Elyon and the ancient Hebrew poets

Elyon (‘God Most High’) is one of the biblical names for God. Not as common as Yahweh or El, but I think we need to look hard at the uncommon in the Bible – because rarities can characterize early as well as late texts.

This divine name, Elyon, always appears in the Bible in the most beautiful prophetic and poetic fragments; we never find it admixed with those tedious lines of racial narrative and high-priestly detail. I think poetry works better than prose to preserve a revelation in relatively unadulterated state. Its fixed structure is more resistant to redaction by later editors, because it is more difficult to adapt or change than a line of narrative.

The Elyon poetry is represented in strata of all three high watermarks in Israel’s recorded history of relation to God – from the time of Abraham (Gen 14:18), to that of Moses (Det 32:8), as well as David (2 Sam 22:14). It is used for God’s name in 11 of the Psalms. In fact the Elyon tradition extends down to the late Second Temple apocalyptic writings, where we read Daniel proclaiming that “the saints of Elyon shall receive the kingdom” (Dan 7:18).

And it doesn’t stop there; the evangelist Luke includes a tradition which identifies Jesus as ‘Son of Elyon’ (Lk 1:32) and the Baptist as ‘prophet of Elyon’ (1:76). Finally, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews ties is all together by linking the divine Son with the ‘order of Melchizedek’ (Heb 7:1). Remember Melchizedek was a bread-breaking and wine-sharing priest of Elyon who was ‘without generation’ – and we should not forget that he was the recipient of Abraham’s tithe (Gen 14:18).

So Elyon – the Most High – has a nice even spread of representation in the best poetic writing in the Bible. Like the more famous divine names, Jahweh and El, this Elyon takes its place as a distinct theological tradition of poet-prophets whose teaching stretched from the Patriarchal era to the days of the Savior himself.

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The domain of Truth – Jacques Ellul

Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul.  I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language.  But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him the Word has become the sole provenance of Truth. Which means that Truth must be considered independently of all images and sense data.

“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe.  Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)

Ellul compensates for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth by readily conceding to them the illustrious name ‘Reality.’

By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data.  He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.

I don’t know if Ellul’s generous concession can appease the most shrill acolytes of science, who – unlike actual scientists – believe scientific method to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems.  But we are probably not equipped for understanding Ellul if we do not thoroughly understand that accuracy is an epistemological value existing on a lower moral level than veracity.

Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.

When Ellul differentiates Word from Image, he does not separate language from ‘reality’ – he merely assigns it a certain dominance.  In one example, language shows its power over images and sense data by the fact that the race of speakers hold a distinct evolutionary advantage over non-speaking predators (though we are less endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, etc.). But Ellul does not view evolutionary advantage as a standard of Truth – in fact he views the evolutionary gains of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. While he would admit that language is the secret of material mastery, he would insist that its real essence as the Word unlocks higher attainments that utterly transcend all material forms of success.

“What is Truth?”  Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.

“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.  And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)

I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one.  Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.

Albert C. Knudson – American theologian

The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910]. (Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953) earned his Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology and the premier theologian of the Boston Personalists.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, also with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been limited by its division between competing sects. I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably created a certain indifference on the part of non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think a perverse sectarianism infects much of American religious thought even today.  Each denomination has always had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in their own and in all other denominations.  Although each sect had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. I think the lack of community among different types of religious genius in this country has thwarted progressive Christianity.  Not until the rise of non-sectarian universities in the late 19th century did the American mind finally bear the fruit of its diverse genius – unfortunately by that time the advances were chiefly limited to non-religious concerns.

Prayer, hard work, and God’s unchanging providence

With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence.  A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method.  All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.

First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.

“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work.  Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.

An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them.  This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds.  It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good.  In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).

Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage?  Doesn’t God help those who help themselves?  But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture.  And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.

In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races 🙂 ).

For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow.  But he’s not giving in to these.

1.  He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.

2.  He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.

3.  And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.

This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess.  This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.

(to be continued)

The Kantian philosophy as handmaid of religion and science

In my recent criticism of John Milbank’s frequent dissing of Immanuel Kant I forgot to say that I am completely sympathetic with the professor’s desire to embarrass the sloppy metaphysics of atheism.  I applaud Milbank’s aim to discomfit our current secular dogmatists who presume the model of ‘science’ is on the side of their own uncritical metaphysical materialisms.

But again, Kant has already shown – over 200 years ago – that the authority of the scientific method doesn’t carry over to the solution of the ‘hard problems’ of metaphysics.  True, the critical philosophy rejects apodictic certainty in theology’s intellectual determinations of its object .  But it also demolished the scientific basis of all claims that theology has no meaningful object.

I’m guessing Prof. Milbank has rejected Kant’s help against scientific materialism because he desires to do metaphysics himself in the grand style of Aquinas, which he knows is also disallowed by Kant.

But a part of Kant’s great service to philosophy makes it also a service to truth in science and religion – he never made the mistake of equating the method of philosophy with the method of science.  His ‘charter of autonomy’ for philosophy gave it independence from both science and religion, and this dual independence actually suits the role of ancilla (handmaiden) required by any theology worthy of a living faith – and by any science worthy of its name and methodology.

The impression I got from reading Milbank last year is that his criticism of Kant cites the Religion book much more than the Critiques.  This I think is the source of his negativity – and I will say I have never been satisfied with the grasp of religion shown by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason (although I saw more than I had seen before in a recent reading of that book, remarked last month).

I don’t blame Milbank for seeing Kant’s specifically religious writing as too much akin to the old failed Natural Theology.  But Kant’s criticism of religion’s clerical and popular superstitions and fanaticisms is more cogent and cleansing than any that can be raised by the atheist.

I think a philosophy inspired by the three Critiques can certainly offer an ancillary role in the exploration of the relations of the object of faith to the real world – particularly its moral relations.  But again the one condition – perhaps hardest for Milbank to accept – is that the theologian who makes Kant his handmaiden must give up the attempt to construct a final metaphysics.

Kant’s Religion and Schleiermacher’s Faith

I am inspired (again) by the mind of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – the occasion this time being my third trip through Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793, 2nd 1794 – ET 1934).  I’ve read and re-read a lot of Kant’s books since making my first attempt at the Critique of Pure Reason in 1975.  When my wife saw me paging through the Critique again about 7 years ago she asked, “Weren’t you reading that book when we first met?” (like, haven’t you finished that yet?).  But in my view Kant merits (and rewards) re-reading above all other philosophers.

My second solo study of the Religion was only five years ago (margin notes – no paper).  But this week I benefitted a lot from the discipline of a 25-page per day format and the knowledge that I was accompanied by three other students.   Before the new year started I found this very interesting 2011 reading plan in theology so attractive that I’m going to try to keep up with Jeremy and bloggers Wes Hargrove , and A.J. Smith  at least through April, catching the ‘Liberal’ works on his list.  A.J. will lead off the commentary on Jeremy’s blog soon, and I hope to add comments to their posts.

I think my old T.M. Greene translation served me well once again, but I found Werner Pluhar’s 2009 translation, which has some improvements – including an introduction by Steven Palmquist (which amounts to saying I’m bound to read this great work a fourth time someday and am actually looking forward to it).

Meanwhile I’m already embarked on the plan’s second volume, Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (1820/31 – ET 1928).  You think you know what he meant by Absolute Dependence and God-consciousness?  Think again – and join us if you can for 25-pages a day (just started) in this classic work of theology (I haven’t read this one myself except for scattered parts of the text).

Justification (or not): Can ‘classical’ views be unbiblical?

All of the fall-out from the ETS Atlanta meeting last week was a great clinic for me on new and old perspectives on Justification.  My blog reading since Friday includes numerous posts by Marc Cortez, especially his final reflections.  Also the thoughts of Collin Hansen.  And N.T. Wright checked in with clarifying comments at Denny Burk’s site.

Meanwhile I’m reading Paul again, and Wright’s 2006 paper, ‘Redemption from the new perspective?’, but am still far from answering a question that intrigues me in all this discussion – Do Evangelicals have an unwillingness to address the complexity of all the Biblical evidence for justification?  If such selectivity exists, I am inclined to suspect it may be explained as the result of a close association in the evangelical’s mind between a particular theory of justification and the alleged ‘facts’ of his own conversion experience.  It’s common enough in the sciences that an interpretation of one’s own experience can (temporarily) prevent one from seeing contradictory evidence.

I find that, 130 years ago, some similar and allegedly ‘classical’ Protestant interpretations of justification were called out by Albrecht Ritschl as ‘unbiblical’ assumptions:

It is unbiblical to assume that between God’s grace or love and His righteousness there is an opposition, which in its bearing upon the sinful race of men would lead to a contradiction, only to be solved through the interference of Christ.  The righteousness of inexorable retribution is not in itself a religious conception, nor is it the meaning of the righteousness which in the Old and New Testaments is ascribed to God.  God’s righteousness is His self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of His community; in essence it is identical with His grace.  Between the two, therefore, there is no contradiction needing to be solved.

It is unbiblical to assume that any one of the Old Testament sacrifices, after the analogy of which Christ’s death is judged, is meant to move God from wrath to grace.  On the contrary, these sacrifices rely implicitly upon the reality of God’s grace toward the covenant people, and merely define certain positive conditions which the members of the covenant people must fulfill in order to enjoy the nearness of the God of grace.

It is unbiblical to assume that the sacrificial offering includes in itself a penal act, executed not upon the guilty person, but upon the victim who takes his place.  Representation by priest and sacrament is meant not in any exclusive, but in an inclusive sense.  From the fact that the priest draws near to God when he brings near the gift it is not meant that because the priest and the sacrifice come near to God, the others may remain at a distance from God…

Lastly, it is unbiblical to assume that a sacrifice has its significance directly for God, and only under certain other conditions also for men.  On the contrary, the sacrificial act is just what combines these two relations.”

Justification and Reconciliation, Vol. III (1874; 3rd 1888, ET 1900), p.473-74