Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu May 07 2009 - 19:13:26 EDT


I've been interrupted in my various attempts to think carefully about your reply, but now I think I can manage something.

I'd like to start with this comment:

"I see my calling, especially since I retired from regular parish ministry, to be helping the church to carry out its mission in a scientific & technological world. John Mangum put it some years ago, ““Today’s churches have no other place to fulfill their mission than a world whose basic assumptions are pervaded more and more by science.” (That’s why stopping with the theology 1700 is totally inadequate.)"

I certainly agree that Christian theology needs to be thought out in relation to a scientific & technological world. But I wonder if we aren't using the word "theology" in a different way, and I wonder if that isn't partly what is blocking our mutual understanding.

By "theology" I mean a set of basic propositions that a religious tradition makes about the world. This set of propositions doesn't have to be explicit at all times, or in the conscious minds of all believers. But the propositions are tacitly presupposed in the way the believers talk, act, think, etc. So when I try to relate "Christian theology" to "science", I am trying to determine, as far as possible, what those core propositions are that Christianity makes about the world, and what the core propositions are that modern science makes about the world; and I'm trying to see if these two can be co-ordinated or some way.

I'm guessing that by "theology" you have something else in mind entirely. I'm guessing that by "theology", you have in mind a human intellectual enterprise not unlike science itself -- ever-changing, where the truths of today may become the falsehoods of tomorrow. So then the theology of St. Augustine, for example, has in principle no advantage over the theology of Harvey Cox or Paul Tillich or John Haught. All of them (however different they might be in ability) are merely human interpreters of Christian truth, trying to formulate it for their days and ages.

Now if that's what you mean, let me say that on one level I don't disagree. It's true that "theology", meaning the professional activity of people called "theologians", changes over time. I'll grant that entirely. But by "Christian theology" I mean the core assertions, the essential doctrine at the heart of Christian religion. Are there core assertions which theologians are simply not free to reject or modify? This is why I raised the notion of an Archimedean point. Is it not possible to say, for example, that certain statements of, say, Harvey Cox, are simply not Christian, because they deny or evade one or more core assertions?

In my last note, I mentioned several modern theologians who, in my mind, appeared to have departed in some significant way from what I am calling "core assertions". You did not comment on those theologians by name, so I don't know what you think of any of them. But in any case, when I said that I had little interest in modern theology, what I meant was that it seems to me that modern theologians of all stripes, more often than not, are engaged in the activity of shedding more and more core assertions, until one wonders if anything at all of substance will be left.

So, if you ask what is so special about theology up to 1600 or 1700, my answer is that up to that time, theologians generally understood themselves to be transmitting (with explanation and elaboration) certain core truths. So if I look at older theologians, I know I am going to get these core truths. If I look at modern ones, I know from experience that I am very likely to get the smorgasbord approach to truth, where each theologian constructs his own dinner out of hundreds of possible items, some coming from selected parts of the Bible, some coming from selected lines of the Creeds, some coming from selected passages of the Fathers, some coming from the selected passages of the Reformers, some coming from Newton, some from Einstein, some from Wellhausen, some from Lessing, some from chaos theory, some from Darwin, some from Louis Leakey, some from quantum theory, some from process philosophy, some from existentialism, some from feminism, some from the illegal immigrant lobby, some from the anti-spanking lobby, etc. And just as in a smorgasbord, one can choose all "side items" and entirely leave out the meat and potatoes, without blame, so, it seems to me anyway, that in modern theological smorgasbordry, no traditional doctrine is any longer regarded as compulsory.

Am I being too hard on modern theology, George? Have I just been reading the wrong modern theologians? Is there a preponderance of traditional thought in modern theology that I've somehow missed?


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; asa
  Sent: Tuesday, May 05, 2009 3:16 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

  Cameron –


  I can answer your question fairly simply but first a couple of preliminaries.


  1) You speak of the difficulty I will have persuading my “opponents,” conservative protestants & especially those committed to anti-evolutionary positions (not all are) of the validity of my position. Certainly I hope that such people would agree with my arguments and at least see my position as acceptable but that is not my primary concern.


  I see my calling, especially since I retired from regular parish ministry, to be helping the church to carry out its mission in a scientific & technological world. John Mangum put it some years ago, ““Today’s churches have no other place to fulfill their mission than a world whose basic assumptions are pervaded more and more by science.” (That’s why stopping with the theology 1700 is totally inadequate.) While persuading conservatives of the need for more adequate theology is sometimes part of that task, I’m more concerned with: (a) Keeping people - & especially young people – who are scientifically knowledgeable, from bailing out when the church either ignores the modern scientific picture of the world or tells them things that are demonstrably false & (b) helping clergy & church educators preach & teach in ways that address scientific issues intelligently & helpfully (&, it should go without saying, without putting the primary focus of proclamation on science rather than Christ.)


  2) My disagreement with Lessing is not on the idea that religious understanding developed over the course of Israel’s history & even that it continues to do so. The problem with “The Education of the Human Race” & other writings is that idea that faith cannot be based on historically contingent revelation but on “necessary truths of reason.” The problem, in other words, is – surprise! – natural theology. Of course the idea of “progress” does play a role here because it suggests that we can’t be satisfied with a faith tied inextricably to something that happened ~ A.D.30, even if our understanding of its significance increases with time. So you end up with a natural religion from which anything distinctively Christian is secondary if it’s kept at all, a natural religion acceptable to all the “Abrahamic faiths” as people say today – as in Nathan der Weise.


  So what is the Archimedean point in your phrase. My answer can be put in a straightforward way. Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is the center of Christian faith. That’s what’s meant by the theology of the cross – again, “True theology and the recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.” Christ is the interpretative center of scripture, which is to be read in such a way that it is focused on him. Or again see the phrase from Barmen that I quoted earlier: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

  “As he is attested for us in Holy Scripture.” The Bible is of course essential but as witness to Christ and basis for the proclamation of Christ. I recall seeing when I was on internship in Ames a bumper sticker on a Muslim student’s car saying “The Qur’an, the ultimate revelation.” I’m afraid a lot of Christians, including the conservatives you mention, would just want to substitute “The Bible” for “The Qur’an.” Their error would be profound. But God’s ultimate revelation, the Word of God, is Christ.


  (& that, by the way, is very much the attitude of Luther at his best– the Bible is the manger that holds the Christ child, the chief books of the NT are those that proclaim Christ most clearly, etc. That attitude isn’t always expressed in his exegetical writings & got pretty well obscured by the scholasticism of Lutheran Orthodoxy.)


  It’s all very well to say that the Bible judges Augustine &c but you pass over too quickly the question of how the Bible is to be interpreted. Jehovah’s Witnesses offer a convenient reduction ad absurdum to the idea that a straightforward appeal to “the Bible” is sufficient. They of course would say that the Bible is authoritative & even inerrant, but are far from the Christian faith.


  The fundamental hermeneutical principle should not be something imposed on scripture from outside but something internal to it. Scripture is to be interpreted christologically - “All of scripture everywhere speaks only of Christ” Luther says somewhere. Of course that shouldn’t be understood in a naïve fashion, with a hidden messianic prophecy in every OT verse, but the themes, the problems, the hopes, the promises of scripture find their resolution in Christ & especially in the cross-resurrection event. Scripture is “the source and norm of Christian doctrine” as the Formula of Concord says, but again, without an adequate interpretive principle that statement does us little good. Crux probat omnia is the more fundamental doctrinal test.


  I hope you understand that in saying this I am not reducing the essentials of Christianity to the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. A lot more needs to be said about the theology of the cross and its implications. I have tried in a couple of books to show briefly how the whole story of scripture can be seen as having a cross-resurrection pattern, and have argued that it is this mark placed on the universe that should be our fundamental clue to God’s activity. (Cf. Irenaeus, “The Son of God was crucified for all and for everything, that he might place the sign of the cross on all things.”)


  Needless to say, I haven’t given a complete systematic theology here. You asked for the Archimedean point & here it is. As Luther says with typical gusto, "CRUX sola est nostra theologia."


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Received on Thu May 7 19:14:16 2009

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