Returning to the Paschal Christ: The Pre-Post-Modernity of John Behr

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In his book The Mystery of Christ, Fr John Behr advances a two-pronged attack on modern theology:

  • 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.”1
  • 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. 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 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.2

“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.3

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

(23 March 2017; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (2006), p. 15.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

(Go to “Reading the Scriptures”)

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14 Responses to Returning to the Paschal Christ: The Pre-Post-Modernity of John Behr

  1. TJF says:

    I’m always baffled by these claims. Something being objectively true seems to be extremely important. If it isn’t then nothing is, we’re all just believing equally preposterous stories since there is no truth. The problem seems more to me to be believing something objectively true and fixating on that when you can’t possibly know that. But there still is a fact of the matter. Maybe this is what Behr is saying and I’m just confused.

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  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    I think what you are missing TJF is the fragmented nature of our knowledge. There’s no objectivity in the sense of an understanding which is without perspective, without interpretation, without particularity, without observation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • TJF says:

      So you and I and Fr. John Behr among others believe that Christ is risen and would indeed say it is objective fact, but due to the epistemic ambiguity that we are all wading through in this vale of tears there will never be absolutely certain of it in the way we’re certain we have 5 fingers on each hand and must have faith and confess it?

      I’d absolutely agree with that, but then it baffles me anyone thinks differently. That basically applies to all convictions one can have whether about efficacy of COVID vaccines, the threat of global warming, or even whether tomato really is a fruit, etc. It seems obvious. I thought I was missing something else.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Well, as I see it, the removal of ambiguity is the motivation behind the move towards dogmatization of faith. Not necessarily a bad thing – there is a place for dogma – but its limits and dangers must be firmly kept in mind. The subject matter of dogma after all is faith, not scientifically observable facts or situations. Fr Behr’s remarks are much needed to draw attention to the process of dogmatization.

        Liked by 1 person

        • TJF says:

          Oh ok I understand. This is a response to those who are overly sure of themselves and try to force that certainty on others when no certainty actually exists. I’m onboard against self righteous rigorist know it alls

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think it actually is fair to assume that what one is dealing with is the tension of reason and understanding. I know y’all probably get tired of me waxing on about things like the Idealists but there is a difference between knowing something and to really truly know something…to understand it in the fullest sense. It’s why the claims of objectivity can sometimes become unhinged precisely because reason cannot ground itself within the sphere of human life. It takes something more. So as you suggest TJF, the mystery that we look to has an intellection that appears before we ever reason it out or understand it. Where we begin to fall short is when we concretize what we begin to understand as if it is now solidified fact. We forget the depths of the mystery in lieu of what appear to be concrete appearances when taking the depths into the deepest seas.

            As a protestant who converted to orthodoxy, I actually was really happy with the priest I discussed it all with over the span of months. Take Maximus for instance, we discuss him a lot, but his views on Marian devotion would cause some bristling today and I’m sure did at the time. Other fathers have other views that some could get on board with and some still had their questions, and so in one respect, dogma is moving target that we hold in the tension of trying to understand the mystery that is Christ and the church, and yet it is something that will inevitable move and evolve as we get better at discussing it, as things become clearer in the world we live. To concretize it, to objectify it, as truth in every facet is a problem. Some truths are truths, and some “truths” are merely agreed upon sense for now. I think you’re correct.

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          • Sonya says:

            Yes. I was talking to someone about fundamentalism and he made the comment that you could identify fundamentalists (of any stripe) because they had no questions. And that this mark was also their downfall.

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  3. brian says:

    I think Protestants of the sola scriptura variety try to make interpretation disappear, but Catholics (and Orthodox) may make the same move with regards to Tradition. Dogma ought to open up creative and innovative interpretive possibilities. If it is shutting thought down, it is not operating as a vehicle of grace which is always fecund with life’s infinite discoverable depths.

    Liked by 3 people

    • TJF says:

      How would you respond to the complaint that certain varieties of universalists shut down thought by considering ECT or annihilation as blasphemy and heretical?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        may they rot in hell forever 😉

        Liked by 2 people

      • brian says:

        Dialectical inquiry allows one to enjoin disparate voices in a mutual search for truth, though part of that search is the necessary capacity to recognize errors that subvert a genuine quest. It is here, of course, that heresy gets thrown back and forth in mutual recrimination. Heresy is potentially valuable as pointing out aporias and aspects of theology insufficiently contemplated. Ultimately, however, I think there is a wisdom of discernment that is hard to break down into axiomatic declaration or simple catachesis. It’s a quality of the soul that is holy and that is something one intuits or not. Adherents of any position may adopt an “ideological” stance that is antithetical to genuine inquiry. What differentiates a living Tradition is porosity to the infinite plenitude of Being which is ultimately rooted in the dance of Triune, perichoretic ecstasy open to humanity through the Incarnation. My original point, however, remains — dogmatism that denies a hermeneutic of revelation or seeks to reify what ought to be an ever expansive openness to infinite meaning breaks faith with the Creative dynamism of the Spirit.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Well put Brian. The one final word is the Word, all else is but incomplete and partial ever true it may be.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    Fr Behr’s lecture here from 10 years ago is relevant and worth sharing.

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