Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

In Defense Of Scholastic Theology

Bavinck comments on Biblical Theology and scholastic theology:

Only within the communion of the saints can the length and breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended (Eph. 3:18). Add to this that the proponents of this school [Biblical Theology] forget that the Christian faith is universal; it can and must enter into all forms and conditions. They oppose grace to nature in a hostile fashion and do not sufficiently take account of the incarnation of the Word. For just as the Son of God became truly human, so also God’s thoughts, incorporated in Scripture, become flesh and blood in the human consciousness. Dogmatics is and ought to be divine thought totally entered into and absorbed in our human consciousness, freely and independently expressed in our language, in its essence the fruit of centuries, in its form contemporary… . Accordingly, the contrast often made between biblical theology and dogmatics, as though one reproduced the content of Scripture while the other restated the dogmas of the church, is false. The sole aim of dogmatics is to set forth the thoughts of God that he has laid down in Holy Scripture. But it does this as it ought to, in a scholarly fashion, in a scholarly form, and in accordance with a scholarly method. In that sense, Reformed scholars in earlier centuries defended the validity of so-called scholastic theology (theologia scholastica). They had no objections whatever to the idea of presenting revealed truth also in a simpler form under the name of positive theology, catechetics, and so forth. But they utterly opposed the notion that the two differed in content; what distinguished them was merely a difference in form and method. By taking this position they, on the one hand, as firmly as possible maintained the unity and bond between faith and theology, church and school. On the other hand, they also held high the scientific character of theology. However high and wonderful the thoughts of God might be, they were not aphorisms but constituted an organic unity, a systematic whole, that could also be thought through and cast in a scientific form. Scripture itself prompts this theological labor when everywhere it lays the strongest emphasis, not on abstract cognition, but on doctrine and truth, knowledge and wisdom. [vol. 1, 83-84]

Thomism Vs. Libertarianism

Murray Rothbard, the consummate anarcho-capitalist

Edward Feser is a contemporary proponent of Thomistic philosophy and theology who writes online here and here, primarily. I’ve grown increasingly to enjoy just about everything he writes (my disagreements with him are predictable, along Protestant/Catholic lines on various subjects). One interesting aspect of Feser’s work to me in particular is that before becoming a strong Thomist, he used to be a libertarian, and has written works in that movement. However, because of his shift, he has since abandoned that school of thought. In an article written last year, he replied to one libertarian, Walter Block, and two points in the article were especially persuasive to me. Because of them, I have lost a great deal of sympathy for the libertarian political vision. Here are the comments:

3. Another problem is that I now see that it is false to say that external resources start out with no one having any claim over them—not because we all somehow have an equal claim over them (as “left-libertarians” hold), but rather because (as traditional natural law theory holds) such resources have a divinely appointed end, namely the sustenance of human existence. Hence each human being has a right at least to access to the use of the earth’s resources. This does not entail that everyone must have an equal share of the earth’s resources, or even that everyone must have ownership of part of them; hence it does not entail a general redistribution of wealth. Indeed, traditional natural law theory entails very strong private property rights and holds that some degree of inequality is part of the natural order. At the same time, it also entails that property rights can never be so strong that it would be in principle unjust to redistribute even a small part of the surplus of the wealthy to aid those who are starving. Natural law theory condemns both socialism and libertarianism alike. …

5. It is similarly pointless to appeal, as is sometimes done, to a “non-aggression axiom” to ground either libertarianism in general or self-ownership in particular, for what counts as “aggression” depends on what rights we have. In particular, if you take X from me without my consent, what you’ve done is “aggression” only if I had a right to X in the first place. (A thief is not a victim of “aggression” if you forcibly take away from him the TV set he stole from you.) So, we need first to develop a theory of rights before we can determine either what aggression is or what self-ownership amounts to. To try to build a theory of rights on either a non-aggression principle or the thesis of self-ownership has things backwards. [262n3,5]

After summarizing a particular powerful thought experiment expressing the intuition that self-ownership implies more than many libertarians think it does, he add this:

These sorts of considerations have led the libertarian philosopher Eric Mack to propose that in order to respect people’s rights of selfownership in a substantive way, we need to endorse what he calls a selfownership proviso on the use of one’s property. His argument is complex and nuanced, and he illustrates the problem with many further examples that every libertarian rights theorist needs to study carefully; I do not claim to be doing justice to his views here. But the basic point is that the thesis of self-ownership cannot have serious moral force unless it guarantees that no one can use his property in a way that effectively nullifies the ability of others to bring to bear on external resources the world-interactive powers that they possess by virtue of being self-owners. Such a proviso is, in Mack’s view, perfectly consistent with the strong private property rights and firm rejection of egalitarian redistribution that are the hallmark of libertarianism of the type associated with Nozick and Rothbard. But it rules out the possibility of holding that a purely formal respect for self-ownership is all that libertarianism requires. [264-265]

The God Of Paul And The Philosophers

Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the God of Israel, gives some background to some of the formulae used of God in Paul’s letters (e.g., in Romans 11 and 1 Corinthians 8):

It is true that there are some non-Jewish Hellenistic parallels to the formulation which relates ‘all things’ (ta panta) to God by a variety of prepositions. The best examples are in Pseudo-Aristotle, Mund. 6 (ek theo panta kai dia theou sunesteke); Marcus Aurelius, Medit. 4.3 (ek sou panta, en soi panta, eis se panta); and Asclepius 34 (omnia enim ab eo et in ipso et per ipsum). The point of such formulae is that they describe God as the cause of all things, indicating the various types of causation (as standardly recognized in ancient philosophy) which are appropriate to God’s relation to the world by means of the various prepositions: i.e. efficient causation (ek), instrumental causation (dia or en), and final causation (eis). But such formulae would very clearly be congenial to Jewish usage, since Jews were, in any case, very much in the habit of describing God as the Creator of ‘all things’. Josephus (B.J. 5.218), without the use of the prepositions, says much the same as the non-Jewish Hellenistic formulations: ‘all things are from God and for God (tou theou panta kai to theo)’. Philo explicitly takes up the standard philosophical set of types of causation, and applies to God’s relation to the world the three which can be so applied: God himself is the efficient cause (‘by whom [huph' hou] it was made’), his Word is the instrumental cause (‘by means of which [di' hou] it was made’), and the final cause (‘on account of which [di' ho]‘) is ‘the display of the goodness of the Creator’ (Cher. 127). In Hebrews 2:10, God is final and instrumental cause of his creation: the one ‘on account of whom (di’ hon) are all things and through whom (di’ hou) are all things’.

We can, therefore, be confident that Paul’s formulation — ‘from him and through him and to him [are] all things’ — is neither original to Paul nor borrowed directly from non-Jewish sources, but was known to him as a Jewish description precisely of God’s unique relationship to all other reality. [214-215]

Plantinga, Nash-Marshall, And Anselm On Divine Simplicity

Alvin Plantinga’s response to the classic doctrine of divine simplicity is seminal in contemporary philosophy of religion literature. The basic argument is that God cannot be identical with his properties, because properties are impersonal, and God is a person. Siobhan Nash-Marshall (pdf) elaborates more on Plantinga’s argument here:

Plantinga takes properties necessarily to be univocal and invariant features of reality. This can be seen not just in his first objection to the doctrine of divine simplicity, the “substantial difficulty,” in which he claims that it is an “obvious fact” that God has several properties, since “he has both power and mercifulness … neither of which is identical to the other.” It is also plain in the third objection when he claims that it is “obviously absurd” to claim that two properties can be identical.

Now, God’s being just can only be necessarily distinct from his being merciful (as Plantinga claims they must), if only if justice and mercy are necessarily univocal and invariant features of reality: that is, if the properties “just” and “merciful” must exist in the same way in all of those substances, individual things, or non-abstract things in which they are instantiated. If it is necessarily true that “power and mercifulness … [are never] identical.” For if properties were not necessarily univocal and invariant features of reality—if they could exist in different ways in the different non-abstract individual things in which they are instantiated—then it would by no means be said that two properties which can in some instantiations be distinct properties, are necessarily distinct properties in all of their instantiations. [p. 9]

In response, she notes that the presuppositions of Plantinga’s argument would be utterly rejected by those theologians who held to the doctrine, using Anselm in particular as an example:

Saint Anselm’s response to this question would have been an unequivocal no. In Monologion XVI he indicates that properties can, and must in the case of man and God, vary in accordance with their instantiation [that is, ~ (p – 3)]. Man, he claims in that chapter, can be just, and God is unquestionably just, but this fact, he would have thought, does not entail that “justice” as it is instantiated in man and “justice” as it is instantiated in God are one and the same invariant property. Indeed, man’s “just” is nothing but his “possessing justice:” “For since a man cannot be justice but can have justice, a just man is not understood to be a man who is justice but to be a man who has justice.”35 God’s “being just,” on the other hand, is nothing but his being identical to justice: “So since the Supreme Nature is not properly said to have justice but rather to be justice, then when [this Nature] is said to be just, it is properly understood to be [a Nature] which is justice rather than to be [a Nature] which has justice.”36 Thus, were “justice” as it is instantiated in man and God to be one and the same property, man’s instantiating “justice” would be his instantiating Godness. This would not just have sounded absurd to Saint Anselm. He would have thought it blasphemous.

As the argument indicates, the belief that properties are invariant features of reality is not the only one of Plantinga’s beliefs concerning properties which Saint Anselm rejects. In Monologion XVI, as he had previously in Monologion VI, Saint Anselm flatly denies (p – 2) that properties are logically and ontologically prior to their instantiations. “Justice,” he claims, might perhaps not be quid sit summa natura [“what God is”], but a property distinct from God. After all, one might think that “for whatever is just is just through justice.”37 This would, of course, entail that “[t]herefore, the Supreme Nature is just only through justice.”38 But this thought, Anselm quickly adds: “But this [view] is contrary to the truth which we have already seen: viz., that—whether good or great or existing—what [the Supreme Nature] is, it is completely through itself and not through something other [than itself].39 Thus, he concludes, justice cannot be a property distinct from God. That is, it cannot be a property which is logically and ontologically prior to God. [pp. 11-12]

The doctrine of divine simplicity is easily one of the most misunderstood and maligned positions in discussions of the doctrine of God today. One cannot help but think that a little charity applied to thinkers of the past might have made it clear that simplicity could not be as stupid as many contemporary philosophers have made it out to be.

The “Current” State Of Presbyterian Confessionalism

In a lengthy footnote, Lowrie expresses his disappointment with de jure divino presbyterians:

The chief fault is the total lack of perspective in the statement of the Christian faith, the lack of any formal distinction between propositions which are articles of faith, and those which can only be matters of belief or opinion. It is not affirmed here that all the propositions of the creed… have been accounted of equal importance with the most fundamental truths of theology; but in so far as they are legally enjoined as articles of faith they are placed precisely upon a par, –unless it could be claimed that the 1st and 2d articles are by position more important than, for instance, the 31st. The old confessions are still generally retained;–among the British and American Presbyterians it is the Westminster Confession, with slight alterations. But their significance has been essentially changed; partly by law, and partly by usage. By law the terms of subscription have been altered from explicit adherence to every article, to acceptance of the system of doctrine as a whole. There is no formal criterion to determine what belongs essentially to the system and what does not. Is the doctrine of Church organization an essential part of the Calvinistic system? Or is the doctrine of the verbal inerrancy of the Scripture? It is left for the presbyteries to decide in each individual case. Of so little avail is the legal definition of faith! By usage subscription to the confession is now required only of officers—including the lay elders. The faith which is essential for the admission of lay persons to the Church is not formally defined: it is left to the decision of the individual congregation, represented by the session. This state of affairs is broadly characteristic of all the greater Presbyterian bodies. [54n14]

I may soon post some of the further developments in my thoughts about the “essentials”, but suffice it to say, I am more appreciative now of Lowrie’s comments than I was a few years ago.

On Speaking With An Authoritative Tone Of Voice

Evangelicals in recent years have been grappling with the question of humility and it’s relation to the claims that Christianity makes about the world. This has been pressed partly because of the increased awareness of the existence of other religions, and because of the doctrine of hell, and has been made into a central issue with the rise of the emergent/ing church. Around a century ago, Bavinck addressed some of these issues head on, in a way that I think is profoundly helpful and correct:

Naturally, in this reproduction of the content of revelation, a danger exists on many levels of making mistakes and falling into error. This fact should predispose the dogmatician, like every practitioner of science, to modesty. The confession of the church and in even greater measure the dogmatics of an individual person, is fallible, subject to Scripture, and never to be put on a level with it. It does not coincide with the truth laid down in Scripture. Faith, or better, the faithful intellect, occupies an intermediate position between Scripture and dogmatics. Still, by comparison with the other practitioners of science, the dogmatician is favorably situated. He may and can, as Kaftan puts it, to some extent speak in an absolute tone of voice. A dogma is a faith-proposition that claims to be true and demands universal recognition, and dogmatics is a normative science that prescribes what we must believe. But dogma and dogmatics cannot on their own authority and in their own name strike that absolute tone of voice but only because and insofar as they rest on the authority of God and can appeal to a “God has said it.” The weakness of dogmatics consists precisely in the fact that the discipline itself has so little faith in this “God has spoken.” According to Kaftan, this is completely correct: The contempt in which dogmatics is held today is rooted in the fact that it has forgotten its own task and given up its own unique character. And therefore he also, correctly, believes that precisely as science and in order to regain its honor as a science, dogmatics cannot do better than again become what it ought to be. It must again become a normative science, bravely and boldly avow the authority principle, and speak in an absolute tone of voice. Provided this tone of voice is solely derived from the content of the revelation that it is the dogmatician’s aim to interpret and is struck only insofar as he explicates this content, it is not in conflict with the demands of modesty. For both the absolute tone of voice and the modesty find their unity in the faith that must guide and animate the dogmatician from beginning to end in all his labor. By that faith he subjects himself to the revelation of God and is organically connected with the church of all believers. Whereas today, with the help of a little psychology and some philosophy of religion, everyone establishes his own dogma, it is a privilege and an honor for the Christian dogmatician to position himself in the faith and by doing this to articulate his submission to the Word of God and his participation in the fellowship of the church of all ages. [Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1., 45-46]

On What It Takes To Be A Good Theologian

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.

To Think God’s Thoughts After Him

Johannes Kepler

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]

Marxian Polylogism And Postmodernism

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…)

It Creates No New Cosmos But Rather Makes The Cosmos New

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.” [18]