On the Christian duty to find error attractive

Posted on June 6, 2008


Exam marking season–oh joy!–intensifies a thought that I have had for a while. One of the repeated problems in theological debate is a particular form of caricature. I can think of published examples of this sort of caricature in theological criticism of historical Biblical scholarship; Evangelical criticisms of Barth; post-liberal criticisms of classical liberalism; liberal criticisms of Evangelicalism; proponents of divine passibility criticising classical theism; and lots more. It is endemic in student papers.

The common caricature is this: a position is attributed to an opponent that highlights the (supposed) errors of their position without pausing to recognise the strengths; as a result, what is criticised is a straw man, a malformed parody that is at best a grotesque semblance of anything anyone ever actually believed. I repeatedly find myself saying to students, ‘if Barth (or Schleiermacher, or C.F. Henry, or John Owen, or the Council of Trent, or …) really believed that, why did anyone ever take him seriously?’ It seems to me an important question: if my reconstruction or presentation of this or that position is so easy to dismiss, then I have probably not understood the position.

There are two forms of this that are perhaps particularly dangerous, because so easy to justify. Conservative critics sometimes feel no need to understand the attraction of liberal or revisionist positions because they assume that all that is not ‘orthodox’ (or what they understand to be ‘orthodox,’ which in my experience is rather too often a far more thorough departure from the historic Christian tradition than the thing they are criticising) is motivated by a caving in to ‘worldliness’. Those who reject penal substitutionary atonement (to take an endemic recent example) are not, on such a telling, motivated by a desire to be faithful to the Biblical witness (even if they have misunderstood it), or by a proper concern for Christian ethical living, but are simply caving in to cultural pressure…

Second, modern scholars seem to find it very easy to assume that ancient writers were stupid. Critics of classical theism blithely assert that the Fathers did not spot that Greek philosophy was a different religious tradition to Hebrew theism, and (when it comes to divine passibility), that they lacked our clearer grasp of what suffering means. The martyrs may have been wrong about all sorts of theological points, but I suspect that they were aware that their faith was counter-cultural, and I venture to suggest that they knew a little about the reality of suffering…

The story is told that, when he taught on Schleiermacher, Barth made it a rule that no-one was allowed to criticise in any way for the first term; until you have learnt just how attractive Schleiermacher’s theology is, you are not yet able to explain why he is wrong. Surely this is true of any theology: unless you feel the attraction, know why another generation of students was captivated, fascinated, by this theology, you have not yet understood it. and until you have understood it, you have no right and no ability to critique it.

Barth had longer than I do; but I lecture through a course entitled ‘Contemporary Theology and its challenges’, and I feel a duty–a duty that is moral and Christian, not just academic–to make the students feel the force of those challenges, before offering an account of some potential solutions. We get to the doctrine of God: an hour on Kant, and von Harnack (and Charles Hodge) following carefully the logic that says Trinitarian doctrine is either spurious speculation or (at best, with Schleiermacher) useless orthodoxy, with no practical implications. Feel it. Feel the problem. Then when we open up Barth and Rahner and Zizioulas, perhaps you will understand why people found them exciting. And then the divine perfections, and of course I want to defend impassibility, aseity, simplicity, immutability, but we’ll spend an hour on protest atheism–starting with Voltaire’s mockery of Pangloss, hearing voices echoing out of Auschwitz and Buchenwald; listening to Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion; suffering (those of a certain age will remember it’s pretty painful) Depeche Mode’s Blasphemous Rumours, even (‘I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours, but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour. And when I die, I expect to find him laughing.’). Then we move to Moltmann’s response to protest atheism, the crucified God who, alone, has a right to claim deity. I end reading Shillito’s Jesus of the Scars (‘To our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak–and not a God has wounds, save Thou alone’)

Each year, at the end of that hour, I wonder whether Moltmann and Lewis and Fiddes and the rest are right, whether I need to re-write the lectures that claim to rescue divine impassibility. I wonder even whether Ivan Karamasov was right, whether the fact that one child has once cried in this universe means divine justice can no longer be believed in.

I think that if I didn’t feel these pulls, I would have no right, and no ability, to teach about divine perfection in the next class.

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