The Priority of Theology in Moltmann

The idea that the world will end with God’s final judgement is not originally a Christian concept, and not even a biblical one. Israel took over Babylon, and later Egyptian, ideas about justice in its own independent way, and reshaped them in the power of its belief in God.”–Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness: The Gospel about Judgment and the New Creation of All Things in Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity of the Earth

Moltmann goes on to describe “The Day of the Lord” at the end of history as having two aspects in scripture —judgment of the past and bringing to light the new creation. In Egyptian thought about the afterlife “the human being is the sum of his good and evil anubisworks.” The weighing of these individual deeds, the weight of the heart, is the central feature of the justice which ends in a movement toward one of two possible destinations. The creative justice of God that takes into account not only deeds but sufferings and a concept of the judgment of God as the life-giving ‘putting right’ of what has gone wrong, does not appear in this scheme.

Moltmann is critical of this perspective and spends a good deal of time pointing out its flaws when looked at through the life and teachings of Jesus especially.  Judgment exists, but the image of a criminal court is replaced with an arbitration. Victims and victimizers must be brought together; they need each other for truth to reign. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the communal, even cosmic, spheres. Moltmann, as most know, is an unapologetic universalist. Death and hell will be destroyed (I Cor. 15.26) . God will be universally glorified and every created thing will share in this eternal livingness.

What interests me the most in this chapter, and elsewhere in his writings, is that Moltmann does not try to deny, by ignoring or reinterpreting, that there are texts in the biblical canon that teach something closer to the Egyptian view—the dividing of humanity into friend and enemy, believer and unbeliever. Instead, he uses this fact to put forward the priority of theology over particular texts in the conclusion of the same chapter:

I recognize that Matthew, the Synoptic Little Apocalypse [Matt 24-25; Mark 13], and the book of Revelation talk about an anthropological dualism rather than about a theocentric universalism. For me, the casting vote was given by the Old Testament concept of divine justice for victims and the all-rectifying judgment of God. The different biblical traditions about judgment cannot be harmonized. A decision has to made on the foundation of theological arguments.”

The Glass of Vision Lecture 2: The Supernatural and the Weird

Building on the argument of the last lecture, Farrer works to distinguish the truly supernatural from the merely strange, things that “make our flesh creep” as he puts it. There are a variety of curiosities that his age seemed to give more credibility to than seems warranted to us now. The number of research studies, for example, in the 1950s and 60s that dreamed of finding evidence for ESP or telepathy seems silly to us now. Farrer, as a child of the times, feels compelled to ask how we might explain something like the miracles of Jesus as somehow different from these psychic feats. At least he doesn’t directly challenge their reality in this lecture, and, in any case, thinking through these concerns is instructive. To do this he uses the same distinction as before–the difference between natural (or more precisely, preternatural) abilities and the movement of something above our human nature. Farrer begins by placing ‘the weird’ on the side of the natural.

Now psychical research may have left us less clear than we were as to the sideways and downward limits of our natural powers; but it has done nothing, so far as I can see, to raise or unfix the ceiling.

To illustrate, he asks us to imagine a cone which has a clearly defined apex, but where the bottom and side fade into shadow. Things like telepathy or clairvoyance (whether we find them to be real or imaginary) are, in fact, no more amazing than the normal, natural operations of minds which “touch each other without bodily intervention.” They might be a hidden part of the cone, but what is of importance is not the mechanics, but the meaning. What is the intention behind the contact? This is the central feature of demarcation. The weird, “loose”, experience does not have wit, inspiration, or intelligence. If anything, Farrer suggests, it may be a more primitive element of our nature rather than something above or beyond it.

Now those activities we might call want to call supernatural, as opposed to weird, run into the same type of paradox that we’ve met before. Are the miracles of Jesus a natural act (“below the ceiling”) or a supernatural one? Farrer asks us once again if we need to set up a mutually exclusive opposition. He states, “…it is by no means clear that the finite excludes the infinite in the sense in which one finite excludes another.” Of course, there must be some limit to this, otherwise absorption of the natural into the supernatural would result, so according to Farrer, there is …

“…a point beyond which infinite God could not divinize his creature without removing its distinct creaturely nature, and as it were merging it in himself: an act which would be exactly equivalent to its annihilation.

He seems to be agnostic about exactly where that point lies. What we do know is that the mystery of the supernatural must fit into the realm of the natural, that it will not appear as something “tacked on” to the natural. Recall the term ‘supernaturalized’ from the previous lecture. The Creator, who gave life initially, continues to create through and in the creature, or as he pithily states, “in the second cause the first cause operates.” This principle of double agency, for Farrer, stands behind many riddles of the faith from the Chalcedonian formula of God-man, to the efficacy of prayer. He goes so far as to state that “there is no issue that theologians discuss that is not conditioned by it.

**Update: For more on the Christological implications of this, listen to Rowan William’s Hulsean lectures of 2016 which began concurrently with these posts. Williams also comments on Farrer at the 2017 de Lubac lectures at St. Louis. I particularly liked his suggestion that “What God is doing is us.” as a summary of Farrer’s thrust throughout the Glass of Vision.**

One underlying question that I kept having was whether or not the terms ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ were needed. Perhaps they get in the way. ‘Supernatural’ is a term that has often implied a realm that overpowers the creaturely. Farrer seems to be groping for a way to keep the two orders separate, in keeping with a long tradition that has used the term ‘supernatural’, while also subverting the implication of coercion or force that tends to go with it. This is one of the reasons he uses the vocabulary of ‘supernaturalized’. The contemporary reader should also hear intimations of more recent discussions in this work such as the search for a scientifically valid point of contact between God and nature, or the meaning of intelligence and consciousness as a way into a religious view of the world.


Anthony McCall, “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). The fifth minute. Photograph by Freddy Le Saux

In the next lecture, we turn to Farrer’s concept of divine revelation in scripture.

The Glass of Vision Lecture 1: The Supernatural and the Natural


In 1948, a little-remembered scholar in the Anglican tradition, Austin Farrer, gave a lecture entitled “The Glass of Vision“. You can find a copy of it courtesy of a scan by a library in Kansas here. The list of Bampton lecturers that include my subject are full of forgotten folk, but you may have seen, like I have, an occassional reference to some of his phrases or ideas punctuating a paragraph of more recent theology or biblical studies. Observant readers of C.S. Lewis may even recall that the foreword to Reflections on the Psalms is dedicated to him. Unfortunately, few of his works stay in print and this contributes to his unfamiliarity to the church as a whole.

However that may be, those familiar with Austin Farrer’s work universally declare this particular lecture to be representative of his best and most interesting thought. I will be mostly summarizing, but partly interacting with the lectures as I read them for the first time myself, but first, some background.

As a child, Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was a part of the Baptist tradition in England. His father was a Baptist minister and it was only later that he became an Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) while attending university. His early formation in the Baptist tradition is referred to as “a personalism which might satisfy the most ardent of Dr. Buber’s disciples” in this first lecture. Eventually he became a priest. Today he is remembered, by those who do, as one of the more creative minds the Anglican tradition produced in the 20th century and also as being in the company of the group of Oxford Christians, such as Dorthy Sayers and T.S. Eliot, who were not Inklings.

Ahead of his time, Farrer, was already combining various fields of study together in order to think more deeply about problems in theology. From the first lines of the preface we read:

The lectures which follow are no more than a modest attempt to state what I do, in fact, think about the relation borne to one another by three things- the sense of metaphysical philosophy, the sense of scriptural revelation, and the sense of poetry. Scsripture and metaphysics are equally my study, and poetry is my pleasure. These three things rubbing against one another in my mind, seem to kindle one another, and so I am moved to ask how this happens.

In this first of eight lecture, he sets up a problem for us. In part, the problem is driven by his self-defined ‘personalist’ upbringing. Accordingly, this caused him to expect to be able to converse with God “as one man faces another across a table, except that God was invisible and indefinitely great.” This is a state of mind, perhaps induced by childhood itself though often aided by sloppy language, that many readers will have passed through. Interestingly, Farrer credits his reading of Spinoza for the change of view, although he also makes it clear that, as an adult reader, he sees the problems that Spinoza’s pantheism creates. In some ways the current lecture could be read as Farrer exploring a middle way between his Baptist childhood’s flat reading of scripture and Spinoza’s “God, or call it Nature” conflation.

If neither of these are the case, how then do we describe our ‘relationship’ (I’m always reminded of how even this term is metaphorical) to God? Farrer here goes back to the time-worn definitions of first and second causes provided by Aristotle to set up an interesting dialectic between ‘natural reason’ and supernatural revelation’. Of course, these terms carry a certain amount of baggage. He further explains that “…we ought to throw the emphasis on the adjectives rather than upon the nouns. We have not to distinguish between God’s action and ours, but between two phases of God’s action- his supernatural action and his action by way of nature.” This creates more than a simple hierarchy with two mostly independent spheres of operation. Natural theology (he uses the broader term “rational theology”) and supernatural revelation are the ways that we perceive the action of God.  To us they appear separate, even contradictory. Farrer gives us these two principles, for example:

  1. If we believe in God at all, it is absurd and impious to imagine that we can find him out by our own reason, without his first being active in revealing himself to us. Therefore, all discovery of him is this self-manifestation, and all rational theology is revealed theology.
  2. If God does reveal himself to us, we cannot acknowledge or master what he reveals without the use of our reason. Therefore all his self-mainfestation is also our discovery of him, and all revealed theology is rational theology.

The second of these points will not be lost on the postmodern reader. We are quite accustomed to understanding all of our experiences and thoughts as filtered or interpreted by our presuppositions and culture. The idea that God is a first cause acting through secondary causes, however, is one that many in our contemporary situation have less experience with or may have even abandoned. For the sake of understanding what Farrer is up to, let us assume his Christian use of Aristotle and notice how he begins to solve the apparent contradiction.

In this view, “…nothing is supernatural to God…“, but from our perspective, if the realm of the supernatural is confined to a single First Cause, then it is left outside of and unrelated to our experience. Instead, for Farrer, “When the supernatural occurs, something in the existing world is supernaturalized..[my emphasis].” To illustrate this point, he uses an analogy from the world of fairy tales. In fairy tales, if a character does something on their own that is not within their power (nature), we would conclude “that we had defined his nature too narrowly, not that he had exceeded it. The idea of the supernatural is of a finite agent exceeding his natural power by higher assistance.

The problem’s solution should be clearer now. Every time the supernatural (that which is outside of, or beyond, nature) occurs, it must appear in a different medium, the natural. If this were not so, we would not be cognizant of it by definition. However, we can also fail to be aware of the presence of the supernatural simply because we are looking at the supernatural clothed, as it were, in the natural. While Farrer superficially appears to be distinguishing between ‘nature’ and ‘supernature’, he is actually bringing them into a tighter relationship given his starting point.

I’m reminded here of Edwin Abbot’s story Flatland: A romance of many dimensions. If you translate a world with multiple dimensions into one with fewer, what would geometric shapes look like in each world? Something would get lost, but would there also be hints that an object was more than what it appeared to be? I’ve yet to read the rest of Farrer’s lectures. Perhaps the similarity to Abbott breaks down in the idea that existing objects in our world are, in his words, ‘super-naturalized’ (i.e. become more than they were capable on the principles of the natural world), while in Abbott’s thought experiment figures from another dimension are still themselves but only appear differently.

Hegelian Logic and the Gospel of John

Ever since my undergraduate days I have had an interest in epistemology, but I always felt like the standard ways of dividing up the terrain philosophically (rationalism, empiricism, etc.) never did justice to religious knowing, especially as exemplified in the gospels. One of my early heroes in this regard was Sören Kierkegaard with his emphasis on an individual’s relation to the truth; the “how” you live as having priority over the “what” you believe; orthopraxis vs. orthodoxy. Kierkegaard naturally led me to Hegel, but not right away. Influenced by Walter Lowrie and others who took Kierkegaard to be opposing Hegel’s philosophy at every turn, even while borrowing Hegelian language (apparently in mockery), I avoided Hegel, assuming him to be a rationalist not worth the time.  It has not been until more recent times that people like Jon Stewart have questioned whether Hegel was the real source of Kierkegaard’s jabs or perhaps only certain “Hegelian” pastors and professors, Danish Hegelians. I’m still working through this. For more about this topic, see Stewart’s Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (2003). Stewart also did a MOOC with Coursera through the University of Copenhagen on Kierkegaard a couple of years ago where some of this material comes out, but the book would be a better place to begin if you are already familiar with Kierkegaard.

One important aid to my re-evaluation of Hegel has been Nicholas Adam’s The Eclipse of Grace: Divine and Human Action in Hegel (2013). Adams is careful to note that Hegel’s doctrinal positions can often be heterodox (Adams calls them “doctrinal experiments”), but he presents a convincing case that his logical tools arise from the Christian tradition. Adams, building on Charles Pierce and Peter Ochs, interprets Hegel’s logic as being both binary and triadic. Binary logic (x or y) is the logic of common sense and the natural sciences. Triadic logic is introduced when we ask “for whom”? It is an historical logic (x and y as separate but in a relation that implies each other). The relationship alters the understanding of the two terms. Some things in the world require the binary logic of common sense, while others require us to think things together. Adams suggests that this has deep resonances with the Chalcedonian formula, which might be conceived as an answer to Pilate’s question in John’s gospel, “What is truth?”

Truth, life, and love are three principal themes in John’s Gospel, and they are the three principal themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology too. They are accompanied by the subsidiary themes of recognition, reconciliation, and service – also obviously Johannine themes. Hegel’s more peculiar terms (e.g. representation, concept, sublation) are entirely in the service of these principal themes…His development of these Johnannine themes is done philosophically, as one would expect, and the philosophy Hegel uses is broadly Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on motion, teleology, and an attempt to account for the difference between investigations into things and investigations into thinking … Hegel’s concern with truth might not strike anyone as particularly Johannine…were it not that it is very frequently connected with life from the Preface onwards, and also with love.

Adams develops this interpretation of Hegel by appealing to the fact that triadic logic is the foundation of the Chalcedonian definition and the logic of the Trinity. In both, “pairs” are distinct but in an inseparable relation instead of opposition. Hegel calls this Begriff/the Concept. It cannot be applied to everything, but it is a necessary mode for understanding some things such as thinking and being, the individual and community, or even divine and human action.

Truth is one of the most interesting and evocative words in the Phenomenology … For Hegel, truth is in motion. Hegel’s conception of the task of philosophy is dynamic … One encounters a claim and one asks, “True or False?” It is guided by what I here call Manichean logic. But in philosophy, especially Hegel’s kind of philosophy that is attentive to history, one notices that conceptions of truth change, and a logic of opposition is unable to account for that change. One needs a logic of relation … Hegel famously uses the example of a living organism (thus displaying the relation, in his thinking, between truth and life…) …

But if truth is organic, if it is produced and not just brutely given, then one is dealing with things analogous to buds, blossoms, and fruits. Truth, in a different account of this kind, is something in which one discerns shapes, moments, and – in a word – life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) … The task is to discern how shapes displace each other in ways that new shapes preserve some relation to the old through a relation of loss and gain, and that is the task Hegel discharges in the Phenomenology