Editor’s Notes 85.3

Charles Hefling

Theology, it has been said, is a “field-encompassing discipline,” meaning roughly that theological thinking arises in the convergence and interaction of various, sometimes seemingly disparate, methods and materials. An older way of putting the point was to say that theology is about God and about everything else inasmuch as it is related to God. This issue of the ATR does not take quite everything into account, but it does illustrate the extraordinary variety of approaches and topics that come within the purview of theological discourse today.

Theological discourse is one of the things that constitute any church or communion of churches, define its identity, make it what it is. If, in particular, it is because “we hold these truths” that Anglicans are Anglican, finding out what truths we hold, and how we are to understand them, is not only discovering but also constituting Anglican identity. In order to promote this very important discussion, the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission has formulated for consideration throughout the Anglican Communion six propositions about communion, and about the significance of disagreements and disputes over doctrine as they affect communion among Anglicans. The ATR is pleased to cooperate with this endeavor, by making the Commission’s work more widely known and extending to our readers its invitation to take part in clarifying what the six propositions imply. As Philip Thomas points out in his introduction, Anglican Christians have not been altogether certain as to what deliberations such as the IATDC has undertaken can be expected to accomplish. Enlarging the range of participation in its discussions is an important way in which the Commission is seeking to address that issue.

It is a happy coincidence that a member of the IATDC has also contributed a review article to this issue. Paul Zahl draws the classic theological notion of imputation together with the contemporary discourse of concern for the other so as to throw light on some highly charged areas of political and theological concern.

One component of responsible discourse in theology is the respectful criticism of assertions that have been formed in the tradition out of which that discourse emerges. The assertions involved in the traditional Christian way of conceiving hell are subjected to a careful investigation in Wilko van Holten‘s article. His question is not so much whether this conception is (psychologically) believable, as whether it is intelligible, whether it makes sense not just to immediate intuition but in relation to a range of other positions and ideas, especially those concerned with the justice of retribution and with the status of persons, divine and human.

“Divine,” like its cousins “sacred” and “holy,” is itself a word whose meaning can, but should not, be taken for granted. Something of what sacredness might mean in one contemporary context is the theme of an evocative article by Douglas Burton-Christie. It weaves ethics, cultural criticism, and poetry into a vivid fabric that links it with the “wildness” in which–as the author quotes Thoreau–“is the preservation of the world.” Sacredness of a similar kind is to be found in the animal world, as the Egyptian monk Macarius perceived it. Tim Vivian, who has contributed frequently to these pages, explores the way this perception is expressed in what might be called Macarius’s parables of the kingdom–the peaceable kingdom–and concludes that “the chief virtue of this kingdom . . . is compassion . . . love and empathy and mercy for others, even non-human others.”

From parables, this issue turns to their interpretation in a pithy article by Mike Higton that raises important questions of theological method. At times Macarius appears to read meaning “into” rather than “out of” the situation he is expounding. Similarly, Higton observes, Augustine of Hippo’s interpretation of gospel parables suggests that he knew in advance, or thought he knew, what a narrative such as the one about the Good Samaritan “must” mean. Nowadays scholarly exegetes frown on such readings of Scripture, insisting that the particularities of a text must take priority over any generalizations that can be brought from (or to) that text. But there is something to be learned from Augustine’s practice, all the same–something about allowing interpretation to transcend minutiae while yet honoring the concrete context from which it springs.

Biblical interpretation can be pursued for its own sake, but exegesis may also serve the further end of proclamation, kerygma, preaching; and unless it does, Owen Thomas argues, preaching cannot be all that it should. After taking notice of symptoms which suggest that among Episcopalians preaching is not as healthy as it might be, Thomas diagnoses the condition and prescribes a strong dose of theology, specifically a theology of preaching that addresses the question of what the preacher (and the preached-to) can hope and trust that God is doing in and as the event that is preaching. In turn, this theological construal of the way preaching functions in the divine economy carries implications for how preparation for preaching can best cooperate with what God effects through human speech.

One component of the therapy Thomas proposes is the “continuing dicipline of reading from the daily newspaper.” Lately, there can be little question as to what such reading has brought to the attention of preachers, and everyone else: “rumors of war,” war, and the aftermath of war. The end of major military conflict in Iraq that was announced as these notes were being written is not likely to put a stop to debate about the issues which the initiation of that confict raised. Timothy Sedgwick considers some of these issues in a theological context that draws both on the practice of prayer and on the theory of the “just war,” in order to ask what an authentically Christian response might involve. Questions related not at all distantly to this one come up in the two books discussed by Catherine Wallace, whose “Gleanings” we are pleased to welcome back to these pages. This time her topic, to name it following one of the items she recommends, is affluenza–a dis-ease of which all religious traditions bid their followers to beware, but which in some parts of the world is a mounting epidemic.

We report with sadness the death of the Rev. Holt H. Graham, who before retiring from the United Theological Seminary in new Brighton, Minnesota, taught new Testament studies at both Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary. He was for a time book review editor of this journal; later he served as vice presidient and from 1964 to 1971 as president of the ATR board, of which he was most recently an honorary member. Requiescat in pace.