ECT on Mary

October 30, 2009

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If you have not already read the latest statement from Evangelicals and Catholics Together, you should. The topic is Mary. Most ecumenical statements are pretty bland and predictable. We’re all familiar with the conciliatory nuances involved with statements on soteriology or ecclesiology. But when it comes to mariology, it’s pretty hard to nuance “conceived without sin” or “bodily assumed into heaven.” So, we have the Evangelicals saying, more or less, “Nope, not gonna go there. What Bible are you reading?” Actually, they did a very admirable job of accommodating, albeit minimally, certain intentions enshrined in the Catholic position. For example:

Evangelicals find unnecessary and unbiblical the notion that Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception. Still, we affirm much of what this teaching is intended to convey—that Mary was the object of God’s gracious election in Christ; that she was uniquely prepared to become the mother of our Lord; that she is an extraordinary model of the call to discipleship and the life of holiness; that her assent to the purpose of the Lord was itself the result of God’s unmerited favor toward her—an example of sola gratia; and that she should be honored and called “blessed one” in all places and by all generations.

The entirety of the Evangelical response is marked by a deep understanding of both the history and the theology behind the Catholic position. Thus, they rightly note the apocryphal sources as varying tradents, as well as the pious intentions in the trajectories which yielded the dogmatic formulas. I was very impressed. I would really like to know who was the principal writer for the Evangelical response — perhaps Professor John Woodbridge (TEDS) and/or Professor Kevin Vanhoozer (Wheaton), signers of the statement.

The Catholic portion of the statement was also well done. Of particular interest, the Catholic position makes it clear from the beginning that they are working with a “progressive revelation” of sorts (of course, they would never say “progressive revelation”). Thus, we read:

The Bible is the foundation of all Catholic teaching. Catholics also believe, in accordance with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to teach the Church all things (John 14:16), that, under the influence of the Spirit, the gospel of grace is more fully and completely understood. Thus the Catholic Church believes that in its listening to, praying with, and reflecting on the truth of Holy Scripture, the Spirit is active as a divine guide, leading to a rich and comprehensive consideration of God’s Word. The Spirit leads the Church to see the full implications of the gospel through the teaching of the early Fathers, through ecumenical councils, through prayer and liturgy, through the lives of the saints, and through the study of theologians. All of these help the Church to see more clearly the profound meaning of Christ’s message and the extraordinary role of his mother, Mary, in the history of salvation.

The key word here is “implications.” St. Thomas and others would say, “fittingness.” The bridge between fittingness and knowledge is the Roman Catholic magisterium. That’s the divide between Evangelicals and Catholics.

Invitation to Dogmatic Theology

I recently noticed that CBD has reduced the price of Paul McGlasson’s Invitation to Dogmatic Theology: A Canonical Approach (Baker 2006). It is now two bucks! You have no excuse not to purchase. As the title indicates, this is an introductory survey of dogmatic theology, with special emphasis on the canon of Scripture’s authority in theology. You will see a lot of influence by Karl Barth and Brevard Childs, who writes the foreword.

While you’re shopping, CBD has Sara Grove’s Nomad documentary for $2.99. You can watch the trailer here. Also, Audio Adrenaline’s Until My Heart Caves In is only $1.99. It includes one of their best singles, “King.”

Frame on Horton

October 21, 2009

I’ve been reading through Dr. John Frame’s rather long review of Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity, the latest in his popular-level critiques of contemporary American evangelicalism. As I’ve said before on this blog and other blogs, Horton is the best of the lot, especially his Covenant series, but his broad generalizations and forced historical narratives are annoying, especially when he gets with his White Horse Inn friends. So, you can imagine how happy I am to read Frame’s thoughtful repudiation of Horton’s interpretation of evangelicalism. There are so many good points, such as:

“To accept conclusions as radical as Horton’s, I need to see at least one careful study by a mature evangelical believer, who is also a careful statistician, and who shows me his/her work. For statistical science is not religiously neutral. When Newsweek, for example, says that Christians are seeking “peace of mind” (35) why should we assume that the reporter is able to distinguish between a mere psychological comfort and the peace that Scripture promises to God’s people (John 14:27, 16:33, Rom. 1:7, Phil. 4:7)? When the reporter notes that Christians seek “personal transformation” (35), why should we assume that he understands the difference between psychological healing on the one hand and biblical regeneration and sanctification on the other? And why should we assume that he understands the relationship between sanctification and psychological healing? A mature evangelical Christian sociologist would at least have these distinctions in mind, and he might understand the ambiguities of the language he cites.”

Also, it seems that Michael Spencer (iMonk) has come around to seeing the same problems with this “White Horse Inn” vision of American evangelicalism. You should read both Frame and Spencer’s reflections.

I think the root problem with Horton and friends is that they have been schooled, theologically and philosophically, with a strict dichotomy between the subjective and the objective. The subjective register is invariably the bad register, and a distinct group of terms (“experience,” “feeling,” “affective,” etc.) have been thus branded. This is why they are incapable of reading neo-orthodoxy without accusing it of subordinating revelation to experience (when this is precisely the opposite of what they were doing!). This is taken for granted by most, and a whole host of Reformed students are currently trained to look at the entire world through this unbalanced dichotomy. Pick a register and move on. This is how they score easy points in discourse and fancy themselves as intelligent.

Roland Recht

There are a lot of dubious interpretations of Gothic art. Victor Hugo’s Romanticist anti-clericalism is one example, and it is a popular one among those more inclined to view religion from its populist-sociological angle, which tends to forget dogmas and doctrinal trends. As such, the gospel commission of the Church is less important than discerning the human yearnings projected by the community.

However, those who are more inclined toward extolling the value of theology and the work of the Church, in forming piety and artistic expression, will appreciate Roland Recht’s interpretation of Gothic art, in his volume, Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals (U. Chicago, 2008). The following excerpt is from the final, concluding chapter. The last paragraph reminds me of Flannery O’Connor.

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[The focus on structural form] does not do justice to three other factors that complement and reinforce each other, without which no “Gothic” art would ever have seen the light of day: the way the sacrament of the Eucharist developed; the mysticism of the Passion inaugurated by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and extended in the practices initiated by St. Francis; and the new standing of the visual arts in a society where the written word surrendered its dominant position to them. The result was necessarily a rethinking of architectural language. The mysticism of the Passion, thanks to the renewal of modes of figurative expression, acquired an ever more elaborate mode of representation, and thanks to architecture it acquired a space entirely governed by the “eucharistic perspective.”

“Gothic” art is first and foremost an abundance of visual images that make architecture their support. But the architecture itself is treated as an image; it solicits attention continually, one form pointing to another in accordance with a play of relationships, never allowing the human eye to rest. Never were forms so numerous or so complex, giving the visible shapes to the teachings of Scripture, with pride of place taken by the Incarnation and its final, tragic act, the Passion — which allowed evil, cruelty, hatred, and suffering to enter the artistic representation. Everything that Neoplatonism had dismissed from the definition of beauty thus found a place in the story of salvation. Christ is God, “but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” as we read in the Epistle to the Philippians.

St. Augustine wrought a revolution in the classical art of oratory by rejecting the hierarchical classification of the three modi, or genera, of discourse, handed down from Cicero and deemed to correspond to, respectively, sublime, intermediate, and lowly subjects. This distinction has no relevance, St. Augustine argued, to spiritual subjects concerning the salvation of mankind. In the Christian view, nothing is low or despicable; everything has its place in the overall plan of salvation. Similarly, the comical, the obscene, the ugly occupy a position equal to that of the beautiful. Thus ugly is not the diametrical opposite of the beautiful, which means that it is possible for the devil to adopt the lineaments of divine beauty. If the truth of the Scriptures remains inaccessible to many, it is not because their style is too lofty but because the truth is lodged in the most profound depths of the text, where greatness and littleness mingle. It is humility that will show us the only path of access to this truth.

pp. 308-309

clockwise, from top left: E. Y. Mullins, P. T. Forsyth, E. Brunner, K. Barth

In the comment thread to the previous post, I lamented the lack of serious engagement, from too many evangelical students, with the theology of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and kindred spirits. In response, Mike Cheek asked about recommendations for understanding their context and what they were accomplishing. Naturally, not missing an opportunity to proselytize, I wrote him a mini-lecture on early 20th century theology. I am reproducing it below for the possible benefit of others.

Note: I do make some brief remarks on the propriety of the “neo-orthodox” label.

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These “theologians of the Word” (i.e., early 20th century “neo-orthodox” writers) were working against an epistemological and metaphysical crisis — the fallout of Kant’s rejection of metaphysics, which was adopted by mainline Protestant theology (in various ways), from Schleiermacher to Ritschl to Harnack to Tillich.

With H. R. Mackintosh and P. T. Forsyth in Britain, E. Y. Mullins in America, and then Emil Brunner and Karl Barth in Switzerland/Germany, we have the first serious, in-depth offensive against this liberal tradition. [Prior to this, confessional critics of the dominant liberal academy were largely, with notable exceptions, on the defensive, resorting to apologetics or sometimes fideism.] All of the neo-orthodox theologians were trained in the liberal academy (e.g., Forsyth went to Germany to study under Ritschl), which contributes to their incisive critiques, as well as an appreciative appropriation of the liberal attack on metaphysics. Their response was, what I call, an “evangelical metaphysics.” In short, the power of the Word — the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit — creates a metaphysics of its own. Indeed, the Word creates the only metaphysics possible. Apart from this Word, Kant is right and metaphysics is impossible, except for certain moral postulates that never achieve a sure foundation outside of the human will’s self-determination (which Nietzsche correctly saw).

Thus, the liberals rightly (against the confessional orthodox) accepted the Kantian attack on a philosophical metaphysics but wrongly (against the neo-orthodox) extended this attack to any metaphysics whatsoever. As a result, the liberals rejected the agency of a God “out there” working and revealing himself “here.” Hence, we see the moralism and demythology that plagues this liberal tradition. Instead, the neo-orthodox, in a sense, humbled themselves before the power of the “wholly other” Word, which came in Israel/Christ, and comes now in the Spirit, and resides in His own self-sufficiency apart and above the created order (hence, meta-physics, above-the-physical).

The best introduction to all of this is to actually read the theologians themselves. They were fully conscious of what they were doing. I highly recommend P. T. Forsyth’s The Principle of Authority (currently published by Wipf & Stock) as an introduction to these issues and the neo-orthodox response. It should be noted that they did not think of themselves as “neo-orthodox” or even as a cohesive “movement.” Barth especially rejected any sort of labeling, in part because of his own eccentric approach (e.g., his vigorous attack on any natural knowledge of God, which nonetheless sort of allows for a natural knowledge of God!). The main problem with labels is that their use tends toward an over-emphasis of common traits, forgetting important differences (oh, like in the presentation you are currently reading!). Still, labels are unavoidable and helpful for students to organize the massive landscape of theology and philosophy.

Emil Brunner’s The Mediator (which can be found used for a reasonable price) is also a great introduction to this theology of the Word, especially the first two chapters where he positions himself vis-à-vis Schleiermacher and Ritschl, on the one hand, and Protestant orthodoxy, on the other hand. Barth is undoubtedly the greatest of all of these theologians, but because of the esoteric nature of his works and the shifts in his approach, from his more existential-deconstructive early writings to his more positive-constructive writings, he should probably be read after grappling with Forsyth and Brunner. However, Barth, like the others, always remained fairly existential, given his/their critique of scholasticism. I call this “good existentialism” as opposed to the bad existentialism which remains at the level of existentialism, lacking confidence in the new world of God’s re-creation. Barth’s Evangelical Theology is the best and most accessible introduction to this confidence amidst an existential critique of the world.

posted by Kevin Davis

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For further reading, Paul Moser (Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Chicago) has an excellent faculty page with an extensive list of free pdf books by P. T. Forsyth, Emil Brunner, John Baillie, H. H. Farmer, H. R. Mackintosh, et al.

Edgar Y. Mullins’ dogmatic theology, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression, can be read or downloaded for free by clicking here or purchased from Wipf & Stock.

I am wayward

October 9, 2009

In a recent post, I said that Barth and Torrance were “the poster boys for wayward anti-confessionalism.” Just to prove my keen powers of observation — and so you know that I’m not making this stuff up — here is the latest post from Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin, professor of church history at Southern:

“Reading Fred Zaspel’s tremendous doctoral thesis on B.B. Warfield and I agree fully with him that it says much that the sesquicentennial of Warfield’s birth—2001—passed virtually unnoticed.  I would agree with Fred that Warfield was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century—much more important in the cause of God than that darling of wayward Evangelicals, Karl Barth!”

Oh my, I am off the straight and narrow. I blame Barth’s winsome prose. The doctrine of election has never been so intoxicating.

Woman Holding a Balance, by Vermeer

A quote and my comment.

The Quote

“Should this type of [Calvinist] doctrine and this form of the religious experience disappear, Christendom would lose its balance-wheel. For it is no disparagement of the energy of evangelical Protestantism of all varieties, in the defense of the common faith, and the war upon the common unbelief, to say that the Genevan theology is always in the front whenever a fearless position has to be taken in behalf of an unpopular but revealed truth; whenever the Christian herald must announce the solemn alternatives of salvation and perdition to a sensuous, a pleasure-loving, and an irritable generation; whenever, in short, the stern and severe work of the perpetual campaign on earth against moral evil has to be done. The best interests of the Church require the continual existence and influence of that comprehensive and self-consistent creed which Augustine formulated out of Scripture, and Calvin reaffirmed and re-enforced. Evangelical Arminians who do not adopt it feel its influence, praying it in their prayers and singing it in their hymns; and Rationalists of all grades while recoiling from it acknowledge its massiveness and strength. It may, therefore, be confidently expected that whatever be the fortunes of a particular Church, or the tendencies of a particular time, this form of doctrine will perpetually survive in Christendom like the Scriptures out of which it was derived.” (William G. T. Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, a.d. 1893, republished by Banner of Truth, 1986, pp. 150-151.)

The Comment

By the use of “balance-wheel,” may we suppose that the other forces, the non-Calvinist determinants in the broader Church, are likewise necessary? Is the “enthusiasm” of folk Protestantism, as found especially among the Baptists and Methodists, necessary for the vitality and general sustenance of Protestantism? Can Calvinism, with its anti-Romanticism, encompass the broad range of personalities necessary for a truly catholic church? Is the work of Michael Horton, D. G. Hart, R. Scott Clark, et al. just a (futile?) attempt to push the pendulum back toward confessional orthodoxy just so it can swing back toward the free church in the succeeding generation?

Ergo, Jonathan Edwards is awesome.

DC*B

October 2, 2009

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Here is my belated review of David Crowder*Band’s Church Music.

Who is David Crowder?

Crowder is the lead singer and principal songwriter for the band. He is a graduate of Baylor University (Waco, TX) where, as a student, he co-founded University Baptist Church in 1995. At UBC, he led the worship band which eventually became David Crowder*Band. They still lead the worship at UBC fairly often. One of the more significant events in Crowder’s life was the death of Kyle Lake, friend and pastor of UBC, who died in 2005 through an electric shock while performing a baptism.

Passion

In addition to the UBC context, Crowder and the band have been significant participants in the Passion collegiate movement — a gathering of bands, including Chris Tomlin, Charlie Hall, et al., and founder-evangelist, Louis Giglio. The bands take turns and tour colleges across the country. There is also an annual conference attended by tens of thousands of college students. It was through Passion, while an undergraduate, that I first learned about David Crowder*Band.

Church Music, the new album

In past interviews, Crowder has described the band’s music as “church music.” They have always paid homage to the hymnody of the Church with creative performances of “Come Thou Fount,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and more, including the opening track of Church Music, “Phos Hilaron (Hail Gladdening Light),” the oldest known hymn (c. 3rd-4th century) outside of the Bible. DC*B’s greatest ambition, however, is the creation of original church music for today. While the lyrics are fairly traditional (e.g., the singing of angels in heaven’s court is a favorite image for Crowder), the music is decidedly modern. It is best described as “progressive electronic rock,” as stated in a review by Kevin R. Davis (not me) at Amazon.com, but it is highly ecclectic, including some Southern folk styles.

This combination of evangelical hymnody and modern styles of music is at its most thorough and original form in Church Music, their fifth major studio album since their debut in 2002, Can You Hear Us?. DC*B have always been noted for their originality, but Church Music is their most recognizably distinct album. There is nothing that sounds like this. The layers of beats and keyboard synths are no longer ornamental, like in past albums; now they are seamlessly joined with the organic (guitars, violins, drums) as the controlling forces in the melodies. Nothing is sloppy here, oh like way too many indie bands that believe multiple layers in-itself constitutes brilliant songwriting. While listening to the album, there is never any doubt that Crowder knows exactly what he is doing with each arrangement. This is a long album: 17 full tracks, each produced with great care. Also, most of the songs are purposefully arranged where the melodies and tempo of the prior song is transitioned to that of the following song, which makes this the most cohesive album in the DC*B catalogue.

It’s too early to say how Church Music will wear in the long run. I think it could very well be considered their masterpiece, and it has already received a lot of acclaim. However, the heightened synthetic element could easily yield a longing among fans and critics for more of their organic styles. I predict that this will be the direction for their next album. I, for one, would like to see the banjo return.

I find it strange that Herman Ridderbos is pretty much given universal approbation from confessional Reformed folks — at least, those who have graduated from Westminster Philly. Yet, these same folks delight in snide remarks about Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance on the doctrine of election (e.g., the guys who do the Christ the Center program). I find it strange because Ridderbos’ own doctrine of election is almost identical to Barth’s and, especially, Torrance’s. Ridderbos’ chapter on election in his book on Paul (p. 341 ff, click link to read) could have been written by Torrance with no significant alterations, and it even echoes (almost verbatim) Torrance’s introduction to the Reformed catechisms in The School of Faith. Also, the entire thrust of Ridderbos’ argument against “definite, individual election” is animated by his anti-scholastic, anti-metaphysical, neo-orthodox-friendly “redemptive-historical” emphases.

So, what’s the deal? Ridderbos is given a pass, while Barth and Torrance are the poster boys for wayward anti-confessionalism.