August 23, 2016
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, France
(Photograph: June 2016, Kevin Davis)
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.
Kolakowski (1927-2009) was a Polish philosopher who is best known for Main Currents of Marxism (three volumes), Modernity on Endless Trial, Metaphysical 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 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.
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).”
April 18, 2016
“Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality.”
— Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism
Kuyper’s defense of Calvinism in relation to art is rather bold. I strongly disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is stimulating.
Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is something of a classic in Reformed literature. Delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October of 1898, they were published the following year jointly by Höveker & Wormser in Amsterdam, T&T Clark in Edinburgh, and Fleming H. Revell in New York. I will be following the pagination of that edition, freely available.
The fifth lecture is dedicated to art. As with each lecture, Kuyper is committed to showing how Calvinism is superior to all other belief systems, whether that of Rome on the one hand or Liberalism, both Protestant and secular, on the other hand. As Kuyper sees it, Rome’s sacerdotalism replaces God with the Church, and Liberalism’s pantheism replaces God with nature and man’s spirit. Calvinism is, you guessed it, the only consistent system that allows God to be God. The lectures are highly rhetorical.
Calvinism did not develop an art style of its own, and that is a good thing according to Kuyper. Instead, Calvinism liberated art to follow its own principles. That is the gist of Kuyper’s argument. I am not convinced that he succeeds, but it is a fairly sophisticated argument. I will do my best to present it, along with a generous amount of quotations.
His argument follows a historical analysis of civilization’s progress. In the lower stage of man’s development, art and religion were inextricably woven together. “Scarcely a single art-style can be mentioned which did not arise from the center of divine worship and which did not seek the realization of its ideals in the sumptuous structure for that worship” (195). This a noble thing, according to Kuyper. Nonetheless, “If, however, it can be shown that this alliance of religion and art represents a lower stage of religious, and in general of human development, then it is plain, that in this very want of a special architectural style, Calvinism finds an even higher recommendation” (195). That is what Kuyper aims to prove for the rest of the lecture.
What is most remarkable is that Kuyper locates the greatest artistic achievements, specifically architectural, in this “lower stage.” This includes the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica, Cologne Cathedral, et al. I have to admit that it takes some guts to relegate these to a “lower stage”! All of these edifices represent a time when art was beholden to religion. For Kuyper, that is the primitive alliance from which Calvinism set us free. He weaves his discussion of artistic liberation with political liberation:
First then the aesthetic development of divine worship carried to those ideal heights of which the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Saint Sophia and Saint Peter are the stone-embroidered witnesses, is only possible at that lower stage, in which the same form of religion is imposed upon a whole nation, both by prince and priest. In that case every difference of spiritual expression fuses into one mode of symbolical worship, and this union of the masses, under the leadership of the magistrate and the clergy, furnishes the possibility of defraying the immense expense of such colossal structures, and of ornamenting and decorating them. In the case, however, of a progressive development of the nations, when individual character-traits split the unity of the masses, Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. (196)
More than Lutheranism, as Kuyper continues, it is Calvinism that fully freed us from this “sacerdotal and political guardianship.” It is striking to me how much weight Kuyper places upon this matter of “guardianship,” whether civil or ecclesiastic. It is integral to his conception of Calvinism’s greatest value — freedom — including in the realm of art. Perhaps Kuyper’s disciples will disagree with me that “freedom” is Calvinism’s greatest value, but it is on nearly every page of this volume! It is at the heart of his rhetorical strategy.
For Kuyper, we have moved from a primitive to a mature stage in human development. It is in the primitive stage that symbolic forms are necessary, not at the mature stage. As he summarizes his account of our emancipation:
As a result of this, [Calvinism] abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor. (196-197)
The symbolic is superfluous for the mature believer. It is not necessary. This is even demonstrated in the Bible, where the symbolic worship in Israel is but “the ministry of shadows,” and, moreover, part of a “state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people.” It is a religion “under sacerdotal leadership” (197). So, Israel represents a lower stage, as with the Church of Rome, insofar as both maintain a certain symbolic primitiveness and guardianship. Christ does away with all of this, bringing forth a free and mature people. His priesthood is spiritual and eternal. “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (197).
Enter Hegel (Not Surprisingly)
Kuyper then appeals to Hegel and Von Hartmann. As non-Calvinists and philosophers, they are not partisans. Kuyper writes:
Hegel says that art, which, at a lower stage of development, imparts to a still sensual religion its highest expression, finally helps it by these very means to cast off the fetters of sensuality; for though it must be granted that at a lower level it is only the aesthetical worship that liberates the spirit, nevertheless, he concludes, “beautiful art is not its highest emancipation”, for that is only found in the realm of the invisible and spiritual. And Von Hartmann even more emphatically declares that: Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form. At that period, all the arts, he says, engage in the service of the cult, not merely music, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the dance, mimicry and the drama. The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion. (198)
So you can see how Hegel and Von Hartmann are representing Kuyper’s perspective, assuming that Kuyper is presenting them accurately. Beautiful art is “not the highest emancipation.” This union of art and religion represents a lower stage where “Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form.” Kuyper quotes Von Hartmann as saying, “Religion, when fully matured, will rather entirely abstain from the stimulant by which aesthetic pseudo-emotion intoxicated it, in order to concentrate itself wholly and exclusively upon the quickening of these emotions which are purely religious” (198). Wow! We have the opposition of “aesthetic pseudo-emotion” and the “purely religious.” The frozen chosen must not get too excited and emotional!
Kuyper continues with his theme that our maturity requires a separation of religion and art. He is always clear: “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (199). Once again, Kuyper reiterates that this is a more advanced stage, akin to Aaron versus Christ and “Romanism” versus Calvinism. Once again, Kuyper must be quoted in full:
Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. (199)
Kuyper is very fond of describing Calvinism as “vigorous” and other manly attributes. Therefore, he laments that “the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs,” by which he means the Calvinist martyrs and the liberation of Holland from Spain. That was the golden age for which Kuyper longs. It was a time when Calvinism made men to be men! “The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy” (200). Thus, it is not surprising that he would appeal to Hegel. They have far more in common than Kuyper would probably like to admit. Both occupied similar terrain in defending a progressivist and emancipation-oriented history of man, conveniently locating their own ideas at the pinnacle of this progress.
Kuyper sees Calvinism as a supremely sober and manly religion. By contrast, Roman Catholics are weak-minded and their spirituality is effeminate, as evidenced by their dependence upon aesthetic symbols.
You can read the rest of the lecture on your own time. Kuyper further explains what he means by the liberation of art, which does not mean that he is advocating for a purely secular art. Rather, his understanding of “common grace” means that even non-religious or non-cultic art is still properly understood in its orientation toward God.
I am not convinced that Kuyper’s “common grace” is helpful, at least not in this lecture. The damage is already done. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, other than the most ardent Neo-Calvinist, who finds Kuyper’s presentation to be compelling. This is probably the most ingenious way to defend Calvinism vis-à-vis art, but it is almost comical. If Chartres and Hagia Sophia are examples of a primitive and lower stage in man’s development, then I will take the “lower stage.” Of course, Kuyper mentions Dutch painters of the 17th century (see p. 223). Rembrandt is great, but if that is the “liberation” that Calvinism offers and little else — forgive my incredulity. This is a stimulating lecture, but I am far from convinced.
Image: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk
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.
February 1, 2016
“Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”
— Peter Leithart
This past week, Peter Leithart published a two-part series at First Things on “Why Protestants Can’t Write” (see part one and part two). With a title like that, you are sure to draw attention and create a ruckus, and that is surely the point of the title. The original title, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is probably the more accurate title, as we shall see.
Today, he posted a follow-up response, “Protestants, Writing, Sacraments.” At the end of the post, he linked to his review of Lori Branch’s Freedom & Propriety. I highly recommend reading both the follow-up and the review. They will clarify the sort of Protestant that Leithart is targeting.
I have engaged in these discussions for quite some time. I can predict the initial Protestant response with pinpoint precision. What about Milton? Or, in regard to visual arts, what about Rembrandt? There is a reason why these and a few other figures are always offered. Always. It is because they are exceptions — exceptions to the rule. But, the rule is the point, not the exceptions. Moreover, we must inquire why someone like Milton is able to write in a way that the evangelicals in Leithart’s crosshairs cannot.
What Sort of Writing?
We must first recognize what Leithart means by “write.” He is not talking about the craft of writing in general. Protestants are excellent at writing theology, especially doctrinal theology. In a previous post, “The Evangelical Aesthetic,” I wrote:
As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.
In this scheme, Protestants are in fact good at writing, since it is a verbal medium. Yet, this is the medium that Leithart is engaging.
Leithart is very specific about what he means. He is saying, as I indicate above, that Catholic writers are imaginative in their narrative prose, namely fictional prose, in a way that Protestants are not. Leithart expresses this in terms of sacramental theology and not imagination per se, but I am fairly certain that the connection between the two is uncontroversial. The point is that Leithart is engaged with a particular form of writing, as well as a particular form of Protestant.
The Sacramental Writer
Let me put it briefly. The sacramental writer attends to the sign or symbol as really manifesting the divine — not merely indicating or pointing away from itself but, rather, itself operating in this capacity. Leithart explains this in the second part, by way of Flannery O’Connor. You can read it for yourself, and anyone who wants to criticize Leithart’s thesis must criticize it on this point.
Leithart believes that this is a “Zwinglian” way of understanding sacramental signs, and this is why he blames Marburg for our ills. It quickly becomes clear that Leithart is not attacking Protestantism as a whole — and he makes exceptions for “Protestants with prayer books” and “lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcendentalism,” as well as genuine exceptions like Marilynne Robinson. Typologies like this — here, “Zwinglian” — are always open for criticism in obvious ways, which is why fewer and fewer intellectuals are willing to do this sort of typological approach. That is a shame. It is why our thinking is so technical, careful, refined, and — boring.
So, Leithart is criticizing evangelicals for the most part. He is criticizing Protestants who are basically Zwinglian, which is to say, most Protestants in America and most of the global evangelical movement. Protestant charismatics are overwhelmingly Zwinglian, and that’s a large bulk of the global South. Charismatics have their favored ways of receiving the Spirit, and sacramental signs are rarely among these ways. To be clear, Leithart does not deal with the specific targets of his criticism, so I am conjecturing. It is also very likely that Leithart has large swaths of mainline Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) in mind as well, to the extent that they inherit and perpetuate the same unimaginative and pseudo-sacramental approach to the Christian faith. Thus, he is attacking “modern Protestantism,” in both its conservative and liberal expressions. Nonetheless, it seems that conservative evangelicals are the dominant target.
More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write
Derek Rishmawy has posted a characteristically thoughtful response: “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not Be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write.” This is a good post, but it is a peculiar post. It is meant to be a rejoinder of sorts to Leithart.
Derek criticizes Leithart’s “gleeful reductionism” as unhelpful, but Derek manages to supplement Leithart’s thesis with seven more reasons! You will need to read his post in order to understand what I mean. Here is part of my response in the comments:
I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.
Sure, Leithart would need to do a lot more work to fully substantiate his thesis, but we must engage him at his strongest points. We must engage his conception of Christian writing as “a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real.”
I do not care if you disagree. I only care that you disagree on the real point of controversy and that you offer some credible alternative. From the Facebook responses that I’ve seen, this is sorely lacking. In fact, evangelicals have unwittingly demonstrated their own ignorance and even arrogance in some of these responses. Leithart is not pulling this from thin air. He is responding to real problems within Protestantism, as he has done for most of his career.
Derek complains that “this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the ‘Suicide Death-Cult’ tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth.” I can sympathize with that concern — a lot. But sometimes evangelicals need to self-flagellate, and this is one area (among other) in need of critical self-evaluation and humility.
Image: Peter Leithart (source)
January 19, 2016
“…that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards.”
— William G. T. Shedd
“That’s in God’s hands. I can’t be their judge. …My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That’s what the Cross is all about and what the Resurrection is all about. That’s the Gospel.”
— Billy Graham, interview with Larry King asking Graham about Mormons, Jews, Muslims, etc., and whether they are condemned
This blog has been on break for the last couple of weeks, and I might continue the break for a little while longer. But I want to make a quick interruption, pertaining to a post from last month: “Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church.”
In that post, I provided an excerpt from William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) — a Presbyterian dogmatician of known excellence — on the vexing question of salvation outside the church. Can the electing grace of God reach the unevangelized, i.e., those who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in its explicit, apostolic form? As is well known, the “exclusivist” answer is “No!,” apart perhaps from some extraordinary vision or dream of Christ in the unevangelized person. You can read this post from Kevin DeYoung for a clear presentation of this position.
Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology
As we saw, Shedd disagrees. In his Dogmatic Theology, he teaches that the “heathen” are capable of a “broken and contrite heart” under the ministration of the Holy Spirit: “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word” (vol. 2, p. 709). Not only does Shedd disagree with exclusivism — although, we should remember that “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” were coined later and are not without problems — he is also adamant that the Westminster Standards, and scholastic Calvinism as a whole, are also opposed to exclusivism.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, X.3, states: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (emphasis mine). This is the clause in question. Who are those “incapable of being outwardly called”? In his Dogmatic Theology, Shedd refutes those who teach that this only pertains to “idiots and insane persons,” i.e., those mentally incapable.
Shedd’s Calvinism: Pure & Mixed
In the year before his death, Shedd published Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, a strident defense of the Westminster Standards against those in the Presbyterian Church (Northern branch) who sought to modify the doctrine of election. It is far beyond the scope of this post to evaluate the merits, or demerits, of Shedd’s overall thesis. For our purposes, it is valuable because Shedd defends here, near the end of his life, the same position that he promulgated in his earlier systematic theology.
Shedd formulates the question in this way: “Does Scripture also furnish ground for the belief, that God also gathers some of his elect by an extraordinary method from among the unevangelized, and without the written word saves some adult heathen ‘by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost’?” (p. 59). He must first deal, once again, with the question of “idiots” and “maniacs” who are not capable of the outward call. Shedd is forceful. He believes it is “remarkable” and “incredible” to say that the confession is talking about the mentally incapable — because they are not “moral agents” and cannot therefore be “classed with the rest of mankind.” As he puts the matter:
It is utterly improbable that the Assembly took into account this very small number of individuals respecting whose destiny so little is known. …[They] are contrasted with ‘others not elected, who although they may be called by the ministry of the word never truly come to Christ’; that is to say, they are contrasted with rational and sane adults in evangelized regions. But idiots and maniacs could not be put into such a contrast. The ‘incapacity’ therefore must be that of circumstances, not of mental faculty. A man in the heart of unevangelized Africa is incapable of hearing the written word, in the sense that a man in New York is incapable of hearing the roar of London. [pp. 59-60]
So, the incapacity must be that of “circumstances.” And thus Shedd distinguishes “two classes” of those who are saved: the evangelized and the unevangelized. But he emphasizes their commonalities, namely the same operation of the Holy Spirit upon their hearts. In this way, he continues:
Consequently, the Confession, in this section, intends to teach that there are some unevangelized men who are ‘regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit’ without ‘the ministry of the written word’, and who differ in this respect from unevangelized men who are regenerated in connection with it. There are these two classes of regenerated persons among God’s elect. They are both alike in being born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’. They are both alike in respect to faith and repentance, because these are the natural and necessary effects of regeneration. Both alike feel and confess sin; and both alike hope in the Divine mercy, though the regenerate heathen has not yet had Christ presented to him. As this is the extraordinary work of the holy Spirit, little is said bearing upon it in Scripture. But something is said, God’s promise to Abraham was, that in him should ‘all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Gen 12:3). St. Paul teaches that ‘they are not all Israel which are of Israel’ (Rom 9:6); and that ‘they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7). Our Lord affirms that ‘many shall come from east and west, the north and the south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 8:11). Christ saw both penitence and faith in the unevangelized centurion, respecting whom he said, ‘I have not found so great faith no, not in Israel’ (Matt 8:5-10). The faith of the ‘woman of Cannan’, an alien and stranger to the Jewish people and covenant, was tested more severally than that of any person who came to him in the days of his flesh, and of it the gracious Redeemer exclaimed, ‘O woman, great is they faith!’.
…That this work is extensive, and the number of saved unevangelized adults is great, cannot be affirmed. But that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards. [pp. 60-61]
And all God’s people say —
He continues for a couple of pages more and cites Zanchius and Witsius (and the Second Helvetic Confession, once again) as witnesses to this common understanding among “the elder Calvinists,” as he likes to say.
Billy Graham Being His Awesome Self
And how is Billy Graham relevant to all of this? On a few occasions, Reverend Graham expressed his inclusivist beliefs or, at least, heavy leanings in that regard. He is definitely not a strict exclusivist, yet somehow he was motivated to preach the gospel to more people than anyone in human history. One such example is an interview he gave with Larry King on CNN:
I love, love, love Billy’s answer to that question. The person who uploaded the video did not, which is sad. The liberating love and unfettered freedom of God is something joyous. Praise God!
December 13, 2015
You can hardly incriminate the Reformed credentials of William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894). His final academic post was Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, at a time when both Union and Princeton were strongholds of Westminster Calvinism. He wrote a three-volume Dogmatic Theology, which is one of the most important contributions to Reformed theology in America. Wipf & Stock currently publishes several of his other volumes: Literary Essays, Theological Essays, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, A History of Christian Doctrine (two volumes), and his commentary on Romans. They also publish Oliver Crisp’s monograph on Shedd’s harmatology: An American Augustinian. Moreover, Shedd authored a defense of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvinism: Pure & Mixed.
Who can be saved?
I have already posted a review of another Calvinist who wrote a lengthy treatment of this question: Who Can Be Saved? Professor Tiessen argues for an “accessibilist” model of the economy of grace, which is a modified version of “inclusivism.” This is my own position. Tiessen cites Shedd at a couple points, though he does not engage with Shedd at any great length. So I decided to consult Shedd’s treatment of this topic in his Dogmatic Theology.
For your reading pleasure, here is Shedd’s discussion of this topic in the second volume of his systematic theology. The underlining is mine:
It does not follow, however, that because God is not obliged to offer pardon to the unevangelized heathen, either here or hereafter, therefore no unevangelized heathen are pardoned. The electing mercy of God reaches to the heathen. It is not the doctrine of the Church, that the entire mass of pagans, without exception, have gone down to endless impenitence and death. That some unevangelized men are saved, in the present life, by an extraordinary exercise of redeeming grace in Christ, has been the hope and belief of Christendon. It was the hope and belief of the elder Calvinists, as it is of the later. [In a footnote, Shedd provides a very lengthy citation from Hermann Witsius’ commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.] The Second Helvetic Confession (I.7), after the remark that the ordinary mode of salvation is by the instrumentality of the written words, adds: “Agnoscimus, interim, deum illuminare posse homines etiam sine externo ministerio, quo et quando velit: id quod ejus potentiae est.”
[“We know, in the mean time, that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, which is a thing appertaining to his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.” — The Second Helvetic Confession, I.7]
The Westminster Confession (X.3), after saying that “elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth, “adds, “so also are all other elect persons [regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit] who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.” This is commonly understood to refer not merely, or mainly, to idiots and insane persons, but to such of the pagan world as God pleases to regenerate without the use of the written revelation. One of the strictest Calvinists of the sixteenth century, Zanchius, whose treatise on predestination was translated by Toplady, after remarking that many nations have never had the privilege of hearing the word, says (Ch. IV.) that “it is not indeed improbable that some individuals in these unenlightened countries may belong to the secret election of grace, and the habit of faith my be wrought in them.” By the term “habit” (habitus), the elder theologians meant an inward disposition of the heart. The “habit of the heart” involves penitence for sin and the longing for its forgiveness and removal. The “habit of faith” is the broken and contrite heart, which expresses itself in the prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word. …
The true reason for hoping that an unevangelized heathen is saved is not that he was virtuous, but that he was penitent.
[W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), pp. 706-709]
Shedd continues, but you can see what he is doing. This is good theology.
Once again, “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word.” Amen. God is God.
October 5, 2015
“Divine Fate has decreed that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be the task of German theologians to write dogmatics and for Anglo-Saxons to translate them.”
That is the opening line from Francis Schüssler Fiorenza’s review of Helmut Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith (vol. 3) and Otto Weber’s Foundations of Dogmatics (vol. 1). You can read it in the journal, Horizons, from the spring issue of 1985. It is a humorous line — because overstated but not far from the truth. This is not to say that during these two centuries the Anglophone world was bereft of quality work in systematic theology. The Scots in particular were active in the discipline and even doing the yeoman’s work in translating the Germans.
But now, in the twenty-first century, there seems to be a considerable revitalization of dogmatics in the Anglosphere. This is certainly true among American evangelicals, and it is a welcome redirection of attention away from an unhealthy obsession with epistemology and apologetics. (Is not Carl Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority basically a theology in the service of apologetics?) The latest example of this renewed interest in “constructive theology” or “revealed theology” is the new series from Zondervan Academic, aptly entitled, “New Studies in Dogmatics.” The title is meant to recall the now-classic “Studies in Dogmatics” series from G. C. Berkouwer.
According to the initial press release, it is a projected 15-volume series under the advisory supervision of John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Katherine Sonderegger, and Henri Blocher. The editors are Michael Allen and Scott Swain, both at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. You can read their introduction to the series, including the list of volumes, at the Common Places blog. Unlike Berkouwer’s project, each volume in the new series will be written by a different theologian.
The first volume, The Holy Spirit, is by Christopher R. J. Holmes and is to be released tomorrow (Oct. 6).
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]
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