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On Being Orthodox and Modern

On Monday the Aberdeen Theology department was graced by a visit from the inimitable Paul Molnar, who is known in these parts for his tireless advocacy of divine freedom, his work on the theologies of Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, and for his rock solid commitment to the absolutely, super-duper, don’t-even-think-about-not-thinking-about-it triunity of God (he’s also a Met fan, but we’ll just try to ignore that).

In any case, I found Dr. Molnar to be great fun, both for his intensity as well as for his totally refreshing New York sense of humor. I wish I could share with you some of his choice zingers from our lunch meeting, but (sigh) a handshake yesterday morning effectively sealed the contents of those conversations for the ages. If you do ever run into the guy, though, be sure to take him out for coffee and experience him for yourself.

On to the serious bit.

As someone who is trying to integrate the insights of a quintessentially modern theologian like Schleiermacher with those of Karl Barth, Molnar’s seminar presentation raised some specific questions for me. It seems to me that, for Molnar, Barth is at his best when he’s able to carry on constructive dogmatic work within the bounds of traditional orthodoxy. Of course, Molnar grants the occasional lapse (e.g., the presupposition of immanent divine condescension in the account of grace in CD II/1), yet by and large, he seems convinced that Barth remained generally faithful to the gospel correctly identified and upheld in the classical tradition (even as he pushed the conversation forward). Now, importantly, this appears to mean that, for Molnar, Barth accepted and worked with not only the formal insights of, for instance, the ecumenical councils, but also something of their substance. To be sure, in Molnar’s view, Barth was no mere repristinator, but nevertheless, if there’s a spectrum with “spirit” on the one side and “letter” on the other, I think Molnar would tick Barth more on the “letter” side of orthodoxy than, say, Bruce McCormack. Consequently, in Molnar’s mind, there really aren’t divergent streams or tensions in Barth’s thought; rather, there are simply those places where Barth said things rightly (i.e., Christianly), and others where he said things not so rightly. In all cases, however, this much is clear: Barth’s intentions were noble, i.e., he was aiming with all his might to stay in line with historic Christian beliefs, particularly concerning the doctrine of God. Such is my impression of Molnar’s Barth.

So, then, how to relate orthodoxy and modernity. As is well known, Bruce McCormack has proposed his own model wherein Barth plundered the key insights of orthodox theology, stripped them of their premodern metaphysical baggage, and then used these insights to push forward to fresher and more faithfully Christian dogmatic vistas. In this model, modernity serves Barth not only in exposing the shortcomings of classical ontology, but also in challenging particular doctrinal conceptions (e.g., concerning the immanent life of God). In other words, Barth is not only operating within a modern context; he’s actually hearing and in some cases granting the concerns of modernity as amenable to the task of doing faithful Christian theology. Accordingly, McCormack’s Barth seems to take the formal insights of classical orthodoxy and retool them using some of the material insights of modern Protestantism (all the while in careful attendance to Scripture, of course).

For Molnar, however, it seems to be just the opposite. His Barth takes on the formal concerns of modernity while retaining in force the material claims of classical orthodoxy. What made Barth a genius, therefore, was not his ability to be a modern theologian, but rather his ability to be a classically orthodox theologian who can speak powerfully and prophetically to modernity.

(I’m sure that if McCormack or Molnar were to read this, they’d likely accuse me of gross caricature – but recall that I’m trying to place them on a continuum, not on opposite poles.)

So this kind of puts me in a bind. I hate having to choose between orthodoxy and modernity. Are both approaches really so forceful as to dominate the other either materially or formally? Why not simply appropriate those insights, material and formal, from both modernity and orthodoxy which best serve our Christian witness? Have not our minds become a bit too systematic when we find ourselves being forced to choose, wholesale, the perspective of one particular approach as either the context or the substance for all our theologizing? I honestly think McCormack is onto something important when he suggests that being both orthodox and modern is a good thing; I’d just like to make sure that this relation is fitted with enough pliability to remain true to the Word of God. You know, semper reformanda and all that.

Right – so give me the answers. I gather you are all smarter than me, and I’m giving all you academics in particular a golden opportunity to flex your interpretive muscles and show me how I’m looking at this issue in ever so slightly the wrong way. So have at it!