by Stephen Schmidt
I was asked to read Professor Gregory Walter’s new book Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice. It is part of Eerdmans Publishing Company’s series Sacra Doctrina: Christ Theology for a Postmodern Age. Professor Walter teaches at St. Olaf College.
This Youtube video below is a short description of his book.
Follow are four questions that I asked Dr. Walter to respond as I read his book.
1) What is the relationship between covenant and promise? Is the Abrahamic covenant a pure gift (since it had no strings attached) or are there no pure gift covenants? I see a covenant as a promise but to receive the gift does one have to at least accept the gift?
This is an important question and I think a necessary thing to work on. A covenant might be thought of as a pure gift but I think the mutualism that a berit implies would end up being more of a reciprocal, archaic sort of gift. This is the reason I focus on Genesis 18 instead of 15. The berit God makes with Abraham is far more complex than a promise, though I think that it involves a promise in some way.
A pure gift is nearly defined as a gift that the refusal does not nullify but confirms the gift. In other words, the reciprocal gift depends upon the three important moments of giving, receiving, and returning. Since the pure gift is free (or purified of those moments), it does not depend upon reception in order to be a gift. But there are other requirements that make a gift pure.
A promise can be refused but that does not defeat the promise. It may invalidate it such that God has no credible name among those who do not trust God’s promise. Since the promise is a doubled gift, refusal only applies to the first “part” of the promise – the initial pledge or offering of the promise. If that is rejected that does not mean God no longer can give what is promised but that the one cannot act, live, or delight in that which is promised, that which is anticipated. As Luther put it in a different way when he wrote that faith creates divinity, this may not mean that God is God only when trusted but that God is God among us when people trust God’s promise.
2) How could a church use your work on Promise to aid them in outreach/evangelism? Are we not trying to convey that Jesus is gift and promise?
Being Promised relies on a basic framework of gift-exchange, something that permeates both our lives, the Bible, and the Christian tradition. It is useful, I think, for understanding what a promise is and how it works within that idea of gifts. Moreover, I think it is useful for talking about how God acts in a gracious way. The last two chapters are more practically-oriented, the one toward Christian practice in general, the other toward the Eucharist and how that matters for Christian liturgical work as well as mission.
I don’t imply that one can’t get promise without Being Promised. But I would say that the book supplies a critical vocabulary for engaging promise and considering how it is that God is a God of promise, not just a giver. If Christians cannot be hosts, cannot give and receive in such a way that they rule a certain area (the church) because of God’s promise in the Crucified One, then I think the many ways that congregations and communities can aggregate spaces to themselves deserve a second look.
3) Is part of the nature of God to be one who wants to gift us with creation, the Word, the Word incarnated in Jesus? Someone once told me that God “wanted” to be loved therefore created humankind who had the capacity to enter a love relationship, though I really don’t know if other parts of creation can’t do this too?
Though I do not directly deal with the relationship of creation to promise, or even to think of creation as gift except in a kind of roundabout way when I take up “the given” in chapter 4, there is a way to consider how the act of creation is a promise. By “letting another than God be,” God, in the act of creation gives to another and so allows the other to have life. And, as the one who draws this creation into union with Godself through the Crucified One, God therefore is promising the creation that God will be the God of love not only of Godself but of the world. I think this strongly means that God is not just one who promises beings with consciousness or beings capable of trust but that God’s
promise is in fact cosmic in scope. Without anthropomorphizing wisps of smoke, cosmic dust, and the St. Louis Arch, I am not quite sure how to consider those events and things to have their being in promise, though I think considering them in their possibility and event-hood would be the right place to start.
4) When you look at our Lutheran liturgy, as presented in ELW, how does it proclaim this promise and how might we adapt the liturgy to have promise as a more central theme or does the Eucharist declare this by being a meal connected with promise when this bread and wine are blessed, connected with the Word, and received?
In general, the ELW and indeed the Common Service tradition are faithful to the reform of the liturgy toward promise made in the 16th century German Reformation agendas. I hazard some reasons, supported by Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical work, that this tradition, rooted in promise, is not at odds with Eucharistic prayer. Surely there are many views of sacrifice that are not compatible with promise at all, and I point those problems out. But because promise requires memory, it requires pleading with God to remember the promise made in the Upper Room.
More important than the agenda, I think, is how the liturgy is done. And even more important, I think is the organization of place and the movement, the ways that people’s bodies are organized, such that they are not guests of a host, nor that the one presiding is standing in for Christ. It is the bread and wine as the promise of Christ’s body and blood that are over-and-against the congregation, I think welcoming and scattering alike.
I believe this book will be enjoyed by many pastors and those interested in philosophy and theology. It is not an easy read but if one carefully works their way through Being Promised they will discover that has become a gift to their understanding of this basic Biblical concept.
(Originally posted on Pastor Steve’s Blog. 10/22/2013