Thursday, December 14, 2017

Scholarships for Under-35s at Pilgrim Theological College

If you're are aged under 35 years, and you are associated with the Uniting Church in Australia, you are eligible to apply for a scholarship at Pilgrim Theological College.

You can read the details here.

Pilgrim is the UCA's theological college in its Victoria/Tasmania Synod. It is located in Parkville, adjacent to the Melbourne University precinct, and close to public transport.  It is a member college of the University of Divinity, Australia's only specialist university and a national leader in theological education and research.

Check out the 2018 Pilgrim Handbook for details of the Units on offer next year, and for an even quicker overview take a look at the 2018 Timetable. There you'll see that there is a combination of face-to-face weekly units, on-line distance education, and intensives. Here's a summary list:

Semester 1:
  • New Testament Greek
  • Memory, History and the Historians
  • Trinity, Society and Dialogue
  • Greek Sources of Western  Thought
  • Life, History and the People of God in the Hebrew Scriptures
  • Biblical Theology of Mission
  • Fullness of Life: Spirituality in the Christian Tradition
  • Philosophy for Understanding Theology
  • Christianity's Big Ideas
  • Children and Families Ministry
  • Sex, Gender and Christian Doctrine
  • Living Leadership: Managing Organisational Change Faithfully
  • Reading and Interpreting Isaiah
Semester 2
  • Reason and Revival
  • Belief After Philosophy
  • Earliest Christianity
  • Discernment and Authority in the Christian Tradition
  • Theology of Pastoral Care
  • Hermeneutics
  • Jesus, Discipleship and Justice
  • The Art of Belief
  • Developing Mission Theology for Today
  • The Living People of God: Local, Global and Mission
  • A Changed Climate for Theology
  • The World of Hildegard of Bingen
  • Art and Practice of Oral Storytelling
  • Watching for God: Theology, the Bible and Film
  • Gender, Justice and Empire: Contextual Readings of the Old Testament
  • Thematic Study of the Old Testament
  • Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism
  • Sex and the Bible
  • Thinking Otherwise: Feminist Theologies
  • Effective Christian Leadership and Ministry
  • The Nurture and Spiritual Guidance of  Children
  • Formation for Christian Leadership

 Click here for details of the scholarships. Applications close on February 1st, 2018.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The attractiveness of sinners.

Pilgrim Theological College Chapel
October 25th 2017.

Texts: Matthew 20:1-16;  Romans 5:1-12.

This sermon was preached at the regular college chapel to a congregation of almost exclusively ordination candidates and college faculty.


So here we are. Almost 500 years (less just six days) since the Reformation began

The day when, at least as legend has it, Martin Luther strode to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church and posted his 95 theses.

The ripples from that stone dropped in the pond of Western Christendom reach across to this very institution, to this community of people, to this moment.

But, of course, those ripples have not reached us through a smooth advance of gentle concentric waves travelling across those five centuries.

Between here and now and there and then, those ripples have travelled an ambiguous journey.

The impact of that initial protest in 1517 has included violence, division, death, mistrust and mayhem.

And none of those on a small scale.

And that's not even to mention the links that are drawn between the Reformation and secularism with its disenchantment, individualism with its weakening of community, or capitalism and its inequality.

Like all the Christian movements in history, the Reformation is marked by deep ambiguity. 

So, even allowing for these various reasons for ambiguity, what is it that we are celebrating?

Well, we could say we are celebrating a certain liberation from ecclesiastical tyranny.

We could say we are celebrating a liberation of the gospel from its disappearance beneath layers of tradition.

We could say we are celebrating the liberation of ministry from its centuries of institutionalism.

We could say we are celebrating the liberation of the biblical text from its dogmatic control.

But I’m going to invite you to celebrate the ‘alien righteousness of God’.

Let's face it, could there be anything more certain to induce a celebratory mood?

In his essay ‘Two kinds of righteousness,’ written in 1519, Luther referred to

“an alien righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith.”

At once we are into Reformation disputes about righteousness, faith, justification, works, and law.

And at once we are also into the disputes about Luther’s relationship to Pauline exegesis and the impact of the New Perspective on Paul on our reception of Luther as an interpreter of Paul.

Can I ask you to put those concerns on hold just for a moment?  

Regardless of how well he interpreted Paul, Luther can at least, I think, be recognised as putting his finger on something essential to Christianity and the gospel it proclaims.

Jesus, Paul and countless Christian thinkers, prophets and activists since, have unsettled prevailing conventions about the relationship between piety and morality.

Or between what we might term religion and ethics, or even between spirituality and justice.
At least some of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God seems to unsettle prevailing assumptions which suggested God’s favour was a reward for a virtuous or religious or spiritual life.

Many of Jesus’ parables seem to invert assumptions about what is deemed natural or conventional. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (to which we listened) inverts everything we might assume about natural justice. In the kingdom of heaven, a different economy of grace operates.

Paul’s teaching about faith and righteousness exploded the nexus between law and justification maintained by at least some of his contemporaries. And in the passage we heard from Romans 5, we hear the striking claim: ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. Christ did not die for the religious, or the virtuous, or the holy, or the spiritual.

Did you hear that? Christ died for the ungodly. And who’s that. By Paul’s logic in Romans: that’s all of us.

But I want to suggest that behind these challenges to prevailing assumptions about human faith and human behaviour, both Jesus and Paul were also saying something about the character of God.

Or at least, what they were saying about human faith and human behaviour inevitably unsettled some prevailing assumptions about the character of God.

And so was Luther.

In thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther contrasted the love of God with human love.

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

In other words, the love of God is not responsive as human love is; the love of God is creative and not determined by that which it loves. In terms of this contrast, human love is reactive; God’s love is just there.

In his ‘proof’ of this thesis, Luther says something else. Now the focus is on what it is that make sinful humans attractive to God.

“sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

Let me say that again:

“sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

In other words, we cannot attract God’s love by virtue of what we do. Rather: God is attracted to us because it is God’s character to be attracted to us.

Let me ask you: How much has this thought grasped you?

Yes, we might well be able to articulate the ‘priority of grace’.

We might well be able to affirm that ‘God is love’

But has this idea that God draws near to us regardless of our worthiness really grasped your theological imagination and your pastoral calling?

I ask the question because I think that many of the prevailing assumptions that Jesus, Paul and Luther unsettled continue to prevail.

I trust I’m not simply projecting my own assumptions on to everyone else, but I’ll venture to say that we find it quite easy to think that we can bargain with God. It comes almost naturally to us.

If I just do this, then perhaps God will…

It is a kind of quid pro quo understanding of our relationship with God.

Christianity has never been able fully to release itself from moralism; or from a certain impulse towards religious purity.

When 15 or so years ago, the researchers into American youth Christianity coined the phrase ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ they were not simply describing one cohort of Christians. They identified something that seems to run very close to surface of all Christianity and all Christians.

It has shown itself in the ease with which Christians have pronounced judgement on ‘the world’ in harsh tones that suggest deep down we really do think that we have somehow earned God’s favour in a way that ‘the world’ has yet to.

And I don’t mean ‘those other Christians’. I mean us. We can so easily default to the quid pro quo mindset. We think we can make ourselves attractive to God. And perhaps we even do it most pointedly when we think it is only a problem to be seen in those other Christians.

(And in this regard this there is a real challenge. Christians can and do distort the understanding of God. So, there is an issue of how we challenge ‘Christian views’ that we believe to be wrong without falling into the trap of thinking that those we think are wrong can’t challenge us back. And that would take another sermon or two to address adequately.)

There is no shortage of presentations of Christianity getting air time in the midst of the national debate about Same Sex Marriage which I believe are fundamentally wrong.
I can’t help but hear a certain and pervasive moralism underlying many of the Christian contributions to this discussion.

I can’t help but wonder what idea of God actually underwrites some of these views.

But perhaps we also have to ask about the ideas of God that underwrite even our strong convictions about the inclusivity of God’s love. Do we draw those convictions from the radicalness of the Christian gospel? Or do we draw them from what we as sophisticated modern liberal people think God should be like? A view that perhaps only thinly veils its own quid quo quo logic.

But let’s not focus just now on the self-critical introspection, even if that would be a very Luther-like thing to do.

Let’s think about  God.

Let’s think about God who, Paul tells us, “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”.

Let us think about God whose son “Christ died for the ungodly”.

Or think about the landowner in Jesus’ parable who declares to those who thought themselves more worthy: “Take what belongs to you and go: I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you”. God is not a God of the quid pro quo.

To come back to Luther: it is an alien righteousness by which we are justified – not our own. This focus on this alien righteousness that comes from outside ourselves means, as Luther saw,that we are not loved because we are attractive. We are attractive because we are loved – by  God.

Is that insight worth celebrating?

I think it is.

One of the most basic Christian convictions is that God is love. For all the ease with which we might cite and proclaim this, it is not a self-evident truth ready to be picked up from a few random observations of the world.

It is a hard won conviction. The early Christians we convinced of it not because they looked at the beauty of the world or the circumstances of their lives. Far from it. They were convinced of it because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. After all, again to quote Paul, God had to prove or demonstrate his love for us.

At least according to Paul, God didn’t think it was self-evident.

Yet we as Christians and the church collectively can so easily live in forgetfulness of this conviction. As much as it is a hard-won conviction, it also an easily-lost conviction and an easily-domesticated conviction. 

Nevertheless, from time to time, so it seems, God, raises up people, sometimes the most awkward and irritating of people, to unearth that conviction from beneath the layers of piety, religion, spirituality, ecclesiasticism, and even theology, with which we cover it.

So, this is at least one reason why the Reformation should be celebrated, notwithstanding all the ambiguity that comes with it.

As a church that stands in the Reformed tradition, what might any of this say to us as ministers or future ministers in the Uniting Church in Australia?

As a church are we fully convinced of this truth?

How prevalent is the quid pro logic in our lives and that of the church’s wider membership?
My own view is that it is quite prevalent.

Twice recently, I’ve had UCA ministers tell me their sadness about members of their congregations declaring that ‘they are not good enough’. And these are members of 40 and 50 years standing.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of the parishioner of mine who would never participate in communion because in her words, ‘I am not worthy’.

These scenarios will have multiple reasons. But at the very least they are evidence of the resilience within the church of forms of piety and theology that have never been unsettled by the generosity or the radicalness of the gospel. 

How will you as minsters proclaim this gospel to those in the church so that they will know that they don’t have to be worthy?

Perhaps we could have a moratorium on discussion about the future of the church and spend a decade trying to unearth from beneath all the layers of Uniting Church-, Australian protestant- and Christendom-piety that hard won conviction that “God has proved his love for us that whilst we still sinners Christ died for us”.

And perhaps we might need some of the belligerence, pugnacity, and even existential angst of Martin Luther to do this.

We might ponder his idea of the ‘alien righteousness’.

And we might ponder his insight: “sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

And I suspect that not a few members of the Uniting Church might find that quite liberating.
But not just ‘those other members of the Uniting Church’ – perhaps it is also us who need to be constantly reminded of it and be liberated by it.

We are attractive to God just because God loves us. We are not loved by God because we are attractive. And that is gospel. And, however alien it is, it is worth celebrating. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tony Abbott, the West, climate change, and the Bible.

The Guardian has published a short piece I wrote on Tony Abbott, climate change, and
his use of the Bible. What I originally submitted was pretty much exclusively focused on Abbott's speech to the  Global Warming Policy Foundation. Interestingly, a week had passed by the time I submitted the article to The Guardian, and got the response that since a week had passed it risked no longer being relevant. But rather than therefore knock it back, the editor invited me to expand the article to indicate the pattern of linking the Bible and the defence of Western culture in Abbott's writings. So, I did. Bravo to The Guardian for being willing to publish something that was theologically slightly technical. The article concludes thus:

Convinced that climate change is the new religion, Abbott argued in his London speech for “less theology”. Actually, Abbott himself needs more Christian theology if he’s going to quote the Bible. As a former seminary student, perhaps he could rekindle his own theological studies. He would discover that the Bible contains literature capable of calling every culture into question, not least “the west”. And he would be better informed for those occasions when he makes theological pronouncements from the various platforms he is given as a former PM.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Does this confess 'the faith of the church'? An Easter Reprise

Easter seems a good time to return to the Confession of  Faith I drafted some months ago. I am grateful for the responses from many and various people to the earlier version. There have been many conversations which have made me think a bit more carefully and be clearer about what I was trying to communicate. I won't explain the detail of all the changes that ensued from those responses. Nevertheless, I doubt it will take long  to recognise the following as the key issues which I've addressed: the relationship between historical an doctrinal claims, the emphasis on the unity of  God as the starting point, gendered language in the second article, more care in the claims made for the church, and a few others.

I've had several requests to use this in various contexts. I'm very glad for it to be used. It's a public document intended for use in the church. If it is used, I would always be interested to know how it is received and/or adapted.

We trust the one God.

We trust the Love and Life who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

Reaching Jerusalem, prompting hosannas, trusting the one he named Abba, he offered himself as the servant Lord; he was rejected, abandoned and betrayed, and then crucified on a Roman cross as a false Messiah.

Lying dead and buried in a tomb, God raised this Jesus to new life: the human verdict was reversed; violence was rejected; the earthly mission was vindicated; death was defeated, the reconciliation of the world to God was manifest

Appearing, speaking and eating, this transformed body provoked fear, doubt, joy and hope. With words of peace the risen Jesus empowered these confused followers, sending them as witnesses to the way, truth and life.

Returning, scarred and bruised, to the One who sent him, Jesus now shares in Loves rule and receives the worship of his sisters and brothers from every culture, class and nation.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

Sent by the Spirit, the church is to proclaim the risen, crucified Jesus Christ in ever-fresh words and deeds; it is to witness to God's renewal of all creation, for which it waits with an impatient but sure and active hope.

This is the churchs faith. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.

Monday, September 4, 2017

What is the Bible?

In the midst of the current public use of the bible in Australia's same-sex marriage debates, I've written some thoughts on what the Bible is and argued that the 'what' and 'why' questions about it take theological precedence over the 'how to read it' question.

There's some Kevin Rudd, Walter Brueggemann, Rowan Williams, Augustine and also this rather beautiful paragraph from the First Helvetic Confession of 1536.
The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour.  
The whole piece has been published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A UCA Book of Confessions?

Calls are often made to 'update' the Basis of Union or to develop a contemporary statement or confession of faith. Such calls are prompted by various concerns - some concerning the status of the Basis, some concerning its content, some concerning the call within the Basis itself for 'fresh words and deeds'. The Uniting Church has already developed its own contemporary statements of faith. Uniting in Worship 2 includes a contemporary Statement of Faith built upon the Basis itself. Following the adoption of the Revised Preamble to the UCA's constitution, the Worship Working Group developed an Affirmation of Faith (in two forms) which includes themes suggested by the Preamble. All these carry some de facto authority, even if the nature of that authority has not been formally articulated.

Another possible way of enriching our theology would be to follow the example of other churches in the Reformed tradition and formally adopt, for authoritative reference and consultation, one or more of the confessions or statements of faith developed by other Churches. To cite just two examples, both the Presbyterian Church of the USA and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand have formally acknowledged contemporary confessions of other Churches as points of reference for their own theological guidance. Both have also developed contemporary statements of faith of their own. Perhaps, on this fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church, it is timely to ponder the possibility of a UCA 'Book of Confessions'.

The Basis of Union already commits the Uniting Church – in very particular ways – to use, and learn from, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as well as various documents produced during the Reformation and Evangelical Revival, namely the Scots and Westminster Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Savoy Declaration and John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons (see Basis #10). The Basis also recognizes that the “Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought” (Basis #11). Engaging with other churches' contemporary confessions is one way of sharpening that understanding.  Of course, Uniting in Worship 2 has already done something like this by its inclusion of the much-used ‘We are not alone’ produced by the United Church of Canada. There is no reason, so it seems to me, that we could not formally expand this list of authorised resources from which we might intentionally learn. 

This would  not simply be a matter of receiving and endorsing this or that statement that emerges from time to time. The genre of 'confessions of faith' is much discussed in the Reformed tradition. They are usually the result of much deliberation. Key to their genre and function is that they emerge from a particular set of circumstances but do so in such a way that they can speak beyond those circumstances. The members of the Joint Commission on Church Union put it like this:
The great Confessions of the reformation period were brought into being…to serve the particular needs of the Church of that day. They, too, have their limitations; limits set by time and place and original occasion which called them forth. But such limitations do not invalidate the universal significance of such documents. They share with all great Christian utterances the scandal of particularity; but what is rooted in a particular act of obedience or confession may have universal significance. 
If we were to go down this path, my suggestions for consideration are the following four confessions or statements of faith. I'm sure there would be others to be considered, but this is where I'd start. 

In 1983 the  United Presbyterian Church in the USA and the Presbyterian Church in the United States united to form the Presbyterian Church (USA). This Brief Statement of Faith  was produced as part of the process of union and was included in the new church's Book of Confessions. It is trinitarian, but unlike the Nicene Creed it begins with a confession of Jesus and gives significant weight to the details of his earthly ministry. God's fatherhood is defined in terms of Jesus' Abba-relation to him. Also significant is that the confession of God's creative work gives particular focus to the creation of a single human community equally reflecting the image of God across boundaries of race and culture. The person of the Spirit is linked to works of justice, freedom and peace.

The Belhar Confession was developed by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa in the early 1980s. The DRMC was the church established by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa (DRCSA) in 1881 for 'people of color'. The DRMC adopted the Confession in 1986 and it is now among the confessions of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) which was formed in 1994. Strikingly, whilst a theologically penetrating critique of racism, apartheid itself is never mentioned. This, together with the richness of its theological framework, may make it a prime example of a confession that is highly particular yet speaks beyond its particular circumstances. Already several other churches have adopted it, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2016.  (I've been unable to find a active website for the URCSA. Hence the link above is to the English translation of the Confession on the PC (USA) website from where I've also drawn the details of the Confession's history. The confession was originally written in Afrikaans.)

In 2010 the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand adopted Kupu Whakapono (Confession of Faith). This too is a trinitarian confession. With regard to that tradition of confessions its most interesting emphasis and correction (to my mind) is the way its article on the Holy Spirit moves beyond the classical and formulaic 'marks' of the church to a summary description of the character and purpose of the church. It is also notable that as well as being available in both English and Maori, the English version includes Maori language not only in the title but also, significantly, in the specific confession of the church as 'one people'.

Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical,Laudato si', might be the most contentious of these four suggestions and not only because of its Roman Catholic provenance. Obviously, as a papal encyclical it does not set out to be a confession in the Reformed tradition. But is there any reason why the UCA (with its commitment to the "world-wide fellowship of churches") could  not accept it as a confession of faith? One of the striking things about this document is not only its content (especially its attention to and interweaving of theology, ecology, technology and economics) but the warm reception it has already received in both wider Christian and secular contexts. Obviously, the UCA would have issues with its affirmation of Mary as Queen of Creation. But could we not adopt the same posture towards this (or any of the other three confessions suggested here) as the Basis enjoins us to adopt towards the Reformation Confessions? We are not asked to endorse them but to be intentional about learning from them.

Such, then, is my suggestion for a UCA Book of Confessions and some possible candidates for inclusion.

NB: The reference to the work of the Joint Commission is from The Faith of the Church in Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia edited by Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008), 24.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Disturbing Much Disturbing Many: Chapter 10 Audio Files

To acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia (June 22nd) I've produced audio files of the six sections of the final chapter of Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 2016). This book engages with the theology of the Basis of Union (the UCA's foundational document) and brings it into conversation with a range of contemporary issues of theological interest.

The final chapter is entitled "No longer an addendum": ecclesiological fragments provoked by the Basis". 'No longer an addendum' is part of a quote from the first report of the Joint Commission on Church Union in its discussion of the ecclesiologies of the New Testament. I use it as a springboard to comment upon what I think are some important features of the ecclesiology in the Basis itself. After an introduction there five further sections which are headed as per the list below. As June proceeds, each of these headings will be linked to its respective audio file.

References to quotations used in the readings will be on this blog page.

#1 Introduction 

  • Joint Commission on Church Union, 'The Faith of the Church' in Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson (eds), Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church. (Sydney: Uniting Church Assembly, 2008), 35.
  • Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: Ecclesiology in Messianic Dimensions 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1992), 64. 

#2 Church: a community which preaches

  • Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006), 32. 

#3 Church: a community which listens


  • Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: Ecclesiology in Messianic Dimensions 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1992), 225.
  • Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), xiv.
  • Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual (London: Penguin, 2014), 11.

#4 Church: a gifted community


  • Andrew Dutney, “A Worldly Calling: The Uniting Church Begins a Second Decade,” St. Mark’s Review No. 135 (1988): 15-21 (p.15)

#5 Church: organised pilgrims


  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.x.27 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2: 1205.
  • J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980), 87f.
  • D’Arcy Wood, Building On A Solid Basis: A Guide to the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1986), 52f.
  • Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 2-3

#6 Church: a constantly corrected community


Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union is available for purchase via CTM Resourcing and Morning Star Publishing.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Books Worth Reading (11): Rachael Keefe's Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets

Raechael A. Keefe, Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013),

Notwithstanding its title this is not the usual sort of theological dictionary. In fact, it's not really the kind of theological book that academic theologians are terribly comfortable with. There are no long historical, exegetical, doctrinal or philosophical discussions. The entry on 'hemenueutics' extends to only four lines. On the other hand, the entry on 'questions' runs to three pages. And, gosh, there is no entry whatsoever for homoousious! Still, I think many theological students would profit from having this book sitting beside their more usual dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks. This dictionary defines through poetry.

Theology is necessarily discursive, analytical, exegetical and historical. But theology is ultimately an imaginative discipline. Precisely as a technical discipline - or set of disciplines - it shapes and reshapes our imagination. In other words, it shapes and reshapes how we imagine God, creation, salvation, Jesus, the Spirit etc. Sadly this is not always immediately apparent to theology students as they engage the technical disciplines required of them. But I think it is one of the responsibilities of a theology teacher to help students grasps the imaginative functions of theology. And that requires providing diverse points of entry into theological work to match the diverse ways that people cultivate their imagination. I know that my imagination is actively engaged and stimulated by engaging with ideas, concepts and texts. But I recognise that this is not the case for many others. That does not mean, however, that we obliged to set aside the conceptual and analytical. It does mean that multiple points of entry into them need to be developed. This is not to deny that the poetic and the artistic do not have an integrity of their own. But as well as that they can helpfully open the imagination to the technical discourses of theology.

If pressed, I would ultimately place this book in the genre of the devotional, but it is devotional in a way that is intentional about speaking to the mind as well as the heart. Let me cite just two examples.

The entry on 'kerygma' is actually built around a mediation on Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman. The last stanza of the 'definition' runs as follows:
If we really want that early church preaching
then maybe we should get ourselves to the well
with all the sinners who thirst for Living Water
and are afraid to drink in the presence
of the Word who comes to us
in the fullness of grace and truth
until our testimony pours our
new life
And on 'redaction', after several lines  reminding readers of form and grammar, and original languages, the poem, written in a chiastic structure, concludes
These are good to tools to use lest we forget that
every writer has an agenda, a goal, a reason
to spin a story in a certain direction,
especially when politics and
religion are twisted together
lie they were in the
church's very
early days
as they

Not all the 'definitions' sit comfortably with me, but the approach Keefe pursues does. Whilst this book could only accompany and not replace other more conventional theological dictionaries, I think for a theological student (regardless of how right- or left-brain they are) to have the meanings of some key theological words expanded by poetry is important. After all, it involves the same kind of imaginative shifts involved when we move from doctrine to prayer and hymns in worship.


This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Visionary Orthodoxy

"Visionary orthodoxy" is a term Marilynne Robinson uses to describe the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in her essay about him in her The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. It's a lovely phrase that captures the imaginative dimension of classical Christian theology. As she continues in the essay, Robinson goes on to give something of a definition (although that word is too technical) of what she specifies as 'great theology'. Clearly what she writes here is shaped by her engagement with Bonhoeffer, but this seems to be a more personal understanding of theology. It invites extended reflection and meditation. And it requires no commentary other than to say if this is what 'great theology' is, it is indeed a 'visionary' task that warrants our attention and energy.

Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and, of course Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song and legend and prayer. It earns its authority by winning assent and recognition, in the manner of poetry but with the difference that the assent seems to be to ultimate truth, however oblique or fragmentary the suggestion of it. Theology is written for the small community of those who would think of reading it. So it need not define freighted words like 'faith' or 'grace' but may instead reveal what they contain. To the degree that it does them any justice, its community of readers will say yes, enjoying the insight as their own and affirming it in that way.

Marilynne Robinson, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer" in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 2005). The reference to 'visionary orthodoxy' is on p. 115 and the description of 'great theology' is on p. 117.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cracking of Christendom: Semester 2 Unit at Pilgrim

The second unit I’ll be contributing to in semester 2 is ‘The Cracking of Christendom’. This is a dual church history/systematics unit which covers both historical and theological aspects of the Reformation. It will be taught in face-to-face mode on Tuesday nights, 6-8pm, at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville as well as being available for online enrolment. There could hardly be a better year to take this unit: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. (Indeed, the final lecture will actually be on October 31st. I’m sure we’ll find some theses to nail to some doors that night.) The unit is a chance to explore why Christendom did suffer such deep cracks, whether they have healed, or even whether, in this post-Christendom age, they still matter.

The unit was developed by Katharine Massam and me and was first taught in 2015. In Katharine’s (sabbatical) absence, the historical dimensions will be covered by Kerrie Handasyde, one of Pilgrim’s Adjunct Faculty. The balance between theological and historical elements will be pretty much 50/50.

Kerrie will focus on the lived experience of the Reformation. When we look closely at this revolutionary time we see the source of so much of our present practice. The spaces where we worship are shaped by Reformation ideas about hearing the Word. So, we will ‘read’ church buildings and study the language and rising influence of preaching. With our own vocations, spirituality, and sacramental understandings in mind, we’ll look at Reformation ideas about the individual’s relationship to God and to the body of Christ. The liturgy, art and stories of the sixteenth century will aid reflection on the continuities (and the dissonances) with our own time.

I’ll be focusing on the doctrines of justification, scripture, and the sacraments.  I’ll do so in the mode enjoined in the Basis of Union: “The Uniting Church continues to learn from… the witness of the Reformers”. In other words, the purpose of engaging with the Reformers is not to repeat their theologies, but to learn from them in ways that might illuminate our contemporary witness to the faith. Of course, John Calvin will be one of the people from whom we learn. And among those from whom we’ll learn about Calvin will be Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson and feminist theologian Serene Jones; their shared enthusiasm for Calvin is striking and a little unexpected. Particular attention will be given to the Confessions which UCA ministers promise (ahem) at their ordination to read. Unsurprisingly the roots of some enduring protestant problems surrounding the authority and inspiration of scripture lie there. Surprisingly, so too do some solutions.  Of course, for the UCA, the Reformation heritage sits alongside that of Methodism, the emergence of which played its own later part in the ‘cracking of Christendom’. Accordingly we will also explore John Wesley’s key sermons on justification, scripture and the sacraments – including an assessment of his understanding of the ‘open table’. Is it relevant to today’s communion practice?

We will also engage some of the very lively contemporary discussion about the legacy of the Reformation, not least the widespread claims that the roots of the West’s current individualism and fragmentation lie in the Reformation. This will include a critical assessment of Brad Gregory’s recent, influential and controversial The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, 2012).

For enrolment details contact the College Registrar at .

If you intend to enrol in this unit and would like some suggestions for preliminary reading, consider the following:

Donald McKim, Reformation Questions, Reformation Answers: 95 Key Events, People and Issues (Louisville: WJKP 2016). Just over a 100 pages, this is a little gem. Its short and pithy entries on the said ‘95 events, people and issues’ provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the Reformation.

Gillian Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture  2nd ed (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). This is a more technical and expansive book than the above, but its various chapters are good points of entry into the many different aspects of the Reformation.