De-hellenizing the Old Testament

Walter Eichrodt was a mainline German Protestant who nevertheless wrote an outstanding theology of the Old Testament.  The first fifty pages or so was sheer excitement.  I was floored.  Here was one of the world’s leading Old Testament authorities saying everything about Hebrew Thought and God that I had been saying, except he has tenure.

This is only the first two hundred pages of Old Testament theology.  These deal more with covenant and doctrine of God.   The second half deals with covenant leaders, which is important but not relevant to my studies at the moment.  Key here is the contrast between covenant religion and magic (ontology) religion.

“Real God becoming manifest in history to which the SCriptures of the OT bear witness” (15).

“That which binds together indivisibly the two realms of the Old and New Testaments…is the irruption of the Kingdom of God into this world and its establishment here” (26).

The Meaning of the Covenant Concept

  • Factual nature of divine revelation (37).  “God’s disclosure of himself is not grasped speculatively.”  As “he  molds them according to his will he grants them knowledge of his being.”
  • A clear divine will is discernable.  “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.’ Because of this the fear that constantly haunts the pagan world, the fear of arbitrariness and caprice in the Godhead, is excluded” (38).
  • The content of that will is defined in ways that make the human party aware of the position (39).
  • Divine election and kingdom:  Jer. 2:1; 1 Sam. 8:1-10; this dual pattern provides the interpretation of Israelite history.
  • The bond of nature religion was broken (42).  The covenant did not allow an inherent bond in the believer, the order of nature, and the god.   Chain of being is broken.  Divinity does not display itself in the mysterium of nature.  Election is the opposite of nature religions (43).  Israelite ritual does not mediate “cosmic power.”  “One indication of decisive importance in this respect is the fact that the covenant is not concluded by the performance of a wordless action, having its value in itself, but is accompanied by the word as the expression of the divine will” (44).

The History of the Covenant Concept

Eichrodt discusses the dangers the covenant idea faced.  Canaanite ideas quickly muted the sharp sounds of the covenant.  “The gulf set between God and man by his terrifying majesty was levelled out of existence by the emphasis laid on their psycho-physical relatedness and community” (46).  It is interesting to compare this description with Paul Tillich’s claim that the church placed the intermediaries of saints and angels over the Platonic hierarchy of Forms.

Refashioning of the Covenant Concept

Dt 4.13, 23 understands berith simply as the Decalogue.   A shift to the legal character.  Man can violate the conditions of the covenant, but he cannot annul it (54).

The Cultus

“Alien from primitive Yahwism, and introduced into the Yahweh cultus predominantly as a result of Canaanite influence, were the massebah, the Asherim and the bull image” (115).  The Canaanites believed this was a transference of the particular object of the divine power effective at the holy place as a whole.

  • Special places were always seen, by contrast, as memorials to Yahweh’s self-manifestation (116).

Pictorial Representations

“The spiritual leaders of Israel, however, always made a firm stand against this adoption of heathen image-worship, regarding it as an innovation which contradicted the essence of Yahweh religion” (118).

Prayer

“Indicative of the pattern of Old Testament piety is the fact that the dominant motives of prayer never included that of losing oneself, through contemplation, in the divine infinity.  There was no room in Israel for mystical prayer; the nature of the Mosaic Yahweh with his mighty personal will effectively prevented the development of that type of prayer which seeks to dissolve the individual I in the unbounded One.  Just as the God of the Old Testament is no Being reposing in his own beatitude, but reveals himself in the controlling will of the eternal King, so the pious Israelite is no intoxicated, world-denying mystic revelling in the Beyond, but a warrior, who wrestles even in prayer, and looks for the life of power in communion with his divine Lord.  His goal is not the static concept of the summum bonum, but the dynamic fact of the Basileia tou Theou” (176).

The Name of the Covenant God

Exodus 3:14:  “This is certainly not a matter of Being int he metaphysical sense of aseity, absolute existence, pure self-determination or any other ideas of the same kind.  It is concerned with a revelation of the divine will” (190).

The prophet Isaiah connects the fact of Yahweh is King with Yahweh’s eschatological act of salvation.

 

Narrative as hypostatic idiomata

Both in reading Paul Ricoeur’s Figuring the Sacred and in some discussions with fellow Reformed lay theologians, I am troubled by a possible future of Reformed trinitarianism:  we might become modalists.

That is not the point of this post, though.   One of the areas where I actually value Eastern Orthodox triadology is the insistent on maintaining the personal characteristics (idiomata) of the persons in the Trinity.  If we hold to too strong a doctrine of simplicity (idem simplicity) we run the risk of collapsing the personal distinctions in the Godhead to the bare essence.  I reject de Regnon’s thesis, but men fall prey to it regardless.

If we begin with an ontological essence of God and not the God revealed in the narrated life of Jesus of Nazareth, then we will posit a God who is not defined by Scripture at all.

Review Pannenberg Part 3

What does the Bible call God?

When Paul calls God pneuma does he mean it in the sense of Middle Platonism’s understanding of God as nous?

But what is ruach?  “Ruach is decribed as a mysteriously invisible natural force which declares itself in the movement of the wind” (373). “The breath of Yahweh is a creative life force.”  Very seldom does this relate to what we call “spirit,” the thinking consciousness. Ties it in with Psalm 139:7 as the field of God’s activity.

Capitalizes on these insights into Trinitarianism.  There was always the difficulty of seeing the divine essence–Spirit–as a subject alongside the three persons.  WP, while not going into great detail, suggests his models gets beyond this impasse (386).

Hebrew view of truth:  not merely self-identity and correspondence, but that process of events at their end in which the essence of things is revealed:  the end-time event invovles also the judgment of the world, the disclosure and true character of things (387).

WP does say that the three persons are the one subject of divine action (388).  This means he  cannot be accused, pace Letham, of Social Trinitarianism.  I think it is easier to follow Jenson’s reading of the Cappadocians via the essence as the divine life.

The future of the world is the mode of time that stands closest to God’s eternity…The goal of the world and its history is nearer to God than its commencement (390).

Notes on Pannenberg, part two

The world as history of God and unity of the divine essence:

Existence and essence:

~Attributes: in the context of how to relate the unity to the plurality.  Notes that things are different only when external.

~Palamas:  much to commend his project; quite beautiful, really, when we see the energies as the power-glory and the kingdom of God.  Something like that should be retained, whatever critiques may follow.  However,

“how is it possible to ditinguish from God’s essence the light that radiates from it and yet at the same time to view them as inseparably linked, so t hat the qualities which are said to be God’s on the basis of energies radiating from him are really God himself?  The opponents of Palamas rightly argued that we either have (relating to God) qualities that are not independent but belong to the divine essence or we have a distinct sphere which involves positing a further divine hypostasis alongside Father, Son, and Spirit” (361-362).

Further,

“How can one speak of uncreated works of God?  Is this idea not self-contradictory?  Not to be created is to be essentially one, as in the case of the Trinitarian persons.  But if there is not to be this unity, and with it a fourth in God alongside the three persons, we must posit a distinction between the effects and the cause” (362 n. 55).

Is there a connection between Dionysius’s construction of the qualities via delimitation and elevation and the critique of Feuerbach that we are projecting our views onto God (363 n. 58; cf. Barth CD II/1, 339).

Notes on Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology (volume 1), part 1

Great comments on the Vincentian Canon.

Decent section on the identity of God.  Gives the standard arguments against liberal Protestantism (See Feuerbach) and shows Barth’s own limitations.  Pannenberg has since been surpassed by his student Robert Jenson on the identity of God (i.e., the Guy that got us out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead).

Natural theology:  does a good job in carrying the discussion back to pre-Christ Roman theorists, all of which highlights the various strands of natural theology.  I have no problem with a natural theology of sorts, provided we understand that the term is by no means universally understood as meaning the same thing (of course, which sort of defeats the purpose of modern natural theologies).  Pannenberg points out that older divines, both Protestant and Catholic, saw natural theology as meaning “in accord with the nature of God” and the God-world relation (81).  Now it means in accord with the nature of the world.

Natural knowledge of God:  He is not entirely clear.  WP hovers around Romans 1:20 and suggests something like “infinity” as the natural knowledge of God.  He develops this thought more in Metaphysik und Gottesgedank.

Revelation:  WP tries to steer between the Barthian claim that God reveals himself as revelation and other claims. Eventually settles on the claim that revelation is the announcement and event of the future in the first coming of Jesus.  I have no problem with that–I think there is some truth to it; I just don’t see how that is more plausible than some of the views WP criticizes as “implausible.”

The God of Jesus and the Trinity:  The Spirit is the presence of mediation between the Kyrios and God the Father.  WP notes the very close similarity (yet not identity) of pneuma and Kyrios (drawing heavily on 1 Cor. 15:45 and 2 Cor. 3:17):

The Kyrios is the risen and exalted Jesus whose return the community awaits.  The Spirit is the form and power of his presence and of the relation of believers to him (I: 269)

Interestingly, WP notes that early Christian reflection on the Trinity (though they didn’t call it that) was not dissimilar from late Jewish reflection on God’s transcendence and immanence (277).

Pace the Cappadocians:

Basil distinguished between the fact that the deity is without oriign and the fact that the Father is unbegotten in distinction from the Son, who is begotten, but he did not go so far as Athanasius, who applied the relational conditioning of personal distinction, as mutual conditioning, to the Father as well, so that the Father can be thought of as unbegotten only in relation to the Son.  The idea of the Father as the source and origin of deity  so fused the the person of the Father and the substance of the Godhead that the divine substance is originally proper to the Father alone, being recieved from him by the Son and Spirit.  In distinction from Athanasius this means a relapse into subordinationism, since the idea of mutual defining of the distinctiveness of the persons does not lead to the thought of an equally mutual ontological constitution, of which it can be said that strictly they are constitutive only for the personhood of the Son and the Spirit if the Father is the source and origin of deity (280).

Distinction and Unity of the Persons:  The Son is posited as a self-distinction from the Father (310-311).  Fine, but I don’t see how this is different from Athanasius.  And then, one wonders how stable is Athanasius’s argument.

On another note, WP advances the argument that the self-distinction of the Son is not merely in his being begotten, but in his “handing over the kingdom to the Father.”  This doesn’t solve all of the problems but it is a superior move in that it roots the Trinitarian movement in eschatology.

WP raises a point I’ve always wondered:  can we honestly speak of mutual self-distinction  of the three persons if no distinction is made between subject and object in God (320 n. 184)?

“The monarchy of the Father is not the presupposition but the result of the common operations” (325).

Volf’s critique of Zizioulas

I normally do not agree with Miroslav Volf on many points, but he has a perceptive critique of John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion project.  I wrote this a long time ago as a rejoinder to what Orthodox Bridge would say to my critique of Palamas.  They never critiqued it, so I never posted this.  However, Volf’s coments are enlightening in the context of Pannenberg’s treatment of the Trinity.

I stand by what I have written in response to Arakaki’s article on Calvinism, especially as it relates to the Trinity.   That said, there are several aspects I would change:

John Zizioulas:  Mr Arakaki based much of his work off of the brilliant patristic theologian John Zizioulas.  Zizioulas’s thesis that the hypostasis of the Father constitutes the ground of the other two hypostases in the Godhead is a strong one.  I was initially hesitant to rebut it since I cut my “trinitarian” teeth on much of Zizioulas.    I had suspected (back then) that there were weaknesses to Zizioulas, but I couldn’t put my finger on them.  I now think I can voice them better.  I have since come across Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness, which deals extensively with Zizoulas.

For Zizioulas, their is an asymmetry in the Trinity.  The Father as aitia (cause).  The Cause has to be a person, otherwise there would be no grounds for prioritizing person over essence.  The monarchia of the Father is the grounds of distinguishing the persons.  There is no mutual reciprocal causality, for then there would be no way of distinguishing the persons.  Volf wonders, though, why the monarchy of the Father is the only grounds for unity in the Godhead.  Whatever merits there are in Zizioulas’s construction, it is by no means clear that the alternative to his project is the prioritizing of substance.

In short, Volf writes,

“Zizioulas distinguishes between being constituted (the Son and the Spirit through the Father) and the Father being conditioned (The Father by the Son and the Spirit).  If one presumes that the Father alone is the constituitive entity within the Godhead, then, as we have already seen, it is difficult not to ascribe priority to the person before the communion.  If, on the other hand, one takes seriously the notion of the Father as conditioned by the Son and the Spirit, then the differences between the persons risk being leveled.  If the Father is conditioned by the Son and the Spirit, then he is constituted by them.  That is, he is God only as Father. As soon as one allows innertrinitarian reciprocity, the innertrinitarian asymmetry seems to vanish (After Our Likeness, 80).

 

 

Systematic Theology as anti-polytheistic tract

Reading Pannenberg’s laborious treatment of the natural theology and religio got me wondering, in response to something Pannenberg said:  modern treatments of religion treat the gods of different communities as if they are all the same.  But this will not work.  If two gods clash, who is mightier?  Liberal Protestantism simply said the gods were a projection of their worshipers.  This is probably true but it misses a larger point:  the identity of God and gods arises from a faith’s narrative (read canon, covenant document).

So I started thinking, what if systematic theology, when focusing on the doctrine of God, dealt more with a narratival thrust as an attack on polytheism rather than the author shadow-boxing dead German scholars?