The Pre-post-modernity of John Behr

Earlier this week I started reading Fr John Behr’s book The Mystery of Christ. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for many years. I’ve wanted to read it, as I have great respect for Fr John as theologian and scholar—his (unfortunately uncompleted) Formation of Christian Theology series is essential reading—but for whatever reason I simply have not gotten around to it. Last weekend, though, it became clear to me that it was time. Let me tell you why.

Several months ago I purchased The God Who Saves by David Congdon. Congdon is an up-and-coming evangelical theologian who espouses a universalist vision of salvation. But then I read the very interesting discussion between Congdon and his reviewers over at the most excellent Syndicate forum and realized that my disagreements with Congdon may be deeper than I thought. Much of what he says in the Syndicate discussion reminds me of the kind of theology that ultimately destroyed the Episcopal Church I loved and in which I served as priest for twenty-five years. Perhaps I’m wrong about Congdon, perhaps I have misunder­stood. In any case I began to wonder whether I really wanted to invest my increasingly dwindling energy in reading and blogging on his book. At this point in my life, I generally restrict my readings to theologians who stand within the catholic tradition. Others can take on the revisionists. But last weekend it occurred to me that it might be interesting to bring Congdon into conversation with the pre-post-modern Orthodoxy of Behr. I don’t know if I can pull this off, but it’s worth a try.

In his Mystery of Christ, Behr advances a two-pronged attack on modern theology: (a) it treats dogmas as finished formulae, which can then be employed by the theologian without regard to “the way in which they were first learned and from the exegetical practice, the manner of using scripture, in and through which they were articulated” (p. 15); (b) it then proceeds, with dogmatic formulae firmly in place, to tell the story of salvation in historical, linear fashion, beginning with creation and the history of Israel and culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, followed by Pentecost and the life of the Church. At this point I’m thinking, yep, that’s me. In fact, that pretty much describes most of my Christian friends, excepting perhaps the creatively post-modern Fr Stephen Freeman. Nobody but us moderns here.

Unfortunately, Behr presents few examples of the theologians whose methodology he wishes to critique, nor does he acknowledge those who have already challenged theology’s captivity to the Enlightenment. I deem this a weakness. I dislike generalizations and am skeptical of metanarratives. If you’re going to talk about modernity, then at least give me a footnote or two. But perhaps I quibble. It’s hard to disagree with Behr’s claim that systematic theology has taken on a dogmatic and philosophical life of its own, though I note that this happened centuries before Descartes and Hume; and it’s hard to disagree with his claim that much of the theology done during the past century has been driven by what really, truly, objectively happened way back in the days of yesteryear. This is certainly true for biblical studies. Behr vigorously contests this historicist commitment. The theology of the Church is first and foremost confession of faith:

It is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion and resurrection (the apparent exception, Peter’s confession in Mt 16, in fact proves the point, and the Gospel of John takes this reflection further, as we will see). Thus, to speak of the “Incarnation,” to say that the one born of the Virgin is the Son of God, is an interpretation made only in the light of the Passion. It is a confession about the crucified and exalted Lord, whose birth is then described in terms drawn from the account of his death (the correspondence between the tomb and the womb that delighted early Christians and is celebrated in liturgical texts and iconography); it is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as part of an objective history, an account of things “as they actually happened,” in the manner of nineteenth-century historiography. Although popular imagination is still enthralled by the idea of “what really happened,” it is generally recognized today that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history. Failing to appreciate the confessional nature of theological assertions gives much modern theology a character that can only be described as an odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology. (p. 16)

“An odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology”—I imagine that Protestant critics might well throw this comment right back at Behr and his fellow Orthodox. After all, we have thoroughly assimilated into our liturgies the stories of the Theotokos from the Protoevangelium of James and typically treat them as historical report. But that is by the by.

The assertion of the confessional nature of theology forces us, says Behr, to take seriously the ways the early Church lived out their faith in worship, prayer, and the interpretation of the Scriptures:

It is sometimes said that for antiquity truth is what is, for enlightened modernity it is what was, and for postmodernity it is that which will have been. The historicizing approach of modernity places the truth of Jesus Christ firmly in the past—how he was born and what he did and said—and subject his truth to our criteria of historicity, which are ultimately no more than a matter of what we find plausible (as is evidenced by the “Jesus Seminar”). For antiquity, on the other hand, the truth of Christ is eternal, or better, timeless: the crucified and risen Lord is the one whom scripture has always spoken. Yet, as the disciples come to recognize him, as the subject of scripture and in the breaking of bread, he disappears from their sight (Lk 24.31). The Christ of Christian faith, revealed concretely in and through the apostolic proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord in accordance with scripture, is an eschatological figure, the Coming One. (p. 17)

Christian theology properly begins with the gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and returning in glory.

(Go to “Reading the Bible Properly”)

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24 Responses to The Pre-post-modernity of John Behr

  1. I too loved The Mystery of Christ and regard it as one of the most important theological works this generation. It does however seem to me that the historical questions are somewhat inescapable. I don’t mean this in a reductionist or crass sense. Rather, I mean to point out that in order to move us away from a history-obsessed theology Behr himself has to write a history of interpretation. So while I too am less than enchanted with historical essentialism, it seems to me that historical questions are unavoidable.

    Take, at the bare minimum, that the conviction that Jesus qua Christ in light of the Passion is itself a theological assertion rooted in a history of prophetic interpretation. We could hardly have arrived at such a conclusion without Isaiah and Ezekiel, for example. Nevertheless, this is united to their own observed experience of the Resurrection.

    In order to avoid both a historical and ahistorical reductionism, we might note that there is an intangible quality of interplay between history and inspiration.

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  2. Tom says:

    “Behr advances a two-pronged attack on modern theology: (a) it treats dogmas as finished formulae…”

    I thought the Orthodox take the ecumenical statements of faith as infallible, or does he mean something else by dogma? And if infallible, then are they not finished? And if infallible as expressed in the Creeds, are they not a kind of formulae? Or is he just criticizing a particular insensitive “formulaic” use of the creedal statements? I guess I’d like to ask him what a proper use of the creeds “as finished” would look like.

    Tom

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  3. brian says:

    I have not read much of Behr (The Mystery of Christ and Becoming Human,) neither of which is a presentation of his more scholarly work. So some of this is surmise based on your post, Father. I am generally sympathetic to Behr. It does not seem to me that emphasizing that history is always interpreted necessarily amounts to a denial or downgrading of history. Modern evangelicals often uncritically embrace the criteria and sensibilities of the modernity they ostensibly resist. I have called them anti-modern moderns before. So, there is an in-built contradiction between their aims as believers and their often presupposed metaphysics. A fundamentalist commitment to the historicity of Scripture is frequently tied to a positivist understanding of “objective facts” that relies upon a “naive objectivity” that ultimately smuggles in Enlightenment notions of reason (it privileges an historical moment, historicizes the past as “prelude” that can be usefully discarded as irrational or a passing “stage” to “Enlightenment” — whilst treating its own pronouncements as somehow excluded from entropy or relativization by future time.)

    The entire way in which a “fact” is situated within a particular “traditioned” inquiry is ignored; the dialectical pursuit of truth between traditions is rendered unintelligible. The “metaxological between” that Desmond adverts to, in which the mysterious depths of reality and its endless supplementation by historical event that allows for new discovery is abjured in the name of ideological or dogmatic certitudes that are sterile, because not part of a living inquiry, but a dead conceptualism that one takes as the “firm, established basis” from which to spin out “logical consequences.” The eschatological properly dramatizes our temporal, lived experience. There’s a fellow that comes here from time to time who theologizes in an “undramatic” manner — not an evangelical, but a certain kind of Catholic dogmatist. It seems to me that Behr wants to rescue the tradition as an existential lived experience.

    Furthermore, a more astute metaphysics allows one to recognize a kind of extrinsicism to grace in the “fundamentalist historical” mode whereby the historical temporal lives of the Church are often understood as a kind of “empty time” waiting for the eschaton. There is no sense that the eternal is not a mere supernatural coda to our lives, but that it impinges in a “perpendicular fashion” so that grace is fulfilling nature in a mysterious fashion even now; grace is not limited to a “sacred history” or, better, sacred history is kenotically present in all times and places. This requires a greater sense of what formal and final causality entails. Hence, as Milbank argues, the gospel is not confined to the historical. It is “meta-historical,” but the “meta” does not mean a refutation of the historical. Rather, it is the discovery of creative depths within the historical that transcend the typical conception of “fact.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I forgot to mention you as one of my other friends whom I would classify as post-modern. Sorry about that, Brian. 🙂

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    • Thomas says:

      While I would agree with most of this, it still seems necessary to me to be able to say (more strongly than does Behr), how it is that we can insist on “an account of things ‘as they actually happened’, even if we don’t buy into certain 19th century suppositions.

      For instance, it is a dogmatic truth that Christ rose from the dead. If we back away from the “as it actually happened” and try to insist that Christ rose in the hearts of believers but that an actual bystander would not have seen him, we’re not saying much.

      The creedal affirmations of Jesus’ divinity are, of course, historically conditioned interpretations, but their truth is conditioned on whether Jesus was in fact divine, which does not depend on interpretation. After all, Bridget Bishop was a witch in the hearts of the Salem jury, but there is a fact of the matter about whether she was a witch. Just because the physical features of innocent women were interpreted as signs of witchcraft or illness as a sign of occult activity does not mean that there is no objective answer to the question about whether witches assailed the town. In fact, they did not.

      In actual historical fact, innocent women were murdered in Salem. In actual historical fact, if the Christian creeds are true, God was born to the Virgin Mary. If we can’t affirm truths that hold prior to interpretations, we have no business talking theology–or being on juries.

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      • brian says:

        Thomas,

        Perhaps my explanation above is either confusing or unpersuasive. The notion of facts outside of interpretation is part of an Enlightenment understanding that I believe epistemologically unsustainable. J. G. Hamann anticipated the weakness in Kant’s a priori insofar as Kant sought a universal structure (the Transcendental ego) that was supposedly outside language and history. Human mediation simply doesn’t work that way. The mistake is to think objectivity is derived outside of interpretation. There is objectivity, but it is never outside of some interpretation. I think Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of tradition as an historical inquiry that situates meaningful perception and the selectivity that also plays a “prior” role in choosing and discerning what constitutes a fact gives one a much more cogent explanation of how “objective facts” are “made” by society.

        I would strongly object to Bultmann and any other ethereal, interior spirituality blithely indifferent to history. I am not arguing for indifference to the historical, but for a more critical “realism.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          Sorry, wanted to add that it seems to me the Enlightenment model of rationality and its understanding of “objective fact” is precisely what has led to the fundamentally flawed pursuit of the “historical” Jesus separable from the “Christ of faith.” It isn’t that the historical Christ is “untrue,” but that one will never discover him apart from the “Christ of faith.” So-called “low Christology” embraces a reductionism that will never “catch up” to faith. It will always read the latter as the spurious projections of the 2nd century church and the like. In short, the “objective, historical datum” is only discoverable “within interpretation.”

          Progressive ideology today tends to think of itself as objective. It is only other views that exhibit bias, i.e. “interpretation.” But this is not only begging the question, it is to miss the underlying cognitive inevitability that no one comes to experience “tabula rasa.” Our selves are called into existence by the nurturing of others. We “name” in a particular language with a history. A feral child left on its own long enough simply never escapes a certain quasi-autistic insularity. This does not equate to cultural relativism. It does mean that the objectively real involves dialectic and a beginning point that is “interpreted.” One may come to find a tradition incapable of expressing some crucial aspect of reality. Then the tradition must grow, develop, or it will be superseded by an interpretation capable of a more capacious grasp of reality.

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        • Thomas says:

          Brian:

          Again, I am sympathetic to most of the points you make (although I am skeptical about the reification of “history”). But I do not think it answers my concern about “thing as they actually happened.”

          For instance, you critique the Enlightenment notion of objectivity, which no-one here will defend. But this is often rashly extended to any claim of objective truth. What I am defending is the quite modest claim that “things as they actually happen” (abstracting from the question whether these are ultimately substances, states of affairs, etc) are what make our interpretations those things true or false, and that “things as they actually happen” are not dependent on our interpretations for their veridical power.

          But, so that we don’t fall into the trap of being “undramatic”, let’s take a concrete example. Had not a single human being ever believed Bridget Bishop innocent of witchcraft, had no human being ever promulgated other interpretation of the ‘signs’ than that they were occult, would the truth of the matter nevertheless be that she was not, in fact, a witch, and that witchcraft was not, in fact, rampant in Salem Town?

          It seems to me that it we cannot unambiguously affirm that question, then we are no less superstitious and mindless of the demands of justice than were the Salem jurors who hanged innocent women. (But perhaps the last is mere interpretation!)

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          • brian says:

            Thomas,

            My use of “undramatic” has nothing to do with questions of historicity or the objective nature of truth. Undramatic is a positivist sense of history as a dead letter or of dogma as a kind of conceptual closure against the “ever more” of the eschatological Good.

            I am not treating history as a substance, so I don’t see how you infer reification.

            I am not claiming that there is no metaphysical truth; far from it. I am claiming that no matter what the actual, veridical reality is, no one approaches reality first from a neutral, objective perspective and then adds on an interpretation. Perception is always already interpretive. Very bad interpretive paradigms will make it difficult or perhaps impossible to determine the “objective, veridical reality.”

            Interpretation as I am using the term is NOT a mere subjectivism. As a metaphysical realist, I believe that our knowledge is always intersubjective and that we know real objects, NOT mere representations. I am NOT a modernist. Hence, your anger over the sense that I am spinning interpretive webs utterly divorced from “objective truth” is misplaced.

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          • Thomas says:

            “I am claiming that no matter what the actual, veridical reality is, no one approaches reality first from a neutral, objective perspective and then adds on an interpretation.”

            Well, again, I’m not objecting to this claim. I’m objecting when that claim is accompanied by the opinion that “things as they actually happened” depend on our interpretation of those things. Or, to put it differently, given that our account of things as they actually happened will always be socially and historically conditioned, what actually happened really happened, or it didn’t. Or again, given that our knowledge of the significance of Christ’s resurrection is through faith (and thus mediated), nevertheless, Christ was actually resurrected, and he was perceived with the ordinary human senses upon his resurrection–even by those who would not have believed him to be divine, or even resurrected.

            That was the significance of my question–twice declined–as to whether there is a truth of the matter of a particular historical event (in the example I chose, the Salem trial). We could as well post the question of Christ’s bodily resurrection depends on faith (as opposed to the conditions of our knowledge of that event). If you can answer in the affirmative, then my objection would be to Behr’s position, but not yours. In fact, we’d be mostly in agreement about the situatedness of knowledge, which you’ve talked about at length–but I’ve already stated my general agreement with you so many times it shouldn’t need to be reiterated yet again.

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  4. Father Gregory says:

    “Unfortunately, Behr presents few examples of the theologians whose methodology he wishes to critique, nor does he acknowledge those who have already powerfully challenged theology’s captivity to the Enlightenment. I deem this a weakness.”

    For what its worth: in class and conversation Behr often singled out Zizioulas as a theologian he thinks is doing it all wrong, and he never tired of saying that Yannaras does not seem to know what to do with the Cross of Christ. He and I spoke about Bulgakov and he considers Bulgakov an example a theologian doing theology all wrong too. He has also expressed that Meyendorff’s book on Palamas is a good example of “all wrong.” He would insist that “conclusions without the arguments that lead to them are at best ambiguous.”

    Not sure if that helps at all – but those are some theologians I remember him mentioning by name.

    G+

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  5. brian says:

    I don’t think Behr is open to speculative theology. I personally find Yannaras and Bulgakov fruitful interlocutors; Zizioulas on occasion as well.

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  6. nathaniel says:

    What does Hart think of Behr? Do we know?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t know, Nathaniel. A decade ago at the Fordham conference I remember Hart criticizing Behr making the Fatherhood of God as point of East/West division; but I don’t know anything more than that.

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      • Father Gregory says:

        If memory serves … Hart called Fr. Behr’s theology Pseudo-arian and Semi-orthodox during the Q&A. It was Hart’s performance there which made me very slow in finally reading some of his work. Though I am very happy reading Hart today.

        Were you at that conference too Father Kimel?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Yes, I was there at the conference, too. I was living in Northern NJ at the time, so it was easy for me to get to New York; in fact, it was made easier by the fact that a friend, Bill Tighe, drove us into the city. I remember the fireworks between Hart and Bradshaw but most of all I remember eating lunch with Fr Andrew Louth and his wife at the refectory.

          I also remember not finding Behr’s talk very persuasive. It seems to me that once Nicaea happens, it becomes logical and natural to refer to the Son as God, and we see that happening, e.g., with St Gregory of Nazianzus. Usage evolves as docrine develops. But of course Fr John wants to insist that doctrine does not develop … hmm.

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          • Father Gregory says:

            Indeed. But I seem to remember Fr. Behr is comfortable calling the Son (and Spirit) “God” but not “the one God.” He would also refuse to use call the Trinity “the one God.” In his thought “the one God” is the Father (and the Father exclusively). This makes him unable to accept Bulgakov’s triadology where he goes so far as to say that the Trinity is not only “the one God” but that the Trinity is, in a very specific sense, an “I.”

            I remember having a conversation with him about “De Trinitate” during a coffee break. I mentioned to a friend that I found the argument as presented by Augustine quite persuasive. At which point Fr. Behr joined in by asking me whether I had taken his course on Patristics since, cleary, I could not have said that if I had. I told him that, yes, I did take his course and that he had given me very high grades too. But that this simply meant that I understood his theology not that I agreed with it. We never did finish that conversation 🙂

            Be that as it may, I enjoyed the conference and I have learned a lot from Fr. Behr for which I will be ever grateful. I don’t think I would have seen Scripture and the Cross quite the same way if I had not been taught by him.

            Fr. Behr does not think highly of doctrinal development. That is true. He also does not think much of systematic theology. Fr. Behr’s point was that theology – to be true to its nature – must be exegetical or exegesis. But, as Peter Bouteneff, once quipped … What does Fr. Behr think “The Mystery of Christ” (the book) is doing other than precisely that?” 😉

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  7. Fr Joshua says:

    Earlier this week I found myself wanting to use the word “demythologize” and suddenly realized that I was rather ignorant about its nuances. So, I picked Bultmann’s essay, “New Testament and Mythology.” Throughout the second half of the essay, I realized that I had before me the precursor to much of Fr John Behr’s thought. I think one could make a solid case that Behr’s approach to theology is the fruit of an Orthodox Patristics scholar’s engagement with the dialectical theology of Barth and Bultmann. Behr’s “canon of truth” is the Orthodox version of Bultmann’s “New Testament kerygma.” Neither are willing to set the canon or the kerygma down in an approved formula–the canon/kerygma exists in the preaching of the present, not in a formula of the past. Further, it seems that for both, the historicity of Christ himself is a non-question. The canon/kerygma has to do with the present reality of the “Coming One.” We may speak of him in historical terms, but that is just because we have to use concrete words, not because his “historical existence” has any meaning.

    The quotation from Behr with which you conclude your piece (may it be continued soon!) could have been cribbed from Bultmann…. at the very least, it represents a continuation of his thought into the post-modern era: “The Christ of Christian faith, revealed concretely in and through the apostolic proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord in accordance with scripture, is an eschatological figure, the Coming One.” Fr Aidan, you must have sensed this resonance between Bultmann and Behr when you sought to bring Congdon (who interprets Bultmann) into conversation with Behr. What must have been obvious to you was a revelation to me. Sitting in Behr’s classroom for 3 yrs I had so many questions about his approach that could have been answered if I had had any real awareness of Barth or Bultmann at the time.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “The quotation from Behr with which you conclude your piece (may it be continued soon!) could have been cribbed from Bultmann.”

      Good eye! And that is why, Fr Joshua, I thought of coordinating Behr’s book with Condon’s book. Condon wrote his dissertation on Bultmann.

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  8. Agnikan says:

    “Christian theology properly begins with the gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and returning in glory.”

    I thought Christian theology properly begins with the descent of the Holy Spirit.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      We begin with Jesus Christ because he is the incarnate self-revelation of God who has reconciled the world to the Father by death and resurrection.

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  9. brian says:

    Fine, Thomas. You seemed to be disagreeing with me. I do not share Behr’s position on the matter.

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  10. Vinnie Santini says:

    I know Conor Cunningham highly recommended John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ in his book Darwin’s Pious Idea p.515 n72. And to be read alongside Michel Henry’s I Am the Truth.

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