Thursday, 26 February 2009

Meet Kierkegaard

First off, it's not 'Keer-ke-gahrd', it's 'Keer-ke-gore', though you might want to stick with the former pronunciation outside of academic circles in order to avoid sounding like a nob. Unlike many other philosophers, his biography is incredibly important for understanding his philosophy, as will become clear as we go on.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (I'd be lying if I said I knew how to pronounce either of his first two names) was born on the 5th May 1813 in Copehagen (Denmark, in case you weren't sure). His mother was his father's second wife - she'd been his maid until after his first wife died, though he did have an affair with her before they tied the knot. His dad was exactly the sort of father you'd expect to produce a tortured, socially inept child: disciplinarian, overbearing, deeply pious and a devout member of the Lutheran church. He had a close but difficult relationship with Søren, and believed that he was under a divine curse, partly because of his extramarital rumpy pumpy with Søren's mum, partly because as a younger man he had, apparently, stood on a hill and cursed God, so it was only reasonable to expect to be cursed back. Cursed or not, five of his seven children died before he did, leaving only Søren and his older brother.

Søren didn't have many friends as a boy, and was lonely and introverted at school, though he did develop a good line in snarky witticisms. I think it's fair to say that all of these characteristics could equally be identified in his adult self.

After school, Kierkegaard began a degree in theology but got sidetracked by a life of dissipation and also put off by his sense that the ideas being bandied around within the university had very little relevance to life as a whole. He wanted something he could throw his whole self into. In 1843, eight years after he started his degree, his father died. Søren seems to have seen his father's death as some sort of sacrifice on his behalf, and, in an attempt to honour his deceased dad threw himself into work, finally finished his degree, began training to be a Lutheran pastor, started an MA and got engaged to Regine Olsen, the respectable daughter of civil servant. Not one to be half-hearted, even in an attempt to become an upstanding citizen, our Søren. But then it all went a bit pear shaped. Apparently he'd had misgivings about his engagement from the start, though it's not quite clear why: perhaps something to do with thinking that his melancholy disposition or his calling as an exceptional individual (modest too - I fancy him already) made him unsuitable for marriage. He wrestled with his doubts for a year, until finally breaking off the engagement.

This represented a crucial turning point in his life: he gave up on a career in the Church and began a very solitary existence living on money he'd inherited from his father. He started writing and was incredibly prolific, writing one or two books a year for about seven years. In 1845, a collection of essays was published, one of which criticised Søren not only for his writing but also for his treatment of Regine Olsen. He was furious. The author who'd been critical of Søren was an aspiring civil servant, and also worker for The Corsair, the Private Eye of its day, which had so far left Kierkegaard alone. Kierkegaard wrote a savage attack on the poor guy, seriously damaging his career prospects, and challenging The Corsair to 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough', which they did, mocking Søren verbally and pictorially for weeks on end. Kierkegaard took this pretty hard, though he literally had asked for it.

He was never particularly widely read, though believed that he would be read hundreds of years into the future and that his thought would become profoundly influential. He was, of course, right, or we wouldn't be here now talking about him.

Towards the end of his life, he became increasingly hostile towards the Church, arguing that it had become basically secular and was really only interested in forwarding the interests of the bourgeoisie. He increasingly called on his readers to disengage from any form of official worship.

In 1855, at the age of 42, Kierkegaard collapsed suddenly in the street and died a few weeks later in hospital

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Aquinas: Where is the garden of Eden?

There are two motivations for writing this post: firstly, I thought it might be nice to talk about how Aquinas writes - partly in case you ever feel like reading some yourself (the whole thing is available here), but mostly because I want you to get a feel for how he works. Secondly, because I think this particular question is especially charming, and demonstrates quite nicely that, however rational you might think you're being, you can still come up with some darn' stoopid answers to vexing theological questions, Doctor of the Church though you may be.

Some context first, then. The Summa Theologia is in three parts. The Prima Pars ('First Part' for you non-Latin speakers) deals with God and his work in creation. The Prima Secundae and Secunda Secundae (Parts 2a and 2b) deal with humankind and their work in ethics and in attaining the final human end in God. The Tertia Pars (Third Part) deals with Christ and his work, including a discussion of the sacraments.

The whole of the Summa is based around questions. Aquinas starts with a question, breaks it down into sub-questions or 'articles', and then addresses each in turn. He does this in a style that was popular in universities of the time: someone proposes an answer to the question which runs contrary to the 'right' answer, giving reasons for it; someone quotes an important authority disagreeing; then someone explains why the authority was right and the first argument was wrong. Normally this would be done in a debating context, but in the Summa it's really just Thomas arguing with himself. So each question goes like this:

Question: is theological position X the case?

Point: Yes it is, for these reasons: 1) A, 2) B, 3) C

On the other hand: Authoritative person Y says Z, which contradicts the above points.

Reply: This is why points A, B, and C were wrong and authoritative person Y was right.

Let's look at an example from the Prima Pars which, in discussing creation, gets into some questions about what human life was like in Eden before the Fall. Question 102 addresses 'The Garden of Eden, the scene of innocence' and breaks this question down into four component parts:
  1. Whether Paradise is a physical place
  2. Whether it is a suitable place for human occupation
  3. What man was put in Paradise for
  4. Whether he should have been made in Paradise
We'll look at the first point of inquiry (that's 1a.102, article 1):

Article 1: Is Paradise a physical place?

It would seem not. 1. Bede says that it reaches 'as far as the lunar sphere', which can't be true of any earthly place - not only does the earth not go up that high, but there's a region of fire below the moon that would burn it. 2. Genesis says that it's the source of four rivers, but we know that those four rivers have their sources all over the place. 3. No one has found it yet. 4. The tree of life was there, but that's something spiritual, so Paradise must be a spiritual rather than a physical place. 5. If Paradise was physical, so must its trees have been, but God creates trees on the third day but only plants the garden of Eden after the six days are finished.

On the other hand: Augustine says, there are three general opinions about Paradise; one would have Paradise understood only in a physical sense, another only in a spiritual sense; the third takes Paradise in both ways, and I confess this is the opinion I favour.

Scripture describes Paradise in the form of a historical narrative, so we must read it as history and believe in Paradise as a physical place. It must have been in the East, because it would have been in the noblest spot in the earth, and the East is on the right side of the heavens as Aristotle tells us, and the right side is noble than the left. 1. Bede didn't mean that Paradise literally reached the lunar sphere, but that it had a really temperate climate, like the heavenly bodies. Duh. 2. We know that some rivers go underground and then reappear elsewhere - the rivers really do have their source in Paradise, and the places we consider to be their sources are actually where they reemerge after going underground. 3. We haven't found Paradise yet because it's either behind some big mountains or in the middle of the sea somewhere. 4. The tree of life both material and spiritual, like the rock in the desert that signified Christ. 5. Either we could go with Augustine, who said that only the 'seminal virtues' of the plants were created on the third day and they didn't start growing till afterwards, or we could go with other people who say that when Genesis says God planted the garden of Eden, it was just pointing out that this had happened at the same time as all the other plants were created.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Nemesius of Emesa on human nature

Nemesius of Emesa is a bit of a mysterious figure, so obscure in fact that the latest translation of the only book of his we have ('On Human Nature') has been translated recently by a medical historian rather than a theologian. He was writing in the late 4th century, around the same time as the more famous Gregory of Nyssa (honestly, he really is quite well known in the world of patristics). He's interesting because, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he seems to have been pretty hot on the classical philosophers and thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Galen (a big medical man) rather than just having read about them second hand.

Nemesius claims to be the Bishop of Emesa, which we have no reason to disbelieve. Emesa was one of the more hellenised (that is, Greek culture-ified) parts of Syria, so he may well have had a proper classical education. Although he wrote in the fourth century, no one seems to have heard of him until the 7th century, when first Maximus the Confessor wholesale lifted bits of his writing and incorporated them into his work (he wasn't a big one for quoting his sources, which was more ok then than it is now), and then John of Damascus both quoted and acknowledged him. He later became popular in 'floria legia', which are big books of quotations from the Fathers which were used in Byzantine monasteries to educate monks, functioning a bit like the wikipedia of their day: want to know about the incarnation? Read this bit from Father X, he's good.

The reason that Nemesius got popular in these compilations is that he had a very neat solution to a very vexing problem. Given that humans are able to choose to repent, or to sin once they've been righteous for a bit, what's to say that the angels and demons can't similarly recant and swap places? No one really wanted to allow for this possibility, because it causes all sorts of celestial chaos: bad enough keeping tabs on flighty humans, let alone a whole cosmos of beings switching allegiances and changing their mind, and heaven forbid we have to start seeing even Satan as capable of repentance.

But how do you explain the difference between humans and the spiritual beings? The problem was made worse by Origen, who occupies an interesting place between respected Father of the Church and heretic. On the one hand, he came up with some important and influential theological ideas; on the other, he thought that the cosmos had started out with loads of beings, all of whom had fallen. The ones who fell a lot and were really naughty were made into demons; the ones who hardly screwed up at all became angels, and the middling sinners became human beings. Odd, no?

How to get away from Origen, then? Nemesius did it by arguing that the thing that's distinctive about human beings is that they have both souls and bodies. Animals and plants have bodies but no souls; angels and demons have souls but no bodies. This uniquely human combination gives humans two special privileges. On the one hand, only humans are pardoned when they repent; on the other, they're the only bodies to be granted eternal life. The pardoning privilege comes from the body, because unlike the angels and demons, human beings have animal needs and affections which can lead them astray. The bodily immortality privilege comes from the soul, which is immortal and thus grants immortality to the body.

This is a very satisfying theological solution, because it's often difficult for the Fathers to give the body much significance - they tend to see the soul as more important and generally better, and so often drift away from orthodox Christianity which demands the redemption and resurrection of the body. It also, I think, plays nicely into a lot of contemporary discussions about the future destiny of the physical creation, which has implications both for Christian environmental ethics, and also for our attitude to work. Whether it solves the problematic questions about the potential salvation of the devils which arise from the discussion of evil as deprivation, though, I'm less sure...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Ontological Argument

Saint Anselm of Canterbury was born in 1033 and died in 1109. He was an Italian philosopher and from 1093 until his death was also the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God, which has been a favourite topic for philosophers and theologians since as they try to decide whether he manages to prove the existence of God, and also whether that's even what he was trying to do.

Anselm is also responsible for the most confusing essay title I was ever given: 'The ontological argument is neither. Discuss.' I didn't work out what it meant until someone else explained it to me, by which time I'd written about something else, on the grounds that understanding the question is an important prerequisite for answering it. So here's a challenge: can anyone figure out what the question means (this is a win-win situation - either you get it, in which case you're sharper than me, or you don't, in which case we'll have to have a clever-off some other time to settle the question)?

Anselm says that he wrote his ontological argument in response to a request from some young monks that he demonstrate to them by reason the existence of God. This is important: he's not writing for atheists, and he is writing for contemplative monks, so it could be that he's producing an aid to meditation rather than a reasoning from first principles to prove God's existence. Maybe.

The argument goes like this:
God is that than which nothing greater be thought. It is better to exist
than not to exist, so if God didn't exist, it would be possible to imagine
something greater, and so God must exist.
There's another variation that he wrote, which goes thusly:
God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. It is better to be
necessary than not to be necessary, so God must be necessary i.e. God must
Ways of disagreeing with Anselm
The earliest objection to the ontological argument came from Gaunilo, who argued like this:
Imagine an island greater than which no greater island could be thought. It is
better to exist than not to exist, so the perfect island must exist.
But wait! There's no such thing as a perfect island! Ha! Gotcha, Anselm. It's possible that this argument doesn't work, though: Anselm's implies that we're thinking about a being who perfectly combines all the best attributes, and as an island is limited, maybe his line of argument doesn't apply.

Another key line of disagreement with Anselm was formulated by Immanuel Kant, who basically argued that existence wasn't a predicate like goodness or justice, and so the argument doesn't work.

So, two challenges for you, trusty reader: firstly, can you tell me what my essay title means? Secondly, can you explain why you a) are or b) aren't persuaded? Answers on a postcard/in the comments...

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt

That’s Latin, folks. It means ‘the works of the Trinity on the outside are indivisible’, and is one of the theological rules for talking about the Trinity. Cool, huh?

Let’s elaborate a bit more. We know that God is one and three, that he is God, and that he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But what’s the difference between the three persons (or ‘modes of being’ for the Barthians down in the ditch there – watch out or the donkey of theology will spit on you)? Contrary to popular belief, traditional Christian theology would argue that you cannot distinguish the persons of the Trinity by the way that they act in the world – it is not true to say that the Father creates, the Son redeems and the Holy Spirit sanctifies. The only way you can distinguish between the three persons is by their relationship to each other. So, what does it mean for the Father to be the Father, the Son to be the Son, the Spirit to be the Spirit? Basically, this: that the Father is the source of the Son and the Spirit. The Son is begotten of the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son, if you’re a Western rather than an Eastern Christian, but that’s a whole ’nother source of theology wars so we’ll leave it for today). They’re distinguished by their different origins, and by those alone.

That means that anything God does in the world, all three persons do. In the Orthodox church, this tends to be formulated so that the Father acts through the Son in the Holy Spirit. They say this a lot, so tend to be better than Western Protestants at remembering that Christianity is Trinitarian. You can also use a sneaky trick called attribution, where you attribute certain characteristics to one person of the Trinity more than the others, which isn’t true as such, but can be helpful – so we talk about the incarnation of Jesus, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Father’s love. It’s not that the gifts are actually any more to do with with Holy Spirit, but it can be a helpful way of getting some sort of slippery grip on the whole complicated trinitarian puzzle. Maybe.

You with me? Don’t worry if your head’s spinning – you wouldn’t be the first to be befuddled by it all. But take heart! Next time someone talks about the gifts of the Spirit or whatever, you can look wise and say (as I did today – sorry Lucie!), “Ah, but opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt”, and feel clever, which is really what theology’s all about.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Barth on the Trinity - Part Two

The Root of the Doctrine of the Trinity
Barth says that revelation is God speaking, which can't be distinguished from God's act of speaking, and so can't be distinguished from Godself. God's Word is God; the revelation of God is God. Scripture and proclamation are based on God's Word, and can become God's word, but they aren't in and of themselves revelation. All of this is summed up by the phrase 'God reveals himself as Lord': because God is Lord in relation to people, when people receive revelation, God becomes their Lord.

The revelation found in the Bible is the self unveiling, imparted to humankind, of the God who by nature can't be unveiled to human kind. God can be seen only when he chooses to reveal himself - we can't find him ourselves. The Bible isn't so much about universal truths as it is a record of specific encounters of particular individuals. The revelations recorded in the Bible are unique and contingent. You can see here that Barth's trying to protect God from any idea that he might be easily graspable. He wants God to be totally other, not someone who's around all the time and who we can too easily get our grubby little mitts on. He's reacting against theology which arguably makes God too accessible, too immanent without much of a sense of God's otherness and transcendence, but it seems to me that Barth just ends up back in the ditch on the other side of the path, probably with a sore bum by now.

Vestigium Trinitatis
Theologians like to use images from the created world, history and culture to talk about the trinity (e.g. the shamrock; a spring-stream-lake; the Old Testament, New Testament and Church; teachers, soldiers and producers in a society). Augustine refers to these as 'vestigium trinitatis' - traces of the Trinity. Barth doesn't like this because he worries that this means we can derive the doctrine of the Trinity from the world rather than revelation, neatly ignoring the fact that, firstly, this isn't really how the idea is usually used, and secondly, that he himself compares God as revealer, revelation and revealedness to the subject, predicate, and object of a sentence. D'oh! Anyway, it's important to him that we don't explain God by the world, but explain the world by God. The Trinity isn't imminent in created things, and created things can't reflect the trinity, but the trinity can reflect itself in created things (a subtle difference, I grant you). To say that creation illustrates revelation is to suggest that revelation is insufficient.

The Triunity of God
The God who reveals himself in Scripture is one in three distinctive modes of being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons aren't three Gods. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit means that God is one God in threefold repetition. God's 'personality' belongs to his one unique essence. There aren't three divine 'I's but three times the one divine I. Barth argues that without the doctrine of the Trinity, the concept of revelation ends up sticking a third thing between humankind and God to mediate between them, which isn't ok. The idea of number in God is a metaphor. Barth thinks that talking about 'modes' or 'ways of being' in God is better than talking about 'persons.' He has a point, as we tend to think of persons as implying completely separate physical and psychological entities, which wasn't quite what the original formulators of the doctrine of the Trinity meant. Tritheism is bad. But so, on the other hand is modalism, the heresy which says that God is one but acts in three different ways or modes, ignoring the necessary threeness. It might just be partly the problems of translating from the German, but I can't help wondering if Barth is, once again, in the ditch (Having fun down there, Karl?).

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Karl Barth on the Trinity: Part One

Don't worry, we'll be back to Paul - I just got bored of him for now. I also won't be posting multiple part things forever. It's just a phase I'm going through and I'm sure I'll get bored of that too sooner or later.

One of the things Barth is reacting against is a tendency in theology at the time to suggest that basically we create God rather than vice versa, that God is in the image of man rather than man being in the image of God (variants of this idea were put forward by people trying to defend Christianity as well as people trying to attack it). Someone once described theology as being a bit like riding a donkey: you lean too far one way and you fall off, but then if get back on and lean too far the other way, you also fall off. This is a bit what Barth does: think of him as the guy in the ditch, wondering what the hell happened when all he did was try not to fall off like Schleiermacher did. He doesn't want God to be something we make, and so he reacts by making God so completely different to us that there's no way we can even imagine him unless he reveals himself first.

For similar reasons, he's also bothered by the traditional use of language for talking about the Trinity. The classic formulation is that God is three persons in one nature, but Barth worries that this makes him sound too much like three guys who are all God. This is fair: one of the classic Christian heresies is tritheism, where you overvalue God's threeness and underplay the oneness. Barth doesn't want to do the other heresy which is saying that God's one and then losing all sense of threeness, but it's arguable that that's what he does, and finds himself back in the ditch. So, what does he actually say?

The Place of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Dogmatics
Barth says that God, the Trinity, is 'Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness.' God is the one who reveals Godself, the actual revelation, and the effect of this self-revelation on the people to whom God reveals Godself. Barth says that for this reason, the doctrine of the Trinity is the starting point of all Christian theology because it answers the question, 'Who is God?' 'Who is God?' comes before questions about how we know God, whether God exists and what God is, because the question of who God is gives us the content to the word 'God' without which the other questions don't make sense.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Morna Hooker: Introducing Paul, part 2b - 1 Thessalonians

Paul’s pretty tactful in his ethical exhortations. He talks about sanctification, which is a very Jewish theme. He starts out by talking about what the Thessalonians shouldn’t do i.e. sexual immorality, i.e. the pagan sexual behaviour they were into until recently. Interestingly, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to ‘live quietly’ - not exactly what he did while in Thessalonica, but he’s special, right? He encourages them to work with their hands which maybe suggests that they were all so excited about their new faith that they were sitting round chatting theology rather than going to work.

Some of the Thessalonians have died already and they’re a bit worried about this – clearly Paul hasn’t had a chance to talk to them about death yet. One of the big Paul debates is about whether Paul was expecting Jesus to come back at any moment (instead of in, say, 2,000 years and counting), and this bit suggests that he might. He plays down the significance of death because it’s not final, and he clearly imagines the believers being with Jesus in some sense even after their death.

In chapter 5, Paul returns to ethics. There’s another summary of the gospel message. Paul likes saying that God and/or Christ did something in order that something might happen to believers – in this case, life. What does it mean that Christ died for us? It can’t be a straightforward substitution (he died, we live), because Paul say we live with Christ.

The final section
of 1 Thessalonians offers some general ethical advice. Paul refers to particular people who, while without official titles, are clearly leaders in the Thessalonian community. This probably refers to these leaders. Paul ends with a nice summary of the letter’s theme in 5:23:
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Morna Hooker: Introducing Paul, part 2a - 1 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians is probably the earliest of Paul’s letters (although it might be Galatians instead). How do we date the letters? Tricky. We could do it according to the development of Paul’s theology, but this is very subjective. We could do it by references to Paul’s itinerary, but we know that he didn’t always stick to his original plans. In the end, we usually have to fall back on what Acts tells us. According to Acts, Thessalonica was the first place Paul visited, which makes sense in terms of its geographical location. Paul was probably only there for about two weeks before getting kicked out – not a long time in which to start a church.

Why does Luke tell us that Paul started out preaching in the synagogue if Paul himself is so insistent that he’s an apostle to the Gentiles? Well, Paul would have needed a base during his time in Thessalonica, so it would probably have made sense to find one in the Jewish community from which he could preach to the ‘righteous Gentiles’ - the non-Jewish people who hung around the synagogue. Eventually, Paul got kicked out of Thessalonica and would have left a very new group of newly converted ex-pagans. Understandably, he was a bit worried about having to leave them, so sent Timothy to check on them. Timothy returned with a good report, but Paul was still nervous, so wrote them a letter. Chapters 2 and 3 remind the Thessalonians of Paul’s last visit and what’s been going down since. The letter as a whole is mostly ‘a long sigh of relief’ because they haven’t regressed to their naughty pagan ways, but it also addresses a couple of points Paul’s still concerned about: eschatology and ethics.

1 Thessalonians follows the classic Greek letter form:

Name of sender: Paul and his team

Recipient: The church in Thessalonica in God the Father. The ‘in’ (‘en’ in Greek) is a bit odd – it can mean in, by or with, taking its meaning from the context. It probably means that the Thessalonian church was brought into being by God the Father and Jesus Christ.


Thanks: This is the Christianised version of the Greek letter form, thanking God instead of the letter’s recipient.It's meant to remind the Thessalonians what it is they just converted to and is possibly the earliest summary of the basic Christian message we have on record. Some scholars think that Paul’s using a standard formula he got from somewhere else, but Hookers not convinced – it’s a little bit odd as a pure gospel summary, and there’s no reason why such a formula would have been circulating at the time anyway, not least because no one except Paul and his posse were preaching to pagans at that point in time. Paul isn’t reminded the Thessalonians of the gospel, but rather of their response to the gospel. Why? Partly because it’s still part of his thanksgiving to God, and partly because the conventions of Greek letter writing meant that the thanksgiving also served as a ‘contents page’ for the rest of the letter, so here Paul raises his two big themes: ethics and eschatology.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Morna Hooker: Introducing Paul, part 1

Morna Hooker is a Paul scholar (that's Paul wot wrote bits of the Bible, just in case you weren't clear). She is a legend. I have read at least one book by her, but this series of posts is going to be based on a series of her lectures that I attended.

Some of the big questions in Pauline scholarship go like this: Did Paul distort the original message of Jesus, or was he actually the best theologian, like, ever? How typical is Paul of Christian theology at the time: how much of what he writes are his how ideas, and how much does he just say what everybody else was already thinking? Is he more Jewish or more Greek in the way he thinks? How exactly does he reconcile the Old and New Covenants?

We have two main sources for information about Paul’s life: Paul’s letters, and Acts, written by Luke, who clearly thought Paul was the man (as in 'you da man' rather than 'stick it to The Man.' Much Paul scholarship revolves essentially around the question of whether Paul is da man or The Man). Acts is mostly about Paul, but there are problems because Luke doesn’t really tell us much about his theology: where he speaks, he doesn’t sound very much like the theologian who wrote the Pauline letters, and Luke’s clearly concerned with trying to show that Christianity really isn’t that politically dangerous, honest: Paul, da man, is no threat to Caesar/Rome, The Man. It’s difficult to tell, as a result, how reliable Acts is, not least because Luke and Paul sometimes recount the same incidents but in contradictory ways (compare Galations 2 with Acts 15).

What can we be sure about?
Well, Paul probably did used to be called Saul, although Paul is the Roman version of Saul so he might just have used that when hanging out with Romans, rather than as a result of a dramatic name-change post-road-to-Damascus. It’s plausible that he was born in Tarsus, as he’s clearly familiar with Greek rhetoric, which he could have picked up there, and he may well have got his familiarity with Jewish exegesis from being trained in Jerusalem.

Which letters did Paul actually write?
This is a hot topic in the world of biblical studies. In the 19th century, F C Baur argued that Paul only wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, because they were the only four letters that mentioned justification by faith, which Baur believed was Paul’s great theme. He was stupid (though how much more stupid than any other person who tries to work out who wrote which letter is up for debate). In the 1960s, a guy called A Q Morton fed all of the letters into a computer and looked at sentence length and how often ‘kai’ (Greek for ‘and’) was used, and concluded that Paul’s letters were written by five different people. He was also a moron (starting to get a hang of the tentative foundations of this way of reading Paul?).

'More sensible' people start by saying that Galatians, Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Philippians were written by Paul. Philemon’s a bit short to analyse the style, so it’s hard to be sure whether it was Paul, but then why would anyone else write it and pretend to be Paul? 1 Thessalonians is generally thought to be genuine Paul, 2 Thessalonians and Colossians maybe Pauline. Ephesians is considered more suspicious, as are the Timothys and Titus.

Does it even matter who wrote the letters?
It does if you’re trying to work out what Paul thought rather than about theology more generally (If you don't care that's totally fine, and you can join my club of people-who-think-it's-a-bit-silly-because-we'll-never-really-know). When we thought that Paul wrote Hebrews (which no one really does any more), it distorted our view of his theology as a whole. Ephesians, the Timothys and Titus were probably written by the next generation of Christians continuing Paul’s legacy – at the time it was considered fine to write under someone else’s name if you thought you were continuing their school of thought.

Paul wasn’t setting out to write Scripture, he was responding to specific questions arising from early Christian communities, and so when reading him, it’s important to think about what issues he’s responding to, rather than just assuming he speaks directly to our specific circumstances. There’s a long history of theologians misreading Paul because they failed to understand this – Luther being a classic example (ooh, controversy), thinking that Paul was mostly concerned with individual salvation and that he didn’t like the Jews. D’oh.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Meet Karl Barth

Karl Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He was born in Switzerland, and grew up in the Reformed tradition (i.e. Protestant). He studied theology under some of the big names in liberal theology, and then started work as the pastor of a small church. Frustrated by his sense that everything he'd learnt at university was irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people (I know, it's hard to empathise), he came to the realisation that it was all about the Kingdom of God, and proceeded to write a range of impenetrable books, including the Church Dogmatics which, while not quite so monumental as Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, still ran to a hefty thirteen volumes (like the Summa, it was never finished as Barth died before completing it). Take that, academic elitism!

He didn't, to be fair, spend the rest of his life in an ivory tower. He was one of the founding members of the German Confessing Church, which tried to stand up to Hitler, and had to resign an academic post because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. After the end of WWII, he co-authored the Darmstadt Statement of Guilt on behalf of the Confessing Church, acknlowedging the responsibility of the German people and Church for the atrocities of the war and the rise of Hitler.

And y'know, he also had a whole range of interesting theological ideas, but we'll get into some of those some other time.