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

Theosis

Inhabiting the Cruciform God is a stimulating work by Micahel J. Gorman.  “Theosis” does not mean “becoming God,” but rather  that humans become like God by entering the Trinitarian life through the work of Christ and the Spirit.  Here is the thesis of the book:

“Theosis is transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ.” (p. 7)

Gorman argues that the Pauline phrase “in Christ” is shorthand for “in God/in Christ/in the Spirit.”  Paul’s christocentricity is really an implicit Trinitarianism.  (p. 4)

This book takes the conversation about the “new perspective” on Paul and the law to a new level.

How (Not) to Read Peter Rollins or “The Storyteller”

Two years ago I read and reread Peter’s How (Not) to Speak of God. I intended to post on that inaugural volume, but first wanted to read it yet again. I did (not) recommend it to my brighter students. Now his second work has arrived on my desk: The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. I have finished the first reading (underlined, annotated with lots of question marks, exclamation points, smiley faces and frowns).

For years I have been trying to persuade my students to always listen to their interlocutors carefully and empathetically, especially if they intend to respond in a critical way. I have been afraid that few would do this with Peter Rollins. I still think he is being largely ignored (he is not easy to read [the little stories can be deceiving], though easy to react to). That will probably change. I have not met Peter Rollins, though I heard him speak at a panel once with McClaren and others.

Most theology books don’t matter. This one does. Not because it is right or wrong. But because it may change the conversation. Not everyone can easily read it. And few who can, will be able to quickly glean the wheat from the chaff. That’s what makes a good book; it is over our heads (and perhaps, in places, over our hearts).

I once read a critique of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology by Alexander McKelway (a student of Karl Barth’s). It was a model of careful critical engagement. Only when such empathetic and discerning work is done is one really in a position to say something worthwhile about a theologian. I hope some will give Peter Rollins this courtesy. As with Tillich we may well have serious disagreements (and deep pastoral concerns), but we may also have something useful to learn. For an example of some preliminary discussion see the conversation going on at Christians in Context.

By the way, for all their differences, I note some interesting connections between Rollins and Tillich. For example, Tillich was concerned about the tendency in Protestantism wherein “faith as the state of being grasped [is reduced to] the belief in doctrine” (S.T., II, 85). Compare Peter throughout his two volumes, and for example: “God is not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to participate in” (Fidelity of Betrayal, 115). Tillich famously defines God as “the ground of being.” Peter writes, “God is that which grounds our world and opens a world up to us” (115). There are, of course, vast differences as well.

Rollins makes for a stimulating read. Many of his stories are insightful, and he tells them well. My biggest concern, and I am willing to listen more, is well summarized in McKelway’s critique of what he sees as the central problem in Tillich: “This problem and danger, to put the matter simply, is the lack of a consistent focus on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ” (177). Peter would probably object.