He was without sin. His life (at least what we know of it, which is very little) and ministry were fully ‘in tune’ with the Father’s will, even to His death on the cross. Why throw a biological conundrum into the mix (unless, of course, it’s true 😉 )?

  5. The biological conundrum has implications for Christmas. Why the need to get to Bethlehem ? Surely not just because of a census. Why did Joseph carry on to a marriage he could have avoided ? Why is there the need for two of the Gospels to have genealogies in them (different ones at that !) ?
    I’m not sure that the virgin birth can be easily dismissed from theology. It’s a bit of a thorn.

  6. To continue playing devil’s advocate for a moment: The ‘needs’ you mention are explainable in ‘non-mythological’ terms. In fact, one might argue that having a genealogy stands in opposition to the divinity of Christ. It creates an earthly lineage that ensures Jesus’ acceptability on earthly terms. It ensures that the prophecies of the OT are fulfilled in Jesus. The expected Messiah was of ‘David’s line’ with no expectation of divinity. John’s gospel in particular goes out of its way to establish the divinity of Jesus and I do wonder if retaining the genealogy and the birth narrative would have undermined that to a degree.

    I was thinking a bit more of the ‘dangers’ of this line of theology and the biggest one that I see is that you end up with a ‘good-enough’ Christology. Bultmann’s claim is that he would still have faith even if all the ‘myth’ is stripped away, but I wonder if, in some way, his God is not so awesome, so wondrous, any more?

  7. To be anti-devil’s advocate for a sec, the prophecies about the suffering servant link divinity in the equation. Regardless as to whether to go with 1,2,3 Isaiah etc, there is a direct link between the suffering servant and the forgiveness of sin, which, to the Jewish mind, (I think I’m right in saying) could only be equated with God.
    I’m not sure I be the Bultmann demuthologising bit (you may have guessed) but it may also be that I am confusing fact with what Bultmann calls myth. I think with B the two are not necessarily mutuall exclusive, which certainly doesn’t clarify the issue!
    If you continue to strip down the theological onion, as it were, you end up with little majesty and mystery, although I suspect B might disagree with me.
    PS this is really testing the memory of ST2A from 1986 !!!

  8. Another thought… why would two Gospel writers include a genealogy ? Both want to link back to David, but few in times pre-Jesus expected the Jesus-type of Messiah, in spite of prophetic utterances that gave admittedly coded clues, and one of the genealogies goes right back to God….

  9. it may also be that I am confusing fact with what Bultmann calls myth. I think with B the two are not necessarily mutuall exclusive, which certainly doesn’t clarify the issue!

    Indeed. I’m almost certainly distorting the core of Bultmann’s theology by presenting it in such a simplistic manner (but then, it’s a blog, not a theology class). I don’t think Bultmann is suggesting we can lose every aspect of ‘myth’. It’s really a matter of language though. What Bultmann seems to be saying is that, when the mythical language is stripped away, what’s left, from our modern/postmodern perspective, is history. It becomes a historical fact that Jesus died on a cross and through that historical event, redemption came to humankind. Now, arguably, the second part of that statement is still, essentially, myth – it’s not part of our world-view. It’s nonetheless true and, as such, cannot be reduced any further. But, if all such Biblical proclamation is reduced to ‘mere facts’, then we do indeed lose much of the beauty and wonder to be found in mythical ‘stories’. Our language, however limited, should lead us beyond our worldview and allow us to catch a glimpse of eternity. Hence my earlier assertion that perhaps it is our duty to find new and appropriate ways of speaking about God that allow people to relate to Him in their present worldview. Hmmm… maybe I’ll just settle for bringing about world peace – sounds easier.

  10. Fancy a nomination to the UN ??
    Myth=false for me. I know that is not the case for Bultmann and that is where most of my confusion lies. Mere facts are not quite enough for me. The mystery and majesty are essentials for my theology.
    For Bultmann the Cross as a ‘mere factdoesn’t really encompass the wonder of what was actually going on there.
    I’ll need to come back to this fresh in the morning…. it’s been a long day !!

  11. I’ve never read Bultmann (and now don’t plan to!) but I would hesitant at dismissing myth too quickly. For me myth doesn’t = lie. Myth = an explaination of an underlying truth. But that doesn’t make the myth true. (now there’s a contradiction!)

    I’ve never been sure of the virgin birth. It seems in many ways too convenient, in that it establishes Jesus as different from the outset, even though he seems not to be different at all until his baptism (unless you take Luke’s account of his trip to the temple into account). It’s like all uproar about the DaVinci code. To be honest I don’t care if Jesus was married. It doesn’t change my faith, but it must be important to someone somewhere in the same way that perhaps it was important to establish Jesus’ divinity. How could a divine being have kids. The catholic church doesn’t even acknowledge Jesus brothers! Didn’t the elevation of Jesus to divine status happen a while into the new church? Jesus wasn’t established in those terms until some time after his death which makes you wonder how people who met and knew him viewed him and what ‘Son of God’ meant to them?

    It seems to me that Jesus would have the kind of status Ghandi or Martin Luther King had in that they are great leaders with a spiritual element to their phylosophy. To propel them beyond that requires a mythologising of their lives and actions. Is that what happened with Jesus to allow the new church to compete with the other religions?

  12. what a comment to get my tired head around !! The problem with discarding the Virgin Birth is the implications is will have for understanding Christmas. Jesus certainly referred to himself as the Son of Man, but he didn’t deny it when people took umbridge when he forgave sins, something only God could do.
    It may be that it took Jesus some time to realise his ‘divinity’ apart from the temple episode where he argued with the teachers of the law.
    I come at this in reverse. I accept the Cross and Resurrection, and if I can accept what wa going on there, then the Incarnation is a small step of belief for me and I see that as part of the whole.
    Or am I being simplistic ?

  13. Here are some further thoughts following today’s seminar.

    “Myth: a common and widespread method of describing transcendent forces in objective, quasi-scientific terms” – Fergusson

    No mention of ‘true’ or ‘false’ – these are labels that have been applied by our ‘enlightened’ outlook. The word ‘objective’ in the definition is a technical term in the sense that it is stating that we are taking transcendent realities and making them into ‘objects’ by attempting to describe them at all. This is ‘baaaaad’ – it leads to idolatry and God becomes ‘a thing’.
    For Bultmann, ‘encounter’ is everything and that happens at the cross. It’s the only event that needs to be historical. The question, “Did it happen?” is missing the point of a text – only its theological lesson is significant.

    Just to follow up on the virgin birth debate – surely Jesus’ birth is what we celebrate at Christmas – God incarnate in this world? Why is Mary’s virginity an issue? If we argue that if Joseph fathered Jesus (biologically speaking) then Jesus is ‘merely’ human, then obviously that gives us problems. But the other option is equally problematic, surely? If Jesus is conceived by the Spirit, then is He fully human (as we confess)? And, of course, that brings its own issues for His death and resurrection.
    So, if we accept, by faith (for we can’t accept it any other way), that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, born of God, what difference does the actual biological process make? God can use whatever means are available to Him, surely? If He can’t does that mean God is limited?

  14. God is self limiting, I think. In the conception process the divine and the human are mixed together. I know that as soon as I say that that I have a problem in then asserting the fully human, fully divine mantra of the creeds.
    For me, the ‘Did it happen?’ is a crucial question, because if it is not historical fact, then it becomes story and that implies, for me, falsehood. It either happened, or it didn’t, and if it didn’t then belief in it is misguided, at the very least.
    It could be argued that the use of ‘myth’ as by Bultmann is also a post-enlightenment definition and it becomes a self-serbving argument.
    (You now realise why a) I found ST2A difficult, and b) why I tried to stick to Practical Theology !

  15. My argument along genetic lines might work if the word fusion is used instead of mixed…. I’ve no doubt that you’ll come back to me again on that !!

  16. I would agree that God is self-limiting. Moltmann develops a argument explaining that creation itself is an act of self-limiting. If God is omni-present, then God needed to ‘make space’ to allow creation to occur (otherwise creation would need to be ‘God’ and, hence, perfect – it is very good, but not that good). So, God self-limiting in order to become human is not inconsistent with that thought. What I was implying in my comment was that God was, in some way, incapable – which is obviously unreasonable.
    I’m not sure if ‘fusion’ rather than ‘mixed’ helps any but this is a problem with language and what we bring to it. Our words and pre-conceived notions of what they mean (not just literally, but by association) are always going to inadequate to describe God and all His manifestations. Which is why I don’t have too big a problem with myth – it’s our best effort to describe the indescribable.
    Ultimately, these things are about faith, but not an unthinking, blinkered faith. Rather, faith that accepts the ‘core’ of what scripture is about, summed up pretty well in the accepted creeds.
    Or maybe that’s just a diplomatic spin on the faith/proof argument.
    (And the practical theology stuff is still to come – would you really like to discuss Carl Rogers, Freud and Jung?)

  17. Rogers, Freud and Jung…. a trinity to conjure with (so to speak). We’re heading towards theoretical counselling here, methinks, and that kind of stuff can usually (or perhaps it ought to be should) stay in the college.

  18. It’s the introductory readings for Pastoral Care and Theology. Looking at ‘secular’ approaches to counselling and pastoral care with a view to assessing best practice in a Christian context. And also beginning to highlight the difference between pastoral care and counselling. Definitely something for another blog when I get a moment.

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