October 5, 2008
Holistic, Totalizing, Constantinian, Meta-fill-in-the-blank, Normative — catchwords for all that is not subversive, intrusive, disruptive, marginal, sub contrario absconditum and so on. The former is generally considered a Catholic thing, while the latter is generally considered a Protestant thing. The Reformers are seen as, in a sense, freeing God from the Catholic “system,” re-establishing God alone as the absolute (+scripture) and all else as relative and reformatory by this absolute. The Church, unlike scripture, is merely human, finite, fallible. Scripture is the unmediated mediated Word of God — unmediated in its origin as directly revealed from God, mediated in its form as human language. However, classical Protestant thought, certainly the scholastics, did not take their criticism of the Church into a greater criticism of our human ability to “capture” the absolute, to a limited degree to be sure, in our thought — which was certainly believed to have been done authoritatively by the scriptural writers. In other words, the limits of our analogy-based discourse in divinity and philosophy were not teased out for all their faults. The finite may not be able to “contain” the infinite, but it can honestly and sufficiently “witness” to it. I think we have to blame Kierkegaard — and the collapse of modern philosophy under Nietzsche (bolstered eventually by existentialism, logical positivism, and poststructuralism) — for the sort of hyper-subversive methodology employed by many contemporary Protestant thinkers (and not a few bloggers). Not that Kierkegaard is wholly to be faulted; I’ll let his interpreters decide whether his followers, his reception, are to blame.
I was led to these thoughts when reading a recent post by Halden of Inhabitatio Dei: “Against Being Holistic.” In this finely-written short reflection, Halden questions the projects of von Balthasar, Torrance, and others who attempt to answer all problems and all objections, or at least provide the material for answering all objections. While finding much that is attractive and worthwhile in these systems, Halden believes this holism might be their greatest weakness. As he states, “I am becoming more and more convinced that there is a sort of inadvertent quest for totality at work in the thought of many theologians who put forth such aesthetic, holistic projects.” I’ll go further and say that it is not “inadvertent”; it is exactly what they sought. They sought it because they believed all of creation to have found its re-creation, its justification, its rights — in a Creator on a Cross. The Cross is subversive of sin, but it is equally creative of righteousness (=being put to rights). It is subversive of our sinful projects, but creative of perfect ones. Must the latter find its only fulfillment in the eschaton? Certainly in its fulfillment across all of creation and in the depths of our own lives, but as I read the New Testament, the power of the Holy Spirit here and now, as given to the Church, seems to be the focus for Paul, as for Jesus. This is Christ’s gift through his sacrifice, through the offering of his body and blood, that “they all shall be taught of God” (John 6:45). And while Paul is “not become perfect yet” (Phil. 3:12), there is “no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), and there is a “crucifying of the flesh” (Gal. 5:24) with its destructive passions. As a redeemed people and a people taught by the Father, we can look on that which is pure, noble, just, lovely, holy, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Perhaps no one has done this better than von Balthasar, with his full confidence, not in himself, but in the Christ within himself (Gal. 2:20). And the same can be said of John Owen, of Jonathan Edwards, and of any who comprehended the great Reformed (and Catholic) insight into the Law as constitutive of a noble Christian humanism.