The Logic of Mariology

October 27, 2015

Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, lighting candels

Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona

I have finished reading an excellent article, “John Henry Newman: Mariology and the Scope of Reason in the Modern Age” (Nova et Vetera 11:4 [2013], 993-1016), by Paige E. Hochschild of Mount St. Mary’s University.

The purpose of the article is to apply the argument from “fittingness” (ex convenientia) as found in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica III, Q1, A1 — and, I would add, in St. Anselm as well — to the doctrine of Mary in the theology of John Henry Newman. It is brilliantly executed. I am obviously a nerd.

In order to explicate the thesis of the article, I would need to replicate the article in full. That is not possible, legally and otherwise. I will, therefore, simply tempt you with excerpts:

The natural world can lead us to a sense of divine handiwork, but this is not the same thing as faith. It is not the role of reason to give rise, by a kind of necessity, to religious conviction; faith is not an effect of sound reasoning. [p. 999]

In more modern terminology, fittingness arguments would consist of inductive arguments that support, but do not compel, a certain conclusion, or, demonstrative arguments in which at least one premise is an agreed upon truth of faith. …Fittingness arguments cannot stand alone; they presuppose a framework that has a claim upon the intellect precisely because it has a compelling character with respect to the imagination, or the illative sense of the whole. [1002]

Faith seeks to understand, not as providing faith with a whole new foundation, but as grounding faith more deeply in the soil of the rational character of the believer. [1003]

…fittingness must show more effectively the internal coherence of the argument of salvation, and the nature of the Church. [1003]

And now in regard to the doctrine of Mary (“mariology”):

If the purpose of the Incarnation is to communicate God’s goodness to the creature, the obstacles to that end must be removed (sin, disobedience, and death), by divine power working through the agency of the creature. …A theological unity comes to light in the parallelism between Christ and Adam, through which Mary can stand in a similar relation to Eve because she is not only mother (of Jesus), but also spiritual spouse, as the creature, reconciled to God, through the trust in God that overturns fear. [1011]

[Mary] is not the mother of his body, or the mother of his humanity merely, but the mother of the person of the Word Incarnate. If we are to take seriously both his divinity and the unity of his person, her relationship to Christ becomes significant in a new light. She truly guarantees and safeguards Christ’s divinity: if she is the theotokos, Christ is “God-with-us” through an effective mediation. [1012]

Christ doesn’t pass through Mary’s womb like a station on his way to Calvary: “the child is like the parent…and this likeness is manifested by her relationship to Him.” [1012]

In Scripture, she is a quiet model of patient and suffering obedience: like John, she is quietly present in faithful devotion…like John, she decreases, very quickly. Likewise in the history of the Church, she is quietly present in the faithful devotion, waiting patiently for the whole Church to affirm her in her right relation to Christ. Newman’s point is that the very way in which Marian doctrine develops over time is itself an illustration of her character: no trumpets and glory, but a quiet witness in the hearts of believers. [1013]

These excerpts do not do justice to the article, but I trust that they are sufficiently stimulating for blogging purposes. The great value of this article is not to convince Protestants of the Catholic doctrine of Mary; rather, it is to convince Protestants that the Catholic doctrine of Mary is not crazy and is perhaps even logical. That is no small accomplishment.

Given that the “argument from fittingness” requires imagination, devotion, and aesthetic perception, I do not expect that most Protestants will even begin to understand.


Image: Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona. August 2015. Photograph is mine.


“I don’t want to go, unless heaven’s got a dirt road.”

— Kip Moore


For whatever reason, the topic of the afterlife has not been a common topic among students of Karl Barth.

After all, we have so many other matters which direct our attention, usually pertaining to trinitarian metaphysics, divine election, incarnation and atonement, incarnation and ecclesiology, and the perennial “knowledge of God” questions. And if you want to establish yourself in the Barthian guild, you better attend to these matters! But I am grateful that Wyatt Houtz has addressed the doctrine of the afterlife in Barth’s theology: “Karl Barth’s Argument Against Afterlife.”

I do not agree with Wyatt, and you can read my brief comments in the combox for further indications of why. I am not in the least convinced that Barth believes in such a depressing afterlife, where the temporal is absorbed and annihilated into the divine — where the individual consciousness is decisively negated. This is the very worst of Gnostic speculation, and it makes the eternal-finite dialectic the end-game of Barth’s dogmatics. If this is true, then Barth is a truly terrible theologian, scarcely worth our time and energy.

In contrast to one of Wyatt’s reflections, I am perfectly happy with a “pagan” image of heaven as a “Valhalla” where beer is on demand and abundant. At the very least, I hope that heaven is nothing less! By way of illustration, let me offer you the country-rock song, “Dirt Road,” by Kip Moore:

When a preacher talks of heaven, he paints it real nice / He says, you better get to livin’, better get to livin’ right / If you’re gonna get your mansion / he’s been saving for your soul / If you’re gonna do your dancing / on city streets of gold

But unless it’s got a dirt road / leading down to a fishing hole …

As is often the case, country music does theology better than students of theology. The existential heaven of a temporal “hope” is worthless [I sanitized my previous language!], and it is long overdue for us to call a spade a spade. Perhaps, dare I say, we should “absolutize” our temporal experience, as in the Rolling Stone interpretation of this song: “he didn’t want to enter the Pearly Gates if the afterlife wasn’t akin to his beloved South,” also in reference to Hank Williams Jr. Of course, we do not need to do this in an overly literal sense, though I am rather tempted to do so!

My point is simple, and it requires a “new creation” that is at least as good as the old creation. I am very doubtful that liberal Protestants are up to the challenge, as in Christopher Morse’s The Difference Heaven Makes, which does a fine enough job of making the Kingdom present and with moral imperatives. But it does little more.

The resurrection of the body — even a “spiritual body” — is surely good enough for a dirt road, fishing poles, and beers with a pretty girl.

Amarillo by Morning

October 10, 2015

George Strait

George Strait

“Amarillo by Morning” (1982) is probably my favorite 1980’s song. George Strait is best known for having the most #1 singles in country history, but in 1982 he was only beginning his stunning career.

George Strait inaugurated the “neo-traditional” movement. This movement decisively supplanted the pop-country of the “urban cowboy” phenomenon in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the behest of God Almighty, I am sure, Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley, and Randy Travis would soon become his comrades in this traditional revolution in Nashville. At the end of the decade, we witnessed the now legendary “class of ’89” release their debut albums: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt. This solidified the traditional orientation in mainstream country, even as it explored more “clean” and “modern” sounds. It has only been within the last five years that this stronghold has broken, sad to say.

You can find “Amarillo by Morning” on Strait’s sophomore album, Strait from the Heart. Or, you can purchase his “best of” two-disc collection, George Strait: Icon, which leads with “Amarillo by Morning.” Here is a performance of the song at the Houston Astrodome in 2002:

Amarillo by morning / up from San Antone / Everything that I’ve got / is just what I’ve got on  / I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine / I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free.

It is hard to explain why I love this song so much. I am sure that the imagery and storytelling, simply as it may be, is foundational. It is part of the elusive formula that establishes songs like this in the canon of country music. In fact, it is the simplicity of the imagery and storytelling that makes it great. It connects and inspires.

It is escapism, of course, but it is divine escapism. Heaven is a honky tonk.

“Divine Fate has decreed that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be the task of German theologians to write dogmatics and for Anglo-Saxons to translate them.”

That is the opening line from Francis Schüssler Fiorenza’s review of Helmut Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith (vol. 3) and Otto Weber’s Foundations of Dogmatics (vol. 1). You can read it in the journal, Horizons, from the spring issue of 1985. It is a humorous line — because overstated but not far from the truth. This is not to say that during these two centuries the Anglophone world was bereft of quality work in systematic theology. The Scots in particular were active in the discipline and even doing the yeoman’s work in translating the Germans.

But now, in the twenty-first century, there seems to be a considerable revitalization of dogmatics in the Anglosphere. This is certainly true among American evangelicals, and it is a welcome redirection of attention away from an unhealthy obsession with epistemology and apologetics. (Is not Carl Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority basically a theology in the service of apologetics?) The latest example of this renewed interest in “constructive theology” or “revealed theology” is the new series from Zondervan Academic, aptly entitled, “New Studies in Dogmatics.” The title is meant to recall the now-classic “Studies in Dogmatics” series from G. C. Berkouwer.

According to the initial press release, it is a projected 15-volume series under the advisory supervision of John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Katherine Sonderegger, and Henri Blocher. The editors are Michael Allen and Scott Swain, both at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. You can read their introduction to the series, including the list of volumes, at the Common Places blog. Unlike Berkouwer’s project, each volume in the new series will be written by a different theologian.

The first volume, The Holy Spirit, is by Christopher R. J. Holmes and is to be released tomorrow (Oct. 6).

Christopher Holmes - The Holy Spirit