Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

What Is Faith?

Some challenging words from John Piper:

Princeton’s Theological Commons

Princeton Theological Seminary has kindly made available a veritable Kuwaiti oil-field of online theological resources with their “Theological Commons.” Huzzah has become so cliche, but I’ll go with it anyway.

HT: Justin Taylor

John Piper And The Meaning Of Tornadoes

Here we go again:

“We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.”

With this affirmation of God’s sovereignty, John Piper launches into another round of attempting to explain disasters and why God would do/allow such things. This in turn reminds me of a quote I posted here a while ago:

“After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith.”

Piper, as well as some of critics who offer alternate explanations, is playing the role of the “theological friend” trying to find meaning in this cruel and seemingly random event. At least one observer points out that Piper is trying to offer completely contradictory reasons at the same time.

There’s a great temptation to go into all kinds of abstract discussion about why disasters befall us – especially in the YouTube age where we all have front row seats to every awful event. Is this type of thing profitable? Should we look at a massive impersonal event as divine punishment and/or testing when it chews up hundreds or thousands of lives in an indifferent fashion?

What happened when Jesus was asked questions along these lines? Asked about a blind man and whether he or his parents sinned, we all know Jesus said,

“[T]his happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”

That’s all the “meaning” there is in disaster. If Job says suffering is meaningless, and Ecclesiastes says pretty much everything short of obeying God is meaningless, here Jesus ascribes meaning only in the sense that suffering is an opportunity to do good – i.e.: it has no meaning in the category that most people want it to have meaning (ethical behaviour of victim).

To John Piper’s credit, the end of his tornado post does have a link to a Christian relief organization and suggestion that readers could help out, the problem is that almost everything he wrote before that was superfluous.

What Is Anabaptism, Really?

Scot McKnight has an interesting post up today on what an Anabaptist is. He takes his definition from Harold Bender, who along with other figures like Ebehard Arnold, sparked what we might call today the truly neo-Anabaptist movement. I want to quickly discuss the three main aspects of the Anabaptist vision, to show what I think are some problems with using these as distinctive marks of Anabaptist churches.

Bender is famous for three features of the Anabaptist Vision:

1. The essence of Christianity, or the Christian life, is discipleship — a committed following of Christ in all areas of life. The word on the street in the 16th Century, and this word repeated often enough by bitter enemies of the Anabaptists, was that they were consistent and devout Christians. If Luther’s word was “faith,” the word for the Anabaptists was “follow.” The inner conversion was to lead to external transformation.

2. A new conception of the church as a brotherhood of fellowship. The ruling image of a church among the Catholics and Reformers was more national and institutional and sacramental, while the ruling image for the Anabaptists was fellowship or family. Joining was voluntary; the requirement was conversion; the commitment was to holy living and fellowship with one another. Thus, the Anabaptist separated from the “world” to form a society of the faithful. This view of the church led to economic availability and liability for one another.

3. A new ethic of love and peaceful nonresistance. Apart from rare exceptions like Balthasar Hubmaier and the nutcases around Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone.

Thus, for Bender, the focus was on discipleship not sacraments or the inner enjoyment of justification. The church was not an institution or a place for Word-proclamation in emphasis but instead a brotherhood of love. In addition, against Catholics and Calvinists who believed in social reform, like the Lutherans the Anabaptists were less optimistic about social transformation. But, unlike the Lutherans who split life into the secular and sacred, the Anabaptists wanted a radical commitment that meant the creation of an alternative Christian society.

I’d like to juxtapose these summaries with some excerpts from Calvin’s commentaries, to suggest that, perhaps, these are not really distinctly Anabaptist sentiments. (more…)

On Being An Individual

In Christian circles, one could be forgiven for thinking, being an individual has fallen on hard times. Or at least, anything that might be stuck with the label “individualism” is seen as axiomatically negative.

For me, this is somewhat troubling. I am an introvert, and so appreciate times of solitude to be able to work through personal and theological issues, and just exist in God’s presence. Of course, I am also a social animal, and so need time with others. But I don’t think I would be lying if I said a substantial amount of my personality has been forged in decisions I have made alone, at a desk, reading a book. I don’t deny the massive influences that parents and friends (and other media) have had on me, and truthfully, reading books is just another way of communicating with people. But, nevertheless, I don’t think I would be wrong to say that much of my character has been formed in moments of solitude, either in prayer or in study.

There are many complaints that could be made about our present socio-cultural order, and perhaps it is true that it is afflicted by a negative kind of individualism. Certainly there is something of an epidemic of loneliness. And no doubt that has something to do with our political and economic order, which prizes what people are in themselves, what they can contribute as skilled individuals to the marketplace of trade, and not what their hereditary connections are, or who they spend their leisure time with. Nevertheless, I have a hard time thinking that this economic and political order, itself, is a negative thing. I am obviously laying my political cards on the table here, but that is where I stand at the moment.

It seems to me what our society (and the church, which is not really something totally separate from society) needs is not anti-individualism, but an individualism coram deo. What it needs are spiritual practices that allow people to strip away all their secondary layers before their Creator, and truly wrestle, in the light of the Word, with their weakness, their doubts, and their sins, and then through that struggle, bring something of value back to the world. What our culture does not need is more “community”, where community is a way to hide from our selves in the pleasantries of potlucks, board games, and church programs, or for those not Christian, in clubs, bars, and the types of activities that go on there.

These are not formalized or well-refined thoughts, and I offer them in the spirit of a suggestion, not a proclamation per se. I would be curious to hear what others think here.

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.

Protestant Art And Literature

Continuing with our off-and-on discussion about Christianity and art, I felt like sharing some remarks Peter Escalante made in a private setting on the relation between Protestantism (and Catholicism) and art. When I asked him permission to post these thoughts, he added that he might like to be more nuanced in some places, but that he stands by what he wrote here. In that spirit I share them with you. Also, n.b.: I will add some links to help fill in the background for those who are not familiar with the concepts he mentions off-hand in the course of his discussion. I’d love to hear what some of our readers think of this perspective. I posted it partly because I’ve never heard this opinion, at least not stated so clearly, before.

There are certain blunders of mind which, like the quasi-supernatural serial killers of American slasher films, reappear just when you were sure they were dead for good.

The “Catholic aesthetic” question is a complicated one, but in short, the problem as posed here is founded on a mistake. Catholics do not produce better art- they do, however, commission religious art more than we do, and have more reason, when doing so, to stick to certain traditional lines when doing so.

But art is not exclusively or even primarily religious in the Catholic sense. Catholics like to think so, because such a view mirrors, in the poetic realm, the Catholic construction of a fantasy “supernatural” over and above the created order. Hence they would rather paint faux-angels or conjectural images of saints than landscapes. But the iconoclasm of Protestantism actually freed art. Having broken the “iconic”, the fake-representation of the non-representable or not-to-be-represented, liberated the God-given human instinct of mimetic poiesis to turn to the real, God-given theater of His glory: the creation. Thus, all modern “secular” art, from the Reformation on, is really Protestant art- though you have to be able to think in two-kingdoms to be able to see that.

Modern art, which departs from mimetic representation, is actually an attempt at a secular iconic: supposedly venerable or transfigurative representation of the non-representable.

In reply to the above comment, I asked this question: “I guess my question is: Mark Twain might have been a great American artist, but can we really say he produced Protestant art, being an explicit atheist? For example.”

Escalante replied:

Yes, because the personal disposition of the artist has little to do with the templates with which he works, and also, because one need not be a believer to rationally/imaginatively observe natural and social realities. But the frames and templates, the tools and habits he presupposes, are religious in origin. Twain, in fact, is Protestant art not only in the general way I just outlined, but even specifically- the tone of incisive critique is distinctively Protestant. … I’d go so far as to say that historically, *all* humorous critique of monastic or clerical folly was proto-Protestant, and moreover, that the RCC at the time of the Reformation thought just that- as Luther said to Erasmus: hey, if you weren’t so useful against me, they’d kill you first, Mr Humanist. There are some uncharacteristic 20th c semi-exceptions, but almost exclusively in the Anglophone world.

Secularism And Religious Liberty

David Koyzis has linked to an NR article on Obama and religious liberty, and at one point the author, Levin, writes:

But it’s not quite that simple. This incident (and especially the nature of the exemption that the administration was willing to grant, which is essentially an exemption for actual houses of worship but not for other religiously-affiliated institutions) also sheds light on a very deeply rooted problem in our tradition of religious liberty itself—a problem that should cause those of us inclined to seek recourse in “conscience protection” and religious exemptions to pause and think.
(more…)

Contemplating Matthew 18:17

This seems apropos given the recent discussion popping up around this verse and how it’s used in “church discipline” situations. Here’s the verse, for context it is talking about someone being unrepentant in the community, I added in the illustrations:

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan

or a tax collector.”

I know I’m probably missing something that the clever exegetes will pull out of this – that this passage is really talking about how it’s more loving to hold to the bad old way of treating tax collectors, you know, with contempt, like how the Pharisees did it:

Still I can’t square this with Jesus’ persistence in treating tax collectors and pagans well and not ignoring them or telling his followers to shun them, instead he’s always calling them to be disciples and/or saying they possess more faith than anyone in Israel. Indeed, let’s remember that the slur against Jesus was not “enemy of publicans [tax collectors] and sinners” or “shunner of publicans and sinners” or even “passive-aggressive ignorer of publicans and sinners” but “friend of publicans and sinners.” Why should we use Matthew 18:17 to justify acting like some bad mix of Pharisees and Scientologists?

That Restless And Turbulent Spirit

David Fitch is continuing the discussion on the politics and ecclesiology of the Reformed tradition, and I have a few thoughts to add. In his post, he explains his general perspective:

As I see it, when Reformed theology was uprooted from its cultural moorings in the Majesterial Reformation and transported to N. America, it lost what it was “reforming.” It’s reason to be – reforming Catholic Europe- was gone. It had to find an integrity in itself. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and Sola Christus had to stand alone. Sola Scripture no longer stood as a reforming princple reforming the corrupt traditions of Catholic church structure. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of Scripture’s authority and principle of interpretation unto itself.  Sola Fide no longer stood as a reforming principle against the corrupt sacramental systems that fostered abuse and a works righteousness in Roman Catholic Europe. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of God’s saving operations in the world. And Sola Christus could no longer stand on its own as a reforming principle against a monolithic church structure that made all salvation take place through her structures. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of the church. The developments here, so I suggest, eventually led to an individualization of Christian faith, one that is inherently aligned with modernity and certain democratic capitalist culture systems. (Read C. C. Pecknold’s brilliant and concise narrative of how this all took place in ch.5-8 of Christianity and Politics)

Further, in one of his comments, he adds:

Likewise, Kuyper’s sphere-sovereignty is different/but related to the evangelical’s uncritical friendliness towards capitalism and other social structures. To me, this is a church-culture relation that makes sense out of untied Christendom context, but does not have the critical nexus necessarily to do the work necessary when the powers/structures or spheres have become rebellious…

I have a few thoughts about these comments: (more…)