Sunday, June 05, 2016

Emil Brunner on theology as a primarily negative and critical discipline, and some more thoughts on what some call watchblogging

https://archive.org/details/mediatorastudyof013169mbp
published in 1934

The Mediator: A Study of the Central Doctrine of the Christian Faith
Emil Brunner, translated by Olive Wyon, The Westminster Press
COPYRIGHT, MCMXLVII, BY W. L. JENKINS

From Preface to the German Edition
pages 14-15
...
It is the duty of the theologian to examine the spiritual "food-values" of the faith which the Church offers to the world in her proclamation of the truth—to distinguish the true from the false. The theologian is unable to do this if he does not know the taste of the genuine spiritual food ; theology without faith is impossible. But the function of theology is to criticize and eliminate; it is not positively creative. It therefore requires a mass of intellectual activity which, when its subject matter is taken into account, may often seem like the profanation of a holy thing. [emphasis added] Yet the reproach of profanation should be levelled not at the theologians but at those who make this work necessary, because they confuse the language of faith ; those who—more or less deliberately—offer other "substances" in the guise of scriptural truth. Theological critical work is therefore not intended for edification, but, if it is done in the right way, it is most necessary and valuable. The Church needs to use theology as a check, in order to protect herself against "food-poisoning," and against the acceptance of worthless and deceptive "food substitutes." [emphasis added] Theology cannot herself create the Divine Food of Life, but she can render yeoman service to the Church, and to the cause of God on earth, by exposing the poverty-stricken condition of Christendom.


The whole purpose of a reminder is to render itself superfluous. ...

One of the things that I can't forget a certain nobody trying to tell everybody about somebody who cribbed somebody else's catchphrase was tweeting that nobody ever built a monument to a critic, supposedly.  Critics became this magically pernicious category of people who needed to be ignored at all costs or who needed to exist for the sake of a persona presented to the public.  Negative publicity was as essential to the persona as positive publicity. In fact ... well ... we can get around to what that guy said about how fantastic free advertising via positive or even hostile press coverage could be later.

The point here is to observe that while some guys who take to blogs to lament how critical some bloggers can be, particularly on theology may say that "criticism" has its issues, we can say it does.  But Brunner's proposal about theology was that it was of necessity a critical enterprise.  If a Mark Driscoll were to dismissively tell the "nerds" to not get obsessed on what this or that Greek word might mean or should mean in a given context it could sure seem as though a Brunner would say that's the actual concern of theology.  To frame things in Driscollian parlance to not talk about the significant range of meanings in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic in a biblical manuscript would be like married life without Driscoll's much-touted "date night".

But even among those who have no love for Driscoll there can be some unhappiness about the idea that a lot of what could be entailed in responding to someone like Driscoll involves mountains of unavoidably "dull" examinations of biblical texts, doctrinal concepts and their histories, and things of that nature. Driscoll's potential future success depends on people being lazy enough in doctrine and scriptural study to not want to do the study themselves but to be bothered enough about it to accept Driscoll's instruction as an adequate substitute for gaining said knowledge themselves. 

Ten years ago I was more or less happily participating in life at Mars Hill.  Over the last ten years I came around to a different set of convictions and feelings about the direction of the place.  Much of what Mark Driscoll would present as suitably spiritual food now seems to me like an endorsement of food substitutes.  But as Phoenix Preacher put it a few years ago, on paper, Driscoll's basic soteriology looks fine.  The devil in the details is in the realm of other instruction such as applied ecclesiology or theological claims connected to gender.

Driscoll himself at one point seemed to recognize that theological activity involves a sustained critique of those whose doctrinal positions you consider deviations from historic Christian faith.  For a guy like Mark Driscoll who spent the last twenty years more or less cultivating the persona of "I'm not some candy-ass therapist" before deciding to be a surrogate "father figure" it's impossible to plausibly claim that to do the work of theology means never making any critical assessments.  His blog post last week on the types of "religious" people paradoxically yet unavoidably embodies precisely the kind of sweeping categorical judgment he seems to prefer people not engage in unless he's doing it.

Now perhaps we can take a little detour.  A weekend ago I went and saw Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, a very lively adaptation/rewrite of Jane Austen's Lady Susan. There's a moment where Lady Susan (played marvelously by Kate Beckinsale) is lecturing her daughter Frederica about the absolute imperative of observing the Fourth Commandment.  The daughter is simultaneously skeptical that she's about to be crow-barred by her mother's rhetoric into agreeing to something she's pretty sure would be wrong but duty-bound to respect her wishes.  And along the way Lady Susan's determined invocation of the Fourth Commandment stops short of ever explaining what that is. 

In a later scene Frederica is at church and ends up talking with a clergyman there who clarifies that the Fourth Commandment is observance of the Sabbath.  When Frederica remarks that she got the understanding it was "honor they father and mother" the clergyman cheerfully remarks (and I paraphrase):  "Oh.  ... yes, in the CATHOLIC numeration of the commandments it's totally the Fourth but we PROTESTANTS regard `Honor thy father and mother' as the SIXTH Commandment."  What Austen's story sent up was the sort of domineering steam-rolling parent who uses a misremembered and misapplied passage from the Bible as a parental trump card to rhetorically force her child to agree to something the child considers morally objectionable.  But owing to the educational neglect of said child she simply has this gut level feeling something's wrong but hasn't been trained in biblical literature sufficiently to know what that wrong thing is. Her mother finds that ignorance the most advantageous thing of all for the time it lasts.

And that could be a thumbnail sketch of the history of Mars Hill at many levels.  To be sure it's not possible for Mark Driscoll to be as glamorous, charming or attractive as Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan or as enduringly funny as anything that was penned by Jane Austen.  That much would potentially be obvious, but the relational dynamic of the "parent" to the "children" can seem all too comparable. 

Since Driscoll's push toward starting a new church that will start off (it seems) with an ideal goal of two services; since Driscoll's been eagerly bringing back content from a decade ago with a few revisions here and there that slice out mentions of what was once Mars Hill; and since over time it seems that what he's determined to bring back about precepts of spiritual warfare and pastoral counseling seem, to me at least, indisputably ideas and content that are food substitutes rather than spiritual food, well, I think Brunner's right--theological study may be an inherently critical enterprise but one we can ill afford to abandon. 

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