Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

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.

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…)

Driscoll! How Many Divisions Has He Got?

There’s an interesting contrast that was pointed out by Ian Clary (via Trevin Wax) regarding how Mark Driscoll treats theological disagreements:

“There is a conciliatory air between those involved. It seems that the interviewers have already decided on Jakes’ orthodoxy before interviewing him. Driscoll promised us, when the controversy first broke, that he would be hard on Jakes on the Trinity–but Driscoll was much harder on Justin Brierly over complimentarianism than he is on Jakes. While he thankfully asked a number of creed-oriented questions, he didn’t push Jakes on his unclear statements.”

So here we have Driscoll in conversation about the Trinity – a doctrine that describes the very nature of God – and he lobs a few softball questions at Jakes about the matter. Of course Driscoll’s position on this was telegraphed some time ago. We were exhorted to withhold judgment on Jakes’ view of the Trinity until Driscoll had the chance to properly interrogate Jakes’ views. (more…)

Rembrandt’s Calvinistic Art



We have recently discussed the issue of Christian art on the blog, especially why it can be so kitsch-y. However, it is also worth considering good Christian art that has been produced, and what kind of mentality produced it.

Christopher Joby, in his excellent article “How Does the Work of Rembrandt van Rijn Represent a Calvinist Aesthetic?” (Theology 107:22-29), after discussing how Rembrandt’s art lined up with Calvin’s explicit statements about art (what Joby calls defining Calvinistic aesthetics by applying rules (26)), analyzes how the artist’s productions expressed Calvinistic theology.

He notes the following aspects of Rembrandt’s works: (more…)

Hauerwas On American Protestantism

David Fitch posted today about Mark Driscoll and his (alleged) representation of the entirety of “neo-Reformed” thought. I disagree on a number of levels with his analysis, but I actually wanted to briefly discuss something Fitch mentioned in the comments. Responding to a person who wanted to distinguish neo-Puritans from neo-Calvinists, Fitch replied:

What people like myself are saying is that in Calvin, Kuyper etc. once transferred to American democracy, turns into Neo-Reformed evangelicalism. This point is a good one to wrestle with, why/how did Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide,etc… translate into something totally foreign once removed from the Majesterial Reformation in Europe? But this is not the point of this post.
I forward this piece by Hauerwas for your perusal in the meantime …

Hauerwas’ article was a bit hard to follow, but I’ll chalk that up to my unintelligence. I do want to note one point about his narrative/argument, however. He writes:

America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success.

Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end in itself. This presumption was then reinforced by an unassailable belief in the commonsense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain those disciplines that are necessary to sustain a truly free people – people who are capable of being a genuine alternative to the rest of the world. [emphasis mine--AF]

What I think needs to be noted here is that the crux of his narrative is that Protestantism “became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end in itself.” Whether this is true or not, I will leave for another time and for other people. However, granting that this statement is true, then Hauerwas is tracing the current state of the American church to a point when Protestant principles were rejected in their entirety. The freedom of conscience that the magisterial Reformation upheld was always meant as a means to an end of serving and glorifying God, and was wholly bound by the Word of God (see the speech recorded here). Thus, even on Hauerwas’ terms, there does not seem to be a reason to blame the magisterial Reformation for what happened to America, for the fall of the American church is being explicitly traced to the point where true Protestantism was abandoned for a functional atheism.


Another major problem with Hauerwas’ argument comes out when he says this:

To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people.

The only thing that could be construed as evidence, in his post, that Americans said something like this, is the statement of the Massachusetts Constitution (that did not establish a church). However, to say that the state not establishing a church is the same thing as a people saying there is no need for a visible church, is equivocation.

Of course, there is some truth to his post. Protestantism does deny that the visible forms of the church should be absolutely equated with the invisible church. But that, again, does not psychologically or logically require the shift to practical atheism or the non-necessity of a visible church.


John Frame and Molinism

I was reading an old interview with John Frame from TWOTH, and came across this Q&A which I thought was germane for the post I did on defeater(s) for molinism:

14. What differences do you see in the presentation of the gospel with monergists and synergists?

Both typically present salvation by grace alone, and both call upon people to make decisions for Christ. (By the way, there is nothing in Reformed theology that deprecates the importance of human decisions.) But synergists sometimes compromise salvation by grace by saying that human decision is free in the libertarian sense, not controlled by God. If that is true, then as Vern Poythress has said, my decision for Christ is the one part of salvation for which I don’t need to give thanks to the Lord.

The Church And New Years Resolutions

It’s January 1st. Last night, millions of people made New Years resolutions. Come March, most of those resolutions will be unattained. Come June, most of those resolutions will be forgotten.

This is especially discouraging as many Christians made moral resolutions yesterday. Some will determine to stop cussing. Others will determine to read through their bible in a systematic way. I would venture to guess that their success ratio isn’t any higher than your typical secular person trying to lose 10 pounds. The result of this can be a feeling of hopelessness and the creation of a sub-Christian belief that true change is not really possible. People are what they are and that’s that.

What the church needs is more earthy and practical theology. It’s one thing to determine that the church needs to give more to the poor and another thing to lay out simple steps regarding how people can make changes in their lives to become the type of people who sacrificially give. And no, I don’t want to sit on a couch and talk about mommy and daddy issues, I want real advice from real people that really works.

As an aside, I think this is one of the reasons why so-called ‘biblical’ or nouthetic counseling became so popular (and effective?) in the 1970s and 80s. Contrary to other techniques offered in the church, nouthetic counseling was not only biblical, but rigorously practical.

I’m excited by a recent (for me) web start up called Started by two Yale professors, Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres, users sign up to the site and create a ‘commitment contract’ to help them follow through on a goal. After selecting a referee to check up on their progress, users determine to give a large amount of money to an anti-charity (e.g. the American Nazi party) of their choice if they fail to meet their goal. This is all done courtesy of a legally binding contract that you sign so you can’t back out if you fail. The money is automatically deducted from your credit card if you fail. Please note that this is all public, so if users fail to meet their goals, there’s an extra layer of humiliation added to the mix. The thinking behind this concept is that we all need added incentives to meet goals whose completion lies in the distant future.

It turns out that ideas like this work. According to one of the founders, 78% of stickK users who put money on the line and have a referee completed their goals. Only 35% met their goals when they put no money down. And if you’re not willing to believe the founder, hey, one of the Freakonomics guys loves the concept.

What people in the church need are not just exegetical sermons on personal repentance. We know that we need to. We need help; real and practical help.

So consider when it comes to meeting your New Years resolutions, whether it’s disciplining yourself to pray everyday or lose those last 15 pounds.

Here are some more web resources for you to peruse:

Two JP Moreland sermons on personal change and New Years resolutions

Dan Ariely on temptation and self control: