Defending Leithart

February 1, 2016

Peter Leithart

“Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”

— Peter Leithart

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This past week, Peter Leithart published a two-part series at First Things on “Why Protestants Can’t Write” (see part one and part two). With a title like that, you are sure to draw attention and create a ruckus, and that is surely the point of the title. The original title, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is probably the more accurate title, as we shall see.

Today, he posted a follow-up response, “Protestants, Writing, Sacraments.” At the end of the post, he linked to his review of Lori Branch’s Freedom & Propriety. I highly recommend reading both the follow-up and the review. They will clarify the sort of Protestant that Leithart is targeting.

I have engaged in these discussions for quite some time. I can predict the initial Protestant response with pinpoint precision. What about Milton? Or, in regard to visual arts, what about Rembrandt? There is a reason why these and a few other figures are always offered. Always. It is because they are exceptions — exceptions to the rule. But, the rule is the point, not the exceptions. Moreover, we must inquire why someone like Milton is able to write in a way that the evangelicals in Leithart’s crosshairs cannot.

What Sort of Writing?

We must first recognize what Leithart means by “write.” He is not talking about the craft of writing in general. Protestants are excellent at writing theology, especially doctrinal theology. In a previous post, “The Evangelical Aesthetic,” I wrote:

As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

In this scheme, Protestants are in fact good at writing, since it is a verbal medium. Yet, this is the medium that Leithart is engaging.

Leithart is very specific about what he means. He is saying, as I indicate above, that Catholic writers are imaginative in their narrative prose, namely fictional prose, in a way that Protestants are not. Leithart expresses this in terms of sacramental theology and not imagination per se, but I am fairly certain that the connection between the two is uncontroversial. The point is that Leithart is engaged with a particular form of writing, as well as a particular form of Protestant.

The Sacramental Writer

Let me put it briefly. The sacramental writer attends to the sign or symbol as really manifesting the divine — not merely indicating or pointing away from itself but, rather, itself operating in this capacity. Leithart explains this in the second part, by way of Flannery O’Connor. You can read it for yourself, and anyone who wants to criticize Leithart’s thesis must criticize it on this point.

Leithart believes that this is a “Zwinglian” way of understanding sacramental signs, and this is why he blames Marburg for our ills. It quickly becomes clear that Leithart is not attacking Protestantism as a whole — and he makes exceptions for “Protestants with prayer books” and “lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcendentalism,” as well as genuine exceptions like Marilynne Robinson. Typologies like this — here, “Zwinglian” — are always open for criticism in obvious ways, which is why fewer and fewer intellectuals are willing to do this sort of typological approach. That is a shame. It is why our thinking is so technical, careful, refined, and — boring.

So, Leithart is criticizing evangelicals for the most part. He is criticizing Protestants who are basically Zwinglian, which is to say, most Protestants in America and most of the global evangelical movement. Protestant charismatics are overwhelmingly Zwinglian, and that’s a large bulk of the global South. Charismatics have their favored ways of receiving the Spirit, and sacramental signs are rarely among these ways. To be clear, Leithart does not deal with the specific targets of his criticism, so I am conjecturing. It is also very likely that Leithart has large swaths of mainline Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) in mind as well, to the extent that they inherit and perpetuate the same unimaginative and pseudo-sacramental approach to the Christian faith. Thus, he is attacking “modern Protestantism,” in both its conservative and liberal expressions. Nonetheless, it seems that conservative evangelicals are the dominant target.

More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write

Derek Rishmawy has posted a characteristically thoughtful response: “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not Be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write.” This is a good post, but it is a peculiar post. It is meant to be a rejoinder of sorts to Leithart.

Derek criticizes Leithart’s “gleeful reductionism” as unhelpful, but Derek manages to supplement Leithart’s thesis with seven more reasons! You will need to read his post in order to understand what I mean. Here is part of my response in the comments:

I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.

Sure, Leithart would need to do a lot more work to fully substantiate his thesis, but we must engage him at his strongest points. We must engage his conception of Christian writing as “a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real.”

I do not care if you disagree. I only care that you disagree on the real point of controversy and that you offer some credible alternative. From the Facebook responses that I’ve seen, this is sorely lacking. In fact, evangelicals have unwittingly demonstrated their own ignorance and even arrogance in some of these responses. Leithart is not pulling this from thin air. He is responding to real problems within Protestantism, as he has done for most of his career.

Derek complains that “this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the ‘Suicide Death-Cult’ tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth.” I can sympathize with that concern — a lot. But sometimes evangelicals need to self-flagellate, and this is one area (among other) in need of critical self-evaluation and humility.

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Image: Peter Leithart (source)

Billy Graham Crusades in India

Billy Graham in India

“…that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards.”

— William G. T. Shedd

“That’s in God’s hands. I can’t be their judge. …My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That’s what the Cross is all about and what the Resurrection is all about. That’s the Gospel.”

— Billy Graham, interview with Larry King asking Graham about Mormons, Jews, Muslims, etc., and whether they are condemned

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This blog has been on break for the last couple of weeks, and I might continue the break for a little while longer. But I want to make a quick interruption, pertaining to a post from last month: “Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church.”

In that post, I provided an excerpt from William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) — a Presbyterian dogmatician of known excellence — on the vexing question of salvation outside the church. Can the electing grace of God reach the unevangelized, i.e., those who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in its explicit, apostolic form? As is well known, the “exclusivist” answer is “No!,” apart perhaps from some extraordinary vision or dream of Christ in the unevangelized person. You can read this post from Kevin DeYoung for a clear presentation of this position.

Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology

As we saw, Shedd disagrees. In his Dogmatic Theology, he teaches that the “heathen” are capable of a “broken and contrite heart” under the ministration of the Holy Spirit: “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word” (vol. 2, p. 709). Not only does Shedd disagree with exclusivism — although, we should remember that “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” were coined later and are not without problems — he is also adamant that the Westminster Standards, and scholastic Calvinism as a whole, are also opposed to exclusivism.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, X.3, states: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (emphasis mine). This is the clause in question. Who are those “incapable of being outwardly called”? In his Dogmatic Theology, Shedd refutes those who teach that this only pertains to “idiots and insane persons,” i.e., those mentally incapable.

Shedd’s Calvinism: Pure & Mixed

In the year before his death, Shedd published Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, a strident defense of the Westminster Standards against those in the Presbyterian Church (Northern branch) who sought to modify the doctrine of election. It is far beyond the scope of this post to evaluate the merits, or demerits, of Shedd’s overall thesis. For our purposes, it is valuable because Shedd defends here, near the end of his life, the same position that he promulgated in his earlier systematic theology.

Shedd formulates the question in this way: “Does Scripture also furnish ground for the belief, that God also gathers some of his elect by an extraordinary method from among the unevangelized, and without the written word saves some adult heathen ‘by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost’?” (p. 59). He must first deal, once again, with the question of “idiots” and “maniacs” who are not capable of the outward call. Shedd is forceful. He believes it is “remarkable” and “incredible” to say that the confession is talking about the mentally incapable — because they are not “moral agents” and cannot therefore be “classed with the rest of mankind.” As he puts the matter:

It is utterly improbable that the Assembly took into account this very small number of individuals respecting whose destiny so little is known. …[They] are contrasted with ‘others not elected, who although they may be called by the ministry of the word never truly come to Christ’; that is to say, they are contrasted with rational and sane adults in evangelized regions. But idiots and maniacs could not be put into such a contrast. The ‘incapacity’ therefore must be that of circumstances, not of mental faculty. A man in the heart of unevangelized Africa is incapable of hearing the written word, in the sense that a man in New York is incapable of hearing the roar of London. [pp. 59-60]

So, the incapacity must be that of “circumstances.” And thus Shedd distinguishes “two classes” of those who are saved: the evangelized and the unevangelized. But he emphasizes their commonalities, namely the same operation of the Holy Spirit upon their hearts. In this way, he continues:

Consequently, the Confession, in this section, intends to teach that there are some unevangelized men who are ‘regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit’ without ‘the ministry of the written word’, and who differ in this respect from unevangelized men who are regenerated in connection with it. There are these two classes of regenerated persons among God’s elect. They are both alike in being born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’. They are both alike in respect to faith and repentance, because these are the natural and necessary effects of regeneration. Both alike feel and confess sin; and both alike hope in the Divine mercy, though the regenerate heathen has not yet had Christ presented to him. As this is the extraordinary work of the holy Spirit, little is said bearing upon it in Scripture. But something is said, God’s promise to Abraham was, that in him should ‘all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Gen 12:3). St. Paul teaches that ‘they are not all Israel which are of Israel’ (Rom 9:6); and that ‘they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7). Our Lord affirms that ‘many shall come from east and west, the north and the south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 8:11). Christ saw both penitence and faith in the unevangelized centurion, respecting whom he said, ‘I have not found so great faith no, not in Israel’ (Matt 8:5-10). The faith of the ‘woman of Cannan’, an alien and stranger to the Jewish people and covenant, was tested more severally than that of any person who came to him in the days of his flesh, and of it the gracious Redeemer exclaimed, ‘O woman, great is they faith!’.

…That this work is extensive, and the number of saved unevangelized adults is great, cannot be affirmed. But that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards. [pp. 60-61]

And all God’s people say —

Amen.

He continues for a couple of pages more and cites Zanchius and Witsius (and the Second Helvetic Confession, once again) as witnesses to this common understanding among “the elder Calvinists,” as he likes to say.

Billy Graham Being His Awesome Self

And how is Billy Graham relevant to all of this? On a few occasions, Reverend Graham expressed his inclusivist beliefs or, at least, heavy leanings in that regard. He is definitely not a strict exclusivist, yet somehow he was motivated to preach the gospel to more people than anyone in human history. One such example is an interview he gave with Larry King on CNN:

I love, love, love Billy’s answer to that question. The person who uploaded the video did not, which is sad. The liberating love and unfettered freedom of God is something joyous. Praise God!

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Image: Billy Graham Crusades in India

 

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

I did this for 2013 and 2014. Here is 2015’s entry.

There is some quality below, in my most humble opinion. I am actually surprised myself. Thanks to outside circumstances, the blogging has been haphazard, which has the potential to yield some interesting results. Looking back, I am satisfied. We had some good discussions on Protestant ecclesiology, Roman Catholicism, various aspects of modern dogmatic theology, and I took a trip to France and Catalonia with my brother! The above picture of Sainte Chapelle is mine.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and emailing. I always enjoy it when a reader sends me an email. You can do so at kevindavis.nc@gmail.com.

Here is a list of this year’s content, organized into a few categories.

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Karl Barth

Barth on Revelation and History

Niebuhr against Barth

Review: Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit

I’ll take a beer in Valhalla

Barth and Heaven

Not Karl Barth

Protestantism’s “mariological turn” in Schleiermacher

Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 1

Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 2

Richard Hanson’s criticisms of Honest to God

Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 1

Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 2

Laura Smit on Gendered God Language

A day in the life of a Union Seminary student in the early 1950’s

Dorner against Kenotic Christology, in a nutshell

Is the Psalmist a Protestant? (G. C. Berkouwer)

Did Christ have a fallen human nature?

Gerhard von Rad

Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church

Systematic Theology Guides

A Guide to Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

A Guide to Non-Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

Protestantism

The Protestant desacralization of the West

The Unintended Reformation

What Baptists do right

In Praise of Evangelical Ecclesiology

The Future of the Church

The Evangelical Aesthetic

Roman Catholicism

Karl Rahner’s Marian “Minimalism”

The church of tomorrow

The Other Francis

A Guide to Catholic Religious Orders

Fr. Robert Barron on “The Mystical Union of Christ and the Church”

The Logic of Mariology

European Vacation

I’m off to Paris and Barcelona

Chartres Cathedral

Our Lady of Reims and Paris

La Sagrada Familia

Misc.

The case for wine, not grape juice, in the Eucharist

Buechner and Hunsinger on Wine

Mini Review: A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

A Guide to Study Bibles

Slavoj Zizek – Calvinism is Christianity at its Purest

The Revolution Devours All

Why everyone should study Simone Weil

The Empire of Desire

The 1974 Southern 500

New Studies in Dogmatics (Zondervan Academic)

Music

The Latest in Alt-Country

Mo Pitney

Ashley Monroe and the Art of Country Vocals

Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me

Are You Washed in the Blood?

This is the best song of the 90’s, just so you know

Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival

Chivalry is Dead

Probably the Best Thing You’ll Ever Watch

I’m a Riser

Amarillo by Morning

Chris Stapleton’s CMA Sweep

Johnny Cash and the Gospel

The Best Music Videos of 2015

W. G. T. Shedd

You can hardly incriminate the Reformed credentials of William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894). His final academic post was Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, at a time when both Union and Princeton were strongholds of Westminster Calvinism. He wrote a three-volume Dogmatic Theology, which is one of the most important contributions to Reformed theology in America. Wipf & Stock currently publishes several of his other volumes: Literary EssaysTheological EssaysHomiletics and Pastoral TheologyA History of Christian Doctrine (two volumes), and his commentary on Romans. They also publish Oliver Crisp’s monograph on Shedd’s harmatology: An American Augustinian. Moreover, Shedd authored a defense of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvinism: Pure & Mixed.

Who can be saved?

I have already posted a review of another Calvinist who wrote a lengthy treatment of this question: Who Can Be Saved? Professor Tiessen argues for an “accessibilist” model of the economy of grace, which is a modified version of “inclusivism.” This is my own position. Tiessen cites Shedd at a couple points, though he does not engage with Shedd at any great length. So I decided to consult Shedd’s treatment of this topic in his Dogmatic Theology.

For your reading pleasure, here is Shedd’s discussion of this topic in the second volume of his systematic theology. The underlining is mine:

It does not follow, however, that because God is not obliged to offer pardon to the unevangelized heathen, either here or hereafter, therefore no unevangelized heathen are pardoned. The electing mercy of God reaches to the heathen. It is not the doctrine of the Church, that the entire mass of pagans, without exception, have gone down to endless impenitence and death. That some unevangelized men are saved, in the present life, by an extraordinary exercise of redeeming grace in Christ, has been the hope and belief of Christendon. It was the hope and belief of the elder Calvinists, as it is of the later. [In a footnote, Shedd provides a very lengthy citation from Hermann Witsius’ commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.] The Second Helvetic Confession (I.7), after the remark that the ordinary mode of salvation is by the instrumentality of the written words, adds: “Agnoscimus, interim, deum illuminare posse homines etiam sine externo ministerio, quo et quando velit: id quod ejus potentiae est.”

[“We know, in the mean time, that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, which is a thing appertaining to his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.” — The Second Helvetic Confession, I.7]

The Westminster Confession (X.3), after saying that “elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth, “adds, “so also are all other elect persons [regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit] who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.” This is commonly understood to refer not merely, or mainly, to idiots and insane persons, but to such of the pagan world as God pleases to regenerate without the use of the written revelation. One of the strictest Calvinists of the sixteenth century, Zanchius, whose treatise on predestination was translated by Toplady, after remarking that many nations have never had the privilege of hearing the word, says (Ch. IV.) that “it is not indeed improbable that some individuals in these unenlightened countries may belong to the secret election of grace, and the habit of faith my be wrought in them.” By the term “habit” (habitus), the elder theologians meant an inward disposition of the heart. The “habit of the heart” involves penitence for sin and the longing for its forgiveness and removal. The “habit of faith” is the broken and contrite heart, which expresses itself in the prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word.

The true reason for hoping that an unevangelized heathen is saved is not that he was virtuous, but that he was penitent.

[W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), pp. 706-709]

Shedd continues, but you can see what he is doing. This is good theology.

Once again, “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word.” Amen. God is God.

Johnny Cash and the Gospel

November 29, 2015

Cash

Johnny Cash did gospel music right. If you observe the whole corpus of his contributions to the gospel side of country music, he manages to capture and hold together the sentimental and the prophetic. That is remarkably rare.

I have selected eight performances, not in any particular order. The first is from San Quentin State Prison and the last is a performance with his mom on The Johnny Cash Show. In between, there are a couple Kris Kristofferson songs. There is a harrowing song about drug addiction. There is a performance at a Billy Graham Crusade. There is so much good stuff here.

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“He Turned the Water Into Wine” (San Quentin State Prison, February 24, 1969)

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“The Junkie’s Prayer” (January 6, 1971)

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“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (Grand Ole Opry, August 20, 1962)

There is also another rendition (in color) that is well worth watching.

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“They Killed Him” (December 1984)

This was written by Kris Kristofferson, who appears at the beginning of the video. The first verse is about Gandhi, the second is about Martin Luther King Jr’s “dream of beauty that they’ll never burn away,” and the final verse is about Jesus Christ.

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“Why Me, Lord?”

This is another Kris Kristofferson song. You’ll also want to see both of them talking about another of Kris’ songs, “To Beat the Devil.”

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“It Was Jesus” (Town Hall Party 1958)

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“One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down And Talk To Paul” (Billy Graham Crusade, Tallahassee, FL, 1986)

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“The Unclouded Day” (The Johnny Cash Show, May 13, 1970)

Johnny Cash performs, with his mom on the piano, the first song that he ever sang in public. This is such a beautiful moment.

There is also a DVD of a 1973 documentary / personal journey of Johnny Cash in the Holy Land: The Gospel Road.

The Gospel Road

“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

 

The Evangelical Aesthetic

September 30, 2015

Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons.

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As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

Protestants do preaching; Catholics do cathedrals. Both proclaim the gospel. It is only the small-minded Protestant who cannot admit the deficiency in the Protestant aesthetic; it is only the small-minded Catholic who cannot admit the deficiency in the Catholic aesthetic. But the purpose of this post is to highlight the Protestant — or evangelical Protestant — aesthetic in word and song. I only have one example. It is sufficient: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Vince Gill wrote the now-classic gospel song, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which he recorded with Patty Loveless. It’s a stunning song, beautiful in a crippling sort of way. Most songwriters would die happy if they had only written, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Even for Vince, one of the all-time greats, this is special.

Vince Gill and Patty Loveless performed the song at George Jones’ memorial service at the Opry, a couple years ago. If this is not heaven on earth, I don’t want to go to heaven:

Let the tears flow. George Jones is crying tears of joy in heaven.

A Protestant could have never written The End of the Affair, but a Catholic could have never written “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

This is why Catholics and Protestants need each other.

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Image: Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons. (source)

The Future of the Church

September 12, 2015

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El Greco, “Pentecost” (1596)

This past Wednesday evening, I watched ‘The Future of the Church’ seminar from Biola, a successor to ‘The Future of Protestantism’ seminar last year. Peter Leithart’s FT article, “The End of Protestantism,” was the motivation for hosting these discussions.

Here it is, along with my musings below:

I respect everyone involved in both last year’s and this year’s discussion, and I greatly appreciate the work involved by the organizers. However, I have been underwhelmed by both seminars. This may have much to do with my own idiosyncrasies in theology. My biggest complaint, however, is formal and not material. The structure makes no sense to me. We have four talented theologians, invited to lecture and discuss the problems plaguing ecclesiology. So far, so good. But each theologian is given, as far as I can tell, no direction and no guidance on what precisely to evaluate and discuss. They do not know what each other is going to say, and each presentation is a stand-alone monologue — differing in character and content widely from one to the next. This was true of last year’s event, and the same format was chosen this year.

Likewise, the roundtable discussion after the lectures is similarly disjointed. For the most part, the questions are far too broad. Each theologian is speaking, naturally enough, out of his own experiences and peculiar context. If, instead, each was given a common set of questions, preferably with concrete problems and proposed solutions, prior to the seminar, then the results could have been far more fruitful. The dialog could have been far more constructive.

I would love some questions about Protestant iconoclasm, in its tireless pursuit of authentic ἐκκλησία and distrust of forms — to give one example. Maybe the organizers want to appeal to a broader audience, but I doubt the theological neophyte is gaining much under the current format.

Setting aside those complaints, you can still benefit from hearing the various perspectives in each presentation and in the discussion afterwards.

The Empire of Desire

July 3, 2015

White House

It has now been a week since the Supreme Court issued its fanciful decision on gay marriage — legally contrived and morally suspect. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote (or co-authored), “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a good summary statement of postmodern nominalism. There is nothing higher, nothing to which we are accountable, except our own experience of “meaning” and “mystery.”

Justice Kennedy continued his romanticist jurisprudence in last week’s Obergefell v. Hodges case. He formulates the first premise on which the majority decided: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (p. 3). This is why, we are told, bans on interracial marriage were invalidated. He continues, “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.” So, “personal choice” and “individual autonomy” are the founding principles upon which interracial marriage is a marriage? We are then given flimsy attempts to define marriage as “a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals” and “an intimate association.” Same-sex couples aspire to “the transcendent purposes of marriage” (p. 4), which are what exactly? Kennedy then finally proceeds to offer the only constitutional basis of the majority’s opinion: a highly dubious interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.

The subsequent media parade offered scarcely any attempt to digest and discuss the moral rationale. At this point, I suppose, Kennedy’s moral logic is self-evident to the culture. The corporate blitz to capitalize was unlike anything we’ve seen in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision, as seemingly every major corporation proudly displayed its support. Social media followed suit. The White House went technicolor. News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm. This united front gave voice to our new era of social discourse. We emote and shame, whereas our forefathers reasoned and convinced. Twitter is more powerful than Aristotle.

If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you to read the SCOTUS decision, both the majority opinion and the dissents. Justice Scalia never holds back: “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic” (p. 75.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, offers the most conservative dissent, insofar as he directly targets the redefinition of marriage away from its procreative ends and offers this sober warning:

It [the court’s decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. [pp. 101-102]

Below, I have collated some of my favorite articles that have dared to wade through this torrent of powers, the potestatis publicae. I will begin with “The Empire of Desire” from R. R. Reno. Unlike most of the subsequent articles, this was not written in response to the Supreme Court decision. It was published in the June 2014 issue of First Things. This is one of Reno’s most incisive essays, more important now than then.

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“The Empire of Desire,” R. R. Reno (First Things, June 2014):

Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.

“The Benedict Option for Evangelicals,” Phillip Cary (First Things, June 30, 2015):

The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.

It’s a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today’s evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can’t the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?

“Can Evangelicals See Themselves in the LGBT Movement?,” Alastair Roberts (The Gospel Coalition, July 1, 2015):

While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality.

…the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.

“After Obergefell: The Effects on Law, Culture, and Religion,” Sherif Girgis (Catholic World Report, June 29, 2015):

It’s not that the majority opinion offered bad interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantees; it hardly interpreted them at all. Huge swathes of it read less like a legal argument than the willful paradoxes and obscure profundities you might hear at a winetasting.

…now the most prestigious secular organ of American society—the Court that helped make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality—stands for the propositions that deep emotional union makes a marriage, and that mothers and fathers are perfectly replaceable; indeed, that it “demeans” and “stigmatizes” people to think otherwise.

“The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion,” David French (National Review, June 26, 2015):

This isn’t constitutional law, it’s theology — a secular theology of self-actualization — crafted in such a way that its adherents will no doubt ask, “What decent person can disagree?” This is about love, and the law can’t fight love. …

Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.

“A Conversation With My Gay Friend,” Jennifer Fulwiler (July 9, 2012):

“Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”

[Andrew:] “So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”

“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”

…”If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”

“Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?,” Wesley Hill (Spiritual Friendship, June 27, 2015):

Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.

“The Episcopal Church on Its Way Towards Adopting Gay Marriage,” George Conger (Anglican Ink, June 29, 2015):

“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.

Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation. By the way, TEC officially voted — overwhelmingly — to adopt a new rite for the marriage of any gender configuration. The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.

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Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.

Baptist

The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.

Lutheran

The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.

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What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.

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Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

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