In an older article on “Theology As Knowledge“, David Bentley Hart explains what he thinks the discipline of theology demands of its practitioners if they wish to be excellent:
Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.
Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild.
Bavinck comments on the proper practice of systematic theology, and the relevance of the unity of truth:
There is no room in dogmatics for a system in which an attempt is made to deduce the truths of faith from an a priori principle, say, from the essence of religion, from the essence of Christianity, from the fact of regeneration, or from the experience of the devout. For dogmatics is a positive science, gets all its material from revelation, and does not have the right to modify or expand that content by speculation apart from that revelation. When because of its weakness or limitations it is faced with the choice either of simply letting the truths of faith stand alongside of one another or, in the interest of maintaining the systematic form, of failing to do justice to one of them, dogmatics must absolutely opt for the former and resist the desire for a well-integrated system. On the other hand, one must maintain the position that such a dilemma can occur only as a result of the limitations of our insight. For if the knowledge of God has been revealed by himself in his Word, it cannot contain contradictory elements or be in conflict with what is known of God from nature and history. God’s thoughts cannot be opposed to one another and thus necessarily form an organic unity.
The imperative task of the dogmatician is to think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity. His work is not finished until he has mentally absorbed this unity and set it forth in a dogmatics. Accordingly, he does not come to God’s revelation with a ready-made system in order, as best he can, to force its content into it. On the contrary, even in his system a theologian’s sole responsibility is to think God’s thoughts after him and to reproduce the unity that is objectively present in the thoughts of God and has been recorded for the eye of faith in Scripture. That such a unity exists in the knowledge of God contained in revelation is not open to doubt; to refuse to acknowledge it would be to fall into skepticism, into a denial of the unity of God. [Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1, pp. 44-45]
Near the beginning of Ludwig von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action, he addresses the Marxist doctrine of polylogism. Below is a brief quotation from the lengthy chapter in which he discusses this issue directly:
The great upheaval was born out of the historical situation existing in the middle of the nineteenth century. The economists had entirely demolished the fantastic delusions of the socialist utopians. The deficiencies of the classical system prevented them from comprehending why every socialist plan must be unrealizable; but they knew enough to demonstrate the futility of all socialist schemes produced up to their time. The communist ideas were done for. The socialists were absolutely unable to raise any objection to the devastating criticism of their schcmes and to advance any argument in their favor. It seemed as if socialism was dead forever.
Only one way could lead the socialists out of this impasse. They could attack logic and reason and substitute mystical intuition for ratiocination. It was the historical role of Karl Marx to propose this solution. (more…)
In the modern reprint of Herman Bavinck’s magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics, editor John Bolt makes the following comment about the central theme of Bavinck’s theological system:
Here in this trinitarian, world-affirming, but nonetheless resolutely antithetical Calvinism, Bavinck found the resources to bring some unity to his thought. “The thoughtful person,” he notes “places the doctrine of the trinity in the very center of the full-orbed life of nature and mankind… . The mind of the Christian is not satisfied until every form of existence has been referred to the triune God and until the confession of the trinity has received the place of prominence in our thought and life.” Repeatedly in his writings Bavinck defines the essence of the Christian religion in a trinitarian, creation-affirming way. A typical formulation: “The essence of the Christian religion consists in this, that the creation of the Father, devastated by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God, and re-created by the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.” Put more simply, the fundamental theme that shapes Bavinck’s entire theology is the trinitarian idea that grace restores nature.
The evidence for “grace restores nature” being the fundamental defining and shaping theme of Bavinck’s theology is not hard to find. In an important address on common grace, given in 1888 at the Kampen Theological School, Bavinck sought to impress on his Christian Reformed audience the importance of Christian sociocultural activity. He appealed to the doctrine of creation, insisting that its diversity is not removed by redemption but cleansed. “Grace does not remain outside or above or beside nature but rather permeates and wholly renews it. And thus nature, reborn by grace, will be brought to its highest revelation. That situation will again return in which we serve God freely and happily, without compulsion or fear, simply out of love, and in harmony with our true nature. That is the genuine religio naturalis.” In other words: “Christianity does not introduce a single substantial foreign element into the creation. It creates no new cosmos but rather makes the cosmos new. It restores what was corrupted by sin. It atones the guilty and cures what is sick; the wounded it heals.” 
Not sure how much I agree with this, but I do agree with a good amount of it, and anyway, it’s good food for thought:
We have a mighty contempt nowadays for the benighted ignorance which failed to recognize the self-evident truth that Church and State are in their nature separate and must be independent. But I take it that we have still no deeply reasoned solution of this vexed problem of our forefathers; –we have furnished no new solution for it at all, but have simply contrived to ignore it. We take as a matter of course what is now so obviously a matter of necessity. At bottom it is the state that ignores the Church. In our modern states, and especially in America, Church and State are no longer coordinates–they cannot be related to one another, neither can they be opposed–simply because there is no single Church in any way commensurate with the state. All that the state recognizes is a multitude of religious societies, –Christian or other, it makes no difference. If in America, for instance, there should be but one organic Christian society–one Church–I fancy that the old problem must again be recognized as a burning one. There is no solution for it except in the sincere recognition that the Church is a spiritual entity, and as such can never be coordinate with the state. But that recognition at the same time involves the inference that the Church cannot be organized in the terms of a secular society, that is, in terms of the state. [51n15]
One famous mortalist
One more reflection from Charles Hill’s book on the millennium. Hill notes that after the patristic period, the connection between chiliasm and a subterranean intermediate state was no longer held with such consistency. However, another regular connection between a particular view of the intermediate state and such a millennial position took its place. That is, instead of an infernal afterlife, now the idea of an unconscious soul-sleep was regularly paired with chiliasm: (more…)
I’ve begun to read Walter Lowrie’s classic work The church and its organization in primitive and Catholic times: an interpretation of Rudolph Sohm’s Kirchenrecht, and less than 20 pages in I’m already encountering some thought-provoking gems. Here is one:
But no satisfying idea of the Church as a legally constituted society has ever been formulated, nor ever can be; for a legal constitution (whether jure humano or jure divino) is opposed to the nature of the Church. It is here the “visible Church” that is meant, the kingdom of God, which “is not of this world,” and never can be ruled by worldly means (by a polity conformable to the kingdoms of this world), but only by God’s Spirit. And yet the one point upon which all denominations of Christians are united (except the society of Friends [Quakers--AF]) is the belief that some form or another of ecclesiastical polity (legally constituted organization) is divinely prescribed, or at the very least is practically necessary for the maintenance of a visible Church of Christ; and, further, that some legal constitution has from the beginning been in force. (9-10)
It is somewhat shocking to hear someone so bluntly argue that the church is in fact not a polis nowadays. It’s more hip to follow the anabaptists (or at least, so it seems to me). And another:
…if the privileges and and authority which were enjoyed by a plurality of bishops in the congregation had been accounted theirs by right (in the strict sense — as depending upon a fact in the past which was uncontrollable in the present), the authority of the single bishop could not have been established, or at least not without a contest which would have left imperishable traces. Similarly, if the equal authority in the Church which was enjoyed by all diocesan bishops in the third century had been legally secured to them, — that is, if the Church had been legally organized, as the diocese or parish already was, — metropolitan, patriarchal, or papal authority could not have been successfully asserted. (10-11)
This argument is suggesting, in other words, if the earlier forms of church government were understood to be mandated by divine right, then the church never would have changed them. But they seem to have done so quite organically, which suggests that the church the whole world over in the first few centuries understood church polity to be an issue of human prudence only, not one where God had mandated only one correct answer.
In the comment thread for David Fitch’s post about Reformed theology and mission, some discussion was had about the role of Old Princeton. I’ve recently been listening to an iTunesU lecture series from Reformed Theological Seminary on “The Legacy of Old Princeton“. One lecture in particular is focused entirely on the role of Princeton in missions:
The Last Command – 02
Another lecture discusses the old canard that the Princetonians were “rationalists”, apparently ignoring the place of piety and spiritual discipline in the Christian life:
The Last Command – 01
Finally, the first lecture discusses the ideas the Princetonians had about the place of reason and learning in the faith, addressing the common slur that Old Princeton was “fundamentalist”:
Faith and Learning
One choice quote from this lecture:
In a sermon preached to the Princeton students on John 1:14… Warfield said that Christians must cultivate an attitude of courage in the pursuit of truth, not leaving the field to unbelievers and enemies of the church, but must become leaders in every science. Failure in this has meant that Christians have borrowed from others false theories in philosophy, science, and criticism, have made unnecessary concessions to them, and have brought upon themselves–as they were compelled to change their positions from time to time–unnecessary disgrace.
There are three more lectures in the series I haven’t linked to here, two of them about faith and science, which may be of interest to some readers.
I recently saw the new silver screen release Thor, and it got me to thinking about the fate of the (truly) Western religions that existed prior to the advent of Christianity. One of the first things that inuitively occurred to me is that the Thor of the film is remarkably Christlike for a pagan deity, and my intuition was confirmed today by someone knowledgeable in the Norse religion:
To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He’s kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods’ greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat.
The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien’s inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. (more…)
HermanBavinck.org quotes an excerpt from an essay by Carl Trueman about the relevance of their namesake:
In conversation with theological students around the country, it often seems to me that one major problem faced by many is the development of a way of thinking theologically which neither retreats into a ghetto and adopts a ‘seek out and destroy’ mentality towards every new idea which crosses their path, nor capitulates unconditionally at the first objection to their faith which they cannot immediately answer. Such students need their theological confidence boosted by good role models of a kind provided neither by the tunnel-vision of the specialist scholars who epitomise the fragmented nature of the theological discipline today, nor the platitudes of self-appointed evangelical gurus whose latest blockbuster tells them what they know already. What they really need to do is to read someone like Bavinck…
Trueman comments on the difference between the way Bavinck did theology and the way it is done by contemporary theologians like Moltmann:
Second, Bavinck’s theology is rooted in exegesis. I was amazed some years ago when reading a book by (I think) Moltmann, to discover that it was only after fifty pages of theological construction that the first biblical text was cited. Any theology which is not at heart concerned with biblical exegesis is, I submit, not Christian theology at all, but, again, a form of religious philosophy, albeit dressed up in the language of Christian tradition.