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.