Rome - St Peter's Basilica - photo by Kevin A. Davis

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

I am reading the long-anticipated “apostolic exhortation” finally issued by the Vatican. The title is “Amoris Laetitia,” or, “The Joy of Love.” I am enjoying it for the most part.

It is exceptionally long at around 260 pages. I have read enough of it now to get a good sense of the whole, and I do not see the value in releasing an exhortation this long. Much of the material is simply quotes from the final document produced by the Synod on the Family and already published. Why not distill and summarize this material? Why not simply refer to it in the footnotes? “The Joy of Love” is overly laborious.

That’s a small complaint, perhaps, but it makes a difference in whether it will get widely read, even among priests and theologians. This means that nearly everyone will rely upon journalists and reporters to give us the important stuff. That is not normally a good thing. For example…

Same-sex Unions?

I heard on NPR this afternoon an interview with an “expert” discussing the document. When the NPR host asked him directly about what “The Joy of Love” says about same-sex unions, the “expert” said that it leaves the matter open to the conscience of the individual in dialog with his priest. Sorry to disappoint this “expert,” but that is most definitely not what the document says about same-sex unions.

There is actually not much that pertains directly to same-sex unions, which is not surprising. The point of the synod and the point of the exhortation is to strengthen marriage (which same-sex unions are not and cannot be) in the midst of the unique challenges that face this institution and sacrament in the 21st century. But, of course, everyone is curious what it does say about same-sex unions, which is this:

There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (52)

In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. (53)

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.” (251)

Moreover, there is an important section, featuring the theology of John Paul II, near the beginning of the document. Herein, the male-female, husband-wife union in love is an icon of the Trinity, imaging and revealing the inner life of God, indeed his own “very being” (see 10-11). Rome is still standing athwart the West’s sexual revolution and gender revolution. The difficulty is the pastoral care of individuals, especially innocent victims in a failed marriage. There is much more happening in this lengthy document, but understandably our attention is on these issues.

And as for gender, there is this:

Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” (56)

I do not expect this paragraph to be widely quoted among Francis’ admirers in the media.

Against Individualism

In the second chapter, there is an important quote from a Spanish Bishops’ Conference document, Matrimonio y familia, from 1979:

…equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute. (33)

As we all know, the belief that one’s personality is “shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” is the rallying cry of our day — regardless of one’s sexual orientation. As a result, the family is only convenient or expedient in how it may service the desires of the individual. A little later we read:

As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them. (35)

In this effort to present a positive and attractive vision of marriage, the pope then cautions about “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people.” He writes, “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (36). As a result, there has been an “excessive idealization” that has contributed to an insensitivity toward the particular circumstances and struggles of couples. Unfortunately, the pope is not entirely clear on how the conscience is to be evaluated:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (37)

This can be interpreted in a way consistent with the Catholic Church’s longstanding teaching that the conscience must be formed properly by right doctrine and practice. Formed properly, the moral agency of the individual is truly free and not controlled or coerced from without. However, it would not be hard for someone to interpret this passage as giving the conscience a certain autonomy and intrinsic justification.

All in all, the pope is warning us about how we center ourselves around our desires, obsessed with cultivating ourselves, our independence. “We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop” (39). The social teachings of the Church on justice and fairness are frequent throughout the document. For example, “The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships” (44). “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54). Many more examples could be given.

Gospel First

The overall thrust is that the pope firmly believes that grace and joy, not law and condemnation, is far more effective in achieving the Church’s moral goals in the lives of individuals. For example, “…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (38).

The pope is not necessarily pitting grace against law, though that has surely been the impression of many casual observers of Pope Francis. I would rather say that (like Karl Barth?) he is reversing the traditional law-gospel order and presentation to a gospel-law order and presentation. This aspect of Francis’ ministry deserves a whole other article.

Communion for Divorced-and-Remarried?

The major headline for both the synod and now for the apostolic exhortation has been about the divorced and remarried. I will wait until I have studied the eighth chapter before I talk about it in any detail. The issue concerns those Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried. As such, their previous marriage is valid — unless it has been annulled and therefore declared an invalid marriage from the beginning — and therefore their subsequent civil marriage is invalid. Their current civil marriage is objectively immoral and a scandal.

But what to do when such a person is now wholly penitent and in fact may even have been the innocent victim in the separation from his or her spouse? How is mercy applied in this case? How is mercy applied without effectively undermining the indissolubility of marriage?

_______________

Image: Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. The photograph is mine.

 

The Unity of the Church

April 4, 2016

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I recently re-read St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. These are among the earliest extant writings that we have from the church outside of the New Testament.

There are seven letters, including a letter to St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Ignatius and Polycarp have similar histories. Both were bishops, both were martyrs, and both are believed to be disciples of an apostle: St. John the Evangelist. Not too shabby. These letters were written while Ignatius was en route to Rome, where he was fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. Ignatius died in c. 108, so these letters are from the first decade of the second century. And as bishop of Antioch, he was bishop of a very important city for the apostolic mission and burgeoning church — and, eventually, an honored patriarchate in the Orthodox Church.

Like Irenaeus in the subsequent generation, Ignatius is concerned with heresy, such as a docetic christology. It is actually quite astonishing, the intensity of Ignatius’ concern with heresy, all the while being led to his glorious death (as he assures us in exuberant language). The concern is evidently much to do with the unity of the church. This is a prominent characteristic of his letters. Importantly, Ignatius’ appeal for church unity and the rejection of false teachers is directly and explicitly tied to the authority of the bishops.

Bishops are a big deal for Ignatius. Sure, he’s a bishop himself, but he can hardly be accused of personal aggrandizement. I will not discuss the extensive scholarly commentary on ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) and πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros/presbyter) in the NT. Others can draw-out any relevant points.

I provide some excerpts below — with ellipses omitted for the most part — and my thoughts afterwards.

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Letter to Ephesus

—I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ – that life from which we can’t be torn – is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ. Hence you should act in accord with the bishop’s mind, as you surely do.

—It is written, moreover, ‘God resists the proud.’ Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God.

—It is clear, then, that we should regard the bishop as the Lord himself.

Letter to Magnesia

—Now, it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.

—Hence I urge you to aim to do everything in godly agreement. Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council….

—As, then, the Lord did nothing without the Father…because he was at one with him, so you must not do anything without the bishop and presbyters.

Letter to Philadelphia

—As many as are God’s and Jesus Christ’s, they are on the bishop’s side; and as many as repent and enter the unity of the church, they shall be God’s, and thus they shall live in Jesus Christ’s way. Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

Letter to Smyrna

—Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. …Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. …Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

—He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God. But he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service.

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In the letter to Smyrna, we have the first instance of “Catholic Church,” and it is connected with the authority of the bishop. I could have provided many more excerpts, from these letters alone, pertaining to the authority of bishops.

And it should be striking how strongly this authority is expressed. We are instructed to “regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” The respect that you owe the bishop is “fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” “Let the bishop preside in God’s place…,” and on and on.

You can read these letters in Cyril Richardson’s Early Christian Fathers, which you can download from CCEL. Richardson’s edition was originally published in 1953 as a part of the still widely-used Library of Christian Classics series from Westminster Press, now WJK Press.

It is true that Ignatius does not articulate an explicit doctrine of apostolic succession, as Irenaeus does (not long afterwards). But it is hard to not see an implicit doctrine of apostolic succession. At the least, it is easy to see how Irenaeus (et al.) would make this explicit in his teaching on episcopal authority. For these fathers, the unity of the church and its orthodoxy were inextricably connected with the authority of bishops, especially in the apostolic sees like Antioch. Of course, this becomes a bit more complicated when you have Arian bishops in the 4th century, but nonetheless the basic principles for unity and authority were well established — and, unless you were a Cathar in Southern France, continued well into the middle ages.

It was only fundamentally disrupted, in many principalities, with the Protestant Reformation. The result is well known. Unity can only ever be a pneumatological reality in Protestantism, certainly not a visible, episcopal reality.

Hamlet - Yale

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I have recently been enjoying the works of Shakespeare in a series from Yale University Press: “The Annotated Shakespeare.”

I have two volumes as of now: Hamlet and King Lear. I’ve actually had them for a year or two, but I finally managed to start reading them. I recently watched Justin Kurzel’s film adaptation of Macbeth on Amazon Prime, so that got me in a mood for Shakespeare.

Macbeth - Justin Kurzel

I have not read Macbeth since high school, so I cannot make any informed comparisons between the movie and the play, which I barely remember. I liked the movie. The acting is superb, and the production team crafted some mesmerizing aesthetics, as the critics agree. The screenplay was lacking in some respects. It seemed to me that the ambition and overall pathos of Macbeth was not developed nearly enough, whether before [spoiler alert!] his murder of King Duncan or afterwards in his subsequent devolution into lunacy.

The biggest complaint from viewers is the difficulty of hearing and following the dialogue, which is taken directly from Shakespeare and is entirely without any modernization — in addition to thick accents and frequently whispered voices. However, the problem is easily solved by turning on the closed captions. Seriously, the captions make the movie an enjoyable instead of a frustrating venture. Trust me.

Yale’s Annotated Shakespeare

As for the Yale series, let me commend it to you, because I think it is important. It is important because Shakespeare is one of our great cultural treasures, and yet most English-speakers today do not have the capacity to read Shakespeare. The problem is not in understanding and interpreting Shakespeare, though that is not without challenge. The problem is simply that we do not speak his English. The problem is in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

The enormous value of Yale’s annotated series is the abundance of footnotes on each page, “translating” and, in some cases, explaining the more archaic English — both individual words and expressions. From Hamlet, here is an example:

In act 1, scene 3, Laertes is warning his sister, Ophelia, about Hamlet’s romantic advances. He says:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,

Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,

A violet in the youth of primy nature,

Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,

The perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more.

Most readers can get the gist, but the footnotes are helpful. “For” means “as for” — “trifling of his favor” means “dallying of his attention” — “Hold it a fashion and toy in blood” means “a pretense and fooling about of disposition/mood (modern usage: ‘of young hormones’)” — “a violet in the youth of primy nature” means “a flowering of a young man in his prime” — “Forward” means “precocious, ahead of its time” — “suppliance” means “diversion, pastime.”

As you read it with the footnotes, the meaning is clear, and the reader is not frustrated at not knowing what a particular word or expression means. As a result, Shakespeare is made far more accessible to the general reading public. The footnotes can be a bit excessive and, for many, unnecessary at times. But that’s a small complaint, and it will vary from person to person.

The annotation and introduction is by Burton Raffel (1928-2015), Endowed Chair in Arts and Humanities and professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In order to produce the series, he teamed-up with the legendary literary critic, Harold Bloom (Yale University), who writes an essay for each volume. There are 14 entries in the series, which you can get from Yale or from Amazon.

McBrien - The Church

Here are some book that I have recently read. I have written a mini-review for each.

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Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (HarperCollins Publishers)

Richard McBrien (1936-2015) was a longtime professor of theology at Notre Dame and best known for his lengthy, textbook-like tome, Catholicism. McBrien is representative of the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd in Catholic academia, causing some tension with those who preferred to stress continuity between V2 and the magisterial tradition of previous centuries — an emphasis found in the writings and actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In short, McBrien was a “liberal” in the relative sense of these post-V2 debates.

This book is well-written and engaging. As McBrien writes in the preface, it was written for theology students and seminarians, as a sort of guidebook to Catholic ecclesiology. It does, however, presuppose a fair amount from the reader, even though it is not a difficult book to read. If you have zero knowledge or interest in Catholic ecclesiological debates of the past two centuries, then you will probably snooze after the first few pages.

My major criticism is that McBrien is wholly invested in modern ecclesiology and the discussions surrounding Vatican II. The large majority of citations are from this council and from his favorite contemporary ecclesiologists, such as Yves Congar. Why is this a criticism? Because it is very limited. McBrien doesn’t come close to communicating the breadth and depth of the Catholic doctrine of the church. There is very (very!) little resourcement of theologians, councils, popes, mystics, etc., prior to the 19th century. In this regard, McBrien is not nearly as satisfying as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (3rd edition, WJK Press)

John Leith (1919-2002) was a longtime professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. This 700+ page volume is very helpful. You can see the table of contents at Amazon. I am not aware of a comparable single volume that includes this much material, expertly selected by Leith and including brief introductions. It can serve as an excellent companion to Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church, now in its fourth edition. Leith’s volume is focused on doctrine, including creeds, confessions, conciliar decrees, papal decrees, and the like. In addition to the wealth of Protestant documents, there is also a generous selection of “modern” Roman Catholic documents (Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, Vatican II) and less common documents such as The Confession of Dositheus from the Eastern Orthodox in the late 17th century.

Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press / Baker Publishing Group)

It is hard to evaluate this book. I am sure that there is an audience for this, but I found the shortcomings too significant for me. The book is formatted as a dialog between a Catholic and Protestant, who were in fact once classmates in college. Longenecker is a convert to Catholicism and now a priest in South Carolina. Forewords are provided by Richard John Neuhaus and J. I. Packer. I greatly appreciate the civil tone throughout, and there is a genuine search for truth and clarity. But the dialog format, while perhaps increasing the accessibility of the volume for a larger audience, severely limits the scholarship necessary for arguing the points in dispute. However, for the Protestant who is new to Mariology (i.e., 99% of Protestants), I can see how this volume could be very helpful as an introduction and incentive toward further study.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was a prominent Dutch-American theologian and church leader in the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his Systematic Theology, which is still widely recommended among Calvinists in America. Full disclosure: I did not read the whole volume, and I am sure that I never will. But I believe that I read enough to evaluate its merits.

There are indeed merits to this volume. It is eminently clear, concise, and sober. If you are seeking a one-stop shop for scholastic Reformed orthodoxy, then this is probably as good as you will find. My criticisms have much to do with my own prejudices. Insofar as the volume attempts to go beyond a mere restatement of received orthodoxy and venture into actual demonstrations and defenses of said orthodoxy, the shortcomings are massive. And when it comes to modern theology, including Barth in his early period, then Berkhof has little to offer and the little can be misleading. Admittedly, Berkhof was writing when the whole “dialectical” movement was nascent and not altogether coherent, eventually fracturing.

St. John of the Cross, John of the Cross: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press)

I had read John of the Cross years ago — his renowned Dark Night of the Soul. But this was my first time reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which is featured alongside other important works in this volume from Kieran Kavanaugh, a disciple of John in the Discalced Carmelite religious order. I greatly benefited from Dark Night when I first read it. It is hard-hitting to say the least, but The Ascent is even more hard-hitting. At least, that was my impression. John of the Cross comes dangerously close to a Manichean obsession with creation’s propensity for evil by way of creaturely attachment. This is not uncommon among the most serious of mystics (not, by the way, your garden-variety Episcopal eco-feminist’s pseudo-mysticism). However, John has an aesthetic sense that is wonderfully expressed in the poetry upon which these writings are but commentaries. On the whole, John is as enigmatic as Simone Weil, with the same tension between the Cross and the Glory.

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Maren Morris, “My Church”

I love this song! This is Maren’s debut single, and it has been moving quickly up the Country Airplay chart.

Evan Webb

“God is great, and God is good

But he’s never gonna save this town

The way I see it, there’s two ways out

We can dry up or drown

We’re gonna dry up or drown”

— Evan Webb

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McClure, Illinois is just another small town USA. Like most small towns, the well-being of the community is heavily contingent upon outside forces, whether government or corporate. In the case of McClure, this includes the closure of a state prison, a source of employment in a fragile economy. But then there’s nature. Nature often likes to beat a man when he is already down. In this case, McClure was hit by the flooding of the Mississippi River this winter, thanks to unusually warm temperatures.

So Evan Webb and his bandmates wrote a song:

The images in the video are from their community. Evan himself was displaced by the flooding.

It is rare to find an artist who can communicate this devastation, honestly and without an exaggerated sentimentality. It requires, first of all, a songwriter who is embedded within the community. Secondly, it requires a songwriter who is willing to write from this perspective, instead of writing from some generic, universal platform.

This was, in fact, how country music was born. As Southern men moved from the farms to the mill towns in the 1910’s and 20’s — as in Gastonia, North Carolina — they longed for the sounds of home with all of its peculiarity. Some entrepreneurial businessmen decided to fill this need, as businessmen do, and enlisted the first recording artists in this new and as-yet-undefined genre, like Jimmie Rodgers. This is a genre that has given us Merle Haggard’s “Pride in What I Am,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.” I only mention Haggard because he is my favorite songwriter. Others could be enlisted.

As for McClure, Illinois, we have Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers. Evan is no Merle, as I am sure that he would readily agree. Most people have never heard of him or his band. Yet, he has given us something special — a reminder of what country music is supposed to be about. His hometown, with a tiny population, was devastated, and he put it into song.

God is great?

The standout lyrics, in the sense of grabbing one’s attention, are the “God is great” lines that I quote at the beginning of this post. These lines could upset some people. If God is great and good, then of course he will “save this town”? Right? That is the false piety that Evan is criticizing. It is a piety that excuses ourselves and indeed privileges ourselves.

Evan is not denying that God is great or that God is good. He is not posing a contradiction for our dialectical amusement. He is saying that God is not the simplistic and self-serving God of our common piety. Evan is calling for action. It is a call for responsibility. This has nothing to do with any Pelagian scheme. It is the opposite. It is a call to service, just as Evan and his friends worked hard to contain the flooding with sandbags.

It is an understanding of a God who is not in our back pocket, so to speak — a cheap comfort and readily at our disposal. That is refreshing.

So, may God bless Evan and his band and his town. Amen.

_______________

Image: Evan Webb (source)

Recent books of interest

February 11, 2016

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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.

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Roman Catholic

Proofs of God

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)

Aquinas and Theology of the Boby

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)

Evangelical Exodus

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)

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Protestant

Christian Dogmatics

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)

Evolution and Holiness

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)

Sarah Coakley - Future of ST

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)

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Barth Studies

Barth Infralapsarian

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)

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Other

Oakes - Christian Wisdom

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.

Weil - Seventy Letters

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)

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Music

Vince Gill, Last Bad Habit

Vince Gill, Down To My Last Bad Habit

Loretta Lynn, Full Circle

Nick Dittmeier, Midwest Heart / Southern Blues

Joey+Rory, Hymns

Dianna Corcoran, In America

Breelan Angel - Diamond

Breelan Angel, Diamond in a Rhinestone World

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Image: “Reading You”

The-Blue-Album

A little levity is needed for this blog.

I could pick any time-frame from past decades, but I am especially fond of the mid-90’s when it comes to the rock radio format. This has much to do with how “alt-rock” became mainstream in the early 90’s.

Sure, the “grunge” sound was quickly made accessible through a pop-sensible retooling, but that was a good thing on the whole. It challenged and changed the radio for a generation (albeit short-lived) with a surge of creativity. It was fun and exciting.

I will limit the time-frame from 1994 to 1996. Three years — three awesome years. There are ten music videos below, in no particular order.

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Weezer, “Undone (The Sweater Song)”

Weezer’s self-titled debut album, dubbed “the blue album,” was perfect for its time in every way. In contrast to the the seriousness of the early 90’s (e.g., Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Alice in Chain’s “Man in the Box,” et al.), Weezer was fun and whimsical and witty, while retaining the distortion-driven dynamics of their grunge predecessors. The “true” fan of Weezer is invariably going to say that their follow-up release, Pinkerton, is their greatest album, but that is nonsense — as much as I love Pinkerton. The blue album was and remains their best work.

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The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the epitome of mid-90’s creativity and ambitiousness. “Tonight, Tonight” won wide acclaim as both a radio single and a music video. The album also yielded the now-classic songs, “1979” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” The lead singer, Billy Corgan, is a rather intelligent guy, and he enjoys bemoaning (rightly so) the current state of the music industry. Luckily for him, Billy and his band debuted at the perfect time, with a welcoming radio market and wide audience.

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Live, “Lightning Crashes”

Throwing Copper is one of the gems of the whole decade, and “Lightning Crashes” is the most treasured and recognizable song on the album. Everybody loves a slowly building tempo, especially when the payoff is as glorious as this. There is a reverence to the song, and the vocals are captivating from beginning to end. This was a song that would bind you to the seat of your car in the school parking lot, until the song was finished.

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Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”

Goo Goo Dolls began as a punk band from Buffalo. They had already been together for almost a decade by the time of their phenomenal breakout hit, “Name,” in 1995, from A Boy Named Goo. Obviously, their sound had changed, and it is why we all know them. They released several more hits and remain a popular band, even as their heyday has long passed. Goo Goo Dolls defined the crossover brand of “alt-rock-pop” in the mid to late 90’s.

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Tom Petty, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”

Tom Petty was already a well-established figure in mainstream music, having had multiple hit songs since the late 70’s. He continued to surprise the industry with his wide appeal, releasing massive hit singles like “Free Fallin'” in 1989. In 1994, he released Wildflowers and once again released a radio single that would become one of his most iconic songs: “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” This is classic Petty. According to Tom Petty himself, they record all of their albums “live” in the studio, without any layering or subsequent polishing. I saw them in concert several years ago, and I believe it. They are incredible.

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Collective Soul, “The World I Know”

It is a little-known fact that Collective Soul had the most #1 rock singles in the 90’s. The band is anchored by two brothers who are sons of a pastor in Georgia. While they are a “secular” band, they are noted for frequently introducing spiritual themes and expressions in their songs. I saw Collective Soul in concert in 2000, and they remain one of the most tightly-structured and impressive bands that I have ever seen.

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K’s Choice, “Not an Addict”

The deeper you stake it in your vein / The deeper the thoughts / There’s no more pain / I’m in heaven / I’m a god

Needless to say, this song connected with a lot of people. It is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs of the decade. K’s Choice is a Belgian band, and this is the lead track from their second album, released in 1996.

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Alanis Morissette, “Head Over Feet”

Now available in a four-disc “collector’s edition,” Jagged Little Pill is among the most recognizable 90’s albums, thanks to its multiple hit singles and crossover appeal. Alanis Morissette was one of the few women to appeal to both the modern rock and pop audience, and I cannot think of any woman today who is doing the same. Of course, rock ‘n’ roll as a mainstream format is now in a state of turmoil, if not complete collapse.

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Hootie and The Blowfish, “Let Her Cry”

Cracked Rear View gave us one huge hit after another. In fact, most people experienced “Hootie fatigue” at some point. As a result, we have forgotten how great they were, especially this album. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you like, if you don’t like “Let Her Cry,” then you are a soulless bastard! The lead singer, Darius Rucker, is now a successful country artist. They proudly hail from South Carolina.

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Hum, “Stars”

Hum’s “Stars” was a one-hit wonder on rock radio in the mid-90’s, though enjoying spins well into the late 90’s. Their album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, is very much representative of what college guys (and gals) were into at the time. The distortion is extra thick throughout the album, and “Stars” stood-out with its melody and infectious riffs. To quote one of the YouTube comments (forgive the language), “Best fucking riff of the 90s.” Yep! Also, check-out Downward is Heavenward.

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If we continued into the late 90’s, I would include Foo Fighters, Everclear, Our Lady Peace, Matchbox 20, and Third Eye Blind, to name a few.

Among other songs that I could have listed for the mid-90’s: Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova.” No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” R.E.M.’s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Spacehog’s “In the Meantime.” 311’s “Down.” Sublime’s “What I Got.”  And, of course, plenty of Dave Matthews Band.

church

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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.

“Substance”?

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:

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part two

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part three

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.

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Image: source

Defending Leithart

February 1, 2016

Peter Leithart

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

— Peter Leithart

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

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

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

What Sort of Writing?

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

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

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

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

The Sacramental Writer

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

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

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

More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image: Peter Leithart (source)

Balthasar and Protestantism

January 25, 2016

Hans Urs von Balthasar

“One does not pray to the kerygma.”

— Hans Urs von Balthasar

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For quite some time, I have slowly adopted a rather Balthasarian frame of mind. To the extent that I am critical of Barth’s lingering dialectical quirks, the seeds were planted by reading Balthasar. I am fully aware that this puts me well on the margins among the younger generation of students of Barth, who like their Barth to be as dialectical and radical and actualist as possible.

But this post is not about Barth. It’s about Balthasar. From what I have observed over the years, it seems that many people — both Catholic and Protestant — perceive Balthasar to be rather favorable toward Protestantism or, as some Thomists have complained, too influenced by Protestant theology, especially Barth’s. Alongside this perception is the assumption that Balthasar, as a representative figure of la nouvelle théologie, must not be much influenced by medieval scholasticism and Latin theology in general, given the movement’s recovery of the early fathers and especially the Greek fathers.

This is all wrong or, at least, highly misleading with partial truths. In fact, Balthasar was very critical of Protestant theology, and Thomas Aquinas is a frequent guest in his writings. Yes, Balthasar was a student of Barth’s theology, but he was also a profound student of many theologians: Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Anselm, BonaventureDante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, and more. We cannot say that Balthasar is a “Barthian Catholic.” His mind was too wide and too perspicacious and too universal for such a narrow designation, based upon one (albeit important) influence in his theology. If there was ever a theologian who deserved the title of simply “Catholic” (=universal), it is Balthasar.

Moreover, to say that Balthasar was a Barthian is to forget his criticisms of Barth and Protestant theology as a whole — especially the dialectical movement, which Balthasar sees as embodying and extending, logically and radically, the basic errors of Protestantism. This is, at least, how I interpret him, but it is difficult to get a straightforward account of Protestantism from Balthasar. This is because, not least of all, his criticisms are spread across his many writings and often appear in unexpected places. His prose is, often enough, terribly impenetrable, so that’s another problem.

Let us look at Balthasar’s Explorations in Theology, the third volume in particular. The chapter is called, “Two Modes of Faith.”

“Two Modes of Faith”

If you want an introduction — albeit a very dense and difficult introduction — to Balthasar’s basic criticism of Protestant theology, especially its development into the modern period, then this essay is a good place to start. The “two modes of faith” are those of Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola. To briefly summarize, the two modes are similar insofar as both are intensely concerned to ground one’s existence in Christ and the Cross, but they quickly move “in contrary directions,” since for Luther, “everything lies in the Word that promises me salvation and that I allow in faith to be true in me.” Whereas for Ignatius, “everything lies in the call that introduces me into the following of Jesus’ way (of the Cross)” (Explorations in Theology, III, 89).

As a result, the historical person of Christ is central for Ignatius, whereas in Lutheran theology, and beginning in Luther himself, the word and the person start to separate. It is the message, the kerygma received in faith, that is absolute. The pro me of the word is alone decisive. This finally culminates in the dialectical and existential Lutheran theologians of the 20th century (Herrmann, Gogarten, Bultmann, et al.), where the kerygma and faith are alone absolute.

Here is Balthasar’s account, with footnotes in brackets:

In Luther, the pro me (the origin for today) becomes so exclusively important that, in an extreme case, the origin “in itself” could disappear. Kierkegaard’s fine perception has noticed this:

“In one sermon, Luther rages most vehemently against the faith that holds to the person rather than holding to the Word; the true faith holds to the Word, irrespective of who the person is. This is fine in the relationship between man and man. But for the rest, Christianity is abolished by this theory.” [Tagebücher (Haecker), 4th ed. (1953), 436]

With Althaus: “Not even the earthly person of Jesus…[is] the ultimate ground of faith, but (as Luther says), ‘The Word by itself must suffice for the heart.'” [Die Theologie Martin Luthers (1962), 53. Luther, WA 10, I I, 130, 14] In his harsh but indispensable book on Luther (Das Ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther [Styria, 1966]), Paul Hacker has shown the threatening danger of this one-sidedness as it runs through Luther’s chief works. On the one hand, one leaps over the centuries with a single jump in Bultmann: “The Christ kata sarka is of no interest to us; I do not know, nor do I wish to know, how things stood in Jesus’ heart” [Glauben und Verstehen, I (1933), 101]; on the other hand, if the event of Word and faith is the primordial event, then love must take the second place, must indeed take the place of the “works”, and once again Kierkegaard says about this:

“The conclusion of Luther’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, where he shows that faith is higher than love, is sophistic. Luther wishes always to explain love in fact only as love of one’s neighbor, as if it were not also a duty to love God. In fact, Luther has set faith in the place of love of God and has then called love the love of neighbor.” [Tagebücher (February 9, 1849), 359]

(Explorations in Theology, III, 89-90)

Balthasar then makes the contrast with Ignatius, for whom love directed toward the person of Christ is decisive and involves such concrete acts of obedience as “leaving all and following” (ibid., 91). Moreover, this mode of faith does greater justice to the whole witness of both testaments than “the sharp dialectic that Luther unfolds from the slender basis of the Letters to the Galatians and to the Romans” (ibid.).

A couple pages later, Balthasar continues with his account of Protestant, namely Lutheran, theology. This is a long excerpt. It was impossible for me to break it down and provide snippets without making it incoherent. Here it is:

A short look at the dramatic history of Protestant theology between Luther and Bultmann teaches us much, because it shows how Luther’s option, the outcome of his development away from the Catholic Church, works itself out and comes to dominate through the centuries. At first, the word of Scripture and the person of Christ remain closely bound together, even when Lutheran orthodoxy intensifies the significance of the word with its doctrine of verbal inspiration, while pietism takes a relationship of personal immediacy to the person. But when the Enlightenment refers polemically back to the historical Jesus against the dogmatic word of the Church, Jesus is de-dogmatized and is an inspired religious personality with whom (in the univocal character of the Pneuma) one can stand in a charismatic relationship (Lessing). Schleiermacher can indeed make dogmatics become the expression and function of the “pious consciousness” with the historical Jesus as the Analogatum princeps; but the dogmatic “word” that is arrived at in this way can just as well be dissolved again with Hegel by the historical dubiousness (“unhappy consciousness”) and elevated, as “open religion”, to be the objective expression of the intellect’s self-understanding. But theology reflects again and again on the incomparability of the historical event of Jesus; for Ritschl, it is the original sense of value that grasps the absolute significance, not of the being of Christ, but of his work as “benefit” for us. [Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung 3, 2d ed. (1883), 358ff.] For his pupil W. Hermann (the teacher of Karl Barth and of Bultmann), Jesus is through his mysterious inner life, his obvious unique sinlessness, the incarnate categorical imperative, in whom God comes near in a manner we can never equal, let alone surpass, and everything else in the Bible is at best relative to the event of my being encountered and overwhelmed by the revelatory quality of the person of Jesus. The dissociation adopted from Kant, Lotze and Ritschl between the (philosophical) ontological evaluation and the (existential) experience of value does indeed cast the strongest light in Herrmann on the overwhelming uniqueness of this person, but it does this radically within the horizon of the Lutheran pro me. When Herrmann, who was a vigorous foe of Catholicism, comes close to contact with the genuinely Catholic position, he nevertheless swerves aside (as a Kantian) at the last moment: it is not ultimately what Jesus was, but how he has an effect on me, that remains decisive. All one needs to do now to arrive at the Bultmannian position is to replace speculative agnosticism by historical-critical agnosticism; thus Bultmann’s position is not in the least absolutely dependent on the latter foundation. But Herrmann’s controversy with Martin Kähler is also significant: while Herrmann’s interest was with what was absolutely impressive in Jesus, no matter how the biblical mediation might be constituted, Kähler correctly resists the pseudo-objective project of the liberal history that brackets off faith in order to get back at an historical Jesus-in-himself behind the Scripture’s testimonies of faith; not, like Bultmann, because we can know nothing about him, but because we find what is absolutely impressive in his person precisely in the corpus of the testimonies of faith and nowhere else. It is here that “the personality that has become ripe for history lives”; its effectiveness is also its reality.

…”the reality with which faith deals is never any other than the reality of the word, and in no case whatsoever is it what is called an ‘objective’, ‘factual’ reality” (Gogarten). [Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 248]

Balthasar then closes this section of the essay with this response:

If Jesus is thus only in the word addressed to me, as the absolutum of the appeal (into which the Cross and the Resurrection have been absorbed), then I, as one encountered and affected by the word, am oriented to the word with the absolutum of my decision of faith. The evangelical event takes place in the convergence of these two absoluta. But since it is not possible for two absoluta to exist, they must ultimately coincide. But this means the abolition of the fundamental act of the biblical person, prayer. One does not pray to the kerygma. At best, one allows its innermost substance to coincide with one’s own innermost substance. And thus “faith” has also gone beyond fiducia and has arrived again in a most remarkable manner at the point from which it had turned away in horror; at “holding” propositions “to be true”, i.e., at an actualized Torah. [Thus also Althaus, criticizing Bultmann, Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 247]

That is a fascinating criticism. Balthasar is saying that this Protestant word-theology inevitably de-personalizes the faith-response in regard to its object, thereby collapsing into the pathos of the ego. That seems just about right, from my vantage point. I am sure that others, especially from within the dialectical camp, will have vigorous objections to Balthasar on all of this.

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Image: Hans Urs von Balthasar (source)