May 29, 2014
I love The Gaslight Anthem. The cultural savants would never sink to their level, least of all graduate students in the pursuit of critical acumen.
The Gaslight Anthem is utterly without pretension. They embrace melody like it was invented yesterday. This is, in fact, hard work. As I like to say, the eternal is far more difficult to communicate than the pedantic and peculiar.
As much as I enjoy this song, their best song and video is “Handwritten.”
Their pop-punk roots are perfectly expressed in “Bring It On.” Any song that begins with, “My queen of the Bronx…,” has got to be good.
May 27, 2014
For my part, I would like to offer an excerpt from Williston Walker’s John Calvin: The Organizer of Reformed Protestantism (also available from the current publisher). Walker’s biography of Calvin was the most thorough and most acclaimed in the first half of the twentieth century, among English-language biographies of Calvin. Walker, who was an esteemed professor of church history at Yale, benefited from the massive resurgence of Calvin scholarship in the late 19th / early 20th century, paralleled by a resurgence of studies on Luther. Since then, we have benefited from the more recent biographies from T. H. L. Parker (1975), Bernard Cottret (1995), and Bruce Gordon (2009), among others. They each have their invaluable contributions toward understanding Calvin’s life, but I have especially enjoyed Walker’s biography.
Walker is not afraid to offer analysis and conjecture, with appropriate evidence of course. Calvin’s life is notoriously obscured by the minimal amount of self-reflection on Calvin’s part and even a minimal amount of contemporaneous reflections from friends. But here is a nice example of where Walker ventures to exhibit Calvin’s “winsome” character as a student in Paris:
Besides the more intimate friends already mentioned, it is probable that Calvin’s membership in that portion of the student body known as the “nation” of Picardy would bring him into close touch with all students or instructors of prominence who regarded his native region as their home. But, as these relations are inferential rather than a matter of proof, it is easy to insist upon them too much. It is evident, however, from such friendships as have been described, most, if not all, of which were now formed, that the young student at Paris must have been of more than ordinary attractiveness and charm. To win the regard of such a man as Cordier, to hold the affections of young noblemen like those of the house of Montmor-Hangest, who assuredly were under no obligation to continue a friendship had it proved irksome, above all to gain the goodwill of a family of distinguished station and scholarly eminence like that of Cop, bespeak unusual winsomeness in a student of relatively humble birth, with little save himself to offer. Nor is the quality of his friendships less illuminative as to his personal character. To attract a Cordier or the household of a Cop certainly indicates a nature attuned to the better and finer side of life. No student of low impulses, or unrefined tastes, or of a misanthropic, uncompanionable disposition, could have won the permanent regard or made the lasting impression that Calvin did upon those whose friendship it was an honour to possess.
Yet legend, reflecting it may be the severer traits of his later life, has ascribed to the student Calvin a censoriousness of judgment in his relations to his companions, and an unsociability of temper, that, if true, would paint for us a very different portrait of the young scholar whose experiences at the University of Paris have just been reviewed. A story, credited by Le Vasseur to Calvin’s brilliant renegade one-time friend and disciple, but afterward enemy and calumnist, Francois Baudoin (1520-1573), relates that his fellow students called him “the accusative case,” because of his denunciatory spirit. It is unnecessary, however, to weigh the question of Baudoin’s degree of truthfulness, as the statement is not to be found in his own published controversy with Calvin, and has no real foundation. A degree of plausibility is given to it, it is true, by Beza’s declaration regarding the friend whose biography he was writing that, as a student at Paris, Calvin was not merely very religious, but a strict censor of all vices among his associates (severus omnium in suis sodalibus vitiorum censor). Student life, as is abundantly witnessed not merely by the satires of Rabelais, but by the sober letters of Erasmus and of many less distinguished scholars, was apt in that day to be lawless and vicious enough; and an earnest, religious, and scholarly youth, of refined tastes, such as Calvin was, could have had little sympathy with its cruder excesses. But that he was misanthropic, of unfriendly spirit, or was regarded by his associates with aversion, there is no adequate evidence. The facts point to an opposite conclusion; and he appears at the completion of his course under the Faculty of Arts, in his nineteenth year, a student of high personal character, great linguistic and dialectic promise, able to make and keep friends whose interest in him must have been primarily due to the attractive qualities of head and heart which he revealed to them. The report of his successes at the University must have pleased his old patrons, the canons of the cathedral at Noyon, for in September, 1527, they added to his ecclesiastical holding the curacy of Saint-Martin de Martheville. The increase in his income was considerable, and the purpose which impelled the gift can have been naught else than a desire to aid a brilliant young fellow-townsman in his studies, for the relations of Gerard Cauvin to the chapter were already such that the benefice cannot have been given for the father’s sake. Certainly the young student from Noyon was well treated by the friends who had known him in his boyhood town and, in turn, must have possessed qualities which commanded their regard.
[John Calvin: The Organizer of Reformed Protestantism, pp. 41-43]
Once again, I highly recommend Walker’s biography, alongside the others mentioned above. I would start with Walker.
May 26, 2014
Published in 1537 and while in his late twenties, John Calvin’s Instruction in Faith is a concise presentation of Calvin’s system of theology. It dispenses with the technical debates of the day and simply presents the positive tenets of the Reformed faith. It was written in French for “the common man.” According to the translator’s foreword, “His intention was not to gain the admiration of scholars, but to inspire a simple faith in the people of Geneva. This treatise presented to the common people the essence of his Institutes of 1536″ (8).
I was reading Instruction in Faith over the weekend and came across Calvin’s statement on sanctification, which is the topic du jour in Reformed circles recently. As with each doctrine in this little book, Calvin carefully communicates the substance of the doctrine:
Just as Christ by means of his righteousness intercedes for us with the Father in order that (he being as our guarantor) we may be considered as righteous, so by making us participants in his spirit, he sanctifies us unto all purity and innocence. For the spirit of the Lord has reposed on Christ without measure — the spirit (I say) of wisdom, of intelligence, of counsel, of strength, of knowledge and reverential fear of the Lord — in order that we all may draw from his fullness and receive grace through the grace that has been given to Christ. As a result, those who boast of having the faith of Christ and are completely destitute of sanctification by his spirit deceive themselves. For the Scripture teaches that Christ has been made for us not only righteousness but also sanctification. Hence, we cannot receive through faith his righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification, because the Lord in one same alliance, which he has made with us in Christ, promises that he will be propitious toward our iniquities and will write his Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16).
Observance of the Law, therefore, is not a work that our power can accomplish, but it is a work of a spiritual power. Through this spiritual power it is brought about that our hearts are cleansed from their corruption and that are softened to obey unto righteousness. Now the function of the Law is for Christians quite different from what it may be without faith; for, when and where the Lord has engraved in our hearts the love for his righteousness, the external teaching of the Law (which before was only charging us with weakness and transgression) is now a lamp to guide our feet, to the end that we may not deviate from the right path. It is now our wisdom through which we are formed, instructed, and encouraged to all integrity; it is our discipline which does not suffer us to be dissolute through evil licentiousness.
[Instruction in Faith, trans. Paul T. Fuhrmann, Westminster Press, 1949, pp. 41-42. The newer edition from WJK Press, 1992, has different pagination. There is also another edition from Banner of Truth with a different translator and title, Truth For All Time.]
The Christian is one who “draws from the fullness” of Christ who is our righteousness before the Father. We have union with Christ through his spirit. Since we share in the same spirit of Christ, we receive both his righteousness and sanctification. This is our “alliance” with Christ.
It is not in our power to obey the law. It is only through our union with Christ and in the power of his spirit that this possibility is open to us. Indeed, the possibility is actual through the softening of our hearts toward obedience. Calvin is clear that this sanctification, realized here and now, is a necessity. But Calvin does not place this demand upon the believer. It is freely given through the same union with Christ that justifies. In a prior chapter, Calvin defines faith as a firm confidence, “the means of which we rest surely in the mercy of God….For thus the definition of faith must be taken from the substance of the promise” (38). Faith is not confidence in one’s sanctification, for that would make oneself the object of faith. It would also make justification contingent upon sanctification, instead of upon the finished work of Christ. As a result, there would be no rest.
But in the repose provided solely by the gospel, we can rejoice in the law. This obedience is a freely given “love for his righteousness” engraved on our hearts. The consummation of this “engraving” is the glorification of our bodies in the new creation, perfecting our desires. Yet, the Christian enjoys intimations of this future glorification here and now, through this love for the righteousness of God. Calvin recognizes that “this regeneration is never accomplished as long as we are in the prison of this mortal body.” Yet, he continues, “it is necessary that the cure of repentance continues until we die” (43).
The “cure of repentance” is a good way to talk about our sanctification. It is never a sanctification that proceeds from a faultless will or disposition. Our actions always require repentance, which is to say that we always require the gospel of justification by faith alone.
Image: 1909 Genevan plaquette commemorating the 350th anniversary of Calvin’s Academy. (source)
May 25, 2014
In a recent two-part video series, Fr. Robert Barron introduces the life and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the most creative, ambitious, and wide-ranging Catholic theologian in the modern period. Balthasar was beloved by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but he is a controversial figure among many Catholic theologians (see Karen Kilby). Fr. Barron does a splendid job introducing Balthasar and commending his works:
In the second part, Fr. Barron focuses more on the particulars of Balthasar’s theology:
For the uninitiated, let me reiterate Fr. Barron’s reference to Balthasar’s “trilogy.” This is the informal name given to Balthasar’s dogmatics, structured around the three “transcendentals” (usually associated with Platonism) of truth, goodness, and beauty. These “properties of being” are convertible, one into the other, such that wherever truth is found, so is goodness and beauty. Wherever goodness is found, so is truth and beauty. Wherever beauty is found, so is goodness and truth. The ordering given by Kant in his threefold Critique is truth (reason), goodness (ethics), and beauty (aesthetic judgment). Balthasar reverses the ordering to beauty, goodness, and truth:
The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics in 7 volumes
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory in 5 volumes
As you can see, not only did Balthasar reverse Kant’s ordering, but he also gives greater volume to the first transcendental of beauty, then goodness, and then reason. There are some very good surveys of Balthasar’s theology, including Stephen Wigley’s Balthasar’s Trilogy (T&T Clark, 2010) and Rodney Howsar’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2009).
May 20, 2014
We all need a little Hauerwas now and then.
Stanley Hauerwas’ 1995 article in First Things, “Preaching As Though We Had Enemies,” is a classic statement of his critique of liberalism’s intellectual posturing and pathos. His particular aim in this article is to reveal how “high humanism” prides itself on “illuminating the human condition,” as illustrated in Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr: “What could be more comforting to modern consciousness than to discover that ‘ultimate concern’ and ‘sin’ are essential and unavoidable characteristics of the human condition” (46). “Desiring to become part of the modernist project, preachers and theologians accepted the presumption that Christianity is a set of beliefs, a ‘worldview,’ designed to give meaning to our lives” (Ibid.).
This results in a method and style of preaching that values the “illumination of our condition” above all else, frequently done with great insight and sensitivity, but ultimately boring. Here is Hauerwas:
…the preaching and theology shaped by new critical presumptions to illumine the human condition hid from us that the human condition we were illuminating was that of the bourgeoisie. That is why the sermon meant to illumine our condition, which is often eloquent and profound, is also so forgettable and even boring. Insights about the human condition are a dime a dozen. Most days most of us would rightly trade any insight for a good meal.
The high humanism of contemporary theology and preaching not only hid the class interest intrinsic to such preaching, but also reinforced the presumption that Christians could be Christians without enemies. Christianity, as the illumination of the human condition, is not a Christianity at war with the world. Liberal Christianity, of course, has enemies, but they are everyone’s enemies – sexism, racism, homophobia. But liberal versions of Christianity, which can be both theologically and politically conservative, assume that what it means to be Christian qua Christian is to have no enemies peculiar to being Christian. Psalms such as Psalm 109, which ask God to destroy our enemies and their children, can appear only as embarrassing holdovers of “primitive” religious beliefs. Equally problematic are apocalyptic texts that suggest Christians have been made part of a cosmic struggle. [p. 46]
And here are a few more passages that further illustrate what Hauerwas has in mind:
You cannot preach about abortion, suicide, or war because those are such controversial subjects — better to concentrate on “insights” since they do so little work for the actual shaping of our lives and occasion no conflict. [p. 47]
Our difficulty is not that we have conflicts, but that as modern people we have not had the courage to force the conflicts we ought to have had. Instead, we have comforted ourselves with the ideology of pluralism, forgetting that pluralism is the peace treaty left over from past wars that now benefits the victors of those wars. [Ibid.]
The problem is no longer that the Church is seen as a threat to the political order, but that now my desires are disordered. The name for such an internalization in modernity is pietism and the theological expression of that practice is called Protestant liberalism. [Ibid.]
And on “normal nihilism”:
All our values are self-devaluating because we recognize their contingency as values. As [James] Edwards puts it, “Normal nihilism is just the Western intellectual’s recognition and tolerance of her own historical and conceptual contingency. To be a normal nihilist is just to acknowledge that, however fervent and essential one’s commitment to a particular set of values, that’s all one has: a commitment to a particular set of values.”
…I am aware that such a suggestion can only be met with disbelief. You may well think I cannot be serious. Normal nihilism is so wonderfully tolerant. Surely you are not against tolerance? How can anyone be against freedom? Let me assure you I am serious, I am against tolerance, I do not believe the story of freedom is a true or good story. I do not believe it is a good story because it is so clearly a lie. [pp. 47-48]
I could quibble about the extremity of some of this (namely, whether culture and “values” are always the enemy), but his description of liberal mainline preaching is spot on. He is also aware that this liberalism (modernist pietism) can take conservative form — this is Hauerwas after all.
Image: Stanley Hauerwas by Lydia Halldorf
May 18, 2014
…for I just got to heaven, and I got to walk around.”
Here is Kenny and Amanda Smith Band, with a choice selection by yours truly, from their album, Tell Someone, which is full of gospel bluegrass goodness:
They will be playing at the Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival this year in the foothills of North Carolina, followed by Ricky Skaggs. It doesn’t get better than that. Kenny Smith is a longtime bluegrass guitarist, much respected in the field.
May 15, 2014
I am glad to see that David Congdon has offered his own evaluation and criticism of Matthew Rose’s FT article, “Karl Barth’s Failure.”
Congdon and I both agree that Barth rejects natural theology “on his own theological terms.” We also both read Barth as a “modern” in important respects, and there is actually a fair amount of consensus in the divided world of Barth studies on this point. (Even the most “conservative” among us have long assumed the importance of Schleiermacher’s christocentrism and Hegel’s historicism for Barth, even as we disagree on what this means materially in Barth’s dogmatics.) So, the difference is that Congdon reads Barth as more of a modern theologian than I am willing to concede, precisely on those questions of “historical consciousness” and the conditions in which theology operates. Nonetheless, Congdon’s piece is an excellent and spirited defense of Barth from a different framework, well worth your time to read. I would like to see more from other “Barth bloggers,” but Congdon has probably already said what many others would have offered.
May 14, 2014
So, Matthew Rose has taken upon himself the task of explaining to us why Barth failed, in the latest issue of First Things: “Karl Barth’s Failure.”
After a lengthy recounting of Barth’s training and turn against liberalism, we finally come to the argument at about half-way through the article:
Barth’s appeals to revelation earned him a reputation as an opponent of modern thought. It was entirely undeserved. He made a tactical alliance with the Enlightenment on a key point: We are incapax Dei, lacking in speculative powers capable of reaching divine heights. Barth used this pact, however, to secure his claim that knowledge of God can come only from God himself.
Really? Barth was concerned about our “speculative powers”? That was the last thing Barth cared about. Barth was concerned about our sin. Barth rejected natural theology because Paul told him, not Kant. Barth was concerned about idolatry and the wrath of God against human pretensions, not the limits of theology under the conditions of modernity. Barth cared about exegesis. Disagree if you will, but disagree with his exegesis.
The rest of the article follows the standard McCormack narrative about Barth’s supposed historicizing of God’s being and (inconsistent) rejection of metaphysics, though without citing McCormack. This is not to say that McCormack or his students would put it precisely the way that Rose does. Like this:
Barth agreed with the Enlightenment insistence on the historical and empirical conditions of our knowledge, only to observe that God himself became historical and empirical.
Barth used the Enlightenment critique of reason to secure the absolute priority of revelation.
But this is surely straight McCormack:
Barth asserted that the reason that God can be present with humanity in time is that humanity is present in God’s eternity. This arresting belief that God is in some way human from all eternity—that humanity is eternally enclosed in the second person of the Godhead—is the core of Barth’s entire theology. …He sometimes suggested that God actually constitutes his divine identity in his act of self-disclosure. That would mean that God’s revelation is not simply a trustworthy expression of his nature but is integral to it. …
Well, the “in some way” (in which “humanity” is present in God’s eternity) is rather important and does not require that God “constitutes” himself in creation. Of course, Rose doesn’t demonstrate this — or much of anything in this article. But if we believe this formulation, you can conclude as Rose does: “Far from liberating theology from modern captivity, he leaves it trapped within the immanent confines of secular reason.” So on this, Rose and I can agree, but only if Barth was indeed operating with an “actualist ontology,” as McCormack argues. I don’t think Barth was doing any of this. I don’t think that Barth needed to revise II.1 (the perfections of God), and Barth didn’t think that he needed to revise II.1 — in the light of a supposedly more consistent “ontology” of election. If he did need to do so, it would be a major overhaul, not just a few tweaks here and there. Rose does not address these details, but they are in the background.
Finally Rose gets to the solution to all of Barth’s problems and modernity’s problems: classical theism. This is the most disappointing part of the article. Thus far, we have not had any substantial engagement with Barth’s work, just a bunch of generalizations and a handful of standard quotes, readily available in secondary resources on Barth — even though Rose has written a monograph on Barth’s ethics and is presumably capable of doing more. (This may be the limits of writing for First Things, which does not allow footnotes, oddly enough.) Surely, I am thinking, we will now get something more substantial from Rose — perhaps a treatment of Barth’s account of omnipotence? Omniscience? Eternity? Simplicity? Or the perfections of love? Mercy? Wrath? Just one thing, please! Instead, Rose returns to his claim that Barth “rejected the speculative power of the intellect.”
Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it. …He seemingly did not understand that restricting reason was modern philosophy’s great act of presumption, not humility.
This is everything for Rose. Yet, once again, where is his treatment of Barth’s doctrine of the divine perfections? Rose is lauding classical theism, but he ignores the place where Barth is painstakingly working his way through the categories of classical theism, including simplicity, and affirming far more than Rose’s Barth would allow. Is it really true that Barth “could not properly and consistently distinguish God’s nature from his actions in the history of salvation”? God does not have to actualize his perfections in human history (for an example, I briefly noted this in his treatment of eternity here). But what sort of distinguishing does Rose want? Is Rose even clear on his own alternative?:
[Barth] did not appreciate that classical natural theology aimed at clarifying the proper reach and function of natural reason: that we can know with certainty that God exists but cannot understand his divine essence in itself. This teaches us both the nobility of reason (knowing that God is) and its radical insufficiency (not knowing what God is).
So, this is the “nobility” of our reason — that we know God’s existence, but not any predicates of this existence except, of course, existence? So, God is, but natural reason has no further conceptual predicates? You might as well say “x” is. How do we know this “is” is God? And yet this capacity to know “x” is the nobility of our reason? Frankly, that’s pathetic. But in fact, classical theism knows a good bit about God’s attributes based upon mere knowledge of his existence. At least it thinks so: the standard apophatic categories of what a necessary “perfect being” (not finite like us) must be.
Yet Barth, in fact, takes these categories of classical theism and affirms them, as the perfections of God’s freedom, while also modifying them in accordance with the perfections of his love. I gave an example of this in II.1: “True infinity is also finite,” which is not just Barth playing with words, posing contradictions for the sake of reveling in our inept ratiocination. He is saying that the perfections are “not at our disposal.” They do not predefine God. They have to be measured and articulated through God’s own revelation of himself. This doesn’t mean that revelation defines God, but God does define revelation.
That would not satisfy classical theists like Rose. But, at the very least, it is not an adequate reckoning with Barth to simply say that he rejects classical theism or metaphysics. He doesn’t. However, Barth does challenge the extent to which these “perfect being” categories are rather dead categories in themselves — as the lifeless projections of an infinite power, instead of the lively freedom of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On a final note, this article is a helpful demonstration of why Stephen Long’s recent book on Barth is so important.
Image: Karl Barth on the platform behind the Basler Münster (source)
May 12, 2014
I so love this:
Tullian Tchividjian (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) has been under a lot of criticism for not sufficiently warding off antinomianism in his presentation of the gospel. I see Tchividjian as basically a Barthian, not because he is influenced by Barth (he isn’t) but because he reads the Bible without illusions of his own “victorious” life. God bless him. Tchividjian really emphasizes that Christ has done everything, and he is excited about it! He thinks introspection is looking in the wrong direction.
He also dared to challenge the American moralism of his predecessor at Coral Ridge, D. James Kennedy, who spent his waning years using the American founding fathers as his (by far) most frequent sermon illustrations — yes, I’m serious. That’s one more reason to love Tchividjian.