Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review of Oliver Crisp's Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology

I recently had published a book review of Oliver Crisps's book, Retrieving Doctrine. But since it was published in the Koinonia Journal, which does not receive wide circulation, I figured that I would post the pre-production version here for all you - gentle readers - to enjoy. So, without further ado . . .

Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology. By Oliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove, IL; IVP Academic, 2010, 209 pages.
Oliver Crisp delves into the Reformed theological tradition, now explicating, now tinkering, now defending, in an attempt to enrich contemporary theological discussion with insights from the past. Newly installed as professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary after stints at the Universities of Bristol and St. Andrews, and at Regent College, Crisp ranges through the well-traveled work of theologians like Barth, Calvin, and Edwards, as well as the less frequented byways of thinkers like Campbell, Nevin, and Turretin. Such ranging is not devoted to mere historical curiosity, however. Crisp rather intends to “engage theologians of the past in conversation in order to bring their ideas to the table of contemporary theological reflection. What is envisaged here is the retrieval of their ideas for the purposes of constructive dogmatics” (viii). It is difficult to deny the attractiveness of such a program, and yet Crisp’s statement invites the reader to ask a critical question: Does this collection of essays contribute to contemporary theological reflection, or further the task of constructive dogmatics?

Crisp’s volume certainly succeeds as a contribution to contemporary theological reflection. It does so by its willingness to tackle knotty issues in thinkers usually given short shrift by contemporary discussion. Take, for instance, the chapter on the great Genevan scholastic theologian, Francis Turretin, and the question of whether the incarnation is fundamentally necessary or contingent in nature. The sheer horsepower of Crisp’s mind is on display here, as he dissects Turretin’s position and its sometimes hidden presuppositions in order to lay bare the logic at its heart and apply that logic to the question at hand. His analysis leads to the conclusion that Turretin’s logic suggests a certain sort of “hypothetical necessity” associated with the incarnation. While God was not compelled to create the sort of world that God did create, that is, while creation originates in God’s freedom, “where God creates a world of human creatures in need of redemption, his divine mercy constrains him to act in a way that displays his justice and his mercy – and that requires an Incarnation” (91). Anyone who is prepared to labor so carefully over a thinker as rigorous and complex as Turretin certainly deserves encouragement and appreciation.

Take Crisp’s essay on John Williamson Nevin’s ecclesiology as a second example. Nevin, who with Philip Schaff constituted the Mercersberg school of Reformed theology in the 19th century, advocates a metaphysically rich treatment of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church built on an organic account of the unity that obtains between them. Crisp fields some possible objections to Nevin’s discussion, offering it as a stimulus to further ecclesiological reflection and importantly noting the influence of German mediating theology upon Nevin’s thought. Given that such mediating theology is rich in theological resources while also woefully neglected in contemporary conversation – much like Nevin himself – Crisp’s attention is welcome.

Crisp’s conclusion to the essay on Nevin also raises quite pointedly the question of whether Crisp’s volume furthers the task of constructive dogmatics since he concludes with a reflection on precisely what such an undertaking would look like: “The challenge to contemporary divines is to take up where our intellectual forebears left off by changing what is needed…” If the sentence stopped there, who could complain? Unfortunately, Crisp introduces a dependent clause elaborating precisely what counts as such “changing”: “…by changing what is needed, making those adjustments deemed necessary in order to make better sense of the gospel once delivered to the saints” (181). There is much to admire here. The goal of making “better sense of the gospel” is an apt description of the theological task. Difficulty arises, however, insofar as Crisp gives the impression that the only changes necessary for contemporary constructive dogmatics to make with reference to the work of previous theological generations are relatively minor “adjustments.” Is there not at least a theoretical possibility that the legacy inherited by contemporary theologians requires something more akin to total reconstructive surgery if they are to serve the gospel’s proclamation in their own times and places just as previous theologians did in theirs? Perhaps Crisp does not mean to promote such a position, but it is certainly consistent with his broader material commitments. For instance, he frequently refers to “traditional” or “classical” positions, and works rather strictly within the presuppositional confines of what is often called “classical theism” (cf. 99n18 for some rather loaded comments along these lines).

This frame of reference does Crisp a great disservice when it comes to the volume’s two essays on Karl Barth, a theologian who self-consciously rejects many important pieces in the classical theist puzzle. Take the second of these two essays, for instance, which deals with Barth’s alleged universalism. Here Crisp’s tendency to reduce theological positions to their presuppositional bottom line betrays him, as Barth’s more rhetorical mode of argument does not fit easily into such analysis. This leads Crisp to assert that “it is not entirely clear whether Barth wishes to endorse a compatibilist notion of free will, or a libertarian” one (123) when, in point of fact, Barth consistently rejects the latter and only accepts the former in a certain respect due to a thorough reconsideration of precisely what counts as freedom. Even more important is the way Crisp attempts through all this to force Barth’s thought into traditional dualities, which only serves to frustrate Crisp’s own analysis as attested by the way he not infrequently comments – in almost palpable frustration – that Barth’s position is “incoherent,” “confused,” or even “contradictory.” For instance, Crisp castigates Barth for suggesting that one might be simultaneously justified and rejected in Christ (never mind at present the reduction of Barth’s notion of election to the related albeit derivative notion of justification, which is clearly over-determined in Crisp’s essay by concern about an individual’s eternal destination). Of course, this simultaneity is precisely the point of Barth’s doctrine of election, and to dismiss it so readily is a failure to listen adequately to what Barth has to say on the matter, much less to comprehend Barth’s fundamentally historical way of thinking about Christ’s saving work as decisively controlled by the pattern of death and resurrection.

Returning to the question at hand, Crisp’s volume fails as a contribution to constructive dogmatics because its commitment to traditional theological constellations leads to a breakdown in theological imagination. Crisp simply seems unable to think outside of the classically theist box. While he is quite ingenious when it comes to sorting out difficulties and addressing problems within those confines, his instincts betray him when confronted by alternative thought worlds like that offered by Karl Barth. However, this is not to suggest that the volume possesses no charms whatsoever! Crisp succeeds in contributing to contemporary theological reflection insofar as he draws attention to aspects of the theological tradition that such conversation has unhelpfully passed over. Theological students, and especially those concerned with the Reformed tradition, will experience this volume as a window into the theological past where imaginative theologians present them with forgotten insights. Such a cavalcade is well worth the relatively low price of admission.


Source: W. Travis McMaken, "Review of Oliver D. Crisp, Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (IVP Academic, 2010)," Koinonia: The Princeton Theological Seminary Graduate Forum 23 (2011): 123-26.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beza on Calvin’s Workload and Partnership with Farel and Viret

In continuing through my relatively new set of Calvin’s Tracts and Letters, I am now reading Beza’s Vita Calvini in the first volume. Amazingly, I have never read it before. I likely put it off until now because I knew it to contain unreliable biographical information, especially of Calvin’s early life, and didn’t want to fill my head with such things. But I feel as though I have a sound enough grasp of Calvin now to risk it and, besides, it repays in many other ways – not least of which is by providing nice tidbits like the following. 

In this passage, Beza begins by describing what a typical work-week for Calvin looked like. He does so specifically in connection to Calvin’s return to Geneva in the early 1540s, but it may well be that he is describing Calvin’s schedule as Beza personally observed it at some later point since it does not fit exactly with some of the conclusions about such things made by Elsie McKee on the basis of archival research (which I heard about in classes with her, and may be remembering wrongly; I’m not aware that she has published about it anywhere yet). In the same vein, I think the Consistory (what Beza calls the Presbytyry, I believe) met only every other week generally. “The Congregation” was a meeting of the pastors and whoever else wanted to participate, wherein one of them would preach a more theological sermon and then it would be discussed. Anyway, Beza goes on to comment on the close working relationship of Calvin with Farel and Viret, concluding with a rather touching albeit loaded sentiment. 

Theodore Beza’s “Life of Calvin” in John Calvin, John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, 1.xxxix.
What his [i.e., Calvin’s] labours at this time were will be seen from the following statement. During the week he preached every alternate and lectured every third day, on Thursday he met with the Presbytery, and on Friday attended the ordinary Scripture meeting, called ‘The Congregation,’ where he had his full share of the duty. He also wrote most learned Commentaries on several of the books of Scripture, besides answering the enemies of religion, and maintaining an extensive correspondence on matters of importance. Any one who reads these attentively, will be astonished how one many could be fit for labours so numerous and so great. He availed himself much of the aid of old Farel and Viret, while, at the same time, he was also of great service to them. This friendship and intimacy was not less hateful to the wicked than delightful to all the pious, and, in truth, it was a most pleasing spectacle to see and hear those three distinguished men, carrying on the work of God so harmoniously, and yet differing so much from each other in the nature of their gifts. Farel excelled in a certain sublimity of mind, so that nobody could either hear his thunders without trembling, or listen to his most fervent prayers without feeling almost as it were carried up into heaven. Viret possessed such wining eloquence, that his entranced audience hung upon his lips. Calvin never spoke without filling the mind of the hearer with most weighty sentiments. I have often thought that a preacher compounded of the three would have been absolutely perfect.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

So . . . it’s been more than a fortnight. Oh well. I suspected as much would happen, what with the start of my semester and other sundry concerns. But here I am now, and I have quite a few links to share. So buckle up!

First, what’s been happening here at DET? I put up a couple of tame posts dealing with Calvin – typical dry academic DET fare. The first was a bit of Calvin’s correspondence with Bullinger about Luther, and the second was some stuff from Bruce Gordon on Calvin’s legal education. Then I got a bee in my bonnet and launched a diatribe against creationism. Rounding things out, we had a reflection on Christianity and Labor Day from friend-of-the-blog Scott Jackson, and DET contributor Derek Maris posted briefly about Moltmann and recent Barth research.

The rest of the links are artificially divided into the two categories this time. Of course, proper theology has political consequences and Christians ought to engage in politics with a theological perspective. But making the distinction makes it faster for me to put this thing together so just go with it for now.



“Look, A White!”

These two posts from the Women In Theology blog are such good combinations of theology and politics (even if the former goes largely unstated) that I just had to give them their own categories. The primary title of each is that of this section: “Look, A White!” And they are kind enough to provide editions for both Ann Romney and Mitt Romney. Enjoy!


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Moltmann on Barth Research

As I’m sure our regular visitors are aware, there has been some significant debate within American Barth studies the last 20 years, thanks in large part to Bruce McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. While there are still discussions surrounding the implications of this and related works for understanding Barth, it is interesting to note other major theologian’s responses. I recently found this footnote buried in Jürgen Moltmann's Experiences in Theology:
The first and best account of the cosmos analogy in Barth’s Church Dogmatics was given by H. Urs von Balthasar. . . . However, in view of more recent studies his analysis of a shift from dialectic to analogy in Barth's thinking (70-94) can no longer be maintained.
So it appears that one can count Moltmann among those who find the recent research in Barth studies convincing. What, if any, implications this has for Moltmann’s thought I haven’t a clue, but perhaps in the future some interesting connection(s) can be made. Either way, I find Moltmann's response fascinating.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Science, Theology, and None-of-the-Above (i.e., “creationism”): On the recent flap between Bill Nye and Ken Ham

(Diatribe warning – proceed at your own risk.)

Those of you with a more conservative past (like me) may have noticed a couple of weeks ago when some comments made by Bill Nye “the science guy” elicited a small flurry of response from the Answers in Genesis people, headed up by Ken Ham. Let me be clear at the outset: I’m rather upset about all this. “But why?” you may ask. I’ll tell you. Because polls from a few months ago show that 46% of the USA population believes in creationism – not that God is somehow involved in the process (theistic evolution got 32%), but in straight up creationism. Furthermore, the trend-lines are moving in the wrong direction: over the past 30 years, creationism is up 2% while 6% have moved from theistic evolution to exclusively naturalistic evolution. (source)

“Well sure,” you may say, “those are not encouraging numbers. But why do you care so much personally?” Because I have to teach religion and theology to ~250 undergraduate students each academic year and, given the demographics of the student body I’m dealing with, it is safe to say that I have a sizeable percentage of creationist students in my classrooms. That is why I care about this at a personal level, aside from the intellectual level where I recognize that creationism is nonsense.

(I'm also concerned insofar as this is one bedrock piece of the general epidemic of anti-intellectualism and denial-ism in the USA populace these days. The present election season has brought this out quite clearly . . .)

“But why are you so sure it’s nonsense?” I’m glad you asked! (See what I did there?) It is nonsense because it is both bad science and bad theology and – even more problematic from my particular professional point of view – it is bad science because it is bad theology.

Creationism is Bad Science . . .

Creationism is bad science because it wants to use something that is not available to empirical investigation (i.e., God; as John 1.18 reminds us, “No one has seen God at any time”) as an explanation of / interpretive framework for empirical science, and to leverage that explanation / framework to dispute broad scientific consensus surrounding another (more properly scientific) explanation / interpretive framework. This is basically an exercise in a priori rather than a posteriori thinking, where the former thinks in terms of principles (know from revelation, metaphysics, etc.) and works down from there to the actual phenomena in the world. In the latter, one works from the phenomena as one finds them in the world and attempts to "think after" them, investigating further until one reaches knowledge of what they are and how they work. Modern science is based on the latter, and maintaining the former is nothing but an attempt to roll the clock back behind Galileo.

This significantly undermines the way Ken Ham and other creationists posture as holdouts of true, objective science against atheists over-hasty to short-circuit true scientific investigation. Furthermore, and as Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society) points out (specifically with reference to those who deny that global warming is real and caused by humans), true scientific breakthrough has historically advanced rapidly to broad acceptance. But this has been true neither of climate change denial or of creationism. In fact, in each of these cases, those who claim to be defending the true radicality of science are actually clinging to an outdated ideology.

Furthermore, Ham likes to make a distinction between historical science and empirical (or "observational") science where the latter is concerned with repeatable observation and where the former is concerned with extrapolations to the past without such experimental foundation. (Coincidentally, this distinction has unique to Ham at al and is not a fixture of contemporary philosophy of science.) The point of this distinction is to drive a wedge between technology and scientific explanation of origins. However, I would point out that contemporary physics messes up his fine distinction insofar as it deals is repeatable observation coupled with advanced mathematics in such a way as to scientifically explain the universe’s origins. In fact, it is unclear to me how one can accept relativity and quantum physics while also maintaining Ham’s distinction. Perhaps Ham and the creationists would like to dump all this as well. Fine; but that also substantially increase their "scientific" burden of proof and multiplies the number of fronts on which they have to thumb their noses at broad scientific consensus.

. . . because Creationism is Bad Theology

Now we come to the issue insofar as it resides squarely within my wheelhouse. As I intimated previously, Ham’s creationism is bad science predicated upon bad theology. It is bad theology that is motivating the bad science. So, where’s the bad theology? Ken Ham’s whole project is motivated by and predicated upon the absolutely ridiculous notion that a text predating modern scientific investigation by approximately 3000 years might be even remotely interested in (much less capable of accurately) offering something like a scientific explanation of the world and its origins. But Ham refuses to acknowledge this. Creationism literature frequently refers to origin narratives in scripture as “eyewitness accounts,” the implication being that God was there, saw it, and passed that information along in scientifically accurate ways.

But to claim this is to mistake the sort of text with which we have to do, as well as to discount the rhetorical aims of that text. Even the conservative evangelical Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy acknowledges that biblical interpretation must take into account the sort of text in question. Here is the majority of article 13:
“We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”
This angle gets picked up again in the commentary section. Here is a long quote:
“We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman's milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.

So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.”
I do not quote this material because I agree with it 100%. But the Chicago Statement is a recognized piece of evangelical theological heritage that I would say falls just a bit on the right side of mainstream evangelicalism. This is damning for creationism and Ham because it identifies them as even further to the right, merging into fundamentalism. In other words, something like an “average” evangelical doctrine of scripture rules out creationism.

Moral of the story? Even if you want to have a half-way responsible evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy like that found in the Chicago Statement, such a position rules out creationism. Even what I would describe as a minimally responsible theological position on scripture, like that found above, sets creation aside. That so many evangelicals are also creationist is a theological inconsistency. In any case, Ham and creationism takes an incredibly conservative (and, to add my professional opinion, seriously misguided) doctrine of scripture (remember that even B.B. Warfield, one of the earliest defenders of the doctrine of inerrancy when it was developed at Princeton in the late 19th century, accepted evolution) and uses it to fund bad “science.”

To state it another way: there is no theologically good reason to accept the Ham / creationism approach and reject overwhelming scientific consensus. It is simply unnecessary - and, let's be honest, improper - from an evangelical theological perspective.

Paul M. van Buren on Theology and Science

So enough beating up (for now). Here is a positive theological statement on how theology and science relate. If only good theology like this (and it is good, even if some of his terminology is out of date as far as the philosophy of science goes) could find its way to people . . .

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, 142. As usual, bold is mine:
The Christian is interested in the cosmos because it is part of God’s creation, and to the extent that he has to come to terms with the cosmos, it matters to him that he understand that with which he has to do. . . . Because the human being is human and not God; he has his place in creation, and his concern is and ought to be those matters which have to do with being human. His concern is, in the widest sense, existential. Insofar as the cosmos truly impinges on my existence, it is a matter of my concern. This implies that as time progresses and scientific development progresses, the cosmos will increasingly become an existential concern for humanity.

But even now, the cosmos, the whole universe, is my Christian concern, for to some degree it is already the object of well-attested scientific investigation. Because others have delved deep into the inner workings of the universe, it is also my concern as a Christian. But it is not as though I can learn more about God by learning more about the universe. What I must do, out of respect for the scientist, is to make it clear to him that theology is not science and does not presume to be science, and as a Christian I am also bound to bear witness to him that science is not theology and cannot rightly presume to be theology. Theologians aren’t scientists, note well. But also, scientists aren’t theologians.

The scientist can no more answer the question about God from his science than I can answer the question about the chemical development of the universe from the Christian faith. We must be very clear about this, or else we will sadly fail to understand what we say in the Christian doctrine of creation. The doctrine of creation speaks solely of God’s relationship to creation and of creation’s relationship to God. The scientist cannot even speak, scientifically, of creation as an event, of this world or this universe as a created order. And of course, he cannot speak at all from his field on the subject of God and his relationship to what he investigates, for science by its very nature can deal only with matter. It can presuppose creation, or it can guess at some other explanation. But science is investigation, not explanation, and there can only be conflict between theology and false science, or between false theology and science. Between true theology and true science there can be no conflict. Ultimately they can only be in harmony.


Friday, September 07, 2012

Christianity & Labor Day: A Guest Post by Scott Jackson

Guest post by Scott Jackson.
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another
that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide
us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but
for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for
our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of
other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out
of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Amen. -- "Collect for Labor Day", Book of Common Prayer

Being a "good Christian" means being a "good worker", right? Aren't believers exhorted in the New Testament to "do their work quietly and to earn their own living" (2 Thes. 3:12; all biblical quotations taken from the NRSV)? At the outset of my remarks, I want to fully affirm the importance of work within God's created order. Nonetheless, I'm posing here, in the form of an informal reflection, a question that a number of able theologians are exploring today more systematically: How does the labor-capital relationship that obtains in late modern Western society square with the good news of the Kingdom which Jesus enjoined us to seek first (Matt. 6:33)?

With the recent three-day weekend, I had a little extra time to reflect upon the Labor Day holiday, and since I was also preparing this blog post for my good friends at DET, I was trying to find a way to interject some theology into this reflection. I'm kind of a grumpy sort, and would be inclined to agree with St. Augustine's interpretation of Genesis 3: Labor is punishment for the fall (City of God, XXII 22). Still, I am glad to have a day job, and I pray swift relief for my friends who struggle with unemployment or underemployment.

The basic problem I have with "thinking theologically" about labor, in the context of early 21st century North America, stems from the common root that spawns all theological enigmas – namely, the nature of God itself. For our thoughts about "labor" inevitably presuppose the "free"-market or mixed-market economies of the emerging global village; yet the God of Christian confession turns out to be just about the worst capitalist in the history of the world. (Incidentally, I believe the notion of a “free” market in the current global economy is a pipe dream).

In Sunday school we all learned that God is a profligate who likes to pamper notoriously naughty children (Luke 15:11-24). If the Apostle Paul were to roam lower Manhattan rattling on about this "free grace" stuff, he might very well get punched or pepper-sprayed in the face. (That, more or less, is how the idol-industrial complex in Ephesus handled him, anyway. See Acts 9 on this.)

If you still trust the U.S. Government at all – just remember, after all, you built it! - check out the quick refresher on the history of Labor Day here. This holiday – which, apparently, is still celebrated in the Wisconsin state house in letter, if not in spirit – emerged from the struggles and triumphs of the labor movement in the late 1800s.

At our Episcopal parish this past Sunday, the celebrant led a prayer that workers would receive a "just wage." His prayer reflected the spirit of the fine collect at the top of this post. Jesus urges his apostles to travel light and to depend upon the hosts who receive their kerygma, for the laborer deserves to get fed (Matt. 10:10). But just what constitutes a "just wage"?

I for one wouldn't look to the U.S. Congress to help me answer this question: If their guidance counted, I would expect, let's say, that increases in the national "minimum" wage would keep pace with increases in Congressional salaries.

Karl Marx infamously argued that just wages are intrinsically impossible because the capitalist system as a whole is predicated upon the exploitation of the proletariat and the alienation of workers from the fruits of their efforts. His basic solution to this problem, as we find it succinctly laid out in The Communist Manifesto, is for all workers internationally to unite and take back the means of production from the owners of capital, the bourgeoisie, thereby abolishing the wage system.

I'm not an economist or social theorist, and I don't have an easy solution for the problem Marx poses. Certainly, I would note, it is possible for compensation to be relatively just or unjust. Indeed, precisely because of the work of organized labor in decades past, the working conditions and benefits most for wage earners in the U.S. have improved markedly in the past century. Marx's basic observation about the intrinsic injustice of the wage-labor structure does spur me to thinking, oddly enough, about the Kingdom of God which Christians purportedly “seek”, whatever that might mean.

Might Jesus' kingdom proclamation have anything to say about labor and the modern wage system as we know it? Consider the parable of the landowner and laborers (Matt. 20:1-16). The details are familiar: A landowner hires a first group day laborers at dawn and they work a full, exhausting day for an agreed-upon sum. Then he goes out four more times throughout the day to hire some less motivated workers.

The first group, of course, expect to get more at the end of the day than the others, but all workers receive the same amount. So they, the dawn-to-duskers, quite understandably, grumble: "‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’" (v. 12). The landowner gives an astonishing response to one from the original group: "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (vs. 13-16).

Now, I think, the most typical way of reading this parable is that it reveals the scandal of divine grace, a grace through which "publicans and sinners" have equal access with the law-abiders (perhaps even preferred access) to the bounty of the kingdom. The parable thus gives a vigorous critique of a quid pro quo economy of religion. As such, the story is aimed at the conventionally lawful and righteous, especially those with an underdeveloped capacity for mercy and compassion.

I accept this theological interpretation, which is radical and odd enough in its own right, if only we heirs of the Reformation hadn't done so much to domesticate it. Still, what if we imagined this scenario also as a critical response to aspects of our own socio-economic situation? So the first are last: But is it really the all-dayers who come in last? After all, they get that for which they contracted.

Take a closer look. Who comes in really dead last in the parable anyway? It's the landowner himself, of course – though, granted, he does so willingly. He gives each set of workers a full day's wage though he gets far less than a full day's effort from the vast majority of the workers. He is operating at a great loss. You don't need a MBA to see that this isn't a smart way to run a business, much less an entire economy. If we assume the day wage is about what each worker would need to survive, then the parable seems to envision a kind of primitive communism: Each gets what he or she needs, regardless of what he or she is able to contribute.

How might all this speak to us today? Consider the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States. Capital is increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, middle class wages stagnate and the middle class find it harder to maintain the decent standard of living that they have come to expect. In a climate of increasing scarcity for all but the wealthiest of the wealthy, who is it that often gets much of the blame in much of our civic discourse? Of course there are protest movements on the order of Occupy Wall Street, but so often it is the poor, the recipients of food stamps, the undocumented immigrants who are scapegoated for our socio-economic ills. This is not just personal prejudice, I would argue, but a structural element entailed by the concentration of capital in such few hands, and it results in a kind of class warfare – mainly of the vulnerable among the middle classes against the poor.

Jesus' parable imagines the kingdom as a realm in which the landowner gives all away, and, presumably, he's not going to own too much in the end. We might read it as a kind of kenotic capitalism, perhaps. Once this happens, any basis is dissolved for a sharp distinction between the Have-Somes and the Have-A-Lot-Lesses. All is gift. Everyone gets a day's wage.

I don't know possible it is to even envision such an absurd socio-economic reality in this Darwinian world of ours, much less instantiate in some sort of concrete program. But perhaps those who are attuned to the Gospel might learn how to read what partial signs and parables of the kingdom might be available right now in our midst.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.


Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Bruce Gordon on De l’Estoile, Alciati, and Calvin's Legal Education

In addition to re-reading Cottret, I have now read for the first time Bruce Gordon’s Calvin book. Let me just say briefly and by way of general comment that although by no means antagonistic to Calvin, Gordon is less sympathetic than I would like. He also focuses much more on the interpersonal and social history rather than the theology – this is fine if you, like me, enjoy that stuff but it makes the volume less serviceable than Cottret as a general introduction to Calvin.

Anyway, I came across this passages about Calvin’s two law professors. Pierre de l’Estoile was French and taught at Orleans, an established seat of legal scholarship. Calvin studied with him first. Andrea Alciati was Italian and taught at Bourges, the up-and-coming scholarly contender. Calvin studied with him second. Gordon here lays out their differing ways of going about legal interpretation. Anyone who knows Calvin will see him in Gordon’s description of both his professors. That said, I’m not sure exactly how to parse out Calvin’s heritage from each and what conclusions to draw from it. So I offer the following passage to you, gentle readers, so that we might ponder it together.

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 20.
Calvin’s legal studies cast in relief the central intellectual and spiritual questions of the French Renaissance, as witnessed in the different approaches advocated by his rival French and Italian teachers. Both were exponents of humanist methods, but in quite different ways. De l’Estoile remained deeply wedded to the medieval tradition of legal commentary. Rejection the Renaissance emphasis on rhetoric and historical analysis, he favoured a method in which the sixth-century body of Roman law, known as the Corpus iuris civilis, was interpreted according to genus and species. This meant that material was gathered together under specific headings, or topics, in a manner in which little attention was given to its historical development.

Alciati . . . offered a different view not only of how ancient texts should be read, but also of the relationship of the past to the present. . . . Unlike de l’Estoile and his careful mining of texts for crucial terms, he embraced a more bravado approach based on conjecture and intuition. This shocked many of his opponents, who regarded him as something of a dilettante picking and choosing his way through ancient texts. Alciati, however, believed himself to be doing something rather different. Like de l’Estoile, he regarded the Corpus iuris civilis as a coherent body of work, and argued that it was the interpreter’s task to reveal the connectedness of passages. At the same time, he rejected de l’Estoile’s faith in an underlying stratum of logical meaning. Rather, words and passages were to be examined stylistically (rhetorically) and with regard to particular circumstances (historically) in order to discern particular meanings. That this approach might reveal contradictions did not disturb him. He believed that this method of interpretation enabled the scholar to distil ‘proper’ interpretations from the mass of evidence.

As a bit of a bonus, here is how Gordon summarizes the importance of Calvin's legal studies for his later reforming career:

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 22.
Calvin's rigorous legal training left its imprint on every aspect of his life. It sharpened his mind to interpret texts and form precise arguments based on humanist methods; it provided him with a thorough grasp of subjects ranging from marriage and property to crime. He was taught to frame legislation, writing constitutions and offer legal opinions, all of which would loom large in his Genevan career. But the legacy was also intellectual. It was from the law that he would draw some ofhis most fundamental theological concepts, such as the Holy Spirit as 'witness', the nature of 'justification', God as 'legislator' and 'judge', and Christ as the 'perpetual advocate'. The philological and historical methods drawn from both de l'Estoile and Alciati would become the foundations of his biblical commentaries as he revolutionized the art of interpreting scripture.
Again, nothing particular in terms of how the competing legal methods play out but an abiding sense that they had an important impact. Thoughts?