Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, France

(Photograph: June 2016, Kevin Davis)

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In seventeenth century France, the future of the Catholic Church in the modern world was being decided. It was decided in a decades-long debate about grace — a highly technical debate. On one side were the Jansenists, the passionate disciples of St. Augustine. On the other side were the Jesuits, the “modernizers” who were moving away from the strict, dualist, ascetic theology of Augustine and, therefore, of much of the Western Church until their own day.

According to Leszek Kolakowski, this debate on grace, which is to say how Creator and creature relate, was decisive for how the Catholic Church could exist in modernity. The Jesuits won, and therefore Augustine lost. Is not Augustine a saint and a doctor of the Church? Yes. Nonetheless, in the Jansenist controversy the Church condemned Augustine’s teaching on grace: grace as effectual and sufficient, electing and without cooperation. For Augustine and the Jansenists, unbaptized infants go to hell. Most people go to hell, for the way is narrow and only a few are chosen to receive salvation — as the Jansenists soberly taught.

For Kolakowski, the Church condemned Augustine’s teaching on grace and became modern. This is a provocative thesis, and you can find it in Kolakowski’s God Owes Us Nothing. It is the sort of book that will elicit a strong reaction, from both historian and theologian alike. I could hardly put it down. I will try to explain his analysis further, but first a bit about the author.

Leszek Kołakowski

Kolakowski (1927-2009) was a Polish philosopher who is best known for Main Currents of Marxism (three volumes), Modernity on Endless TrialMetaphysical Horror, and The Presence of Myth. Additionally he produced a wide range of essays, many of which are gathered in the posthumous collection, Is God Happy?

The gist of his biography is that he was an ardent Marxist early in his career but gradually became one of its most capable critics. As a result, he lost his job at Warsaw University in the late 60’s. Most of his academic life was spent at Oxford University and the University of Chicago. His interest as a philosopher was in the history of ideas, which surely owes much to his early training in Hegel and Marx. His mature work was heavily dominated by an interest in religious matters, as he became a sympathetic interpreter of Christianity — with an openness to metaphysical questions. He became friends with John Paul II, as they were both important figures in the Polish Solidarity movement. But Kolakowski never became a Christian believer, except perhaps in his own idiosyncratic way.

The Jansenist Controversy

God Owes Us Nothing is divided into two parts. The first part, which is slightly longer than half the book, is “Why Did the Catholic Church Condemn the Teaching of Saint Augustine?” This is what we will be looking at. The second part is a study of Pascal, the most famous of Jansenists, and his religious beliefs.

Kolakowski - God Owes Us Nothing

Kolakowski spends several pages discussing the doctrinal details in the dispute, looking closely at the source material especially on the Jansenist side. The Jansenists believed that they were faithfully upholding the Church’s ancient teaching, which they identified with St. Augustine, while also trying to distance themselves from the Calvinists. They believed that the Jesuits were bringing Pelagian heresy into the Church.

Kolakowski agrees that the Jansenists were upholding the teaching of Augustine on grace, but:

The Jesuits were no less right in demonstrating the fundamental conformity of Jansenist tenets with Calvin’s theory of predestination. This amounts to saying that Calvin was, on this point, a good Augustinian and that, by condemning Jansenius, the Church was in effect condemning — without, of course, stating it explicitly — Augustine himself, its own greatest theological authority. (5)

Therefore, the Jansenists were also correct to say that the Jesuits were semi-Pelagian. Unfortunately for the Jansenists, Rome sided with the Jesuits. Kolakowski looks closely at each of the five condemned propositions in Pope Innocent X’s bull, Cum occasione, promulgated in 1653 and directed at Jansenius’ Augustinus. If I may attempt to summarize Kolakowski’s analysis, it all comes down to whether grace is sufficient and not merely necessary. All sides agreed that grace is necessary, but Jansenius argued that grace after the Fall must be sufficient and efficacious. “Both Augustine and Jansenius seem unambiguous on this point; once God wishes that a man do good, his will cannot be frustrated, his grace cannot be resisted” (15). By the way, Kolakowski interprets Aquinas as being ambiguous on this, though leaning toward Augustine (see 39-42).

If you are familiar with Calvinist discussions on these matters, then much of this will be familiar to you. So, for example, Augustine argued (and the Jansenists followed suit) that efficient grace is not incompatible with free will, so long as the will is understood as not coerced but freely desirous. We are empowered by efficacious grace to do that which we are otherwise unable to do, i.e, the good. Even though by grace you choose necessarily to will the good, you do it freely because God has liberated you to do so. Kolakowski explains Augustine thus: “Indeed, whatever it is in our power to do, is done freely; therefore free will is perfectly compatible with the action of efficient grace: it is grace which allows our will freely to will that and not this” (19). Apart from grace, we necessarily sin, and any good can only be attributed to grace.

In this Augustinian-Jansenist understanding, there can be no thought of cooperation between God and his creature. Otherwise, the merit for any good in a person would have to be partly attributed to the person. If the person can thwart grace, then the overcoming of sin must be partly God’s will and partly the person’s will. God no longer receives all the praise and glory. Kolakowski frequently highlights the all-or-nothing attitude of the Jansenists. The Jesuits elevate man in an intolerable way for the Jansenist. For their part, the Jesuits were appalled at the Jansenist understanding of a God who condemns on the basis alone of justice without regard to mercy or love. Grace is universal and given to all, which the Jansenists believed undermined the particularity of the Christian faith, which is to say Christianity itself.

Kolakowski also deals with the other related matters of double predestination and “for whom did Christ die?” But we need not spend time detailing all of that. The social-ecclesial consequence for the Jansenist is that the Christian life is one of rigor. While the logic may lead to indifference, the opposite is the case (as with the Calvinists). “Far from justifying passivity, indifference, or moral sloppiness, double predestination is well designed to encourage militancy. It is the ideology of a sect of warriors” (35). If you are chosen, then you are confident. And much of this rigor has to do with the signs of election expected in the believer, namely charity and humility. Unlike the more lenient Jesuit attitude toward penitents and their reception of the Eucharist, the Jansenists were far more rigorous.

The Modern World

Thanks to Pascal’s best-selling Provincial Letters, the Jesuit image of being morally lax was cemented in the popular consciousness. Casuistry would be associated with the Jesuits for a long time. While Pascal’s work was obviously biased and probably dubious in many of its more comical accounts of Jesuit casuistry, it was not entirely baseless. Indeed, the Vatican even stepped-in to denounce the methods found among certain Jesuits.

Kolakowski sees something important here. The Jesuits were striving to accommodate to the weakness of their penitents, who included much of the educated and ruling classes. “The Jesuits operated in the upper layers of society, infected by a spirit of modernity of which some aspects could appear irreversible” (46). You could say that the Jesuits were sensitive to their limitations. Their pastoral approach was founded upon a belief that “impulses and desires could, if properly guided, conduce to good…a spiritual adviser or confessor, in order to mend a sinner’s ways, should accompany him as far as feasible, show understanding for, and even solidarity with, his weaknesses and thereby direct him step by step towards virtue” (46). That is the Jesuit way, and (by the way) it is the Pope Francis way, the first Jesuit pope and “the pope of mercy.”

The Jesuits thereby represented an adaptation toward the peculiar features of modern life. Their capacity to do so is rooted in the Jesuit’s more modern understanding of human nature, moral value, and freedom of the will. Thereby, the Jesuits were fit to take the Catholic Church into this new era of the modern world. “What was at stake was the adaptation of Christianity to a new civilization that had been developing and maturing, surreptitiously, for several centuries. The Liberum arbitrium was one of its important instruments of self-expression, starting with Abelard” (47).

The Augustinian understanding of grace was no longer feasible, not only because it is difficult to believe in the Augustinian doctrine of double predestination and infants going to hell (with pagans), though that is certainly difficult! Kolakowski highlights the practical difference between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. The Jansenists reserved grace for the elect few and for reasons that are wholly unintelligible, theological or otherwise. The Jesuits instead sought to lead all people to God “who is really merciful — that is to say lenient — and understands human weakness. …God is so lavish in distributing his gifts, and nobody is left helpless by him…” (58-59).

Speaking broadly, the difference between the Jansenists and the Jesuits is about how they perceive the gulf, or lack thereof, between God and the world or the supernatural and the natural. For the Jesuit, there is harmony; for the Jansenist, there is crisis! That’s too simplistic, of course, but it helps to understand their basic orientation. Kolakowski puts it this way:

To the Molinists [i.e., Jesuits], unilateral successors of Renaissance humanism, the divine is a familiar environment, almost an extension of the cosy world of experience; grace is just there, omnipresent, and our natural skills are there to manipulate it properly to our benefit and God’s satisfaction. In the world thus arranged life is basically pleasant. For the Jansenists (and the Calvinists, for that matter) there is a terrifying abyss between nature and the divine, and there is no way we could breach the gap by relying on the resources of our incurably corrupt and rebellious nature. The abyss is ontological, moral, and cognitive. (66)

Kolakowski frequently describes the Jansenists as “reactionaries,” in the sense that the modern set of assumptions propagated by the Jesuits was anathema to their basic way of thinking about God and the Christian faith. To their mind, if the Jesuits win, then Christianity is lost. And that is what the Catholic Church chose, because the Jesuits won. To the Jesuit, if the Jansenists won, then the Church would have lost.

Final Comments

Like I said, this is a provocative thesis. It is surely prone to be attacked. Even if you agree with some parts of his analysis, you may disagree with other parts. I think Kolakowski is strongest when he is doing analysis of the texts, and I agree with his interpretation of Augustine and Jansenism on grace. There is indeed a sense in which the Catholic Church rejected Augustine when it rejected Jansenism. Whether this is a good or bad thing, vis-à-vis modernity, is another question. And whether modernity (never clearly defined) is the driving cause or impetus for the Church’s rejection of Jansenism is another question.

Kolakowski actually tries to avoid making value judgments about who was right. He writes at the end of the preface, “The present author’s sympathies and antipathies are divided when he reflects on the conflict between Jesuit modernizers and Jansenist reactionaries. ‘So miserable is human destiny that the lights which deliver man from one evil throw him into another’ (Pierre Bayle).”

“Only with Protestantism did Christianity become what it always truly was.” Slavoj Žižek discusses Protestantism:

Slavoj Žižek praises Protestantism (and Pascal’s Jansenism) for its commitment to predestination, in contrast to the “obscenity” of a salvation that “depends on our good acts.” He is particularly impressed by the counter-intuitive fact of Calvinism’s incessant fervor instead of a general lethargy, since the latter would be the common sense fallout of predestination (just “sit down, read pornography, and drink lemonade”).

Žižek conceives of predestination as “an extremely refined dialectical notion,” wherein human acts are “written backwards.” The paradox of freedom, according to Žižek, is that we “constitute our very predestination.” And freedom is most purely manifest in acts of love. Love is the “ultimate free act” and “the freest act of all,” and yet it is experienced as “I cannot do otherwise.” This is true of “all great acts of freedom,” including sacrificial acts for justice.

He ends with some criticisms of Feuerbachian humanist religion.

Deviant-Calvinism-Crisp

Ref21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, has posted an interview with Oliver Crisp on his new book, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology.

“An Interview with Oliver Crisp,” Mark McDowell

UPDATE 10/23: Christianity Today has also published an interview with Professor Crisp.

One example of this broadening of Reformed theology (or, more accurately, recognizing its original breadth) has been the doctrine of “hypothetical universalism,” expressed by some prominent Reformed divines of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was considered a legitimate variant within Reformed orthodoxy of this period. Richard Muller’s historical work is best known in this regard. Now, J. V. Fesko at Westminster California has written a concurring report in his latest book, The Theology of the Westminster Standards.

David Ponter has been documenting these matters for quite some time. He has provided us with a large excerpt from Fesko’s book: “J.V. Fesko on Hypothetical Universalism and the Westminster Confession and Synod of Dort.” At the end of the excerpt, Ponter offers corrections to some of the details in Fesko’s account.

Peter Leithart has blogged about Crisp’s book, where he highlights the discussion of hypothetical universalism. Paul Helm has a helpful review, also at Ref21.

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And while I’m providing links, I also want to point-out two excellent responses to Rachel Held Evans, to whom I wrote a brief response a couple days ago.

“Do Christians Still Sacrifice Their Children?: A Response to Rachel Held Evans” by Lee Wyatt

“Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience” by Derek Rishmawy

Thanks to Jon Coutts for directing me to Wyatt’s piece.

Atonement

January 28, 2014

from-heaven-he-came

For those who are interested in the exciting world of evangelical debates over the atonement — scope, efficacy, and related concerns — then I commend the following:

Two Tales of a Doctrine: Reviewing Definite Atonement

The book in review is From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Crossway, 2013), a rather large volume of essays defending the doctrine of limited atonement, the dominant (not unanimous) view of scholastic Calvinism. As for the reviews, Tom McCall from TEDS represents the Arminian side, and Aaron Denlinger from Reformation Bible College represents the Reformed side. In particular, I appreciate Denlinger’s points about hypothetical universalism, which is effectively “de-Reformed” in the book, contrary to the tradition. Denlinger is a good guy, who I enjoyed meeting a few times while at Aberdeen. He knows this stuff backwards and forwards. David Gibson, one of the volume’s editors, is also a sharp guy. He was finishing his doctorate at Aberdeen, while co-pastoring a Church of Scotland parish (which has since departed the C of S) that I attended when the university chapel was not in session.

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While I’m recommending reviews, I see that Thomas Schreiner from Southern Seminary has posted a lengthy review of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). His review is in the latest issue of Credo Magazine, which is free online. The review is pp. 26-56. I just started reading it, so I cannot opine yet. While Southern Seminary is, needless to say, not my style of Calvinism, I have always appreciated Schreiner’s integrity and fairness. His latest book, The King in His Beauty, is a joy to read.

I realize that I have never discussed Wright or the New Perspective on this blog. I actually did my undergraduate dissertation on Paul (and Christian mysticism), for which I read Sanders for the first time. This was in the mid-00’s. Since then, I have tried to keep abreast with the debates in Pauline scholarship, including the newer variant offered by Douglas Campbell at Duke. Yet, it is hard for me to get really excited about these debates. The good things in Wright (and the NPP more generally) I have since imbibed from Barth, such as the “faithfulness of Christ” emphasis. Appropriately, Barth manages to maintain this emphasis while sufficiently attending to the substitutionary depths of δίκαιος, which Wright reduces (in my opinion) to a historical construction that is remarkably limited and shallow. I do not have the time or energy to defend this, but I know that my impressions are widely shared among theologians of a more systematic orientation.

Barth’s universalism

January 22, 2014

Barth with pipe

Is Karl Barth a universalist?

This is one of the most common questions posed to Barth, both during his lifetime and among his students to this day. For the sake of clarity, I am using “universalist” to refer to an ultimate restoration of all people. Barth is assuredly a “universalist” if we are speaking of the scope of the atonement or, as Barth would prefer to say, man’s “justification, sanctification, and calling” in Jesus Christ. However, the question of Barth’s “universalism” is more commonly in reference to whether he affirmed that all people, by the Holy Spirit, would receive our “proper being” in Jesus Christ. That is the sense in which we ask the question, “Is Karl Barth a universalist?”

Let us first take a look at an instance where Barth comes closest to affirming a universal restoration. In Church Dogmatics IV.1, Barth gives a survey of his christology in the doctrine of reconciliation. Therein we find his famous threefold delineation of Christ’s person and work: the servant as Lord (justification), the Lord as servant (sanctification), and the true Witness (calling). After mapping the territory which will occupy the rest of CD IV, Barth addresses the “subjective apprehension and acceptance” as distinct from the “objective relevance” of man’s justification, sanctification, and calling in Jesus Christ (147). He also uses the language of “appropriation” as distinct from “ascription,” the former of which is “the being and work of His Holy Spirit.” Barth recognizes that the “ascription” is universal but the “appropriation” is given according to the Spirit’s determination, and both are equally the work and decision of God: “That God did not owe His Son, and in that Son Himself, to the world, is revealed by the fact that He gives His Spirit to whom He will” (148).

As if that were not clear enough, he repeats, “In this special sense Christians and only Christians are converted to Him. This is without any merit or co-operation on their part, just as the reconciliation of the whole world in Jesus Christ is without its merit or co-operation” (148). Barth is comfortably Calvinist here. He refuses to introduce even the mildest synergism at the point of “appropriation,” just as surely as he refuses to do at the point of “ascription.” Yet, Barth will speak of Christians as “representatives” of all people, and this is where the universalism comes to the fore, implicitly at least:

[Christians] have over the rest of the world the one inestimable advantage that God the Reconciler and the event of reconciliation can be to them a matter of recognition and confession, until the day when He and it will be the subject of His revelation to all eyes and ears and hearts, and therefore of the recognition and confession of all men. [149]

The language here is the same that he uses for those who have been awakened by the Holy Spirit: “eyes and ears and hearts.” Barth had similarly drawn together the “elect” and “rejected” (Jacob/Esau, David/Saul, etc.) in CD II.2 with the use of “proximity” language, in order to emphasize their common orientation to Jesus Christ. Yet, I do not recall Barth coming this close to a universal restoration in II.2. In fact, he is at pains to avoid it when he discusses “the determination of the rejected” and in his massive excursus on Judas at the end of the volume.

When we turn later in the Church Dogmatics to IV.3.2, we have an instance of where Barth directly addresses the question of universalism and expressly rejects it, even though he recognizes that “theological consistency” may urge us in that direction. Here is how he discusses the matter:

A final word is demanded concerning the threat under which the perverted human situation stands, in spite of its limitation by the powerful and superior reality of God and man, to the extent that from below it is also continually determined by the falsehood of man in a sinister but very palpable manner. Can we count upon it or not that this threat will not finally be executed, that the sick man and even the sick Christian will not die and be lost rather than be raised and delivered from the dead and live? …

First, if this is not the case, it can only be a matter of the unexpected work of grace and its revelation on which we cannot count but for which we can only hope as an undeserved and inconceivable overflowing of the significance, operation and outreach of the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ. To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift. [IV.3.2, p. 477, underlining mine]

Barth will immediately, on the following page, say that “there is no good reason” that we should not be open to the “unexpected withdrawal of that final threat” — “open to this possibility” (478). Yet, he has made it clear that it is not known, which is why he uses the language of “possibility,” whereas he loves to use “certainty” for the objective work of the God-man. As far as I know, this is the most explicit rejection of universal restoration in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Whether this is entirely compatible with his statements in CD IV.1 is another question.

Who Can Be Saved?

December 30, 2013

Who Can Be Saved

I am half-way through Terrance Tiessen’s 500-page tome, Who Can Be Saved? (IVP Academic, 2004). I was waiting to write a short review about it, until after completing it, but Kevin DeYoung published a post this morning defending exclusivism. This is the belief that a conscious, explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Those who were unfortunate enough to live before the reach of missionary expansion, the millions who have never heard the gospel, are out of luck. For a strict, old-school Calvinist, this is sometimes defended as evidence of their reprobation. Not kidding. Unless the unevangelized person receives a miraculous vision or communication of some sort, they are damned for eternity.

Given that this is such a momentous claim, I want more than just an inference from some proof texts, which are invariably directed at those who are confronted with the gospel (as in Jn 14.6, DeYoung’s proof text, or in Rom 10.14-21, the locus classicus). We need some rather explicit scriptural instruction. And if Tiessen’s work has demonstrated anything, this explicit scriptural teaching is far from forthcoming. A closer look at the biblical attestations about salvation are actually rather varied, and even exclusivists admit as much when they consider the Old Testament saints, both before the Abrahamic covenant and thereafter, and the righteous among the other nations.

Tiessen argues for a new taxonomy, beyond the standard categories of (1) exclusivist, (2) inclusivist, and (3) pluralist. Depending upon the theologian, inclusivism can be articulated as affirming other religions, viewed as God-ordained instruments in awakening the unevangelized to faith, even if Christianity is privileged (contra pluralism) as the only complete manifestation of God’s revelation. Other inclusivists would reject this approach, including Tiessen himself. So he argues instead for “accessibilism” — all persons in all times and all places have access to sufficient revelation, through which the Holy Spirit can utilize to quicken the hearts of man. I won’t give Tiessen’s manifold approach to defending this thesis — you will have to read the book.

Tiessen is himself a Calvinist, and he dedicates a whole chapter to defending monergism, which is a straightforward account of particular election and efficient grace that would make Sproul or Packer proud. (I really don’t have a problem with this, despite my Barthian leanings.) This has some strategic advantage, because the most zealous defenders of exclusivism today are among the “new Calvinists” such as Mohler, Piper, DeYoung, et al., though it is certainly widely held among other evangelicals. The revision of the Southern Baptist Faith & Message, in 2000, added the line, “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” This was directed, of course, at inclusivism of any sort.

My only quibble with Tiessen’s book is how it is organized. It follows a question-based format for each chapter: Who needs to be saved? Whom is God trying to save? To whom does God reveal himself? By what standard are people judged? Why should we send missionaries? and so forth. This gives the book the feel of an apologetics handbook, whereas I would much prefer a more linear progression through the appropriate dogmatic loci. As a result of Tiessen’s approach, you will find yourself needing to jump forward and backward for further elucidation of, say, certain biblical passages. However, this is a minor complaint on my part, and I am sure that many others will appreciate the question-based format.

This is an easy-to-read book, directed at a fairly broad audience of evangelicals. Technical terms are kept to a minimum or thoroughly defined (e.g., monergism), so it is a good book to recommend to your Christian friends who are struggling (as we should) with this question.

In the latest issue of the Evangelical Quarterly, Nigel Wright has a fascinating article on the early theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Through an appraisal of his early (untranslated) works, Wright reveals the great extent to which Moltmann was self-consciously working within the Reformed tradition, beginning as a historical theologian covering the 16th century and as a student of Otto Weber. Regardless of whether you think Moltmann was too Hegelian and perhaps too Lutheran, you should be stimulated by his interpretation of varying Reformed trajectories, as either rationalistic or empirical-historical. These sort of categories tend to be too neat and easily controverted, but helpful all the same. Here is a snippet from Wright’s article, summarizing Moltmann’s interpretation of Beza and Ramus:

A conflict emerges therefore between the influential high Calvinism of the Beza school and the more historicist Ramist school generally opposed to it. The essence of the Ramist position was to take with a new seriousness a less abstract, less syllogistic, more empirical and practically engaged philosophy of history in the humanist tradition. This was seen in some Calvinist circles as a carrying through of the Protestant reformation into the realm of philosophy, the triumph of historical revelation over deductive philosophy. Over against Beza’s a priori, deductive approach to dogma, Ramus was positing a new a posteriori position which accented salvation history. In turn this was foundational for the growth of federal theology (foedus = covenant) which was rooted in the history of the biblical covenants.

Calvin by contrast [to the Beza school] was no speculative metaphysician but biblically speaking a rational empiricist, a dialectical positivist and a psychologist, patiently tracing the acts and works of God as revealed in salvation history and seeking to hold conflicting statements dialectically in tension. Ramism, and its effects upon later Calvinist recoveries of Calvin from the distorting impact of Beza’s approach, represented a legacy that was to form the basis of subsequent Calvinistic humanism, empiricism and pietism. It also contributed an impulse that would in time issue in the Enlightenment’s concern with history. For Moltmann, Petrus Ramus supports a recovery of the doctrine of predestination from its systematisation as a series of decrees and places it within the workings of the Triune God in history in intimate association with the purposes of God achieved through the covenants of God with humanity, with Israel and in Christ.

[Nigel Wright, “Predestination and perseverance in the early theology of Jürgen Moltmann,” Evangelical Quarterly 83.4 (2011), 336-337. The article is available as a pdf on EBSCOhost, assuming you have access through a college or seminary account.]

I tend to see these two approaches (rationalistic and empirical-historical) as complementary and not necessarily opposed as Moltmann has it. Moltmann’s reading is likely skewed a bit by his disdain for double predestination. He has to see this doctrine as a rationalistic slip in Calvin’s otherwise historical and practical orientation, whereas I would see it as evidence for my own position that the categories are complementary (with Calvin being a model of this).

I imagine that most people who read this blog also have Scott Clark’s blog on their blog readers, but if you haven’t seen it Clark has posted a link to a fascinating lecture by Richard Muller at TEDS. Muller’s thesis is that Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will used Enlightenment philosophical determinism, instead of the Thomist-Aristotelian compatibilism of Reformed scholasticism. So, whereas the Reformed scholastic categories allowed for a non-coerced freedom of will, while entirely circumscribed by the divine will, Edwards’ categories yielded a determinism proved by rationalist logic. This thesis is building off of the work found in Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Reformed Theology, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I love Edwards, but I’ve never liked his treatise on the will; so, it’s highly interesting to re-think Edwards’ argument in the light of the prior Reformed tradition and developments in philosophy.

By the way, although Barth is not happy with either Enlightenment or Aristotelian methods, his own defense of omni-causality (and attack on Molinism) is rather congruent with Muller, van Asselt, et al.‘s defense of the Reformed scholastic allotment for free choice.

Yesterday, I was very happy to discover that Stephen Williams’ Kantzer Lectures, given last September at TEDS, are posted for streaming or download (scroll down to the bottom of the page). The topic is the doctrine of Election, namely whether it is possible to move beyond the Calvinist-Arminian impasse. I’ve listened to the first two lectures, and they are extremely fascinating. The second lecture deals with Karl Barth. Williams gives an excellent summation of Barth’s doctrine of Election, engaging with contemporary debates (including some criticism of McCormack). In the first half of the lecture, Williams offers a highly positive appraisal of Barth’s approach, but, in the second half of the lecture, he departs from Barth with some incisive criticism of his exegesis. He then offers some cautious psycho-analytical musings on Barth’s fear of natural theology and dislike of tragedy, in contrast with Brunner’s less worried approach to natural theology but (contra Barth) fear of universalism.

Stephen Williams is Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological College, Belfast. He is the author of Revelation and Reconciliation (Cambridge U. P., 1996) and The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity (Baker Academic, 2006).

‘Lost’ and theodicy

April 5, 2010

I’m catching-up on the last couple episodes of Lost. This last season has completely exceeded my expectations. It is amazing that a major network drama, with some of the highest ratings of all time, is built completely around the big themes of theodicy. The question of free will, the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God — all of this has converged in this last season and is given explicit expression through, more or less, biblical motifs.

So, I am curious why, among the dozens of theology blogs on my Google Reader, nobody is giving due attention to Lost, with the exception of some Catholic podcasts. Theology students are ignoring the most explicitly theological television show ever produced.