Thinking about God’s Name

R. Kendall Soulen’s book The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices (2011) is an interesting, provocative, and helpful study of how to think Christianly about God’s name(s).  It is not for the theological novice, but is well worth a careful read. 

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In this work:  “a fresh map of Trinitarian language that is simple, yet profound in its implications for theology and practice. Soulen proposes that sacred scripture gifts us with three patterns of naming the persons of the Trinity: a theo-logical pattern characterized by oblique reference to the Tetragrammaton (the divine name); a christo-logical pattern characterized by the kinship vocabulary of Father, Son, and Spirit; and a pneumato-logical pattern, characterized by the open-ended multiplicity of divine names. These patterns relate in a Trinitarian way: they are distinct, interconnected, and, above all, equally important. The significance of this thesis resides in its power to map the terrain of Trinitarian discourse in a way that is faithful to scripture, critically respectful of tradition, and fruitfully relevant to a broad range of contemporary concerns.”

Muslims Ask, Christians Answer – A Brief Review

Muslims Ask, Christians Answer. By Christian W. Troll, S.J. Trans. by David Marshall. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press 2012.

Useful for engagement with Muslims, this slender volume developed during 40 years of interfaith dialogue and study. Its primary aim is to help Christians understand and answer questions Muslims typically ask. Divided into twelve chapters, it covers topics like Scripture, Christ, salvation, the Trinity, and the Church. Each chapter begins with Muslim questions, and then gives both general and detailed explanations from an Islamic perspective. The author then responds with Christian perspectives and suggestions for answers.

Written from a Roman Catholic viewpoint (chapter 10 is on celibacy), the book seeks to be sensitive to Protestant differences. Furthermore, non-Catholics will find that Muslims often ask about distinctly Roman Catholic doctrines. Chapter 7, “The Holy Eucharist,” is illustrative. “Do you really believe that God is present in this bread and wine? You ‘eat’ God?” Understanding accurately both the Islamic question as well as the Catholic doctrine can lead to a more profitable conversation.

Some of the most difficult questions are addressed head on. For example Chapter 4 on “Muhammad and the Christian Faith” wrestles with whether or not Christians can recognize the Qur’an to contain a word from God and to what extent Muhammad can be recognized as a prophet.

Troll’s book has appeared in a number of editions and translations. A companion web site (www.answers-to-muslims.com) contains a digital edition in eight languages, along with additional questions and answers (244 to date).   This should not be confused with the evangelical and somewhat polemical site:   www.answeringislam.org.

Dense with insight on the most critical questions, Muslims Ask, Christian Answers merits careful study for engaging intelligently and sympathetically with Muslims. The volume has a helpful bibliography and detailed endnotes. There is no subject index, which along with an index of Islamic terms, would improve an already helpful resource.

No “Brutum Factum Historicum” or Principles for the Study of History

1. The past no long exists, only the present.

Corollaries:

  • There is no way to actually return to the past (no time machine).
  • The present is, in part, a large “archive” of the past.

2. Historical study reconstructs the past from fragments found in the extant archive.

Corollaries:

  • Historical reconstructions are selective.
  • Historical studies are necessarily interpretations (human acts and artifacts).
  • There is no brutum factum historicum (“pure historical fact”).
  • The would-be “facts” of history come to us within inescapable interpretive frameworks.

3. All recorded human histories (selective reconstructions of the past) are fallible, provisional, and in need of continuous revision.

Corollaries:

  • The historical data is always incomplete.
  • Historical interpretations are never final and perfect.

4. Historical reconstructions are always from a particular perspective or orientation.

Corollaries:

  • Every historical interpretation has its own context and presuppositions, whether explicitly acknowledged or not.
  • While historians can be critically self aware, they cannot fully escape their own historical situatedness.  (cultural embeddedness in time, place, and language)

5. Historical interpretations can be more or less valid.

Corollaries:

  • There are criteria for evaluating historical validity.
  • Historical work should be evaluated.  It is appropriate to ask, “Is this interpretation warranted? And if so, why?”

6.  “History” is an exercise in power (over others).

Corollaries:

  • Historical work has ethical entailments. This includes historical research, the reconstruction/interpretation of the past, and the transmission (dissemination/reception/archiving) of history.
  • “History” is an activity with moral implications.

Greene (Christology in Culture Perspective: Marking Out the Horizons, section on history, chapter 5) writes, “Even within contemporary theology there are those who are suspicious of the claim that history mirrors reality. Rather, it is claimed that history merely portrays ideological self-interest and the inevitable bias of one cultural aspiration over and against another” (p. 161).

The six principles found on page 164 are helpful: The first three deal with the historian (presuppositions, limitations, prejudices, etc.). It is imperative to ask who the historian is, what is his cultural setting, what is his time in history. The last three deal with how the historical record influences the view of history. This involves the combining of records, interpretation of records, framework of the presentation, and the response of readers.

Which Jesus and Which Wisdom?

Many recognize that  “wisdom” (the Greek word is sophia) can be a rich resource for contemporary life. Recently, it has become a popular motif for:

However, there are hidden dangers, and a tendency to drift away from what the New Testament documents actually teach about wisdom.  The movement known as gnosticism showed the greatest interest in “Sophia” or Lady Wisdom in the post-New Testament period.  Recently some streams of theology have been enamored with the gnostic “Gospel of Thomas.”

Because it is such a needed virtue, and because a metaphor like “Lady Wisdom” is so powerful, it is critical that biblical wisdom be interpreted faithfully. One of the best selling books on the theme of Jesus and wisdom, reinterprets Jesus as a “wisdom teacher” in a broad and sweeping tradition of ancient wisdom (sophia perrenis).   The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message by Cynthia Bourgeault provides a novel focus on Jesus as Wisdom.   Wisdom JesusThis book and the ideas behind it have become increasingly popular.   This very different approach to Jesus and wisdom highlights the importance of a careful reading of the New Testament, and the relationship between Sophia (wisdom) and the gospel (1 Cor 1:24, 1 Cor 1:30). For those who have read Bourgeault’s book, or who want a New Testament framework for thinking about “Sophia,” see Wisdom Christology, How Jesus Becomes God’s Wisdom for Us (Explorations in Biblical Theology)
Comparing the two books should stimulate an important conversation about the nature of the wisdom Jesus brings to us.

Expanding the Church’s Vision of “Witness”

John G. Flett on The Witness of God

This quote is worth pondering.  It sets the present mission of the Church in a richer eternal and Trinitarian context:

“Witness is the nature of the Son’s relationship with the Father (John 14:10), the Father’s relationship to the Son (John 5:32), the Spirit’s relationship to the Son (John 15:26), the Son’s relationship to the disciples (Acts 26:16-18), and the disciples’ relationship to the Son (Rev. 7:9-10).  Witness is not something beyond which the community will move in the eschaton.  It is the very nature of the eschaton, for it is the very nature of the history that is the human fellowship with the divine (pp. 224-225).

While much of Fleet’s book is a critique of the use of the “missio Dei” motif  (it has functioned almost like a “Master Signifier” to link it with the fascinating and troubling book, The End of Evangelicalism? by David E. Fitch).  However, in chapter six  (“The Trinity Is a Missionary God”) Fleet gets to his positive construction.  The following paragraph summarizes his thesis well:

“The question of the grounding and consequent form of mission is, first, a question of who God is in himself.  God is a missionary God because his deliberate acting in apostolic movement toward humanity is not a second step alongside – and thus in distinction to – his perfect divine being.  In his economy, in his movement for the human, God lives his own eternal life….Second, it is a question of how it is actual that this God lives his own proper life in the economy of salvation.  Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and humanity, has objectively completed the reconciliation of the world, and he calls humanity to active participation in the fellowship of God’s self-humiliation and his exaltation of the human.  Third it is a question of the accomplishment of reconciliation. The Spirit acts to secure the human’s subjective involvement in God’s act, uniting the human with the history that takes place first in God’s own life and then in the history of Jesus Christ with us.  Participation in this history takes the particular form of a servant.  That is, the community accompanies Jesus Christ in his mission as she herself is an apostolic community – shaped to be so by the witness of the Spirit” (197).

For a helpful reviews of the book see the following:

Deanna Ferree Womack’s review at Princeton Theological Seminary

W. Travis McMaken  at Der Evangelische Theologe

Sarah Wilson at The Lutheran Forum

And for some helpful background to the discussion, see the post by Andrew Perriman:

“Missio Dei” in historical perspectives, part 1