Echo and Narcissus

As I observe the mainline Protestant churches, as represented by the statements of her leaders and committees, the word that repeatedly comes back to me is: lame. In fact, I think this is the key to understanding the decline of the mainline, and it is certainly applicable to many individual churches outside of the mainline. The mainline denominations are each losing tens of thousands every year, in net loss membership, and the reason is not simply cultural capitulation or any particular doctrinal or moral failing.

Rather, the mainline is disappearing because she is paralyzed by a decidedly aggressive weakness. This is characterized by a perpetual posing of questions and a dialogue wherein more questions are sought — and answered by even more questions. This question-mongering, of course, is often just a guise for commitment to a heterodox position, and liberal polity would not have been so successful if it were not for this tactic. No one wants to be seen as lacking an inquiring mind, with “inquiry” understood as methodological doubt, so the conservative contingent slowly but surely accepts this Cartesian modus operandi.

The result is that even the person committed to the revising of doctrinal standards is himself not able to articulate his beliefs with any force. This reminds me of a professor, a devout student of Foucault, explaining to our class, with regret, that Foucault’s consistent application of a will-to-power ethic undermines his own advocacy for norming the marginalized. The professor was thus drawn to an appropriation of modernist rationalism in order to solidify her own arguments for homosexual, transgender, and feminist acceptance. For her, the advances of postmodernism are, rightly, an extension of the modernist project, with its confident ability to ground and secure an ethic wholly within human desires and fulfillment. The mainline churches, however, are stuck in a haze of ineptitude. Lacking confidence in her moral charge, one almost wishes that an aggressive Nietzschean polemics would energize the ranks.

Instead, the mainline is dominated by compromise, not confidence. She values the “plurality of voices” and devalues the authoritative Word. This God and his Will — his Law and Word — is unknown or, at best, is a hidden noumenon slowly grasped in the aesthetic experiences of our fulfillment. The endless questioning is an attempt to undermine the surety of the conservative opposition, because there is nothing so malleable and tempted as our experiences, especially our interpretations of our experiences.

This is clearly exhibited in the blog of the current moderator of the PCUSA (mainline Presbyterians), including his most recent post on the declining membership of the PCUSA and in his posts on homosexuality. It is also seen on the website of his church. There is a premium placed on “thinking,” often tethered to experience or feeling. Words like “connectionalism” (yes, “connectionalism”!) are used, and phrases like “living the Trinity” are popular (of course, I always thought God was living the Trinity). Contrasted with the average PCA or SBC blog or church homepage, you are struck by the lack of assertiveness of God’s glory, God’s holiness, or Christ’s sacrifice. Evangelicals are not always at their best, but it cannot be said that they are characterized by an unwillingness to put Scripture, and the God of Scripture, front and center. The certainty of faith exists here, not demoted to inquiry.

Here are three closing thoughts:

1. It should go without saying that there is a fundamentalist over-reaction that silences without argument, thus demonstrating its own lack of confidence.

2. A theology and a church life built on the Word spoken and the Word received does not look to herself, where weakness, doubt, and incompetence reign.

3. The result (of #2) is that a heroic call to faith and obedience are better secured, and it is this call that energizes youth, not the lame “connectionalism” of the mainline.

The Glory of It All

June 29, 2009

This is the opening track from David Crowder Band’s Remedy.


Here are some books that I have recently read:

The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry Into the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2008) by Sandra Richter (Asbury Theological Seminary). This is the perfect introduction to the OT and a joy to read. Dr. Richter is a gifted teacher, judging from this book, and knows well that learning comes by aids, examples, and repetition. She aptly combines the historical narrative approach (Wright) with a classical covenantal framework (Kline), balancing each other’s potential excesses.

A Brief Introduction to Karl Rahner (Herder & Herder, 2007) by Karen Kilby (Nottingham). If we can make “introductions” into a genre of its own, then this is the best introduction that I have ever read. I tried reading Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith as an undergraduate, but it was incomprehensible and tedious (I’m sure it still is). Then I came across his Theological Investigations essays, which are far more accessible and instructive, on a wide range of topics. Kilby is the perfect guide to the major themes across his work and the unifying principles (especially universal grace) which aren’t always worked-out in a fully consistent way and are open to some important criticisms, which she explains. Still, I came away from the book with the great appreciation that Rahner did what he did, even if it is so that we can go beyond him with a more careful articulation than we would have otherwise. Also, of particular note is Kilby’s excellent presentation of Rahner’s sacramentology, which is a definite step beyond Thomas and Trent, in my opinion. It certainly would have made the Reformation a little easier going!

Mary: The Complete Resource (Oxford, 2007) by Sarah Jane Boss, editor. I love the boldness of the subtitle: the complete resource. This is a very handy and informative guide to the history, theology, and culture of the cult of Mary. It is a collection of essays on, e.g., Mary in the NT, Mary in the early fathers, and more specialized essays, such as Francesca Murphy’s essay on von Balthasar’s Marian ecclesiology. The historical surveys are fair and unbiased, and the theological treatments (including a reproduction of Rahner’s essay on the Immaculate Conception) are of a high quality, representing the more worthwhile Catholic work on Mary (unless you think Alphonsus Liguori is the way to go!). The book is very expensive, but I got it for cheap at a used bookstore.

Protestant Thought Before Kant (Harper & Row, 1962) by A. C. McGiffert, with a preface by Jaroslav Pelikan. This is a classic in historical theology, written in the early 20th century. McGiffert was a student of Harnack, to whom he dedicates the book; thus, you can expect a careful attention to historical contingency, while not afraid to make broad claims and interesting conjectures. His viewpoint is largely materialistic and historicist, which actually makes the work more interesting and important, insofar as it clearly exhibits the medieval context of the Reformers and their concerns, something taken for granted today but not in McGiffert’s day. The transition to the Enlightenment is a departure from the Reformers and their standing in patristic and medieval Christendom. This transition is where McGiffert is at his best, and the book is well worth getting for this alone. However, his reading of Luther, especially on Law and Grace, is pitiful and simply wrong (faulting Luther for stark contradictions and antinomianism).

Engagement With God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship (Ignatius, 2008) by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Nothing by von B is “bad.” If I could have written this essay then I would be quite proud of myself. But, I have to say that this was the least interesting thing I’ve read by him. In fact, I can’t even remember any particularly noteworthy points, except stuff that you can find in more detail and better form in his trilogy. Maybe I just need to read it again. It is supposed to be a condensed presentation of his Theological Dramatics (Theo-Drama, 5 volumes), just as Love Alone is Credible is a short presentation of his Theological Aesthetics (The Glory of the Lord, 7 volumes), but the latter book is a far superior work…and I still don’t understand his Theo-Drama (from what I read in Dr. Murphy’s seminar).

Foundations of Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 1981 [volume 1], 1983 [volume 2]) by Otto Weber. I’m still working through the first volume, and I’m highly impressed. So far, he is making a lot of the same points, on method and prolegomena, as found in volume one of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. That, of course, is a good thing.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 1992) by Karl Barth. These are Barth’s lectures delivered in America soon after his retirement in 1962. This book is usually recommended along with Dogmatics in Outline and Credo as good smaller introductory works to Barth’s corpus. I would read Evangelical Theology first. Credo is a bit too difficult for the novice, and Dogmatics in Outline doesn’t quite convey the importance of what Barth’s project is doing. ET, however, has more of Barth explicitly telling the reader what he is doing, why he is doing it, and why you should do it too. You will be a poorer theologian for not having read Barth, and this book will give you a sense of why.

In lieu of reading novels, I watch a lot of movies. You cannot go wrong with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.

Bogie and Bacall

John Calvin

See parts one, two, three, four, and five.

This continues Lecerf’s argument for the necessity of the Church and the trustworthiness of her testimony (such as related to the canon) under certain conditions relative to the doctrine of God, establishing the objective ground for the subjective witness of the Holy Spirit. If you have not read any of these posts, then go back and read part five, where his arguments really begin. This is solid stuff and very interesting. All in all, I think it helps to establish a compelling vision (hermeneutic) for reading the history of the Church and the purposes of God.


But it is important to render to the Church that which belongs to the Church, and to the Holy Spirit that which belongs to the Holy Spirit. To the Church, it belongs to teach.

It it through her that the Reformers learnt the existence of Holy Scripture, the New Testament, the Redeemer, the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the heavenly Father. These men were not, therefore, tabulae rasae, nor did they wish to make a tabula rasa of the past. They based their teaching upon the Catholic Christianity in which they were born, and were content to abide in it.

To the Holy Spirit it belongs to teach with certainty of faith those who understand the teaching of their particular Church, which latter remains, in spite of it all, a supernatural fact, and certain of whose teachings, for example, the articles of the Creed, the inspiration of Scripture, the canon of the New Testament, are the affirmation of divine facts and teachings. These spiritual realities, being transcendent to reason and the senses, can only be known in this sense by means of faith which is a supernatural organ, and the faith which believes on the authority of God is the testimony of the Holy Spirit whose mark of origin it bears.

What gave, and gives, in the eyes of orthodox Protestants an importance of the first order to the unanimous testimony of the Church concerning the canon of the New Testament, is the fact that God produces in their religious consciousness the certainty that the existence of the Church is a divine fact. And He produces this certainty by the very preaching of the truth which is already a word of God, as such, susceptible of being sealed in the hearts of the faithful before they have read the Scriptures. This Scripture of the New Testament is given them by their particular Church, the only one that they know directly, basing itself on the consensus of Christian antiquity which, triumphing over previous hesitations, settled its contents at the councils of Hippo Regius and Carthage in the 4th century. The slight deviations of certain heretical communities (Monophysites), or of particular teachings, on these points of detail, are insignificant in the presence of such impressive agreement. By the consent of the Church, our Reformers and their immediate disciples and successors were brought to feel a profound respect for the venerable documents which constitute the New Testament.

But they could not, legitimately, even before their separation from Rome, establish a certitude of divine faith relative to the universal Church, in the sense in which the Tridentine Fathers willed that it should be received, namely, with a respect equal to the word of God, because this tradition does not respond to the required criterion: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum. [The Vincentian Canon, circa A.D. 450]

This tradition in their eyes had been “believed” practically “everywhere” and “by all,” but they knew very well that it could not command the epithet “always.” Calvin, as an exegete, was not ignorant, for example, of the difficulties which had been experienced by the Epistle to the Hebrews or 2 Peter in gaining admission to the canon, and he was familiar with most of the reasons which can be urged against the attribution of these epistles to the authors assigned to them by tradition. And Luther knew as much about this matter as his brilliant successor.

They could not legitimately base this faith on the decision of an infallible oecumenical council, for the excellent reason that, to their knowledge at least, no oecumenical council had sanctioned the canon in detail. The Council of Trent did so, indeed, but this was either after the death of the Reformers or several years after they had consummated their rupture with Rome. And when the Council of Trent, assembled, there were reasons which, in their eyes, as in ours, disqualified it from meriting the title oecumenical.

Finally, they could not have based their faith on the decision of a pope speaking ex cathedra, even supposing one to have existed. The Vatican Council had not yet assembled, and it was not until 1870 that Roman Catholics knew that it was de fide that such decisions must be considered articles of faith.

Is this equivalent to saying that Roman Catholics at the time of Luther and Calvin were unaware of the existence of the New Testament? Certainly not. Those who were sufficiently instructed knew this fact perfectly well and indeed it was in the New Testament that Luther found the word which delivered him from the terrors which assailed his conscience. He had been told that God spoke through this book. He heard and believed, he knew henceforth by a direct experience that his teachers had not deceived him in this matter. It was in this way that the testimony of the Holy Spirit was engraven on his soul.

But one difficulty presented itself to which, under the pressure of the moment, they had to find a reply. It was in the reforming book itself that their adversaries sought for weapons with which to defend the errors from which the Reformers were delivering the Church. To the sola fide of Luther was opposed the Epistle of James. Zwingli, condemning the invocation of angels, was shown the angel in the Apocalypse causing the prayers of the faithful to ascend to heaven in the smoke of incense.

From such difficulties, the importance of which was exaggerated, the first two Reformers saw no other way of escape than to distinguish in the teaching of Scripture between that which is, and that which is not, canonical. Zwingli’s criterion was the glory of God; Luther’s, the plan of salvation. Without wishing it, as their subsequent attitude to the illuminati showed, this was to introduce subjectivism into the heart of the formal principle of the Reformation. Great honour has been paid to them on this account, but, for our part we deplore this stupid error of the pioneers of the Reformation. We would not throw a stone at such men, however, for they rendered too great services to peace of conscience and purity of worship for us to do aught but honour their memory.

They were not able, however, to see clearly the testimony of the Holy Spirit in all its fullness. It was given to the courageous and balanced genius of Geneva to visualize the situation as a whole. He had, of course, the immense advantage of succeeding Zwingli and Luther and of being able to gauge the extent of the danger with which “fantastic spirits” menaced the future of the Reformation.

Following the example of our Reformer, we start with these two immediately verifiable facts: there exists a New Testament, recognized by the Roman Church, in whose bosom the Reformers were born, as given by divine inspiration; which, moreover, must be received, on the confession of that Church, as testimony of the Occident is corroborated by that of the Oriental Churches, abstracting as to points of detail from certain heretical communions.

We are aware, of course, that in the case of the deuterocanonical books of the New Testament this agreement ws not established at first glance. The formation of the canon, as we know it, was the result of a slow and gradual process, the practical conclusion of which was demonstrated at the synods of Hippo and Carthage.

This process may be represented in the following manner. First, the Churches read in public the writings which their leaders and people acknowledged as prophetic or charismatic by reason of their apostolic origin or, in default, of their antiquity and utility; in other words, of their intrinsic value as historic witnesses or as instruments of edification. Several of these writings no longer figure in the present canon: those alone remaining by a constant tradition. In the second class were those which could not be rejected without offending the piety of which they were the objects on the part of brethren whose feelings in the matter had a right to be respected. Presumed apostolic authority, mediate or immediate, was doubtless an important factor, but not until after A. D. 265 did it become a conditio sine qua non. The proof of this is to be seen in the fact that Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, who died in that year, simply to humour the sentiments of men whom he respected, sought to safeguard the canonicity of the Apocalypse by attributing it to another John than the Apostle.

The consensus in question is thus the conclusion of an historic process, but henceforth nothing can prevent it from being what it is. The individual scholar may indeed ascertain that in this canon there are secondary parts less firmly attested by the external critique than the others. But he must acknowledge that the mass is cemented and that it has been proposed finally for the acceptance of the Church, which has recognized, and recognizes, that God has spoken to her in and through this Holy Scripture.

In regard to this social fact, nothing can be changed: the Church has received the canon of the New Testament as it is today, in the same way as the Synagogue had bequeathed to it the Hebrew canon. The canon cannot be remade for the simple reason that history cannot be remade. The Council of Trent had an humiliating experience in regard to this question when it wanted to add the Apocrypha to the Hebrew canon.

Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1981), pp. 324-328

Here is a an audio clip of Lane G. Tipton on the priesthood and heavenly mediation of Jesus Christ:

“The Complete-Yet-Ongoing Work of Christ”

Very good stuff.

zwingli preaching

This post continues a series on Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics.

See parts 1 (intro), 2, 3, and 4

Here, finally, begins Lecerf’s main argument — arguing, once again, for a mediating position between liberal subjectivism (canon within a canon, et cetera) and Roman Catholic infallibilism (canon as derivative from inscrutable ecclesiasticism, et cetera). The former is correct to maintain the primacy of the material content of the canon (Christ) and the Holy Spirit’s witness thereto, but the latter is correct to maintain the necessity of the Church, ordained by Christ for the economy of the Holy Spirit, working corporately (not just individually). Moreover, a responsible attention to historical reality, in the Church’s acceptance of the canon, reveals neither the subjective immediacy of the liberals nor the fixed and secure ecclesiaticism of the Romans.


Among Protestants, the apologetico-historical school, even when orthodox, seeks to establish the canon by the historical critique. This method leads to a cul-de-sac. It can only produce a conjectural knowledge, reserved for an intellectual élite, for whom faith is not enough.

Le Clerc’s line of argument in the 18th century, resumed independently by Ritschl in the following century, possesses an undeniable value from a human point of view. It is certain that, in order to rediscover original and authentic Christianity, we must trace it to its source, or at least to an epoch in which the tradition concerning Christ was still living; certain too that, to say the least, the undisputed writings of the New Testament which form the core of the Christian canon, satisfy this need in a large measure.

But, for fidelity in the transmission of original texts, we are almost entirely dependent on the witness of the Church of the 2nd century; and, as our Lord left us no writings, speculative criticism must attempt to disentangle His authentic teaching from the modifications which may have been made in it by the thought of the men of the first Christian generations. The true Protestant canon, according to Eugene Menegoz, must be the word of Christ, “our only Master.” The trouble is that this canon is historically impossible to determine in any strict sense. History, by itself, without a religious axiom, can give the Protestant no authority distinct from his own “private opinion.” Finally, the simple will have to be content with the Professoren Christus among many and various personifications.

As to the canon of the New Testament, properly speaking, it is represented as a late creation of the episcopate in response to the initiative of the heresiarch Marcion who was the first to entertain the idea of one. In actual fact, there is only one primitive Christian literature, which has been constituted a closed canon by the Church, with the intention of forming a pendant to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament and giving ancient catholicism a firmer base on which to build its tradition and its regula fidei than the allegorical exegesis of the sacred books of the Jews.

In order to establish this role of the episcopate in the creation of the canon, use is made of a text of Origen [Proemium Lucae] according to which “the money-changers expert in the testing of currency” have not admitted — according to an alternative reading, have not examined minutely — all the numerous gospels extant, but have received only “the four” that we possess. “The Church of God,” he concludes, “prefers these four to the exclusion of all the others.” It is generally admitted that the criterion employed was the supposed mediate or immediate apostilicity of the document.

We will not discuss the question whether Origen’s “money-changer assayers” are intended to represent the bishops, as Julicher would have it. This seems doubtful in view of a text of his Commentary on Matthew (25: 27); also from the fact that, in his Proemium Lucae, he attributes to the ancient people “the gift of discernment of spirits”; and, finally, because he believed that in his own time there survived certain rare Christians endowed with this gift. Now, he could not have been ignorant that the number of bishops was considerable at the time when he wrote. We do not deny that at a given moment the criterion of apostolicity was applied to the disputed writings. We would merely observe that there are texts and facts which go to show that these writings were often received for religious motives and regarded as canonical, even though it was recognized that they were not of apostolic origin. Finally, a leading critic has confessed that it is impossible to do more that make conjectures concerning the factors which concurred in the formation of the canon. [Adolf Harnack, Lehrb. d. Dogmengeschichte, p. 343]

How much more solid, at first sight, appears the thesis proposed by Rome. The Roman Catholic knows no hesitation concerning the list of canonical writings. The contours of his New Testament are delimited precisely by the infallible authority of the Church, in accordance with the decisions of the ecumenical councils of Florence and Trent. Unfortunately, the infallible authority of the Church is, as we have seen, a colossus with feet of clay. An authority decides nothing unless it has previously been received. If the canon of the Word of God rests on the decision of the Church, upon what then does the authority and infallibility of the latter rest? The Tu es Petrus is in the Gospel by Matthew. Let us propose for a moment that it proves what Rome would have it prove. How am I to know that the Gospel by Matthew is inspired, canonical, and a rule of faith?

Even if we abstract from this preliminary objection, how strange it is to suppose, with the Roman system, that there can be an authority superior to the Word of God, necessary to legitimize that Word in the minds of believers. It is extremely improbable that a text immediately and totally inspired by God could not be received unless it had previously been authenticated by certain men, supposed indeed to be infallible but admitted to be uninspired.

If we are to have a canon other than our own subjectivity, we must put ourselves in the position of the Reformers, and indicate as the means of recognizing it, not the hesitant authority of the critic, or the juridical authority of the Church, but the unanimity realized practically at the end of the 4th century of the Christian era and confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of the faithful.

Roman controversialists exult and imagine us to be very embarrassed when they object that the Reformers and the first Protestants could not have known that the canon of the New Testament was correct and complete by any other means that the infallible authority of the Roman Church form whom they received its sacred pages. But this triumph would be of brief duration if these polemists agreed to regard these things as they happened in reality, instead of remaining in the clouds of speculation.

The Reformers and the first Protestants were certainly Christians, and Christians living under the Roman obedience, more or less defined, in imperial Germany, Gallican France and an England in which the ties with Rome had been loosening even before the reign of Henry VIII. Properly speaking, it was from their respective national Churches, more strictly from the local Churches in which they had grown up, that they received the principles and elements of Christianity, including the teaching on the existence of Holy Scripture and of a Biblical canon.

Although the state of these Churches was unsatisfactory in the extreme, they were still “Churches,” diseased branches, indeed, but still in some sense branches of the tree which in another figure is called the mystical body of Christ. When they taught, among desolating errors, some point of divine truth, they were able by its means to bring forth souls to the life of faith. Their teaching, in the measure in which it was subject to the Word of God, showed Christ and His Word; conformed itself to that Word, could be, and was, effectively sealed in the hearts of true believers by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1981), pp. 321-324

Silly Aristotle

June 10, 2009


“Let us summarize our disagreement [with Aristotle]. We are bothered, at the outset, with his insistence on logic. He thinks the syllogism a description of man’s way of reasoning, whereas it merely describes man’s way of dressing up his reasoning for the persuasion of another mind; he supposes that thought begins with premisses and seeks their conclusions, when actually thought begins with hypothetical conclusions and seeks their justifying premisses, — and seeks them best by the observation of particular events under the controlled and isolated conditions of experiment. Yet how foolish we should be to forget that two thousand years have changed merely the incidentals of Aristotle’s logic, that Occam and Bacon and Whewell and Mill and a hundred others have but found spots in his sun, and that Aristotle’s creation of this new discipline of thought, and his firm establishment of its essential lines, remain among the lasting achievements of the human mind.” (Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, 2nd edition, p. 90)

“Aristotle’s ethics is a branch of his logic: the ideal life is like a proper syllogism. He gives us a handbook of propriety rather than a stimulus to improvement. An ancient critic spoke of him as ‘moderate to excess.’ An extremist might call the Ethics the champion collection of platitudes in all literature; and an Anglophobe would be consoled with the thought that Englishmen in their youth had done advance penance for the imperialistic sins of their adult years, since both at Cambridge and at Oxford they had been compelled to read every word of the Nicomachean Ethics. We long to mingle fresh green Leaves of Grass with these drier pages, to add Whitman’s exhilarating justification of sense joy to Aristotle’s exaltation of a purely intellectual happiness. We wonder if this Aristotelian ideal of immoderate moderation has had anything to do with the colorless virtue, the starched perfection, the expressionless good form, of the British aristocracy.” (ibid., p. 91)

I’m really liking this Will Durant fellow.


June 10, 2009

Charleston, Broad Street, St. Michael's Episcopal Church

Charleston, Broad Street, St. Michael's Episcopal

I’ve been on vacation — Pawleys Island, SC, north of Charleston — and now I’ll get back to propagating things I like, also known as blogging.