Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Once more on Calvin and Luther, this time with Christine Helmer

For whatever reason, reflection on the similarities and differences between Luther and Calvin has been a persistent preoccupation of my subconscious ever since I began studying theology. I’ve even blogged about it a few times, including some of Calvin’s own reflections on Luther (Bernard Cottret on Calvin and Luther; Calvin to Bullinger on Luther; Calvin to Melanchthon on Luther; and these are just the posts where this relationship is the primary theme – there are many others in which it arises indirectly).

At some level all trained theologians with an ounce of the historian in their blood (and only theologians with quite a bit more than an ounce of it are worth paying close attention to…) know that the vast majority of what gets said on this score is exaggeration, generalization, and stereotype. But we do it anyway. Why? Answering that question is one of the purposes of Christine Helmer’s article, “Luther and Calvin in Modern Protestant Theology” (in Hooker, ed., Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship [V&R, 2013]). Here is how she sets up some of the ways that Luther and Calvin are often pitted against each other:

The contemporary divide, in at least the rhetoric, between Luther and Calvin is the division between them in terms of the preferred genre for theological writing. Luther is cast as an “occasional writer.” The evidence for this designation is that he wrote generally on an ad hoc basis, right in the midst of controversy, hastily composing outrageous responses to diatribes maliciously direct against him. Calvin in contrast is the “systematician.” He presented the edifice of Christian doctrines in a systematic form: The Institutes of the Christian Religion are neatly divided into four major sections, devoted to each person of the Trinity with a fourth division assigned to the church. The formal structure is then cross-divided in terms of content by the conceptual distinction between God the Creator and the Redeemer.

The difference in genre could be attributed to a difference in personality. Calvin tends to be represented as the cool one on the temperature scale . . ., while Luther is hot-blooded and hot-tempered. Calvin is the eminent Frenchman, an émigré to Switzerland, who represents the haute culture of his native land, while Luther embodies all the uncultured traits of a German peasant, from drunken mealtimes to scatological outbursts. Calvin is requested to gleefully return to Geneva, while Luther throws himself into controversy with reckless abandon, burning bridges. Calvin sets up laws that govern Christian behavior; Luther counts on an instinctual ethics based on the spontaneity that love’s indwelling in the heart causes. The choice of genre that represents one’s theology can thus be taken in the psychological terms that language expresses personality. The system privileges rationality and is identified with the one who betrays sovereign gravitas; occasional writing is correlated with one who is not master of his emotions, someone who is insufficiently differentiated from context, and can only react, not choose to act. (210–211)

All of this should be recognizable from intro to systematic or historical theology courses. The great thing about Helmer’s piece is that she immediately pivots (esp. on p. 212) and starts deconstructing this picture. For instance: Luther was trained in medieval scholastic theology, wrote a commentary on Lombard’s sentences, and functioned comfortably within the disputation. (Helmer even suggests that calumnies about Luther’s allegedly unsystematic work masks a polemic against the Roman Catholic scholasticism in which he was trained.) On the other hand: Calvin was trained as a humanist with textual rather than systematic emphasis, was a lawyer skilled in application of reason to particular issues, and close inspection of the Institutes reveals that its apparent systematicity is “a pretense.” The work “is a palimpsest, not a system.” So again, the question is: Why do we think about Luther and Calvin in these stereotypical ways?

It is not enough to blame Reformed polemics against Lutheranism. Why? Helmer doesn’t say so, but it is unthinkable that this would emerge in the 16th century. Calvin said too many nice things about Luther. (That said, the Reformed tradition is not reducible to Calvin and many of the not-Calvins at the head of the tradition had poor opinions of Luther, so there may be room for further investigation here.) Helmer does say that it can’t be the 17th century's fault because both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in that period valued and produced systems. Similarly in the 19th century: you have both Schleiermacher and Hegel and while they weren’t happy with each other, you can’t credibly accuse one or the other of not being systematic.

So, how are we to answer the “Why” question? I don’t want to steal Helmer’s thunder, but she finds the answer in the 20th century.

*cue dramatic music

Go read the essay.


Thursday, October 08, 2015

All That Glitters: Teilhard de Chardin on Money

So does money have a spiritual dimension? If you're in a hurry, the answer is "Yes!" But if you want to know what a more eminent authority than I though about it, read on.

I recently ran across this striking passage written by the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
The French thinker is well known for his bold attempt to integrate a mystical Christology with the insights of modern evolutionary cosmology and anthropology. But North Americans most likely would have learned of him when the urbane and well-read Diane Chambers quoted him on an episode of Cheers. (Sorry, I can't find the quote or episode online, and I don't remember what she said. All I remember is that she made Sam look like a real doofus in that episode.)

This passage, quoted by one of Teilhard's major biographers, comes from a 1930 lecture, wherein we learn that even Jesuits, poverty vow notwithstanding, can have a taste for bling:

We may declare first of all that gold is something very beautiful in itself, something sacred, even.

(Right. I seem to remember that a story in the book of Exodus deals with that.) He explains:

Why so? Because everywhere it represents, to human beings, material energy in an easily handled form. Gold, then, equals oil, or coal, or art, or books, or a library.

(That last bit seems a little dubious to me, but I happen to know when he wasn't on scientific expedition in Cairo or Mongolia, Teilhard liked to read a bit here and there as well. When we hear Teilhard extolling the beauty of gold, we have to recall his lifelong passion for geology, the first area of study that really moved him as a child. So we'll let him continue.)

It is therefore, both the symbol and the medium of exchange of all these articles, and is thus the elementary factor of our economy. And so long as it is this, it is something wonderful.

(Nice. Something of a throwback to William Jennings Bryan -- just months after the stock market crash even.)

And yet the more it can do, the more wonderful it is, the more too...does it require caution.

(Finally. Thank you! Now I'll stop interrupting Teilhard so often.)

Gold, which is blameless so long as it is busy in service and so long as it helps along the current of humanity, becomes corrupt as soon as it stands still. It is lack of motion that makes gold -- a thing good in itself -- first fester and then infect other things. The moment that a man arrests this energy to make it serve himself, or turns it aside from its normal flow--the moment one renders it stagnant--it corrupts and becomes evil.... To abuse riches, to hoard riches, to make bad use of riches--this, I say, is not only a sin of injustice against your neighbour in need, but a sin against mankind, since for its proper life and development humanity has need of this material means in order to produce the spiritual....

The metaphor is interesting -- and telling, in the context of Teilhard's philosophy, which has a certain aversion to anything static. The meaning of cosmic and human evolution, in his view, is that it is going somewhere -- that all these processes, which now have become self-directed in human technological and cultural development, find their consistence and coherence only as they converge toward their ultimate goal (which he names the "Omega Point").

So, according to Teilhard, the positive spiritual value of money consists in the positive, other-centered uses to which it might be used. I'm not sure how this squares with current economic theory and I have some doubts about the philosophy and theology that underpin this passage. But Teilhard does seem to have articulated an insight here that resonates, at some level, with the way money is interpreted with the Gospels.

That is to say: Greed is bad.

Source: Claude Cuénot, Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Translated by Vincent Coldimore, edited by René Hague. (Baltimore, MD: Helicon) p. 28.


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:4–8

Malachi 3.4–8

[4] [A]nd the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. [5] “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. [6] “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. [7] Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ [8] “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings.”


COMMENTARY: There are three themes or units in Calvin’s commentary on this passage that jumped out at me, so I want to highlight those for you, gentle readers.

(1) In the previous section, Calvin elaborated at some length concerning the attitude that Malachi finds in the religious establishment of his day. As I outlined there, such people believe God had given up his being as judge because God is not obviously punishing the people that the establishment see as their enemies. Calvin reads Malachi as suggesting that God maintains God’s office as judge precisely by judging these leaders. All this comes back again in the context of verse 5, where God indicates that he will come to judge his people and their leaders. Calvin gives us some great language here: “They expected God to be to them like a hired soldier, ready at hand to help them in any adversity, and to come armed at their nod or pleasure to fight with their enemies: this they expected; but God declares what is of a contrary character,—that he would come for judgment.” And judgment of whom? “They indeed wished God to put on arms for their advantage, but God declares, that he would be an enemy to them” (576). Far from coming to support the religious status quo and its perpetrators by judging those that such structures themselves judge, God will come to judge precisely those who take upon themselves the task of passing judgment. Those who claim and assert that God is on their side, those who act in the name of God but nonetheless against God, will be the ones to receive God’s judgment. This reminder is as important today as it was in Calvin’s (and Malachi’s) time. And note well that verse 5 goes on to say that when God comes, God will come quickly . . .

(2) If the members of the religious establishment expect God to act as their mercenary and be on their side, but they are mistaken, this raises the question of whose side God does in fact support. Continuing with verse 5 provides an indication: God is on the side of those that the religious establishment has defrauded: those who oppress workers, widows, orphans, foreigners, and the otherwise unjust. If Calvin had written what I’m about to show you in the last few decades, rather than centuries ago, I imagine that labels such as “preferential option for the poor” and “liberation theology” would attach themselves to his position.
For the orphans, widows, and strangers, we know, are under the guardianship and protection of God, inasmuch as they are exposed to the wrongs of men. Hence every one who plunders orphans, or harasses widows, or oppresses strangers, seems to carry on open war, as it were, with God himself, who has promised that these should be safe under the shadow of his hand. (578)
But Calvin doesn’t stop there. He returns to the theme in the context of verse 8 and its comments about robbing God with reference to “tithes and offerings.” Calvin understands this as evidence of how “openly sacrilegious” (585) the majority of folks had become insofar as “every one, bent on their own profit, neglected the temple and the priests.” But this neglect has a wider aspect as well insofar as “a part [of the harvest, the wealth produced by the community] also was required for the poor.” The consequence of all this means that depriving the needy of the support that they need amounts to withholding from God. Calvin concludes his commentary on this passage with the following, which is another word that we need to hear today (bold is mine as usual):
But we know that other sacrifices are now prescribed to us; and after prayer and praises, he bids us to relieve the poor and needy. God then, no doubt, is deprived by us of his right, when we are unkind to the poor, and refuse them aid to their necessity. We indeed thereby wrong men, and are cruel; but our crime is still more heinous, inasmuch as we are unfaithful stewards; for God deals more liberally with us than with others, for this end—that some portion of our abundance may come to the poor; and as he consecrates to their use what we abound in, we become guilty of sacrilege whenever we give not to our brethren what God commands us; for we know that he engages to repay, according to what is said in Prov. Xix. 17, “He who gives to the poor lends to God.”

(3) Verse 6 is a bulwark of the doctrine of immutability, i.e., the idea that God is unchangeable. This doctrine is intended as a comfort: since God cannot change, God will always be the highest being and – this is the critical bit – therefore able to save his people. Now, the interesting thing to me here is what Calvin does with this statement. In the theological tradition there is a tendency to interpret this notion of immutability as pertaining to God’s being: the divine being is defined by certain attributes (such as omnipotence, infinity, absolute goodness, etc.) including the attribute of immutability, which safeguards the rest by ensuring (or reiterating) their eternal persistence. But Calvin does not take this approach. Rather than emphasizing the unchangeableness of God’s being, Calvin stresses the unchangeableness of God’s will: this passage means “that God continues in his purpose, and is not turned here and there like men who repent of a purpose they have formed, because what they had not thought of comes to their mind, or because they wish undone what they have performed, and seek new ways by which they may retrace their steps. God denies that anything of this kind can take place in him” (579). The relationship of will and being, of course, is an intricate (and complicated) one. But I find it interesting (and perhaps revealing, or at least suggestive) that Calvin reaches for the one and not the other category here.


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou has been pleased to choose us as priests to thyself, not that we may offer beasts to thee, but consecrate to thee ourselves, and all that we have,—O grant, that we may with all readiness strive to depart from every kind of uncleanness, and to purify ourselves from all defilements, so that we may duly perform the sacred office of priesthood, and thus conduct ourselves towards thee with chasteness and purity; may we also abstain from every evil work, from all fraud and all cruelty towards our brethren, and so to deal with one another as to prove through our whole life that thou art really our Father, ruling us by thy Spirit, and that true and holy brotherhood exists between us; and may we live justly towards one another, so as to render to each his own right, and thus show that we are members of thy only-begotten Son, so as to be owned by him when he shall appear for the redemption of his people, and shall gather us into his celestial kingdom.—Amen.

[Ed. note: I find it incredibly fitting and satisfying that an installment of this series should mark the 1000th post here at DET. It has been quite a run, and "digital theology" has changed quite a bit in the meantime. But we're still here reading, thinking, and writing about theology.]


Thursday, October 01, 2015

What Am I Reading? Troeltsch on "The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches"

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, by Ernst Troeltsch. Translated by Olive Wyon. (Reprint) Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.

Some time ago, I acquired Ernst Troeltsch's 1910 classic two-volume text, a seminal work early work in the sociology and history of religion.
Troeltsch (1865-1923) served as professor in Heidelberg and Berlin as well as posts in the Prussian government. The German liberal Protestant scholar, as most of you know, was probably, next to Harnack, the preeminent theologian and historian from the history of religions school around the turn of the 20th century.

To be honest, though I've always respected Troeltsch, I've tended to approach his work with diffidence. During grad school I found his work of constructive dogmatics (The Christian Faith)a bit...tedious. Not so his seminal writings on theology and modern historical study, however, several of which are available in the the Fortress volume titled Religion in History (Edited by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense, 1991). The critical questions Troeltsch poses for constructive theologians, even still today, are not to be lightly dismissed.

Somewhat as an act of procrastrination -- and I've been called out for this already -- I decided to take another look at Troeltsch in tandem with my increasing interest in Christian social ethics and political theology. One of Troeltsch's most accomplished advocates in the past century was H. Richard Niebuhr, whose early book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, is very much indebted to the German thinker's sociological writings. (See my post from last year). As Niebuhr notes in the preface to The Meaning of Revelation, he considered Troeltsch and Karl Barth to be his major teachers and he sought to integrate the insights from these two major thinkers, whose projects are often seen as irreconcilable.

Niebuhr wrote the introduction to my edition of Social Teaching. Despite its widespread influence in a number of fields, Niebuhr admits, reading the work cover-to-cover is not easy sledding, largely because its conclusions emerge through a meandering river of empirical studies. How many of you scholars and students have found yourself embarking on a new project because, after perusing ATLA or another database, you found that no one in the field had adequately dealt with the question animating you intellectually? This was Troeltsch's experience, and Social Teaching emerged as a series of discrete studies seeking to address a lack in the available literature.

Troeltsch was "a complex man and lived in a complex time," Niebuhr wries; yet there was an integrity to his overarching project; Troeltsch's massive interdisciplinary method was driven by an abiding desire to articulate a scientifically informed ethics. Niebuhr continues:

His practical, moral concern in the presence of pluralistic, centrifugal modern civilization is evident througout his total work. He lived and thought in the presence of the confusions and alarms, the hopes and threats that issue from class and party conflict, church and state tensions, international wars remembered and impending, from colonial imperialisms and rising nationalisms, from industrialism growing in extent and in power over the common life, from the spectacular development of the natural and social sciences, from the radical criticism of modern civilization by Marx and Nietzsche. Troeltsch, academician though he was by profession, experienced the need for ethical decision and action in this situation as the ultimate challenge (p. 8).

If any of these concerns still seem pressing a century later, we might learn to see Troeltsch as a contemporary interlocutor and not a mere museum piece in Western intellectual history.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Yale, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Academic Culture, and Africa: Some Highlights from Thomas Oden’s “A Change of Heart”

As I told you before, gentle readers, I’ve been reading Tomas Oden’s memoirs, and in this post I want to briefly highlight some of the bits that I found most interesting.

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).


Oden tells the story of his doctoral student days at Yale, where he worked under the supervision of H. Richard Niebuhr. These were the days when “Hans Frei, George Lindebeck and James Gustafson were all young faculty members at Yale” (p. 64), and David Kelsey “ran the divinity bookstore” (p. 65). Still, Oden felt bored there compared to Perkins, where he did his masters work, and considered making a switch to Drew. He finally decided to stay at Yale, primarily because he didn’t want to squander the opportunity to work with Niebuhr. Of that experience he writes:

The individual tutorial with Niebuhr on Augustine and Calvin was timely for me, ending all doubts about my purpose at Yale. Niebuhr proved to be a searching mind, probing Socratic questions on issue after issue. I discovered more clearly the profundity and range of Niebuhr’s intellect. He was a rigorous editor, attentive to every flaw in my thinking and writing. His careful critique of the papers I submitted helped me correct many shortcomings. He coached me in the accurate presentation of evidence, dispassionate objective reasoning and clear argument. (p. 68)

Hillary Rodham Clinton

When I later tried to explain my early views to students in their twenties, I found that the easiest way to connect was to show how closely my ideological history paralleled Hillary Rodham Clinton’s in her Smith College days. ***[Ed. note: Clinton attended Wellesley, not Smith.]*** That context helped those students grasp immediately where I was coming from. Although I never met Hillary Rodham, and though she was younger than I, she was reading my essays and working out of the same sources and moving in the same circles as I had been.

Hillary and I had the same sociopolitical mentors: Saul Alinsky and Joe Matthews. My former Drew colleague, ethicists Donald G. Jones, had been her high school pastor who had drawn her into the circle of activist Methodists. The core curriculum of Matthew’s Chicago Ecumenical Institute . . . was where she learned to combine existential theology with political activism. I was a writer for her core curriculum. Our trajectories mirror the same story of many Methodist social activists. We shared the same working sources, which were Tillich’s cultural analysis, Bultmann’s demythology, early feminism and especially Saul Alinsky. Her educational trajectory was remarkably parallel to mine with Yale, Methodist Student Movement activism, experimental ecumenism and Chicago-style politics as prevailing features, which were always moving leftward politically. Although we traveled along the same path, we never connected personally, but I provided some theological rationalizations for her and others for this brand of situational ethic. (p. 86)

Academic Culture

There is a lot of stuff in the book about academic culture through the decades of Oden’s career, but one of the things that stands out to me is how he got his first teaching job. Rather than applying to dozens and even scores of institutions, adjuncting for years (as many these days do), postdoctoral fellowships, meat-market interviews at national meetings, etc., Oden received his first position at Perkins when the dean made a trip to Yale to see him and offer him the position. Oden was still writing his dissertation at this time, to boot! On top of that, he had another offer – from Smith College in MA! (All this is on page 71.) Things certainly were different . . . although, I increasingly suspect that things still work in much the same way once you penetrate the reality masquerading behind all the distracting hoops that I outlined above.


I have emphasized in my undergraduate teaching the North African character of much important early Christian theology. Augustine may have had Berber blood, for instance, and then there are other North Africans like Cyprian and Athanasius (who is sometimes referred to as the “black dwarf”). Oden connects some interesting dots:

The flow was from Africa to Europe. It was not that Europeans brought Christianity to Africa as I had been taught. This “south-to-north hypothesis” became evident to me the more I studied the flow of patristic exegesis. (p. 301)

Then a little later, with more detail:

I could see this most clearly in the history of Scripture interpretation, especially in the clear succession from Origen to Gregory Thaumaturgus, from Egypt to Cappadocia, from the Old Latin Bible of Africa to Cyprian and Augustine. Africa was in the forefront of the surging current of intellectual imagination that matured into doctrinal agreement. Africa was the continent that excelled in systematically describing the relationship between the Old and New Testament. Christians in second-century Alexandria were living in the midst of a huge Jewish population. It was in the setting of advanced Jewish scholarship that the principle of analogy of faith was first clearly articulated for Christianity. (p. 306)

Oden later makes much of the stories about St. Mark’s work in North Africa (p. 328ff), but I’m not sure what the historians would say about this.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

T. F. Torrance on Karl Barth and “the temptation of orthodoxy”

It has been a long time—altogether too long!—since I’ve posted about Torrance here at DET. (For interested parties, the last post on TFT was from 2010 and was entitled “Torrance on the Church’s Relation to Christ”.) Well, I’ve been reading Torrance intensively again lately in preparation for a paper that I will give at a conference before too long. (Never fear, gentle readers: I will indubitably post an abstract of that paper before its presentation.) Rather predictably, I’ve found a gem from Torrance that I want to share with you. (Coincidentally, what’s with all the parenthetical comments today?)

Torrance is concerned in the following passage with Barth’s “dogmatic turn,” so to speak, and specifically with Barth’s engagement with Protestant scholasticism. Indeed, he is concerned with how Barth’s own work takes on certain scholastic characteristics. So Torrance endeavors to provide a little differentiation so that his readers will understand that there is, nonetheless, an important difference between whatever sort of scholasticism Barth is up to and the old scholasticism of ‘Protestant orthodoxy.’

Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910–1931 (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 101–02. As always, bold is mine.
It must be said that the temptation of orthodoxy, and all scholasticism, for all their appearance of objectivity, is to fall a prey to their own subjectivities through converting the truths of the Word of God into rationalised objects. In so far as the objective descriptions of the Truth are confounded with or mistaken for the Truth, and do not fall under its questioning and judgment, they easily become assimilated to the prevailing intellectual trends and fall under the power of its patterns of thought and speech and their philosophical presuppositions. That is what happened, for example, in the medieval world, when Roman theology made extensive use of neo-Aristotelian thought-forms in which to express and articulate its doctrine, for in point of fact the philosophical presuppositions carried by those thought-forms triumphed over the doctrine and have permanently influenced and altered it. Barth’s studies in the history of Protestant theology convinced him that when it took over so much of the mediaeval intellectual apparatus with which to articulate doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became overloaded with philosophical presuppositions, and so compromised itself with natural theology, and a supposedly enlightened understanding, that it easily fell in with the stream of philosophical development, at length assimilating into itself or become assimilated to Cartesian subjectivism, in which the objective truths of the Word of God were converted into psychological objects, to a much greater degree than many modern champions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century orthodoxy would care to admit.
This sort of analysis amply bears all evidence of Torrance’s characteristic idiosyncrasies, but it nonetheless carries with it a certain not unimportant explanatory power. Besides, “the temptation of orthodoxy” is - quite simply - an excellent turn of phrase.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Three weeks this time, to be precise, since the last link post. That’s a lot better than a month and a half, which was the gap last time. There hasn’t been a ton happening here at DET to warrant another post, but the truth of the matter is that I have a huge pile of links to share and I want to unload some of them on you, gentle reader. And while DET posts have been few, there is at least one excellent one awaiting you (if you have not yet read it).

Here are DET’s most recent posts:

And here are some interesting posts from around the interwebs:

Happy reading, until next time!