March 8, 2016
Here are some book that I have recently read. I have written a mini-review for each.
Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (HarperCollins Publishers)
Richard McBrien (1936-2015) was a longtime professor of theology at Notre Dame and best known for his lengthy, textbook-like tome, Catholicism. McBrien is representative of the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd in Catholic academia, causing some tension with those who preferred to stress continuity between V2 and the magisterial tradition of previous centuries — an emphasis found in the writings and actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In short, McBrien was a “liberal” in the relative sense of these post-V2 debates.
This book is well-written and engaging. As McBrien writes in the preface, it was written for theology students and seminarians, as a sort of guidebook to Catholic ecclesiology. It does, however, presuppose a fair amount from the reader, even though it is not a difficult book to read. If you have zero knowledge or interest in Catholic ecclesiological debates of the past two centuries, then you will probably snooze after the first few pages.
My major criticism is that McBrien is wholly invested in modern ecclesiology and the discussions surrounding Vatican II. The large majority of citations are from this council and from his favorite contemporary ecclesiologists, such as Yves Congar. Why is this a criticism? Because it is very limited. McBrien doesn’t come close to communicating the breadth and depth of the Catholic doctrine of the church. There is very (very!) little resourcement of theologians, councils, popes, mystics, etc., prior to the 19th century. In this regard, McBrien is not nearly as satisfying as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (3rd edition, WJK Press)
John Leith (1919-2002) was a longtime professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. This 700+ page volume is very helpful. You can see the table of contents at Amazon. I am not aware of a comparable single volume that includes this much material, expertly selected by Leith and including brief introductions. It can serve as an excellent companion to Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church, now in its fourth edition. Leith’s volume is focused on doctrine, including creeds, confessions, conciliar decrees, papal decrees, and the like. In addition to the wealth of Protestant documents, there is also a generous selection of “modern” Roman Catholic documents (Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, Vatican II) and less common documents such as The Confession of Dositheus from the Eastern Orthodox in the late 17th century.
Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press / Baker Publishing Group)
It is hard to evaluate this book. I am sure that there is an audience for this, but I found the shortcomings too significant for me. The book is formatted as a dialog between a Catholic and Protestant, who were in fact once classmates in college. Longenecker is a convert to Catholicism and now a priest in South Carolina. Forewords are provided by Richard John Neuhaus and J. I. Packer. I greatly appreciate the civil tone throughout, and there is a genuine search for truth and clarity. But the dialog format, while perhaps increasing the accessibility of the volume for a larger audience, severely limits the scholarship necessary for arguing the points in dispute. However, for the Protestant who is new to Mariology (i.e., 99% of Protestants), I can see how this volume could be very helpful as an introduction and incentive toward further study.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was a prominent Dutch-American theologian and church leader in the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his Systematic Theology, which is still widely recommended among Calvinists in America. Full disclosure: I did not read the whole volume, and I am sure that I never will. But I believe that I read enough to evaluate its merits.
There are indeed merits to this volume. It is eminently clear, concise, and sober. If you are seeking a one-stop shop for scholastic Reformed orthodoxy, then this is probably as good as you will find. My criticisms have much to do with my own prejudices. Insofar as the volume attempts to go beyond a mere restatement of received orthodoxy and venture into actual demonstrations and defenses of said orthodoxy, the shortcomings are massive. And when it comes to modern theology, including Barth in his early period, then Berkhof has little to offer and the little can be misleading. Admittedly, Berkhof was writing when the whole “dialectical” movement was nascent and not altogether coherent, eventually fracturing.
St. John of the Cross, John of the Cross: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press)
I had read John of the Cross years ago — his renowned Dark Night of the Soul. But this was my first time reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which is featured alongside other important works in this volume from Kieran Kavanaugh, a disciple of John in the Discalced Carmelite religious order. I greatly benefited from Dark Night when I first read it. It is hard-hitting to say the least, but The Ascent is even more hard-hitting. At least, that was my impression. John of the Cross comes dangerously close to a Manichean obsession with creation’s propensity for evil by way of creaturely attachment. This is not uncommon among the most serious of mystics (not, by the way, your garden-variety Episcopal eco-feminist’s pseudo-mysticism). However, John has an aesthetic sense that is wonderfully expressed in the poetry upon which these writings are but commentaries. On the whole, John is as enigmatic as Simone Weil, with the same tension between the Cross and the Glory.
Maren Morris, “My Church”
I love this song! This is Maren’s debut single, and it has been moving quickly up the Country Airplay chart.
February 11, 2016
Here is the latest installment of recent and upcoming books of interest. I have decided to use categories: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Barth Studies, and Other.
Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Baker Academic)
Johann Adam Möhler, Unity in the Church, or, The Principles of Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press). This is a translation of a very important book from the Tübingen theologian.
Roderick Strange, ed., John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters (Oxford University Press)
Thomas Petri, O.P., Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II’s Anthropology (Catholic University of America Press)
Roland Teske, S.J., To Know God and the Soul: Essays on the Thought of St. Augustine (Catholic University of America Press)
Gilles Emery, O.P., and Matthew Levering, eds., Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology (Oxford University Press)
Gary Selin, Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations (Catholic University of America Press)
Douglas M. Beaumont, ed., Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome (Ignatius Press)
Uwe Michael Lang, Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred (Ignatius Press)
Serge-Thomas Bonino, O.P., Angels and Demons: A Catholic Introduction (Catholic University of America Press)
Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, eds., Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker Academic)
Keith L. Johnson, Theology as Discipleship (IVP Academic)
Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (IVP Academic)
Matthew Nelson Hill, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection (IVP Academic)
Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate (Baker Academic)
Janice McRandal, ed., Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology (Fortress Press)
John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (T&T Clark). This volume was originally published in 2005, now made more widely available and affordable.
Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP Academic)
Samuel V. Adams, The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright (IVP Academic)
Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development, 1920-1953 (IVP Academic)
Sven Ensminger, Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions (T&T Clark)
Jennifer M. Rosner, Healing the Schism: Barth, Rosenzweig, and the New Jewish-Christian Encounter (Fortress Press)
Shannon Nicole Smythe, Forensic Apocalyptic Theology: Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Justification (Fortress Press)
Kenneth Oakes, ed., Christian Wisdom Meets Modernity (T&T Clark). From the publisher’s description of the series and this volume:
The ‘Illuminating Modernity’ series examines the great but lesser known thinkers in the ‘Romantic Thomist’ tradition such as Erich Przywara and Fernand Ulrich and shows how outstanding 20th century theologians like Ratzinger and von Balthasar have depended on classical Thomist thought, and how they radically reinterpreted this thought.
The chapters in this volume are dedicated to the encounter between the presuppositions and claims of modern intellectual culture and the Christian confession that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the power and wisdom of God and is the lord of history and of his church.
The scholars contributing to this discussion do not assume that Christianity and modernity are two discrete entities which can be readily defined, nor do they presume that Christian wisdom and modernity meet each other only in conflict or by coincidence. They engage with a variety of great figures – Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Rahner, Przywara, Guardini, Karl Barth, and Karol Wojtyla – to illustrate the connection between modernism and Christian wisdom. The volume concludes with a programmatic statement for the renewal of Christian philosophy that has been able to retain the cosmo-theological vision as outlined by Mezei in the final chapter.
Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Baker Academic).
Ralph C. Woods, ed., Tolkien among the Moderns (University of Notre Dame Press)
Kirk R. MacGregor, Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge (Zondervan). The author is an evangelical Protestant.
Wipf & Stock has republished three volumes from Simone Weil, under a series title of “Simone Weil: Selected Works.”
Francis Watson, The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus (Baker Academic)
Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, eds., A Biblical History of Israel (Second Edition, WJK Press)
Vince Gill, Down To My Last Bad Habit
Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
Nick Dittmeier, Midwest Heart / Southern Blues
Dianna Corcoran, In America
Breelan Angel, Diamond in a Rhinestone World
Image: “Reading You”
February 4, 2016
Steven Wedgeworth has posted a rebuttal to Leithart’s thesis. As y’all know, I posted a defense earlier this week. Wedgeworth’s piece is a long rebuttal, including complaints about “churchly nostalgia” and a defense of Calvinist hip-hop! It is worth reading. We come at all of this from very different places, to put it mildly.
I will not address all of Wedgeworth’s criticisms, but I must address his account of the sacraments. And then I will briefly address his take on Newman’s high-church aesthetics, which is very off the mark.
This will allow me to discuss a topic that I have wanted to discuss again for quite some time: Thomas Aquinas’ view of the sacraments, namely the Eucharist.
Blame it on Trent?
Wedgeworth argues that Leithart has the doctrine of the sacraments all wrong, at least the Roman Catholic view. Here is Wedgeworth, worth quoting in full:
In Leithart’s words, a proper use of symbolism allows objects to “be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else.” This is all actually very interesting, and at the heart of Dr. Leithart’s larger career project, but it is not the way in which “sacraments” were debated at the time of the Reformation.
Assuming for a moment that Zwingli himself could not allow symbols to “to be both themselves and also… without ceasing to be what they are… something else,” it is abundantly clear that another religious party also had this very problem. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine cease being bread and wine when they become the body and blood of Christ. Thus Zwinglian poetics ought to be in close company with Roman Catholic poetics. Blame it on Marburg if you like, but don’t forget Trent.
This is far more than a cute tu quoque. When it comes to the Eucharist, the Tridentine position, which is still the definitive one for Rome, is that “a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood.” Indeed, the Council of Trent had a strong revulsion towards any assertion that both bread and body or wine and blood existed together at the same time:
“If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.”
This is a major problem for the sacramental poetics of Miss Flannery as Dr. Leithart has represented them. If the Eucharist really was the center of her existence, and if she really was a good Roman Catholic, then she ought not to have been able to write as she did. Perhaps she was a subconscious Lutheran. …
Is this true? Leithart argues that the sacraments operate simultaneously as themselves and as “something else.” For the Eucharist, this would mean that the signs used in the sacrament (bread and wine) are also Jesus himself in the Eucharist while remaining bread and wine. According to Wedgworth, this is not the Roman Catholic position. His argument is that the Council of Trent definitely stated that the elements of the bread and wine are no longer present but instead, at the time of the consecration, changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As such, the sign is no longer the sign (in reality) but entirely substituted by the reality to which it ostensibly signifies.
That is a common enough account, but it is not correct, as I understand Trent and the official Roman position. As is well-known, the Tridentine position on the sacraments is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Even though Trent avoids canonizing the substance/accident categories of Aquinas, it is impossible to understand Trent without understanding Aquinas. It is wholly permissible for a later generation to substitute these categories with other, perhaps better and more serviceable, categories, so long as Trent is properly understood and affirmed in the distinctions that it intends. That, at least, is the duty of the Catholic theologian.
So, what is Trent actually saying? It all depends upon what Trent means by “substance.” It does not mean what we would mean. According to the standard Oxford Latin Dictionary of Lewis & Short, substantia means “that of which a thing consists, the being, essence, contents, material, substance.” For accidens, it is defined as “non-essential quality of any thing,” with a parenthetical note opposing the Latin substantia and the Greek οὐσία. According to Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin (Oxford, 1949), substantia means “a real existence; the thing itself,” referring to Tertullian, and substantialis means “substantial, real, essential,” also citing Tertullian. These definitions are, admittedly, not entirely helpful for clarifying matters. The reason is because they are abstract categories with, as you would expect, a broad and shifting referential range.
Most importantly, the “that of which a things consists” in terms of its “contents” or “material” or “substance” is different today from what it was in Aquinas’ day. We are far more likely to refer to the physical properties, chemical composition, and graphical terrain of any object as “essential” and therefore the “substance” of the object. That is not what Aquinas means, and it is not what Trent means. I first grappled with this topic by taking a very close, hard look at what Aquinas says, how he uses these categories, and the limits he places upon them. Luckily for myself, I have already dealt with this on the blog:
The moral of the story is that we must attend to the particular context in which these categories are used in order to understand what they mean. Yes, the substance is replaced by the substance of another (hence, “transubstantiation”), but what does Aquinas mean by “substance”? For Aquinas, substance is a non-local property, and this is a non-negotiable for dealing with this Thomist view of “the real presence” of Christ. As a local property, substance would acquire the properties of a local presence, which is spatially circumscribed. If that were the case, these properties would be essential to the “appearance,” which is (in Thomist language) the “accidents” and therefore not essential to the “substance.” I know that this is complicated for most people, but I try to explain it in the three-part series above on Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation.
The point is rather simple, all things considered. The properties of bread and wine remain after consecration, insofar as they are physically and chemically and spatially defined — which is entirely how they are defined today as their “essential” properties. This is the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware of anyone, knowledgeable on the subject, who would disagree with me on that. I am, of course, very open to any challenges. Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985) defines transubstantiation as “only a transformation of substance, not of the incidental properties or accidents of the bread and wine. The appearance of bread and wine, therefore, remains” (p. 306). That is true, but we are prone to mistake “incidental” and “appearance” in ways that Aquinas and Trent never intended. The accidental properties that remain (the bread and wine) are not incidental in the sense of being capable of substitution by other properties! But that is exactly how we think of “incidental.” Likewise, the accidental properties are not mere “appearances” in the sense of a magical hallucination but are, in fact, the concrete properties that a scientist can verify and the Catholic can affirm as “really” present.
All of this is to say, the Roman Catholic position allows for the sort of “real” presence of the sign while allowing for the “real” presence of the signified, precisely in the way that Leithart argues.
John Henry Newman’s Aesthetic Motivations?
As a part of Wedgeworth’s criticism of “nostalgia,” he brings Newman and the 19th century into his discussion:
The move towards a “High Church” aesthetic began in the 19th century, with figures like Orestes Brownson and John Henry Newman, and it has continued throughout the 20th century with many celebrated examples. In nearly every case, these figures did not produce their literary or artistic works because of their newfound religious tradition, but instead found the new religious traditions because of the literary or artistic quests.
This is so incredibly wrong, if the second sentence is meant to apply to Newman. I don’t blame Wedgeworth, honestly, because he is simply placing Newman into a common narrative of 19th century theology and philosophy. As many of y’all know, I have spent a considerable amount of time with John Henry Newman. I have read most of his published works, and I wrote a master’s dissertation at Aberdeen on his most difficult work: the culminating masterpiece of his career, A Grammar of Assent, which has been unduly neglected in comparison to his more famous Essay on Development and the celebrated Apologia.
The best place to begin with Newman is actually his Oxford University sermons, while an Anglican, now published by the University of Notre Dame, which currently publishes most of his works. These are not typical sermons but more like lectures, and yet Newman was beloved by the students who flocked to see this quiet, shy, humble man in the pulpit. He had none of the charisma that we associate with a celebrated figure. There is a strong continuity from his Oxford sermons to the essay on development to the apologia and finally A Grammar of Assent, and you can clearly see it in his early work on the doctrine of justification.
The continuity is the priority that Newman places on the moral conscience. If we consider the Platonist transcendentals of truth/reason, goodness, and beauty, then we must say that Newman puts goodness and the conscience in the driver’s seat, with reason and beauty in a definitely subordinate position.
This is not altogether uncharacteristic of the 19th century, given the priority of moral or practical reasoning (usually associated with Kant) in matters theological, especially by the time of Ritschl. But aesthetics is also a defining feature of the 19th century (usually associated with Herder and others who reacted against 18th century rationalism and strict empiricism). Where does Newman stand? It is quite clear. Newman is deeply suspicious of the “aesthetes” who place beauty in the driver’s seat, including the more sophisticated and impressive accounts of a Coleridge or Blake. This is why it is wrong to characterize Newman as finding Rome because of an aesthetic quest. Far from it, even though that may have been the case with many of his peers. If aesthetics were in control, then Newman would have happily stayed in his beloved Oxford Anglicanism, instead of moving to the industrial Birmingham and founding an Oratory and inspiring others to do the same among the working class.
The most surprising thing of all, for anyone who has studied Newman, is how little aesthetics is part of his quest for religious truth. I believe that aesthetics is very much a part of his moral epistemology, but the law of God is the fundamental determination in his thought. This is even more clear in his collection of sermons after his conversion: Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations.
Newman is such an anomaly for his time and far more so today.
January 25, 2016
“One does not pray to the kerygma.”
— Hans Urs von Balthasar
For quite some time, I have slowly adopted a rather Balthasarian frame of mind. To the extent that I am critical of Barth’s lingering dialectical quirks, the seeds were planted by reading Balthasar. I am fully aware that this puts me well on the margins among the younger generation of students of Barth, who like their Barth to be as dialectical and radical and actualist as possible.
But this post is not about Barth. It’s about Balthasar. From what I have observed over the years, it seems that many people — both Catholic and Protestant — perceive Balthasar to be rather favorable toward Protestantism or, as some Thomists have complained, too influenced by Protestant theology, especially Barth’s. Alongside this perception is the assumption that Balthasar, as a representative figure of la nouvelle théologie, must not be much influenced by medieval scholasticism and Latin theology in general, given the movement’s recovery of the early fathers and especially the Greek fathers.
This is all wrong or, at least, highly misleading with partial truths. In fact, Balthasar was very critical of Protestant theology, and Thomas Aquinas is a frequent guest in his writings. Yes, Balthasar was a student of Barth’s theology, but he was also a profound student of many theologians: Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, and more. We cannot say that Balthasar is a “Barthian Catholic.” His mind was too wide and too perspicacious and too universal for such a narrow designation, based upon one (albeit important) influence in his theology. If there was ever a theologian who deserved the title of simply “Catholic” (=universal), it is Balthasar.
Moreover, to say that Balthasar was a Barthian is to forget his criticisms of Barth and Protestant theology as a whole — especially the dialectical movement, which Balthasar sees as embodying and extending, logically and radically, the basic errors of Protestantism. This is, at least, how I interpret him, but it is difficult to get a straightforward account of Protestantism from Balthasar. This is because, not least of all, his criticisms are spread across his many writings and often appear in unexpected places. His prose is, often enough, terribly impenetrable, so that’s another problem.
Let us look at Balthasar’s Explorations in Theology, the third volume in particular. The chapter is called, “Two Modes of Faith.”
“Two Modes of Faith”
If you want an introduction — albeit a very dense and difficult introduction — to Balthasar’s basic criticism of Protestant theology, especially its development into the modern period, then this essay is a good place to start. The “two modes of faith” are those of Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola. To briefly summarize, the two modes are similar insofar as both are intensely concerned to ground one’s existence in Christ and the Cross, but they quickly move “in contrary directions,” since for Luther, “everything lies in the Word that promises me salvation and that I allow in faith to be true in me.” Whereas for Ignatius, “everything lies in the call that introduces me into the following of Jesus’ way (of the Cross)” (Explorations in Theology, III, 89).
As a result, the historical person of Christ is central for Ignatius, whereas in Lutheran theology, and beginning in Luther himself, the word and the person start to separate. It is the message, the kerygma received in faith, that is absolute. The pro me of the word is alone decisive. This finally culminates in the dialectical and existential Lutheran theologians of the 20th century (Herrmann, Gogarten, Bultmann, et al.), where the kerygma and faith are alone absolute.
Here is Balthasar’s account, with footnotes in brackets:
In Luther, the pro me (the origin for today) becomes so exclusively important that, in an extreme case, the origin “in itself” could disappear. Kierkegaard’s fine perception has noticed this:
“In one sermon, Luther rages most vehemently against the faith that holds to the person rather than holding to the Word; the true faith holds to the Word, irrespective of who the person is. This is fine in the relationship between man and man. But for the rest, Christianity is abolished by this theory.” [Tagebücher (Haecker), 4th ed. (1953), 436]
With Althaus: “Not even the earthly person of Jesus…[is] the ultimate ground of faith, but (as Luther says), ‘The Word by itself must suffice for the heart.'” [Die Theologie Martin Luthers (1962), 53. Luther, WA 10, I I, 130, 14] In his harsh but indispensable book on Luther (Das Ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther [Styria, 1966]), Paul Hacker has shown the threatening danger of this one-sidedness as it runs through Luther’s chief works. On the one hand, one leaps over the centuries with a single jump in Bultmann: “The Christ kata sarka is of no interest to us; I do not know, nor do I wish to know, how things stood in Jesus’ heart” [Glauben und Verstehen, I (1933), 101]; on the other hand, if the event of Word and faith is the primordial event, then love must take the second place, must indeed take the place of the “works”, and once again Kierkegaard says about this:
“The conclusion of Luther’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, where he shows that faith is higher than love, is sophistic. Luther wishes always to explain love in fact only as love of one’s neighbor, as if it were not also a duty to love God. In fact, Luther has set faith in the place of love of God and has then called love the love of neighbor.” [Tagebücher (February 9, 1849), 359]
(Explorations in Theology, III, 89-90)
Balthasar then makes the contrast with Ignatius, for whom love directed toward the person of Christ is decisive and involves such concrete acts of obedience as “leaving all and following” (ibid., 91). Moreover, this mode of faith does greater justice to the whole witness of both testaments than “the sharp dialectic that Luther unfolds from the slender basis of the Letters to the Galatians and to the Romans” (ibid.).
A couple pages later, Balthasar continues with his account of Protestant, namely Lutheran, theology. This is a long excerpt. It was impossible for me to break it down and provide snippets without making it incoherent. Here it is:
A short look at the dramatic history of Protestant theology between Luther and Bultmann teaches us much, because it shows how Luther’s option, the outcome of his development away from the Catholic Church, works itself out and comes to dominate through the centuries. At first, the word of Scripture and the person of Christ remain closely bound together, even when Lutheran orthodoxy intensifies the significance of the word with its doctrine of verbal inspiration, while pietism takes a relationship of personal immediacy to the person. But when the Enlightenment refers polemically back to the historical Jesus against the dogmatic word of the Church, Jesus is de-dogmatized and is an inspired religious personality with whom (in the univocal character of the Pneuma) one can stand in a charismatic relationship (Lessing). Schleiermacher can indeed make dogmatics become the expression and function of the “pious consciousness” with the historical Jesus as the Analogatum princeps; but the dogmatic “word” that is arrived at in this way can just as well be dissolved again with Hegel by the historical dubiousness (“unhappy consciousness”) and elevated, as “open religion”, to be the objective expression of the intellect’s self-understanding. But theology reflects again and again on the incomparability of the historical event of Jesus; for Ritschl, it is the original sense of value that grasps the absolute significance, not of the being of Christ, but of his work as “benefit” for us. [Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung 3, 2d ed. (1883), 358ff.] For his pupil W. Hermann (the teacher of Karl Barth and of Bultmann), Jesus is through his mysterious inner life, his obvious unique sinlessness, the incarnate categorical imperative, in whom God comes near in a manner we can never equal, let alone surpass, and everything else in the Bible is at best relative to the event of my being encountered and overwhelmed by the revelatory quality of the person of Jesus. The dissociation adopted from Kant, Lotze and Ritschl between the (philosophical) ontological evaluation and the (existential) experience of value does indeed cast the strongest light in Herrmann on the overwhelming uniqueness of this person, but it does this radically within the horizon of the Lutheran pro me. When Herrmann, who was a vigorous foe of Catholicism, comes close to contact with the genuinely Catholic position, he nevertheless swerves aside (as a Kantian) at the last moment: it is not ultimately what Jesus was, but how he has an effect on me, that remains decisive. All one needs to do now to arrive at the Bultmannian position is to replace speculative agnosticism by historical-critical agnosticism; thus Bultmann’s position is not in the least absolutely dependent on the latter foundation. But Herrmann’s controversy with Martin Kähler is also significant: while Herrmann’s interest was with what was absolutely impressive in Jesus, no matter how the biblical mediation might be constituted, Kähler correctly resists the pseudo-objective project of the liberal history that brackets off faith in order to get back at an historical Jesus-in-himself behind the Scripture’s testimonies of faith; not, like Bultmann, because we can know nothing about him, but because we find what is absolutely impressive in his person precisely in the corpus of the testimonies of faith and nowhere else. It is here that “the personality that has become ripe for history lives”; its effectiveness is also its reality.
…”the reality with which faith deals is never any other than the reality of the word, and in no case whatsoever is it what is called an ‘objective’, ‘factual’ reality” (Gogarten). [Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 248]
Balthasar then closes this section of the essay with this response:
If Jesus is thus only in the word addressed to me, as the absolutum of the appeal (into which the Cross and the Resurrection have been absorbed), then I, as one encountered and affected by the word, am oriented to the word with the absolutum of my decision of faith. The evangelical event takes place in the convergence of these two absoluta. But since it is not possible for two absoluta to exist, they must ultimately coincide. But this means the abolition of the fundamental act of the biblical person, prayer. One does not pray to the kerygma. At best, one allows its innermost substance to coincide with one’s own innermost substance. And thus “faith” has also gone beyond fiducia and has arrived again in a most remarkable manner at the point from which it had turned away in horror; at “holding” propositions “to be true”, i.e., at an actualized Torah. [Thus also Althaus, criticizing Bultmann, Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 247]
That is a fascinating criticism. Balthasar is saying that this Protestant word-theology inevitably de-personalizes the faith-response in regard to its object, thereby collapsing into the pathos of the ego. That seems just about right, from my vantage point. I am sure that others, especially from within the dialectical camp, will have vigorous objections to Balthasar on all of this.
Image: Hans Urs von Balthasar (source)
December 29, 2015
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 email@example.com.
Here is a list of this year’s content, organized into a few categories.
Not Karl Barth
Is the Psalmist a Protestant? (G. C. Berkouwer)
Systematic Theology Guides
September 30, 2015
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.
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)
September 19, 2015
I have been re-reading portions of Berkouwer’s Faith and Sanctification, a volume from his dogmatics series. It is superb and easily among my favorite volumes, from the five or six that I have read or consulted. As I wrote a few years ago, “Berkouwer is such a well-balanced theologian that it’s hard to ever find anything to dispute.”
A particularly helpful discussion is about the Psalms, namely those Psalms with a certain “sense of self-esteem” and “in terms almost indistinguishable from those used by the Pharisees” (p. 125). You know them. And hopefully you have been perplexed as well. Berkouwer highlights Psalm 26:
Judge me, O Jehovah, for I have walked in mine integrity…I have walked in thy truth. I have not sat with men of falsehood; neither will I go in with dissemblers. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash my hands in innocency.
Yeah, me! Hurray for me! Is that what the Psalmist is doing? Berkouwer repeats the problem, “Is there not a striking similarity here with the words used by the Pharisee in the parable?”
To the Protestant, nothing is more abhorrent than being a Pharisee. In fact, we are at our most Pharisaical when we are being anti-Pharisaical. The most judgmental people I know are the most anti-Pharisaical — always keen to spot the judgmental “splinter” in another’s eye. But that’s another topic for another day. What to do with this Psalm and others like it? Here is Berkouwer’s response:
Let no one jump to conclusions. There is in this psalm a definite center to which all these utterances are related. The poet trusts in the Lord, whose lovingkindness is before his eyes. In God’s truth he has walked. He compasses the altar of Jehovah and loves the habitation of Jehovah’s house. He makes the voice of thanksgiving to be heard and tells of all God’s wondrous works. And finally: In the congregation will I bless Jehovah.
Each of these statements undercuts Pharisaism. The expression of joy over the mercy of God and distinguishing self from others are naturally related; they find their point of convergence on the altar of reconciliation.
[Faith and Sanctification, p. 125]
Berkouwer then summarizes Eduard Köning’s objection as: “People who talk like the psalmist are the healthy people who need no physician.” Berkouwer then continues with his response:
In this manner an injustice is done to what Psalm 26 says about the mercy of God, about his altar and habitation. The whole is a song of praise. It is possible, of course, for a Pharisee to absorb the mercy of God and the altar into his own nomistic scheme; but it is also possible that in the psalms the voice of a believer speaks of the righteousness which is not subversive of the grace of God. …
Whoever gives an abstract moral interpretation to these Old-Testament expressions of righteousness is bound to distort the Scriptures. He would make of Israel’s religion and the Covenant of Grace a purely nomistic salvation. The holiness of the righteous could then be only an ethical ideal and the mercy of God becomes irrelevant.
I love that. Earlier in this chapter, Berkouwer criticizes some of Barth’s comments about sanctification in his early writings, being (as Barth was) under the sway of a too strict dichotomy between the eternal and temporal wherein the dichotomy as such holds interpretive sway. I wholly agree with this criticism, and I’m pretty sure that Barth would too. That is also another discussion for another time. Berkouwer closes this chapter with an approving reference to Barth — “Never, according to Barth, can the believer claim his good works as his own possession and contrast them with the non-possession of another man” (Römerbrief, 204) — and then a quote from Calvin:
We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God’s; to him, therefore, let us live and die. We are God’s; therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions. We are God’s; towards him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed. O, how great a proficiency has that man made, who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken the sovereignty and government of himself from his own reason, to surrender it to God!
[Institutes, III.6.1; Berkouwer, ibid., p. 130]
September 12, 2015
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.
June 10, 2015
Monty Python explains:
Be aware: adult content.
“That’s what being a Protestant is all about.” Hilarious!
May 28, 2015
Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.
Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”
Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.
Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.
On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.
Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.
An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”
Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.
The Christian Doctrine of God, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.
Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.
Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.
Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.
Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.
Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.
Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.
The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.
Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!
Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk