July 3, 2015
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.
“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.
Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)
May 18, 2015
There has been a lot of discussion about the recent Pew study on the “US Religious Landscape.” The report from Christianity Today puts a wee bit of a positive spin on it for evangelicals, just as Jonathan Merritt puts his own spin on it for RNS. I will briefly respond to some of Merritt’s points at the end. But first, I was struck by the percentages of those who stay within their denominational family or tradition. The Baptists are the highest at 57%. The least likely are Congregationalists (31%), Holiness (32%), Reformed (34%), and Presbyterian (34%) — that includes three “Reformed” denominations (Holiness is Wesleyan).
The Baptist Difference
If I may be so bold, I think I know why the Baptists are at the top in this regard. I will have to be partly autobiographical in order to answer this. I was raised in a devout, loving evangelical Baptist home and church. My parents were not Christians when they began dating in the late 70’s, except in the sense that every Southerner at this time would still claim to be a Christian. They were indifferent to the church and not attending anywhere. But when another couple, friends of theirs, invited them to their large Baptist church in Florence, South Carolina, everything changed for my parents and, unknown at the time, their future sons. They were taught the gospel in a very Billy Graham-ish sort of way, for which I praise the Lord. It was this same gospel that they taught me.
Here is the point. When I was born, my parents did not see me as a Christian. My parents saw me as an object for evangelism! I may have been cute as a button, but I was still a rebellious sinner, separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ. What this meant for me and my brother, and all of my fellow Baptists, is that we were evangelized by our parents. I repeat, we were evangelized by our parents. This begins usually at four or five years old and continues long thereafter. I still vividly remember my mom telling me about the gospel in my bedroom when I was five. Did I have a full grasp of what it meant to be a sinner or that there is a God who intervened? Of course not. I still don’t. The important thing is that it was made real and personal for me, by those who I loved the most. The struggles, questions, doubts would come, but there was an anchor.
I am still amazed when I encounter other Protestants (and Catholics) who did not have this experience. Their parents assumed that they were Christian. They never had “the talk” — no, not the sex talk, but the gospel talk. And is it accidental that Baptists would never do such a stupid thing as forget the gospel talk? No, because Baptists reject infant baptism. With infant baptism came a lot of problems, like forgetting the gospel talk. I will not discuss baptism here, and I am a paedobaptist now. So, obviously, I think that paedobaptism is compatible with the above concept of evangelism, but it is not normative. That is a tragedy.
So, that is my proposal for why Baptists do a better job at keeping their kids. It is evangelical piety at its best and most necessary. I am fully aware — more aware than most — of the problems that come along: an overemphasis on the individual, emotional manipulation, doubts about salvation, re-baptisms and endless re-dedications. I get it. That’s where Reformed theology is a salve for so many, even with its own problems.
The Pew Survey
According to the Pew study, evangelicals have declined at 0.9%, the mainline at 3.4%, and Catholics at 3.1%. The time frame is only between 2007 and 2014. The new thing is the evangelical decline (or plateau-with-slight-decline), whereas the mainline decline is just compounding a decades long problem. If you look at page 21 of the full report, you can see the percentage breakdown for each denomination. The Southern Baptists are down from 6.7 to 5.3 percent of the total population, but the independent Baptists have remained the same as in 2007. Nondenominational evangelicals have increased from 3.4 to 4.9 percent. These are Baptists in all but name but without some of the restrictions that are found in the SBC, which frowns upon charismatic expressions and has a more tightly defined confessional basis (the Baptist Faith & Message).
So, as I mentioned above, the CT article has a fairly positive outlook for evangelicals, bolstered by Ed Setzer’s article for CT, “Nominals to Nones.” Jonathan Merritt has a sort of rebuttal, with four bullet points that you can read for yourself. I guess because evangelicals invest in proselytizing but are still struggling, that means something. In his second bullet point, he says that the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America “failed to grow at all,” which is not true. The PCA was 340,736 in 2007 but 367,033 in 2013 (the latest denominational report). The AG went from 2,863,265 in 2007 to 3,127,857 in 2013, not counting outside of the US.
Merritt notes, “The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC, is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.” True, but why? The UMC still has a strong evangelical contingent, whereas evangelicals in the other mainline denominations have largely fled, especially in the last tens years. The UMC gives voting privileges to its African bishops, which is a blessing for the evangelical minority in the UMC here, and this is why the UMC has not seen breakaway denominations like the NALC, ACNA, ECO, and more. Also, the SBC is a unique body for evangelicals. It was once the equivalent to the mainline in the South, and (prior to the 80’s) its seminaries were not much different from other mainline Protestant seminaries. Like the mainline, it suffers from demographic changes, as much of the population shifts from small factory towns to major urban metropolises.
But Merritt notes another demographic change: “population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates.” Alright, let’s set aside whether “mostly” is warranted, I am happy to grant it as a big factor. But that’s a problem, not a neutral determinant, as Mary Eberstadt has persuasively argued.
Lastly, I have to challenge Merritt’s comment: “Roman Catholics — also theologically and politically conservative — are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.” Really? The RCC in America is a different beast entirely, and to say that it has “evangelistic zeal” is downright laughable. There is, of course, a vibrant contingent of evangelically-minded, Vatican-loving, conservative Roman Catholics in America. But you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an average Catholic and an average mainline Protestant. There are complicated historical and cultural reasons for this, which I am perfectly willing to discuss, not the least of which is the “mainline” mindset of Rome’s past cultural privilege.
In closing, we have to ask ourselves about the importance we attach to these surveys. Numbers matter, as any dying church can testify. I’ve heard enough of these testimonies from mainline Protestant congregations — where sometime in the ’80’s or ’90’s, they realized that they didn’t have any kids in the sanctuary. At that point, there was no turning back.
Yet, it is also the case that Christians should have a basic expectation of cultural marginalization, which may translate into a loss in numbers. I am not convinced (not in the slightest) that this is why the mainline has declined so precipitously. I think the mainline decline has much to do with lethargy, privilege, and an anemic theology. Even so, the evangelical churches may indeed experience an increased decline over the years, not because of their lack of gospel but precisely because of their gospel. I am not saying that we have lacked privilege or that evangelicals do not have our own self-inflicted wounds. We harbor a neo-fundamentalism that is scared and irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity. If this were to dominate and overwhelm us, then we deserve what we get. We are also responsible for a capitulation to American ideals and social expectations, though this is an enormously tricky thing to parse. Is this why the evangelicals have fared better, as my liberal Protestant friends think? To some extent, sure, but it does not have the exhaustive explanatory value that they think — far from it. But to the extent that this is true, it just means that evangelicals will return to the marginalization that we once enjoyed.
One More Thing that Baptists Do Right!
Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and many more — all Baptists.
Thank you, Baptists, for country music.
“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” Johnny Cash and the Carter Family
Image: A river baptism in Appalachia (source: Southern Visions)
May 12, 2015
What has the Protestant Reformation wrought?
Brad Gregory is the Griffin Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Notre Dame. His book, The Unintended Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2012), has received a lot of attention and acclaim. I have not read it, but I have watched the lecture (below) a few times! You can consider this as a follow-up to a recent post of mine, “The Protestant desacralization of the West.” Both Professor Gregory and Professor Eire are doing Catholic apologetics at the highest level, which is technically not apologetics. They are tracing the Protestant influence on Western secularism, with scholarly rigor and peer accountability.
In the following lecture, Gregory offers a highly compressed presentation of his book. He moves very quickly through the material, so you have to pay attention.
There is a lot of good questions that can follow from this presentation. Can we really blame Protestantism for all of this? Was it not inevitable, based upon other (mostly secular) contingencies? I am sure that other folks can offer valuable push-back.
However, I think that Gregory makes an important contribution by focusing on theology (as does Professor Eire) and especially the Protestant doctrine of the Bible’s perspicuity. This is obviously a weakness in the Protestant position. Even if we agree that the gospel, however that is defined, is perspicuous, we still cannot agree on a myriad of other matters, like baptism, which continue to cause disunity. And this disunity invariably causes many to resort to their own subjective and private communication with the divine, where personal experience is the sole magisterium. When that happens, it is game over for Protestants.
Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) was a Presbyterian scholar of the Old Testament, equally committed to the homiletical imperative of the church. Among her several books are Nature, God, and Pulpit (Eerdmans, 1992), The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith (Baker Academic, 1994), Preaching from the Old Testament (WJK Press, 1989), Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1998), The Committed Marriage (WJK Press, 1976), and she wrote commentaries on Nahum to Malachi for the Interpretation commentary series. She was also an active leader in the pro-life movement in mainline Protestantism.
In her autobiography, Not Til I Have Done, she talks fondly about her days at Union Theological Seminary in New York City during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. “Union Seminary has never again achieved the theological distinction of having such a faculty,” she writes in reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, John T. McNeill, Paul Tillich, Cyril Richardson, and others. She loved Niebuhr but was far less enamored of Tillich. Here is an excerpt, with a humorous anecdote:
It is difficult to picture the theological intensity that pervaded Union’s campus at that time. Every mealtime involved theological discussion, and if you set forth a theological proposition, there was always some fellow student to challenge it or a graduate student to knock it down There, in those conversations, we hammered out our own positions on the rock of dispute. We learned what could be defended and what was nonsense. Gradually we arrived at theologies that were sound and biblical.
There was no theological professor who was more balanced in his teaching than John Bennett, and it was from him that I learned the essentials of Christian doctrine. Niebuhr taught us about the pride and sin of human beings in a theological realism that is still perennially pertinent. And I think I never knew truly how to worship until I attended morning chapels with Cyril Richardson and heard his “Amen” booming out at the end of collects, as he prayed on his knees.
We had a lot of fun in the midst of that theological hothouse. One day at lunch we discussed Tillich’s theology with Niebuhr. “Tell Tillich,” remarked Niebuhr, “that he’s a damn pantheist.” So off we all scurried to talk to Tillich. Some time later, Niebuhr encountered Tillich in the courtyard, contemplating the flowers growing there. “Paul,” asked Niebuhr. “What are you doing?” The reply came back in Tillich’s accent, “Ze damn panteist is worshiping.”
It always seemed like something of a mental triumph when we managed to wrap our minds around Tillich’s system of theology, a system that he simply read to us in class. But try as he might, Tillich could not reconcile his system with biblical theology, and though he had many disciples most of us faulted him on his distance from the biblical faith. Later we learned about his unfaithful marital life; that simply underscored the weakness in his theology, because a person’s theology is made manifest in his or her actions.
Unfortunately, Union chose to waste the knowledge of the brilliant historian John McNeill by letting him lecture only on dates and conditions in church history, whereas to Tillich was assigned the history of Christian thought. Tillich’s lecture notes proved totally unusable when studying for the history portion of my Ph.D. exams, because they did not illumine the central traditions of the Christian faith.
Contrary to Tillich’s personality, what was impressive about some of the other theological giants at Union was their humility, a humility that we were later to encounter also in Karl Barth. Niebuhr – famous, yet always engaged with students, tall and angular and full of vitality – was never intimidating, but was a beloved friend, and we all wept when he suffered his series of debilitating strokes in the 1950’s. [pp. 38-40]
From 1953-54, she spent time in Basel with Karl Barth, accompanied by her fellow student and husband, Paul Achtemeier. Both would emerge as accomplished biblical scholars at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. You can read her glowing account of Barth in How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim. She writes, “A rumpled, lovable, old giant of learning, Barth acted toward us as a pastor” (p. 108). In her autobiography, she has a chapter on Barth.
She also has a chapter “On Being Female.” In a previous post, I mentioned that Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a “hardnosed” diatribe against feminism in her preface to Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity. And she continues her complaints in the aforementioned chapter. Unfortunately, her kind is pretty much nonexistent in the mainline Protestant world today.
April 8, 2015
Laura Smit is a professor of theology at Calvin College and the author of Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love (Baker Academic). She is also a contributor to Conversations with the Confessions: Dialogue in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Joseph Small. In the latter volume, the quality of the essays are rather mixed, leaving me unimpressed on the whole. But I did appreciate Smit’s essay, “Who is God?,” even though it only skims the surface of several important discussions in systematics on the doctrine of God. The volume is targeting a broad audience of thoughtful layfolks and their pastors, not academics.
In particular, I liked her remarks in favor of using gendered (masculine) language for God. As every reader of this blog knows, I have no qualms about using masculine language for God, and I am especially disinclined to ever use “Godself.” In the mainline Protestant milieu, this is a battle hardly worth waging. We lost. In a typical mainline sermon, you can expect to hear some of the most tortured English for the sake of avoiding “him” or “himself.” I am not entirely insensitive to their reasoning. I have friends and classmates who disagree with me. I know all of their arguments, often passionately expressed. I still disagree. Laura Smit expresses some of my thoughts:
Gendered language for God clearly fits into the first category [analogical language]. God is beyond male and female, so when we use either male or female language for God, we are speaking analogically, using language that applies properly and originally to human experience and applying it to God. Some people argue that instead of using gendered language, we should avoid the use of either male or female language when speaking of God, simply repeating the word “God” in place of using pronouns such as “he” or “himself.” I once used such God-language for about a year, avoiding pronouns when speaking of God by always substituting the noun “God.” By the end of the year I noticed something rather disturbing: My idea of God had become impersonal. Since our human experience of personal interaction is always gendered, ungendered language suggests a lack of personal presence, and I had come to think of God as an impersonal force rather than a personal being. This is a significant problem, since being personal, like being loving, is a quality that belongs properly and originally to God and is applied to human beings only analogically. Language that makes us think of God as less personal than humans should be avoided, just as we should shun any language that makes us think of God as less loving than we are. Insofar as ungendered language is an effort to speak more literally (or univocally) about God without using analogical language, it is doomed to failure, since human language is simply not up to the task. But we should note that ungendered language also fails to function analogically, since we have no analogous experience of relating to an ungendered person that might illuminate such language when applied to God.
So, why not just use both masculine and feminine?
I had to use either male or female language, or some combination of the two. Thus, I spent another year of my life using male language for the Father and the Son, while using female language for the Holy Spirit. As my understanding of the unity of God deepened, however, I came to realize that such language suggests that the three persons have different natures. In fact, it leads toward tritheism, as if the Trinity is made up of three separate gods rather than three persons who share in one nature.
[Laura Smit, “Who is God?,” Conversations with the Confessions, pp. 96-96.]
There is still the option of alternating between masculine and feminine when referring to God, though not when referring to the persons. I still disagree with that option, though a rebuttal would require a more thorough treatment than Smit offers.
If you would like to delve deeper, I recommend Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language. In the edition that I own, Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a hardnosed preface, expressing her intense displeasure at feminist arguments for revising the church’s language of God. Bloesch also wrote Is the Bible Sexist?, which I have not read. Bloesch is best known for his multi-volume systematic theology and his two-volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology, which you can (and should) purchase used at little cost.
Image: Laura Smit at the Presbyterian Fellowship Conference on Theology, San Diego, January 2015.
March 14, 2015
I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.
Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.
In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….” What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.
Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.” But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society. This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?” Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong. And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.
In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.
The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close. But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.
In this other type of apologetic theology, God is the explanation for our guilt or sense of alienation. And, thus, the popular existentialism of Bonhoeffer’s day appealed to the “ultimate questions” of death and guilt, to which only God can provide a satisfying answer. For Bonhoeffer, the world is generally quite happy and content with itself, and so we have the amusing situation when an existentialist theologian like Tillich “sought to understand the world better than it understood itself.” All of these strategies fail, according to Bonhoeffer, because they are all making God into the answer to our problems, whether intellectual or existential, instead of having God first and foremost as the “center of life” itself and in its entirety. This is the God of life and love, not just death and guilt.
 Ibid., 280.
 Ibid., 281.
 Ibid., 281-282.
 Ibid., 282.
 Ibid., 326.
 Ibid., 327. Bonhoeffer would later refer to this as “clerical tricks” (p. 346).
See part two.
February 13, 2015
On a personal note, blogging will continue to be slow for the next several weeks. I am currently in the middle of an internship, in addition to my library job at Union Presbyterian Seminary and classwork at said seminary. I work six days a week. I am rather exhausted. Woe is me!
Roman Catholic biblical scholarship is doing a lot of things right. Ever since Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943, Catholic scholars have pursued the rigorous enterprise of critical scholarship with vigor. And, yet, they have done so with sensitivity to theological concerns within a dogmatic framework. Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer are two of the most prominent names in this regard, as demonstrated in their volumes for the Anchor Bible and elsewhere. Brown will be too liberal for many of you, but he is a remarkable scholar, with a theologically adept mind.
The NAB was commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and you can hear it at every mass in the United States. The other favorite translation among American Catholics is the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), published by Ignatius Press. I love the RSV, but I have come to appreciate the NAB more and more. It may lack a certain elegance, but I appreciate its “punchiness.” See Psalm 10, for example. But the significant advantage for the student is the study material. The book introductions are consistently good, and the study notes are genuinely helpful. The overall perspective is “moderate critical,” much like the Protestant New Interpreter’s Study Bible. See the New Jerusalem Bible below for a similar study Bible from Roman Catholic scholars.
It has many naysayers, but I am a fan of the NIV, especially the 2011 revision (see a related post here). This study Bible is the evangelical standard. As such, it is minimally concerned with appropriating historical critical research, except in an adverse position. When it comes to the Pentateuch, for example, Moses is the author, albeit with some recognition of later redaction. When it comes to Isaiah, the similarities among the parts overrule the differences (e.g, “Holy One of Israel” throughout the book), yielding a single author. And, to give another example, the book of Daniel is not a species of late AD apocalyptic, intertestamental literature. In each case, appeal is made to the New Testament’s use of the OT and how traditional authorship is ascribed.
For many people, this would be enough to dismiss the NIV Study Bible. But that is a shame. The NIV Study Bible is beneficial to one and all. As you would expect from an evangelical study Bible, the NIV-SB does a marvelous job of systematizing the disparate material in the biblical canon. Agree or disagree, it is helpful, especially for the pastor. Compared to some other study Bibles, it lacks depth in the notes, and it is certainly “biased” toward evangelical theology, of course. The 2011 NIV-SB also includes a wealth of charts (in color!) that will serve every student well.
The NISB is a distillation of The New Interpreter’s Bible, one of the most important commentary series on the market and the successor to the widely utilized The Interpreter’s Bible. There is also the accompaniment, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, which is also an academic standard. And all of this derived from the “biblical theology” movement of the mid-twentieth century, with Interpretation as the flagship and leading journal for mainline Protestants facilitating both critical and theological analysis of the Bible. Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond continues to house Interpretation. And there is also a commentary series, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. This is a favorite among preachers, and it includes the likes of Brueggemann on Genesis and Thomas Long on Hebrews.
So, the “Interpretation” enterprise is vast, and it is much beloved among mainline Protestants. It represents the best of “moderate critical” scholarship. This means that the theology of the NISB is largely congenial to “neo-orthodoxy” of the 20th century, but it also features aspects of liberation and feminist theology, also rather congenial to mainline Protestantism of today. Personally, I have a mixed reaction to the NISB. It is certainly worth owning and worth frequently consulting, but I think that the NAB (above) and NJB (below) are superior on the whole.
As with all of the mainline Protestant study Bibles, the translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I am not overly fond of the NRSV for mostly stylistic reasons, but it represents some of the best of biblical scholarship in the late 20th century (including the indomitable Bruce Metzger at Princeton) and is the academic standard.
This is an astonishingly good study Bible. The book introductions are alone worth the price of the volume and should be published independently as an introductory survey of the Bible. Like the NAB, the NJB is a Roman Catholic translation of the Bible, featuring academic introductions and study notes. (Note: the “Reader’s Edition” lacks the study material.) But most importantly, these academic features are also combined with theological commitments, much like the NAB. For example, the study note for Romans 9:5 (“…Christ who is above all, God, blessed forever. Amen.”) is a splendid account of the divinity of Christ within the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not know of any other study Bible that combines such theological depth with academic-critical rigor.
While the NJB is a Roman Catholic Bible, it could easily be called an ecumenical Bible. Most of the mainline Protestants would be comfortable with it, and I would encourage evangelical Protestants to utilize it as well. There are only a few instances where peculiarly Roman Catholic “bias” could be detected. For example, the study note for Matthew 1:25 allows for the ever-virginity of Mary: “The text is not concerned with the period that followed and, taken by itself, does not assert Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is assumed by the remainder of the Gospel and by the tradition of the Church.” The NAB says basically the same. But this is not significant. I think the Epiphanian view is plausible — why else was Mary entrusted to the beloved disciple and not to Jesus’ “brothers”? (John 19:26-27). So, I am not concerned with this particular “bias.” More importantly, the controversial matters on justification in Romans and Galatians are notably unbiased and fair to everyone concerned, if you sufficiently understand the complexities involved.
The NOAB is the long-standing standard in academic study Bibles, widely utilized in both mainline Protestant seminaries and secular universities. This was the Bible we were assigned at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The original edition (with the RSV translation) is still in print, and it is considered a classic, thanks in large part to the influence and labor of Bruce Metzger. Metzger also supervised both the NRSV translation (1989) and the revision of the NOAB. But later additions of the NOAB have gone beyond Metzger, who was a moderate-critical, neo-orthodox Presbyterian scholar. The editors of the third and fourth editions of the NOAB, Michael D. Coogan and Marc Z. Brettler, have incorporated a decidedly secular and non-theological perspective throughout the NOAB. This is my opinion, after using both the third and fourth editions extensively. Nonetheless, the NOAB remains a valuable resource for understanding the mainline academic/liberal perspective on the Bible.
However, The HarperCollins Study Bible (NRSV) appears to be a better resource for grappling with the theological implications of critical research, from the perspective of liberal mainline Protestantism. But, I am not as familiar with the HCSB, so I have to reserve judgment.
Other Study Bibles
There are several other study Bibles worth mentioning. The NLT Study Bible is very good, and in certain respects it is even superior to the NIV Study Bible. More than the latter, it gives greater recognition to the mainstream, as in providing the “lower chronology” of Moses and the Exodus (13th century BC) set beside the higher chronology. Yet, it lacks many of the features that make the NIV-SB special, and it is an inferior translation.
Also on the evangelical side, we should recognize The Reformation Study Bible, edited by R. C. Sproul. Next month, the RSB is scheduled to release its latest edition. This is the traditional Calvinist study Bible, par excellence. It first appear in the mid-1990’s as The New Geneva Study Bible, in the NKJV translation only. It then expanded to the ESV translation, which is the sole translation of the new edition. There is also an NIV edition, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, edited by Richard L. Pratt and based upon the Sproul edition of the RSB. The NIV edition features more expansive study notes. And most importantly, the NIV edition includes the Reformed confessions (Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards) at the end and footnoted throughout the text.
The ESV Study Bible is easily the most talked about study Bible to emerge in the last decade. This is thanks in large part to the wide publicity of Crossway and enthusiastic support from leaders within the “New Calvinism,” such as John Piper. The theology is basically the same as The Reformation Study Bible, but I find the RSB to be more theologically in-depth and elegant. Yet, the ESV-SB features more material and more study aids, much like the latest NIV-SB.
On the mainline Protestant side, there is The Discipleship Study Bible, which appears to be very similar to the NISB (above). It comes from the same “Interpretation” group of scholars, with pastor-scholars like Thomas Long, and is published by Westminster John Knox.
Alright, I think that is enough for now! We have a wealth of study Bibles in the English-speaking world: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic. And each of the above have something worthwhile to offer us all.
December 29, 2014
At the end of last year, I did a retrospective listing of the blog’s content for 2013. Now it is time for 2014. This is helpful, I hope, for newer visitors to the blog or as a refresher for longtime visitors. As I expected, the top “category” for this past year is Karl Barth, and that is probably true for every year since I started the blog. That’s not counting the music category, of course!
Without further ado, here is a look at 2014 here at After Existentialism, Light:
Hans Urs von Balthasar
On German Theology
“Worldview” Gone Wild
(Sarcasm alert) Al Mohler is more humble than evolutionists
For the troubled and tried (Spurgeon)
Against “illuminating the human condition” (Hauerwas)
Image: Jorge Alvariño & Ali Larr
December 20, 2014
A couple years ago, a member of our church asked about the decline (or growth) of denominations. I knew the general talking points, but I was curious about the hard numbers in denominational decline/gain for the past decade. I selected three Presbyterian denominations: the mainline PCUSA and the evangelical PCA and EPC. To compare with the PCUSA, I selected another mainline group, the Episcopalians (TEC). And to give more comparisons for evangelicals, I selected the Southern Baptists (SBC) and the Assemblies of God (AG).
I did this in 2012. I never blogged the results, apparently because I forgot, but here they are:
Click on the image to enlarge. The ARDA database was one of my sources, but I generally used the denominational websites where possible. The empty spaces indicate the years that I was unable to find any numbers. You can see the percentage decreases/gains on the bottom.
So, as everyone would expect, the mainline PCUSA and TEC had severe losses for the decade, losses which began in the mid-1960’s. I also glanced at the United Methodists (UMC) and the Lutherans (ELCA), and they appear to be in the same ballpark. The story for evangelicals is interesting. But before anyone gets too triumphalist, let me say that I would not be surprised if we start seeing declines across the board in the near future, with the exception of certain charismatic groups. The “nones” will prove to be difficult, as everyone is fretting.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has posted steady gains, nearly 15% from 2000 to 2011. Interestingly, there was decline from 2007 to 2008, but they rebounded. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) has seen enormous growth at 77% for the 2000-2011 time frame. Today, their growth since 2000 would be 123%! This growth is, of course, thanks in large part to the PCUSA, and we could say the same about the newest Presbyterian body, ECO, which currently has 171 congregations after only two years of existence. ECO has received Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area. EPC has received First Presbyterian Church, Orlando. Those are three examples of large, influential evangelical churches that were once within the mainline. This means a loss of evangelical leadership within the mainline, such as John Ortberg at Menlo Park, David Swanson at First Pres Orlando, and the rather young Bryan Dunagan at Highland Park.
The growth of Pentecostal denominations is well known. The Assemblies of God (AG) is one of the oldest, which means that it is less than a hundred years old. The numbers in the chart above are for the United States only, at 18% growth and over 3 million members. The AG has over 60 million members worldwide! Yes, that’s right. 60 million, and that is a small slice of the Pentecostal pie worldwide. By comparison, the mainline Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran bodies have 70-80 million each, and that includes inflated numbers from, for example, the nominal membership of the Church of England (27 million baptized).
The Southern Baptists are an interesting case study. They are evangelical to be sure, and even more so now than 30 or 40 years ago. But they are also a very “mainline” denomination, indeed the most mainline denomination of the South. Many of the demographic problems that are plaguing the official Protestant mainline are also being experienced by the SBC, namely a very large constituency in small-to-mid size towns, like the cotton mill towns in North Carolina between major cities like Charlotte and Greensboro and Raleigh. The mills are closed, and people are leaving. (This is my family’s own story. My dad is a mechanic, and we moved to Charlotte when I was six years old to find more employment opportunities.) Nonetheless, the SBC experienced steady growth while the mainline was declining — that is, until the last few years, causing quite a lot of panic for a denomination that has long prided itself on evangelism. If you look at the 2000-2011 numbers, there is growth, but it is more like a plateau. And beginning in 2010 to today, it is a decline, though not nearly as steep as the mainline. The SBC has challenges ahead. One bright sign, however, is the six SBC seminaries, which can each boast a substantial size student body (see ATS and scroll down) in a country where seminaries are struggling mightily.
If I had more time, I would have liked to include some of the smaller evangelical denominations that have grown at healthy rates, such as the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CMA). I was once a member of the EFCA, and they are doing a lot of things right. The EFCA seminary is Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside of Chicago, which can boast an impressive faculty. The EFCA is about the same size as the PCA, and the CMA is a bit larger at just under half a million in the US. Some of the larger evangelical denominations are also worth checking, such as the Church of the Nazarene at nearly 2.3 million members and growing (though recently at a slower pace than previous decades). And also, it would be fascinating to look at the predominately black denominations, such as the AME and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Most African-American denominations do not fit the “mainline” or “evangelical” labels very neatly. The COGIC, a Pentecostal denomination, has experienced enormous growth in the US with over 8 million members today. Another important case study would be the many ethnic congregations of recent immigrants, from the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Myanmar, and elsewhere. They often have strong and enthusiastic congregations in every major city in America.
As a closing word, it should be remembered that numbers aren’t everything, but they are something. A declining church or denomination could be a sign of faithfulness to a gospel that the culture does not want to hear, and there are many progressives who see themselves and their churches in this way. Or, a declining church or denomination could be a sign of apathy, laziness, and self-centeredness. In the mainline, as I suspect, it could be a sign of theological irresponsibility. As the great German biblical scholar, Klaus Berger, has recently written, “Two hundred years of intense and intelligent biblical research has desolated our churches” (source).