Catholicism_Fr. Barron

From the clips that I’ve seen, Fr. Robert Barron’s video series, Catholicism, is an impressive work. I have posted videos from Fr. Barron before: his videos on Balthasar and a video from his Priest, Prophet, King series. Now, for your viewing pleasure, here is episode #6 from the Catholicism series, the only complete episode online:

There is also a book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.

I know what some of y’all are thinking. You’ve got your Protestant guns set to fire, loaded with our favorite ammunition: “theology of the Cross” (not Glory!) and the always popular, “Creator/creature distinction”! I get it. Been there and done that. I still do it sometimes. But, dang it, I like Fr. Barron, and I routinely dislike Protestantism. I know the grass isn’t greener on the other side, but you have to wonder sometimes.

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In lieu of writing a separate post, let me point you to a thought-provoking article from The Imaginative Conservative, which has had several fine articles lately:

“The Hideous and the Damned: Arguing with Roger Scruton”

The author argues that “beauty” and “art” are not synonymous, in dialogue with and in contrast to Scruton’s important work on aesthetics. You should also read Stephen Masty’s recent article, “Science Narrows in on Imagination.” Enjoy!

Bonhoeffer painting

See part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from others.

This is the second and final installment of my exploration of Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity, found in his prison letters. I am more critical in this post — certainly, more questioning. Some of the footnote comments may be of interest, to alert those who ignore footnotes.

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Bonhoeffer acknowledges that Barth was the first to recognize the mistake of “making a space” for religion in modern life, illustrated by the apologetic theologies discussed in the previous post. But, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth failed to guide us in the “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts,” which is necessary for a responsible theology today. Bonhoeffer bemoans Barth’s “positivism of revelation.”[1] What does this mean? As far as I can tell from Bonhoeffer’s brief comments, Barth failed to carry through his criticism of religion. He stopped at his criticism of these false apologetic strategies, but in their place he offered the received dogmatic material of the church’s faith. “Positivism” was sometimes used as a label for any conservative theology that subordinated itself to a given and stable authority, namely the Bible and derived confessional standards.[2] Thus, the theological task is the explication of this material, the enterprise known as dogmatics, often valuing precision of expression and analytical rigor. We do not know exactly what Bonhoeffer has in mind, but he is clearly not happy with this turn in Barth. And he uses Barth as an example of neglecting the task at hand. (We have to leave to the side whether this is fair to Barth.[3]) This task is to interpret Christian concepts into non-religious concepts, thereby rendering them more truly faithful to Christ. Why does Bonhoeffer see this as such a pressing matter? Because only in this way can modern man encounter God again, confronted with the demand of love in every situation. Thus, it is ultimately an ethical concern for Bonhoeffer, as we would expect from his previous writings. And as such, these prison letters on “religionless Christianity” can be seen as having strong continuity with his prior treatments of ethics as encounter and decision, not law and duty.

But, what are we to make of this “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts”? It is here that criticisms can emerge. In many (not all) of these statements, the “non-religious” appears to be a norm and authority for Bonhoeffer – a norm and authority derived from the world as such. So, as we see, Bonhoeffer has been discussing his impression of reading a book on physics, realizing that, as he later states, “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’”[4] He will elsewhere describe this as “the world come of age.”[5] That is true, of course, insofar as it goes — for a large segment of European society, and we would not want to recover the various defensive theologies that have attempted to deal with this.

But why does Bonhoeffer then suppose that the (post)metaphysical assumptions of this “non-religious man” are determinative for the church’s proclamation? Is this not just another apologetic theology? This is the curious thing about Bonhoeffer’s account of how the church must now relate to secular man. It is remarkably uncritical about this non-religious man, to whom the church must address its liberative Word. A good illustration is when Bonhoeffer recognizes that the concern for “personal salvation” is a question that has “left us.”[6] And, thus, the church should leave it as well. I am wary of how Bonhoeffer handles this. We do not have to endorse everything that may be associated with “personal salvation,” but Bonhoeffer fails to question whether this leaving behind of concern for matters of personal salvation may be an indictment of modern man, an illustration of his rebellion. More to the point, here is another instance where Bonhoeffer simply presents, without question or criticism, that “people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more,” as he stated earlier.[7]

Bonhoeffer appears to be endorsing, without sufficient criticism, the maturation of Western philosophical and social development. Indeed, Bethge notes that in June of 1944, “coming of age” appears in his letters for the first time, a term which he held “with noticeable joy” and which, according to Bethge, “he had learned from Kant.”[8] As such, Bonhoeffer is taking modern philosophical anthropology and using it as a norm for the theological task of the church. That, at least, is my critical reading of these particular statements. But, what about his ethics and Christology?

Simultaneously, Bonhoeffer attempts to ground this concept of autonomy in his Christology, perhaps circumventing my above criticism. As Bethge notes, “The genesis is his Christology; the cross of Christ not only judges and delivers the world, but also give it freedom to be what it is in its own worldly structures.”[9] And this takes us back to his criticisms of existentialism and theologians like Bultmann and Tillich who failed to account for how “Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations,” not just man in crisis.[10] So, for Bonhoeffer, it is Christ who liberates us to live freely and joyfully in this world, and therefore this Western autonomy is properly Christian. But, we must ask, is it just a coincidence that modernity, in its own ever-progressing quest for man’s autonomy and success in doing so, is fulfilling this properly Christian anthropology? In other words, it seems that Bonhoeffer has two approaches, two starting points even, which have not been correlated or reconciled. The one originates from the phenomena of modern human life as such, and the other originates from the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Bonhoeffer had more consistently located his “religionless” project in the latter, instead of appearing to give undue weight to the former, then perhaps he could avoid censure from those of us who are wary about his proposals in these letters.

Lastly, I must mention his interesting, albeit perplexing, comments on Bultmann’s demythology project. Bultmann has appeared elsewhere in the letters, but here is perhaps the clearest statement:

Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the ‘mythological elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essense’. My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept – the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision).[11]

I find this perplexing, because I really do not know what he means. He wants to retain (in some sense not defined) the miraculous and mythological but interpret them in a non-religious, non-metaphysical way, which is what I thought Bultmann was doing! And the concern about not making these metaphysical assumptions (a world where virgin births and bodily resurrections can happen) into “preconditions of faith” is at the heart of Bultmann’s project, as far as I understand it. So how exactly is Bonhoeffer retaining the mythological? Behind this question is the question of what Bonhoeffer means by “metaphysics” in his criticism of “religion.” I have noted the ethical concern, but there seems to be more. Bethge claims that, in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, “Metaphysics here means a conceptualization of the message within the philosophical framework of both the Greeks and the idealistic philosophers of the nineteenth century.”[12] That’s pretty standard. If that is the case, then what precisely in this metaphysics must change in Bonhoeffer’s reinterpretation into non-religious categories? That is the big, glaring question to which I do not see any satisfying answer, nor does Bonhoeffer even give an attempt to answer this question. I am no fan of Bultmann’s project, but is Bonhoeffer really all that far from him?

But, as I said at the beginning of the previous post, these are suggestive reflections in the form of letters, while being imprisoned by a genocidal regime! They are not theological treatises, as we are accustomed. As a result, we are left with a lot of questions.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 328.

[2] Not to be confused with “logical positivism,” a philosophical movement of secular post-metaphysical scientism. In theology, “positivism” can also indicate a theology that eschews natural reason, as in Paul Janz’s definition: “Positivism in theology is any position that seeks to uphold the integrity of transcendence (or revelation) by giving up the integrity of reason or of natural enquiry” (Janz, God, the Mind’s Desire [Cambridge University Press, 2004], p. 5; Qtd. in Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma [IVP Academic, 2014], p. 80).

[3] It seems especially odd to criticize Barth in this way, given Barth’s creative and ingenious reworking of the Christian tradition: to wit, his comprehensive rejection of natural theology and his reworking of the doctrine of election, to name two areas where his “novelty” is most criticized to this day. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Barth wrote that “positivism of revelation” is “a concept still incomprehensible and unintelligible to me.” See Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Fontana, 1971), 119-122.

[4] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 325. The book is The World-View of Physics by C F Von Weizsacker and referred to on p. 311, ibidem.

[5] Ibid., 329, 341, 361.

[6] Ibid., 286.

[7] Ibid., 279.

[8] Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer’s Christology and His ‘Religionless Christianity,’” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 23:1 (Fall, 1967), 68.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 342.

[11] Ibid., 329. In an earlier letter (p. 285), he criticizes Bultmann for “abridging the gospel” by separating God and miracle, both of which must be interpreted “in a ‘non-religious’ sense.”

[12] Bethge, ibid., 66. Bethge describes the ethical concern as “to relocate genuine transcendence in this world – in the person next to me” (ibid.).

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Image: Painting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (source)

Bonhoeffer in 1939

Bonhoeffer in 1939

I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.

Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.

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In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….”[1] What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.

Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.”[2] But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society.[3] This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?”[4] Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong.[5] And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.

In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.[6]

The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close.[7] But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.

In this other type of apologetic theology, God is the explanation for our guilt or sense of alienation. And, thus, the popular existentialism of Bonhoeffer’s day appealed to the “ultimate questions” of death and guilt, to which only God can provide a satisfying answer.[8] For Bonhoeffer, the world is generally quite happy and content with itself, and so we have the amusing situation when an existentialist theologian like Tillich “sought to understand the world better than it understood itself.”[9] All of these strategies fail, according to Bonhoeffer, because they are all making God into the answer to our problems, whether intellectual or existential, instead of having God first and foremost as the “center of life” itself and in its entirety. This is the God of life and love, not just death and guilt.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 279.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 280.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 281.

[6] Ibid., 281-282.

[7] Ibid., 282.

[8] Ibid., 326.

[9] Ibid., 327. Bonhoeffer would later refer to this as “clerical tricks” (p. 346).

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See part two.

CD-1.2

Here is a bit more of a technical theological discussion. You are forewarned!

In a post from last year, “Barth chastises the early Barth,” I briefly discuss and provide an excerpt from Church Dogmatics II.1 where Barth criticizes the exegesis of Romans 8:24 in his Romans commentary. In the commentary, he claims that “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God” (p. 314 in the English translation of the Römerbrief). In the CD, Barth is discussing matters of eternity and time, recognizing that this earlier account did not do justice to the biblical material and was too influenced by his reaction to liberal optimism on the convergence of God and creation in the here and now.

In a very similar vein, Barth discusses “God’s Time and Our Time” in the opening section of § 14 (“The Time of Revelation”) in CD I.2. According to Holy Scripture, God’s revelation “enters time.” The full sentence is important, because Barth is clearly thinking of inadequacies in his Romans commentary: “[Revelation] does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.” The claim about God’s transcendence, merely meeting creation “at a point,” recalls Barth’s image of a circle and a tangent, in the Römerbrief, as a description of God’s act in the world. Barth is not satisfied with this.

And so, it is not surprising that Barth immediately provides the following excursus:

I should like at this stage to utter an express warning against certain passages and contexts in my commentary on Romans, where play was made and even work occasionally done with the idea of a revelation permanently transcending time, merely bounding time and determining it from without. Then, in face of the prevailing historism and psychologism which had ceased to be aware at all of any revelation other than an inner mundane one within common time, the book had a definite, antiseptic task and significance. Readers of it to-day will not fail to appreciate that in it Jn 1:14 does not have justice done to it. [Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 50]

You can easily see the similarities between this passage and the one in II.1. Now, let’s turn to Richard Burnett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. In Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, he introduces the terms, “unhistorical” (das Unhistorische) and “primal history” (Urgeschichte), to describe God’s revelation. In his book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, Burnett discusses Barth’s usage of these terms in Romans II. Here is part of Burnett’s analysis:

Barth uses both of these terms throughout Rom II to make clear that revelation is neither a part nor a predicate of history, nor does it pass over into history, even in the event of revelation itself. For even in the Incarnation, when God entered into history, He was never a part of history, in the sense of being an ‘object’ of historical investigation. This never meant for Barth that God had not acted in human history, only that historians qua historians could not know this as an act of God apart from revelation. In this sense, revelation was and always remained for Barth “unhistorisch.” But that he had identified revelation itself in Rom II as“das Unhistorische” suggested to many that he did not believe that God had acted in history at all, that revelation could not encounter history in any way. Barth soon after recognized the danger he had risked in Rom II and later admitted that “readers of it today will not appreciate that in it Jn. 1:14 does not have justice done to it.” [Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, pp. 104-105]

In the footnote, Burnett provides the whole of the passage from CD I.2 that I provide above. Of course, questions still abound. There is the question of how the Incarnation, the earthly-historical life of Jesus, and the Resurrection are not objects of “historical investigation.” What does this mean? If it means, as Burnett interprets it, that God’s presence and acts in history are not known as “of God” apart from revelation itself, then I am happy with that. And this is how I interpret the mature Barth.

But if it means that God’s act or revelation in history is so “unhistorical” that the historical is untouched and unable to receive God’s Word, then that is a problem. Paradoxically enough, the historical as a closed contingent phenomena thereby takes precedence and limits (or conditions) theological claims. The miracle, in this scheme, is the “miracle” of faith. We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.

Anthony Thiselton is one of those scholars that I have frequently come across but have never read. Hermeneutics is not my forte. (The bliss of naive realism!)

Thiselton is one of the premier evangelical Anglican scholars working today. With the recent release of his massive (800+ page) encyclopedic volume, The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology, it is time to introduce him. Here is an excellent video of Thiselton introducing himself:

This is a very interesting and informative overview of his life’s work.

Jonathan-Edwards

This is the second and final installment of a brief, two-part series on Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” See the first part for introductory material and the main analysis. Below, I offer some concluding thoughts.

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Edwards repeatedly appeals to the “heart.” It is in the heart that prejudices are harbored, as sin darkens our vision of “seeing” the truth of the Gospel. But, whenever a person discovers for himself, as Edwards writes, “the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.”  Reason is sanctified – set apart for God – once the heart of stone is changed into a heart of flesh, to cite Ezekiel 36:26. This experience of the heart involves one’s affections, as we have seen in Edwards’ fondness for language of “sweetness.” This is given extensive treatment in Edwards’ much-acclaimed A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). As in our present sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards continues in his later writings to account for the nature of and conditions for our affections toward God. In a basic sense, no Reformed theologian has ever discounted the affections. On the contrary, Reformed theology has emphasized that true faith is only ever present when the heart has been converted and turned toward God, all of which is part and parcel of God’s beneficence toward us in Jesus Christ.[1] As Calvin said, faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[2] God’s goodness is sealed upon our hearts. In order to highlight the theme of comfort, we could turn to the famous first Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism. For the theme of joy or delight, we could turn to the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These are rightly beloved statements in the Reformed tradition and often noted for their “warmth” of expression.

While there is significant continuity between Edwards and his Reformed forbearers, there is still something new with Edwards. It arises from his revivalist impulse, however cautious he was to subordinate the affections to truth. The new thing is the extent to which the affections are a criterion for ascertaining the presence of saving faith. This is especially evident, as Edwards attempted to do, when evaluating the status of a person’s soul according to the expressiveness or otherwise of his affections. It is no wonder that Edwards was ejected from his pulpit in Northampton! We can commend his concern for the souls of his congregants, but the heart of another is not ours to evaluate. We have to be satisfied with the candidate’s statement of faith and let God judge.

Secondly and more importantly, we have to be cautious about emphasizing the affections within ourselves as a measure of God’s love for us. Edwards does not do this precisely, but his revivalist heirs did and perhaps he opened the door. The problem is when the emotions subside, when the elevated feelings are no more – or during times of spiritual “dark nights,” when God’s “absence” weighs heavily on our soul. It is during these times when we need to rely the most on God’s sufficient and perfect work in Jesus Christ, not preoccupied with our malaise and questioning whether God loves us. Otherwise, in vain, we will attempt to stir ourselves and recover the initial sweetness of our conversion, when in fact God is calling us to a deeper maturity and more profound trust in him. As Edwards would agree, we do not have faith in our affections but in Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest.

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[1] In other words, faith is not the efficacious cause of our salvation; it is the instrumental cause – receiving, not bringing about. The grace of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is the efficacious cause.

[2] John Calvin, ed. John T. McNeill, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960), 3.2.7.

campbell-moo-debate-on-justification-TEDS-2015

Yesterday, the Henry Center at TEDS posted a debate between Douglas Campbell (Duke Divinity School) and Douglas Moo (Wheaton College) on Paul’s doctrine of justification. This debate will garner wide interest. I just finished watching it, and I can highly recommend it. Moo is well-known for his several commentaries on Paul’s epistles and as a leading biblical scholar in the American evangelical academy, including his work on the new edition of the NIV a few years ago. Campbell is that rarest of things: a biblical scholar who is an unapologetic Barthian, happy to utilize systematic and confessional categories. You should watch his advice to students.

As the debate progressed, I thought the discussion got more and more interesting, all the way into the Q and A. Campbell and Moo are irenic and respectful throughout. I would have liked to see more exegetical work, but it serves well as an overview of their respective positions.

Embedding is disabled, so you will have to click on the link and watch it on YouTube.

If you are new to these issues, then you would do well to read Joshua Jipp’s introduction to the debate: “Re-Reading Paul: What is Being Said and Why It Matters.” Jipp’s summary of Campbell is probably the clearest that you will find anywhere.

Tip of the hat to Jennifer Guo for alerting us to this debate.

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Image: The Carl F.H. Henry Center

edwards preaching

“A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734) is one of Jonathan Edwards’ most important sermons. Therein, Edwards is beginning to formulate his understanding of “religious affections,” culminating in his famous treatment of the topic in 1746. To give you a time frame for reference, his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God was published in 1737 on the basis of the revival in his congregation at Northampton in 1734. So, this sermon was delivered in the same year as the “Great Awakening” made its way to Northampton.

The following is the first of a two-part analysis of the sermon. You can find the sermon in the Yale anthology of his writings. I own this volume, but it is stored away somewhere in a box. So I had to use the online edition without pagination. The text for the sermon is Matthew 16:17.

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In Matthew 16:17, Jesus pronounces Peter as blessed for his confession of faith. He alone rightly recognized Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). This was not a revelation of “flesh and blood” but of the “Father in heaven.” In other words, God revealed this to Peter, not as a revelation derived from the material and limited nature of creation. This was not a particularly clever insight of Peter. It was a “revelation” or “unveiling” from God himself, and as such it was a gift. It is the nature of this gift of faith that Jonathan Edwards aims to discern in his sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” delivered in 1734. The sermon reveals some of the distinctive aspects of its time and place. While it is surely an expository sermon, committed to the faithful exposition of the passage, it is also oriented to the currents of the time, both receiving and influencing these currents.

In the early eighteenth century, Protestant divinity was the recipient of the Reformation heritage, with its subsequent scholastic development and impressive coherence. This doctrinal heritage was challenged mightily by the currents of Enlightenment thought, most famously pronounced by Descartes’ “subjective turn.” No longer was external authority a sufficient means to our knowledge of God and the world. The authority had to be ratified within. There was a crisis of certainty, which is to say, a crisis of knowledge. John Locke would distinguish between opinion and certainty, wherein the latter can only ever amount to “degrees” of certainty and that only upon a subjective foundation and apprehension.[1] And the criterion for all Enlightenment thinkers was reason, together joined with the incontrovertible evidence of sense experience. The result is “natural” religion, with its noble quality of ratiocinative integrity. As John Tillotson stated it, “Nothing ought to be received as a revelation from God which plainly contradicts the principles of natural religion.”[2] Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards agrees with the “subjective turn” in his own way. Truth is received and verified within, and this verification is capable of articulation. The difference is that God, for Edwards, is both the author and the criterion of this truth, when it concerns matters of God’s own self-disclosure. This displaces man and man’s reason as the criterion, while maintaining the “realm” of man’s subjectivity as the location in which God is operative and graciously present. In this way, Edwards is able to maintain the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation within an anthropological rendering of our subjective apprehension of this God. He is, at once, an heir of the Reformation and an heir of the Enlightenment. And perhaps Pietism, with its experiential basis for doctrinal reception, is the synthesis of the two. Edwards is all three.

As he exposits Matthew 16:17, Edwards is keen to emphasize that Peter’s knowledge is “above any that flesh and blood can reveal,” because it is “too high and excellent to be communicated by such means as other knowledge is.”[3] Our knowledge of God is categorically distinct from other knowledge. The “otherness” of this knowledge derives from the fact that God “reveals it…not making use of any intermediate natural causes, as he does in other knowledge.” Lacking such intermediate means, this knowledge is “immediately imparted to the soul by God.” In contrast to the “natural man,” those who receive this saving faith are given the “light” to apprehend the truth of God, and this light gives life. It is an “indwelling vital principle,” such that God indwells man and “takes him for his temple, actuates and influences him as a new supernatural principle of life and action.” The Holy Spirit abides within the saints, “exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties.”

For Edwards, the assent of faith is never a merely intellectual calculation and conclusion. While our faith involves the intellect, in its full analytical rigor, it is true faith insofar as it is birthed by the new life of God within our hearts. Edwards has a number of ways to express this existential reality: “the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it.” In this one sentence, we have several of Edwards’ favorite terms: heart, beauty, sweetness, pleasure, and delight. The significance here is that Edwards is utilizing aesthetic categories within a moral framework. Herein, the individual’s will is operative upon the conditions of an aesthetic “divine excellency,” to use one of Edwards’ favorite expressions. In other words, as Edwards states it, “There arises from this sense of divine excellency of things contained in the word of God, a conviction of the truth and reality of them….” The “conviction” follows upon the “sense.” Our assent is a consequence of our aesthetic perception and reception of God’s splendor.

This “spiritual light” does not produce any new doctrine, for that would be the gift of inspiration. Rather, the light allows us to apprehend and receive the truths of the word of God, already given. The objective referent is the truths of Scripture and the Gospel revealed therein. Edwards is offering an account of how our subjective disposition is made capable of receiving this truth. The important point here is that Edwards is not orienting our subjectivity back upon itself, as if the “sweetness” or “delight” was the object of faith. The feelings are the medium or the means, not the end. Edwards is preserving epistemological realism, even as he challenges an Enlightenment aridity that elevated the rational at the expense of the moral and aesthetic. For Edwards, the rational is never alone, never without the moral and aesthetic, which would make him a Platonist, broadly speaking.[4] In this way, Edwards is also anticipating 19th century Romanticism, but without retreating into subjective affectivity as an end in-itself, which cheapens truth and elicits sentimentality in one’s piety.

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[1] As Locke states, “A man cannot conceive himself capable of a greater certainty than to know that a given idea in his mind is such as he perceives it to be.” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter 2.

[2] The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson (London: Goodwin, Tooke, and Pemberton, 1714), 225.

[3] All citations from Edwards are from “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (www.ccel.org/e/edwards/sermons/supernatural_light.html). No pagination.

[4] The transcendentals of Platonism (Goodness, Truth, Beauty) are convertible with one another: the good is always beautiful and true, the truth is always good and beautiful, and the beautiful is always good and true. And yet, they are not identical with each other: for example, Edwards writes, “It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty of loveliness of any thing: such a perception does not belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth and not excellency.”

Mo Pitney

February 17, 2015

Mo Pitney

With a name like “Mo Pitney,” you are destined for country greatness. More importantly, when God gives you a voice that can rival the likes of Randy Travis or Don Williams, then you are one blessed kid.

Mo Pitney looks like he is barely out of puberty. Already, he has garnered attention far and wide. Rolling Stone included him in their latest “New Country Artists You Need to Know.” Huffington Post did a lengthy profile of him: “Real Music, Real Country.” And Saving Country Music has given him a nod of approval. And most significantly, he received a standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry, the most storied institution in all of country history. At the Opry, he performed “Clean Up on Aisle Five” and “Country.” The Opry has posted the first performance:

Pitney was recently signed to Curb Records, which is a big deal. His debut single is “Country,” and you can watch a performance of it:

I do not think that country music has heard a voice like that since Randy Travis debuted in 1986! Pitney is a songwriter, not just a voice. But in Derek Hudgin’s review of the single, he rightly labels Pitney’s lyrics as “unoriginal.” But there is enormous promise with Pitney, even revealed in the general orientation of the lyrics. He loves country music. His heroes are Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley. When he panders, he is pandering to the noble past, not the flippant, vacuous present. For a young guy with a million dollar voice, that is impressive.

But the proof of Pitney’s value to the genre will come in time. Country is about a life honestly lived. And the music is uninhibited pain or joy, mourning or fun, serious or stupid. From what i have heard, Pitney is already on his way to understanding that. Time will tell.

Recommended reviews at Ref21

February 16, 2015

ACE

Reformation 21 (Ref21) is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. I have enjoyed several of their book reviews recently, worthy of passing along to y’all.

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Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal, Alister McGrath

Reviewed by David Gilland (PhD, University of Aberdeen; Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Germany)

John Henry Newman: A Biography, Ian Ker

Reviewed by Matthew Boyleston (PhD, University of Houston; Assistant Professor of English and Writing, Houston Baptist University)

Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, Peter W. Martens

Reviewed by Kyle Strobel (PhD, University of Aberdeen; Assistant Professor of Spiritual Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University)

Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts, Adonis Vidu

Reviewed by Jordan Hillebert (PhD cand., University of St. Andrews)

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541, John Calvin, trans. Robert White

Reviewed by Paul Helm (Teaching Fellow at Regent College; Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London, 1993-2000)

Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain

Reviewed by Mark Gignilliat (PhD, University of St. Andrews; Associate Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University)

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