On Typology: A Polemic

Tony Sig

A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.

“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”

Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:

“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”

Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.

But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal –  it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!

A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)

Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.

The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.


David Bentley Hart: An Orthodox Easter

This also included some observations on Holy Week so I thought I might risk talking about Easter before Holy Week has come to a finale. HT: Wall Street Journal

An Orthodox Easter
Expressive extravagance, dramaturgical splendor.

Friday, A

pril 9, 2004 12:01 A.M. EDT

This is one of those rare years when Christians of the Eastern and Western communions will celebrate Easter on the same Sunday. For those of us who–in quixotic moments–blow upon the gray embers of our hopes for a reunited Church, this is always an especially happy occasion. We may not all be entering into the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection as one, but at least this year we are doing it at the same time.

After all, one of those tiresome platitudes that hovers over the division between the ancient churches is that, whereas Eastern Orthodox tradition principally emphasizes the resurrection of Christ, Catholic (and Protestant) tradition principally emphasizes his death. The one, it is said, proclaims more a “theology of glory”; the other, more a “theology of the cross.”

There may be some truth in this, but not much. The more deeply one ventures into either tradition, the more one grasps the inseparability in both of Christ’s passion and glorification, his sacrifice and his victory. And it is in just these rare years when our two Paschal calendars coincide–when we mourn and rejoice together–that this commonality seems especially evident.

One genuinely pronounced difference between East and West does, however, become obvious at these times: that of liturgical sensibility. Nor is this insignificant. How we worship very much determines how we “see” the suffering or risen Christ in our devotions.

To those unfamiliar with Orthodox worship, it is difficult to convey a proper sense of its sheer expressive extravagance–its dramaturgical splendor, its combination of the mystical and the spectacular, its profusion of symbols, poetry and large forceful gestures. The churches are lavishly adorned with icons, the entire liturgy is sung, the services are long and intricate, and everything (if well executed) is utterly absorbing.

And during Holy Week (or Passion Week, as it is called in the East), all this liturgical exorbitance reaches its climax. As the week progresses, worship becomes all but continuous, morning and evening, culminating in three magnificent services in which is concentrated all the dramatic genius of Byzantine liturgy.

On Friday night, the service of Lamentation is celebrated. An image of the dead Christ is laid in his funeral bier (ornately carved, copiously decorated with flowers), and shatteringly powerful hymns of mourning are sung over him. The bier is then borne in procession around the outside of the church; briefly, the church doors become the gates of Hades, upon which the priest beats with the book of the Gospels to announce the arrival of the Lord of Glory, who comes to plunder death of its captives.

The eucharistic liturgy on Saturday morning is an unapologetic exercise in triumphalism. Its governing theme is Christ’s conquest of death, sin and the devil, and his harrowing of hell. At one point, in fact, the priest passes through the congregation flinging bay leaves to every side as a symbol of Christ’s victory.

And this same triumphalism pervades the Easter Vigil that begins that same night and continues on well into the early hours of Easter morning. At the moment of highest drama, at midnight, all the lights in the church are extinguished, and the faithful wait in total darkness. The priest then bears a lighted candle in through the central door of the great icon screen behind which the altar is hidden, as a symbol of the risen Christ departing from his tomb, and summons the congregation to light the candles they have brought with them from this flame.

Thereafter, the liturgy is all light and joy, punctuated by frequent repetitions of the great Paschal hymn–“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs restoring life!” And (incredibly enough) a feast follows.

As I have said, one must experience such worship to understand its profundity. I can say only that, in my two decades of being Orthodox, the power of these services has not diminished in the least; and every year, at one point or another, I become entirely lost in the glory of the Gospel being announced and portrayed before my eyes.

And as, again, this is one of those years when one can almost deceive oneself that the churches are united, I might finish by recommending an Eastern custom to all Christians, of every communion. For 40 days following Easter, the Orthodox greet one another with the words “Christ is risen!” To which the correct response is “He is risen indeed!”

Greatest Living Christian Rhetoritician?

Tony Sig

In many circles of scholastic theology, the theological discourse can take on an entirely dry and mathmatical flavor.  As if, in perfect neutrality and impartiality, one is disclosing the secrets of the world.  However ‘true’ some of these types of treatise’s might be, it can be understandable that I might lose interest.  I’m certain of the fact that had I been tested as a child I would have been diagnosed with ADD.

I myself enjoy bombastic rhetoric.  Rhetoric need not imply sophistry or veiled-falsehood.  It can be coupled with precise argumentation and imagination and it can put joy into reading scholarly works.  This is why Gordon D Fee can be much more enjoyable to read than many other exegetes.  The man doesn’t pull any punches.

In the theological/philosophical world of today we have been blessed with a movement bravely entitled “Radical Orthodoxy.” Feasting as they do on modern Continental thought and mocking the false safety of analytical philosophy, RO, and many who could broadly fall under its banner, have given us royal treats in John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Stanley Hauerwas and David Bentley Hart (among others).

But who among them can claim to reign supreme as lord of language?

There is of course Stanley Hauerwas.  A feisty Texan-high church methodist (though I do believe he is Episcopalian these days) known for his powerful testimony against liberalism and for the Church.  He has given us such treasures as

(in reference to “Atonement theories”)“If you need a theory to worship Jesus go worship your fucking theory” and

“Fighting violence with bombs is like screwing for virginity”

But I don’t think he can take the cake.

We might also point to the honorable ‘high-church Anglican’ John Milbank, student of the ABC Rowan Williams.  Turning randomly into his “Theology and Social Theory” (an absolute must read) we can see him at work.

“Parsonian sociology attempts to conjoin the ‘liberal Protestant meta-narrative’ as articulated by Weber and Troeltsch. . . with the evolution of Herbert Spencer which was part of his English adaptation of Comtean positivism.  In the Parsonian niew, society evolves through a process of gradual differentiation into separate social sub-systems: gradually art is distinguished from religion, religion from politics, economics from private ethical behaviour and so forth.  The upshot of this process is (as for Weber) that it is now possible for something to be beautiful without being good or true, and possible for there to be a valid exercise of  power without it having a bearing on either goodness or truth.  At the same time, a realm of ‘pure’ science emerges which (as in Spinoza’s ideal of intellectual freedom) can pursue truth independently of coercive pressure, or of practical consequences.” TST, 2nd ed, Blackwell p128

But still he cannot out-maneuver the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart.  From his stunning “The Beauty of the Infinite” to his devestating “Atheist Delusions,” Hart, it is often complained, cannot be read without the Oxford English Dictionary as his vocabulary is composed of so many odd and normally unused words (not counting his own neo-logisms) that it takes ages just to get through a book.  Be that as it may, he is never shy on vitrolic attacks on bad ideas and unbounded praise of the God who is God-in-Trinity.  Here are two quotes taken at random from his “The Beauty of the Infinite”

“But Nietzsche also reminds theology how great is its rhetorical burden.  The story of being that Christianity tells, of creation as a word of peace whose ultimate promise is also peace, looks so very frail standing alongside the imposing figures of “history” and “nature,” in their blood-dyed robes, trailing their clouds of contingency, cruelty, and ambiguity; the protological and eschatalogical tensions within the Christian story leave it vulnerable to the accusation of irresponsible idealism, or of an unwillingness to rein its narrative in when its messianic horizon threatens to engulf the clarity of “realist” thinking in a night of mythical abstraction (theology, not always unaware of this, even occasionally attempts to construct one or another kind of political “realism” of its own, even though this can be accomplished only through a series of tactical apostasies).127 – please note that that is one single sentence!

“What is truth?” – “If Christ, the eternal Word, is the Father’s “supreme rhetoric,” then the truth of his evangel is of a very particular kind.  As soon as one ventures appreciably past the bounds of logic’s unadorned and uncontroversial claims (and sometimes before one gets that far), one finds that what is called truth is usually a consensus wrested from diversity amid a war of persuasions, the victor’s crown of laurels laid upon the brow of whichever dialectical antagonist has better (for the time being) succeeded in rendering invisible his argument’s own ambiguities and contradictions (has better, that is, concealed the more purely rhetorical moments of his argument in the folds of his apparently unanswerable “logic”); and into the tumult of history Christ comes as a persuasion among persuasions, a Word made entirely flesh, entirely form, whose appeal lies wholly at the surface…”331

Take up and read.