The Christ Of “Commitment”

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante have an excellent essay placing the Reformed tradition’s teaching on Christology in the context of historical and contemporary debates, and along the way make some (in my opinion) insightful comments about the larger cultural forces at work in the contemporary issues especially. For example:

William Bartley, in his Retreat to Commitment, acutely analyzed the retreat from objective truth claims by mainstream Protestant theologians in the twentieth century, and their replacement by metaphorical “meaningfulness” and sincere “commitment.”14 This wasn’t simply an openly “liberal” move; a number of well-intentioned neo-orthodox went down this road too. By accepting a Kantian division between the objective, the world said to be only really knowable by scientism, and the subjective, the world of unverifiable values, these theologians would come to speak by preference of the “narrative” of the “faith community,” rather than the objective history of the acts of God and His elect people, and objective order of creation. This move makes the data of revelation “meaningful” (as opposed to objectively true)15 symbols of the faith community’s experience of the world. Modern academic theology mostly presumes this; hence, the constant attempts to make classical doctrine “relevant” or “meaningful” in every way other than the fundamental way in which it really is relevant. Notable examples are “social Trinitarianism” and certain modern neo-Patristic Christologies,16 which are used, in the place of reason, to symbolically solve social problems or epistemological anxieties, matters which properly belong to politics and philosophy, but which the new theologians think can only be resolved through new speculative syntheses.

Some Reformed theologians have even been a little swept up in this, dismissing the sacred rationality of their predecessors as “Enlightenment rationalism,” a move which is really Bulverism on the one hand, and old-fashioned (and postmodern!) irrationalism on the other, and using undefined terms from the new Christologies in equivocal or mystifying ways, which are privileged by an appeal to mystery or their supposed transcendence of logic and rhetoric when challenged, but then do in fact get used to mean and do some very unmysterious and specific things. And too often, we find in these supposed correctives no close engagement with the classic Reformed tradition, the tradition purportedly in need of being urgently“reformed” in the direction of neo-patristic systems.

They also place the modern in the context of ancient debates:

16. One wonders whether the liberal beginnings of some of the neo-patristic Lutheran theologians haven’t played a role in inclining them toward a metaphysical rather than Biblical-historical Christology, and toward the allegorizing exegesis of the Alexandrians, as opposed to the more rigorous Antiochene tradition, which reaches full flower in the historical-grammatical method of the Reformers. Much of this theologizing is an antiquarian and theosophically inclined imaginary supplement to scientism, justifying itself over against scientism as legitimate subjectivity- irreducible meaning, faith-knowledge looking to trump science because, as is certainly true, natural science isn’t enough. But the problem is in accepting the postmodernist retreat from objectivity, and from history, in the first place. The neo-patristic Christologies are not really historically patristic; the “neo” really makes a difference. What they do have in common with certain Alexandrian-minded ancients is the aversion to history; but they do not actually share the thought-world of those people, since the goal of the moderns is to get human life back. They are inevitably Antiochene, so to speak, in that way; the lost object they’re after is creation. But since they have surrendered it to scientism, all they can get back is the “discarded image,” but without the ancient supposition that the image corresponds to an order of things, and thus, the “discarded image” is retrieved unnaturally detached from an order of things (which perhaps accounts for the appeal of “theological aesthetics,” a la von Balthasar)And metaphysical Christology, and its corollary versions of ecclesiology, are put to work in the service of that project, as the palette of tropes with which the picture will be painted. Nonfalsifiable, as data of “faith”, they thus make for a privileged imaginal supplement to the world of scientism and modernity, a supplement which does not challenge scientism nor redefines modernity. Nonfalfisiable and hypermeaningful- “infallible but not inerrant,” one might even say. In any case, the flight from history is the retreat to commitment, to subjectivism.