God and Creation in Christian Theology // Kathryn Tanner.

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In this, her first book (actually dissertation-turned-book), Kathryn Tanner tackles one of the most head-throbbing debates of the Christian Tradition: Divine sovereignty vs free will. Are these really mutually exclusive positions? For many modern theologians (and laymen) it is absolutely the one or the other–any middle ground is incoherent. Ironically, though, Tanner calls the dichotomous divine sovereignty vs free will incoherent. (Very briefly) Below is how Tanner makes her meta-case.

First, the Christian Tradition has maintained coherence between God’s sovereign power and human will with a nuanced understanding of God’s (utter) transcendence based on God’s wholly otherness. Tanner draws on creatio ex nihilo and stakes two rules for coherent Christian discourse: (1) God is utterly transcendence and, therefore, (2) God is immediately related to creation. (Confused? So was I for a couple weeks and I barely understand it now. Here’s my best take: Since God is Creator and wholly other from creation, God is utterly transcendent. In other words, God and creation are not on the same playing field: they have a “noncompetitive relationship.” What follows is that God is immediately related to creation: because God is utterly transcendent, there is no need for a medium or middle ground for God to relate to creation. Thereby, God is both utterly transcendent and immediately immanent.)

Second, taking the two rules for discourse, Tanner shows how the divine sovereignty vs free will debate is fictitious because it betrays a competitive mindset. In that debate, God is brought down or humanity is brought up to equalize the playing field: what one does takes away from what the other is able to do. For free-will-ists, God and humanity are equal, so God must limit himself to make room for humanity’s free will. For divine-sovereign-ists, humanity’s free will is emptied to make room for God’s governance. Tanner closes by saying that both sides, sadly, works with a Pelagian mindset (Pelagius was one of the earliest and most infamous heretics who claimed that people can work their way into heaven or into receiving grace from God). Free-will-ists affirm what Pelagianism fights for, whereas divine-sovereign-ists reject the Pelagian man–not the Pelagianism mindset. Of course, not all those who side on either/or falls into incoherence–Tanner admits that. But this debate is popular in our modern time, therefore Tanner offers her critiques and recommendations–which should be carefully taken.

This book, more than her other ones, is much more technical. Caution is given to tread slowly: be prepared to be confused. But continue on, because the reward is refreshing. Theologians: Let us be vigorous meticulous with our language because they do matter.

The Sympathizer // Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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Possibly one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read. It’s absolutely amazing this debut novel is a Pulitzer winner–and a worthy one, indeed.

There is just so much this novel does and speak on. The Vietnamese American experience as war refugees–which can easily expand to other Asian American experiences. The Vietnam War (or the American War, as so called from the Vietnamese’s perspective) as a horrible and destructive enterprise–the war rape of Vietnam. Also, the media (Hollywood) rape of Vietnam (and other war-torn countries). The crisis of representation. The terrible microaggressions. The anger. Yes, the brooding anger against it all. It’s all so beautiful and painful. It hurts and feels good.

I cannot recommend this enough. Go and read.

The Freedom of a Christian // Martin Luther (trans. by Mark D. Tranvik).

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There’s nothing quite like Martin Luther, one of the Magisterial Reformers, to harken near 500 years after first penning this and show how faulty and insufficient your gospel has been. Yes, nothing quite like it.

In less than 100-pages, Mark D. Tranvik offers a new and lucid introduction and translation to one of Luther’s earliest works: “The Freedom of a Christian.” The brief introduction is not meant to be comprehensive but just enough to whet one’s appetite and senses to feel the force of Luther’s ardent words.

Despite the bad rep Luther might have (too vulgar, too long-winded, too paradoxical, too vehement, too anti-semitic, too chaotic, etc, all of which need to come under scrutiny), he is first and foremost pastoral. He’s not concerned with an abstract gospel for the Christian to affirm; no, he’s much more concerned about Christians interacting with the living and dynamic God — who is full of love and grace.

This particular work was the first Luther writing I’ve ever read, a few years back. Having been able to re-read it for a research paper, it was so very refreshing. His dialectical imagination, theologia crucis (“theology of the cross”), pushes and pulls the reader in and out of the seemingly incomprehensible paradox of grace: simul justus et peccator (“simultaneously justified and sinner”). In “Freedom of a Christian,” Luther once again employs his dialectical imagination to offer yet another simul: “simultaneously freed from works and works from freedom.” On the one hand, we are freed from works — none of that ‘works righteousness.’ On the other hand, we work from freedom — very much of that “righteous works” in Christ to be repeated in today’s real time-space.

Quite refreshing, eh?

Christ and Reconciliation (CCTPW 1) // Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen.

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Christ and Reconciliation is the first of a (most ambitious) five-volume set–A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World (CCTPW). Here, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s fourfold focus (coherence, inclusive, dialogical, and hospitable) in light of Christian tradition (biblical and historical) is put to the test, and the results are impressive. This is truly an inclusive, dialogical, and hospitable work of systematic/constructive theology–probably one of the most without significant compromise–in recent decades. Kärkkäinen, professor of systematic theology (Fuller) and docent of ecumenics (Helsinki), displays his near-breadth-less vault of information–it is just absolutely staggering. However, this might be the set-back for such an impressive work: it reads more as a theological survey than a constructive (‘building up’) work of theology. So, as a resource, the CCTPW is absolutely invaluable for our ‘post- everything’ world (just see the endless bibliography at the end of each volume).

Christ and Reconciliation, arguably the heart of Christian theology, limits itself to the life and works of Jesus. Though both are inseparably linked, each is considered separably for heuristic purposes. Kärkkäinen is readable, though, at times, dry due to his expansive treatment.

On Being a Theologian of the Cross // Gerhard O. Forde.

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Being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it fitting to read at least one thing Luther-related–and I’m very glad I did.

The Heidelberg Disputations (1518) is arguably Martin Luther’s most seminal contribution (more than the 95 Theses!) to the Reformation and to the broader Christian theological tradition. However, his dialectical imagination can be quite perplexing! Therefore, Gerhard O. Forde, a Lutheran professor of Lutheran theology at a Lutheran seminary (he must be the right guy for the job!), sets out to unpack these 28 theses (tongue-twister!) as one coherent stream of argumentation for being a theologian of the cross, contra theologian of glory.

“Justification by faith alone” makes (fuller) sense when considered as the result of being a theologian of the cross. Unlike theologians of glory, theologians of the cross “say what a thing is” and are constantly beset and established by the cross–they cannot say less or more than God’s cross before man.

Forde, in his introduction, confesses that it is very difficult to explain how to be or what is a theologian of the cross. And perhaps this is where Luther would say, “One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation.”

Christ the Key // Kathryn Tanner.

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This is my second time reading it all the way through.

And I still cannot stress this enough: this is a theological masterpiece.

What fresh insights can be poured over when Christ is the key to theology? What happens to tired theological debates and topics when Christ is the key? These are the challenges Kathryn Tanner uptakes throughout the book. Carefully balancing heated arguments, on the one hand, and meticulous, painstaking articulation of the Christian tradition, on the other, Tanner puts forth convincingly (I think), time and time again, Christ-centered solutions. Each chapter, save the first, seem to have clear dialogue partners: (chs. 2-3) Catholics and Protestants, (ch. 4) East and West, (ch. 5) social trinitarianists, (ch. 6) various atonement theories and their critics, and (ch. 7) those claim unmediated religious authority. At the end of each chapter, Tanner seems to suggest (though she does not explicitly): “Why wouldn’t you want to believe this?” Tanner wants to stake that Christian theology revolves around the claim that “God wants to give us the fullness of God’s own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ” (vii). In other words, God wants us to be with him. And, yes. I do want to believe this — but, oh God, help me in my unbelief.

Christ and Horrors // Marilyn McCord Adams.

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Christ and Horrors, a sequel to her previous Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, is an audacious and much needed endeavor for the coherence of Christology in our horror-stricken world. Horrors are, in short, what prevent positive meaning making in human beings. Horrors are, then, broader than sin or evil. Therefore, for Adams, horrors are the true problem and inhibitor towards God’s ultimate ends for creation: assimilative (make creation as much as God-like as possible) and unitive (union between God and creation).

Dissatisfied with many modern conceptualizations of Christology, Adams proposes a medieval metaphysics retrieval with slight tweaks. As a result, Adams has a metaphysically high and materially low Christology. On the one hand, Jesus is God incarnate. On the other hand, Jesus is really human beset with horrors. Adams stages that Chalcedonian Christology has the most coherence and fruitfulness with dealing with our horror-stricken problems. Adams’ Christ is, thus, a three stage horror-defeater. Stage-I: God, the incommensurate good, horror-participates with the horror-participant in Jesus. Stage-II: God restores the horror-participant’s positive meaning making capabilities. Stage-III: God will rid of all horror-inducing forces completely. The first stage is completed in the incarnation. The second is worked in the indwelling of Jesus in the hearts of all believers. The third is the eschatological hope we endure for.

Christ and Horrors is a definite read for any students of theology or serious Christians willing to wrestle with horrors with Christ, our horror-defeater. There are some moves that she makes that I find unnecessary and, at times, wrong. Nevertheless, she and her work is monumental.