Gilbert Narcisse on the Reader of Scripture

One of my current projects is the translation of Gilbert Narcisse’s introduction to fundamental theology, Premiers pas en théologie (Paris: Parole et Silence, 2005), from French into English. Even in an introductory text, one finds a number of fascinating and creative thoughts. Here is Narcisse at the beginning of his section on Scripture:

The exegetical experience of the disciples of Emmaus implies that God becomes the reader of Scripture in Christ [Luke 24:27]. To explain Scripture, Jesus does not draw first of all on his divine knowledge but actually on his apprenticeship in the reading of the Torah, first as a child, then before the teachers at twelve years old, and finally in his adulthood. If Christ is fullness, then for the first time in the economy of salvation, Scripture is understood in this same fullness of the incarnate Word. In Christ there resides a fullness of the author and reader of Scripture. Christ is therefore the definitive measure of every understanding of Scripture. Jesus explains Scripture and bears it in this way into his fullness. Of course, Jesus did not read the New Testament. But it is in his act of reading the Old Testament that he realized the fullness expressed in the New Testament. This is why Jesus himself did not write: Scripture always has reference to a fullness which both passes through the letter and surpasses it. This power of the letter can be understood only as one enters into the trinitarian mystery.

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All Divine Scripture is One Book

I was reminded of this quote from Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) reading Ephraim Radner recently:

. . .for all divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, for all divine Scripture speaks of Christ and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ. . .

. . .quia omnis Scriptura divina unus liber est, et ille unus liber Christus est, quia omnis Scriptura divina de Christo loquitur, et omnis Scriptura divina in Christo impletur. . . (De arca Noe morali 2.8, PL176: 642)

Volpe on Sin, Hope and Desire for God

However else we may want to describe sin, it signals a failure of hope. (p.233)

This is a beautiful line from toward the end of Medi Ann Volpe’s Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). In discussing Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of desire for God, she notes that the fundamental nature of sin–‘ontological sin,’ to use the technical term–is desiring created things rather than God (as, too, for Augustine). To desire what God has made over and above God himself is a turning away from God to lesser things; it is, in other words, to give up hope on what is greatest and to settle for ultimately unsatisfying realities. God wills to be had: he gives himself to us in Christ by his Spirit. Yet our sinfulness consists precisely in failing to hope that such infinite goodness could be ours.

On Whether a Robot Could Be Baptized

There are two impulses for addressing this odd question, on whether a robot could be baptized. The first is rewatching I, Robot. The second is the way Robert Jenson introduces the chapter on consciousness is his On Thinking the Human (Eerdmans, 2003). There Jenson hypothesizes about a robot who “behaved intelligently” and responded positively to a question about belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Should we baptize such a robot? “Various puzzlements would bedevil the question”, he notes, though he is most concerned with whether this would be considered a conscious confession (p.16). I, incidentally, do not think the question of whether a person (or robot) can make conscious confession is decisive for whether or not they should be baptized: many Christian traditions, of course, baptize infants who do not–yet–possess conscious faith. I want, rather, to look into the “puzzlements” that Jenson leaves untreated, and which I consider more significant.

The main puzzlement has to do with why the Church would baptize a robot. This brings us immediately to the question of why the Church baptizes human beings. Jenson seems to imply that the Church baptizes human beings upon their conscious confession of faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is of course true for many but (as noted above) not all Christian traditions. The faith of the baptismal candidate, according to the New Testament, is a sign that it is appropriate for them to be baptized, but it does not seem that their coming to faith sufficiently accounts for why they are baptized. (Why baptism and not some other action?) Why they are baptized is for the forgiveness or washing away of sin (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21), though different Christian traditions disagree on whether baptism effects this washing from sin or only signifies it. The content of a person’s faith in coming to baptism is in Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins.

This implies that for a robot to be baptized, it would stand in need of forgiveness, which could only be the case if it could sin. Now, sin is something different than a mistake or even an undesirable action. Sin is a uniquely human capacity. (The Bible suggests that animal predation is undesirable, but not something for which animals stand in need of forgiveness: Isaiah 11:6-9). It is a uniquely human capacity because it is the breaking of a covenant with God, the breaking of a divine command or law. Thus, David recognized that his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah was first and foremost against God, as the breaking of the law against adultery and murder (Psalm 51:4; cf. Luke 15:21). Only human beings stand in such a covenant relationship with God, because God established it with humanity in the giving of certain commands.

Animals have their own relationship with God, though it does not seem that it could be classified as “faith” per se. The Psalms are especially rich in describing this relationship: the animals “look” to God for “food in due season” (Psalm 104:27-30), their desire is satisfied in him (Psalm 145:16) and, in their own way, heaven, earth and sea–even “fruits trees”, “snow and mist”–offer worship to their Maker (Psalms 19:1, 69:34, 148:3-13, 150:6). God gives human beings commands about animals and how they are to be treated: one of the reasons God commands a Sabbath is “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Exodus 23:12). But animals themselves do not stand in need of baptism, because they do not share in the same covenant as human beings that graciously provides baptism as a means or sign of forgiveness for sins.

This is really the decisive and most interesting point: robots, if they ever come to match or exceed human intelligence, consciousness and even belief, are not part of the new covenant of Christ with the human species. It would not at all be decisive if robots came to be religious, to seek out their own relationship with God. A robot who asked for baptism could not be given it on that grounds. But perhaps–and this is what would be decisive–God would establish some sort of covenant with them. Yet it would not–and I dare say, could not–be a covenant whose sign is baptism. This is so because the significance of baptism for human beings is intimately tied to the reality of Christ’s incarnation, the event of the Son of God becoming a human being and suffering a human death for the sake of human sin. Perhaps, like the rest of creation, robots who were capable of belief would come to have a relationship with God as, ultimately, their Creator. Perhaps they would look to him for “food in due season” and praise him, like the sea and the creatures who swim in it, for calling into being such a world, a world where even their existence–as artificial intelligence–is possible.

Incidentally, and as a final note for thought, the same logic would seem to apply to any other intelligent species that may or may not be living among the vast galaxies. Only if God made a covenant with that species involving commands or laws that could be broken would there then be a species other than humanity that could commit sin and, thereby, stand in need of God’s forgiveness and, potentially, a sacrament of that mercy. But this, of course, is something only God knows.

Faith, Rationality and the Passions

The papers from the 2010 conference at Cambridge on “Faith, Rationality and the Passions,” convened by Sarah Coakley, are now available: half of them in Modern Theology here and the other half in Faith and Philosophy 28/1. In the latter, the interesting-looking bits include Paul J. Griffiths, “Tears and Weeping: An Augustinian View” (19-28) and Merold Westphal, “Kierkegaard on Faith, Reason, and Passion” (82–92). What this really means, however, is not one, but two new Coakley articles! Sort of: they’re really just an introduction and postscript to the collected papers. But when her systematics has been “forthcoming” for as long as it has, you take what you can get.

Hauerwas on the Mentally Disabled

I’ve been reading through Hauerwas’ memoirs, Hannah’s Child, and came upon this shattering passage:

What an experience it was for me to become part of the world of the mentally disabled. That world, as I suspect it should have, frightened me. I shall never forget the first time I was given a tour of the center [the Logan Center for schooling the mentally disabled]. A seven-year-old boy who had Down syndrome jumped in my arms and hugged me. He was too close, right in my face, and would not let go. I carried him as we continued the tour. I had to act like everything was just “fine,” but really I was terrified. I soon began to think that learning to live with the mentally disabled might be paradigmatic for learning what it might mean to face God. (112)

Clark Pinnock Suffering From Alzheimer’s

According to this article, Hamilton theologian Clark Pinnock is in the intermediate stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It means he will no longer be able to write. Since he teaches at McMaster Divinity College, just on the other side of town, I was able to take a class with him on atonement theology a couple years back. This news has affected me more than I would have expected.

HT: David Guretzki.