Rome - St Peter's Basilica - photo by Kevin A. Davis

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

I am reading the long-anticipated “apostolic exhortation” finally issued by the Vatican. The title is “Amoris Laetitia,” or, “The Joy of Love.” I am enjoying it for the most part.

It is exceptionally long at around 260 pages. I have read enough of it now to get a good sense of the whole, and I do not see the value in releasing an exhortation this long. Much of the material is simply quotes from the final document produced by the Synod on the Family and already published. Why not distill and summarize this material? Why not simply refer to it in the footnotes? “The Joy of Love” is overly laborious.

That’s a small complaint, perhaps, but it makes a difference in whether it will get widely read, even among priests and theologians. This means that nearly everyone will rely upon journalists and reporters to give us the important stuff. That is not normally a good thing. For example…

Same-sex Unions?

I heard on NPR this afternoon an interview with an “expert” discussing the document. When the NPR host asked him directly about what “The Joy of Love” says about same-sex unions, the “expert” said that it leaves the matter open to the conscience of the individual in dialog with his priest. Sorry to disappoint this “expert,” but that is most definitely not what the document says about same-sex unions.

There is actually not much that pertains directly to same-sex unions, which is not surprising. The point of the synod and the point of the exhortation is to strengthen marriage (which same-sex unions are not and cannot be) in the midst of the unique challenges that face this institution and sacrament in the 21st century. But, of course, everyone is curious what it does say about same-sex unions, which is this:

There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (52)

In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. (53)

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.” (251)

Moreover, there is an important section, featuring the theology of John Paul II, near the beginning of the document. Herein, the male-female, husband-wife union in love is an icon of the Trinity, imaging and revealing the inner life of God, indeed his own “very being” (see 10-11). Rome is still standing athwart the West’s sexual revolution and gender revolution. The difficulty is the pastoral care of individuals, especially innocent victims in a failed marriage. There is much more happening in this lengthy document, but understandably our attention is on these issues.

And as for gender, there is this:

Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” (56)

I do not expect this paragraph to be widely quoted among Francis’ admirers in the media.

Against Individualism

In the second chapter, there is an important quote from a Spanish Bishops’ Conference document, Matrimonio y familia, from 1979:

…equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute. (33)

As we all know, the belief that one’s personality is “shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” is the rallying cry of our day — regardless of one’s sexual orientation. As a result, the family is only convenient or expedient in how it may service the desires of the individual. A little later we read:

As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them. (35)

In this effort to present a positive and attractive vision of marriage, the pope then cautions about “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people.” He writes, “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (36). As a result, there has been an “excessive idealization” that has contributed to an insensitivity toward the particular circumstances and struggles of couples. Unfortunately, the pope is not entirely clear on how the conscience is to be evaluated:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (37)

This can be interpreted in a way consistent with the Catholic Church’s longstanding teaching that the conscience must be formed properly by right doctrine and practice. Formed properly, the moral agency of the individual is truly free and not controlled or coerced from without. However, it would not be hard for someone to interpret this passage as giving the conscience a certain autonomy and intrinsic justification.

All in all, the pope is warning us about how we center ourselves around our desires, obsessed with cultivating ourselves, our independence. “We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop” (39). The social teachings of the Church on justice and fairness are frequent throughout the document. For example, “The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships” (44). “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54). Many more examples could be given.

Gospel First

The overall thrust is that the pope firmly believes that grace and joy, not law and condemnation, is far more effective in achieving the Church’s moral goals in the lives of individuals. For example, “…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (38).

The pope is not necessarily pitting grace against law, though that has surely been the impression of many casual observers of Pope Francis. I would rather say that (like Karl Barth?) he is reversing the traditional law-gospel order and presentation to a gospel-law order and presentation. This aspect of Francis’ ministry deserves a whole other article.

Communion for Divorced-and-Remarried?

The major headline for both the synod and now for the apostolic exhortation has been about the divorced and remarried. I will wait until I have studied the eighth chapter before I talk about it in any detail. The issue concerns those Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried. As such, their previous marriage is valid — unless it has been annulled and therefore declared an invalid marriage from the beginning — and therefore their subsequent civil marriage is invalid. Their current civil marriage is objectively immoral and a scandal.

But what to do when such a person is now wholly penitent and in fact may even have been the innocent victim in the separation from his or her spouse? How is mercy applied in this case? How is mercy applied without effectively undermining the indissolubility of marriage?

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Image: Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. The photograph is mine.

 

The Unity of the Church

April 4, 2016

st-ignatius-of-antioch

I recently re-read St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. These are among the earliest extant writings that we have from the church outside of the New Testament.

There are seven letters, including a letter to St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Ignatius and Polycarp have similar histories. Both were bishops, both were martyrs, and both are believed to be disciples of an apostle: St. John the Evangelist. Not too shabby. These letters were written while Ignatius was en route to Rome, where he was fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. Ignatius died in c. 108, so these letters are from the first decade of the second century. And as bishop of Antioch, he was bishop of a very important city for the apostolic mission and burgeoning church — and, eventually, an honored patriarchate in the Orthodox Church.

Like Irenaeus in the subsequent generation, Ignatius is concerned with heresy, such as a docetic christology. It is actually quite astonishing, the intensity of Ignatius’ concern with heresy, all the while being led to his glorious death (as he assures us in exuberant language). The concern is evidently much to do with the unity of the church. This is a prominent characteristic of his letters. Importantly, Ignatius’ appeal for church unity and the rejection of false teachers is directly and explicitly tied to the authority of the bishops.

Bishops are a big deal for Ignatius. Sure, he’s a bishop himself, but he can hardly be accused of personal aggrandizement. I will not discuss the extensive scholarly commentary on ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) and πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros/presbyter) in the NT. Others can draw-out any relevant points.

I provide some excerpts below — with ellipses omitted for the most part — and my thoughts afterwards.

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Letter to Ephesus

—I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ – that life from which we can’t be torn – is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ. Hence you should act in accord with the bishop’s mind, as you surely do.

—It is written, moreover, ‘God resists the proud.’ Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God.

—It is clear, then, that we should regard the bishop as the Lord himself.

Letter to Magnesia

—Now, it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.

—Hence I urge you to aim to do everything in godly agreement. Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council….

—As, then, the Lord did nothing without the Father…because he was at one with him, so you must not do anything without the bishop and presbyters.

Letter to Philadelphia

—As many as are God’s and Jesus Christ’s, they are on the bishop’s side; and as many as repent and enter the unity of the church, they shall be God’s, and thus they shall live in Jesus Christ’s way. Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

Letter to Smyrna

—Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. …Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. …Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

—He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God. But he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service.

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In the letter to Smyrna, we have the first instance of “Catholic Church,” and it is connected with the authority of the bishop. I could have provided many more excerpts, from these letters alone, pertaining to the authority of bishops.

And it should be striking how strongly this authority is expressed. We are instructed to “regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” The respect that you owe the bishop is “fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” “Let the bishop preside in God’s place…,” and on and on.

You can read these letters in Cyril Richardson’s Early Christian Fathers, which you can download from CCEL. Richardson’s edition was originally published in 1953 as a part of the still widely-used Library of Christian Classics series from Westminster Press, now WJK Press.

It is true that Ignatius does not articulate an explicit doctrine of apostolic succession, as Irenaeus does (not long afterwards). But it is hard to not see an implicit doctrine of apostolic succession. At the least, it is easy to see how Irenaeus (et al.) would make this explicit in his teaching on episcopal authority. For these fathers, the unity of the church and its orthodoxy were inextricably connected with the authority of bishops, especially in the apostolic sees like Antioch. Of course, this becomes a bit more complicated when you have Arian bishops in the 4th century, but nonetheless the basic principles for unity and authority were well established — and, unless you were a Cathar in Southern France, continued well into the middle ages.

It was only fundamentally disrupted, in many principalities, with the Protestant Reformation. The result is well known. Unity can only ever be a pneumatological reality in Protestantism, certainly not a visible, episcopal reality.

Evangelical Ecclesiology

The discussion elicited by the Pew study continues unabated. I offered one response, “What Baptists do right,” which is not at all contingent on the Pew study. It is what I have thought since college, basically with no substantial variation since then.

A couple days ago, Leah Libresco wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight: “Evangelical Protestants Are The Biggest Winners When People Change Faiths,” based upon some code that she wrote for processing the data. Leah Libresco is perhaps known to some of you as an atheist-to-Catholic convert blogger at Patheos. Her article is very interesting and worth reading, looking at the data for both religious transfers and the demographics of child-rearing. As Mary Eberstadt has argued, the decline of the family is a reliable indicator of a soon decline in religion.

Rod Dreher follows-up with his own reflections and questions: “The Evangelical Advantage.”

Ecclesiology in Evangelical Perspective

I would like to offer a further response, as indicated by the title of this blog post. Evangelical ecclesiology? Is there such a thing? That is in fact the central question for an edited volume by John Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Baker Academic, 2003). As my faithful readers know, I have recently been looking hard at weaknesses in Protestant theology, especially ecclesiology. This is also nothing new, as I’ve been doing this off-and-on for several years now. But I am, hopefully, also capable of recognizing and commending the strengths of Protestantism and evangelicalism in particular. I am, after all, an evangelical.

The volume from Stackhouse has a variety of opinions, of mixed quality. Among those that I enjoyed the most is the chapter from Paul F. M. Zahl. For those of you who are evangelical Anglicans, Zahl needs no introduction. He has been a tireless defender of basic orthodoxy and evangelical clarity within The Episcopal Church for decades, though with few tangible results, as he would be the first to admit. His chapter is entitled, “Low-Church and Proud.” Oh yes, you know it’s gonna be good! Zahl begins:

As an evangelical and Protestant Episcopalian, I wonder about the attraction that high-church ecclesiologies have for many of my evangelical sisters and brothers on the free church side. [p. 213]

In fact, Zahl finds it “disturbing” when he witnesses evangelicals “fall for” the aesthetics and hierarchy of high-church bodies. “It seems like a reaction to something that was missing or kinked in childhood, a compensation to make up for an earlier loss.” And he continues, “I am just a little too skeptical of forms and (endlessly revised) prayer books and bishops and words such as unity and semper.” It is “form without substance, Schein without Sein” (ibid.).

Most intriguingly — for an Anglican no less! — Zahl even poses a contrast, an either/or, between Protestant and Catholic. He questions why his evangelical friends who are “compulsively attracted” to high-church form do not go all the way. “Pull a Cardinal Newman. Be consistent”:

For myself, both a systematic theologian by training and an Episcopal cathedral dean by day, I cannot be both. I cannot be Protestant and Catholic. I cannot be evangelical and ecclesiologically “high.” A house divided cannot stand. It has to fall. It always does. [p. 214]

He’s not holding back. You can tell that this is the voice of someone frustrated, with wisdom to share from battles hard fought. Agree or disagree, I like that. He commends Roger Olson’s essay in the same volume, where Olson subordinates ecclesiology to the gospel as a personally directed message of forgiveness and “new being in Christ.” As Zahl comments, “No one hears collectively. It just doesn’t happen. As a parish minister for thirty years, I have never met a person who actually hears collectively.” Naturally, in their “growing integration” of heart, mind, and will, Christians will “often come to appreciate social and political notes in the sound.” Rightly so. “But,” he continues, “given the pain and losses and crimes of the heart, people hear the Word as a word to them individually” (ibid.).

Evangelical Protestants should be proud of their low ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology is important, yes, It is certainly interesting. But it is not saving. If you think ecclesiology is saving, then become a Roman Catholic” (p. 215). This low ecclesiology is “consistent Protestantism,” quoting Olson. By contrast, now turning to the mainline, Zahl sees The Episcopal Church (and, I would add, most of mainline Protestantism) as trying to construct a “liberal catholicism” that “rarely satisfies, because it is a construct for people to have their cake and eat it too. Liberal views of authority and Scripture and cultural rapprochement do not finally cohere with a historic, catholic view of the church. …Bible-anchored evangelicals are bound to be disappointed. I can almost guarantee that” (p. 216).

Evangelicals Understand Community

Lastly, it is important to notice the comments to Rod Dreher’s post, “The Evangelical Advantage.” The comments are very mixed, as you would expect, but I was struck at the number of people who mentioned the friendliness of evangelicals — welcoming and inviting, literally. Evangelicals love to invite: neighbors to church, visitors to lunch, sinners to repentance. It’s what we do. Moreover, we actually foster community in our midst. I have been to a lot of Catholic masses, at several different parishes. It is striking that I have never been invited to lunch or to join a Bible study or to even come back! What planet are Catholics living on? Seriously, this is not hard stuff.

In closing, I will quote Dreher:

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it.

If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

Evangelicals are routinely the butt of jokes, no less from other Christians. It is refreshing to see otherwise.

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a man of his times — almost comically so. Yet the enthusiasm of his humanism is hard to resist, even for those of us who live on the other side of two World Wars and a few genocides. Emerson loves humanity (or is it himself?):

A man never gets acquainted with himself, but is always a surprise. We get news daily of the world within, as well as of the world outside, and not less of the central than of the surface facts. A new thought is awaiting him every morning. [Emerson on Man and God, p. 6]

You could put that on a coffee mug! While these sentiments are relatively harmless and, indeed, may inspire some healthy interest in the wonders of God through his creation — Emerson’s other musings and maxims are not so harmless. Like so:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. [Ibid., p. 6]

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. [p. 8]

In other words, that which serves your well-being (“constitution”), as understood by your “private heart,” is right and right for all. Postmodernism will emerge to challenge the universalism here, but nothing substantially changes. Emerson captured, with his enormous literary gifts, the spirit of his age and our age. In the title of this small book, the order of words is instructive: Man and God. Man first; God second.

For Emerson, the spirit of man reveals the Spirit of God, not the other way around.

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Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson (source: wiki commons)

The paradoxical Jesus

October 8, 2014

Douthat-Bad-Religion

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) is a really good book. I actually was not expecting it to be as marvelous as it is. I have read Douthat’s NYT articles and have generally enjoyed them, but he really shines in this book. He is given the space to develop his ideas and ground his claims in the historical phenomena, far more than he can accomplish in an op-ed. He is fair to Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth, whom he extols, while being justifiably critical of Harvey Cox and all of the other fashionable progressives who happily rode the optimistic wave of secularism, calmly and confidently assuring us of its ultimate compatibility with the iconoclasm of the Jewish and Christian faith. Oh my, how things never change.

While Douthat is a self-identified political conservative, he is rather severe in his criticisms of the religious right, whether under Reagan or Bush. This doesn’t mean that he occupies some idealist middle ground without any commitments one way or another — obviously not on life and family issues — but he recognizes the allure of political opportunism and the convenience of theological compromise under the stage lights. In this regard, he strives to be a genuine representative of the Catholic who discerns the good and the bad in all ideologies, while abjuring their utopian promises.

There is a lot that I would like to quote from the book, but I will just offer the following description of Christianity, perfectly stated:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peace makers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still — a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.

The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to become observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.

[Bad Religion, pp. 153-154]

Indeed, nothing has changed.

Vines

Last week, Rachel Held Evans began her blog series on Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, the latest and most acclaimed popularization of the “open and affirming” position within the church. When I was discerning this issue, intensely, a few year ago, popularizers like Vines did not exist — though Jack Rogers’ 2009 book is very similar. I read Martti Nissinen and Eugene Rogers, the sort of scholars that Vines makes accessible.

As most of you know, I am “traditional” on marriage and sexuality in general, for reasons relevant to specifically Christian content. I see marriage as an icon of the gospel (Eph 5), with a distinct material form (Gen 1:27). And I am not an iconoclast.

But for this post, I just want to analyze Evans’ statement that Vines is “a theologically conservative Christian who holds a ‘high view’ of the Bible,” which is also Vines’ own self-estimation. She begins her second entry this week in the same way. A few problems immediately strike me. Most importantly, it implies that liberals hold a markedly low view of the Bible, somehow significantly different from Vines’ (and Evans’) own view. In reality, the average liberal within the churches and seminaries where they thrive — mainline Protestant — believes in a God in line with the creeds. They believe in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and they exegete these doctrines from the Bible. In other words, the Bible is authoritative for them.

Everything that I have read from Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Vines, Peter Enns, and all the current starlights of the progressive sorta-evangelicals is exactly what you can find in any mainline classroom. Exactly. None of this is even remotely surprising. Peter Enns, whom Evans extolled in a recent post, is about 50 years (or 150 years) late to the party. Like Vines, he is gifted in his ability to communicate to an otherwise still-biblicist contingent of evangelicals. But, also like Vines, he is merely repeating a given set of long-held convictions. “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” Yawn. Welcome to the mainline, Professor Enns.

The Bible is authoritative for Vines. It is the sole source for knowledge of God in his saving revelation to mankind in Jesus Christ. Until proven otherwise, I have no reason to doubt Vines. So, of course, Vines has a “high” view and “authoritative” view of the Bible in that sense. But, so does nearly everyone else. Vines is not a “conservative” in any distinct sense that would differentiate him from the average, run-of-the-mill liberal in the mainline. And every mainline Protestant knows this, which is surely amusing when they see Vines and Enns and Evans on the “cutting edge” of theology! Hardly.

My point is simple. The liberal view of the Bible, in its most representative Christian form, is a view of the Bible that believes in its unique authority for the church. In the mainline Protestant churches, this liberal view of the Bible is no different than the “theologically conservative” view ascribed to Vines (and self-ascribed by Vines). So, what precisely makes Vines a theological conservative? If he is, then so is the National Council of Churches.

I do not care to actually answer the question in the title of this post. I am not invested in maintaining or defining the boundaries of “conservative.” But when it is used in a context that makes it functionally indistinct from its purported foe, “liberal,” then I call foul.

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Image: Matthew Vines (source: AP)

 

foucault

In the previous post, I provided my lesson on Feuerbach and Nietzsche, taken from my Sunday school series on modernism and postmodernism. Here is the lesson on Michel Foucault, the widely influential French critical theorist:

Class 11: Foucault

Even though philosophy departments have moved in other directions (even back to both classical and modern metaphysics), Foucault is still alive and well within the various “studies” departments: cultural studies, women’s studies, religious studies, queer studies, pick-your-identity studies, and so on. Most importantly, echoes of Foucault can be heard across wide swaths of our culture today, with the millennials proving to be a highly receptive audience.

I did not record any audio for the lessons, so you do not have my running commentary. But, I think the slides are sufficient and hopefully of interest. This was one of the shorter lessons (in terms of the number of slides), because I spent extra time carefully explaining the technical terms in use and offering my criticisms at the end.

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Image: Michel Foucault (source)

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Mike Licona (Houston Baptist University) has written a response to the “new fundamentalists” — Norman Geisler and friends — who have been vilifying prominent evangelical scholars at Wheaton, Trinity Evangelical, Asbury, Denver, even DTS, and other places heretofore not exactly reputed for their liberal bias.

“On Chicago’s Muddy Waters”

Licona highlights J. I. Packer and B. B. Warfield as insufficiently orthodox, if we were to apply Geisler’s absurd delimitation of inerrancy. You can even sign a petition at the Defending Inerrancy website, which is surely one of the most ludicrous things I have ever seen in my life as an evangelical. (Though, this takes the cake.) Daniel Wallace at DTS has written a response as well, reviewing a recent book.

On a related note, another Old Testament professor has been forced to resign at a Reformed seminary, WTS:

“What Did the OT Writers Know? Another Controversy Erupts at WTS”

Professor Green teaches that the “authorial intent” of the OT writers need not include an explicit christology. The divine intent, partially veiled in earlier redemptive history, was discerned by the NT writers in their (inspired) appropriation of the OT. Call me naive, but I thought this is what everyone believed.

I tell ya, this peculiarly anxious brand of Calvinism is hellbent on making itself look ridiculous to all observers, not just those on the outside — but on the inside as well. The gospel is foolishness. This is just silly.

Hans Lassen Martensen som ung. Litografi efter maleri af D. Monies

“A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.”

— Hans Martensen

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Hans Martensen (1808-1884) was a Lutheran theologian and a professor at Copenhagen prior to his appointment as bishop of Zealand in the Church of Denmark.

I was given a copy of his Christian Dogmatics, which has proven fascinating reading. Martensen is not an easy figure to categorize. He was influenced by Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Hegel, but he was also shaped by the Lutheran mystic, Jakob Böhme, which resulted in a volume dedicated to expounding Böhme’s theology. If we were to consider the “subjective” versus “objective” orientations in (respectively) Schleiermacher and Hegel’s theologies, Martensen gravitated more toward the latter, while pushing against what he perceived in both to be a problematic pantheism, which fails to account for the personal God of divine revelation. Mortensen is committed to the church and setting forth the church’s doctrine.

I have glanced ahead at some of his doctrinal treatments, and there is much to like and much to question — but I will reserve greater judgment until I have read the whole book. He is a gifted writer and mercifully clear for a continental theologian steeped in the aforementioned names.

For readers of this blog, I think you will enjoy Martensen’s definition of dogmatic theology:

A confessing and witnessing church cannot be conceived to exist without a definite sum of doctrines or dogmas. A dogma is not a δόξα, not a subjective, human opinion, not an indefinite, vague notion; nor is it a mere truth of reason, whose universal validity can be made clear with mathematical or logical certainty: it is a truth of faith, derived from the authority of the word and revelation of God; — a positive truth, therefore, positive not merely by virtue of the positiveness with which it is laid down, but also by virtue of the authority with which it is sealed. …

Dogmatics is not only a science of faith, but also a knowledge grounded in, and drawn from faith. It is not a mere historical exhibition of what has been, or now is, true for others, without being true for the author; nor is it a philosophical knowledge of Christian truth, obtained from a stand-point outside of faith and the church. For even supposing — what yet we by no means concede — that a scientific insight into Christian truth is possible, without Christian faith, yet such philosophizing about Christianity, even though its conclusions were ever so favourable to the church, could not be called dogmatics. Theology stands within the pale of Christianity; and only the dogmatic theologian can be esteemed the organ of his science, who is also the organ of his church — which is not the case with the mere philosopher, whose only aim is to promote the cause of pure science. This desire to attain an intelligent faith, of which dogmatics is the product; this intellectual love of Christian truth, which should be found especially in the teachers of the church, is inseparable from a personal experience of Christian truth.

And now the most interesting bit:

…speculation which treats the truthfulness of Christianity as something problematical, which looks for certainty respecting it in the results of its own investigations, cannot be called dogmatical speculation. For dogmatics assumes at the outset the absolute truth of Christianity, independently of all speculation. The δος που στω [place upon which to stand], so often expressed by an inquiring philosophy, is for dogmatic theology answered at once; the theologian does not make the truth depend on his investigation, but only seeks to gain by his thought a firmer grasp of the truth which he already accepts as absolutely certain, and at which he first arrived in quite another way than that of speculation. …The theologian confesses himself to be a Realist, that he thinks, not for the sake of thinking, but for the sake of truth; he confesses, to use Lessing’s pertinent simile, that the divine revelation holds the same relation to his investigations as does the answer of an arithmetical problem, given at the outset, to the problem itself. Dogmatics, therefore, does not make doubt its starting-point, as philosophy is often required to do; it is not developed out of the void of skepticism, but out of the fullness of faith; it does not make its appearance in order by its arguments to prop up a tottering faith, to serve as a crutch for it, as if, in its old age, it had become frail and staggering. It springs out of the perennial, juvenile vigour of faith, out of the capacity of faith to unfold from its own depths a wealth of treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, to build up a kingdom of acknowledged truths, by which it illumines itself as well as the surrounding world. Dogmatics serves, therefore, not to rescue faith in the time of its exigency, but to glorify it — in gloriam fidei, in gloriam dei. A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 1-4]

I like it. This is an especially beautiful way to express the theological task: “It springs out of the perennial, juvenile vigour of faith, out of the capacity of faith to unfold from its own depths a wealth of treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, to build up a kingdom of acknowledged truths, by which it illumines itself as well as the surrounding world.”

Kiekegaard was not a fan.

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Image: A young Hans Lassen Martensen. Lithograph after painting by D. Monies. (source)

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The intramural debates within popular Calvinist movements in America, which I will call “pop-Calvinism” for short, are enormously difficult to navigate for the outside observer, even for many on the inside. Here is my attempt to explain some of them, partially and inadequately.

As for myself, I have had one foot in and one foot out of the conservative Reformed world for years, including its vast and complicated network of conferences, popular leaders, conferences, publishing houses, conferences, seminaries, and, oh, conferences. There is much to admire here, the feeding of a doctrinally-starved evangelicalism, but the current mess undermines the gospel imperative that is so loudly touted.

Brief Overview of the Movement

Pop-Calvinism is a mixture of “low church” populist, voluntarist action on the one hand, with doctrinal systems and stability on the other hand. It is a church movement, but the church as such is not the driving force. Its energy is derived from the parachurch ministries that feed the machine, so to speak. These ministries include Ligonier, Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Ref21), and Together for the Gospel (T4G). It would be hard for anyone to tell the difference between them, especially the regular conferences sponsored by each. Ligonier and Desiring God have a certain seniority, founded by R. C. Sproul and John Piper respectively, although TGC is probably the most influential today. For the last decade or more, these conferences have featured the same dozen or so speakers. The leading publishing house within the movement is Crossway, producer of the popular ESV Study Bible and a wide array of other ESV Bibles. As an aside, I find it interesting to observe how the ESV has supplanted the NIV and NKJV within pop-Calvinist circles. I like the ESV, but I admit to proudly displaying my big NIV Study Bible in protest to the overblown rhetoric surrounding the ESV’s truthiness.

As for seminaries of influence, Southern in Louisville has emerged as a beacon for the movement, heavily dominated by the vision of Albert Mohler. There is also Westminster in Philly and the various RTS campuses throughout the South. Piper and MacArthur have each founded seminaries, both of which are as yet unaccredited by ATS. There are differences among all of these schools, especially depending upon whether they serve a more Presbyterian constituency or a more Baptist/Free-Church constituency. Also, those who identify with pop-Calvinism can be found within more broadly evangelical seminaries like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell. The latter is an interesting case to observe. Gordon-Conwell was once a favorite for Reformed evangelicals — where Tim Keller graduated, for example — but the seminary’s latitude on women’s ordination and overall moderation has resulted in most pop-Calvinists flocking elsewhere. In the 70’s and 80’s, Meredith Kline and Roger Nicole, both at Gordon-Conwell, represented a more moderate expression of conservative Reformed theology — “moderate” in today’s climate. I would say that Sproul is also representative of this, on the whole, especially now that he has (thankfully) backed away from his late conversion to Young Earth Creationism, which was definitely not a marker for biblical fidelity among Calvinists — though many pop-Calvinists today wish that it was.

The Divisions in the Movement

The most significant dissenting voice within pop-Calvinism is, not surprisingly, among those who would disassociate themselves from pop-Calvinism in favor of a more “old school,” church-centric expression of Reformed theology. Westminster Seminary California (WSC), the White Horse Inn radio program, and Modern Reformation magazine are at the center of this more scholastic, less pietistic Calvinism. Michael Horton, D. G. Hart, and R. Scott Clark are the big names. Horton will receive some invitations to pop-Calvinist conferences, but these guys are rather critical of pop-Calvinism’s obsession with conferences. They prefer the very unsexy ministry of Word and Sacraments. The celebrity culture of pop-Calvinism is, therefore, under heavy criticism from these fellows, though they have to admit their own celebrity status within their niche. This concern about celebrity pastors is now a common self-criticism from within the pop-Calvinist ranks, but (of course) the same pastors still speak at the same conferences throughout the year. No one wants to pay money to hear Joe Schmo from Podunk Presbyterian Church with 120 members.

While Westminster West has provided the intellectual criticism of pop-Calvinism, even though simultaneously benefiting from this movement and (partially) still located within the movement, the Tullian Tchividjian fiasco has occasioned a broader reconsideration of pop-Calvinism’s virtues and status within evangelicalism. Who is Tullian Tchividjian? He is the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, succeeding the influential evangelical leader, D. James Kennedy. He is also the grandson of Billy Graham. Tchividjian has not been shy about targeting the moralism within evangelical culture. This does not make him a liberal anymore than I am a liberal. Tchividjian is a conservative on all of the standard litmus tests, just as I am. Nonetheless, Tchibidjian is not happy with the priorities and foci of evangelicalism, including many of the Reformed warriors at the intellectual helm. Tchividjian preaches a simple gospel, though not simplistic. Christ has done everything for our salvation. There are no conditions. Faith is not a virtue. Calvin taught the same.

To be sure, Tchividjian could use a more expansive exegetical apparatus. He is currently heavily concentrated on this liberating message of the gospel, hence the name of his ministry: Liberate. He has been careless at times. If you were to isolate some of his statements, the accusation of “antinomian” would make sense. But Tchividjian is a pastor first and foremost. He is not a scholar. He is still accountable to the essentials of Reformed theology, but he is not concerned with over-qualifying everything he says. For those of us who have listened to far too many punctilious sermons from perfectly orthodox Calvinists, Tchividjian is a welcome relief.

Obviously, the criticisms leveled at pop-Calvinism could also apply to Tchividjian. He has started a ministry, Liberate, heavily focused around himself and his vision for the church. This seems to be an unavoidable feature of today’s appetite for social media and media consumption. The advantage is that Tchividjian is offering a counterpoint to the dominance of TGC leaders. TGC is extraordinarily protective of itself and the networks within its influence. And this is Tchividjian’s understanding of why TGC and himself have parted ways. According to The Wartburg Watch, the real motivation behind his status as persona non grata is the sex abuse scandal within Sovereign Grace Ministries. Tchividjian has criticized the handling of the situation by SGM and especially the “old boys club” mentality seemingly exhibited by some key TGC leaders in their ready defense of C. J. Mahaney. You can listen to an interview with Tchividjian on the Janet Mefferd Show. Mefferd provides a helpful, though brief, background to the controversy at the beginning of the show.

Aside from the SGM scandal, I think it is helpful to see Tchividjian as a casualty within a larger and disconcerting trend within Reformed evangelicalism. Perhaps “casualty” is being a bit too dramatic, since Tchividjian is doing just fine for himself. Nonetheless, the evidence seems overwhelming that the pop-Calvinist guardians are closing ranks, purifying and fortifying for the sake of the gospel, or so they say. Tchividjian is not conforming to the prescribed modus operandi of the pop-Calvinist leaders. This may not be related, but I find it fascinating that Coral Ridge-founded Knox Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the PCA, quickly hired Bruce Waltke after his resignation from RTS for calling Creationism a cult. Also, Knox’s academic dean and associate systematics professor is R. Michael Allen, author of an irenic introduction to Reformed theology and a reader/introduction to Barth’s Church DogmaticsDo not expect the same from the bastions of pop-Calvinism.

Lastly, I must commend Jonathan Merritt’s recent article at Religion News Service: “The troubling trends in America’s ‘Calvinist revival.'” Merritt identifies three trends: isolationism, tribalism, and egotism, providing an informed account of each. It is true that these trends can be identified in an any number of sub-cultures and movements within Christianity, and so it would not be too strenuous to discover the same trends in liberal/radical networks of oldline Protestantism. But, like all of those mentioned above, I care far more about evangelicalism than liberalism, which should motivate us toward greater self-scrutiny and accountability.

There is much more that I can say and needs to be said, but for the sake of blogging brevity I will stop.