January 31, 2009
Tonight I went to see Chris Tomlin on his “Hello Love” tour. As I expected, it was amazing. I’ve often said that Chris Tomlin is the closest thing we have, in today’s Church, to Isaac Watts. Both artists are keen on grandeur in simplicity, manifesting the greatness and perfection of God by simple refrains of prophetic and apostolic proclamation, e.g., his latest single, “Jesus Messiah”:
He became sin
Who knew no sin
That we might become His Righteousness
He humbled himself and carried the cross
Love so amazing
Love so amazing
Name above all names
The rescue for sinners
The ransom from Heaven
Lord of all
His body the bread
His blood the wine
Broken and poured out, all for love
The whole earth trembled
And the veil was torn
All our hope is in You
All our hope is in You
All the glory to You, God
The light of the world
My favorite moment of the evening was when Tomlin sang this song. It is always an amazing thing to join with thousands of others in joyfully praising God for our salvation. Another memorable moment was when Tomlin gave an account of all that has been done by his ministry and Passion in not only bringing the gospel to college students across the world, but also by teaming-up with relief agencies for fund drives. You should especially check-out the One Million Can campaign, which aims to raise a million dollars for poverty relief and, in particular, funding for surgeries on children born with deformities. Give if you can.
Here is a great video of Tomlin performing, “Holy is the Lord,” at Passion 2005:
January 28, 2009
iMonk on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.”
My opinion, with personal reflections:
Michael Spencer (iMonk) predicts that evangelicalism will collapse. The imminent demise of evangelicalism has been predicted by the sage, well, pretty much since the Reformation. If the Enlightenment couldn’t quite do it, then surely it would be Industrialism. Scratch that. Okay, then surely Darwinism, or maybe Existentialism. Well, add to that — the Sexual Revolution. Okay, it will surely be the Information Age. Or not. So, now what is needed — well, the Church itself is too stupid to keep going. So, ah ha, evangelicalism will collapse.
I know that doesn’t do justice to Mr. Spencer, who has frequently provided judicious thoughts on the contemporary Church. Nor does it do justice to the seriousness of the “secularization thesis,” namely, that free thought and advanced markets will produce a skeptical society (and, indeed, Denmark does exist). Nonetheless, whether or not evangelicalism will collapse depends too much (and ever has) on the work of the Holy Spirit, making predictions (optimistic or pessimistic) worthless. Add to that, the openness of evangelical Protestantism, its creative energy and adaptability flowing from Free Church principles, further makes predictions seem rather like a binding of God’s electing purposes. But, putting theology aside for the moment, I am especially skeptical of Spencer’s predictions for rather subjective reasons: my group of friends from high school.
Mr. Spencer’s reflections on the Church are, not surprisingly, reflections of his own experiences and those in his acquaintance (and the peculiar sort of people, heavily invested, who read theology blogs). This is not wholly illegitimate, even though I wish he would take a wider survey and root himself in the Church’s history (inclusive of Israel!) when making judgments. So, in the interest of providing a wider survey, here is the evangelical church as I have known it, in my own microcosm:
I went to a small private Christian school from k-12. It was operated by a large independent Baptist church which, though independent, would perfectly fit within conservative Southern Baptist thought and culture. My group of close friends from 8th grade until 12th grade was the same: about eight of us, rather active in school (academics, sports, government, honor societies, etc) and never second-guessed the Christian mission of the school. Now, if you watch movies like Saved! or documentaries like Jesus Camp, you would think that my quintessential evangelical upbringing was rather nutty, at best, or abundantly hypocritical, at worst. If you read blogs like iMonk’s or the Heidelblog (Dr. Clark) or listen to the White Horse Inn, then you probably think that we were shallow and cultic. I myself have even made charges of “intellectual sectarianism.” Whatever legitimate criticisms that must be made, there is one indisputable fact when looking at my group of friends from high school: we confess Christ as Lord and Savior and seek to follow Him. That is no small thing. Among these friends, I have one friend who is now a missionary in Nairobi, Kenya; another friend is a youth pastor in South Carolina; another friend is the senior pastor of a small church he founded on the coast of North Carolina; and another friend is a music leader at a church in South Carolina. And that’s just those who serve in the Church. Another friend is a law student at UNC who does the hard job of integrating his faith and secular work. We are all in our mid-20’s.
Why do I mention these friends. Because they are what I think of when I think of the Church. These are the guys I went to chapel twice a week with, to Bible classes three times a week, to Christian camp every August, to Sunday services, to Wednesday night worship, to Saturday soup kitchens and passing out tracts. This is the Church, imperfect but loved by God. This is the Church that will exist until the parousia. This is the Church for whom Christ is ever High Priest. This is the Church that the gates of hell will not prevail against, even as a latitude in forms (including the “American evangelical”) is unpredictable.
January 27, 2009
The following is T. F. Torrance’s elucidation of the term, “realism.” It works as a very good definition. Don’t let the “Torrance-speak” throw you off: e.g., “a break in the semantic relation” just means “an untruth” or “telling falsely.”
The contrast between realism and idealism, implied in the use of either term, evidently has its source in the distinction we make between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified. This is a natural operation of the human mind, for it belongs to the essence of rational behavior that we can distinguish ourselves as knowing subjects from the objects of our knowledge, and can employ ideas or words to refer to or signify realities independent of them. Normally our attention in knowing, speaking, listening, or reading is not focused upon the ideas or words we use, far less upon ourselves, but upon the realities they signify or indicate beyond themselves. Hence in our regular communication with one another we use and interpret signs in the light of their objective reference. Thus the natural operation of the human mind would appear to be realist.
We use these distinctions, then, between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified, naturally and unreflectingly, and only turn a critical eye upon them when something arises to obscure signification, such as a break in the semantic relation. Much now depends upon where the emphasis falls, upon the signifying pole or the objective pole of the semantic relation, that is, upon idea or reality, upon sign or thing signified.
…we shall use the term [realism], not in an attenuated dialectical sense merely in contrast to idealism, nominalism, or conventionalism, but to describe the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it. It is worth noting that it was a realist orientation of this kind which Greek patristic theology, especially from the third to the sixth century, struggled hard to acquire and which it built into the foundations of classical theology. [Ditto for relativity theory in 20th century science.]
Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology, pp. 58-60.
January 24, 2009
Cool song. One of my favorite music videos.
“I Still Remember” by Bloc Party
January 21, 2009
For those not familiar with Thomas F. Torrance and his unique contribution to dogmatics, here’s a little introduction. I will utilize excerpts from his 1981 lectures delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary, “The Realist Basis of Evangelical Theology,” published as Reality and Evangelical Theology (Wipf & Stock, reprint edition, 2003).
Torrance was the son of Scottish missionaries serving in China, where he was born in 1913 († 2007). His academic training included Edinburgh, Oxford, and eventually Basel (Switzerland) where he studied under Karl Barth. Barth’s influence is often noted and debated, but it should in no wise detract from his credentials as a significant theologian in his own right, traversing academic terrain scarcely touched by Barth. In particular, Torrance canvassed the difficult field of advanced theoretical physics with a boldness gained by a steady confidence in the Lordship of Christ over all of our thinking, or, in short, over all of reality. The Christocentrism running throughout Barth’s Church Dogmatics (which T.F.T. edited) is taken, with Torrance, into all of creation. For those, like me, who like to harp on about the sectarian thought patterns in (much of) evangelical thinking, Thomas Torrance is a gift.
Reason and Reality
It is interesting to note how Torrance understands “rationality.” He doesn’t have a formalized understanding of “what is rational” in the sense of laws intrisic to reason, as if “thinking” could be taken by itself and considered purely, apart from its “object,” the world. No, it is more simple than that: “Man acts rationally only under the complusion of reality and its intrinsic order…” (p. 26). In other words, you are being rational to the extent that your mind is impressed by the governance of the world. If you are telling rightly of existence, you are thinking rightly. In science, this is done, and progressively so, by an openness to reality, such that the “out there” is the absolute towards which our thinking is related (=relative). When science forgets its relativity, it no longer allows nature the absolute claim it rightly has. If nature does not have this absolute claim, then our own thinking (subjectivity) substitutes for the absolute; science then becomes a plaything of the postmodern linguists. Thus, it is imperative that science recognize the relativity of its formulas, not in order that science become “relativistic” but that it become ever more “objectivistic.” The “relativism” of common parlance is ruled out (if not entirely) by the fact that the objective referent in science contains a rationality of its own, independent of our own reasoning. But, the independence of the objective referent does not disallow the dependence of the subjective referrer. As dependent, the referrer can never be cut off entirely without at once losing his or her ability to make any claims to rationality at all, given, once again, the defintion of reason as a disclosure of reality. Thus, the move to absolute skepticism must include a claim to absurdity on the part of the skeptic, i.e., a claim to never know that one knows something. However, if our starting principle is that it is the world and not merely our thoughts that we are dealing with, then an authentic relativism can never wholly collapse into subjectivism.
God and Reality
Torrance sees a parallel between this realist requirement for scientific knowledge and the realism required by Christian dogmatics:
“The more we know of the universe today, the more we find that we have to do with states of affairs governed by an inherent rationality which is always and everywhere utterly reliable and which, while commanding our respect and rational assent, retains a mysterious transcendence over all our understanding and knowledge of it. Thus while our science is pursued in passionate commitment to the objective reality of the universe and under the compelling claims of its intrinsic rationality upon our minds and is dedicated to the task of making contact with reality and grasping it in the depth of that rationality, this does not mean that we are ever able by our science to capture that reality within our conceptual structures and theoretical formalizations. The very reality we grasp is possessed of a rationality of such an indefinite range that it outstrips all that we can think or say, conceive or formulate, about it.” (p. 12)
And thus we have a common epistemological principle in theology:
“How much more should a realism of this kind characterize theological inquiry and doctrinal formulation! Here we have to reckon above all with the unique Reality and transcendent Rationality of the Lord God who created the universe out of nothing and gave it a contingent reality in utter differentiation from his own and a contingent rationality in continuous dependence on his own. By its very nature the self-revelation of this God summons us to acknowledge the absolute priority of God’s Word over all the media of its communication and reception, and over all understanding and interpretation of its Truth. The Word and Truth of God reach us and address us on their own free ground and on their own authority, for they cannot be understood, interpreted, far less assessed for what they are, on any other standard besides themselves. Hence in all our response to God’s Word and in all formulation of divine Truth we are summoned to let God retain his own reality, majesty, and authority over against us. In divine revelation we have to do with a Word of God which is what it is as Word of God in its own reality independent of our recognition of it, and we have to do with a Truth of God which is what it is as Truth of God before we come to know it to be true. That means that in all our response to God’s self-revelation as it is mediated to us in space and time through the Holy Scriptures we must seek to understand and interpret it in accordance with its intrinsic requirements and under the constraint of the truth which bears upon our minds in and through it, and not in accordance with requirements of thought which we bring to it or under the constraint of rigid habits of belief which we retain at the back of our minds irrespective of what we may experience beyond ourselves.” (p. 13)
Thus, dogmatics is a science, wherein God is the objective referent (albeit a free Subject) and our theological formulations, whether Chalcedonian or Dordtian, are the subjective referrers. Given the relativity of the latter, it is critical for the Church to never close itself within its particular formulae. The “form” that we give God can never be the true Form that is God himself. The classic example for Torrance of science closing itself, content with its subjectivities, is the dominance of Newtonian science for generations, which was unable to account for the reality of the universe as it forced itself upon a new generation of scientists in the last century, namely with Einstein and Planck. The parallel examples in Christian doctrine include, e.g., the sacramental and ecclesial theology of the medieval Church and the predestinarian schemes of the Reformed churches — all representative, for Torrance, of a theology untethered to its object, Jesus Christ. (Of course, T.F.T. blames Augustine for much of this.) The endurance of Greek patristic thought — Christ as true God and true man — is its utter realist claim, that the God we have (=revealed) in the man Jesus Christ is the one true God of Israel, whole and entire.
There’s much more to be said about Torrance’s work, but I think the above points are the most fundamental to understanding his mission. Like Barth, Torrance ever retained the immense unity of his thought, following the ramifications as far as he could.
January 17, 2009
I’ve posted this before, but I really love it — so here it is again.
“For this very heart / You have shaped for Your pleasure / Purposed to lift Your Name higher”
Amen; although, I am confused: Since this is an Assemblies of God church and I am told by the guardians of Protestantism that Charismatic Arminians are “man-centered” and only capable of “Jesus is my boyfriend” and “Jesus paid my bills, ooh la la” — but I guess everyone has their off days.
Beholding Your beauty
Is all that I long for
To worship You Jesus
Is my sole desire
For this very heart
You have shaped for Your pleasure
Purposed to lift Your Name higher
Here in surrender
In pure adoration
I enter Your courts
With an offering of praise
I am Your servant
Come to bring You glory
As is fit for the work of Your hands
Now unto the Lamb
Who sits on the throne
Be glory and honour and praise
All of creation resounds with the song
Worship and praise Him
The Lord of lords
Spirit now living
And dwelling within me
Keep my eyes fixed
Ever on Jesus’ face
Let not the things of this world
Ever sway me
I’ll run ’til I finish the race
Now unto the Lamb
Who sits on the throne
Be glory and honour and praise
All of eternity echoes the song
Worship and praise Him
The Lord of lords
Holy Lord, You are holy
Jesus Christ is the Lord
Now unto the Lamb
Who sits on the throne
Be glory and honour and praise
Call all the sinners to join in the song
Worship and praise Him
The Lord of lords
©2007 Brooke Fraser / Hillsong
January 16, 2009
In the previous post, we see Blondel attacking Tradition understood as, basically, all that the apostles taught that did not happen to make it into the canon. Of course, it is not hard to understand why Catholics would have this impression with statements like this from Trent, fourth session: “seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” For Blondel, the apostolic deposit of faith is not a static datum, which the Tridentine decree seems to indicate; instead, it is the apostolic faith itself, alive in the Church in all ages. As such, it is a sure guide, through the appropriate given media, for the Church in her discernment of doctrine. With this understanding, Tradition does not serve to distill the apostolic faith as explicitly taught by the apostles; instead, it is the continuing explication and application of this faith in all of the variant human contingencies that constitute the life of the Church in the world. At least, that is how I would summarize what Blondel is doing. Here are some of his own words:
Contrary to the vulgar notion, but in conformity with the constant practice of the Church, we must say that Tradition is not a simple substitute for a written teaching. It has a different purpose; it does not proceed solely from it and it does not end by becoming identified with it. It preserves not so much the intellectual aspect of the past as its living reality. Even where we have the Scriptures, it always has something to add, and what passes little by little into writing and definitions is derived from it. It relies, no doubt, on texts, but at the same time it relies primarily on something else, on an experience always in act which enables it to remain in some respects master of the texts instead of being strictly subservient to them. In brief, whenever the testimony of Tradition has to be invoked to resolve one of the crises of growth in the spiritual life of Christians, it presents the conscious mind with elements previously expressed, systematized or reflected upon. This power of conservation and preservation also instructs and initiates. Turned lovingly towards the past where its treasure lies, it moves towards the future, where it conquers and illuminates. It has a humble sense of faithfully recovering even what it thus discovers. It does not have to innovate because it possesses its God and its all; but it has always to teach something new because it transforms what is implicit and ‘enjoyed’ into something explicit and known. …
However paradoxical it may sound, one can therefore maintain that Tradition anticipates and illumines the future and is disposed to do so by the effort which it makes to remain faithful to the past. It is the guardian of the initial gift in so far as this has not been entirely formulated nor even expressly understood, although it is always fully possessed and employed; it frees us from the very Scriptures on which it never ceases to rely with devout respect: it helps us reach the real Christ whom no literary portrait could exhaust or replace, without being confined to the texts. Thus the Gospel itself appears as part of the deposit, not as the whole deposit, for, however divine the text, we cannot legitimately rest all dogma and all faith on that alone. Something in the Church escapes scientific examination; and it is the Church which, without rejecting or neglecting the contributions of exegesis and of history, nevertheless controls them, because in the very tradition which constitutes her, she possesses another means of knowing her author, of participating in his life, of linking facts to dogma, and of justifying both the capital and the interest of her teaching.
Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics & History and Dogma (Eerdmans 1994), pp. 267-269.
January 15, 2009
What rock ‘n’ roll sounds like.
The Beatles who?
January 13, 2009
Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) was a French philosopher whose work anticipated the transcendental Thomists (e.g., Rahner) of a subsequent generation, the generation of Vatican II. His work in theology (at least, “History and Dogma”), however, reminds me of the ressourcement influenced theologians, like de Lubac and von Balthasar. A kinship with Congar can also easily be detected. This is the finest statement I’ve read (in my limited reading) of the contemporary Catholic position on Tradition — at least, I assume this is basically the majority position, but I’m sure that self-styled “traditionalists” are not big fans.
The usual idea evoked by the word Tradition is that of a transmission, principally by word of mouth, of historical facts, received truths, accepted teachings, hallowed practices and ancient customs. Is that, however, the whole content, is it even, where Catholicism is concerned, the essential content of the notion?
If that were so, there would be grounds for thinking that it would not resist analysis; and this would perhaps explain why the authority of Tradition is invoked over difficulties of detail, when precise or apposite arguments are not available. For in fact if it simply reports de ore in aurem what the first audiences did not write down, if it simply answers to a need for the esoteric or to a ‘discipline of the secret’, if even today its object is to teach us what the texts could have transmitted to us, simply supplementing the lacunae, their laconic form, and their failure to mention the commonest customs of the time, which are the least noticed, then how can one fail to see how little usefulness it has? The interval of time which separates us from the sources, the inventive inaccuracy of popular recollection, the growing tendency of humanity to put down in writing all its reminiscences and all fine shades of meaning, the uprootedness of modern life with its consequent loss of continuity, the habit of committing everything to black and white (a sort of paper memory), surely all this results in the progressive erosion of traditions and the exhaustion of Tradition itself?
…those who cling to this point of view and speak of Tradition with the greatest respect and the greatest detail, always seem subject to a double presupposition: tradition only reports things explicitly said, expressly prescribed or deliberately performed by men in whom we are interested only for their conscious ideas, and in the form in which they themselves expressed them; it furnishes nothing which cannot or could not be translated into written language, nothing which is not directly and integrally convertible into intellectual expression: so that as we complete our collection of all that former centuries, even without noticing it, confided to memory — rather like students of folklore noting down folk-songs — Tradition, it would seem, becomes superfluous, and recedes before the progress of reflective analysis, written codification and scientific co-ordination.
Now these consequences are manifestly contrary to the spirit which inspires the Church, to the esteem in which she holds Tradition, and to the permanent and unchanging confidence which she places in it. …One only has to reflect for a moment on the role played by Tradition in the Church to see that it includes something altogether different from the transmission of the spoken word or of ancient custom. And, to state at once the full extent of the thesis I want to justify, I would say that Tradition’s powers of conservation are equaled by its powers of conquest: that it discovers and formulates truths on which the past lived, though unable as yet to evaluate or define them explicitly, that it enriches our intellectual patrimony by putting the total deposit little by little into currency and making it bear fruit.
“History and Dogma,” in The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (Eerdmans 1994), pp. 265-267.
I will soon post bits from his positive statement on Tradition.